A Secret Service

Fiction / Paul Negri

 

:: A Secret Service ::

Pres­i­dent Lin­coln is more silent than usu­al today. Now it is true that he has not spo­ken a word dur­ing the whole time of our incar­cer­a­tion here. But there are oth­er ways of being silent besides not speak­ing, and it is in this oth­er way that he is silent today. They’ve put him in a wheel­chair and rolled him in front of the TV in the day room. The sound on the TV is off, so it too is silent.  The only oth­er inmate in the room is the old man they call George (I don’t know what his real name is). George is talk­ing to him­self, but silently. 

It is in this kind of silence that I receive my instruc­tions. Chief Wood, the head of the Secret Ser­vice, is a man of few but com­pelling words. When the Chief speaks, you know what you must do. 

I glance at the door to the day room. Gre­go­ry, one of the reg­u­lar atten­dants, is stand­ing in the door­way. He is feign­ing inat­ten­tion. I wait. Wait­ing is a skill of mine. There is per­haps no one in the Ser­vice who can wait so well as I can. Wait and watch. Eter­nal vig­i­lance, it has been tru­ly said, is the price of liberty. 

Gre­go­ry final­ly deserts his post, although I know it will be only momen­tar­i­ly. I cross the room quick­ly and pull a fold­ing chair clos­er to the Pres­i­dent. I whis­per, “New direc­tive from the Chief, sir. He respect­ful­ly requests that we fore­stall any action. The time is not right. But soon. Very soon, I’m sure.” 

Pres­i­dent Lin­coln con­tin­ues to stare at the TV. His great crag­gy face, now beard­less (yes, they shaved him, the bas­tards), betrays no hint of dis­ap­point­ment or dis­cour­age­ment. Those dark, deep eyes have seen enough, I imag­ine, to endow him with the patience of the ages. 

Ben.” 

Gre­go­ry is back and with a sin­gle word demol­ish­es the gold­en silence. He stands in the door­way, arms fold­ed across his chest, eyes hard on me. But you are too late, Gre­go­ry. I have deliv­ered my message. 

Now you leave Arthur alone. Leave him be.” 

Arthur. That’s what they call Mr. Lin­coln. Just as they call me Ben. They think that by sim­ply nam­ing us, they can con­trol who we are. They are not as smart as they think. I have always lived under pseu­do­nyms, and Ben is fine with me. I know who I am and they do not. And work­ing for the Secret Ser­vice, it is crit­i­cal I keep it that way. 

I return to my chair by the win­dow, plac­ing just enough dis­tance between the Pres­i­dent and me to sat­is­fy Gre­go­ry yet per­mit me to spring into action and inter­pose myself between Mr. Lin­coln and what­ev­er might threat­en him—knife, bul­let, or those sub­tler means of assas­si­na­tion employed by our cap­tors in their relent­less attempt to destroy who we are. Rest assured, Mr. Pres­i­dent, there will be no door pushed open, no dag­ger, no shot fired, no one leap­ing onto the stage shout­ing of tyrants to a con­fused audi­ence. Not this time. Not on my watch. 

Inmates file into the room. Bin­go must be over. Bin­go is one of our keep­ers’ most insid­i­ous weapons. They use it to implant direc­tives, using a numer­i­cal code, in the minds of the inmates. A remark­ably sim­ple but effec­tive strat­e­gy. Once those numer­i­cal codes are implant­ed, the inmates are as help­less as babies wrapped tight in swad­dling clothes. Along with the inmates comes one of Gregory’s con­fed­er­ates. They have so lit­tle regard for our capa­bil­i­ties that only two guards are thought nec­es­sary to keep more than a dozen of us in check. Bingo! 

Of what wars these poor pris­on­ers are, I do not know. It is sad that they have all sur­vived the strug­gle only to end up here, ware­housed and main­tained, stored out of sight and out of mind by the true ene­my, one they nev­er even knew they were fight­ing. My mis­sion neces­si­tates that I keep a dis­creet dis­tance from these men, engag­ing them just enough to gath­er infor­ma­tion that might prove use­ful to the Ser­vice or aid me in my pro­tec­tion of the Pres­i­dent. I think most of them pose no threat, although threat can come out of a clear blue sky and calm sea. That I’ve learned. But there are a few men who bear care­ful watch­ing. And watch them I do. 

I cir­cle the room, my usu­al route, sub­tle as a shad­ow, blend­ing into my sur­round­ings, bare­ly notice­able, look­ing here, lis­ten­ing there, pass­ing by Pres­i­dent Lin­coln with every com­plet­ed cir­cuit. Noth­ing unusu­al to report, Chief Wood. The Pres­i­dent is safe, for the moment. I am doing my duty. Yes, it is some­thing to be proud of. Thank you, sir. You are too kind.

 * 

Gre­go­ry deposits me in the office of Major Wirz for my week­ly inter­ro­ga­tion. I’m not absolute­ly sure it’s Hein­rich Wirz, the mon­ster of Ander­son­ville, exter­mi­na­tor of Union pris­on­ers. He now goes under the absurd­ly innocu­ous name Dr. Jack Horner. Lit­tle Jack, indeed. He is almost as skilled at con­ceal­ing his iden­ti­ty as I am at con­ceal­ing mine. We are even­ly matched. But I have the advan­tage. I have Chief Wood. I don’t know who whis­pers in Major Wirz’s ear. 

Wirz is a very aver­age-look­ing man, not tall, nor short; nei­ther fat nor thin; bland fea­tures, a face you could for­get while look­ing at it. That, of course, is part of his pow­er. I must admit I have a grudg­ing admi­ra­tion for it. I sit quite still in the com­fort­able chair before his desk. The seat and arms are padded. Yes, I sit in a padded chair. 

Wirz—or Dr. Horner as I must call him—looks up from the file he has been writ­ing in and smiles. “You look well today, Ben.” 

Thank you, Dr. Horner. I am well.” 

Are you sleep­ing bet­ter? Those dreams that were both­er­ing you, are you still hav­ing them?” 

Why, no,” I say. “I’ve been hav­ing rather pleas­ant dreams now. I believe that med­ica­tion you’re mak­ing me take has worked like a charm.” 

Dr. Horner leans back in his chair and looks at me in silence for a long moment. He is a man of long looks. “That med­ica­tion should not actu­al­ly be affect­ing your dreams.” 

Well, an unex­pect­ed side ben­e­fit then,” I say. Damn. I must be careful. 

Can you tell me a bit about these pleas­ant dreams?” 

Can you tell me about your dreams, Major Wirz? Do the breath­ing skele­tons of starved pris­on­ers wrap their boney arms around you? 

Ben?” 

I’ve been dream­ing of the ocean,” I tell him, quick­ly impro­vis­ing. “A love­ly day at the shore.” 

The ocean? Do you remem­ber the last time you were by the ocean?” 

It was quite a while ago. It was very nice.” Care­ful now, care­ful. The dev­il is, as they say, in the details. “I love swim­ming in the ocean. I’m quite a strong swim­mer, you know.” 

Yes, I know,” says Dr. Horner. “And the last time you were at the beach. Were you alone?” 

I know what he wants me to say. He wants me to say I was with the wife they have invent­ed for me. Ben’s wife. But the name is some­thing I can’t recall. “Do you mind if I shut the win­dow, Dr. Horner?” I say, stalling for time. 

I’ll shut it for you,” he says, gets up and goes to the window. 

The name, damn it, the name, Ben’s wife. Dr. Horner sits back down. “Was any­one with you at the beach that last time?” 

Yes. My wife. Elsie.” 

Ellie?” says Dr. Horner. 

That’s what I said. Ellie.” 

He nods. “Any­one else?” 

Well, there were lots of peo­ple there. It was a love­ly day.” 

Didn’t you tell me you always went ear­ly in the morn­ing? When there were few peo­ple there?” 

I think you’re right. That morn­ing there were few peo­ple there.” It’s like walk­ing a tightrope over an abyss. One slip and I’m gone. 

Did you swim that day?” 

Of course. The ocean was warm and calm. Per­fect for swimming.” 

And did Elsie swim with you?” 

Ellie,” I say. Got you, Wirz. Got him, Chief Wood. 

That’s what I said. Ellie.” Dr. Horner makes a note in the file. 

I must remain calm. Rea­son­able. They need to believe that I believe them. That I think I am this man Ben. If they believe I am Ben, then they will nev­er know who I real­ly am, the man who pro­tects the Pres­i­dent, and who always will. Sic sem­per

Is there any­one else in this dream of the ocean? I mean any­one you know.” 

Why, yes,” I say. Let’s give the good doc­tor some­thing to think about. “You’re there.” 

Me?” 

Yes. But it’s odd, Dr. Horner. You’re in a uni­form. Not very appro­pri­ate for the beach.” I watch his eyes. He doesn’t blink. He is good. But I am better. 

He leans back in his chair and smiles. “A uni­form? Like a policeman?” 

No. Like—a sol­dier. An offi­cer. Why, you look like a major.” 

I believe you’re play­ing with me, Ben,” says Dr. Horner. “I’m not real­ly in your dreams, am I?” 

I say noth­ing. Per­haps I’ve gone too far. Wirz is a dan­ger­ous man— 

I was think­ing of your grand­chil­dren, Ben. The twins.” 

Oh, yes. Lit­tle angels,” I bluff. This is some­thing new. They want Ben to have grand­chil­dren. My God, I’m get­ting tired. How can I keep up with them? I need a moment, a moment to think.… 

Would you like a glass of water?” 

For God’s sake, Chief, tell me what to do. But no. There is too much noise. I’m sweat­ing. Wirz shut the win­dow to take the air away. What’s next, bright lights in my eyes? 

They were four this year. Am I right?” 

I hear a great rush­ing sound, like waves crash­ing in my head. Before I can stop myself, I’m out of my chair. I stand at attention. 

All right, Ben. Let’s leave it at that for today. Ben?” 

Lit­tle angels,” I tell Dr. Horner. The twins … 

He takes hold of my wrist and glances at his watch. “I’m going to try a change in your med­ica­tion. It may upset your stom­ach a lit­tle. But just at first. Is that all right?” 

I nod. I’m afraid to speak. I may blurt out some­thing I shouldn’t. I bite down on my tongue. 

Dr. Horner stands and goes to the door. “Gre­go­ry?”

Gre­go­ry comes in and stands behind him. “I’d like Ben to stay in his room for a bit. Per­haps a day or two. We’ll be try­ing a new med­ica­tion.” He turns to me. “I’ve fin­ished your book, Ben,” he says. “I enjoyed it very much. I’m not one for his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, but you have a way of bring­ing the char­ac­ters to life. The scene with Lee and Grant at Appo­mat­tox Court House—well, I felt like I was there.” 

Thank you,” I say. So the man Ben has writ­ten a book. If that’s who they want me to be, I hope at least it’s a good one. 

*

The two days con­fined to my cell were almost unbear­able. Not for any depri­va­tion to myself but for the jeop­ardy in which I placed Pres­i­dent Lin­coln. My only con­so­la­tion was that the blan­ket­ing silence of that time alone gave Chief Wood ample oppor­tu­ni­ty to keep me informed and chide me, more gen­tly that I deserved, for my ill-advised thrust and par­ry with Major Wirz. And yes, he is indeed Major Wirz. The Chief has con­firmed it. 

My first action this morn­ing was to slip unno­ticed into the President’s cell. Not only did I find him unharmed and rest­ing peace­ful­ly in his bed, but his beard has actu­al­ly begun to grow back. He’s look­ing more like him­self. He looked at me and said noth­ing. His admirable restraint is a qual­i­ty I would do well to emu­late. With the faintest of smiles and a nod of his head, he indi­cat­ed his appre­ci­a­tion of my ser­vice to him. I think he feels safe. And I intend to keep him that way. If I must be this man Ben to oper­ate most effec­tive­ly in that regard, then Ben I shall be. At least until I have full intel­li­gence of our cap­tors’ inten­tions. It is a hard thing to be some­one you’re not. Who doesn’t want to sim­ply be him­self? With the excep­tion, per­haps, of you, Major Wirz. 

I sit in the gar­den and wait for Ben’s so-called wife to appear. Ellie. I must remem­ber the name. She’s work­ing for them, of course. And yet her heart doesn’t seem in it. I think she’s unhap­py with her work. Her efforts to make me into Ben, so ardent­ly desired by her supe­ri­ors, have been spot­ty at best. She seems so dis­cour­aged. I wouldn’t be sur­prised if at some point some­one else shows up pre­tend­ing to be Ben’s wife and we start all over. 

The gar­den is not real­ly a gar­den; that’s sim­ply what it is called. There are some met­al bench­es and a few pot­ted plants, and a small lawn sur­round­ed by a flag­stone walk. In the mid­dle of the lawn is a stone foun­tain, two lit­tle angels rid­ing the back of a dol­phin. Water slow­ly runs from the dolphin’s mouth as if leak­ing from a drowned thing. The largest part of the so-called gar­den is a con­crete square with met­al tables and chairs. A few inmates are sit­ting at the tables with their pre­sumed fam­i­lies. I sit on the bench oppo­site the win­dow to Pres­i­dent Lincoln’s cell. I keep my eye on the window. 

Ben.” It’s the woman called Ellie. Gre­go­ry is with her. 

You have a nice vis­it now,” says Gre­go­ry, and they exchange a know­ing look. 

Ellie sits down on the bench next to me. “How are you feel­ing today, Ben?” 

Quite well, Ellie,” I say, and smile the way I think some­one named Ben might smile. 

Ellie puts her hand­bag on the bench next to her. The mini-micro­phone in her bag is acti­vat­ed by con­tact with the met­al bench. Elec­tro­mag­net­ic, the Chief explained. That’s fine. They will hear what they want to hear and what I want them to hear. They will hear Ben talk­ing to Ellie. 

Dr. Horner tells me you had a bad day,” says Ellie. “So he put you on some­thing new. Has that helped?” 

Oh, yes. I’m feel­ing much better.” 

You’re look­ing bet­ter,” she says and smiles, but only for a sec­ond. The smile droops. She looks exhaust­ed. There are rings under her red-rimmed eyes. She plain­ly doesn’t sleep well. She must have been a very pret­ty woman once. But now she is fad­ed, like an old pho­to­graph. Still, she doesn’t seem a bad sort. What would make a woman like her work for them? I can only imag­ine. But mine is not to rea­son why, is it, Chief Wood? 

Julie and Kei­th are back from Paris. I think it did them a world of good. Julie may go back to work next month.” 

Good,” I say. “We all need our work, don’t we?” 

Wouldn’t you like to go back to work? Back to your writing?” 

Care­ful now. “It’s some­thing to consider.” 

She puts her hand on my arm. “Don’t you want to be well?” 

Doesn’t every­one?” I say. 

Ellie takes her hand away. “Why are you star­ing at that win­dow? Is that your room?” 

No. My room has no win­dow.” As if she didn’t know. 

Look at me. Please.” 

I look at her. 

No one is blam­ing you. Not Julie or Kei­th. Not me.” 

I nod. The strain of keep­ing my eyes on Ellie and the effort of main­tain­ing my Ben-like smile is wear­ing me down. My head is begin­ning to ache. Ellie stares hard at me. What does she want? If only I had your wis­dom, Mr. Pres­i­dent. We sit in silence for what seems like a long time. 

All right. They do blame you. But for God’s sake, Ben, give them time. And stop blam­ing your­self. You looked away. You were care­less. For just a few min­utes. And it took them. That heart­less ocean. Or a mon­strous God.” Ellie is crying. 

What a strange script they have her recite. There are appar­ent­ly grave con­se­quences to being Ben. No won­der they want me so bad­ly to be him. They’d have me then and even­tu­al­ly the Pres­i­dent too. “I think vis­it­ing time is over,” I say. I’ve got to check on Mr. Lincoln. 

We just sat down,” she says and dries her eyes. 

They have strict rules here. And I want to coop­er­ate. The rules are for my own good.” Lis­ten­ing, Dr. Horner? 

Ellie’s dis­tressed. She’s not get­ting what they want. Per­haps she’ll be pun­ished. God knows—monstrous God, she said?—they’re capa­ble of any­thing. She takes my face in her hands. Her hands are warm. “Be hon­est with me. Do you know who I am? Do you know who you are?” 

You’re Ellie,” I say, try­ing to speak down toward her hand­bag, so they can hear me loud and clear. “My wife. And I’m Ben. Who else could I be?” 

There is such anguish in her face. Per­haps I am wrong. Per­haps she doesn’t work for them. Could she, too, be work­ing for the Service?

*

Word has final­ly come. My silent orders from Chief Wood. I’m to affect the President’s escape today. It can’t come soon enough for me. For the past few weeks I’ve found it more and more dif­fi­cult to keep up the cha­rade of being the man Ben. Major Wirz is very sus­pi­cious. At our last ses­sion he told me the worst thing I could do was to humor him; it would be bad for him and worse for me. With his frus­tra­tion, his own façade is crum­bling. His speech is begin­ning to have a slight Swiss accent, yes, the accent of his home­land, some­thing notice­able only to my trained ear. I wouldn’t be sur­prised if he starts sprout­ing a beard next and don­ning his Con­fed­er­ate uni­form out­right. Well, with the help of God and Chief Wood, the Pres­i­dent and I will not be here to see it. 

The plan is sim­plic­i­ty itself. It depends just on being in the right place at the right time and pay­ing close atten­tion. So much in life depends on that, Ellie. The Pres­i­dent is in his wheel­chair before the TV in the day­room, as usu­al. I am sit­ting in my chair by the win­dow, as usu­al. Gre­go­ry has led every­one except George to the game room to be inoc­u­lat­ed with Bin­go, as usu­al, leav­ing us alone with the blond atten­dant Tyrone. In a few min­utes Tyrone will dis­ap­pear to smoke a cig­a­rette, as he does every morn­ing when Gre­go­ry is out of sight. 

Keep an eye on Arthur, will you, Ben? I’ll be back in five,” says Tyrone. “And you be good now, George,” he adds and works his lips silent­ly in deri­sive imitation. 

Sure, Tyrone,” I say casu­al­ly, yawn­ing for good mea­sure to impress him with how ordi­nary a day it is. George takes no notice and con­tin­ues to silent­ly talk to him­self. And Tyrone is gone. 

I move swift­ly. I take the President’s wheel­chair and maneu­ver it to the door. I glance at George, who stops silent­ly speak­ing and waves good­bye. I know I can count on him to do noth­ing. It’s a quick roll down the hall to the unlocked doors to the garden. 

The skies are over­cast and heavy with the threat of rain. I wheel Mr. Lin­coln past the table and chairs to the lawn, along the path, past the foun­tain and around the cor­ner of the build­ing, out of sight. The Pres­i­dent turns in his chair and looks up at me. “Everything’s going accord­ing to plan,” I tell him. “Chief Wood will explain it all when we see him.” The Pres­i­dent makes no protest. He is no stranger to tak­ing risks for freedom’s sake. 

I push the Pres­i­dent up the grassy knoll to the park­ing lot and wheel him to the far side. The ques­tion is, where will they land? The Chief said I’d know it when I saw it. I scan the streets beyond the park­ing lot, and sure enough I spot it. Of course. The cir­cu­lar clear­ing in the mid­dle of the round­about, a large con­crete island with a flag­pole in the mid­dle and a big Amer­i­can flag wav­ing in the high wind. It couldn’t be plainer. 

We cross the lot and go down the ramp to the side­walk. Cars and trucks are cir­cling the round­about at vary­ing speeds. They slow down and speed up unpre­dictably. There’s no pedes­tri­an walk to the island. I stand and watch the cars go round and round until I have to look away. Now is the time to trust Chief Wood. Yes, sir. I do believe. If I don’t believe in you, what is left? I step off into the street. 

Cars stop. Some speed by. Some swerve away from us. They honk, but whether they’re for or against us I can­not tell. Some­one is shout­ing. I walk with my gaze straight ahead now, focused, see­ing and hear­ing every­thing. We get to the island just as a yel­low car com­ing around the curve comes so close I feel its speed graze my back. I fall hard against the wheel­chair and the Pres­i­dent rolls rapid­ly for­ward. I lunge with all my strength and catch the wheel­chair just enough to slow it down before I fall. The Pres­i­dent stops inch­es from the curb and the onslaught of the man­ic traf­fic. I’ve banged my knees bad­ly and scraped my hands bloody, but I strug­gle up, breath­ing hard, and rush to him. He grasps my hand. He is all right. He is safe. I have saved him. 

Over­head, out of the heavy sky choked with clouds thick as smoke, over and above the hiss of the hard rain falling and the blare of horns and wail of sirens and the roar of waves and the shouts of the police rush­ing to the island toward the Amer­i­can flag that is always fly­ing and the peo­ple on the beach run­ning in pan­ic and scream­ing and the blood boil­ing loud­ly in my ears, over the din I hear it, the sound, the sound of the heli­copter, with its great blades slic­ing the thick air, spin­ning and swoop­ing down from the sky to take us away, home, out of dan­ger, to the only safe place.… 

* 

Ellie and Dr. Horner stand at the foot of the bed and talk in whis­pers. I pre­tend to be asleep. It’s the only pre­tense I can man­age right now. I am too tired to do any­thing else. There is pain in my ban­daged knees. I go over things again and again in my mind. Why did the Chief abort the mis­sion? Was it my fault? Did I do some­thing wrong? I have a ter­ri­ble feel­ing I’ve done some­thing hor­ri­bly wrong. The Chief has not said a word to me since we were brought back. Not a sin­gle word. 

Ellie sits at the foot of the bed and watch­es me. She will fold me up into this man they call Ben and put me in Horner’s pock­et. And I will nev­er be seen again. 

I watch her through half-closed eyes. She pulls a chair to the head of the bed. “I know you’re awake,” she says. 

I say nothing. 

She sits in silence and con­tin­ues to watch me. Then she gets up and shuts the door. She pulls the chair even clos­er and leans over me. “All right. I can’t do this any­more. I know you’re not Ben.” 

I open my eyes and look at her. She seems sad beyond mea­sure. What have they done to her? 

They want you to be Ben and they want me to help make you Ben. But you are not Ben, are you?” 

I want to tell her, but I can’t. I cloak myself in silence. 

If I were you, I would not want to be Ben either. Not any­more. So I will not help them any­more. Do you under­stand? I will leave and not come back and you just be who you real­ly are, no mat­ter how much they try to make you some­one else.” 

Per­haps she is a friend after all. Perhaps. 

Can you just tell me some­thing?” She paus­es and takes a deep breath that seems to pain her. “What is your name? I promise I will nev­er tell any­one else. Can you just give me that?” 

There is some­thing in her eyes, some­thing I think I can trust. “I don’t have a name,” I tell her. I can’t help it. For­give me, Chief. “In the Secret Ser­vice, we have only code names.” 

Her eyes widen and a tear falls like a big drop of rain. “A code name?” 

I nod and take her hand. 

What is your code name, then?” 

Rip­tide. The Chief calls me Riptide.” 

The woman called Ellie drops her head on the bed and cries. “But please,” I whis­per, “tell this to no one. It’s as secret as secret can be.” After a while she lifts her head, dries her eyes, gets up, kiss­es my fore­head, and leaves. I sup­pose I will nev­er know who she real­ly is. I lie as still and as silent as I can. I close my eyes and lis­ten to the silence for a long time. When I open my eyes the lights are out, but stand­ing at the foot of my bed is Mr. Lin­coln. I can see him plain­ly in the dark. 

