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Lavinia

June 17, 2022
Lavinia

Maybe she had really made it all up, just the way a bratty, superficial snob would.

It was like all those times she’d walked from her parent’s house to the nearest little train station, one train every hour, for the commute into Sydney for uni. All those obnoxious car horns as she walked the main road from home pissed her off, not to mention the rabid, unintelligible catcalling voices out the windows. They struck her from behind, sharp and jarring, without any warning, before fading away into the backwind and exhaust pipe fumes as the cars carrying them sped off.

Lavinia just had to take it as she walked, even if it meant that despite her physical fitness, she’d more often than not arrive on the station platform with a stabbing pain in her chest from all the unpredictable, shock noises that had stalked her along the way. She could have changed her route off the main road, down along the bike track and along the waterfront lined with mangroves, but it would have added at least ten minutes to her walk. Besides, she’d been determined that she shouldn’t have to be the one to change her routine, her behaviour. It was a matter of principle.

It didn’t stop her from complaining though. The whole thing pissed her off.

“I hate it here. Why did you have to choose to live in a place like this? So many gross bogans screaming catcalls out of cars. I can’t go anywhere without it happening,” she spoke sourly to her dad as they sat at the dining room table over coffee. One hand held a macadamia milk cappuccino halfway to her lips while the other rifled through the new Louis Vuitton monogrammed bag she’d just dropped three months of Christmas casual retail wages on.

“Drop the attitude. It happens everywhere,” her dad cut across her, firmly dismissive.

Ironic, that the whole ‘it happens everywhere’ cliché is always the go-to dismissal for problems like this; completely ignorant of the fact it actually hits the nail right on the head. It happens – everywhere.

Maybe Lavinia had lashed out, scapegoated a bit. Maybe her reactions were immature, superficial. But despite still lacking the right words to express herself, the eighteen-year-old still seethed at the idea that she was the one who had to be nit-picked at, she was the one put on trial for not complaining in the right words, when all she wanted to do was walk to the station in fucking peace.

The whole thing made her feel small, embarrassed and awkward, so she probably did put on an attitude to compensate.

At least now Lavinia was gradually growing into her looks and her style, shedding the puberty fat. It meant most of the street harassment could technically be interpreted as enthusiastic compliments. Not like two years ago. Sixteen, and on a family daytrip a bit further up the coast – ordinary but generally overpriced fish and chip shops and cafes along the sunny beachside esplanade.

Ah yes, who could forget that year? If Lavinia had been American maybe it would have been ‘Sweet’ Sixteen? But maybe that was just something in movies. In any case, for her it had meant fatter thighs, acne and a weird kink in her hair.

The previous year she’d been on her first overseas exchange trip – to Japan. And now, on this outing with her family, she’d decided to wear a dress she’d bought cheap with some pocket money back in Tokyo, Harajuku specifically, where she’d been out shopping with her host sister. It was a borderline cosplay of the sailor-style school uniforms for girls in Japan – much more fun than the boring uniforms she had to wear in Australia – and it had a short hem.

“Oi!” A loud, jeering voice sounded a little way across from her as she walked with her mum along the paved esplanade, carrying a cardboard tray of take-away coffees. In the corner of her eye she saw a man in board shorts, a t-shirt and sunglasses, standing beneath one of the navy blue outdoor umbrellas in front of the cafe they’d just come out of.

“Cover up ya fat slut!”

It was true her thighs were a bit fatter than they’d been before, and maybe the dress didn’t suit her that well either, at least technically. Maybe it was a bit weeb-y, for anyone who even knew that word. But who the fuck cared? She was just a kid, for god’s sake. The man who yelled at her, very conspicuously so everyone knew exactly who he meant, looked maybe about forty. But it was from a distance and what sixteen-year-old can really tell in detail anything above twenty-five or so?

The whole thing was humiliating and it cut the day short. It was awkward with that short hem, walking up the sharp incline of the hill to where the car was parked.

“This is why I told you not to wear that. Why do you have to do this to yourself?” Her mum grimaced as she walked alongside. Lavinia’s dad and younger brother were walking directly behind, snickering as she kept trying to tug down the hem over the most hideous part of her thighs. They hadn’t been there to hear the stranger scream the words ‘fat slut’, but they must have been aware something had happened to upset Lavinia, something to set off a teenage girl tantrum.

The snickering didn’t stop until Lavinia’s mum turned around and snapped irritably: “Enough already, she knows!”

Lavinia still couldn’t bring herself to speak. Why couldn’t they just read the room for once and at least stop walking directly behind her on that steep incline, where anyone could so easily get an accidental, and presumably grotesque, glimpse up her dress? The dress she had no business wearing and now felt silly and over-exposed in.

Amidst the self-loathing, guilt and embarrassment though, some part of Lavinia still managed to think: what about the forty-year-old bloke screaming sexually explicit abuse at a sixteen-year-old girl? Why doesn’t anyone get annoyed at him? Surely he has to be grosser than my thighs.

“Fuck off!” Lavinia turned and yelled at her brother and dad. But the male pair just looked at each other with humorous, knowing glances as if to say, “chicks…”

She carried the residual echo of that day ever since. She simply had to learn: protection whether you wanted it or not, but you don’t get to choose the terms. Somehow it felt like being a sports car, sitting in the garage while its owner one-sidedly negotiated deals for theft, vandalism and whatever-else insurance. Because it was a car. Why would you ask for a car’s thoughts on anything?

She didn’t want that to be her life.

***

Now at twenty-one, honours student and a committed member of the university’s karate club, she was starting to feel like at last she was finding her feet.

Although very recently there’d been a slight…hiccup, you could probably say.

A new guy had come and joined the club. He was maybe just a little bit odd and awkward, but nothing she’d thought much of at first. It was when he started the harassment and stalking, the groping her during drinks at the rooftop beer garden then throwing his drink in her face when she’d pushed him away, that she began seeing him as a problem. Of course, they’d all been a bit drunk that night at the beer garden and the drink in the face had just been an accident; the angry, baiting texts for days afterwards meant for someone else, clearly.

Lavinia was the uptight, superficial snob. The other, cooler girl, (Sarah?), who looks kind of like her said she’s a bitch too. See, it’s not just him. What the hell was she trying to prove taking a stupid old Louis Vuitton bag to drinks in Redfern anyway? She’d better stop being such a bitch if she wants boys to like her. He’ll be waiting for her after nighttime training, sometime next week, but he hasn’t decided what day…

Lavinia’s stomach turned, but then the sickly, churned contents started to simmer. She may have eventually caved and changed her walking route to the station when she was eighteen, but there was no way she was going to let this random creep just turn up and elbow her out of her own club; something she’d put so much sweat, blood, vomit, searing muscle pain, and self-actualising, borderline-masochistic determination into. The next day she filed an official complaint with the university – somewhat underwhelming and anti-climactic of an experience, but still.

And to people’s credit, they offered her lifts back to Central Station after night training, asked her if she was okay and if there was anything else they could do. She even got a few: “I thought he was a bit weird too”-s. The creep kept out of her way, with surprisingly little controversy, at least to her face. Eventually he faded out of the club altogether. But still for a little while after, Lavinia kept accepting lifts in the cars of those who drove, usually the same two or three people.

One night though, someone else made an offer, someone who up until now never had. Garry was a few years older than Lavinia, in a masters programme. He was one of those people who you never quite knew where you stood with, and who seemed convinced everyone should be concerned about where they stood with him to begin with. “Hey, I’ll give you a lift,” he waved her over, more of a directive than a suggestion, but he had his nice-guy voice on, so despite her gut, Lavinia complied.
She slung her sports bag onto the back seat then sat up the front next to Garry. At first no words were exchanged as they trundled down the dark streets of Annandale where the club had recently relocated for Monday nights due to the on-campus fitness centre being over-booked. Footpaths were lined with turn-of-the-century bare brick warehouses, motorbike shops and no-frills ethnic eateries that had been there for decades, now sharing with a consistent scattering of gentrified cafes and burger bars.

Inside the car was silence. Garry did this sometimes; called someone over only to then just sit mute, watching them squirm in the awkwardness of trying to work out what he wanted and whether or not they should already know. Lavinia unconsciously gripped the hem of her skirt, balling the fabric tightly in her fist. She knew what this was and she regretted her decision to get into his car. But no matter what, she refused to give him the satisfaction of being the one to break the silence.

Although it was dark, she could still make out his face, flashing intermittently into view for a few seconds at a time whenever they bypassed a streetlight. She saw the brief flicker of confusion in his eyes and the corners of his mouth twitching hesitantly. This clearly wasn’t going according to his plan and Lavinia relished in the satisfaction, even if it was destined to be only a small, short victory.

“So, you’ve been the topic of some of the club exec meetings…” Garry finally deigned to break the silence himself. He spoke in a soft, somber tone, as if delivering news to someone guilty and shameful, someone who needed to come clean already and stop causing so much unsightly mess. For all of Garry’s attitude, for all the clever subtlety he thought he had, for all the blank faces he pulled when he played dumb, there was still an overwhelming stench of sleaziness about him – like a glut of sewerage creeping up the pipes and oozing just a little bit over the drain grate in the shower or the kitchen sink.

“Look, you’re an attractive girl.”
Shit. He took her off guard with that one.

Lavinia was ashamed that she felt just a bit flattered and pushed the feeling down, hoping none of it had showed up on her face. At least it was still dark enough along the back roads heading towards Central Station.

“Will you let me tell you what I think?” Garry continued, the question, of course, being basically just a piece of arbitrary punctuation, leading into what he’d already decided was going to come next. “I think you have trouble relating to people. But I promise, you will find some close friends.”

What the hell?

A strange knot pulled itself tight in Lavinia’s stomach with a single, heavy-handed jolt. She felt the heat of her face flushing.

What the hell would you know?
I’ve definitely got more real friends than you, dickhead.

The words were in her head but they caught in her throat as she struggled to find her bearings in this bewildering situation in which she was a captive audience. She stared deliberately out the window, watching the grainy, shadowy outlines of terrace houses and shop-fronts go by. But Garry wasn’t about to stop. Clearly he’d rehearsed this.

“As a senior club member I have a responsibility to tell you that throwing tantrums isn’t a good look. Maybe the guy upset you, said something you didn’t like, I don’t know. But sensei and all us execs have enough on our plates without also having to deal with your personal problems.”

They were out on the main road now, middle lane, with lots of cars on either side. The lights of the CBD were small but discernable in the distance.

“Think of it this way,” Garry’s voice never rose. No sharp barbs or jutting edges. Just a consistent, unbroken flow that gently snuffed out anything else that tried to break its way in edgewise. “There’s really no such thing as gender equality,” he said. “But what we can do is create an environment of equality. That’s what sensei and male seniors in the club like me do for you girls, whether you recognise it or not. So I’d like you to try putting things into perspective and being a bit more mindful of how good you really have it.”

