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courage, Fiction, Guest Posts

The Arboretum

May 13, 2022
kids

If you saw it, you’d agree: It’s the gem of our town. Not as big as the one in Vellum Heights, but clean, well-designed, with paved walking paths, a pond full of vibrant, speckled koi, and a climbing apparatus built just for the kids. Its half-mile circumference holds five hundred trees – towering oaks and regal sycamores, luscious magnolias that flower in spring, beeches with smooth grey elephant skin, papery birches and prickly ash.

Some of us are old enough to remember those trees – not those trees of course, but ones like them, that grew in our yards and in the neighborhood park, a mute green watercolor backdrop to our lives. We remember the smells of fresh-cut grass, and rain, and mud, and the breeze on our face. Indescribable now, like the sky when it was blue.

Now we all wear the mask. For the sake of our kids, we pretend not to hate it as much as we do, but it makes no difference; our kids refuse to put it on. From the moment they exit their sleeping pods, after every meal and every bath, we are reduced to chasing them around the house like ogres out of some macabre fairy tale. We hold them down as they kick and scream, force the nozzle over their nose and mouth, tighten the straps at their temples and jaw. It’s not pretty. It’s not what we imagined for them. They claw at their heads and call us terrible names. They say they can’t breathe, which of course isn’t true.

We pine for what the big cities have: renovated, airtight, oxygenated schools and offices and condos, amenities we can’t afford. The arboretum, though – we lobbied for a year, went door to door, convinced the mayor to sign on. We spoke at town hall meetings to unanimous applause, though some high schoolers gave us a run for our money. Julia Meyers, sixteen at the time, stormed up to the podium, flanked by four of her friends. “People are dying and you want to build a park?” As if we’d asked those people to come to our town, with their makeshift tents and sprawling filth. Yes, we knew their children had died. Of course it was sad. And we’d let them stay. Occasionally we saw them roaming our streets, dirty rags tied around their noses and mouths. Some rattled cans, and we gave them change.

We told the youth, some problems are too big to fix.

From afar, the arboretum’s domed-glass roof resembles a snow-globe embedded in the ground, an alluring green planet in the center of our town. The earth’s bounty shrunk to a fraction of its size. We love it. Without it, we’d lose our minds.

Today we have come for the Live Butterflies, and the line extends around the block. Our kids fidget, shift from foot to foot, bounce on their toes as we wait to get in. Connor Watson pokes his little sister in the back, tugs the end of her sash, undoing the bow. “Stop it!” she wails, her hands grasping at the crimped, dangling ribbons of her dress. Her eyes narrow through the porthole lenses of her mask. She kicks him hard in the shin. He slaps her arm. “Cut it out,” their father says, “or we’re going straight home.” In our masks, we all look like giant anthropods with oversized black heads and elongated snouts. Bug-eyed creatures, an alien race. The line inches forward, in shuffling steps. We move as a herd, bovine with exhaustion, the kids like puppies straining their leashes.

From behind the entrance window, the security guard – Jeremy Knowles, the mayor’s son, slumped, unshaven, bored out of his mind, as if his mask-free job were not coveted by all – waves us through the first checkpoint. We pass into a wide vestibule, a large steel box with hydraulic doors. The floor vibrates through the soles of our shoes as the air is sucked out, hermetically sealing us in. Then through a smaller set of glass doors, into the crystal-cool chamber of the dome.

It’s like stepping into the great outdoors, a green so lush it hums in our teeth. The kids are now beside themselves. We fumble with the child-kidssafety locks on their masks, an impossible array of buckles and clasps. So close to freedom, they wriggle and whine. We try not to curse. “Would you just hold still?”

Their masks come off. We let them run – bare-faced and wild, ferocious with glee, torpedoing towards the center of the dome where the jungle gym looms like a skeleton god. Beams and bars and tunnels and slides, they lose themselves in its vertiginous maze. They move in a charged and zealous blur, and something inside us moves with them.

The relief, as we loosen the straps of our mask, breaking suction, peeling the rubber from our face. Our pores exhale, our sweat evaporates. We gulp the cool air. It’s a thirst, and we drink. The humid, heavenly scent of leaves and loamy earth and linden blooms. Sawdust and pine and soft damp moss. Each breath we take returns us to ourselves.

Here we are: sallow and prematurely grey, defying extinction for better or worse. We sit on the benches and watch our kids play. At least our kids still know how to play. They are making do, like the bonsai in its pot – stunted, pruned, inhabiting tiny truncated lives. We water them, we clip their leaves. We don’t tell them how many of us there once were.

Their screams and laughter echo through the dome. More families stream in – our neighbors, our friends – our din pulsating like the chambers of a heart. There are strollers everywhere. Our masks are scattered like empty chrysalides. Lina Hernandez, a mother of two, is squinting worriedly into the crowd.

The crowd, as if by magnetic force, is moving, rippling, parting to make way for a scarecrow of a man who is lurching down the path.

He reeks of sour, festering rot. His face is raw and stippled with a rash. His eyes are bloodshot, his hair a greasy pelt. He could be thirty or sixty-five. He weaves tipsily among the trees, approaching the teeming mob of our kids. They don’t see him, not until they hear our shouts.

“Izzy!”

“Jackson!”

“Get over here, Taij!”

They scatter in confusion, into our arms. Because we are frightened, so are they. We pull them close and give the man a wide berth. He lies down on a bench and closes his eyes. Our children stare, at the labored rise and fall of his thin chest, the dirty sweat on his brow. Two park staff approach – Ravi Price and Jeff Sanchez, young men, acned, visibly sheepish. “Sir?” The stranger opens one eye and mumbles, annoyed, like they’ve come to him in his private backyard, woken him up from his afternoon nap. When they try to help him up, he turns over on his side, his back to us, and wraps his arms around himself. Like Liza, our beloved childhood dog, when she crawled under a porch and wouldn’t come out. Refusing food, growling at whoever came near. We didn’t understand that she’d gone there to die.

Two security guards appear, masked, wearing protective gloves. We flinch as they pull the man to his feet. He splutters in protest, then begins to cough, a croupy bark that wracks his frame. They hold him up by the armpits as he spasms, retches, his vomit splashing at their feet. We hold our kids tighter, try to cover their eyes. Spellbound, they push our hands away. Pink spittle dangles like a worm from his mouth. His head lolls, feet dragging as they take him away.

Already, the kids are wriggling out of our grip. Jeff and Ravi start to clean up the mess, and the kids gather around to watch the spectacle. “Stand back,” we warn. They are like dogs, drawn to the most revolting things. We are glad when the job is finally done, our eyes watering from the sting of disinfectant in the air. Gladder still when Elsie Cho’s four-year-old daughter points down the path and shouts, “the butterflies are here!”

Another staffer – Julia Meyers, all grown up now, having abandoned her needling adolescent righteousness – has appeared with a small mesh cage full of them. They are Holly Blues, lab-hatched upstate. The kids surge around her like a bubbling tide. She releases the swarm, an azure whirlwind. The children shriek. The butterflies rise, a cloud of glitter dispersing in the air, the kids leaping, spinning, chasing after them.

At least we have managed to give them this. Pig-tailed Jenny Ames beatific on her father’s shoulders, the butterflies grazing her outstretched fingertips. Little Elroy Carter toddling about, flapping his arms and squealing with joy.

Within an hour, the butterflies carpet the ground like fallen leaves, having lived their entire lifespan before our eyes. The kids pick them up, study them in dismay – the paper-thin wings and half-crushed legs, the powdery dust coming off on their hands. “Next week,” we say, ushering them back to the benches, where our masks – and the inevitable tantrums – await.  “There’ll be more next week.” It is closing time. When we leave, wings stick to the bottom of our shoes.

Talia Weisz lives in Brooklyn, NY and is the author of two chapbooks: Sisters in Another Life (Finishing Line Press, 2017) and When Flying Over Water (Plan B Press, 2009). Her short fiction appears in Entropy and Call Me [Brackets]

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

 

emotions, Fiction, Guest Posts

Cups of Murky Water

May 6, 2022
bridgette

Rosie was wrapped up in her blanket like a newborn baby being swaddled, laying in fetal position, her sandy tresses falling in messy waves against the couch cushions. Bridgette examined her girlfriend – beautiful, even when relaxing on a Sunday afternoon adorned by their dog, Lily. Bridgette found herself biting the skin around her fingernails again, Lily staring at her from atop Rosie, silent judgment in the dog’s eyes. Bridgette sent a glare at the powdered donut of a pup, who quietly whined in response.

Bridgette sat on the living room floor beside the couch Rosie lay on, coffee cup in one hand and cell phone in the other, knowing damn well if she tried to squeeze onto the couch with them she’d not only not fit, but also disturb the moment. Instead, she took a sip of coffee and raised her phone, steadying it so Rosie and Lily were both in the frame. As she tapped the screen to take the photo, a pop-up of “Storage Full” made her angrily place her mug on the floor a bit too haphazardly, coffee splashing out and staining the rug. She sighed, knowing it was about time to toss the rug anyway, the only piece of her ex-boyfriend Jamie still left in the apartment.

Glancing from her phone screen to the coffee stain and then back to Rosie, Bridgette noticed that Rosie seemed less saturated, like a faded painting, ever since they’d moved in together. They say if you leave out a photograph, the sunlight will ruin it, and something like that has happened to Rosie. She was still attractive, of course, but she wasn’t as new and exciting as she used to be, as if Bridgette was a child opening a gift from her parents on Christmas, playing with it non-stop for two weeks straight, and then growing bored of it but still forcing herself to play with it so that her parents wouldn’t feel like she didn’t like it anymore.

Bridgette found herself staring at Rosie, admiring her pale skin and pink accents. Her eyebrows were delicate and sparse, shades darker than the hair on her head; a limited edition porcelain doll, she looked unattainable, yet there she was, asleep in Bridgette’s living room, which had slowly been overrun by Rosie’s canvases and paints. Despite Bridgette not getting it at all, Rosie declared Bridgette her muse, a muse she always dreamed of and finally had.

Bridgette recalled the start of their relationship, Rosie asking Bridgette to pose for portraits and sketching her while they sipped coffee in the morning. For a while, Rosie’s presence made Bridgette feel beautiful for the first time in her life, but eventually that faded, too, Bridgette becoming hyper aware of the flaws Rosie painted into portraits like her freckles and bushy brows, all things Rosie claimed were quirks.

“Why don’t you just look in a mirror and use yourself as a model?” Bridgette inquired once, to which Rosie rolled her eyes.

Shifting her focus back to her phone, Bridgette groaned quietly, not wanting to wake Rosie up. Rosie’s naps were the only quiet moments Bridgette got anymore: all morning and all night, and most of the day, too, Rosie wanted to do nothing but lay around half-naked, talking and touching. Bridgette shifted in and out of the present moment, aching to get through the routine of it all.

Opening her Gallery to start deleting old photos, Bridgette stumbled upon a nude Rosie had sent her when they first started dating, something she was surprised hadn’t been deleted yet. Every time she saw it, she felt like shit about herself, which is probably why she kept it for so long – some sort of addiction to feeling bad.

This time was no exception: as she studied the photo and evaluated the shape of Rosie’s breasts and length of her legs, she looked down at her own body and sighed. She wore sweatshirts and sweatpants most days, while Rosie wore tiny tank tops and shorts even while snoozing underneath blankets right beside her.

They hadn’t had sex in weeks. Any time Rosie initiated things with Bridgette, she froze up: Rosie stripped down while Bridgette shut down, comparing every inch of their bodies. If Rosie pulled off Bridgette’s shirt at night, she flinched away, which usually ended with an argument and going to sleep without speaking.

Rosie’s routine was painful, uncomfortable, and left Bridgette wanting to rip her own skin off. Or maybe Rosie’s routine was just new and overwhelming to her – her entire life  had shifted like the seasons in such a short amount of time, her relationship with her ex-boyfriend, Jamie, dissipating like a Lush bath bomb in a warm tub of water, a new one with Rosie being assembled like a clumsy toddler playing with building blocks.

How could Bridgette know what to expect? Bridgette may not have been Rosie’s first girlfriend, but Bridgette was a stranger to same sex relationships: she was used to being an average straight, ugly girl, having sex with straight, ugly guys. Now she was supposed to be something entirely new, putting on the performance of a lifetime for Rosie each and every day, who stared at her expectantly, as if she knew what the fuck she was doing.

Sometimes Bridgette missed the shitty sex she used to have with Jamie. There was no pressure with him – all she had to do was take off her shirt and he was satisfied, impressed even. They worked through the motions, him grunting and her sighing, ending things with hugs and kisses and hand holding even when Bridgette wanted to do nothing but stare at the ceiling until it was over with. She was allowed to be vacant. But with Rosie, she had to pay so much attention to the body in front of her or it would start questioning her, crying to her, doubting her – the same body that left her filled with self hatred.

Getting up, Bridgette walked past a frame on the wall that was filled with Post-it notes, tiny flowers painted on them in various colors and styles, which Rosie would create and stick to Bridgette’s things when they had painting class together back in college. The frame was obscured by light peeking into the bedroom window through blinds Rosie pulled down hours ago. All that was visible was the glare, a white wound slashed across the glass, as if someone took a sword to the flowers to chop them all in half. Bridgette knew they were whole, pieces of their friendship turned relationship, all glued together and sealed within a frame.

        Taking a seat at the kitchen table, Bridgette returned to her phone, her thumb hovering over Jamie’s name. She glanced into the living room at Rosie shamefully, as if she had already dialed. She hesitated for a moment, remembering Rosie might wake up at any second. Inevitably, though, she dialed. She picked and bit at the skin around her fingernails, knowing that if Jamie were there with her, he’d tell her to stop. When he answered the phone, she did stop, her nerves increasing and calming at the same time.

The conversation between her and Jamie was quiet and light, refreshing, almost, bringing Bridgette back to what once was – the moments she took for granted and let go of, or as Jamie put it, threw away, all in one night. The dog let out a high pitched bark and Bridgette’s chest pounded suddenly, eyes darting to the couch to only see the cloud of a dog moving around rather than a forlorn, expectant Rosie. Bridgette knew that if it had been Rosie, she’d have hounded out a “why did you leave me,” drowsy like a child waking late on a Sunday morning, even though Bridgette had only gone one room away.

“Was that a dog?” Jamie asked.

“Yes.”

“I always wanted a dog.”

“I know. Rosie wanted one, too.”

“You told me you didn’t want a dog yet. That we weren’t ready.”

“I know.”

Jamie hung up. Bridgette stared down at Lily, who had joined her in the kitchen, for a moment, unsure of where she had left to go or what she had left to do.

She heard rustling coming from the living room, Lily’s head snapping up and glancing towards Rosie. While Bridgette knew she needed to go amuse her waking girlfriend, it didn’t feel like much of a place to go. She headed back to the living room, leaving her phone on the kitchen table.

She joined Rosie on the couch, Rosie mumbling a “good morning” even though it was the late afternoon. When Bridgette didn’t immediately respond, Rosie parroted, “Hey, I said good morning.”

“Oh, sorry. Good morning.”

The painting class they met in was a required elective. Neither knew anyone else in the class, so they ended up sitting next to each other. While they sat far enough from one another that they weren’t bumping elbows or anything, Rosie’s thin frame seemed to hover in Bridgette’s peripheral vision. They couldn’t not notice each other, and they didn’t.

Rosie may have been the first to speak up, but Bridgette had been paying attention to her all through attendance and introductions. Bridgette noticed that while she had no experience holding a paintbrush, Rosie was well-practiced and comfortable in all things crafty. When, on the first day of class, each student was asked to design name tags using only an index card and acrylic paints, Rosie created an intricate piece of artwork in which the letter “I” within her name resembled a rose. As if Rosie hadn’t presented herself as corny enough already, she tacked onto it by turning to Bridgette and saying, “Isn’t it funny how my name is Rosie, but you’re the one with red hair?”

The joke was so unexpected, unprecedented, and utterly stupid that she wasn’t sure if Rosie was serious or not. Glancing over at Rosie’s name tag again, she realized she probably was serious and let out a forced laugh. It was like squeezing the last bit of toothpaste out of the tube – at first, there was nothing, and then an uncomfortable, awkward burst exploded out. Her cheeks burned as she shifted her attention back to the assignment at hand. But, inevitably, just as Bridgette ran out of room on her index card for the last three letters of her name, Rosie leaned over intimately, asking, “Is Bridge short for something?”

“Bridgette.” Bridgette shifted in her seat, trying to move away, but a pull in the air kept her secured in place. Or maybe it was just Rosie continuously leaning closer making her feel like she couldn’t seem to get away, and the scent of her bubblegum chapstick. Bridge wasn’t her nickname and never had been, but she didn’t know how to tell Georgia O’Keefe over here that she just had really bad judgment when it came to how much space she had left on her index card. Instead, she pretended that Bridge was in fact her nickname and allowed Rosie to call her that for the remainder of their relationship despite absolutely fucking hating it. Sometimes, it seemed like Rosie knew the truth and was doing it out of spite, a smirk creeping onto her face when she called out to Bridgette.

Not only did she lie about her nickname being Bridge, but she also lied every single time she laughed at one of Rosie’s stupid jokes. Rosie compulsively cracked jokes without any rhyme or reason. They spilled out of her mouth like an overflowing bathtub at the most inappropriate times and rarely stirred up any kind of genuine laughter from Bridgette, and yet she always laughed anyway: Rosie had an untouchable confidence in her jokes that made Bridgette feel obligated to laugh, too, because Rosie’s laugh was always this loud, contagious boom – not contagious like a disease, it was more of a force tugging, no, yanking at Bridgette,  commanding her.

There were things she just had to do for Rosie, laughing being one of them and allowing her to call her Bridge being another.

A couple weeks into that semester they first met, Bridgette found Rosie to be the kind of girl she tended to study on Instagram late at night when she felt bad about herself. That’s exactly what happened, too, after another evening of less than satisfactory sex with Jamie. She felt her body moving under the covers, but it was like it was on autopilot – not just that time they had sex, but each and every time for the last few months. In fact, she couldn’t remember a time that it wasn’t like that, but she knew in the back of her mind that it used to be good: it used to be beautiful, warm, exciting. The sweat dripping from his forehead sometimes got into her eyes, made them sting, but that was nothing compared to recycled lines and phrases from overdramatic porn. Did he think she didn’t realize he was just saying what he thought he was supposed to be saying? After a while, she started to block things out as he said them, focusing her attention on the ceiling behind him and just trying to get through it. A moan was a pretty good response to just about every single attempt at dirty talk he threw at her, so that’s what she stuck with. Plus, it helped get him done faster. A win-win situation for both of them.

After getting sex with Jamie over with, Bridgette rolled onto her side to face the wall. She saw him walking around the room, running his fingers through his mop of brunette curls, and turning on the air conditioner. Even though he wasn’t dark, his features were, so when he flicked the lamp off for the night, he seemed to disappear. Or maybe she just wanted him to. With her phone being the only source of light left, he lay down in bed next to her, big-spoon style, and peered over her shoulder. “What are you up to?”

This question was better than his usual “was that good for you?” because she was sick and tired of saying “yes” and not really meaning it. She much preferred him nosily peeking at her phone screen even though that was annoying, too. Bridgette was on Rosie’s Instagram, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling. She typically did this after they had sex, feeling empty like someone had just removed all of her organs and resorting to staring at other women’s bodies just to feel. Occasionally, she opened one of Rosie’s photos to study, taking in each and every one of her features: her blonde, wavy hair; her Photoshop-blue eyes; her Kardashian-contoured nose that was natural, not contoured. Rolling over to face Jamie, she said, “This girl in my painting class is so pretty.” She turned the phone to him.

“You’re so pretty,” he said, as if on cue. He pulled her into a hug and fell asleep almost immediately, a pool of drool forming on the pillow in between them. This was the worst part about living with Jamie – not the sex, not the nosiness, not even the drool. It was the hugging. The feeling of her skin pressed against his skin made her cringe as she struggled to get free just so she could resort back to facing the wall and scrolling on her phone.

Before they moved in together, she melted into his arms like snow landing on not-cold-enough concrete, traced his features with her fingertips, and played with his rough hands. She often thought about home being a person, not a place – a sentiment she felt for the first time back when they initially started dating. And now that person was living in her place, and nothing felt like home at all.

Bridgette found herself looking forward to painting class more and more as the semester went on. By the end of the semester, Bridgette and Rosie were looking forward to graduating and assigned their final exam, which was nothing more than a portrait painting.

“Pick a partner and paint each other,” the professor announced, and Bridgette and Rosie immediately looked at each other and locked eyes. That is when Bridgette received her first Post-it note: a light pink square of paper with a red flower painted in the corner alongside Rosie’s address.

On a Sunday, Bridgette headed over with a pizza and a box of donuts. They spent the day talking and laughing over palettes of paint and cups of murky water, two canvases set up in front of them with barely any paint on them. Eventually Rosie grabbed a paintbrush and dipped it in red paint, smearing strands of hair down the canvas dramatically, a piece of pizza crust hanging lazily from her mouth. She glanced from her canvas to Bridgette, hunched over her paper plate and wiping crumbs from her face. “You are gorgeous, Bridge.”

“Me? Nah.” Realizing Rosie was assessing her, Bridgette sat up straight and patted her lips with a napkin. “You’re the gorgeous one.”

“If I’m so gorgeous, why’s your canvas still blank?” She pointed at the white space sitting in front of Bridgette with the tip of her paintbrush.

“Um, because I suck?” Bridgette laughed, picking up a pencil and sketching out an oval. “Not only am I ugly, I’m also wildly untalented!”

Rosie scoffed, tossing her brush aside and kneeling in front of Bridgette. “Are you kidding me? Get a load of these facial features. Bright red hair, a nose goddesses would die for, cheekbones that could cut a bitch…” Rosie traced Bridgette’s features slowly with her fingertips, running them down the bridge of her nose, through her hair, and finally gently cupping her cheeks. “Eyes like pools of…”

They sat in silence for a couple of seconds, inches apart and staring into each other’s eyes. “Pools of what?”

“Pools of… paint?” Rosie burst out laughing, and Bridgette compulsively did too, the two girls grabbing at each other’s arms and embracing as they giggled. Rosie pressed her lips against Bridgette’s, and by the time their canvases were covered, Bridgette was texting Jamie that she wouldn’t be home because a celebratory slumber party was in order since, you know, graduation and all.

Days sitting next to each other in class turned into slumber parties just about every weekend. The Post-it notes kept appearing when Bridgette least expected it – inside her notebooks, stuck to her backpack, one time Rosie even managed to sneak one into Bridgette’s pocket. The closer graduation crept, the more Post-It notes Bridgette found, until one finally read, “I want to paint you every night for the rest of my life.”

That night, Bridgette went home to Jamie and they had sex, made love, whatever, and she didn’t, not even for a second, think about Rosie or her body, how perfect it was in comparison to her own, how she could never even compare to a girl like her. The small of her back, the curve of her hips, the collarbone that often peeked out of her tank tops, and for the first time in weeks, maybe months, Bridgette felt something as she lay underneath Jamie.

Bridgette never intended to break up with Jamie, but there wasn’t really any other direction the conversation could go in. As the Post-it notes from Rosie started to include hearts alongside the flowers, Bridgette’s disinterest in Jamie grew – eventually, he noticed, and pried it out of her like a dentist prying out teeth.

They sat on the bed together one night after another empty session of sex, Bridgette holding a pillow in front of herself to cover her naked body. A soft white blanket lay across his lap, his chest caving as he hunched over, picking his own fingers more than she was for the first time. “What’s going on, Bridgette?”

“Nothing.”

“I know it’s not nothing. You’re not even there anymore.”

“What do you even mean? I’m sitting right here.”

“You’re here,” he gestured towards the body in front of him before motioning from her chest to his own, “but you’re not here.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, just talk to me.” He gently cupped her shoulders, his hands warm against her skin. “Is there someone else?”

She squirmed out of his embrace, groaning. “Jamie, please.”

He seemed to deflate, as if her words were a pin and he was a balloon. After a moment, he got out of bed, quickly pulling on sweatpants and a tee shirt. “Who is he? What’s his name?” He paced back and forth the same way he usually did after sex, but now with more force, quicker and louder. No longer deflated, but instead filled with hot air like a hot air balloon. Bridgette felt herself shrinking into the bed, slowly grabbing a sweatshirt, desperate to disappear, the tables turned.

Her name is Rosie.”

He stopped in his tracks, turning to face her. His face twisted into confusion. “Rosie? Your friend from school?”

Bridgette felt the tears beginning to roll down her cheeks. “Mhm.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” He laughed quietly to himself, the disbelief hard to hide. “This is a joke, right?”

“No.”

“So all the sleepovers…?”

“Yeah.”

He scoffed loudly, grabbed his wallet and keys from the dresser, and pointed a finger at Bridgette. He opened his mouth to say something, paused, and sighed. He shook his head.

“What were you going to say?”

“I have nothing to say to you, Bridgette. There are so many things I could say to you, but I’m not going to waste my energy on someone who betrayed me.”

Bridgette cried and Jamie moved out, but she never went home to an empty bed: Rosie moved in shortly after the breakup, both girls graduating and starting their new life together outside of college. In an effort to make Rosie feel as welcome as possible in an apartment previously occupied by her ex-boyfriend, Bridgette decided to get artsy like her girlfriend and create a collage out of the Post-it notes. She framed it and hung it on the wall, the room where they spent most of their time, getting to know each other more and more.

Living with Rosie, Bridgette no longer needed to head to Instagram to compare herself to her girlfriend – all she needed to do was look towards the body next to her in bed or across from her at the dining room table during dinner. While Bridgette struggled to even take a selfie she didn’t hate, Rosie sent Bridgette everything from selfies to nudes to lewds throughout the day. At first they were treats that made her smile while at work, but they quickly became painful reminders that Bridgette was the ugly duckling in the relationship.

While Rosie was now awake, she still resorted to lounging on the couch, occasionally leaning against Bridgette or petting the dog. Whether she was resting her head on Bridgette’s shoulder, propping her feet up against Bridgette’s leg, or laying her head in Bridgette’s lap, their skin was touching and it reminded Bridgette of after sex cuddling with Jamie. She recoiled each time Rosie’s body made contact with hers.

