Pan

By W. Jade Young

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There was a logic in his belly that made everything he said the truth. He used it to build people into heroes, to make them feel glorious, to draw followers to his empty church. I fell into the rhythm of his tatta-tat cadence without noticing I’d begun to march. I was nineteen, he was older.

The first words I said to him were, “I will fucking cut you.”

This pleased him. He laughed from his gut and told me we would be friends.

And so, it came to pass.

His friends became my friends. He told me beautiful half-truths about them, made them gods. He told them beautiful half-truths about me, made me their equal.

 *

We were pretenders; it was our bread. We were actors and storytellers and fakes. We wrote backstories, wore costumes, painted faces, spoke in voices that didn’t belong to us. Once, twice, three times a month we were not ourselves. We were fairies or monsters or sorcerers or knights. We wielded swords made of PVC pipe that left black bruises for days, shot each other with 25-pound bows and padded arrows that left welts. We killed each other again and again.

I was always a different me, but he was always the same him.

 *

When we weren’t pretending, we were reliving our pretend lives. We ate dinner together, everyone, after we went back to being us. At dinner, he would spin our straw stories into gold, make us grander than we were. We knew they were lies and exaggerations, but who was harmed in the making of heroes? Who benefitted from the dulling of our adventures? The listeners were treated to the bard’s performance, and the heroes were made to feel invincible, infallible.

I began to love the other mes more than I loved the me I was. Those mes were daring; they were just, instead of just me.

 *

We took his words with us to other games, other groups, other friends, and told them for ourselves. They were never as shiny, but they filled us with warmth. We sprinkled the borrowed words like fairy dust on our same-old lives and thought happy thoughts.

He was Peter Pan. He taught us to fly.

We stopped searching for our own truths because his was all we needed. It was good to have someone as all-knowing so we didn’t have to ask any questions or form independent thoughts.  It was a relief to know my opinions were wrong, that he would help me form new ones.

He was fat, his truth-belly spilling over his belts. No matter the level of physical exertion, no matter the weather, he sweated through the pits and down the backs of all his shirts. The reason for this last was because of the incomparable pelt of thick, wiry hair that covered him from neck to ankles.

He had two girlfriends, both young, beautiful, smart, strong. They were girlfriends with each other, too. This, I was told, was polyamory, but whatever name they gave it, I never understood the physical draw he had. He was another Pan, old Pan—half-god, half-goat—patron of sexual energies and fucker of innocent things.

I never wanted anything more than his stories of me.

 *

I had seen the other side of him, the monster-man who whipped words around himself like a lasso and tied people wrist-to-ankles. They were deserving of his dark power. They were terrible or mean or damaged or misguided or weak or confused or easy.

He knew the tender places inside a person just by looking. He knew where the foundational fissure would be, where to place pressure so the structure came down with one strike. He left people dazed and wondering why they hated themselves and how he had known. They left less than human, stripped of their skin, bleeding disgracefully.

He told their stories, too. They were villains. They were conquests.

They weren’t us, so it was okay.

 *

It was sudden when the luster wore off, or else it was bitterly slow. We were give-and-take, he and I, ten years of together. We were colleagues, coauthors, roommates, best friends.

I had come to him already shattered by the one man who should have protected me above all else. I had been collecting shards of myself, trying not to cut my articulate fingers on my own sharp edges. I’d been a ghost, and he had performed my séance. He showed me the fractures in my own foundation and told me they were not irreparable. He helped pour concrete for a new one, helped secure beams, hammer in hand.

Sometimes I cry when I think of how much better he made me before he broke me.

 *

There is a depth of sorrow that, when you reach it, you stop being the same person. You make inhuman sounds. You make inhuman faces. Your body forgets how to move like you, your mind forgets how to think like you.

You descend into a singularity of every weakness, every inability, every flaw of your own character. The crying goes on for days, but feels like moments. You can’t remember the last time you bathed or loved or felt anything other than nothing. You are a mass of tears, held together by raw heartstrings only. Your soul evaporates, illusive heat-vapor on tarmac.

It leaves you only shards.

The blessed never know this. Me, I’ve known it twice.


W. Jade Young is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Assignment Pick

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Sometimes the better a book is declared to be, the harder it can be for me to get into it. Did the book win a prestigious award? Did it win all the awards? Is it the stuff of doctoral dissertations and first-year seminars? These are the books I will often struggle with, knowing all the time that I should love them. Love them. And usually, after laying them down time and time again, I eventually do fall in love with them, though sometimes begrudgingly. Meanwhile, give me a piece of pulpy entertainment, the kind of book with zombies on the cover, or flying saucers, or sexy women pointing pistols at something, and I will devour it down like it was hand-delivered straight from Domino’s.

               I realize this is a personal failing and that the fault lies with me. I blame it on a sugar addiction. (Another confession since we are all friends here: I also watch reality TV while still complaining, along with nearly everyone else, about its harmful effect on our failing civilization. "It will be the death of us all!" I'II say soberly, out with my friends—knowing good and damn well that as soon as I get home, I’m going to flip on Amazon and watch the first season of Temptation Island in its entirety.)

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Case in point: I recently picked up Jeffrey Eugenides's Pulitzer prize-winning novel, Middlesex, a multigenerational saga of an immigrant Greek family and the mutated gene coursing through it. I’ll admit I am somewhat late to the party. By the time I had a copy of it thrusted on me by a zealous friend super keen on me having it (“Will? Will, you have to read this. Oh my God!”), the novel was already well over a decade old, an award-winner, on too many top-ten lists to count, an Oprah book club pick and certified bestseller.

               The delay was only further magnified by me. First, by taking my copy and lovingly placing it on my bookshelf, where it stayed, unopened, for an embarrassing length of time. (I had to stop speaking to the friend who gave me the book after I finally couldn't take the constant Did you read it? Did you read it? questions, along with the inevitable disappointed glare when I admitted that I hadn’t—like getting an after-school dressing down from the exasperated elementary school teacher who knows there is more to you if you would just apply yourself.)

               And then, once I did pick it up, I got only a half chapter in before I put it down. Only to pick it up a few weeks later. Up and down. Up and down. I didn't like it. I just didn’t. I didn’t and didn't. And then one day, after 100 pages or so, I did. This is what I realized: It wasn't the book. It wasn’t too slow or too boring, and certainly not badly written. No, it was me. I had a prejudice against it. I would stand there, book in hand, thumbing the pages and thinking: too sprawling, too chaotic. Too weird.  What did I have in common, I bemoaned, with some Greek family in America after the turn of the century?

                Something finally clicked. The story of the family Stephanides: the siblings who fall in love; their escape from Turkish forces and the horrific sacking and burning of the city of Smyrna; their new life, raising children in Detroit during the height of Prohibition and the heyday of the auto industry—I found that I did relate. Their story is an American story—something that in today’s talk of walls and cages and whatever Tucker Carlson is tripping on on a nightly basis is well worth remembering. It is the story of World Wars and Great Depressions, the birth of a nation and the Nation of Islam—all from the viewpoint of one family’s immigrant eyes. It is a funny, thrilling, tragic read.

And finally there is Cal—our protagonist—first named Calliope due to a rare 5-alpha-reductase-deficiency that produced certain feminine characteristics, causing him to be raised first as a girl, then later as a boy. He is stuck between two worlds, two identities, male and female, immigrant and American-born. His struggle mirrors his family’s broader search to find belonging in this strange land, this equally sinful and sanctimonious, noble and notorious, tantalizing and terrifying country, where sometimes we can all feel like foreigners.

— WL

Remedies

By James Seals

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This morning I almost consumed the wrong medicine. In my pre-dawn drowsiness, my eyes failed to distinguish between bottles – ibuprofen, sleeping capsules, allergy pills – but luckily my hands remembered and recognized the incorrect bottle lids. I must take a 180 milligram dose of antihistamine twice a day to manage my inducible urticaria: pressure triggered hives.

During my master’s program, my skin became sensitive to everything: friction, sweating, cold, heat, sunlight, water. I had to visit a dermatologist, who explained to me that anxiety, pressure, strain (e.g., the stress of my MFA program) could trigger my symptoms, and I might have to live with hives for the rest of my life.

I sat there, taken aback at the prospect of having to spend at least $50 every two weeks on medicine, at the prospect of having to forgo participation in physical activities, and at the prospect of having to explain to my high school students, No, the rash on my neck is not a hickey, for the rest of my life.


 “As my mother aged, her anxiety became more of an issue. She developed this nervous habit of ingesting pills right along with her intended patient.”


I was saddened to be entwined in America's love affair of prescription drugs. In an August 3, 2017 Consumer Report article, Teresa Carr revealed that more than half of the population of the United States took prescription pills (four tablets of some sort) each day and that $200 billion per year was spent on unnecessary procedures and improper treatments. That declaration both alarmed me and made me laugh. It alarmed me because our healthcare industry is out of control. It made me laugh because this statement reminded me of my Filipino mother.

My mother might have caused the initial spike in the 1980s, which so alarmed those studying the increased use of prescriptions in the United States. My mother acted as family shaman, healer, witch doctor. She grew Johnny-jump-up, Feverfew, St. John's Wort, and other houseplants for medicinal purposes. Our poor Aloe Vera had been broken, scarred, and sliced as she attempted to repair her children’s rips, tears, and minor abrasions. She also believed in overmedicating her kids.

The very moment she heard a throat clear, my mother would be reaching for the purple stuff—dark berry-colored cough syrup she filled a clear-plastic measuring cup to the brim with, before hustling to the ailing person’s side. She made my siblings and me shoot multiple shots of this medicine even when none of us showed signs of illness. Because of her quick draw, my sisters and I often hid in our dark, musty closets the moment we heard our mother’s medicine cabinet click open. At Filipino parties, at the park, or in the car, Mother toted a white, plastic bag filled with multicolored liquids and chalky pills—just in case someone needed saving. My older sister and I called her bag the rainstick because every time it tumbled from a chair to the floor, the pills made the sound of a gathering thunderstorm.

It stormed a lot throughout my childhood.

As my mother aged, her anxiety became more of an issue. She developed this nervous habit of ingesting pills right along with her intended patient. She seemed to believe that the more she swallowed her elixir, the better her chances of thwarting any illness. So, instead of just watching me take shot after shot of the viscous, purple syrup, I would watch, wide-eyed and with an open mouth, as Mother threw back three or four shots herself before making me drink.

When we were young, my older sister and I began to take advantage of our mother’s growing obsession, especially when Benadryl became her lifesaving antidote. We began to fake illnesses on Friday mornings, in hopes of having another three-day weekend. Cindy coughed or I cleared my throat, and then we waited for the carpet-muffled footfalls of our mother dashing up the stairs, bottle already in hand. She would match us shot for shot, and it didn’t take but two or three to sedate my four-feet-eleven-inch Filipino mother, and after she fell asleep after 20 minutes or so, Cindy and I would just skip our bus—there being no one to force us to go.

 *

In that same Consumer Report article describing America’s prescription love affair, Teresa Carr also quotes a doctor who stated, “many Americans—and their physicians—have come to think that every symptom, every hint of disease, requires a drug.” I disagreed with this because when time came for my mother to receive her much-needed treatment for an irritation that started in her foot then traveled to her brain, no doctor provided her with any purple syrup or chalky pills or some other form of help.

In early 2000, my mother had a tingling sensation at the bottom of her left foot. After suffering with it for two years, she  finally went in for an examination. The doctors told her that the tingling was nothing more than a invention of her imagination. And when it moved to her hip, then arm, they again told her she was making it up. My mother soon developed vertigo, could no longer drive, and lost the enthusiasm for the life that she had exhibited each day when my sisters and I were kids. Her inability to move meant she could no longer grow her remedies, conjure cures, which meant she felt useless to her children. Mother lost her status as shaman. She didn’t believe she would be healed. And she didn’t know which doctor to turn to. So, she had people pack her bags, sell her house, and fly her to the Philippines, where she chose to waste away—Parkinson’s disease.

I have considered purchasing a pill box to ensure I take the correct medications. Still, so far, I have avoided buying one. Those clear, little cases remind me of old people, reminds me that I am starting to age. But I think the real reason I haven’t bought one yet is because it cannot replace my mother—my mother the shaman, the healer, the witch doctor—the only person who knew the recipes to the old remedies, the ones I now miss taking every day.


The Murder House

By Margaret McNellis

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In the fall of 2017, after only a few weeks of commuting between southern Connecticut and southern New Hampshire, my search for an apartment had transitioned from picky to desperate, and so, out of options, I expanded my search radius to include apartment listings within one hour of campus.

            It was advertised—in that disquieting vortex of yard sales, property listings, catfishing, and employment scams, i.e., Craigslist—as a one-room rental in a house of “artists.”

            I ignored my better instincts and emailed the landlady.

            She couldn’t meet with me right away, she wrote back, because she was traveling for a modeling job. I’m not sure what kind of “modeling” she was into, but alongside her Craigslist ad was a photo of her. In it she looked thin, but not skinny, had a hooked nose with deep-set eyes and blonde hair that fell all the way down to her calves. That hair creeped me out a little—but not enough to keep me from viewing a place that was only $500 a month, utilities included.

            We made an appointment for me to drive out and see the place later that week.


“The rooms in the basement are, obviously, where they kill people, I thought—dolts like me who would answer a Craigslist ad from a crazy lady with feral felines and hair falling well past what could be considered normal. “


My last class ended early in the afternoon, but by the time I made it through the mountain pass, still looking for the address, the sun had already begun to set. Autumn leaves, awash in plumes of orange, red, and gold, swayed vividly in the day’s dying light. After a series of wrong turns and one boulder-sized roadblock that forced me to backtrack a number of times, my heckles were raised; it was like Google Maps itself was plotting against me, aiming to keep me from my destination. So, I bargained with myself that if night fell before I found the address, I would turn around and drive home.

