Browsing Tag

love

Guest Posts, Relationships

Daylight

July 11, 2021
love

This piece was written in response to Dustin Grinnell’s essay from earlier this year, How to Fix a Bluey Heart. We love the idea of publishing response pieces, so keep them coming! 

By Sam Cooke

The first playlist I made for someone came in the form of a mix CD that I’d burnt on an old Dell desktop computer. It was a summer mix, meant to be played in my best friend’s pink Sony portable CD player as we skateboarded and biked down the backroads of our small Florida town.

I liked the feeling of sharing music with people in my life. I felt a sense of vulnerability in showing someone “this is what reminds me of you”. This particular mix, carefully curated in 2003, covered everything from “Dip It Low” by Christina Millian to “Summer of ‘69” by Bryan Adams. When the computer hissed—the sound it would make as it finished burning songs onto a CD—I felt a sense of completion. My work there was done, and my first playlist was born.

Music was also my biggest coping mechanism. It followed me through the most troubling times of my childhood. My father, the addict, provided little warmth and comfort to my two sisters and me. Perhaps the only fruitful thing he ever did for us in those early years was share his love of music. There was always a song playing, which meant that every emotion was always associated with music. My morning routine before school became second nature to me: wake up, turn on MTV’s music video hour, and have music videos playing in the background while I got ready for school. Then I’d put in my headphones on the iPod shuffle (the one that didn’t have a screen and didn’t let you choose what song you were listening to) and walk to the bus stop. I was the last of my friends to get a car, but I’d always come ready with a new playlist to listen to on the way to school. Each day, I’d fumble with their car stereos and press play for the ten-minute drive from my house to our high school.

In the age of iPhones and music streaming services, creating and sharing playlists became astronomically easier for me. When I got my first iPhone as a graduation present from my grandparents, the first app I downloaded was Pandora. Remember those days? It was a professional playlist-making service that recorded your musical interests and found songs that you would probably like based on said interests. My days of burning CDs slowly came to an end as cars began building models with AUX adaptors and Apple Music and Spotify took over. I tucked away my packet of blank CDs that were just waiting to be given a musical home and put my thumbs to work. The words “New Playlist” became ingrained in my brain.

I made playlists for myself as well: thirteen songs here and there that brought me back to a moment; a playlist of fifty-odd songs that inspired me to write; songs to listen to when I needed to feel pumped; songs to play in my ears when I was training to become a runner (that was a short-lived thirty songs). Songs were everywhere.

It wasn’t until my early twenties, though, that I realized that I wasn’t making any playlists about love. I didn’t have a high school sweetheart to remember with fondness—days spent at the beach, nights tangled up in sheets (a la “Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset” by Luke Bryan). And I didn’t have a first love who would haunt relationships that I’d enter into long after their scent was off my favorite pull-over hoodie. I was twenty-two and realizing, with a jaded and bitter heart, that I had never been in love.

That didn’t mean there wasn’t heartbreak. In 2013, I listened to the song “All Too Well” by Taylor Swift on repeat. Though I don’t have the exact data points, it’s safe to assume that the total play count neared at least five hundred. I’d scream along to it in my Nissan Versa on the way to work at a hospital gift shop. My best friend Jenna and I would listen to it in her Nissan Versa on the way to the beach. When I saw Taylor Swift in concert that year, I swayed with a beer in hand as I sang along to the words, “There we are again when I loved you so.” That was the product of my first true heartbreak, a story of unrequited love with someone I worked with.      The words “I don’t feel the same” were never said, I was just left with silence. For someone who constantly has music, silence is deafening.

I wish I could say that in the years that followed, my playlists were eventually filled with love songs. But they weren’t. Even after packing up and leavingmy small hometown for New York City, where I was sure I’d meet someone to fall in love with, I was met with more heartache. I went for drinks with men who looked at their phones. I walked down busy Brooklyn streets with men who thought it was “cute” that I was trying to be a professional novelist. There are various usages of the word “cute”, and these men were not calling me attractive. They pitied me. I was cute. And though I knew many of the men I’d met were simply not a right fit, at the end of the date I’d slip my headphones back in and take the subway home filled with a sense of sadness. I felt there was something about me that was missing. And so, I’d listen to my playlists. I’d play “All Too Well” by Taylor Swift, like I mentioned, but I’d also play deeply romantic love songs that made me daydream about falling in love. These included “If I Should Fall Behind” by Bruce Springsteen and “You Get Me” by Michelle Branch. I was lovesick, not for a specific person, but for the feeling that stirred inside me when I heard a great love song.

One day, I would make a playlist for myself of songs that reminded me of the person I loved so dearly, and I would be able to share that playlist with them. And though they’d laugh at the weird variety of it—everything from U2 to Usher—they would know that my love language was making playlists. They’d listen to it in the shower or on the way to work. They’d start a song over because of a certain lyric that hit in a way they could never describe. Maybe it would be a lyric that reminded them of me. Hopefully it would be a lyric that reminded them of me.

My lack of love song playlists allowed me to really dive into what my idea of love was. I had a skewed perception. My grandparents have been married for 67 years and their relationship started as an arranged marriage in the village of Lefkara, Cyprus. They grew to love each other, though, despite not having a say in the matter. My parents seemed to have married as friends, creating a family together that then fell apart because of addiction. The day my mom filed for divorce, I don’t think she even shed a tear as she accepted full responsibility for my two sisters and me and just went about her life. And then there were my two best friends, who both fell in love at a young age and married their high school boyfriends before we were twenty-five years old. Though there were different degrees of love around me, I’d never understood how to get from first-meet to forever. I wasn’t sure if there was a path for me, or even what that would look like. Come what may, I had my playlists and my books, so I could always slip into someone else’s love story and pretend it was mine.

Then I met Dustin.

Meeting him was one of those moments in life where I wish I had kept a written record of it; what I was wearing, what my hair looked like, what song was playing on the overhead speaker that surrounded us in the lobby of the college that housed our MFA in Creative Writing program. But I don’t have any of that. I assume the first thing we said to each other was “hi”, as we were being introduced. He was one year into the program, writing fiction, and I was the new girl, starting my first semester as a writer for young people. I was in the program to write and to hone my craft, because if I wanted to be on track to be a New York Times bestseller before I was thirty, I still had a lot of learning to do. And after five minutes of talking to Dustin, I could tell he wanted the same thing. He was articulate and intelligent, and he had a sarcastic edge that went underappreciated by our classmates.

We took to each other pretty quickly. We’d eat lunch together and sit next to each other in classes. We were just on campus for ten days, as was how our low-residency MFA program worked, but in those ten days we spent hours together. One afternoon, when we both had no classes to attend, we got into his car and drove into Boston. We walked the streets of downtown and talked about everything from how different it was from where I lived in New York City, to the intimidation we felt when reading books by our favorite authors; Michael Crichton for him, Morgan Matson for me. We sat at a high top in a bar and I told him about a best friend from high school who had died the summer before, and how guilt followed me around because I hadn’t spoken to him in years. He did whatever it took to make me laugh, a trait he still brings to our dynamic two years later.

When I left Boston at the end of the ten days, I knew that what we had was special. He quickly became the person I wanted to tell the best parts about my day to and the person who would help me through the worst parts. And it was easy. To me, it felt like a no brainer that we would end up together. We had identical goals, similar personalities, and care for one another  that was deeply rooted. I should be clear that very early on we said we didn’t know what our relationship was. Some days I imagined passionate physical encounters where he’d make my body feel a way it never had before. Some days I thought about what it would be like to introduce a boyfriend to Dustin, have them get along and become friends. Most days, though, I thought about what it would be like to spend my life with him.

As the months of togetherness went on, the insecurities that had been following me around my entire life were on full display. In our early months of friendship, I’d hear about women he’d loved before. Beautiful, petite women with successful careers and wealthy families. The self-image issues that I had tried so desperately to push to the back were front and center again, and instead of trusting that I could share these with him, I ignored it. When I would come to Boston for a weekend to visit him, I would pretend that I didn’t see the notifications on his phone from dating apps or other women. I began to look at myself in the mirror and outline all the reasons he didn’t love me: I wasn’t thin enough, I wasn’t on a secure career path, I was dirt poor growing up, I wasn’t girly enough. Of course he didn’t want to be with me romantically. These were the insecurities that haunted me from men in the past, and now he was paying for it, whether he knew it or not. The assumptions that love could only look like the beautiful woman he’d dated in college settled in on me, and again, I started curating playlists about heartbreak.

