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Eating Disorders/Healing, Guest Posts

Yoga Mat Battlefield

May 17, 2022
yoga

I used to love pouring Elmer’s glue on the palms of my hands to the very edges of my fingertips. I’d let the goo ooze over the skin of my hands, sliding into the lines and crevices as I sat patiently waiting for it to harden. The glue slowly transformed from opaque to clear, from the outer edges inward. I waited, feeling the damp turn crisp before it was time to peel. I had to learn the hard way a few times to make sure the glue was completely dry for ultimate removal satisfaction.

It’s funny how I’d find this sense of gratification from adding a layer and instantly removing it. It was like removing a part of myself. My one-of-a-kind fingerprints, the divots and crannies that belonged only to me. If only another layer below could be removed. My real skin. Maybe layer after layer I could peel it off, again and again, all the way to the bone, and soon there would be a fragment of me left.

There’s something so indulgent, so satisfying about the removal of sorts. You know. Taking off your bra at the end of the day. Wet socks. Letting your hair down. Breaking up with a toxic boyfriend. A stubborn coffee stain on white t-shirt. A scab. Sand from the bottom of your shoes. The deep, earnest, withdrawing exhale after breathing in deep. They say that we inhale the deepest when we are nervous or on edge because we are inherently predisposed to be ready to run. Like the running and exhaling become symbiotic with one another. Is removing and exhaling the same as running away? If you would have told me that the exhale directly correlated to losing weight or to shedding another layer, I’d forget how important the inhale was too. I was constantly ready to run. I was constantly wanting to shed.

So maybe that’s why I loved peeling back the artificial layers of glue. That this child’s play was really just a subconscious desire to not be in this body of mine. That I hated how it was my representative, my identity– a tiny cloak of impression that tucked behind the layers beneath. Why can’t we just be glimmering stardust, a fraction of matter floating about a vast, open space? Just little dots floating, all the same. Instead, I had this meat suit. Instead, I had this body. One that I didn’t want to live in.

When I decided that I might have to actually accept the fact that I should possibly start to enjoy this body I inhabit, my therapist pushed me back to my yoga mat. “This is the next step of recovery”, she said. To get into my body, and not be my body. Yoga was a tough subject. It was a practice I had used to elongate myself, yet another tool to modify the body I had been given. Actually practicing in the way the practice was intended to be practiced did not concern me. Mindfullness, being in the body, even peace, was not what I cared about. I just wanted to morph into a gazelle-like creature with long legs and a slender torso.

This time, I wanted to get better. I’d try to re-frame, give this whole “just being” thing a try. So I went back to my yoga mat, 15 pounds heavier than the last time. I parked myself straight into the corner of the room slightly away from the ability to catch glimpses of myself in the reflection of the mirror. I felt proud and safe in my internal, non-reflection cocoon—and then I looked up. I saw bodies with abs and minimal belly fat, skintight Lululemons and thin faces with sunken eyes. I saw my former self in them.

I still wanted to be them.

Not this 15-pounds-heavier recovery body. And so began the reunification of the internal battlefield of me and the yoga mat. Me vs. the necessary 15 pounds. Me vs. the new, growing cellulite. Me vs. a self that was no longer consumed by hunger. Me vs. a body that I never thought I’d be able to live in.

While sweat started to seep out of every crevasse of my body, I wanted to remove that extra layer yet again. I stood there in Warrior Two with my front leg bent, hips square, back leg straight and arms in a horizontal line extending from my shoulders– and imagined myself peeling of this extra layer like I was Elmer’s glue. The extra layer I had not embraced, hated even. I made plans and yet another contract to get back to overexercising, dieting, restriction, no carbs or sugar or even joy. I could not handle the layer.

I went back to my therapist and told her about my plans to relapse, venting about my experience on the Yoga Mat Battlefield, and she said something that I still reach for when I’m struggling in my body.

“Who’s voice is that, on this what do you call it? Battlefield? You, or your eating disorder?”

I still witness others in their own version of the yoga mat battlefield. I see them suck in their bellies—not because the posture asked them to but because it’s a more tolerable view. I wonder how hungry they are. Still, I let my belly go. I hold the pose.

I will not let the yoga mat win, which is really just the eating disorder. It’s my voice that wins. The real and true one. The one that holds the pose and could care less about the reflection in the mirror.

The resistance I choose to create starts with me on my yoga mat, with Elmer’s glue dried on my palms. This time I won’t peel it off.

Amanda Blackwell is former professional figure skater who is now just an ordinary but not-so-ordinary 30-something ditching the status quo, and living in Hawaii away from the corporate hustle and rat race. A recovered Eating Disorder survivor, passionate about Mental Health and wellness, Amanda likes to write about trauma and pain and finding meaning within it all. When she’s not over-analyzing life or writing about it, she’s surfing, drinking coffee, cooking and enjoying a mellow existence.

***

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Grief, Guest Posts, moving on

Jimmy Five

May 15, 2022
jimmy

Every morning, I opened my bedroom door to find him just sitting there.

“We have to talk,” he seemed to say.

Spine erect, forearms straight under his shoulders, he appeared to want a serious heart to heart.

“Oh,” I’d say, “Good morning,” as I’d side step around him, and disappear into the bathroom.  On the toilet, I’d wonder why, of all the places there are to sit in this apartment, he’d sit there. And how long had he been sitting there, anyway? A few minutes? All night?

***

“We have to talk,” Jimmy would say on a nightly basis–his attempt to give me an order from behind the half living room wall where he was sitting in the dark. I had just gotten home from my late night’s teaching. How long had he been sitting there? A few minutes? All night?

“I’m tired, I’m going to bed,” I’d say. Sometimes I’d wake in the early morning hours to find him sitting on the chair by our bed, staring at me.  When we’d met 25 years earlier, he’d made me feel safe. Valued. Adored. I’d grown up in a family where I was none of those. Jimmy’s transformation from safe zone to potential threat jarred me.

I told him I wanted a divorce, after two decades of trying everything I could not to. After I’d finally put the word “divorce” out there, I began to feel hunted. Not where the hunter slays the prey, but where the aim is to capture, cage, and never, ever release. A few years later, when we were able to resume a semblance of our prior friendship, he would tell me that indeed he felt I was his possession. That he knew it was wrong, but men are animals after all.

***

By the time I’d finished in the bathroom, Five–named after Tank Five, the sewage tank at the Hunts Point treatment plant Jimmy had rescued him from—was poking around my bedroom, sniffing at specks of something on the floor. Until he sensed me returning, and scampered off.

***

“Jimmy, you read my journals!”

“I was looking for answers,” he claimed.

“You had no right!”

He suspected I was fantasizing about another man, like a woman who still hoped. His suspicions were correct, but he had no right to my fantasies.

I crouched on the floor, gathering the laundry–still our laundry–when I saw my journals had been moved and one was laying open.

I continued thrusting my hand into pockets, looking for loose change, receipts, lighters. I pulled out my underwear instead. From his shirt pocket, his sweatpants pocket. Was he hoping to hold onto a sexual connection by clinging to my intimate clothing? Our bodies had belonged to each other when the relationship was committed. His addictions severed that connection. Was this his way to try to tape it back together?

“I picked up your panties by accident,” he lied, his gaze veering out the window.

“They’re not panties,” I said, his desperation weighing on us both. “They’re underwear. I don’t leave my underwear lying around.”

He twitched his right shoulder and walked out.

***

I had put off telling Jimmy I needed a divorce for more than a decade by scrubbing the kitchen counters. Sweeping the floor. Putting random items back where they belonged, while simultaneously developing sonar to place Jimmy’s stealth-like disappearances into a bedroom or out onto the terrace. We were a family with two young boys we both adored. A family is all I’d ever wanted. When he’d disappear, I thought he was privately taking a few hits on a joint. Swallowing a pain pill. But I was there with him mentally draining the fuel from the lighter, preventing the bottle from opening. Willing him back to being with us.  When he did reappear, I kept my back to him. He’d wrap his arms around me from behind. Kiss my neck. I’d stiffen, though the kisses were sweet.

“Sit down,” he said. “Take a break.”

“I’m not done.” I pulled out of his embrace.

I wouldn’t stop until he stopped.

“Take a break,” he repeated, grabbing hold of my forearms. “Finish later.”

“No,” I said, jerking out of his grasp. “I’m not done.”

“You don’t know how to relax.” He left the room.

***

One morning, Five sat in his usual spot. Just staring. But as I passed him to go to the kitchen to make coffee, he swatted at my leg. He swatted again. Ran after me. Swatted again.

“Ok. I’ll pet you, I’ll pet you,” I said, leaning over.

It was our first petting session since he’d arrived in my home. Tentatively, I managed a few strokes on the top of his head, then wiggled a few fingers under his chin. He nuzzled into my hand. I made a fist as he dragged his mouth across my knuckles. His tail straightened and switched back and forth. Then he parted his pink lips to drag his long thin teeth across my thumb as though they itched and my thumb provided welcome scratching. When he took a gentle nibble of my knuckle, I pulled my hand away, afraid another nibble might turn into a bite.

He jumped onto his hind legs and wrapped his forepaws around my shins, batting at them, then hugging them, then batting at them again. A frenzied dance. Thankful for my pajama bottoms, I backed away and he ran off.

***

I had lobbied hard for a dog when our two boys were little. Our building didn’t allow dogs, but Jimmy was the co-op board president. “At least put a vote on the agenda,” I pleaded.

“Let’s just get a cat,” he always said. “They’re less work.”

The bottom line was, he wasn’t a dog guy. He was a cat guy. Unfortunately, I was a dog gal. We ended up with hamsters and guinea pigs, and a snake once. Even the boys agreed they were poor substitutes.

***

Jimmy asked me to police him when we first got together.

“Everything I’ve loved, I’ve lost because of my drinking,” he’d said after one of our first fights. “I’ll stop.”

And he did. Stop drinking.

I knew he continued smoking pot. I drank wine on the weekends, so who was I to tell him to stop pot, too? I didn’t realize how much he smoked. When I asked why I found lighters everywhere, he said, “For safety.” And the Visine bottles? “I’m a welder.”

I didn’t know about the pain pills. I knew he sweat a lot.

I saw the empty orange pill bottles with the labels scratched off, but didn’t connect the dots.  I thought he needed them and took them when he was in pain. Who was I to decide how much pain he was in? A bad back, a bad knee, and even bad teeth had parlayed into prescriptions from no less than five doctors:  his back doctor, his knee doctor, his primary care physician, his pain management doctor, and often the dentist. Opioid abuse had yet to make headlines with lawsuits and staggering statistics. I never saw all the bottles at once, only after they were empty. I’d taken codeine after surgery for impacted wisdom teeth and immediately felt nauseous. I completely missed, in the beginning anyway, that pain pills could be recreational.

***

For years, he left our apartment before 6 a.m. to get to a job that was a 15-minute drive away, and he didn’t need to clock in until 7 a.m. I finally realized he left early so he didn’t have to help with any part of waking two kids, feeding them, getting them dressed, their lunches made, their school bags packed, and off to their destinations.