            Twenty minutes later, I arrived. And there she stood before her house in the pale evening light, her waterfall of hair blowing loose and hanging down around her ankles. Next to her stood a man holding two open beer cans for some reason. He wore an old denim shirt streaked and stained with so much paint I wondered if any had actually made it onto the canvas, while his hair, thinning and gray, flapped about in the wind like bat wings. At least the ad had been right about the view; it was astonishing.

            The painter handed us his warm beers, mumbled something about smoking a cigarette, and moseyed back behind the house.

            My potential landlady welcomed me and talked about the place while with one hand she swept her hair up into a bun larger than her head. The house itself looked like two buildings joined together at the hip: one half covered in wood siding like an old cabin; the other half, more like the concrete barracks from a war movie.

            She took the can from me and opened a creaky screen door, bade me inside, and against my better judgment, I followed her. My first impressions: dark, with an overwhelming smell of cat urine, and why for the love of all that’s holy were there mattresses propped against the foyer wall? Stained mattresses.

            I now believe this was when I should have run.

            “We just let the cats go wherever they want, so watch your step,” said the woman who I had come to think of as Cousin Itt.  

            She showed me the kitchen—where a pot of beans, blistered and crusted both inside and out, sat on a long-suffering, multi-stained stove—and offered me a drink. The woman appeared friendly enough, but I was convinced if I consumed anything, I’d never leave, like a trespasser in Hades.

            “Uh, no thank you,” I said. She caught me trying to cover my nose and I pretended to stifle a yawn.

            She showed me the basement level where her lodgers—all single men in their fifties—resided: the artists, the cultists, the double-fisted beer drinkers and shared-spoon-black-bean eaters. The room for rent turned out to be a dark, concrete box with no windows. I believe it was formerly used for interrogations.

            “You’d share the bathroom at the end of the hall,” she said, pointing. There was another empty room, she told me, which was also available, though slightly more per month. I could have if I wanted. Its previous occupant had to leave “unexpectedly.”

            Next on the tour was the indoor pool. Fancy, right? Except it had no water, just an empty cement pit with a diving board and a mound of cat feces resting at the bottom.

            The rooms in the basement are, obviously, where they kill people, I thought—dolts like me who would answer a Craigslist ad from a crazy lady with feral felines and hair falling well past what could be considered normal. I remembered a Law & Order episode where a victim was buried under a parking garage, in concrete. I imagined this indoor pit would serve such a purpose.

            The tour not yet over, she led me to her bedroom where her husband lounged bare-legged on the bed with their pair of Sphinx cats prowling about. His hair was short and dyed a severe black with what I guessed was a home kit or one of those aerosol spray-on cans. His laptop was propped up on his stomach. He didn’t speak.

            She bent over and scooped up one of the cats and nuzzled it. “I expect my roommates to oil my cats for me when I’m away on photoshoots.”

            “Oh, yeah, that makes sense,” I said. “You’ve got to keep your cats oiled.” I was planning my escape, if needed. First, I’d bum-rush Cousin Itt—I thought I could take her—then beat it downstairs before Dye Job could even get his computer off his belly.

            “They have a gown and tux,” she said, “for their wedding.”

            “Who does?” I asked.

            “The cats.”

            I blinked. “Right, well, I should get going,” I said in my don’t-mind-me voice. “People are expecting me.” I slowly began backing out of the room. “I told them I was coming out here and that it’s a bit of a drive, but they’re definitely expecting me.” No one in the state of New Hampshire knew I was out here. If I went missing, no one would know for at least a few days.

            Thankfully, she didn’t kill me. Her cats didn’t bite me, and I never had to oil them, or share a pot of black bean surprise. But I’ve thought of that property as the Murder House ever since I toured it—the murder house with its stained mattresses and breathtaking vistas—and decided to stop my apartment hunt and just cope with the commute.


Margaret McNellis is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Assignment Pick

Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America by Mary Otto

A while back, I started getting these bad dreams where I would watch helplessly as my teeth tumbled from my mouth like loose coins. In these nightmares I would stand there in front of some fun-house mirror, staring in horror at my gaping mouth, my red gums.

What do I do, now? I would wonder. Do I go get dentures? I’m too young for dentures, aren’t I? Do I stop smiling? Stop talking? Start handing out cards with my name printed on them like an Ellen Jameson?

One of my biggest fears—besides going blind or getting hit by a bus while crossing the street because I’m bopping along to headphones and therefore not paying any attention—is losing my teeth. I am more scared of that than Cancer. Because my insurance covers cancer. I think. And I personally know someone who has spent nearly eighty grand to get that perfect smile.

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And it was with these thoughts and worries rattling me that I picked up Studs and Ida Terkel Prize-winning author Mary Ottor’s extensive exploration of America’s Dental System, Teeth.

In it, Ottor traces the long history of dental care in this country, why it isn’t grouped together with most health insurance plans, and the myriad hardships this creates. She takes us through infuriating tales of people suffering with tooth decay and loss and the ways bad dental care has affected their lives—more ways than perhaps you may have considered. A sobering look at how our system again lets many poor and working-class people down.

—WL

Coffin Fish

A short story by Laura Dennison

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The bed sheets are becoming the color of beach sand, and the musk in here spills out the door in a gust as soon as anyone opens it. Last week, my hair got thick and matted like coarse black seaweed. I pretended I was a mermaid, slick with oil, feet bound in the confines of a twisted comforter. But a knock on the door reminded me: mother, not mermaid.

               After months of reusing unwashed socks that radiated the stench of sweat and stale onion rings, Andy taught himself to do his own laundry. I pretend this is an achievement on my part—that I’ve eased my son into adulthood. But his white t-shirts are smeared with the indigo dye of his blue jeans now, stains I opt not to see. His socks may be clean, but his shoes track mud onto the crimson carpet of my bedroom. He’s swung open the door and stands, staring, looking more and more like his absent beanpole of a father.

               Whenever I see Andy when I’m this depressed, a bump the size of a walnut forms and gets stuck in my throat. The lump contains all the apologies I’ve offered for my illness before, and all the “I know, Mom, just shut up,” answers they’ve received.

Andy’s eyes dart from wall to wall.

               “Uh,” he stammers. There’s a white slip of paper in his right hand. “There’s a 10th grade science museum trip. Mrs. Stanford says I need to quit forging your signature, so here you go.”

               The walnut has had roughly enough time to dissolve.

               “Sure,” I say. I prop myself up in the bed and rummage through the used tissues and granola bar wrappers gathered on my bedside table, trying to find a pen. Andy hands me the permission slip and I sign it in a loopy cursive signature I barely recognize. The paper flutters in my shaky hand as I pass it back.

               “Thanks,” he says quietly, his voice flat. He turns to leave and shuts the bedroom door behind him.


“On the back side of the paper I’d been coloring on, I wrote in blue marker—because black seemed too bleak—FOR LIFE: ONE MOMMY. SINK OR SWIM.“


I mourn for the science museum. Until Andy was 10, we used to ride the T into the city, where the museum sits along the Charles River, a dirty and chilly snake of water everyone in Boston loves regardless. On our first trip there, the summer before he started the first grade, Andy threatened to jump in the river because he wanted to swim. I un-clung his body from a metal railing and pushed the hair back out of his face.

               “You can’t go in that water,” I told him. “It’s dirty and filled with trash. Not even fish like to swim in that water.”

               Andy’s eyes got wide. He called it “the fishy-free pond” and, under the impression that the body of water could not sustain life, quickly walked away from it.

               Every year, we’d travel back to the museum. Andy loved to try to balance on the spinning, circular platforms that connect two subway cars together and pretend that he was surfing on some beach in California. He seemed like the lone person laughing on the green line. Back then, both our cheeks were still chubby—mine would push up into a rare smile as he staggered when the train came to an unexpected halt.

               At the museum, we’d move from exhibit to exhibit. There was a room full of playground equipment meant to demonstrate the properties of physics, where Andy and I would always ride on the seesaw. I still have a picture of him giving a thumbs-up next to a model T-Rex hanging on the fridge door. We would stare at the massive slab of a cut cross-section of a Redwood tree and marvel at how something could live healthily for so long. At the human health exhibit, Andy’s mouth dropped wide open when he saw a pair of charred smoker’s lungs on display next to their pink, sponge-like healthy counterparts.

               One year, as we made our way out of the museum, Andy looked up at me, his mouth stained blue from the rock candy I’d let him buy at the gift shop.

               “There was no exhibit in there about people who get the way you do,” he said.

               He was ten, and by then, I’d been in and out of hospitals enough times that Andy understood what was going on. When we reached the street, I held his hand tight, prepared to pull him away from any rouge MBTA busses.

               “Maybe there was no exhibit on people like you because your type of sickness doesn’t have to do with science,” Andy suggested.

               “Maybe,” I agreed, because I felt like being honest. All the medications and therapies seem like educated guesses at best. Andy’s soft fingers stuck out in between mine, and he wiggled them like tentacles as we crossed the street, attempting to break free from my grip.

*

When I haven’t left the house for a while, my thoughts tend to spin so fast they end up stuck together in a useless puree of unintelligible guilt and fear. After Andy’s footsteps have faded, I shut my eyes and put my head back into the dent I’ve created in the pillow. The hours pass and my spine aches from lying in one spot for so long, but flipping over to my other side seems to require more effort than I have. Sometimes I wonder what Andy might say if his friends ever ask what I do for a living. Maybe he answers “a potato” or “a lump of flesh,” or maybe he lies and says I’m a flight attendant always away on trips to Dubai, or a successful dentist busy working at the third practice I’ve opened. Almost anything has a better ring to it than SSDI check collector—diagnosis, treatment-resistant major depressive disorder with catatonic features.

               Getting better, as they call it, is tough. If I wind up in inpatient treatment, the only place Andy can go to is his Aunt Lorraine’ house. We share whatever familial fuck-up lurks in our brains, just in a different manifestation. The flow of vodka through her veins as Andy kills time on the X-box stays on my mind whenever I’m locked up in a ward. I swear, as I woke up from the anesthesia after the medically-induced seizure during my first round of electroconvulsive therapy, it was Andy’s voice:

               “No fair when you’re a fish!”

*

When I was doing better, I used to take Andy to the town pond, and we’d race out to the splintery wooden raft. I only let Andy win after every few races, so that when he did, it would be something special. But he’d poked fun of my one webbed toe since he could talk, and I’d always been a fish to him—much faster in the water than I was on land.

               Funny thing is, I feel like a beached whale for now. I’m spread out the discolored comforter like it’s sand, stripped down into my underwear, watching the way my stomach’s gone concave again from eating so little. My nerves make me sweat, though, enough that I could swim in the pool of it forming in my belly button. I spread my arms and legs out like a starfish and recall all the times Andy and I used to go to the water.

               I hold so close to those good years we had during his time in elementary school. I was with it enough back then to plan things. I’d pick a day, shave the bristle off my legs and bikini area, pack slices of watermelon and some bologna sandwiches in the cooler, and count out the pills I’d need to for the rest of the day and slide them in my purse. I stuck to the strict diet my new-ish MAOI antidepressant drug required and dutifully recorded three good things that happened to me each day in a journal I kept on my bedside table.

               Almost every time we would swim to the raft and I beat Andy, he’d shake the water off his face and call out “No fair when you’re a fish!”

               I would stick my tongue out and poke my left foot out of the water to put my webbed toe on display. He would laugh or start to splash me, and—like I always believe when times are good—I felt joy surge through me, thinking how I held the key to happiness in my son. How I’d never, ever relapse.

               Only I still sank.

*

Last I knew, Andy had a thing for owning pet minnows. It used to strike me as odd, since minnows die so often. But he keeps at it. Every so often, he’ll buy a new batch of fish at the pet store and bring them home in a clear plastic baggie filled with water. Whenever I trial a new medication that seems to only add to the long list of failures, I try to keep those little guys in mind. They’ve helped think like this: if you must die often, reemerge.

               I try to make that my mantra. I would love to go back to the water with Andy someday. I’d love to use a knife to cut into a juicy watermelon for both of us to share and not spend the whole time wishing I could plunge that knife into my own skin. And I need to keep the promise that I made.

*

The promise came about when Andy was only nine. The hospital stay was too long. He complained that Auntie Lorraine’s house smelled like cigarettes and said he wanted to see me, so for the first time, I let Andy come to the ward’s visiting hours. I took him to the spot in the cafeteria where they kept the packets of cookies, then brought him to the TV room and set him up with some coloring supplies and a mandala.

               Andy picked up the black and orange markers because it was close to Halloween. We sat mostly silent as I colored alongside him, but when he’d almost reached the center of his mandala, he put his orange marker down and reached for my wrist and gently tugged at the blue hospital bracelet I was wearing.

               “Mommy?” he said, after a short pause. He hadn’t yet switched to “Mom.” I held my breath, bracing myself to yet again come to find that children know more about what’s going on than we give them credit for. “Can you promise me something? And I’m not just saying this because Auntie’s house smells.”

               A staff member doing his routine 15-minute checks on each patient poked his head into the TV room entryway. He marked something off on his clipboard. My hair was clean for once, help up in a clip that had been deemed safe enough to avoid confiscation to the closet that held my shoelaces. My hands fluttered to flatten the loose strands.

               “Sure, honey,” I said. “What is it?”

               “You gotta promise, though,” Andy said. He looked up at me, his green eyes like spotlights, and extended a hooked pinky finger. I offered mine in return.

               “Okay. You promise that you will never, ever, ever, ever kill yourself.”