Mr. Pres­i­dent. You’re all right. You can walk.” 

The Pres­i­dent smiles. 

Chief Wood has said noth­ing to me since they brought us back here.” 

The Pres­i­dent nods. 

What are we going to do, Mis­ter Lincoln?” 

We are going to lis­ten,” says the Pres­i­dent, “to the bet­ter angels of our nature.” 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Not long ago, I read a sto­ry in the news about a man who acci­dent­ly dropped his baby grand­daugh­ter off the rail­ing of a cruise ship. He was hold­ing her before a pan­el, which he mis­tak­en­ly thought had glass before it. It did not. The lit­tle girl fell to her death. The child’s parents—including the man’s own daugh­ter and oth­er fam­i­ly members—were present. 

Among the peren­ni­al ques­tions about the human con­di­tion that intrigue and dis­turb me is this: how does one bear the unbear­able? How do ordi­nary peo­ple, imbued with the extra­or­di­nary sense and sen­si­bil­i­ty of our kind, the fac­ul­ty of ful­ly know­ing and appre­ci­at­ing all we do and the con­se­quences, sur­vive the guilt and unfath­omable pain of hav­ing com­mit­ted an act, even if ful­ly acci­den­tal, with such dread con­se­quences as the death of that baby girl? Does one live or die? And if one lives, how? 


Paul Negri is the edi­tor of a dozen lit­er­ary antholo­gies from Dover Pub­li­ca­tions. He was twice award­ed the gold medal for fic­tion in the William Faulkn­er – William Wis­dom Writ­ing Com­pe­ti­tion. His sto­ries have appeared in The Penn Review, Flash Fic­tion Mag­a­zine, Pif Mag­a­zine, Jel­ly­fish Review, and more than 50 oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. He lives in Clifton, New Jersey. 

Do Not Be Afraid

Fiction / Reshmi Hebbar

 

:: Do Not Be Afraid ::

The snow had fall­en two days ear­li­er. If it fell again tonight, Pallavi’s moth­er might try and get every­one to stay until Christ­mas Eve. But then again, if Pallavi stuck to her deci­sion and told her par­ents, they might make her leave. She imag­ined being ban­ished from her child­hood home, a place she wasn’t keen now to arrive at any­way. She pic­tured dri­ving back to Bloom­field in the black night, the white flakes falling every­where or still packed on the ground, the voice of regret hiss­ing in her mind instead of the voice of urgency. As she head­ed east around the city, the salt­ed roads and still fresh lay­ers of white pre­sent­ed a sense of order she was reluc­tant to dis­rupt. Tell them! the whoosh­ing of the high­way seemed to entreat. Pallavi gripped the steer­ing wheel and con­sid­ered con­tra­dic­to­ry pos­si­bil­i­ties: noth­ing she could say would get her thrown out into the cold; she would be fine out there any­way. Like an unex­pect­ed charge of sero­tonin surg­ing through her brain, she remem­bered again events from the night before, Alex’s lips flut­ter­ing against her neck. 

When she pulled into the dri­ve­way, Pallavi was struck, as she always seemed to be now, by the mod­esty of the struc­ture her par­ents had tak­en care of so deter­mined­ly, repaint­ing the sid­ing with crisp white coats, adding a side door to the front-fac­ing garage, call­ing arborists to pre­vent the elm tree in the front yard from dying in the pass­ing blights. Her rel­a­tives in India might no longer be impressed by the size of the house, at least not in the same way they would have been when it was being built in the late sev­en­ties, when her moth­er used to send pho­tos to Hyder­abad and Ban­ga­lore of Pallavi and her broth­ers tod­dling around on the linoleum in the kitchen. Even if its promise now seemed dat­ed, its colo­nial style, the snow in the yard, and the sur­viv­ing tree—these spotlit a steady­ing truth, one that her par­ents would nev­er own up to: they belonged to this place now more than the old one. 

If they could only admit this, Pallavi felt, her life would be easier. 

Pal­lu, set small­er plates for Samir and Maya. Give them plas­tic cups instead of glass. Chil­dren are always spilling.” Her moth­er often con­clud­ed instruc­tions with a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for giv­ing them. Pallavi could have remind­ed her that she was not unfa­mil­iar with the habits of kids just because she didn’t have any of her own. But she was feel­ing grate­ful for her mother’s fran­tic host­ess ener­gy, which always sup­plant­ed the space for any­body else to come out and say what was tru­ly on their mind. It was per­verse and per­haps anoth­er para­dox to con­tend with: her moth­er would be so busy enter­tain­ing that any­thing Pallavi want­ed to tell her would have to wait; the quick­er Pallavi was at per­form­ing these tasks, the more time there would be left for sit­ting every­body down and hav­ing a prop­er talk. In the mean­time, these flash­backs to Alex’s hands and lips, the quick dop­ing jolts that she treat­ed her­self to around the house now were like shak­ing a present not yet meant to be opened. She did not deserve to remem­ber any­thing until she told them. 

Pallavi’s eldest brother’s fam­i­ly arrived in Mon­roeville an hour lat­er, her niece and nephew drag­ging snow in from the yard onto the engi­neered hard­wood her par­ents had installed in the foy­er. They demand­ed soda when she was pour­ing them some juice. It had dis­mayed Samir to see hock­ey on the tele­vi­sion instead of Nickelodeon. 

Pal­lu, use the rags from the laun­dry room—not the kitchen—to clean up the snow, and turn on this Dis­ney or what­ev­er for Samir in our bedroom.” 

Every­one in the Red­dy fam­i­ly, includ­ing Pallavi’s sis­ter-in-law, would have known not to take a rag from the kitchen to wipe up the floor. 

In the small mir­ror her par­ents had hung by the front door, Pallavi caught sight of her flushed face and felt relief. She wasn’t twelve years old but a grown woman over thir­ty-five who could pass for thir­ty. Alex hadn’t just been flat­ter­ing her; her skin was indeed bright and youth­ful. There hadn’t been a need for lines or games, just the imme­di­ate igni­tion when Alex had pro­nounced her name so per­fect­ly, the grat­i­tude Pallavi had felt then warm­ing her low­er back, her pelvis, her toes, until it felt nec­es­sary lat­er to deox­i­dize the heat they were gen­er­at­ing at their table in the mood-lit bistro. 

The Christ­mas tree looks great, Amma,” Pallavi’s old­er broth­er, Ravi, called now to their moth­er as he passed the liv­ing room. “When’s Arjun get­ting here?” 

Arjun had to work half day today,” their moth­er answered from the kitchen. “We’ll open the presents after din­ner. You brought all the children’s gifts from home, right?” 

Ravi halt­ed at the entry to the den and gave Pallavi a look. She want­ed to raise an eye­brow back at him—she was clean­ing up after his kids. 

Amma, you know that San­ta brings their gifts,” Ravi told the top of Pallavi’s head. “He won’t show up until they’re in bed at home tomor­row night.” 

Ravi’s wife, Kavya, emerged now from the pow­der room. 

Leave that, Pallavi,” she said, tak­ing the rag from her hands. 

Kavya, my mother’s ask­ing why we didn’t bring the kids’ presents.”

Pallavi watched Kavya bend to the floor and ignore this remark. She was curi­ous about the ten­sile qual­i­ty of her brother’s mar­riage. Per­haps Pallavi felt this way towards any tra­di­tion­al rela­tion­ship between adults of her gen­er­a­tion, the kind that involved pri­vate skir­mish­es about trips to the gro­cery store and in-laws. The type that would not have required her to lean up and whis­per in a hot moment into Alex’s ear, or any person’s she real­ly want­ed to date, that she didn’t feel com­fort­able in the open, so could they please take this inside? 

Tell her you’re on call, no?” Kavya mur­mured final­ly, stand­ing up with the rag curled in her fist like a rosette. 

They all turned at the foot­steps, the famil­iar beat of Pallavi’s moth­er in her rub­ber flip-flops. 

What is this, Ravi? Kavya nev­er did San­ta and what-all in India when she was a child. Is it okay with her that you are not even stay­ing here one night this week?” 

The ten­sion of this moment dis­tract­ed Pallavi from the two parts appre­hen­sion and one part resolve that had been turn­ing to acid inside her since she’d arrived. 

I’m on call, Amma. Start­ing at mid­night tonight,” Ravi tested. 

Look at you, Pallavi want­ed to say. Instead, she took the rag back from Kavya and went to hang it up in the laun­dry room before her moth­er could ask her to. The evening was still wide open; there were still many chances left. 

Her father was on the car­pet of the den try­ing to set up the stereo. 

Come, Pallavi. I’m look­ing for the Vasund­hara Devi record. You’ll sing lat­er, no?” 

The room’s wood pan­el­ing had been paint­ed over in light gray, a col­or their moth­er dis­liked but their father claimed would help with resale when­ev­er the time became necessary. 

Appa, I haven’t tak­en lessons in twen­ty years. I don’t do that stuff any­more.” Pallavi wished her response could have con­veyed more than it did, and that her father, instead of reply­ing with the words she felt cer­tain he would use in a moment, would stop root­ing around the cab­i­net for aux­il­iary cables and come out and say what had been obvi­ous for too long. For as long as her par­ents had been updat­ing the house, and plan­ning for retire­ment, and find­ing Ravi a wife, and then wor­ry­ing about Pallavi and her oth­er broth­er, Arjun, for­ward­ing on emails, week after week, with descrip­tions of peo­ple who would be the per­fect mates for them, sent from peo­ple who knew oth­er peo­ple look­ing for per­fec­tion. She wished her father would put down the wires and take a hard look at her. Then he would be able to answer: of course you don’t. 

Anjaathae Nee Vaa,” her father sang. “Anjaathae Nee Vaa. It is your her­itage, Pallavi.”  

Alex had asked about Car­nat­ic music on their date, and Pallavi had found that, when she was with the right kind of per­son, she could be elo­quent about things she had tak­en for granted. 

That sounds amaz­ing. I’d love to hear it some­time,” Alex had gushed, del­i­cate­ly fork­ing up a last bite of floun­der from its but­tery skin. “I wish I came from some­where else! All I had was mid­dle school glee club.” 

Pallavi had want­ed to say that she’d been in glee club too. That she and Alex weren’t as dif­fer­ent as you’d expect. But maybe it wasn’t true. For most peo­ple, the date wouldn’t have been as big of a step as it had been for her. 

When the whole fam­i­ly had final­ly assem­bled for din­ner, her moth­er asked how Pallavi’s search for a mar­riage “prospect” had been going. “Are you find­ing any­one interesting?” 

Pallavi felt embar­rassed in front of the kids. 

Yeah. Sure. There’re some.” 

Well, what are their names?” 

Pallavi’s twin broth­er, Arjun, reached across the table and asked Samir to pass him the pani puris, pre­tend­ing after­ward to fum­ble with the bowl so that the boy gasped and gig­gled. Pallavi knew what her broth­er was try­ing to do. She took a breath. 

One’s name is Alex. We actu­al­ly went out last night,” she said, glanc­ing around the table as if she were delight­ed to have been asked. She did not look at her mother. 

Alex?” her father said. “So, not an Indian?” 

No.” Tech­ni­cal­ly not a lie, Pallavi told her­self, and inhaled again. Adren­a­line began to pool inside her. 

What about the two or three boys which Rad­ha Auntie’s sis­ter sent us the con­tact info for?” 

Those nev­er worked out.” Pallavi kept chew­ing care­ful­ly, even after she had swal­lowed her puri. Arjun was look­ing at her, but the moment had passed. Now didn’t feel like the right time after all. 

What do you mean nev­er worked out? Did you call them?” 

Amma—” 

Did you guys catch Cros­by in the Pen­guins game last week? Jesus—” 

Arjun, wait … ” 

You know, Mom,” Kavya was speak­ing. Kavya almost nev­er spoke. “Even in India these days, girls are wait­ing until their thir­ties to set­tle down. My col­lege friends and all.” 

Pallavi felt grate­ful to Kavya—the girl was always nice to her, even if she seemed devoid of a real per­son­al­i­ty. But her sister-in-law’s point would count for lit­tle giv­en that Kavya was three years younger than her. It also didn’t fail to net­tle Pallavi, as it always did, that Kavya, the only younger per­son at the table who had not grown up in Amer­i­ca, could call their moth­er “Mom” while they could not. 

Pallavi is thir­ty-sev­en years old,” her moth­er rebutted. 

Hey, so am I!” Arjun widened his eyes until Samir and Maya smiled. 

That’s old!” Samir marveled. 

Not as old as your dad,” Pallavi retort­ed, fill­ing up anoth­er puri to stuff her mouth with. 

Aw, come on. I’m only forty-two, guys!” Ravi grinned around the table. 

You are not old,” her moth­er said, and of course every­one knew what she meant. These words might have pushed open again the win­dow for telling them, but Pallavi did not jump at the chance. Instead, she stole anoth­er peek at the mem­o­ry of Alex’s hand on her neck as they had wait­ed for the valet. Not old, not too old! she want­ed to shout across the table now. 

After din­ner,” her father was offer­ing into the brief silence that fol­lowed her mother’s pro­nounce­ment, “Pallavi will enter­tain us with some old fash­ioned music. You’ll like it, kids, I promise.” 

Appa—” Pallavi began. 

I want us to watch Bend It Like Beck­ham!” Samir cried. 

Okay, okay. No prob­lem. We’ll see after that.” 

Every­body rinse your plates prop­er­ly before putting them in the dish­wash­er. They don’t get clean oth­er­wise,” her moth­er said when she could com­mand atten­tion again. 

Anjaathae Nee Vaa,” her father sang as the dish­es were being gath­ered. “Anjaathae Nee Vaa,” he con­tin­ued as Pallavi grabbed the broom before she could be told to sweep up under the din­ing table. “Anjaathae Nee Vaa,” he trilled as he was adjust­ing the wiring in the media cab­i­net, unplug­ging con­nec­tions to the stereo’s receiv­er and hook­ing them up instead to the video input. 

Anjaathae Nee Vaa. In Tamil, which was not her par­ents’ moth­er tongue, the phrase meant “Do not be afraid.” The song was about a woman who tried to talk to com­mon birds—pigeons, doves—to coax them into trust­ing her to hold them for a moment before releas­ing them into the sky. 

Her par­ents’ taste in music had always been sur­pris­ing­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic. They’d not allowed them­selves to get caught up in debates about which South Indi­an lan­guage had the best songs, or which lan­guage Pallavi should take lessons in. They had nev­er mind­ed the cas­settes being blast­ed from Ravi’s room upstairs, or the head­phones Arjun took to wear­ing when the twins were teens, or the semi-rit­u­al­ized way Pallavi had record­ed and then con­sumed music videos on Sat­ur­days, the intense­ly monog­a­mous rela­tion­ships she’d main­tained with artists for months at a time: Belin­da Carlisle, Deb­bie Gib­son, Mari­ah Carey. 

Anjaathae Nee Vaa,” her father was singing as they all filed into the den, Kavya refus­ing to sit on the sofa, and Pallavi’s moth­er rush­ing to pick up glass­es that had been left out of the dish­wash­er, the chil­dren claim­ing most of the space, Samir tak­ing imag­i­nary shots at an imag­i­nary goal. 

What is his obses­sion with this movie?” Pallavi asked as a way to qui­et her­self. The voice inside her was get­ting shrill. 

He’s obsessed with the actress who plays Jesmin­der,” Ravi joked. “He loves that scene when she takes off in her soc­cer shorts and kicks all those boys’ butts.” 

Pallavi’s moth­er said nothing. 

I love the soc­cer!” Samir protested. 

I love the wed­ding!” lit­tle Maya joined in. 

It sounds like you remem­ber the movie so well that we don’t have to watch it,” Pallav­i’s father tried, his fin­ger ready on the remote. He seemed so hope­ful. What would it do to her par­ents, this thing inside her, to peo­ple with such sim­ple though par­tic­u­lar needs—a daugh­ter who would sing clas­si­cal music, and chil­dren who would find part­ners who shared their “her­itage”?  

Her moth­er said noth­ing. Pallavi felt like a bird in a com­pound, torn between the offer of ready food and the safe­ty of flight. 

I don’t know why they set this movie in Eng­land instead of Amer­i­ca,” Arjun put in from the armchair. 

That’s where Beck­ham is, genius.” Ravi’s crit­i­cisms of Arjun had got­ten milder over the years. 

I know, but they could have picked a dif­fer­ent sport, dif­fer­ent ath­letes, and done it here, right? We have kids going through those issues here.” 

Shhh!” Samir urged them. But Pallavi knew what her twin had been try­ing to do. 

This is the movie with the kid who … you know. The Sikh girl’s friend?” Her moth­er sur­prised them all with her wav­ery tone. 

Which friend, Ammam­ma?” Samir asked eager­ly. “You mean Jules? The girl who brings Jess onto the team? She has short hair and is real­ly good?” 

Pallavi real­ized then what was the rea­son behind Samir’s infat­u­a­tion with the film. She’d always been able to detect those loose ends of attrac­tion that peo­ple tried to hide. She might have said some­thing now, but she didn’t want to embar­rass her nephew. Her nerves were reflux­ing again because she felt cer­tain her moth­er wasn’t ask­ing about Keira Knightley’s character. 

Not that one, sweet­ie.” Pallavi’s moth­er looked away from her grand­chil­dren to their par­ents. “The oth­er friend. The Sikh boy whom the girl’s par­ents want her to get engaged to. Should the chil­dren be watch­ing this?” 

Pallavi felt a strange relief bub­ble up through the dread roil­ing in her. Wasn’t this the per­fect moment, then? 

You mean because that kid isn’t straight?” Ravi brushed the thought aside with a wave. “The movie is about soc­cer and Indi­an cul­ture, Amma. Come on.” 

Don’t you think it can give chil­dren ideas though?” 

What kind of ideas, Amma?” This was Arjun again, and Pallavi’s instinct was to shoot him a look that said “take it easy,” a habit devel­oped through their short­hand of qui­et, if not direct, resis­tance. Where was the voice inside her head now? Where were her words? Why was she let­ting the oth­ers do the talk­ing for her? 

Ideas like it is okay to be … you know.” 

Gay?” Arjun asked. 

Arjun, stop shout­ing,” their father said. 

Why aren’t you ask­ing whether it’s wrong for the movie to be pro­mot­ing Sikhism then?” Arjun went on. “I mean there are Sikhs every­where. Look at them. So many.” 

Arjun, will you just shut up?” Ravi snapped. 

Dad­dy, we’re not sup­posed to say that!” Maya whimpered. 

You’re right, sweet­heart. Every­one be quiet.” 

I think it’s impor­tant for kids to be exposed to as many lifestyles as pos­si­ble,” Pallavi spoke into the fresh silence. 

What lifestyle?” her moth­er demand­ed. “They are immi­grants liv­ing in Lon­don, and the par­ents are so igno­rant. So tra­di­tion­al. This is not Indi­an cul­ture, I say.” 

Her mother’s anger always man­aged to take Pallavi by sur­prise. Inside her mind, the voice and the words had flut­tered away, but she reached now to find them, prepar­ing for cer­tain failure. 

Indi­an cul­ture has changed, Amma. There are new­er immi­grants. And more gay peo­ple. All over the world.” 

Sure­ly this was all that need­ed to be said. Sure­ly she’d said it all? 

Maybe things like that hap­pen in those com­mu­ni­ties over there, but it doesn’t hap­pen in ours,” her moth­er insisted. 

How do you know that though, Amma?” Arjun asked now. For all the emo­tion flap­ping inside her, Pallavi could not decide whether she want­ed him to go on. “How do you know what it was like for all of us?” 

I’m just say­ing,” her moth­er said, her voice ris­ing as if try­ing to be heard over a crowd­ed room, “that all of this being what­ev­er you want is just a fashion.” 

Arjun’s eye­brows were lift­ed, but Pallavi looked away. She knew what she was sup­posed to say next, that she was sup­posed to ask her moth­er what she meant about being fash­ion­able, and that Arjun would like­ly join her in skew­er­ing their mother’s flim­sy points against the wall of their shared under­stand­ing of the real world. But she had reg­is­tered the tini­est hint of ter­ror in her mother’s voice. 

It’s not fash­ion, Amma,” Pallavi said slow­ly. “It’s not some­thing to be afraid of.” 

Why we had to pick this movie instead of some­thing about Christ­mas, I don’t know!” her moth­er answered and stared fierce­ly at the television. 

Anjaathae Nee Vaa,” her father sang soft­ly, tilt­ing his head at Pallavi. 

You’re ruin­ing it!” Samir stood up shout­ing. He grabbed the remote from the floor and jacked the vol­ume up ten decibels. 

You have to turn it down, Samir, so the oth­ers can talk,” Kavya said. 

I want to go home.” The boy piv­ot­ed sud­den­ly, the remote con­trol held at his chest like a handgun. 

Pallavi’s father was the first to react. “Don’t say that, Samir. We are all togeth­er here. It’s Christmas.” 

It’s Christ­mas Eve Eve!” Maya chant­ed, and Pallavi could not tell whether she shared her brother’s frus­tra­tion. “Santa’s com­ing on Christmas!” 

San­ta can come here, too,” Pallavi’s moth­er posit­ed. The expres­sion on her face now was one of unmasked panic. 

No he can’t, because we live in Sewick­ley,” Samir replied. “We need to leave milk and cook­ies out for him.” 

We can do that here. We have milk and cook­ies from the store.” 

Today’s not Christmas!!” 

Samir’s fury seemed phys­i­o­log­i­cal, emo­tion cat­alyzed by a dif­fer­ent crea­ture, or par­a­site, forc­ing its way out of his body. Kavya jumped up from the floor. 

Tell your Ammam­ma you are sor­ry for shout­ing, Samir. Right now. Be a good boy.” 

I’m sor­ry.” 

Mom, it looks like we should go. Some­thing must have hap­pened to his stom­ach, or maybe he needs bet­ter sleep tonight. But we should go. I’m sorry.” 

Pallavi’s moth­er said noth­ing, and over her father’s protests, Pallavi could hear Ravi detail­ing their sched­ules, offer­ing a fam­i­ly din­ner at his house in two days. Peo­ple need­ed to get some rest, he said. And he was on call anyway. 

Well, I’m going to go, too. I’ll catch you guys lat­er.” Arjun stood up and pulled his keys from his pocket. 

You can­not go back to Lewis­burg now, Arjun.” Their father was incred­u­lous. “You’ll get there in the mid­dle of the night.” 

Arjun laughed. “Appa, it’ll be fine. I can text you when I arrive. I was always going to leave late.” 

Nobody wants to stay here any­more. Every­body wants to leave.” 

Their mother’s words were the truest ones Pallavi had ever heard her say. They sound­ed so strange, so purged of judg­ment. Pallavi thought of the song her father want­ed her to sing, about the woman lur­ing the birds to her hands, the clar­i­on firm­ness as she sang in the for­eign lan­guage: do not be afraid. 

Maybe you can take some time and think about why that is, Amma,” Arjun sug­gest­ed loud­ly, mov­ing his bulky body into the foyer. 

What are you say­ing, Arjun? Do you real­ize what you’re saying?” 

Pallavi’s father had the old warn­ing in his voice, the rare thorni­ness from when the boys’ fights became too phys­i­cal when they were young, or when Pallavi overt­ly dis­obeyed their moth­er, the prick­ly tim­bre of final author­i­ty. She looked at his face as he rose from his chair. He appeared, so faint­ly that one could miss it, lost. 

You should have just sang like I asked, Pallavi,” her father said, his stature seem­ing so small in the room he’d proud­ly maintained. 

