The Works

Art / Juwon Lee 

:: Two Works :: 


lines in nyc, Digital collage using personal photos, 16” x 10.605

my first year(-ish) in NYC, Hand-drawn data visualization layered on top of a digital collage, 16” x 10.605

From the artist


:: Account ::


In the City” is a self-reflec­tion series includ­ing a dig­i­tal col­lage (“lines in nyc”) and data visu­al­iza­tion piece (“my first year(-ish) in nyc”). I have always been inter­est­ed in col­lage work and data visu­al­iza­tion. Both of them have a unique pow­er to abstract the com­plex real­i­ty and pro­vide new per­spec­tives by nar­row­ing down the focus to spe­cif­ic ele­ments. Through this series, I want­ed to com­bine the two types of work to tell my sto­ry using my per­son­al images and data. 

lines in nyc” is cre­at­ed by com­bin­ing per­son­al pho­tographs tak­en from my iPhone 11 Pro around New York City. By lay­er­ing and repo­si­tion­ing these images togeth­er, I aimed to recre­ate a dynam­ic yet geo­met­ric sur­face and to high­light some of the line ele­ments that soothed me in this bustling city. “my first year(-ish) in nyc” is a sim­ple hand-drawn data visu­al­iza­tion piece—inspired by Gior­gia Lupi’s “data human­ism” principles—layered on top of the “lines in nyc” to look back on my first year of liv­ing in New York City. 

In ret­ro­spect, mov­ing to NYC post­grad was not as glam­orous as I expect­ed it to be. Liv­ing alone for the first time and work­ing remote­ly for my new cor­po­rate job in my stu­dio apartment—and all of it dur­ing a pandemic—became more chal­leng­ing than I had antic­i­pat­ed. At times, I felt over­whelmed, lost, and lone­ly by the extreme hus­tle and bus­tle atmos­phere of the city. 

Amidst the chaos, I found my peace through dis­cov­er­ing order in geo­met­ric ele­ments in the streets and build­ings, which is my inspi­ra­tion behind the “lines in nyc” col­lage. I also took advan­tage of my liv­ing and remote work envi­ron­ment by hav­ing friends come vis­it and spend­ing some time out­side of the city as show­cased in “my first year(-ish) in nyc” piece. 

To cre­ate this data visu­al­iza­tion, I gath­ered all data col­lec­tions from my cal­en­dar, pho­to album, texts, emails, and trav­el tick­ets since the day I moved to New York in ear­ly 2021. I divid­ed up the find­ings into four main cat­e­gories: spe­cial dates, days I left NYC, days I had vis­i­tors from out of town, and days I went into the office. To main­tain the geo­met­ric theme of the col­lage and to embody New York City’s grid-plan sys­tem, I orga­nized the entire visu­al­iza­tion in a grid lay­out with ver­ti­cal axis rep­re­sent­ing days and hor­i­zon­tal axis rep­re­sent­ing months. Each day is iden­ti­fied by a sim­ple white dot, and those spe­cial cat­e­go­ry dates are illus­trat­ed by dif­fer­ent sym­bols and col­ors. If there’s been a change, such as a dif­fer­ent city or vis­i­tor right after one anoth­er, this change is sig­ni­fied by anoth­er line drawn on top of the ini­tial mark.

Juwon Lee is a human-cen­tered design­er and a cre­ative based in New York City. She has expe­ri­ence in both print and web design and is pas­sion­ate about projects that require human-cen­tered design think­ing, vision, and a high degree of craft. She has expe­ri­ence in in-house pro­duc­tion + graph­ic design, agency design, design stu­dio project lead, and cor­po­rate user-cen­tered design. She received her BFA in Graph­ic and Infor­ma­tion Design from North­east­ern Uni­ver­si­ty in Boston, MA and is cur­rent­ly pur­su­ing her MFA in Design & Tech­nol­o­gy at Par­sons School of Design.

Two Poems

Poetry / Maggie Queeney


Queeney 2 Poems PDF

From the writer


:: Account ::

These two poems are reimag­in­ings of two of the myths in Ovid’s Meta­mor­phoses, a book-length poem that presents a series of mor­tals, most­ly women, who are trans­formed into non-human forms after an encounter with a God or God­dess. The divine encounter, and result­ing trans­for­ma­tion, almost always include sex­u­al vio­lence or gen­der-based vio­lence. I too am a sur­vivor of vio­lences (domes­tic, gen­der-based, and sex­u­al). I too have spent years as some­one or some­thing not quite human. Dr. Judith Her­man notes in her vital text about sur­vivors of domes­tic, gen­dered, and sex­u­al vio­lence, Trau­ma and Recov­ery: “vic­tim retains the dehu­man­ized iden­ti­ty of […] the robot, ani­mal, or veg­etable… While the major­i­ty of […] patients com­plained, ‘I am now a dif­fer­ent per­son,’ the most severe­ly harmed stat­ed sim­ply, “‘I am not a person.’”

Decades before I read Trau­ma and Recov­ery, before Com­plex-PTSD was a wide­ly-known and accept­ed term (although still not includ­ed in the newest Text Revi­sion of the DSM V, and so not includ­ed on any of my med­ical records), I read The Meta­mor­phoses. I, who from my ear­li­est mem­o­ry felt more rock than girl, more bird or riv­er or vine than human, rec­og­nized myself in these girls and women, and in the crea­tures and things they would become. Their sto­ries were my sto­ries, are my sto­ries, and in re-telling what hap­pened to them, in work­ing to speak in their voic­es, I tell what hap­pened to me. I sound the bounds of my voice, and find my place among the many of my kind. 

Mag­gie Queeney is the author of In Kind, win­ner of the 2022 Iowa Poet­ry Prize, and the chap­book set­tler. Recip­i­ent of the 2019 Stan­ley Kunitz Memo­r­i­al Prize, The Ruth Stone Schol­ar­ship, and an Indi­vid­ual Artists Pro­gram Grant from the City of Chica­go in 2019 and 2022, her most recent work is found or is forth­com­ing in Guer­ni­ca, The Mis­souri Review, and The Amer­i­can Poet­ry Review. She holds an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing from Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty, and reads and writes in Chicago.

Two Poems

Poetry / Seth Leeper

:: cats in a bag ::

i learned my duplicity at a young age amidst late night serenades 
of shattering glass and slamming cupboards / slinking around 
corners to survive the impact from each sonic boom / donning 
my cheshire smile in the morning like a denial of the night before / 
an implicit approval / a strategy to avoid the jagged edge of a curse / 
the pointed edge of a cutting board / rolling across the floor showing 
my belly / projecting cute to survive / the long drive to the hospital 
for stitches above a crying eye / phone calls to mother explaining the 
accident / i don’t blame her anymore / we were cats in a bag tossing 
and hissing and fighting for love or approval / stalking a prey called 
loyalty or devotion / he’d left me once / i remember her perched on 
the kitchen counter looking at the clock / calculating the difference 
between time with him and time without 

:: the last time we saw you ::

we never got to see your final ascent she just dumped you 
like stale cigarette ashes into the delta and never apologized 
to anyone for the missed show or wasted gas which was her last 
power play her final triumph to singe the skin and squeeze 
the heart and she never had to touch any one of us to do it 
now she had something of you no one could take or give back 
her repulsive reflexes and cackling on the way back to her car 
ensured no one would try so you drifted away from us the wind 
carrying you across grass plains and water the wind chasing 
the wheels of her car down the dirt highway the keys in her 
ignition rattling as she slithered out of focus out of view 
out of our lives for good 

From the writer


:: Account ::

cats in a bag” and “the last time we saw you” are from my man­u­script, dou­ble fea­ture: anato­my of a star | of men and mon­sters. The manuscript’s first part fol­lows the Speak­er through planes astral and celes­tial in pur­suit of his father. The sec­ond part, which these poems are from, finds the Speak­er in more ground­ed spaces, anchored in the real­i­ty of his grief and trau­ma. The Speak­er is flee­ing from mem­o­ries and his own account­abil­i­ty in the rela­tion­ship between him­self and his father, and he has plunged head­first into pro­cess­ing the rela­tion­ship dynam­ics that were com­pli­cat­ed by his father’s spouse. Deprived of clo­sure for him­self and his fam­i­ly, the Speak­er makes attempts to forge his own res­o­lu­tion with his father, and make sense of the spouse who func­tioned as rival and vil­lain in his child­hood.   

Peel­ing back the cur­tain a bit on craft, these poems rep­re­sent exper­i­men­ta­tions with how space is uti­lized on the page. The deci­sion to use punc­tu­a­tion, or not, is meant to add an ele­ment of ten­sion, or dis­rup­tion. It com­pli­cates the nar­ra­tive and the expe­ri­ence of how the read­er engages with the text. It also mir­rors the frag­men­ta­tions of the Speaker’s mem­o­ries. 

I was also inter­est­ed in exper­i­ment­ing with prose blocks, since I had pri­mar­i­ly writ­ten in verse pri­or to this project. The blocks pro­vide a frame for each poem, and serve the over­all attempt to world-build in both por­tions of the man­u­script. The world in of men and mon­sters where these poems occur is one of harsh real­i­ties and uncertainty—filled with mon­sters both fic­tive and real—and it moves back and forth between the present and the past. This is the oppo­site of the world in anato­my of a star, where the Speak­er wields the pow­er of his imag­i­na­tion and grief to cre­ate moments out­side of com­mon­ly accept­ed con­scious­ness to inter­ro­gate and reunite with his father. The project is meant to tran­scend the per­son­al and the spe­cif­ic; to offer cathar­sis, com­fort, and hope­ful­ly heal­ing for the read­er who can empathize with the work.

Seth Leep­er is a queer poet. A Best of the Net nom­i­nee and 2022 Brook­lyn Poets Fel­low, his work has appeared or is forth­com­ing in Sycamore Review, Riv­er Styx, Sala­man­der, Hobart After Dark, Over­heard Lit, and Always Crash­ing. He holds an M.A. in Spe­cial Edu­ca­tion from Pace Uni­ver­si­ty and B.A. in Cre­ative Writ­ing and Fash­ion Jour­nal­ism from San Fran­cis­co State Uni­ver­si­ty. He lives and teach­es in Brook­lyn, NY. He tweets @seth­wleep­er.

Mother Gosling

Fiction / Brodie Gress 

:: Mother Gosling ::

      Around the time I became twen­ty-sev­en, half as old as my moth­er, I was irri­tat­ed to learn that life was exact­ly what she had warned me it would be.

          “What­ev­er you study, make mon­ey with it,” I remem­ber her telling me, dur­ing the first of our many calls, when I asked her what my col­lege degree should be. I’d just fin­ished my first semes­ter of col­lege, still unde­clared. I was lean­ing toward music, unwill­ing to let it go, but my moth­er pushed me oth­er­wise. She was end­less­ly prac­ti­cal, like when she bought me a Dave Ram­sey book for my high school grad­u­a­tion or emailed me a list of mechan­ics as her first cor­re­spon­dence with me after col­lege began. Despite that, I real­ized that I did in fact like my family—even my annoy­ing younger sib­lings, even my down-to-earth mother.

          As grat­ing as her val­ues were, I fol­lowed them. As a com­pro­mise, I dou­ble majored in music and busi­ness, the sec­ond of which made of cours­es I found sti­fling to sit through but which also led to a paid intern­ship qua bud­ding career in the non­prof­it sec­tor. I thanked my moth­er for her advice, dur­ing the first time I called her after I got my job.

          My father was there, too, dur­ing our calls, in the back­ground cheer­ful­ly yelling greet­ings to me over my mother’s shoul­der: How was the non­prof­it, was I enjoy­ing my non-rais­es and no-perks yet, and I’d laugh and tell him to bug off. I knew he had his issues with his fam­i­ly, but he had the ears of my broth­ers and sis­ter. I gave mine to my moth­er. Us two eldest daugh­ters. The more I called my moth­er, the more I learned about her. She had her own ordeals, with her orig­i­nal fam­i­ly, whom I’d only ever seen dur­ing hol­i­days grow­ing up.

          As our calls and vis­its rolled on, I learned that my Grampa—my sweet, fun­ny Gram­pa who car­ried me on his shoul­ders and made me my first violin—had been a shit­hole father.

          “She’s stay­ing home again,” my moth­er said, annoyed with her mid­dle sis­ter, over the first phone call we had when I’d start­ed my job. “Twila said she’d come this time, she swore, but you know she always backs out last minute. Gigi—your cousin Lorraine’s youngest, you remember—came down with the flu, and Lor­raine called her moth­er like always. I told Twila she couldn’t always swoop in and help Lor­raine every time, or Lor­raine would nev­er be a con­fi­dent mother.”

          “Oh, Mom,” I said, my con­stant inter­lude upon her sto­ries, to let her know I was lis­ten­ing, that she was heard, even if I didn’t under­stand all of it. All I could real­ly under­stand, dur­ing her many sto­ries, was that moth­er­hood was some­thing I wasn’t sure I would ever want.

          “And I remind­ed Twila we were sup­posed to decide what to do with Grampa’s old scrap­yard art today, that Mom—Gramma—had request­ed she be there, but Twila just waved me off. You decide, Geor­gia, you’re the eldest, she said, but you know she’s just going to crit­i­cize what­ev­er I decide to do … Oh, but I’m just let­ting off steam. She’s busy, like Ulyssa. We all are. I have the most time out of any of us, I’m sure, even with babysit­ting Ned.”

          My moth­er often spoke like that. She’d snow­ball her mem­o­ries and thoughts into a long and detailed dia­tribe against her sis­ters, but then she’d catch her­self and find a gra­cious con­clu­sion, as if pen­i­tent. But I was always dis­ap­point­ed when the grace came. My moth­er sound­ed human when she com­plained, so very human. I felt like I could tell her my prob­lems, too, air my own griev­ances with my job, the guy I was sort of dat­ing now, the way the world was going, and over the phone I’d hear her mm hmm, to let me know, in turn, that even if she didn’t under­stand all my frus­tra­tions, that she lis­tened. That I was heard. 

          I have a strong mem­o­ry, once—when I was a child, I raid­ed my mother’s dress­er and tried a pair of gleam­ing red flats I nev­er saw her wear. I thought they were the most beau­ti­ful shoes, with lit­tle rhine­stones gleam­ing from the shoe’s tongue. When I put them on, I found them ill-fit­ting, but I walked around my mother’s room, then down the hall, and then to my room, where I chas­tised my dolls for loaf­ing around on the shelf doing noth­ing. I heard my broth­er, a baby then, wail, and I turned to find my moth­er glar­ing dag­gers at me. She wrenched my hand.

          “Take those off,” she said with the warmth of ice­berg let­tuce. I hur­ried my feet out of them. “Don’t go through my dress­er again. That was so thought­less of you, Ann.”

          Despite the decades, the expe­ri­ences, and any oth­er gulfs that dis­tanced us, I still try to put on my mother’s shoes. I still try to wear my moth­er, try to walk how she would walk, talk how she would talk, feel how she would feel. An impos­si­ble task.


          A few nights before her father died, Geor­gia was stir­ring beans in a bub­bling pot, sea­son­ing them with salt and pep­per, adding a lit­tle brown sug­ar and sharp ched­dar for her grand­son Ned, when her phone rang.

          “Dad’s not well,” her sis­ter Twila said over the phone.

          “He’s been unwell for a while now.”

          “No. It’s bad this time.”

          Her father died in the hos­pi­tal, at last of his liv­er can­cer. The doc­tor tried to explain it sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly, that the can­cer had metas­ta­sized and made short work of its dwellings, but Geor­gia couldn’t help but notice the tim­ing. A week before, she and her sis­ters had final­ly con­vinced him to enter assist­ed liv­ing. Their mom couldn’t take care of him on her own, and his daugh­ters couldn’t make the time for him. He had fought for the longest time—how he clung to that dying light—and this rapid death of his felt to Geor­gia like a final spite.

          She’d been jilt­ed. At last, her father and moth­er would have been sep­a­rate. Geor­gia would have final­ly had the chance to vis­it her father alone, under the pre­tense of a lov­ing daugh­ter. The nurs­es would have admit­ted her. She would have walked into his room, exchanged pleas­ant hel­los. He would have invit­ed her to sit down, stare out the win­dow at him. And just when he start­ed to ask her if she remem­bered jar­ring straw­ber­ry jam with him and her broth­er, or the time he pranked her prom date with his gun, that’s when she would have told him exact­ly what she remem­bered. What her broth­er had bab­bled to her, before he’d died. Her moth­er no longer there to medi­ate her vol­canic rage. No. At last, she and her father would have had words.

          But he’d tak­en that from her, too, sneak­ing out the back door toward death. He left his fam­i­ly with noth­ing but a body to get rid of. He had a barn full of junk, an unruly plot of land, and no sav­ings for a funer­al. Her, Ulyssa, and Twila were left to cov­er much of their mother’s health­care. Geor­gia and her sis­ters decid­ed on cre­ma­tion. Her moth­er didn’t protest, though she did ask whether they couldn’t put some of her life insur­ance toward his funer­al. Geor­gia told her she’d look into it, and she didn’t.

