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.


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.


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.

Bathroom Confessions

By Danny Fisher

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The following story contains graphic content and is a frank and honest look at issues surrounding domestic abuse.

My sister, Mel, dreams about having Mike Brady as a father. But our father is dead, and even if our life was like The Brady Bunch, everyone knows she’d be Jan. I don’t know why she longs to be recognized as the ignored middle sister, the one who whines too much to be endearing. When life becomes too stressful for even ABC’s Saturday night line-up to offer escape, Mel sneaks out of the house through the bulkhead in the basement. She rebels, I recoil. I cling to the sanctuary that is my bedroom. There, in the dark, the multi-colored lights from my strobe-lamp dance across the wall, wanting to transport me to another place and time. But the music from my stereo, its bass deep and throbbing, can’t quite mask the turmoil happening beyond my bedroom door. At night, I lie there in my bed unable to sleep. Eventually I roll over onto my side, shut my eyes, draw the covers high over my head and will my brain to let my ears go deaf.  

In the morning, I wake to exactly the kind of silence that I had prayed for only hours before. I dress quickly and quietly. I grab my books, turn the knob of my door ever so slowly and edge my way into the hallway. I am hoping to slip out undetected to the safety of school. To do that, I must clear the bathroom door. I slink past the slim tables littered with knick-knacks that crowd the hallway like giant chess pieces put there to give me away. Suddenly, a shaft of light pierces through the shadows. The metal door-stop goes waaannnggg as the bathroom door bangs against it.

“Danny, get in here!” Mom clutches my collar and yanks me inside. She slams the door behind me, locks it and points to the toilet. “Sit down.”

I obey because that’s what I do.

I try not to stare, but it’s hard. Her hair is matted to her head, which is so unlike my mother who has been known to take three hours to get ready. One eye is red and puffy from crying, the other has swollen shut and turned an ugly shade of dark purple. Her arm is held close to her side, her wrist limp. She uses her good hand to light a cigarette. She inhales the smoke deep into her lungs, exhaling through blood-encrusted nostrils. I sit and watch—as I know I’m supposed to wait to speak until spoken to, if at all. She winces as she slides her robe off her shoulders. It falls to the floor and I stare at my mother in all her nakedness. I’m twelve or thirteen years old, and it’s awkward. Her breasts are firm because they are fake. Her stomach bears the scars of childbirth, both natural and otherwise. Her legs are slim, but pockmarked with cellulite and covered with bruises, old and new.

When my gaze meets her pubic area, my untied Timberlands turn inward. I fold into myself. I tuck my right hand in the crevice between my jean-clad thighs, pick at the edge of the laminate counter with my left one. I stare at the worn rug on the floor, focus on a single thread of carpet that has pulled loose.

Mom locks eyes with her reflection in the mirror. When she opens her mouth, her voice is laced with all the anger she dares not show on the other side of the bathroom door.

“I don’t even know what I said,” she begins. “But I never do. It doesn’t matter. He slammed my face against the wall. There’s blood all over the carpet in there. How am I supposed to get that out?”

I shrug but say nothing. I don’t know why my mother confides in me. I don’t know how to respond to her any better than she knows how to respond to him. I’ve learned to stay silent. Maybe it’s because my bedroom is next to hers, maybe it’s because my sister can’t be counted on, or maybe it’s because she knows I’ll never stand up and say no. But she chooses me, every time. And I hate her for it.

Mom reexamines herself in the mirror. She scrapes at the crusty blood on her upper lip with a fingernail and tilts her head backwards, so she can see up her nostrils. “I don’t think it’s broken this time, not for his lack of trying,” she says.

She bends over to pick her robe up off the floor. At the sight of my mother’s bare backside cracked open, I turn away toward the window. My eyes are squeezed shut.

Mom hangs the robe on a hook on the back of the door. “Danny!”

I turn around—open my eyes, quit fiddling with the counter and sit up straight. “Yes, ma’am!”

“How the hell are you going to testify to a judge about everything he did to me if you’re not paying attention? Look at me!”

I work hard at keeping my expression dull while inside I want to scream. I just want to go to school so I can fail my math test and sit by myself at lunch.

“You see this shit?” The lower half of her right arm dangles limp in front of my face. “He broke my fucking wrist!”

“Are you going to call the cops?” My question is half curious, half pleading.

“Why? What’re they gonna do? Drag him out in cuffs and let him back out tomorrow?”

“If you pressed charges—”

Mom’s laugh is sharp. “You don’t get it, do you? If I press charges, then what? A restraining order? So, fucking what? That just pisses him off more.” She’s digging through drawers with her good hand looking for something to brace her wrist. Her breasts bounce in rhythm to her movements. “Don’t we have an ace bandage for Christ’s sake?”