When my son’s schedules changed so I had to get all of us out the door by 7 a.m., I demanded Jimmy help.

“Well, you know, Corinne, it’s a very busy time for me,” he responded immediately.

I stared at him. “Jimmy, you drink coffee, watch the news, then get in the car and drive to work.”

Even he saw the gaping hole in his argument. He took over making the lunches and packing the school bags. His lunches were much better than mine and he always drew a picture on the boys’ napkins of something each was into: surfing, soccer, holidays, then signed them, Love Mommy and Daddy, until one son reached his teens and finally asked him to stop. Not drawing on the napkins, just signing them Love Mommy and Daddy.

He had always been the parent in stressful times, too. He was the one who slept with them when they were sick and rubbed their foreheads, who held them while the doctor removed a cast or stitched a wound. I was the first to be sent away because I’d start crying, too, making things worse.

But day to day life, he preferred to slink away.

I’m not sure he ever realized how much it hurt me that he wasn’t instinctively by my side helping, how much it took away from my desire for him. I loved him as my best friend, but the childishness of running from responsibilities, viewing them as drudgery, rather than labors of love, killed desire.

It was simply not sexy.

***

Neither is nodding out, which as the boys grew older and needed less direct parenting, he did more frequently, and I was confronted with the reality that he did not take pills solely for pain. Watching Jimmy’s bloodshot eyes flap closed over his plate of chicken and pilaf one evening, I thought, Well, it’s not like he’s driving a car. The second I realized I was trying to put a positive spin on where and when one nods out, I knew the only option left was divorce.

***

You fuckin’ addict, I’d think, when he nod out tying his shoes, though I’d woken up that morning full of resolve to try something else to address this disease. It didn’t matter that I knew that was not how it works.

He stopped seeing himself, and I stopped recognizing us. He was exhausting and exhausted. Anger and sadness were the only emotions I had left. I did not want my boys to think this is who their mother is.

***

One evening we went to bed and both of us were on our backs staring at cracks in the ceiling plaster. I knew we both knew. It was over.

“Love me, Corinne,” I heard Jimmy say. “Please, just love me,” his voice weak and tender. I turned away from him, my silence devastating us both.

***

Jimmy replaced me with a shelter cat as soon as we split up. A few years later, our older son Seamus could no longer witness the abuse of the restaurant cat locked in the basement where he was a waiter. Jimmy drove his black van to the restaurant and waited for Seamus to emerge on his break with a cardboard box that emitted barely audible meows. When a woman friend of Jimmy’s needed a home for her mother’s cat after her mother had had to move into assisted living, Jimmy volunteered to take that cat, too. Five, his fourth cat, he’d literally rescued from drowning in shit.

***

At the same time he was collecting cats, he went back to drinking. He began a cycle of detox and rehab, although he only actually completed one rehab session. In between, he’d work, ride his bike, try to connect with old friends, even go out for dinner and a movie with me and our boys, but he’d always end up back at the beginning.

“What happened to me?” he’d ask on our drive to detox. Again. “Why do I do this? Was I molested? Did I block it out?”

“I don’t know, Jimmy. I can’t know. Only you can figure it out.”

“I’m terrified,” he’d say. He knew he was killing himself.

But figuring it out meant opening himself up after having spent years completely locking himself down. His inability to be vulnerable kept him stuck. Jimmy did things perfectly or he didn’t do them at all. His world grew smaller and smaller. Not feeling pain made joy a flatliner, as well.

***

Finally, after decades of taking Percocet, Oxycontin, Tramadol, and Hydrocodone, he came home from his final stay in detox, laid down on the couch, and opened another bottle of Hennessy.

He was dead within 24 hours. Maybe 48.

Day of death is marked as the day the body is found, not the actual time of death. We were married for 21 years, together for 23, enmeshed for seven more, and I don’t know exactly when he died. I do know he was alone, surrounded by his cats. Most likely, Five was close by.

I wasn’t.

I didn’t hold his hand. I didn’t rub his forehead. I didn’t whisper “I love you” over and over.

My consciousness became cloudy. Thoughts about work, or which son needed what, or what I needed to pick up from the grocery store were interlaced with, You killed him. You left him and he died. If you hadn’t left, your boys would still have a father. You’d still have the person who guided you, even if he couldn’t guide himself.

My dreams fueled my guilt. In one, he stood against a wall, his face and body screaming a silent anger. I thought it was at me, but maybe it was at death itself. Then his forehead started to cave in and I forced myself awake before I watched his entire body get consumed by invisible flames.

We’d had him cremated.

The man who entered my life as a protector, a guide, an emotional balance, and a source of so much laughter, had been eaten from the inside out by his addictions and was now in a jar. I’d told that jar how sorry I was. That I couldn’t help him. That he had died alone. Contrary to the saying, We are NOT born alone. Every mother knows that. No one should die alone, either. Not being there when he died, haunted me.

***

Five didn’t want to leave Jimmy’s apartment and I didn’t want to bring him to mine, but no one else wanted him or his rescued siblings. Shelters had long waiting lists and no guarantee to not put them down if they were not adopted swiftly. While the other cats adjusted easily to their new home, Five hid silently for weeks under my son’s bed. Then he started lurking outside my bedroom door.

***

When I discovered Five in my room in the middle of the night, sitting next to my bed, spine erect, forepaws straight underneath, looking calmly up at me after I had awoken from yet another disturbing dream, I began to grow suspicious. Five made me feel like I was living with Jimmy. In looks and actions. Impossible and weird, I know. This cat was hunting me, spying on me and it felt very familiar. Did he want to know if someone new was in my bed? Would he pounce if there was?

One morning, Five wasn’t in his usual spot. I thought he had moved on from demanding “We have to talk,” but then I saw him on the living room bench, his rear quarters hovering above the ground, his tail straight and elevated, unable to sit, unable to stand.

As sick as he was, he put up a tremendous fight as we tried to take him to the vet. Our younger son Liam had to wear Jimmy’s welding gloves to get him into the cat carrier. The vet injected a sedative through the carrier wall and tests revealed that Five had a thickened bladder wall, a chronic condition. He would need life-long pain medication and muscle relaxers. He was prescribed Buprenorphine for pain.

***

Buprenorphine was the last opiate Jimmy had been prescribed. He’d Googled Is Buprenorphine addictive? right before he died. Buprenorphine was supposed to be like Methadone–pain medication you take when trying to wean off of pain medication.

***

The woman who had become Jimmy’s close friend, although he had wanted more, came to my apartment for the first time on the anniversary of his death. We both needed to mourn the man we loved. Five cautiously entered the room. As soon as she saw him, she said, “Oh my god, he looks just like Jimmy.”

***

One morning, Five didn’t greet me when I opened the door. I panicked until I found him lying underneath a living room chair. I stroked his fur, and he looked at me calmly, but meowed nothing. When I returned home from work, he was laying on my bed with his head on my pillow, a place he’d never laid before. I laid down next to him and rubbed his forehead and stroked his chin. After dinner, he had moved to the carpet in my son’s room. At 3 a.m., my son alerted me that Five had been sick on the floor. By the time we got him to the vet, his kidneys were failing.

It was time.

Sedatives allowed him to rest with some comfort. The vet had placed his head on a pillow and wrapped him in a thick towel.  There’d been a sweat stained pillow under Jimmy’s head when Seamus had found him dead on the couch. Seamus wanted to spare us and told Liam and me not to come. He waited with Jimmy’s body alone until the police arrived. I understood and appreciated his protectiveness. Being spared though, that leaves a different kind of hole.

***

Liam and I held Five’s paw/hand and stroked his fur/hair and murmured loving words as Five left this world as every living thing should. And I thanked Jimmy for coming back as Five and allowing me to be there. This time.

***

I know this was Jimmy’s gift to me. Only he knew how much I needed it.

Corinne O’Shaughnessy is a retired New York City public school literacy teacher. Her essays have appeared in HerStry.com, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, reideasjournal.com, and DorothyParkersAshes.com. Her short fiction has been published in SurvivorLit.org and BookofMatchesLit.com. She also recently read “Five” at The Haunted gathering of Read650.org.

She currently resides in Mexico where she is trying to learn Spanish and become a better dancer. She is also the proud mama of two grown sons.

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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

 

Alcoholism, Guest Posts

Getting Sober in Paris

May 11, 2022
paris

Paris is quite possibly the toughest place to get sober in the world. When I look out of my apartment window on the Rue Montorgeuil I see not one, not, two, not ten but two dozen drink outlets. They are bars; they are brasseries;  they are mini-markets, they are specialty liquor stores; they are rum boutiques; they are wine bistros.

Everybody—and I mean everybody—seems to be downing a drink. The yuppies and the street people, the teenagers and the septuagenarians.

But not long ago, I realized I had to stop. A single mother of a child with Down Syndrome who was abandoned by her father at birth, I was running into bad trouble. My child was taken from me and placed—for a week—in a state home. I had been chasing her on the street barefoot after she dashed off. Kids with Down syndrome have a “runner syndrome” and love to escape and hide. My daughter is no exception and when she raced down the stairs of my 5th floor apartment while I was running the washing machine, I did not take the time to put on my shoes. I bolted after her and was found shoeless in the rain on a busy intersection. I had Eurydice in my arms but I reeked of alcohol. I was sent to a hospital and Eurydice was dispatched to a home for neglected children.

The irony of this is beyond words. After Eurydice’s abandonment by her Greek father she had  contracted leukemia and I—entirely besotted with her—had spent eight months in the hospital as she submitted to chemotherapy. 24/7. I slept on an armchair next to her hospital crib. Knowing that she had only a 50% chance of survival, I entertained her with all the breath I retained.

Eurydice survived and we joined at the hip.  A twosome, we travelled to Tunisia and Morocco, Italy, Greece and Slovenia. I was, among other things, a travel-writer, after all, and we took on all of my assignments together—and others to boot.

My problem, however, was my drink. Since I’d been a teenager, I ‘d been painstakingly shy and I’d quickly realized how to self-medicate with alcohol. Brave in private, I was paralyzed in social situations. The solution? A diet coke bottle full of red wine; a seven-up bottle full of vodka.

For years, alcohol was my ally; it untied my tongue; it allowed me to be who I wanted to be, to express what I wanted to express. I gave speeches to crowded auditoriums; I was interviewed on French public television; I aced my oral Ph.D. examinations.

And then it all turned to ashes. It turned to ashes and I had to figure out what to do about it. I went to rehab after rehab on the French state’s tab. There was little worse than those rehabs. Trembling and retching from alcohol deprivation, I was evacuated from my single hospital room so somebody could die there.  When the corpse was wheeled away a few hours later, I was returned to the same room. My view? A machine in the corridor designed to remove limp bodies from their beds and to transfer them into mortuary vans.

This story has a happy ending—if happy ending one can call it. After several in-patient rehabs in ghostly public hospitals I embarked on an outpatient detox. Miraculously, I was able to stare at the many drink-dives in my area and resist their draw. Despite the fact that I had to trek to a distant hospital every day, get tested, breathalyzed and medicated, I was with my daughter and the violent delirium tremens I suffered—delirium tremens that could only have been diminished through the ingestion of alcohol—subsided after several days.