        Only a few of the fam­i­ly arrived for his inurn­ment: Geor­gia, her sis­ters and moth­er, and Ulyssa’s chil­dren. Ulyssa had made hers come, while Geor­gia had let her own chil­dren decide.


          “Do you want to come to Grampa’s funer­al?” My moth­er called me to ask.

          I had loose mem­o­ries of my grand­fa­ther, dis­joint­ed but hap­py ones. I was one of his first grand­chil­dren. He’d been a farmer and car­pen­ter, I knew. He had shown his work at some of the local fairs near where I grew up, I remem­ber. One of my ear­li­er mem­o­ries involved him. 

          When my moth­er was hav­ing my baby broth­er, Dad at the hos­pi­tal with her, Gram­pa and Gram­ma came to babysit us. Gram­pa took us out for a stroll, walk­ing down our dri­ve­way until we got near the lake, answer­ing ques­tions from my broth­ers and sis­ter and me about child­birth. Then I saw the geese and pulled Gram­pa back with my lit­tle hand.

          “No, Gram­pa!” I told him. “Geese are awful. They always chase me.”

          “Annie, dearie, look closer.”

          He put me on his shoulders—Grampa still took care of a small farm, his body sinewy and tough—and from his shoul­ders I could see the geese a lit­tle eas­i­er. They seemed less threat­en­ing. I real­ized they were hud­dled around a nest full of cheep­ing goslings.

          “Fam­i­ly always looks out for its own,” he’d told me when he gave it to me. “Did I ever tell you about the time I got into a star­ing match with a goose in my toma­to garden …”

          And look­ing back now I can see where my moth­er had got­ten her tal­ent for weav­ing sto­ries. Gram­pa did voic­es, spread his hands wide, and con­stant­ly winked while telling his sto­ries, so much you weren’t sure how much he was fab­ri­cat­ing, whether it even mat­tered, his sto­ries were always that good. He would tick­le me and make me laugh, and I remem­ber now—it’s so obvi­ous to me now, the mem­o­ry like an opti­cal illu­sion, where your eyes final­ly see the trick and you can’t unsee it once you do. I remem­ber that Mom would always decide then that she need­ed to tuck my shirt in more, or comb my hair, has­ten­ing Gram­pa to end his sto­ry. I had liked Gram­pa, back then, and years lat­er when my moth­er told me about her father, I found it unset­tling to square my Gram­pa and her father as one and the same.

          “I wish I could,” I told my moth­er over the phone, “but we have this big fundrais­er com­ing up at my work, and I can’t take time off for it. Could I send a card instead?”

          “That’d be fine. I’m sor­ry you’ll be busy,” she said, not push­ing the mat­ter fur­ther. When I put down my phone, I couldn’t help look­ing to my wall, where a vio­lin hung. My welling grief pricked of hot shame.


          But Ulyssa’s chil­dren did attend the funer­al. They all took time off, each of them flew in, every one of them suc­cess­ful, at least by rudi­men­ta­ry mea­sures. One of them worked as an inter­na­tion­al con­sul­tant for tech com­pa­nies. Anoth­er worked for a law firm in Chica­go, had recent­ly scored a clerk­ship with a dis­trict court judge. The third had mar­ried an indie filmmaker—cineaste auteur, as he called him­self over Thanks­giv­ing dinner—after his first divorce. Each of them eulo­gized their Gram­pa, and Ulyssa cried. Geor­gia did, too, though not as much.

          Back at her mother’s house, in the liv­ing room where they’d always held hol­i­day par­ties, Geor­gia passed along a tray of pigs in a blan­ket, not par­tic­u­lar­ly hun­gry. Ulyssa’s chil­dren excused them­selves with their jobs and fam­i­lies, and Gram­ma announced she was exhaust­ed and turned in for her after­noon nap, leav­ing the three sis­ters to clean up the food they’d put out.

          “Mom can come live with me,” Ulyssa said. “She’s always want­ed to live in the city, and Dick and I have more than enough space now that Nash has his own place.”

          “That sounds fine to me,” Twila said. “Why don’t we all go out to McFee’s? It’s been a day; let’s go let off steam.”

          She just want­ed a drink, Geor­gia knew, though nei­ther Geor­gia nor Ulyssa could under­stand how Twila could even stand the smell of alco­hol. Rather than say any­thing, Geor­gia got up and col­lect­ed everyone’s plates to wash them in the sink, not wish­ing to stay in the liv­ing room any longer. She knew Ulyssa was right.

          The next week, Geor­gia sat in her car, clean­ing cad­dy in the pas­sen­ger seat, lock­ing her eyes on the front door to her mother’s home, pro­ject­ing her wor­ries and angers onto its pan­eled face. It was fun­ny how much eas­i­er sit­ting still became, the more she aged. An hour, two hours, four, ten, a hun­dred: how­ev­er long she sat didn’t mat­ter much. Her mind was over­flow­ing with thoughts now, and she was grate­ful for any time she got to rest and relin­quish them. She’d unscrew the cap to them, pour them out on the ground, feed the grass with them, pol­lute the riv­er with them, toss them care­less­ly out an open win­dow. She refused to hoard them, like her moth­er. Some thoughts were non­sense, some unpleas­ant, some repet­i­tive. At times, she might wet her hands with a thought and mark a tree, curse it for­ev­er, no mat­ter, she would do it. What­ev­er it took, to free a thought of its words, dis­solve it into some sense­less state she no longer had to deal with.

          Her thoughts crys­tal­ized and meta­mor­phosed, and Geor­gia shook her head to send them fly­ing away. She climbed out of her van and entered the house.

          Inside she found Ulyssa, stand­ing in the cor­ner, exam­in­ing a por­trait of their moth­er with her sis­ter and broth­er, in front of their old home in Ken­tucky. Ulyssa held it in her hand, exam­in­ing every cor­ner of it. She wasn’t dust­ing it, wasn’t check­ing the frame for loose screws, and when she hung it back up it was slight­ly askew. Ulyssa wouldn’t be able to spot askew things, of course, Geor­gia thought. Her work at the con­sul­tan­cy firm filled her head so much she couldn’t remem­ber how to man­age her own home, which is why Geor­gia was there every week, to clean out the oven, scrub out the dish­wash­er, step into the dark cor­ners of homes few oth­ers would think of when there, and with time spent so long in such cor­ners. Geor­gia knew how clean­ing a home could reveal it to be a fam­i­ly archaeology.

          “Didn’t think you were com­ing today.”

          Ulyssa smiled at her old­er sis­ter, and the two embraced.

          “I took a per­son­al day,” Ulyssa said. “Got some work done early.”

          In their mother’s room, their moth­er lay in her bed, threw a weak smile at her daugh­ters. Grand­ma wasn’t sick, but rather tired. Geor­gia imag­ined the mat­tress call­ing to her, embrac­ing her, encour­ag­ing her to lie still, sink. 

          “There’s no need to clean,” their moth­er said, like she always did, since Geor­gia had been a child. “I’ll get to it later.”

          When their moth­er fell asleep, Geor­gia start­ed sweep­ing the kitchen of crumbs and chas­ing the ants away, while Ulyssa retched and retreat­ed to the liv­ing room to pore over their mother’s med­ical records. Ulyssa had always been book­ish that way, Geor­gia recalled, com­fort­able in her bed­room get­ting lost in her fan­ta­sy nov­els, or the Bible. Geor­gia won­dered if she, too, would have been book­ish, had she not been sad­dled with chores. Their moth­er had tried to get Ulyssa to han­dle the laun­dry, at least, but Ulyssa proved so for­get­ful that their moth­er quit ask­ing and went to bed instead.

          “Do you think we did it right?” Ulyssa called out from the silence.

          “Did what right?”

          “His funeral.”

          Geor­gia swept the last of the debris and emp­tied it into the trash can, refus­ing to notice the spare crumb or two under­neath the bot­tom cab­i­nets. Clean­ing was nev­er over. She sim­ply tam­pered and fend­ed off every room’s unend­ing yearn­ing to rot back into the dirt.

          “It was what he deserved.”

          Their phones rang, Twila tex­ting them to ask how the clean­ing was going. Ulyssa thumbed a response before slid­ing her smart­phone back into her purse, scan­ning the bills from the nurs­ing home for incon­sis­ten­cies, Geor­gia figured.

          “Would you be mad if I said I miss him?”

          “No,” Geor­gia lied. She knew Ulyssa could tell. They both remem­bered what he’d been like. Yet, despite that their father had soft­ened over the years and giv­en Ulyssa an eas­i­er child­hood, despite their diver­gent paths in adult­hood, despite how she envied and maligned them under her breath, Geor­gia would not deny her sis­ters their grief.


          “Why don’t you spend more time with your sis­ter?” Mom used to egg my lit­tle sis­ter and me. We would throw each oth­er shrugs then go back to our rooms, Jen­na talk­ing with her friends over the cord­ed phone we still had, me prac­tic­ing the vio­lin. One Fri­day, Mom quit ask­ing and sent us both out to get bags of ice from the gro­cery store. She gave us fifty dol­lars and remind­ed us about the JCPen­ney in the town square. We tried to bring up that we had plans.

          “Can­cel your plans,” she told us. “You need new clothes, the both of you, and those fifty dol­lars are your allowance.”

          We didn’t get an allowance, typ­i­cal­ly, so we sul­len­ly let our friends know, me call­ing them and Jen­na log­ging onto the fam­i­ly com­put­er to mes­sage them—calling on the phone is lame, she loved to tell Mom and me. I drove us both downtown.

          At the JCPen­ney, we flicked through the racks, most of the clothes we liked priced well into the for­ties and fifties, more than Mom had fig­ured. We could either each get some under­gar­ments or a few t‑shirts. Jen­na groaned.

        “All the clothes here are lame,” she said from the oth­er side of the dis­count rack. “Per­fect for you. Buy your­self a lame out­fit. Just tell Mom we had a won­der­ful time and told each oth­er our secret crush­es or whatever.”

          “Who is your secret crush?”

          “No one.”

          “You sure it’s not Cory Anheuser?”

          “What?” Jen­na squeaked.

          “You for­got to log out. Saw some mes­sages that would get you grounded …”

          “He’s just a friend.” She blushed. “Mind your own business.”

          I poked Jen­na through the rack, mak­ing her jump. While I laughed, she unracked a pair of ripped jeans and threw them at me, and I retal­i­at­ed, both of us rel­ish­ing this oppor­tu­ni­ty. Mom nev­er let us brawl at home; she yelled for us to keep it down, that we were giv­ing her a headache. Jen­na threw one shirt too far and pelt­ed anoth­er cus­tomer, who scowled and told an asso­ciate. The asso­ciate came by to tell us we would have to leave, berat­ing us to learn some man­ners before we could shop at JCPenney’s again. We exit­ed in snick­ers, and out­side I showed Jen­na the shirt I’d shoplifted.

          “Didn’t know you had it in you, nerd,” my sis­ter punched me. “But ugh, the goose shirt? You would pick the lamest one, throw that in the trash.”

          “It reminds me of Grampa’s sto­ry about the geese,” I said. “I’m get­ting a goose tat­too on my shoul­der one day. A goose play­ing a vio­lin, and under­neath it the words, Did I ever tell you the one …Like what Gram­pa always says.”

          “You can’t do that. Mom will kill you.”

          “No, she wouldn’t, she has a tattoo.”

          “Not the tat­too, idiot. She hates Grampa.”


          I stopped, and Jen­na stopped, too, like I was anchor­ing her in place. What she said didn’t make sense, like she’d told me the sky was green.

          “She hates him. Duh.”

          “No, she doesn’t. He’s her dad. He annoys her, sure, but she can’t hate him.”

          “She does, though.”

          “How do you know?”

          “It’s obvi­ous. She always shoots Gram­pa glares, and not like her usu­al glares, but mean glares, like when that guy cat­called you and me at the mall and she cussed him out. She shoots Gram­pa the same kind of glare, and she always grabs my shoul­der before she lets me hug him. Doesn’t she grab at you, too?”

          “That’s ridicu­lous. Why would she take us to his and Gramma’s every Christmas?”

          “I don’t know. Appearances.”

          “You’re stu­pid,” I said. “You’re a child. You don’t know what you’re talk­ing about.”

          Jen­na gri­maced and turned back toward the car, leav­ing the dis­cus­sion flat. We drove all the way back home in our usu­al silence, bag of ice in the back shim­mer­ing. When we got back, Jen­na went to her room, and I told Mom we’d had a won­der­ful time, that we’d learned a lot about each oth­er. Mom was hap­py, until in the com­ing weeks when she noticed us pass­ing each oth­er silent­ly in the hall­way again. I could feel her watch­ing my back.

        “You’re ground­ed,” she told me dri­ly one day. “I’ve told you to clean your room a thou­sand times, sick of pick­ing up after you.”

          “I was lit­er­al­ly going to do it tonight!” I yelled back.

          “Do it now.”

          The next Christ­mas, I couldn’t shake what my sis­ter had said. I close­ly watched my grand­fa­ther, dressed up in a San­ta hat and suit, as he roamed around, giv­ing all my lit­tle cousins hugs, presents, and stories.

          “Hi there, Annie Dearie,” Gram­pa laughed when he approached me, and my mem­o­ry nev­er burned hot­ter than when my mom’s fin­gers dug into my palm, leav­ing deep imprints before let­ting go.

          Gram­pa held out a gift to me, watch­ing me unwrap it with that San­ta Claus twin­kle he could muster. It was a vio­lin, one with birds carved into the tail­piece, one he’d made him­self. “Give ‘ole San­ta a hug.” 

          “Tell Gram­pa thanks, Anna,” Mom said, and I hugged Gram­pa. The cozy warmth I used to feel so eas­i­ly around him felt too hot, almost des­per­ate. I resent­ed my sis­ter for her words.

          “Thank you,” I told him, and he winked at me. I watched the whole par­ty and real­ized he and Mom rarely spoke direct­ly to each oth­er, real­ly only through my sib­lings and I. Mom spent most of the par­ty in the kitchen with Gram­ma, or her sis­ters. I saw Jen­na busy with her new disc play­er, and I thought I caught a smug smirk on her down­turned face.

          Every Christ­mas after, I couldn’t help star­ing at the accent wall at moments, feel­ing the past alight on my shoul­ders, dig­ging its talons in, draw­ing blood.


          Some long time after her father’s funer­al, alone at her mother’s house, halfway through giv­ing the liv­ing room a quick dust­ing, Geor­gia paused to exam­ine the accent wall. She must have seen it a thou­sand times, the book­shelves dot­ted with plants and col­lec­tions of strange books: a pho­to album of old gas sta­tions, yel­lowed pen­ny dread­fuls, mis­shapen pur­chas­es from a local book­mo­bile. But she thought of the news she’d seen ear­li­er. Israel and Pales­tine, old ten­sions flar­ing up into bombs and bul­lets, why his­to­ry could nev­er rest in peace, she didn’t know.

          She remem­bered a pho­to of the sole pink crib among the wreck­age, and then she imag­ined this wall, also cracked and splin­tered. She imag­ined her old dolls behead­ed and ampu­tat­ed, their stuff­ing splat­tered across the lawn. The high­way out­side fis­sured, blast­ed, sunken under the weight of war. Her old high school bell bot­toms and turtle­necks, untouched among the smell of burn­ing cloth and poly­ester poi­son­ing the air. The insan­i­ty of it all.

          “Mom,” she called to her moth­er, “Did you see the news about Pales­tine and Israel?”

          “What news?”

          “The mis­sile strikes.”

          “There was a mis­sile strike? Where?” Gram­ma walked into the room, look­ing about it fear­ful­ly. Mom—Georgia sighed.

          “Nev­er mind.”

          She set about tak­ing the books off, final­ly giv­ing them a long over­due dust­ing. Her moth­er set­tled into the old reclin­er in the cor­ner, the wide one with the lamp hang­ing over it. Geor­gia had always thought all the fur­ni­ture in this house gave too much. None of it was firm; sit­ting any­where in the house was as if a sink­hole threat­ened to swal­low her up.

          “Israel and Pales­tine. They’ve always been at war,” her mom said, “as long as I can remem­ber. Gram­pa used to joke that they could set­tle their fights with corn­hole and a tobac­co pipe to pass around.”

          “Sure,” Geor­gia said. She couldn’t imag­ine her father paci­fy­ing any­one, and she wished her moth­er would quit call­ing him Gram­pa around her.

          “I miss him.”

          The books on the top shelf were coat­ed in dust, and Geor­gia leaned up to wipe their spines off, one by one.

          “It was heart­break­ing to see you cry, Geor­gia,” her moth­er con­tin­ued. “I know you and he had dif­fer­ences, but he loved you in his own way.”

          “I wasn’t cry­ing for him. I would nev­er shed a tear over him.” 

          Her moth­er recoiled from Geor­gia, like she was a snake, and it angered her so much, that her moth­er could despise her for this, but she wouldn’t pre­tend noth­ing had been swept under the car­pet. She wouldn’t let her feel­ings go to the grave with her father.  She did know why it couldn’t rest.

          “You both act­ed like it’s Ernie’s fault he drank him­self to death, but what Dad did to us—to him!—followed him. Admit it, you know it.” Geor­gia shot her moth­er a look of revul­sion. “And you stayed mar­ried to him, all these years. You made me let him walk me down the aisle. You made my chil­dren meet him every holiday.”