I point to the closet behind her. “On the shelf,” I say.

Once she finds it, she tosses the ace bandage to me. I catch it, begin unraveling the cloth so that I can wrap it around her wrist. She holds her arm towards me, sucking air through her teeth at every slight movement as I try to make the brace snug enough to do some good.

“After he slammed my face, he snapped my wrist. Kicked me a few times.” She turns her hips and shows me the spot where fresh bruises are blossoming on her thigh. “I should have you take pictures, but I left the Polaroid at his apartment. You look here, Danny, remember this, okay? Make sure you remember everything I said so you can tell the judge.”

I stare past her, focus on the doorframe while I picture the scene from last night in my mind: I can see the look on his face as he calls her a cunt. He’s smug. He thinks he’s funny. I see my mother’s shoulders rise in defiance, but then quickly slouch when she realizes she’s gone too far. I see his hand as it reaches for her, grabs a handful of beautiful chestnut curls. He slams her face into the nearest wall. I see the blood that pours from her nose as he smiles down at her, daring her to speak back to him. I hear the sobs as she begs for forgiveness. I see him reach down between her legs and shove his meaty fingers inside her. He whips her into a frenzy and then calls her a slut for her body’s reactions. And when she dares to reach up and caress his cheek in the hopes of turning his mood around—he snaps her wrist in two—and fucks her anyways.

And while I don’t know if how I imagine it is exactly how it happened, I know this much: no judge is ever going to ask me about any of it.


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

Sormé

By Mojgan Ghazirad

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It is called sormé in Farsi, the black soot that women use to magnify and beautify their eyes and face. You can name it eyeliner, but in reality, sormé does not “line” the eyes. It is used inside, on the inner pink rim that harbors the eyelashes.

I saw the sormé-dan, the jar containing sormé, first time in my grandfather’s pistachio robe. I was a curious little girl, eager to explore the gifts and gadgets he had brought from the Hajj Pilgrimage. The sormé-dan was a souvenir he’d bought from a salesman in Mecca’s Bazaar. It resembled a pocket watch, a tiny arrow jutting out from the twelve o’clock location. The picture of Mecca’s cubic shrine was engraved on one side of that brass jar and Medina’s emerald mosque on the other. He twisted the arrow and pulled the metal rod attached to the arrow out from the jar. The rod was blackened with sormé. He drew the rod against the back of my hand. A narrow black line marked the touch. Then he drew another line and a tiny little V of a flying bird emerged.  Then another V and another V and soon a flock of birds flew in the peach sky of my skin. He showed me how to apply sormé on the eyes. He separated the eyelid from the eyeball and carefully dabbed the inner rim with continuous soft strokes until the pink line surrendered to a black coat. He didn’t press the rod too hard, just a caressing, tender touch, enough to blacken the rim.

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Applying sormé is a delicate task. It’s scary when the sharp stick is aimed at the cornea. One wrong move and it can scratch the eye. But this is how women and men in my country have been applying sormé for thousands of years. If you don’t put your heart in it, you will make a mess of your face. Just like using charcoal on a snow-white blank paper, you have to be mindful of every line that you draw. Even the softest accidental stroke of the hand can fade the boldness of the lines. Just a tiny drop of that fine powder under the lower eyelid is enough to ruin the look of your face. And if you try to clean that betraying dot, it will seek revenge by leaving a tarry hue under the eye: never will the two eyes be the same again. This is the reason many women avoid sormé nowadays. It deserves the attention and delicacy our rushed world lacks.

My grandfather used sormé to heal his clouding eyes. He said, “Sormé sooyeh chasm ra ziyad mikonad.” It is considered by many a medicine more than a cosmetic in the East. Muslims say it was the tradition of Mohammad, the Prophet of Islam, to line eyes with sormé. They apply it during the month of Ramadan and on Eids to pursue the path of the Prophet. Egyptians believe the blackness surrounding the eyes shields them from the ominous rays of sunshine. Indians paint the newborns’ eyes to protect them from the “evil eye.” Persians believe it accentuates expressions of love. Somehow this supreme, black powder brings protection, treatment and affection for the ones who wear it. It has something to do with lining hope for a better future when it adorns the eyes.

I always wondered why Persians believe using sormé accentuates expressions of love. I used to apply the sormé and stare at my face in the tall mirror hanging in my bedroom. I had hard time believing the blackness added beauty to my eyes, though it did highlight them in the constellation of my face. The voiceless powder cried to be seen. Eyes grabbed immediate attention: “Seekers of beauty! Do not sail around and get lost!” Like a bright lighthouse in a deadly storm, the blackness pointed to the light that resided in the sea of inside. Is that why they said sormé accentuated expressions of love?