Again, though, I was good at holding onto hope. I was growing tired of New York City and wanted a change of scenery. As a preschool teacher, I could find a job pretty much anywhere. So without much thought, I set my sights on Boston. I found an apartment on Facebook marketplace with three other women my age, and Dustin and I celebrated the prospect of us living less than thirty minutes away from each other. I made a playlist.

Living so close together felt like a fairytale. We would meet at a coffee shop and work on our stories over iced coffees and spicy egg sandwiches. At lunch, we’d go to the bar next door and get margaritas and nachos. We’d watch a movie together every Saturday night. Some nights, after the movie, I’d sleep on his couch and we’d make breakfast together the next morning. It felt deeply confusing and deeply fulfilling at the same time. I was so confused how I loved this man as hard as I did, but still felt like a visiting buddy from college when he’d pass me an extra pillow and blanket. And we talked about it constantly. While there were times where we did get physical, the majority of our time was spent talking, often late into the evening and continuing early the next morning. With each day that passed, I knew I was loving him harder than I’d ever thought I could love someone. We were happy.

Just a few months into me living in Boston, the coronavirus pandemic hit hard. I was sent home to teach preschool aged children a few times a week via Zoom, and Dustin worked from home as well. We had an unspoken agreement that we would still find a way to see each other. I’d ride my bike to his studio apartment or he’d pick me up and we’d bring my laptop to a park near my apartment. Without words, I began packing an overnight bag on Saturdays and we’d spend every weekend together. Everything in my life was uncertain. I didn’t know what work looked like, and with one year left in my MFA program, I had no real clue about what publishing would look like in the post-pandemic world. Dustin and I would sprawl out across his living room, me laid back in a tan recliner and him with his legs up on the couch, and we’d ponder the meaning of a writing life. We’d spend hours watching a true crime documentary, and then quote the absurdity of it all.  Slowly—painstakingly slow, actually— my insecurities were at bay. They would sneak up sometimes when I’d wander deep into my brain about the type of woman that Dustin should be with. When I eventually started sharing these insecurities with him, he told me I had every part of him. When I told him I was terrified he was going to leave me, much like my father had when I was a child, he told me he was my rock and that he wasn’t going anywhere. In the past, when I’d get lost in dark or deep thoughts, I never had a way to escape them. He notices when I start to have spiraling thoughts, whether they’re about us or a worry about my future, and he grabs my hands and pulls me out of the darkness. He’s constantly pulling me into daylight.

In my years of listening to love songs, it was implanted in me that when you meet the person who brings out a joy in your life that you didn’t know existed, you would feel it right away. You’d instantly make plans to run away with that person, surely ready to commit your life to them. Mornings would be sun shining through the window, lighting the silhouette of your soulmate perfectly. I was positive that’s what love was, that this was the only way love looked. With Dustin, I was learning that sure, love does look like that, but it also looks like the person who will hold you when you’re crying over having missed saying goodbye to your students. Love looks like knowing someone is out of K-cups and ordering them Dunkin’ Donuts on Uber Eats so they don’t go without. Love looks like bike rides along the Charles River and getting into an argument because one of us (me) can’t jump fences. Eventually, without a word of recognition, our Saturday nights turned into me lying next to him in his bed. We’d talk through the darkness, him once remarking that it felt like summer camp. He’d hold me for a little while, until one of us said goodnight and rolled over.

In our two years in each other’s lives, we taught each other what love looked like for us. I never called him my boyfriend, yet every time we left each other for the day, we’d exchange an “I love you”. And I do. I love him on a level that love songs never prepared me for—because it’s not a show. Loving him is not over-exaggerated for a good rhyme or a beautiful melody. Loving him exists on the days that feel so good I might explode, and the days that feel so bad I don’t want to get out of bed. Loving him is there when I stumble over not calling him my boyfriend and when he tells me that I helped fix his heart. “You fix it, you keep it,” we joked on Valentine’s Day.

And so, I made him a playlist: “Daylight” by Taylor Swift, “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd (which was his addition), “I Choose You” by Sarah Bareilles. But there were sad songs, too, because we were learning that love wasn’t always the perfect melody. Sometimes we would piss each other off and sometimes our feelings weren’t affected by each other at all. But we both kept our promise. We stayed put.

I’d spent my entire life thinking that love existed only in a love song, and only in the way that it was painted. You either loved someone forever or never thought of them again. It was only love if you loved them with such a physical passion that you couldn’t see straight. Love was either ‘this’ or ‘that’. To quote the song that Dustin and I both fondly say reminds us of each other, “I once believed love would be black and white, but it’s golden. Like daylight.”

And it is golden. He’ll do anything to make me laugh. He’ll challenge me when I’m being stubborn. He’ll poke me to open up, instead of going into “sad town”. He’ll tell me at all hours of the day that he believes in me, that he’s proud. With him, I have the home I always searched for and the companionship I always dreamed about. There are moments of darkness, sure, but the majority of our life together is daylight.

Sam Cooke is a Boston based writer and educator. Her fiction and essays have been published in Sad Girls Club Lit, Bluing the Blade and Prometheus Dreaming.

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emma

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

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Fiction, Grief, Guest Posts

Emergency Cigarette

June 25, 2021
barb

By Ellen Wade Beals

Barb thinks she’ll call out, “Hello,” but when the front door key sticks in the lock, she has a moment to realize that Bernadette, her mother, is gone. To call out seems kind of maudlin, but Barb does it anyway. That’s how she’s feeling. What better place than an empty house to show those feelings? Her “hello” sounds feeble.

The house smells fusty, which would have driven Bernadette crazy. She’d be opening windows. “Let’s get some fresh air in here.”

It’s been three days since the funeral. Barb had needed a break. Now she plans to start the first rash of cleaning out her mother’s home. She’s been dreading the task. Sifting through all her mother’s possessions—it’s like paring down a life. And so final.

Today’s goal:  tackle the top layer, the trash that can be safely tossed without regrets. The hard stuff—whatever was too good to toss but of no use to her; her mother’s personal items; the things Barb would look at for fifteen minutes and still not know what to do with—is for another day. This is the preliminary trash day, she told herself and Alec and Aunt Rosemarie who had offered to help, and she can handle it. She’ll get as many trash bags done as she could and that will be that.

Barb drops the box of giant plastic bags in the hallway and looks around. She slips off her shoes. Though the lady herself is gone this is still her mother’s house. Neat and tidy. But chilly. She goes to the thermostat to turn up the heat and then to the closet to hang up her jacket.

First order of business: her mother’s winter coat, the green one she’d bought new for Barb’s graduation and that was over 25 years ago. She checks the pockets (nothing but lint) and notices the sleeves, so worn the coat couldn’t go to charity. On the front collar of the coat is the Christmas wreath brooch Bernadette had bought at Woolworth’s and wore every holiday season for as long as Barb could remember. She unpins it and tucks it in her jeans pocket.

Barb puts her nose to the wool blend and recalls the afternoon they met on the Evanston corner before going to the movies. The cold air was so clear that Barb could smell the coffee on Bernadette’s breath when she spoke: “Lead the way.” They were going to see Philomena, about an Irish woman who was forced to give up her baby. That they chose the  movie without first reading the reviews was a mistake, it turned out, because it brought up issues. Barb had to bite her tongue lest she sputter that the Catholic church could be evil. Bernadette’s reaction was “At least the child wasn’t denied life.” Barb sensed Bernadette held back too. Though she was adamant about the mortal sin of abortion, the son in the movies had been gay, and Bernadette did not exactly denounce homosexuality. Instead she shook her head and summed it up as something she could not understand. At least they both liked Judi Dench

She slides the coat off the hanger, notices the label and  laughs. In marker are written the initials “B. S.” Bernadette always said one reason she named her daughter Barbara was so they’d share a monogram. That way if she ever had a mink with her initials embroidered on the silk lining, she could leave it to Barb and the monogram would still be right. The uneven block letters on the tag make Barb a little sadder–one of Bernadette’s ideas that never came to pass. When she billows the garbage bag to open it, the noise is so harsh it makes her grimace. In it goes.