Leave her alone, Appa. It’s not her fault. You guys need to let her talk to you any­way. We should all leave,” Arjun fin­ished, open­ing up the front door. “I love you all, but I’m tak­ing off.”

A part of Pallavi want­ed to laugh now at her brother’s pre­sump­tion. She sensed that she had a right to be angry at him for rush­ing her, for manip­u­lat­ing the moment like this. 

What does he mean let her talk to you?” Pallavi’s moth­er asked her. The fear was still spum­ing in her face. “Do you want to leave now too?” 

There were deep­er ways to hurt her par­ents, Pallavi real­ized, than what she had failed to tell them her whole life. There were more dev­as­tat­ing things they were fright­ened of than real­iz­ing the truth about any one of their chil­dren. And all the oth­er emo­tions that blind­ed peo­ple, like out­rage and resent­ment, weren’t they also just excus­es for peo­ple who want­ed to fly off and be left alone in the first place? She of all peo­ple knew that it was hard­er to stay put and sing. 

Pallavi opened up her mouth and closed her eyes. “That’s not it. Alex is a woman. I’m gay,” she began and noticed that when she opened her eyes again they were still stand­ing there in the half-emp­ty den. “But I don’t want to leave.” 
 

 

 

From the writer

 

:: Account ::

Pallavi Red­dy, the hero­ine of “Do Not Be Afraid,” is one of four women fea­tured in sto­ries I’ve been work­ing on for almost a year, ever since I got the idea to take my mem­o­ry of attend­ing Hin­du tem­ple camp in Penn­syl­va­nia when I was a kid and using it as a means to con­nect dif­fer­ent adult com­ing-of-age nar­ra­tives of char­ac­ters from the same cul­tur­al com­mu­ni­ty who first met as teens. Though my own expe­ri­ences were dif­fer­ent from Pallavi’s chal­lenges as a queer South Asian girl grow­ing up in the 1980s, I found myself enriched by writ­ing sto­ries from her per­spec­tive of com­pound­ed iso­la­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly when I set her life in a part of the coun­try that I did not know but had been drawn to while attend­ing camp as a child. That is, writ­ing about her allowed me to imag­ine and cre­ate a sense of belong­ing to a par­tic­u­lar Indi­an com­mu­ni­ty I did not have real access to while also test­ing the lim­its of its abil­i­ty to be social­ly accept­ing from with­in. After writ­ing and pub­lish­ing a first sto­ry about Pallavi as a teenag­er, I real­ized that I wasn’t fin­ished with her fam­i­ly. I sensed a poet­ic poten­tial in her adult repres­sion and real­ized that she deserved her own sto­ry about com­ing out to her fam­i­ly as a les­bian in her late thir­ties; it offered a unique way to explore the theme of mid­dle-age regrets and the onset of mid-life iden­ti­ty crises. Both are key con­nec­tive themes with­in my larg­er man­u­script of more sto­ries of which this piece of fic­tion is a part. 

The rhythm car­ry­ing the nar­ra­tive for­ward (my rep­e­ti­tion of a spe­cif­ic line two-thirds of the way into the sto­ry) was inspired by my watch­ing a black and white YouTube video of the South Indi­an clas­si­cal song from which “Do Not Be Afraid” ulti­mate­ly got its title, a song, as Pallavi tells us, about a woman try­ing to hold birds in her hands. Hav­ing nev­er heard the song before, I felt almost heart­bro­ken by my lack of expo­sure to it and my hav­ing tak­en for grant­ed such a rich cul­tur­al her­itage when I was younger and my par­ents were keen to make it known to me. Birds as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of women’s restrict­ed self-empow­er­ment is an old trope; I want­ed to repur­pose it as a sym­bol for par­ent­ing as well. Not only is Pallavi strug­gling like a bird to be brave and “sing” her truth, but her par­ents are also wrestling with the nec­es­sary les­son of learn­ing how to let their chil­dren go. The trans­la­tion of the title from its orig­i­nal Tamil helped me to crys­tal­ize the idea that Pallavi’s abil­i­ty to speak up and come out to her par­ents rests on her real­iz­ing that her fear is sim­i­lar to their own. Once she does, she is able to see their human­i­ty instead of just their author­i­ty, one of many lessons essen­tial to “grow­ing up” as an adult. 

 

Resh­mi Heb­bar pub­lish­es aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly about women’s mul­ti­cul­tur­al and immi­grant nar­ra­tives. She has pub­lished non­fic­tion at Slate, fic­tion at Funic­u­lar Mag­a­zine, and has fic­tion forth­com­ing at West Trade Review. She is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Oglethor­pe Uni­ver­si­ty, where she pro­duces an ongo­ing pod­cast fic­tion­al­iz­ing the expe­ri­ences of South Asian immi­grants and their chil­dren. She lives out­side of Atlanta with her hus­band and two daughters. 

The First Act

Fiction / Jessica Alexander

 

:: The First Act ::

The dra­mat­ic thrust had all but been enact­ed. It lacked only a third or sec­ond act. 

The Count­ess had come and promised to come back. Lau­ra sat, list­less­ly embroi­der­ing in a nook by the win­dow. It was so many years ago, Lau­ra told her­self, and it nev­er was a love affair. It lacked even a sec­ond act. She sus­pect­ed the Count­ess was a liar. She sus­pect­ed the Count­ess was dead or dying some­where. It felt unfin­ished. If there’d been even a sec­ond act, she’d know what to call it. So, one morn­ing, when the girl float­ed along the walled gar­dens, Lau­ra stood and gasped. There was a moat and a draw­bridge and a stone foun­tain. They’d sat by the foun­tain in the first act. Her knit­ting nee­dles clat­tered to the ground. A ghost! she thought. The Count­ess has come back!

The girl, for her part, stopped amidst the fra­grant lilacs. Her shoul­ders clutched as if she had been struck. There was the slab of stone where she sat so many years ago, but she could not remem­ber what for or why she had returned there. She did not love it, and the mute and stu­pid stone, it did not love her either. Still the foun­tain soft­ly gur­gled. The water was the kind of blue that makes you think of dream­ing. I have been here before, she was think­ing. It makes you want to give your mind away. To trade it in for some­thing sweet­er, some­thing kinder. Some­where a bird chirped, and she almost loved it, almost thought that’s what love is: how the air held her to itself. She stood very still beside the foun­tain. The sound was clear. The light was clean. The sun dipped behind some clouds. She stood there. A ter­ri­ble trick! She looked over the edge of her strange body as if it were a precipice, and longed to fling her­self for­ev­er over it. It was a ter­ri­ble trick to be held here. She did not want it. 

That’s how Lau­ra found her, so still beside the stone, like she might fling her­self into the moat. “Wait—” Lau­ra said, but on see­ing the girl’s face, she sprang back. Was this the Count­ess? She looked dif­fer­ent. Maybe younger. The Count­ess did not seem to know her. 

Are you a ghost?” she asked. 

The girl said she did not know. 

Come clos­er,” Lau­ra said. Though she knew it was a hor­ri­ble trick to coax a dead girl into her soli­tude, she want­ed to. She want­ed this girl for her com­pan­ion. But ghosts, she thought, are such fatal­ists. They do not like tricks, and yet— 

Had Lau­ra said that aloud? Like an indig­nant cat, the girl gath­ered her­self. It isn’t true, she thought. I haven’t any preferences. 

Lau­ra, of course, con­ced­ed. How could she know a thing about this strange being? So, she told her­self, and yet she was cer­tain it was an argu­ment they’d long been hav­ing. The grass, the branch­es, the foun­tain. Let me invent this. She’d make her remem­ber. Yes, it is all a trick but it will get inside you, she was think­ing. I will put it all inside you again. Is it hor­ri­ble for me to curate a memory—to call it loving—and like a balm or a berry I’ll press it through your rough lips. Because, admit it, you’ve been starved, are starv­ing. The sky! Just look at it. How every day the air feels like a day you’ve lived already. And what are you then? Just some­thing briefly hold­ing it, forc­ing it all to go on exist­ing. How utter­ly unre­al­is­tic it is to want any of this, and yet— 

I want to show you some­thing,” Lau­ra said. 

How could any­one be like this, the girl was mar­veling. Was mad, so mad, so ven­omous. Her hard eyes, her con­tempt, her impas­sive mouth. I’m noth­ing like her! I’m noth­ing. How can any­one know enough to say so much? Say, I am like this? Con­fess. How can any­one say: I am like this. This hap­pened. Then this. Now I am like this. It’s remark­able, real­ly, she was think­ing, what some could say! They sit. They sigh. They say, Look at the sky. And you look at the sky. They force your eyes. Your mind. They get inside you. They say, I want an apple. And so you want an apple too. You want some sol­id thing inside you, an idea. It is not enough to touch the tree, the grass, where you sit and laugh. You must car­ry it all away with you if you want to be some­body too. Some­one must make you want something—they will put an image in your head and it can­not hold or con­sole you. And if they are some­one like this woman, Lau­ra, you are wait­ing. You are hold­ing your breath. And you are won­der­ing: what will she make me want next? It’s like trad­ing your­self in for a sto­ry, and so, you’ll nev­er be sure whether the sto­ry was any sweet­er or kinder than you were. Mean­while, the sky is on the brink of mean­ing some­thing. It’s all too hor­rif­ic. A hor­ri­ble trick! You want a fog­gy city. You want some­how to be smoth­ered in fog or a fond mem­o­ry of some­thing long ago. A city. Call it Venice. No, not Venice. Maybe Bath. Call it Bath. 

The girl remem­bered a vil­lage: the build­ings were grand and bro­ken. Some­where some­one else was wait­ing for her, and she was try­ing to get back to her. Did she ever get back there? She didn’t think so. That’s how all the sto­ries go, isn’t it? And the girl was won­der­ing, who put that sto­ry inside of her, and did she want it there? How, now, she won­dered, would she ever rid her­self of it, this ter­ri­ble bereave­ment? Was it even hers? 

Mean­while, time was passing. 

I will invent you, Lau­ra was think­ing. I have felt this way, Lau­ra was think­ing. I have felt this way. Before you came, I felt this way. Like the clouds felt heavy and they pressed some­thing out of me. Like I might drown in sky. Like all day I sigh. Like I can’t tell if the air in my chest is too much or if I can­not get enough. 

And then, the girl told her­self: I won’t be sad because you say so. I won’t be so suggestible. 

Some­where on a tree limb a bird chirped. “Do you like the sound of that? I like the sound of birds in the morn­ing. I like the morn­ing. We have such won­der­ful birds here. I like the light. I like the way it creeps in slow­ly, glow­ing. I want to show you some­thing,” Lau­ra said. 

How does one come to know this about them­selves? How does one come to know they like the sound of birds? To have a thing to show some­one? To say: look? And then you turn your eyes just like they want you to. Why? Because you are a fool. 

What’s wrong,” Lau­ra was ask­ing her. 

It had nev­er occurred to the girl to say any of these things. And what hap­pened when one said it, when Lau­ra said “what nice birds” was that she want­ed the earth to swal­low the birds. To swal­low her. Why should she want this, she won­dered. Because this girl made her want and she want­ed wrong! When Lau­ra said she loved this time of day, the singing birds, the sky, which was almost pur­ple, she want­ed to impale her­self on a tree limb or a fence—she want­ed to nev­er leave it, to curl up and die inside a sweet­ness she would nev­er learn to trust. The girl felt ner­vous. Tell your­self a sto­ry. Look, the sky you loved has changed already. Tell it. Tell it quick. Before it all changes again. But when she watched her­self talk, when she tried to bring her­self into being, she seemed to push her­self fur­ther and fur­ther away from what she’d aimed at, some vital glow­ing thing, some­thing else. What was it? Why was this woman hold­ing her hand and lead­ing her on and on through the tall grass, toward the house. She ought to be leav­ing now. 

For Laura’s part, she found the girl very odd. She was noth­ing like the Count­ess. She knew noth­ing. So, Lau­ra had to tell the sto­ry all over again, to start from the begin­ning. Still she liked her. How strange and pret­ty she was with such wilder­ness in her wild hair and her face all bronze from stand­ing in the sun. Her voice was rough and pleas­ing. So stern and sad and seri­ous. It was a joy to stand in the grass and look at her. She thought she was a ghost. “Are you a ghost?” she said. 

The girl said she did not know. 

You remind me of some­one,” Lau­ra was telling her. “There is a woman who vis­it­ed so many years ago. You remind me of her. You look iden­ti­cal. Only you are so dif­fer­ent. So wild and shy. I have the woman’s por­trait inside. Would you like to see it?” 

Yes,” the girl said. But she did not believe it. Not real­ly. Not yet. It was a trick. The way the sun felt. The way this woman wanted—what? To make her want. To make her say it. “Yes, I want to see it.” 

It is a trick, Lau­ra was think­ing, and you are a fatal­ist. How could she pos­si­bly know this, she won­dered. Because all the sto­ries have been told. She want­ed to tell her this, they’re all tricks, you know, and yet— 

She did not know how to make the argu­ment. It was self­ish. She want­ed a com­pan­ion. She liked this girl who spooked so easy like a bird. Like an injured bird, she thought, I will care for her. 

Then, sud­den­ly, the girl remem­bered some­thing: the fra­grant lilacs that bloomed two weeks each spring, the walled kitchen gar­dens, the shrub­beries, the park­land, the poplars and the pear trees. 

She shut her eyes and braced her­self for a hard slap. 

Because this world, she thought, who wants it? 

Every­one. What­ev­er it is. Every­one wants this so bad they’d claw their own heads off to keep them­selves from want­i­ng it. 

Would you like to see it? 

See what? 

A por­trait of your­self. Come. I want to give you this. An expe­ri­ence. To carve a shape in your mind the size of myself, and if there is such a thing as betray­al, I will betray you, because you are not me. But come out of the sun. I want to show you something. 

The girl held her­self at the edge of the foun­tain. She did not know what else to do. Hadn’t this already hap­pened? Why am I here again? She was won­der­ing. Have I left some­thing undone?

 

 

From the writer

 

:: Account ::

I kept hav­ing this dream about a woman I knew. 

Let’s call her Car­ol. The last time I saw her was in high school, which was, to be hon­est, a very long time ago. The dream is set in a wrecked city that’s full of red light and fog. And I’m look­ing for her. I ask a bar­tender, “Where’s Car­ol?” He points across a smoky room at some­one, and there is noth­ing famil­iar about her. Still, the bar­tender is not wrong, that’s Car­ol, and I’m will­ing to accept it, though, admit­ted­ly, I’m dis­ap­point­ed. Like all the urgency just swirled down the drain of this dream. I don’t know Car­ol anymore. 

I haven’t seen her since high school, and in my wak­ing life I have no desire to speak with her. And so, this long­ing, like many, total­ly baf­fles me. I can’t help that. At night I’m wan­der­ing through the ruins of my mem­o­ry, want­i­ng bad­ly to tell Car­ol something. 

A bar in win­ter was the last place I actu­al­ly saw Car­ol. She sat on a stool and I sat on a stool across the room. And she looked at me with this very styl­ized hatred. It was high school. We were too young to be there. She didn’t want to say hel­lo. It was clear. It was no big deal, or was she jok­ing? Her sense of humor was won­der­ful and bru­tal. So, I thought about say­ing hi to Car­ol, but then she’d left, and that was the last time I saw her. It wasn’t a big deal, in part, because it took a decade to decide that was the last time. And the dis­cov­ery, by then, felt like stum­bling into my present, hold­ing a rel­ic, like a VHS, which is obvi­ous­ly just so use­less now. Still, I dream about it. What could I pos­si­bly have to tell Carol? 

When you’re young it’s like that. You have this rich inner life, and maybe a friend equal­ly invest­ed in per­form­ing it. Two years pass, and, maybe, you imag­ine all that has noth­ing to do with the peo­ple you’re becom­ing. I liked Car­ol. In high school, I liked the Bron­tës, too, and all through col­lege I’d look back on that fact and feel baf­fled by it. I loved Char­lotte Bron­të in par­tic­u­lar. I loved espe­cial­ly Vil­lette, which tells of Lucy Snow, who, after an unspec­i­fied fam­i­ly dis­as­ter, leaves Eng­land for the fic­tion­al French-speak­ing city of Vil­lette, where she teach­es at a girl’s school. And so, in the nov­el there is a world which reflects the severe finan­cial, social, and pro­fes­sion­al lim­i­ta­tions imposed on sin­gle women liv­ing in the Vic­to­ri­an era, and then this wild exces­sive coun­ter­part and counter-tem­po­ral­i­ty to that world, where Lucy Snow has this super­sen­su­al inner life, rich with desires whose objects all dis­solve inside these very elab­o­rate metaphors. And it’s odd because nar­ra­tive usu­al­ly needs such erot­ic props. A home, in the Vic­to­ri­an nov­el, is usu­al­ly one such ves­sel. And Lucy Snowe hasn’t got one. She says, “To be home­sick, one must have a home, which I have not.” It wasn’t, to me, a sim­ple dis­avow­al but a tes­ta­ment to the illeg­i­bil­i­ty of her loss and her long­ing evinced by the false author­i­ty of def­i­n­i­tion. I mean, she’s wrong, right? One must pos­sess a home to long for it? But she’s exclud­ed and home­sick for anoth­er world. And so this nar­ra­tive sleight of hand, this self-defense, which dis­avows emo­tion by negat­ing its objects, seems also to expand the hori­zon of her long­ing. So, there’s nev­er an object, and yet the nov­el is so erot­i­cal­ly charged! I know peo­ple dis­agree. I’ve read essays about it. There is an object, they say—its name is Paul. Well, I, for one, could nev­er state with clar­i­ty what in this world exact­ly Lucy wanted—and still the nov­el erupt­ed, at every turn, with rabid and wound­ed wanting. 

And so, I was think­ing about spec­tral desire, and I want­ed to write a nov­el, a spec­u­la­tive, par­o­d­ic, and goth­ic melo­dra­ma. Of course, there’d need to be a ghost, and the ghost is real­ly dis­cur­sive, pre­oc­cu­pied with negat­ing the world and her desire for it, which is to say, she’s real­ly angry. And I want­ed it to end when a woman seduces the ghost back to liv­ing or at least she attempts to do so for what can only be very self­ish rea­sons and I’m almost fin­ished and this is how my melo­dra­ma ends.

 

Jes­si­ca Alexan­der’s sto­ry col­lec­tion, Dear Ene­my, was the win­ning man­u­script in the 2016 Subito Prose Con­test, as judged by Selah Sater­strom. Her fic­tion has been pub­lished in jour­nals such as Fence, Black War­rior Review, PANK, Den­ver Quar­ter­ly, The Col­lag­ist, and DIAGRAM. She lives in Louisiana, where she teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisiana at Lafayette.

They Say It Makes the Heart Grow

Poetry / Abriana Jetté

 

:: They Say It Makes the Heart Grow ::

 
Where does desire come from? When my husband
and I come together at night, I swear, I crave nothing.
I am so content to spend hours inside trusting
what he wants to watch on the television, it’s boring.
Others call it happiness. This is marriage, the working
at being bored. Running out of milk and washing floors
and then doing that again. Once more. An occasional walk in
the park, but most of the time, the yearning for something more.

When he and I are together what is there to crave?
It’s when we part that I begin overheating, feel as if I
might stop breathing and don’t want to be saved.
We all have something strange that keeps us high.
I bet we couldn’t change our vices if we tried.
I want my husband most after we say goodbye. 



 

 

From the writer

 

:: Account ::

What pleased me at the end of this poem was its con­nec­tion to Perse­phone. Even when I’m not try­ing, my poet­ry finds a way back to the Queen. Some­thing about her unset­tled nature excites me, or, it excites that voice writ­ing my poems. In my fab­ri­ca­tion, Perse­phone and Hades are rav­en­ous, pas­sion­ate, mad for one anoth­er when they are togeth­er, but when they are apart, well, when they are apart, they are hap­py. When I think about Perse­phone, I think a lot about the ten­sions between hap­pi­ness and desire. How­ev­er, I wasn’t think­ing about Perse­phone when I wrote this son­net. Its ori­gins are much, much more ordinary. 

One, two years ago, a late Mon­day morn­ing in late August, my hus­band takes his time going to work, so the usu­al Mon­day rou­tine is slowed down. I’m antsy to check my email. He wants me to stay in bed. Even­tu­al­ly, he gets up: brush­es his teeth, gets dressed, makes a cup of cof­fee for the road. We kiss good­bye. He shuts the door, lock­ing it, as is his habit. 

The room is silent and large and emp­ty, and I didn’t care what these emails are about any­way. He is gone, so I want him back. 

So I write about it. 

Equal parts ordi­nary and Perse­phone. That’s what accounts for this poem.


Born and raised in Brook­lyn, New York, Abri­ana Jet­té is the edi­tor of the anthol­o­gy series Stay Thirsty Poets, as well as a poet, essay­ist, and edu­ca­tor. Her work has appeared in Plume Poet­ry Jour­nal, The Moth, Riv­er Teeth, Seneca Review, and many oth­er places. Her research inter­ests include cre­ative writ­ing stud­ies and alter­na­tive ped­a­go­gies. She cur­rent­ly teach­es at Kean University. 

The Structure of Water

Nonfiction / Julia Knox

 

:: The Structure of Water ::

The struc­ture of water is beau­ti­ful and sim­ple. When hydro­gen and oxy­gen bond, what was once air comes to life as water. In dynam­ic equi­lib­ri­um, earth’s most copi­ous com­pound is born. Com­pris­ing 60 per­cent of our bod­ies and 71 per­cent of our plan­et [i], water is designed per­fect­ly to sup­port our bod­ies and our plan­et. Yes: the struc­ture of water is beau­ti­ful and simple. 

In epi­demi­ol­o­gy, the method of con­tact trac­ing helps to track, and hope­ful­ly pre­vent, an out­break result­ing from path­o­gen­ic expo­sure. Dur­ing con­tact trac­ing, epi­demi­ol­o­gists and those infect­ed with a com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­ease work to iden­ti­fy each indi­vid­ual with whom the infect­ed per­son had con­tact. I always imag­ine this to be an unimag­in­ably dif­fi­cult yet unde­ni­ably crit­i­cal task. The dif­fi­cul­ty, I imag­ine, lies not with­in the track­ing itself but in the real­iza­tion of con­tact, and then of the telling. 

I’d like all of us to take a minute to be an epi­demi­ol­o­gist today. 

What’s your trace of con­tact with water? 

I imag­ine the traces them­selves, the warm show­er, the much-appre­ci­at­ed cup of hot cof­fee, the easy, almost thought­less nature of fill­ing up a water bot­tle in the morn­ing. The water bot­tle, washed with clean tap water, with tox­i­col­o­gy lev­els freely avail­able online, and from a city pro­vid­ing free lead test­ing kits for con­sumers’ own ver­i­fi­ca­tion. At work and home, bath­rooms smell of lit­tle but recent­ly sprayed dis­in­fec­tant. The water flow­ing from the sinks by our lab, ensur­ing the clean hands of researchers, comes out eas­i­ly, clear­ly, and with adjustable tem­per­a­tures. The work per­formed by these hands is, by exten­sion, edu­cat­ed on san­i­ta­tion to ensure the ster­ile prac­tices nec­es­sary for research integri­ty. The well-per­formed research gen­er­ates data for large-scale grants, fur­ther ensur­ing the lab’s com­fort­able fund­ing sources. The lab pub­lish­es robust­ly in pub­lic health jour­nals and pro­vides a pro­fes­sion­al home to many emerg­ing sci­en­tists. Yes, this is beau­ti­ful, but per­haps not so simple. 