          “Geor­gia,” her moth­er ceased being a grand­moth­er. Time rolled back, and Geor­gia was a teenag­er, her moth­er try­ing to cow her. “Your father did his best. Farm­ing was thank­less work, and you and your broth­er were hard­ly angels. Ernie always stayed out late at the riv­er with friends, and he crashed the trac­tor. The cost of repairs and lost crops set us back for months. And you, screw­ing that hip­pie every week­end, for God’s sake he could have knocked you up—”

          “You sad­dled us with all the chores while Ulyssa and Twila did jack shit around the house, of course we act­ed out. That doesn’t excuse—”

          “I don’t want to hear this.”

          Her moth­er walked down the hall, stonewalling any fur­ther con­ver­sa­tion. Georgia’s anger shook through all her bones, and she wrung her dust rag as if break­ing a neck, before she stormed out of the house. Furi­ous that her moth­er still act­ed that way, that she couldn’t roll time for­ward to the present. She wasn’t a child anymore.

          Nei­ther was I.


          “I’m sor­ry!” I tried to say, for the thou­sandth time in that house­hold, felt like, when I was ten.

          “Drop­ping your baby broth­er on his head, how care­less could you be?” My moth­er snapped at me, tow­er­ing over me in rage as she held my sob­bing baby broth­er, the third of my younger broth­ers. “You could have hurt him, could have caused head trau­ma. I hope you’re nev­er a mother.”

          I said some­thing back to her, but I don’t remem­ber the rest. Nev­er a moth­er. Never.

          She told me to go to my room, and I oblig­ed her, while she tend­ed to Nathan, feel­ing his head for bumps and bruis­es, hold­ing him and bounc­ing him while he squalled.

          She did apol­o­gize, lat­er that night. Or, she apol­o­gized in her own way. She told me she had trou­ble rein­ing her words in some­times, that she didn’t mean half of what she meant, she was just vent­ing. She said she was sure I could be a won­der­ful moth­er, if I want­ed. I told her it was okay, that I knew she didn’t mean it.

          “So why can’t I for­get it?” I told my ther­a­pist two decades lat­er. “Nathan turned out fine. It’s just, when he had a speech delay, or when he kept get­ting lost in the store when we went with Mom, I thought … I couldn’t help think­ing it was because I dropped him. That I cracked his head like an egg.”

          That sto­ry, like a switch, made me cry every time I told it to myself. I was so used to blam­ing myself for what hap­pened to oth­er peo­ple, I told my ther­a­pist, like I was con­stant­ly fail­ing them.

          My ther­a­pist would wait, offer me a tis­sue, and once more tell me, with unbe­liev­able patience, that I’d been the child, not the par­ent. I wasn’t to blame. She’d remind me that my moth­er, too, couldn’t help revert­ing to child­hood, some­times. We all cling to these old pat­terns we learned, despite our best efforts, she said. She tried to say it, over and over again, like she was call­ing out to me as I let a storm blow me every which way.

          “You’re right,” I’d tell her, before we start­ed our breath­ing exer­cis­es. And I would cling to what my ther­a­pist said, for as long as I could, while ward­ing off those deeply root­ed rots, threat­en­ing to sup­plant every kind word ever spo­ken to me.

          Bruis­es, lash­ings, break­ing, curs­es, regrets.


          Bruis­es, lash­ings, break­ing, curs­es, regrets.

          I pic­ture lash­ings. Belt­ings. Beer bot­tles break­ing. The scenes I’ve seen on TV, the sounds I’ve heard over pod­casts, the scarce hints my moth­er gave me—I stitch them, com­pos­ite them, con­coct them, into what I imag­ined hap­pened to my mother.


          I pic­ture Gram­pa, not as a grand­fa­ther but a father, few­er wrin­kles but stained with dirt on his brow, his face nev­er smil­ing. I pic­ture his hands cal­loused from the fields, his legs threat­en­ing to buck­le under­neath him, his skin burn­ing with the heat of the sun. I pic­ture him walk­ing back to the house and see­ing his truck’s bumper dent­ed, damaged—why, he could eas­i­ly guess. I pic­ture him think­ing of his own child­hood, what his par­ents had said to him, done to him, and what their par­ents had said to him, and so on and so forth, words, ges­tures, par­ent­ing reach­ing back through the ages.

          I pic­ture him growl­ing, then hear­ing through the win­dow his old­est jab­ber­ing over her phone, his son pick­ing at a gui­tar, his two lit­tlest scream­ing at each oth­er in the back­yard. All of them so fuck­ing loud.

          I can nev­er fol­low him inside.


          It was some time before I told her, years after my moth­er con­fessed her child­hood to me. I didn’t tell her through a call but a vis­it, my first since Grampa’s funer­al. She was shar­ing with me, late one night over the kitchen table, how the funer­al went. A quick and qui­et affair. A few things Ulyssa and her chil­dren had said. Some food they shared at Gramma’s. Mom talked about the pigs in the blan­ket that were passed around, describ­ing them in ful­some detail. How good they tast­ed, how she hadn’t had any in years, how Twila had added a strange pick­le rel­ish to them that some­how worked.

          “She’s real­ly learned some­thing from those cook­ing class­es, I sup­pose,” Mom told me. “Maybe I’ll take her up on her invi­ta­tion sometime.”

          She stared at the table for a bit before pick­ing up her book, lick­ing her fin­ger and turn­ing the page. How eas­i­ly she could enter a book, as the TV news blared mute beside us. I remained at the table with her, until I aired what I’d come home to say.


          She looked up from her book.

          “I’m sor­ry Gram­pa hurt you,” I told her. “I can’t imag­ine how you car­ried that all this time.”

          Like how “I love you” car­ries so many mean­ings and con­no­ta­tions, “I’m sor­ry” does, too. This wasn’t one of my usu­al apolo­gies. Not the polite ones I told strangers I bumped, nor the frus­trat­ed ones I told my ex-boyfriend for for­get­ting he was cel­e­brat­ing May 4th with his friends,  when I asked him to pick up some milk and but­ter, nor even the guilt-rid­den one I told my friend when she told me not to ask her to touch her hair,.

          No. I didn’t say this sor­ry out of man­ners. This sor­ry was the one you screwed up courage for.

          In the sec­onds after, Mom took a sharp breath before piv­ot­ing. She told me it was noth­ing, I shouldn’t both­er myself over it. It was years ago, old his­to­ry. She start­ed a sto­ry about Twila and Ulyssa com­ing over for East­er, bring­ing their grand­chil­dren for a play date with Ned. Gram­ma would come, too, wouldn’t that be some­thing, four gen­er­a­tions in one house­hold, a small mir­a­cle. Mom said every­thing but what I want­ed her to say. She didn’t say how much it meant to her, that I rec­og­nized her pain.

          And she didn’t, as my heart of hearts want­ed, in turn say sor­ry to me.

          But I think I’ll always be dis­ap­point­ed by my moth­er, that way, if I pic­ture her as nobody but my moth­er. So, I tell myself the sto­ry of Geor­gia, as a balm for those wounds. Per­haps I could brave more ques­tions with her, rather than stitch­ing her sto­ry out of scraps, but I don’t wish to pry her open. She’ll always be my moth­er; the real Geor­gia is hers.

          I rose from my chair, telling my moth­er good night.

          “I love you, Mom.”

          “Good night, Anna.”


          I pic­ture my moth­er, unsure why she couldn’t return such a sen­ti­ment into three tidy words that night. Maybe the con­fines of those words angered her. Of course she loved me. She would throw her­self in front of a car for me, for all her chil­dren. The end­less root­ing for pock­ets of cash, the slights she and her hus­band suf­fered end­less­ly at their jobs, the back pain they’d endured, the surg­eries they’d put off, vaca­tions can­celled, dreams dis­in­te­grat­ed … When she thought of the pay­less work she’d done, the weeds he’d hacked and toi­lets he’d scrubbed, she want­ed to think of how they’d toiled to do bet­ter by their chil­dren, her and Tim both. But my mother’s imag­i­na­tion could trick her.

          She some­times thought of my father, her hus­band, hack­ing weeds by the creek, his back to her, and when the man turned around, she saw her father, my grand­fa­ther. My moth­er Geor­gia would yelp, angry with her­self. Why would her mind play this trick on her? she’d ask, in a cru­ci­fy­ing tone. Tim was qui­et, sen­si­tive, fac­tu­al. He didn’t rise to her lev­el in her angri­er moments, because he knew she’d inher­it­ed the worst thing from her father, a tem­per she failed to rein in most days, so why, why, why would her mind do this to her, what was it try­ing to tell her, and she couldn’t help smack­ing her head with her book before head­ing to the liv­ing room to read from it, some emp­ty-head­ed mys­tery she fig­ured out halfway through, bad­ly edit­ed copy she couldn’t help ink­ing over, some inan­i­mate object she could poke and prod with­out any guilt over the consequences.


          My moth­er was right about what life was like, among many things. Life was long. Life was repet­i­tive. Life was chas­ing after mon­ey you’d nev­er have enough of, work­ing jobs you’d grow to hate just to get more of it. Life was geese mak­ing you late for work.

          Even in the city, per­haps espe­cial­ly so, I see geese. The geese wad­dle around the grass strips between busy roads, haughty toward the human traf­fic honk­ing around them, beg­ging them to get on with their day. They trav­el in flocks, peck­ing the grass for worms, left­over food, what­ev­er suits their appetite. I see them con­stant­ly, and I usu­al­ly ignore them. All my mem­o­ries of them blur togeth­er. All but one.

          It was a hot August day. I was already run­ning late to work, impro­vis­ing a pre­sen­ta­tion about bud­get num­bers, idling before my office at the last traf­fic light, per­sis­tent­ly red. And just before it turned green, a goose and its fledg­ling began cross­ing the street in front of me. I almost slammed my horn with my fist before I looked clos­er and saw.

          The goose was rush­ing its child along, peck­ing at its lit­tle head with fury, like the poor thing couldn’t walk fast enough for its moth­er. The gosling ran and stum­bled, and the parent’s ire grew. It jabbed again, so sharply I touched my own head. I sat still, obliv­i­ous to the cars behind me. I was lost and out of body—what did it mean, what did it mean, what did I mean—my work for­got­ten, the time no more a num­ber on my dash­board but sum­mer grass, crick­et har­mo­ny, soft arms squeez­ing me.

          The geese dis­ap­peared behind the hedge, and I was late to work.

From the writer


:: Account ::

After my dad’s moth­er had passed away, we were tour­ing his fam­i­ly home­stead. There, he shared with my broth­ers and I all the chores he and his sib­lings woke up each day to do, what all the dif­fer­ent machin­ery was for, and the pranks and hijinks they inflict­ed on each oth­er. After I drove home, I sat with my mom at the kitchen table and told her I want­ed to record my dad nar­rat­ing his mem­o­ries, and I had the good sen­si­tiv­i­ty to offer her the same. She said she had no desire to revis­it her past, and that’s when she told me, for the first and only time.

That sum­mer, when my grandmother’s funer­al took place, the first sum­mer of COVID-19, I was part of a vir­tu­al work­shop that had formed dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. I lat­er found myself at a cof­fee shop try­ing to write a sto­ry for them to read, as good as the last one we’d read. Like many of my sto­ries, this one slipped out through my fin­gers, demand­ing to be told. I can tell I care about a sto­ry when the first draft pours out of me like molten gold, how­ev­er much tam­per­ing it needs lat­er in revision.

This semi­au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal sto­ry is my way of explor­ing gen­er­a­tional trau­ma; it’s in no way non­fic­tion. I’ve nev­er asked my moth­er again about the vio­lence she suf­fered from her father, but fic­tion lets me make up answers to the inces­sant ques­tions I have, with­out both­er­ing my moth­er over it. I have my own com­pli­cat­ed mem­o­ries of my par­ents, and this sto­ry start­ed out with a pro­tag­o­nist like myself. Yet as I wrote, I grew inter­est­ed in the sto­ries and tri­als of eldest daugh­ters like my moth­er, and I changed the nar­ra­tor into one like my old­er sister.

My moth­er wouldn’t like me writ­ing this sto­ry, and like many writ­ers, I feared I was appro­pri­at­ing mate­r­i­al which wasn’t mine. Yet, I’ll put my name on this any­ways. I doubt many fam­i­lies appre­ci­ate hav­ing a writer amidst their ranks, but writ­ers have got to write. It’s my hope who­ev­er reads this sto­ry will say I’ve craft­ed it justly.

I’d like to acknowl­edge my fel­low writ­ers in my work­shop for chal­leng­ing me to write my very best, and I’d like to acknowl­edge my fam­i­ly, too, par­tic­u­lar­ly my old­er sis­ter and mother.

Brodie Gress is a gay writer based in Louisville, Ken­tucky. He has pub­lished fic­tion and poet­ry with Polaris, Chelsea Sta­tion Mag­a­zine, The Rotary Dial, The Rain­town Review, and Forces. He works as a tec­ni­cal writer at a med­ical dis­tri­b­u­tion facil­i­ty, and he for­mer­ly taught and tutored writ­ing and com­po­si­tion at the local com­mu­ni­ty col­lege. He is work­ing on a novel.


 Nonfiction / Caitlin Cowan

:: Smoke::

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

From the writer


:: Account ::

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

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

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

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

Two Poems

Poetry / Sara Lynne Puotinen

:: Two Poems ::

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From the writer


:: Account ::

Four years ago, I was diag­nosed with cone dys­tro­phy and told that all of my cen­tral vision would be gone in five years. I began to doc­u­ment the process of this vision loss. These poems are part of that doc­u­men­ta­tion. They are inspired by Georgina Kleege and her descrip­tion of find­ing the large blind spot in her cen­tral vision by star­ing at a blank wall.  

One day, dur­ing the ear­ly stages of the pan­dem­ic, I went to a blank wall in my liv­ing room, stood still, and stared at it. Soon I saw some­thing strange. It wasn’t a full spot but a dark ring with a light cen­ter. I taped a piece of paper to it at eye lev­el, closed one eye, and then traced the blind ring that appeared, first with a pen­cil, lat­er with blue cray­on. 

I was delight­ed to see this ring. Final­ly evi­dence of declin­ing vision that I could observe! I knew I was los­ing cen­tral vision by how much hard­er it was to read, how people’s faces were fuzzy blurs, how I nev­er noticed mold on my food, but my brain was com­pen­sat­ing remark­ably well and I often won­dered if I was imag­in­ing my vision prob­lems. 

Before see­ing my blind ring on the wall, the main method I used for mon­i­tor­ing my vision loss was to stare into an Amsler grid, which is a grid with a dot in the cen­ter used to detect dam­age to the mac­u­la. I would notice how the lines were wavy instead of straight, soft instead of sharp, how they fad­ed a few blocks from the cen­ter. I could reas­sure myself that I wasn’t mak­ing up my fail­ing vision. 

I decid­ed to use these forms—my blind ring and the Amsler grid—to cre­ate poems about my moods while liv­ing in the in-between state of not quite see­ing, not yet (legal­ly) blind. It seemed urgent and impor­tant to try to iden­ti­fy these moods and then find ways to express them, part­ly because I need­ed to work through my feel­ings, and part­ly because I want­ed to give atten­tion to some­thing that wasn’t dis­cussed enough: what it feels like to be in the process of los­ing sight, not after it is lost or before, but dur­ing. 

I cre­at­ed a grid and fit 3 poems describ­ing a mood into it: a main poem that was in the form of my over­all work­ing vision, a small­er poem that was in the form of the cen­tral vision with­in the blind ring that I still have left, and a hid­den poem with words fill­ing in the box­es in the space of my blind ring. Each box in the grid con­tains one char­ac­ter (a let­ter or space or punc­tu­a­tion) and I use a mono­type font to keep it even­ly spaced.  

Sara Lynne Puoti­nen lives in south Min­neapo­lis, near the Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er Gorge, where she reads and writes and tries to be upright and out­side as much as pos­si­ble. She earned a B.A. in reli­gion, an M.A. in ethics, and a Ph.D in women’s stud­ies, which all inform her exper­i­ments in pay­ing atten­tion and her play­ful trou­bling of what it means to write while mov­ing, to move while writ­ing, and to do both while los­ing her cen­tral vision from a degen­er­a­tive eye dis­ease (cone dys­tro­phy). Her writ­ing has appeared in Poemeleon, Hearth & Cof­fin, and Lon­gleaf Review, among oth­ers. Cur­rent­ly, she is work­ing on a series of poems that use Snellen Charts and Amsler Grids to describe her expe­ri­ences with vision loss. 