She moves into the bedroom and opens the big dresser drawer. Beige and white, the bras and panties have that funky rubbery smell of old elastic. All sorts of cotton and rayon, no lace, no silk. Lots of Platex. Or ordered from an ad in Parade Magazine. She grabs handfuls to add to the trash bag. Secondhand underwear. Nobody wants that.

Beneath the underwear are cards and letters, but she dares not start with them lest she get waylaid. Her mother saved all the cards she ever received. She can see the corner of a pink envelope, knows it was from her father, and doesn’t have to pull it out to picture her Father’s perfect Palmer method handwriting. Ephemera, that’s what it’s called, but just seeing the envelope evokes her father. What if he were still alive?  How might their lives have been different? Maybe he would have softened Bernadette because sometimes she was hard. Especially on herself. On the dresser top is their wedding photo, black and white, Buddy was in a dark suit and Bernadette wore a lace mantilla veil.

Since his death in 1982, Buddy has gone on to sainthood. Bernadette idolized him. Countless times throughout her childhood and even more-so when her mother had grown infirm. Bernadette would proclaim, “My one and only” or “the love of my life,” and hold the framed photo to her heart. A rare moment of weakness and heartfelt emotion that Bernadette let show.

As she pushes the drawer shut with her hip, Barb tries to think whether she’d describe Alec as the love of her life. Maybe. But not in the same way Bernadette meant it. They were partners.

Especially as she got older and dated and moved out, Barbara wondered whether companionship wasn’t something Bernadette lacked. There was no one. No other. But it was not a subject her mother cared to discuss. Bernadette worked as a receptionist for a dentist, Dr. Ken, since 1986. For a while when Barb was in her teens, she entertained the idea that maybe he was her mother’s love interest. But that was not the case. Bernadette was loyal to the dentist and even protective of him, but it was just old-fashioned respect. He was a doctor and he was her boss. That was that.

“My one and only,” Barb says to herself. Her voice sounds tinny. Suppose her father had not died –what then? No matter how she thinks about the question, there is really no answer.

Barb drops the bag by the bedroom door and heads to the kitchen. The only male who sparked anything in Bernadette was Bill O’Reilly. She watched him every day. If Barb called while The O’Reilly Factor was on, Bernadette asked her to call back, she wanted to watch. When Barb asked what was so special about him, Bernadette would say, “He’s just so no-nonsense,” and “He’s easy on the eyes.”

“Anderson Cooper is handsome,” Barb had countered once but Bernadette wasn’t hearing it

“Barbie, it’s not the same thing.”

Later when Bill O’Reilly faced sexual harassment charges and lost his show, Barbara didn’t want to bring it up. By then Bernadette was sick again.

Barb flicks on the kitchen light switch and the fluorescent fixture buzzes awake. If Barbara’s purging of the house goes okay, she’ll have to chalk that up to Bernadette. Her mother had a file folder “My Demise,” and it had all the necessary papers – the DNR and Living Will, the last Will and Testament, the contact info for the attorney, the numbers (and even PIN numbers) to Bernadette’s banking and credit accounts.

Barb hadn’t known how to go about selling the house but, on the refrigerator,  there was a magnet from a Realtor, Mike Toomey, who specialized in estate cases like this. Bernadette’s house will be listed in two weeks. It will sell pretty fast, he’s assured her. As is.

In the kitchen, the Formica is the same: boomerangs in grays and pink on an open field. The refrigerator’s been replaced over the years. It’s a bare bones side-by-side Kenmore, meticulously maintained by Bernadette. Just the other week Barb came across the wire brush contraption her mother used to dust the condensers.

A couple of weeks ago, when her mother was still in hospice, Barb gave the refrigerator a once-over, so today it does not contain much: a carton of creamer she doesn’t dare open, the green carboard can of Parmesan cheese, some other condiments, all of which she dumps. The freezer is more packed.

Barb pulls up a kitchen chair, slides the garbage can over to her side and sits in front of the open freezer compartment. There are two standard blue plastic ice cube trays. But typical Bernadette, there are also two of the old-fashioned aluminum kind that are louvered like window blinds. Bernadette never threw out anything that was still useful.

As Barb puts the trays in the sink for the ice to melt, she notices something stuck to the bottom of one of the aluminum trays. It’s a white envelope, labeled clearly: Emergency Cigarette. Barb stares at it. She touches the letters.

When Barbara was in fifth grade, she had her first health class and came home with handouts on the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke. It was obvious to both of them that  her mother should quit smoking. Bernadette made a promise to Barbara. She remembers it clearly. They were at the kitchen table. Barbara rested her head on her crossed arms. The Formica felt cool. No more, Bernadette told her, only maybe this one exception. Barbara watched side eyed as her mother took the last Kent from its pack and wrapped it in waxed paper, which she carefully creased into a rectangle that she then tucked into a small envelope. With a black felt-tip marker, she wrote on a white business-sized envelope: Emergency Cigarette. She put the smaller envelope into this, sealed it.

“I’ll feel better knowing it’s there if I ever need it,” Bernadette told Barb. “What if there were an emergency and I needed something to calm my nerves? The last thing I’d want to do is run out to buy a pack.” Then Bernadette walked to the fridge and stashed the envelope.

“Of course, I’m hoping we’ve had all the emergencies we’re going to.” Bernadette raised her eyes to heaven.

Her father Buddy had been a big man in every way. He was an ex-Marine who worked as a building engineer at the Standard Oil Building. He took the earliest train there every morning. He had a clunker car, Old Bess, a Ford Maverick, banana yellow, that he drove to their station and back.

Bernadette and Barbara were stumped when it was still in the lot, even after the later train. He wasn’t in the tavern across from the station. He wasn’t anywhere they looked that Friday night. They came home exasperated and could hear the phone ringing as Bernadette put the key in the lock, but it stuck when she turned it until finally the bolt released and Bernadette shoved open the door, “It’s bad news Barbie I just know it.”

She ran to the phone, but it had stopped ringing. “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.” The phone rang again. Buddy’d had a fatal heart attack on the 4:04. Her mother crumpled and then let out a cry that pierced Barb..

She feels the envelope; the cigarette’s still there but it seems different, shorter maybe. After that day so many years ago, Barb never saw her mother smoke again. She puts the envelope on the counter to deal with later and tries to resume her work, marveling at the thought Bernadette had kept that cigarette all these years.

Her mother’s ability to hang onto things seems impressive now. When she was a kid, Bernadette’s frugality only embarrassed her. She can still feel how the color rose in her cheeks. It was recess, sixth grade, always a fraught time, but she felt good, wearing the new sweater her mother had given her the night before–a Fair Isle pullover, off-white with forest green and purple accents; the label had a name she didn’t recognize.

AmberLee Donovan practically announced, “Oh my god, my sister had that sweater and my mother just donated it to rummage sale at church. Where did you get it?” Barbara knew then where Bernadette had gotten it, but she had no answer for AmberLee. That night Bernadette had not understood why there was a problem. If AmberLee wanted to make fun of Barbara because she wore a perfectly good sweater, well, that was AmberLee’s problem. Bernadette, always big on the Catholic notion of redemptive suffering, had admonished Barb, “Offer it up.”

Barb stands, shuts the freezer, walks to the counter, and picks up the white envelope to inspect it again. She presses it gently between her fingers. Had Bernadette smoked it, or had it shrunk from the cold?

Barb opens it carefully not wanting to rip her mother’s printing. A cigarette is there, but this one is wrapped in Saran.

She looks again at the envelope. This is a different Emergency Cigarette.

Sure enough, it’s a Marlboro Light, not a Kent. And the tip is gone. Bernadette must have had a drag or two and then put it out and snipped it with a scissors. But it’s been smoked because the filter is yellowed and there’s Bernadette’s lipstick, Tangerine Dream. Barb always urged her mother to change her lipstick color because it was far too orange for her rosy complexion. She even bought her a pink shade from Clinique but always Bernadette came back to Tangerine Dream.

She feels herself deflate. What? Did she expect her mother to never have smoked the Emergency Cigarette? Is she disappointed? Really? Get over yourself.

She’s not really mad at her mother for smoking. What hurts is that she didn’t know this about Bernadette. Maybe she would have seen her mother differently if she had known this vulnerability. Bernadette came across always so matter of fact, so certain.