Could what Garry just said be true? Even just a little bit? The truth was she hated being a victim and honestly felt embarrassed to be the focus of any controversies, or even just mild annoyances for people. So maybe she should consider: had she exaggerated out of anger in the moment? It wasn’t as if she’d been dragged into an alley, pinned down and raped. Maybe she’d accidentally mislead by doing something that was meant as a recourse for actual victims. Yeah, the new guy had disturbed her, but she hadn’t been in active fear for her life or anything like that – it hadn’t occurred to her to be, at least not at that point.

Maybe she had really made it all up, just the way a bratty, superficial snob would.

They were getting close to the back end of Central Station by now, but to Lavinia the road felt like an endless treadmill, so close to the place where she could finally get out of this car, yet so excruciatingly far. Only the traffic surrounding them seemed to be going fast.

But still, Garry wasn’t done:

“You’re not entitled to anything. Not even to live. I could steer this car right into all that traffic in the left lane and kill you. It would be that easy.”

Wait, what?

The knot synched itself tight once again in Lavinia’s stomach. Was the air-conditioning on a really cold blast or was something else, something terrible, crawling all over her skin and tingeing her fingernails washed-out purple?

Discreetly she stretched her pinky finger out and hooked it under the door handle. Maybe she had enough physical strength and agility to roll out of the moving car, like in an action movie. In any case, she had reasonable confidence she could do it if she had to without dying, even if it meant getting scraped and possibly lacerated by the tar and gravel.

But when she made a little tug at the handle with her pinky, it was only to find the passenger door had been locked from the driver’s side. Garry’s hands drifted, maybe a centimetre, up off the wheel and Lavinia’s eyes widened…

Then the car stopped. They were parked at the back entrance to the station; yellow sandstone illuminated in the now stagnant, unmoving streetlights, and in contrast with the glass and stainless steel downward escalator that ran parallel to the original marble stairs. When Lavinia heard the dull, plastic-y sound of a lock on the passenger’s side finally click open she clambered straight out, almost forgetting her gym bag, which she grabbed at the last second with a hurried swipe of her arm into the back seat.

Garry sat stationary in the driver’s seat, face almost expressionless except for the corners of his lips, turned faintly upward in a look of calm satisfaction. “Homework,” he stopped her abruptly just as she made to close the door, now safely out of the car and with her gym bag slung over one shoulder. “Go over our conversation just now in your head and see if you can think about the concepts a bit more deeply. Make notes if you have to, and I’ll look over them if I have time.”

Lavinia just closed the door without a word and he drove off.

Descending the escalator into the station her head began to clear and all the things she should have said came flooding in. Why the hell did she just sit there and take that? Because he was threatening to kill her? Sort of?

Part of her considered whether the whole thing was something to go to the police over. Did what just happened actually count as anything though? Garry had probably been right in his own semi-incoherent, delusional and juvenile way – the guys were the ones still setting the terms. It had been that way when she was ‘fat slut’ at sixteen, and that way still when she was ‘uptight, superficial snob’ at eighteen. So why should now be any different?

Garry was still a dickhead though.

Katie-Rose Goto-Švić is a Croatian-Australian emerging writer living in Japan. She writes fiction in both English and Japanese. She studied a Bachelor of Political, Economic and Social Sciences with an additional major in Japanese Studies at the University of Sydney, and now works in business development for renewable energies. Her crime/psychological fiction manuscript ‘The Kids Aren’t Alright’ was selected as a finalist for the 2021 Page Turner Writing Award. She also has a piece of prose about the treatment of words over social media, entitled ‘Ballad of the Preacher, the Poet and the Psycho’, scheduled for publication in the ‘New Contexts: 3’ anthology by Coverstory Books. 

***

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***

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Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts, moving on

The Man With the Dog

June 3, 2022

It wasn’t until he reached a town called Hempstead, Texas, just west of Houston, that Miles Paley realized Miss Snickerdoodle, his ex-wife Tara’s aging cockapoo, whom he had dognapped just a few hours earlier, had a serious flatulence problem. The eggy smell filled the cabin of his Jeep Cherokee with surprising speed, and when he opened the windows for the first time since they they’d left Austin three hours earlier, when the pre-dawn dew had obscured his side mirrors, the dog nearly leapt out to what would have been its certain, horrific death at 70 miles per hour on Route 290 East. One of the countless Ford F150’s that surrounded him blared its horn. The driver was a corpulent, pig-faced man, to whom he’d swerved so close when he’d grabbed Ms. Snickerdoodle by the scruff, he was able to make out the chaw that flew out from between his cheek and gum as he cursed wordlessly behind thick autoglass. The hate in his eyes shook Miles, so that his heart raced, and he pulled off the highway at the next exit.

“Easy, Hildy,” he said to the dog, more to reassure himself than it.

Hildy was short for Broomhilda, the name he’d wanted for the dog when she was just a pup they’d paid way too much to acquire from a breeder in Marble Falls. Presently, it was trembling, and letting out a sound that was somewhere between a cough and a dry heave every few seconds. Because the decision to take Hildy with him on his move to Florida was a last-minute one, there was no harness or leash, no treats, no food, and no water bowl. Miles picked up the animal and held its shaking body in his arms as he went into the Texaco convenience store.

“Hey there,” said a heavy-set and very pretty woman who resembled the actress Pam Grier, whom he’d had a crush on since seeing her on “Miami Vice” when he and his college roommate would do bong hits and watch that sort of thing.

“Morning,” answered Miles.

“Nice fur-baby you got there.”

“Yeah thanks.” Miles thought he saw something in the cashier’s eyes. A hint of hunger or loneliness, maybe. Were it not for his current situation, with this dog he’d stolen and with which he was planning to cross state lines in a couple more hours, he might have done his best to turn on the charm. Now, though, he felt perverse, like a drifter with a bad past, someone who ought not stay in one place for very long.

“What’s his name?”
“He’s a she. It’s Miss Snick – Hildy.”

Pam Grier eyed him with suspicion. “Hildy, huh? Why’s she shaking like that?”

“Little carsick, I think. Do y’all have leashes? Like for dogs?”

“Yeah I figured that’s what you meant. Let’s have a look-see.” She came out from behind the counter, and gave Miles a little sideways smile as she shimmied past him with a “Scuse me.” He followed her down the aisle, watching the little Santas on her seasonal yoga tights dance, and imagining her in a hotel room, disrobing slowly for him.

“Not sure we’ve ever had any leashes, but if we did they’d be over here, with the pet stuff,” she said.

Miles indiscriminately grabbed some dog food and some treats, as well as a couple of plastic bowls that had pawprints on them.

“Thanks,” he said, motioning for her to go ahead of him. The egg smell rose from the dog, and he could tell Pam Greer caught a whiff of it.

“Sorry about that,” he said. “It’s part of the carsickness, I guess.”

“Hers or yours?” she teased, with a backward glance over her shoulder that made Miles shake his head.

“You’re bad,” he murmured.

“Can be,” she smiled.

She made her way back behind the counter, and before he could ask her name, which would have been the clear next move, the dog heaved out a gob of bile that fell short of Pam’s yoga pants and landed squarely on the plexiglass, obscuring some scratch-offs and an ad for Skoal chewing tobacco.

“Oh shit!” Miles said, holding Hildy at arms length and away from the cashier.

“It’s okay, baby,” she said, deftly wiping up the mess with a wad of paper towels. “We good here.”

“I’m so sorry,” added Miles, the rejuvenating tingling in his groin now gone, replaced by sheer and utter mortification.

The Pam Greer lookalike shook her head and waved her hands in front of her, the paper towel dripping with mucous. The sexy glint in her eye was no more.

“We good,” she repeated.

“Here,” said Miles, awkwardly dropping a five dollar bill on the still wet counter.

“That’s not – okay. Bye now. Hope your baby gets to feeling better.”

After an awkward walk around the garbage-strewn parking lot, Hildy at the other end of the extension cord Miles purchased as a makeshift leash and knotted around her collar, Miles and the dog returned to the Cherokee.

“Nothing, huh?”

The dog was panting; even though it was mid-December, the heat and humidity from the Gulf were formidable. Miles felt it too, and as he mopped his brow, checking himself in the rear-view, he shook his head with a little laugh. During his brief flirtation with the cashier, he’d been picturing himself at 21 – slender, tan, with shoulder-length, feathered hair the color of sand dunes. This man, balding, paunchy, and perspiring, was a far cry from the Don-Johnson-in-Training he’d once imagined himself to be.

“Okay, well, we’re off,” he said to Hildy, who gave him a good-natured look, or so he thought. He’d felt they’d had a connection back in her puppy days. When she fussed, it was Miles who could calm her, by holding her close to his heartbeat. Tara had never had that skill with her, and he could tell she resented it.

“Don’t be jealous,” he said one night as they sat drinking wine under blankets, their back yard firepit warming them. Miss Snickerdoodle, as the pup had come to be known by this point, was nuzzled under Miles’s cover, her snout tucked under his arm.

“What?”  Tara was tipsy; Miles always knew. It was something in the timbre and tone of her voice. Not slurring exactly. It was almost like her speaking voice went down an octave. He’d always found it weird, but never said anything.

“It’s not something you should take personally. See dogs always imprint on an alpha.”

“Oh so you’re the alpha, then?”

“Damn right,” Miles said, appealing then to the sleeping puppy, in that goo-goo ga-ga voice people use with dogs. “Isn’t that right, HIldy?”

“MIss Snickerdoodle,” Tara corrected in that lower register of hers.

“Yeah right,” said MIles, ending the conversation there.

“Alpha. Ha,” said Tara, getting the last word.

It was snippy conversations like this one, often witnessed by the pup, that eventually led the couple to agree that their marriage had become loveless. They tried counseling, which only served to underline what was already obvious to them both: that a $2,500 dollar Cockapoo, though undeniably adorable, was not a substitute for the child they could not have together. Neither Miles nor Tara wanted to blame the other, but it was impossible to avoid. In the end, which came not long after Miss Snickerdoodle’s entrance into their lives, they went their separate ways. Tara kept the dog, and Miles moved to a rented cottage just off South Congress. Only a few miles away as the crow flew, but they rarely saw each other in the fifteen years since.

Miles’s phone dinged just as he merged onto I-10 East. It was Tara. The contact came up as “Maybe WIFE.”

“Oh Jesus,” Miles said aloud. Hildy, who’d been asleep in the passenger seat, swaddled by one of Miles’s dirty t-shirts, opened one eye and regarded him. The other eye appeared glued shut by a reddish film of some kind. It made Miles uneasy, and he looked back at his phone.

hey sorry to bother you but were you here this morning? early?

Miles gripped the steering wheel tighter, as he found a good cruising speed. Did she have one of those Ring home surveillance systems that everyone (except him) seemed to have these days? He didn’t see one. He certainly checked.

weird question i know. just had this feeling. now can’t find miss sd

A feeling? Okay, okay. A feeling is fine. A feeling won’t hold up in court.