Going to the Hospital

 Nonfiction / Brittany Ackerman

:: Going to the Hospital :: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the writer


:: Account ::

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

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

There are no synonyms for catharsis

Poetry / Chisom Okafor

:: There are no synonyms for catharsis ::

on the thesaurus of hearts. Only fear, then nothing       situated  
You wonder what the moon       in all of its opaque        resplendence  
would become       tonight 
without       a beholder       and with its lights       of silver        
left hemorrhaging 
into this empty room       while we drown ourselves within       a lullaby 
you suddenly        stop to ask. 
if my joy       long lost       has returned       but I respond       in the way  
of being curious in my unhappiness 
and curious       in my joys       and in my silence       there is a force 
acting       to cause a displacement 
within my body       a force       equal and opposite 
to the powerhouse       of my body 
what does it mean       to be a fruit       tarrying       undecided 
between ripening        and decay? 
even a vain thing        as indecision       possess the power 
to change       every man. 
Tonight       I come to you        a man in the face of his epiphany 
dear lover       watch me sift       into the heart of the night       watch me echolocate 
watch me trip       over a rock       just as I prep 
my heart for disaster       each of the human eye       being god’s 
loneliest creation       and hidden away        
each in its socket       each without knowledge       of the presence       of an 'other' 
a few inches       across the street       of the nose 
and my body       synonym for      utopia        rising from the Greek word 
utopus       which is to say       best place 
But which also means       no place       waterless       if you defer  
to its original         translation. 
Tonight       I listen to my heart       whisper double-faced promises       in my hearing 
I’ll take you out       it says       which is to say       dine with you 
which is also to say       suffocate you. 

From the writer


:: Account ::

In the heat of the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic, I was diag­nosed of right ven­tric­u­lar dys­func­tion, which is a hyper­ten­sive heart dis­ease. I was just 26, and the car­diac clin­ic where I had series of ECG and echo ses­sions, was filled with much old­er men and women, peo­ple in their sev­en­ties and eight­ies, who looked at me with so much pity and ques­tions, that they for­got their own trou­bles. I had been engrossed with writ­ing love poems before then, but after my diag­no­sis, my writ­ing grav­i­tat­ed towards the con­fes­sion­al, a kind of tes­ta­ment to the phys­i­cal and men­tal trau­ma Ive been forced to go through, on my jour­ney to heal­ing. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, my heart con­di­tion, accord­ing to the car­di­ol­o­gist, may nev­er be ful­ly cor­rect­ed, and may lead to pos­si­ble car­diac arrests or cerebro-vas­cu­lar acci­dents in the near future. The poems I now write morph into repeat­ed echoes down a desert­ed land­scape, calls out to a kind of heal­ing, one that may nev­er arrive, but I keep call­ing, any­way. Also, I have spent about two years work­ing as a clin­i­cal nutri­tion­ist dur­ing the day, and writ­ing poet­ry at night. As a result, I often tend to think about bod­ies like mine, lin­ger­ing at the inter­sec­tions of death, depar­tures and clin­i­cal vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. This mar­riage between the two, is also what my poems attempt to inter­ro­gate. They come close to trau­ma and dwell in its poet­ic pos­si­bil­i­ties, play­ing with the meet­ing point between heart as metaphor, heart as dead­ly lit­er­al organ and the body, and by so doing, attempt to stretch the real lim­its of being. 

Chi­som Okafor, Niger­ian poet and clin­i­cal nutri­tion­ist, has received nom­i­na­tions for the Brunel Inter­na­tion­al African Poet­ry Prize, the Push­cart Prize, Ger­ald Kraak Prize, and the Siller­man First Book Prize for African Poets. He tweets @chisomokafor16. 


Laugh Track

Fiction / Ben Briggs

:: Laugh Track ::

            I just need him gone.

            See­ing him makes me think about the girl. I don’t want to think about the girl.

            I brought it up to my ther­a­pist, Emi­ly, and she agreed. It’s my per­son­al space. It’s my home. The week­end was one thing. Now it’s Sun­day night. Now I need him gone.

            He’s watch­ing Sein­feld in my liv­ing room, still drink­ing beer, still not using a coast­er even though I encour­aged him to use one. I don’t care that he’s my cousin. I don’t care that he’s try­ing to help me. I like to read on Sun­day nights so I can get my mind ready for work in the morning.

            Even from my room I’m unable to do this because he has the vol­ume turned above 40 on the TV. It sounds like it’s at lev­el 45. I put down my copy of The Dance with Anger and walk back into the liv­ing room so I can find out when he’s leaving.

            Adam’s lying down on my couch as if he owns it. The shreds in his jeans were cool when we were kids, but he’s thir­ty now. And his hair? Christ. I would tell him to cut it, but if he won’t lis­ten to me about using a coast­er, he cer­tain­ly won’t lis­ten to me about that.

            To think he’s a father.

            He has to move his feet, leav­ing only inch­es for me to sit down. Both hands are behind his head like he’s loung­ing on a hammock.

            “My guy,” Adam says. “You hid­ing in a cave back there? Thought we were gonna crush a cou­ple movies together.”

            I only par­tial­ly agreed to that. Nev­er actu­al­ly confirmed.

            “I have work tomor­row. I’m get­ting men­tal­ly prepared.”

            “Pssst. Feel you on that. The Scaries are no joke. I fig­ured I’d take a few days off myself. Too much going on at home, with all the remod­el­ing and Aria start­ing school.”

            It’s hard to con­cen­trate on what he’s say­ing because the vol­ume on the TV is so high.

            “Have you heard from Lil­lian yet?”

            This makes him sit up straight.

            “I was just gonna tell you. She’s gonna stay at her Dad’s for anoth­er cou­ple days. It’s good for them to get away.” He paus­es. “Any­way, cool if I crash here one more night? Con­struc­tion guys are gonna be at it in the morn­ing. Too much riff raff.”

            He again puts his hands behind his head and leans back on the couch.

            “I have work in the morning.”

            “It’s no stress on me. I know you’re get­ting back on the horse, and believe me, by the time you get home tomor­row, I’m gone. Promise you that.”

           I nod and take a deep breath. Inhale and exhale, just like I do in my ses­sions with Emi­ly. I feel my feet on the ground, my back press­ing against the couch. If he’s going to leave tomor­row, that should be okay.

            “Could you please keep the vol­ume to a minimum?”

            Adam looks at me with a sly grin. “It’s the least I can do.”

            As I walk back to my room, I can hear the laugh track play­ing on the TV. Before Emi­ly, I used to think the laugh track was about me. That these peo­ple were mock­ing me. Laugh­ing at me, not with me. Now I imag­ine it dif­fer­ent­ly. I imag­ine a group of peo­ple locked in a room with seat­belts on their chairs. All of a sud­den, a bright light shines in front of them. “LAUGH” the light tells them. So they laugh. They don’t know what they’re laugh­ing at, or about, but they do it any­way. Until it becomes a call­ing. A way of life for these peo­ple. They laugh and laugh until they can’t laugh anymore.


            I’m dri­ving to work and it’s raining.

            It’s very impor­tant I’m on time today, as it’s my first day back in over two months. After the inci­dent, Emi­ly rec­om­mend­ed I take time to decom­press. But it’s been too long.

            Very rarely does it rain in the Bay Area and I didn’t account for this. I’m going to be late because of it. Adam kept the vol­ume above 40 all night. At 1:13am, I went into the liv­ing room to tell him to turn the vol­ume down. Of course he was already sleep­ing. Of course he was. For­tu­nate­ly, he’ll be gone by the time I get back.

            The rain will make me late, but as Emi­ly says, that’s out of my con­trol. She tells me to height­en my sens­es when I’m stressed. So I start with the rain, know­ing I should appre­ci­ate the sound it makes against my wind­shield. It’s a pat­ter­ing sound. Rhyth­mic. It lets me absorb every­thing around me. I feel my feet on the ped­al of my Hon­da Civic. I feel my back against the leather chair. One hand on the wheel, the oth­er rest­ing on my lap. I can taste the banana I had this morn­ing. Deep breaths in. Deep breaths out. There are beau­ti­ful things in the world, real­ly. I just have to notice them.

            I see the cars around me as I merge off the high­way and into the city. There’s a cross­walk up ahead so I slow down. Com­muters are still out, even in the rain. Someone’s walk­ing very slow­ly through a cross­walk so I ease my breaks. They have rain boots on, a blue wind­break­er and a black umbrel­la. I see each step the per­son is tak­ing. Right. Left. Right. He’s about to pass my car so I put my foot back on the gas. My car starts to move for­ward, but then he slips. I slam on the breaks. Slips. He’s on his knees, try­ing to re-bal­ance. He slipped. No one pushed him. Slipped. I didn’t push him. My breaths are fast. Stop it. Deep breaths in, deep breaths out.

            The per­son gets up and waves at me for stop­ping. I fin­ish my com­mute to work.


            Even with the rain, I’m the first one in the office so I take a seat in my cube. My screens. I missed them. Breath­ing is easy here.

            When peo­ple ask what I do for a liv­ing, I tell them it will be too com­plex for them to under­stand. All they need to know is I’m at a com­pa­ny that val­ues me great­ly. It’s also a com­pa­ny I own, as I am a shareholder.

            My man­ag­er Angela tells me I’m on the fast track for promotion.

            I’m an Inven­to­ry Con­trol Ana­lyst now, and assum­ing my per­for­mance stays in line, which it will, I’ll become a Senior Inven­to­ry Con­trol Ana­lyst in two years. More plants, more dol­lars. After that, it would like­ly be anoth­er three years before I’m eli­gi­ble for anoth­er pro­mo­tion. But then, the pos­si­bil­i­ties are end­less. I could become an Inven­to­ry Con­trol Project Lead, or I could do a lat­er­al move and become a Senior Pro­duc­tion Con­trol Ana­lyst. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the Senior Pro­duc­tion Con­trol Ana­lyst role has to line up with East Coast hours with our plant in Mass­a­chu­setts. So I’d either have to relo­cate to Mass­a­chu­setts or be at work by 5:00am each morn­ing. Nei­ther of which I’d be will­ing to do.

            After a few moments of check­ing email, Angela walks by and stands out­side my cube. My col­leagues are fil­ing in.

            “Well. Hel­lo there, Richard. Wel­come back.”

            Angela’s lean­ing against the wall with her left hand on her hip. I don’t know why she stands like that. She’s chew­ing baby blue gum, just like she always does. It match­es her baby blue dyed hair. When she chews, she looks like a dog gnaw­ing at a bone. Which is okay. I can acknowl­edge this, but not let it both­er me.

            But, even if it doesn’t both­er me, it does impact my per­for­mance. I don’t know how to address the issue because the cor­po­rate pol­i­cy states I should dis­cuss dis­tur­bances like this with my man­ag­er. I plan to re-read the pol­i­cy for a loop­hole one evening. Maybe tonight as Adam will be gone.

            “Thank you,” I say.

            She glances around and low­ers her voice. “Did you have any issues with HR, you know, get­ting paid or… Any­thing like that?”

            I have a lot of work to catch up on, and don’t have time for small talk.

            “Nope. All seamless.”

             Our team meet­ing starts in five min­utes which will derail my pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. She’s still stand­ing there though, smil­ing at me awkwardly.

            “I know you like your space, so I’ll leave you be. But remem­ber, my door’s always open if you ever want to talk about your… break, or any­thing real­ly. Hap­py to have our num­ber one work­er bee back.”

            I tight­en up for a sec­ond, but I have to keep my com­po­sure. I have to remem­ber com­ments like this come from a good place.

            “It’s great to be back,” I say.

            And it is. This is why, gum chew­ing aside, I like Angela. She real­izes the worth I pro­vide to the com­pa­ny. She can spot tal­ent a mile away.


            The team meet­ing was pointless.

            The more time I talk about what I do, the less time I can actu­al­ly do it. I’m back at my desk now. This is where all the mon­ey is saved. I open up my doc­u­ments and look at all the part num­bers. I imag­ine the dol­lar sav­ings I’ll be able to generate.

            I copy a part num­ber from Excel that’s no longer going to be pro­duced by our com­pa­ny and paste it into the Inven­to­ry Man­age­ment Sys­tem. I check the inven­to­ry lev­els in all of our plants. I have all the pow­er. 37 units on hand in Tecate, MX, 45 units on hand in Shang­hai, CN and 172 units on hand in Cham­paign, IL. I email the plan­ners for each facil­i­ty and inform them the parts are going to be dis­con­tin­ued. We won’t be mak­ing them any­more, so they need to bleed off the inven­to­ry. I’m doing good by the com­pa­ny. Brick by brick. Part by part. I repeat the process for the next part num­ber, and the next one, and the next one.

            Before I can blink it’s 5:42pm. I skipped lunch, it appears, but I for­give myself because it was such a pro­duc­tive day. My breaths were con­trolled. I was present and in the moment. Adam is gone now, so I’ll have my space. I can read, I can make din­ner. I can do what­ev­er I want.


            I’m in the hall­way of my unit, about to open the door when I hear noise from my kitchen. I must be hear­ing things. It’s impos­si­ble for me to be hear­ing noise from my kitchen as Adam is gone. But when I open the door, it hits me like a tidal wave. Clang­ing pots and pans, the siz­zling of bacon, eggs being bat­tered. Adam is mov­ing through­out the kitchen, play­ing music on his phone, lin­ing up plates and mak­ing a mess. He’s in the kitchen. He’s not gone.

            “Ricar­do! Wel­come back amigo.”

            He’s wear­ing an apron. I had it tucked away above the oven. He must have searched the whole kitchen. Each and every drawer.

            “What are you doing here?”

            “Your shelves are thin, my broth­er. For­tu­nate­ly a lit­tle break­fast for din­ner nev­er hurt any­one. Want any?”

            It’s a mess. Every­thing is a mess. Why is he not gone?

            “I thought you were leav­ing today.”

            “You won’t believe it,” he says, paus­ing his oper­a­tion. “Pow­ers out at our unit. Some­thing the con­trac­tors did. Maybe a snip where there shouldn’t have been a snip?” He laughs. “I’m no expert though.”

            He puts his hand up in mock defense, as if I would ever insin­u­ate him to be an expert in any­thing. I start to shake when I real­ize what this means. Not only is he not gone. He’s not leaving.

            “Wouldn’t our Mom’s love this? Just me and you, bunk­ing just like old times!” He grabs the skil­let and starts pour­ing eggs on his plate. “Say… Why don’t we just chat tonight? You could tell me about work, how you’re feeling…”

            I can tell he wants me to nod my head or to give him some sort of cue that it’s okay he’s still here. Like I can’t read through these lit­tle “check ins”. Like I don’t know he’s just the mer­ce­nary my fam­i­ly puts on the front line with me. Years ago they were more fre­quent. But it’s been a while.

            I feel like my body is frozen in time. Breath­ing is get­ting hard­er, and I real­ize it’s inevitable. The longer he’s here, the more I have to think about the girl.

            “All the stuff you’re doing with Emi­ly,” he says. “Seems pret­ty chill. I’m sure I could learn a trick or two myself.”

            “Great,” I blurt out.

            But I imme­di­ate­ly go to my room. I lay with my back on my bed and stare at the ceil­ing fan. The spin­ning usu­al­ly calms me. Should I call Emi­ly? I inhale. No, I can’t. Not right now. I exhale. I can’t let her down. Besides my fam­i­ly, who have no choice, it’s typ­i­cal­ly two min­utes before some­one becomes dis­in­ter­est­ed in me. They turn their head. They change the sub­ject. Emi­ly gives me fifty five min­utes. No mat­ter what.

            She deserves my best.

            For her to see me like this? Not com­posed? No. She was the only one that believed me. Of course the fam­i­ly didn’t. Why would they?

            But the girl. We talked at the social. The girl, with her tight jean jack­et. The girl, with her freck­les. She should have remembered.

            “Are you going to apol­o­gize now?” I said to her.

            I shouldn’t have said it like that, but I did. It was lat­er in the night. On the dock. It was fog­gy. It was crowd­ed. It was right before she slipped.

            She looked up, then back at her phone. Like I wasn’t there.

            “Hey,” I pressed. “What’s wrong with you?”

            How could she not have remem­bered? What hap­pened next was an acci­dent. I know I moved clos­er. Too close, prob­a­bly. But push her? No. I didn’t do that. I didn’t.

            The ceil­ing fan is giv­ing me clarity.

            Adam’s done this in the past. Stayed at my place, “kept” an eye on me. So why does it feel dif­fer­ent this time? Yes, his house is under con­struc­tion. Yes, Lillian’s par­ents don’t like him. Yes, he can be a job­less dead­beat. But maybe it’s some­thing more.

            Maybe this is all… A set up? Yes. That’s it. Adam sup­pos­ed­ly saw every­thing. Or so he claims. He was only ten feet away from us on the dock. Tops.

            But not only that night. A few days lat­er, when it was all set­tled, when the girl final­ly got “clar­i­ty” and false­ly accused me — Adam stepped in and talked to the police, to the girl’s fam­i­ly. I assumed he was help­ing me. But what if he was doing the oppo­site? A set up. How did I not think of that? A set up, yes. Is he try­ing to lure some­one here to trap me? It was only a mat­ter of time before some­one tried it. Something’s been off. That sly grin on his face. I know he’s work­ing with them.

            Stop it. Adam’s my cousin. Deep breath in. We were born in the same town. Deep breath out. The same month. Deep breath in. Our Moms would take us school shop­ping togeth­er. He helped me move in here when I couldn’t afford it myself. Deep breath out. He’s here to help me. Even if I just want to be alone.

            I grab a remote from my bed­side and turn up the ceil­ing fan pow­er. It spins faster, but I can still hear the TV vol­ume. It’s above 40. Prob­a­bly close to 50 now.