World­wide, 844 mil­lion peo­ple do not have access to clean drink­ing water. [ii] This is not beau­ti­ful. It escapes lan­guage with its mul­ti­fac­eted, intan­gi­ble ugli­ness, a mul­ti-ten­ta­cled mon­ster made of greed, igno­rance, cor­rup­tion, and pas­sive selfishness. 

A more sly mon­ster creeps with­in the exist­ing dia­logue on clean water, a dia­logue often invoked, and per­haps right­ful­ly so, by pic­tures in places that do not look like home to peo­ple with pow­er. This mat­ters and should mat­ter. Inequity grows where it is plant­ed. But inequity also grows in insid­i­ous ways. It grows along­side pow­er, like the cir­cum­nu­ta­tion of stems pok­ing out of the smooth­ly cement­ed side­walk. At first, it looks like—perhaps—char­ac­ter. But per­haps these wily weeds are the arms of the monster. 

The way to cap­ture the mon­ster is by under­stand­ing its nature: it can­not help but seek to expand its dom­i­nance. In its growth, it becomes rec­og­niz­able. In the weeds, it becomes visible. 

Some­times we see what is in our mem­o­ry. But some­times what we see is not what we remem­ber. Some­times what we see is no longer there. Per­haps the side­walk was smooth for a long time, and we no longer ques­tion its con­sis­ten­cy. The thing is, the weeds might not look like much now. But after some time, the side­walk will crack. The ques­tion is: who will fall through? 

The Bergen, Brooklyn’s P.S. 001 School in Sun­set Park, serves a pop­u­la­tion that is 87 per­cent His­pan­ic with 44 per­cent of stu­dents iden­ti­fied as Eng­lish Lan­guage Learn­ers. Locat­ed in one of the poor­est neigh­bor­hoods in Brook­lyn, where almost 30 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion lives below 100 per­cent of the city’s pover­ty thresh­old, 90 per­cent of Bergen stu­dents are esti­mat­ed to be liv­ing in pover­ty. The Bergen’s water sup­ply test­ed pos­i­tive for ele­vat­ed lev­els of lead, a sub­stance known for its neu­ro­log­i­cal impact. Even in utero, expo­sure to lead con­tributes to adverse child­hood health out­comes, includ­ing high blood pres­sure, a known indi­ca­tor of lat­er life dis­ease. The Bergen was rat­ed low impact and low per­for­mance by New York City’s School Per­for­mance Dashboard. 

One exam­ple with­in a mul­ti­plic­i­tous body of research on the rela­tion­ship between inequity and poor health out­comes is a study of urban minori­ties where­by expo­sure to envi­ron­men­tal tobac­co smoke dur­ing preg­nan­cy result­ed in a neg­a­tive impact on cog­ni­tive devel­op­ment at two years of age, an out­come exac­er­bat­ed by eco­nom­ic hard­ship. The Bergen is only one of the dozens of New York City schools in which over a quar­ter of sam­ples test­ed with ele­vat­ed lead lev­els, the major­i­ty locat­ed in the Bronx and Brook­lyn, home to the most impov­er­ished house­holds in the city. Even fol­low­ing a reme­di­a­tion plan to improve drink­ing water qual­i­ty, near­ly 400 New York City pub­lic schools were clas­si­fied as “not reme­di­at­ed.” This same city is home to the most bil­lion­aires in the world and almost one mil­lion mil­lion­aires. When does the cap­i­tal­ism that funds research on inequity become respon­si­ble for the inequity itself? 

The struc­ture of water is beau­ti­ful and sim­ple. Our infra­struc­ture for pro­vid­ing it with­out harm­ful chem­i­cals is not. 

The 2020 Fis­cal Year Bud­get [iii] requests $6.1 bil­lion for EPA, a $2.8 bil­lion decrease from the 2019 esti­mate. Yet, such fund­ing is crit­i­cal for the pre­ven­tion and man­age­ment of clean water, a fun­da­men­tal neces­si­ty to ensure safe water for every­one, regard­less of socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus. Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Mail­man School of Pub­lic Health researchers demon­strat­ed that arsenic lev­els in New York City drink­ing water were decreased in response to the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency (EPA) 2006 reg­u­la­tions. The recent bud­get pro­pos­al cites, “Launch of the Era of Ener­gy Dom­i­nance through Strate­gic Sup­port for Ener­gy Tech­nol­o­gy,” which requests a $2.3 bil­lion for an ener­gy pro­gram, empha­siz­ing the impor­tance of cap­i­tal­iz­ing on “oil, gas, coal, nuclear, and renew­ables.” While ubiq­ui­tous envi­ron­men­tal chem­i­cals such as lead and arsenic tend to receive much atten­tion, it is impor­tant for all peo­ple to rec­og­nize the emerg­ing class­es of chem­i­cals with equal­ly, if not more seri­ous, adverse effects on human health. At present, there is no lim­it on lev­els of per- and poly­flu­o­roalkyl sub­stances (PFAS), com­mer­cial­ly pro­duced indus­tri­al chem­i­cals that per­sist on an envi­ron­men­tal and phys­i­o­log­ic lev­el. Expo­sure to PFAS can result in seri­ous adverse health con­se­quences. Giv­en the syn­ony­mous decrease in EPA fund­ing, this wor­ri­some pro­pos­al exac­er­bates the link between cli­mate change and clean water. 

What pur­pose do cur­rent EPA guide­lines serve? Or rather, whom? Cli­mate change becomes a socioe­co­nom­ic and socio-polit­i­cal real­i­ty at the inter­sec­tion of water qual­i­ty and health. The World Health Orga­ni­za­tion pre­dicts 250,000 deaths every year will be attrib­uted to cli­mate change, with caus­es includ­ing heat expo­sure, malar­ia, and child­hood malnutrition. 

A uni­ver­sal sol­vent, water’s chem­i­cal nature ampli­fies its reac­tiv­i­ty. Depend­ing upon the envi­ron­ment, water can both accept and pro­vide for oth­er mol­e­cules.  In crit­i­cal­ly exam­in­ing our social, polit­i­cal, and eco­nom­ic envi­ron­ments, we, too, can both accept help and pro­vide help: To oth­er peo­ple and oth­er com­mu­ni­ties, both close to and far from home. 

This all depends on three things: The trac­ing, the real­iz­ing, and the telling. 



[i] See Perl­man, Howard. “How Much Water Is There on Earth?” U.S. Geo­log­i­cal Sur­vey, 2 Decem­ber 2016, http://water.usgs.gov/edu/earthhowmuch.html.

[ii] See WHO and UNICEF Joint Mon­i­tor­ing Pro­gramme. Progress on Drink­ing Water, San­i­ta­tion and Hygiene: 2017 Update and SDG Base­lines. World Health Orga­ni­za­tion and the Unit­ed Nations Children’s Fund, 2017, https://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/publications/jmp-2017/en/.

[iii] See Trump, Don­ald J. A Bud­get for a Bet­ter Amer­i­ca: Promis­es Kept. Tax­pay­ers First. Fis­cal Year 2020 Bud­get of the U.S. Gov­ern­ment. Gov­ern­ment Pub­lish­ing Office, 2019, pp. 37 and 93, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/budget-fy2020.pdf.

 

Works Con­sult­ed 

Basic Infor­ma­tion on PFAS: Per- and Poly­flu­o­roalkyl Sub­stances.” U.S. Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, 6 Decem­ber 2018, https://www.epa.gov/pfas/basic-information-pfas. Accessed 1 May 2020.

Long-Chain Per­flu­o­ri­nat­ed Chem­i­cals (PFCs) Action Plan.” U.S. Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, 12 Decem­ber 2009, https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016–01/documents/pfcs_action_plan1230_09.pdf. Accessed 1 May 2020.

Mueller, Robert and Vir­ginia Yin­gling. “Fact Sheet: His­to­ry and Use of Per- and Poly­flu­o­roalkyl Sub­stances (PFAS).” Agency for Tox­ic Sub­stances and Dis­ease Reg­istry, April 2020, https://pfas‑1.itrcweb.org/fact_sheets_page/PFAS_Fact_Sheet_History_and_Use_April2020.pdf. Accessed 1 May 2020.

Olsen, Geary W., et al. “A Com­par­i­son of the Phar­ma­co­ki­net­ics of Per­flu­o­robu­tane­sul­fonate (PFBS) in Rats, Mon­keys, and Humans.” Tox­i­col­o­gy, vol. 256, 2009, pp. 65–74.

Olsen, Geary W., et al. “Half-Life of Serum Elim­i­na­tion of Per­flu­o­rooc­tane­sul­fonate, Per­flu­o­ro­hexa­ne­sul­fonate, and Per­flu­o­rooc­tanoate in Retired Flu­o­ro­chem­i­cal Pro­duc­tion Work­ers.” Envi­ron­men­tal Health per­spec­tives, vol. 115, no. 9, Sep­tem­ber 2007, pp. 1298–1305, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1964923/pdf/ehp0115-001298.pdf. Accessed 1 May 2020.

Overview: Per- and Poly­flu­o­roalkyl Sub­stances (PFAS) and Your Health.” Agency for Tox­ic Sub­stances and Dis­ease Reg­istry, https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/pfas/overview.html. Accessed 1 May 2020.

Perl­man, Howard. “How Much Water Is There on Earth?” U.S. Geo­log­i­cal Sur­vey, 2 Decem­ber 2016, http://water.usgs.gov/edu/earthhowmuch.html. Accessed 1 May 2020.

Trump, Don­ald J. A Bud­get for a Bet­ter Amer­i­ca: Promis­es Kept. Tax­pay­ers First. Fis­cal Year 2020 Bud­get of the U.S. Gov­ern­ment. Gov­ern­ment Pub­lish­ing Office, 2019, pp. 37 and 93, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/budget-fy2020.pdf. Accessed 1 May 2020.

Wang, Zhanyun, et al. “A Nev­er-End­ing Sto­ry of Per- and Poly­flu­o­roalkyl Sub­stances (PFASs)?” Envi­ron­men­tal Sci­ence & Tech­nol­o­gy, vol. 51, no. 5, 22 Feb­ru­ary 2017, pp. 2508–2518, https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.6b04806. Accessed 1 May 2020.

WHO and UNICEF Joint Mon­i­tor­ing Pro­gramme. Progress on Drink­ing Water, San­i­ta­tion and Hygiene: 2017 Update and SDG Base­lines. World Health Orga­ni­za­tion and the Unit­ed Nations Children’s Fund, 2017, https://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/publications/jmp-2017/en/. Accessed 1 May 2020. 



 

 

From the writer

 

:: Account ::

Through a per­spec­tive that inter­weaves epi­demi­ol­o­gy with dai­ly life, “The Struc­ture of Water” is a styl­is­ti­cal­ly cre­ative piece that pro­vides sci­en­tif­ic facts with a poet­ic twist. Using pub­licly avail­able data, a sim­ple analy­sis of New York City Pub­lic Schools’ per­for­mance reviews and lead test­ing reports was per­formed. The schools locat­ed in the poor­est areas also tend­ed to have the high­est lev­els of lead, and notably, sev­er­al of these schools were flagged for low per­for­mance. This exam­ple is used to exem­pli­fy the inequities both reflect­ed in and per­pet­u­at­ed by access to clean water. With the inten­tion to inspire the read­er to reflect, this piece sit­u­ates the glob­al clean water cri­sis as a mir­ror for sys­temic inequity. I write as both a stu­dent in the Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Nar­ra­tive Med­i­cine pro­gram and as an employ­ee of the Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Mail­man School of Pub­lic Health in the Depart­ment of Envi­ron­men­tal Health Sci­ences, one of the largest such depart­ments nation­wide and among the top research and aca­d­e­m­ic cen­ters for envi­ron­men­tal health sci­ences globally.


Julia Knox, MPH, is a researcher at the Colum­bia Mail­man School of Pub­lic Health, an M.S. Can­di­date in Nar­ra­tive Med­i­cine in the Colum­bia Depart­ment of Med­ical Human­i­ties and Ethics, and Fel­low at the Pre­ci­sion Med­i­cine Ethics, Pol­i­tics, Cul­ture Project at Columbi­a’s Cen­ter for Social Dif­fer­ence. She is inter­est­ed in the meth­ods by which data takes nar­ra­tive form in our soci­ety. The focus of her research includes expo­sure to envi­ron­men­tal mix­tures, mater­nal/­pa­ter­nal-child health, and trans­gen­er­a­tional epi­ge­net­ics. An Ameri­Corps alum­na who earned her Master’s of Pub­lic Health in 2016, she is ded­i­cat­ed to men­tor­ship and sus­tain­able com­mu­ni­ty invest­ments. She is pas­sion­ate about mak­ing space in aca­d­e­m­ic sci­ence for peo­ple with dis­ad­van­taged back­grounds, and hopes that this will reflect in a more com­pre­hen­sive set of research inter­ests in genomics, and even­tu­al­ly, in a bet­ter world.

Three Works

Art / Elliott Green

 

:: Three Works ::

 



 

From the artist

 

:: Account ::

I began mak­ing paint­ings rem­i­nis­cent of land­scapes in 2012, and since then have giv­en a lot of thought to how this tra­di­tion­al dis­ci­pline could be reimag­ined and revitalized. 

I felt there was room for inno­va­tion in the mid­way between what the cam­era sees and the soft fleet­ing images the mind makes to abbre­vi­ate memories. 

My basic approach has been to divide the land­scape into flex­i­ble zones of var­i­ous­ly paint­ed abstrac­tions, and then uni­fy them to share a com­mon place. The con­nec­tions between these areas are impor­tant to me: if done well, two dis­sim­i­lar adjoin­ing ter­ri­to­ries can melt into each oth­er, or exist nat­u­ral­ly side by side, and the tran­si­tion can appear as seam­less as mov­ing from scene to scene in a dream. 

Each of these niche places with­in places can be char­ac­ter­ized, using ges­ture, vis­cos­i­ty, trans­paren­cy, and col­or, to embody thought, emo­tion, moti­va­tion, and metaphor. If these ele­ments can blend to har­mo­nize, then they can rise up togeth­er to pro­vide a more expan­sive view­point and a whiff of a glimpse of coher­ent infin­i­ty, which ide­al­ly touch­es one with a fuller feel­ing of being a part of the world and beyond. 

Using a range of paints, tools, and move­ments, as well as states of mind, I have been able to ren­der and enter imag­i­nary places, flow­ing along with impro­vi­sa­tion­al forces. I some­times make deci­sions faster than I can think. Curios­i­ty and intu­ition have pro­pelled me to find for­ma­tions and ener­gies, like the lumi­nes­cent vibra­tions that appear in Uncoil­ing Light, which I accept to be true to some aspect of nature, even if I don’t ful­ly under­stand it yet. 


Elliott Green was born in Detroit, Michi­gan, in 1960. He moved to New York City in 1981 and lived there for twen­ty-four years. In 2005 he moved to Athens, New York, a small town sit­u­at­ed between the Catskill Moun­tains and the Hud­son Riv­er, where he con­tin­ues to work and live. He has received a John Simon Guggen­heim Foun­da­tion Fel­low­ship, two Pol­lock-Kras­ner Foun­da­tion Grants, the Rome Prize, and three prizes and awards from the Acad­e­my of Arts and Let­ters, along with numer­ous res­i­den­cy grants. A book of his paint­ings, Elliott Green: At the Far Edge of the Known World, with essays by six writ­ers, was pub­lished by Piero­gi Gallery NYC in late 2019. 

My Mother’s Ghost Follows Me

Nonfiction / Josie Kochendorfer

 

:: My Mother’s Ghost Follows Me ::

I saw my dead moth­er at Safe­way. I saw her ash blonde hair and dark roots pulled back into a low pony and I was fif­teen again. A woman with a cart asked if I was okay. I had dropped my red bas­ket my face was wet and I could hear my breath­ing out­side of my body. I looked around for my friends but I was alone, feet stuck, tun­nel vision. The only thing in focus was my moth­er who was now look­ing at me down the aisle, frozen piz­za in hand. She stood still, soak­ing wet, moss in her hair, rocks in her pock­ets. They had found her body a week ago and I began see­ing her in every mid­dle-aged blonde woman who crossed my path. That morn­ing I bought a plane tick­et to Ari­zona, where I would gath­er her things and dri­ve her car back to my col­lege cam­pus. I was kneel­ing on the floor. A stranger put their hand on my back. I heard again, Are you okay? but I couldn’t stop cry­ing and I was breath­ing too quick to get words out. 

*

This car is too small and it reeks of cig­a­rettes even with the air on it’s blast­ing Camel Lights out of the vents I remem­ber my moth­er flick­ing cher­ry in the cup hold­er I’m sev­en again try­ing to read books by the light of the street­lamps every­thing in here is dead and stale if I slit open the cloth uphol­stery it would ooze black tobac­co tar or maybe coag­u­lat­ed blood the way it thick­ens after the heart dies I can see the cars behind me in my mir­rors get­ting clos­er I can hear them honk­ing their horns telling me to go faster but I just got my license five years late and I’ve nev­er dri­ven on a road like this turns one after the next the edge right to my side one bump and I could fall off roll down bounce off the rocks into the water below and it would be my body they find next water­logged and swollen iden­ti­fy me by my tat­toos our death cer­tifi­cates would match cause of death: blunt force trau­ma 

We had been estranged for five years, after her vio­lent ner­vous break­down. In the years between sep­a­rat­ing and her death, I imag­ined what it would be like to see her again. We would sit on a park bench. She would say I’ve missed you, I’m all bet­ter now, please come home. She would hug me and she would apol­o­gize for hurt­ing me and I would apol­o­gize for leav­ing her. And when we were done hug­ging she would ask why I nev­er wrote, tell me how much I hurt her, tell me I was a brat and a bitch, that I hadn’t changed at all since the last time she called me those names she would press her long nails into my cheeks and tell me how I’ve grown how I look just like her how I’ll become her if I’m not care­ful and what a shame that would be. She would press tighter and tell me I’m noth­ing with­out her she’s noth­ing with­out me we deserve each other. 

Every night, I dream of dying in water. 

I’m dri­ving a car that gets hit and spins off a bridge. 

I’m hik­ing and fall down a cliff. 

I’m swim­ming in the ocean and get swept away. 

I’m swim­ming with mer­maids until I real­ize I don’t have gills. 

I leave my sink run­ning and my house fills with water while I sleep. 

I didn’t start dream­ing about drown­ing until after it hap­pened, after my mind began mak­ing up images, try­ing to fill in the gaps, attempt­ing to cre­ate mem­o­ries from a moment that wasn’t mine. When I wake, I jolt, for­get for a moment that I’m not dead. But her death has weaved itself into me, and every night, I die the way she did. Some nights we’re togeth­er again. She holds me, breathes into my ear, whis­pers: Do you under­stand me yet? Do you feel how much I hurt?



 

 

From the writer

 

:: Account ::

When I first start­ed writ­ing non­fic­tion, I was told my writ­ing was too vis­cer­al and dra­mat­ic, that I hadn’t had enough dis­tance from my trau­ma to effec­tive­ly write about it yet. Over the years, I have learned how to reflect on past trau­mas with a clear­er mind. As well as becom­ing a more expe­ri­enced writer, I’ve also done quite a bit of heal­ing and pro­cess­ing in ther­a­py and on my own. I under­stand the strength dou­ble per­spec­tive and reflec­tion gives to a piece. How­ev­er, I think there is mer­it in the raw­ness that comes from writ­ing inside the trau­ma. There is a peri­od with trau­ma where it is often impos­si­ble to make mean­ing of an event for a while and sit­ting with it, not being able to do any­thing but remem­ber it, feels suf­fo­cat­ing. This col­lec­tion of events is meant to show how trau­ma, or at least my per­son­al trau­mas, man­i­fest­ed in that peri­od of time: after the trau­ma before I was ready to process them. I want­ed to cre­ate an expe­ri­ence for the read­er to under­stand what it is like inside the mind of some­one still work­ing through their trau­mas, who has not yet got­ten to the stage of reflec­tion and mean­ing mak­ing. I am inter­est­ed in the way we use form to match our con­tent, and how we can manip­u­late craft like struc­ture, syn­tax and gram­mar to par­al­lel an emo­tion­al or phys­i­o­log­i­cal response to rep­re­sent what it was like to live through events such as a flash­back, pan­ic attack, or depres­sion. Addi­tion­al­ly, I want­ed to hon­or the space I believe most writ­ers live in at some point—where they have expe­ri­enced some­thing but have not yet got­ten to a place with­in them­selves to go any deep­er than sim­ply remembering.


Josie Kochen­dor­fer is an MFA can­di­date at The Ohio State Uni­ver­si­ty, where she is the Online Edi­tor for The Jour­nal.

Mommy-daddy on Steroids

Nonfiction / Jenny Hedley

 

:: Mommy-daddy on Steroids ::

So many diag­noses, so lit— 

Tongue swollen in my mouth, lips up to my nose like I have mon­ey to blow on injecta­bles, like my child sup­port pay­ment isn’t a dol­lar a day, like I don’t com­par­i­son shop the week­ly gro­cery store cat­a­logs (because I don’t want to do the things I’ve had to do for money). 

Angioede­ma is a symp­tom of anaphylaxis. 

I scratch my legs until they bleed. I look like an anti-vaxxer. Peo­ple ask me if I have measles. My hives are idio­path­ic, iso­graph­ic. I write my name on spicy hot thighs with a fin­ger­nail. I am bar­be­cue flavoured. 

Chron­ic urticaria rais­es more ques­tions than answers. Some clas­si­fy it as an autoim­mune dis­or­der, which is to say they haven’t fig­ured it out. My mast cells are under attack. Am I my own worst en—? 

I try an elim­i­nate-every­thing diet, a kind of orthorex­ia. Dis­or­dered eat­ing mir­rors my 16-year-old self who was hos­pi­tal­ized for bulim­ia, obses­sive-com­pul­sive dis­or­der, major depres­sion. My body is at war, so I eat the whole cru­cif­er­ous fam­i­ly: no veg left behind. I pic­ture the bras­si­ca fam­i­ly hold­ing hands and won­der if my gut real­ly has bud­dies. My son thinks shred­ded cab­bage is not a veg­etable. He will eat it when I make home­made miso dressing: 

  • 1 part miso paste 
  • 1 part ACV 
  • 2 parts EVOO 
  • a pour of honey. 

I feel I take up too much space when I eat a carb-heavy break­fast. (My son likes buck­wheat pan­cakes with real maple syrup and blue­ber­ries.) I feel worth­less when I don’t sell any­thing on eBay—when junk from my past over­takes my son’s closet—because I can’t afford Mini Maestros. 

When there are no bras in the laun­dry bas­ket after a week, I know I haven’t been any­where. All func­tion­al med­i­cine aside, I am not func­tion­ing. I put on my OCD wings and fly. 

An inter­lude of fear 

You run out of Ready Steady Go when I turn around to grab your nap­py bag. That moment of paral­y­sis: why aren’t you glued to my leg? A split-sec­ond all-encom­pass­ing gaze can­vas­ing the gym­na­si­um, pic­tur­ing what you’re wear­ing (red super­hero hood­ie, black track­ies, white run­ners), sprint­ing past the neon-lit EXIT sign. 