When had her mother smoked the Emergency Cigarette?

Maybe when she got sick. After all, she kept it to herself. At first, she waited to see if the lump would go away. Then she kept the diagnosis quiet for at least a week. It was only after she made her first appointment to determine the course of her treatment that she called Barbara, asked if she would accompany her. Bernadette explained it was good to have another set of ears to hear everything the doctor said. Always practical.

At the appointment, when the nurse called her name, Bernadette started on her way to the examining room and Barb followed, but Bernadette halted in her steps, said, “I’ll have the nurse call you in when it’s time for the consultation.” For some reason that nearly brought Barb to tears right there in the waiting room. How stupid. Here she was crying when her mother was so strong.

Had Bernadette bought a pack of cigarettes during that time? Maybe she’d wanted one last smoke to steady her nerves. What had she been thinking? Why hadn’t Barbara been at her side?

Barb always envied those close mothers and daughters who joked and teased. She and her mother had a strong connection, a reliance on one another– not a friendship. Now she had a sincere appreciation for Bernadette’s grit as a single mother. Growing up she hadn’t seen things so positively. She’d be the first to admit she’d been a haughty teenager who looked down on the life her mother wrought. Barb was going to accomplish something, not merely eke by. But after all those months of her mother’s being sick, of Barb coming up so often and sharing hours with her mother, they had come to a kind of ease with one another.

There was the circuit they did on Saturdays to the Greek diner and the grocery store and Dollar Tree, Bernadette’s favorite store. Some evenings they brought out the TV trays for dinner; Bernadette would say grace and they’d eat and watch the local news. Barb washed up and usually left when Wheel of Fortune was on. During the commercials Bernadette would switch to Special Report with Bret Bair.

How many times had her mother replaced the Emergency Cigarette? Barb shakes her head and takes her seat back at the open freezer.

Aside from a penchant for Fannie Mae candy, Bernadette didn’t have many bad habits. Butter was something she indulged in, stocked up on. And there it is: a one-pound brick, which hits the garbage bag solidly. Bernadette would kill her for throwing out good food, but there’s no going back.

Next in the trash is a bag of frozen peas, strictly used as an ice pack. Bernadette would drape a bag over her knee and settle into watch reruns of Law & Order, or NCIS, her favorite show, what with that Mark Harmon so handsome and so nice in real life—did Barb know he’d rescued someone from a burning car?

There are plastic containers (filled with what Barb doesn’t know, but suspects is cabbage soup). All of which she tosses without opening. She considers how she should really recycle them, but it’s garbage day tomorrow and everything must go. Clunk, clunk, clunk. A pint of Walgreen’s ice cream. Butter pecan. Clunk.

Between an olive green Tupperware and a butcher-wrapped chop, Barb finds another white envelope. This one is labeled “Emergency Cig, 2011,” so it has been in the freezer for seven years, for as long as Barb’s been married to Alec. Is that why her mother needed it? Bernadette and Alec never seemed to warm up to each other. “Your Alec is as smart as Alec Trebek,” Bernadette told Barb like it was a compliment, but Barb could decode it, knew it meant Bernadette felt intimidated. She didn’t correct her mother on the Jeopardy host’s first name.

Alec was raised a Catholic, so he had that going for him. His parents were from Cuba and he grew up in Miami. But like Barbara he was a lapsed Catholic. So, both of them disappointed their parents.  They managed to peeve everyone even more when they got married at the clerk’s office. Alec’s parents wanted to host a luncheon at their club to celebrate the nuptials. But Bernadette wouldn’t get on an airplane. So, to compensate Barb and Alec had a Chicago celebration; a brunch party at a nice restaurant. They invited their close friends along with Aunt Rosemarie, Bernadette’s priest friend Father Malec, and Dr. Ken and his wife. It hadn’t seemed stressful but maybe Bernadette had needed to light one up to get through it.

Barb puts this envelope on the counter next to the first one. She shuts the freezer, leans back in the chair, and closes her eyes.

How many cigarettes have there been? When had the first Kent been lit and when and how many Marlboros had she needed?

If her memory is correct and the first cigarette had been put away when she was in fifth grade, it was only a few years later that Barbara had changed, insisted on being called Barb or Barbara –she hated Barbie. The tweens. That was the start of when she could see only her mother’s shortcomings. Conformist. Boring. Barb had been such a handful, so strident, it was no wonder her mother hadn’t smoked carton after carton.

The heat comes on, and it makes a regular tick, once, twice, three times. Barb listens to the house; wonders if it will belong to someone loud after all these years of quiet.

She thought she might get teary when she cleaned out Bernadette’s dresser or smelled the White Shoulders perfume.  Instead, it’s here at the freezer where her feelings thaw.

Then it flashes to her, how egotistical she is to presume the reason her mother smoked the Emergency Cigarette had anything to do with her. Didn’t her mother have a life of her own? Barb did not share with Bernadette, but maybe Bernadette didn’t share either. There could have been things she never mentioned. Worse even, it could be that something had upset her mother and she didn’t even know. And now would never know.

Or perhaps her mother, with her TV companions, poured herself a 7-Up and lit one up. She could picture it, maybe. Bernadette would take the time to arrange cheese and crackers on a plate and use cocktail napkins. She’d probably even used an ashtray, though it seemed the Emergency Cigarette was only smoked for a puff or two.

Barb would have known if her mother smoked then because she was around a lot; she came home to take care of her mother on those treatment days when the radiation and nausea sapped Bernadette’s strength. And most weekends. Barb had been a dutiful daughter, hadn’t she?

Come to think of it, with the world as crazy as it is, it could have been a news event that drove her mother to the white envelope in the freezer — 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina? Surely the Emergency Cigarette was not from that long ago. Maybe it was when the classrooms of kindergartners were shot up?  Or something else. There were plenty of atrocities–there were many to choose from.

The freezer stands empty and the garbage bag sags like a heavy heart. Barb is ready to tie it up when she notices some items on the shelves of the door. Behind a sticky can of frozen orange juice concentrate, she finds another white envelope, this one with a plain face, no writing. How many emergency cigarettes had her mother needed?  And why did she save them? Had she lost count or forgotten them?  Was she further gone than Barb suspected?  Barb tosses the envelope on the counter.

Taking the full garbage bag to the can outside the kitchen door, Barb wonders how much she doesn’t know about her mother.

Back at the counter, the three cigarettes are lined up: a Marlboro Light, an Eve, and a Benson & Hedges, all partially smoked, each white filter ringed in faint tangerine. She gathers them all, brings them with her when she sits at the kitchen table.

Lately who hasn’t wanted to smoke and drink and tear their hair and jump off buildings?  Even Barb, Ms Health Consciousness, had been tempted to bum a smoke those weeks at the end of 2016, the situation so bleak with the election turning out as it did. And that was another thing that drove them apart. Really drove them apart.

“Even the Trib won’t endorse that woman,” Bernadette had told her when Barb brought up the election.

“But you’re going to vote for that man?”

“I’m voting for the Republican Party,” Bernadette said firmly. She never mentioned it again, but Barb thought about it a lot.

Such a disappointment. Barb could not come to terms with how Bernadette voted. It flabbergasted her. Of all the things she did not understand about her mother, this seemed the hardest for her to fathom. How could someone who valued decency vote for him? And now the cigarettes.

Her mother is dead and the man she voted for is the President and they are all left to deal with it. It’s a mess. The only mess Bernadette left behind.

They were getting to a good place with one another, she and her mother, where they understood and appreciated one another. But he ruined things between them just like he is ruining the nation. Everything tainted.

Here she is 46, the same age as Bernadette when she had her. She used to want a baby. But now she is glad she never conceived because the world is so screwed-up. When menopause started and the possibility of pregnancy diminished, Barb was relieved as well as disappointed, if that made any sense.

Her eyes are watery as she touches the cigarettes. She’ll smoke them all, one by one, just to imagine she is taking in some breath of her mother. But she can’t get up from the chair and she doesn’t have a match. All that’s in her pocket is that stupid Christmas brooch. Somewhere far down the street a car alarm starts up and then seems to fade away.