When Rosie finally decided to get up after clinging to Bridgette for nearly the entire day, she pulled off her pajama shorts and replaced them with a pair of Bridgette’s jeans that were balled up in the corner. She looked amazing in them, and Bridgette felt something like attraction, but it was hard to differentiate it from the repulsion welling up inside her. She wanted to scream at Rosie, but how could she? Instead, she returned to her phone on the table while Rosie played with the puppy for a while before eventually joining Bridgette, leaning in to kiss her and touch her.

“What are you doing? We can’t now, the dog is here.”

“What are you talking about? The dog doesn’t care, come on.” Rosie pressed her body against hers, feeling her hands brush against her stomach. She flinched. The first time Rosie ever touched her, she was overwhelmed. When Jamie touched her, it was annoying, but she still felt something like safety in his arms: with Rosie, every single touch was an invasion of privacy, an unwelcome visitor breaking into her house.

“You just got dressed, Rosie,” Bridgette protested, pushing her off. The puppy yelped.

“So what?”

Bridgette couldn’t think of an answer.

“Is something, like, wrong? You never seem into it anymore. Like the vanilla sex you used to tell me you had with Jamie. Are you bored with me now?” Rosie suddenly slouched into herself, defeated.

Bridgette was tired of watching people crumble in front of her. The balloon popped again when Bridgette finally said: “I wish I had never met you. Then I’d still be straight.”

“What’s that even supposed to mean?” Rosie pushed Bridgette away, stumbling out of the bed. “Is that what this is all about? I didn’t convert you into a lesbian, it’s not a fucking religion, Bridgette. You were gay long before you met me.”

Rosie stared at Bridgette expectantly like a teacher waiting for a student to raise its hand, but Bridgette had nothing to say. No response, nothing.

Rosie left the room and rustled around the apartment for a while, but Bridgette didn’t get up until she heard the door slam shut. She found a Post-it note on the bed that said she’d be back to get her stuff later and that Bridgette shouldn’t be there for it.

The puppy zoomed through the apartment playing with a toy, sniffing around to find something, anything to eat. Bridgette tried calling Jamie again but he didn’t answer the phone this time.

Alone in the apartment, she took a bath. Cooked herself dinner. Fed the dog. They watched TV for a while, and she wondered why she didn’t get a dog sooner. What a companion – sitting there and being satisfied with everything and anything.

At the time that Rosie said she’d be back for her things, Bridgette stuck the Post-it note to the framed collage and took the dog for a walk.

When she got back, Rosie’s canvases were gone.

Melissa Martini currently serves as Founder & EIC of Moss Puppy Magazine, as well as Prose Reader, Prose Chapbook Editor, and Newsletter Creator for the winnow magazine. She received her Master’s degree in English with a focus in Creative Writing from Seton Hall University where she also served as editor for the literary magazine, The Corner Pocket. Melissa can be followed online here.

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

death, Fiction, Guest Posts, Life, Pets

The Silo

April 29, 2022
Sequoia

By Kate Abbot

The snow began to fall on Tuesday around lunchtime.  Sequoia Williams barely noticed it as she sat in the lunchroom of the regional high school.  By the time she got off the bus, the snow was deep enough to reach her shins.   It squeaked as she walked up the half mile dirt driveway to the farmhouse.  It was mid-March and the days were getting longer.   The cows had been out to pasture for several weeks, rooting around in hopes of a sprig of spring growth.

Her older brother, Dale, was chopping wood.  Dale was a two time drop out, once from high school and then from the regional GED program.   Sequoia tried to stay clear of Dale; he had a hair-trigger temper and it was worse when he was drinking or popping the pills he thought she didn’t know about.

“Where’s Pa?”  Sequoia stomped the snow from her boots and shook the flakes out of her hair.   Ma was chopping carrots and potatoes.

“He went into town, to meet with the man from Wells Fargo.”

Sequoia wasn’t supposed to know that the bank was on the verge of taking the farm from them, the 600 acres that had been in her mother’s family for at least three generations.

“I’ll see to the milking, Ma.”

Sequoia shrugged her parka back on and trudged out to the barn.  The snow was falling harder now, wet and heavy.   She was out of breath by the time she had rounded up the eight milking cows.   The milking machines made a steady whooshing noise and the cows crunched on their feed.   Next, she checked the henhouse, made sure that it was locked tight against the marauding foxes and that there was plenty of fresh water.

Ma joined her, tossing the vegetable scraps and day old bread to the pigs in their pen.   Together, they mucked out the stall that contained two draft horses who were mostly pets but could still be counted on to pull the plow if the tractor was on the fritz or Pa couldn’t afford gas.

What little light that should have been in the western sky at five thirty in the evening was missing.  The snow was knee deep and still falling.  Dale barely acknowledged the two women at the supper table, slurping loudly at his beef stew and then belching as he guzzled a beer.   He disappeared into his basement room without even clearing his plate from the table.

“Like father, like son,” Sequoia thought to herself.   She said nothing of the sort to Ma, instead shooing her into the family room to fall asleep in front of the television.

Sequoia cleaned up the supper mess and then climbed the stairs to her room on the third floor of the farmhouse.   The sheepdog mix followed her, whining anxiously.

“What’s wrong, old girl?”

Patches put her paws up on the windowsill and peered out into the darkness.

“It’s just a late winter snow.  It’ll be melted by tomorrow afternoon.”

But the next morning, it was still snowing.  Three feet at least.   Sequoia slogged through the stuff on the way to help Ma with the morning milking.

“Let’s leave them in the barn, Sequoia.  Nothing for them to do outside today.”

“I’m going to bring the hens inside.  The coop is getting full of snow.”

Sequoia stood at the head of the driveway, contemplating the half mile walk to the bus stop.   The snow was pristine, which meant that Pa had not returned home.   That was certainly not unprecedented but she had hoped to walk in the snow pack created by his truck tires.   The day was yellow-grey, not sunlight but not darkness.    The snowfall was no longer wet and heavy.   The wind stung the fine powder against her cheeks.  She turned back to the farmhouse.   She heard a snow-mobile approaching.

Great, Henry.   He was just as much of a loser as her brother.   Sequoia stayed out of his way as much as she could.   He leered at her whenever he got the chance and once, in the kitchen, he had copped a feel.   He laughed uproariously when she slapped his face so hard that her palm stung for an hour.

“Phone’s out.”   Ma looked worried, hands on her hips as she surveyed the white landscape from the porch.   Together they watched as the snowmobiles disappeared into the whiteness.   Ma shook her head and went back inside to knead bread.

“Don’t worry, Ma.  The snow will stop soon and the phone’ll come back on.  I’m sure Pa is holed up in town, trying to call us.”

The words sounded hollow to Sequoia.  She wondered if her Ma felt the same strange despair that had begun to weigh upon the farmhouse.   She spend the morning studying for a history test and then the afternoon on her English term paper.    By evening milking the snow was up to her chest.  Ma had dug a path with the shovel and the snow blower from the house to the barn.   It was full dark when the chores were done.  The women had to use the rope that was strung from the house to the barn to feel their way back to the house.    Sequoia never recalled having used the rope before and she barely remembered her grandfather telling about how it had saved them getting lost going out to the barn to care for the animals in the blizzard of ’67.

The power went out sometime during the night.   Ma fired up the woodstove in the kitchen and started the fireplace in the living room.   Patches paced around, whining intermittently.    Sequoia tried to outpace the snow and keep the path to the barn relatively clear but the snow blower had given up the ghost.   There was no sign of Dale or Pa.

That night, Sequoia brought a basket of eggs in from the barn and restocked their vegetables from the root cellar.   Ma went to sleep on the couch in the family room right after dinner.    The snow completely blocked the front door and was past the second story windows.    From her third story bedroom, Sequoia could barely make out the outline of the full moon.   She awoke to Patches barking frantically and then, a terrible crashing noise.    The farmhouse roof was sloped enough to keep the snow from building up but the porch next to the family room was a different story.     The roof had collapsed from the weight of the snow, taking out the exterior wall.

Sobbing, Sequoia tried for several hours to dig through snow, shards of glass and bits of insulation to reach Ma, who was trapped beneath several thousand pounds of snow and building debris.   Her hands were bloody, her face raw and chapped, when she was finally able to grip one of Ma’s hands.  The fingers were waxy and stiff in hers.    The chimney had partially collapsed and snow was blowing into the family room.   Sequoia sank to her knees on the kitchen floor.   Patches licked anxiously at her cheeks.

Finally, with great effort, Sequoia hauled the contents of the refrigerator, the dog food and all the flashlight batteries she could find out to the barn.   On the last trip, she could barely get the barn door open.   The snow was well past the eaves.    She climbed up into the hayloft, exhausted.   Patches curled up beside her under some old horse blankets.   When the barn cats emerged, Patches only opened one eye and sighed as the felines nestled alongside Sequoia.

The lowing of the cows asking to be milked awoke her.   Halfway through the milking cycle, the back-up generator that had kept the milking machines going ground to a halt.   Sequoia finished the milking by hand.   The milking machine, like the milk and grain silos, were remnants of when the farm had been profitable.   The herd had once been over 100 and the harvest bountiful.

Sequoia went out through the door that led from the barn directly into the shed connected to the grain silo.   The shed roof groaned and Sequoia shuddered.    There was a faint daylight coming in through the top of the silo.   She stared upwards and then started the long climb up the ladder to the roof.   The silo was topped with a dome.  Fresh air came in through spaces in the cinderblock walls and under the dome.

She was about ten feet up the ladder that wound around the inside of the silo when she nearly tripped.   She put her hands out to grab the ladder and touched wood.   Cautiously, she crawled up onto what appeared to be a platform.  The platform, when she fished her flashlight out of her jacket pocket, held what could only be described as a fort.   Someone, it had to have been Dale, had hauled a couch and a table up onto a platform of rough boards.   Beer cans and cigar ashes were scattered about.   There was even a television and a small refrigerator, both of which were, of course, utterly useless in present conditions.

She continued her climb.   When she reached the top of the silo, some 100 feet off the ground, she could see outside.  It had been snowing for five days.  All she could see of the farmhouse was the third story.   She wondered briefly if she would ever set foot in her bedroom again.    The barn below was rapidly disappearing into the snow; only the loft area was still exposed but the snow was drifting quickly.

She looked east, towards town.   She thought she saw some smoke in the distance but she couldn’t be sure.   To the west, nothing but white.   It was so quiet, no birds, no engines, no tractors.  No planes in the sky.   She imagined that she was the last person on earth.   The sound of one of the horses neighing jolted her back to the present.

For the next few hours, Sequoia hauled whatever she could from the root cellar and the grain shed into the silo.   Each trip she took back into the barn she knew could be the last.   She was pretty sure that the air in the barn would soon be unhealthy.   Every crevice was blocked by tons of snow.

First she brought the horses into the silo.  They balked but Patches nipped at their heels.   The cows came next, more complacent.   She was worried that the pigs might go after the chickens so she brought several of the laying hens up onto her platform.    She was about to return to the barn one final time, to grab a few more feed buckets and tools, when the barn cats came racing through the shed, Patches barking wildly behind them.  Sequoia reached for the dog, worried that she might tangle with the cats and their sharp claws.  Her fingers brushed the nape of the sheepdog’s neck and then she heard a muffled explosion.   The shed had crumbled under the weight of the snow.

She shut the door, sealing herself and her charges into the silo.   When she looked out of the dome the next morning, the barn had disappeared.   She couldn’t tell how far up the side of the silo the snow reached.  It was all just so white.

And for the immediate future, if it were not for the cows asking to be milked, twice a day, at dawn and dusk, Sequoia would not have known day from night.   Years later, when she thought back on the time in the silo, she realized that keeping the animals alive had kept Sequoia from losing her mind.

There was milk and eggs and vegetables.    The animals had grain and feed.   There was bedding.   She rationed everything.   Water came from the snow she scooped out the back door where the shed had once been.  She was always cold, but not freezing.   She imagined that the warm air from the animals rose up to her perch where she huddled with Patches under horse blankets.    For the first few days, she cried herself to sleep.   She thought of Ma and her friends from school.   She wondered if Pa or Dale, or anyone, were alive.   After a while, she got tired of thinking.

And then came the morning when the light woke her before the cows.   She peered out from under the silo dome.   The sunlight was blinding and the sky was as blue as she’d ever seen it.   Below her, a rooster, one of the chicks that had hatched a few months earlier, began to crow.   She was afraid, when night came, that the snow and the dark would return but the sun was even brighter the next day.   Water dripped into the silo and moisture beaded on the concrete walls.  On the third day of sun, when she opened the door to retrieve snow for the water buckets, ice water gushed into the silo.  She closed the door quickly.   Water was leaking into the silo from the spaces between the concrete blocks.

As she sat on her perch, warm enough now to strip down to her t-shirt, a terrible thought occurred to her.   Had she and her charges survived the snow only to drown in the silo that had been their refuge?   Where would all the snow melt go?   The farmland that surrounded them was flat as far as the eye could see.   There were creeks but not nearly deep enough to carry away all the water.   Her grandfather had talked about a big flood many years before Sequoia was born, when the center of town was six feet under water.  Supposedly, a better drainage system had been put in place as a result.

With the sunlight and the change in temperature, the air inside the silo had become rank.   The animals were covered in their own filth.    Several of the pigs appeared sick and two of the chickens died.  Sequoia tried to clean up after the animals, painstakingly hauling bucket after bucket of manure up to the top of the silo and dumping it out.   The morning she threw the chickens out of the silo, she heard the shriek of a vulture.   Bits and pieces of the wreckage of the barn and the farmhouse began to emerge.   The oak trees that surrounded the house were battered but still standing.   It was hard to tell from the top of the silo how deep the snow was, or if there was standing water on top of the snow.

And then, it started to rain one afternoon.   At first, a pitter patter and then a deluge.   The next morning, the rain had stopped and the landscape had become an ocean.   Bits of wood and trees floated by, some thirty feet below her prison gable.   She saw three tractors and a car the first morning, as well as the bloated carcasses of several cows.  Later that afternoon, she saw something coming from the west.  She squinted into the setting sun.   As it got closer, she could see that it was a homemade raft, fashioned out of sheet metal and pieces of wood.

“Hey!”  She called out, voice crackling with tension.   The figure standing in the middle of the raft looked up at the silo.

“Is there someone up there?”   Sequoia couldn’t tell if the voice was male or female.

“Yes!”

Sequoia wanted to bite back her response.  The base of her spine tingled with nervousness.

The raft came closer to the silo.  It was a young man with a small dog at his side.   The dog began to bark and Patches responded from deep inside the silo.   The man on the raft laughed, or at least it sounded like a laugh.

The man paddled around the silo, making a full circle.  Sequoia thought he had disappeared, or maybe that he had been a mirage.

“Water’s up above the door by about five feet,” he called up to her.

One of the horses whinnied.

“What do you have in there with you?  Are you by yourself?”

Sequoia hesitated, perhaps he meant them ill.  He must have sensed her unease.

“It’s all right.  I’m sure you haven’t seen anyone in a long time.   My name is Salvador.   I live in Omaha, at least I used to.”

Rather than answer his question, she asked if he was hungry.

She tossed down some carrots and a few potatoes.   Salvador shared them with his dog, which Sequoia thought was a positive sign.

With that the raft receded in the distance.   The hope that Sequoia had felt soon turned to despair.    Days passed.  She became convinced she’d imagined the man, that she was so starved from lack of human interaction that her mind had created another person.

One of the pigs died but it was too heavy to haul up the ladder.   Their water supply dwindled and she was afraid to open the door lest the silo be flooded.  She managed to get a small bucket on a rope under one of the narrow openings in the cinderblock to collect some water.

Some days after the man appeared on the raft she saw the water had gone down a bit more.   There was no more rain.   She could see patches of earth under the water.   It was mid-afternoon when she began to hear what sounded like hammering.   Then she saw Salvador towing several large pieces of wood.   Then some sheet metal.  He must have gotten it from the collapsed barn.   Her heart pounded in her chest.   She clutched a hayfork in her trembling hands.  At her feet, the dog whined nervously.

“Hello there!  I am going to see if we can get you out of there.”

The raft disappeared behind the silo.    Sequoia watched the water, which now seemed to be streaming around the silo, moving more rapidly than before towards the road and fields beyond where the farmhouse had stood.   As the summer, it must have been summer by then, light faded from the sky, a knock came upon the door to what had been the shed.

Sequoia opened the door very gingerly; the barn cats streaked past her.  She looked back into the silo.   The horses and cows were pushing towards her, frantic to get outside.   She stood to the side, behind the door.  The pigs and chickens were next.

Sequoia fought the urge to slam and lock the door.  She was seized with terror.  Was she afraid of Salvador or was she afraid of leaving all that remained of her past, the few traces of the farm that were left in the silo?  What if he stole her animals?

“Are you coming out?”

A fresh breeze wafted in the open door.  She stepped outside to the first fresh air she’d breathed in months.   The pitchfork was firm in her hands.

Kate Abbott has written three novels: Running Through the Wormhole (Black Rose Writing 2015), What She Knew (Black Rose Writing 2019) and Asana of Malevolence (Mascot Books 2016). Her work has also appeared in Mamalode, Screamin Mamas, Sammiches and Psych Meds, The Good Mother Project, the Ottawa House, Manifest Station, Persephone’s Daughters, and Kudzu House. She lives in Fairfax, Virginia and Fenwick Island, Delaware. Mom to three grown (almost) sons, she shares her life with rescue animals of all sorts.

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Writing Cohort Opportunity

Circe is offering: Crucible – A Year-Long Writing Cohort 

Let by Gina Frangello and Emily Black, this cohort is designed for writers seeking to spend a year deeply immersed in writing or revising a book length work.

Cohort Includes:

  • Once monthly class meeting over Zoom
    • 2-3 members will have their pages workshopped per meeting (each participant will be workshopped twice)
  • Every other month individual/private meeting with Emily or Gina over Zoom (participants will have a chance to work with both)
  • Ongoing online communication between members of the cohort to share resources and ask questions in between sessions
  • Writing prompts
  •  100 manuscript pages read and reviewed by Emily and Gina

Email info@circeconsulting.net for more information

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Fiction, Guest Posts, Relationships

A Terrible Thing Has Happened

April 22, 2022
tabatha

Note: Inspired by the children who found Virginia Woolf’s body in The River Ouse in 1941 during World War II. The Title, ‘A Terrible Thing Has Happened’, is taken from the letter Leonard Woolf, Virginia Woolf’s husband wrote after her suicide.

There were two things Mrs L. M. Everland wasn’t.

She wasn’t married. Never had been.

And she wasn’t a good cook.

“It’s rabbit,” she said, putting the chipped white plate down in front of Tabatha, “or it was,” she added, turning away, wiping her hands on the old red dishcloth she so often had over one shoulder.

“I expect you’re used to much finer things. In London,” she said with that glimmer of amusement in her eye as she set the tea kettle on the stove to heat up for the fourth time that evening, and Tabatha sliced a not-quite-boiled potato from a tin in half with her fork, forgoing the blackened cubes of rabbit for now.

“Not much,” Tabatha answered after swallowing.

Mrs Everland sat down on the chair on the opposite side of the table with the kettle slowly boiling behind her. She moved the jam jar of Hellebores from the centre of the table to one side so that they could see each other better, revealing the scorch mark in the middle of the table, and the old wax pockmarks in the old scrubbed pine table where the candle had been in the winter.

“Did someone give you those?” Tabatha asked, watching how the few wilting yellowed leaves among the green quivered slightly in the gentle breeze that came through the half-open window.

Mrs Everland smiled one of her secret smiles, gave the tiniest purse of her lips and reached out to touch one of the yellow leaves that fell neatly into her palm as if she had willed it.

“No,” she said, “I gave them to myself,” she smiled again, and held the tip of the leaf between her thumb and forefinger, twirling it so that the light caught the yellow and blotched brown turning it gold and bronze in the sunlight that stretched half-way across the table between them, “like Mrs Dalloway,” she paused again, “only I picked them myself, instead of buying them.”

“Who’s Mrs Dalloway?” Tabatha asked, and Mrs Everland drew in a very long, very slow breath, and then released it just as slowly. Peaceful, calm, always. As if she half-existed in a dream, but only inside the house, once outside the house she came alive only in the minds of the outsiders that mistook her for cruel and unkind.

Different.

“She’s a character,” she said, “in a book,” and then, leaning forward slightly across the table on her forearms, with hands both clasped about the leaf, she said “a very wonderful book, written by a very wonderful woman,” with her eyes glittering, dark and wide, and full of secrets yet and never to be told.

She stood up, slowly, early spring light in the dark auburn brown of unruly hair pinned with often-falling hairpins on the very top of her head, so that it fell about her face in curls she never seemed to brush. Early spring light that cast a fleeting warmth across her cheek, her lips, her chin, as she passed, to the shelf in the kitchen, a board she’d put up herself with mismatching black iron brackets, the emerald rings she wore, three of them, on every other finger of her right hand glinting as she carefully eased a book from between another and a big, clear glass jar of golden shining honeycomb.

She set the book down on the table in front of Tabatha, next to her plate, a well-thumbed paperback with Mrs Dalloway in painted black writing inside a yellow border.

She sat down again, reached across the table and slipped the leaf between the cover and the first page, “bookmark,” she said, then rested back in her chair, head to one side, regarding Tabatha with the faraway and yet all-seeing look that only women are ever capable of having, and women like Mrs Everland even more so.

“Do you miss them?” She asked, “your parents?” As if the question needed clarification, and Tabatha pushed the half-moon of the mealy white potato over with her fork while the tea kettle began its whistle, louder and louder, and louder until the silence came, and Mrs Everland had taken it from the stove and was pouring more tea into the big brown teapot.

“Here,” she set the little blue and turquoise glazed sugar bowl down in front of Tabatha, “use the last of it. As much as you want. There’s always the honey.”

That was what Mrs L. M. Everland was.

Kind.

*

The next morning, early, while the sparrows were still singing in the hedgerows and the spring sunshine was turning the shimmer of a light frost to the warmth of new green grass on the fields, Tabatha walked to school with the three other children evacuated to Rodmell, Lewes, a village somewhere amidst the South Downs.

Tabatha, Nancy, Letty and Constance, all four of them eleven years old, all four from the anonymity of London’s shroud of grey and white and the murmur of pigeons in the eaves and alcoves of looming grey brick buildings turned to rubble and the dull brown rats on the wet grey cobbles.

“I’ve heard things about Mrs Everland,” Nancy said, squinting into the sky, shielding her eyes while she watched the planes fly in the distance.

“What sort of things?” Tabatha asked, watching the dew-shined toes of her black boots as she walked.

“I heard she never leaves her house,” Letty said before Nancy had a chance to answer, turning, grinning, brown leather satchel bumping against her thigh.

“Well, I heard that she killed her husband. Poisoned him,” Nancy, who was tall for her age with two long plaits of chestnut hair, said this with a pointed look in Tabatha’s direction, “apparently,” she went on, “she cooked this huge, sumptuous feast for him, everything he liked, desert too, and he ate it, but he didn’t know she’s put poison in it first.”

“Don’t listen to her,” Constance whispered, leaning her head of tight blonde curls close to Tabatha’s own and interlinking her arm with hers.

Nancy glanced back again and grinned a toothy grin.

“Then what happened?” Letty asked, kicking a small white round stone that looked like one of Mrs Everland’s boiled potatoes into the grass from the track.

“Then,” Nancy drew in a breath, thoroughly enjoying her role as revealer of truths, “his blood turned to ice, just froze up in his body and he died in his chair, just sitting there before he’d even eaten the stewed pears. They say he was buried still holding his spoon because his body was so seized up they couldn’t get it out of his hand.”

Letty screwed up her face, opened her mouth to say something, and then closed it again.

“That’s not true,” Tabatha said, nonchalant, looking up now, edging on defiant should the weather have called for it.

“And how would you know?” Nancy asked, all but rolling her eyes.

“She told me,” she said, “when we first arrived. She said, ‘they’ll tell you about me, the people in the village, they’ll tell you I poisoned by husband, but I can tell you that’s not true.’” she quoted.

“Of course she’d tell you it wasn’t true,” Nancy laughed, “she’s not going to admit it, is she.”

“She’s never been married,” Tabatha added, and Nancy’s smile faltered slightly, “and,” now it was time for the nail in the proverbial coffin, “she can’t cook.”

Nancy ignored her, chose instead to look up again at the second arrow of warplanes heading north, engines burning up the sky and the silence and leaving a ring in the air that seemed always to be there, but never lasted longer than it took to see them disappear.

“Well I heard she never got married because she was having an affair,” Letty began, once they’d started walking again, this was her moment now, and she paused for effect, “with a woman.”

“Who?!” Nancy asked before she could stop herself, now it was Letty’s turn to look smug.

“A writer. She writes books, novels, she’s quite famous,” Letty said with an air of authority, “although Mother said they’re not appropriate, she writes stories about women who aren’t women at all, they act like men. One of them, Orlando, kept turning from a man to a woman and did…all sorts.”

Nancy’s face twisted from alarm, through intrigue, to suspicion, “how do you know?” She asked, and Tabatha felt the heaviness of Constance’s arm through her own, and the weight of Mrs Dalloway in her satchel, as she remembered the flush of Mrs Everland’s cheeks as she had set the book down so carefully beside her, ‘…a very wonderful woman…’

Around the corner, they bumped into Arrick, an elderly man with a dog they had passed every morning since last Tuesday, on their first day to school. He tipped his cap to them, stepped aside so that his earth-brown boots crunched the final frost beneath the hedges, and tugged the fraying string rope gently to bring the little black and white terrier dog to his heels.

“Mornin’,” he said, as he tipped his hat, the thinning blue-white skin beneath his eyes damp from the cold and his cheeks and nose a colourless grey pink as they smiled their replies, “There’s something afoot up there,” he raised his free arm that held a long hand-whittled cane and pointed stiffly with the end of it in the direction they were heading, “something going on,” he spoke slowly, and with an accent from further north.”

“What?” Nancy asked, all of them looking in the direction he pointed to, the place furthest from the rising sun, where the fields still glittered and shimmered with frost.