“We tread the bazaar, in awe of the colorful shawls dancing in the air and the layered spices that mound in gunny sacks in front of the stores.”


Persian poets love using sormé as a metaphor for light—in contrast to its stygian blackness. Naderpour, a contemporary poet, says in his Sun’s Sormé poem:

               I was the blind bird of the black forest,

               The whirling winds my sole companion.

               When the night bore down on me,

               I only asked for death in my sleep.

He pictures himself as a blind owl in a deep black forest, sunrays pricking him one early morning in his dark nest. He imagines the sunrays as rods containing sormé. The rods line his eyelids with light and bring back vision to his eyes:

               But it was your warm hands, dearest love,

               Your hand and your infinite fire,

               I was the blind bird of the black forest,

               You brought sight with your sun’s sormé.

In the love poems of Attar, the great mystic poet, winds bring dust from faraway lands, from the land of the beloved. Even a speck of dust from the beloved is a cure, those tiny particles she shakes from her cloak. The wind-brought dust becomes sormé, and makes him see the silhouette of the beloved:

               The dust that morning breeze

               Veers from her door to me,

               Is the sable sormé,

               That brightens the world in my eyes.

There is a secret when stones are crushed to dust. The stibnite or the sulfur compound of antimony is abundant in Iran. For three thousand years, Persians have pried tootiya—the stibnite—from the mountains near Isfahan and grinded the stone in tiny mortars to make the fine black powder. They believe when a stone is pulverized into powder, the idol of grandiosity is broken into tiny pieces of modesty. By applying the powder, the secret in the stones is released and the eyes able to see through the veil of ego. You can see what’s hidden from the eyes. Fables have it that Khosrow Parviz, the great king of the Sasanian Empire, possessed a special sormé that when he applied, he could see through the earth for almost a year.

But while sormé can bring light to the eyes, it can be a silencing sword for the throat. There is an adage in Farsi that says, if you swallow the sormé, you will lose your voice. Bidel, a mystic poet, sings this adage in a beautiful poem:

               My lute of hope is broken and I am silenced forever,

               Of all the colors, I wonder why sormé has stolen my voice.