When Barb looks down at her hands, she finds that without thinking, she has broken the three half-cigarettes, crumbled them until the filters and paper and tobacco are in a pile on the table. Tears come. When she is done crying, she picks up the three tangerine-tinged filters, lines them up in the smoothed-out Saran, and carefully wraps them. This she puts in the smallest envelope, which she then tucks into next envelope, and then the last. She looks once again at the indelible printing: Emergency Cigarette. She brings the packet to her lips. Then she shifts in the chair to put it in her back pocket.

Only tobacco and paper shreds are left on the table. She brushes all the mess into her palm. Because the garbage can is empty, she doesn’t want to use it. Instead she opens the kitchen door and blows her hand clean, all the little bits flying this way and that.

Trained as a journalist, Ellen Wade Beals writes poetry and prose. Her work has appeared in literary magazines, in anthologies and on the web here and in Ireland and the UK. Her poem “Between the sheets” appears in the textbook Everything’s a Text (Pearson 2010). She is editor and publisher of Solace in So Many Words. Her website is: www.solaceinabook.com.

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If you’ve had the opportunity to take a class from Janice Lee (we highly recommend her class at  Corporeal Writing) then you understand why we are excited about her forthcoming book, Imagine a Death. Her work is, frankly, groundbreaking both in terms of form and content. If you aren’t familiar with Janice, check her out. A description of Imagine a Death. from her website:

A depiction of the cycles of abuse and trauma in a prolonged end-time, Imagine a Death examines the ways in which our pasts envelop us, the ways in which we justify horrible things in the name of survival, all of the horrible and beautiful things we are capable of when we are hurt and broken, and the animal (and plant) companions that ground us.

Join us in preordering her book now, and if you take a class with her, let her know we sent you. Preorder a copy today at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen and on being human

death, Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Bernoulli’s Heart

April 9, 2021
By Marco Etheridge

The coffin was in the ground and clods of earth had drummed on the hollow box. Retreating to the home of the newly departed, the mourners pour out liberal libations. Murmurs move through the sprawling house; quiet lamentation mixed with dashes of muffled laughter.

Some of the bereaved gather under the shaded cloister, chic in veils and tailored suits of black. Sunlight spills over the red earthen tiles of the courtyard. Four tables stand in the sunlight, four umbrellas furled. All of the wrought iron chairs are empty save for one.

The woman’s face is hidden under a wide-brimmed black hat. Her legs are bent to one side, ankles crossed, the black-stockinged calves of a woman younger than five decades. On the table beside her is an almost empty wine glass rimmed with ghost kisses from crimson lips.

A man appears from the shadow of the cloister. He strides across the courtyard, a full glass of wine in one hand, a tumbler of scotch in the other. The woman tilts back her head, watches his progress from beneath the brim of her hat.

The man stops beside her table, still holding the two glasses. He smiles at the woman with that singular smile that is reserved for old lovers. She returns his smile in kind while adding up the years since she last saw him in the flesh.

— John Staffen, as I live and breathe.

— Hello Yvette. Bit of a redundant expression, especially for a wake.

— What’s more redundant than a wake?

— Too true, in a sad sort of way. I saw your glass was empty. I had to guess on the wine.

— You always were a gentleman. If the wine is red, and in a glass, it’s perfect.

John Staffen flourishes the wine and places it on the table with a mock bow. Raising himself, he gestures to an empty seat. Yvette awards him a regal nod. He unbuttons his black suit coat and sits. He looks long over the rim of his whisky and Yvette Martin lets him look. Crystal scrapes the glass tabletop as he sets it down.

— My brain is telling me fifteen years, but my eyes don’t agree. You look damn good, Yvette.

— Thank you, John, it’s been sixteen, but who’s counting? You look good as well.

Staffen snorts, shakes his head.

— I look like death on a cracker and you know it. Not as bad as our dearly departed Harry, of course.

— Don’t be a drama queen, John. You’re not on stage right now. A little grey at the temples, some craggy lines; you’re a handsome middle-aged devil.

He waves a dismissive hand.

— Are you living here in the old alma mater?

— That’s right, still living at the scene of our crimes. I’ve got a cute condo with a view of the Charles, walking distance from my lab and the lecture hall. I’m all settled down like a real grownup. I assume you’re here just long enough to pay your last respects.

— I’m watching a friend’s place for a few weeks, then I’m off to Seattle for rehearsals and a six-week run of Uncle Vanya. I’m cast as the Old Professor, something that happens more often these days. Not that it matters.

— I’ll bet the script girls still swoon.

She gives him a long look but not without a smile. It is a look he remembers well. He thinks better of it and retreats.

— Do you mind if I smoke? It’s been a long morning.

— By all means. I look forward to the waves of disapproval.

Staffen glances to the figures in black strung along the shadowed borders of the courtyard.

— Piss on them. A murder of crows.

He removes a small cigar from a pocket, clips it, and flicks a lighter. The flame hovers beneath the tip of the cigar. He leans back in his chair as a cloud of smoke rises and swirls into the sunlight. A half smile breaks across his face as he speaks.

— Sixteen years gone and our paths cross here. I think Harry would get a chuckle out of that.

— I hope so. Were you two still close?

— No, not since he became the rich and famous Henry Grimes. We’d see each other now and again, whenever he felt like slumming with his old pals. I played Falstaff to his young prince, even though he had a decade on me. When was the last time you saw him?

— It’s been five years. We had a bit of a falling out. Bitter words, expectations not met, that sort of thing.

— Wait, were you two a thing? I had no idea.

— Why would you? Harry kept all his lives in separate compartments. Not the sort of man to spill his secrets while swilling drinks with you. What would he say? Oh, by the way John, I’ve bedded the former love of your life. Lovely Girl, I don’t know why you ever let her slip away. That was never Harry’s style and you know it.

Staffen smokes in silence, taking this in. Harry would have been right to say it. Why did he let her slip away? More of a push than a letting slip, truth be told.

— Anyway, it ended badly, as we both knew it would. But here I am, mourning the beloved dead.

Yvette takes a long drink of wine. She smiles at her former lover, the edges of her teeth stained bloody red.

— Don’t be shocked, John, and don’t pout. I always hated that. Harry was a charming man in his own way, until he wasn’t.

— I’m not shocked, just a bit surprised. You know it’s true, the part about you being the love of my life.

— I know.

— Do you mind if I change the subject?

— Please do.

Staffen contemplates his cigar before speaking.

— How many funerals have you been to this year?

— That’s a morbid question.

— Humor me, you used to be good at it.

— Don’t be catty, it doesn’t suit you. How many funerals this year? Three, if we’re counting today. Why?

He nods, as if having something confirmed.

— This makes four for me. There’s been a subtle shift in my social schedule. It happened sometime after I turned forty. I used to suffer through more weddings than funerals. Now it’s the opposite. The change is weighing on my mind, or rather on my heart.

— You’re being serious. That’s not like you. What do you mean, weighing on your heart?

— When I review the owner’s manual for my life, I can’t find a single chapter where it states that death will become a regular event. The bastards who wrote it lied to me, at least by omission.

— There’s an owner’s manual? I guess I never got my copy.

— Sure you did; we all did. It’s that compendium of expectations that we learned as kids. Childhood, school, meeting that special someone, children of our own, then a happy life into our dotage. But the balance tilts along the way. Not everyone gets their allotted four-score years. A car crash, an OD, a cancer diagnosis, and before you know it your heart is filled with dead people elbowing for space. My heart is getting crowded.

Yvette swirls the wine in her glass, thinks better of it, returns the glass to the table. She leans closer to John before she speaks.

— Your metaphorical heart is running out of space?

— Ever the scientific mind, Yvette.

— That’s one of the perils of being a scientist.

— Yes, I’m talking about the poet’s heart, not the muscle in my chest that races every time I see you.

— John Staffen, that is a very odd and sweet thing to say. Setting that weird compliment aside, my scientific mind tells me that you’re talking about accumulated grief. But on another level, I think I understand what you mean. I lost my mother, then my sister, both to breast cancer. Dead friends, people you don’t know, some younger than me. And now Harry, of course.

— There’s that as well, the quick assessment of my own mortality. When I read someone’s obit, the first thing I do is compare my age to theirs. Were they younger than me? The math gets less pretty as the years pass.

Yvette shakes her head, raises one hand as if to ward off the thought.