            Order. Clean­li­ness. Rules. Emi­ly told me to estab­lish them. They will calm me.

            I take more deep breaths and feel the oxy­gen flow through my body.

            No one’s accus­ing any­one of any­thing. But, if Adam is going to be here, in my home, I need to address the rules with him. If the house is order­ly, there won’t be any problems.

            I walk out of my bed­room and into the liv­ing room where he’s already stretched back onto the couch. He left his half-eat­en plate of bacon and eggs on the floor, not the side table where it should be. I pick up it up stare at the TV. It’s the Sein­feld episode where George, Jer­ry and Elaine are at the car deal­er­ship. Kramer is out test-dri­ving a car.

            I turn to Adam.

            “Okay, so a cou­ple rules if you’re going to be stay­ing here for a few more days. Over the week­end we were going out. Now it’s the week. Now I have work.”

            “Of course.” He perks up.

            The TV is blar­ing. George can’t get food out of the vend­ing machine. The laugh track plays. That laugh track.

            “Would it be okay? Could you just turn the vol­ume down?”

            Adam flips the vol­ume from lev­el 47 to 42.

            “So a cou­ple of rules.”

            George is yelling at the deal­er­ship own­er now. He’s demand­ing his mon­ey back from the vend­ing machine. More laugh tracks. LAUGH.

            “Actu­al­ly could you turn it off?”

            I see Adam try­ing to be patient with me. But I know he’s get­ting irri­tat­ed. He doesn’t respect my rules. Inhale, exhale.

            “Okay, so just a cou­ple rules. This is a pro-coast­er house­hold. I’ve put them on all the counter sur­faces for you to use. If you’re drink­ing beer, which you’ve been drink­ing a lot of, and I get it, it was the week­end, there’s no prob­lem there. But now… There’s only a few left. For those last few beers, it’s best to use a Koozie. Trash goes in the grey bin. Recy­cling in the blue bin. I try to recy­cle as much as I can to elim­i­nate trips to the garbage room. Appar­ent­ly, there are rats in the garbage room at night. I nev­er go in at night. From 7:00am to 3:00pm is fine in my expe­ri­ence. So if you’re mak­ing a trash run, that’s when you make it.”

            He nods his head a few times.

            “All clear?” I say. “Okay, one last thing. Dur­ing the week, I’m typ­i­cal­ly lights out by 9:30pm. 40 is the mag­ic num­ber for the TV vol­ume. You can watch TV all night as long as it doesn’t go over 40.”

            “All good bro.” Adam says. “Did you feel bet­ter being in the office?”

            I shouldn’t have agreed to talk­ing with him.

            “I always do.”

            “For sure, for sure. You men­tioned look­ing at num­bers relax­es you. How was all that?”

            Emi­ly is the only per­son I want to dis­cuss this with. Not Adam. Not now.

            “I’m going to read in my room. I’ll see you in the morning.”

            Emi­ly would be very sat­is­fied. Expec­ta­tions have been set. I made rules that every­one, myself includ­ed, can fol­low. I com­mu­ni­cat­ed calm­ly and effec­tive­ly. And now that I’ve made myself abun­dant­ly clear, there shouldn’t be any more issues.


            It’s Thurs­day now. Adam has re-pro­grammed the TV. The vol­ume says it’s at 34. I checked it. But it’s over 40. I know it is. The laugh track plays and plays and Adam joins in as well. He’s laugh­ing at the same pitch. It’s an end­less loop of laugh­ter that plays in my head. It won’t go away. It’s been three more days.

            I’m trapped in my room, where I’ve been trapped all week. There’s no sign of Lil­lian or Aria. Adam says Lil­lian is pick­ing him up tonight, and he’s leav­ing. But I don’t believe him. I’m run­ning on emp­ty. Every time he starts to fol­low one rule, he breaks three or four more. Rules I didn’t even know existed.

            On Tues­day he was singing in the show­er. Loud­ly. I could hear him from my bed­room. Singing in the show­er, that loud, is worse than the vol­ume being over 40. Then lat­er, he left the win­dow open all night. It’s an ice­box in here bro, he said Wednes­day morn­ing. I won­der why? And then last night, he fell asleep on the couch after order­ing deliv­ery. Some­one rang the door­bell. Three times. Past 10:00pm. I was already in bed, and not to men­tion the unit doesn’t allow vis­i­tors that late.

            Now I can hear the laugh track again.

            I look at the clock and see it’s past 7:00pm. It’s offi­cial­ly night­time. He knows the rules and he’s not fol­low­ing them. I open the door to my bed­room. His bags are packed. He’s real­ly play­ing the part, pre­tend­ing that he’s actu­al­ly going to leave.

            I’m pant­i­ng as I walk up to him on the couch and snatch the remote out of his hands.

            “It’s past 7:00pm. The vol­ume is over 40.”

            Of course it comes to this. After it hap­pened, after the girl slipped and fell four­teen feet and every­one was shout­ing and throw­ing her a life jack­et, and every­one was focus­ing on the girl and only the girl, Adam was look­ing straight at me. From the oth­er side of the dock. He wasn’t look­ing at her. He was already accus­ing me.

            “Easy my guy. Are you okay?”

            I’m more than okay. I final­ly understand.

            “It’s you. That’s why you’re here.”

            Final­ly, I can hear them. The sirens. They’re com­ing for me. They want­ed to lull me to sleep. It’s been two months since the girl slipped. Just enough time for me to final­ly become hap­py again. To get back to the job I love, to find some­one like Emi­ly who believes in me, and now it comes crash­ing down. The only good thing is that the laugh­ter is drowned out, but it’s replaced with the sirens which are get­ting clos­er. And loud­er. I’ll take the laugh­ter over this. Any­thing but this.

            “How long have you been plan­ning this?” I press.

            It’s his fault I was even there in the first place. His Mom’s dumb “social” gath­er­ing with her col­lege friends. An annu­al din­ner and cruise for the Beta Kap­pa class of 87. What a scam. I shouldn’t have let him drag me there.

            I was out­side the restau­rant, play­ing Tetris on my phone, when I met the girl.

            “Why are you out here by your­self?” she asked.

            When I told her I had work in the morn­ing, and that it was an impor­tant call, and my voice couldn’t be raspy, she rolled her eyes.

            “It’s not like you’re the CEO,” she said.

            “Well, I do own the com­pa­ny,” I said. “I’m a shareholder.”

            And then she laughed. Right at me. All night she was laugh­ing, walk­ing around the social, telling oth­er strangers how ridicu­lous I was for think­ing the truth. Laugh­ing. What if some­one there worked for my com­pa­ny? She had no right.

            I’m stand­ing firm­ly over Adam now, and that’s when I see the girl on the dock, back­ing away from me. Adam’s scared of me. Just like she was.

            “Hold on dude,” Adam says. “What are you talk­ing about?”

            The stu­pid grin is off his face. It’s about time. I knew he was up to something.

            “Answer the question.”

            “Easy bro.” He puts his hand up. “Can you back up just a little?”

            I take one step closer.

            “I let you into my house. And you treat me like this? I thought we were family.”

            There are more sirens. Fire-trucks too. The whole city is com­ing. There’s no crowd­ed dock this time. Just me and Adam.

            “Bro, we are fam­i­ly. Why don’t you sit down. Have you called Emily?”

            I clench both my fists and I’m shak­ing. He can see it and I don’t care.

            “How long have you been plan­ning this? When you called me to stay here, was this the plan all along? I bet it was! I’m sure Lil­lian and Aria are just laugh­ing their ass­es off. What about the police? What did they have to say about me?”

            His expres­sion flips again. He looks at me with clar­i­ty, like he’s final­ly going to spill it. That it’s all a set up. That he made a mistake.

            “You did it… Didn’t you?” He paus­es for a few sec­onds. “You pushed that girl off the dock.”

            My heart is rac­ing. The sirens are get­ting loud­er. They’ll be here any second.

            “No. She slipped. I didn’t push her.”

            I’m clos­er now to Adam. I could reach him if I want­ed to.

            He wags his fin­ger and stands up. “You know what? I don’t need this. Lillian’s gonna be here any minute. Here’s to think­ing you actu­al­ly want­ed my help.”

            “Wait. I didn’t push her.”

            “Yeah. Tell it to your shrink.” He grabs his bag and walks to the door. He’s shak­ing his head, refus­ing to look at me. “Fuck­ing lunatic,” he mutters.

            Once he leaves, I walk over to the win­dow and know I’ll see the police, the ambu­lance, the fire-depart­ment, every­one. They’re all here to arrest me for some­thing I didn’t do. But when I look out the win­dow, I see a car I recognize.

            It’s Lillian.

            She’s stand­ing out­side her car on the side­walk. Aria is in the back seat. Adam walks up to Lil­lian and whis­pers some­thing, which makes her look up at the win­dow. I duck and sit down on the floor now. They can’t see me. The laugh­ter is gone. The sirens are gone. So I close my eyes.


            But I open them back up imme­di­ate­ly. I can’t rest. I start pac­ing and feel it com­ing through me again. Like a lion, ready to pounce. My apart­ment is spin­ning and wind­ing in every direc­tion. I walk to the kitchen and grab a ham­mer. Do I hear the laugh track again? I don’t know. The breath­ing meth­ods, my rules – they’re all use­less. Espe­cial­ly to a piece of shit like me. A piece of shit that scared a girl off the side of a dock. I pick up my phone to call Emi­ly. My heart’s pound­ing so hard it hurts.

            “Richard,” Emi­ly answers. “Are you okay?”

            I’m dizzy. I can’t say it but know I need to. I’ll spend a whole life­time like this if I don’t.

            “It’s just… How come I’m not bet­ter?! You said I would be!”

            The line is silent. I’m grip­ping the ham­mer tight.

            “I admit it, okay?” I point my fin­ger at my chest “I scared her, and she slipped! But why? Why aren’t I fixed yet?”

            I glance out the win­dow. Adam and Lil­lian are gone. The police aren’t here. No one is. Emi­ly final­ly answers. “I want you to take a deep breath in.”

            So I do. I slouch on the wall and fall back to the floor. The ham­mer slips out of my hand.

            “Now take a deep breath out.”

            I do that too. Deep breaths in, deep breaths out.

            “This is a process,” she says. “A slow one. But you can’t give up now.”

            My breaths are slow­ing down. The room’s no longer spin­ning. I want to start every­thing over. Go back to that night and change it all. But I can’t.

            “Let’s do an exer­cise,” she says. “I want you to think of a time when you were hap­py. It doesn’t mat­ter when. Let’s go to that moment.”

            Hap­py? I can do that. Just one time. I close my eyes and think of how I’ll answer.

From the writer

:: Account ::

In “Laugh Track” I want­ed to inhab­it the mind of a char­ac­ter on the verge of a men­tal health cri­sis. Men­tal health is so impor­tant to me, and some­thing I feel should be at the fore­front of con­ver­sa­tion in today’s cul­ture. Did Richard push “the girl” off the dock? I think it’s dif­fi­cult to say, but I don’t know if it real­ly mat­ters. I don’t believe he phys­i­cal­ly touched her, but I do believe his aggres­sive behav­ior and tem­pera­ment forced her to slip and even­tu­al­ly fall. I think what real­ly mat­ters is how he inter­nal­izes the inci­dent. How is he going to take the next step for­ward and improve his men­tal state?  In the ear­ly stages of this sto­ry, I imag­ined a house guest (Adam) over­stay­ing his wel­come and con­stant­ly blar­ing re-runs of a sit­com over and over that was dri­ving the nar­ra­tor crazy. The ini­tial drafts were more light­heart­ed, and focused on the house­guest more than the “host”, which in this case ends up being Richard. The more I dug into the sto­ry, the more I began to won­der – what if the host has some demons him­self? Who is this per­son, and why does he want Adam so des­per­ate­ly to get out of his apart­ment?   In terms of influ­ences, Haru­ki Murakami’s Blind Wil­low, Sleep­ing Woman col­lec­tion stands out. Muraka­mi does a sen­sa­tion­al job of get­ting very close into his narrator’s psy­ches and cre­at­ing sto­ries that force the read­er to ques­tion the valid­i­ty of what the nar­ra­tor is shar­ing. From a craft stand­point, I also will cite Robert McKee’s Dia­logue as an influ­ence, in an attempt to cre­ate unique voic­es for each char­ac­ter in the sto­ry.    Ben Brig­gs is an MFA can­di­date at the Uni­ver­si­ty of San Fran­cis­co. He’s the Edi­tor-In-Chief for the Invis­i­ble City Lit­er­ary Jour­nal. 

Since We Broke Up

Nonfiction / Cydney Mangubat

:: Since We Broke Up ::


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

From the writer


:: Account ::

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

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

Two Poems

Poetry /Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach

:: Week 9: Grape ::

louse: the singular form 
of lice, small, wingless, 
you’d never heard of
because you never find 
just one like the note 
from your son’s school
saying one girl has them
& she’s been treated & you 
should check every tangle 
of your son’s curls to make sure 
some haven’t found their way 
inside & another mother 
says she’d buzz it all off 
just to be safe, says he’s a boy 
so he’ll look tougher anyway 
& you recall how you 
were three then too 
when your parents nearly 
shaved you & the other kids 
wouldn’t share the bench, would 
run away & yell & point, 
would laugh how you were infected
& dirty & a louse, ruined 
—Jewish—so you’ll refuse
to cut his hair & scour
each perfect ringlet, twist
their multitudes around your fingers
& when you find
only more locks, you’ll tell him
to sit with Evelyn tomorrow,
to remind her 
she is beautiful & loved

:: Week 33: Pineapple ::

Every time she turns her head 
between your ilium & coxal bones, 
you feel your water 
about to break, afraid 
of that balloon-pop 
in your pelvis, afraid 
break is wholly wrong 
for what shifts or tears, slips 
& loosens. Bones break. 
Hearts, maybe. But the veil 
between your body’s end
& her beginning? There’s 
no breaking it. Looks like that baby
is about to fall 	      right out of you, 
the women call, holding 
tight to what’s already fallen 
from inside of them. Fall too, 
wholly wrong for the way 
a body enters breathing. 
Rain falls. Fruits from trees. 
But body from body? 
There must be more 
to describe such cleaving. 
Directionless & unfinished.   
I’m gonna report you 
to the grocery store, a man 
yells passing, you stole
one of their watermelons.  
How easy to be 
so wrong in naming 
what you’ve never carried. 
She is not a vine-trailing
scrambler yet, spreading 
as she clings to soil. For now,
she’s still reaching for the sun
atop a tall palm, still 
hardening, bones in her skull 
just starting to overlap, preparing
for descent, She’s only 
a pineapple, you correct him, 
& keep on walking, one 
slow bone in front 
of the other, unsure 
which one of you 
is going where or how
to name your joined, 
persistent motion.   

From the writer


:: Account ::

These poems come from a book-length man­u­script, 40 WEEKS (YesYes Books, 2023) in which I wrote a poem for each week of preg­nan­cy with my sec­ond child, play­ing with the fruits and veg­eta­bles the babys size is com­pared to in the week­ly emails those who are expect­ing can sign up to receive. While at times I take inspi­ra­tion from the objects them­selves, the poems aim to high­light the prob­lem­at­ic aspects of such comparisons—the way they gen­der and objec­ti­fy what is grow­ing inside—and focus instead on soci­etal taboos of the preg­nant body and our con­tin­ued cul­tur­al mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of and dis­com­fort with the expe­ri­ence of the more unfil­tered sides of moth­er­hood. These poems embrace the bare and grotesque, look­ing at what is often looked away from with­out shame, or at least ques­tion­ing why there is shame attached to the look­ing. They are also very much try­ing to fig­ure out how to con­tin­ue to moth­er my neu­ro­di­ver­gent old­er child, who is on the spec­trum, while preg­nant with my daugh­ter. In writ­ing a poem each week that con­nect­ed my expe­ri­ence of moth­er­hood and preg­nan­cy, I was able to stay con­nect­ed to my iden­ti­ties as a moth­er and writer, feel­ing that one was feed­ing the oth­er. I was a bet­ter moth­er because I was able to write, and I was a bet­ter writer because I was draw­ing on my vivid and vis­cer­al expe­ri­ence of moth­er­hood. I did not have to choose one, but rather, could be both, and for me, there is no oth­er way of being in the world. I am always nav­i­gat­ing space and inter­ac­tions as a moth­er, mul­ti­task­ing by simul­ta­ne­ous­ly try­ing to cap­ture the sto­ries and lyric moments all around memade more urgent and singing loud­er because of my chil­dren. 