Sormé is destined to guide one from the glitter in the eyes to the lilting throbs of the heart. But if you use it by mistake on your lips, you will diverge into a dead-end, a hushed-voice chamber, rather than into flowing songs of love. 

~~~

I take my little girl to Tehran’s Grand Bazaar. We come out of the Jameh Mosque after the prayer. This is the first time I have taken her with me to the mosque, and I want to show her how Muslims pray together in Iran. Raised in America, she has never prayed in a mass. She likes the flowers woven in the rugs. She thinks it is poetic that we caress the flowers with our foreheads while we genuflect during the prayer. We tread the bazaar, in awe of the colorful shawls dancing in the air and the layered spices that mound in gunny sacks in front of the stores. We pass a tiny turnery that has hundreds of wooden handicrafts. Every little object in the store is embellished with patterns of petals and twisted twigs. She likes the colors and configurations of the crafts. She pulls me into the turnery and points to a bulb-like jar. “What’s that?” she asks.

The old salesman brushes his grizzled beard and puts the azure-colored jar on the counter. A sharp arrow is pointing to the sky from its narrow neck. Tiny flowers entangled in each other, ornate the surface of the jar. “It’s a sormé-dan, little lady,” the salesman says to my girl. He pulls the arrow out from the jar and a thin blackened applicator appears.

“What’s this for?” she asks. I have never told her the story of sormé. I have abandoned using it since I came to America. The old antimony stone is long forgotten in the mountains of Iran.

The salesman asks for my girl’s hand. She looks at me and I nod. She places her hand on the counter and the old man nears the applicator to the dorsum of her hand. A black line appears. He dips the rod back into the jar and strokes her hand with a soft touch again and again. The magical flock of birds appears on the peach sky of her hand. She smiles. She wants the azure jar. The old man reveals the secret of sormé: the medicine, the evil-eye catcher, the beautifier, the eyeliner, the illuminator, the heart’s pathfinder. He says it accentuates expressions of love, and smiles. He keeps the love-emphasizer for the last. She stares at him with her large, beautiful black eyes. She has hard time believing the old man.

He wraps the sormé-dan in a parchment paper and puts it in a brown bag. He puts two vials of stibnite powder tightened with a cork in the bag and hands it to me. His fingertips have tainted black from handling the vials. He has sormé in his eyes like my grandfather. I wonder if he has visited Mecca and seen the thousands of men who apply sormé after the Hajj Pilgrimage.

We swing back to the bazaar. White pillars of light descend from the domes’ circular openings. Tiny black dust particles dance in the light, twirling up to the dome. Maybe a young lover has passed these narrow alleys and the sudden breeze has swept dust into the bazaar. Maybe the beloved has shaken her cloak near the old wooden gate.

Sunshine stings our eyes as soon as we come out. My little girl squints and tries to find her love-shaped sunglasses in her strapped handbag. Doves fly to and from the mosque’s dome in flocks of thousands. She sails her hands in the air like the doves. The black Vs on her hand merge with the birds in the sky. “Mommy, have you ever put sormé in your eyes?”

I smile and I nod.

They say sormé accentuates expressions of love. It’s the secret pathway to the heart.


Lighting Up

by Margaret McNellis

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When I see people light up a cigarette, I wonder if they really know where it will take them. Sure, everyone knows that cigarettes increase your risk of getting lung cancer, that they’re linked to 80-90% of lung cancers. But how many people who smoke really know what that looks like? When my father was diagnosed, he had Stage IV non-small cell lung cancer. Two and a half months before that, he felt great. He was working, traveling, and we have a picture of him at my sister’s birthday dinner looking happy and healthy. Two and a half months.

He didn’t have a single tumor. When one of his doctors showed my mother and I his CT scan, it looked more like static on a television, like a blizzard. All the white stuff floating around in his lungs was cancer.

The cancer would have been a quick death. Less than two weeks after his diagnosis, it would have killed him if he didn’t go on emergency chemotherapy. I remember walking through the ICU, I saw another patient whose face looked like it was skin stretched over his skull. His cheeks were hollow, his eyes sunken, and his lips pulled tight. He was having trouble breathing. As scary as it was having a parent in the ICU, at least my dad still looked healthy.

The monitors told a different story. His heart rate was hanging out in the 150s even though he was resting, because he couldn’t get enough oxygen. His heart was working overtime to feed his brain and other organs. We had the “get your family here” talk with his pulmonologist.

My father wanted chemotherapy. He wanted to live as long as he could, fight as long as he could, but I think he knew before he started that he was on borrowed time. The rest of us realized that over the next three months, but what none of us knew was how sick the chemotherapy would make him, how fast he’d drop eighty pounds and begin the starvation process that would rob him of the ability to move around, to think clearly, to live. The chemo made it painful to eat, so despite our attempts to find foods he could handle, he ate less and less.

A lack of oxygen made it difficult too, and the more his stomach shrunk, the more even the tiniest of appetizers made it harder for him to try to fill his lungs with air. He got skinnier and skinnier until his collarbone protruded so much that were it not for the absence of any bruising or complaint, I might have thought it was broken. I could see his ribs through his shirt. He started to look like that man I saw in the ICU, that man who wasn’t my father and I hoped my father would never become.