— No obituaries for me, thanks. I’m fifty years old, not some crazy old cat lady. A girl has limits. And no mortality discussions at a wake; We’re supposed to be celebrating Harry’s life, remember?

— Right, and now I have to make room for Harry. Except as I’m saying this out loud, I think it’s a question of weight rather than space. The dead weigh more than the living. Does that make any sense?

Staffen reaches for his whisky, eyes on Yvette over the rim of his tumbler. He is surprised to see her chuckle and responds with a questioning shrug which she answers.

— Sorry, science and grief colliding.

— Which one of them is funny?

— It’s the collision that’s funny, at least to me. Do you remember Bernoulli’s principal?

— You are the strangest woman I’ve ever met. You know that, right?

— Says the man who almost married me. Are you stalling for time?

— No, Bernoulli, I remember. That’s what allows planes to fly and shower curtains to be annoying, right?

— Yes, and more to my point, why straws collapse when you try to suck up that last bit of milkshake. Fluid dynamics; as the speed of flow increases, the pressure decreases. Less pressure inside the straw than outside it, so the milkshake squishes the straw.

— I’m being serious and you’re making fun.

— No, I’ve been struggling with this same sense of loss, more than just today. You talk about grief in terms of weight and space and my brain searches for a scientific principle to corroborate or deny. It’s how my mind works. You know that.

— Then would you care to explain how Bernoulli equates to the weight of grief?

— This is not an equation; it’s an analogy that banged into my head on top of, um, three glasses of wine. Which doesn’t make it untrue, just a little tangled. First, we need a baseline. Have you ever dated a widow?

— No widows, no orphans. Why?

— You always were a smart man. It’s very difficult to compete with a dead lover. Once they’re dead, they don’t make mistakes. The dead don’t forget birthdays, or anniversaries, and they are always there. Unlike the living, who tend to fuck things up and are often absent when they should be present.

— Is this from first-hand experience?

— Trust me, John, just say no. You can bitch about someone’s Ex, but you slander their dear departed at your own peril. Which is the opening to my hypothesis: the dead are immobile, hence denser. The living are different. We hold them in our hearts, but not like lumps of lead. They move around, sometimes they annoy the hell out of us. Their relative weight in our heart changes. What I’m saying is that their presence is not a constant.

Staffen shakes his head in wonder. Yvette talking a mile a minute, an idea clenched firmly between her teeth. And no subject was ever too weird for her. A woman unlike any other he had ever known.

— The living are annoying, so they weigh less in my heart? That’s your theory?

— It’s a hypothesis, not a theory, and yes. Poor old Harry is dead and laid to rest. I can tell you about his less than charming traits, but I suspect that in a month all I will remember is the Harry that I loved, minus the annoying bits.

Staffen swirls the ice in his glass. Don’t say it; don’t be an idiot. Then the whisky does the talking.

— What about me? How much do I weigh in your heart?

He expects a thrown wineglass or a scowl. Instead, Yvette rewards him with a long loud laugh. The sound of it echoes across the courtyard and draws scowls from the margins. Her laughter fades from everything but her eyes as she gives him an appraising stare.

— You’ve still got balls, John. You always did. But you’re not dead yet, so how can I answer your question? I could give your ego a good stroke and say that I pine for you every day, but that’s not true. We had some amazing years, you and I, until you started indulging in script girls.

— Something I’ll always be sorry about.

She waves it away like a mosquito, somehow keeping the smile on her face.

— Water under the bridge, the bridge has fallen in the river, and always is too long for anyone.

— I’m a good swimmer; better now than I used to be.

Yvette says nothing, turns her head to scan the milling shadows at the edge of the courtyard. John sees Yvette in profile and his heart shakes off two decades as they have no weight or consequence. His brain struggles to keep up.

She turns her head and catches him staring, her eyes grey and serious.

— It’s a good turnout for Harry. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to say?

— Sure, a life measured by the column inches of his obit and how many mourners showed up for the free booze.

Staffen smokes, blows a small cloud above his head, watches it drift across the empty courtyard. He remembers when he and Harry were lean and poor and always dreaming up the next great idea. Old dead Henry Grimes might enjoy this memorial, but young Harry would’ve walked out of any party this boring.

C’mon, John, this place is deader than dead. Grab that good-looker and let’s get outta here. He hears the dead man’s voice in his head and laughs out loud. Yvette arches an eyebrow from under the shadow of her mourning hat.

— I was just thinking how Harry would have hated all of this empty ritual. It’s no wonder the dead want to clutter up my heart. Where the hell else would they go? Certainly not here, not with all this quiet, carefully modulated grief. It’s not even mourning, it’s grief-lite. Easier on the mascara and the neighbors don’t complain about the keening.

Then Yvette’s hand is on his and the rising tirade of his words falls to nothing. When she speaks, her voice is quiet.

— I remember walking through a graveyard in Greece. The tombstones had photographs set into them. They looked like old-fashioned cameos; black-and-white images printed on porcelain ovals. Harry was with me on that trip. He said the photos were ghoulish. I suppose they were, but I also thought they were a good idea. The dead person is fixed in place, bound to their grave by their own image. The loved ones go to visit, light the candles, tidy up, and then leave the dead behind when they go home.

— They leave the dead behind, but they don’t forget.

— I suppose that’s right. It’s as if we’ve lost the rituals that hold the dead in place. When I go to an old cemetery, I feel the presence of all those departed souls. Not very scientific, I know, but I do love an old cemetery.

— As if I could forget the two of us wandering around Père Lachaise in Paris.

— Yes, it was dismal and rainy and cold. You wanted to find Oscar Wilde and I was looking for Edith Piaf.

There was a stir and murmur amongst the black suits and dresses. Staffen turns to look over his shoulder.

— It looks like they’re closing the bar. Shall I fetch you another glass of wine?

— No thanks, three glasses of red on an empty stomach. If I stop now, I’ll remember what happens next.

He turns back and is trapped by her grey eyes. Fear and longing mix and swirl in his chest, pushing away the warmth of the whisky. Then his heart elbows aside the fear and makes room for the longing.

— What does happen next?

— I think we bid Harry a fond farewell and find a taxi.

Yvette rises from her chair and John is quick to do the same. She slides a black shawl across her shoulders, looks at him and smiles. He crooks an elbow. She slips her arm through his and speaks to the sun and sky.

Au Revoir, Harry. Bon voyage.

He feels the pressure of her hand on his wrist and finds his own words.

Adios, Harry. Vaya con Dios.

He looks into Yvette’s eyes and two decades fly past him and swirl away into the sunlight. A long moment passes before he is able to move.

Then Yvette and John are walking across the red earthen tiles of the courtyard, arm in arm as a couple. When they reach the shaded cloister, the murder of chic crows parts to allow them passage.

Marco Etheridge lives and writes in Vienna, Austria. His short fiction has been featured in many reviews and journals in Canada, The UK, and the USA. Notable recent credits include: Coffin Bell, In Parentheses, The Thieving Magpie, Ligeia Magazine, The First Line, After Happy Hour Review, Scarlet Leaf Review, Dream Noir, The Opiate Magazine, Cobalt Press, Literally Stories, and Blue Moon Review, amongst many others. His non-fiction work has been featured at Jonah Magazine, The Metaworker, and Route 7. Marco’s third novel, “Breaking the Bundles,” is available now. Learn more about Marco at https://www.marcoetheridgefiction.com/.

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Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Fiction, Guest Posts

The Honest Clown

February 26, 2021
balloons against sky, joe

By Shirley O’Shea

Joe the Moper walked from the entrance to his apartment building across the parking lot to a narrow space between the Dumpster and the recycling bin and lit up a cigarette. This was where he smoked when he was at home. It was cozy.

It was a foggy September morning in upstate New York.  As Joe exhaled, the smoke drifted, dispersed and became part of the cloud that had settled all around the neighborhood, which sat on top of a hill which overlooked other round, sleepy hills that Joe could barely see.

Joe liked his morning smokes because few people were about. No one passed by him, looking away. Joe was tall and skinny, with a head of thick, wiry salt and pepper hair and skin that seemed to be stained a tint of grey by his years of enjoying tobacco. In the early evenings, after work, Joe would go to the Dumpster to smoke and sometimes people passing by pretended not to notice him. Occasionally someone would give him a small smile and mutter a greeting. Joe, however, would widen his mouth into a melancholy smile and say, “Hi, how are ya,” almost invitingly, even though he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to have any kind of conversation.