In sec­onds I cap­ture you, bend down on one knee, scold you, hug you, kiss you, pun­ish you. NO PLAYING IN THE PARK TODAY! I will shove you down my throat and keep you cocooned in my bel­ly. I miss the days when I wore you strapped to my chest—how we were all that we had. We are still all that we have. 

The unan­swer­able 

We’re in the canned food aisle at Wool­worths when you ask me if you have a [unknown]. I hes­i­tate. The lady with a green shop­ping bas­ket looks over with pity. I nav­i­gate to the may­on­naise shelves to buy time and pick out Best Foods, the Amer­i­can brand—even though it’s high in histamines—because it reminds me of home. 

I wrap my arms around you, but the embrace is also for me. (I haven’t had sex in over three years, but my celiba­cy is vol­un­tary: I want anoth­er baby, but I don’t want a man-baby. Who would look after you if I went to the hospital?) 

I pre­tend I’m not sad for you; I pre­tend I’m not sad for me. I choke on pur­ple prose. 

You say, I want a mom­my and a [unknown]. You ball your hands into fists, kick your tod­dler size fives against met­al trol­ley bars. 

I say, Not every­one has a [unknown]. Remem­ber the pen­guin on the poster at Baby Club? That pen­guin only has a mom. (I don’t tell you how your [unknown] failed his drug tests.) 

You say, I. Want. A. [Unknown]. 

Hys­ter­ics in aisle three. I bend over to grab the store-brand tuna for din­ner. I’m too tired to cook; you ate my free time. I buy decaf so my hands won’t shake, rain­bow slaw, tax-free tampons. 

When you scream for ice cream, I hand you apples and plums because I’m the mom­my. And it’s not a spe­cial occa­sion. And I don’t want to eat my feel­ings. (Ice cream tastes almost as good com­ing up as it does going down.) And I’m aller­gic to dairy. 

I make the ten-cent chok­ing haz­ard your friend Hunter gave you dis­ap­pear into the coin slot at the self-check­out. You want to know where your mon­ey went? Down the pipe like your [unknown]. 

At home I dete­ri­o­rate while Net­flix enter­tains. (My self-imposed 40-day ban doesn’t apply to you, whom I need babysat.) If I pour the sug­ar syrup out of the fruit cup, does that make me a bet­ter mom? 

—Mom­my, you’ll always be my best friend. 

My heart is sticky, melt­ed like goo on the kitchen floor. 

—Mom­my, sing the sil­ly song. 

—Vit­rA is a toi­let, it likes to spin around. Vit­rA is a toi­let, it makes a flush­ing sound. It goes flush, flush, flush, the pee-pee and the poo. It goes flush, flush, flush, the pee-pee and the poo. 

—No, the oth­er sil­ly song. 

—He’s a stretchy hip­popota­mus. He’s a flat-foot­ed platy­pus. He’s a fun­ny, fun­ny bun­ny rab­bit. He’s a fun­ny rab­bit. He’s a stretch-a-lo-pota­masauras. He’s a gumpy, gumpy gumbo … 

—Now sing the baby song. 

—I love you, Piglet, I love you. I love you, Piglet. I real­ly, real­ly, real­ly do. 

Baby Mae­stro echoes Mommy’s sense­less songs in lieu of $25 lessons that I can’t afford. Every­thing I do is for you, Lit­tle Red. 

Chron­ic ill­ness 

My hives flut­ter. If I scratch, they’ll itch worse. I scratch. The rough side of the file ser­rates my nails. It feels deli­cious, these tiny paper cuts on mot­tled flesh. Like a dis­eased apple, am I rot­ten at th—? 

Benadryl cross­es the blood-brain bar­ri­er to sedate me. Head buried into pil­low, knees jammed into raw breasts. Elbows dance at my side in an itchy-scratchy trance. It’s a mast cell par­ty; who could ask for more? 

Pop anoth­er pill at 1am, or two or three at 1 and 2 and 3. Cac­tus-dry tongue, labored breath, can I swal­low enough air? Angioede­ma tastes like Novo­cain. I’m lost in pharmacopeia. 

At Med­ical One I teach my son (who hasn’t breached the fortress-like pro­por­tions of his St Kil­da Mums cot) to dial emer­gency from the lock screen. But I show him 999 not 000—brain fogged, lips ballooned—not even 911. Am I ask­ing too much? 

Self-pity drips beneath sun­nies on the [#] tram to RMIT

—Do-you-have-measles-are-you-con­ta­gious? 

—No. 

—But-it-looks-like—

NO

Tis­sue blots saline frus­tra­tion. Salt is low-his­t­a­mine: at least there’s that. 

My cre­ative writ­ing tutor starts each class with a med­i­ta­tion. She asks us to feel what it’s like to be in our bod­ies. I can’t stop squirm­ing, tug­ging at my clothes. I have to take my shoes off. 

The air-con in build­ing 51 is shot. The sun mag­ni­fied through the win­dow feels like menopause. I ask if I can write instead of med­i­tat­ing to keep from screaming. 

Tues­day ther­a­py clash­es with class­es. I vis­it my der­ma­tol­o­gist, who offers an SSRI. (Side effects include sui­ci­dal ideation.) I show up for the wrong appoint­ment on the right day. Stay cold, my GP says. Throw off the cov­ers (cot­ton not poly), take cool show­ers, keep calm, don’t stress. 

I joke, What, me, stress? I’m cool as a c— 

Not for long-term use 

Cor­ti­cos­teroids rock my adren­a­ls: it feels like I’m on speed except that I’m hun­gry like a box­er. My hard-won body fat per­cent­age goes down the d—. I expe­ri­ence body dys­mor­phia, grow­ing dys­pho­ria, sweaty every­thing, and I’m con­sti­pat­ed like I’ve swal­lowed an anteater. 

This is my brain on Pred­nisolone, con­vinc­ing my body not to fight-or-flight. Our inter­ven­tion order expires next December. 

Mom­my-dad­dy [is/has had] enough 

You throw your cheese bread at me and demand anoth­er Yakult. Those stu­pid minia­ture bot­tles. I snap, tell you to wait. (Nor­mal­ly I think you’re cute AF.) 

I scale the din­ing room table so you can’t reach me, but you shunt the bench over with the force of your 30 pounds. You con­quer the sum­mit and put your hand on my shoulder. 

Every­thing you say sounds like a whine; every­thing I say sounds like a bark. I’ve become a despot, a tyrant, an emo­tion­al invalid, a petu­lant child. Impa­tient, claus­tro­pho­bic, I rip my bra off, put on over­sized pyja­mas. You offer me a pair of socks to keep my feet warm. I’m glad your [unknown] can’t see me unravel. 

You say, I want Mom­my to be happy—do you want to be happy? 

We tidy and clean until the house is in order. I can’t con­trol any­thing so I feed you what I wish I could eat. I make you a cheese toastie and it looks fuck­ing deli­cious and I get impa­tient because you eat it so slow­ly and it just stays there in my periph­er­al vision: fresh sour­dough cia­bat­ta, cheese molten then cooled like mag­ma, the plas­tic sheen of real butter. 

Now your tum­my hurts, so I pull your knees close to your chest to help you fart. I blow rasp­ber­ries to make you laugh. You’re all bet­ter. We eat blue­ber­ries for dessert and pray to keep the bad men and the mon­sters away. 

You call me mom­my-dad­dy some­times. At first it makes me angry—reminds me of the void—but now it makes me smile. I am your par­ent plur­al; I am Mom­my on Steroids. 

 

 

From the writer

 

:: Account ::

The week before my cre­ative writ­ing pro­gram begins I break out in hives for the first time. I share images from my phone’s “hives” fold­er with spe­cial­ists who take my mon­ey, who can’t tell me the source of my ill­ness, who don’t promise a cure. Red wheals over­take my der­mis, pru­ri­tus sub­tracts hours from my sleep. School begins and class­es start with guid­ed med­i­ta­tions designed to inspire stream-of-con­scious­ness writ­ing. I shift uncom­fort­ably in my seat and begin draft­ing an exper­i­men­tal non­fic­tion piece dur­ing these ini­tial med­i­ta­tive rebellions. 

We study Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s essay “Bad Writer” in class. Ahmad warns against Poor White Girl syn­drome, which lacks humour and irony. This is what I don’t want my writ­ing to be. We dis­cuss writ­ing as a nego­ti­a­tion of a social con­tract, which reminds me of Frank Moorhouse’s descrip­tion of lit­er­ary author­ship “as an inter­nal exile.” Writ­ing is a way of sub­ju­gat­ing my strug­gle: sin­gle par­ent­hood, sex­u­al trau­ma, domes­tic vio­lence, a mar­riage in which I was a belong­ing that did not belong—of bundling it into a form of expres­sion that gives voice to my powerlessness. 

One itchy day, I com­pile and assem­ble jour­nal entries, scrib­bles, and (un)meditative writ­ing into “Mom­my-dad­dy.” I wish to cap­ture: my son demand­ing a dad­dy as we nav­i­gate the tinned goods aisle, wak­ing up at 2am with thighs burn­ing, jour­ney­ing through phar­ma­copoeia. These scenes illus­trate the muck of where sin­gle par­ent­hood inter­sects with chron­ic ill­ness and men­tal health; they are “the tar, the sticky parts” of entrenched dis­ad­van­tage described by Maria Tumarkin in her genre-bust­ing work, Axiomat­ic. I imi­tate the way Tumarkin trun­cates com­mon tropes by using linked em dash­es, for exam­ple, in her chap­ter titled “those who for­get the past are con­demned to re—.” I expose my own flab­by writ­ing using this autho­r­i­al device. 

I reread Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries: A Mem­oir, study­ing the way she moves grace­ful­ly between first and sec­ond per­son. In “Mom­my-dad­dy,” I switch from the first per­son pro­noun to the sec­ond per­son “you,” to address my three-year-old son. My voice is con­fes­sion­al: speak­ing to the child who can­not yet grasp the com­plex­i­ties of life, speak­ing to myself. My inward autho­r­i­al gaze reflects my neu­rot­ic men­tal state, the way I study the ground when I inhab­it the out­side world. I relate to her descrip­tion of mem­oir as “some­thing vul­ner­a­ble in a sea of posturing.” 

I read The Lift­ed Brow’s exper­i­men­tal pieces and bor­row from mul­ti­ple essay­ists. Eloise Grill’s prize-win­ning “Big Beau­ti­ful Female The­o­ry” (2018) encour­ages me to play with form. Cas­san­dra Rockwood-Rice’s “Root Bed” (2019) blends poet­ry, prose, and dia­logue. I steal her method of using joined em dash­es to open a quote, some­thing she prob­a­bly lift­ed from James Joyce’s Ulysses (which I intend to read). She uses hard brack­ets to replace prop­er nouns with gen­er­al descrip­tors; I use this method to elim­i­nate the word “dad­dy.”  

I mod­i­fy my lifestyle with meds, sup­ple­ments, and dietary changes, and the der­ma­tol­ogy clin­ic advis­es me that I qual­i­fy for a month­ly injec­tion that may or may not con­trol my symp­toms. (Side effects include hair loss.) I decide to save my exper­i­men­tal approach­es for writ­ing. Words are heal­ing; they are so much eas­i­er to regrow.

 

Jen­ny Hed­ley’s writ­ing appears in SCUM, Trav­el Play Live, Gone Lawn, Mon­tana Mouth­ful, and Van­ish­ing Act and is forth­com­ing in Folio and The Man­hat­tanville Review. She record­ed her poem “I Can See Through Your Lul­ule­mons” for an upcom­ing edi­tion of Memo­ria Pod­cast. She stud­ies cre­ative writ­ing at RMIT Uni­ver­si­ty in Mel­bourne, Aus­tralia, where she lives with her son. 

The Falcon’s Cry

Nonfiction / Kelly Gray

 

:: The Falcon’s Cry ::

There is a moment when you find your­self in a small enclo­sure with a fal­con scream­ing in your face, her wings extend­ed, your hands shak­ing, that you think, We are the same.   

I have his­to­ry with birds. They were my first intro­duc­tion to death when, as a child, I found our chick­ens’ bod­ies strewn about the coop after a fox raid, although I don’t recall them alive pri­or to that. They were so vul­ner­a­ble in the after­math, a curled yel­low foot by a head, the body too far away with exposed entrails. It made my stom­ach turn. I did not want to be torn to pieces like that. As I grew old­er, I began to under­stand the dif­fer­ence between vio­lence and death, and that death and dis­tur­bance work as a use­ful tool for change in per­son­al as well as eco­log­i­cal land­scapes. I began to wel­come death in as sym­bol and spring­board, even seek­ing out its tokens. I would find offer­ings from the sky: small rib cages, ster­nums still con­nect­ed to wings, some­times a bird skull so del­i­cate it looked to be made of paper. I start­ed to devel­op com­pan­ion­ship with live birds; I would dri­ve west to the reserve to sit with a male North­ern Har­ri­er among the blos­som­ing lupine and wind-pressed grass. Ravens would bring me garbage and steal my trin­kets. As I walked home, owls would descend from the black night like falling moons, white faces with black eyes, and lat­er they would return in my dreams.   

Dur­ing this time of friend­ship with the birds, my hus­band left. Or, rather, I left him when he wouldn’t leave, although he was sure­ly gone despite his warm body appear­ing next to mine, ask­ing me to stay. I used to wake up in the mid­dle of the night and check for my child’s breath, and then my husband’s, think­ing that I would be ashamed if he died in our bed with our child between us. I found a new home, with­in dri­ving dis­tance of his absence. In my new home, my dog died. My child grew into her own bed, the dis­tance between her room and mine would weigh on me in the night. I would see my ex-hus­band every day because, some­how, we had had a child togeth­er. I would walk through the day with my eyes sky­bound, think­ing about places I’d nev­er been, imag­ing a new home that was far away, nest-like, one that I could build with branch­es not yet col­lect­ed. Often I would won­der if I would end up break­ing those nests too. Method­i­cal­ly or in a rage. There was a heat ris­ing in my chest that I had pre­vi­ous­ly been able to escape from, but now it felt like burn­ing hands around my throat. In past breakups, I would be able to pack my books and my mir­rors and all the wool blan­kets, using more tape than nec­es­sary. When I arrived in my new home, there were no ghosts or dis­ap­point­ments, just box­es to stab my knife into. I would reach in and pull out my belong­ings and con­sid­er myself intact. But this time my belong­ings seemed heavy and use­less and I was unable to move, root­ed in an unrea­son­able way by the con­tract of moth­er­hood and divorcehood. 

If I told you about my divorce, it wouldn’t sound like it felt. I was so impa­tient. He was ill. He wouldn’t take care of him­self. He would drink too much. I think I became impa­tient for him to get com­plete­ly sick, if only because my wait­ing for it felt unbear­able. He stopped tak­ing his med­i­cine, which I use to help admin­is­ter before there was a dis­tance between us. I only dis­cov­ered this six months after the fact, and it felt akin to betray­al. We don’t know if the con­di­tion is hereditary. 

I thought about my own desire and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a lover. I no longer felt capa­ble of form­ing the begin­ning of a con­ver­sa­tion, of using my voice to flirt, to lean for­ward in mock inter­est.   

Instead of human touch, I decid­ed to take a job work­ing at a rap­tor reha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­ter. The train­ing would be six months long: one part rap­tor han­dling and one part nat­ur­al his­to­ry. At the end of six months, I would be com­pe­tent enough to do pub­lic events with a bird on my fist. On my first day, we signed waivers and showed proof of insur­ance. We were shown where the hard­hats, gloves, and pro­tec­tive eye gear is kept, as well as the first aid kits. We were shown the ancient fal­con­ry tech­nique of jess­ing, which is how to use a leash with a rap­tor. We prac­ticed bal­anc­ing tin cans on our wrists, won­der­ing who would com­plete the pro­gram and who would not. 

These fal­cons were once wild. They had been res­cued but could not be reha­bil­i­tat­ed. They were dan­ger­ous, but will­ing. They could not fly for long distances. 

I want­ed to work with the birds because I sus­pect­ed that they might scare me. I had become so numb that it seemed like some sort of cathar­tic exer­cise in an attempt to rat­tle myself back into being. That’s not what I would tell peo­ple when they asked why I did the work. I knew enough not to say, I can’t feel my body any­more. I don’t know who I am. I’m hop­ing the birds will fly at me until I can see my future again. Instead I would say, Birds of prey are indi­ca­tors of an ecosystem’s health, and if we can get peo­ple to care about the birds, then we can get them to care about native habi­tats. And that is true. That is why I was there. But I also want­ed to care about myself again. 

The female pere­grine fal­con is 25% larg­er than her male coun­ter­part, and the­o­ries (some whis­pered and some in writ­ing) abound as to why this is, as if it can’t exist as sim­ple fact. When she’s tend­ing to her chicks, the male pere­grine, called a tier­cel, will hunt and bring his fam­i­ly food. As the chicks grow, they become more fren­zied, more com­mit­ted to sur­viv­ing. They thrash the tier­cel with their long talons, cry­ing out from their scrape. Per­haps it is not safe for the tier­cel to pro­vide any­more. The moth­er will take to the sky to hunt for her grow­ing fledg­lings. She will have to fly far­ther and far­ther away and catch much larg­er prey than was ever required of the tier­cel. Per­haps he has always been too small to stay around. 

Learn­ing to jess the pere­grine often made me feel fool­ish. She is fast, faster than I am. She tends to scream in antic­i­pa­tion and has beau­ti­ful­ly yel­low, long dig­its that she throws at you, mak­ing it near impos­si­ble to get the leather jess­es into her ankle bracelets. My hands would trem­ble and I would hes­i­tate before enter­ing her enclo­sure. I would force my breath back in my body. I would start to see myself with her, and I would drop into the world of fal­cons. I learned to duck and move with inten­tion.   

Now, I don’t hes­i­tate for her, and rarely for myself. I enter her enclo­sure and she makes the loud sound of the ocean at me—as though the mem­o­ry of waves and seag­ulls is pour­ing out of her beak at break­neck speed—and in response I mur­mur to her. I make sounds like a dying song­bird, which she likes. I tell her that I can hear her, and I ask her if I can tell her sto­ry for her. With leather leash­es and a heavy glove, we become one. We walk out to the area where the audi­ence waits. 

This is what I tell them: 

This bird is a pere­grine fal­con, found eight years ago in the curve of the high­way, her right wing fold­ed in all the wrong ways. It was her break­ing point, and she could not be reha­bil­i­tat­ed to the point of sur­viv­ing in the wild. 

Pere­grine means “to wan­der” in Latin, and that they do, across con­ti­nents on mas­sive migra­tions. Every­thing about this bird has evolved for sky pre­da­tion; she’s the fastest crea­ture on the plan­et, reach­ing speeds of over 250mph in a stoop dive. She eats birds on the wing, mean­ing she takes her meals while fly­ing, and her diet con­sists of birds: from song­birds to cranes, and even oth­er rap­tors. She has this long mid­dle toe and tomi­al tooth on her beak designed to dis­perse her prey and break through pro­tec­tive feath­ers. When she’s div­ing on her prey, she makes a fist with her talons and knocks the bird so hard they hit the ground, and some­times the force is so hard it knocks the prey’s head off. 

You’re look­ing at a rap­tor that was called a duck hawk because they hunt fly­ing ducks. A ground­ed chick­en would be no fun for her. Her eyes are huge with a third eye­lid to pro­tect her from prey and wind, and dark malar stripes to reflect the sun back into the sky. She’s impa­tient; I love that about her. She’s a fierce moth­er, big­ger than her male coun­ter­part, tak­ing in the larg­er prey for her babes. DDT almost took these birds out, broke down their eggshells so that they were crushed by mom. Through wild con­ser­va­tion efforts, they are now back, trac­ing lines across maps that humans cling to, rebuk­ing human con­struct with the loud cry of the falcon. 

 

 

From the writer

 

:: Account ::

My work­ing with birds was held against the back­drop of the Me Too Move­ment and Black Lives Mat­ter, as well as many Indige­nous upris­ings. Body auton­o­my and land rights were com­ing to the col­lec­tive fore­front. As a long­time com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er, sex­u­al assault sur­vivor, and full spec­trum birth work­er, I am inter­est­ed in how sto­ry­telling strength­ens effec­tive move­ments and per­son­al trans­for­ma­tion. As a nat­u­ral­ist, I find that one tool I have for pre­serv­ing what is left of the nat­ur­al world is by invit­ing peo­ple to de-cen­ter their own human sto­ry. I want to ask peo­ple to imag­ine that nature is not “oth­er,” that our own nar­ra­tive can be found in rocks and birds and forests. This is not a new tool; it’s cur­rent­ly being used by Indige­nous peo­ple the world over and has been since the begin­ning of human sto­ry­telling. Some­times it can be very lit­er­al, like in this sto­ry, and oth­er times infused with mag­i­cal real­ism, or open­ing a third eye to ways of being that a col­o­niz­er mind­set has blind­ed us to. 

I often grap­ple with imposter syn­drome, com­pound­ed by a his­to­ry of peo­ple telling me that my sto­ries are shame­ful and should be kept secret, espe­cial­ly when they inter­sect with oth­er people’s sto­ries. In work­ing with the birds, I knew I had to rebuke this con­fine­ment. Folk sto­ry as a tool for social change is a huge inspi­ra­tion for what I write about and how I write about it. Under­stand­ing the pow­er of folk sto­ry meant that I need­ed to start writ­ing my sto­ries just as I saw them, even when they feel inconsequential. 

At the bird reha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­ter, I was espe­cial­ly tak­en with one pere­grine fal­con, and I want­ed to learn as much about her sto­ry as pos­si­ble, not only her wild coun­ter­parts but who she was as a reha­bil­i­tat­ed bird who could no longer hunt. I began to see the par­al­lels to my own life in the sto­ry of the fal­con, start­ing with my desire to fly away, which felt shame­ful. The role of preda­tor can­not be ignored when work­ing with fal­cons and since then, much of my writ­ing has begun to flip the role of the preda­tor to suit my own sur­vival and carve out new space for how our col­lec­tive sto­ry may end or con­tin­ue on. 

 

Kel­ly Gray is a writer, nat­u­ral­ist, and edu­ca­tor liv­ing among the red­wood trees on occu­pied Coast Miwok land in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. She is moth­er to a fiery daugh­ter, two per­fect cats, and one untam­able dog. Her writ­ing digs into the ten­sion between loss and sur­vival and what it means to decen­ter the human nar­ra­tive dur­ing cycles of grief. Most recent­ly, Kel­ly has been pub­lished in Qui­et Light­ning, Burn­ing House Press, and write, bitch, write!, and has work forth­com­ing in Dime Show Review and Brack­en Mag­a­zine. On her day off, Kel­ly is a rap­tor han­dler who brings birds of prey into schools and pub­lic events, telling sto­ries of fal­cons, owls, and vul­tures to all who will listen. 

Matera

Fiction / Carlo Massimo

 

:: Matera ::

Francesco Mas­trange­lo names his clothes and they’re all women’s names: he’s mar­ried to them, I’ve final­ly decid­ed. When he first engaged me I could iron and fix but­tons and raise wine stains but he gave me an edu­ca­tion: hop­sack in sum­mer, cash­mere in win­ter, prince of Wales, tab col­lars and cut­aways, pochettes and gilets. I could cook him what I like; noth­ing hap­pened to dirty the house, although I scrubbed the floors like I hat­ed them. No one in Mat­era dress­es like Francesco Mas­trange­lo. No man in Mat­era is as beau­ti­ful as him.  