“I don’t know,” he lowered his stick, “men about, police by the looks of things, poking about in them woods with sticks and dogs, Mitsy were scared witless,” he tugged on the string so that the little dog with shivering legs looked up at him with blinking dark eyes and twitching black nose, “weren’t you?” he asked her, and she sat down in response, “I’d take the long way round if I were you, down by the river,” he pointed again with his stick in a more Westerly direction, where the fields hid the pathway that nobody but the locals expected, down to where The River Ouse abruptly sliced the landscape, small, snakelike and startlingly silver.

“Thank you,” Nancy gave their thanks as her own, quiet, unusually so for her, still looking in the direction of the woods that seemed all but a mist and smudge of grey on the horizon, “thank you,” she said again, suddenly realising her manners, turning, smiling, and realising he had already begun his shuffling stoop back on his way.

“Which way?” Letty asked, narrowing her eyes, like Nancy had, looking to the trees, seeing only what was perhaps her imagination moving between the trees.

“The river,” Tabatha said, “I know the way, Mrs Everland showed me the other day when we were foraging.”

Nancy looked at her in the sceptical way she had inherited from her school mistress mother, “foraging for what?” She asked, not yet quite convinced of Mrs Everland’s innocence.

“Mushrooms,” Tabatha said, already setting off, Constance’s hand still neatly tucked into the crook of her elbow, “and wild garlic,” she added, when Nancy and Letty began, begrudgingly, to follow.

“I thought she couldn’t cook?” Nancy asked as they turned down the lane in between the fields, the grass and the odd uncut blade of uncut wheat that brushed the backs of their knees.

“She can’t,” Tabatha and Constance stepped over a rabbit hole in unison, “but she does try,” she glanced briefly back at Nancy’s screwed up face, her feet wet inside her shoes from the grass, Letty trailing along behind her, “and the garlic was for a remedy she made, it has antibacterial properties,” she glanced again at Nancy, enjoying, fleetingly, the knowledge that when it came to Mrs Everland, she was the expert, as much as one could be, after knowing her only for a week.

“Sounds like witchcraft to me,” Letty said from the back, breathless and pale, unused to walking for longer than the time it would take to step from a London doorway to a carriage, but neither girl replied, they merely stopped, in a line, stopped without thinking, the grass in its dew-lit glory melted away to sand-coloured grit shot through with the glint of splinters of quartz and feldspar, and the water, flat, calm, both grey and silver, gold and white, sparkling beneath clouds that reflected the day in the cool of the water that ran, seemingly unmoving beneath the old stone bridge they would cross on their way to school.

“What’s that?” Letty asked, after a moment of silence where the air that smelled of fresh-cut grass and the early morning smell of the Earth warming held them, suspended within that moment.

“What?” Constance asked, quietly, not wanting to break the stillness.

Letty moved further down the slope toward the river, “that,” she pointed to what looked like the ebb and flow of fabric the same colour as both the water and the sky.

In silence, they followed Letty, Nancy just behind her, the soft bump-bump of four school satchels and the scuff of shoes on dry gravel and grit, the gentle lap of the water and the cheerful twittering of the birds the only sounds in this Rodmell morning.

“What is that?” Nancy asked, and Letty stopped, now only feet from the puckering fabric blooming and fading and blooming again from where the old tree branches and sticks had dammed up a corner beneath the bridge, then, slowly, ever so slowly, the colourless white of a hand, a knuckle, the glance of a gold wedding band on a finger swollen and water-logged, and the thin, long ripples that caught, not the fragile spindles of newly snapped twigs from the trees, but the grey-brown of hair that pulled and shimmered, and from somewhere in the near distance, from above, on the outskirts of the forest, a man’s voice called, “Virginia?” in a voice that had called for too long.

*

That evening, in silence, Tabatha and Mrs Everland picked Hellebores in the garden, the flowers of friendship, love, strength and devotion, of silent mutual support, and the ability to help each other through the trials and tribulations of life.

They picked one of each colour, and she set them in the window in an old enamel jug, in the dying light of day, for Orlando, for Mrs Dalloway.

For Virginia Woolf

Natascha Graham is influenced by David Bowie, Virginia Woolf and Sally Wainwright, Natascha Graham is a lesbian writer of stage, screen, fiction, poetry and radio from the UK. Her novel, Everland was been selected for the Penguin and Random House Write Now 2021 Editorial Programme, and her short films have been selected by Pinewood Studios & Lift-Off Sessions, Cannes Film Festival, Raindance Film Festival, Camden Fringe Festival and Edinburgh Fringe Festival, while her theatre shows have been performed in London’s West End and on Broadway, where she won the award for Best Monologue. Natascha is also working on The Art of Almost, a lesbian comedy-drama radio series as well as writing a television drama series and the sequel to her novel, Everland.

***

***

Writing Cohort Opportunity

Circe is offering: Crucible – A Year-Long Writing Cohort 

Let by Gina Frangello and Emily Black, this cohort is designed for writers seeking to spend a year deeply immersed in writing or revising a book length work.

Cohort Includes:

  • Once monthly class meeting over Zoom
    • 2-3 members will have their pages workshopped per meeting (each participant will be workshopped twice)
  • Every other month individual/private meeting with Emily or Gina over Zoom (participants will have a chance to work with both)
  • Ongoing online communication between members of the cohort to share resources and ask questions in between sessions
  • Writing prompts
  •  100 manuscript pages read and reviewed by Emily and Gina

Email info@circeconsulting.net for more information

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

 

Family, Fiction, Guest Posts, Marriage, moving on

In the Airport

April 15, 2022
lisa

When Lisa saw Dan her heart throbbed so fiercely she almost toppled over and out of her chair. She hadn’t seen her former husband for nearly forty years and certainly wouldn’t expect him to be waiting here, like her, for a plane’s arrival. He was standing before the large screen with its information about departures and arrivals. He shouldn’t have been in Portland. On the last envelope she had received—enclosed with a child support check—it had been postmarked in Houston. But that was back in 1983.

He’d be seventy-two in three months, May 9. She remembered the date: after all she made him a party nearly every year of their marriage—seven years altogether. No doubt he forgot the next day was her birthday. He probably forgot about her. He was tall and lanky, not quite as well built as in the past, and stooped slightly. His hair had been brown but was now white peppered with gray and swept back away from his forehead. He was clean-shaven but that didn’t surprise her. He had shaved off his mustache and beard soon after their marriage. He was nicely dressed in a corduroy jacket over jeans. She wished he wasn’t still handsome.

He turned away from the screen and she feared he’d choose a seat near her and maybe recognize her. She ran her fingers through her silver hair, which she hadn’t dyed in nearly a decade. It had been a natural auburn until she was forty, when her first gray strands appeared. She also gained twenty pounds since he last saw her. He remained standing at a distance, and fortunately a large family, including a man in a wheelchair, blocked him from seeing her.

Over the years, she was committed to hating him but when she’d look at the one photo she kept of him she’d be stirred with longing—even at her age. At UC Santa Barbara, girls had always turned their heads to look at him. Even the child she tutored back then had said, “He’s what we call guapo.” No doubt he remarried.

***

Lisa met Dan Hennessey while they both volunteered in the Children’s Project, sponsored by the university’s graduate school of education. She had first seen a notice about it on a kiosk near the student union. The project called for volunteers to tutor children in the near-by town of Carpinteria. They had come with their families from Mexico a few years earlier. She was an English major and hoped someday to teach on the college level but she believed she could effectively tutor a young child in reading and writing. She was idealistic and wanted to do something valuable in the community. She removed a pad from her handbag and wrote down the phone number.

From the apartment she shared with three roommates, she called the number. A girl with a perky voice gave her instructions about attending an important meeting. She would join other prospective tutors in Parking Lot Ten on Friday at three p.m. where there would be a van to transport them. Sure enough on that day Lisa saw a VW bus, with a sign Children’s Project in one of its windows.

As they traveled south on Highway 101 she saw the glimmering Pacific Ocean on one side and on the other, dusty brown hills dotted with sagebrush and chapparal. When they turned off the highway, they drove passed an orchard of avocado trees and a scattering of plain stucco houses in various colors and into the little downtown, the street lined with palm trees and Torrey pines. The van parked in front of a stucco building with a sign by the door, Carpinteria Community Center.

Parents crowded the room, all sitting on metal folding chairs that faced a podium. The front row of chairs was left vacant for the student volunteers. When everyone was seated the mayor, wearing a suit and tie, spoke about how much the community appreciated working with the university to help their children succeed in school. He then introduced Dr. Ed Franklin, a professor at the graduate school of education. He was a short, round man, wearing a too-tight striped jersey top over bell-bottom jeans. He looked like he should be swabbing a ship deck rather than discussing academics. He gave a quick speech about how happy he was that the university and the graduate school of education in particular could contribute to the community. Then he introduced the student coordinator for the volunteers.

That was the first time she saw Dan, who stepped up to the podium. He towered over the professor and the mayor and she noted he was stunningly handsome. The features of his face were perfectly proportioned and his neatly trimmed beard and mustache suited him. His brown hair was long, flipping slightly above the collar of his flannel shirt. His big dark eyes showed a seriousness of purpose. Lisa was riveted to his eyes.

The volunteer who sat next to her elbowed her and whispered by her ear, “He’s cute. I’ll do my best to bump into him.”

“He probably already has a girlfriend or maybe a wife,” Lisa said. “He seems so serious he might not even be interested in dating.” This possibility came to mind because she was reading Euripides’s Hippolytus at the time in her Seminar in Classical Literature. And Lisa felt like Phaedra—struck with instant love.

At the podium Dan explained that each volunteer would be assigned a child and would work with that child for the length of the college quarter. “This way you’ll get a chance to bond, which is essential for success.”

The following Friday afternoon the volunteers returned to the community center to get their assigned child. A graduate student, in a peasant blouse over a long sweeping skirt, was in charge and introduced Lisa to a small girl with long coffee-brown hair pulled back with barrettes and wearing a white blouse tucked into a skirt with ruffles, white ankle socks, and patten leather shoes. “Lisa, this is Clara Gutierrez, who’s eight and in the third grade,” the graduate student informed her.

Lisa showed Clara a wide grin and said, “I’ll remember your name because my sister’s name is Claire.”

Clara brought Lisa to her home, which was in walking distance from the community center. It was a simple stucco house, with bougainvillea creeping along a wall on one side. Rosebushes with withered roses lined a picket fence, and a drooping sunflower stood on the parched front lawn. When they stepped inside they entered a room with a massive oak dining room table surrounded by several oak chairs, which occupied most of the space. Many people probably lived in this small house.

Clara’s mother greeted them and offered Lisa iced tea. She accepted not just to be polite. It was a hot day and she was thirsty.

They then entered a living room with a sofa and several stuffed arm chairs. Lisa also saw a bookcase packed with books in Spanish. This gave her an idea. “Why don’t you read a favorite story in Spanish before we start a book in English?” she said.

Clara giggled. “You won’t understand it.”

“I might. I took five years of Spanish in school—mi escuela. I even read Don Quixote. And if there’s something I don’t know I’ll ask you.”

They sat together on the huge velvet sofa. Clara opened CenicientaCinderella. The illustrations were familiar: pretty stone houses, the relevant castle in the distance, and the usual depiction of Cinderella—or Cenicienta—with long blond hair.

Afterwards, Clara asked if she could show Lisa the beach just a few blocks away from her house. It was such a warm day Lisa agreed. After all, they would have many opportunities to read books in English and this would help them to bond.

Another way to bond was to allow Clara to be Lisa’s tutor as well. As they walked on a road without sidewalks Lisa said, “Please help me improve my Spanish. We’re going to la playa, right?”

Si, la playa.” Clara giggled.

She pointed to her blouse. “This is a camisa, right?”

Clara shook her head. “No, that means shirt. Blusa is the word for blouse.”

Lisa noticed Dan entering the road with a small boy. They were only a block behind her and Clara. She forced herself not to be distracted by seeing him. “Okay, let me try again.” She tugged at her pants. “These are pantalones.

This time Clara nodded. Then she pointed to Lisa’s big leather handbag. “Tell me what this is called.”

Lisa noted that Dan and the boy were catching up to them but she smiled at Clara and said, “I don’t know. Please tell me.”

Bolsa. It’s your bolsa.” She lifted her small pink vinyl handbag and said, “This is my bolsa.”

Suddenly Clara’s face brightened and she waved at the boy. The two were walking on the other side of the street, now parallel with them. “Luis, we read Cenicienta today,” Clara shouted to the boy.

He merely shrugged.

Dan and the boy approached them while Lisa did her best to subdue the fluttering of her heart.

He extended his hand to shake Lisa’s. “Hi, I’m Dan Hennessey, as you probably already know.”

When their hands touched his was pleasantly warm. “Lisa Turner.”

“Thanks for becoming a tutor, Lisa,” he said.

That same Friday just as she was about to step into the VW bus to return to the campus Dan rushed over to her and said, “Let me give you a ride back. I have my car.”

They dated every weekend since then and occasionally she slept with him at the apartment he shared with another roommate. She wondered why he chose her. Dan was often encircled with attractive grad students at UCSB who doted on him. Not only was he good-looking and charismatic he was the creator of the successful Children’s Project. Perhaps he was attracted to her—her roommates assured her she was pretty. She needed assurance.

One night while she lay in his arms after sex he said, “I’m excited about my chosen field, Lisa. I’ll make a difference to kids. I’ll help them achieve their goals in life.”

It was dark but she imagined that serious glow in his eyes as he spoke of his vision. She was in awe of him and said, “You’re amazing.”

Yet she wished he’d be more serious about her interests.

“Don’t expect me to read some boring as hell guy from the nineteenth century!” he had said to her when she suggested he read her favorite author, George Eliot. She didn’t bother to tell him George Eliot wasn’t a guy. Once she dared to read to him a poem she had written but afterwards he kissed her forehead and said, “No offense, but I’m not into metaphors. I only understand straight facts.” She never shared her poems with him again. Besides, her pursuits were frivolous compared to his.

On the Thursday morning of Thanksgiving, he called her at home in Glendale to invite her to dinner at his parents’ house in West Covina. “They want to meet you,” he said, “So they told me to ask you to come Saturday night around six. Please come, Lisa.”

“Sure, I’d love to,” she said but she dreaded going. They’d be accessing her, deciding if she was a fit girlfriend for their special son. She feared they’d be disappointed.

For the rest of that day, she was so jittery in anticipation of meeting his parents that she could hardly enjoy being with her relatives, including her cousin Judy, who arrived from Cornell, and meeting her sister’s new boyfriend, Brian. After she and Claire set the dining room table for the big meal, she grabbed her sister and brought her into her bedroom so they could speak alone. “Dan invited me to dinner at his parents’ house on Saturday,” she said. “I’m dreading it. They’ll expect me to be perfect—like Dan. They’ll be disappointed.”

“Don’t put yourself down, Lisa,” Claire said. “Dan’s lucky he met you: you’re adorable, you’re intelligent, you have a great sense of humor, and most of all you’re sweet and kind. What more can he want? Besides, I doubt he’s perfect. No one is perfect.”

“You mean not even you?” Lisa asked to be funny.

“Especially me. But I’m right about this. Stop putting him on a pedestal. You’re the one who should be on the pedestal.”

Nevertheless, Lisa had grandiose expectations about Dan’s family as she drove east on I-210 from her home in Glendale toward his in West Covina. She imagined a mansion on a slope with a view and a large backyard swimming pool. They’d be elegant and erudite people with an enormous library, packed with classics. Yet as soon as she drove through his parents’ neighborhood her notions altered: these were all modest tract homes. She pulled up in front of a plain ranch house, stucco with red brick trim. The lawn was mowed and in front of it were two squat palm trees.

As soon as she entered the house, his family didn’t dazzle her, which surprised her. His father was rod-thin, tall, and slightly bent. Like Dan, his sister had inherited his height and was a head taller than her rotund boyfriend. Dan resembled his mother yet her appearance was bland. Perhaps it was the clothes she wore: a beige jersey top over brown polyester pants and no jewelry. She showed only a slight grateful smile when she took Lisa’s gift, a box of See’s candy. His father gave Lisa a broader smile and said, “Nice to meet you.”

For her benefit, the main dish was vegetarian lasagna. She appreciated that Dan had told his parents she didn’t eat meat. She had feared she’s be forced to eat turkey leftover from Thanksgiving or maybe roast beef or pork chops.

His sister, named Amy, giggled with her boyfriend at one end of the table and they seemed preoccupied with each other. Amy had blond hair with brown roots and wore makeup too thick on her eyes, which were an icy blue. Her boyfriend had thin blond hair and lambchop sideburns that looked silly across his full cheeks.

Lisa braced herself for their many questions but none were forthcoming. Dan’s father stared at her but said nothing. Then his mother began, “We’re so proud of Dan and his accomplishments. Aren’t you, Lisa?”

“Oh, yes,” she said and smiled at Dan.

“He’s going to be called doctor by this summer. His grandparents and aunts and uncles are all so happy. Isn’t that an enormous achievement?”

“Oh, yes, it is. And his project in Carpinteria has done so much for the kids who live there.”

His mother brought a forkful of lasagna to her mouth then dabbed away sauce with her napkin. “Really?” She turned to her son. “What kind of project, Dan? I haven’t heard anything about it.”

Lisa was surprised that he hadn’t told his parents before about the important project. When they were back at school she said to him, “Why didn’t you tell your parents about the Children’s Project?”

He shrugged. “I didn’t see the point. They only care that I’m a success—that I’ll be called doctor.”

That June a new world was open to them. They both graduated, Lisa with a B.A. degree in English, Dan with a Ph.D. in Education, specifically in Counseling, Clinical and School Psychology. While they celebrated dinner at their favorite restaurant, Arnoldi’s Café, in Santa Barbara, Dan proposed to her and she accepted. Dan wanted the wedding to be small and Lisa agreed: they were poor, still without jobs, and couldn’t expect their families to splurge on their behalf—though Lisa’s mother wanted a big celebration and was willing to pay for it. They invited only immediate family and were wed in a small chapel in Pasadena. Dan’s community involvement strengthened his resumé so Lisa wasn’t surprised that he quickly acquired a position at Portland State University to teach at their education college, starting in the fall. She immediately applied to the university’s graduate program in English and was thrilled to be accepted.

They packed up their belongings and headed for the Northwest. Nearly two years later when she was finishing her Master’s degree, she discovered she was pregnant and they both were excited about having a baby. But in her third month she had a miscarriage. She was depressed for weeks but Dan was depressed for much longer. She had failed him.

***

Claire had to convince Lisa that she did take good care of herself while pregnant and she didn’t fail Dan. Claire had made the emphatic point that the opposite was true: he failed her. This thought renewed Lisa’s anger. She should pop up now and stomp over to him, shout for everyone around them to hear: he failed her—and their daughter. Yet at this late date she’d gain nothing by humiliating him—and herself.

A group of travelers were coming through the terminal doors. Claire’s plane wasn’t due for another twenty minutes. Lisa had checked about forty minutes earlier and discovered then that the flight would be delayed for an hour. But maybe it arrived sooner than expected. She dared not check the screen and have Dan see her. Yet now that she looked at the passengers, she noted that they were tan, several men wore bright shirts with blazing prints of palm trees and hibiscus flowers, and both men and women wore leis around their necks. These people obviously arrived from Hawaii. She hoped that whomever Dan was waiting for had been a passenger on that plane and then they’d be gone and he’d once again be out of her life.

But that wasn’t about to happen yet. As the group dispersed, she saw him sitting in a chair on the other side of the big screen. She could hardly breathe.

***

A year after her miscarriage Lisa was happy to discover she was once again pregnant. Dan was cautiously happy and kissed her. Then he said, “This time you might consider eating more protein. At least fish.”

He could never reconcile himself to her being a vegetarian. She had been a vegetarian since she was a high school senior. Her friend, Karen Ridley, became one first and had given Lisa a book about the horrors of the slaughterhouse. After only reading a few pages, she announced to her parents she’d no longer be eating anything that walked, flew, or swam. Her mother, a great cook who prepared a meat dish for dinner almost every night, wasn’t happy about this but said, “Then you’ll be cooking your own meals.”

Which Lisa readily did and learned from vegetarian cookbooks how to make tasteful dishes with tofu, various other bean sources, and nuts. Family members predicted this was a mere phase that would end, but they were wrong. During her first pregnancy Dan had made her ask her gynecologist if being a vegetarian was harmful to the fetus and the doctor had assured her it was fine as long as she ate nutritiously, balancing protein with vegetables and not eating too many fats and carbs. After the miscarriage she had called the doctor and asked, “Did it have anything to do with my vegetarian diet?”

“Absolutely not,” he said. “I believe it had to do with your cervix. It’s what we call an incompetent cervix, which means it opens too early in the pregnancy. We’ll have to watch over it during a future pregnancy.”

Something about her had been incompetent but it hadn’t been her diet.

Lisa was nervous throughout her second pregnancy and times when she spotted blood sent her and Dan into a frenzy of worry. She was glad she had stopped teaching at Portland Community College. She spent much of the time off her feet either reading or watching television. Dan had even bought a stereo unit so she could listen to her favorite records.

Just as she began her seventh month of pregnancy she went into labor. She gave birth to a tiny baby girl, pruned faced and jaundiced but still beautiful. She was immediately placed in an incubator. Lisa hated leaving the hospital without her baby, whom she and Dan had named Jennifer Marie. That same night they returned and watched tiny Jennifer in the incubator and Dan moved close to Lisa and folded his hand over hers. She smiled at him gratefully.

When Jennifer was eighteen months old the pediatrician told them she had cerebral palsy. This didn’t surprise Lisa. The child couldn’t stand yet, dragged one foot when she crawled, toppled over when she sat, and thrust her arms out for no reason. She drooled and had trouble saying mama. She could not say dada.

Yet when the doctor had put the diagnosis into words this stunned Dan and he paled.

With tears in her eyes, Lisa said after the appointment, “I know how painful this is to hear, Dan, but Jenny is lucky to have you as her father. In your field, you know all about kids like her and how to help them.”

His dark brown eyes showed despair that troubled her and so did his silence.

When Lisa found placement for Jennifer, at aged three, in a special program for young handicapped children at Portland Child Growth and Development Center she called Dan at his office on campus. “The director is really enthusiastic and very supportive. She gave me a tour of the center. It’s an amazing place. They’re all special kids under the age of six. They’re being potty trained and learning to eat by themselves and how to do say words and do simple puzzles. They also have a staff physical therapist and speech therapist who will work with Jenny. You’ve got to see for yourself. Anyway, the exciting news is Jenny can start this Monday morning.”

His reply surprised her. “Don’t make me dinner. I’m working late tonight.”

After she had fed and bathed her daughter and put her to bed she sat on the living room sofa and sobbed. Her relationship with her husband was strained by this child coming into their lives. Maybe it was her fault—an incompetent cervix or her no meat diet. Yet she loved pretty little Jenny, who looked like her father, except that she had Lisa’s red hair. They could still be happy.

He gave her no eye contact when he arrived home that night. A somber look was on his face and he went straight to their bedroom. She remained on the sofa, a novel unread on the coffee table. She couldn’t follow him into the bedroom, as if a heavy weight pressed down on her. A sense of doom overwhelmed her and she felt chilled. She finally forced herself up and left for the kitchen to boil water for tea. She was pouring the water into her mug when she heard him say, “Lisa, please come in here.”

She returned to the living room and was shocked to see that he held a bulging suitcase. She trembled so badly she grasped hold of a side table to steady herself. “You’re leaving us?” she managed to say.

“I can’t stay here any longer. I’ll send papers for you to sign. And money. Please don’t contact me.” In a softer voice he added, “This is just too much for me.”

Through blurry eyes she looked up at him. “Don’t you love us at all?”

“I … I can’t deal with it.” He turned and left.

Stunned, mortified, and scared Lisa knew she needed to call her sister. Through sobs she managed to tell Claire what had happened.

That weekend Claire left her home in Canoga Park and her husband, Brian, and toddler son, Justin, to be with Lisa at her time of despair. “I’ll hunt him down and kill him!” she said that evening after Lisa put Jennifer in her bedroom to sleep. In a slightly calmer voice she added, “You’ll get the best divorce lawyer and make him pay up—the bastard!”

Lisa sank onto the sofa and sobbed in her hands. “He’s left us—me. And it’s my fault!”

Claire plopped down next to her and grabbed her chin. She lifted Lisa’s face and their eyes met. “This is not your fault. Never ever say that again!”

Claire was her savior over the years, even though they remained living at a distance. She visited when she could, especially during summers while they both weren’t teaching. Sometimes Brian and Justin came too. Brian would walk through the house looking to see what he could repair, rewire, or repaint and Justin would make some effort to entertain Jennifer.

Fortunately, Lisa received help with Jennifer from school and community programs so she was able to work fulltime, teaching at the Sylvania Campus of Portland Community College, not far from her home. The money was needed: Dan had stopped sending money after three years. As far as he was concerned, she and Jennifer no longer existed. Then Jennifer died of pneumonia when she was fifteen. Lisa’s parents and Claire and Brian came to her funeral. Lisa was crushed and only her sister and brother-in-law had saved her from driving her car off a cliff.

***

Claire was coming to help Lisa celebrate her sixty-eighth birthday. Regrettably, Brian wasn’t joining her. He had suffered a mild heart attack a few months earlier and explained apologetically on the phone that his fear of flying might trigger another.

It occurred to Lisa that if Claire spotted Dan she might rush up to him and slap his face—but she’d prefer to strangle him. Lisa would get some satisfaction.

Yet, so much time had passed since that day he left her and their daughter that there was no point in trying to punish him now. It had been a long time since she felt exhausted from caring for Jennifer and also teaching. Then for years she mourned the loss of her daughter and struggled with loneliness. She dated but never lasted in a relationship. She enjoyed her friendships and participated in a writing group and went to poetry readings. She continued to write poems and had managed to get a few published in literary journals. That was her life.

Her hands were sweaty and she felt so agitated she couldn’t remain in her seat. Besides, she no longer cared if she came face to face with Dan. She stood and headed toward the Starbucks next to the terminal doors. She could easily see passengers arriving.