I began to go to Alcoholics Anonymous and to learn to speak in public. The first time I spoke I said I needed a drink to speak to non-drinkers. The second, the third, the thirteenth and the 300th time I spoke I had acquired some tools.

When you give up alcohol you dispose of a jailer. Granted, you remain, for a while, a naked prisoner—a tongue-tied teenager—but this too shall pass. And even before it passes it’s not all bad. To feel in your second decade of life when you’re in your fifth or sixth is not just a liability, it is an opportunity. It is an occasion to reinvent yourself, to rediscover yourself, to make yourself better than ever you were in the past.

Eurydice and I are growing up together today. She is 13; I feel 17. She is vivid and I am shy. She is getting slowly bigger and I am getting slowly bolder. Whatever the future holds we will stick together. We will stick together serenely and tenderly.

As my friends in Alcoholics Anonymous say, it’s one day at a time. I take nothing for granted. I do not know if my boyfriend, just retired, will spend more time with Eurydice and me in France; even without marriage vows we have, over the last decade, outperformed many a married couple, sticking together in sickness and in health, in grief and in joy. I do not know what the future has in store for Eurydice. There are far more questions than answers in my life right now. But one thing I think I know for sure: I will address them soberly.

Even in Paris.

Cristina Nehring’s first book, A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the 21st Century, (2010) obtained a glowing review on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. She has written for the Atlantic, Harper’s, Oprah Magazine and the New York Times, among other publications. She holds a Ph.D in literature and teaches in Paris.

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If you liked today’s essay, check this book out:

“Exquisite storytelling. . . . Written in the spirit of Elizabeth Gilbert or Anne Lamott, Neshama’s stories (and a few miracles) are uplifting, witty, and wise.”—Publishers Weekly

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

 

aging, Family, Guest Posts

On Aging: Lessons From Mother and Grandmother

May 8, 2022
mother

By Chantal Laurie Below

 

I never knew Gaga without a cane. A drunk driver hit my paternal grandmother in her 50’s while she grabbed clothes from the trunk. Immediate surgery ensued where doctors attempted (successfully) to save her leg by fastidiously cleaning gravel from her flesh and performing skin graft after skin graft. The accident left her with a limp, chronic pain, and a concave thigh. Her wooden cane, hand painted with a chain of flowers by her daughter’s best friend, Millie, then accompanied her everywhere, along with a set of pillows and a floor stool she arranged and rearranged to find mild comfort while sitting. Those accouterments, along with my grandmother’s stooped posture and ever-shrinking 5-foot frame meant she seemed ‘old’ for as long as I could remember. She had skin spots, jiggly jowls, brittle nails, tissues tucked up her sleeve, and declining hearing that made her lean in and ask, ‘Say?’ when she needed something repeated. She had boobs so responsive to gravity’s pull over her 85+ years that she had to bend at 90 degrees and scoop them up in her bra. Her standard attire: cashmere cardigans with a pair of ironed slacks and orthopedic shoes. Her favorite show: CSPAN. These markers reinforced to my childhood self that Gaga must have been born old. She fit the part so well, perfectly cast as a loving, elderly matriarch.

Since Gaga contentedly rested in her recliner by day and exuded delight with a, ‘Hello darling girl,’ whenever I called, my child, teen and younger-adult selves didn’t consider all she’d had and lost over the decades: mobility, health, freedom, friends. But as I hover in middle age, I can’t help but wonder about the complexity of her aging experience.

My aunt and grandmother lived together in Little Silver, New Jersey in a split-level condo with bedrooms on the upper level. As a kid, I coveted the electric chair that took Gaga up the dozen plus stairs morning and night. Getting to ride it was infinitely more exciting than an airport escalator and a thrill just beneath a Six Flags roller coaster ride. ‘Why can’t weeeeeee get one?’ I begged my parents. I never considered that Gaga used to walk up those stairs, and then one day, she couldn’t. The risk of her falling backwards made the activity too unsafe. 44-year-old me now wonders what that chair represented to Gaga. Did she feel defeat on installation day? Or did she gracefully surrender to the reality of dwindling balance and fatigue?

Gaga drank a cup of joe every morning with a prune settled at the bottom. She hated prunes but they ‘kept her regular,’ offsetting the side effects of her bevy of meds. Once saturated in coffee, the taste of them became tolerable.  Did Gaga used to drink prune-free coffee on the go as she raced to drop kids at Red Bank Catholic, I consider now? Did she miss when coffee wasn’t an undercover laxative?

At the end of her life, she brushed her teeth with a Dora the Explorer mini toothbrush, the perfect size for her tiny mouth with bristles so gentle they wouldn’t harm her vulnerable gums. Could her body, years before, withstand a standard Oral B toothbrush? Did she buy a Nickelodeon branded one with humor or a twinge of pain, confronting the humbling interconnection of cradle and grave?

Peeking behind the curtain of Gaga’s more intimate transition into old age discredits my, ‘I’ll juke the curse of arthritis and osteoporosis because I wasn’t born old’ delusion. Being with her memory reveals a shocking and obvious truth: none of us are born old, but we’re bound for it, and all it entails, if we last long enough. 

My mother’s further proof of it. 

Mom used to dog-ear pages of Bon Appetit magazine and experiment with extravagant meals for dinner parties: gazpacho to start, coq au vin for the main, poached pears for dessert. We lived abroad as Americans which meant access to British and Parisian dinner guests for mom to impress over the fine meal and a full-bodied red. Among new friends she practiced foreign terminology with delight, letting ‘rubbish’ and ‘tres bien’ roll off her tongue. Once, at a Thanksgiving dinner she cooked, our rowdy family friends and fellow ex-pats, the Lynch family, helped us move the dining room table aside for a dance party and mom willingly rocked out to Tone Loc’s Funky Cold Medina.

While humble and South Bend, Indiana to her core, mom also seemed to be born glamorous. When The Big Chill came out, people stopped her in grocery aisles for her autograph, convinced they’d confronted Mary Kay Place. She insisted on ‘putting her face on’ every morning, religiously purchased Lancôme anti-wrinkle creams, and got her hair done every week with Aida at Scissors Palace. She wore a fur coat, gold bracelets, diamond earrings and patent leather heels to the Royal Ballet or a performance of Les Mis in the West End with visiting family.

Mom never sought adventure, but she married a curious, restless man in search of a wider view of the world and somewhat willingly served as the Lewis to his Clark. When my dad initiated a purchase of a Stratton, Vermont vacation home in the ‘80’s, she learned to ski as an adult in freezing temperatures where her anxiety tears turned to icicles at the top of the North American run. She boarded my dad’s first sailboat in her 40’s, wearing foul weather gear as they navigated the English Channel in fall; mom’s face expressed terror with every, ‘Jibe ho!’ She never loved skiing or boating, but got on the chair lift and boarded Merocha with an able body and can-do spirit that mirrored her Midwestern roots. 

For her entire adult life, mom never stopped moving.  She stood at attention for anything astray in the home. She noticed a lone mug that belonged in the dishwasher, a tilted painting on the wall requiring straightening, a water glass in need of a coaster.  She kept countertops organized, always found laundry to fold or iron, and ran errands to the dry cleaner or post office with the fervor of an Amazing Race contestant. When she walked multiple city blocks from Cullen’s market to our house on Redcliffe Road – carting grocery bags filled with orange juice, a baguette, and popcorn kernels – she’d grit her teeth, feel her fingers numb, and pick up her pace.

Mom wasn’t born old, but ‘old’ has been circling her for decades, like a mosquito buzzing in and out of her personal space being successfully swatted away.

In 1992, at 47 years old, mom had her first brain aneurysm. It ruptured, a stroke accompanied it, and thanks to quick, excellent care, she survived. She had a shaved scalp, couldn’t drive for months, got labeled ‘tremendously lucky’ and life went on. About a decade later, doctors discovered another aneurysm before it burst. They clipped it and reminded her, ‘You’re tremendously lucky.’ Mosquito swatted.

Then, she started falling. She’d fall on walks with a friend and come home with a black eye. She once fell down a flight of carpeted stairs and, while shocked, brushed it off like the Terminator. She tripped on steps that resulted in bloody knees and bruised shins but insisted, ‘I’m fine’ and hobbled around the house.

As the falls increased over the years, along with mood changes and confusion, mom received a diagnosis of Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus (NPH), essentially fluid on the brain caused by head trauma. Six years ago, when mom turned 70, a neurosurgeon implanted a shunt in one of the ventricles of her brain and her symptoms largely reversed within a week. The doctors reinforced, ‘You’re tremendously lucky.’ Mosquito shooed away.

In March, 2021, I think the mosquito bit her.

Mom took a walk with her sister and barely made it a hundred yards before she fell. She somehow ricocheted off a truck’s bumper and then fell backwards on the concrete. She bled from cheek and scalp. A few weeks later, her eyesight began rapidly declining. ‘Optical nerve damage caused by the fall,’ the neuro-ophthalmologist reported, ‘It’s permanent but won’t get worse.’

Then, on Mother’s Day, she lost the ability to walk or speak; my father rushed her to the emergency room. They adjusted her shunt, her mobility and use of language returned, and she checked into a rehab facility for physical and occupational therapy. Dissatisfying incremental improvements led doctors to consider the possibility of a faulty shunt. In July, she had more brain surgery to replace it. Slow and steady progress post-surgery built hope. Then, in August, mom lost her balance in her dressing room, fell, and broke her arm.

Since last March mom’s been so unsteady on stairs she needs a railing and my dad’s assistance to maneuver up and down them. She can’t drive, cook, apply makeup, or read anymore since her sight is so compromised. Activities like emptying the dishwasher or loading laundry are risky now, able to throw her off balance, so she prioritizes wiping down countertops and reminding my dad to pick up her prescriptions. Her processing ability is impaired so conversations with more than one person prove hard for her to follow, determining when or how to interject alludes her. The most banal elements of life that normally live in the shadows as boring or unmentionable are suddenly center stage for her; going to the bathroom, bathing, getting in and out of a chair, and dressing are now time-consuming liabilities. She teeters when she walks, a bit like an overly confident toddler just finding their sea legs and seemingly tipsy off the grog. Those of us watching her are like overprotective parents wanting to honor her freedom while desperate to catch her if she falls. This growing instability means she sits a lot, listening to Gone with the Wind or watching the news and movies on TMC where she can only vaguely make out the blurry figures.

At 76, mom suddenly seems very old, and she’s gone from shooing a single mosquito to navigating a Louisiana swampland infestation of them. Now it’s her sight, balance, cognition, broken arm, and long-time arthritic knee. It’s a multi-front assault that accompanies questions without clear answers: When’s the right time for in-home care? How do we encourage hope? Can she really withstand that knee replacement surgery? Will a wheelchair keep her safe or erode her will? Is it safe to leave her alone?

I know seniors everywhere are grappling with similarly significant and emotionally fraught decisions – with consequences that are often crushing. 