My moth­er (who knew his moth­er) says he came back from Milano, or from Lon­don, after a divorce, which may or may not be true because I haven’t asked him about it. He was born here. He is 41 and I don’t know quite what he does, except that it weighs heav­i­ly on him; he is con­stant­ly on the phone, speak­ing Eng­lish, shout­ing at peo­ple and rub­bing his fore­head. He is slim and dark like the prince in one of the Eng­lish movies from the ’80s, with curly hair and a rec­tan­gu­lar face and sev­en or eight pairs of glass­es. He’s famous around Mat­era. He looks about 30. Tech­ni­cal­ly, I sup­pose, he’s single. 

My sis­ter asked if he was a fro­cio but he’s not: first because of that whole sto­ry with the divorce; also because I know he appre­ci­ates beau­ti­ful women. I would see him at night some­times watch­ing TV, and Michelle Hun­zik­er or some­one would appear and he’d roll his eyes and shake his head. Some­times he’d ask my opinion. 

Very pret­ty, I’d say, very pret­ty, and he believed me because you can trust an ugly woman’s opin­ion on these mat­ters. Some­times I could bare­ly answer, I felt so strangled. 

Belén Rodríguez is his favorite. If he were a woman he’d be her, dark, tall. 

Any­way I know why my sis­ter asked what she asked, because apart from work his whole life is those suits, those jack­ets, the trips to the tai­lor, shout­ing through blue­tooth at the dry clean­er, the rows and rows of neck­ties, hun­dreds stacks of shoes. I pol­ished the shoes. It’s dis­gust­ing to admit this but I enjoyed han­dling them. Occa­sion­al­ly he’d let me slip them off his feet when he got home; I couldn’t offer this too often, as I remind­ed myself. 

In the morn­ing, in his bathrobe, he’d say, Lay out Angel­i­ca for me, and the navy cash­mere tie, the Drake’s. And I’d go find Angel­i­ca, col­or of rust, and brush it off and find a blue shirt to pair with it. 

Or, Chiara, is Michelle back from the clean­ers? Michelle is dou­ble-breast­ed, raw white, unusu­al for winter. 

Once, after I’d cleaned up his sup­per and gone home to my own—it was a lit­tle before midnight—my moth­er said she’d seen my employ­er on the street. He has a look about him, she said. 

A look? 

He looks like a mar­ried man. Occu­pied but not pre­oc­cu­pied. Do you know what I mean? Like your father used to look. You very rarely see young sin­gle boys like that with that mar­ried sort of look.  

My sis­ter said, Let Chiara say what she wants, I still think he’s a frocio. 

Shut up, I said, you wouldn’t know. I couldn’t admit that I knew what she meant: the sleek­ness, the soft step, the dis­creet cologne, the care­ful­ly paired glass­es. More than that the air of total con­tent­ment, the uncon­cern with oth­ers, the haugh­ti­ness, the beau­ty. He wasn’t quite a man. He was more like a male cat, purring in his unlined suits, slink­ing along the rooftops with his tail up and his balls between his legs. Women like him and are afraid of him because he is more woman than they are; men pre­tend to admire him because he is rich and a native son. Watch their eyes as he pass­es, though: they hate him. He is less than them and more than them, more ele­gant, more impe­ri­ous, more pow­er­ful, impregnable. 

There is one excep­tion: when he undress­es. What a trans­for­ma­tion: the first time I saw him undressed after work, watch­ing TV on the couch. He’d left Denise on the foot of the bed, crum­pled and gray; when I came down to clean up his dirty plates I saw him for this first time in his under­shirt and AC Milan shorts and slip­pers. He looked up at me, tired and bash­ful. He smiled with half of his mouth, like what can I say? He was fat­ter than he looked, with strong arms. 

The spaghet­ti was excel­lent, he said. How rarely he acknowl­edged my cooking. 

Thank you, I said. And I swear his voice was deep­er when he was undressed than it was dressed. He got up and scratched his back, indis­creet­ly, and dig­ging in the refrig­er­a­tor for a bot­tle of beer he shuf­fled off to bed. The sight of him undressed like that was too much for me, and I wait­ed on the sofa to hear him shut the door before I unbut­toned and buried myself in the cush­ion still warm from his back. 

Get­ting up I saw myself in the mir­ror, my shirt up, skin­ny with a squashy stom­ach like I’d giv­en birth, and my big nose. He would be dis­gust­ed by my stom­ach. He would be dis­gust­ed by my rolls and my flat chest and my bag­gy eyes and my big nose like a sheep’s. My dull eyes and my dialect and my dull­ness. I had long been sit­ting like a hen on an egg on the unlike­ly hope that he’d see me: a nice girl if not very pret­ty, not sophis­ti­cat­ed but here for him every day, not young but still younger than him. 

When I let myself in the next morn­ing at six I felt myself charged with ener­gy. I felt like I was dri­ving fast, dri­ving his curvy blue Porsche that he’d had shipped spe­cial to Mat­era. He came out in his bathrobe as the cof­fee came up, his hair already immac­u­late and his face tired and annoyed and mag­nif­i­cent. There was no more beau­ti­ful man in the world. I felt like the air was leak­ing out of my lungs.  

Madon­na, but I slept like shit, he said. 

I hand­ed him cof­fee, sweet­ened to his taste. This will fix you, I said, and he smiled. 

Thank you. Thank God there’s you, eh? 

And who’s to say that I didn’t cause him to final­ly see me in that moment? He had nev­er said any­thing sim­i­lar to me before. It wasn’t impos­si­ble that the charge I felt had passed into him like elec­tric­i­ty. I felt dif­fer­ent. In my imag­i­na­tion I saw myself catch­ing a cat in a box, the cat scream­ing and shak­ing its head, twist­ing against my hands, claws scrap­ing the pavement. 

The new suit from D’Amato is ready upstairs, he said, would you take it out for me and find me a tie while I shave? 

I walked behind him, watch­ing his shoul­ders sway under his robe. He went into the bath­room and shut the door. I unzipped the gar­ment bag and extract­ed a suit in char­coal mohair, with a fine blue line. In the mir­ror I held it up against my face: it was a beau­ti­ful col­or, ele­gant, under­stat­ed. At first glance it was sol­id; you couldn’t see the ener­gy in this pat­tern unless you real­ly looked. The col­or made my hair look pret­ti­er than it was, and my com­plex­ion.  

Hand me the trousers, would you? 

His soft brown hand, with long fin­gers, emerged from the cracked bath­room door. I hand­ed him the trousers and a pair of braces, and he emerged in a white shirt with a French plack­et, fresh and hand­some in a cloud of scent.   

The fit is per­fect, he said, —for once. 

This suit doesn’t have a name yet, I asked, does it? 

No, you’re right. I sup­pose it doesn’t.  

Might I sug­gest one? I don’t mean to overstep— 

He laughed. Which name did you have in mind, then? 

What about Chiara? 

He said noth­ing. It was like my words were still hang­ing in the air, like the smoke from a snuffed can­dle, and we were look­ing at them disappear. 

No, he final­ly said, I don’t think it’s quite the case. And look­ing at the tie I’d brought out for him he dropped it gen­tly on the bed and went into the clos­et to pick out a new one. 

At the front door, with the keys to his lit­tle Porsche in his hand and sun­glass­es on his face like an actor, he said, I won’t be back for din­ner this morn­ing. If tonight you could pre­pare some veal—I’ve had a desire for it all week. 

That was all. I nod­ded and he turned soft­ly and glid­ed down the stairs. He looked relieved to be dressed and gone. 

The ener­gy I felt that morn­ing was still with me, buzzing relent­less­ly. No cat for me, I thought, and laughed like an idiot. The shock of my fail­ure had left me feel­ing sil­ly and emp­ty, the way you feel after a car acci­dent. I laughed while I scrubbed the kitchen floor in my bare feet and dust­ed the vene­tians. I mopped and sat down cross-legged to pol­ish his shoes, scrub­bing hard to scrub the idi­ot­ic desire to laugh from my sys­tem. I fin­ished just before noon; hav­ing no din­ner to pre­pare, I looked for some­thing to do until 2.   

In the bath­room, among the glass bot­tles like church spires and a thou­sand movie screens, I saw his razor. It was fold­ed into its wood­en han­dle, like my father used to use; three more sat against the back wall of the cab­i­net, like a hunter’s gun lock­er. How strange it looked in the stained light of all his scents, his sum­mer and win­ter per­fumes, his after­shaves, a maze of gold and sil­ver: Armani, 4711, Acqua di Par­ma, Acqua di Gen­o­va, Guer­lain, Dun­hill, Tom Ford. The razor looked like a farmer’s tool, like a prun­ing hook, nicked and dull with water spots in the wood. It was ancient. Up close I could see where a thumb had worn the wood down, right at the top. 

I slipped the razor into my jeans pock­et and sprayed the mir­ror down to clean it. 

Two days lat­er he asked me where the razor was. I said I didn’t know; I’d tak­en it home and laid it in my night­stand, the same night­stand I’d hid­den my diaries in as a lit­tle girl. It looked as alien in the pink and lilac draw­er as it had in his cab­i­net, hard and dead­ly beside a card from my first com­mu­nion and some old lira coins. Francesco Mas­trange­lo said some­thing to him­self, annoyed, but nev­er men­tioned it again. Months lat­er, when he was dis­miss­ing me, he nev­er once men­tioned the razor. He didn’t give any rea­son at all. But sure­ly I’d done some­thing to deserve it; who knows if it wasn’t that. 


 

 

From the writer

 

:: Account ::

This work is a few dif­fer­ent strands of thought woven togeth­er. I want­ed to write about peo­ple I know in Italy, espe­cial­ly my neigh­bors, who have lives beyond the stereo­types of rur­al and small-town South­ern­ers. (I am not from Mat­era and I have no rela­tions there.) Ele­na Fer­rante leads the way in this enter­prise, so in a way this is an homage to her. 

More impor­tant­ly “Mat­era” is a med­i­ta­tion on gen­der. Gen­der in the Mediter­ranean is its own com­plex … thing, and in Anglo-Sax­on coun­tries nei­ther the gen­der rad­i­cals nor the con­ser­v­a­tives have any kind of lan­guage to describe it. Archa­ic lives inhab­it mod­ern bod­ies, mine no less than my neigh­bors or my char­ac­ters: the kouros of Kroisos, the bronzes of Riace, the lady of Knos­sos, the Venus of Wil­len­dorf. I want to reach them through my work. 

In these mat­ters I look to Freud, Jung, Marie-Louise von Franz, and of course Camille Paglia. And Stend­hal, Isak Dine­sen, St. Augus­tine, the movies of Lina Wert­muller, the comics of Milo Man­ara and Hugo Pratt, and, if it’s not too obnox­ious to say, Dante’s Vita Nova 

Oth­er artis­tic mod­els include Con­rad, Cavafy, Hem­ing­way, Qua­si­mo­do, Rilke, Lor­ca, Lispec­tor, Naipaul, and Heaney. Obvi­ous­ly not at the same time. Obvi­ous­ly with­out much resem­blance to the originals. 


Car­lo Mas­si­mo is a poet and jour­nal­ist based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. His essays have appeared in Newsweek, the Times of Lon­don, the Wil­son Quar­ter­ly, L’Italo-Americano, and else­where. His fic­tion and poet­ry have run in Barza­kh, Bit­ter Ole­an­der, Off the Coast, and Pic­ci­o­let­ta Bar­ca

Hypnosis

Fiction / Rebecca Gonshak

 

:: Hypnosis ::

First we eat the can­dies, then I ask Mark to hyp­no­tize me. Mak­ing it up on the spot, he tells me to sit fac­ing him and focus on his fin­ger, which he waves slow­ly back and forth. I’m imme­di­ate­ly aroused and want to show him how well I can focus, how obe­di­ent I can be. He tells me to close my eyes and imag­ine the time I was most afraid. 

So I go to the mem­o­ry I always go to. I’m eight, maybe nine, crouched on the floor of my par­ents’ base­ment. Did I real­ly crouch? The car­pet was hor­ri­ble: red and black astro­turf-like fibers. We threw dirty laun­dry down there but hard­ly ever washed it; it made soft, musty piles I jumped into from the stairs. 

I’m crouch­ing, try­ing to become a pile of laun­dry, while upstairs my par­ents and sis­ter stomp and scream. My sis­ter, I imag­ine, is run­ning at my par­ents like a bull, or a stam­pede. She is non­ver­bal and in pain; we’ll nev­er know if the pain was from headaches or despair. She died too young. 

That night she might have bit­ten my par­ents or pinched or choked them. I was afraid she might kill them, then come down­stairs and kill me, but she was just a girl, thir­teen or four­teen. In the mem­o­ry I am pros­trate, the child’s pose in yoga, my fists clutch­ing the plas­tic car­pet. Was I pray­ing? I was prob­a­bly praying. 

Mark asks, “How scary is it, on a scale of one to ten?” 

I say seven. 

Now remem­ber a time when you felt com­plete­ly safe. Go to that place.” 

My safe place is a couch, my ex-boyfriend Jack’s. We’re cud­dling and binge-watch­ing the first sea­son of Stranger Things, which might seem too mun­dane for per­fect con­tent­ment, but that’s the kind of ani­mal we are. Humans, I mean. My friend real­ized he was in love with his girl­friend while they were on a couch watch­ing It’s Always Sun­ny in Philadel­phia. TV plus touch is a nar­cot­ic, like you could do this for­ev­er, keep watch­ing episodes until you die in each other’s arms. It’s the hap­pi­est I’ve ever been except high. Jack was old­er and ex-mil­i­tary and would take charge with­out real­iz­ing it. I felt safe with him. Safe to push back against his pushi­ness. Push­ing back made me feel like a real person. 

Mean­while Mark is still hyp­no­tiz­ing me. “Go back to the scary place, but take the feel­ing of the safe place with you. Take who­ev­er is with you in the safe place down to the scary place.” Jack and I go down to the base­ment and crouch with the lit­tle girl. We com­fort her like we’re the par­ents. There’s still vio­lence hap­pen­ing above us, peo­ple in pain, but we can hard­ly hear it. “Blan­ket your­self in love” is what the online yoga teacher I fol­low always says. Jack and the child and I are under the love blan­ket. It feels abstract and tingly. 

How scary is the scary place now?” Mark asks. 

Five.”  

He tells me to go back to the safe place and imag­ine it’s now a hot spring. 

Feel the hot water embrace you. You see thou­sands of stars in the black sky.” 

I imag­ine the heat and the stars, adding a few fire­flies and a ring of trees. My mouth spreads in an expres­sion of delight, and I hope Mark is impressed by how good I am at imag­in­ing things. Or that he’ll think his words real­ly have that pow­er, to drop me into a hot spring under thou­sands of stars. 

My face has always been embar­rass­ing­ly expres­sive, like a car­toon. Some­times the expres­sions are affect­ed, some­times they’re gen­uine. Some­times a lit­tle of both. This time it’s both. I want him to look at my closed eyes and con­tent­ed grin and think I’m as pli­able as hot met­al, as open as a riv­er. I’m not actu­al­ly hyp­no­ti­z­able, prob­a­bly. There was a hyp­no­tist at my senior class grad­u­a­tion par­ty who picked me as a vol­un­teer, and I went along with what he said but didn’t real­ly lose control. 

He tells me to go back to the scary place, except now the scary place has a hot spring and stars. Jack is still there, and we’re all warm and com­fort­able and safe. The lit­tle girl is still hud­dled on her knees in prayer. She hasn’t acknowl­edged me or Jack. She just keeps hud­dling, hid­ing. Now she’s sink­ing into the red car­pet, start­ing to dis­solve. Jack and I try to hold her up, each tak­ing an arm, but she melts in our hands, becom­ing part of the hot water. Jack and I start to fuck in the hot spring. I strad­dle him, and the steam wraps around us. The pipes rat­tle like some­one above us is flush­ing a toi­let. I hear my sis­ter grap­pling with one of my par­ents. She’s say­ing over and over her one word: joo-beesh. A social work­er was try­ing to teach her “Please,” and she used it in every con­text, includ­ing violence. 

Joo-beesh! Joo-beesh!  

Please! Please!  

How scary is the scary place now?” 

Four,” I say. Is the fear real­ly reduc­ing, or am I just reduc­ing the num­ber because I’m so obe­di­ent? Because I’m thrilled that someone’s telling me what to do? 

Now go back to the safe place. Rest in the safe place. You are safe. You are loved. When I snap my fin­gers, you will wake up.” 

Mark snaps his fin­gers. I open my eyes and kiss him. I’m still just begin­ning to know him. 

 

 

 

From the writer

 

:: Account ::

This piece began as an assign­ment for a sur­re­al­ist poet­ry class, to write a poem in a state of hyp­no­sis. Since I was pur­su­ing an MFA in cre­ative non­fic­tion, I most­ly wrote lyric essays in the class and tried (unsuc­cess­ful­ly) to pass them off as prose poetry. 

For the assign­ment, I bought pot can­dy and shared it with a guy I was dat­ing. I asked him to hyp­no­tize me, and lat­er, while I was high, did some auto­mat­ic writ­ing, which was real­ly just sil­ly images and phras­es. Lat­er, not high, I incor­po­rat­ed these phras­es into an essay describ­ing the expe­ri­ence of being “hyp­no­tized.” I includ­ed that ver­sion in my the­sis as a lyric essay, but I knew it wasn’t yet finished. 

A year lat­er, I went back to the piece, cut out the auto­mat­ic writ­ing por­tions, which were quite obnox­ious, and real­ized it worked bet­ter as a short short sto­ry than a lyric essay. The dis­tance allowed me to describe the mem­o­ries more direct­ly and hon­est­ly. Trans­form­ing it into fic­tion allowed me to dis­tort real­i­ty at the end when the “safe place” and the “scary place” blend togeth­er in my narrator’s mind. 

Some writ­ers who got me inter­est­ed in lyric essays and hybrid prose/poetry are Mag­gie Nel­son and Anne Car­son, espe­cial­ly “The Glass Essay.” Car­men Maria Machado’s short chap­ters in In the Dream House, with their sur­re­al imagery and the fuzzi­ness between mem­o­ry and imag­i­na­tion, gave me a mod­el for imag­in­ing a new form for this piece. 

 

Rebec­ca Gon­shak is cur­rent­ly a laid-off book­seller liv­ing in Spokane, WA. She has an MFA in cre­ative non­fic­tion from East­ern Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty. Her work has been pub­lished in Alien Mag­a­zine and The Swamp.

 

Devotions

Fiction / Calvin Gimpelevich

:: Devotions ::

Made­line had two lovers. Judith fixed com­put­ers for work and played soc­cer. She was big-hipped and ath­let­ic and slim, with long hair that peo­ple remem­bered as being cut short or tied in a cap, despite its being worn down. Antho­ny had tight curls shorn close to the scalp and worked as an ambu­lance dri­ver, lift­ing peo­ple in and out of the cab. His shifts changed week­ly, some­times giv­ing night hours, some­times start­ing mid­day. On meet­ing, the two did not like each oth­er. She called them Tony and Jude. 

In the ear­ly days, they fought and sab­o­taged one anoth­er, Jude insist­ing that only a woman could pro­vide the inti­ma­cy she required, while Tony argued that Made­line need­ed com­ple­ment, bal­ance: a man. Both viewed her as hav­ing the soft­ness of anoth­er era, yield­ing and gen­tle, in need of their pro­tec­tion. In con­flict she did not fight but stub­born­ly went her own way, wear­ing her lovers as water carves its own banks. She saw her­self as a per­son formed by con­straint, like a bal­le­ri­na or a plant forced to unnat­ur­al shape. She had a good fam­i­ly, who had bent her to good­ness as well. From unruly girl­hood they extract­ed every­thing but man­ners and blush­ing kind­ness. As an adult, she taught chil­dren and was beloved by them. Her part­ners stored the defi­ance and anger that she did not allow her­self to have. 

Even­tu­al­ly, they grew used to each oth­er. Jude refur­bished Tony’s com­put­er; Tony moved couch­es as Jude refin­ished her place. Made­line and Tony drank beers and cheered at Jude’s soc­cer games. Made­line refused to live with either of them and kept an apart­ment alone. Both part­ners secret­ly imag­ined the tri­ad (or them­selves with Made­line singly) even­tu­al­ly form­ing a home. They joked that, with sci­ence, Made­line could take Tony’s sperm and Jude’s ova to car­ry a baby from each of them, but Made­line did not want chil­dren. Every year she had class­rooms full of them.

Made­line had one oth­er suit­or, this one attached to her work. Bri­an worked in the office and, when she was hired, made his inten­tions abun­dant­ly clear. Some­how, at some point, he learned of the tri­ad, after which he ref­er­enced her home life con­stant­ly, sur­rep­ti­tious­ly. He thought that if she slept with two oth­ers, she should sleep with him too. Being dou­bly part­nered had turned and made her sin­gle again—he was insult­ed that she did not like him. At the office, her files were lost; if she need­ed assign­ments copied, the print­ing would not appear. Inevitably, at meet­ings, he blocked her path with his chair. These inci­dents came with­out obvi­ous mal­ice, seem­ing, at worst, from the out­side, like care­less­ness, like some­thing formed in her head. She did not know how to address the deni­able series, let alone dis­ci­pline him. The only proofs were emo­tion, her own, and the hos­til­i­ty chim­ing off him. 

The school year went by in a fog of chalk dust and gram­mar, of chil­dren remind­ed to push in small chairs. Leaves turned and fell, and their build­ing trans­formed to a cor­nu­copia of sug­ar as the hol­i­days approached. Paper snowflakes cov­ered the win­dows; par­ents brought cook­ies, cup­cakes, gift cards for the teach­ers to vis­it cafés. Made­line grad­ed papers, look­ing to the long break. 

After the last day, she went home and show­ered and changed. The staff par­ty was held at the man­sion owned by their prin­ci­pal, who was wealthy and worked with­out pay. A few hours in, some of her col­leagues were so drunk they were doing impres­sions of dif­fi­cult par­ents and kids. Most had brought part­ners and spous­es, but Made­line hadn’t intro­duced either of hers to any of them. The punch was too strong; she had not felt well before com­ing, and now she was dizzy and sick. Win­ter brought children’s snif­fles. She feared com­ing down with some­thing. She wan­dered, look­ing for some­where to sit and be qui­et, but the man­sion seemed to grow before her, going in cir­cles, lead­ing to the main par­ty again. The walls had dark wood­en pan­els, match­ing the ceil­ing, enclos­ing the space. A huge win­dow reflect­ed and dou­bled the par­ty with­in. Guests jug­gled cheeses and fat­ty salmon with drinks. Beyond their faces were lights set into the ground by the pool. Bri­an fol­lowed her, talk­ing, refill­ing her glass. 

The cup tast­ed like straight gin, but she was too drunk and ill-feel­ing to care. She excused her­self and stum­bled upstairs, found a bed, and real­ized he’d fol­lowed her in. He put his arm around her, and she pushed him away. Or intend­ed to push him away. The inten­tion and result were so clear she did not under­stand how she had got under him, how she had start­ed cry­ing, or how to escape. Every­where there were limbs, as if she were pinned by a mam­moth spi­der instead of a man. Quick­ly, both were half naked and he pushed him­self in. She couldn’t tell if she would black out or not, if she would remem­ber that it even happened—and, in fact, did not remem­ber any­thing but the begin­ning, how or when he had left. She woke, ashamed, some time after the par­ty, dressed, puked, and made an escape. 