She was standing on line to order when she heard, “Lisa?”

She recognized the voice. This triggered the heavy beating of her heart. She was about to turn to face him but then the barista said, “Ma’am, what can I get for you?”

“A twelve-ounce coffee, please,” she managed to say. Then she faced him. That serious glow in his eyes was gone and he managed a smile. Perhaps he mellowed over the years.

“How are you?” he had the nerve to ask.

With a trembling hand she gave the barista a five-dollar bill for a $1.85 coffee and told him to keep the rest. She forced her hand to hold her hot cup steadily. “Fine,” she answered, deciding this exchange was absurd.

He stepped out of line and followed her to the counter where she poured half and half into her cup then stirred it and stirred it again and again.

“I didn’t recognize you at first,” he said.

“It’s been a long time,” she said, not looking at him. “What are you doing in Portland?”

He let out a nervous chuckle. “I missed the wet weather so I came back. Actually, I live in Lake Oswego.”

That was an affluent suburb. He was doing well. “Which plane are you waiting for?”

“The United flight from LAX. My wife went to visit her mom in a nursing home in Long Beach. We’re going to have her move up here so we can keep a better eye on her.”

This information about his wife made Lisa’s stomach twist even though years had passed. No doubt he had a family, with healthy kids and grandkids, too. She didn’t want to know about them. “She’s on the same plane as my sister.”

“That must be Claire. How is she?”

“Fine—just like me.”

He didn’t mention the unmentionable.

These moments were unbearably toxic and she had to flee. She glanced toward the exit doors and saw some passengers coming through them. The plane had arrived. Claire would be here momentarily to save her— once again. She tossed the cup full of coffee into a trash bin. She glanced at him for the last time and said, “Your daughter died a number of years ago.” She rushed by him and toward the doors.

When she spotted Claire, pulling a carry-on suitcase, she ran to her and hugged her. “Dan’s here,” she said by her sister’s ear.

Claire hugged her tighter then released her and said, “It’s too late for murder so I have a better idea: let’s go to dinner and order an expensive bottle of wine. It’s your birthday so it’s my treat.”

“Yes, I’d like that.”

Hillary Tiefer has a PhD in English and has taught at various colleges. Her short stories have been published in Descant, Red Rock Review, Mission at Tenth, Blue Moon Literary Review, Gray Sparrow Journal, Poetica Magazine, Poydras Review, Crack the Spine Literary Magazine, JuxtaProse, The Literary Nest, Smoky Blue Literature and Art Magazine, Five on the Fifth, and The Opiate. Her stories were finalists in contests for Folio, Hidden Rivers Press, Homebound Publications, and Glimmer Train. Her novel, Lily’s Home Front, was published in October 2018 (Moonshine Cove Publishing). Her essays on the author Thomas Hardy have been published in scholarly journals.

Alcoholism, Family, Fiction, Guest Posts

Asylum

April 8, 2022
moira

The lanky ten-year-old runs full tilt toward Moira’s car as she turns sharply into her sister Bridget’s driveway, barely missing Conor’s BMW. Her son is beside the door before she can open it. “I got a triple, and a double too.” He’s breathless, a huge brown growth of a catcher’s mitt at the end of his skinny arm.

“That’s terrific, Michael.” She slides out of the car, hoping he won’t require too large a dose of admiration, because she’s late. Even her sister Kate, who prides herself on defying start times, is here already, her minivan parked across the street, next to Liam’s pick-up truck. Moira dreads going inside. She and her sisters and brothers are meeting here today to talk about their father, who’s about to be kicked out of his brother’s house in Boston.

She bends to kiss her son, smells the sweet sweat of his play. Perspiration darkens his auburn hair, and his jeans bear the fresh tracks of a slide. He’s big for his age, like Sean, her older boy, and it’s clear they’ll both be as tall as all the Donnegans. She prays that’s where the resemblance will end.

Michael shouts the news of her arrival to Sean, who approaches the low picket fence surrounding Bridget’s huge back yard, looking unimpressed. Moira’s brother Liam, close behind him, waves a greeting and Moira nods. Sean wears a smirk. The sullenness that set in when Moira and Ken broke up has hardened. He’s chosen sides. “I let him hit it,” Sean says, but he brings himself to full height, can’t fully conceal how important it is to show his mother that Michael is no threat.

“Now, don’t be like that,” says Liam, and Sean’s face flushes, reminding Moira how readily he responds when a man points something out. Even Bridget, who’s been watching the boys after school since Ken moved out, has trouble getting him to listen.

“You did not,” Michael insists, and steps up to his brother, who’s leaning over the fence, and tries to grab his baseball cap, but Sean swats him away.

From the yard, Bridget’s daughter Cathy calls them back to the game. “I’ll see you guys later,” Liam tells them, and Moira follows him into Bridget’s kitchen. He’s thin as ever, wearing the leather jacket he dons for occasions when he wants to be especially belligerent. Once inside, he heads for the living room without stopping to chat.

Bridget has water on for tea and she takes her time getting it ready. She seems to be in no hurry for what comes next. She’s wearing another long, loose skirt, but Moira notices she’s replaced her usual T-shirt with a pale blue sweater and her hair is brushed back. She pours the water with exaggerated care, adjusts the spoons on the saucers as if they must conform to code, and brings the cup to Moira, a peace offering. “They’re here. Inside,” she whispers, and motions toward the living room.

“All of them?”

“Peter doesn’t want to start without you.”

It was Peter who asked for the meeting, and Moira is still amazed that he managed to get all seven of them together and on such short notice. No doubt it was Maggie, their linchpin, who got it done. The words talk about Dad must have drawn them in like gawkers to a freak show. They haven’t exchanged more than ten words about their father in almost twenty-five years, not since their mother left him—a decision even Fr. Cashman, who’d baptized all of them and had known their father since he arrived from Derry, couldn’t find fault with.

Moira has seen her father only a handful of times in the past ten years—family occasions she couldn’t dodge. The last time, two years ago, she was attending her cousin’s wedding, in Boston, and her father was seated at the next table. They’d barely exchanged a greeting, but later in the evening he turned to her. The tables in the hall were close and her chair backed up to his. “If you can navigate us to the dance floor, I’d love to have this waltz.”

“It’s not a waltz,” she said, because she had no intention of getting up. What she wanted to say was How dare you? How dare you think we can dance together? But they did. She let him hold her and she put her arm across his shoulder. When he remarked at how tall she was, she had trouble catching her breath. When he asked if her hair was still red, she lost her footing, so she pretended it was because she rarely wore heels.

Later, out in the parking lot, she gave Aunt Mary her number. “In case he ever wants to reach me,” she said. But he never did.

Moira follows Bridget into the living room, where the others have settled in. Someone coughs, and Maggie, a heavy woman with vigilant eyes and the all-knowing look of a matriarch, says Moira’s name, but otherwise the room is stiff with silence. Moira feels as if she’s been called back to reprise a role in a play that closed years ago. The room smells of ugly memories and sweaty tension, like the waiting room of some therapist who can’t leave well enough alone.

Peter, the only one on his feet, leans against the covered keys of the piano Bridget never plays, cigarette in hand, his expensive tie undone. He reminds Moira of a crooner trying to warm up the crowd with one-liners that are falling flat. He’s the unspoken head of this disjointed band of siblings, a title he stepped into at first simply because he’s the oldest male but later his accomplishments gave him status. A decorated veteran of the Viet Nam War, a successful business owner, and the father of five boys, he acts as if he survived unscathed. Moira isn’t the only one who doesn’t buy that. The best you can hope for after a childhood like theirs is to get properly diagnosed.

Moira and Bridget place their tea on the coffee table and join Maggie and Liam on the couch, not far from the piano. Pressed shoulder to shoulder, they dutifully wait to hear what Peter has to say. He clears his throat to begin but doesn’t. The others seem to be taking care not to look at each other as he gives another false start. Then silence.

“For fuck’s sake,” Liam says, “what’s going on? Does the old bastard have cancer or something?” Moira sighs. Even sober, Liam can belittle any occasion. He is Peter’s Irish twin, born less than twelve months after him. Unhappy with second billing, he’s played the foil ever since, the one beyond redemption.

“Why don’t you just say what you have to say, Peter?” Maggie coaxes, focusing, as usual, on the here and now. Her stability has been one of the family’s few anchors. She refuses to dramatize, forces them to accept their options, such as they are. She’s approaching fifty now and has put on weight, but it suits her image: the truth-teller, the one who won’t pretend you can lament your way out of trouble.

“All right, then,” Peter begins. “Like I told Maggie, Dad needs a place to live.” He joins his hands in front of him, like an airline ticket agent looking for someone willing to give up his seat. “So I’m going to need some help with this.” He stops, reaches into his jacket for his cigarettes.

Help? Moira glances at the others. They all seem bewildered.

“What are you talking about?” Liam asks.

They don’t get an answer because Cathy slides open the door to the back yard, sparing no fingerprints on the glass. “Catheee,” Bridget whines, “I just cleaned that glass.” The girl begins wiping the spots with her baseball glove. “Catheee, you’re letting out the air-conditioning.”

The girl leaps into the room, ready to defend herself. “Sean says I can’t have four strikes,” she complains, seeking some greater justice than the rules of the game allow—anything that will get her on base.

Bridget chases her back outside and grabs the Windex she keeps at the ready. The others clearly aren’t ready to consider Peter’s request, because they begin chatting about their houses and their kids, swapping stories about home improvement projects and the cost of dance recital costumes. Moira watches the urgency with which Bridget attacks the glass, and remembers something she thought was gone. The spots were on the wall, and Bridget had gotten up early to try to wash them away. She didn’t want their mother to see them again and get upset. Most of the spots were tiny; from across the room you wouldn’t even know it was blood, because they were brown by then. They reminded Moira of dark freckles and how her father would make constellations from the ones on her arms, point out a baseball diamond, a wagon, a bear’s face. On the wall, she thought she could make out an angel’s wings, but she couldn’t be sure because Bridget was working too fast, and anyway, she knew already that angels had to be make-believe. People liked to pretend there were guardians, but nothing could really protect them.

Bridget puts away her Windex and returns to the couch, adjusting the pillow before taking her seat.

“So what are you saying, Peter?” says Maggie.

“I’m talking about Dad.”

“That much we got,” Liam says.

“Have you actually talked to him? Is that what you’re saying?” Kate prompts. She’s soft spoken, almost whimpering now, and Moira wishes she would stop acting as if she owes the world an apology for breathing. Still, she’s grateful for the question, eager for Peter to get this over with.

Peter flicks an ash into a nearby philodendron, and Moira hears Bridget exhale in annoyance. “Dad’s been in touch with me for more than a year,” he says. “I’ve been up to see him at Uncle Pearce’s.”

“Uncle Pearce is dead two months now,” says Moira, looking at the others, confused. Only Maggie returns her look.

“I guess we should have sent a Mass card,” says Liam, and Conor laughs, always ready to help keep the temperature from rising. He’s wearing a dark gray, conservative suit that makes him look incapable of deceit, his tie perfectly knotted. She can’t remember the last time she saw him in anything not designed to impress a jury.

“So how is he?” says Kate.

“Who gives a shit how he is?” says Maggie.

“Christ,” Liam mutters. “I never should have come here sober.” He lights a cigarette, and Moira clenches her teeth.

“He’s good. Yeah, he’s fine. I took John and Doug up with me last time. They got a kick out of him. And they’d never been to Boston, so it was good. But like I said, it looks like he’s going to have to move out.”

Moira has no trouble picturing that scene—her father joking and teasing, her nephews taken by his odd ways. Pete Donnegan is a larger-than-life transplant whose quirks and speech patterns are throwbacks now, mimicked and sentimentalized in movies. Still, this news bothers her, though she can’t understand why. She feels robbed, as if Peter has claimed for himself something that belongs to her too. She wants to tell him that, ask why he didn’t invite her to go, but she knows how absurd it would sound. Maybe keeping him at a distance was fine as long as he wasn’t close to any of the others.

Peter’s tone softens. “He’s getting old,” he says. “I think he’s a little scared.”

“Scared?” Kate says.

“He’s all alone; he’s got no one.”

“And whose fault is that?” Maggie says.

“I’m not defending him,” Peter insists, putting up his hands, as if to ward off an attack. “This isn’t anything like that. There’s just no one to look after him up there.”

“Like there was no one to look after us when Mom took that job as a receptionist,” Bridget says.

“The rest of us had to do his job for him,” says Maggie.

Liam checks his watch. “Are we gonna go through his venial sins too? I’ve only got four hours,” he says, and Conor lets out a sigh, bracing for the inevitable ruckus to come.

“I’m not here to talk about any of that.” Peter directs this to Maggie, stabbing a finger into his palm to mark the subject off limits. He clearly doesn’t want this to get out of control, which everyone knows is the only place it can go if she lets loose. “I’m just saying that one of us needs to take him in.”

Liam spits something out, a cross between a snort and a chuckle, but no one says anything.

“He’s an old man,” Peter prompts, clearly expecting a volunteer. “And he’s gone completely blind. He’s got barely any sight left at all now.” He’s practically pleading, hardly his usual ploy. He clears his throat as if to signal what’s coming. “He’s got to find a place by next week.”

Liam whistles softly, and Maggie shakes her head, eyes wide in amazement. “Are you serious?”

“Is he still drinking?” says Kate.

“Talk about stupid questions,” says Liam.

“What’s so stupid about it?” Conor says. “How do you know he’s still drinking?”

“Because Aunt Mary called me a year ago, wanting to know if I could come get him out of there.”

“I know all about that,” says Peter, raising both hands, palms out. He reminds Moira of the Pope, calming the crowd from his Vatican balcony. “Aunt Mary told me everything. But that’s not what this is about. She’d let him stay, but she needs to sell the house. She may have an offer.”

“Yeah, right,” says Liam. “That’ll all happen by next week.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Peter tells him.

“You really expect one of us to do this?” says Bridget, providing her own answer with a dismissive wave.

“I’m not going to see him in the street,” says Peter. “He’s my father.”

“So you’re volunteering to take him?” Conor says. Moira hears this as a challenge, inviting Peter to put up or shut up. She wonders if Conor senses it too, that Peter has claimed a kind of sole ownership of their father, the right to decide for him.

“I can’t,” Peter says. “Helen won’t do it.”

Maggie laughs hard. “But you expect us to?”

“For heaven’s sake, he’s old. He’s nothing like he used to be.”

“Oh, please,” she says, “spare us the violins.”

“Right,” says Liam, “we need bagpipes for this one.”

“Like you ever gave a rat’s ass about anybody,” Peter snaps.

“Ah, his lordship has spoken,” says Liam.

Moira squirms. It’s hard for her to be with them when they argue like this. Closing her eyes, she lets their voices merge, tries to disengage. She can’t help imagining how lost her father must feel to have nowhere to go. She remembers what that felt like, wedged on someone’s lap in a crowded car. How did they fit so many people into it? Bridget was crying. Conor was on Aunt Nora’s lap, wearing only one shoe. He’d thrown up, and the satin lapels of his tuxedo were stained. Peter and Helen’s wedding had ended in chaos, their father ringed by men to hold him back. Somebody had to stop him. That’s what everyone in the car was saying. They couldn’t let him go on like that. He would have hurt someone. Moira’s mother was already hurt by then, but that didn’t seem to count.

Aunt Nora was scolding her mother, insisting she couldn’t go home to him, not that night, not ever. They’d have to stay at Aunt Nora’s, and Moira’s stomach ached from it, remembering the last time they wound up there. She didn’t want to sleep in a strange place, didn’t want to be without her books and her dolls. And what would her father do when he realized they hadn’t come home? He’d come after them like the last time, wouldn’t he? He could hurt them.

She prayed her mother would tell them to turn the car around, head back to their apartment. But she didn’t. A panicky tingling down the back of her legs made Moira desperate to get out of the car, to run, find her way home. Her dad wasn’t always drunk, not really. Sometimes he told them stories. Just that morning he’d talked about being best man at his brother’s wedding, tying tin cans onto the back of his car. And sometimes he sang. He’d show them what to do with the song to make their voices blend, harmonizing he called it. Maybe if they talked to him, made him understand, he wouldn’t hurt anybody anymore. She looked at her mother, who’d turned away from the window. The other eye was visible now, badly swollen, making the lid close, and Moira saw why they had no choice.

By the time they returned to the apartment a week later, their father had stocked the fridge with ice cream and soda and found them a skinny terrier from somewhere, with one bad leg. Moira knew he was sorry. He didn’t have to say so.

Kate is listing the reasons she can’t ask Charlie to let him stay, as if this needs explaining. Charlie—her new husband, the fourth—is a wormy little tyrant she met on a discount cruise ship, who’s never done talking about gun rights and keeping America safe from immigrants. He’s never even met their father.

“Is he collecting Social Security? Does he have Medicare?” Kate asks, as if these are the issues that might be holding the others back.

“He’s got all that,” Peter says, “and I’ll take care of the rest.”

Moira’s not surprised at this, given Peter’s income, and doubts anyone else is.

“I could talk to Terry,” Conor says, but Maggie snaps at him.

“You will not talk to Terry. The last thing you need is a viper like that in your home.”

“If you’re ready to put money out, why don’t you just set up an apartment for him?” says Liam.

“He can’t see, for fuck’s sake,” Peter says.

“Then get him a live-in.”

“You can’t trust those people,” says Kate.

“I’m going to spend time with him,” says Peter. “He wants to go to ballgames, visit my office.”

Moira lets herself picture her father wearing a Yankees cap, sitting with her at one of Sean’s games as she describes his wind-up, the speed of the pitch. Her throat tightens. It’s too hard to think about, the years of wondering what it would feel like to have a father, a grandfather for the boys. Ken’s dad has never been much good at it. He spends half his time in meetings and the other half on planes. “I’ll just be a minute,” she tells the others, getting up from the couch. Liam whistles what sounds like “Eve of Destruction” as she leaves the room.

Bridget’s bathroom is immaculate, no hairs in the sink, no spots of toothpaste spit on the mirror, none of the little touches that would help Moira feel at home. She leans forward, both hands braced on the pink porcelain, staring into the mirror at her chin, afraid to look into her own eyes. She inspects the tiny mole below the corner of her mouth; her father’s is in the same exact spot. She wonders why Peter’s so convinced he wants to be back in their lives.

When her father still lived in their old neighborhood, in his sister Deirdre’s basement, Moira walked thirty blocks to see him, telling herself the whole way that it was the stationery store she really wanted to go to, the one that sold the carbon paper she liked. But when she reached the store, she crossed the street and rang the doorbell, her fists deep in her pockets, fighting the urge to turn around. She was graduating high school that Friday and she wasn’t sure he knew. She doubted her mother would have told him and the idea that he might want to be there plagued her, made her feel wrong not to tell him.

Her aunt didn’t recognize her at first. She put her hands to her mouth as if to keep herself quiet. Their embrace was awkward and over quickly, as if the woman found no purpose in it. “He’s downstairs,” she said. “I’ll tell him you’re here.”

“No, it’s okay. I’ll go down.”

The staircase descended into a narrow space that smelled of cigarette smoke and mildew. He’d just gotten a new seeing-eye dog, a shepherd, and almost immediately it began to bark. “Quiet down, McCool,” her father scolded, but the dog, determined to do his job, settled into a soft growl. “Who’s there?”

“It’s me. Moira.” She reached the foot of the stairs and he rose from the couch. The room was lit only by the light from the small, high window that carved a view of shoes stepping by.

“Moira. How are ya?” He began to say more but stopped and she wondered if he was upset, because he was rubbing his eyes and color had risen in his neck.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just—”

“Sorry? Don’t be silly.” His voice sounded as if someone were squeezing him. He rubbed his hands on the sides of his pants, at a loss, maybe, for what to do. He didn’t ask her to sit down. He just stood there. So she told him what she’d come to tell him, that her graduation would be at the school, in the auditorium.

He sat down, called the dog closer, lit a cigarette. She waited in the silence, saw the look the dog gave her, as if still not convinced she was allowed here. Finally, she said good-bye and her father said he’d be there. He wasn’t.

Moira runs cold water from the tap, wets her face a bit, steps out into the living room. They’re on their feet. She can see they’ve been waiting for her, want to tell her something.

“Listen,” Peter says, his voice low, almost melancholy, “we’re going to talk to Aunt Mary, see if we can figure out a way for him to stay there a bit longer.”

Moira tucks her hair behind her ears, senses the uncertainty in the room. They have no answers, and the sadness of it empties her like hunger. It’s not the way things should be. “No, don’t do that,” she says, as if she’s made up her mind, as if she’s certain. “He can come with me.”

Someone gasps, and there’s mumbling, sounds of disbelief.

“Moira, what are you saying?” says Maggie. Her grip on her pocketbook tightens and she looks ready to whack someone with it.

“Will you please leave her be?” says Peter.

Moira walks over to the glass doors to see the kids outside but no one joins her. Bridget and Maggie are whispering and Peter goes into the kitchen. She wonders if they’re afraid to break the spell, afraid she’ll change her mind. The kids must be playing hide-and-seek, because she sees Michael sneak into the shed and close the door, which surprises her because he’s afraid of the dark. So was she, for a long time. On summer nights her father sometimes sat alone in the living room without a light on. She would slip into the darkness with him, settle in a far corner of the room, watch the smoke from his Camels lift in the warm air. His straight-backed chair would be pulled up close to the window, as if he was expecting to see something. Always he sat the same way, one leg crossed over the other, one arm resting limply across his lap. The streetlight deepened the lines of his face, and every so often, ever so slowly, he brought the cigarette to his lips and sucked the smoke deep into himself. She never approached him, certain he wouldn’t want that. Instead she kept watch with him, listened to his calloused hand scratch against his whiskers. When he went to bed finally, she’d pretend he’d kissed her good night.

Someone puts a hand on her shoulder. It’s Conor, the reasonable one, the one who believes he can stay out of harm’s way. He’s told Moira he won’t have children, won’t let the cycle continue. “You don’t have to do this,” he says.

But she does.

Mary Ann McGuigan’s fiction has appeared in The Sun, Image, North American Review, Prime Number, and other journals. Her collection Pieces includes stories named for the Pushcart Prize and Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net. Mary Ann’s young-adult novels, about teens trying to make sense of the chaos grown-ups leave in their wake, are ranked among the best books for teens by the Junior Library Guild and the New York Public Library. Her novel Where You Belong was a finalist for the National Book Award. For more about her fiction, visit www.maryannmcguigan.com, you can also follow her on Instagram.

***

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***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change.

Family, Fiction, Guest Posts

Love, Respect and Squirrels

April 1, 2022

Her name was Mary and we met in the summer of’66.  Our afternoons and evenings often consisted of sitting in my Pontiac GTO and admiring the Pacific Ocean.  We would listen to The Beach Boys on the radio and watch the waves roll in.  It felt like we did this at virtually every beach and lookout from Santa Barbara to San Francisco.   

I would pick her up from her parents’ house and try to avoid any confrontation with her strict, war veteran Father.  I got the feeling he had seen some things during his time in Okinawa.

Mary would usually bounce to the door in happy contrast to her solemn Father.  Her collection of summer dresses was impressive for a girl who just worked the odd shift at the local diner.

Open the door for her, get inside, awkwardly wave goodbye to her Father, turn the radio on and drive away.  We never really knew what spectacular coastal scenery awaited us each time.  Nor did we know how long we would be gone.  This may have explained the stern look her Father would give me each time.

We were too scared to show any signs of affection in the vicinity of her house.  Inevitably, she would place her hand on my thigh as we drove.  This was the sign to pullover, so we could finally share that much anticipated kiss.  Intensity and affection seemed to grow with each meeting of our lips and each chapter we added to our summer adventures.  We were in love and the salt air just magnified our lust for each other.

Despite our love for the Pacific, our most memorable date came when we visited the Giant Redwoods of Sequoia National Park.  We felt so small and insignificant holding hands as we stood beneath those giants.  It was like the outside world ceased to exist.  Mary’s love for squirrel-watching was infectious, and she soon converted me to this hobby of hers.  She fell in love with my cheesy, over-the-top commentary, as our squirrel friends chased each other around trees.  They seemed ever-present during our day, as if along for the adventure.  Curious observers to our love and laughter.

We made love for the first time that day.  It was not planned, though our escapades rarely were.  I’m not one to kiss-and-tell, but it was perfect.  Our happiness and closeness seemed to reach whole new levels.

Not everyone shared our new heights of happiness though.  My best friend, Sam, had got drafted just before summer.  My friends held a broad range of opinions about the war, from wanting to flee to Canada, to immediately volunteering upon enlistment age.  With Sam’s departure, Mary and I found ourselves increasingly adrift on our own island.  A place seemingly separated from the outside world and all the chaos it contained.

Our island was not exempt from invasion.  I was drafted too.  This news created a heightened level of intensity and urgency with our time together.  I proposed at our favorite spot overlooking Monterey Bay.  I was rather nervous.  My legs were so jelly-like, I briefly lost balance when down on my knee.  Mary laughed before giving me an enthusiastic “Yes!”

We would get married once I returned.  It gave us both something to look forward to in turbulent times.  Saying goodbye to her was more difficult than I had imagined.  Still, ever the optimists, we focused on the good things, like our future wedding, the summer we just had and the letters we would write.  Mary also gave me a gift.  She said it would be my good luck charm.  It was a small, handmade wooden squirrel.

***

The boys had been teasing me about the squirrel Mary gave me.  They had nicknamed him Gilroy, after my birth place.  A glance Gilroy’s way and I was immediately transported from the battlefields and into the embrace of Mary.

Gilroy went missing at some point during my platoon’s transfer to Khe Sanh.

I have felt particularly uneasy ever since. He had previously brought us the luck Mary promised.  He is not the only one ‘Missing in Action’ from my platoon in recent weeks.   

I got news that Sam had been sent home for shrapnel wounds to his leg.  I’m now starting to hope for something similar.  Nothing too serious, just something to get me that ticket home.  I miss Mary.  I miss that summer we shared.   I miss Gilroy.  I now understand the pain behind her Father’s eyes.