It oddly reminds me of giving birth. After I had my first child, I took sitz baths to promote vaginal healing and walked around our house topless for weeks to give my raw nipples a fighting chance to heal. While nursing my daughter in the middle of the night I wondered with genuine alarm, ‘How is this something most women on the planet do? Why wasn’t I warned?’ While I can see the beauty of the postpartum experience, I struggle to see the beauty of the battle in which my mother’s an involuntary warrior. I do, however, wonder now, just as I did then, ‘How is this is something so many of us will do? Why wasn’t I warned?’

I feel warned now. And, I’m heeding the warning with vigor because ‘lasts’ are coming on a timeline I can’t foresee.

I’ve done ‘lasts’: last high school graduation, last day teaching 4th grade, last time living at 1010 Elsinore Ave. There was an unceremonious last time I carried my now 5’5 12 year old on my hip after years of lovingly, and often indignantly, responding to her ‘uppie’ requests. To date, ‘lasts’ have brought change, unearthing loss and possibility. But witnessing my mother’s decline alerts me to lasts on the horizon that seem devoid of possibility: the last time I leave my house or the last time I recognize my child. Mom and Gaga last walked up the stairs without assistance on a date no one can remember. 

I want to both stave off those unforgiving ‘lasts’ and savor my abilities now. I’m holding Warrior Three just a few extra breaths to strengthen my balance in yoga class. I’m planning a family whitewater rafting trip in Jackson to scratch my ever-present itch for outdoor adventure. I’m scheduling that platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection for my Achilles tendonitis so I can continue running with my neighbor. I’m working over-time to carpe diem while trying to quell the anticipatory distress: my life will one day become a series of unwanted ‘lasts.’

And yet, when I call to check in on mom and ask how she is, she offers an honest and uplifting, ‘Pretty good!’ followed by, ‘Didn’t do too much, really.’ Miraculously, grief doesn’t show up like a layer of suffocating wildfire smoke in our conversations. Instead, there’s gratitude for her physical therapist, (‘He is terrific, Chantal,’ she assures me), and glee over a Notre Dame football victory. Maybe it’s her declined executive functioning or her decades-lived-by-adage of, ‘It is what it is,’ that keep regret and depression at bay. Maybe it’s 76 years of a life well-lived that facilitates the acceptance of slower, simpler, less autonomous living.

Maybe it’s our human condition and commitment to survival. Dr. Diane Meier, geriatrician and founder of Mount Sinai’s Center to Advance Palliative Care, shared in the 70 Over 70 podcast, “It is remarkable how people adjust when finitude becomes visible. Things that our younger selves would have said would not have been a life worth living, we change our minds…We cannot know how we’re going to feel in the future when we might need a wheelchair or cane or dialysis. What seems completely unacceptable to our younger, healthier selves becomes acceptable when the alternative is death.”

I don’t know for sure why my mother’s so seemingly ‘fine’ when her aging process fills me with sadness and dread. I’m mourning the traveler, chef, and host she can no longer be and the identities I’ll lose as frailty becomes me. 

But witnessing her, and my grandmother before her, also offers me intellectual solace.

I passed by a young mother last week on her way from house to car whose journey down a dozen stairs with an infant and two toddlers looked harrowing. As she yelled, ‘Hold on to the railing!’ to a son who seemed more interested in face planting into concrete than heeding caution advice, I consciously noted, ‘I’m so happy not to be her anymore.’ Of course I miss the sensation of a sweaty baby nestled in an Ergo on my chest, but having lived through those days, the freedom of initiating an impromptu date night without scrambling for a sitter and the delight in reading The 57 Bus, not Good Night Moon, with my daughter is intoxicating. Maybe if I live to 76, I won’t miss Little League sideline chatter or our family’s annual hike of Yosemite’s Mist Trail. Maybe I’ll be grateful for the memories and content to recollect, not relive them. That’s implausible to me now but I believe that mom, even with her ailing mind and body, wouldn’t wish to be 44 again with all the chaos it entails. Maybe I’ll accept, even settle into, the stillness and narrowness of an elderly life that my current social and able-bodied-self rejects. Maybe.

Trusting that even slightly brings a modicum of peace.

I wasn’t born old. Neither was Gaga. She grew up playing Jacks with friends in Brooklyn, went to Hunter College at night, taught classes of 1st graders how to read, and loved Rusty, the family’s pet Doberman, as her first born. Mom wasn’t born old either. She was a cheerleader at St. Joe’s, accepted my father’s wedding proposal after the third date, snuggled with me as a 3rd grader while reading Bridge to Terabithia aloud, and massaged the weary hands of hospice patients as a volunteer. They both lived vibrant, long lives and then became old. And as old age descended, they befriended surrender and redefined what constituted a ‘good day’ and a ‘life worth living’ – an unexpected call from a grandkid, a walk on the beach, a pedicure, a brandy at cocktail hour – and found contentment.

It makes me desperate to live a long life, complete with suffering and loss that I can withstand, because I trust that life, even whittled down to its studs, is stunning. But I wonder, can I really become old – likely enduring heart disease, cancer, dementia, strokes – with joy and grace given the magnitude of loss that seems to be aging’s most reliable companion? Can I avoid the torment of regret if I never saw the Pyramids, reunited with a forgotten friend, or wrote that book when my faculties allowed it? Can I really shed the fear of what inhabiting an old person’s life and body means? I begin to imagine I can given the women who came before me. And maybe, just maybe, that will offer illusive serenity as old age draws near.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Mental Health

Anatomy of a Breakdown

May 1, 2022
skin

ma·ni·a
/’mānēə/
Noun: mental illness marked by periods of great excitement or euphoria, delusions, and overactivity

For days. For nights. For weeks. For months.
Four months. Six months. Eight months.
Living around the clock and not living at all.
Months of just going going going until I’m gone all gone.
Weeks full with the witching twitch of legs.
Feet that buckle. Knees that jerk.
Nights of eyes wide open wake awake.
Feet that race. Eyes that pace.
Days of churning gut.
Belly button stones.
Surge of heat fire flash.

My meds ran out a week ago. Or is it a month ago? The calendar skipped forward. The calendar skipped back. It’s not the first time. It’s not the last. Fucking hell when is the last time I took my meds? Do you know? Because I sure as hell don’t.

I’m on a break, I guess. No meds means I’m on a break. A breakthrough? A breakdown? Call it what you want. No meds means I MADE A FUCKING BREAK FOR IT. A break from the solid where my feet once stood ground planted, where my arms once floated out stretched.

A break from you.
A break from me.

A break that punts me into liminal space, out of place. Perched on a ledge between the here of here and the there of there, the up of up and the down of down. Powered by the context of no context. I’m powered. Superpowered. Invisible. Invisible superpowers through doors and windows and walls onto a stairwell landing. Stairs go up. Stairs go down. Invisible between the floors. Superhero cape and tights stripped bare. Stripped bare. Stripped. Bare.

My lows are too low lows. And my highs spiral me up high high through a cotton candy clouded sky. The mood swings of mania rise and fall. They’re the convulsing tide of angry storms. The over-correcting upswing on gale force wind waves that send me into a tailspin of spinning tales. They’re the waging saging raging that makes my blood coil boil over in the basement engine smoldering coals of me.

Anything in the middle is just numb. All numb. Nothing.
I am all or nothing right now.
Or maybe I’m all gray area.
I don’t even know.

My manic panic mind thinks I’m stable. Stable is a fable. I don’t remember what stable looks like. What stable feels like. My manic panic mind forgot to take care of business. The business of self-caring. The basic and the not basic important-for-survival self-care things: exercise, meditate, masturbate, breathe, practice yoga, take a walk, spend time in nature, swim, drink more water, eat less processed foods, take all the vitamins, go to counseling. Breathe. Eat. Sleep. Suck. Fuck. Breathe. Shit. Piss. Take meds. Not just take meds, take meds every day. Not just every day, take meds every night. Not just every night, take meds 8pm 11pm 2am. Shit, I can’t remember which when.

My manic panic mind thought it could catch itself at the last psych appointment, or the next. Thought it could catch itself with the tweak of meds – more serotonin less serotonin, more norepinephrine less norepinephrine, more pills less pills, more milligrams less milligrams, more benzos more benzos more benzos. MORE FUCKING BENZOS. Just give me more mother fucking benzos dammit. Benzos catch me. Benzos slow the high speed frantic twitch under my skin, slow the sing-song speedboat race of words through my brain. Benzos lullaby my feet to rest. Benzos slow me down to catch my breath. Benzos come with a side salad slathered in crystal moonshine hope.

psy·cho·sis
/sīˈkōsəs/
Noun: a severe mental disorder in which thought and emotions are so impaired that contact is lost with external reality

Me. Stick straight. Not the skin and bones of me. Not the flesh and blood of me. The deeper deep of me. That part of me that straddles the divide, the chasm of bottomless pitch black deep. The me that makes me me. The breath and wind of me. Stuck stick straight silent in the chatter of the chaos between flight or fight or freeze. That’s the only place I can be right now. Because anything else doesn’t feel safe. Hovering right here in place, caught in space, completely off balance within the balance.

This liminal space the only place that feels like what safe sounds like.

 This A-B-C 1-2-3 do-re-mi of me.

Safe in my room. In my bed. Now you see me now you don’t. Shit let’s be real, just peek under the bed and you’ll find the childlike monster of me. Deep in the dark of the blanket fort. The hushed voices of the house vapor smoke streaming through the paper thin space under the bedroom door floor. Smoke voices billowing toward me gaining speed, gaining sound decibels, the screaming hushed voices of the house somewhere close by but out of reach. Playing keep away with the fragments of me. And at night I come out and roam the empty halls, where the only thing I can trip over is myself or the cats or the shoes lined up in formation by the door that should have a better lock to keep me in or keep me out.

I don’t know which is better right now. Locked in or locked out. I’m just locked.

Laying on the floor watching particles of dust, the sloughed off dead skin cell bits of me float through the sunbeam moonbeam rays that streak across the confinement of this broken mind prison cell. The dead skin DNA rainbow-frosting filled gene cells of me carried by the light through the dark through the window windblown bits of me and me and me.

Everything hurts at night. Fuck that. Everything hurts in the dark and in the light. Everything just fucking hurts. Light is too too bright. Blinding electric bolts zap-buzz-zap through the super highways of my veins. I can hear the sizzle as it oozes long river pathways through my blood. Sound is too too loud. Echoes ricochet against bone tunnel walls plaster painted with rainbow colored marrow. I can see the shake of sound waves bouncing off walls inside of flesh behind my eyes.

My skin is constantly on fire. A fire that starts in the deepest of the deep down basement furnace of my core and radiates out through bone and meat and plasma pores of flesh. The faint smell of char in my nose. I’m a living breathing campfire vampire. I wipe the sweat from my brow, from between my sagging breasts and the curve in the small of my back. Am I a wholly human liquid locomotive, or a bunsen burner in a flaming fireplace of a smoke stack burning off fossil fuels into the ever after ether filled with creatures, desperate to leave a carbon footprint or nothing at all. I wait in listening silence for an answer.