A feeling.

Before he could finish telling Siri to text “WIFE,” his reply that he was driving and couldn’t talk, the phone rang. Almost by instinct, he hovered his thumb over the green “accept” button. (They’d made a pact never to let the other go to voicemail, and had kept that particular promise religiously.) He stopped himself, and let it ring instead. A minute later, the phone indicated a voicemail message, followed by a new text.

call me. please

About an hour and a half later, Miles found a Petco that wasn’t too far off the highway, and he bought the dog a proper leash and harness. He didn’t feel right tugging it around by the neck, especially not with an electrical cord. She was an old lady, after all. And for a short while, thanks to the harness, which actually fit correctly and was not unattractive, with a stylish black and white floral print, Miles felt at peace. He walked Hildy on the sands of a beach on the shores of Lake Charles; knowing he was officially no longer in Texas also lightened his heart considerably. Hildy moved slowly, but her other eye was now open, and she’d managed to groom herself free of the gunk that had been keeping it shut earlier. Even the unseasonable heat felt less oppressive here. This, he knew, was in his head, but still he took the moment to sit in stillness, enjoying it.

Again the phone rang, and the words “Maybe WIFE” appeared on the screen. As before, he let it go to voicemail. Then he pressed the playback button. The first message was a verbal version of the initial text. She sounded almost chipper: “Hey, I know this is weird, but did you come by early this morning? Just had a feeling. Call me. Thanks.”

He then listened to the message she’d left moments ago. None of the feigned friendliness remained, replaced by hysteria that put Miles right back to their early days in Texas, where they’d moved to raise a family. He hadn’t heard anything like it since the third time the IVF treatments failed, and the team at the fertility clinic provided them with materials about adoption as a next best option. In the car on the way home she wailed like a banshee. The sound of true, elemental, primal sorrow. Plain and simple. Their relationship couldn’t survive it. Nothing could.

“YOU’VE GOT MY FUCKING DOG, MILES! I KNOW YOU DO! I DON’T KNOW HOW I KNOW IT, BUT I DO! GIVE ME BACK MY FUCKING DOG! GIVE HIM BACK!”

Miles raised an eyebrow and traced the leash to the shade of a bush where Hildy lay on her side, looking more peaceful than she had the entire trip. It seemed as safe a time as any to do what he did next.

“Okay, Tara, okay. Take it easy,” he said over her screaming. She’d resumed it as soon as she picked up his call.

“TAKE IT EASY? Okay, I’m calm. Okay? But I know it, Miles. I just know it.”

“Slow down and tell me what happened.” Miles was being condescending, and he knew it. He also knew that Tara would have to back off of her assertion, because of how crazy it sounded. (Never mind that it was true.)

“She’s gone. Miss Snickerdoodle. I can’t find her anywhere.”

“Maybe she’s run off to the golf course, like that one time, remember? When they let us ride around on a golf cart looking for her?” That day, although forged in the same panic she was experiencing now, had actually turned out to be a good one for Tara and Miles. They bonded on that ride around the course, and felt pure joy when they found Miss Snickerdoodle, covered in mud, on the banks of one of the water hazards, a mangy looking mutt twice her size there beside her.

“What? No! She’s old, for god’s sake. She’s not going anywhere.”

Tara was no longer accusing Miles. She was asking for his help. Miles cupped his hand over the phone as Hildy stretched languidly, letting out a contented yawn.

“Listen, Tare, I’d love to come help you look for him, but I’m actually in the process of moving,” said Miles.

Tara was silent, and after a few seconds, Miles added, “I was going to tell you. I just…”

“No, no,” she answered. The forced cheeriness had returned. “End of an era, I guess, right? Where you moving to?”

“Florida.”
“Florida?”

“Of all places, right?”

More silence. This time it was broken by Tara.

“Our governor not crazy enough for you?” she joked.

“I think Florida’s got him beat,” Miles replied.

Satisfied that she’d given up on her intuition about the offense he’d committed, Miles suggested she might call one or both of her brothers for help.

“We don’t talk much anymore,” she said, sounding sad and lonely. Her tone made Miles feel guilty. He knew perfectly well that she and Jack and David were estranged. Mutual acquaintances had kept him in the loop over the years. He’d invoked them on purpose, to make her feel bad, and now he was sorry for it.

“Anyway, Tare, I gotta get back on the road if I want to make it to Florida by nightfall,” he said.

He heard his ex-wife sigh, her loneliness accentuated his own. “Right. Safe travels, and it was good to hear your voice after all this time.”

“Yours too,” he said, supposing he meant it on some level.

Hildy yelped loudly. Miles’s thumb was on the red “hang-up” button, which he pressed at that very moment. He cursed loudly, then bent down to tend to the dog, who held her paw gingerly off the ground. She yelped again when he pulled the barbed sandspur out of her pad. He gathered the dog up in his arms and carried her back to the car, where she drank some water from one of the bowls he’d purchased back in Hempstead. Miles’s heart was racing again, this time wondering whether or not Tara had heard her dog cry out in pain as they had hung up the call. He sat with his hands on the steering wheel, not going anywhere, waiting for her call. Five minutes passed, and he figured she’d likely have called him right back had she heard the yelp. Hildy settled back into the nest of Miles’s dirty laundry, and the two set off eastward towards their destination.

Thanks to light traffic, favorable weather conditions, and only one pitstop for gas and bathroom, the GPS guided them into Pensacola Beach just as the sun was setting over the gulf. The causeway lights came on as he was crossing, which felt to him like a good sign, like this move he was making would be a good one.

That changed when he saw Hildy. After having finally arrived at the hotel, and trying to rouse her from her nest in the passenger seat, he saw that she was trembling – spasming, more like – every few seconds, and that both of her eyes were now shut, and the rheumy stuff that sealed them formed a thick, leaky film.

Miles got back behind the wheel, and got directions on his phone to a 24-hour veterinary hospital that was a few miles away. It was dark now, and he made his way with caution down the unfamiliar roads. He had opened the windows, because the eggy smell had returned. The dog’s breathing had changed, and she appeared swollen somehow. The coughing dry heaves Miles had noticed coming from the dog way back in Hempstead were protracted now, so that the dog seemed almost to be moaning.

“Come on through,” the receptionist at the vet’s office said, as she made her way to open a swinging door that allowed Miles to carry the convulsing dog behind the counter. “We’ll get your paperwork later.”

The young woman, nondescript and professional in hospital scrubs and rubber shoes, led him through a door and into an examination room.

“It’s okay, baby,” the receptionist said as she stroked the dog’s head. “What’s her name?”

“Hildy. Or Ms. Snickerdoodle. She answers to both.” Miles felt ridiculous after he said this, and not just for the obvious reason: that a dog having two names is unnecessary and stupid. The other reason he felt idiotic was that this dog was clearly not going to answer to any name, in the condition she was now in.

“Okay sir, well you stay with…with her, and the doctor will be right in.”

Hildy’s body, though convulsing every few seconds with terrible tremors, as if an electrical charge were going through her, was otherwise still, flat as a bearskin rug on her belly, her four paws splayed in four directions. Without thinking about it, Miles  reached for his phone. The words “Maybe WIFE” appeared as the most recent call. She was so joyful the day they drove up to Marble Falls to bring Miss Snickerdoodle home. The dog, too, seemed overjoyed, but that could have just been due to the fact that she was a puppy, and puppies were joyful by nature.

The doctor was a large, handsome man with graying red hair and a Scottish accent.

“Oh you’re a sweet old girl, aren’t you?” he said in a melodious voice full of an otherworldly empathy that touched a chord in Miles Paley, who began to weep quite unexpectedly.

“I’m so sorry,” Miles said, as he reached for some tissues to wipe away the tears and snot that came suddenly and with force.

“Doc’s got it from here, sir,” the young woman, who had returned to the small room, said, taking Miles gently by the elbow.

“It’s okay, Linda,” the doctor said. He had a gloved hand on the back of the dog’s neck and was rubbing its scruff gently. “I don’t want this gentleman to have to wait.”

“Yes, Doctor,” the receptionist said, leaving the two men alone with the dog.

The doctor asked Miles a number of questions about the dog’s medical history, none of which he could answer, aside from the age. He chalked it up to how upset he was, and the vet said that he understood.

“Listen, I want to speak plainly. May I do that, please?” he asked.

“Of course,” said Miles.

“The swelling you’re seeing is severe edema. Her organs are failing, and she’s in a great deal of pain.”

The vet described treatments they could try, but Miles knew from the tone of his voice where the conversation was headed.

“I couldn’t tell you how close she is to passing naturally. All I can say is that however long it takes, it will be unpleasant for her, even with pain meds. It’s entirely your choice, of course,” said the vet.

Miles chose euthanasia. When the vet asked him whether or not he’d be staying in the room, Miles reflexively answered that no, he would be leaving. But just before he left the little examination room, through the door the vet was now holding open for him, he said, “No. I’d actually like to be here for her.”

The vet’s eyes brightened, and a smile came to his face.

“It makes a difference. To the animal. Seems silly, but I know that it does.”
“Yessir,” Miles said

The doctor explained that the procedure would be painless and humane, that Miss Snickerdoodle would lose consciousness very quickly, and would feel nothing other than the release from the immense pain she was currently in.

“Is it alright to hold her?” Miles asked.

“Of course,” the doctor said. “Just mind the tubing.”

MIles leaned over the chrome table, covering the dog like a blanket. Carefully, gently, he tucked her snout under his arm, as he had when she fussed as a pup. Now, as then, the dog settled. The trembling ceased, as did the dry moaning breaths.

With the doctor’s gloved hand on his shoulder, Miles stayed that way, draped over the dead animal for a few minutes. He was glad to have been there for this creature in her final moments. He was proud of himself for staying.

“Thank you,” he told the veterinarian, as he stood and reoriented himself to the changed world around him. “Thank you for everything.”

Dan Fuchs has published short stories in the Syracuse Review, TeachAfar, and Free Spirit. He lives with his family and a sweet, old German Shepard mix named Ally in Orlando, Florida.

***

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“Blistering and visionary . . . This is the author’s best yet.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Fiction, Guest Posts, Regret

Duty To Cooperate

May 27, 2022
phone

“How can I help you today?”, she asked, her hands on her hips, as she looked at the guy in front of the counter. He was still looking at the menu, trying to decide what to get.

A minute later, she scratched her chin a couple of times. “It’s probably best if you let the person behind you come up, while you figure out what you want.”

He looked at her, his brows furrowed. “I’d like the grilled tilapia with mashed potatoes and buttered corn.”

“For here or to-go?”

“For here,” he said, putting the menu down.

“Fourteen dollars and seventy-three cents.”

It was a routine: Towards the end of her shift, almost every day, she hated her job, passionately. There was always some reason; yesterday, it was her manager Roy, who had refused her request for a pay raise. “I’ve been serving waffles and French toasts and mozzarella sticks to drunk customers for two years now. Don’t you think I deserve a bit of a raise?”