               He shook our pinkies up and down and I wondered if he could hear my heart beating fast under my thin cotton T-shirt. Of course, I wanted to believe that this promise would be easy to keep. I told myself the same thing when I first found out I was pregnant and truly believed bringing a child into the world to love would be more than enough to cure me of this disorder.

               “I promise, Andy.”

               On the back side of the paper I’d been coloring on, I wrote in blue marker—because black seemed too bleak—FOR LIFE: ONE MOMMY. SINK OR SWIM. I drew a line underneath the words and signed my name, then folded the paper and handed it to Andy. He insisted I write the date down before he slipped the note into the back pocket of his jeans.

               There is no contract on earth I will ever honor more seriously, and there is nothing I’ve faced more difficult.

*

Some days, I swear the air has changed to something much denser and viscous. Today, though, the air has changed to water, and I can’t breathe. I start to panic, because I know that Andy and I can’t live in parallel. He needs air, but I’ve grown ugly slits like gills that seem to help me survive in ways I shouldn’t. The bed I’m in keeps sinking me deeper. With every placebo-like pill I swallow, the fear mounts—Andy’s fifteen, half time neglected, and living fine without me. His lungs are probably pinker and stronger. I can’t seem to believe there’s any science behind that, either.

Before my last hospitalization, I went to the ER, where I stayed for a few days until a bed in the behavioral health unit opened up. The TV mounted in the corner of the room was set to a nature channel. At night, I couldn’t sleep, so I lay awake and watched a documentary about the ocean floor. Apparently, scientists have been stunned to discover the presence of aquatic life near the pitch-blank bottom. These animals survive, but with gross adaptations. Their colloquial names are things like “coffin fish” and “vampire squid.” With time, evolution has made them into what seems like monsters. Their internal organs are their only source of light. They’re hideous, yet they still roam around in the darkness, surviving on whatever scraps they might find.

I realize now that I’m living on my ocean’s floor, grossly conditioned to survive. There is little human about me. I bore and birthed a child; I held him for the first time and cried tears of joy. I named him Andy, and then I cried alongside him when he wailed in his crib, requesting I bring him comfort. I grew cells to fetus to human being, hoping he would bring me comfort. There is no more demented a medicinal wager.

Andy’s father left with the excuse he’d be a bad parent. I chose to stay with the hope that I would adapt. I’ve morphed and continue to morph, but if life is a case of survival of the fittest, I’m worried there might not be enough time to learn to survive.

*

I sleep on it. It could be Tuesday but it might be Thursday. I never know anymore. There’s somebody over the apartment with Andy, though, and I’m relieved to find this helps propel me out of bed. I move to the bathroom and stare at my blotchy face in the mirror, pulling at tufts of tangled hair. From the hall, there is commotion—whispers, the solitary beep of the smoke detector, and a loud smack I later find is from the broomstick hitting the side of the wall. I listen to stifled laugher and watch as the sight of my own pale complexion captivates me. I don’t recognize myself, and my eyes look gray. I’m losing pigment like one of those deep-sea creatures.

               When the skunk-like odor of weed wafts under the crack of the bedroom door, I go to scold Andy, only my hand gets stuck hoovering above the doorknob, and I eventually decide to run back into bed. I don’t remember the last time I showered. My hair is seaweed, and my reflection doesn’t match how I feel—like one of those grotesque sea creatures, complete with claws and fins and tentacles sprouting from my sides. There’s one deformity for every time Andy skinned his knee and I wasn’t waiting inside with Band-Aids. There’s one for every time he brought back a quiz with an A on it, but I was too busy being buried under a stack of blankets to find a magnet to hang it up on the fridge and say congratulations. How is it right to tell my son what he can and can’t do when he’s the one who’s had to call the shots all along?

               From my spot in bed, I can still hear waves of words.

               “Dude, we should always come here to smoke,” a voice a bit deeper than Andy’s says. There’s a small coughing fit, then Andy talks.

               “We definitely can. My mom’s basically a vegetable. She doesn’t care about anything.”

               I expect to remain frozen, only something usual happens. Rage builds. A rare emotion. Of course I care about something. I care about what Andy does. I think that maybe I should get up and tell him his friend has to leave. Even still, my arms and legs seem glued to the mattress. I try to gather momentum. My right leg twitches. That’s it. I swallow back the tears and close my eyes.

*

After the apartment quiets, my body and mind finally decide they’d like to move at the same time. I get up slowly and pay a visit to Andy’s room, a space I’ve left undisturbed for months. It’s been hours since his friend left. Andy’s sitting on his bed and reading a magazine about mountain biking. When I enter, he looks up briefly but says nothing. On the wall, there is a new poster of a tan woman sitting on the beach wearing only a thong bikini. Her pink nipples seem to mock me.

“You can sit down, you know.” Andy’s words startle me. He pats at a spot next to him on the bed. “My sheets aren’t clean,” he says when I don’t answer. “But they’re probably cleaner than yours.”

               I take a seat at the very edge and look up at the single florescent twisty bulb lighting the small space. He needs a light fixture. He needs some more milk cartons for his stuff. Maybe some shelves up from Ikea. But who am I kidding. He needs a lot more than furniture.

               Andy sets down his magazine, dog-earing the page for a bookmark.

               “What’s up?” he asks, his eyes scanning me. With each mark of how unkempt I am,  he can evaluate, roughly, my level of depression. I can see the numbers adding up in his head as I attempt to articulate what I need to say. There are still some minnows swimming on the window’s ledge in a fishbowl. He’s even kept the glass clean. It’s incredible to me that a teenage boy would put so much care into something with such a small, fleeting life.

               “Do you hate me?” That’s all I manage to say, as if I’m one of his fifteen-year-old classmates, not his mother. The curls of his sandy blonde hair spill out of the sides of his baseball cap. He takes the hat off, puts it back on.

               “I never want to have a kid,” he says. The indent of the cap has left a semi-permanent mark on his head. He covers it back up and the ring is magically gone. “Not if I ever end up sick as you.”

               Of course, this is not the best thing to hear.  He could have said, “No, of course not. I love you,” or, “No, of course not. You’ve done the best you can,” or, “No, you’re my mom and I’ll always love you no matter what.”

But then I would know that he would be lying. Instead, he’s offered the truth as bait. I bite it.

               There is no way to say I regret Andy—the beautiful and forgiving being who has somehow sprung out of my own body. If this were a world where everything was as it should be, any one of these things would be more than enough to get me out of bed each day: the way he bobs his head with each step he takes, the way he writes the letter F just like me, the way that one bottom tooth juts out just a little too far.

               There is no way to say that having Andy was right. It’s an imperfect world. There’s the times we had to water down the powdered milk. The baseball games I missed because I was in the hospital. The dinners he had to make himself because I was too busy sleeping.

               “I’m sorry about how things have been,” I tell him. I know he’s used to it. I know he’s heard it before. But I need to tell him again. “Things will get better.”

               Andy rises to his feet. He reaches for a folder that’s sitting in a milk crate underneath the window with the minnows’ bowl. He opens the folder and thumbs through it until he finds a paper, which he unfolds and puts into my hands.

               There it is. FOR LIFE: ONE MOMMY. SINK OR SWIM.

               In my body, there’s a warmth that’s been absent for months. Instead of asking Andy if I can hug him, I reach forward and do it. He offers no objection. I haven’t felt his flesh for much too long.

               Andy is proof. If fish can do it, he can, too. The strongest survive. He’s adapted to live in the harshest condition. My grip is so tight, but his bones are stronger than I could imagine, and so are mine. So I squeeze him as hard as I can. There is still love here, even in the darkness.


Work Hard and Be Nice

By Sarah Eisner

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Ten-year-old Wilson tilted away from me on the two back legs of his chair and balanced there with the ease of a water buoy. He was studying, as I’d begun to notice was routine before he ate after-school-snack, the haphazard collage of our photos I posted to the bulletin board on the adjacent wall. I leaned toward him from across our kitchen-cum-dining room table.

After a moment he plunked down on all four legs and stripped off his favorite white Stanford tee, then seemed to focus on the image I never switched out: a year-old picture taken during a launch celebration at my office. In it my husband, Noah, my younger son, Ben, Wilson, and I are shoveling huge chunks of what looks like bright pink wedding cake into our open smiling mouths; in the background, my co-founder, my employees, my family and friends—nearly everyone I love in my Silicon Valley circle—are grinning at us, blurrily displaying teeth tinged pink with sugar and wine.

            “That was a good cake,” Wilson reminisced.

“It’s good I’m home now,” I said, mostly to myself, though I nodded at the premade burrito I’d managed to heat for him. He looked at me with his deep blue, diving pool eyes.

            “I kind of wish you had a job still,” he said.

“Why…” My stomach sunk and my voice caught, “…do you say that?”

Wilson looked down, poked the burrito, and then his neck lengthened somehow. We had surprised one another, but he was an honest boy. He gazed up at me. “Because then our whole family would be successful.”

“What,” I said, and I wanted to add, the hell did you just say? But I dutifully refrained.

Wilson was assessing my reaction, watching my shoulders, which had begun to droop. “Mom,” he said. “It’s not bad.” His regret was elephantine; I knew I should rescue him. He was ten, and a patch on his smooth white neck was beginning to flush cardinal. His collarbone seemed to curl around his sternum and cave his chest inward, as if in an attempt to protect his whole heart, and he glanced across the floor at his shirt, as if he just wanted to put it back on. But I was angry. Not at him, but at everyone.

“I mean your company was cool,” Wilson said. “I liked it. And Dad’s is cool too.” 

“I know,” I agreed. “But I like this, too.” And I did like being with him. But I hadn’t known it would feel so much like shame.

In the past 20 years, I’d studied engineering, traveled the world training men on Internet routing technology, and co-founded three companies. In the past 30 days, I’d been ousted from my own company, and learned that inhaling hot bacon and salty lard runoff as the sun rises on a well-deserved weekend morning is comforting and heady, but smelling residual animal fat coagulate like candle wax in the dirty glass jar by the microwave as the lunch hour approaches during what used to be a work day with nothing to do and no decisions to make is, for me, oppressive and dire.

This was not real oppression, and to use the word “dire” is too bleak. I had ample choice in the matter; I could afford to stay home. I also could have gone right back to my striving. And yet, I vaguely knew getting another tech job would just make things worse. I wasn’t yet sure why.

Wilson nodded. “Sorry,” he said. “Why’d I say that?” He duck-dived beneath the wave of tension I hated myself for having formed, and brought his face down to the burrito instead of lifting it up to his mouth. He took a bite, and I stifled a sob.

The sign on the wall behind Wilson’s head said, “Work Hard and Be Nice” in big white letters on dark gray wood. This passed for art in our house, and for religion. I had chosen it on a lunch break years ago and hung it in my home’s most visible spot like a cross.

I knew that we need to hold these values in at least equal measure; that success in life is about personal striving, but it is also more importantly about being kind. As an entrepreneur I was known mostly for my hard work: a limited virtue. Once home, I worried that I would be known only for being nice, although I so often felt pissed off at myself and unlikable.

“It’s okay buddy,” I said, thinking I’m sorry, Wilson. I could see that he knew I was lying and he didn’t like it. I wanted to tell him it was not a lie but a half-truth. What he had said was okay. But increasingly, I was not. Because although I so badly wanted to feel good enough, my gut said he was right. I was newly forty, and a failed entrepreneur. Without a title or a paying job, I felt as if aside from my life with my family, I did nothing. I produced nothing. I only consumed. This made me feel both worthless, and extravagantly self-centered. I was not enough for Silicon Valley, and motherhood was not enough for me.

Here is what I imagined Wilson innocently asked of me: Why don’t you have a job like Dad? I thought you were good at it. I thought you loved running a company. So tell me, Mom, if you’re not working and happy now, then what was it all for? What are you now?

“Come on,” I said, “eat.” Wilson had soccer practice in an hour and I needed him to feel strong.

I wondered how long that sign would haunt me. There was no fucking chance I was taking it down.


“The sign on the wall behind Wilson’s head said, “Work Hard and Be Nice” in big white letters on dark gray wood. This passed for art in our house, and for religion.” 


Optimism is our most positive word related to striving: the striving we do to satisfy needs or achieve. When we hear optimism, we think of things we hope for or desire: lasting love, pleasure, and the security of peace. When we hear optimism, we think of upward mobility, ambition, and grit: the requirements to cash in on the American promise of “the good life.” The good life: the ability to pause and be satisfied; to let go, and feel free.

“A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing,” American scholar and cultural critic Lauren Berlant writes in her book “Cruel Optimism” (2011). “It might involve food, or a kind of love; it might be a fantasy of the good life, or a political project. It might rest on something simpler too, like a new habit that promises to induce in you an improved way of being.” These objects are not inherently cruel or harmful, Berlant explains, but become cruel when they actively prevent you from the very thing they promise to enable.

*

It’s possible that when Wilson said he wished our whole family were successful, he simply meant he wished our whole family were accomplished. But later, I began to wonder if it was something more generous, and also more alarming. I began to think he could see that I wasn’t feeling good, and he didn’t like it. But instead of saying he wished our whole family were happy, he said “successful.” Maybe he chose “successful” because achievement was what he identified with most as making me happy. Maybe the kind of extreme striving for success we worship in Silicon Valley today was already the main thing he’d attached to what would make him happy, and define him as good enough.

That is what scared me.

I asked my children to work hard and be nice, an ethos in which I will always believe. But what did that sign represent, and how might it send the wrong message or be connected to the Silicon Valley ethos of never-enough today?

*

The American mythology is: work hard and follow the rules and you can achieve “the good life” dream. But while we often equate this ethic with the optimistic sounding platitude “Work Hard and Be Nice,” and a moderate life, it’s worth examining where this ethic actually came from, and the fact that it often isn’t associated with doing particularly good work, or with being kind.