***

“I baked a cake last week for your birthday.  Cheesecake.  Even had some raspberries on top.  Remember that time you jumped over that man’s fence to steal some raspberries for me? And how you tore your sweater jumping back over? Oh, Robbie, you’re such a clutz.   My clutz.  Why did you have to go fight that stupid war?”

A light sea breeze blew Mary’s hair over her face as she stood clutching a small bunch of flowers.

“Why couldn’t we just make that summer last forever?”

A tear slid down her face, as she caught glimpse of a squirrel scampering over a headstone in the distance.

“How am I meant to look at a darn redwood again?” she laughed, momentarily composing herself.

Mary knelt down, placing the flowers on the ground.  She gently kissed her fingers and rested them atop Robbie’s grave.

“I love you”

She walked back to her accompanying Father and placed her arms around him.

He kissed her forehead, before gesturing to their car.

“I’ll be with you in a minute, love”

Mary’s Father stood in silence, before standing at attention, raising his right hand sharply, and saluting.

Ellen McDarby in England with her pug, Rupert. She has previously written love letters, shopping lists and notes to said dog Rupert. When not writing, she can be found perusing old bookstores, sipping cups of tea and going for walks in nature. 

***

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***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change.

Family, Fiction, Guest Posts

Overdrawn

March 25, 2022

The phone rings. Ying-ying takes a quick glance at the wall clock that reads 8pm, tosses the apple core she has been nibbling on into the trash can, and hurries from the kitchen to the living room. She unplugs the phone from the socket but sees only a string of zeros, the kind of call that one makes through the Internet. She wonders for a second what to do, but then decides to answer it.

“Hello?” she greets.

No one answers for a moment, but then an accented male voice starts to bray. “Am I talking to Tan Ying-ying,” the voice asks, “born on June 4th, 1994, current address 355 Yangshupu Road 5-14-1, Hongkou District, Shanghai?”

Yes, yes, and yes. Ying-ying gasps in recognition of her personal details bared by the voice, but his unrushed tempo brings about a tinkling echo: somebody else has announced the same information to her before, and that was not too long ago.

“Yes, this is she,” so she says, with affected calmness, “and are you—”

But he is speaking already. “—Good. And, as of today, Sept 28th, 2017, you’re still working at Primavera Organic Food Import Co., located at 75 Dinghai Road, Yangpu District?”

“Correct. But are you—”

“—Great. And our record shows your mom is … well, I’m sure your mom is still who she is. So, Miss Tan, I am calling from Miles Finance, to remind you that your loan is due tomorrow, at 12 pm sharp.”

She is right, then; she is experienced dealing with his kind. “Yes, I knew the call must be from you guys,” her default self is coming back, “I’ll have the money ready.”

“Wonderful, wonderful. And let me remind you, Miss Tan, that we won’t accept money wired from you directly, coz we use separate accounts to track outgoing and incoming funds. A colleague of mine will meet you at the McDonald’s at 1500 Pingliang Road—near the intersection with Lilin Road, at 11:45am, and he will take you to an ATM nearby, where you can then make the deposit.”

The voice pauses there, as if to wait for her jotting down the details. “Since my colleague has to confirm you adhere to all our terms,” it then resumes with slight relaxation, “please bring your copy of the loan contract. Jus’ to go over the numbers again, your principal is ¥24,050 and your annual rate is 36%, so adding a ¥500 signage fee, the total due for your four-month loan is 27,436 yuan. OK, so my colleague will see you tomorrow, and please remember: there’ll be consequences should you fail to honor our conditions in any manner.”

“Sure, I—”

But he hangs up already. They always have the upper hand, dictating the loans’ terms and nipping off phone calls, but all that power would cease after 12pm tomorrow, when the last cent of her debt is cleared. Ying-ying feels a hope rising inside her, one that heightens and churns out a restlessness, urging her to swipe open her bank app to double-check the money. She does that and ensconces on the assurance that the digits bring about, but the sight of a sidenote stings her eyes and bursts her transient calmness. She finds herself rereading the sidenote, the one line announcing that all the money is transferred in from the account ending in 4591; and as she scrolls down and counts the many more transfers from there, the growing sum pulls her deeper into a flashpoint, where her cheeks burn in shame and embarrassment.

So yes, how shameful and embarrassing this is, because the 4591 account belongs not to her but her mother, a widowed schoolteacher five years away from retirement, withering alone on the outlying Chongming Island. In the silence befalls her apartment, 14 stories above the street noise, Ying-ying pictures her mother making the transfer, not on her old Nokia but over the small village bank’s actual counter, filling yet another form under the teller’s suspicious gaze.

That picture pains her: how much trouble she has caused. She is 23 now and makes about ¥6,000 a month, why does she still rely on monetary help from her mother? She shuts her eyes and retrieves her first day in college, when she and her mother took a crowded bus to the downtown campus, only to find that her three dormmates had all come in by private cars. They were city girls, beautiful with fashionable clothes and exquisite makeup; their fathers looked powerful, their mothers had their hair piled up in towering buns—a banker, an owner of factories, a high-ranked bureau chief. Ying-ying had never been so close to such people; her classmates back home all had peasant, shopkeeper, government functionary parents. And when she introduced her mother and explained her father had passed, she suddenly felt a hesitance, her cheeks unexpectedly blushed.

Her mother sensed it; she became unusually reticent. They sat in the corner of the campus canteen and had their lunch, her mother only said how happy Ying-ying’s father would be to see her attending college, how much she hoped Ying-ying would excel in her chosen major of Spanish (all majors were declared at the time of college application). Ying-ying listened but did not engage. She looked at her mother’s worn blouse draping loosely off her thin shoulders, streaks of white hair sticking out in the thin black layer that hardly covered the skull, and her heart hardened with a new recognition of her mother: an unceremonious, unenviable woman, leading her staid life in a sleepy backwater. She had the sudden feeling that her own life up to that point had not been her destined one; she should have lived like her roommates, butterflies soaring high, or koi floating elegantly about.

She yearned for changes and change she would. Her roommates were willing to lend a helping hand, so before she learned to pronounce y as igriega, she’d already bought her first lipstick on their advice. Later, when she karaoked in her finest outfit, when she sipped coffee with exquisite makeup on her face, she could sense others’ widened eyes fixing on her. She realized she had always longed for this feeling, actually, to be looked up to by widened eyes; she recalled how her second-grade classmates talked about her after her father had died (“she has only a mother but no father”), or how they laughed at their teacher—Ying-ying’s mother—who had patches on her clothes and thus must be poor. She wished they could see her now, all the envy and shame and regret on their faces.

To support herself she economized her mother’s allowance and tutored high schoolers, but still the demand outpaced income faster than she had expected. Unable to bear the mortification of asking her roommates to help but fidgeting on the brink of finance, she reached out to an Internet lender for the first time in her sophomore winter. She thought she had found the solution until she realized how frequently new bills from them continued to arrive, with interest compounded too much and too soon.

She rolled back her splurges and skipped meals, but still borrow new loans to cover the old ones. With nowhere else to turn, she finally sought help from her mother. She would never forget that day, September of her junior year, when she called her mother first thing one Saturday morning (she stopped coming home to save bus fares), choking on hesitation so revisiting again the topic of weather.

“Ying-ying, what’s wrong?” her mother finally cut the chase.

“Mama, I—borrowed more money from the Internet than I could repay—” She let her story all out; she expressed remorse.

The requested amount came in two days later. But as her old debts and new purchases prompted the second, and then the third rescue request, her mother’s initial readiness ebbed and worries flowed. She rode one after another those two-hour-long bus rides to meet and talk; she reached out to Ying-ying’s professors for intervention. Even though in the end, she still gave in to the requests every time, she referred to Ying-ying’s father increasingly often as if she was in this more for his sake than Ying-ying’s (“right before your father passed, I promised him to look after you to my capacity”). And every time Ying-ying heard her talking like this, she couldn’t help but recall that when she brought home a report card with bad grades back in primary school, her father would only pat her head and encouraged her to do better next time, while her mother would go as far as to scold her, deducting a week’s pocket money as her punishment.

She lived through the junior and senior years like that, on the brink of finance and having a tense relationship with her mother, but as she graduated, as she settled into her clerk position at an importer of Latin American fruits, things did get better. With rent and commute added to the equation, with her roommates swanking in graduate schools abroad, she found the life she had once so desired losing its charm, she rolled out longer durations of self-constraint. She paid off more debt with her own salary, but even though she had only one meal every day, even if she bought no new clothes in months, there remained compounded interests, and there was now an empty apartment to be filled. She had been asking much less from her mother, but she could not let go of the credit line of Momma Bank.

That credit line had dwindled. For the most recent, 27,436 due, she had to ride a two-hour bus home, kneeled, and kowtowed—the traditional pose of a subordinate appealing to her superior—before her mother for the first time. “Mama, this will be the last time I ask you for help,” she promised as pain shot up her knees, “consider it a loan, and I swear I’ll pay you back!”

“I really hope so, Ying-ying,” her mother murmured, but it was still loud enough for her to hear, “this would really be the last time I help you as your mother.”

What could she possibly mean by that? Ying-ying looked up to the tears trickling down along her mother’s cheeks. The words seemed meaning she would really say no after this, cut her off from her life even, but the lack of finality in her tone led to the suspicion of bluffing, and the further tiny signs of reconciliation—like she offered the bus fare when Ying-ying took her leave—elevated the suspicion to a make-belief. No need to worry because this is really the last time, Ying-ying thought as she wobbled with the bus heading back to Shanghai, I will save and pay her back.

That was last Saturday. For the past five days, this has been Ying-ying’s working assumption, the foundation of a general hopefulness she had been feeling. She reorients herself to here and now, paces to the window, and props her elbows on the sill and looks at the city lights. Tomorrow: the life of her past three years is coming to its end. The guttering lights expand to the horizon; the superimposed reflection of her lithe silhouette has hundreds of eyes flicking inside. And to that reflection Ying-ying flashes a smile, on the foreknowledge that in about 15 hours, her life will be back in her control.

The money is ready. She has to go to the bank counter, as the amount to be withdrawn is too large for an ATM. She lingers in the bank’s waiting area, picks up a free newspaper, and camouflages the wads before feeding them to her handbag. It is still early. She stands in the sun, checks the time, and determines she can afford to walk to the appointed McDonald’s. This is actually preferred, since she is unwilling to go through the subway security check with the money.

So she walks. The skyscrapers of Pudong District glisten at the horizon, high above and beyond the drab low-rises of her current street. Before her father died, in 2003, her parents had taken her downtown every year, celebrating her birthday with an afternoon in the parks and a good dinner. Her father would also buy her a new toy; even her mother allowed her an extra cone of ice cream. Back then, so many parts of Shanghai looked like this, locked in a past that had never changed. But now, see how glamorous and posh the city has become.

Both she and the city have tried, then, to transform toward some vision of a better self. But while the city has successfully progressed, she finds herself entrapped in her borrowed buying power. Were you even happy back then, the voice that is her mind asks, back in college when you bought so much stuff? She realizes that her sybaritic self is already on the way to phasing out, as her mind is now focused on her freedom, what to do with it once she regains it after 12 o’clock. Treat yourself better, she thinks, treat Mama better also.

The erhu music played by a panhandler brings her thoughts back, so she pauses and gives him a five. Ahead, the appointed McDonald’s is already in sight, so she walks up to it and plants herself underneath a sidewalk sycamore. In no time, a skinny man emerges out of nowhere, his eyes locking with hers for long seconds. Yet before the thought “you are early” materializes on her vocal cords, his figure passes by her and heads to the restaurant, the sight of his back soon disappears behind the doors.

Not him, then. She scans the other passersby, but no one returns her attention, and fifteen minutes later she begins to wonder whether she has misheard the instruction, that she is expected inside rather than outside. So she walks into the McDonald’s and surveys the space, but again finds not the debt collector she has been looking for. Without a better plan, she seats herself down by the window. There is no way to dial back the all-zero Internet number, and Miles Finance’s website lists only an email address. She fumbles her handbag for the signed contract that she was asked to bring along, sifting to no avail for another piece of contact information.

There seems nothing else she could do, then, other than head back. She takes the subway and skips lunch. Back in the office, she tries to refocus on her work but finds concentration has left her. Staring at client orders of Peruvian avocados and Ecuadorian pitayas on the monitor, her mind keeps drifting to the nebulous loan shark that never showed up, all the unknown consequences that might or might not occur.

It is not until past one that her phone rings again, the same flashing string of zeros. She presses the green button to accept it, her questions ready to vault out once it connects.

But the other side is a split second faster. “Miss Tan,” the same accented voice brays, “where are you?”

“At work,” she says, rising and walking into an empty meeting room for privacy.

“You didn’t show up for your appointment.” Closing the glass door of the meeting room behind her back, she cannot believe her ears.

“How can you say that? I waited for an hour, and it was your guy who didn’t show up.”

“No, my colleague says he didn’t see you. He got there at 11, and waited till one o’clock.”

“What does he look like?” she thought of the man she locked eyes with again. “Is he a thin, short man probably in his forties, wearing a white jacket?”

“No, my colleague is a tall guy in his twenties.”

“Are you sure he went to the McDonald’s at 1500 Pingliang Road, near the intersection with Lilin Road?” She still is so confused, her voice starts to tremble.

“Exactly, that’s the one, with a row of sidewalk sycamore trees before its entrance.”

All dead-ends, then. But is it? Suddenly, she sees a way to add up all these contradictions. “You’re lying!” she yells, truculent now. “I waited for over an hour, and nobody showed up!”

“Well, Miss Tan,” the voice slows down a little but soon regains composure, “what matters is that my colleague didn’t see you, and so we’ve not received your funds by the deadline of noon.”

“No, if you didn’t have this stupid rule to meet in person, I—”

“The point is, Miss Tan,” he again cuts her off, “you didn’t repay your debt by noon, so you’ve breached our contract. The consequence is that you owe us 37,436 now, your original due of 27,436 plus a 10,000 penalty.”

Everything dawns on her. “No, I owe you nothing!” She shouts with a sudden burst of energy, “I’ll not pay even a cent of this so-called—”

“Well, too bad, Miss Tan,” the voice sneers, “we can go to court, and you’ll lose, coz we have bank statements showing us we’ve funded your account, while you’re not able to prove—”

But she cuts him off this time. “How many victims have fallen for your scam?”

“Whoa, missy, hold on,” the voice feigns surprise, “you’re the party at fault here. We can go and settle this in court, and we’ll win because our banking statement can prove our funds have indeed gone to your bank account. But if the judge asks you, ‘Tan Ying-ying, do you have evidence showing you’ve paid them back?’ you’ll have none simply because you haven’t.” He pauses there a little, as if to let his logic settle on her mind. “So, think about it, Miss Tan, your best chance is to stick with the contract, and pay back the total by the end of next week.”

“You black-hearted son of a b!” she resorts to invectives, “your guy didn’t show up!”

“Calm down, Miss Tan,” the voice sneers. “The old saying goes: the books must be balanced, and the debt must be repaid. This is the dao of the universe. We know where you live and work, as we know your mother’s name and address. We wish you both well, and we expect you to pay us back by the end of next week.”

And with that, he hangs up.

She deflates in a chair; she is suddenly exhausted. Her mind is all blank, yet still an instinct tells her to call mother. There was no answer, so she tried again. Her arms quiver uncontrollably when she makes the attempt; she inhales and exhales for minutes to stabilize herself.

“Ying-ying?” Five rings after, a lukewarm voice vibrates in her ear, “what’s up?”

“Mama, —I, I got scammed,” it is so hard to bring these words, “I need to borrow from you another 10,000 yuan.”

A sleek bus leaves behind the glistening towers of downtown, crosses the Yangtze through a serpentine tunnel, and ascends a colossal bridge over a distributary. Curling in it and on a window seat, Ying-ying sees Chongming Island’s green fields open up before her, the roofs of farmhouses glistening in the afternoon sun. Merely a week ago, she had promised mother the last bailout, yet here she is again, requesting an even more exorbitant sum. How would her mother take it?

She walks in the direction of home from the bus depot, and the familiar fields and houses somehow relaxes her a little. It was on these same streets that her father and mother took her for after-dinner strolls, she recalls, a time when everything seemed simpler: relationship with her mother, relationship with herself.

She longs for that simplicity, but finds the longing interrupted by anxiety as she gets closer to her childhood home. At the door, she has to pinch her own thighs—her habitual way of dealing with anxiety—to calm her jitters. She counts to ten and lets out a deep exhale, and then starts to knock on the door. Hearing no response, she turns the doorknob and finds it unlocked, so she lets herself in, adjusting her eyes for the dark.

“Mama?” she calls in small volume, “are you here?” Finding no mother in the kitchen, she passes the living room and retreats into even deeper darkness, until she reaches her childhood bedroom at the other end of a corridor. Goosebumps rise over her arms, because of the unexpected sight of a motionless statue sitting on the bed she used to sleep on.

“Mama!” she gasps and strides to the bedside. It is only until this moment, in this point-blank range, that she sees her mother’s tearful eyes, the half-dried watery traces on her cheeks. Backlit by the small window, the pilings outlining her mother’s jacket are all visible, so many of them standing along her silhouette, a miniature army guarding all the latent emotions.

Words vault out of her mouths: “Mama, I am sorry—” But a force of unknown origin breaks them midsentence, and the momentum of it pulls her knees onto the ground. “My last time, truly. You know, I was tricked,” she kneels there and starts a new line, but her confidence is drained, her story sounds unbelievable even to her own ears.

She places her hand on her mother’s knees instead to plead for her last chance, but her mother withdraws from her touch. From under the mattress on which she sits, her mother then draws out a red-covered booklet, and hands it toward her. Even amidst the deepening gloom, the golden-colored characters shine on the cover: Adoption Certificate.

She had no expectation of this, not an inkling at all. She takes the certificate and flips open the cover; spasms are firing all over her arms. Her first glance takes in the names of her own father and mother, their birthdays address and ID numbers; then, beneath a family photo, there is this italicized line at the bottom: This is to certify the adoption mentioned above is appropriately done according to the People’s Republic of China Adoption Law, and is valid henceforth.

Date: July 4th, 1994.

Just one month after she was born.

“Mama, am I adopted?” she asks, a bolt of lightning lances across her entire autobiography, “why are you telling me only now?”

Her mother remains silent. But her body shakes, her tears drip onto the floor. She struggles to stand up and then bends down by the bedside in a prostration position. Her hands then stretch into the narrow space under the bed, yanking out a parcel of cash after some impatient fumbling.

“Mama, I won’t need it now—”

“Ying-ying, take it …”

“Mama, please!”

“… Take it, Ying-ying … I just went to the bank earlier, and this is all the money I have left. You know, from the beginning, it was really your father’s idea to adopt you … He always wanted children but couldn’t, and although I was OK without one, he persuaded me to adopt you when he first saw you … He liked you instantly, you know, at the orphanage. He said, let’s adopt her and treating her like our own …. We didn’t tell you so that you’ll feel no different growing up, and when he passed, I had promised to take care of you to the limit of my capacity … And now, Ying-ying, all that I have left are in this package, so I really cannot help you any longer as your mother…”

Ying-ying inches forward on her knees until she reaches her adoptive mother, then holds her legs as if they were life’s most precious treasure. Her body spasms uncontrollably, her lung bellows out loud sobs. And at that moment, a deluge of myriad emotions breaks the walls and gushes in, overwhelming both the mother and the daughter.

Hantian Zhang is a writer living in San Francisco. He is a data scientist by day.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change.

Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Friendship, Guest Posts

Yoga Pants

August 13, 2021
meryl

By Tamar Gribetz

They thought they could make their daughters’ best friends with each other.  They lived in yoga pants – Athleta or LuLuLemon, of course—and they kept the pants on all day. Sometimes they worked out and, and sometimes they just didn’t get the chance.  They didn’t work but were highly educated – Ivys or small fancy northeast liberal arts colleges.  The few who did work before they had kids had been nursery schoolteachers, social workers, or “in fashion.” A couple of them had even been lawyers, but never really planned on practicing law.  It was just a good thing to do, a “good experience” that gave you “credibility.”

Now they had a higher calling:  motherhood.  Thankless and endless.  But they all had nannies and wouldn’t have made this noble decision without the nannies.  They tried to plan to meet for dinner Saturday night with their husbands who were mainly “in finance.”

Sometimes I would look at them all cliquey like they had undoubtedly been with others in middle and high school, and I wondered what each would be without the others. Each wouldn’t thrive on their own, but together, they each shone like dominoes. If one piece fell, they’d all tumble.   I was the outsider, and I convinced myself I didn’t care. I was smarter than them, and I was my own person and more authentic. Independent.  But a part of myself wanted to be included. To be part of them.  I had my two best friends, Ally and Michelle,  who worked full time.  But that didn’t get me very far; I was standing here alone.

I remember a girl from middle school who seemed so ordinary – looks, brains, personality – but she was in the clique for some reason. Did they need a listener, someone not threatening, or was it because her mother was best friends with the queen bee’s mother?   I was so envious.  It all seemed so easy. None of that aloneness, that angst, that insecurity. She was so lucky. Maybe it was her ordinariness that they liked.  I never really got it. I tortured myself over if it was better to just be like her: an ordinary, not very smart, not very interesting girl who never had to worry socially or me, arguably more interesting, stronger, smarter.  But so alone.

The moms in the clique were into vacationing in the same places.  Not necessarily together, but they chose the same places. I overheard them talk about this at pickup. Barcelona was hot for a couple of years. Now it’s Lisbon.  The same restaurants too. There’s a new place in Portchester that they’re all trying now.  I’ve seen others insert themselves in the group simply by inserting themselves in the group.

I suppose one could say that I’m standoffish because I stand by myself. But why don’t they come up to me?  They have strength in numbers. Besides, I’m welcome if I want. I look forward to the day when their daughters no longer want to be friends with each other.  When they outgrow the nursery school set ups.  Won’t that be delicious?  “Fuck you, Mom. I can choose my own friends, thank you very much. And I can’t stand Meghan.” And just like that, their whole world would crumble.  What if.

Sometimes these moms gathered outside of preschool and hugged each other when they dispersed.  Watching them, I could feel my skin touching the inside of my jacket, craving warmer contact.

The other day, when I got home from pick up, I had to eat.  I craved chocolate chip cookies and milk, but we were out. I had a mix lying around. I wanted to sink my teeth into the butter and let it sit on my tongue, its gooeyness and its crystals of sugar that hadn’t fully settled. I wanted to just have it all to myself, all my pleasure with nobody watching.  I had to put Sophie down for a nap so she wouldn’t see, and so I wouldn’t have to share. I had to eat until I was stuffed. And, thankfully, I had plenty of space, having skipped breakfast.  And I also had to masturbate at some point after the fulness wore off. I had to be full and spent.

***

I stood in the hallway outside the Fours classroom and busied myself on my phone, assuming a serious face. Two of the moms from the group, Jodi and Lauren, were talking, trying to be quiet. But I was close enough to hear.

“Should we tell her?” Lauren asked.

“Tell her what?  We don’t even know for sure,” Jodi said.

“But we — something is up. You could just look at them and feel it.”

“Maybe they’re just flirting.”

Lauren shood her head. “So that’s bad too.”

“Come on.”

Lauren chewed on her nail. “But it could be close to happening, and if she knows, maybe — maybe she could say something in time.”

“It’s not our place. Not with no proof. Besides, you don’t think she senses it?  Sees them together at the club and at least feels a little jealous? Or something?”

“Maybe she’s in denial.  She doesn’t want to see. But we’re her friends,” Lauren said.

Jodi nodded. “Exactly, she doesn’t want to know. Remember last week when we were driving to the city and she was talking about her friend from the Hamptons who found out about her husband, and she said she wouldn’t want to know If it were her because then what?  Would she want to disrupt her comfortable life?  Her endless money, travel, and active social life?  She herself made it clear she wouldn’t want to know.”

Who were they talking about?  It must be Meryl.  Her husband was too good looking, tall, with a thick head of hair and lots of money. Or maybe it was Rachel?  She always looked somewhat sad. They all had money, so it was hard to tell.  I didn’t dare look up, kept tapping and scrolling.

“Hey ladies!”  One of the others approached them.  She was out of breath.  “I’m so glad I’m not late. I rushed like a lunatic to make it on time.”

“You could have called me. I would have picked up Chloe.”

There. That’s what I needed. That type of support. A sisterhood.

***

When we got home, Sophie laid down in front of the T.V., and I put Jonah down for his nap.  I was friends with most of them on Facebook, if not in real life. But nothing gave it away. Just loads of happy, thin, tan, made-up women with their husbands on vacation or out for dinner. All living their perfect lives. They were blessed for each other’s friendship.  Sisters for Life. Please.   

Maybe it was time for me to go back to work. For real. Ally and Michelle didn’t waste their time worrying about making friends with the cool girls like a bunch of middle schoolers. What the fuck was I doing?  I had been the head of my Marketing team at work before I decided to stay home with my kids.  This was absurd! And sad.

So I scooped up the kids and drove to Wegmans to pick up dinner and just to feel productive, busy.  To buy things we were out of but that could really wait: vanilla extract, granola, frozen broccoli, another new strange-flavor tea.  Still, an activity and a way out of my head, the endless ruminating.   

I squeezed pears for ripeness and spoke out loud to the kids, telling them what I was doing, to involve them, as the parenting experts recommended.  I felt I was performing for others when out with my kids, and I had to seem like the happy mom.  Should we buy apples, sweetie? Would you try a green apple if I bought it?  When really, who gave a fuck?  This is who I’ve come to.

“Hi, Julie.”

“Oh, hi Meryl.”

“I guess we’re on the same schedule.”  She wasn’t with her kids.

“Yeah, this is my life. Drop off, pick up, supermarket, gym, repeat,” I said.

She laughed. “Yes, we are on the same schedule. So how’s Sophie doing?  Does she like the teachers? They seem like a cohesive group.”

“Yes, they do.”

“Ben is happy, so I’m happy.”

“Yeah, that’s how it goes.”

“Are you working these days?”

“No, I’m home with the kids.”

“Oh, I thought you were working. I feel like I never see you at school. You should come join us for coffee. A bunch of us often go after drop off.”