I can’t regulate. Anything. Not my mood or my temperature or my appetite. I am out of sync. Out of control. Out of body. Out of mind. Out of wishing pennies and rabbit tails, cats eye marbles and four leaf clovers.

Don’t touch my skin. Don’t hold me close. It hurts. I want to tell you how much it hurts but hurts doesn’t even come close to how excruciatingly deep the pain sits. I want to strip this fire singed skin of mine. One leg at a time. Peel the fishnet stockings down my thigh, over under my knee, slowly roll it down my calf, over my heel and pointed toes. Leave it in a steaming heap on the floor in the corner of the room. It looks good on the floor in the corner of the room.

I’m trapped inside of it. The it that is the pain.

I can’t breathe. I want to scream.

And punch you in the throat. I’m sorry. I can’t help it. It’s not me.

Only it is me.

Me.

On a deep dive.

Slipping sliding through the cracks.

Into pieces and parts.

fugue
/fyo͞oɡ/
Noun: a state or period of loss of awareness of one’s identity, often coupled with flight from one’s usual environment

Dive bars
Smoking in cars
Mold in my brain
insane insane insane

Barometric pressure dropping numbers melt together into ink blot tattooed cheeks on faces of clocks. Hour and minute hands severed from time. Parts of entire days lost to the blizzards in my brain. I started the day over here and found myself over there. It was the light light of day and now it’s the dark dark of night, no blurring of reds and oranges to greens and blues in between. Just black. All black of the blackest black. In the everything and nothing of this moment. I don’t know how or why or when I got from here to there. But here I am now, over there.

Mom’s night out Wednesdays. Spring break style. Slamming down shot after shot after fire numbing shot. Sparking the electric pain of misfiring synapses. Feeding the fire of mania. Frantic dancing to music raging inside of my hollowed out liquor sloshed head. Body spinning around the room. Spinning around the moon. Spinning around the unravel of me. The unwinding unbinding unearthing of me. Ending the night without remembering that it started or knowing that it’s over. An arm around my waist lifting me up off the spinning sticky bathroom floor. Vomit smeared on my shoes and tangled in my hair. Fridays, repeat. Saturdays, repeat. Mondays, repeat. Spinning around in spinning shoes crusted and smeared with vomit and mud.

The drive home across the Marquam Bridge or the Ross Island Bridge. Shit I don’t even know which bridge I’m on. Is this even a fucking bridge or is it just an overpass? Suspended over the gulp and swallow of fire singeing water. Navigating toward or against the concrete and metal railing of the in-between. The point of no return. Musical chairs with bridges. Musical bridges scream-singing metal hair-band lullabies. Coaxing me to go all fucking Thelma & Louise and sail right over the rail. Slow ride. Nose dive. No jive. Hit send. The end.

Someone should really hide my car keys.

hal·lu·ci·na·tion
/həˌlo͞osəˈnāSH(ə)n/
Noun: an experience involving the apparent perception of something not present

Fingers drape in the breeze from weeping willow trees.

An astro-baby in a rocketship inside of the freezer case in the ice cream aisle in the grocery store.

Carnivals with acrobatic bearded dragons on the moon.

A cat perched on a lamp…my house doesn’t have any lamps.

Teeth click and chatter in pots and pans on the stove.

Cell phones suspended like fireflies in mist.

I walk on water.
I sink into fog.

A vanilla violet bunny with barber shop poles for ears, spinning red and white and blue, shadows my feet step by step. Bubble gum pink nose shiny with sticky sweet spit.

The colorless boy who laces his ivy fingers through mine and toddles beside me wherever I go, and when his ivy finger vines unravel and slip out of the skin of my hand, he climbs up the stalks of my legs, up over the hills of my hips, shimmies up the slope of my belly, softly slides his small colorless boy arms tight around the summit peak of my neck. Hanging along for the ride.

English accented talking tree frogs sticky suction toe to my arms like bright green tattoos ribbit barking at me through a forest.

The snake-haired warrior-paint-faced woman with eyes of 80s neon pink and skin of cerulean blue spins pirouettes around me so fast my hair whips and wisps with the wind of her.

We’re a goddamn new year’s day parade. The warrior-paint-faced woman and the barber shop pole bunny and the colorless boy, always with me wherever I go. They sing and banter and scream and whisper to me, at me. Sweet nothings in the car, pep talks in the grocery store, at the dmv; they rage at me in the kitchen, in the shower. In the heat and in the cold. In the day and in the night. In the dark and in the light.

Red-bellied demons trample through a dead forest of purple hued bones. They hot-spit-scream into ear size gill slits on the sides of my head. Spiny fingers of panic ribbon lace crisscross applesauce around my ribs through the moments in between each breath. Cats-eyed beasts leapfrog through the veil of nightmare black, and bear down on my belly. My manic panic belly.

dis·so·ci·a·tion
/diˌsōSHēˈāSH(ə)n/
Noun: the disconnection or separation of something from something else or the state of being disconnected; separation of normally related mental processes

The me of me vapor drifts up through the air. A flea perched on a pea on the wing of an eagle soaring sky higher and higher. Peeking back down through coke-bottle-thick spyglass shards of old tv tube static screen, squinting through the blur to make out the pictures of me.

I can’t see without my glasses. I can’t see with my glasses. I can’t find my fucking glasses. Wait. Stop. Back up. Rewind. Do I even wear glasses? I can’t find my thoughts or my words. I can’t find the reason why I’ve walked upstairs 6 times in the last 5 minutes. I can’t find the end of this sentence and I only just began it. I can’t find the milk when I look in the pantry, or the cereal when I look in the fridge.

I can’t find my hands.
I just can’t.

I am quicksilver. Mercury molecules sliding sweaty chest to back. Friction side to side rubbing against my thighs. All fingers wet and moaning sighs. Tremble and peak and melt into a sticky white hot scatter. Divide divide divide. Multiply.

I slip on the downward turning tip of my axis ripped off its axis. True North the billiard black eight ball struck into the far corner pocket. Halley’s Comet tail and cue chalk dust. Game over. Rack ‘em up.

I have no patience. Lost my cadence.

Losing my words. Losing my mind. Or at least the parts of it that I’m still able to articulate. Articulation isn’t really a thing for me right now. I’m not articulating well at all. I’m a writer with no ink or paper or words. I’m a chef with a stovetop full of pots and pans containing all the ingredients, but no spoons to stir or forks to whisk, no spatula to flip or tongs to grasp. I can’t find my words and words are the secret sauce that low slow boil simmers on the blue bottom burner of me and tethers this body to this soul to this water to this grounded Earth. To not float away and become stardust once again.

Me.

S

t

a

r

d

u

s

t

Ice and dust floating through the darkness.

Particles. Beaming screaming streaming. Careening.

Tick tock clock fast forwards.
Tick tock time ticks by.

bi·po·lar dis·or·der
Noun: a mental condition marked by alternating periods of elation and depression

My manic panic mind says “I’ve got this”. Well, my manic panic mind is wrong. I don’t have it.

I DON’T HAVE SHIT.

I was sure that once that new psychotropic med cocktail titrated up to that sweet spot right amount dose, I would be good. I would have it. My feet would plant back onto solid ground. And for a short time it was like a placebo honeymoon, I thought I had it. At least some. Maybe. I don’t know. Maybe a little. Maybe a lot. Maybe not. But honeymoons end. And the chaos is back again. The anti-depressants too high, the mood stabilizers too low. The counterbalance out of balance. The axis tipped and the downward slip down down through the black rabbit hole. The fall. The crash. The slam into the rocks of rock bottom rock. I wish I had a bloody nose to show for it. I’d be much happier right now with a bloody nose than with what I’ve got.

What I’ve got is an empty shell.

A sagging skeleton skin.

No meat, no muscle, only threadbare sinew string.

Wind whistling through hollowed out brain.

Electric zaps that make my head and shoulder twitch together on the magnets stitched under my skin.

I walk around like a fucking mud-clawed zombie risen up from the grave. One stiff-kneed leg-jerk step in front of the other.

A deep vacant blank in the dark shadow of my eyes.

As I stare into the space between.

The tight in my chest a solid fist jammed up high-hard into my sternum, compressing any air that might balloon blow-in in or might balloon pop-out out. The heart race pump of cortisol down through the drunken wobble of my sea legs. The roller coaster drop and soar in my belly, that slow chug climb up to the peak then free fall twist and turn and dive below the tracks and splash my gut empty dry.

I know the anxiety and PTSD of me. I know the depression of me. I’ve worn them for so long. They snuggly fit all the lines and angles of me. Their hands swell over my breasts, pooch out over my belly and fold up under my ass, slide their tongue down the tickle of the backs of my knees and down my calves to that sweet soft spot on the inside of my ankles. I enter them and they enter me. Slide their fingers deep into the arch of my head thrown back.

This bipolar me. I don’t know this me. It’s me, only it’s not. Not yet. My skin doesn’t slip slide like silk into it quite yet. Or, it does. Only it doesn’t. I don’t know all the ins and outs and sexy curvy lines of it. We haven’t adjusted to each other into a familiar comfort. I don’t feel safe in this skin.

This moon-faced two-faced skin of mine.

I need more time before I can trace the arch of its spine in the dark. Before I know the scent of it on my fingers. Some time until I can reach out and beg, pull close the heavy fullness of its hand to grope between my legs into the blinding wet of me. Before I can breathe into its neck and exhale silent soft shudders into its chest.

Now, who has my fucking car keys?

Melissa Lynne is a writer, motherless daughter, mental health advocate, and mermaid witch. When she can’t see through the tears of grief or think through the episodes of mania, she writes her way down and through and out. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her 3 kids and 2 cats.

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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

cancer, Guest Posts

You Can’t Make That Up

April 26, 2022
breast cancer

How do you know your dog is dead?

My mother was concerned and texting me about her elderly dog. I asked if he was breathing and no, Wilbur was not breathing. He had collapsed soon after peeing. I told my mother to put a towel over him and I would be there as soon as possible. It was already a busy day. My novel was coming out in two months and I needed to respond to emails before picking up the kids from a local park. But trouble worships at the altar of inconvenience.

Later that night, after transporting the corpse to the vet, I found the lump in my breast.

I am now being treated for breast cancer. According to my oncologist, one in eight women gets this disease. More women get breast cancer than floss regularly. This makes my diagnosis somewhat run-of-the-mill, which is both reassuring and frightening. As I write this, I am sitting up in bed leaning against something called a wedge pillow. I am between surgeries and chemotherapy, considering a buzz cut and reading about the likelihood of mouth sores. I want to write, but as it turns out, cancer is time consuming. It’s infuriating. It won’t let me make stuff up.

Like parenting, cancer is something you do while you do all the other things. “Breast cancer is the one you want,” said my friend with lung cancer who manages a fitness center. Another friend, upon learning of my diagnosis, said, “At least it’s under a Biden Administration.” And then she promised to knit me a boob and would I mind merino wool if they were out of cashmere.