My father used to smoke cigarettes. I don’t blame him for it; he did so at a time when the population believed they were healthy. Hell, doctors used to prescribe smoking, after all. Just because someone is addicted to cigarettes doesn’t mean they deserve lung cancer or chemo. All the same, whenever I see someone light up, it takes every ounce of control for me to not rip the damn thing out of their mouth and stamp it out on the ground. It takes every ounce of control for me not to hop up on a soapbox and ask them if they want their children to watch them starve, for food, for air, for just one more month or week or day. I want to ask them if they know what it looks like and feels like when someone actually fights that fight until the bitter end.

I’ve never smoked a cigarette. The smell has always bothered me. I don’t know if they taste good or not, but after watching my father fight lung cancer—which eventually metastasized to his lymphatic system, bones, and maybe even his brain—I know this: the end is always bitter.

There’s never enough time at the end, no matter how much time the chemotherapy bought. I always wanted one more day, one more hour, even after my father slipped into a coma. The hospice nurse told us that was the final stage before death, evidence the body was finally shutting down. The morning that he died, on Friday, September 6, 2016, I told my father it was okay to go. I wasn’t okay with it, really, and I never will be. But I said those words, because he needed to hear them, because it was time.

Someone my age or younger once apologized for lighting up as we walked down a sidewalk. “It’s okay,” I said.


Special Dark

by Mickey Fisher

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I went home to visit my parents last February. My mom was the only one around. Their woodstove was cooking; I felt as though I was being baked by a heat lamp. In the heat, I knew the cracks in the skin between my knuckles would open up again.

I sat with Mom at her kitchen table, a little dish of Valentine’s Day candy between us. “How’s Mary?” she asked, finding a Crackle in the dish, her favorite.

“She’s good,” I said. Mary had seen how my skin split and had cradled my hands in hers, asking if I wanted hand cream. It wouldn’t have been of any use, and I told her that, but she got some for me anyway. I set the green tin of cream next to my sink in an effort to force myself to apply it after I washed my hands. I would end up putting it on and washing it off ten minutes later.

“When are you two coming back to visit?” Mom asked, before unwrapping the Crackle and taking a bite.

“Am I not enough?” I asked. I knew that I was. I found a Hershey’s Special Dark in the dish.

“Of course you’re enough, you’re more than enough. But we never get to see her.”

I felt the flesh between my knuckles stretching thin as I unwrapped the candy. They were riverbeds caked dry through the combination of my excessive washing and the cold weather. I used to wash my hands for a count of about eight seconds. I’d heard somewhere that you were supposed to wash for the length of the ‘Happy Birthday’ song, so I would sing it rapidly in my head while I was at the sink. When the anxiety came back, I started dragging the song out, making it last longer and longer, closer to an actual rendition than a sped-up one. Soon, the song wasn’t enough. I would count to one eight times, then two eight times, until I counted to sixteen eight times. It seemed like a number that was thorough enough for me, satisfying in an obsessive way. For every number I counted, I rubbed my palms together while interlocking my fingers, to spread the soap and water. I was rubbing my hands together one hundred and twenty-eight times per trip to the sink. If my hands touched the inside of the sink at any point during the process, that was another one hundred and twenty-eight times, because you never knew who was spitting into that porcelain. If my hands touched anything other than a dry, clean towel after a wash, that was another one hundred and twenty-eight times.

I dropped the Special Dark. It landed on the kitchen linoleum. Careful to not touch the floor with my fingers, I picked the candy up by pinching a corner of the wrapper that was pointing upwards. Mom must’ve seen how I was holding it, like it was a snake that could bite me, because she was up and between me and the waste bin before I could stand up. She crossed her arms over her chest. She knew where this was going.

“You’re not going to throw that away,” she said.

“I don’t want it.”

“Mickey, it’s fine. It’s still in the wrapper. You can still eat it.”

She didn’t see it the same way that I did, all the potential diseases lurking on the linoleum that would then be transferred to the wrapper of the Special Dark; from the wrapper to my fingertips, from my fingertips to the chocolate, from the chocolate to my mouth. “I’m not going to, though,” I said. I stood up and held the candy out to her. I knew she wouldn’t throw it away, but I didn’t want to keep holding it.

She took it from me and held it in her hands, keeping eye contact. When I sat back down, she put the candy in front of me. Whatever germs had been on the floor were now on an eating surface.

You can eat it, if you want to,” I told her.

I got up and left the kitchen, walked past that baking stove to get to the bathroom sink. I left the door open.

Mom followed me and leaned against the doorframe, watching me, looking at the slight redness of my raw skin. “I thought you were past all of this.”

“Comes back around when I don’t have anything else to worry about,” I told her. I just wanted to wash up for my peace of mind, and there was only Dawn at the kitchen sink. My parents had a ceramic liquid soap dispenser, colored with a mix of Easter pastels, that they used year-round. The soap inside was a watery, cream-yellow liquid that was too runny to convince me that it would be effective. It stung as it leaked into the cracks in my hands.