She wore lip-gloss that was just the right color for her skin tone.  Nude with a little ruby-red grapefruit tint. I never knew what was the right color for me.  Her eyes were kind and forthright.  She really had no idea I noticed their coffee dates all year. There was a softness about her features. Her face wasn’t round, but wasn’t angular either.  Her blue eyes were a soft, pale blue.  Nothing harsh about her. Her hair, a light brown with subtle highlights around her face.

“That sounds great. Thanks.”

“Tomorrow. Are you free tomorrow?”

“Sure. Yes.”

“Great!  If I miss you at drop off, meet us at Michael’s on Main Street.  There’s a big table at the back where we sit.”

Something inside me stirred when she looked into my eyes. I was being seen. I was there with her.  Something in her eyes recognized my loneliness, my need for connection.

***

“I have plans for coffee with some of the cool moms tomorrow,” I told my husband Joe in my sarcastic tone.

“Wow! You have made it.”

He opened his eyes wide in mock amazement and smiled.   But when he turned his back to me to hang his pants on a hanger, I couldn’t help but notice – to my disappointment — that he seemed very happy to hear this news.

***

The next morning, I planned to get out of the house early so I could run into Meryl at drop off and not have to walk into the coffee shop alone. But Sophie  had a meltdown and wouldn’t eat her cereal, insisted on a toasted waffle, which delayed me just enough to have missed Meryl.

As I walked from the coffee shop’s parking lot to the entrance, I felt nauseous like I used to before a sweet sixteen party or a first date.  My heart raced as I walked to the back of the coffee shop and saw the group.

“Hey, Julie. Right here.” Meryl called and waved.

I tried to act casual and strutted over with a forced smile.

“Everyone, you know Julie . . . Sophie’s mom.”

“Hey,” they all called out.

Meryl sat at the end of the bench and had everyone move over to squeeze me in.

“We’re all complaining about how tired we are,” Meryl said. “We don’t sleep like we used to, lots of anxiety apparently.” She winked at everyone.

“Or Mommy bladders,” said Monica.

“I think it’s a combination of both. You wake up to pee, and then your mind starts racing,” Suzie said.

“Yeah, suddenly the need to pack a healthy, nut-free snack is terrifying. But my 3:00 a.m brain is convinced it is,” Jodi said.

“My therapist told me to never trust my 3:00 a.m. brain,” Lauren warned.

Jodi said, “That’s another thing: Therapy.  Mike thinks I don’t need it anymore, that it’s enough. But I think it’s the best spent money.”

“If only the good therapists took insurance,” Monica said.

“Mine does. But Mike says I shouldn’t submit in case I want to be a judge someday. Please!  I haven’t practiced law in ten years. It aint happening.  He thinks there’s still a stigma to see a therapist because when he was a kid everyone spoke about a boy who went to therapy when he flipped out over his parents’ divorce.”

“We’re all in therapy. You could tell him that,” Monica said

Jodi rolled her eyes. “He’s old fashioned. Anyway, it’s not negotiable.  He has no idea how bitchy I’d be without therapy.”

“What about couples counseling? Does that count as therapy?” Meryl asked.

“Are you and Brad – ,” Jodi asked.

“Maybe. I’m sure he doesn’t want me to talk about it.”

“Everyone should be in couples therapy. Even prophylactically.  Marriage is tough,” Jodi said.

“Anyway, I insisted on it because I feel like we’re not good.  Like things have shifted.  Like maybe he’s cheating.”

“But would you even want to know?” I blurted out.

I felt everyone’s eyes on me.

“I don’t know. Probably not.”

I raised my eyes and Jodi glared at me.

“Why, Julie?  Would you want to know?” she asked

I shook my head. “I haven’t really thought about it.”

“Sounds like you have.”

“Jodi!” Meryl said.

“It’s something we have all thought about, I’m sure. I’ve thought about it.  I don’t think I’d want to know,” Jodi said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because what good would it do? I’d upend my life and then what?  If Mike is cheating, it would stop eventually. He’d get bored and maybe tired of all the work.”

“Jesus, Jodi!” Suzie said.

“No really.  I see how my divorced friends struggle to meet someone. It’s shit out there. We’re older and there are so many losers out there. We’re not in our 20s anymore.”

“Wow.” Suzie said

“Complete honesty is over-rated and painful.”  She looked directly at me.

As we walked to the parking lot, Jodi ran up to me.

“Did you hear my conversation with Lauren the other day?” Jodi asked.

“What?”
“You were nearby.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Just the way you asked Meryl if she’d want to know.  It’s interesting. That’s all. The timing.”

“What?”
“I got to go,” she said.

I felt sick. My stomach churned. I fucked this up before it even began.

Meryl walked up to me as I was getting in my car.

“Hey.”

“Hey. I don’t think Jodi likes me,” I said.

“Oh. She’s always a bitch. A lovable bitch, but a bitch.  You can’t take what she says personally.”

“I really have thought about what we discussed.  I don’t think I’d want to know if Joe was cheating on me.”

“Yeah, I don’t think I’d want to know either.”

“Have you ever discussed it – with the others?”

“What?”

“Nothing. I don’t know. It’s just that I do think about it. As I get older . . . that’s all.  I think it would make things worse.”

“But it might suck to have to wonder all the time,” Meryl said and shrugged.  “I gotta do some errands before pick up.”  She smiled, “I’m glad you came.”

“Yeah, me too. Thanks.”

***

I decided to put the whole exchange with Jodi out of my mind. It was none of my business. I became friendly with the coffee group.  The women included me at pickup and drop off. I knew it was only because I was cool enough for Meryl, that it was fake and shallow. But – I have to admit—I liked having women to talk to at school. I didn’t stand by myself at pick up pretending to be reading an important text on my phone.  I had friends to talk to at preschool, to laugh with. Sophie was even asked on more playdates from the moms of the coffee group.

I was invited for coffee again the following week. I think they all assumed I would join them regularly, and when I didn’t come for a couple of days when Jonah was sick, they texted me afterwards to be sure everything was okay.  Jodi was even friendly to me as if we never had those words in the coffee shop parking lot.  I was happier all around, even with my kids at home. I got to know Lauren and Monica better. They invited me to walk with them on Sunday mornings.  I bought an expensive pair of yoga pants from Athleta to walk in. I couldn’t be seen in my ten-year-old sweats. Joe seemed happy I was making friends, though I tried to play it down for fear I might jinx it. I was embarrassed at myself for being so happy about this, but the truth was it felt good not to be lonely.

One Friday afternoon, Meryl invited the group and the kids to her house after school.  While we sat around the kitchen table, Meryl confided to us that she was almost certain her husband was having an affair — probably with someone from  the club or through work. She had confronted him, and he denied it.

“I’m just sick of worrying about it.  If it’s happening, I don’t want to be the blind, clueless wife.  I should have some dignity. Right? I mean I’m fed up and pissed off.”

“Yeah, I guess. But are you sure?  Think about it. What would be better in your life if he confirmed your suspicions?” Jodi asked. “Your life would have to change once he knew you knew. I mean, do you really want a divorce?  Do you want to split custody of the kids, fight over money?”

Meryl wrung her hands. “I’m surprised you’re so one-sided about this. Yes, you’re right. I have thought about it. But I can’t act so stupid. I should have some pride.  If I knew it would end soon, maybe I wouldn’t want to know. But what if it doesn’t?”

“It always ends.  If something is happening, it will end. But you don’t want your life to blow up because of some temporary fling.  If anything is even happening,” Suzie said.

“I think it is. Shit, I don’t know what to do.”

The conversation ended when the kids ran into the kitchen after someone fell, nothing serious, but tears and cries and blame cast.  What a convenient distraction, how we busied ourselves with our kids.  We cleared the juice boxes and pretzels, forced the kids to say, “thank you,” zipped  up coats, tied shoes.  I lingered on the side with Sophie as everyone left.

“Call me if you want to talk,” I whispered and gave her a hug.

“Thank you, Julie.  I’m so glad we became friends,” she said as she squeezed my hand.

***

For the next few days, I went back and forth in my mind about whether I should tell Meryl the conversation I had overheard between Jodi and Lauren. Part of me felt the wise thing was to shut my mouth because I knew nothing for certain.  And we had just become friends.

Over dinner, I asked Ally and Michelle what they thought.

“Are you kidding,” Ally said, “How could you not say something?”

Michelle shook her head. “Jesus, Jules.  Wouldn’t you want to know?”

I knew in my gut that I would too, no matter what I had said to Meryl. I lifted my glass of wine and took a sip, to avoid having to look at them, ashamed that I had even asked such a question.

***

The following day, after I folded laundry, cooked dinner, shuttled the kids to appointments and playdates, a familiar loneliness descended on me as it normally did in the late afternoons.  It was when I finally stopped running that I was able to feel its sting. It creeped into my gut and began its gnawing. I thought of Meryl and wanted to pick up the phone to say hi. Only it didn’t seem honest, knowing what I suspected and keeping it to myself.  I crawled onto the couch and closed my eyes as the children watched T.V.. I thought of Meryl.  I envisioned our vacations together, our kids playing in the sand, as we lay under our beach umbrellas sipping chardonnay, our husbands (her’s new) running together in the mornings before it got too hot.  I saw myself picking up Ben with Sophie at school so Meryl could go to therapy or get a pedicure.  After preschool, our kids going through lower school together, middle school, then high school. Remaining friendly, looking out for each other, referring to each other as “close family friends.”  I saw Meryl with a husband who treated her well, respected her, Meryl grateful that I had stepped in and helped her realize she deserved more.

I texted Meryl and asked if we could meet for lunch the following day, a Friday.

“Listen, Meryl, there’s something I need to tell you.”

“What?”  Her face appeared frozen.

“I didn’t want to say anything until now . . . because . . . well, I’m not even sure, but –”

“What?  You’re scaring me.”

“A few weeks ago, I heard Jodi and Lauren talking at school about suspecting some husband was having an affair with a woman at their club.  I didn’t know who, but given that you’re suspicious of Brad —”

“No.”  She ran her hands through the roots of her hair.

“I’m not certain they were talking about Brad, but then Jodi acted strange in the parking lot after we had coffee when she thought I had overheard.   Then you said something about suspecting someone from the club. It just seems like maybe — I don’t know. I just thought  I should tell you. You’re my friend.”

“Shit.  I was hoping, praying I was wrong.” Her voice was flat, barely audible.

“Maybe just ask Jodi. I know she’ll be pissed at me for saying something.  But it’s more important that you find out what’s going on.  You’ve been so worried and —“

Tears welled up in her eyes. I held her hand, and she hugged me for a while.   I smelled her coconut shampoo and felt a tenderness for her that I had rarely felt for a friend. I wanted to protect her from a world that she had mistakenly thought was harmless.

***

The following Monday, I saw Meryl at drop off. She wouldn’t make eye contact.

“Hey, how are you doing?” I asked her.

“Fine. Great.  You?”

“Okay.  I tried texting you over the weekend to check in and see how you were doing.”

“Yeah, I had a busy weekend.  Lots of running around, family obligations.” She looked down at her phone.

“Are you going for coffee now?”

“I’m not sure.  I might have to run some errands.  See you.”

The others from the coffee group were talking in a corner. I walked up to them, and they turned quiet.

“Are you guys going for coffee?”

“I think it’s not a great idea if you come today. Meryl is upset and I think we should keep it a small group,” Jodi said.

I walked up to Meryl as she was about to get in her car.

“Meryl, are you upset with me?  From the other day?”

“Look, Julie, I have a lot going on.  I’m not in the mood to get into this now.”

“Into what?  I was only trying to help.  I thought you’d want to know.  You said you did.”

“This is complicated. I don’t want to discuss it.  Brad and I are good, we’re working on our relationship.”

“Was it true?”

“I don’t think that is any of your business. I gotta go.”

***

We haven’t spoken since that day except for a cursory hello at pick up and drop off.  The other women in the coffee group acted like they did before. It was like those weeks of friendship had never happened.  I stood alone again and busied myself with my phone.  I ran my errands right after drop off and pretended I was  happy that I had time to get the house in order, be productive, run to the gym instead of wasting time at the coffee shop.  But when I saw the group huddled together in the morning, laughing together like sisters, I felt a nostalgic longing for something I suppose I never even had.

***

It’s been a few weeks since Meryl and the group dropped me. Since then, I have been thinking a lot about middle school, about the clique I felt excluded from in 7th grade. I remember one afternoon, the girls called me into the locker room. They demanded to know if I was in their clique or not because I spent a lot of time with Lisa, another girl in the class.  I had to make a choice, they said. Be part of us or not. I couldn’t be sort of in it.  Instinctively, I said I still wanted to be friends with Lisa, with whom I had been friends since kindergarten, that I didn’t want to choose. I was surprised by my own words; they just came out.  They also looked surprised. They had assumed I would have chosen them, been honored to be included, apologetic for making them even feel otherwise. They dropped me the very next day.

Over the years, I often wondered if my life would have been better had I embraced the clique. I’d have had a built-in sisterhood, would’ve rarely been lonely.  I had drifted from Lisa anyway over time. But now, looking back, I remember my younger self at that moment in the locker room, how it just didn’t feel right:  being tethered to a group. Being stuck like that. Having to conform, being controlled, dictated to.

Though I didn’t understand it back then, I now know that’s what I had rejected: having to compromise myself, to mold myself into something that was no better than I, just bigger. Chipping away at the best part of myself so that I could fit into a uniform block that was merely mediocre.  I had made a choice! It wasn’t something that happened to me!  And, foolishly, all these years, I had romanticized the very thing I had rightfully rejected.

The other day I noticed my yoga pants thrown over the chair in my bedroom. They would soon gather dust, and I would donate them to charity like other trendy clothing I had sampled over the years, but ultimately rejected because they weren’t comfortable or just weren’t me.  Because really, I could wear whatever the hell I wanted – even my ten-year-old sweats – when I walked alone. Proudly.

Tamar Gribetz’s short stories have appeared in The Hunger, Rumble Fish Quarterly, and Poetica Magazine. She teaches writing and advocacy at Pace Law, where she also serves as the Writing Specialist. She lives in Westchester, New York, where she is at work on a novel and other short fiction.

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Margaret Attwood swooned over The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl, but Enchanted is the novel that we keep going back to. The world of Enchanted is magical, mysterious, and perilous. The place itself is an old stone prison and the story is raw and beautiful. We are big fans of Rene Denfeld. Her advocacy and her creativity are inspiring. Check out our Rene Denfeld Archive.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Antiracist resources, because silence is not an option

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Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts, pandemic

Theme & Style

July 23, 2021
theme

By Sara Gray 

The seminar was wrapping up.

“I want you to think about your poetry,” the poet said. “I want you to think about the themes running through your work, and how your style expresses those themes.”

The poet was a professor in her mid-30’s and would not have been giving a seminar via Zoom to a bunch of amateur poets if it wasn’t for the pandemic that had side-lined her own book tour and other, more prestigious teaching opportunities.

Marie wouldn’t have attended this seminar or any other if it wasn’t for Zoom and the pandemic as well. Instead, she would have been ferrying her children to hockey, soccer, and sleepovers.

For two hours, they had discussed poetry: Gwendolyn Brooks, William Carlos Williams, Mary Oliver. They had analyzed the author’s word choice, the percentage of Latin, French, and Anglo-Saxon root words, the number of adjectives. It had been so long since Marie had spoken to anyone about poetry. Her husband wasn’t interested in it; her children weren’t interested in her; her writing group was forced to delay their meetings because they weren’t allowed to leave their homes, and Betty didn’t know how to set up an online meeting.

For two hours Marie had listened, taken notes, and thought about nothing except poetry. She felt exhilarated, like she had drunk one too many coffees. Unfortunately, they had arrived at the point where they were supposed to ask questions.

The one benefit of everything pivoting to online was that she could, if she wanted to, leave early, turn off her camera, get a mug of tea. It was a little power, sure, but it was still a thrill. She never liked listening to other student’s questions. It was, perhaps, a cruel thought, but she always found the questions to be dumb or repetitive or a clear attempt to grab attention from a well-regarded author who, it was clear, had no real interest in answer the same inane questions she undoubtedly got at every seminar, whether in person or online.

Yes, Marie decided, she would simply leave.

“I can take questions now if –”

She pressed the leave meeting button, cutting the Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet off mid-sentence, which also made her feel giddy. It wasn’t that she didn’t like the poet. In fact, she regarded her work highly, which was why she had signed up for the seminar in the first place, and why she bought and read all of her books even though between her job, children, and her husband, she really only had time to read about twelve books a year.

Twelve books. The thought made her anxious. How was she supposed to pick twelve books out of the hundreds that were published in a year and the millions – billions –that had been published before that? She tried make lists, recording names of authors mentioned at literary events or on Twitter. She kept lists of new releases and other, longer lists of books she hadn’t read yet. A copy of War and Peace glared at her resentfully from her bookshelf, knowing she would never touch it. But still, how did one choose?

She pushed back from her chair and pushed the thought away. She was not supposed to be thinking of her book-related anxiety. She was supposed to be thinking of her own work and how her style worked to express her themes.

She stood up. The floor was cold against her feet. Before she had been confined to her house, she hadn’t noticed the seasons change. One day it was summer – hot, humid – the next day, she was pulling sweatpants over her pyjama bottoms because she was cold. Now, even though she rarely left the house, she found herself noticing the small changes in weather. First, the days were shorter; then, the air-conditioning clicked off for the final time; the leaves were bruised and brittle on the branches, ready to fall; now, she was required to wear socks.

Perhaps she was noticing things like this because there was nothing else to observe. She no longer saw interesting people on the street because no one walked the street. Her social interactions were limited to her husband, her two children, and her sister (though they had stopped seeing her sister because she had read something on Facebook and now refused to wear a mask).

Marie wasn’t out of her husband’s office and already her mind was wondering away from the central question. How did her style impact her themes? The truth was, she wasn’t sure what her style was. She assumed if she wasn’t sure about this, it wasn’t coming across to her audience (which consisted of her husband, her sister, and the people in the Writers in Belville Facebook group she had joined).

Just as she was about to sit back down, the dryer buzzed. She left room and walked down the hall to the laundry room.

She had an open style, she decided. She didn’t like poetry she couldn’t understand. When poems made her feel something just by their rhythm or tension or whatever, she didn’t trust that feeling. If she couldn’t understand, then she couldn’t come to a meeting of the minds with the author.

She opened the washer. The laundry room smelled vaguely of cat litter. Jack, her 10-year old, had promised that if they got a cat, he would scoop its poop every night. Her husband thought it would teach him responsibility. Not surprising Marie – or any mother anywhere – Jack had cleaned the litter box once and had never done it again.

Marie pulled handfuls of wet clothes out of the washing machine. Cold water slipped down her fingers and wrist. The washer was not spinning as efficiently as it should be. The machine was getting old. Marie meant to call someone in to take a look at it, but the machine wasn’t completely broken and laundry kept getting done, so she continually put it off.

Anyway, the washing machine didn’t matter, she reminded herself as she separated out the clothing that went in the dryer from the clothing that needed to be hung to dry, what mattered was style and theme, and how they connected to one another in a poem.

In a writing class she attended once, a girl half her age had said that her poems were too direct. It was true that Marie rarely used rhetoric. Again, it was something she didn’t trust. People tended to gravitate towards similar turns of phrases, and they didn’t always work. In almost every one of her classmate’s pieces, someone ‘paled’ or ‘went pale’. Marie did not think the body worked that way. She had never gone white like that, and she was fairly sure colour did not drain out of one’s face when one was frightened. Maybe it did. But –

Footsteps in the hallway. Marie poked her head of the laundry room.

Rachel was walking by, a box of cookies in her hand. She was still wearing the pyjamas she slept in though it was almost dinner time. Marie hesitated. Rachel was twelve, meaning that everything Marie said or did was offensive, embarrassing, controlling, or otherwise unacceptable. Her daughter had been – still was? – a happy child with friends, good grades, and a wide range of extracurricular activities. It was harder to be all that when one wasn’t allowed to leave the house. Usually, half-way through a Saturday, she would be asking Marie if she could sleep over at a friend’s house, or if she could have friends over so they could gorge on pizza, soda and then fall asleep in front of horror movies while browsing the various social media accounts of the boys they liked and the girls they pretended hate but really admired.

Marie had worried about her daughter in those days as well, but if she was being honest with herself, she knew that Rachel was well-adjusted. Worrying simply felt part of her job as a mother, same as explaining the importance of deodorant and packing school lunches.

Now, though, the worry had transitioned to genuine concern which left Marie feeling like she was permanently free-falling off of a cliff. It was not a pleasant feeling. She didn’t know if she should take away the cookies and force Rachel to shower and put on a pair of jeans. Months ago, she would have said that would absolutely have been her response, but who was she kidding. There was no one reason to put on jeans, and cookies were one of the few joys left.

Rachel’s door closed.

Marie bent over and started to scoop the cat’s hard, sausage-like shits out of the litter box and into a crumpled up plastic bag. It was too late anyway. Rachel was in her room. She would spend the next few hours watching videos on Youtube or TikTok. In the before times, Marie didn’t have to monitor Rachel’s screen time, her kid had been far too busy working on her lines for the school play or doing her homework.

What if she didn’t get into college?

Marie tied the bag closed. Beans, the fluffy brown cat they had adopted from the animal shelter at the beginning of the year, trotted into the laundry room to check out his litter-box. Finding it clean, he ran his long body against Marie’s calves. She stroked his fur. It was the closest thing she got to a thank you these days.

Bag of shit in hand, she walked down the stairs to the foyer and slid on a pair of Jack’s flip-flops that were sitting by the door. Jack was only ten, but his shoes fit her feet perfect.

The last poem she had written was about Jack’s flip-flops. How his feet kept getting bigger. How he kept getting bigger, and she couldn’t stop it.

Themes. Style. The poetry world probably had an unkind word for middle-aged, suburban woman who wrote poetry about her children: saccharine, clichéd. They weren’t wrong. There was nothing about motherhood that she, Marie from Belleville, could possibly say that hadn’t been said before.

The excitement she had felt from the online seminar was starting to curdle. She felt like she often did in these moments: that she didn’t have a unique perspective on the world at all, that she was an interloper in the world of books and reading, and that she should, as quickly as possible, buy herself a t-shirt that said wine o’clock and curate her Pinterest boards while watching the Bachelorette. The thought made her feel small and translucent.

It was cold outside. The flip-flops did little against the cold. She was wearing thin sweatpants and a t-shirt. Her nipples, rebelling against the cold, pointed through the fabric. One arm across her chest, she jogged to the garbage can and dumped the garbage bag in the organics bin. In the bottom of the bin, she could see a few maggots wriggling around, clinging to life. Someone – her husband – had thrown old food directly into the bin without a bag. She would have to call waste management and have them sanitize the waste bins.

She wondered, as she returned to the house, if she really needed to do this. The maggots weren’t harming anyone. It was a waste bin. No one was expecting it to be sanitary. But she didn’t want anyone to notice. She didn’t want to become that lady with maggots in her garbage. To whom would it make a difference?

Was that the correct use of whom? She wasn’t sure. She slipped off her son’s flip-flops and walked across the cold hardwood floor to the kitchen. Someone had once said it was a pity that ‘whom’ was going out of fashion. That the ongoing whittling of the English language was restricting writers more-and-more to subject-verb-object sentences: I eat carrots. I is the subject. Eat is the verb. Object is the carrots. It had taken Marie a long time to figure that out. She wasn’t entirely convinced that it mattered, that the on-going whittling of the English language was, in fact, something she should concern herself with.

She turned on the tap and washed her hands for government-mandated 20-seconds. The soap she bought was purchased in bulk from Costco at the beginning of the pandemic. It was the last variety available. It smelled harshly of chemical green apple. She hated it, but wasting something like soap seemed cruel and ungrateful.

Her husband would get mad as well. Not that he would get mad mad. Bob was a mild-mannered man whose idea of rage was a disappointed shake of the head. Still, she doesn’t like to add to the stress. Like many other people, he lost his job. It was not a good time to be a city planner, not with construction slowed to a halt and projects deferred.

Marie turned off the tap. They were luckier than most. They had some savings and Marie had found part-time work answering calls from people and business confused about what kind of government assistance was available to them. Those calls put things in perspective. Mothers called looking for directions to the food bank so they could feed their children, apologizing as they did so, explaining it was their first time, that they were trying to get work.

Marie dried her hands on the clean towel. Thinking of food banks, of Bob and his ‘employment situation’ was like waking an angry barking dog inside of her. The dog was fear and it was barely restrained, ready to break free and ruin her carefully maintained garden of mental health.

Marie screwed up her eyes. This was she didn’t love metaphors. Fear wasn’t a barking dog. It was her hormones squirting chemicals into her bloodstream. This squirting was supposed to help her, but it was not.

Themes and style, she remembered, that’s what she had been thinking about. The poet had instructed them all to think about what they couldn’t say in their work, what ground their projects forbade them to tread simply by their nature. A Hallmark movie, for example, would not end in divorce. Marie thought there was a lot of ideas her work was incapable of exploring: mathematical axioms; the eight minutes and 48 seconds George Floyd spent on the ground, dying.

Marie stopped listing things. It didn’t seem right to put anything after George Floyd’s death. Her neighbourhood book club had decided to read How to Be an Anti-Racist at their last book club meeting. Jack and Rachel – seeing celebrities and kids their own age on social media taking to the streets – had insisting upon going to the marches, and Marie had insisted upon accompanying them. She carried her own Black Lives Matter sign, but she came more of out of a need to monitor her own children, than out of a desire to be part of the resistance. At first, she had been uncertain, both of her welcome and of the wisdom of protesting in a pandemic. Thoughts buzzed around like flies in her head: what if they all got each other sick? Am I too complicit to be here? What if things get violent?

But, she had neither been welcomed not rejected. She was drop in the sea of people who were walking through the streets. There was no violence. Everyone was masked. Children, too young to understand what was happening, sat atop their parent’s shoulders and occasionally clapped or squealed. She wondered, as she often did, what the protests looked like to the littlest children, what they understood the cacophony of shouts, cheers, signs, and people to be.