“Not yet,” he had replied.

Today, it was Rita, who had bumped her elbow into her stomach, as they were frying poblano peppers and didn’t apologize loud enough for everyone to hear it. “I want you to say it out loud, ok? I want everyone to know how clumsy you are,” she had shouted at Rita.

“Alright, I’m sorry,” Rita said, as she walked away from the kitchen.

“I don’t know how idiots like that get hired. This place needs a new manager, you know?”, she said to the rest of the cooks, who weren’t paying much attention anyway. Speaking of managers, she thought, who the hell are they to tell me not to put my hands on my hips when I’m at the counter? What’s next? They’ll want me to cut my hair shorter?

~

It was around five pm when she walked out of Ihop Express. Her car was parked a couple of blocks away. She was carrying her box of free dinner in one hand while texting her boyfriend Tony, with the other. He was supposed to buy her a 14k gold bracelet for her birthday, which was coming up in three days. “I’m so freaking excited about it! Is it beaded? Will you be coming to my place? Do you…”. Her texting was interrupted by a guy peeking out of a tent on the sidewalk.

“Got a couple of bucks?” he asked, his graying old beard covering almost the entirety of his face.

She put her phone in her pocket and just stood there, shocked that she had never seen this tent before.

“I don’t have any cash on me, but I got some roasted turkey with rice and potatoes. Would you like that?”

“I’ll take anything. Thanks.”

She handed him the box and moved on, phone in her hand again. “Do you know what time you’ll be there?”

She got in her car and started driving home. The seat belt alarm was beeping, but she didn’t care. She had Beyonce and Jay Z singing ‘Crazy in Love’ on her Pandora station and was tapping her right hand on the dashboard to the music. Her phone beeped. It was a text from Tony. “I don’t think I can buy you a gift. Just got laid off today.”

She picked up the phone with her right hand, the other hand trying to keep the wheel straight as she drove on cruise control on the highway. “WTF? You got laid off from your sixteen-dollar-an-hour FedEx job? That’s got nothing to do with my gift! You promised you’d buy me that bracelet a month ago.” A car next to her honked. Apparently, she had been swerving into their lane. She honked back at them, while continuing to type. “You had better show up at my home with my gift. Or else…”

She put the phone down. The speed limit was sixty-five; she was going around eighty. She pressed hard on the gas pedal and sped up. “That son of a bitch. How dare he think he could just take back his promise? I’d never do that to him!” She turned the music up. “Crazy in hate!”

The car in front seemed to be going too slow for her. She honked at them before cutting through two lanes and winding her way ahead. It was her phone beeping again. “So, you don’t care at all that I got laid off? All you care about is your fricking bracelet, Lena?”

She threw the phone away and floored the gas pedal. She almost hit the car in front, so she veered to the right. Later, when she’d think about it, she couldn’t remember the exact sequence of events. But she knew she was going ninety when she hit the car to her right, trying to pass the car in front of her. Her chest jolted forward and hit the wheel. She looked at her right-side mirror: it was gone. She looked in the rearview mirror: the car she had hit was pulled over, its driver’s side door and the front bumper bearing deep dents. Her breathing was rushed and sweat was pouring down her face. She slowed down, trying to find her phone so she could call Tony.

The phone was on the floor, on the passenger side. She pulled over and took a sip of water, laying her head back, her chest heaving wildly. She looked in the rearview mirror and the car she had hit was catching up to her.

The water bottle hit the floor as she sped up, cutting through lanes. She could see the other car following her. She was hoping to get far enough away from it so they couldn’t get her license plate number.

~

By the time she got home, it was dark and the whole thing seemed like a blur.

She was taking her shoes off near the door, when her mom rushed up to her and started talking about Sue, Lena’s aunt. “You won’t believe what Sue told me today about her boyfriend. He’s been cheating on her for years. And the crazy thing is…”

“Mom, leave me alone, would you? Where’s Danny?”

“He’s in his room, doing what he always does – playing that stupid video game. But listen, aunt Sue’s really in a tough spot right now.”

She went into Danny’s room and locked the door shut, as her mom stood outside, still talking about Sue.

“Hey sweetie, how was your day?”, she said, as she sat next to him on the bed.

He looked up briefly, before continuing with the Minecraft game on his phone.

“Talk to me, honey.” She picked him up and sat him down in her lap, running her fingers through his hair, her chin resting on his head. “Do you love mommy? She almost died today. And she almost killed…never mind.”

“Mom, I’m so close to winning this game. Just let me play.”

“Alright, just move over, so I can lie down next to you.”

He grunted and moved his eight-year-old-self to the other side of the bed, still riveted by his phone.

She tried replaying the accident in her mind, but it seemed unreal. Surely, it didn’t happen; it was just a nightmare. Of course, her car was fine. Well, maybe it did happen? But what was certain was that there was no way the other driver got her license plate.

She turned around, snuggled up to Danny and pulled a blanket over them. After he had been begging for months, she had finally relented and bought him a new phone almost a year ago, so he could enjoy his games more. She was still making monthly payments on it. Screw that fricking Roy, she silently cursed. Can’t even give me a two-dollar-an-hour-raise? Who the hell does he think he is…Ihop CEO?

She didn’t know what time it was when she got up in the middle of the night and texted Tony: “Sorry that you got laid off.”

~

She was at work a couple of days later, at the counter taking an order, when her phone vibrated in her pocket. Unlike other employees, she had always refused to silence it. “I’m putting it on vibrate; that’s good enough”, she’d told Roy.

Later, while taking a break in her car, she checked her voicemail. It was what she was dreading: a call from an insurance company asking to speak to her about the accident. Damn…how the hell did that dude get my license plate, was the first thought that came to her mind.

She ran into the kitchen. Rita was making buttermilk pancakes.

“Hey Rita, ever been in a car accident?”

“Nope”, she answered, without looking up from her skillet.

“You know anything about insurance claims?”

“Nope.”

“Well, that’s mighty nice of you,” Lena said, as she walked out to her car.

She lit up a cigarette and started googling ‘at-fault-driver in car accident’. Every article she read made her more anxious: ‘at-fault-driver liable for injuries and payments’; ‘accident will go on driver’s record’; ‘other driver may file a lawsuit if you don’t cooperate with their insurance company’.

She threw the phone down and turned up the music. It was Beyonce again. She rolled down the windows and spat in the direction of the Ihop.

~

The calls came in every couple of days, the same woman, saying the same thing: “We need you to contact us. Based on the claim filed by our insured client, you’re legally required to share information about the accident and have a duty to cooperate.”

She was having lunch with her mom and Danny one Saturday, when her phone rang. She could tell from the number that it was the insurance folks.

“Why’s your phone been ringing so much these days?” her mom asked.

“Damned spam callers.”

“I hate those people. I wish the same for them that I do for Sue’s husband’s killer: they ought to rot in hell.”

“Mom, I’ve heard that story a billion times. Please, just stop.”

“Hey Danny, you want to hear a crazy story?”

Danny was busy with his phone, as usual. He looked up at grandma. “No nannie, I’m busy.”

“Ok, one night, a long long time ago, your grandma’s sister’s husband was driving home from work, when a drunk driver hit his car and killed him. Not only that, he drove away from the scene and the cops never found out who it was. If you ask my sister what bothers her more today – losing her husband or not finding and jailing the guy who killed her husband – she’ll say it’s the latter. I tell you, there are some real crazy psychopaths in this world. Don’t you think so, Lena?”

Lena got up and went to the kitchen sink with her plate. “I don’t need to listen to this crap anymore.”

~

She was driving to work on the highway, when she looked out the window. She was around the same spot where she had hit the other car. Her hands started trembling and for some reason, the memory of her aunt Sue screaming in her bedroom, yelling “I’m going to find you, you bastard! I’m going to find you and you’re going straight to hell!” and pounding her fists on the walls of her room, came back again in her mind. Even as a fourteen-year-old, it was something she knew she wouldn’t forget – watching her aunt cry and yell at the same time – but it had been a while since she’d thought about it.

As she was walking up to the restaurant, her phone rang. It was the insurance company. She put it back in her pocket, before taking it out and answering it. “Hello.”

“Can I speak with Lena Carter?”

She hung up, squeezing the phone with her fist and put it on silent mode for the rest of her workday.

~

It was one of those mid-autumn days that were gradually becoming rare: it was warm, sunny and dry. They were sitting in her car, next to a park, watching the maple leaves drift down onto the ground.

“What happened to your door and mirror?”, Tony asked.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she replied, smoking her cigarette. She passed it to him.

“No thanks,” he said, looking out the window, his hand resting on the dented door. The passenger-side mirror was gone. Over the past decade, sitting in the passenger seat, he was used to seeing his face in the mirror and it felt strange now to not see himself.

“You ever worry about how you’re going to pay your rent?”, she asked. “Got enough savings from your former job to get you through a few months?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Fair enough, you funny guy.”

She took a last puff before tossing the cigarette out the window. “Tell you what: I’ll share what happened to my car and then you’ve got to answer my question, ok?”

He nodded, smiling.

“I was drunk and drove into a tree by the side of the road. Simple as that.”

“Really?! When did this happen and why didn’t you tell me earlier?”

“Well…there was that tiny little thing about you not keeping up your promises and pissing me off…remember that?”

“And there was that tiny little unexpected thing about me losing my job and not having any income…remember that?”

“It doesn’t fricking matter, Tony! You made a promise. A promise is something you stand by, regardless of what life throws at you.”

He clenched his fist and punched it into the car door. “Oh really? Well, what about the promise you made to let me move in with you…when was that…when Danny was like three?”

“Screw it. This isn’t going anywhere.”

She got out and shut the door hard enough to make Tony jump up in his seat.

“You can’t just walk away from this, you know!”, he shouted.

“Oh yes, I can. I can do whatever the hell I want. I can choose to pick up the phone or not,” she yelled as she pointed her phone at him. “I can choose to not have an alcoholic boyfriend move in with his son and raise him to be a jobless drunk like his dad. Those are all choices I can make. You get that?”

He started walking away from her, punching his fists in the warm autumn breeze. He was gone too far to hear her screaming “Stop, come back! I need you!”

~

She kissed Danny goodnight and turned off the lights. She closed the door and walked out, before returning and blowing a kiss in his direction.

Her mom was at the dining table reading the newspaper. Lena filled up a glass of water and sat down next to her.

“What’s up in the news, Mom?”

“Same old stuff I’ve been reading for decades. Nasty people doing mean things to nice folks like us. Over and over again. It never changes.”

“Mom, how does aunt Sue really feel about uncle Bill’s accident?”

Her mom put the paper down and took off her glasses. “I thought you didn’t want to talk about that?”

“Just answer my question mom, for once…would you?”

“It’s what I told your kiddo. She’s never going to let go of that sense of injustice. I’ve told her that it’s harmful to keep all that anger and resentment inside her, but she just can’t get it out of her mind. Poor thing.”