The thing was, Joe looked wretched.

His clothes were hanging on him, and they seemed to have the same grey patina as his skin. His cheeks were hollow, and his chest was caving in. He wore a jacket in all weather. His eyes were slightly sunken. It wasn’t good.

He’d moved to the apartment complex after the tire outlet, at which he worked in customer service, had cut his hours, making his mortgage payments unmanageable. His wife, Mary Jean, had been philosophical about the loss. “It’s always boom or bust in this country,” she’d said with a sigh. “At least we have a roof over our heads.” She’d then rolled over and fell asleep. Their daughter, Christina, fifteen, had immediately begun to think about how she would set up and decorate her new, smaller bedroom. She was creative, and welcomed challenges.

Although Joe was a conscientious and, despite his appearance, energetic worker, helping the residents of Blacksville and its surrounding rural villages choose the most suitable and economical tires for their vehicles, he considered the job an avocation, the means to support his real work, which was entertaining and enlightening people as a clown.

Now that fall had arrived, he would have fewer clown gigs. He thought about this as he flicked an ash to the ground. He had to find a way to get as many apple and pumpkin festival gigs as possible because 

The cloud-fog was lifting, and Joe looked up at the emerging patches of cerulean. In the northern sky he saw the waning gibbous moon, white-grey and bluish where the craters and valleys were, sensual like a pregnant belly and as full of secrets.

“Hey, moon, can you line up a few gigs for me? I really need them,” Joe said plaintively. His cigarette was smoked almost down to the filter. He threw it to the ground and let it fade out.

He reached into the pocket of his blue flannel shirt and drew out another smoke. He’d been a clown for almost twenty years. The best times were during the summer agricultural festivals, which took place every weekend all over the local counties. Dairy fests, garlic fests, blueberry fests – they always wanted a clown or two to make balloon animals and tell ridiculous, innocuous jokes as they did so. And to perform a few magic tricks. Now that it was autumn he’d get called for the festivals at the waning of the year. It seemed to Joe that the revelry at the autumn festivals was all the more intense because of the shortening of the days.

Despite his reputation for being somewhat unconventional, Joe the Moper got calls regularly to perform at these country family hootenannies. There was inevitably at every festival two or three people playing a guitar or fiddle, occasionally a banjo or mandolin, and singing songs that were playful, mournful, spiked with wisdom, because it is a musician’s duty to sing or strum or bow the truth in a way that compelled the wandering, meandering folk at the fair to stop and listen carefully, if only for a few moments. Even during the Dairy Princess crowning or the awarding of the blue ribbon to Best Rooster in Fair, every soul on the fair ground hungered for an uplifting moment of truth.

Joe figured it was for the best that he would not be getting too many more calls to play the clown. He was weakening in almost every way; even his jokes with customers at the tire outlet were deflated and rueful. The tumor that had begun in his right lung had grown upward, encircling his esophagus like a snake or a choking vine, and made it almost impossible for him to swallow solid food. Mary Jean had demanded that he go to the doctor, who knew Joe smoked and had ordered a CT scan which revealed the reason for all Joe’s physical suffering. He had told Mary Jean nothing, putting her off by saying that the doctor had ordered some tests but wasn’t very concerned, that he results were not available yet and it was probably something gastroenterological.

“Well, what tests? Why are they taking so long? You look like a scarecrow.”

Joe shrugged. “You know there’s not a lot of doctors around here. Everything’s slow.” Joe couldn’t bear to tell Mary Jean that he would begin radiation treatments in a week. Until then, he would smoke as he always had, slowly, thoughtfully, considering the great gift of tobacco that the Creator had made to humanity and its almost supernatural ability to calm the agitated and arouse the lethargic.

If Joe could have smoked when he did his clown gigs, he would have. After all, he’d seen a number of photos of artists with a cigarette balanced between their lips as they worked. He thought of Jackson Pollock smoking while he drizzled paint all over one of his canvases. And Joe’s favorite was an elegant portrait of Tennessee Williams seated before a typewriter, a nimbus of cigarette smoke swirling about him like a muse. There were more addicted artists than anyone could count, Joe often thought. It was an unfortunate but necessary pathology of the creative urge. It was probably why he smoked three cigarettes after he made love to Mary Jean and she drifted off to sleep.

When Joe did his clown jobs, he wore black, head to foot, What he believed was most impressive about his clown costume was the long black tunic he wore over black trousers, and the black bowler hat he’d purchased from an antique shop. He believed the get-up made him look like a Victorian clergyman. He painted his face white, of course, but he took special care when applying his mouth paint. It was a dull carnelian, with just a hint of an upturning at the corners. The great circles about his eyes were violet, and his dramatically arched eyebrows were a ponderous black. He looked like he was someone who was almost shocked, but not quite.

He placed a rubber rat beneath his bowler, and when he introduced himself as Joe the Moper, he bowed and removed the hat and feigned mild surprise that a rodent had hidden itself in his favorite topper and wanted to launch a career of his own as a comedian.

Joe wore black because he wanted to tell the truth, like a good priest in his black robe would while sitting with an anxious seeker. Joe knew that humor came from fear, desperation, isolation. Like a seasoned clergyman or a Buddha, one faced it all with a slight smile of equanimity, and Joe vowed to himself, and his audiences, that he would do the same.

“You can stay in here and mind your own business,” Joe the Moper said to the rubber rat as he slipped it into the pocket in the side of his tunic. “Or maybe I’ll enter you in the beauty contest! You’d make a great ambassador for locally made cheese.

“Oh, you wanna be a clown, huh? Well, you didn’t pay good money to go to clown school, like I did. I am a highly educated clown, like some of our most illustrated politicians – oh, I’m sorry, folks, I meant to say illustrious politicians. Although most of them seem to be cartoon characters. Oh, there I go again! Better get to the balloons.

Joe made nothing but birds with he balloons. “Why d’ya think owls have such large eyes?” he asked the small crowds gathered around him.

“Because they hunt at night!” someone, usually a child, would call out.

“Precisely! Very good!” Joe said, and pulling out a white balloon, he fashioned into something that looked very much like an owl. He twisted the head three hundred sixty degrees and then a wind always came, caught the owl out of Joe’s slightly trembling hands and bore it away. This happened with every owl, hawk, and woodpecker balloon Joe huffed and puffed and twisted into existence. The children and most of the adults strained to capture the balloons as they soared overhead.

“You can’t get them – no one ever does,” Joe called out. “I don’t know where the magic comes from. I just tell lame jokes. And I didn’t go to clown school. At least, not in the usual sense. But I think we all go to clown school. You all think about that. The balloons are always out of reach because the wind wants them. Have a wonderful day. Wow! Look at this sunshine!” Then Joe would walk with long, gangly strides to the back of the agricultural pavilion to smoke a couple of cigarettes.

Now, this morning, watching the uncanny amorousness of the swollen gibbous moon, which had remained in the morning sky while Joe smoked four cigarettes meditatively, he felt like the moon was his wife, and he was impatient for her to give birth. He thought of Mary Jean just over fifteen years ago, and the impossibly round protrusion of her belly, all amniotic fluid and placenta and baby. Mary Jean had begged him to give up smoking the moment she had found out she was pregnant, and he’d said he’d try, but he was less than sincere. He knew he’s smoke more than ever. Between the two of them, there were barely able to make their mortgage payments. The anxiety grew in him, and some mornings, before getting up to dress and have coffee followed by cigarettes, he curled up in a ball and prayed.

Growing up, he’d listened as his mother instructed him to pray everyday, throughout the day. He and his brother, who was now an insurance sales rep in the Midwest, and their parents has attended a fire-and-brimstone church which had only served to set Joe’s nerves on fire. How could the pastor say that God is Love and be so eager to send poor, foolish human beings to hell? When Joe, still in grade school,  had asked his mother, in desperation, why this was so, she’d shake her head and tell him there was nothing to worry about. And when he’d brought up his fears with his brother, his brother had shrugged and said, “That guy is crazy. Sneak a book into church and hide it in the Bible. I do it all the time. I think Mom and Dad know, but they’ve never said anything to me. They just pretend …”

But Joe continued to listen to what the pastor said, because there was some kind of terrifying logic to it. Then he went off to college and let the bond between himself and church dissolve. But the fear lived on in his body without abatement. He studied sociology and was a competent student – some of his professors even told him he had talent – and returned to upstate New York and ended up in retail.