Manifest destiny legitimized the idea that God had ordained the white protestant male as worthy and good with a boundless right to pillage and conquer. This limitlessness inspired a long tradition of dichotomous either-or thinking. If you happen to be able to amass increasing land, power or wealth, you’re good. If you’re not, then you’re told you’re bad. But truly being kind—to ourselves, to our children, to others—requires being open to the fluidity between good and bad; it requires real compassion, and more than a single definition of what success, and “enough” means. The high moral code of Manifest Destiny was and is, instead, less generous, more circular: keep the momentum of white protestant imperialism going.

“Our national faith so far has been: There’s always more,” the American cultural critic Wendell Berry writes. “Our true religion is a sort of autistic industrialism.”

*

There are many different kinds of religion. There is the kind of religion you are forced to observe as a child and that makes you feel shame. There is the kind of religion that lights you up for God as an adult and makes you want to believe. There is the kind of religion—I am good or I am bad, I am this or I am that—like routine prayer inside your head. There is the kind of religion—Let Go and Let God—you adopt to try to ease I need this or I need that. There is the kind of religion that spreads across the cubicles, break rooms, and happy hours where you work, and there is the kind of religion you practice with your body on a mat, on a mountain, or in a pool. There is the kind of religion you openly reject as extreme or on the fringe, and then there is another kind of religion. It is the kind you don’t think of as religion at all, because it is all around you but not named.


Epilogue

By Amira Shea

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Sweet winds come to me much as before. They bear salt for my lips, caress the nape of my neck. Icterine sun splashes malachite leaves rises to entwine falling drops, each into the other until the union bears a rainbow. Black lava and red clay bind and balance me much as before. Much, but not everything, is as it was. Now there is piss on the breeze. Ray-cut shadows harbor rot and rain wrenches rust forth without consent. The land is more coral than sand, and I, too, am not as I was before. My heart beats less, weighs more.

~~~

We stood in cool darkness outside the community center. Patches of wispy clouds drifted past a waxing moon, fading to backlit grey against dull stars. The meticulous landscaping included strategically placed plumeria trees, and their heady perfume, the signature scent of these islands, enveloped and overpowered the smoke from our cigarettes. Night-blooming jasmine growing in one of the fenced yards coyly joined the bouquet, slipstreaming intermittently. We extinguished our smokes in silence and headed slowly back to the waning graduation festivities. It had been a pleasant evening spent among the family and friends of our daughter’s boyfriend, and we were in no particular hurry. From a few steps behind, my husband asked without preface, “Do you think you’ll ever leave Hawaii?”

            Tightening the grip on my purse strap, I stopped and inhaled deeply. Wispy flora wound down my throat, looping my lungs, down to coil in the pit of my gut. “Ropes now,” they whispered, “No, never. You could never…”  I took hold of the slippery vines overrunning my psyche and tugged, hand over hand. I unwound them from my lungs, and pushed them back they way they came. Exhaling into the night, I turned to face him. “Yes, actually. I’ve been thinking about it recently. How about you?” My voice was low, hesitant.

            “Yeah, me too,” he answered. “I don’t see how we can continue to live here.” He bridged the feet between us, and we fell in step, walking silently and slower than before.

            Inside the banquet hall, the blue and white colors of Kamehameha Schools draped tables, chairs, streamers and balloons. 250 people, Kupuna to Keiki, Cousins, Aunties and Uncles laughed along with the comedian and gasped at the hypnotist. Balloon animals squeaked and bulged in one corner, a photo-booth with cheery props was put to constant use. On the back lanai, guests piled plates from a generous buffet of local foods, the graduate’s favorites: Teri Chicken, Sushi Rolls, Lomi Salmon, Ahi Poke, Beef Stew. Lei strung from money, ribbons, yarn, and flowers hung from his neck and the necks of his mother and father. They were good people. The young man treated our daughter well, and his parents welcomed her as one of their own. I’m so glad they are together, I thought first, then immediately, I’ll miss them.  This last part a strange pebble tumbling through my mind. Once unimaginable to me, the idea of leaving Hawaii was now viable, tangible, loosed from the silt of solitary musings and wonderings and presenting itself to the real world. It could no longer be ignored.

            Back at home, we settled into the remainder of that Saturday night: pajamas and movies for our youngest kids; phones and games for the older ones; my husband and me out on the back porch, smoking and throwing darts. Instead of the usual trash talk between turns, we spoke about leaving.

            His reasons were mainly financial, and the numbers didn’t lie. A family of four earning less than $93,000 per year was defined as being low-income, according to then-current (2018) U.S. Housing and Urban Development guidelines. We, however, are raising six children, and supporting a brother-in-law who suffers from a chronic failure to launch – this – in a market where home prices quadrupled in 20 years and milk sells for $10 per gallon. Hard work, sacrifice, and having extended family on the island have sustained us, but even when our combined income topped $200K, we were never more than poverty-adjacent. It was increasingly unlikely that our children would be so lucky. For the past two decades, we had been frogs in a pot, paddling to keep our heads above water as the temperature rose. I paddled the most furiously, staunchly defending the price of paradise. Gradually, though, almost imperceptibly, our skin blistered and our flesh cooked.

            “Look around,” I was fond of saying, “You won’t get this anywhere else. Sure, we could buy a compound in Nebraska for the price of a year’s groceries, but then we’d be in fucking Nebraska!” Then a small, decrepit house in a historically undesirable part of town slid across my feed one day. It was listed for $1 million dollars, and became my proverbial straw. I admitted defeat, if only to myself at the time.


“When the pediatrician’s office called to schedule her annual physical, I was caught off guard. My eyes misted and my tongue grew thick.”


Squaring up to the regulation distance line duct-taped to the concrete slab, I fanned and flared the plastic flights on my custom titanium darts, squeezing the fins between four fingers and twisting slightly to ensure a firm attachment to the shaft. I cocked my right arm and closed my left eye, zeroing in on the bullseye, and let fly. Thup. Thup. Thwack. My shots echoed through the pitch black of our grassy common area, bouncing off the surrounding aged, wooden dwellings. The stale musk of crushed jacaranda blossoms drifted over from the road. I collected my darts under the glare of our focused trouble light, recorded my points on the chalk scoreboard and retreated to the patio table. Lighting another cigarette, I agreed things were getting too damned expensive.      

            “There’s more to it though,” I began, “everything is changing.” I rattled off a list of the ways and was surprised to realize it had been 10 or 15 years since some occurred. A favorite after-hours haunt, the kind that only really got going at 3am was one. Its viscera of shabby barstools, well-worn go-go cages, clouded drinkware, and chipped shelving were unceremoniously dragged onto the sidewalk for bidding vultures. Now million-dollar glass-and-steel condos stand on its grave.

            The sea has reclaimed so much sand from Waikiki beach that most of the current grains are imported from other beaches or from miles offshore. Astroturf-like sod sits demurely a block from the strip, where an armada of flagship stores – Valentino, Hermes, and Tiffany’s among them – are tastefully broken up by Cheesecake Factory and Cheeseburger in Paradise franchises. One block over you can rent a Maserati, if you’re not in the market to purchase one, and escape the hustle and bustle.

            Farmland has yielded to sprawling suburbs, replete with gated communities. The roads and related infrastructure, dormant for decades, now scrambles rabidly to catch up. 24/7 construction guarantees Oahu an annual spot in the nationwide ranking of worst traffic. We left our house in the country to rent closer to work because the 16-mile commute had ballooned to two-hours, one way. 597 square miles has never seemed tighter or more congested.

            Our family was changing too. Our eldest daughter had left home two years earlier, and was doing well in the military, attending the same training and working the same mission as my husband and me had before her. When the pediatrician’s office called to schedule her annual physical, I was caught off guard. My eyes misted and my tongue grew thick. Swallowing hard, I managed to eek out, “Umm, she’s in the Air Force now, she’s an adult…so yeah, she, uh, won’t be coming in this year.”

            “Oh, ok, I see. I’ll take her off the reminder list then,” the receptionist replied crisply, in a hurry to escape the awkward space I’d created. Just like that, I thought, there’s one less thing to remember. One less.  Our next in line graduated this year, and along with her boyfriend, started college in the fall. One day, I realized that since she’s living on campus, I wouldn’t need to pick up her favorite fruit roll-ups. This led to another round of tears and drew a few uncomfortable stares in the produce section. Another thing less. We are far from empty nesters; however, this new, leaner lineup of A Tribe Called Shea is taking some getting used to.

            But children leave home, landscapes change, and places go out of business in most places. The rich eat the poor and crap jacked-up commercial consumerism most days. If it bothers you enough, you leave; if it doesn’t, you stay. I knew these factors played a part, but taken alone didn’t account for the paradigm shift I was experiencing.

~~~

The truth was, my existence in the only place I had ever called home now felt like a divorce. Not the white-hot flash paper, scandal-ridden, tearing asunder of poorly planned and hastily built homes. The kind I had in my early 20’s. No, this was slower, gentler, and profoundly more painful. This was looking up from coffee on an otherwise unremarkable morning, to realize that you felt no longer bound to the table beneath you, the person across from you, the life surrounding you. This was not anger, nor betrayal nor the desire to meet new people or do new things. Not a midlife chasing of young flesh and elective surgery and fast cars. This wanting to leave Hawaii was simply the expiration of a forgotten lease, signed decades prior, and covering a specific time of life. It felt as simple and as cruel as turning in the keys and driving away with only the clothes on your back. Somewhere along the way – I may never be able to pinpoint where, exactly – I went from being from here to just here.

            “I feel like I don’t belong here anymore,” I started when it was my turn to speak, “I can’t explain it. We go the same places, we do the same things, and it’s like we’re just going through the motions. January: we go to the park for Martin Luther King day, March: spring break, June: the start of hurricane season and summer vacation, October: pumpkin patch – if it’s not too crowded – and then comes the whirlwind of ThanksgivingChristmasHonoluluCitylightsNewYearsEve and boom! The sound of illegal aerials dies down, the smoke clears and January 1st marks the reboot of our own personal Groundhog Day.” I offer this cobbled together explanation slowly, quietly. I’m afraid to hear my thoughts out loud, breathe life into them with my speech.

            “I mean, it’s been 20 years,” I continued. “This is all our kids know and I feel like we’ve failed them in a way. I never imagined raising root-bound children. There’s a whole big world out there, and they’ve grown up on a rock. Beautiful and lovely but a rock all the same. Fucking 20 years. Now the rock is expensive, and everything smells like piss to me – I mean, I smell it everywhere, and there’s nothing new or fun, at least not enough to lure us out of our rut, and it sucks. Doesn’t help that all of our friends have moved away either.”  I paused.

            My words felt like a betrayal, but I knew this place no longer cared for me. I wondered if it ever did to begin with. My love for this land was tethered in the rosy memories of youth. Maybe Hawaii had merely been a soft landing after a nomadic childhood, and I’d forgotten that the respite was supposed to be short lived.

            “It’s been 20 fucking years, and there’s nothing holding us here,” I continued, “20 years and it’s time to go.” I slumped in my seat—spent, nervous, and at once excited at the possibilities.

            My husband nodded and shrugged in agreement before leaning forward in his patio chair. Gardenia-saturated puffs swept at wayward ashes on the table. Geckos cried out for mates. Stars winked their approval as he called his phone to life. “Siri, find me jobs in London.”


Food for Thought

By Rane Hall

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When she was an infant, I had hovered over Eve, indulging the fancy that I could see in her untroubled brow and delicate features the raw material of philosophy.  I was a literature major and since college I had taken to thinking of the biblical character of Eve in feminist terms – not as an allegory of fleshly weakness, but as the literary equivalent of our first Homo sapiens. 

In my Bible as Literature class in college, our professor projected Masaccio’s famous Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden.  In it, our first parents express their overruling despair at their fatal miscalculation.  Exiting the architecture of Eden, Adam drops his face into his hands, symbolically gesturing not only to the sweat of his brow (by which he will yield a living in this sublunar world), but also to the burden of his thought.  Eve, in contrast, uses her hands to cover her breasts and pubis. Her punishment will be to submit to her husband and to bear their children in pain. 

In the Expulsion Masaccio lays bare a powerfully reductive and determinant statement about gender in the West:  the locus of female identity is somatic; masculinity is intellectual. But, as I looked at the Masaccio projected on the oversized screen of our classroom auditorium and listened to the professor’s exegesis, a psychic subtext was emerging in my mind as a question: Was Masaccio’s vision an accurate reflection of what I was reading in Genesis? 

When I was seventeen, I persuaded the new young humanities teacher at my high school to accompany me to our campus museum, which was promoting a Yoko Ono exhibition, titled The Bronze Age.  The young teacher had a broad grin, tousled hair, and the habit of wearing romantic, blousy shirts of the sort you’d imagine Percy Shelley wearing in a Florentine café.  Before we’d crossed the threshold into the galleries, there was already the sturdy seed of attraction, the heyday in the blood, the magnetic force of the forbidden. 

The piece at the center of the gallery was a single green apple, placed atop a tall rectangular pedestal.  It was titled, Apple.  I eyed it carefully. And, when I saw that the security guard was distracted, and that the apple was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the fruit was to be desired to make one wise, I took of the apple and ate; and I also gave some to the man and he ate. 


“The eyes of the shopkeeper, other tourists, and of the decapitated alligators fastened on us as the baby’s face began to burn.  “No. I want something else.”


Nineteen years later, we begat and named our second daughter Eve. Since then, I’ve wondered many times about the magical perversity of that decision and of Eve’s disobedience.

Eve was a focused baby.  She wanted things and she knew how to get them.  And even when she didn’t know exactly what she wanted, the simple fact of her wanting was always clear as water: She would say, “I want something else.” 