“Do you think she’d feel better if the other person owned up to their fault?”

“Hell yeah. She’s been wanting that for decades. Both she and I know that the other person’s going to pay a price for their actions, at some point in their life. You don’t just get away with that kind of stuff.”

Lena ran her fingers around the glass, moving them up and down and in circles. It was late – eleven pm – and she had an early morning shift the next day. Her mom had put on her glasses and resumed reading the paper.

Lena got up and headed to her bedroom.

“Goodnight, dear,” her mom said, as she closed the door shut.

Danny was sound asleep. She put an extra blanket over him and closed the blinds, before lying down next to him. It had been a tiring day and it didn’t take long for her to fall asleep.

It started sometime in the night: the pounding on the walls and the yelling: ‘You bastard, I’m going to find you!’. She sat up and ran to the wall, putting her ears next to it. ‘You’re going to hell!’. She fled from the wall and reached for her phone. She dialed the insurance company and got to their automated message. ‘Press 1 to leave a voicemail for your claims representative’. She hung up, clutching the phone tightly in her quivering hands.

No, she couldn’t do it. There was no way she could handle her premiums going up and have an at-fault accident on her driving record.

Plus, it wasn’t really my fault, she reminded herself. If only Tony had kept up his promise, none of this would’ve happened.

‘You have a duty to cooperate and are legally required to share information about the accident’. ‘The other person’s going to pay a price for their actions’. ‘Nice folks like us.’

Her arms and legs were shaking as sweat dribbled down her face. She had a sip of water before turning around to face Danny. “I love you, Danny. You’re the best,” she whispered silently, as she rubbed her hands over his blanket.

The pounding and yelling continued through the night.

~

Her eyes were droopy from not sleeping well the night before, and the loud rock music they were playing was only making her fuzzier. She hated her eight-am Tuesday shifts.

“What do you want?”, she asked the guy in front of her.

“Umm…I’d like a turkey sandwich, but on gluten-free bread. Also, can you make it with mozzarella cheese instead of cheddar? And oh, no fries, extra salad. That’s it,” he said, as he put the menu down.

She started typing the order into the computer. Somewhere in the middle, she stopped. Aunt Sue was screaming and pounding her fists on the wall. Tony was not keeping up his promise. Her car’s mirror was shattered as she rammed into the car next to her. Her body was full of anxiety about her insurance premiums going up and a lawsuit being filed by the other driver. There weren’t enough nasty folks like her in this world…oops…she meant, there weren’t enough nice folks like her in this world…her heart was pounding as her mind reeled through it all.

“What the hell are you asking for? Can’t you just keep it simple? No fries, extra salad? Who the hell do you think you are?”

“What? What do you mean?”

“I know exactly what I mean,” she said, pounding her fists on the table. “You’re being a royal prick!”

The guy moved closer to her, his hands pushing on hers. “Say that again?”

Roy, the manager, came running in. “Hold on, this has got to stop. Lena, I think you need a break.” He took her by her hands and walked her to the kitchen.

~

The rain wouldn’t let up. It was hard to see beyond the wet windshield. They were parked at the same spot, next to the same park they were at a month ago.

Faith Hill was playing ‘This Kiss’ on Pandora, as they passed along a can of Michelob’s back and forth.

“I fricking love this song…don’t you? It reminds me of that night we went dancing at that Olympian pub…remember how drunk you were? You mistook this other woman for me – just because she was also a brunette – and started dancing with her, holding her hands. I had to come pull you away! Oh my god…”

“Oh yeah, baby…I remember that. Those were the days. I even had a job then!”

“Hey, did I tell you that we both have a lot more in common now?”

“What do you mean?” he asked, as he took another sip of the beer.

“I also got laid off. Well, I got fired. But I like to think of it as a layoff. You know what I mean?”

“You did?! When?”

“Doesn’t matter. Screw jobs…who needs them? Losers who don’t know what to do with their lives. Screw insurance, screw lawsuits, screw…everything!”

“I don’t know about the last three, but amen! Here’s to screwing,” he laughed, as he opened another can of beer.

She was tapping her feet and swinging her body back and forth. ‘This Kiss, this kiss…it’s the way you love me! It’s a…’

Her phone rang. It was the insurance company.

She stopped abruptly and sank into the seat, closing her eyes and bringing her legs up to her chest. It kept ringing. She picked it up and stared at the screen, her finger hovering near the green ‘accept’ button.

Kunal Mehra is a multimedia artist who likes photography, filmmaking, writing and hiking. He grew up in India and has been living in Portland, OR, since 2002. His writing has been published by the Press Pause Press, The Mindful Word and ‘Academy of heart and mind’ magazines, amongst others.

***

If you liked today’s piece, check this 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

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

emotions, Fiction, Guest Posts

Cups of Murky Water

May 6, 2022
bridgette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Was that a dog?” Jamie asked.

“Yes.”

“I always wanted a dog.”

“I know. Rosie wanted one, too.”

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

“I know.”

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

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

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

“Oh, sorry. Good morning.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing.”

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

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

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

“I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

Her name is Rosie.”

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

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

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

“No.”

“So all the sleepovers…?”

“Yeah.”

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

“What were you going to say?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So what?”

Bridgette couldn’t think of an answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Fiction, Guest Posts, Relationships

A Terrible Thing Has Happened

April 22, 2022
tabatha

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

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

She wasn’t married. Never had been.

And she wasn’t a good cook.

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

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

“Not much,” Tabatha answered after swallowing.

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

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

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

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

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

Different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was what Mrs L. M. Everland was.

Kind.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nancy glanced back again and grinned a toothy grin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

For Virginia Woolf

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

***

***

Writing Cohort Opportunity

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

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

Cohort Includes:

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

Email info@circeconsulting.net for more information

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

 

Family, Fiction, Guest Posts, Marriage, moving on

In the Airport

April 15, 2022
lisa

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Si, la playa.” Clara giggled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He merely shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That must be Claire. How is she?”

“Fine—just like me.”

He didn’t mention the unmentionable.

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

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

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

“Yes, I’d like that.”

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

Family, Fiction, Guest Posts

Overdrawn

March 25, 2022

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

“Hello?” she greets.

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

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

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

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

“Correct. But are you—”

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

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

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

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

“Sure, I—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And with that, he hangs up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Date: July 4th, 1994.

Just one month after she was born.

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

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

“Mama, I won’t need it now—”

“Ying-ying, take it …”

“Mama, please!”

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

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

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

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

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change.

Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Friendship, Guest Posts

Yoga Pants

August 13, 2021
meryl

By Tamar Gribetz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

“Should we tell her?” Lauren asked.

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

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

“Maybe they’re just flirting.”

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

“Come on.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

“Hi, Julie.”

“Oh, hi Meryl.”

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

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

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

“Yes, they do.”

“Ben is happy, so I’m happy.”

“Yeah, that’s how it goes.”

“Are you working these days?”

“No, I’m home with the kids.”

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

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

“That sounds great. Thanks.”

“Tomorrow. Are you free tomorrow?”

“Sure. Yes.”

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

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

***

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

“Wow! You have made it.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey,” they all called out.

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

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

“Or Mommy bladders,” said Monica.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you and Brad – ,” Jodi asked.

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

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

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

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

I felt everyone’s eyes on me.

“I don’t know. Probably not.”

I raised my eyes and Jodi glared at me.

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

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

“Sounds like you have.”

“Jodi!” Meryl said.

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

“Why not?” I asked.

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

“Jesus, Jodi!” Suzie said.

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

“Wow.” Suzie said

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

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

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

“What?”
“You were nearby.”

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

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

“What?”
“I got to go,” she said.

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

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

“Hey.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

“Yeah, me too. Thanks.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

“What?”  Her face appeared frozen.

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

“What?  You’re scaring me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Fine. Great.  You?”

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

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

“Are you going for coffee now?”

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

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

“Are you guys going for coffee?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Was it true?”

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Antiracist resources, because silence is not an option

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Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Wildfire

July 30, 2021
regan

by Holly Easton

Shortly before he left my mother, my brother, and me, Daddy gave me a copy of Heidi for my eighth birthday. He wrapped it in glossy red paper and left it on my bed. Before the year was out, he was gone.

I see him again the summer I turn 12 and Lukas turns 16. My mother screams into the phone, then click, and she tells us we’ll be spending three months with him in the Rockies. I kiss her even though I know she’s mad about it. Daddy’s been bouncing around these last few years, but whenever I asked, he said when he had a place of his own, we’d get to visit. Now it’s finally happening.

I got my braces wire tightened just before we left. I spend the flight placing balls of wax over the metal brackets in my mouth. I ask Lukas if he thinks Daddy will have goats, like the grandfather in Heidi, but he’s writing out guitar chords to whatever’s blaring on his headphones. He lets me rest my head on his shoulder though, which is progress since he swore off talking to me when I snipped all the strings on his guitar a few weeks ago.

My mother wants to buy me a training bra but I keep refusing. My chest is throbbing though and when we land, I hold the new triangular growths in my hands while we wait for Daddy, but then I see him and I drop my arms.

This Daddy has rough fur, instead of the prickly pear face he had when I was little, but otherwise, he’s the same. I run to him but then I see Regan, like The Exorcist, next to him. Regan’s his “life model.” She gives both me and Lukas tight hugs, leaving Lukas breathless.

“My chauffeur,” Daddy says, patting her scapula and we load into the car. I had forgotten that my mother used to drive him everywhere.

***

Regan wears her hair in a black braid that goes down to her hips and arrives a little before dinner almost every night. Lukas hangs onto her every word, although she is parsimonious with her speech. After dinner, she and my father lock themselves away as Daddy works on what he’s calling his “experimental phase.”

Lukas tells Daddy the altitude gives him headaches, so he spends most of his time in town drinking slushies and chatting with tourist girls. I’m too pimpled and my chest is too sore to be seen, so I stay on the cliffside with my Dad and his cans of turpentine.

I have no memories of him painting before he left, but remember having the notion that he was ‘known’. Parent-teacher conferences with his uneven stubble and my mother’s polished suit; his exhibits rather than my comportment, teachers ignorant to the brandy on his breath. I didn’t mind then. I misbehaved a lot.

“Stevie at the diner says he’ll teach me how to cook if I help him serve the lunch crowd on the weekends,” Lukas tells us over dinner. He gets loud whenever he talks about his new job at the diner.

“That’s good, a man should know how to cook,” Dad says, pointing the prongs of his fork at my brother.

“Stevie says,” gulp from Lukas, “he says the ladies love it.” Dad looks over at Regan, who meets his eyes and pours him some more wine. I keep staring at him in case he decides to share the secret exchange with me too. He doesn’t. I start to clear the dishes.

“Stevie’s probably right, but it’s still a bit early to think about that, son.” I pile them in the sink and reach out for the dish soap, but Regan’s hands stop me. I flinch because they’re cold, but her eyebrows soar up and her head shoots back like a concerned chicken.