The day after I dropped off the dog corpse, I scheduled a mammogram and ultrasound. As the Russian woman with the blue mascara and N95 mask maneuvered my breast into a plastic tray while explaining that, due to my age (47), half of my breasts had migrated to my armpits, I stared at the daffodil mural and wondered why women needed to be reminded of flowers while they’re standing topless in front of a big white machine. One week later, I was back for a biopsy and, this time, a field of bright orange poppies. As I perched on the table awaiting the technician, I jotted down some notes for a story about a Russian woman with blue mascara.

Soon after, on my way to pick up my daughter from physical therapy, I got the call. “It’s not the news we were hoping for,” is how the nurse began. As I pulled the car over, she declared matter-of-factly, “You will get through this. But we should act quickly.” There were other words: fast-growing tumor, surgery, chemotherapy. I interrupted her. “I need to find parking. Can you email me what you just said?” She said she would. I found a spot around the corner.

In the car, I told my 13-year-old the news. “I’ll be ok,” I said, crying, “But I have breast cancer.” She was quiet and stared out the window. Back at home, she made me a cup of mint tea and suggested we watch Gilmore Girls. It was the episode where Paris gets bossy about the school newspaper. We stared at the screen and waited for the rest of the family to come home. My husband had taken the older one to the DMV to test for her learner’s permit. When they walked into the kitchen, permit in hand, I restated something I would later say one hundred more times to my extended family. “I’ll be ok. But I have breast cancer.” As I described what I understood about my disease so far, my older daughter cried, and my husband nodded slowly, as if drawing an invisible line between his brain and his body. We ordered Thai food and read the pathology report. After dinner I excused myself to listen to a sample of my audio book.

“The good news is that you can keep the top skin and nipples,” the plastic surgeon informed me, after drawing a diagram of my breast showing the location of the tumor. He depicted my breast as a perfectly round circle with the nipple as a tiny donut, smack dab in the middle. I told the surgical team my first novel was coming out in a few weeks. “How exciting,” one of the residents said. “We can schedule around that.”

I spoke to a stranger who, eight years ago, had a double mastectomy and reconstruction with the same surgical team. She told me to buy this wedge pillow, and to request an anti-nausea drug to get me through general anesthesia. She encouraged me to take the pain medication, and to wear a button-down blouse to the hospital because I wouldn’t be able to pull shirts over my head for several weeks. She assured me I was doing the right thing, and what my new breasts would lack in sensation, they would make up for in symmetry and perkiness. She sent me a photo of her cleavage and offered to meet me somewhere so I could see and touch her silicon breasts. “It’s just what we do for each other,” she said, when I marveled at her invitation and politely declined. Then I put on lipstick and attended a virtual event for debut novelists.

Between blood tests, Zoom book events, and doctors drawing on my breasts with Sharpies, it began to hit me. Rocking back and forth on the floor of my bedroom, I fantasized about running away. I could fly to an island, swim in warm water, and order drinks from someone who thinks I’m healthy.

On a Friday in March, I woke up at dawn and showered with antiseptic body wash. After removing my jewelry, I pulled on sweatpants and my mother’s button-down shirt. My husband drove me to the hospital and held my hand in the waiting room. When the woman with the hoop earrings asked if he was my next of kin in the event I couldn’t make health decisions for myself, I started crying. My surgeon visited and asked if I was writing another book. “I think so,” I told her. “I’ve been busy.”

The nurse with the mole on his forehead had to put the IV in my foot. The veins on my hands are “tricky,” he said. I surrendered to him my merino wool knit boob, and he promised everyone would take good care of me. Then he put a mask over my mouth and told me to take several deep breaths.

Six hours later, I woke up woozy with a large bandage across my chest. I felt an incredible weight which made normal breathing difficult. Below the bandage, under my skin and pectoral muscles, were two expanders that would hold the place for future implants. Drains to collect excess fluid hung down from my body like extra intestines. My husband kissed the top of my head. His lips were soft. “You did it,” he said, looking proud and relieved. We ordered chicken teriyaki from the hospital menu, and I sipped apple juice through a straw. That night I requested that the nurses leave the shades open so I could watch the lights flicker in the skyscraper next door. I half-watched Crazy Rich Asians and a corset movie with Keira Knightley while I drifted in and out of sleep. I first saw Crazy Rich Asians on a plane two years ago. I had cancer then but didn’t know it.

Back at home in bed, propped up against the wedge pillow, I checked my email. Many people had enjoyed my novel. One reviewer called it “strange and beautiful,” and another said, “This book will haunt me for a while; maybe forever and not in a bad way.” I smiled and swallowed more pills. I could barely move. Sharp pains shot through my chest like lightning bolts. My left armpit felt like it was on fire. I had no appetite for anything other than ice water. And more frightening than the physical pain, was the psychosis. I was scared to be alone. I was worried I might rip the drains out of my sides and pick open the incisions to tear the expanders out of my chest. I didn’t want to hurt myself, but I wanted, no – I needed – the foreign objects out of my body. The next day I picked up a prescription for an anti-anxiety med.

A few days later, I went to a bookstore for a signing. I wore a black hoodie with inside pockets to hold the drains. It was designed for women who had had their breasts removed. It also came in pink but that seemed too upbeat. I sat in a folding chair and signed 30 copies of my novel. A customer asked me what it was about. “Secret-keeping,” I replied.

My oncologist’s assistant called today, interrupting a short story I was working on. Next week I will start chemo. This will involve 16 infusions over the course of five months. The story is about a policeman who is concerned about his aging body. I can’t decide how to end it. The strongest of the drugs, Adriamycin, is bright red and can cause burning sensations in the body, which is why it is referred to as The Red Devil. You can’t make that up.

Rebecca Handler is a writer who lives and works in San Francisco. Rebecca’s stories have been published and awarded in several anthologies, and she blogs regularly at www.onewomanparty.com. Edie Richter is Not Alone, her debut novel, was published by Unnamed Press in March 2021, received a Kirkus Starred Review, and was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. Rebecca was recently awarded a MacDowell fellowship and looks forward to spending April 2022 in the woods in New Hampshire, writing her second novel.

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If you liked this essay you will love this book:

“A tragicomic exploration of the collateral damage of Alzheimer’s disease… Handler gets it right from the title on out. Edie is definitely not alone. Her plight is one many readers will respond to deeply and perhaps even be soothed by… Profound yet often quite funny, keenly observed, and deeply affecting.” ―Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, memories, storytelling

The Ever-Expanding Story

April 24, 2022
dad

I don’t discover the broken tree limbs until weeks after the ice storm. By then, my family has weathered not only the most snow and ice Louisville, Kentucky has seen since the 90s – we’ve also gotten through Achilles surgery, a child’s fractured pinky finger, and a $9,000 bill for a roof coming apart at the seams. I’m not even surprised when my husband returns from taking the boys to school one day and says, “Did you notice we lost some branches?”

I follow him into the backyard shaded by the abundance of trees planted on our small plot. I love our home like it’s another member of the family, our permanent address a respite after years of ever-rotating rentals. It’s where we have movie nights on a couch the size of a city bus, where I’m making my way through Wendell Berry’s collected poems in the living room we converted into a library, where I write, where I feed the blue jays and chase off the squirrels.

I clutch my coffee tighter against the chill still in the air. It’s the first official break in the February gray and sun streams across everything like someone threw the curtains open on the world. The rays of light dance across our one remaining pine – another ice storm our first winter took down its twin – now missing two enormous limbs. My heart aches for the damaged tree at the same time my brain starts running the numbers on calling someone to clean it up versus buying a chainsaw, like a self-respecting Kentuckian. Everything costs money.

It’s a few days before it occurs to me that my dad heats the rural home he shares with my stepmom and niece with firewood. Every fall, right around my birthday, he hooks the carryall to the tractor, rides down the big hill into the woods, and gathers firewood for the winter. I don’t have to close my eyes to imagine the wood pile that sits near the house. It stands so tall we could climb it when we were kids. If anyone has a chainsaw up for the job, it’s him. But I’m not in the habit of asking my father for things. Outside the refuge of my home, words don’t come easy in my familial relationships. There’s nothing noble about my silent suffering, the way I swallow everything because it’s easier to avoid someone I love than it is to tell them complicated truths.

A year ago, I probably would have made the drive to the hardware store for the chainsaw and tried not to break any bones getting down the massive limbs, one still attached ten feet up the trunk. But a lot can change in a year. I text my dad a picture of the tree and ask if he has time to help.

I prepare myself for it to be days before he texts me back, like when I sent the rare vulnerable text around the one-year anniversary of my brother’s death and asked him not to drink his way through grief. But this time his response comes back quickly. He fires off questions about the tree, but also the roof, my husband’s physical therapy, my youngest’s pinky finger.  He tells me we can get this done, no problem, do not hire a tree service, he wants to help in any way he can.

Survivor’s guilt goes from concept to experience as the thought darts through my head: He has time to help me because my brother’s dead. Even if it’s true that my brother’s addiction and the resulting costs to my father’s time, money, and resources impacted his ability to help me, it’s not as if I would have agreed to pay that price to have his help now. Not even for the way something blooms in my chest when I ask my dad for help and get an immediate yes in response.

*

The words dad and father have such different connotations. My dad cuts down the wood that heats his house. My dad and I take my niece on hikes and tell her stories about her daddy. My dad has a chainsaw I might borrow. A father, on the other hand, is mostly an explanation. I’m estranged from my father – that’s the formal line I used to tell people to explain his absence.  Writers care about diction and connotation because the right words help us tell our stories. The reader feels different things if I use the word deadbeat or mysterious or long-lost to describe my father. They feel the frost in father and the warmth in dad. There is no alternate word for daughter; only the one.

The story I’ve long told myself about my father uses straightforward words: my father stopped seeing me when I was in middle school and my mom and stepdad raised me through the hardest years on their own. A chapter in the story might read like this: The last time I asked my father to come to Louisville and help me with something it was 2010 and he said no.

*

Long before the Veterans Administration and an unprecedented streak of stable employment allowed me and my husband to buy our home, we rented an 1,100 square foot bungalow five miles west. It was 2010 and we were still feeling the effects of the post-2008 fallout. It turned out our landlords were, too. They were forced to sell their home and we (the colicky newborn, the toddler, and two over-degreed and underemployed adults) were forced to accept the grim reality that we could not afford a new place. Instead, we would move into my mom and stepdad’s small brick ranch.

The day we moved out of the rental house, when it came time to hoist the washer up the basement stairs, the tight fit took some of the original 1920’s doorframe with it. The white-painted frame splintered and exposed raw wood, like flesh tearing to reveal bone. We will never save up enough for a new place if we don’t get our deposit back was my only thought as I stared at the wounded doorframe. Neither my husband nor I are what you would call handy, especially then (this was before you could look up anything on YouTube). I was desperate. I flipped up my Blackberry Pearl, composed a text asking for help, and used the new camera feature to send a grainy picture to my father. We hadn’t spoken since my second son was born. I don’t remember exactly what he said back, but I know it could be summed up as no. I called my mom in tears. She brought over putty and paint and we fixed it enough to make it unnoticeable.