When she was three, Eve had a melt-down at a souvenir shop in Sanibel called She Sells Sea Shells.  We had promised our daughters a visit to the shop before the end of our vacation.  We said: “You may each have one thing from this shop; it can’t be over $15, but other than that, choose what you like.”

This, yes.  That, no.  Oh Eve, in evil hour. 

Inside She Sells Sea Shells were deep boxes brimming with flawless versions of the same shells we and a gaggle of old ladies competed ruthlessly for at daybreak on the beaches of the peninsula. There were shell-themed mobiles and mother of pearl wind chimes; macabre lamps made from the unlucky bodies of sea urchins and puffer fish; Mod Podged accent mirrors framed in shells; macramé plant hangers inwoven with cowries; sea themed charm bracelets, and gold and silver earrings shaped like tiny sand dollars.  She Sells Sea Shells proffered an embarrassment of nautical riches of every sort, for every budget.  At a place like this, you’d be hard pressed to say that shell encrusted tchotchkes just aren’t my thing. 

At some point, though, Eve must have found the choices both over and under inclusive of her desires.  She wanted and wanted fiercely, but not of the Sea Shells that She Sold.  Not the apple murex covered jewelry box.  Not the frogs or rabbit figurines crafted from painted scallop shells and pipe cleaners.  Not the plastic floating bath toys in the shapes of alligators or rubber ducks.  Not the plush baby rattles shaped like smiling cartoon starfish.  We handed her things in sing song encouragement; she pushed them away in monotone. “No.”

  The eyes of the shopkeeper, other tourists, and of the decapitated alligators fastened on us as the baby’s face began to burn.  “No. I want something else.” 

“I want something else.” 

It was a cyclical chant, almost hypnotic in the formality of its pain.  “I want something else.”  “I want something else.” 

The shopkeeper peered over her glasses.  The taxidermy alligator faces grimaced with judgment.  Boxes of shellacked sea urchins, baby seahorses, and dried clown fish offered their dispiriting chorus.  “For this, we had to die?”

“I want something else.” “For this, we had to die?”

  On the drive back to our rented bungalow, we exhausted our parental tool kit of bribes, threats, and distractions.  Eve’s crying was so passionate, and prolonged, and unnerving that we finally just pulled over the rental car, adjusted the A.C., rolled up the windows, and waited outside, watching the child rage.  Our heads rocked in subconscious unison to the toddler’s lament: “I want something else.” “I want something else.” “I want something else.” 

Thirty minutes later, exhausted by her infantile premonition of the vanity of human wishes, Eve literally passed out. 

When I dared the young teacher to eat a Granny Smith at the Yoko Ono exhibition, I thought I had two things in balance:  contemplation and action.  On the one hand, I instantly apprehended Ono’s thesis on the level of thought.  At the same time, I accepted the essential dare of the artwork and was shifting—as only a seventeen year old can—into action.

“She wants us to eat it.”

“I don’t know.”

“What don’t you know?”

“I don’t feel right—eating it.  Destroying the piece.”

“Destroying?  We wouldn’t be destroying it.  We’d be completing it.  Why would she float an apple out here if not to recapitulate original sin?  I think we have no choice. I want to do it!” 

“But, what if that isn’t what she’s saying?  What if this is a tribute to the Beatles?  The Beatles’ label was a green apple exactly like this Granny Smith.   Apple records.  What if this is a tribute to John?”

“Well, it might be about both things.  Either way, I say we confirm our humanity as fallen beings who deceive each other, and mess up, and have sex.  That’s what she and John did.  I say we eat this!”

“I don’t know.”

“Oh my god!  This is the original question.  Do you want to scramble back to Eden like scared children or affirm our existence as Homo sapiens?  I say we fall.  We choose death!  I’m going for it.”

We placed the half eaten apple back under its spotlight on the pedestal and ran for it.  And, predictable things followed:  sex, deception, fear, shame, more sex.  A daughter named Eve. 

It doesn’t change the things that happened, but it is also true that a balding white museum guard perfect in the knowledge that a bin of bitten Granny Smiths had to be taken out of the galleries at the end of every day of The Bronze Age later reduced the boldest moves of my adolescent mating dance to a shoulder shrug:  “Got a bin full of them half-eaten apples out back.” 


Rane Hall is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Little White Flowers

By Brandy Vaughn

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Several years ago, a one-night rendezvous over the Thanksgiving break with a man from church I had only recently started dating led to a surprise pregnancy two weeks before Christmas. At the time, I was a single mom trying to make ends meet while going through a challenging divorce, and this “present” came at the wrong time. Still, I longed for another child, which—due to a number of recent miscarriages—lately had come to seem more and more unlikely. So I felt blessed despite my current circumstances. I wanted this baby and knew this pregnancy would be my last.      

               I told my two daughters—who were 10 and 15 at the time—and they were both very supportive and promised to help with the baby. Our excitement grew. We picked out names and wondered what the baby would be like, look like. Would I have a boy or a girl? They crowded around my belly and asked to hear the heartbeat. They asked to plan a baby shower.  The father of this new child, however, was not as happy as we were about it, but he offered his financial support just the same.

 *

I woke up one Sunday morning several weeks into my pregnancy and knew something was wrong. The nausea and morning sickness that had plagued me at all hours of the day since the start of my pregnancy ceased altogether. It was replaced by an all too familiar uneasiness. I left for church in what felt like slow motion, expecting the worst. During service I excused myself and headed for the bathroom. There, inside a locked stall, my heart dropped. The shock of red blood on my underwear. Denial crept in. Everything would be fine, I told myself. A little bleeding was just due to stress from a quarrel with the father from the night before. I went back to my seat, thinking—praying—it would go away. It did not. The next time I went to the bathroom and checked there was more blood. Dear God.

               The emergency room doctor told me it was normal to have spotting during the first trimester of pregnancy. I bluntly counted for the doctor the number of times I’d been pregnant versus the number of children I actually had. This wasn’t my first rodeo, cowboy.

I was sent home, praying that bed rest would stop the bleeding. Prevent the inevitable. I bargained with God, pleaded my case, begged for the life of this child.

               The bleeding didn’t stop.

               My friend drove me to a different hospital emergency room the next day. I listened to the ultrasound with my breath held, waited to hear that beloved heartbeat, which I had heard only the night before. Silence saturated the room. The tech could not confirm what I already knew. They ran more tests. Checked my blood. The two of us waited. Then the doctor came in and delivered the verdict: there was no longer life beating inside me. The doctor offered his condolences and sent me home. I was told to follow up if I had not miscarried within a week. My friend called our pastor and shared the tragic news. The pastor then called the father, who said he was glad and did not care.

*

I laid up on the couch for a week. There was severe pain and cramping. When my loss finally happened, I was alone on the tiled bathroom floor. Tears gushed as I stared at the life that had been in my belly just moments before. I called the hospital and asked what I should do. The nurse on the phone offered no words of sympathy, or acknowledged my broken heart, but simply told me to flush the “pregnancy” down the toilet; they had no use for it. Shock. Disbelief. I could not breathe. I became hysterical. There was simply no way I could go through with flushing what I considered to be my child down the toilet. 


“We arrived at the pastor’s house, and I was deeply disappointed by what I saw. The yard, the barn, and the oak tree were all there, just as I dreamt; however, I didn’t see the grass covered with little white flowers.”


I remembered reading somewhere about a woman who had miscarried and found a way to heal herself emotionally by naming her baby and holding a funeral. I wanted that. So, my friend called our pastor for me and asked if we could hold a small funeral for my baby.

               As my friend drove me out to our pastor’s house, I fell asleep. I dreamed of a backyard with a red barn off to the side, a huge oak tree, and underneath that, a big grassy area filled with little white flowers. The dream was so vivid and real that when I woke from my nap, I thought it had already happened. I knew deep in my heart: this was the place my baby would be laid to rest.

               We arrived at the pastor’s house, and I was deeply disappointed by what I saw. The yard, the barn, and the oak tree were all there, just as I dreamt; however, I didn’t see the grass covered with little white flowers. I thought for sure they would be there. I sat on the pastor’s couch and cried. I was so filled with grief. My soul like wet cement. That was when their cat—who usually didn’t like anyone―climbed up into my lap. She licked my tears and rubbed her face to mine, a soft, grey fur purring against my closed eyelids. It was like this cat knew my heartache, understood it. And I felt her comfort.

               Later the three of us walked into the backyard to dig the small grave. The pastor went to the exact tree and spot in my dream. But, still, no little white flowers. As the shovel struck the muddy grass, my knees buckled. I went home where I cried myself to sleep.

*

That May, a church picnic was held at the pastor's house. I was nervous to attend because I knew I would be confronted with the pain of a loss still fresh. When I drove up the gravel driveway, the grassy area where we buried my baby not that long ago came into view. I climbed out of the car and just stared. Little white flowers had bloomed all over one section of grass under the oak tree. Just there, nowhere else on the three acres of farmland. I asked the pastor’s wife about the flowers.

               “It’s weird. They weren’t there the year before and only grew in that one spot,” she said.

               I didn’t think it was weird at all. It was the scene from my dream. And I had this extraordinary sense that this was meant to happen. I didn’t need to know why or how. I didn’t need to question. Just to know that it was. Just that. Seeing those flowers brought healing, an inner strength, restored me down to the deepest parts of my soul. I would no longer blame myself for the miscarriage. I would be okay. I picked one of those little white flowers with tears of joy. I hung my new symbol of peace from the rear-view mirror, so I would be reminded that the universe had heard me and knew my pain.


Brandy Vaughn is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Assignment Pick

Her Body and Other Parties: Stories by Carmen Maria Machado

An absolutely stunning collection from an author whose work has appeared only in the format of short fiction. The stories in this book are horrible, beautiful, bloody, and sincere. Each story seems to embody the feminine voice with an authenticity that feels unparalleled in much of today’s fiction and thematically addresses the horror of anxieties surrounding body image, fidelity, sculpting oneself into what lovers seem to want or need, violence, desire, and so much more. The pieces do not fit into any particular genre, as far as I can tell. Instead the stories weave between romance, science fiction, magical realism, and postmodern recontextualization.

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I thoroughly enjoyed this book and immediately sent to my friends and relatives links from Granta and other online journals where the stories originally appeared. Each perfectly-executed piece so seemed to speak to me, my humanity, and some aspect of the women I loved, that I wanted to share Machado's brilliance with everyone I knew. Truly a genuine collection of dream-portraits of what it means to exist.

—Garrett Zecker


Faculty Spotlight

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Award-winning author and Mountainview MFA Faculty Jo Knowles has written several popular YA novels, including Lessons from a Dead Girl, Jumping Off Swings, and Read Between the Lines. Her newest book, Where The Heart Is, is set to be published in April 2019. She took time out from her hectic schedule to answer a few questions about her childhood, her career, and what motivates her.

—WL

You wrote that you grew up in a small NH town complete with all the trappings of farm life: dogs and cats, a chicken or two, horses, and a beloved pony (and here, being a city kid myself, I’m also imagining checkered tablecloths and sweat-filled pitchers of iced tea, very-early mornings and muddy boots by the backdoor). How do you think growing up in that environment affected your outlook and your writing?

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JK— When you describe it this way, my life sounds so quaint! I guess in some ways it was. But underneath that, there was a lot of financial instability. The muddy boots were not fancy ones from LL Bean but most likely hand-me-downs times three. My parents ran a restaurant when I was young and it seemed they were always working and struggling to make a go of it. Then, there were various other business ventures my dad tried that didn't always pan out. As a quiet kid who observed and absorbed just about everything, I took on the worries of the people I loved. I don't know that what appears to be a simple life ever really is.

 

You decided pretty early on that YA (young adult) literature was the genre that most interested you. What was it about YA you found so appealing?

JK— Of all the literature I read, I find YA the most honest. I like words that bite and challenge and tell the truth. Realistic fiction for young adults is probably the most brave I've read. I also think it changes the most lives. I know it changed mine for the better. The books I read as a teen helped me be more thoughtful, have empathy for others, think more about people outside my own small world, and consider how to live more kindly and with more purpose.

How are you able to get into the minds of teens, both male and female, so convincingly?

JK— That feels like a heady question to answer. I try hard to be honest--as honest as the books that moved me as a teen were. That's the key, I think.

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Your first book, Lessons From a Dead Girl, the story about a challenging and somewhat fraught friendship, was published in 2007. How long did it take you to finish, from idea to completion, and what are some of the lessons you picked up along the way?

JK— It's been so long I'm not sure how long it took, but I'm going to guess it was several years from the start to the completion and sale. One editor who showed interested asked for revisions and provided encouragement over a two-year period, but ultimately she passed. There was a similar time table with the editor who ultimately bought the book and published it. So yes. SEVERAL years. But I learned a lot about revision in this process. I learned how to work with an editor, to process feedback in a way that kept the book "mine" even when massive changes were required.


Your books, filled with humor and pathos, explore some intense subject matters: abusive friendships, eating disorders, unwanted pregnancies, and more. How do you navigate these complex issues and distill them for your core audience of teens and pre-teens? Or is age even something you consider?

JK— I really don't think about the age of my readers. My goal is to tell a story as honestly as possible. Awful things happen to kids of all ages, yet until fairly recently, books for younger readers rarely reflected that reality. The real world is far, far more cruel than the world of fiction.

As both an established author and writing teacher, is there one mistake or area for improvement you see consistently in new writers that you would like to caution them on?

JK— I think sometimes people get ahead of themselves and get publishing on the brain before doing the necessary hard work. Like any fine craft, it can takes years to learn to write well and find your own unique voice. Subbing to agents for a six months is nothing. It's not unusual for 5-10 years to pass before a first sale! But I've seen so many students give up after sending things out for just a few months. This is a tough business and the only way to succeed is to keep working—whether that means revising and rewriting, or starting new projects while subbing out a current work. Always be writing and creating. When you need a writing break, read a ton, learn, get inspired, and get back to it.