Lukas shrugs his right shoulder and stares into his root beer, “yeah, but still, cooking’s better than just wiping tables and stuff.” I plonk down in my chair and Dad knocks my elbows off the table and flips through the day-old newspaper.

After dinner, Lukas locks me out of our loft. I can hear the twanging of his guitar through the door.

***

Because Dad is nocturnal in his work and he often retires for the day around eleven in the morning, leaving me alone on the mountain with no older boys to flirt with, and no younger girls to chase. It’s too quiet when Dad’s asleep, so I carry around the small radio I find in the loft. We only get the CBC on the mountain and even then, it’s fuzzy. Still, it’s better than silence.

I catch Lukas before he heads out one morning. “Can I come with you today?” I ask, even though I don’t really want to, I’m just bored.

“I’m working all day,” his thumb and forefinger stroke the fluff above his lip as he gives himself a final look in the mirror.

“I could come watch. Read, or something.” He spits in his hand and flattens his hair.

“You can’t sit in a diner re-reading Heidi all summer, Daisy.” I hear Dad send him off and I roll over and go back to sleep.

***

CBC starts its hour of classical music just as I hear my father crawl into bed. I turn it off because I can’t stomach another concerto. I want to run and scream, but the peaks of snow in the distance scare me off, I’m afraid my voice will boom and start an avalanche. Instead, I find myself in Daddy’s studio.

The door creaks only slightly, but it’s so quiet that I’m immediately on edge. His studios, his gallery openings, his work has always been off-limits. I was too young, it was too dangerous, the work was too precious. Standing there, for the first time, I see the brilliance that has driven a stake through my family. The colours of his passion refracting against itself and rolling over.

Regan puts her hand on my shoulder and leads me out.

She stays late to make me lunch. I tell her it’s too hot for soup, but she puts some on anyway. “He’s teaching me to draw,” she says, drying the mug he uses for his brandy. My face is dewy with sweat as I eat. She stares at me and I flush tomato, like the soup. I feel the bumps on my forehead or the new wires on my chin more pronouncedly. I think, maybe if I focus hard enough, they’ll retreat back into my face. She leans closer towards me, our noses level and almost touching. She traces my features with her eyes. She reaches for her sketchbook but pulls her hands back. Instead, she grabs her purse. “Do you want me to show you how to pluck your eyebrows?”

Leaning away from her, I smash my elbow into my bowl of cold soup. The clatter echoes out because there’s so little noise, so little else, on the hill. “You have a beautiful natural arch,” she says, reaching out to stroke my brows.

“Does it hurt?” I ask

She smiles, tucking my hair behind my ears. “You get used to it.” Her fingers brush my skin so gently, they smell like cocoa butter. “Besides, I think Jack– your Dad– would like it if we had some Big-Girl bonding time.” She smiles and then collapses her lips into a pout as she searches through her purse.

I hold my breath as she brings the tweezers to the first hair. “Ow!”

“Did that hurt?” Regan pulls back.

“Of course it did, you ripped my hair out!” I snap. She gets up and I think she’s about to leave, but she just goes to the fridge. The crack of the ice tray and she wraps ice cubes in a paper towel to numb the skin.

She shapes in silence, pulling back to look at me or tilt my chin as she sculpts and paints my face with the contents of her purse. I wonder if this is what my father does to her in his studio and suddenly I remember I hate her. “My daughter would be a little older than you,” she says.

I don’t ask what she means. My neck starts to ache from supporting her canvas and I straighten out. I hate her for staring at me. I hate her for making me untimely soup. I hate her for taking my father’s time. And I hate her most, in that moment, for acting like a friend, or maybe a mother.

Regan moves the ice over my pimples. “The cold will help them heal,” she says. My parents had to evacuate their home the day after I was born due to a forest fire. When they returned, the fields were already germinating with flowers, daisies, and trees that had been scarified into growth. The surface of Regan’s face was smooth like pulled toffee. I imagine the ice putting out the little fires burning under my skin. I lean into her hands.

My father shatters his coffee cup when he sees what she has done to my face. She’s traced my eyes like an Egyptian queen. I’m done-up like a, he struggles for a word, choking before he spits up “an inappropriate” and storms off into his studio. Regan tries to follow him.

“We’re just having fun,” she says, but he slams the door in her face. I ask if I can keep the lipstick she put on me.

***

 

Wearing Pomegranate Persuasion, I return to the studio every morning after that. Regan doesn’t linger after her sessions with my father anymore, so there’s no one to stop me. With the door shut, the studio air is damp in my throat. Every step is muffled by globs of oil streaked across countless canvasses. Every day I push in a little further until the colours don’t make me dizzy anymore. Then it’s the texture I absorb.

I run my finger pads over the peaks and ridges, feeling how they expand after every sleep. The landscapes are vast and uninhabited. The newer works scattered around the easel have been hybridized with Regan’s form. Her guitar-shaped body as mountains; her black hair as waterfalls, her eyes as valley basins. Oil takes a long time to dry. I push in from tip to first knuckle, squishing Regan’s curves. The paint parts around my finger, tarnishing my glitter nail polish.

I’m not allowed in the studio anymore after that.

Instead, I’m sent down the mountain with Lukas. Dad waits at the kitchen table with his mug in the morning to ensure we leave. He doesn’t say anything to me when we do. On our way down, Lukas splits the slushie money with me, waving at everyone we pass. “I’m going down to the quarry with the boys. If I’m not back here for 5, just head up without me, okay?” He says, sticking his too-long thumbnail between his front teeth to get out a fleck of toast. I pull out Heidi from my back pocket and spend the day reading at the bus stop.

“What the hell are you wearing?” It’s after 5. Lukas is still at the quarry and I’ve come home on my own. We go through this every day. My summer clothes from the year before hadn’t quite fit when I packed them, but it’s been getting worse as the days go on and grow hotter. My shorts ride up the back or bunch in a V at the front. My shirts are too short as I’ve grown a good few inches since my eleventh. My mother’s promised a shopping spree for my twelfth, but that’s just before school starts. And, of course, I’m with my father until then.

“They’re just shorts, Dad.”

“They’re inappropriate.” There’s something else “inappropriate” every day. His concerns are more than just fit. The colours, the patterns. When I dress, I make-believe a theme for the day. The light-up sneakers with my cupcake dress (celebration). These butterfly shorts and the inappropriate unicorn top (things that can fly). Dungarees and Dragons (that one’s self-explanatory). It all bothers him. He still hasn’t forgiven me for defacing his work.

“What’s on your mouth?” Pomegranate Persuasion. I stay quiet. He shakes his head so slowly.

“Everyone wears it– ” but I’m wiping my lips into my palm.

“My child will not.” He sniffles with a summer cold and wipes his nose with the back of his hand. I edge towards the loft. I’ve got my hand on the stair railing, “and you’re wearing those clips again.”

My daisy clips. He hates them most of all. The daisies come in every colour with smiling faces in the pistil. “Take them out.”

“They’re my favourite.” I reach up to touch one of the smiling pistils with a finger.

“Why do you never listen?” The mug pounds onto the table.

“I can just stop wearing them, Daddy.” He’s looking away from me. I climb a few stairs.

“You need to learn how to dress your age.” If he means I looked too young, or too old, I never know.

Regan brings shepherd’s pie for dinner, but Lukas still hasn’t returned and she and my father don’t eat with me, so I listen to the CBC. It’s been a dry summer and fires are burning along the west coast. After dinner that night, I find the clips, the plastic cracked through the pistil, in the bathroom garbage.

***

Marvin, who sells the slushies in the village, calls one afternoon. My father yells at everyone that night. Regan leaves in tears before their session. He tells me he doesn’t need to be woken up by concerned citizens telling him his daughter is “whoring about with boys on motorcycles.” I tell him they were mountain bikes. He’s not consoled. I don’t tell him they only asked me for directions.

The next day, he piles up his old painting clothes and Lukas’s hand-me-downs on my bed. But after a night of bridge at the cottage with Marvin and a few of his pub buddies, he bans me from going into the village altogether.

The village is unsuitable, but I’m still not allowed in the house. Instead, I throw a pack of Oreos in my backpack and walk halfway down the mountain, to the pasture, with Lukas. My beaten-up copy of Heidi was growing more insipid with every read. So I bring the radio too, but the reception is even worse in the pasture.

The radio tracks the fires as they move across Alberta. It’s all anyone seems to talk about. The sun beats down on my back and I lie in the grass staring into that speaker like it’s a face. They interview people who’ve lost homes, people looking for their pets, firefighters, and climate scientists. Sometimes they’d ask people to call in with their stories.

“We’ve got Daisy on the line,” I imagine.

“Hello,” I say, “No fires here yet, but my brother Lukas says the village is booming with tourists.”

“Really?” Roger’s voice is like dark chocolate and whole milk.

“Oh yes, Roger, they’ve been pushed out of Jasper and Banff by the flames.”

“So that must mean there are lots of kids around for you to play with Daisy.”

“So many, Roger! You wouldn’t believe. I might even get a boyfriend before the summer’s out.”

“Aren’t you too young for that, Daisy?”

“I wouldn’t kiss him or anything, he’d just be mine.” And then Roger would laugh, or invite me to be his co-host, or send me undercover on special assignments. But sometimes we didn’t talk about the news or the fires at all. And sometimes they’d just play music, and then I’d lie on my back with Heidi as a pillow, counting clouds and wondering if like Clara and her wheelchair, I could push Regan down the mountain.

***

The fires leave a grey cloud on the horizon that’s visible even at night. It’s hot and I can’t sleep, so I go outside to watch the smoke. Being outside at night feels against the rules, although it was never strictly mentioned, and I get that bubble of fearlessness in my stomach at the thought of being free and in charge. “Trouble tummy” my mum had called it after she caught me stealing chocolate bars from the Mac’s Milk. I crawl underneath the open window to my dad’s studio.

“You don’t know what she’s like,” he says, his voice startling me by how close it is to the open window.

“She’s just a little girl, Jack.” It’s Regan, but she’s using her other voice, the one she only used with him. It’s higher, smoother. “She’s curious. She didn’t– ”

“She knows what she’s doing.” There’s a pause. The sounds of Regan shifting on the stool, and the lick of a brush on a palette waft from the window.

“I think she misses you.” I hear as I lie down and close my eyes, warm from the summer air wrapping around me. My father’s snoring when I come back inside to brush my teeth.

***

“I like it here,” Lukas says after meeting me in the pasture so we could march home together. “It’s a simpler way of life.” We stop near some bushes out of eyesight from the cottage so I can put on the windbreaker and jeans my father has deemed more weather and age-appropriate than my tee-shirt and shorts. I rub Pomegranate Persuasion off on the sleeve of the jacket.