Julia Kolchin­sky Das­bach ( emi­grat­ed from Dnipro, Ukraine as a Jew­ish refugee when she was six. She is the author of three poet­ry col­lec­tions: The Many Names for Moth­er (Kent State Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2019); Don’t Touch the Bones (Lost Horse Press, 2020); and 40 WEEKS, forth­com­ing from YesYes Books in Feb­ru­ary, 2023. Her recent poems appear in POETRY, Ploughshares, Amer­i­can Poet­ry Review, and AGNI, among oth­ers. She holds an MFA from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ore­gon and a Ph.D. in Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture and Lit­er­ary The­o­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia. Her dis­ser­ta­tion, Lyric Wit­ness: Inter­gen­er­a­tional (Re)collection of the Holo­caust in Con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can Poet­ry, pays par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to the under­rep­re­sent­ed atroc­i­ty in the for­mer Sovi­et ter­ri­to­ries. Julia is the author of the mod­el poem for “Dear Ukraine”: A Glob­al Com­mu­ni­ty Poem She is the Mur­phy Vis­it­ing Fel­low in Poet­ry at Hen­drix Col­lege and lives in Lit­tle Rock, Arkansas with her family. 

Something happened in Udanre

Fiction / Oluseye Fakinlede

:: Something happened in Udanre :: 


The day Tola Tubo­sun was down­sized was a Tues­day. The day before, he spent what he described as qual­i­ty time with the branch man­ag­er, whom he took as an Egbon. Wole Thomp­son, his Egbon by choice, had assured him not to wor­ry that day before. But on that Tues­day, he went berserk when he could not log into his por­tal, and sub­se­quent­ly was called into the HR office that he had some­thing wait­ing for him. Some­thing or a let­ter? He scoffed, as he wiped a tear trick­ling down his cheru­bic face with the back of his palms before drop­ping the inter­com, out­right­ly ignor­ing the pity faces of his col­leagues in the mar­ket­ing sec­tion, even that of Sub­o­mi who sprawled on his chair cast­ing rue­ful eyes on his friend. 

He had always had pre­sen­ti­ments about Tues­days, espe­cial­ly if an event, a promise, an inter­view, a meet­ing, a date, an appoint­ment, just name it, falls on that day. So, he was not sur­prised but wound­ed up sad despite the spir­i­tu­al for­ti­fi­ca­tions he had received from his moth­er when he told her about con­clu­sions at the bank for down­siz­ing that month after their branch had been debriefed three months ago due to the loss accrued, espe­cial­ly that of Mar­keters who were not meet­ing their targets.

 He also had per­son­al­ly prayed against the hunch he felt, a rea­son why he went to see Mr. Wole, because he feared the pos­si­bil­i­ty of being retrenched from the bank since the deci­sion was to be tak­en on a Tuesday.

 “Egbon”, why must the deci­sions be tak­en tomor­row, Tues­day? Ha, Tues­day, he roared. 

Tola, well, some things are super­sti­tious. Besides, if you believe them, you fuel the fears. And I can assure you that it might just be a threat for us to sit tight,” He said rolling his big body over plac­ing his arm on his shoul­der, while he gen­tly part­ed his soaked blue shirt. He smiled, straight­ened his gray check­ered tie, and hurled him to get to work, and stop being a worrywart. 

Five years ago, Tola came to Lagos just like most Niger­ian youths after their Nation­al Youth Ser­vice Corp Pro­gram in search of a green­er pas­ture. And after being on sev­er­al jobs; he became a con­tract staff at Eagle’s Bank 3 months ago, and had been on pro­ba­tion since as well as three of his colleagues. 

In his case, he had come from Eki­ti State, Erin-Ije­sha Eki­ti, and attend­ed the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ado Eki­ti, where he stud­ied Busi­ness Admin­is­tra­tion, and served at Okig­we, in Imo State. Hav­ing had a rough slice of life, he resolved one morn­ing, telling his aged moth­er, and his sis­ter that he would be going to Lagos, to look for bet­ter oppor­tu­ni­ties as none was forth­com­ing in Eki­ti. He added that he would be stay­ing with Lekan, a guy he met dur­ing the NYSC, and who was the Home Cell Coor­di­na­tor of their lodge. His moth­er could not dis­suade him from trav­el­ing to Lagos, nor the thought of putting up with the Lekan whom he had not seen for three years. She said, peo­ple change and most times, they change from bad to worse. Yet, this fell on deaf ears. 

Short stay­ing with Lekan had its rough edges, yet, it was a pro­peller of the good things to come for him. At his house, he was clothed, fed, and nur­tured. Three months after they lived togeth­er, Tola’s moth­er had a change of thought that there was still good­ness in the depraved world. It was Lekan that shared with him the Bank’s link, just like he helped him secure a job as a Sec­re­tary at a Neo­life, just like he helped him sub­mit his CV with the Chi­nese shoe fac­to­ry that had a strict rule of strip­ping up to one pant before entry or exit. And when the real­i­ties of his dream job seemed to fall apart like a two-dol­lar suit­case, he knew he rather runs home to Lekan who had not only become a true friend but his bur­den bearer. 

 Like a drenched foul, he dragged his feet along the busy Ogba Street, took some cut inside Ifako-Ogba, till he got to Pen cin­e­ma Agege, and sat at the front seat of the Keke Maruwa, head­ing towards Abule Egba to the two-bed­room apart­ment he shared with Lekan. Noth­ing made sense to him now, he felt a com­plete empti­ness, and his own body vivid­ly sticks. Wob­bled through the stairs, as if count­ing their num­bers, gave a cold smile to their smil­ing neigh­bor who always had an opin­ion about every mat­ter, and ignored her ques­tion of why he was home so soon and began telling the tale of their soon-to-fin­ish pre­paid meter unit. He unlocked the door and col­lapsed on the couch like a sawed tree. 

He checked his buzzing phone, swiped delete at a pop-up mes­sage from his office Egbon, swiped down the screen, and clicked on flight mood after he reject­ed two incom­ing calls. It was on the couch he curled up, till he fell asleep, and was awok­en by Lekan who took his head on his lap, and lis­tened as he whim­pered telling him all that hap­pened over and over again. Lekan on the oth­er hand, part­ed his back gen­tly, assur­ing him that all would be well. 

In the fol­low­ing weeks dis­card­ing his sui­ci­dal thoughts, he casu­al­ly began writ­ing, to avoid slid­ing into depres­sion. He first began shar­ing dai­ly quotes on Twit­ter, then it blos­somed into the cre­ation of a blog where he for the very first time decid­ed to write about places, the epi­cure­an places in Lagos he had vis­it­ed when he still had enough, and luck­i­ly, he still had the pic­tures he took with his DSLR Canon cam­era he bought on Konga. 

He wrote about the Ele­gushi beach as he vis­it­ed there yes­ter­day, and wrote about the Whis­per­ing Badal­gry palms, and all oth­er places of inter­est. Lekan also tried to light­en his mood by offer­ing to do his month­ly sub­scrip­tion, and he also promised to foot the house rent, believ­ing that the soon­est he would refund he like had always done. 

You are a good writer o, Tola. Lekan said one night read­ing through some­thing on his phone from his room. 

That’s flat­tery. Tola replied from the kitchen, with a mouth­ful of citrus. 

I am seri­ous. Lekan paused, wheeled the cur­tain open, stick­ing out his head, and showed him his phone rapid­ly scrolling till he got to the end of a page he was reading. 

Hey, you have been read­ing my blog. Tola replied with a shy smile point­ing the cit­rus at him, like an invi­ta­tion to suck on it. 


See, see these comments…

Wow, I have got 16 already? 

Not just that, you also have 22 in another. 

You need to go pro­fes­sion­al with this, and launch your blog… Hmmm, buy a domain. And always reply to these bud­ding read­ers of yours. This also means you have to pro­vide them with gen­uine con­tent all the time. Lekan said. 

Well, I know a friend that can help with the domain thing. He con­tin­ued, though it will cost some mon­ey. But that’s not a bother. 

Why are you always doing this Lekan? Drop­ping the sliced orange on a tray and stood affixed with his head tilt­ed to the back like a non­plussed child. 

Do not resist help bro, you have stood for me back then, dur­ing ser­vice year remem­ber? He wrapped his hands around him, con­tort­ed his lips, and made a smack­ing sound on his cheek. 

You can write about most tourist sites in West­ern Nige­ria, begin­ning from Eki­ti, since you lived all your life there and you told me that you have gone to some sites there. You can also write about Ondo State. 

Ha! That state, I have nev­er been there o. Tola interjected. 

No way! Then you must. They have nice places, for exam­ple, the Idanre hills. 

By the way, it is my State. And I am trav­el­ing in a few weeks to Owo, to see Mama. You should come along, and tour. 

Short­ly after the kind words from Lekan, and after read­ing a pletho­ra of com­ments on his entire 12 blog posts, Tola began to sense a new­ness of pur­pose thus tripling his writ­ing efforts. He would sit on their din­ing set that only had two sets of chairs for hours punch­ing the keys of his key­board till mid­night doing noth­ing but writ­ing and cre­at­ing new posts or re-edit­ing his writ­ing plans. And when­ev­er he felt a writer’s block, he would slouch on the wood­en chair after he had placed a pil­low on it and fell asleep. Most times, it was Lekan’s soft touch that woke him up, plac­ing a cof­fee on the table or at times, ask­ing him to go to bed to stretch properly. 


The set day arrived for the duo’s trip to Owo. The two friends packed their belong­ings inside sep­a­rate trav­el box­es and hit the road to Osho­di, where some Ondo State bus­es await­ed. They sat on the pas­sen­gers’ seats very close to the trib­al-faced dri­ver who con­sis­tent­ly and irri­ta­bly told Lekan to remove his thigh that curved like a female’s from the gear until the two end­ed up in a hot ver­bal exchange. 

On get­ting to Owo, they found a bike man that took them straight to the com­pound of Lekan, and his mom wel­comed his friend whom she had only spo­ken to on phone with Pound­ed yam and a bowl of steam­ing egusi soup pre­pared by one of the young girls that always attend­ed to her. And at night, she spoke about her desire for Lekan to get mar­ried soon because age and health were no longer on her side; I want to car­ry your child, like your oth­er sis­ters. She said, end­ing the dis­cus­sion with a 30 min­utes prayer ses­sion thank­ing God for health, jour­ney mer­cies, and peti­tion­ing his ears to soft­en the mind of her son and bring him his life partner

Tola and Lekan on the oth­er while they were alone, alone in the room, real­ly could not sleep but were starred bla­tant­ly on the moon peep­ing through the cur­tains, and then on each oth­er before they were knocked out by heavy snores.

After three days in Owo, Tola began to surf the net for tourist sites in Ondo, after he had toured major land­marks in Owo and had writ­ten about them. He felt the hunch to vis­it Idanre hills since it is about an hour’s dri­ve from Owo town. He told Lekan about his solo plans to Idanre as and he hoped to spend two days in Idanre. Lekan did not both­er to dis­suade his solo plan nor did he attempt to sug­gest being his trav­el bud­dy, as he was sad­dled with the respon­si­bil­i­ty of tak­ing care of his moth­er whose nurse had an ear­li­er morn­ing and after­noon appoint­ment, while he had promised to watch over her till the fol­low­ing week. 

On Mon­day morn­ing, he left Iyere Owo, in a red salon car sit­ting in the passenger’s seat, his favorite trav­el spot. The dri­ver of this car had all the sto­ries, but his eyes were fixed on the rub­ber semi-clad ecce homo that kept dan­gling its head all through the jour­ney, and no soon­er did they arrive at Akure, the Cap­i­tal City of Ondo State. 

Since it was the first time vis­it­ing the State, he did put sev­er­al calls to Lekan who kept send­ing him inter­mit­tent texts and voice notes on where to take the next cab and final­ly told him joc­u­lar­ly to ask any­body since it was not Lagos where peo­ple hard­ly talk to strangers. 

He soon found his way to Idanre Garage, and after wait­ing for about some min­utes, the car was filled. 

They got to Idanre town, and when they alight­ed he hailed a bike man who on the jour­ney to the tourist site, told him he was ini­tial­ly from the East­ern Part of Nige­ria but had since been liv­ing in the town after his NYSC because he nev­er want­ed to return home since noth­ing was wait­ing for him. Short­ly after he dropped him at the foot of the hills’ rusty gate, they both exchanged con­tacts with the promise to call and saved his name as “John Idanre”, and wait­ed to see him ride away. 


The sur­round­ings of the hill were quite a big one despite its signs of sheer aban­don­ment. There was a mini-open bar built like a gaze­bo hous­ing six plas­tic chairs that were placed dis­joint­ed­ly. Besides this bar, were two lit­tle boys wear­ing only briefs, pick­ing up plas­tic cov­ers and bot­tles under­neath a tree. They moved up, and down, mut­ter­ing some dialec­tal ver­sion of the Yoru­ba lan­guage. And when they raised their heads, like preys who felt the hunch of an approach­ing preda­tor, Tola moved for­ward to calm the children’s ner­vous­ness or anx­i­ety with a wave of hands, and they glad­ly returned a sim­i­lar ges­ture with their bot­tle trea­sures clenched fists. And as he walked towards a cir­cu­lar shaped build­ing in front of him, the lit­tlest boy who had a rosary around his chub­by neck and a wide grin on his cheeks, took small steps for­wards, while scratch­ing his groins with his clenched fist of plas­tic trea­sures, and con­tin­ued to grin until it fad­ed away. 

As he made his way into the cir­cu­lar thatched-roof build­ing, he cleared his throat that had become dried, call­ing out hel­lo before a man rose from a camp bed, yawn­ing, and asked him how he would love to be helped. 

Good after­noon, Tola checked his wrist­watch, paused, and resumed again the greet­ings. Good morn­ing, he said again, rais­ing his eyes and meet­ing this man with the rarest blue eye he had ever seen. 

The man stretched his body again, plac­ing an arm on the door frame, yawned now but with the cov­er­ing of his back palm, and retort­ed morn­ing.  

Tola con­tin­ued. I was won­der­ing whom I can talk to. I would like to tour the hills, and… inter­rupt­ed by the sleepy man who had now adjust­ed his shirts, and offered him a seat. 

Sor­ry bros, you know that body no is fire­wood, hence why I dey sleep. He said. 

My name is Oba, he stretched forth his arm for a hand­shake. I will be the tour guide here and the bar man­ag­er. So, you said you wan tour the hill? Well, I am the per­son, you can talk to and the mon­ey varies depend­ing on what exact­ly you wan do for this hill.” He said with­out a pause. 

How much is to tour? Tola asked, flip­ping his pause open, and wait­ing on a reply before bring­ing what­ev­er charges he might be billed. 

Na shiki­ni mon­ey, na 1k! Oba said laughing… 

Oh, a thou­sand naira. Tola retort­ed like a reecho. 

But I would like to spend some days in Idanre, at least to have a con­crete write-up for my blog. By the way, I am Tola, a blog­ger. He said, stand­ing up and stretch­ing forth his hands in a phat­ic way to Oba who was smil­ing all through as he was speaking. 

Nice meet­ing you, Mr. Tola. I guess you came from Lagos, and be rest assured that you would have a nice short stay in Idanre, but spend­ing time on the hills would cost you more, and the chalets are not in good con­di­tion. Oba replied now, no longer speak­ing in Pid­gin English. 

Tola burst into a peal of ran­corous laugh­ter that made him look embar­rassed after­ward. He had to be stu­pe­fied by the stand­ing fig­ure who had sud­den­ly switched from a usu­al street man­ner­ism to some curtsies. 

Par­don me. I should nev­er have done that, he said stand­ing up and wear­ing an apolo­getic face. I was just amazed that a while ago, you were speak­ing some pid­gin, and nev­er could have thought that you have some pol­ish tongue for Eng­lish. He said, wait­ing for a response. 

Well, that’s just the error most west­ern Nige­ri­ans make. Too many assump­tions that every­body under­stands this Eng­lish thing, so they blare it on anyone’s face, and that is com­mon with those bank people. 

Oba replied. 

Bank peo­ple? Did you know I used to work in a bank? Tola asked in a sur­prised tone. 

Haha, I would have guessed right, your Eng­lish will give you away, he said flir­ta­tious­ly. Shall we pro­ceed, we have got 682 steps to climb Mr. Tola. 

Please drop the Mr. I am sim­ple Tola. 

Okay, sim­ple Tola. He said joc­u­lar­ly, and Tola raised his eye­brow in a shy way, too dazed for a reply. 

The two end­ed up chok­ing on laugh­ter as they pro­ceed­ed to the end of a small rock, and began their jour­ney to the ancient city climb­ing the hued stone steps. 

At each rest­ing point, Oba told him sev­er­al sto­ries about the hills, act­ed some one-man cast dra­ma, and helped him to car­ry his waist back, so he could get some good shots of the hills, land­scape, and some of the left build­ings on the hills. 

You know, I would have loved you to wit­ness the Oro­sun fes­ti­val com­ing up next week in Idanre, and for­tu­nate­ly, it is done on this hill. Oba said to break an awk­ward silence that seemed to be exceed­ing for too long. 

Real­ly? Tell me about the Oro­sun fes­ti­val. Tola replied elatedly. 

It is a tra­di­tion­al fes­ti­val, a fes­ti­val of requests like I like to call, where the god­dess Oro­sun grants requests, and the tes­ti­monies prove that the god­dess Oro­sun, answers heart cries. See, point­ing to some small huts aloof. Those are the huts the chiefs camp in days before the fes­ti­val. See, they have start­ed clear­ing the thick­ets… He said. 

They stopped inside the old palace, where unclad effi­gies stood. This is a palace court­yard. Oba said, sit­ting on a block, and motioned that he writes on the walls like many vis­i­tors on the hills. 