Who are some authors who have inspired you?

JK— The most influential author in my early days was Robert Cormier. His books were achingly true. They made me feel less alone. He seemed to know and not be afraid of telling his readers what life was really like.

You’re a best-selling author, adored by young readers , so it’s obvious you’ve found your calling, but in a parallel universe somewhere, what would a Jo Knowles be doing if she had taken a different path?

JK— Haha. I love that you have such a view of my "success." I don't think I've ever seen myself that way! Someone asked me recently what the perfect life looked like and I guess I don’t really believe in perfection that way. I try instead to be grateful for the people in my life, the opportunities I have to do good work  (whether that's speaking with kids and hopefully inspiring them to be their best selves and help shape a better world for themselves, doing volunteer work, or writing stories I hope will resonate with kids who need them). I hope that in a parallel universe, I'm essentially doing the same thing, even if via a different approach.

credit: Twin State Derby/Lazy Lobo Photo

credit: Twin State Derby/Lazy Lobo Photo

Okay—and thank you for doing this—one last thing I just have to ask: Roller Derby?

JK— Yup!



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Thanks, Jo! And be sure to pick up her much-anticipated novel Where the Heart Is, on sale April 2, 2019.

Cabin 11

By Zachary Scott

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It was just supposed to be a boy’s weekend: a chance for the four of us—my friend, his boyfriend, my husband and me—to hit the theme park, ride some rides, get the shit scared out of us at the haunted houses, eat crappy food, and drink a lot of cheap wine and whiskey. That’s why we rented the cabin. Number 11. A respite from the gallivanting about the park; a refuge from any onslaught of bitter cold rains that the weathermen were calling for.

               The night we were due to arrive, we stopped off at a chain restaurant attached to a travel plaza for a quiet, hastily prepared, low quality dinner, only to be overwhelmed by a massive group of uninterested parents and spoiled tweens running amuck. We paid the bill and got the hell out of there.

               “Let’s grab some soda and snacks for the weekend while we’re here,” our friend suggested. We all swung into the attached travel mart.

               He caught my eye almost from the moment we walked in: tall. And taller still, standing on a raised platform behind the counter. His smile seemed genuine, even though he looked exhausted, and the loud woman in line at the register was being a pain in the ass, complaining about anything that she could – you know the type. I meandered through the aisles, collecting the garbage that would be my diet for the weekend. I kept an eye on him, watched as he handled one person after another, outwardly just as happy to see each of them. I envied that he appeared to like his job – I had just left retail and was fucking thrilled to be rid of the hassle that is customer service. When my turn came to be rung-up, I stood at the register and was only able to mumble a “hello” to the cashier and steal quick glances. Behind his black-rimmed glasses were gentle green eyes – innocent eyes. I was putty. Inarticulate. At a loss for words – a rarity for me.

               “We’re staying at the cabins this weekend,” my friend casually said to the cashier. Apparently this was a regular coffee stop for him and the two were acquainted. “You should stop by when you get done.”

               As we walked out of the store, I swooned over the cashier to my friend— more so when he said that the cashier was gay and smart and good at his job. My friend informed me the cashier had recently been promoted, that he was actually the co-manager, second in the chain of command. I nodded, impressed. Smitten. Anxious about meeting him more properly later that night.

               Once situated in our cabin, the four of us started in on our revelry by breaking open a bottle of wine and settling down to drinking, joking, and catching up—the start of our weekend going as planned. In the morning we’d have breakfast and hit the park.

               “Let’s text him!” I announced to everyone. “Make sure he knows he has to come over.”

               We did. He did.

               By the time his shift ended and he finally arrived, I was already pretty well into the wine, and the other guys had made a dent in the whiskey. Liquid courage steeled my resolve. We were better introduced and then the five of us sat around chatting and drinking, and it wasn’t more than fifteen minutes before I sat down next to him on one of the beds and told him that I was going to make out with him before the night was over. He just smiled, said he was cool with that. Good.

               We did make out. Somewhere along the way, amid the flowing booze and flowing conversation, shirts were unbuttoned, jeans unzipped. Soon discarded clothes began piling up about the room in little mounds. Flesh and sweat. Wine and poppers. Skin. Skin. Skin. Touching and kissing and biting and all the carnal pleasures of an unbridled sexual energy. Our energies blended seamlessly, like we were supposed to be there, together, that night, that moment, naked and intertwined— connected on a level I’d only ever experienced once before.

               We spent most of that night curled up against each other – he between my husband and me – whispering all the things you’re supposed to know before fucking: Where are you from? What do you do for work? Where did you go to school? Did you ever have a pet? I had at least learned his name, KC, first. I am a class-act, after all.

               At some point, KC and I stole away to the small bunk room at the back of the cabin. There, the two of us became one…for a little while. I woke up, blurry-eyed and dry-mouthed, with my head on his chest, as grey, stormy morning light filtered through half open blinds. Rain pelted the windowpane. We were supposed to spend the day in the park. I hoped it would stop.

               We hadn’t planned on any of that happening. None of us. But it did and no one seemed unhappy about it. KC went off to work and the four of us went about our day as planned. The rains stopped for the day, but a bitter cold hung in the air. We ate shitty, fried food, drank lots of hot coffee, and knocked into innocent kids on the bumper cars. My friends got me to ride roller coasters, me screaming my head off. When the sun, hidden away by clouds all day, finally sat, we started to hit up the several haunted houses and spooky mazes scattered throughout the park, and I shrieked more than once. Vulgarities flew. I ran like there were real zombies and murderesses chasing after me. I felt alive, energized, emboldened, and I didn’t know why. I even laid in a coffin for a burial simulation on our way out of the park.

That evening, KC returned to our cabin and night two was less eventful: some wine, some snuggling, some horror movies, and a quick trip to the all-night medical cabin after I sliced my finger open trying to use a pocket knife as a bottle opener.

               The five of us parted ways the next afternoon – everyone returning to their own homes and lives. I’d recently quit my decent-paying retail job and had a lot of spare time. So after our weekend together, the three of us—KC, my husband, and I—spent weeks talking, texting, and video-chatting. When KC visited he slept in our bed. The three of us were becoming a unit of sorts – my husband and I had a boyfriend. But something in my gut told me I was the one falling the fastest, the hardest. We were in uncharted waters, without a compass, because society had taught us all that romantic relationships were meant to be in pairs.


“I still have my moments of immense sadness, where I catch myself on the verge of tears. I let them out when it’s safe.”


You should know that I tend to jump into things head-first without first checking the depths. I’m impulsive. Sometimes it works out well and enriches my life. Sometimes it fucks me over. I’ve come close to drowning more than once. I knew I was jumping in too quickly, too naively believing that a long-distance, closed triad could work just because our hearts, my heart, insisted we were falling in love, the three of us.

               And for a while, it worked. The quick trips across the state were no big deal, schedule-wise; I had tons of time. But I dropped the ball in about a dozen other areas of my life. I was broke. I was falling behind in my financial obligations, in my volunteer obligations, in my writing obligations. I was moonstruck and doe-eyed, and the world was rose-colored. I lived for it. Each visit, each text, each phone call was another hit of a drug I was hooked on.

Then I landed an amazing fulltime position doing work that really mattered and fulfilled me like no other job before. It meshed well with my work at our church. It meshed well with my teaching. Suddenly I was picking up the mess I’d made, fulfilling my adult responsibilities. That’s when we started to realize that long-distance was fucking hard. That’s when making time for trips across the state became a chore. That’s when opposite schedules meant my husband and I were asleep before KC was done with work. We had talked about him moving closer at some point, but we were still too new for that to be a rational reality. The logistics alone, even if we were at that place in the relationship, would be a nightmare to navigate.

We managed to get through the holidays. We even had a network of friends and family who knew about our relationship, who supported us and loved us, but who had cautioned against haste. I had thrown that caution to the wind, and now it came hurtling back at me, bitter and cold. Not because things were bad—we still got along well—but because the rose-colored tint had begun to fade from my glasses. I was for the first time assessing the situation as an adult, not a moonstruck teenager free to act on whims without significant repercussions. Each day that passed I came more fully to the realization that what we had wasn’t sustainable.  Not at this point in any of our lives, at least. I knew what was coming.

               It was the one time in my life when I was the first to realize that a relationship had to end. I loved him, I still do, and a part of me probably always will. He was more than a passing fancy, more than a fling, more than a chance for me to entertain my curiosities. As hideously cliché as it is, love isn’t always enough to make something work. Not in the real world. Not when we’re adults, with active, involved, busy lives. Not when two of us are at a new chapter of our lives, careers on the climb, reputations building, while the other is still figuring himself out, dealing with his own responsibilities, his own obligations and past mistakes. For weeks we barely connected, and when we did, there were often disappointing conversations about not being able to make it out more often, about how much we missed each other and hated the distance, physical and emotional. I had seen the writing on the wall and tried readying my heart, tried finding a sense of resolve.

When my husband and I finally accepted that it was time to break things off, it was me who did the breaking. I was clearly the one who had fallen the hardest, fastest, deepest—a side-effect of leaping headlong into things. And the night that it happened, KC was so upset, so insistent that we set a weekend for another visit – something that my scheduled wouldn’t allow, something that I, as the creator of my schedule, wasn’t allowing. Somehow he had ceased to be a priority. So one evening, over our video-chatting app, I dropped the ax. I am the strong one, I told myself. I am the communicator. I am the fixer. I am the take-care-of-everyone guy.  As gently as I could, I stumbled through a summary of how things had deteriorated, as if he wasn’t aware of the status of our relationship. My breath trembled, my chest tightened, my head pounded. I fumbled words. I choked back tears. You know how you start to peel off a bandage, slow at first, as it painfully pulls at your little arm hairs, and then, in frustration and pain, you just yank. That’s pretty much what it was. I struggle to find more poetic and flowery words to describe the pain, the guilt, the shame I felt as I watched him cry. I was ripping his heart apart. 

               I still have my moments of immense sadness, where I catch myself on the verge of tears. I let them out when it’s safe. I sincerely hope that one day the three of us will be able to have something – a post romantic friendship. Space is what we need now. Time to heal.

               I consider myself a very liberal person, open to most anything, and I try my best not to judge the lifestyles of others. I knew what polyamory was. I think most people have heard of it but don’t around discussing it in polite society. But the one thing about Queer Culture is that polite society has fucked us over so much for so long that we are safe engaging in these taboo situations, even if only discussing them.

Having a husband (whom I never once stopped loving or loved any less) and a boyfriend opened my mind to immense beauty and clarity. I’ve got chronic trust issues that a lot of time, therapy, prescription drugs, prayer and meditation have helped me to take a hold of; however, knowing that my husband could romantically care about another man and be intimate with him while still loving and caring for me, made me more secure in myself and my marriage than I have ever been. I became a more compassionate and empathetic partner. I learned how to listen better,  communicate better. I became a more confident and reliable friend. I became bold. I had often talked the I-don’t-care-what-people-think-or-say talk, but secretly, I had been afraid to walk the walk. Those days are behind me. Now I know that I am strong enough to live authentically, uniquely, and truly, without fear or hesitation.           

               My husband and I were not seeking out a new romantic experience. We were in a good place across every area of our life together. I do not for a second believe that the Divine tests us, but the Universe knew we needed something. I do not believe that this just happenstance. I tried to reason it away for a little while. I argued that because I had such a limited exposure to romantic relationships – I have literally been with my husband my entire adult life – I was more susceptible to falling into this trap. And then I want to throat punch myself because it wasn’t a trap. It was brief and beautiful and challenging, but it was no trap. It was no mere infatuation. It was a short, fiery romance born in cabin 11.


Assignment Pick

Heft by Liz Moore

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The first of two dueling narratives found in Liz Moore’s beautiful and poignant 2012 novel, Heft, is of Arthur Opp, a former English professor who after losing his job goes into a kind of self-imposed exile by becoming a recluse and walling himself inside his childhood home. The second story is of Kel Kellor, a rising star high-school athlete and son of a former student and longtime friend to Arthur Opp. 

               These two protagonists couldn’t be more different in age and appearance. Arthur Opp has gained so much weight, isolated as he is in his inherited Brooklyn home, that he now weighs over 500 pounds. A shy and aging and heartbreakingly lonely man who communicates with people by phone or text or the occasional letter, Arthur hasn’t ventured farther than his front porch in well over a decade. The only people he now regularly sees are the delivery drivers who bring him his groceries and takeout and whatever else he may need—all the while never letting them in the house and waiting until they have deposited their deliveries and left before he even opens his front door. Kel on the other hand is a wildly popular kid at his new school—a preppy private school—far from the small apartment in Yonkers he shares with his mom. He is the star of two sports. He has attracted the attention of one of the more beautiful girls at his school as well as the attention from a scout from his favorite baseball team. 

               However, once the novel progresses and the two stories start to intertwine we begin to see the similarities of both characters. Both are suffering with similar feelings of isolation and loneliness. Both suffer from grief and regret. Yet, they are not the only outsiders in the book. Indeed, the novel is filled with lonesome, yearning characters, each of them dealing with their own tales of sorrow. 

               Written in alternating chapters of simple, beautiful prose that is honest and clear, devoid of any ostentatious language that attempts to draw attention to itself, Moore lets her characters shine. She writes characters who feel real, characters readers will both grieve with and root for. It is, of course, a cliché to say that any book will leave you “in tears" or “sad to see it end.” Yet, I can’t help but repeat these worn expressions. I didn’t want this book to end and was saddened once it finally did reach its hard-earned conclusion.

—WL

Sparks

By Laura Dennison

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You handed me the welding helmet and warned me about burns and arc flash. You told me the sparks would provide enough light to see what I was doing.