 “It’s up to your wrists,” she said. “It hurts my feelings.”

“Why?” I asked, knowing that the answer was going to hurt.

“Because I feel like I’m responsible.”


Ridiculous Boots

by Kirah Brouillette

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I wore a pair of Ridiculous Boots to my January writing residency in New Hampshire’s North Country, near Mt. Washington. It was -22 on the day I left Portland for Whitefield, so I packed an emergency bag, my snowmobile suit, my insulated Kamiks and a balaclava, too, just in case.

But with their black velvet uppers, waxed laces and three inch platform heels that made me walk extra tall, my Ridiculous Boots didn’t fit in. They looked more like the kind of thing a retired stripper might wear, not a country mom from Maine.

Naturally, I couldn’t resist them.

“These boots are ridiculous in the best way, aren’t they?” I asked my husband as I was walking out the door. I pointed at the Ridiculous Boots. I hadn’t worn anything like them in years. He didn’t respond, so I hunched over and folded myself up small, lifting my right foot up so he could see the boot better.

 With his nose scrunched, like something stank, he glanced down, then back up at me and said, “Yep, totally ridiculous.”

I couldn’t tell if he was joking. His face was inscrutable. We used to share a bone dry humor, regularly passing jokes between us. But now our exchanges felt vaguely—if at least equally—injurious instead.

Ok, fine. I thought. You’re right.

They were not the kind of boots a mom like me should wear. Were they the kind of boots I used to wear? Well, yes. But neither of us had seen that version of me in almost a decade.

That woman hitchhiked. That woman lived on some distant tropical island, wearing nothing but a bikini and muddy Chacos while she macheted a fresh mountain path down from the road to the secret beach below so she could write in peace, away from tourists. That woman had abs, sometimes.

Instead, I was a woman who drove a drastically used Subaru. I was a woman who sometimes shopped at the Dollar Tree for deals on crackers and binge-watched Bravo reality shows when she was depressed. Instead of a machete, I used a broom to clear a crooked path through piles of clean laundry and Legos in the hopes of liberating the last chocolate chip cookie for myself before my kids found it. I was pear shaped.

But I bought The Ridiculous Boots anyway, on a whim, when I saw them recommended for me on Amazon.com while I shopped for diaper wipes and Pine Sol. They were Important Boots, too, I realized as I added them to my cart. They were the first high heels I’d allowed myself to own since marrying my husband, a respectably-sized man of 5’7—next to my 5’9 ¾—whose height had become a symbol for our incompatibility..

I was, after all, well-trained from a young age to believe my height was problematic for everyone around me.

“You’re too tall,” my mom used to say to me when I was a girl “What will the boys think?” Then she’d pinch a soft hunk of my lower back between her bony finger tips, causing me to shout out in pain and bend down to her level where she would hiss into my ear, “Stand up straight if you’re going to be so tall. Ridiculous.”

Luckily for me, The Ridiculous Boots made me taller than I’d been in years, so I could fall harder than I had in years.

***

They say that emotions, particularly those related to trauma of any kind, are stored in the body like a computer stores information on a hard drive—your body systems retain a physical copy of the painful memory, like an imprint. Over your life, this pain can resurface accidentally, in unusual or destructive ways if it’s not brought out and healed with intention. And it’s not always old pain, either. Even the most recent and delicate emotional trauma can trigger a systems collapse.

When I bought my Ridiculous Boots, I already knew this theory well. I was intimate with the draining, dramatic process of releasing trauma from the body. In my own daily yoga practice—something I’d used to heal the PTSD my childhood left behind—I’d learned first-hand how unearthing buried emotions through movement could cause a physical illness to erupt alongside the healing. After all, I’d spent most of the previous two years (as my marriage struggled to survive) chasing the symptoms of Systemic Lupus Erythematous, a disease my rheumatologist partially blamed on “unresolved systemic stress.”

I wasn’t thinking of any of this later on that week in New Hampshire, when I stomped out of my peer workshop one morning, fuming over an exchange with a teacher that had reminded me of arguments with my husband, my mother. I stomped so hard and so thoughtlessly that my Ridiculous Boots and their sky high heels skipped a beat, and slipped, sending me down.

 As I crashed to the floor and my chin bouncing off the hardwood, I wasn’t thinking. I wasn’t thinking of the heavy sadness in my marriage that weighed each doomed footfall I’d taken before I fell. I wasn’t thinking of all the broken promises we’d made to each other when my knee took my weight and made a loud crack. I wasn’t thinking of how afraid I was of a life alone when I felt those long-held, bitterly hot emotions in my chest burn their way up and out as tears.

And once they started, they could not be stopped. All I could do was think, then. So I sat surrounded by friends and mentors with one leg hefted onto a pile of pillows and covered in bags of ice while I cried out all the stories: the mean mom stories, the sad state of my marriage stories, the personal failure stories, my fears for the future stories.

After a while of all that crying, something miraculous happened: I felt better. Even my knee. So I laced up my Ridiculous Boots and with the help of friends, kept walking tall.