At home, she swore to tell no one but con­fessed when Judith came over and real­ized that some­thing was wrong. Jude called Tony, who showed up with­in the hour, and the three sat in Madeline’s kitchen as the whole his­to­ry of Brian’s behav­ior became a cohe­sive sto­ry with the pre­vi­ous night as its goal, insults lead­ing to hor­ror, her lovers won­der­ing why they had not destroyed him before. 

That night, for the first time, they slept all togeth­er: Jude and Tony lay­ing as body­guards on either side of the bed. For the first time, they might have made love with each oth­er, to com­fort Made­line and secure their bond against the ter­ri­ble other—but it seemed impos­si­ble to touch the exhaust­ed woman, to do any­thing. Instead, in the morn­ing, the two got break­fast togeth­er, intend­ing to let her sleep in. It seemed clear that action was demand­ed and that the bur­den of it was on them. Made­line could not return to a work­place with Bri­an when the hol­i­days end­ed and school came again. Any jeal­ousy they had felt toward each oth­er flared and point­ed to the new man. Clos­er in hate than shared affec­tion, Jude and Tony brought food to the park, lay­ing out their options, their access, their friends. This was how the plot formed, on a bright winter’s day, hold­ing bagels, amidst birds and chil­dren shriek­ing in mit­tens, to bring the fire out of their hearts and into his home, while Made­line woke with her own thoughts, ten­der, won­der­ing why they had left her alone.





From the writer

:: Account ::

I was on my way to the Zen tem­ple when a seed plant­ed, and I spent the hour more focused on a blos­som­ing sto­ry than the in-out of my breath. I wrote a few notes against my bicy­cle before rid­ing home, woke think­ing of it, and took the morn­ing off to draft the full thing. My work is usu­al­ly slow and research-heavy. “Devo­tions” is one of the only things I’ve writ­ten with­out an out­line or plan.  

I could talk about queer com­mu­ni­ty, with its many rela­tion­ship struc­tures; about the seem­ing­ly infi­nite harass­ments that my inti­mates (and self) have expe­ri­enced at work; about gen­der, attrac­tion, pro­jec­tion, etc., or how I was read­ing Isaac Babel—but it seems mis­lead­ing. I don’t know why I wrote this, and at first I was embar­rassed to show anyone. 

 

Calvin Gim­pele­vich is the recip­i­ent of awards from Artist Trust, Jack Straw Cul­tur­al Cen­ter, and 4Culture, in addi­tion to res­i­den­cies through CODEX/Writer’s Block and the Kim­mel Hard­ing Nel­son Cen­ter for the Arts. A found­ing mem­ber of the Lion’s Main Art Col­lec­tive for Queer and Trans Artists, Calvin has orga­nized shows at venues and insti­tu­tions through­out Seat­tle. His short sto­ry col­lec­tion, Inva­sions (Instar Books, 2018), was a final­ist for the Lamb­da Lit­er­ary Awards. 

Miss

Fiction / B. Domino

:: Miss ::

It’s Sat­ur­day. I have an appoint­ment with a new client tonight, and I haven’t washed any of my work gear. My boots and out­fits and tools smell like sweat. It’s all made of fake leather, so when you leave sweat too long, it starts to get that funky cheese smell. Not good cheese. Feta. My gear smells like feta. 

I nudge anoth­er mov­ing box out of my way. I haven’t begun unpack­ing, which tells me that I prob­a­bly don’t need most of the stuff in the box­es; they’re full of mem­o­ries, and open­ing them won’t do me any favors right now. Lit­tle paths between them lead from room to room through­out the apart­ment, my own lit­tle obsta­cle course. I set my gear on the kitchen sink, next to the pile of dishes—another thing I have yet to do. Even though it’s six in the evening, I’m still in my paja­mas. If my clients could see me now, I’d nev­er get booked. 

Lucille Ball runs back and forth on the TV screen in the cor­ner of the room. As always, Lucy’s pan­icked about some­thing fic­tion­al but real­is­tic. The episodes work in a cycli­cal for­mu­la. She does some­thing autonomous and freaks out because she knows Ricky will be mad. My ex, Dan­i­ca, played this show at our old place all the time; it used to bug the shit out of me. I Love Lucy was the back­ground of our lives. I used to be afraid of being a Lucy—relying on some­one else, unable to make my own deci­sions, unable to func­tion with­out approval from some­one else. 

My phone chimes. 

Mis­tress. I have been eager­ly await­ing our appoint­ment for sev­en days. I shall see you tonight at 9:30pm.  

For some rea­son, they all think they need to be in the Anne Rice fan club when they talk to me. Indeed, Mis­tress. I shall, Mis­tress. It’s annoy­ing. I’m about to text him back and say, Just call me Leah, when the TV catch­es my eye. My gray-scale, red-head­ed girl stands in front of her love, beg­ging. I envy her. She has some­one. I curse myself for tak­ing this book­ing, but I need the money. 

I type, Be ready, and press send.  

I scoot the dish­es aside so I have room to wash my work attire. I have a few more hours before I have to be some­one else. 

*

This client’s name is Rudolph. Of course it is. It’s almost so vanil­la that I expect­ed to find a real name when I ran his back­ground check. Aiden or Steve. But no. Some­one real­ly named this guy Rudolph, and Rudolph’s inter­net sweep passed with fly­ing col­ors. He’s a banker. He lives alone in a town­house in the Heights, which means he’s got mon­ey. He doesn’t have a crim­i­nal record, and from what I can tell, he’s nev­er booked any­thing like this in his life. Most of my clients are Rudolphs. Bankers, CEOs, lawyers—a lot of pow­er and no per­son­al lives. I assume it feels good to let the pow­er go sometimes. 

Last week I set up a con­sul­ta­tion to screen the book­ing and hash out his wants and needs. He chose a cof­fee shop in the cen­ter of town called Slash Cof­fee. How fit­ting. Maybe he did that on pur­pose. He was easy to spot. The shop sim­mered with peo­ple in con­ver­sa­tion, lean­ing into lap­tops, or hunched over phones. Rudolph sat in a suit with both hands wrapped around his mug. He’s a skin­ny man because of genet­ics but round and soft in the mid­dle with age. Though he is only forty-three, his bald spot sports a gray­ish tinge, sug­gest­ing years of bad sun­screen habits. He sank into his chair and scanned the café as I took the seat across from him. 

Relax,” I said. “I’m discreet.” 

He had one of the soft­est voic­es I had ever heard, and his lit­tle eyes grew with every question. 

What about safe words?” he asked. 

We can use what­ev­er you’re com­fort­able with,” I said. 

He blushed. “Yel­low for the lim­it. Red for stop.” 

I marked it down. Rudolph was not a guy who want­ed to stray off the path. As we set our sched­ules and said our good­byes, he stum­bled through one last ques­tion. I had to lean in and half-read his lips. 

Can you tell me about you?” 

I thought of my tiny, new apart­ment. My world of card­board box­es and microwave meals. 

No.” What else could I say—this job has ruined my life? Thanks for book­ing me? 

*

After scrub­bing down all my gear, I hang it to dry over the show­er rod and head to my favorite bak­ery over by my old apart­ment. It’s the one I hit up before every book­ing to calm my nerves. Dan­i­ca start­ed tak­ing me there as a tra­di­tion. We would run around the cor­ner, and she’d grab me the same éclair and say stuff like, “We can be healthy when you don’t have to do this anymore.” 

When I walk into the bak­ery, the mix of flour and eggs and sug­ar takes me back. It’s wel­com­ing for a moment. I order a cup of black cof­fee and a few danishes—not éclairs. The first time I came to the bak­ery solo, the bak­er asked if Dan­i­ca was com­ing. I start­ed to explain our breakup, which dis­solved into me telling him that he’ll be see­ing more of me because I got the bak­ery in the split. Breakup log­ic. He doesn’t ask me ques­tions any­more. Today, he just smiles as he opens the reg­is­ter for my change. 

Leah?” For a moment I think I’m hear­ing things. Or maybe I just hope I am. I will the bak­er to move slow­er so I don’t have to turn around, but he hands me my change like it’s a bomb that’s about to go off, and that’s how I know. It’s Dan­i­ca. My name used to sound like hon­ey when it came out of her mouth. 

I turn around, and there she is. She sits in our cor­ner. Our booth. Her hair falls in an ele­gant mess along the sides of her face, sweep­ing down her shoul­ders. It was one of the first things I noticed about her back in the day. It’s black and curly like mine but grace­ful. I trace the lines of it along her cheek­bones to avoid star­ing at the girl who sits across from her. 

Hey,” I say. 

Hi.” Dan­i­ca leans back. This chick looks between us. She’s blonde. Young. Which, in some cir­cles, means hot, I guess. She is the poster girl of rebounds. If she were the star of a movie, it’d be called Danica’s Revenge.  

How’s it going?” I ask. I should walk away, but for some rea­son I don’t.  

Great. Great. Leah, this is Avery.” 

They exchange a look and as their heads turn, I see that they both have bed­head. Avery extends her hand. Part of me wants to rip it off. But I don’t.  

Nice to meet you,” Avery says. 

Dan­i­ca looks down at the pas­try bag under my arm. “Work­ing tonight?” 

There’s no escap­ing the truth. I nod. 

Thought you said you were going to be done with all that,” Dan­i­ca says. 

Yeah. Well. Had to pay for mov­ing expens­es, didn’t I?” 

Avery perks up a little. 

Oh! You’re the one that does the—” She makes a lit­tle wrist move­ment. It’s a whip­ping ges­ture. Again, I want to rip off that hand. She knows about me. It occurs to me that this girl might not be a rebound. 

You know, babe, why don’t you head out. I’ll be there in a sec­ond,” Dan­i­ca says. Her voice has an edge on it. Avery grabs both their cof­fees and pas­try bags and almost kiss­es Dan­i­ca on the cheek. She stops her­self. The air in my lungs thick­ens as I watch her walk out the door and around the cor­ner. Pre­sum­ably to my old apartment. 

Wow. She’s got my old key already, huh? And you always made me feel like the slut­ty one.” 

You’re thir­ty-two years old, Leah. Are you even look­ing for a real job?” 

I ignore the ques­tion and look around the pas­try shop. “You’re even tak­ing her to my spots. That’s cold. Babe.”  

Dan­i­ca shakes her head and scoffs—a sound I had become used to hear­ing at the end. Every­thing I said became tired and obvious. 

What?” I ask. 

You’re going to get your­self killed some­day,” she says. 

Bull­shit, Dan­i­ca. I’m smart about this and you know it.” 

Yeah. Go ahead and feed me that line about how empow­er­ing your job is.” 

Well, it’s cer­tain­ly not as empow­er­ing as that min­i­mum-wage fifty-hour-week paper-push­er job you got. But we can’t all be so lucky.” 

Her eyes red­den and shine. This is anoth­er one of her spe­cial tal­ents. She reserves these spe­cial, wound­ed pup­py eyes for ass­holes and ex-girl­friends. It makes me hate her. And it makes me hate me. 

Well. I hope it’s worth it,” she says. She books it out the door and around the cor­ner to our old place. To her place. 

*

I down two more pas­tries in Rudolph’s dri­ve­way before walk­ing to the door. I’m about to knock, but he opens it like he was ready for me. His fore­head shines and his shoul­ders creep up toward his ears. 

Hey,” I say. I’m out of char­ac­ter. Nor­mal­ly we begin the agreed-upon sce­nario imme­di­ate­ly, but his slack mouth looks like he’s about to say some­thing. Or scream, maybe. He breathes through his mouth as he shuts the door behind me. The tools inside my duf­fle bag clink against my leg. I keep my jack­et on. My keys and a few self-defense items sit ready in both pockets. 

What’s up, Rudolph. You good?” 

Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine.” 

Yeah? You don’t look fine.” 

I don’t?” 

Nope. You look a lit­tle nervous.” 

I’m not.”  

Then why are you stand­ing in front of the door?” I fin­ger the han­dle of my switch­blade in my jack­et pock­et. He looks at me and then the door, then scur­ries to the oth­er side of the room. 

Sor­ry. I guess I am a lit­tle anxious.” 

It’s cool. Just got to make sure you’re not going to turn me into a skin suit or some­thing. Not a psy­cho, right, Rudolph?” He chuck­les a lit­tle. His shoul­ders drop away from his ears a tiny bit. 

That’s bet­ter,” I say. “Shall we begin?” 

Rudolph tells me he would pre­fer we start in the bedroom—not an uncom­mon request. I fol­low him through his house. His dec­o­ra­tions look placed very strate­gi­cal­ly around the house as though to give a pre­sen­ta­tion of iden­ti­ty. Dark knick-knacks sit between nor­mal house­wares. A white sofa. A sleek stoneware plate set. An Addams Fam­i­ly movie poster. Skull para­pher­na­lia scat­tered among the Ikea fur­ni­ture. It almost looks like Rudolph’s one of those peo­ple reen­ter­ing their ado­les­cent angst phas­es as an attempt to recap­ture their youth. Or maybe he nev­er ful­ly inte­grat­ed into his life as a banker and became some­thing in between the two worlds. There’s a sprin­kling of very adult things—a check­book. A pile of bills. 

We reach his bed­room, which match­es the rest of the house, except the lights are low. White walls. A tie rack. Black bed­sheets with fresh pack­ag­ing wrin­kles in them. And some­thing shiny on top. I can’t quite make it out in the dim light. As I step into the room, some­thing beneath my feet crunch­es. Plas­tic. Long sheets of it. He’s cov­ered the bed, the floor, every sur­face. Every­thing comes togeth­er in my mind right as he clos­es the door behind us. A heat and a ring­ing fill my head. It’s like a night­mare where my feet don’t work but I man­age to turn and face him. 

His hands flop against the but­tons on his shirt like they’ve lost all their bones. He smacks his tongue against his lips like he has cottonmouth. 

Oh fuck no.” I reach into my jack­et pock­et and pull out the blade. “I’ll kill you. I swear, I will.” 

Wait, what?” he asks. His hands go straight up into the air. 

You picked the wrong girl, ass­hole.” Blood burns through my body. He stands between me and the door. I trace the path­way through the house in my mind. I can drop my bag. I’ll be faster if I drop my bag. “This is how this is going to go. You listening?” 

Yes, Mis­tress.”  

You’re going to back the hell up against that wall. Got it?” 

He moves slow­ly. “Is this. Part of the scenario?” 

I said back the fuck up!” 

He gets to the wall. I inch toward the door. 

You’re going to let me go. Got it? I’m faster than you. I got more weapons than you. I have no prob­lem cut­ting your ass if you come at me.” 

Wait, you’re leaving?” 

I dive for the door and I yank the nob, but I hear some­thing before I run. It’s painful. Light. Weak. It doesn’t fit into my night­mare, so I look back. 

Rudolph’s lit­tle eyes have widened, just like they did at the cof­fee shop. It’s like they’re mak­ing way for some­thing to come out of them—like he’s boil­ing over. He sinks against the wall. Sec­onds stretch in front of me before I get what’s going on. Tears. He’s crying. 

I wrecked it. Didn’t I?” 

I real­ize I haven’t tak­en a full breath in a moment. My knees feel wob­bly and my face tin­gles. Rudolph’s sobs roll out of him. His head sinks between his knees. I don’t move. Not to him. Not to the door either. 

What the fuck.” 

He chokes on his own breath and spit. “I’m sor­ry. I’m so, so sorry.” 

Rudolph. Why the fuck is there plas­tic everywhere?” 

He pulls his head up and looks around. A fresh wave of tears comes spilling out of him with a string of incom­pre­hen­si­ble words. Final­ly I make out a soft, inter­rupt­ed whisper. 

I just didn’t want a mess.” 

I’m no stranger to see­ing a client crum­ble to the floor of their own bed­room, but I have nev­er seen any­thing quite like this. Rudolph’s not the pow­er­ful CEO or the tight­ly wound guy who needs to chill for a few hours. He’s that guy you read about online—the one no one gets. He’s not dan­ger­ous. He’s just, I don’t know, strange. 

It takes me almost half an hour to get him to breathe nor­mal­ly again. The wet trails on his cheeks make him look rounder and younger in the dark. I can’t under­stand him when I ask if he likes piz­za, so I order it any­way. When it comes, I bring it back into his bed­room and set the box on the plas­tic. He hasn’t moved much, but after a few slices, he can speak in full sentences. 

I didn’t mean to fright­en you,” he says. 

Hey, back at you.” 

He chuck­les a lit­tle, which turns into a hic­cup. The smile on his face looks unpracticed. 

My ther­a­pist thought this might be good for me.” 

Hir­ing a dominatrix?” 

Not exact­ly. She want­ed me to do some­thing social.” Rudolph shrugs. “Can’t get reject­ed if you pay, right?” 

I have no idea what to say. The chime on my phone goes off, sig­nal­ing the end of the book­ing. I silence it. 

Can I ask you a ques­tion?” he says. 

How could I deny him now? I nod and brace myself. 

Does your fam­i­ly know what you do?” 

I think of Dan­i­ca. “Yeah.” 

Do they hate it?” 

Oh yeah.”  

Do you?”  

Rudolph’s lit­tle eyes still shine from his red­dened, swollen face. His lips tight­en with wor­ry as he waits for me to answer. He’s no one’s Lucy either. And maybe that’s okay. The plas­tic crin­kles under me. The tools that I’ve spent years col­lect­ing sit in my duf­fle at my side. 

No.”  

He nods. 

It takes a while, but when he’s ready to stand, he insists on walk­ing me to the door. A first. 

Maybe we can try again some­day,” he says. 

You think you’d like that?” I ask. 

No idea.”  

I reach out and slap the back of his hand. “Let me know if you feel like you’ve been bad.” 

I’m the worst.” He lifts his chin a lit­tle and he smiles. It doesn’t quite fit his face yet. But it looks real. 

*

When I get back to my apart­ment, it’s almost mid­night. I have nev­er stayed after an appoint­ment. Dan­i­ca would have lost her shit, so I always hus­tled home. But my phone has no mes­sages on it and my apart­ment is emp­ty. I set down my duf­fle bag full of clean gear right inside my door. I’m wired and my entire body aches. My TV glows in the cor­ner; I had queued up the end of a par­tic­u­lar­ly affec­tion­ate episode before I left. Lucy stands, smil­ing, embrac­ing her Ricky. It looks false now—glossy some­how. Unhap­py. She embraces him for the cam­era. For the audience. 

I hit the pow­er but­ton, throw­ing the apart­ment into com­plete dark­ness. Then I flick on a light and rip the tape off the near­est box. 

 





From the writer

:: Account ::

Through­out his­to­ry and through this very moment, sex work­ers of all fash­ions, gen­ders, and forms have been pushed to the mar­gins of soci­ety. We die on streets and in cars and clubs while the enter­tain­ment and art indus­tries prof­it off of our aes­thet­ics and our game. They tell our sto­ries to paint dark­ness in their strait­laced pro­tag­o­nists or a grit­ty stain on an oth­er­wise clean nar­ra­tive palate. It’s those appro­pri­a­tions that lead us fur­ther into dan­ger in the dark. Sex work­ers deserve dig­ni­ty and respect.   

We are con­stant and his­toric. We will remain, despite the best efforts to reduce us to laymen’s per­ver­sions. We are stu­dents and fam­i­ly mem­bers. We are peo­ple who make a liv­ing. We are not the sum­ma­tions of worth, cal­cu­lat­ed by our access to oppor­tu­ni­ty. We may be details in an ocean, but we are beau­ty. We are art. And we can tell our own sto­ries and shift our own narratives. 


B. Domi­no just grad­u­at­ed with an MFA from the Uni­ver­si­ty of New Orleans but lives in the desert, paint­ing, writ­ing, read­ing books with family.

Stay Put

Poetry / Joshua Weiner

:: Stay Put ::

Row houses sharing walls 
mice moving like noises 
stirring between them 
getting ready to do something 
 
on the corner lot 
                               old crone 
sweet once 
                     a really fine girl (neighbors say) 
living right 
                     in the same spot 
her claim to the street 
going back longer 
stronger than any of us 
 
how many decades 
before she felt that 
voice 
               fire up 
for the first    
lick at kids 
just walking by 
 
witchy speech 
from a porch under her still 
paint chipping curling 
beneath gutters hanging off the roof-line 
disappearing faster 
than we were 
 
until she did 
intestate 
without heir 
 
subsequent squatters 
there for electricity 
running summer fans 
chased off by the ward rep 
 
at last sold off 
now reno hammers 
finish 
               what memory left 
 
dust clouds billow 
pushing time out the door 
an open mouth 
 
from the sidewalk 
                                   you hear axes 
killing drywall and crowbars 
for speed against wood 
 
old hurt piano 
alone out front 
for the first time 
                               feeling the sun 
penetrate to the spring steel 
waiting 
for the new blue 
dumpster 
 
I’m 54 
rounding the corner 
too heavy by a stone 
I think I’ll make it 
feet lifting like tiny 
hovercrafts 
                      scanning 
the treetops. 


 

(2)

The street is Cathe­dral Avenue, run­ning east-west in Wash­ing­ton, DC, and named after the Nation­al Cathe­dral that crowns the inter­sec­tion where the tar flows north and south along one of the capital’s main arter­ies. You can kind of see it from the side­walk out­side the house; well, no, you can’t, real­ly, but you know it’s there, and you know that its tow­ers and pin­na­cles are encased in scaffolding—part of the ongo­ing repair fol­low­ing an earth­quake in 2011 that loos­ened the stone angels and sent a 350-pound finial on a 20-sto­ry drop where it speared the ground (some­one some­how dug it out that very night and trucked it off, to do what with?). Maybe it’s the scaf­fold­ing on the front and back of the row house four doors up, erect­ed recent­ly by the crew hired to gut it for a com­plete re-do inside and out. Final­ly. After years of wait­ing in legal lim­bo cre­at­ed by a fraud­u­lent inher­i­tance claim, the dilap­i­dat­ed house, a house in despair, pur­chased in state auc­tion, is now get­ting flipped for a quick pen­ny. What’s brought you out­side, though, is the music, the crew blast­ing today’s pop from speak­ers plant­ed in the front foy­er and fenced-in back­yard. It is dri­ving you insane. A sense of mild des­per­a­tion push­es you to enter what is now a ful­ly oper­a­tional con­struc­tion site full of young steel-toed men attend­ing to a dozen dif­fer­ent tasks at once—knocking out walls, rip­ping out wires, pry­ing up floorboards—they’ll leave the treads and ris­ers on the stairs for the time being (the time being?)—intent on strip­ping the main inte­ri­or down to the studs and fram­ing. Walk­ing in, you feel the ener­gy of restora­tion, of light and space and the death of rooms. A son­net los­ing lines, drop­ping rhymes. Ghosts of dust are being released, mute mem­o­ries, lost and home­less, (though thanks to some parent’s fore­sight she nev­er was) of a child­hood, ado­les­cence, adult­hood, the long slide into demen­tia, the crowd­ing maze of dis­turbed thoughts and emo­tions unmoored from the objects of a life-sto­ry. And the Cathe­dral, when will those 40,000 pounds of stone return to their places on the tur­ret, the but­tress­es strength­ened and the transept façades, the slen­der pin­na­cles again make their points, ornate, goth­ic, ris­ing to their tapered dis­ap­pear­ance in the sky—I could be a grandfather!