Despite the new reading list, her book club had not approved of Marie attending the march (dangerous, looting, etc.). Marie had learned something she thought be very important, which was that talking about property damage after someone was murdered was, at best, tone deaf, at worst, violence itself. It was one of those thoughts that seemed so obvious to her once she heard it, that she could hardly remember seeing the situation another way. Marie tried to share this with her book club, and it had not gone well.

They seemed to think that she was saying that she didn’t care at all about the looting and rioting. Marie tried to explain that it wasn’t that she didn’t care, it was just that she cared about people more than property, and they should keep the conversation centered on the harm done by police and white supremacy.

Her voice had shaken as she said this, partly because she was a nervous public speaker, but also because Bev’s husband was a police officer, and she could see the woman scowling, and because whenever anyone said ‘white supremacy’, Irene puffed up and threatened tears, acting like someone had accused her of trying to join the Third Reich.

Since she was in the kitchen, Marie pulled out the alfredo sauce and linguine from the cupboard. She opened the fridge. There was nothing in the fridge but containers of yogurt, cheese, and rows of condiments. Tomorrow, she would have to don a mask and brave the grocery story. She had always hated grocery shopping, and she despised it now. The freaks refusing to wear masks came too close to her in line, and the odd empty spaces on the shelves that made it feel like they were at the beginning of the end times.

Marie opened the freezer. The package of shrimp was sitting there, slightly freezer-burned. She had forgotten to transition it from freezer to fridge this morning. She swore to herself, took the package over to the sink and started to run it under cool water.

She thought about book club as the cold water ran over the shrimp and her hands. The conversation had devolved into an odd sort of pissing contest where each woman reiterated the horrible things their parents had said about Black people and how they felt scared to say the wrong thing now. Some of them cried. Marie looked around and came to the conclusion that there was not much to be gained from a bunch of white women whipping themselves up into a self-indulgent hysteria and suggested they read Transcendent Kingdom for their next book club pick. Perhaps, Marie thought, they would all do better with fiction.

She turned the water up. She knew she was supposed to defrost shrimp in cold water, but never understood why and she didn’t relish the thought of standing there for twenty minutes, her fingers in murky, cool water.

What we she supposed to be thinking about: Theme? Style? If Marie thought about it, she wouldn’t have been quite to remember the joy she had felt at the end of the seminar. Each emotional state restricts a person’s imagination. It is hard to remember joy when one is miserable and vise-versa. She wiped her damp hands on the cloth, then started to collect the ingredients: salt, chili peppers, pepper, olive oil.

It wasn’t that she was better than the women from book club. She was just less certain than they were about who she was and what was right even though she supposed that, at 56, she should have worked all of that out. Their certainty pounded against her like hail, stinging and confusing her. Irene, for example, was so certain she was a good person with a good heart. Marie was never certain whether she herself was right and good.

The shrimp were defrosted. She started to unpeel the them, pulling the crusty shell off of each one and dropping them into a glass bowl that held chili flakes, oil, and cilantro.

Sometimes, she thought of her children as old people, sixty, or, god-willing, eighty years in the future. Obviously, she would be dead. They would be nearing the end of their lives. It was weird that she would not be there with them for decades potentially. That they would have years of life and she simply wouldn’t know about them. That they would get sick and die and she wouldn’t be there to help them. Sometimes, she worried herself by wondering if, by the time they got to heaven, they would even recognize one another. The thought made her want to cry.

Her phone buzzed. The red CNN logo just visible. 200,000 thousand Americans had died from COVID-19. She stood in the kitchen, her hands cold and wet from the shrimp she had been peeling. Her screen went black. The update disappearing like it had never been there at all.

“Mom, is dinner ready?” Rachel yelled from her room.

Marie jumped like her daughter had just prodded her with a cattle prod. Marie cleared her throat and dried her hands on the crumpled tea towel.

“30 minutes, sweetie,” she called back.

“OK.”

Rachel’s door shut again. From the living room, Marie could hear the swoosh of lightsabers coming from the living room. Jack was watching Star Wars again. Bob was in his office, she knew, looking for jobs with more-and-more desperation. Last time she was cleaning in his office, he had left his computer on, and she had seen an application for a position as a Claims Adjuster at an Insurance Company. He had been Regional Manager of Consumer Marketing for a large national movie chain before the virus, and he had loved his job. He had always loved movies and television.

On their first date, he had taken her to a drive-in. She couldn’t remember the movie now, but she remembered that he had known everything: who the director was, who the writer was, the producer, and all their previous works. She never paid attention to that stuff and was impressed by his passion.

He did not, as far as she knew, love insurance.

She put the shrimp in the pan and pushed them around with a wooden spoon she had bought on a whim from Williams Sonoma back when they could afford to splurge on things like that.

The oil hissed and popped. She was probably cooking it at too-high a temperature, but she didn’t care. For a moment, she wanted to burn dinner, if only because she wanted to burn something.

She turned the heat down, measured out some rice, water and salt and set it to boil in a separate pot. Not in any mood to make salad, she poured some frozen peas into a microwave-safe bowl and filled it with water. That would have to do.

She dried her hands again and picked up her phone. The CNN news banner was still there, reminding her of the death toll. Her finger hovered about it. It felt like her duty, as a citizen, to read the article, but what more was there to say than was already written in the headline. People were dying because of selfish people led by a selfish man.

She had a friend on Facebook, a Trump supporter who, after posting multiple mask-related conspiracy theories, received a barrage of critical messages. She beseeched her Facebook friends to ‘look at her heart’ and treat her with respect and then moments later posted a meme claiming pro-choice Democrats wanted to kill babies.

They were no longer friends. Trying to be friends with someone like that was like trying to befriend a cartoon, there were too many layers of ridiculousness to work through. Still, it was one less friend. A friend Marie had known since high school. Those were hard, perhaps impossible, to replace.

Marie sighed. Theme and style, that was what she was supposed to be thinking of, wasn’t it?

Jack came in from the living room, the movie still playing, and took a swig of milk from the carton.

“Honey, use a glass,” Marie said automatically.

“We all share the same DNA,” he said in that petulant manner of teenage boys who think they know everything.

Marie didn’t protest further. If she had learned anything other the past few months, it was how to pick her battles.

“Dinner will be ready soon,” she said.

He passed her and gave her a kiss on the cheek, smiling sheepishly when she looked at him with surprise.

“I’ll get Rachel,” he said, disappearing out of the room as fast as he came.

She listened to his feet thump up the stairs and opened her phone. The Belleville Writer’s Collective was offering another writing workshop next weekend. The guest author had been short-listed for the National Book Award, so Marie assumed they were talented (Marie had their book on her shelf, but had not had time to actually read it).

She wouldn’t have time to read the book before the workshop, though she would try. She likely would not have time to work out what she thought about theme and style or whatever it was she was supposed to be thinking about (the words from the first workshop were already starting to fade from memory).

She clicked the enrol button. She put her phone down and stirred the shrimp.

Sara lives in Toronto with her fiancée and cat. She has previously been published in the York Literary Review and Tishman Review and others. When not writing, she enjoys reading, running, and planning vacations she can no longer take.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

Although each of Jenny Offill’s books is great, this is the one we come back to, both to reread and to gift. Funny and thoughtful and true, this little gem moves through the feelings of a betrayed woman in a series of observations. The writing is beautiful, and the structure is intelligent and moving, and well worth a read.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Gender & Sexuality, Guest Posts

Can’t

July 16, 2021
christine

By Lauren Anton

You’re turning thirteen tomorrow. It’s time to act like it.

She looked around her pink and white bedroom. Pink: her favorite color. Her journal, also pink, with a picture of a pretty little girl on it, surrounded by flowers. She had gotten her period, as if on cue, the day before. When she went to tell her mother, she had handed a pad to her, unceremoniously. Her dad had hugged her for no reason that morning.

It was all pretty awkward. But still. She took the event and her upcoming birthday as a sign that things needed to change.

No more being loud. No more tomboy. You need to be quiet and pretty.

She thought back to the times when she would hang out with Natalie, prowling the mall for guys.

At least that’s what Natalie was doing.

“Did you see that guy?”

Never.

“He’s so cute! I think he was looking at me.”

According to Natalie, they always were.

They would then follow the guy (or guys) around, while she became increasingly more anxious, when she would eventually duck into a bookstore to read magazines, not books. She was trying to figure out how to be a pretty girl who attracts boys. She would stand there for an hour, waiting for Natalie to be done with her guy-hunting, reading magazines like Seventeen, Vogue, and Cosmopolitan not for enjoyment, but for the task of research.

It didn’t seem to sink in.

No matter how many quizzes she took, she didn’t naturally have the eye that Natalie – and all the pretty girls in her class – had.

Even if she did attract a boy, she didn’t know what to do. She liked her guy friends in class, but never seemed to like the guys that she was told were “looking” at her.

She felt that she had been left behind in fifth grade, when they had “Family Life” – sex ed in Catholic school. She had hidden behind her book when they learned about “intercourse,” lest she make eye contact with any other human being.

“Intercourse” was defined as “a man placing his penis in the woman’s vagina, with the hopeful outcome of conception of a new human life, within a loving marriage.” The book went on to say that it was a “precious gift from God” and was to be “held with the deepest respect.”

Meaning never done outside of marriage.

The daydreams, as she called them, started when the “Family Life” classes started. She would spend hours fantasizing about being a boy in a relationship with a girl, having sex with her, getting married, having a family. Her imagination was expansive, which was important, as she didn’t know that girls could masturbate.

She thought only boys could do that.

In fact, the book had been so centered on the penis and ejaculation (and other words that made her want to die when she heard them), she didn’t realize girls could have an orgasm and that there was something called a clitoris.

She had no clue about her own body.

And so the daydreams where she was a boy having sex with a girl continued for over two years.

The penis was all she knew.

Her pen hovered and then drove into the paper.

You need to stop these daydreams.

Her sexual fantasies that she called daydreams because she didn’t know what sexual fantasies were or that she could have them.

She didn’t know why she had the daydreams. She just knew she couldn’t stop and found her mind on them, not even realizing how long she had been thinking about it. She just knew they were bad and had to stop. She had to find a way.

She remembered what happened two years ago in her pink and white room on her frilly twin bed. Her cheeks burned with the shame.

They had just started “Family Life” and her friend Christine had come over to spend the night. It had been a normal visit, nothing noteworthy. Dinner, playing games up in her room, talking, until her mother had told her it was time to get ready for bed.

When the lights were off, they continued to talk, as ten-year-old girls do, in the dim light of the nightlight.

The topic of “Family Life” came up and how embarrassing it was.

But she wasn’t feeling embarrassed.

She was feeling…like she did in the daydream.

“We should practice.”

Christine was nervous about this so she offered that they could leave out the kissing. She was secretly bummed by this but realized that compromise was needed.

And so, she lived out her daydream in her pink bed, in her pink and white room. At ten years old.

She didn’t know she could float, but she did.

When her eyes were woken by the sun shining through the split in the curtains, she looked over at her friend, still asleep. She shifted to her side to watch the ray of sun creep up Christine’s body under the covers, her blonde hair in wisps around her face, until at last the sun reached her eyes. She blinked herself awake.

“Morning.” She smiled.

“Hey.”

Christine immediately got up, taking her change of clothes in the bathroom. Her stomach had a tiny pang of fear which she quickly shoved away and instead got dressed, taking her cue from Christine.

When Christine came back in the room, she sat on the edge of the bed, her gaze on the floor. She sat beside her, a respectful three feet away. Her body sent off alarm bells.

“What we did last night was wrong. We should never do it again.”

There was a moment when she couldn’t really see and her stomach dropped to the floor. She thought she was going to faint.

Christine looked at her, expectantly. Waiting for her response.

The right response.

“Yeah…yeah…” She trailed off, her head nodding slowly.

“OK. Yeah. Let’s never do it again.”

You can’t do that. It’s disgusting.

Her pen dug into the paper of her journal, almost ripping it.

Turning thirteen would need to involve an entire personality overhaul.

And her sexuality would be the first order of business.

Lauren Anton is a registered dietitian specializing in eating disorders by day and a writer by night. She is a mom to her beautiful 8-year-old son, who is a constant teacher of what it is to be in love with life, feeling everything so, so fully. She enjoys hiking, yoga, piano, and her little rescue poodle, Bernie.

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Although each of Jenny Offill’s books is great, this is the one we come back to, both to reread and to gift. Funny and thoughtful and true, this little gem moves through the feelings of a betrayed woman in a series of observations. The writing is beautiful, and the structure is intelligent and moving, and well worth a read.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Family, Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

The Expression of It

July 9, 2021
Blake

by André Narbonne

Blake stood on the wooden steps leading to our house, in plain view but away just the same. His clenched fist was covered in blood, my blood, although the fact hadn’t occurred to us yet. I was still stunned by the lunacy of his anger, astonished by the blow that must have come out of a desire to knock down not just his younger brother but something bigger.

The air was strangely comical. It chirped. Clouds fled the veranda exposing Blake and me to the naked glare of the sun.

I pulled myself up. I spat, “I hate you,” brushed the dirt and broken fingers of leaves off my jacket, became aware of the red stain on my shoulder and chest. Rubbing a hand against my face, I held out a thick streak of blood.

“There,” I said.

That opened him. He stared at me and he bit his lower lip, and I knew that he was aware of having hurt me.

It had never happened before.

Blake was four years older and he understood what that meant, recognized that being older was more a duty than an inconvenience. It wasn’t that we didn’t fight. We fought like brothers, which is to say almost daily. Whenever we ran out of words, we came out swinging, but Blake’s hardest cuts had a knack for missing. They were chivalrously errant. He fought like a friend, allowing me to lose by exhaustion.

So we were both astonished by what had happened, by the blow that was meant to injure.

We weren’t alone in our surprise. There was a third to our party. Mr. Bryant, who lived in the trailer across the street, stood on the edge of the lawn shifting his balance between clown-sized feet as though he were himself sparring with something unseen. Beneath a feral tangle of red hair his beet-red nose and blood-shot cheeks mapped with broken capillaries marked him as a heavy drinker. He was our father’s best friend (a fact that had never caused him to treat Blake and me with anything but contempt).

He bellowed, “You’re awful.”

Awful, what did he mean by that? Did he imagine himself watching theatre? “Both of you:  stop it now.” As if we hadn’t, as if the punch that threw me three feet hadn’t been conclusive.

I gather Blake still held some of his rage because he uttered a word I had never heard him speak before. He said, “Go fuck yourself,” and Mr. Bryant spun on his heel and headed across the street to his house, moving with the heavy, purposeful stride of a clown bent on retaliation.

When he was gone, Blake turned to me and asked in a trembling voice, “Is it broken? Let me see.”

“It hurts.”

He walked to me and touched my face, gauged its symmetry. “Nope, it’s okay,” he concluded. “I’m sorry, Matt. I don’t know what happened.  I lost it.”

I was crying, but not from pain. “You don’t detest me?”

“I don’t detest you. Let’s not talk about him anymore. You don’t understand.  Even if I told you, you couldn’t.”

He smiled a nervous smile. I returned the same. And then Blake went back to the house. The veranda creaked under his weight; the screen door pitched and then rattled back into place. And he was gone for real.

I heard the phone ringing. Someone was waking up Dad.

They were both my protectors, Blake and my father, although Dad was an uncertain presence in the house.

My father worked the graveyard shift and had a graveyard cast of mind. He seldom spoke except to command. During the week he allowed himself to be shirtless and unkempt until an hour before work when he shaved and made himself up. He was fit for forty but that was largely an accident of genetics, I supposed.  He lived for no other purpose than to make money it seemed. With that money the three of us carried on our indifferent lives in an isolated mining town that was on its last vein. I wondered sometimes whether it was the impact of my mother, Marlene’s, defection that had knocked him into silence, but the truth was I could not remember him living any other way. He was a silent man.

The year my mother left Blake was just fourteen. He was handsome, the most handsome boy in school, but he didn’t date. All his energy went into raising me. He was the family cook. He ordered the cleaning, demanded my room be neat and my laundry kept in its basket. He helped me with homework and bullies, even though he wasn’t big.  But something was wrong with him.

Blake had changed a lot even before my mother left, had gone into intolerable lapses of…what?—just lapses. He thought deeply about things I hadn’t considered. He told me once that he detested every person he knew at some time—but not all of the time. Even people he loved, he detested. The trick for him was not to act on his feelings. Even if he loathed someone he had to wait until he could find value in the person again or he knew he’d be friendless. He said that was why he didn’t have a girlfriend. He was too afraid of how he’d behave if he found himself in love with someone and discovered he detested her.  He thought it would make him hate himself.

“That doesn’t make sense,” I told him, confidently adding, “You don’t detest me.”

“No,” he shot back. “Never mind. I hope you never understand.”

The window was open. I heard my father’s terse, “Yeah.” There was a pause. I saw Blake at the living room window. He was closed again. He had that look. “Oh yeah, hi, Bill.” It was Mr. Bryant. He’d called to exact his clown revenge. I knew Blake could hear the conversation, too. He picked up the camping picture on the bookshelf, eyed it carefully as though for clues. It was the only picture of the whole family that was kept out, taken shortly before my mother left.

It framed our parents on either side of us, as far away from each other as possible while still remaining in focus. Blake and I had fish—were the glowing champions of something inconsequential. My mother’s smile encouraged interpretation.

Her departure, sudden and mysterious, was treated at first with supreme calm. Joined in purpose, my father and Blake cleaned the house. They scrubbed in silence for an entire weekend. I gathered they wanted to wipe away all trace of my mother’s presence.

It wasn’t just that she was gone. She would never return. They seemed to know that right away.

A tense silence held court in every room. I knew that something terrible was in the offing. I was frightened of the looks Blake and Dad manufactured for each other.  They were constructing hatred. That was the expression of it. They were both trying to be the adult in the house: my father by working himself to exhaustion and bringing back money to a home he was too tired to inhabit, Blake by working as an adult at home and by pretending that his lack of responsibility elsewhere had no bearing on his maturity.

It wasn’t long after Mom left that Dad warned me in a hushed conversation, “I want you to watch out for Blake. He’s not right. You can’t trust him.”

“Why not?”

“He’s a born liar. He says things. Don’t believe them.”

At first I didn’t understand. But then, one night, Blake lied to me in a way that proved Father right.

It was the beginning of a northern autumn and a wolf had gotten onto our island. Probably it had crossed the single bridge that connected our scrap of Precambrian Shield to the rest. However it arrived, two dogs were dead on their leashes in the morning.

In the evening, I couldn’t sleep. Animal noises in the dark, a single unrestrained bark in our narrow hall: it occurred to me that the wolf was inside.

I called for Blake but he didn’t answer so I clutched the blankets around my face.  Still those noises. Wolf anger. Animal contempt. It sounded muffled like the wolf didn’t want to be heard. Finally it ended.  Silence held the dark and the dark was an animal, too.

I was almost asleep when a soft squeak told me someone was opening the bedroom door.

“Blake?”

“Why are you awake?”

“I think the wolf was in the house. I heard him.”

More silence.

“Blake?”

“It’s not a wolf. I heard it, too. I checked.”

“What was it?”

“The pipes. Someone left the toilet running.”

I felt relieved. And then I remembered what my father had said. I couldn’t trust him. Trust him with what?

And even though there was no wolf in the house I wondered about the dogs on their leashes, facing an impossible beast.

And then I saw it, the anger Blake and my father held for each other and my role in their war. It came upon me stupidly, but I grasped it.

I hurt myself playing. I frustrated myself with a cap gun that had no pop. Despite the triviality of my trouble, I walked into the house with real tears streaming down my face. Blake and my father sat in opposition at the kitchen table. My father jumped up first. He said, “What’s wrong? Are you all right?” His concern had a dangerous quality about it; I detected fear.

“My gun doesn’t work.”

“Show me. Give it to me.” I handed him the gun. He checked the barrel and fired a dud round. I could see him considering my toy sternly when Blake reached over and tore the gun from his grip.

“I know about these. I’ll fix it.”

“Give it back.”

“I know about these. When was the last time you fired one?”

And then, as though in a comic ballet, they wrestled with the gun. I watched them in stunned silence, fighting over a plastic weapon that had become real in some way. Blake was agile. With a sudden motion, he slipped the gun out of my father’s hands and escaped the house into the woods where he remained until after supper. When he returned, he had no gun. I don’t know what he did with it, but I never saw it again.

I didn’t cry over its loss. It had occurred to me in a flash exactly what they were up to. They were protecting me from each other. That’s how they managed. They were both able to continue through this horrible disaster of which I was only dimly aware, the devastating consequences for Blake of losing his mother, for Dad of losing his dignity, because they had thrown their identities into the task of guarding me and of making sure I didn’t grow up to be like the other man or boy who pretended to authority.

“What!” My father’s voice thundered through the window. “He said what?”

I watched Blake slide the picture from its frame. Where was he? His fingers fumbled with the glass, which fell and broke on the floor. I thought I knew what he would do next.  I thought he would tear the picture into fragments.

He didn’t. He put it carefully into his pocket to save it from what was approaching.

Watching him in his quiet actions I was overcome with guilt. I had goaded him into our fight.  I was the one who told him to stop fighting with Dad. I told him that he was unfair, that if he just did what Dad told him to do instead of always fighting the house would be fine. It was his fault, I said, that we were in a perpetual state of turmoil.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I know everything that goes on. I know how you two fight. I hear you in the morning when Dad gets off work.”

“Shut up.  You don’t hear anything.”

“I do.  I know everything.”

“Shut up.”

“It’s your fault. It’s always been your fault. You’re why Mom left. You’re always complaining and fighting with everyone.  Why can’t you just…”

Something happened then. He’d been bringing his hands to his ears, but they never made it.  Instead, he lunged at me. I heard the crack of contact, felt myself lifted into a sky that tasted like blood. Blake retreated to the steps, perhaps to protect me from himself. For a good two minutes, no-one moved.

“He did what!”

The hallway pounded back against my father’s steps. I saw how Blake waited, saw that he was afraid, and I understood.

I would be afraid, too. My father had a reason at last to lay a beating on his deviant son. I felt the horror of the situation. I discovered in an instant how pitiable we were: all three of us.

Even as I reached the veranda I could hear the first blow landing, that hideous consonance of fist on flesh. I tore at the door. It slammed open. Then I was between them, breathless. Blake was on the floor, his face already bloodied. My father stood with fists of steel.  His face was mottled red in his rage. “Out of my way,” he cried.

“No!”

“Get out of my way, Matt. He needs to know he can’t hurt you.”

“No!”

Blake struggled to his feet. He whispered, “It’s okay, Matt. Let him come.” He raised his fists weakly.

There were tears in my eyes. I turned on my father. “This was our fight. Not yours. I started it. You don’t have the right to do this when I’m as much to blame. If you’re going to hit Blake, you have to hit me, too.”

He seemed staggered by my words.

I lowered my hands to my sides deliberately. “Hit me,” I said. “I won’t let you do anything to Blake that you wouldn’t do to me.”

“You don’t know what you’re saying,” Blake cried. “For God’s sake, don’t say that. You don’t understand.”

But my father did. His lower lip trembled. He began to shake.

“Do to me what you did to Blake.”

My father turned from me. A sound came from his mouth that I couldn’t understand, a wordless breath of horror. He fled the house.

My father came home late that night and held Blake in a hushed conference. After that day, they did not fight. My father seemed to guard himself against me as though I held the power to hurt him. Blake became more withdrawn. Shortly after his eighteenth birthday he left the house. A year later he left town. He wrote to me for a few years. He was a waiter in a Toronto hotel, but he lost the job to his drinking. I didn’t know he was a drug addict until his drugs almost killed him at twenty-four. He overdosed at a house party. He wasn’t dead but he looked dead, so his best friend dragged him out into the snow to hide the body. He died of exposure.

I had already left my father’s house for university two years before Blake’s death.  I would come back to visit on a monthly basis, then on weekends after the funeral, because he seemed to need me more. Even so, my relationship with my father was subdued and mysterious. I could not fathom his aloofness.

And I often wondered about my mother’s disappearance. I had not seen her since I was nine; she didn’t attend Blake’s funeral. Could I believe that she hated her life with us so much that she left forever, leaving everything behind? Or did she wonder about the fights between my father and Blake that made no real sense? Did she ever hear one of their secret fights, as I did, while playing spies as a child? They were at odds in the bathroom with the door locked. I never heard words, just noises, like their complaint wasn’t with each other but with themselves and their own natures. I can’t imagine what happened next if she did.

André Narbonne is a Windsor, Ontario writer. Since 2011 his writing has seen publication in Prairie Fire, The Dalhousie Review, The Nashwaak Review, FreeFall, Wascana Review, CV2, Antigonish Review, Rampike, Windsor Review, Numéro Cinq, and carte blanche.

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emma

Stories of parent/child relationships can be complex, and Emma’s Laugh, The Gift of  Second Chances, is no exception.  Convinced of her inability to love her “imperfect” child and give her the best care and life she deserved, Diana gave Emma up for adoption. But as with all things that are meant to be, Emma found her way back home. As Emma grew, Diana watched her live life determinedly and unapologetically, radiating love always. Emma evolved from a survivor to a warrior, and the little girl that Diana didn’t think she could love enough rearranged her heart. In her short eighteen years of life, Emma gifted her family the indelible lesson of the healing and redemptive power of love.

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Family, Fiction, Guest Posts

Lizard Brain

July 2, 2021
jeffrey

by Samantha Ley

Thud.

Feeling a dull throb where his forehead had hit the wall, Jeffrey wished he had cut out wider eyeholes. Then again, a lizard’s eyes are not that large, so bigger holes would ruin the authenticity of the costume. No, not costume; “costume” was what his mom called it. His suit. He had started making it with his dad. Jeffrey couldn’t wait to show off the finished version when Dad got home from his business trip.

He thought of it as his green self. His new self.

Two felt feet with long, clawed toes approached the stairs. Jeffrey could tell that his plan to scurry down headfirst was going to be noisy and probably not that safe. He decided, after swaying and testing his weight over the first step, that some lizards must crawl backwards. It would certainly confuse their predators. Holding on to his tail to avoid squishing or breaking it—and having to grow a new one, which would be tedious—Jeffrey slowly turned around and started to slide down the stairs, lizard belly to carpet.