I never asked him for anything else. At least that’s the story I told myself.

*

My dad arrives to help me take down the broken branches on a sunny spring day. He brings his chainsaw, my stepmom, my niece, and donuts. He’s dressed in the working clothes I associate with cutting up wood – jeans, denim long sleeve shirt, work boots, and a hat to block the sun. If not for the lack of hair under the hat and the lines that now run across his face like creeks through earth it would be like no time has passed since I was a child trailing him around the farm.

My husband is working, the once colicky newborn and toddler are now older and away at (middle) school, and my stepmom’s attention is on my six-year-old niece, so it’s me and my dad left to tackle the tree.  In another life my brother might have come down too, like we helped with the firewood when we were kids. Sometimes I think about how my whole adult life we poured our love into my brother but not each other, and how these moments, just the two of us, are like a consolation prize, when you get something nice but you still lost.

We get to work, breaking only for pizza or to admire my niece’s theatrics and occasional demands for attention. We fall into an easy pattern – he cuts, I carry. We work like that for hours. We don’t talk a lot beyond the job. We couldn’t hear each other over the buzz of the chainsaw anyways. But even in the quiet lulls there are no serious discussions about the past, or my brother, or the conversation we have both tucked into our pocket like a buckeye you save to worry with your thumb: the what happened when I was a kid? talk and the what’s your side of the story? conversation.

They’re conversations he says he’s eager to have. When I sent the text on the anniversary of my brother’s death and he finally responded a few days later, he casually mentioned he read an essay I published about him under a pen name back in 2017. At the time we barely spoke unless there were updates about my brother’s various legal troubles and addiction relapses, or the dutiful invite to one of the boys’ birthday parties. In the essay I wrote about how my father was a stranger, a ghost. Four years later, as we texted about that very essay, he said wanted us to know each other, wanted to fill in the gaps. I didn’t text back all the things I have learned about him since I wrote that essay: that he likes the way walnut casings smell, that he has buddies who play bluegrass with my favorite musicians, that he found his youngest child dead from an overdose and survived it.

Today we are both content to keep those conversations tucked away awhile longer and do something we haven’t done in almost thirty years: work together. I wonder if other people realize the small miracles found inside the basic act of doing a task with their dad. Painting a room. Doing the dishes. Moving a dresser. We’ve never done these things together. In the past year we’ve spent more time with each other than in the previous thirty, but mostly on hikes or sitting around a table talking. This act – this doing – feels different. Like my whole adult life, we’ve been strangers visiting but today, today we are a dad and his daughter cleaning up a mess.

*

The truth is growing up I was a daddy’s girl and I basked in his attention like a seedling in spring weather. Dad, read the poem I wrote. Dad, look at the snake I caught, caught him right behind the head so he can’t bite me, like you showed me. Dad, can we play baseball after dinner? Dad, watch this.

What is it about our parents that makes us revert back to our youngest selves? My friends describe this phenomenon, too. How after five minutes with their mothers they go from self-assured middle-aged woman to the irresponsible child flushed with shame, or how the presence of their father can take them from easy going adult to willfully obstinate adolescent for no understandable reason. It’s as if our bodies remember the time when our parents were our whole universe, and what it took to break away and make a universe of our own. Maybe that’s why almost every essayist and memoirist writes about our parents. Maybe it’s muscle memory.

*

Like the sun makes its arc over the yard as we work, casting us first in silver and later in golden light, the passage of time also casts things in a different hue. Before the ice storm took down the tree limbs, I was working on another essay, this one revisiting my brother’s eulogy. I reread every one of my brother’s letters in preparation. I found new details for the essay, but the two letters that stayed on my mind long after I’d put the box back on the shelf had little to do with my brother.

One was the first letter my brother ever sent me from prison, dated August 2009. I saw the date and did the math. My brother was locked up off and on for ten years, a tidy decade, age twenty-two to thirty-two. Holding the letter, I realized our dad spent a decade with an incarcerated son. The new beginnings and relapses, lawyers’ fees and court costs, commissary deposits and phone cards fell on him. When I was asking him to come to Louisville and repair a piece of splintered wood, he was fresh in the early days of trying to figure out how to fix a splintered son.

The second was a letter from my father, written in 2012 (two years after the infamous no). I flushed with shame when I realized I held his response to a letter I wrote asking (begging) for money. We’re more of a generational trauma than generational wealth kind of a white family, so no one had anything to spare. Except my dad. He sent a check for $75 (more than I got for hocking my vintage dress collection) with the letter I now held in shaky hands: Glad to help, keep us informed and we will help when possible. I enjoyed seeing everyone at the birthday party. I am very proud of you and your family. We love you and hope to spend more time with you.

I forgot about the letter and the money, my memory cutting out what didn’t fit the narrative. I forgot my dad has never expressed anything but pride in me. When he found the essay I wrote about him the first thing he did was compliment the writing. When I wanted to write about the things that killed my brother, he gave me his unconditional blessing. A year of quarantine and grief had already made me question the story I told myself about my childhood, especially the one-dimensional main characters: mother – hero; father – villain; daughter – victim. And now I held in my hands tangible proof of a glaring plot hole.

Sometimes it feels like the narrative of my life is crashing down like the big limbs in our backyard, unable to hold under all the weight of something new.

*

We writers (and readers) want tidy endings, or at least emotionally satisfying ones. When I wrote about my dad before, I said There is no word that explains how girls love absent fathers. Maybe I got that right; sometimes there is no word. There’s only an ever-expanding story.

It’s fitting that something as ordinary as wood split in two could expand ours. I only have to close my eyes and I’m eight years old, riding the carryall down into the woods to get the firewood for the winter. I’m scrambling onto the back with my brother and lining up on the L-shaped lift, as good as any ride at the county fair. My belly flips as we rise in the air. There are no helmets or belts. We whoop, we holler, we hold on tighter for the descent and hope the worn wood doesn’t give us splinters. The air is thick with the contrasting smells of decaying leaves and fresh sniffs of split wood. The sun shoots through what’s left of the canopy in perfectly defined beams; they warm the crown of my head as we work. Our annual tradition falling right before my birthday makes it feel special even though it’s simply preparing for the next season before the current one slips away. When my brother dies eight days after my thirty-seventh birthday, I will think of the way I’ve always felt autumn in my body, deep in my chest, like something I love that I’m going to lose, and I’ll wonder if I always knew.

Once the branches are cut into pieces and stacked in tidy piles my dad loads the chainsaw back into their car. My stepmom and I bump elbows and my niece jumps into her booster seat with an unceremonious wave. The normalcy of the afternoon leaves disbelief in their wake as they drive away. This, then, is what it can be like. This is what can happen when the branch breaks and you use what remains to start a fire, to warm something new.

We finally got a clear view of the damage once we’d cut our way to the last of the second branch. The biggest of the two, it was still attached to the trunk. With most of the mess cleared we could now see the deep wound three feet tall, shiny and thick with sap congealed like a scab where the branches broke and took big pieces of the trunk with them.

As we stared up at the injured pine, I asked my dad if the tree was going to make it.

“Maybe,” he said. “The wound is pretty bad. But even if you lose it eventually it’s still got some time left.”

Lucie Brooks is a writer from Louisville, Kentucky. You can read her work in Catapult and Taunt

***

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

 

Guest Posts, Humor, Relationships

Better Questions for OK Cupid

April 19, 2022
guaranteed

Compatibility Guaranteed!

1. How do you feel about sex during a woman’s period?

a) It works for me.
b) Natural birth control. Except for that once.
c) Anyone but Harvey.

2. With whom do you empathize?

a) Super models, because they are always aware of their own minute by minute obsolescence.
b) The dust bowl victims in the thirties, because John Steinbeck is such a classic writer.
c) Yourself, of course.

3. What do you admire most about bedbugs?

a) Their lack of creepy rodent tails.
b) Their ability to survive dormant for decades before they freak you out.
c) That their presence says nothing about any deficiency of housekeeping skills, since even the laziest housekeeper doesn’t toss human blood around and that’s what bedbugs eat.

4. Which body part of your own do you consider irresistible?

a) The vein at the crook of your left elbow.
b) The cartilage between your nostrils.
c) The second three inches of your sternum, starting from the top.

5. What does your cat think about you?

a) How stupid you are.
b) How brilliant you are.
c)Who are you again?

6. What is your favorite sound?

a) The other person’s head exploding after you’ve won the argument.
b) Your own head exploding after you’ve won the argument.
c) The whole yoga class’s heads exploding at the third “om.”

7. What one trait do you dislike about your dog?

a) His inexplicable refusal to flush the toilet.
b) That he’s lying. No one could possibly adore you that much.
c) What a stupid question.

8. Why do we die?

a) God, who doesn’t exist, hates us.
b) Oh, you know, why not.
c) We don’t.

If all answers match, guaranteed lifelong devotion.

If 80 – 90% match, guaranteed five years three months of on the whole a sound relationship.

If 70% or less match, upgrade your OkCupid membership. Send the annual $150 directly to me.

Susan Anmuth lives with her son Ethan, Yorkie Xena the Warrior Princess, and cat, Jelly (short for Jealous) in Newark, New Jersey. She works as a cashier at Walmart, which offers plenty of writing material.

***

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

Guest Posts, Hope, parents

Cake, and Other Necessary Comforts

April 17, 2022
mountain

The cake, with its creamy swirls of orange and yellow, is weirdly magnificent—a sunset in a pan. Banana caramel upside-down cake. I want it, but the list of ingredients and onerous instructions kill my appetite. I text the picture to my kitchen-whiz friend, Yvette.

She replies: “Wow. Are you going to make it?”

“Yes, someday.” And then I add: “Before I die.”

She sends back laugh-crying emojis because she knows me. I love salads-in-a-bag, jars of minced garlic, one-pot frozen meals from Trader Joe’s. Why rinse and chop, dice and blend (and then do all the clean-up) when you can catch up on grading, or putter in the garden, or better yet, sit on the porch with your cat?

I also send the picture to my mother, which I regret at once, because she wants the recipe, and though she would have made a wonderful cake, a sweet sunset like no other, there is no way she can.

And my heart hurts again as I face the chasm between what could be, and what is.

***

When she and my stepdad Mark decided to live off the grid eight years ago, they were in their early 70s, and a working kitchen was one of the loves my mother gave up. They’d used their last $10,000 to buy the tiny one-room cabin on 20 isolated acres, the sloping land so matted with juniper and bitter brush you have to shove your way through. They haul up water in 200-gallon containers and hike up a hill to the outhouse; keep their perishables in a Coleman cooler. It’s like dry camping year-round. Their mountain cabin is so hard to get to that if they were gravely injured, they’d have to be rescued by helicopter.

Yet she still pulls off savory bread in the Dutch oven, and makes pioneer-style cakes on the wood stove. Sometimes she sends me pictures if there’s a good enough cell signal.

***

“It’s like going on a cruise,” my mother says every time she visits my son and me in Reno. From her door to mine, it’s only 135 miles, but it takes her half a day. Their 3-mile road, originally a deer trail, is so steep and narrow and winding, so rocky and rutted that only a 4-W drive truck can manage—and then only at 2 mph. So they get up early and throw in Hefty bags of garbage and laundry in the truck, along with Mom’s duffel and the dogs, and trundle down the mountain.