            “Keep your hands steady,” you said. I knew that was impossible, but I tried anyway. I went on to weld—in rough, wiggly lines—our initials into a piece of scrap metal. With the bulky helmet over my eyes, I couldn’t see you or anything around me. All I saw were sparks. It didn’t matter. In the beginning, that’s all we needed.

We met in the summertime on a camping trip. You were the burly electrician with the nice butt; I was the skinny, blonde girl finishing off her fourth year of college. I liked the way you wrapped the warts on your callused fingers in electrical tape, and how you replaced the two-pronged outlets in my ancient apartment—that old, red-bricked building on Main Street that we both thought was haunted. We used that place as a playground: climbed the fire escape to the third floor so we could sit and drink beers as the sun set, letting our bare feet dangle; opened the bathroom medicine cabinet to slip razorblades into the slot in the wall labeled RAZORS; explored the long, narrow crawlspaces behind the galley kitchen, wondering if we’d stumble across a century of used razorblades in the process.

            Then there was that night we crawled out from a bedroom window, climbed up to the flat part of the roof. I wrapped us up in my patchwork quilt and there we lay, drink the Barefoot wine we bought at the corner store. When packs of partygoers passed by down on the street below, we took turns tooting at them with the little bike horn we carried with us. The party girls, dressed their shimmery tops and stilettos heels, up, stared up, wide-eyed and confused, while the boys with backwards baseball caps hollered, searching for the source of the sound. We ducked down, stifling our giggles. We were untouchable.

            It felt like the right time to tell you about what happened three years prior: the breakdown, the psych ward, the lithium. I told you how surprised I was to still be here—how I felt like I was living past an expiration date.

            You also had a story. You told me about the car accident that landed you a ride in the ambulance chopper. You said that your rib lacerating your kidney was nothing compared to the injuries to your head—how you feel like a different person now and can’t remember things the way you used to. “I still feel like I’ll be dead by thirty,” you said.

            I nodded. “Me too.”

            I reached for your hand. We made our own warmth, swaddled there together in that blanket. I shut my eyes, happy we’d found each other—two humans with no futures to scare us.

*

And now three years have gone by. We’ve moved in together—a new apartment—one with modern, three-pronged outlets, no fire escape, no slits in the walls to deposit sharp objects, and nowhere to sit at night other than the beige-carpeted floors.

            We’ve stopped spontaneously driving to the beach in the winter to lay out our blankets and have the whole place to ourselves. We’ve stopped racing each other through the downtown streets to see who can run fastest without bending our knees. Once, in the beginning, we spent a whole hour laughing after you dared me to peel a banana using only my toes and I succeeded. But now you spend your spare nights in the garage working on your old truck, while I stay in the bedroom, wrapped up with the patchwork quilt and a book.

Last weekend, though, we went on a date. On our way home from the diner, we stopped to let an elderly couple cross the street. The man wore a bowler cap and clutched his partner’s elbow. She clutched a three-pronged cane and wore a tight, white perm. Each small step seemed in slow motion.

  “I hope I die before I get that old,” you whispered after they passed.

“Me too,” I said. Only I mouthed it more than spoke it, and I don’t think I meant it.

In five years we’ll be thirty. I’m too afraid to tell you that I’ve started daydreaming scenes of a life ten or twenty years from now. After we finally drove away, all I could do was stare at my interlocked hands in my lap as they grew colder. I glanced over to see your knuckles were white from gripping the steering wheel, and it made me wonder if you were merely reading off the old script—the one with no future and neither one of us in it.

*

At night, back in the new apartment, the four white walls of the bedroom make up a perfect square. It feels like we’ve explored every last inch. We lie on top of our queen-sized mattress underneath the same old quilt. There’s so much space between us now that didn’t exist before, back when we were forced to cram together on the tiny twin. I can’t even feel the heat of your body against mine. I turn toward you and you roll closer against the wall, pressing yourself deeper into the whiteness, making yourself small. I try to make sparks myself—like we once did— but it’s like rubbing two twigs together, hoping for a fire. It only works in the movies.


La Isla Nena

By Melissa Alvarado Sierra

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The amapolas fell whenever a strong breeze shook the trees, the scarlet blossoms dropping unhurried like feathers and dotting the vast green floor. My wooden house was nearby; I could see the shanty zinc roof and the white and pink facade through the trees. I lived in Barrio Pilon, a small neighborhood tucked away in the mountains of Vieques, also known as La Isla Nena, an island off the east coast of Puerto Rico. Life was painless and undemanding in what many would call the definition of paradise. Everyday, I took a nap in the jungle, on a bed of green grass sprinkled with amapolas. Pilon was unspoiled, quiet, and seductive. Eternally humid, this rural place was canopied by dense greenery in the form of bamboo, palm, and flamboyant trees. The jungle smelled of coconuts, mangoes, starfruit, and bananas. Pilon felt like a made up place, and I felt like a better person than before I moved there. A little lighter, a little bolder, a lot happier.

Melissa walking in the jungle of Vieques

Melissa walking in the jungle of Vieques

I remember sitting within the jungle with a woven basket next to me. The basket was full of fruit I had picked from the trees. I nibbled one end of a starfruit to make a small hole and then ate the pulp, seeds and all. Starfruit juice dripped from my mouth down to my clothes and I didn’t care. I was in Vieques, not in the busy city of San Juan, where I used to live. There was no right way of eating fruit in Vieques. I spent my days in the island like that—wildly eating nature’s sweets, my ears romanced by tropical sounds—mostly of the insistent coqui frogs. Ko-kee, ko-kee, went their song. Tradewinds blew from the east and the overreaching flora fanned everything below. Vieques, my sizzling Eden, was reachable by a faulty ferry or a teeny and decaying plane, which made for a slightly treacherous and vomit-inducing journey. Once there, though, all travel and life traumas faded away.

            Vieques’ beaches were tinted with cerulean and turquoise, and the sand was so white and bright it hurt my eyes. But the ocean floor on the east side was sticky with toxic phlegm and the sand of the southeast was covered in putrid radioactive waste. Undetonated bombs lied below the waters and within parts of the jungle. The air was sick and made locals sick—with cancer, immune disorders, neurological diseases. La Marina, the Navy, arrived in Vieques in 1941, settling to test bombs in La Isla Nena. It didn’t matter to them or to the local government when people in Vieques started to die because of it. They kept testing their bombs for more than sixty years.

A map of Vieques with the location of the bombs at El Fortín de Conde Mirasol Museum

A map of Vieques with the location of the bombs at El Fortín de Conde Mirasol Museum

In 2011, when I moved to Vieques, I knew little about the contamination. But neighbors told me to stop eating the fruits from the trees. They said the Navy had used depleted uranium, Agent Orange, arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, white phosphorus and napalm on Vieques. The traces were found by local scientists on the leaves, within the soil, floating in the water and in the hair of residents. I couldn’t digest something so atrocious. I searched for those allegations and found the Navy had conceded to using the heavy metals and toxic chemicals, but had denied any links to the elevated rates of disease and mortality on the island. Five million pounds of munitions were detonated between 1945 and 2003, and the Navy said it had no effect. Trying to prove otherwise is almost impossible. The Department of Interior owns the land the Navy used to bomb, consisting of two-thirds of Vieques. They restrict access, and so we are in the dark about the real state of the island’s health. They now call the bombed area a “natural reserve.”

Painting by Kayra, A local artist

Painting by Kayra, A local artist

When the doctor said I had a rare type of thyroid cancer a few years later, I immediately thought of Vieques. I had lived on the island for less than a year, but while I was there I grew increasingly sick. My neck grew bigger by the day, and a strange and dull pain became my normal. I remember the neighbors telling me to stop eating the starfruit. They said the soil was poisoned. But I was so enamored with the singular beauty of Vieques that I ignored what had happened years before. I kept eating the sweet fruits, kept bathing in the beaches, and kept breathing the salty air. Maybe I had been poisoned. Maybe I’m one more on a long list of people who claim the island’s toxicity is to blame for their health issues—that the Navy is to blame. It can’t be proven.

Viequenses believe the cleaning efforts by the Department of Interior have been inefficient. There’s also no serious interest in studying the unusually high cancer rates (27% higher than in mainland Puerto Rico). People are dying. When I flew to Vieques mere months after Hurricane Maria, I found the island to be in very bad shape, but the people were in even worse condition. Cancer patients like Laura, a bed-ridden woman in her sixties, couldn’t have access to chemotherapy and had given up on being cured. Others made the uncomfortable ferry trip to Puerto Rico to find help, but found the journey too arduous to repeat. An oncologist with a focus on natural medicine from the main island, Dr. Marcial Vega, told me he had been voluntarily traveling to Vieques for years to help cancer patients for free because no one else is doing it. There’s no support from municipal, national or federal government. People died after the hurricane, but many more had been dying from the lingering poison. Vieques and its people have been forgotten by all, even fellow Puerto Ricans. Vieques is now known as la isla enferma.

Photo of Protesters in Vieques, asking the Navy to leave the island. They left in 2003.

Photo of Protesters in Vieques, asking the Navy to leave the island. They left in 2003.

I’m still not officially cancer-free, though tests have been negative for the past three years. Being relatively healthy again is freeing, but I also have a strange mix of guilt and nostalgia when I think of Vieques. After the hurricane, I sailed to Vieques and drove to the jungle in Pilon, where I used to live. I sat on the ground, this time with no grass and no fruit trees around me. The hurricane took them. I thought about the amapolas from 2011 and how maybe paradise made me sick. I thought about the island as it is today, still sick by the man-made poison that is glued to every leaf and infused into every drop of ocean water. Hurricane Maria made sure this was not forgotten. The winds stirred the old toxins that were hiding within the soil and interred in the depths of the sea. There’s now more proof of contamination. The poison was agitated and released once again. The dirty secret just can’t stay away.


Melissa Alvarado Sierra is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Visiting Homeless Veterans

Reflection by Dana Krull

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On a chilly Monday morning at the end of October, I had the privilege of going on a ride-along with Ben, a patient advocate with Mount Carmel Medical’s Outreach team, to visit nearby homeless camps where many of our Holy Family Soup Kitchen guests live. This was my first experience and it was eye-opening and heart-wrenching. I was thankful to have Ben’s company and guidance because he knows so many local homeless people and has earned their trust and respect by bringing them all manner of support to where they live, from bus passes, to band aids, to backpacks. Like me, Ben is a former military service member who didn’t expect to be serving his fellow civilians in these kinds of circumstances — but we both consider it a blessing to be able to do so.

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Within the first half hour, I snapped this picture of one campsite among many tucked across the railroad tracks behind Holy Family Church in East Franklinton, less than a mile from the heart of the city and the Ohio Statehouse. I grew accustomed to seeing this kind of squalor in Iraq and Afghanistan, but not in the Midwest boomtown where I grew up. Minutes later at another site nearby, we met one of our regular HFSK guests, a fellow veteran who often stops by to pick up his mail. Tragic irony then hit me when we emerged from the wood line and I caught sight of the newly dedicated National Veterans Memorial and Museum. And minutes after that, as we drove up the bike path near a wooded area which city officials recently “remediated” of homeless residents due to complaints from locals, we ran into another veteran who receives daily takeaway bag meals from HFSK. He showed us a citation he had just been given late the previous night from a MetroParks ranger for failure to follow an order — he had been sitting on a wall near the site where the same ranger had previously cited him for sleeping. “I fought for this land, and what, I can’t even sleep on it?” he lamented to us.

After visiting more HFSK guests at their camps and seeing other sites around the I-670 underpasses where some of our guest volunteers reside, Ben drove us up to the Central Hilltop, my old childhood stomping grounds and now one of the most dangerous parts of Columbus. On Sullivant Avenue we picked up an 18 year old man who recently aged out of the foster care system where he had been addicted to methamphetamines and fathered a son whom he now cannot see. The young man needed help obtaining a copy of his birth certificate and Ben coordinated this through JOIN (Joint Organization for Inner-City Needs), another Catholic ministry on East Main Street, which graciously gave the man a voucher to use at the Bureau of Vital Statistics downtown. Although this young man who has been in and out of homes across the country may not have worn the uniform of our great nation, he, too, is a veteran of a lifetime full of combat. The harrowing trials he briefly described to us — which were surely only the tip of the iceberg — highlight the dire need for the restoration of stable nuclear families whose members have access to life-sustaining jobs and loving, supportive communities. America will surely fail without its families.

It occurs to me as I am writing this in the warmth and comfort of my home: I could have been this young man, were it not for the loving parents and extended family who set the conditions in childhood for me to thrive as an adult. Really, I could be any of the homeless veterans I met, were it not for the love of my wife, our families and our priest — and emergency savings in the bank — when I departed the military for good in 2017. Even under some of the most favorable circumstances, I’ve still had to do battle with anxiety, depression and other issues. So how much more would I be struggling during my transition without each of those blessings listed above? And, given all of this, why do I still hope that the left turn arrow will stay green so that I won’t have to sit next to the veteran who is often begging at a busy intersection near our home on the South Side?

I think the root, for me, is simple denial. When it comes to homelessness, the “out of sight, out of mind” approach helps me try to preserve the distinctly American illusion that I am in control of my own destiny, as well as the truly insidious (and unbiblical) notion that “God only helps those who help themselves.” But no matter how many zeroes are at the end of my net worth, when I realize how fragile my own existence is and how much faith and confidence I’ve placed in my economic or professional status instead of the Lord Jesus Christ, I am forced to come to terms with the fact that I am not in ultimate control of my life. While God certainly gives me latitude to make decisions and He allows me to reap their consequences, there are always other social and spiritual forces at work against me. Our common Enemy in this life wants to sow chaos, hopelessness, and death. But with the help of God’s Holy Spirit, the sustaining life He gives us in the Sacraments, and the mutual encouragement of those who are doing His work, we can serve our neighbors and show them the love of our Christ.