 



From the writer

:: Account ::

The house on the cor­ner, aban­doned in death, sold in auc­tion, and get­ting gut­ted for a quick flip, was clear­ly a poem—I walked past it many times on any giv­en day and felt anten­na tingle—but where to begin: it was the lit­er­al site of a social and famil­ial and exis­ten­tial his­to­ry, but not mine, with a new future in its ren­o­va­tion, also not mine. Or rather, only a very small part of it was. It felt big enough to claim me, but I need­ed the house to some­how speak up. When a crew came in to haul away its belong­ings, I found the piano stand­ing on the side­walk, in the sun for the first time maybe ever in its life, proud and vul­ner­a­ble, a singer now silent; I had my object, the point and por­tal of an entry. Draft­ing fol­lowed quick­ly from there. Two years lat­er, I start­ed to write an “account” of the writ­ing of this poem for Tyler Mills; but what I end­ed up writ­ing instead turned out to be a sec­ond part to the poem, in prose. It also came quick­ly (maybe because I was in the mid­dle of teach­ing a sem­i­nar on the prose poem). Time and mode altered my per­cep­tion; I stood in a dif­fer­ent place now, and saw it all anew. It was a per­son­al felic­i­ty to go into the sub­ject again and find a per­spec­tive on so much I had left out; it rarely hap­pens that way after such a peri­od of time since last pen to paper. I feel the luck of the first cast and the return of the sec­ond, a small gift. (As a teacher, one is always learn­ing one’s own lessons …)

 

Joshua Wein­er is the author of three books of poet­ry, most recent­ly The Fig­ure of a Man Being Swal­lowed by a Fish (Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 2013); he is also the edi­tor of At the Bar­ri­ers: On the Poet­ry of Thom Gunn (Chica­go, 2009). His Berlin Note­book, report­ing about the refugee cri­sis in Ger­many, was pub­lished by Los Ange­les Review of Books in 2016 as a dig­i­tal edi­tion and sup­port­ed with a Guggen­heim Fel­low­ship. A chap­book, Trumpo­ems, is a free dig­i­tal edi­tion from Dis­patch­es from the Poet­ry Wars (2018). His trans­la­tion (with Lin­da B. Par­shall) of Nel­ly Sachs’ Flight & Meta­mor­pho­sis will be pub­lished by Far­rar, Straus and Giroux in 2021.

Two Poems

Poetry / Donna Vorreyer

 

:: Grief Questionnaire ::

 
          1.   How do you characterize your grief?
                     a.   an entire pan of brownies
                     b.   The Cure on shuffle
                     c.   the elongated drip of honey into tea
                     d.   blankets pulled up, no shower for days

          2.   Is your grief lapis or indigo?

          3.   With what tools do you access your grief?
                     a.   pick ax and shovel to split bedrock
                     b.   “Konstantine” on repeat in the car
                     c.   old photographs in a cardboard box
                     d.   tattoos of flowers and clocks and stars

          4.   Is your grief engorged or hollow?

          5.   What are the intentions of your grief?
                     a.   to make you cry in a Target aisle
                     b.   to question each minuscule decision
                     c.   to guilt you when you laugh or smile
                     d.   to comfort in a language you do not speak

          6.   Is your grief an arrow or a bow?

          7.   Your grief comes mostly:
                     a.   in the last car of a long freight train
                     b.   in mosquito bites on your elbows and knees
                     c.   in contrails drawn across the evening sky
                     d.   in costume dramas on a small screen

          8.   Is your grief hush or bellow?

          9.   Describe your grief in less than two hundred words. 

          10. Rate your grief on a scale from one shoe to a flock of birds.

 

:: Philosophy 101 ::

 
I look up to trace my father’s portrait 
in the stars, make it a constellation, bright 
enough to illuminate the dark corners 
of the path I walk too close to dusk 
with the sun sinking fast, make it smile 
on the forest in spring, its new green, 
its messy floor, ferns unfurling 
from nautilus to broad frond, slow 
opening like the sweet groping of hands 
on skin, one ear tuned to the creaking 
of a door, the rest of the body orchestral 
with nerves, flushed electric, close to but 
not quite the engulfing awe of an unspoiled 
landscape, large enough to hold every breath 
I’ve ever taken, like the exhausted exhalations 
of a nine-hour hike through the cloud line, 
forest, glaciers, a valley pure white, the trail 
erased by snow, at the end soaked and shivering 
but so alive and if Kant and Descartes 
had seen these things, I would never need 
to ask why I was here, why he was gone, 
I would cry O stars, O spring, 
O body, O mountain, my father’s 
face shining in every single part. 


 

 

From the writer

 

:: Account ::

In the months fol­low­ing the deaths of both of my par­ents, I con­tin­ued to receive com­mu­ni­ca­tions from the hos­pice orga­ni­za­tion that had assist­ed us near the end of both of their lives. These ques­tion­naires and brochures, meant to be help­ful, were not. They attempt­ed to neat­ly shape grief into a series of steps or box­es to check off, offered plat­i­tudes and med­i­ta­tions, and often made me feel worse rather than bet­ter. They made me ques­tion whether my own unpre­dictable, pow­er­ful, and often sur­re­al expe­ri­ence of loss was “cor­rect” or “nor­mal.” I start­ed to write poems using the tools of ety­mol­o­gy, psy­chol­o­gy, phi­los­o­phy, and even the famil­iar ques­tion­naire to cre­ate my own explo­rations of this com­plex jour­ney with lan­guage and ideas that felt more famil­iar, more pre­cise, more relat­ed to my own. In the realms of invent­ed nar­ra­tive, dis­con­nect­ed imagery, and stream of con­scious­ness, I found a sort of relief that seemed tai­lored to me. Every­one expe­ri­ences grief dif­fer­ent­ly, and these poems try to cap­ture a bit of the fluc­tu­at­ing nature of my own emotions. 

 

Don­na Vor­rey­er is the author of Every Love Sto­ry is an Apoc­a­lypse Sto­ry (2016) and A House of Many Win­dows (2013), both from Sun­dress Pub­li­ca­tions. Her poems, reviews, and essays have appeared in Rhi­no, Tin­der­box Poet­ry, Poet Lore, Sug­ar House Review, Waxwing, Whale Road Review, and many oth­er jour­nals. Her third full-length col­lec­tion is forth­com­ing from Sun­dress in 2020. 

talking to this socialist chick…

Poetry / Kanyinsola Olorunnisola

:: talking to this socialist chick at the lauryn hill rap party while wearing very real diamond studs & wondering for how long this drink will last till i turn the colour blue & start running my borrowed mouth into the gutter. dumb blunt guts & all dirty things crawling out of unacknowledged wounds. ::

 

bring on the apoc­a­lypse already. if the class war does not hap­pen, i’m riot­ing. i thought we brought our pitch­forks & knives to eat the rich. there are hun­gry black ghosts inside of me, loud & starvin’. why twit­ter cock­block­ing those of us who get bon­er at thought of chaos? just words words words no action. words words words & hot takes that no cut blade, no cut flesh, no call unto blood. make we cut the flesh of dem streets & make the bitu­men bleed out it black blood. we bleed­ing. i bleed­ing. yeah, i def­i­nite­ly agree. we should total­ly go pipeline protest. my import­ed Eng­lish no co-oper­at­ing today. no stand still. no play the immi­grant game. the good immi­grant game. we dying here. we bleed­ing. i bleed­ing. band-aid no save us. nice hair. i said nice hair. i said i like your hair. no, these dia­monds are fake, i am mock­ing the gaudy dis­play of excess wealth. thank you, my lin­guis­tic flu­en­cy decides when to come on. like a switch. it’s a cop­ing mech­a­nism. i doubt they will send me back alive. i am no for­tune teller, i just know some things for a fact. so, should we like…get a room or something?


 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

social­ist chick” is heav­i­ly inspired by the elec­tric poet­ries of Danez Smith and Hanif Abdur­raqib. It is my exper­i­ment at putting my black­ness before every­thing, even lan­guage. I want­ed to express the very real expe­ri­ence of non-native Eng­lish speak­ers, the way the lan­guage can some­times get out of hand, the way the lan­guage can be woven (even ungram­mat­i­cal­ly) to con­vey the mean­ing we want at that moment. The major motif run­ning through the poem is a pre­ten­tious dis­course around per­for­ma­tive socialism—a ter­ri­ble trend I have encoun­tered on social media late­ly. My poet per­sona, despite wear­ing real dia­monds, pre­tends to be one of the strug­gling mass­es to avoid lib­er­al ostracism. I want­ed the theme to flow seam­less­ly through a very casu­al par­ty conversation.

 


Kanyin­so­la Olorun­niso­la is an exper­i­men­tal poet, essay­ist, and writer of fic­tion. His works have appeared in Gertrude, Pop­u­la, Bode­ga, On the Sea­wall, Bom­bay Review, Kala­hari Review, Gyro­scope Review, Arts and Africa, African Writer, Brit­tle Paper, and else­where. He is the author of the chap­book, In My Coun­try, We’re All Cross­dressers (Prax­is, 2018). He was short­list­ed for the 2019 Kof­fi Addo Prize for Cre­ative Non-Fic­tion. He is the founder of Sprin­NG, a web-based lit­er­ary move­ment seek­ing to break the bar­ri­ers young cre­ators face in the writ­ing com­mu­ni­ty. He lives in Lagos, where he is hard at work on his nov­el man­u­script. Say hel­lo.

Three Poems

Poetry / Shara McCallum

:: Ae Fond Kiss ::

 
become Nancy
                                                            when thieved to Jamaica 
you made her 
                                                            Nancy immortal 
in your paean 
                                                            to love and parting 
from the start 
                                                            she must have 
seen the severing 
                                                            was inevitable 
must have known 
                                                            dark despair 
would always benight 
                                                            must have heard 
beneath your words 
                                                            what words 
in that place never 
                                                            could be coaxed 
to sing if ever 
                                                            you loved her 
what did your love 
                                                            for her mean 
what use 
                                                            to her your tears 
pledged sighs waged 
                                                            in vain 
in the end 
                                                            who paid 
best and dearest 
                                                            in the end 
I ask you 
                                                            for whom 
did fortune grieve



:: To a Mouse ::

 
She sutured your last breath.
For years, you feared the houghmanie pack
would snuff your scent, but at the river,
at the end, she was the breath grazing
your neck, the arms laying you down
into your watery grave. And you saw,
in a flash of final sight some are gifted,
the weight of the choice you’d made,
how your love had increased
her portion of cruelty. Then,
your silence was the silence
of regret. This is the debt, the only one
you could have paid, I wish tendered.
This is how I need to imagine your life
flickered out. But every time I resurrect
the scene of your death, my wanting
is not enough. I cannot halt the vision
dissolving. For ten years, you mourned
your unsung genius, your rotted ambition.
Ten years you tipped your ear away
from her, toward Scotland—distant music
you husbanded and whittled to song,
wagering everything on the past,
as if its recovery could compensate
the present. And I,
in a present you failed so utterly
to imagine, how if I take you in,
do I not retrod the broken path
of your life? How can I—must I—
claim you as kin and bear knowing
you glimpsed divinity
in the smallest of creatures, lit
the animal soul—and spoke
nothing of her suffering?



:: The Choice ::

 
who made my mind 
                                                            unfit 
for all I’m told 
                                                            is my soul’s 
true nature 
                                                            what half-mad half-fed 
idea be planted 
                                                            in my brain 
by what 
                                                            if any gods there be 
and how may I be
                                                            worthy 
of all required 
                                                            worthy of her 
and the memory 
                                                            of those still yoked 
how now could I 
                                                            be still still be 
without sound 
                                                            be ever-hushed 
when phantoms come 
                                                            ringing round 
when smoke 
                                                            is wreathing 
the fields the fields
                                                            still burning




From the writer

:: Account ::

The poems includ­ed in this issue are part of a forth­com­ing verse sequence, No Ruined Stone, that took root five years ago. In the win­ter of 2015, on my first vis­it to Scot­land, I learned a lit­tle-known sto­ry about the poet Robert Burns: late in the sum­mer of 1786, Burns had active­ly planned to emi­grate from Scot­land to Jamaica, to work as a book­keep­er on a slave plan­ta­tion on the island. “Book­keep­er” is a mis­nomer. The men who held the posi­tion were respon­si­ble for dai­ly over­see­ing and man­ag­ing the work per­formed by enslaved Africans. 

I car­ried that sto­ry about Burns around with me, like a sore or gap in the mouth one’s tongue keeps find­ing. At the time, I was liv­ing in Lon­don and often walk­ing the streets of that city, feel­ing the lay­ers of his­to­ry beneath my feet and all around me. I don’t remem­ber the exact date, but some­time in that spring of 2015, out one day and walk­ing, the ques­tion occurred: what would have hap­pened had he gone? This kind of ques­tion most often falls right­ly to nov­el­ists, belong­ing to their wheel­house. But being a poet, I nonethe­less felt com­pelled to ask poems to do the work of responding. 

 Inex­orably, this ques­tion led me only to more and returned me to some of my ear­li­est and ongo­ing obses­sions and vex­a­tions: with Roman­tic poet­ry and the his­to­ry of the 18th and 19th cen­turies, the Eng­light­en­ment, women’s rights, strug­gles to abol­ish slav­ery, mis­ce­gena­tion and pass­ing, absent fathers and moth­ers and coun­tries, men­tal ill­ness, and migra­tion and exile. What result­ed is a book-length sequence offer­ing a spec­u­la­tive account of the past, voiced pri­mar­i­ly by a fic­tive Burns, who migrates to Jamaica, and by one of his descen­dants, a grand­daugh­ter and white-pre­sent­ing black woman who migrates to Scot­land in the ear­ly 19th-cen­tu­ry. The sto­ry is not true nor auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal, exact­ly. But it is tied to truths of my per­son­al and fam­i­ly nar­ra­tive as well as the foun­da­tion­al nar­ra­tive of Jamaica, a coun­try birthed by the tec­ton­ic meet­ing of the Amer­i­c­as, Africa, and Europe.



From Jamaica, Shara McCal­lum is the author of six books pub­lished in the US and UK, includ­ing the forth­com­ing verse sequence, No Ruined Stone, a spec­u­la­tive account of Scot­tish poet Robert Burns’ migra­tion to Jamaica to work on a slave plan­ta­tion. Her recent book, Mad­woman (Alice James Books, 2017), received the 2018 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Poet­ry and the 2018 Mot­ton Book Prize from the New Eng­land Poet­ry Club. McCal­lum is a pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Penn State Uni­ver­si­ty and on the fac­ul­ty of the Pacif­ic Uni­ver­si­ty Low-Res­i­den­cy MFA Program. 

Room 360

Poetry / Thomas March

 

:: Room 360 ::

 
          Paris, IXe Arrondissement 
          L’Hôtel R de Paris 
          2017–

Again the late light of August—again 
Paris and this room, just as we left it, 
are new again. We could believe no one 
else has slept here since we last closed the door 
on this other life that is ours alone. 
We reenact our claims on the mattress— 
who gets to be closer to the bathroom 
and who feels the first breeze from the window. 
Cash commingles on the mantle—we share 
a closet again, combining our clothes 
as we used to. We wear our black and white 
tight t-shirts, jeans, and simple shoes—we are 
not here to make a show of being here, 
breaking out in wide American smiles. 
The first few days, we wear out the clichés— 
cafés, cathedrals, and couture; Montmartre 
to Montparnasse; Poissy to Père Lachaise. 
We widen our familiarity 
until what remains is just a city 
to rediscover as itself—knowing 
all cities have been ugly once—as we 
have not always been kind to each other. 
But we always find comfort in the warmth 
of Parisian formality, in streets 
made for shadows, just off the boulevards, 
and in bed, eating McDonald’s again 
before dawn, smelling of grease and Hermès. 
Tomorrow, walk me once more to the grave 
of Oscar Wilde, and we’ll pray for us all 
and the time to reclaim this life—again. 


 

 

From the writer

 

:: Account ::

I wrote the first ver­sion of “Room 360” in Feb­ru­ary 2019 as a sev­enth anniver­sary gift for my part­ner. He, an archi­tect, made a beau­ti­ful draw­ing for me. We were sav­ing our mon­ey to return to Paris in August. We would be stay­ing again at the hotel I had found the first time we vis­it­ed togeth­er, in August of 2017. It was a small hotel in the 9th Arrondisse­ment, halfway between the Palais Gar­nier and the Place de Clichy, recent­ly ren­o­vat­ed and ele­gant­ly designed, sleek­ly mod­ern but warm­ly inti­mate. We were there for only four days, in room 360, and we were very hap­py.  

At the time of that first stay in room 360, we were already liv­ing in sep­a­rate cities, after liv­ing togeth­er in New York City for years. Although we vis­it­ed each oth­er often and trav­eled togeth­er a few times a year, being in this room togeth­er felt like a return to cohabitation—only now in a place that was ours alone, shared with no one else in our lives, in a city that we could claim, how­ev­er briefly, as our home. It was a fleet­ing sense of renewed, shared domes­tic­i­ty that deep­ened over sub­se­quent, longer stays.  

We returned to room 360 in August 2018, this time for a week. We walked between 15 and 20 miles a day, let­ting our curios­i­ty and hap­pen­stance guide us on jour­neys that were more like explorato­ry dérives than the errands of tourists. Toward the end of that trip, we vis­it­ed the tomb of Oscar Wilde, where I deliv­ered a note­book full of mes­sages of homage and grat­i­tude writ­ten by friends. As the ceme­tery was clos­ing, we snuck back to the tomb, weav­ing among the mau­soleums to avoid the secu­ri­ty guard who was loud­ly demand­ing the depar­ture of all vis­i­tors. There were no tourists there this time, and in the pri­va­cy of that sacred place, I asked him to mar­ry me. He accept­ed.  

By the time of our most recent return to room 360, this time for ten days, I had already writ­ten this poem. I made an edit to the end of the poem, where I men­tion return­ing to Wilde’s grave, replac­ing the word “again” with the phrase “once more”—leaving open the pos­si­bil­i­ty of yet anoth­er return togeth­er, but aware that this might be our last. On this vis­it to the tomb, to com­mem­o­rate our engage­ment, the only notes I left were my own, express­ing grat­i­tude and pray­ing for guid­ance and inter­ces­sion, as I imag­ine one would pray to a saint. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, Oscar Wilde is not the appro­pri­ate saint to peti­tion for sen­si­ble rela­tion­ship repair.  

And that was to be the last time we vis­it­ed room 360 togeth­er. It can be dif­fi­cult, when a thing ends, to under­stand how it was ever real—and one can waver between extremes of aston­ished dis­il­lu­sion­ment and a vis­cer­al urge to believe. When I return to room 360 this year, it will be part pil­grim­age and part recla­ma­tion. Maybe he will return one day, too. It is still a place where some­thing impor­tant was—something inim­itable and only ours. What­ev­er else may be—or come to be—true, I can remem­ber him, smil­ing over his shoul­der as he leaned out of the tall open win­dow as soon as we arrived, and I can believe that his joy there was real—and that mine was too. 

 

Thomas March is a poet, per­former, and essay­ist based in New York City. His col­lec­tion After­math (2018) was select­ed by Joan Larkin for The Word Works Hilary Tham Cap­i­tal Col­lec­tion. His poet­ry has appeared in Belle­vue Lit­er­ary Review, The Good Men Project, OUT, and Pleiades, among oth­ers. His reviews and essays have appeared in The Believ­er, The Huff­in­g­ton Post, and New Let­ters. With painter Valerie Mendel­son, he is the co-cre­ator of A Good Mix­er, a tex­tu­al-visu­al hybrid project based on a 1933 bartender’s guide of the same name. He is also the host and cura­tor of “Poetry/Cabaret,” a bimonth­ly “vari­ety salon” at The Green Room 42 in New York City that brings togeth­er poets, singers, and come­di­ans in response to a com­mon theme.www.thomasmarch.org @realthomasmarch

Memoriae Aeternae

Poetry / Virginia Konchan

 

:: Memoriae Aeternae ::

 
I love Jesus, I said, to explain.
I’ll be your Jesus, he said.
Hit me, I said. He hit me.
Hit me harder, I said.
 
He hit me harder, dislocating my jaw:
I cried out in pain. He removed his hand
quickly, eyes twin wounds of concern.
It’s ok, I said. I asked you to.
There once was a body, here, and now there is no body. What does that mean? What does that mean, to you?
Sappho herself wrote of eros: it’s as if the tongue is broken.
We prowled each other like cops and robbers for weeks, static between us rising from generated electricity.
So what if subjectivity is reducible to performance, performance to narrative, narrative to anecdote? So what if I almost forgot to call you my home? The etymology of queen is prostitute. The etymology of king is king.
Lord of Lords, let me die, and then, in dying, ascend.
Muse, let me stay forever in your arms: to the last paradise, memory, let me in.

 

 

 

From the writer

 

:: Account ::

Memo­ri­ae Aeter­na” was born out of recent read­ings and mus­ings about the role of mem­o­ry in the his­to­ry of lyric poet­ry, from Mnemosyne, the god­dess of mem­o­ry and moth­er of the nine Mus­es (whose name derives from the word “mnemon­ic,” mean­ing remem­brance), to the dif­fer­ences between epic and lyric mem­o­ry. The for­mer is more col­lec­tive in nature, rely­ing on a rhapsode’s use of poetry’s repet­i­tive, mnemon­ic devices to cel­e­brate the deeds of a tribe, and the lat­ter, a func­tion of the mod­ern nation-state, requir­ing dif­fer­ent mech­a­nisms of legit­i­ma­tion such as affirm­ing the poet’s unique sub­jec­tiv­i­ty. The lyric poet, thus, since the Renais­sance, also attempts to forge myths, but these myths are more indi­vid­ual than col­lec­tive, and often require the poet to search her past to build a per­son­al his­to­ry endowed with con­sis­ten­cy and mean­ing (William Wordsworth’s The Pre­lude is an exem­plar of this lyri­cal work of self-mythol­o­giz­ing, build­ing bridges not just with one’s auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal his­to­ry but those of col­lec­tive his­to­ry, and Mar­cel Proust, in fic­tion, as well). In my poem, I begin with a dia­log­ic con­tem­po­rary inci­dent in media res that prompts the speak­er to trace back through lyri­cal and his­tor­i­cal forms and gen­res of love and con­flict­ual ten­sion (Judeo-Chris­t­ian, Sap­ph­ic eros, West­ern noir), but it’s the poem’s incit­ing inci­dent in the first stan­za, act­ing as a kind of flash­back device or trig­ger, that gives the speak­er the abil­i­ty to exit the scene of pas­sion and return to mem­o­ry. So while mod­ern aspects of gen­der and gen­dered vio­lence may seem to col­or the poem, for me it is more about how the speak­er, through engage­ment with the oth­er (who con­sents to play “Jesus”), can then come to terms with her own per­son­al mythos, choos­ing at the end of the poem to priv­i­lege the work and bliss­ful sur­feit of mem­o­ry over the white male ascen­sion nar­ra­tive (suf­fer­ing, death, res­ur­rec­tion) she had for­mer­ly believed was the only path to “sal­va­tion.”

 

Author of two poet­ry col­lec­tions, Any God Will Do (Carnegie Mel­lon, 2020) and The End of Spec­ta­cle (Carnegie Mel­lon, 2018); a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, Anatom­i­cal Gift (Noc­tu­ary Press, 2017); and three chap­books, includ­ing The New Alpha­bets (Anstruther Press, 2019), Vir­ginia Kon­chan’s poet­ry has appeared in The New York­er, The New Repub­lic, The Believ­er, and through­out the US and Cana­da. She lives and works in Hal­i­fax, Nova Sco­tia.