Ummh, Oba, Tola asked after a short pause, could you take me to the Oro­sun shrine on this hill? I feel I will have a request to ask the goddess. 

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Oba Replied, the Oro­sun does not have a shrine on top of the hill, except the Aworo’s hut, the Orosun’s priest’s hut, where he prays that the peti­tions of Oso­los and any oth­er wor­shipers are grant­ed sits and per­forms the rituals. 

I feel that is all I need­ed, the Aworo’s spot, and what else? Tola asked. 

Some kola nuts, some gin, and a pure heart I sup­posed. Oba replied. 

The Oro­sun is pow­er­ful but does not answer any­one with anger or filth. He added. 

I have no resent­ment in my heart, well they have spurred me to where I am today, and for filth, what does Oro­sun see as filth? He asked slur­ring his ques­tions like one struck with a revelation. 

See bros, he switched to his jerk­ing pid­gin. I no be a wor­ship­per. Paused and raised his head, eyes affixed at him. But I think if I were a child­less god­dess that now answers requests from the mun­dane whose taunts were what drove me away in anger? I will be biased to con­sid­er only the inge­nu­ity of the requests com­ing from peo­ple whose inter­nal lives have been a mess, and those who seek hap­pi­ness because they may not find it. 

I will take you to the priest hut, you go make your requests.” He stood up, dust­ing his buttocks. 

Where we can get those items? Tola asked as they moved away from the old palace sites. 

You might just be lucky to see them there. Oba replied with a chuckle. 


It was now mid-day when they returned to the huts belong­ing to the chiefs mov­ing in quick short quick steps and stopped at the hut belong­ing to the Aworo, the priest of Orosun. 

Well, we have got to your spot man, enter, and make your wish. Oba snickered.

You know I should charge you more for this, he said affec­tion­ate­ly, rest­ing an arm on his left shoulder. 

There was a strange qui­et between the two men, but Tola jerked his shoul­der free­ing him­self from the man’s touch, and gen­tly pushed the wood­en door which squealed giv­ing them a free entry. 

Inside the hut was a small alter hav­ing a mir­ror direct­ly fac­ing the entry point. Besides the mir­ror were dif­fer­ent effi­gies and a very unique one which was the biggest, hav­ing a shape of a woman with point­ed breasts. At the foot of this altar was a tied cock with a col­lapsed comb. On the wall were stains of ani­mal blood smeared the walls, aside from the emp­ty bot­tles of gin, and a pack of gins bot­tles placed on a small pes­tle. Beside the pes­tle, was a bas­ket full of kola nuts, cov­ered by a fold­ed cane mat. 

Clears throat… Oba final­ly said, it seems you have got all your items here, say your prayers as I am run­ning out of time to return to the bar. After this, the quiet­ness in the room was restored but was dis­turbed by the mut­ter­ings of Tola, who had now stooped down, bit­ing on a kola nut he had bro­ken, and pour­ing some gin on the head of the biggest effi­gy with point­ed breasts. As it pour the gin, the liq­uid trick­led down till a por­tion of it touched the breasts and it looked like a lactation. 

The scene befud­dled Oba, as he knelt too, broke a kola, poured some more gin, prayed aloud, let my emp­ty heart find love, and laughed. 

The rum­ble of the thun­der made them shud­der and like the clouds angri­ly poured down rain like bust­ed pipes. 

Was this a sign of an answered prayer? Tola asked.

I don’t know, I am only a tour guide here and not the Aworo. He laughed. 

The tor­rent of the wind, made the wood­en small win­dow flut­ter as if it would break. Tola stood up and pulled it clos­er to its hook. He picked up the mat, and laid it on the floor, while sprawl­ing on it, and buried his head in his thighs. 

The steps would be slip­pery now even if it stops ‘Oba inter­rupt­ing the silence that now hov­ered in the air. 

Sat close to him on the mat, shoul­der to shoul­der, and occa­sion­al­ly raps his shoul­der with his, until the two gave each oth­er a steal­ing glance. 

You said you used to be a banker, how long have you worked here” were ques­tions from the duo like a knock wood. Then laugh­ter, and silence, and an awk­ward silence. They looked at each other’s eyes, and like indi­vid­u­als who had been pas­sion­ate­ly burn­ing and desirous, grasped each other’s heads, and began an in-depth con­sum­ma­tion of their lips. The two fell supine on the mat and were com­plete­ly over­pow­ered by this deep­est passion.

Ewo! Awon won leleyi (Abom­i­na­tion, who are these?) said a man stand­ing at the entrance with hands filled with all types of leafy things? 

Ha! Oba, you dey mad? You bring peo­ple to come here to defile this place?  Oke Udane ma ri aba mo e, roared in a dialec­tal sim­i­lar to what Tola heard from the chil­dren when he came in the morning. 

Oba clam­bered from the mat and head­ed to the door for a chase, but the stand­ing man floored him with a blow. The man called again, and two oth­er men, who were approach­ing ran inside the build­ing and got their ears filled with what they had seen. 

Aworo, must hear this, one said. 

Before nko. He needs to see what had become his hut, and what kind of sac­ri­lege is committed. 

Not even you, Oba. Aja! (Dog!) 

Where is Aworo, he should have been here, the rain must have inter­cept­ed his movement. 

Good, it is here we will wait for him. 

Please, Tola final­ly mus­tered the strength to plea for their lives. 

You sil­ly dog wey man dey touch touch for hill. 


It was evening, and the sun seemed to have cast its full­ness on the hills, long after the rain had stopped, and much longer after the men were caught. 

The men in some cor­ners, tak­ing turns to crack jokes, and a few times, taunt the caught men on who was play­ing the woman, and who was play­ing the man. At some points, the man that looked at the eldest, who had ini­tial­ly seen them, smack their heads and whip them with the leafy cut branch he car­ried. Then they heard a whis­tle, a famil­iar one, and as it drew near­er, they stood up from their makeshift seats, stoop­ing to wel­come the Aworo, who had come to super­vise the men who were on the hills to pre­pare the huts and clear the vicin­i­ty with the for the forth­com­ing fes­ti­val ritual. 

Ba le o, greet­ing the aworo. 

Enh, he jerked his head up motion­ing to why Oba , and the oth­er man were sweaty and ter­ri­fied on the floor.

E ba, .. na so we see am. Wetin we see, we no fit talk. 

Na Oga Ajayi here catch them o. they were togeth­er, and about to, cupped his left-hand fin­gers and at inter­val thrust his right mid­dle finger. 

Oba, na true? Aworo queried? 

Ha, bami… No, that was not what hap­pened. We were… Oba inter­ject­ed but was slapped with a back­hand by the man who had seen them, Oga Ajayi. 

Ajayi stopped, and the Aworo’s com­mand­ed halt­ed fur­ther slap. 

He looked at his men, and then cast a help­less look on both men who were already kneel­ing ram­ming their hands togeth­er, soaked with tears and expect­ing the inevitable dis­grace, and most like­ly the beatings. 

Well, he began, “Let’s not cru­ci­fy these men or fight for the god­dess whose pres­ence this all hap­pened. Besides, it is get­ting late, and you too need rest after the long work. And in as much as this is a sac­ri­lege, let’s be care­ful to decide for the god­dess what he must see as an aber­ra­tion. So, this is what we will do. We will keep them here, in the pres­ence of the god­dess they have defiled, and see what becomes of their flesh while we return tomor­row, that’s Tuesday. 

And I am sure, by the time we return tomor­row, Oro­sun would have killed them or have struck them with lep­rosy.” He said. 

Ha, Tues­day! Tola protest­ed, strug­gling to stand up, but received per­sis­tent kicks from the men before the next com­mand of the Aworo could stop them. 

Okay, that’s right. Baba has spo­ken well. Oga Ajayi said, and the oth­er men took turns leav­ing the hut, and after they had ham­mered the win­dows with nails from the back, they bolt­ed its door with an iron rod picked from the floor. 

Tomor­row is here already, Oga Ajayi said to the oth­er two men. 

Yes, Tues­day, Aworo replied.

From the writer


:: Account ::

The idea for this sto­ry came after a vis­it to Idanre hill, a tourist site in Ondo State, Nige­ria. The hill aside from being an ancient town, and hav­ing some myths around it, became a per­fect set­ting for my sto­ry because of the annu­al cel­e­bra­tion of the god­dess-Oro­sun, which is the god­dess of fer­til­i­ty. As a child­less woman while she was alive accord­ing to the tra­di­tion of the Idanre peo­ple, and was told about her empa­thy for peo­ple, irre­spec­tive of whom they are. With this, I begin to won­der about the god­dess per­cep­tion of the LGBTQ+ com­mu­ni­ty. And for the char­ac­ter who lost his job and seem­ing­ly found love at first sight on the hills, I leave my read­ers to won­der if the god­dess will strike the lovers caught on the hills mak­ing out dead. 

Olus­eye Fakin­lede is a Niger­ian writer and free­lance jour­nal­ist. He is a grad­u­ate of Eng­lish and Lit­er­a­ture. ‘Seye is inter­est­ed in African lit­er­a­ture with sub­jects around men­tal health, migra­tion, cul­ture, reli­gion, sex­u­al­i­ty, and Afro­fu­tur­ism. He has also been pub­lished on Afro Rep, Scrawl Place, New Note Poet­ry, Art Lounge Jour­nal, Brit­tle Paper, Afr­o­critik, and else­where. Find him on Twit­ter @ohxeye.

Seek and Hide

Nonfiction / Laura Valeri

:: Seek and Hide ::

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stron­za! Fai fin­ta? Ti vedi­amo benis­si­mo, sai?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. I said my piece, already.” 

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

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

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

From the writer


:: Account ::

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

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

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

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

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

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

re: Poet Laureate

Poetry / Mark Neely

:: re: Poet Laureate::

I am afraid 
I have to refuse 
the laureate  
after all 
must envision  
edifying projects 
stroll through schoolrooms 
dropping verse 
into children’s beaks 
or force it down  
their pretty teenage throats 
to fatten up their hearts 
a laureate should 
have the gravity 
of a minor planet 
a gaseous atmosphere 
that can easily liquify  
a soul 
and my mornings are rough 
already I choke down coffee 
by the thermos trying 
to see in the ink 
something other 
than self- 
loathing zipped in my space 
suit even simple chores 
become difficult there 
are days I cannot stand 
to look at my shoes 
lined up by the door 
once I saw a moose 
swim across a bay 
the miraculous driftwood 
of its antlers 
hovered above the water 
a laureate 
would have to get that 
in a poem somehow 
I want to build a monstrous ship 
that eats ten thousand 
tons of plastic every second 
that squeezes through each canal 
suturing the planet’s scars 
I steer  
it towards my father 
as his hospital bed sinks 
in the waves 
and the sun closes 
its furious eye 
I taste salt on my lips 
he can barely lift his arm 
to wave goodbye 

From the writer


:: Account ::

There was a time when I didn’t like “poems about poet­ry.” As soon as I caught a whiff of that kind of thing, I tuned out. Now I see how nar­row mind­ed I was in those days. Poet­ry is per­son­al­i­ty. Poet­ry is pol­i­tics. Poet­ry is how we love and grieve. The best ars poet­i­cas are, like all good poems, about a bunch of things all at once. These days I find myself work­ing away on a man­u­script about teach­ing, poet­ry, and art—a fact that would cer­tain­ly hor­ri­fy my younger self, who want­ed to be Gary Sny­der and write poems about chop­ping wood and oth­er such man­ly things. 

In one of the poems from the man­u­script, “re: Poet Lau­re­ate,” I want­ed to have a bit of fun—both with the idea that any­one would ever ask me to be poet lau­re­ate of any­thing (ha!), and with the whole con­cept of the lau­re­ate, which is the awk­ward mar­riage of poet­ry (per­haps the most thought­ful form of lan­guage) and gov­ern­ment (where lan­guage is typ­i­cal­ly man­gled and manip­u­lat­ed in an attempt to con­vince peo­ple to vote against their own best interests). 

Mark Neely is the author of Beasts of the Hill, and Dirty Bomb, (Ober­lin Col­lege Press). His third book, Tick­er, won the Ida­ho Prize for Poet­ry and was short­list­ed for an Indi­ana Author Award. His oth­er awards include an NEA Poet­ry Fel­low­ship, an Indi­ana Indi­vid­ual Artist Grant, the FIELD Poet­ry Prize, and the Con­crete Wolf Chap­book Award for Four of a Kind. He is a pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Ball State Uni­ver­si­ty, and a senior edi­tor at Riv­er Teeth: a Jour­nal of Non­fic­tion Nar­ra­tive.  


Bless the Damage

Poetry / Allisa Cherry

:: Bless the Damage ::

Now that time has nacred over
the rough edges of memory
I can say that you were a real beauty.
A shiner. You glittered like glass shards
in the baby formula. I mapped
my way forward in the darkness
by the pulsing gleam of you. Sometimes
the lung-stopping quartz in the quarry
and sometimes the toothy drill—
its circumference as wide as two bodies
entwined—bearing down and fruitful.
When I finally went to Oahu I went there
without you. I sliced my foot open
on a bit of coral. It was my first time
snorkeling. The first time I’d seen
a school of fish. My presence small
before a wall of countless eyes,
I felt—for the first time—beheld.
Back at the hotel, I sat on the sink
and scrubbed the wound out
with bar soap and a toothbrush
feeling resourceful and alone.
And it wasn’t the shine casting off
the warm water or the ribbon of blood
unwinding that I found most compelling,
but how the cut resembled a lightning strike
across the arch of my foot—plumped up
with white blood cells rushing before infection.
How the tight red skin looked like it might 
burst into bloom the way the peony buds 
you sent to my new apartment bloomed.
They were still petal-dense knots 
when they arrived. And I got to watch 
the entire life and death of them: 
the almost obscene way they swelled open,
and then the velvet bowl of each petal 
falling empty across my kitchen counter.

From the writer


:: Account ::

: I’ve spent much of my life think­ing about the sub­tle and not-so sub­tle threads of vio­lence that run through large fam­i­lies and rur­al com­mu­ni­ties. Because of the par­tic­u­lar­ly reli­gious bent of the town I grew up in, much of this vio­lence was shaped by tra­di­tion­al assump­tions about gen­der. It also dan­ger­ous­ly over­lapped with love and loy­al­ty. In fact, the whole of it—patriarchal faith, fam­i­ly, bru­tal­i­ty, sex­u­al­i­ty, love, and rur­al life—are so tight­ly entan­gled, I began writ­ing as a way to tease the ten­sion out of the knot.

I have found that the more com­plex the mat­ter is in my his­to­ry, the stronger my pref­er­ence for clean lines and clear syn­tax in poem. Though, of course, not always. It is often eas­i­est for me to inter­ro­gate my upbring­ing inter­tex­tu­al­ly, to tie my work to the reli­gious books that gave me both my ear­li­est affec­tion for lan­guage as well as my most dam­aged under­stand­ing of my des­ig­nat­ed role as a female in my com­mu­ni­ty. And so, I often see my poem’s speak­ers qui­et­ly strug­gling with lan­guage to wrest their own dig­ni­ty and pow­er back and to revise their posi­tion in sight of the patri­ar­chal sys­tems they grew up in.

Allisa Cher­ry grew up in a rur­al reli­gious com­mu­ni­ty seat­ed in an irra­di­at­ed desert in the south­west of the Unit­ed States and has since relo­cat­ed to the Pacif­ic North­west. A recent MFA grad­u­ate from Pacif­ic Uni­ver­si­ty, she has just com­plet­ed a man­u­script that explores the way faith, fam­i­ly, and land­scape are often reshaped by vio­lence. Her work has received Push­cart and Best of the Net nom­i­na­tions and can be found in High Desert Jour­nal, Westch­ester Review, and at SWWIM Dai­ly, and is forth­com­ing at The Colum­bia Review.

Twenty-Five Years of Marriage 

Nonfiction / Heather Bartos

:: Twenty-Five Years of Marriage ::

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

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

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

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

Blink and you’ll miss it.

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

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

Blink and you’ll miss it.

Friends have babies.

We don’t.

We still don’t.

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

She slept through the first night.

And none of the ones after that.

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

Blink and you’ll miss her.

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

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

Blink and you’ll miss her.

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

For the parents.

Nev­er for the child.

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

Blink and you’ll miss it.

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

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

Two funer­als. And then silence.

Blink­ing back tears.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hap­py anniver­sary. Again.

Blink and you’ll miss it all.

From the writer


:: Account ::

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

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

How to Make Beef Stew

Poetry /Stevie Edwards

Ste­vie-Edwards-1-Poem PDF

From the writer


:: Account ::

I wrote “How to Make Beef Stew” short­ly after war broke out in Ukraine. Beyond glu­ing my eyes to the news cycle, one of the only things I felt capa­ble of doing the day after the war broke out was mak­ing beef stew, which for me is a major com­fort food in win­ter. I love how it feels like a hug in a bowl and the aro­ma spreads through the whole house. In this poem I want­ed to cap­ture the jux­ta­po­si­tion between the com­fort­ing nature of the stew and the unthink­able vio­lence occur­ring. I also want­ed the poem to demon­strate the inabil­i­ty of dai­ly com­forts (like beef stew) to take my mind off the vio­lence, par­tic­u­lar­ly through the sim­i­le where sprin­kling flour on meat makes the speak­er think of the image of snow cov­er­ing dead bod­ies, which was some­thing I saw on the news. Ulti­mate­ly, this poem ends with rumi­nat­ing on whether this is the kind of world I would want to bring chil­dren into.