My father’s in a good mood when we get home. He slings his arm around Lukas’s neck and ruffles my hair. “My babies!” He yells, but not an angry yell like I’m used to. We eat dinner as a family because Regan isn’t coming tonight. My father even puts off his work for a few hours to hear all of Lukas’s exploits. I gather and start to wash the dishes and watch as my father leads Lukas into his studio. They don’t come out before I’m in bed.

Their snoring wakes me up. They’ve passed out cold on the couches and there’s an empty bottle of wine between them.

“Celebrating,” says Regan’s voice from behind me. We haven’t been alone together since the afternoon she plucked my eyebrows, the regrowth of my messy brows as evidence of the month that’s passed. “Jack called me last night, so I came up this morning to congratulate him. I guess I should have known he’d be asleep.” She turns to the sink and starts re-washing the dishes I did the night before. “It’s exciting, isn’t it?”

I don’t know what’s exciting, so I don’t answer. Locking myself into the loft, I block the door with the wicker chair so Lukas can’t stumble into bed. The loft is so sparse and dark and the only evidence of home is Lukas’s guitar in the corner. I flick on the CBC, but the radio sputters and the batteries die, leaving only the muffled sound of water running over already clean dishes.

When Lukas finds his guitar, the neck is tucked into bed, and the body has been launched from the tiny loft window, smashed against a weathervane. He spends a week with Stevie from the diner. My dad even goes down to the village to be with him. When Lukas agrees to come home, he doesn’t look at me anymore, which I can handle. But he packs up the rest of his stuff only a day later and moves it to Stevie’s. Dad starts having dinner with him in town every night. Being alone in the loft is like being trapped in the brain of a zombie. Everything is muffled, grey, dead. If the house burned down, no one would know I had ever been alive.

***

As the days grow shorter, Regan’s nights with my father get longer. The day of my birthday, she hikes a rainbow sprinkle cake up the mountain for me with my father’s bridge buddies. I blow out my twelve candles and my father uses real wine glasses, not just a paint-stained mug for his booze. I don’t get any presents because I’ve been bad, but they teach me to play bridge and for one night, forgive me. I pour their drinks and laugh at their loud jokes, even if I don’t understand them. My father lets me have a small glass of wine.

As Regan brings me to bed, my head is foggy from the early hour and the cigarette smoke flooding the house. I hear Marvin downstairs. “She’ll be a heartbreaker one day, Jack,” He’s got a heavy wheeze caused by his belly or maybe his smoking. Regan shuts the door behind us before I hear my father’s response.

“Happy birthday, Daisy,” Regan says, handing me a little box. I don’t take it at first, because I don’t really understand. “Don’t tell your father.” Inside is a bracelet with tiny beads of jade and a small silver flower charm. “The green brings out your eyes.” She takes the bracelet from my hand and slips it over my wrist. “Oh, and I made you this.” Regan reaches into her pocket and pulls out a piece of heavy sketch paper.

It’s a charcoal portrait. My eyebrows mid regrowth, with the smiling faces of my daisies in my hair. She doesn’t have my father’s skill, but her hand is practised. I touch a finger to the pistil of the daisy. She lifts my duvet for me to slip into bed. Her touch is gentle as she pulls the blanket up to my armpits.

“Regan?” I ask, and she looks at me straight in the eyes. “Thank you.”

“You’re almost a young lady now.” Her eyes are on mine until I break away. “Good night.”

They’re all still there when I wake up, asleep on the couches and kitchen chairs. My father’s bedroom door is open. He and Regan are naked, covers kicked off in the heat. The mountains, the valley basins, the waterfalls of Regan’s body, encircled inappropriately in my father’s arms, his face discoloured from alcohol, buried in bunched, patterned sheets.

I walk past them into the studio. It feels tighter. The colours have melted with the heat and the oil is spiking off the canvasses, reaching out to press into my skin. I dry heave from the stale air, the bottom of my lungs filling up the way they had when I blew out my cake the night before. I think about my birthday candles.

***

The crack of the fire wakes my father when I’m only halfway through the masterpiece. The ash from the pasture has darkened the clear mountain air. I’m sure he’s yelling, but his paintings burn so loudly, air pockets trapped under oily prisons exploding from the heat, that I can’t hear him.

My mother arrives later that day, but Lukas stays through the school year. We have our shopping spree, as promised. She lets me buy whatever I want.

Holly Easton has a degree in archaeology that has proven to be just as useful as her parents said it would be. She is currently pursuing a Master’s in science history. Holly is a volunteer science communicator at a local museum where she teaches guests about evolution and ecology. She enjoys meeting and chatting with neighbourhood cats.

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Remembrances Of The Sun, Of Shadows

June 4, 2021
Havana

by Bruce Crown

Everything had been hollowed out, especially the people, when I checked in. All sunny resorts are inherently the same. A consortium of young and old people sleeping in vomit, talking through cigar smoke, and swimming in low-range rum. I noticed it as soon as I entered. The Cuban peso was as strong as the American dollar. This amused me greatly. Not because Cuban money is worth more or less; I have no opinion on that. What amused me was that every time I needed money changed, the mob of tourists both in front and behind me would complain about this fact. They knew that their money was worth more, and they wanted to spend it here, to help Cuba by buying things to bring back home.

On the first day, the sun blazed as if to burn the darkness out of me, the abyss that had become a threading existence of booze and despair. The smoke trail of my Cohiba rose and misted towards that yellow star in the middle of the clear blue sky. I sipped what was left of my pineapple juice unable to quench the chasing shadows of my thirst. Just another drunk whose money can buy more booze here than back home.

“It’s too hot,” I puffed smoke to no one in particular.

“Yeah… the weather’s nicer in Havana. I’m from Trinidad myself but this sun feels… different. Hey! Where you goin’?”

“Thanks,” I turned back towards the bald and austere man who had a body that glistened with muscles under the infinitely clear sky.

Why, I thought later, did I immediately get up and accept the idea that the weather would be nicer in Havana than in Varadero? The place where I’d spent the last fortnight drinking and watching the waves wash more and more of the sand away hoping that one day it would wash it all away.

“Motorcycle,” I pointed around where the bikes sat around the lobby. “Havana. To rent.” I needed the cool breeze in my hair.

“Sir, have you been drinking?” it was a different concierge than usual. This one had green eyes and spoke perfect English.

I couldn’t help but wonder, whether from her perceptive, the transitive beings that come from ‘mainland nations’ are simply objects that move between shaded patches of sand while the background rattling of empty bottles ensures that they are all the same despite their faces and the flags on their backpacks changing every few days.

“It’s 10 A.M. amigo. Who drinks this early?” I slid my American Express card across the counter. “Give me something fast. 600CCs or more,” smiling like a sucker because I hadn’t been sober since I left Toronto and even then it was a toss-up.

“We don’t rent motorcycles here. You can rent a scooter if you like. But you can’t go to Havana with it.”

“A car then?” my disappointed grimace was hard to contain.

“That could work. We have a Volkswagen Passat available.”

“How’d you manage that? … A Passat? … You’re joking. I saw some classics on the way in. How about a 1951 Plymouth Convertible?” I watched her type faster than I could think; she picked up the phone and dialled some number and chattered something in Spanish.

“Si. Si…” she was saying as I watched another man approach hang up his cell phone.

They talked in Spanish while I leaned on the counter until she pointed to me.

“You want car?” The man asked.

“Yes but I don’t want a Renault or a Volkswagen. I want one of those nice old school convertibles.”

“You know we keep running ourselves. … We … fix ourselves,” he motioned to himself, “They are not original. I have a Mercedes engine in mine. Chevy rear axle. Plymouth gearbox.”

“What kind of car is it?”

“1950 Chevrolet Deluxe.”

“How much?” I asked.

“You’ve been here two weeks right? The writer from Canada? Very cool. We get many like you here. Always sitting by yourself. Smoking and drinking alone all along the beach. That is what Cooba is to you? … No matter. My friend Simon told me sometimes you take the boat too far and he has to come to you? The guy?” he smiled and nodded to the concierge.

“I need your license,” she said.

I spoke close to no Spanish but I could venture a guess what they were talking about. A moral quid-pro-quo. For you see, dear reader, despite the lavish luxury of five-star resorts, the workers themselves cannot partake of any food or drink. They cannot eat, sleep, or relax on resort property. And we, the wealthy, are hard-pressed not to gorge ourselves on the fine rum and cigars and pineapples and steaks and pasta and chicken. One of the maids told me this on the second day. I couldn’t eat for two days. At some point, coughing in cigar smoke, I decided I would take food out of the cafeteria or restaurant under the guise of eating it in my room and then split it amongst the workers. I’m not trying to make myself seem like some paragon of virtue or compassion; it was more for my own comfort than for theirs. You can’t really enjoy your food if the man serving you is himself hungry. By the fourth day most of the crew knew me. In fact, one gentleman named Joseph, which I later learned was pronounced Hoseph, had even gone so far as to bow his head slightly every time he saw me, and after repeatedly begging him not to, he just grinned whenever he saw me.

I slid my license across. “Which guy?”

“The compassionate man. The man with a soul.”

Clichés all over the place. “I don’t believe in the soul.”

“Oh but you should hermano. The soul believes in you! You take my car. I trust you bring it back in one piece.”

“You have my word.” A lie, of course; there was no way I could guarantee jackshit.

He tapped me on the shoulder and walked away, lighting a cigarette.

The concierge handed my cards back and smiled.

“Gracias,” I knocked on the counter.

De nada,” she handed me the keys. “It’s the last car. It is red. Staff parking. You have to go all the way around. Do you know how to get to Havana?”

“I’ll manage.”

She laughed and shook her head, “Drive down this main road…” she motioned with her hands, “And follow it until you merge onto Circuito and Puente Bascular. Then after a while you’ll get to a sharp left at the bus station and parking area. It’s almost like a U-turn. Then Central de Cuba. You got it? CEN-TRAAAL DEE CUUEEBBAA,” she stretched the last part out.

“I got it.”

“You’ll get to Matanzas. Stay on the coastline. The street is called La Habana. That will be 80 kilometres. Should be an hour perhaps. It’s a nice drive. There are small nice cafés. It’s safe to stop. Then you just… follow signs.”

“My specialty,” I helicoptered the keys in my hand and walked out. But not before buying another box of Cohiba Panetelas from the hotel boutique.

“You driving?” The cigar salesman asked.

“What gave me away?”

“Nothing.  You’re The Guy right?”

I was already tired of hearing that.

“… You’ll love Havana. I’m from Mexico myself. Moved here many years ago. My wife is Cuban.”

“Sounds good. We’ll talk later.” I left.

Walking around the side of the building, the sun reflected off the hoods of what could’ve been a history of the automobile arranged from classic American to the newest 2011 Peugeot hatchback. How’d they get those here, I wondered.

I’ll give it to Hector. He had a wonderfully restored red Chevy convertible with a white line going straight from the headlight to the bump of the back wheel. I polished the rims where the chrome met the duo-coloured wheels. The red leather interior still smelled fresh as if it hadn’t been eroded by the passage of time. With a turn of the key, I travelled straight into the 50s.