Dana Krull is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Seeing Monsters

By W. Leander

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Nights are terrible. Nights are the worst. This all due to your dislike of the dark, your fear of it—that slow dread that descends upon you every evening once the sun sinks, the sky purples, and you know bedtime is fast approaching.

            Your mom has long since lost her patience with you and your behavior, how you carry on, fussing and whining, scared to sleep in your own bed. Gone are the times when she’d check your room for you at night: theatrically inspecting under your bed, locking your windows, examining your closet door, verifying that it was unable to swing open on its own. Sometimes your mom even sat with you as you lay there in the dark, the two of you silently watching lights from passing cars slowly play across the ceiling. There she sat and gently rubbed your belly until you finally drifted away.  However, this now seems so long ago, so hazy and opaque, you aren’t sure if it is a real memory or just an imagined one. More wish than fact.

            Now, as often as not, if you leave your bed and run to her complaining about hearing strange noises, she’ll march you back to your room, stand there in the doorway—hands on hips—and glower at you as you climb once again into your hated bed. Instead of checking locks on windows and securing closet doors, she’ll threaten you, tell you that if you got out of that bed again, she will give you something to be scared of.  You are not a baby, she’ll say. You are a Big Boy.

            “Too old to still believe in monsters,” she says—unable to sense the monsters all around her.

            However, you know that the monsters are there, just waiting for her to leave. That’s when they will come out and show themselves. That’s when you will see their teeth.

*

Tonight, she has warned you again about getting out of bed. Tonight, it is important that you not leave your room. Because tonight she is entertaining. A friend from work. The friend is due to come over after you’re in bed. So, no, you won’t be introduced. Not tonight. Maybe next time.

            So you don’t get to see the friend arrive. But you do listen. While in bed you hear the front door open and your mom greet her friend. You hear the friend too. It is a male voice. You go through the audio files in your head but can’t place that voice, which has this gritty, lumpy quality to it, like his throat needs constant clearing.

            You listen from your bedroom. The two of them. Out there in the living room. It’s soothing, the sound of their voices, the sound of your mom’s laughter, the way their hushed murmurs complement each other. For a while it keeps the monsters at bay.

            But time passes and once again you find yourself still awake, caught in the middle of yet another endless night. And your muddled mind can’t tell whether you have slept at all or if you have been awake for hours. It is now quiet out in the living room. No more murmured voices, no more whispered laughter, and whatever protection the adult’s voices provided has been removed with their absence. Now you are sure that the shadows skimming across the walls are more than a trick of light. And you can almost hear something panting from the narrow space beneath your bed. So you try to keep your eyes open. Because though you are so tired your eyeballs are burning and itchy and your eyelids feel ten times their usual weight, you are scared to close them, sure that as soon as you do the things that have been lurking, biding their time, will begin to slither.

            And now there is another problem: Your bladder. Up until now you’ve tried not to think about the pressure there. But this insistent need is verging on painful. Finally, you detangle yourself from your covers. And in one jerky motion you leap from bed, do a little hop-skip before the thing under there can grab at your feet (which it’s been waiting to do all this time). You race to the light switch, flick it on, and drown the room in solid, rational light.

            You stand there, wide-eyed and gulping air, knowing you barely made it. The first part over, you slowly open your bedroom door and take a tentative step into the short, dark hallway—ready to fly back into your room at any moment, if need be.

            You creep along in only your red Spiderman Underoos. The plan is to leapfrog from light switch to light switch, past the living room and kitchen, until you reach the bathroom. And after you relieve yourself, you’ll follow the same path in reverse, clicking off lights, letting the darkness chase you back to bed where you’ll resume your watchful vigilance. But as you skulk into the dark a voice calls out, “What’s up, little man?”

            A sound like a whimper escapes you.

            A man is sitting in the dark. Smoking. Right there on one of your mother’s honey-colored sofas. “What are you doing up?” he asks. Then he answers his own question. “Can’t sleep, huh?” And yes, you recognize the strangely clogged voice, like something stuck in his throat still waiting to be swallowed. Your mom’s friend. He is still here. But you can’t see him clearly. You can only make out half of his frame in the ebbing light spilling from your room, the rest of him is consumed in darkness. He sits with no shirt on, jeans open at the fly, the hair on his half of visible chest a murky forest of spidery hair. One eye glints at you.

            You can smell the cigarette, see the red ember sizzle at you as he takes a drag. Your mother doesn’t smoke. She wouldn’t like this.  On the coffee table before him, among the remains of their evening—wine glasses and balled napkins and the remnants of leftover cheesecake—is a dirty saucer used for an ashtray, the crushed and broken butts lying there like discarded chicken bones.

            “Where’s Mom?” you say. And why are you sitting in the dark?

            “She’s in her room,” says the voice. A glimpse of teeth from a half-lit smile. “She’s dead to the world.” The voice chuckles at this. It’s a dirty sound you think. On the other side of the living room, past the kitchen and down the hallway, you can make out your mom’s room. The door is open, but you see only darkness. Like the mouth of a cave. 

            “You remember me, don’t you?” the voice asks. “We’ve met before. Here, go over and flip on the light.”

            But now you don’t want to flip on the light switch, don’t want to fully see the face of the voice talking to you, don’t wish to watch his form solidify in the all-too-revealing light. So you tell him that yes you remember him. And then you say, as if asking permission, “I need to go to the bathroom.”

            “All right,” the voice says. That chuckle again. “Don’t let me keep you.”

            You make your way to the bathroom, feeling uneasy—not liking the half-man sitting back there on the couch, not liking his smoking in the dark by himself, not liking his clogged voice or his glinting eye or his half-moon of a smile. You don’t like his nasty chuckle, his hairy half-chest, and especially his undone fly. The word that comes to mind is icky.

            He makes you feel icky.

            As you approach the bathroom, you see your mom’s open door. And, at last, you can see a head of soft curls spilling from the mess of blankets and pillow. Just seeing those curls (and even hearing her faint snoring) returns a kind of reality back to you, cuts through the strangeness of the last few minutes.

You enter the bathroom, close the door, click on the light. The overhead fan begins to whir. Instead of lifting the seat to pee, you turn around and sit on the toilet to do your business. Like a girl. Because for some reason you don’t want the voice out there to hear you, don’t want to share such intimacy. So you sit and listen to the fan and quietly empty yourself. When you’re done, you flush and leave the bathroom without as much as a glance at the faucet.

            Your mother’s bedroom door is now closed. You stand there for a moment and listen but can hear nothing. That closed door bothers you. You have to fight the urge to knock. Instead, you return to your room, where you shut the door, click off the light, and slide back into bed. Your room is now empty. The shadows just shadows. Nothing under your bed but dust. Still, you don’t sleep. You will yourself awake. Because she was right: You are a Big Boy now. And now you need to stay vigilant. So you listen for her, your mom. Because she is still unable to sense the monsters all around her.


W. Leander is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Digging Deep

By Margaret McNellis

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Back in August of this year, a friend asked me if I could handle driving to and from New Hampshire to teach twice a week. From my home in Connecticut, the drive is 170 miles each way, which can take anywhere from two and a half to three and a half hours depending on weather, construction, and traffic. 

My initial response was, “I don’t know but I’ll figure it out.” I’d done the drive for two semesters already. But Fall 2017 only required one trip a week, and in the Spring 2018 semester, I sublet a room in a friend’s apartment for the winter so I wouldn’t have to worry about traveling that great distance in the snow. (Incidentally, the snow didn’t get really serious until I moved back home.)

This semester, Fall 2018, was different. I was teaching—not just observing—so it was more important than ever that I was there, on time, every day. And there’s been only two days I didn’t make it: once due to a tropical storm and the significant threat of trees falling because we’d had so much rain; plus, the other day, I had a fever and could barely stay awake.

On the day of the storm, I ran class remotely in an “Adobe classroom.” It was better than nothing, but it was like speaking to a wall. I couldn’t gauge my students’ reactions when we were all together as a group (though the breakout session feature was useful). The day I was sick, I sent a packet of work out to my students.

Around midterms, I came up with a better answer for my friend: “When you want something bad enough, you’ll do a lot to achieve it.” My drive, which at that time felt like running the gauntlet, was the price I was willing to pay to achieve my goal: a certificate in teaching composition. At that point, the drive was not easy; most of the roadways I take through Massachusetts were being repaved. These are also the areas with the most traffic.

There were potholes galore. People speeding and swerving and failing to use blinkers (what’s with that, anyway? It’s not like it’s a hardship).

On a recent trip, I hit a severe drop in temperature when I crossed the Connecticut-Massachusetts line, and as tire pressure does in the first cold snap of the year, mine dropped. I knew the yellow light glaring from my dash wasn’t serious; my car wasn’t pulling to one side or the other. However, the idea of driving another 110 miles on low tire pressure wasn’t appealing—especially because freezing rain fell from the sky.

I was prepared for freezing, but not freezing rain. I’d grabbed my wool coat at home because I checked the weather in New Hampshire—cold and cloudy. I’d failed to check the weather in Massachusetts, not figuring that I’d have to even get out of the car there.

I left the highway and found a gas station somewhere in Worcester. The place was packed, and through the curtains of rain, I couldn’t see the air pump, so I parked and went inside. I waited on line for ten minutes to find out where the air pump was. The second piece of information was unwelcome: “The card reader is broken, but we can change a dollar for you.”

I had the dollar; that wasn’t the problem. The problem was, like all my belongings save my keys, the dollar was in my car, which meant another wait in line. This side trip took a half hour total, which made me late for my office hour, and left me freezing and soaked as all four tires needed refilling.

On that day, I thought back to the many martial arts rank tests I’ve taken and given, black belt tests in particular. I’ve taken three and helped administer three. The way the tests are given at the dojo I attended takes about five to six hours. Sparring is always saved for last. By then, the test takers are physically and mentally exhausted. They must then defend themselves from this state of exhaustion. When taking a test, strapping on sparring gear is both a relieving and daunting moment. The test is almost over, but sparring is also when there’s the greatest chance for injury since everyone is so tired. Adrenaline spikes, and people tend to hit harder than they should for what is essentially a game of tag. Missing a block could mean a broken nose or some other comparable injury.

The day I hunched over in the freezing rain to fill my tires was like that moment right before sparring. I wasn’t done with my road-warrior days yet, but I was close. I was tired, cold, and soaked through, but finishing strong is not only something I’m capable of, but something I must do. For a moment though, at the height of my mental and physical exhaustion, there was that shred of doubt: Is this worth it?

My sensei, or teacher, in the dojo always taught us the new belt was ours for the taking. The test was the final lap in a long race, and in fact, we’d been under watchful eyes for months and years leading up to it. The test was our opportunity to prove to ourselves we have the right to that new rank.

We’re taught to dig deep, not because others expect it of us, but because we expect it of ourselves, because a black belt of any rank wouldn’t be worth having if it was easily obtained. I decided that day, as I got back on the road and blasted the heat, these trips were my tests, and these tests will make the certificate—and more important, the hours I have left with my students—worth all the more.

All told, I’ve made 23 340-round-trip-mile journeys to New Hampshire this semester. I have four more trips to make. When this term is over, I will have spent $1,000 in gasoline alone. (Admittedly, I feel awful about that carbon footprint and will try to do something to make up for it.)

My answer to my friend’s question has evolved, yet again: “I drive the distance because it adds even more value to the entire process, because it requires me to dig deep, and because when you’re this close to the finish line, you don’t slow down.”


Margaret McNellis is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Faculty Pick

Birds, Art, Life: A Year of Observation by Kyo Maclear

“Was it possible that my focus on making art, on creating tellable stories, was intercepting my ability to see broadly and tenderly and without gain?” Kyo MacLear asks in her brilliant book Birds, Art, Life: A Year of Observation. “What would it be like to give my expansive attention to the world, to the present moment, without expectations or promise of an obvious payoff?”

A novelist, essayist, and children’s author, Maclear was impelled to find answers to these questions by an existential crisis of sorts. When her father suffered two strokes, and she became consumed with caring for him and worrying about whether he would survive, she no longer had the uninterrupted blocks of time for writing she counted on, or the concentration to go with them. Burdened by a new awareness of mortality, she found herself wondering about the purpose of art and questioning the constricted vision writing seemed to demand of her. In an effort to find another way of thinking about her creative life, of thinking about life itself, she apprenticed herself to a birdwatcher and followed him around for a year of urban birdwatching in her native Toronto.

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Maclear’s guide is a musician in his thirties who shares his own anxieties about performing and cultivating a public persona as an artist. For him, the birds are a way back to an authentic, unmediated experience and an authentic self, and they become this for Maclear as well. 

I will admit that I was drawn to this book because I am completely obsessed with birdwatching myself and go out to look for birds in every kind of weather, in places that might strike the uninitiated as odd (waste water treatment plants are a favorite). But looking for birds is simply the vehicle in this book, a way to see through new eyes and to explore what makes life worthwhile. Although Maclear educates herself and the reader about birds and beautifully conveys the joy of spending time with them, Birds, Art, Life: A Year of Observation is ultimately a breathtaking series of meditations on mortality, ambition, creativity, and meaning. 

  By her own admission, Maclear “aims tiny” in this book, as she claims in one of my favorite chapters, “Smallness,” which is subtitled: “On the satisfaction of small birds and small art and the audacity of aiming tiny in an age of big ambitions.” But don’t be deceived. By focusing on the birds, she and her musician friend could find in one North American city, and by being a true observer of herself, Maclear has created a guide to the art of living a richer, more centered life.    

— Katherine Towler