Sunflower

by Todd Richardson

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As a devout atheist, I don’t believe in the supernatural. But when my friend offered a free tarot card reading, I thought I’d entertain the idea, just for fun. I met her in a square room filled with photographs yellowed with age. A circular table stood in the center. I took a seat across from her.

She looked me in the eye as she unboxed the cards. “Are you open to this?”

I shrugged, “Sure.”

She held my gaze as she spilled the cards face-down on the table. She swirled them, her hands gently floating over their surfaces as she churned the deck. “Is there some paperwork that you need to finish?”

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“Something for work?” she asked.

“I’m still waiting for a teaching contract.”

“It’s coming on Thursday.”

“Sweet,” I said. Lucky guess, I thought.

She told me to pick five cards and place them in order on the table without turning them over. I chose from the pile at random. She flipped them over one at a time. A woman. Swords. Cups. The moon. A sunflower.

She pulled the first card—a man surrounded by cups—toward her.

“You have a financial opportunity coming,” she said.

“Great,” I said. How cliché, I thought.

“Three months, maybe. Watch for it.”

“Sure.”

She tapped on the card with a picture of the moon on it. “The moon means you have someone watching over you. Was there someone important to you who passed away?”

“Not really,” I said. My thoughts drifted toward my grandpa, who died when I was fourteen.

“I’m getting a grandfather?”

I nodded in confirmation. C’mon, I thought, who doesn’t have a beloved grandparent they hope watches over them?

“He’s sending me an image of boots,” she said.

“What?”

“A pair of old, leather boots.”

“Nope,” I said.

She paused. “No, it’s definitely boots.”

Don’t make me put my boot in your ass, I heard his voice echo in my head. I smiled. “That used to be his brand of heartfelt motivation,” I told her. “He used to say he’d put a boot in my ass if he thought I needed it.”

“He’s telling me that he’s there for you, to give you that boot in your ass when you need it,” she said.

I chuckled. Ok, that was pretty good, I thought.

She dragged the three remaining cards closer to her: the sunflower, the swords, and the woman. There was a pause before she spoke again.

“The sunflower means fertility,” she said. She looked up and my throat tightened. My wife and I had a miscarriage, but my friend knew that. I’d told her about it weeks ago.

“You’ve been through something horrible,” my friend said. She reached across the table and placed a gentle hand on my forearm. What did she see? I thought. Could she see the toilet bowl full of blood, the frantic drive to the ER, me wringing my hands like a damp wash cloth as the nurse pressed an IV into my wife’s vein? I swallowed hard.

“Something good will happen.” She gave me a knowing look. “I see a seven. Seven weeks, maybe. Seven months. I’m not sure. Just be strong.” She pointed to the card with swords on it, looked at me, and smiled.

“Whenever the good news comes, your wife will become a warrior.”

“She’s already fierce.”

“She’ll be even stronger. Just wait. You’ll see.”

I thanked my friend and left. I spent the rest of the day full of equal parts doubt and hope. I wanted to believe my grandfather was beaming down at me. More than anything, I needed to be a father again, to feel whole in a way that only the baby had made me feel. But I was skeptical. Mystic cards held no sway over the forces of the universe; life was determined by choice and chance, not fate.

I woke up the next morning. It was Thursday. My teaching contract sat in my inbox awaiting my signature. Son of a bitch, I thought and began praying. I don’t know about God, or the cards, but I prayed for seven—seven days or weeks or months—prayed for the day my sunflower will come.


Thank You, Carrie

by Josh Zinn

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Last Christmas I kicked my seventy-year-old father out of my house for doing drugs in my bathroom. The next day Carrie Fisher died. Bah humbug.

Truth be told, though I did my fair share of Scrooging over my stoner dad the remainder of that holiday season, it was nothing compared to the Jacob Marley-esque chains of grief cast upon me by the sudden passing of the first person who made me believe someone like me could be a writer. Not to diminish my drug-addled pops and the role he played in bringing me into this world, but I can say with all certainty it was discovering the prose of the drug-addled Ms. Fisher which gave this awkward, manic-depressive gay kid life. Immaculate conception, indeed.

"Maybe I shouldn't have given the guy who pumped my stomach my phone number, but who cares?" The first sentence from Fisher’s debut novel, Postcards from the Edge, is seared in my brain like an instruction manual for the self-destructive narcissist. I can still remember reading it in Waldenbooks, all of thirteen, and audibly gasping upon my realization not only did Princess Leia have talents which extended far beyond aluminum swimwear and hair masquerading as Cinnabon advertisements, but she was emotional kindred as well. “Fiction,” she called her story of a washed-up actress coping with addiction and a domineering showbiz mother, but anyone without a life (me) and possessing even a smidgen of Hollywood history (me, again) was aware that excuse was so thinly veiled the book may as well have been written on tissue paper. This was autobiography and I was in awe.

Finding Fisher was like stumbling upon a funhouse mirror, reflecting everything I’d ever dreamt and dreaded for myself. Neither steeped in literary pretension nor pandering to the cheap seats her sci-fi pedigree guaranteed, her work was raw, hilarious, and self-aware enough to know the silver spoon she’d been born with had given her a ready-made audience for her silver tongue. Like me, she endured mental illness and persistent pessimism, never sure which days the black hand of self-hate would completely blind her from objectivity. At the same time––again, like me––she reveled in the magic of the world, whether it be film, art, or a perfectly dirty double entendre, using those respites of joy as fuel to rocket past her head’s omnipresent gloom.