Ste­vie Edwards holds a PhD in cre­ative writ­ing from Uni­ver­si­ty of North Texas and an MFA in poet­ry from Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty. Stevie’s poems have appeared in Poet­ry Mag­a­zine, Amer­i­can Poet­ry Review, Crazy­horse, and else­where. They are a Lec­tur­er at Clem­son Uni­ver­si­ty and author of Sad­ness Work­shop (But­ton Poet­ry, 2018), Human­ly (Small Dog­gies Press, 2015), and Good Grief (Write Bloody Pub­lish­ing, 2012). Edwards is cur­rent­ly Poet­ry Edi­tor of The South Car­oli­na Review and their third full-length col­lec­tion of poet­ry, Qui­et Armor, is forth­com­ing from North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty Press’s Curb­stone imprint. Orig­i­nal­ly a Michi­gan­der, they now live in South Car­oli­na with their hus­band and a small herd of res­cue pit­bulls (Daisy, Tin­ker­bell, and Peach­es). Ste­vie uses she/they pronouns. 

Her Name Was Tamar

Fiction / EIisa Subin

:: Her Name Was Tamar ::

I only recent­ly learned to enjoy silan, a date syrup that could be poured into near­ly any­thing. It wasn’t just the taste that I enjoyed. I loved the way silan’s thick­ness demand­ed absolute patience. Pour­ing silan into a sim­ple cup of tea was a com­mit­ment of time that felt to me just a bit luxurious. 

Ben­ny and I final­ly had an after­noon free. Exhaust­ing days spent unpack­ing box after box had left them both tense, but eager to stretch our legs and explore. It was Ben­ny who’d said it first.

Let’s get out of here. Let’s just go some­where, anywhere.”

For lunch, you mean?” I asked, smil­ing, sit­ting on the floor of the new apart­ment sur­round­ed by crushed box­es and pack­ing peanuts, my fin­gers red and rid­dled with paper cuts. 

Sure,” he answered casu­al­ly, “for lunch. You pick the place.” I knew there was a rea­son I loved Benny.

I wasn’t sur­prised Ben­ny didn’t want to decide. He relied on me for deci­sions. I’d pick the place, check for the direc­tions on my phone, and Ben­ny wouldn’t even ask for details. He’d just drive. 

You tell me where to go,” he’d always say. 

Once we got the Hon­da out of the city, and reached High­way 4, we drove north along­side the train tracks. We opened the win­dows and turned up the radio. Stand by Me was play­ing on Gal­galatz. Laugh­ing and singing along, I pon­dered the uni­verse and the chances of an Israeli radio sta­tion play­ing my favorite song at just the moment I didn’t know I need­ed it.

With the win­dows down and the music turned up, every­thing felt so famil­iar. Dri­ving on open roads is like that. We could be every­where, nowhere, and any­where all at the same time. As we con­tin­ued north, the rhythm of the road helped mefor­get the stack of box­es still wait­ing to be unpacked, while Ben­ny smiled and half raced the train com­ing up beside us. 

Just a bit fur­ther north on 4 and then a left onto 57,” I said. 

You got it,” replied Benny.

We would dri­ve into the city through the old indus­tri­al zone. Then, a few lefts and rights to find a park­ing spot. That part was a bit more com­pli­cat­ed than we’d antic­i­pat­ed. But Ben­ny was in a good mood and up to the chal­lenge. After only a few min­utes, he’d rid­den the waves of traf­fic into a good spot. “Not quite per­fect,” he said, maneu­ver­ing the car in, “but I’d count it as a suc­cess.” He gave a sat­is­fied smile, and we exchanged high fives before get­ting out of the car.

By now, I real­ized just how hun­gry I was, and I guessed Ben­ny must have been fam­ished too.  Now was prob­a­bly as good a time as any to con­fess to Ben­ny that I didn’t know pre­cise­ly where we were head­ed. The restau­rant – a Geor­gian hole in the wall – didn’t actu­al­ly have an address. But the rec­om­men­da­tion had come from a local friend, and she’d assured me that I’d find it no problem.

Its in the shuk,” her friend had said. “No name, but you can’t miss it. Best katchipurri in the city. The woman who owns it is a fab­u­lous cook.”

We walked the short dis­tance from the park­ing spot to the shuk.

The shuk itself was not the kind of place a tourist would think to vis­it. Of course, Ben­ny and I weren’t tourists. But the trans­for­ma­tion from vis­i­tor to local hadn’t tak­en hold, at least not yet. We strolled thru the shuk, Ben­ny soak­ing in the atmos­phere while I tried to locate the restau­rant. The shops, tin-roofed and ram­shackle at best, were teem­ing with ven­dors hawk­ing per­sim­mons, turmer­ic, col­or­ful scarves, and every house­hold good imaginable. 

Ben­ny was trans­fixed by the scene, and I had to take him by the hand and pull him along.

As we wan­dered fur­ther into the shuk look­ing for the restau­rant, I tried my best to bal­ance hunger with a now press­ing need to find a bath­room. Sens­ing that we’d lost track of time and unsure how far we’d walked, I knew Ben­ny had a short fuse when he was hun­gry. I was actu­al­ly sur­prised that Ben­ny wasn’t vis­i­bly frus­trat­ed at this point. But when he motioned toward a sign indi­cat­ing a pub­lic bath­room with an arrow point­ing down an alley­way, I smiled and  knew that I’d mar­ried the right man. 

Yes,” I said. “I’m dying for the bathroom.”

Me too,” Ben­ny said. “Let’s hit the bath­room, and then we’ll just find some­place to eat even if it’s not the Geor­gian restaurant.” 

It’s a hind­sight kind of thing. Walk­ing by a table of old men play­ing backgam­mon in an alley­way can be unre­mark­able. In fact, it should be unre­mark­able. Oth­er times, though, it can be some­thing else — but only in hind­sight. And hind­sight is born only after some­thing – a par­a­digm shift of sorts — occurs. Obvi­ous­ly. For now, though, nei­ther Ben­ny nor I paid the old men sit­ting around the backgam­mon board any mind.

At the end of the alley­way, past the backgam­mon game, the bath­rooms were what one would expect of bath­rooms in a shuk. That is, if you are using the bath­room in a shuk then you are just hap­py that there is a bath­room in the shuk. Ben­ny went into the men’s room, and I turned right into the women’s room.

It looked as if no one had been in the woman’s room for weeks. There were two stalls. The first one closed and locked, as if it was used as stor­age. The door to the sec­ond stall was ajar. Absent­ly, I pushed on the door, but it took only an instant for me to sense that it was blocked. Peek­ing in, I drew a breath, closed my eyes tight, and opened them again, as if that car­toon-like action might some­how remove the dead woman from my sight. 

I was sur­prised that I didn’t scream. Instead, I care­ful­ly – why care­ful­ly, I nev­er knew – stepped out of the women’s bath­room and leaned in to the men’s room. I spoke in a voice that I didn’t rec­og­nize and asked Ben­ny to come out. Delib­er­ate­ly vague, I told him to go in to the women’s room and take a look inside the sec­ond stall.

You want me to…what?” Ben­ny asked, incredulous. 

Just do it. Please. Go in there and tell me what you see.”

Ben­ny was in and out quick­ly, and from the look on his face, there was no doubt what he had seen. I went back in, again care­ful­ly. I wasn’t sure why. Habit had me close and lock the stall door. I half chuck­led at the futil­i­ty of my actions and mum­bled baruch dayan emet. Blessed is the true judge. I wasn’t cer­tain that there was a true judge, and if there was, why then was a name­less woman lying dead in front of me on the floor of a bath­room stall.  But I said it any­way, more out of habit than belief. 

I remem­bered peo­ple I’d loved who’d died. Grand­par­ents and elder­ly aunts and uncles, most­ly. They’d died in hos­pi­tals, sur­round­ed by fam­i­ly. Their bod­ies care­ful­ly pre­pared in accor­dance with tra­di­tion. Funer­als well attend­ed. Shi­va hous­es over­flow­ing with food and guests. After the mourn­ing peri­od, well mean­ing fam­i­ly and friends care­ful to men­tion the deceased’s name at every oppor­tu­ni­ty, believ­ing that each men­tion ele­vat­ed the dead’s soul to a high­er lev­el. Yet some­one had died right here, alone in the woman’s bathroom. 

Who was she?” I won­dered aloud. “How did she end up here?” A name would help me under­stand that emp­ty feel­ing grow­ing in my chest. I was aware of my breath­ing and was look­ing for some­thing I could grab on to, both real and metaphor­ic. As I leaned back on the stall door, I noticed that my shirt was now snagged on the latch. Try­ing to free it, the fab­ric tore. The sound of rip­ping fab­ric star­tled me, and I real­ized that time had some­how shifted.

The stall was start­ing to feel tight and I had no rea­son to be in there. Star­ing over a dead woman’s body in a pub­lic bath­room is nei­ther nec­es­sary nor a good look. I opened the stall door and saw Ben­ny, trem­bling and pale. “What do we do now,” he asked. “If we were back home, I’d call the police, but here? I just don’t know. Please can you just tell me what to do,” he asked, and I was sud­den­ly aware of how des­per­ate­ly frag­ile he was. This morn­ing poor Ben­ny didn’t even want to pick a restau­rant. And now? 

I didn’t know where the thought came from. Some part of my brain that hadn’t been called upon until now, but I again took Ben­ny by the hand, and togeth­er we walked out of the bath­room, leav­ing the name­less dead woman behind. 

Are we going to the police?” he asked. “No,” I replied. “We are going over there,” I said, point­ing to the men play­ing backgammon. 

As I approached the men, I could see they’d been sit­ting around that table for hours and for years. Time required patience in this alley­way, and I was caught in its cur­rent. That tired bowl of sun­flower seeds next to the backgam­mon board, it was always full. Their tea was always hot, and the game of backgam­mon, it nev­er end­ed. The smoke from their hookah hung as a cloud just above, shield­ing them from both the day’s sun and the night’s cool­er tem­per­a­tures. I stood to the side unsure of how to begin. But in a moment, one of the men caught my eye and asked if I was okay. I said that yes, I was okay, but the hes­i­tan­cy in my voice was hard to over­look. The man who spoke sensed some­thing was amiss and brought me a chair. 

My hus­band and I,” I began. “Wait, where did he go?” I asked, as I turned my head to each side in con­fu­sion. “He’ll get lost here with­out me. Where did he go?” I must have been a bit of a sight, torn shirt and all. 

The man intro­duced him­self. He said his name was Yaakov, and he brought me a cup of tea. I told him my name. The oth­er men remained silent, but I was odd­ly com­fort­ed to have learned Yaakov’s name. 

Yaakov asked if I want­ed silan in my tea, but I sus­pect­ed he already knew the answer. I told Yaakov my sto­ry. It all came out too fast and jum­bled, like a child recount­ing a sto­ry in every painful dis­or­ga­nized detail. Yaakov lis­tened, yet he didn’t seem sur­prised at all. He even smiled as I told him of look­ing for the Geor­gian restau­rant. He said he knew where the restau­rant was, but that it had closed ear­ly that day. That’s prob­a­bly why I couldn’t find it. Some­thing about the own­er feel­ing dizzy. When I told him about the woman’s body in the bath­room, he spoke sooth­ing­ly, reas­sur­ing me that he’d see to every­thing. The oth­ers paid no atten­tion at all as they sat spit­ting sun­flower seeds and drink­ing their silan spiked tea, argu­ing backgam­mon tactics. 

Lis­ten­ing to the men debate the fin­er points of backgam­mon strat­e­gy helped me focus on my still hot tea, and filled the silence after I’d fin­ished telling Ya’akov my sto­ry. But the sun was set­ting as the backgam­mon strat­e­gy debate neared an end, with agree­ment that a com­bi­na­tion blitz and prim­ing strat­e­gy – “the essen­tial, two-pronged win­ning strat­e­gy” — was far supe­ri­or to a run­ning game – “non­sense, based only on luck.” Yaakov smiled as he tried to explain away the friend­ly debate with a know­ing nod about rolls of the dice, life, and the like. But the day had caught up with me, and I began to feel that Ben­ny and I were the dice. 

I even­tu­al­ly found the right moment to extract myself from my new friends. As I made my way toward the bath­room I thought I saw Ben­ny in the distance. 

Let me just go to the bath­room quick,” I said to myself, “and then I’ll catch up with Ben­ny and we’ll make our way home.” I entered the women’s room and found the door to the sec­ond stall easy to open. Yet, the dizzi­ness caught up with me, and the floor tiles rose to hit me in the head. 

From the writer


:: Account ::

My hus­band and I had recent­ly moved over­seas. Long days spent unpack­ing an end­less sea of box­es were punc­tu­at­ed by lunch time trips to any num­ber of hole in the wall restau­rants in search of some authen­tic cui­sine. The events in this sto­ry hap­pened dur­ing one such lunch-time foray.

I remem­ber being struck not just by how help­less I felt as the events unfold­ed, but also by the very fact that I was shar­ing an inti­mate moment with some­one whose sto­ry I would nev­er know. In my mind I named her Tamar, the Hebrew word for date. But I won­dered who would mourn this woman? Who would say kad­dish for her? Was some­one wait­ing for her to come home that evening? I stopped think­ing of these ques­tions because the answers were just so painful­ly sad.

It was all I could do to write her sto­ry in the hope that peo­ple will read it and pause for a moment to think of the stranger who pass­es through their lives if only briefly. Even if it is too late to save them.

EIisa Subin is a poet whose work has appeared or is forth­com­ing in the Inflec­tion­ist Review, Not One of Us, 34 Orchard Lit­er­ary Jour­nal, CCAR Jour­nal: The Reform Jew­ish Quar­ter­ly, Thim­ble Mag­a­zine, Jam & Sand and Nebo: A Lit­er­ary Jour­nal, among oth­ers. She won an Hon­or­able Men­tion in the Reuben Rose Poet­ry Com­pe­ti­tion and was longlist­ed for the Geminga Prize. 

Four Poems

Poetry / Jenny Molberg

:: Four Poems ::


Mol­berg — 4 Poems PDF

From the writer


:: Account ::

These poems seek to shed light on the fail­ures of the Amer­i­can jus­tice sys­tem to pro­tect vic­tims of abuse and inti­mate part­ner vio­lence. The poems are a part of a forth­com­ing book, The Court of No Record (LSU Press 2023), in which a court tran­script in verse presents a cast of characters—the Alpha, the per­pe­tra­tor of abuse and the peti­tion­er in court; two women who have spo­ken out against his abuse; the Hon­or­able Answer, a judge with ques­tion­able con­flicts of inter­ests; and the two attor­neys who rep­re­sent the peti­tion­er and respon­dent. The Alpha’s attor­ney speaks most­ly in anti­quat­ed Bible vers­es, illu­mi­nat­ing the oppres­sive dam­age of patri­ar­chal reli­gious insti­tu­tions on our society’s response to inti­mate part­ner vio­lence and the gaslight­ing that occurs when vic­tims break their silence. “Evi­dence” sug­gests what the court will not hear—that is, tes­ti­mo­ny often silenced in cas­es of abuse, as a victim’s sto­ry may not be con­sid­ered evi­den­tiary sup­port or is called hearsay. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, as many vic­tims of abuse know, legal action can exac­er­bate a dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion, and often an abuser’s ver­sion of events is weighed in equal mea­sure to a victim’s. Orders of pro­tec­tion are often manip­u­lat­ed by abusers or proven inef­fec­tive because the court will not see “proof” of abuse until a vic­tim is already injured, or, dev­as­tat­ing­ly, killed. With these poems, I hope to encour­age a con­ver­sa­tion that needs to be made more urgent—how to demand change with­in our sys­tems’ fail­ures and how to recon­sid­er the word “jus­tice” in hege­mon­ic and misog­y­nis­tic legal set­tings.  

Jen­ny Mol­berg is the author of three poet­ry col­lec­tions: Mar­vels of the Invis­i­ble (win­ner of the Berk­shire Prize, Tupe­lo Press, 2017), Refusal (LSU Press, 2020), and The Court of No Record (LSU Press, 2023). She edit­ed the Unsung Mas­ters book, Ade­laide Crapsey: On the Life & Work of an Amer­i­can Mas­ter. She has received fel­low­ships and schol­ar­ships from the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts, the Sewa­nee Writ­ers Con­fer­ence, Ver­mont Stu­dio Cen­ter, and the Lon­gleaf Writ­ers Con­fer­ence. Her poems and essays have recent­ly appeared or is forth­com­ing in Ploughshares, VIDA, The Mis­souri Review, The Rum­pus, The Adroit Jour­nal, Oprah Quar­ter­ly, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. She is Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Cre­ative Writ­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cen­tral Mis­souri, where she directs Pleiades Press and co-edits Pleiades magazine.