In the valley, “the flats” they call it, a rancher lets them keep their ‘90 Suzuki Swift on his property. It sits there like a faded blue go-cart in the weeds, attracting mice to its innards, which they scare off with a few thumps on the hood.

After they transfer her bags to the car, Mom waves goodbye to my Mark and the border collies, Jasmine and Teddy, whips on her wraparound sunglasses, and takes off along the two-lane highways that cross the high desert basin of northeast California and into Nevada. Sometimes a highway patrol officer pulls her over for going so far under the speed limit—but at 79, her eyesight is bad and her hearing worse, and what’s the rush anyway. Three hours after leaving the flats, after a stop in Doyle to pee and eat an ice cream bar, she’ll pull into my driveway.

***

Before she comes I clean the house in a flurry. I have no answer to why—she doesn’t notice or care if the place is cluttered or clean, dusty or wiped and gleaming. To her, it’s glorious enough to walk from room to room. To sit at a dining room table or on a couch; to use sinks with running water, a flush toilet. Still, I fluff the pillows on her single bed in the little guest room, lay out new fleece socks for her feet that are always cold. I cut flowers in the summer, buy them in winter. Put a box of Junior Mints on the nightstand because her sweet tooth is legendary.

The two main things I offer that are the most magical in her mind (and you’d think I’d hired a limousine to escort us to the Atlantis spa): ice cream and a hot bath. So I always buy a gallon of salted caramel ice cream and an extra jar of caramel topping. She’ll finish both off in three days.

The bath is less grand, but she doesn’t agree. I live in a small manufactured home, with a crappy, cramped bathtub with plastic walls that bow inward if you lean against them. But on the mountain my parents use an outdoor shower—a solar-heated canvas bag of five lukewarm gallons. In the winter, they wash by the wood stove with vinegar and a basin of melted snow. When she comes here her hands are stained with dirt and wood ash.

At night, during her visits, I light a candle, and set out tropical bubble bath from Whole Foods. She soaks in the tub for up to an hour, reading a book or, I imagine, feeling her bones relax. Now and then I’ll hear the hot water blast as she freshens the temperature, and who can blame her for wanting to make it last?

***

It wasn’t until she met and married Mark, a taciturn, misanthropic man who loves the remote outdoors, 30 years ago, that the idea of this kind of living began for her. Although she’d taught my brother and me to revere nature, we grew up in neighborhoods and apartment complexes, and our times in the “wild” were spent in campgrounds with vending machines and hot pay showers. We never lived on a road that wasn’t paved.

With Mark, my mother moved from a house in a small town, to a farmhouse on 23 acres, to a trailer alongside the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, to the faraway cabin they have now. Each dwelling more rustic, more remote, than the last.

Early on, my mother was worried and went to see a therapist, who suspected their marriage was suffering from “folie a deux,” madness of two. She warned, One day one of you will die from this.***

I mail them care packages between Mom’s visits. Because for them the post office is a 40-mile, 3 hour round trip, I try to make it count, with fun and useful variety. I do what I can afford, and it’s never enough:

Just-Add-Water mixes: pancake, soup, mashed potatoes, tea and coffee
Hand and foot warmers
Waterproof gloves
Hats with LED lights built in
Books
Chocolate, no nuts that can break a tooth
Coconut oil for chapped skin

***

My stepdad doesn’t like comfort and convenience; they are signs of weakness, of capitulation to the bullshit status-quo. (When I got her a pedicure, he rolled his eyes.) But he loves her cakes, even when they’re dense from the 6,800’ elevation, or burnt on the edges. He calls my mother a trooper, which she enjoys. She likes being the only woman who could even begin to live up there.

Their clothes, mostly from the thrift store, take a beating from the rough mountain life, and when they go to town, they look like homeless people, or refugees who have walked across the land for a very long time, in all kinds of weather. As my mother says, it’s futile to try and keep clean on the mountain, what with all the dirt and dust, plus their two big dogs, and water so precious. “It’s just dirt, it won’t kill you,” she’s fond of reminding me. (This from Portland, Oregon’s 1964 Rose Festival Princess.)

One time, a woman walked up to them in the parking lot of Grocery Outlet and handed them a loaf of bread and a $5 dollar bill.
“So funny!” my mother texted, but I tried to picture the scene without crying.

***

When she comes here, I do all the cooking. On her first visits, years ago, I thought she’d jump in with glee to make her favorite recipes with every power kitchen tool I had: soufflés and mousses, Boston cream pies and buttery Dutch babies with a golden surface that bubbles and rises like the surface of the moon.

Yet she only hovers nearby, loving to watch—and, I realize, to rest. At the cabin, she does everything related to food—the grocery list and shopping, the cooking, the cleaning up that is a daunting chore when you have no plumbing. Burying scraps down the trail so as not to tempt mountain lions or other creatures.

For the first night, I buy appetizers, her favorites that are hard to keep on the mountain: egg salad, Greek yogurt, seafood salad in creamy white sauce, which she eats by the forkful straight from the tub, eyes raised to the ceiling in what can only be called ecstasy.

Theirs is a life of such physical work that even the thought of my mother’s day makes me want to go to bed and collapse into a long, warm nap.

***

I try not to show it, but her visits take a toll. After the third night, I get antsy at the work that’s piled up, and my 14-year old son retreats more into his bedroom for the solitude he’s used to. He likes having his bathroom to himself.

I’ll be quiet as a mouse, Mom tells us before a visit, which is impossible, and anyway, my kid and I are introverts, and she’s an extrovert. A flaming extrovert, she once admitted. And that is another love she’s given up to live on the mountain with a man who prefers silence and space. Each morning, if the reception is good, he’ll read fringe blogs on his phone about the New World Order, the dark dangers of the vaccine, chem trails, and other concerns.

Mom told me that she sometimes just talks to herself, which Mark doesn’t seem to notice. “I’ll say, ‘How’d you sleep, Carol?’ And then I answer myself: ‘Well I had to get up six times to squat and pee in the chamber pot, so it was pretty awful! What do you think about that!?’”

Knowing this, I just have to buck up (as my mother would say), but it’s not easy to throw out the routine that anchors my day: I get up at dawn, make coffee, throw out bird seed, and then feed the cats after giving Tiger Bomb his thyroid tablet in a salmon-flavored “pill pocket.” And then, with my son still blessedly asleep, I can return to my room to work. Sometimes, when there’s a lull in the semester, I get a chance to write. When those precious mornings come, the time feels carved out of my life like a vein of gold.

When Mom’s here, she tries. She tiptoes and peers in my door, which I leave open for the cats to go in and out.

“Oh! You’re up!”

That’s my cue to click off whatever I’m doing and tell her, Yes it’s fine, come in and sit here beside me and I’ll get you some coffee. She settles into the teal velvet chair next to the bed, wrapped in my robe. When I return and see her sitting there, like a grateful gnome who’s crept in from the cold wilderness, the pang returns to my chest and I think, to hell with the Forum posts. We sit and sip and chat about the day and I tell her funny stories about my classes. “This student’s title is ‘The Farters of the Enlightenment,’” I say, and she whoops. Haha! I tell her about the girl who wants to be a “pillow in the community,” which we agree is both funny, and sort of wonderful.

“Quiche or French toast,” I ask.

Her eyebrows raise. “French toast? With fruit?”

“How about sautéed strawberries? And powdered sugar.”

She sighs and says, “It’s like I’ve died and gone to heaven.”

***

By the second day I’ve usually blown off my work entirely, and have sent an announcement to my students to text me if there’s something urgent.

“How about we go to World Market today?”

“Could we?” Mom chirps, as if I’d offered to fly us to San Francisco for steamed clams and French bread. I feel a burst of anger because whatever I do or buy is so small, so fleeting, it doesn’t deserve such gratitude. What she needs is not gourmet groceries but a new car, a new wardrobe, hearing aids, solar panels for the cabin and a snowplow and a greenhouse that can withstand the winter storms. The list of what she needs is so long my pen will run dry before I’m done.

Instead we go to World Market and buy Sicilian pesto and German egg spaetzle, and Walnut Scottish shortbread for dessert. She lingers over lingonberry conserves and I say, toss it in. Then I add a jar of Devon cream and butterscotch root beer to drink while she discovers a few more things to try. In line, she says to the woman behind us, “Isn’t this place a kick? What a feast we’ll have tonight!”

On the way home, she inspects the items again one by one, as if these were gifts sent from around the world, just for her.

Each time she comes, she resembles a bit more the trees on the mountain, the dark, gnarled branches of the mahogany, the juniper and Manzanita; even the bitter brush that crouches and grips the earth through the harsh summer winds and the deep snowstorms of winter. She’ll be 80 next spring.

“Can’t you keep her,” a friend asked, after seeing a picture of us on Facebook during one visit. As if my mother were a stray dog who’d wandered in from the desert. It’s her choice to live this way. I tell myself this, again and again. She always tells me what she loves on the mountain—the birds who make their home in the cabin’s eaves, the view clear to Mt. Shasta hundreds of miles to the west. I see that her visits are a way of replenishing herself, and if this is all I can do, then for now, that will have to be enough. Beyond that, the future is a path that curves out of sight and into the dark.

By the fourth day we’ve done their laundry at Mr. Bubbles (with extra wash/extra rinse because the clothes are stiff with dirt and grime), which we fold and stuff back in the Hefty bags, and nestle them in her car. This process takes at least four hours. On top of the laundry we layer boxes of food and supplies from Wal-Mart. We find a space for the used books she’s picked out from Grassroots Books.

The night before, I’d heard her on the phone with Mark for their evening call, telling him about our day, and as always she asked about the sparrow family and the dogs, wanting to know if they missed her. She described all the things she’d be bringing home.

“You won’t believe your eyes,” she told him.

Then it’s time for her to go and my son carries out her duffel bag and we all stand in the driveway. She puts on her cowboy hat and the giant sunglasses and gives us both hugs, and I try not to feel the way her bones push through her coat.

“It’s not goodbye, it’s so long,” she says. Then she backs the car out slow as a tractor into the street, and before heading forward, waves out the window to us and yells, “Tra la!”

***

The other day, she texted she wouldn’t be able to visit any time soon. The Suzuki had broken down, needed to be towed away. It would cost a lot and they’d have to save up.

“When I do visit again,” she wrote, “can we make that cake, the banana caramel one? The one that looks like a sunrise.”

“Sunset,” I started to write, and then stopped because we try to have hope where we can.

Joelle Fraser, is the author of two memoirs (The Territory of Men and The Forest House). A MacDowell Fellow, her work has been published in many journals, including The Iowa Review, Fourth Genre, Pangyrus, Crazyhorse, and Michigan Quarterly Review. 

She lives in Reno, Nevada with her 15-year old son and three rescue cats and is researching her next book, NO ONE CAN FIND YOU. Her website is www.joellefraser.com.

***

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.