The steady murmur of his mom’s dinner party. An underlying hum of voices. A shrill laugh. The deeper boom of a voice. Agreement. Fork against plate. Glasses clinking. Grown-up things.

Ker-thunk. Ker-thunk.

More padding, thought Jeffrey, as he slid onto the landing. The next iteration of his being would come with way more padding. He couldn’t wait to show Dad the lizard suit once he got back from his business trip.

Jeffrey’s class was studying reptiles: where they lived, what they ate, what types of them existed, and how they acted. Jeffrey had concluded that you could figure out how anyone lived once you knew those details. So, this seemed like the next logical step.

Ker-thunk. Ker-thunk.

His two front feet gripped the new carpet on each stair as he drew closer to the sounds downstairs. And suction cups, he thought. Suction cups could make or break his life as a lizard.

He peeked around the corner of the wall dividing the foyer from the dining room. A quick scan: four grown-ups, two empty chairs. Crumpled napkins, empty plates, lots of empty wine bottles. There was a large man with a long white beard who looked a lot like the picture of Charles Darwin in Jeffrey’s science textbook. He was telling a very loud story to the other guests and using his wine glass, nearly empty, for emphasis. Did one of the seated women see Jeffrey?

Jeffrey darted backwards, thinking of the lizards he had seen out by the town pond with his dad. When they felt threatened, they ran and hid, bodies twisting wildly from side to side.

Scurry, scurry, with a light, accidental brush of his tail against an ornate vase in the corner. Then into the adjoining living room, dark. But Jeffrey knew the layout in here, and his senses turned on with a sort of click. The eye holes were too small, yes, but he could sense he was not alone. He imagined a hawk hunting for his little green self. Circling silently, gauging his prey, waiting for just the right nanosecond for a swift attack. If Jeffrey was lucky, he would be able to scuttle under the glass top coffee table for protection. If he were less than lucky, the hawk would snatch his tail, which would take two to three weeks to regrow. And if he were truly unlucky…

He heard his mother’s voice, right near him but as though it were far away.

“Did you hear something?” she whispered.

A man’s voice, and not Jeffrey’s father’s: “Stop worrying so much.”

Jeffrey froze, feeling his heart in his head. He could see from the corner of his eyehole his mother’s leg, her discarded stiletto heel on its side by the couch. A man’s hand gripped her calf and then ran smoothly up her leg, to where he could no longer see it without turning his head. He didn’t want to. His heart choked him, filling his throat. Thump. Thump. Thump.

Rather than acknowledging the cacophony of his heartbeat, they simply resumed whatever they were doing, with noises that Jeffrey did not wish to acknowledge. Sounds that must have been part of a huge misunderstanding.

Maybe, thought Jeffrey, his dad was not really in San Francisco on business. Maybe this was him, just different. Maybe this was what people were like when they came back from California. Or maybe his dad had died, and his mother didn’t want to tell him just yet. But even if he was dead, it made little sense for her to be kissing another man, a stranger, on the newly upholstered couch in the living room. Jeffrey wasn’t even allowed to eat on there.

This had to be a mistake.

His mother’s foot arched out towards him, nearly grazing the tip of his lizard nose. He burst out from under the glass top table and kept going, through the half-lit kitchen and back into the dining room. He faintly heard a crash and an exclamation from the living room, but the guests in the dining room heard nothing. They were all laughing, all drinking. The man with the puffy beard was red-faced and hideous. All Jeffrey could see through tears and his eye holes was gaping mouths with red lipstick, razor sharp nails. He heard shrieks and a yelp as he half-ran and half-crawled through the dining room, into the mudroom, and through the doggie door out into the night’s world.

Gasping, heaving, he ran into the neighbor’s yard. It had elaborate manicured gardens and an ornamental pond. Jeffrey was never, ever to go over there without an invitation.

He tripped over his tail, fell to the ground, and crawled, soaking his costume with the beginnings of the evening’s dew. Swallowing a wave of nausea, he imagined the hawk, swooping over him with night vision and an empty stomach. He quickly scuttled under the neighbor’s giant prize rhododendron bush.

Shoving himself through sharp branches, Jeffrey burrowed into the mulch. He pulled his tail around himself and clutched at it, fingernails clawing the fabric as he curled into a ball. Inhaling the scent of leaves and wet earth, he steadied his breathing. He pictured the lizard videos he had watched over and over. Lizards hiding from prey made themselves completely still, but the ones who were truly asleep had a tell-tale tic in their throats. In, out. In, out.

Jeffrey closed his mouth and breathed through his nose. He concentrated on not moving a muscle, on becoming a stone that a hawk wouldn’t look twice at. In just a few minutes, his breathing slowed. A light rain began to patter on the bushes as Jeffrey’s fingers loosened on his tail. His chest slowly rose and fell under the cover of glossy green leaves and delicate pink flowers.

Samantha Ley holds degrees from Kenyon College and the University of Virginia. Her fiction has been published in a number of online journals and has been nominated for Best of the Net. Most recently, her work has appeared in Fairfield Scribes and Albany Poets. She is a freelance writer and editor who lives outside of Albany, NY. 

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emma

Stories of parent/child relationships can be complex, and Emma’s Laugh, The Gift of  Second Chances, is no exception.  Convinced of her inability to love her “imperfect” child and give her the best care and life she deserved, Diana gave Emma up for adoption. But as with all things that are meant to be, Emma found her way back home. As Emma grew, Diana watched her live life determinedly and unapologetically, radiating love always. Emma evolved from a survivor to a warrior, and the little girl that Diana didn’t think she could love enough rearranged her heart. In her short eighteen years of life, Emma gifted her family the indelible lesson of the healing and redemptive power of love.

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Fiction, Grief, Guest Posts

Emergency Cigarette

June 25, 2021
barb

By Ellen Wade Beals

Barb thinks she’ll call out, “Hello,” but when the front door key sticks in the lock, she has a moment to realize that Bernadette, her mother, is gone. To call out seems kind of maudlin, but Barb does it anyway. That’s how she’s feeling. What better place than an empty house to show those feelings? Her “hello” sounds feeble.

The house smells fusty, which would have driven Bernadette crazy. She’d be opening windows. “Let’s get some fresh air in here.”

It’s been three days since the funeral. Barb had needed a break. Now she plans to start the first rash of cleaning out her mother’s home. She’s been dreading the task. Sifting through all her mother’s possessions—it’s like paring down a life. And so final.

Today’s goal:  tackle the top layer, the trash that can be safely tossed without regrets. The hard stuff—whatever was too good to toss but of no use to her; her mother’s personal items; the things Barb would look at for fifteen minutes and still not know what to do with—is for another day. This is the preliminary trash day, she told herself and Alec and Aunt Rosemarie who had offered to help, and she can handle it. She’ll get as many trash bags done as she could and that will be that.

Barb drops the box of giant plastic bags in the hallway and looks around. She slips off her shoes. Though the lady herself is gone this is still her mother’s house. Neat and tidy. But chilly. She goes to the thermostat to turn up the heat and then to the closet to hang up her jacket.

First order of business: her mother’s winter coat, the green one she’d bought new for Barb’s graduation and that was over 25 years ago. She checks the pockets (nothing but lint) and notices the sleeves, so worn the coat couldn’t go to charity. On the front collar of the coat is the Christmas wreath brooch Bernadette had bought at Woolworth’s and wore every holiday season for as long as Barb could remember. She unpins it and tucks it in her jeans pocket.

Barb puts her nose to the wool blend and recalls the afternoon they met on the Evanston corner before going to the movies. The cold air was so clear that Barb could smell the coffee on Bernadette’s breath when she spoke: “Lead the way.” They were going to see Philomena, about an Irish woman who was forced to give up her baby. That they chose the  movie without first reading the reviews was a mistake, it turned out, because it brought up issues. Barb had to bite her tongue lest she sputter that the Catholic church could be evil. Bernadette’s reaction was “At least the child wasn’t denied life.” Barb sensed Bernadette held back too. Though she was adamant about the mortal sin of abortion, the son in the movies had been gay, and Bernadette did not exactly denounce homosexuality. Instead she shook her head and summed it up as something she could not understand. At least they both liked Judi Dench

She slides the coat off the hanger, notices the label and  laughs. In marker are written the initials “B. S.” Bernadette always said one reason she named her daughter Barbara was so they’d share a monogram. That way if she ever had a mink with her initials embroidered on the silk lining, she could leave it to Barb and the monogram would still be right. The uneven block letters on the tag make Barb a little sadder–one of Bernadette’s ideas that never came to pass. When she billows the garbage bag to open it, the noise is so harsh it makes her grimace. In it goes.

She moves into the bedroom and opens the big dresser drawer. Beige and white, the bras and panties have that funky rubbery smell of old elastic. All sorts of cotton and rayon, no lace, no silk. Lots of Platex. Or ordered from an ad in Parade Magazine. She grabs handfuls to add to the trash bag. Secondhand underwear. Nobody wants that.

Beneath the underwear are cards and letters, but she dares not start with them lest she get waylaid. Her mother saved all the cards she ever received. She can see the corner of a pink envelope, knows it was from her father, and doesn’t have to pull it out to picture her Father’s perfect Palmer method handwriting. Ephemera, that’s what it’s called, but just seeing the envelope evokes her father. What if he were still alive?  How might their lives have been different? Maybe he would have softened Bernadette because sometimes she was hard. Especially on herself. On the dresser top is their wedding photo, black and white, Buddy was in a dark suit and Bernadette wore a lace mantilla veil.

Since his death in 1982, Buddy has gone on to sainthood. Bernadette idolized him. Countless times throughout her childhood and even more-so when her mother had grown infirm. Bernadette would proclaim, “My one and only” or “the love of my life,” and hold the framed photo to her heart. A rare moment of weakness and heartfelt emotion that Bernadette let show.

As she pushes the drawer shut with her hip, Barb tries to think whether she’d describe Alec as the love of her life. Maybe. But not in the same way Bernadette meant it. They were partners.

Especially as she got older and dated and moved out, Barbara wondered whether companionship wasn’t something Bernadette lacked. There was no one. No other. But it was not a subject her mother cared to discuss. Bernadette worked as a receptionist for a dentist, Dr. Ken, since 1986. For a while when Barb was in her teens, she entertained the idea that maybe he was her mother’s love interest. But that was not the case. Bernadette was loyal to the dentist and even protective of him, but it was just old-fashioned respect. He was a doctor and he was her boss. That was that.

“My one and only,” Barb says to herself. Her voice sounds tinny. Suppose her father had not died –what then? No matter how she thinks about the question, there is really no answer.

Barb drops the bag by the bedroom door and heads to the kitchen. The only male who sparked anything in Bernadette was Bill O’Reilly. She watched him every day. If Barb called while The O’Reilly Factor was on, Bernadette asked her to call back, she wanted to watch. When Barb asked what was so special about him, Bernadette would say, “He’s just so no-nonsense,” and “He’s easy on the eyes.”

“Anderson Cooper is handsome,” Barb had countered once but Bernadette wasn’t hearing it

“Barbie, it’s not the same thing.”

Later when Bill O’Reilly faced sexual harassment charges and lost his show, Barbara didn’t want to bring it up. By then Bernadette was sick again.

Barb flicks on the kitchen light switch and the fluorescent fixture buzzes awake. If Barbara’s purging of the house goes okay, she’ll have to chalk that up to Bernadette. Her mother had a file folder “My Demise,” and it had all the necessary papers – the DNR and Living Will, the last Will and Testament, the contact info for the attorney, the numbers (and even PIN numbers) to Bernadette’s banking and credit accounts.

Barb hadn’t known how to go about selling the house but, on the refrigerator,  there was a magnet from a Realtor, Mike Toomey, who specialized in estate cases like this. Bernadette’s house will be listed in two weeks. It will sell pretty fast, he’s assured her. As is.

In the kitchen, the Formica is the same: boomerangs in grays and pink on an open field. The refrigerator’s been replaced over the years. It’s a bare bones side-by-side Kenmore, meticulously maintained by Bernadette. Just the other week Barb came across the wire brush contraption her mother used to dust the condensers.

A couple of weeks ago, when her mother was still in hospice, Barb gave the refrigerator a once-over, so today it does not contain much: a carton of creamer she doesn’t dare open, the green carboard can of Parmesan cheese, some other condiments, all of which she dumps. The freezer is more packed.

Barb pulls up a kitchen chair, slides the garbage can over to her side and sits in front of the open freezer compartment. There are two standard blue plastic ice cube trays. But typical Bernadette, there are also two of the old-fashioned aluminum kind that are louvered like window blinds. Bernadette never threw out anything that was still useful.

As Barb puts the trays in the sink for the ice to melt, she notices something stuck to the bottom of one of the aluminum trays. It’s a white envelope, labeled clearly: Emergency Cigarette. Barb stares at it. She touches the letters.

When Barbara was in fifth grade, she had her first health class and came home with handouts on the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke. It was obvious to both of them that  her mother should quit smoking. Bernadette made a promise to Barbara. She remembers it clearly. They were at the kitchen table. Barbara rested her head on her crossed arms. The Formica felt cool. No more, Bernadette told her, only maybe this one exception. Barbara watched side eyed as her mother took the last Kent from its pack and wrapped it in waxed paper, which she carefully creased into a rectangle that she then tucked into a small envelope. With a black felt-tip marker, she wrote on a white business-sized envelope: Emergency Cigarette. She put the smaller envelope into this, sealed it.

“I’ll feel better knowing it’s there if I ever need it,” Bernadette told Barb. “What if there were an emergency and I needed something to calm my nerves? The last thing I’d want to do is run out to buy a pack.” Then Bernadette walked to the fridge and stashed the envelope.

“Of course, I’m hoping we’ve had all the emergencies we’re going to.” Bernadette raised her eyes to heaven.

Her father Buddy had been a big man in every way. He was an ex-Marine who worked as a building engineer at the Standard Oil Building. He took the earliest train there every morning. He had a clunker car, Old Bess, a Ford Maverick, banana yellow, that he drove to their station and back.

Bernadette and Barbara were stumped when it was still in the lot, even after the later train. He wasn’t in the tavern across from the station. He wasn’t anywhere they looked that Friday night. They came home exasperated and could hear the phone ringing as Bernadette put the key in the lock, but it stuck when she turned it until finally the bolt released and Bernadette shoved open the door, “It’s bad news Barbie I just know it.”

She ran to the phone, but it had stopped ringing. “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.” The phone rang again. Buddy’d had a fatal heart attack on the 4:04. Her mother crumpled and then let out a cry that pierced Barb..

She feels the envelope; the cigarette’s still there but it seems different, shorter maybe. After that day so many years ago, Barb never saw her mother smoke again. She puts the envelope on the counter to deal with later and tries to resume her work, marveling at the thought Bernadette had kept that cigarette all these years.

Her mother’s ability to hang onto things seems impressive now. When she was a kid, Bernadette’s frugality only embarrassed her. She can still feel how the color rose in her cheeks. It was recess, sixth grade, always a fraught time, but she felt good, wearing the new sweater her mother had given her the night before–a Fair Isle pullover, off-white with forest green and purple accents; the label had a name she didn’t recognize.

AmberLee Donovan practically announced, “Oh my god, my sister had that sweater and my mother just donated it to rummage sale at church. Where did you get it?” Barbara knew then where Bernadette had gotten it, but she had no answer for AmberLee. That night Bernadette had not understood why there was a problem. If AmberLee wanted to make fun of Barbara because she wore a perfectly good sweater, well, that was AmberLee’s problem. Bernadette, always big on the Catholic notion of redemptive suffering, had admonished Barb, “Offer it up.”

Barb stands, shuts the freezer, walks to the counter, and picks up the white envelope to inspect it again. She presses it gently between her fingers. Had Bernadette smoked it, or had it shrunk from the cold?

Barb opens it carefully not wanting to rip her mother’s printing. A cigarette is there, but this one is wrapped in Saran.

She looks again at the envelope. This is a different Emergency Cigarette.

Sure enough, it’s a Marlboro Light, not a Kent. And the tip is gone. Bernadette must have had a drag or two and then put it out and snipped it with a scissors. But it’s been smoked because the filter is yellowed and there’s Bernadette’s lipstick, Tangerine Dream. Barb always urged her mother to change her lipstick color because it was far too orange for her rosy complexion. She even bought her a pink shade from Clinique but always Bernadette came back to Tangerine Dream.

She feels herself deflate. What? Did she expect her mother to never have smoked the Emergency Cigarette? Is she disappointed? Really? Get over yourself.

She’s not really mad at her mother for smoking. What hurts is that she didn’t know this about Bernadette. Maybe she would have seen her mother differently if she had known this vulnerability. Bernadette came across always so matter of fact, so certain.

When had her mother smoked the Emergency Cigarette?

Maybe when she got sick. After all, she kept it to herself. At first, she waited to see if the lump would go away. Then she kept the diagnosis quiet for at least a week. It was only after she made her first appointment to determine the course of her treatment that she called Barbara, asked if she would accompany her. Bernadette explained it was good to have another set of ears to hear everything the doctor said. Always practical.

At the appointment, when the nurse called her name, Bernadette started on her way to the examining room and Barb followed, but Bernadette halted in her steps, said, “I’ll have the nurse call you in when it’s time for the consultation.” For some reason that nearly brought Barb to tears right there in the waiting room. How stupid. Here she was crying when her mother was so strong.

Had Bernadette bought a pack of cigarettes during that time? Maybe she’d wanted one last smoke to steady her nerves. What had she been thinking? Why hadn’t Barbara been at her side?

Barb always envied those close mothers and daughters who joked and teased. She and her mother had a strong connection, a reliance on one another– not a friendship. Now she had a sincere appreciation for Bernadette’s grit as a single mother. Growing up she hadn’t seen things so positively. She’d be the first to admit she’d been a haughty teenager who looked down on the life her mother wrought. Barb was going to accomplish something, not merely eke by. But after all those months of her mother’s being sick, of Barb coming up so often and sharing hours with her mother, they had come to a kind of ease with one another.

There was the circuit they did on Saturdays to the Greek diner and the grocery store and Dollar Tree, Bernadette’s favorite store. Some evenings they brought out the TV trays for dinner; Bernadette would say grace and they’d eat and watch the local news. Barb washed up and usually left when Wheel of Fortune was on. During the commercials Bernadette would switch to Special Report with Bret Bair.

How many times had her mother replaced the Emergency Cigarette? Barb shakes her head and takes her seat back at the open freezer.

Aside from a penchant for Fannie Mae candy, Bernadette didn’t have many bad habits. Butter was something she indulged in, stocked up on. And there it is: a one-pound brick, which hits the garbage bag solidly. Bernadette would kill her for throwing out good food, but there’s no going back.

Next in the trash is a bag of frozen peas, strictly used as an ice pack. Bernadette would drape a bag over her knee and settle into watch reruns of Law & Order, or NCIS, her favorite show, what with that Mark Harmon so handsome and so nice in real life—did Barb know he’d rescued someone from a burning car?

There are plastic containers (filled with what Barb doesn’t know, but suspects is cabbage soup). All of which she tosses without opening. She considers how she should really recycle them, but it’s garbage day tomorrow and everything must go. Clunk, clunk, clunk. A pint of Walgreen’s ice cream. Butter pecan. Clunk.

Between an olive green Tupperware and a butcher-wrapped chop, Barb finds another white envelope. This one is labeled “Emergency Cig, 2011,” so it has been in the freezer for seven years, for as long as Barb’s been married to Alec. Is that why her mother needed it? Bernadette and Alec never seemed to warm up to each other. “Your Alec is as smart as Alec Trebek,” Bernadette told Barb like it was a compliment, but Barb could decode it, knew it meant Bernadette felt intimidated. She didn’t correct her mother on the Jeopardy host’s first name.

Alec was raised a Catholic, so he had that going for him. His parents were from Cuba and he grew up in Miami. But like Barbara he was a lapsed Catholic. So, both of them disappointed their parents.  They managed to peeve everyone even more when they got married at the clerk’s office. Alec’s parents wanted to host a luncheon at their club to celebrate the nuptials. But Bernadette wouldn’t get on an airplane. So, to compensate Barb and Alec had a Chicago celebration; a brunch party at a nice restaurant. They invited their close friends along with Aunt Rosemarie, Bernadette’s priest friend Father Malec, and Dr. Ken and his wife. It hadn’t seemed stressful but maybe Bernadette had needed to light one up to get through it.

Barb puts this envelope on the counter next to the first one. She shuts the freezer, leans back in the chair, and closes her eyes.

How many cigarettes have there been? When had the first Kent been lit and when and how many Marlboros had she needed?

If her memory is correct and the first cigarette had been put away when she was in fifth grade, it was only a few years later that Barbara had changed, insisted on being called Barb or Barbara –she hated Barbie. The tweens. That was the start of when she could see only her mother’s shortcomings. Conformist. Boring. Barb had been such a handful, so strident, it was no wonder her mother hadn’t smoked carton after carton.

The heat comes on, and it makes a regular tick, once, twice, three times. Barb listens to the house; wonders if it will belong to someone loud after all these years of quiet.

She thought she might get teary when she cleaned out Bernadette’s dresser or smelled the White Shoulders perfume.  Instead, it’s here at the freezer where her feelings thaw.

Then it flashes to her, how egotistical she is to presume the reason her mother smoked the Emergency Cigarette had anything to do with her. Didn’t her mother have a life of her own? Barb did not share with Bernadette, but maybe Bernadette didn’t share either. There could have been things she never mentioned. Worse even, it could be that something had upset her mother and she didn’t even know. And now would never know.

Or perhaps her mother, with her TV companions, poured herself a 7-Up and lit one up. She could picture it, maybe. Bernadette would take the time to arrange cheese and crackers on a plate and use cocktail napkins. She’d probably even used an ashtray, though it seemed the Emergency Cigarette was only smoked for a puff or two.

Barb would have known if her mother smoked then because she was around a lot; she came home to take care of her mother on those treatment days when the radiation and nausea sapped Bernadette’s strength. And most weekends. Barb had been a dutiful daughter, hadn’t she?

Come to think of it, with the world as crazy as it is, it could have been a news event that drove her mother to the white envelope in the freezer — 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina? Surely the Emergency Cigarette was not from that long ago. Maybe it was when the classrooms of kindergartners were shot up?  Or something else. There were plenty of atrocities–there were many to choose from.

The freezer stands empty and the garbage bag sags like a heavy heart. Barb is ready to tie it up when she notices some items on the shelves of the door. Behind a sticky can of frozen orange juice concentrate, she finds another white envelope, this one with a plain face, no writing. How many emergency cigarettes had her mother needed?  And why did she save them? Had she lost count or forgotten them?  Was she further gone than Barb suspected?  Barb tosses the envelope on the counter.

Taking the full garbage bag to the can outside the kitchen door, Barb wonders how much she doesn’t know about her mother.

Back at the counter, the three cigarettes are lined up: a Marlboro Light, an Eve, and a Benson & Hedges, all partially smoked, each white filter ringed in faint tangerine. She gathers them all, brings them with her when she sits at the kitchen table.

Lately who hasn’t wanted to smoke and drink and tear their hair and jump off buildings?  Even Barb, Ms Health Consciousness, had been tempted to bum a smoke those weeks at the end of 2016, the situation so bleak with the election turning out as it did. And that was another thing that drove them apart. Really drove them apart.

“Even the Trib won’t endorse that woman,” Bernadette had told her when Barb brought up the election.

“But you’re going to vote for that man?”

“I’m voting for the Republican Party,” Bernadette said firmly. She never mentioned it again, but Barb thought about it a lot.

Such a disappointment. Barb could not come to terms with how Bernadette voted. It flabbergasted her. Of all the things she did not understand about her mother, this seemed the hardest for her to fathom. How could someone who valued decency vote for him? And now the cigarettes.

Her mother is dead and the man she voted for is the President and they are all left to deal with it. It’s a mess. The only mess Bernadette left behind.

They were getting to a good place with one another, she and her mother, where they understood and appreciated one another. But he ruined things between them just like he is ruining the nation. Everything tainted.

Here she is 46, the same age as Bernadette when she had her. She used to want a baby. But now she is glad she never conceived because the world is so screwed-up. When menopause started and the possibility of pregnancy diminished, Barb was relieved as well as disappointed, if that made any sense.

Her eyes are watery as she touches the cigarettes. She’ll smoke them all, one by one, just to imagine she is taking in some breath of her mother. But she can’t get up from the chair and she doesn’t have a match. All that’s in her pocket is that stupid Christmas brooch. Somewhere far down the street a car alarm starts up and then seems to fade away.

When Barb looks down at her hands, she finds that without thinking, she has broken the three half-cigarettes, crumbled them until the filters and paper and tobacco are in a pile on the table. Tears come. When she is done crying, she picks up the three tangerine-tinged filters, lines them up in the smoothed-out Saran, and carefully wraps them. This she puts in the smallest envelope, which she then tucks into next envelope, and then the last. She looks once again at the indelible printing: Emergency Cigarette. She brings the packet to her lips. Then she shifts in the chair to put it in her back pocket.

Only tobacco and paper shreds are left on the table. She brushes all the mess into her palm. Because the garbage can is empty, she doesn’t want to use it. Instead she opens the kitchen door and blows her hand clean, all the little bits flying this way and that.

Trained as a journalist, Ellen Wade Beals writes poetry and prose. Her work has appeared in literary magazines, in anthologies and on the web here and in Ireland and the UK. Her poem “Between the sheets” appears in the textbook Everything’s a Text (Pearson 2010). She is editor and publisher of Solace in So Many Words. Her website is: www.solaceinabook.com.

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If you’ve had the opportunity to take a class from Janice Lee (we highly recommend her class at  Corporeal Writing) then you understand why we are excited about her forthcoming book, Imagine a Death. Her work is, frankly, groundbreaking both in terms of form and content. If you aren’t familiar with Janice, check her out. A description of Imagine a Death. from her website:

A depiction of the cycles of abuse and trauma in a prolonged end-time, Imagine a Death examines the ways in which our pasts envelop us, the ways in which we justify horrible things in the name of survival, all of the horrible and beautiful things we are capable of when we are hurt and broken, and the animal (and plant) companions that ground us.

Join us in preordering her book now, and if you take a class with her, let her know we sent you. Preorder a copy today at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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