The concierge hadn’t lied; it was a wonderful landscape, especially when I turned off the highway and drove along the coast. Middle-aged Cubans worked while their strapping young people danced for the busloads of tourists who saw it fit to stop along the water. The only thing that diminished the surreality of continued existence was the constant shuttering sound of camera phones pining to immortalize moments they probably share with thousands of others. My panetela burned smoothly and I was driving against the sun so the darkness burned away with every kilometre I put behind me.

Some people don’t leave the resort the entire time. What’s the point of that?

I pulled over at a café and had something they called an American Destroyer, and when I told them I was Canadian they just laughed and said it would destroy me anyway. It was Havana Club mixed with a pineapple smoothie. I rested while smoking another panetela. Squinting as I watched the sun rays bounce off the red hood of the Chevy.

When it was time to hit the road again I pulled into a gas station to ask for directions because I was afraid I missed that U-turn at the bus station or wherever. I had a coffee. They only drink it black. There are no frappuccinos or foamy flavoured drinks. Things are simpler. The contempt with which the café owner looked at a young German man who asked for milk because the coffee was too strong kept me entertained for hours. I still had ways to go.

Approaching Havana I heard, whether real or hallucinating, the sounds of drums and street parties. I parked before I actually entered the city and rolled the top back up. In the city there was no need for the natives to frolic from store to store and buy things for the benefit of making the tourist feel safe and comfortable. They had, despite their globally morose situation, a deep elation, and though sometimes it was buried in their hearts, you could sense its presence. Most of them didn’t care which two celebrities were dating and at what bars they could be spotted. Seeing random people dance, sometimes couples, wasn’t something I saw every day in Toronto; I berated myself for appropriating their culture; it was unknown to me. New, rich, and full of wonder. I am pampered for even being in this situation and have this thought. They dance; we shop. It’s all the same feedback loop. Was I permitted to elevate their culture, romanticize it? I was sure that there were places here where conditions would be squalid; but then we had those in Toronto too….

It was majestic. There was a street market; tables full of items ranging from family photographs to war medals to car parts being sold for prices that to the capitalist feels like robbery. Little did I know, that despite Havana’s reputation in the west for being a sex-fuelled, boozed, and debauched city, in the corner of my eye hid one of the most profound interactions of my life.

Walking past a table full of handmade trinkets and then another filled with classic baseball cards I caught a glimpse in the corner of my eye. A flashing blur of aqua blue and yellow. When I looked it was only the tame prosaic colours of Cuban tapestry; the dark green army uniforms of the police and the generic grey or black of the merchants. It was too hot and I felt faint. The thirst returned and while I was enjoying a banana smoothie with dark rum I saw it again: the blue and yellow weaving between a few dark green uniforms checking a man’s ID because he was eyeing a collection of used family photos too attentively. I threw too much money on the table venturing to catch the sky but it was she that caught me when she marched up and sat across me. She did not disappoint.

Bonsoir,” I blurted out, following the sun-ray shining upon the golden waves that formed her hair and down her blue summer dress that rested on her snowy shoulders.

“I saw you drive in and then just now looking at the medals. I love it here.”

“There’s a lot of stuff here.” I saw a plane in front of the clear blue sky and followed it until it approached the sun.

“Not really. That’s why I like it. No stuff. It’s…” she inhaled, “Air. Just air. It’s nice to see you again.” her eyes flickered at my brogue boots. She and I had been more than classmates at the University of Toronto.

“You too. Did you ever go back home?” It was more than nice to see her again.

“Yep. To Oslo,” her smile made the sun blink, cooling the weather when clouds covered it.

“That’s a long way.”

She talked about Cuba as if she was a native and it was beguiling to hear her voice. Those hazel irises contracting and dilating talking about Che and Sartre’s visit and Fidelito—that was what she called him. She hated him but spoke of jingoism and illegal embargoes and unjust sanctions in subdued tones  lest we be overheard by a nosy soldier. Every time she pushed a strand of her golden hair out of the way the sun shined on her face for a second and lit her up even more. I was lost. She talked about the fact that the Hotel Nacional had opened on New Years Eve in 1930. I’d never had patience for people talking but she was…. That’s it, she simply was. Another cliché. I left the rest of my drink when she told me that’s where she was staying and invited me back to see the view.

She had a suite all to herself. It felt magical to see the graffitied walls of that Matanzas village, but then the view of the Havana Harbour, steps away from where Sartre, Sinatra, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor had stayed, relegated that graffiti to historical shame. In fact, looking out the window, I could see the rich tourists across Cubans trying to sell them fake Cohibas with no discernible difference between them. They all looked so small, like ants trying desperately to understand what it was that kept them moving and circling themselves. A breeze caught my hair and I felt the cool air on my face.

“Beautiful isn’t it? I love Cooba,” she never quite pronounced it as we do: Queba. Rather, with that slender and sexy North European accent trying at the same time to pass for Spanish. It was Cooba. Habbana. Ron and Soeda. Falling in love with beauty is the easiest thing in the world. You can fall in love with someone’s beauty in the morning and cease to be in love by dusk. In that hotel, years after we’d parted ways as lovers, I began to love her not for her beauty but for her soul and her manifestation not as a being of beauty but as a being of meaning. No self-help book, entrepreneur keynote, designer boutique or Apple Store or reasonable rate of return could give me the gift that Cuba gave me. It felt so natural and so real and yet so transcendental that the city, so different from home, in which this feeling occurred would have profound meaning for the rest of my life.

She poured us drinks from the minibar and talked about the different kinds of rum cocktails they make there. It is a fallacy that only a native can understand and feel a culture and land. In other words, the claim that an expatriate or wanderer could never attempt but to scratch the surface of the beauty of a particular place in vain is simply not true. Contrary to earlier, I now thought that travellers always have a unique perspective at their disposal. They are free of bias if they take care that nothing first-worldly has happened to them to provoke a bias, such as losing their luggage or being delayed on a first-class ticket. Naturally, if the person is a frequent wanderer; a flâneur, their judgment may be amplified for they have an abundance of comparisons to rely upon. I wouldn’t know Cuban cigars were superior to Dominican ones unless I’d been to both places or tried them both. What a terrible example, but you understand what I mean. Critics will say there are preferences and the wanderer will have to agree. New York is better than Havana. Thus criteria are established to judge a place not by its own merit but by its comparison to other cities that fit those criteria. To curtail the argument that the notion of a beautiful city, like the notion of a beautiful man or woman, rests upon the objective, the wanderer must relinquish all previous moments except the moments that occur in the destination. In other words, to presume nothing but the experience itself. This is a posteriori.

Why was I trying to think so logically? To deduce some philosophical system out of rich people travel and spend money and romanticize the natives’ lives?Every book a white man writes about Africa is the same book with the same clichés. Now I was guilty of this.

“Isn’t it amazing?” she came up behind me and we stood side-by-side staring out into the harbour.

I looked at her up and down breathing the same air as her and for a moment, that insatiate thirst was quenched.

“Oh my god! I forgot you were a writer! I have to take you to Hemingway’s. Grab your shirt.”

“I’ve already been. There’s one in Helsinki.”

“Not like this one,” with that floaty step of hers; the dancer’s step, and that smile that lit up the sun, I had no choice but to follow. The clichés nearly broke me, I thought, but then I shrugged; you have nothing better to do, I told myself.

And in the abyss of Hemingway’s I drowned. She chattered with the owner in broken Spanish and pointed to me. I glanced around at all the pictures of Hemingway with various Cuban political and social figures and narrated the stories behind each picture to myself. She was telling him I was a writer or something and like a ritual, as if he’d done it thousands of times before for those western tourists interested in Jazz Age literature and the surfaces of their country, he began mixing a drink.

“No,” I interrupted, lighting a panetela, “Give me something else. I don’t want what Hemingway drank,” it was only sprite and white rum anyway. “Make me something distinctly Cuban. Distinctly yours.

A frightening smile washed across his face as he began mixing a cocktail like an old master coming out of retirement for one last job. “This,” he pointed to the glass, “La Generación Perdida.”

“What’s it mean?” I took the glass.

He smirked, “The Lost Generation.”

Every generation thinks they have it rough. But one financial meltdown after another, one corporate bailout after another at our expense, and you find yourself expecting the next one rather than hoping or looking for a saviour.

The next thing I remember is waking up in her hotel room and watching the water through the window.

“What was in that drink?” she yawned with the sun-rays reflecting from her hazel irises through the window and into my soul.

“I don’t know. But it lost me all right.”

“Now you know how they feel,” she turned away from the window and covered herself with the blanket.

To this day, whenever I play this conversation over and over again in my head in ardent nostalgia, I don’t know why I asked, “You want to come to Varadero with me? I’m heading to Europe after.”

“Where in Europe?”

“Paris, then catching the plane to Lisbon.”

She just laughed as she got dressed. “Maybe next time, my love.” She left the room to get breakfast and never returned. I waited three days. I wanted to stay indefinitely but my hotel called. They were worried and reality set into me like the darkness of those clear night airs so seldom felt in Canada but so plentiful on that “magical” island.

“Thanks Hector,” I shook his hand and handed him the keys, “I filled her up for you.”

“You look different. Believe in souls now, hermano?”

I didn’t answer as readily as last time, “Thanks Hector,” I repeated in an attempt to ignore him, “She really is wonderful,” I pointed to the car.

He laughed. “She is… I like you hermano. You’re cool.”

I bowed to Joseph and left that day. What was it about that place?

The same uncanny disquiet shook me when I saw her again. It was in Paris and I’d been thinking of her constantly. Like the second act of a bad film, I’d dreamt we’d moved to one of those coastline villas outside of Havana and we would wake and drink black coffee and stare out into the sea. I was writing her a poem about it while having my breakfast at the Plaza Athénée and she just… walked in front of me.

“This place is nice,” was how she greeted me after all that elapsed time, “But it’s no Cooba!” then she bent down, pecked me on the cheek, and walked towards the lobby. By the time I chased her outside she was gone again.

Bruce Crown is from Toronto. He has penned four novels. He has attained an HBA from the University of Toronto, and an M.Phil. from the University of Copenhagen. He splits his time between Copenhagen, and Toronto.

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.

Megan Galbraith is a writer we keep our eye on, in part because she does amazing work with found objects, and in part because she is fearless in her writing. Her debut memoir-in-essays, The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book , is everything we hoped from this creative artist. Born in a charity hospital in Hell’s Kitchen four years before Governor Rockefeller legalized abortion in New York. Galbraith’s birth mother was sent away to The Guild of the Infant Saviour––a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Manhattan––to give birth in secret. On the eve of becoming a mother herself, Galbraith began a search for the truth about her past, which led to a realization of her two identities and three mothers.

This is a remarkable book. The writing is steller, the visual art is effective, and the story of  what it means to be human as an adoptee is important.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen and on being human