When you’re diagnosed as bipolar, doctors will describe your life and mood swings as a rollercoaster you can’t get off. What no one wants to tell you, however, is how addicting those highs can be; that, most of the time––even when you’re in the throes of the most fucking awful “I’m-listening-to-Celine-on-repeat!” depression you could imagine––you won’t want off. Carrie Fisher told me; she told anyone who would listen. Her writing was unashamed and unapologetic as it recounted the damage done. It never took glee in pain, but never shied away from its ugliness, either. If there was ever a lesson to learn, it was simply to quit crying, accept the mess, and find a way to make crazy work for you––hopefully, by laughing in its face.

I’m forty-one now and a writer myself, but it is still to Fisher whom I turn when I need to a jolt of the truth I’m constantly searching for. I’ve never read to “escape” my troubles. I read to learn how to escape, to survive, to see past the moments when my unstable mind takes myself or the world too seriously. When my Mom died five days after I graduated college; when my Dad wanted a stocking full of weed and painkillers; or when Donald Trump was elected and it truly felt like the apocalypse was nigh, I snuck off somewhere and listened to Carrie tell me, yes, life really is as shitty as I think it is, but nowhere near as shitty as it probably could be. Every single time, she was the calm inside my storm.

Now, she’s gone. And my mom is still dead, my father still thinks I’m a narc, and Trump is still doing whatever it is he thinks being President entails. For twenty-seven years Carrie Fisher’s voice saved me, but, ultimately, it wasn’t enough to save herself. This Christmas, even without her and the world (and my mind) still on fire, I’ll be returning to her well for comfort once again. As Fisher herself said, “If my life wasn’t funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.”


Thanksgiving as Adulthood

by Ashley Bales

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I’ve never gone home for Thanksgiving.  Not since ‘going’ became part of the complication.  Certainly, I had many lovely Thanksgivings at home before I left home, but since moving out of my parents’ house I’ve never made the trip back just for the comforts of family and my father’s unbeatable stuffing and pumpkin pie.  Some of my favorite Thanksgivings, however, have been as an adult, with friends and stragglers and all the rest who also found long distance travel a month before Christmas impractical. 

In college, my Thanksgivings were full of friends as broke as I was.  None of us knew how to cook a turkey and setting the table felt like dress-up.  We bought gallons of Carlo Rossi and traded who got to drink out of the one unbroken wine glass.  By grad school I was making stuffing almost as well as my father and amazed my international friends, who had never seen a 20 lb turkey.  My greatest successes were the years when we were all too busy to go home, home was too far.  We were stuck here and I knew what to do with a baster and a carving knife. 

A year after my now husband and I started dating, his parents decided they’d come to New York for the holiday.  This was complicated by my brother, who subsequently announced that while he didn’t have leave for Christmas, he could make it to the west coast for Thanksgiving.  When I explained why I regrettably would not be able to see him, as I was already committed in the east, he joyously insisted he would come to me instead. My mother and step-father quickly joined the caravan.  My place couldn’t accommodate a crowd, so we’d host at my boyfriend Mike’s. The day before, Mike, his mother, her boyfriend and I headed off to buy the groceries with the last of her food stamps.  As we were walking out of the apartment she suggested we check the size of the oven.  I scoffed, she insisted, and I ran in to find an oven not much bigger than a bread box.  There would be no way to cook the turkey in it.  Luckily, my apartment, a mere 4 blocks away, had a beautiful oven.  We’d cook the bird there, and bring it over for dinner. 

The day came.  Timers were set, the parade was on.  Mike and I took turns running over to my apartment to baste the bird.  My mother arrived with chicken soup, and the meeting of the families happened blessedly in my absence, as I frantically basted 4 blocks away.  A friend called at some point to ask if she could bring someone and then showed up with three extra Parisians who sat between the parents and either couldn’t or wouldn’t speak English.  My step-father announced that he was vegetarian, when I’d only ever known him to be lazily kosher and Mike ran out to buy fish.  Someone’s dog took a shit on the floor and I managed to carry all 22 lbs of that turkey the four long blocks in a crumpling aluminum pan without dumping it onto the sidewalk.  It was not my favorite Thanksgiving, but it was the first with my husband.

Since, Thanksgivings have become less adventuresome. Friends have enough money to go to their families.  They have families of their own. None of us are playing at adulthood anymore. Worst of all, everyone can cook now, though I can be confident—particularly with the new spatchcocking craze—that you’ll be hard-pressed to find a stuffing as good as mine. 

Happy Thanksgiving.


Ashley Bales is a current student of The Mountainview low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.  She holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology, teaches in the Math and Science Department at Pratt Institute and is web editor for Assignment Magazine.