Because Joe still had the demons, he liked to make jokes. They purified the air around him and drew people to him. He considered finding out what it took to do stand-up, but he knew he would get so nervous before performing that he would probably die. So he decided to be a clow. No birthday parties or school character education gigs, just the local seasonal festivals when he could be outside, twisting balloons into birds.

His first gig had been a spring festival with a medieval theme. A man in green velvet played a lute while a lady with a ring of artificial flowers in her hair and a purple gown sang songs with little ribald jokes, to celebrate fertility. Morris dancers stomped on the cold earth, to awaken it. The sun had shone brilliantly on that day, and the air was almost hot.

Joe had studied books on balloon animal shapes and practiced for dozens of hours before the full-length bedroom mirror, making cats and poodles and alligators. But now that he was here, in front of a curious audience, made all the more enthusiastic by this burst of light and warmth after an upstate winter, he froze. All he could think of was birds. He’d found some shattered robins’ eggs on the ground that morning, as he had brought his boxes of uninflated balloons to the car, and the pale blue of the fragments made him pause and he exhaled forcefully enough to ruffle the feathers of a hatchling that lay on the ground, forced out by its mother, Joe thought. Then he drove to the fair.

And as Joe drove, he began to feel light-headed. When he arrived at the fair and saw the Morris dancers pounding the sodden ground, he thought of the shattered eggs, the doomed hatchling, and the fact of the perpetual changing of the seasons caused his heart to race and his breath to quicken. If only his life could be one unchanging winter or summer, without the interruptions of the seasons of emergence and withdrawal, that disoriented him and filled him with such grief at their brevity and their blatant declaration of the impermanence of things. He thought that perhaps his entire performance should be blowing air into balloons and releasing it, slowly, so that the kids would laugh at the flatulence-like sound. But then he came to himself, realized all of this was stage fright, and drove on until he reached the Blumenfeld Vernal Fest on the top of a hill that overlooked other gently curving hills transforming into verdancy under the kindly sun. Spring was, perhaps, not quite so disorienting, Joe thought, as he parked his car and began to unload his boxes of balloons.

The parking area for vendors bordered on a stretch of woodlands, and Joe heard the calls from the cardinals and robins as he lifted the boxes from the hatch of his car. Then he stopped and pulled out a cigarette. He had been so deep in thought about how this gig was going to play itself out – how he would play himself out – that he hadn’t even thought to smoke. This was passing strange. It was as if he were keeping the air in his lungs pure and strong before forcing it into the balloon toys he was about to make.

Joe took one last drag on his cigarette, crushed it on the ground and then put it in an empty coffee cup in the car.

So, now he would find out if he could do it. He stacked the three boxes of balloons – much more than he would need, but best to be prepared – and walked to the information kiosk to find out where he should set himself up. The lady at the kiosk – round, grey-haired and amiable – told him he would be near the petting zoo, which was about one hundred fifty yards west. Joe looked up at the sun to determine where west was, and followed, glancing upwards every few seconds to keep his bearings. Some fair goers looked at him and grinned, others looked with slight consternation – a clown, in springtime, should not be wearing black. And his smile should be wider, freer. Joe had the feeling these people considered him a clown with an ungenerous spirit. And what was the point of that? A clown gives himself completely, divests himself of all dignity, and even self-respect in order to entertain. Joe didn’t feel a vocation to be quite that kind of clown.

The balloons and the wind – they stole the show. The creatures Joe intended to make resisted creation – dogs, giraffes, monkeys. They all twisted themselves into birds, and the moist spring breezes lifted them away. The children jumped up and tried to grab them, but they soared out of reach and the audience let out a groan. It seemed as if the wind grabbed the balloons out of this strange clown’s hands. But Joe pretended that was exactly what he’d wanted to happen. “Well, folks, thanks for stopping by. Remember, I’m Joe the Moper. Weird and inexplicable things happen whenever I’m around.”

So it went with all of Joe’s performances. But the people didn’t come to listen to his mordant humor, his absurd imitations of celebrities, and the few magic tricks he had learned to broaden his appeal. They came to see the bird balloons. And how impossible they were to hold. People in the audience believed that Joe the Moper and the wind colluded to let the bird balloons ascend into the heavens.

Joe looked at the moon again and thought of how his daughter was growing, so awkward and lovely, and he knew the Mary Jean would give her all the love she would need. That didn’t mean Joe the Moper didn’t intend to fight this serpentine tumor with all the strength, sarcasm and something like faith that he had in him. But he knew how these things went. The radiologist wanted to shrink the tumor, get him some time.

For much of his life, Joe, with his easily rattled nerves, had felt that time could not pass quickly enough, so that night would come and in the darkness he could feel unseen and uncalled upon to be anything but what he was – a confused and congenitally frightened man. All the sardonic jokes that he threw out into the air, to his wife, the guys at the tire shop, to his bemused audiences, did nothing to protect him from his terror. And now that he finally had something to be beside himself about, he felt gentle and quiet and somewhat remorseful about his jokes. And he felt gratitude for the balloons that had all taken flight and left his audiences in awe.

That night, as Mary Jean slept fitfully beside him, Joe knew he had to tell her about the tests, the tumor, the treatment. He began to shake and feared he would have a sleepless night. Well, all right then. He remembered the angels that the pastor of his youth had described in more than one sermon. The angles in the Book of Revelation were monstrous – immense, with countless eyes and wings, wings, wings flapping and concealing and then revealing those eyes. There was no place one could hide from them, and that was why Joe wanted an angel to pay him a visit. He prayed, “God, let one of those hideous and holy angels come and look at me. I want – need – something now that’s not like anything I’ve ever seen. I’m not afraid of being afraid – at least not now, not of that.”

But as Joe lay awake, no angel came. Well, perhaps it’s invisible, Joe thought. Even without the angel’s help, he would tell Mary Jean that …

While he was in a deep sleep, a great golden balloon, as round as the sun, drifted down to Joe, as he sat in a meadow overlooking the round, verdant hills in upstate New York, someplace where he’d visited as a child and had been very happy. The gold balloon had one great eye that looked on him with mercy. It extended a wing and enfolded Joe, who was now in the realm beyond speech. He was in the air, the golden air and with the balloon floated higher and higher and he could see himself far below, where a crowd had gathered, and he could see himself at the center, as his black tunic fell off and he stood denuded before the audience laughing until they cried.

Shirley O’Shea is a freelance writer and full time mother living in upstate New York. She has worked as a paralegal, elementary school teacher and small town newspaper reporter.

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Rebecca Solnit’s story of  life in San Francisco in the 1980s is as much memoir as it is social commentary. Becoming an activist and a writer in a society that prefers women be silent is a central theme. If you are unfamiliar with Solnit’s work, this is a good entry point. If you are familiar with her writing, this is a must read as she discusses what liberated her as a writer when she was discovering herself as a person. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Fiction, Gender & Sexuality, Guest Posts

Dan Chalmers

January 21, 2021
dan

By Christine Heuner

“He’s doing it again,” Gianna reported at lunch, looking across the cafeteria at Dan Chalmers, his eyes fixed on Rachel.

Gianna nudged Rachel. “Hey,” she said. “Look.”

Rachel flickered her eyes to see Dan’s eyes on her. When he caught her glance, he looked away.

“See,” Gianna said. “Told you.”

“Quit it,” Rachel said, looking down at her anatomy notes.

In anatomy class, Rachel and Dan, both high-school juniors, were lab partners. He took the lead in dissecting a cat, and she was grateful.

She hadn’t noticed him looking at her until hawk-eyed Gianna picked up on it. Gianna also heard from Allison Levy who heard from Owen Lehrer that Dan had a crush on Rachel, and Owen was always a steady, reliable source. The only interaction Rachel had with Dan other than the cat dissection was when she bumped into him in the threshold between the hallway and classroom. They moved to get out of each other’s way, but ended up shifting in the same direction. They smiled; Dan might’ve said he was sorry.

But Rachel couldn’t dedicate her thoughts to Dan. Only weeks ago, she and her best friend of one year, Val, had taken off their clothes in Val’s room while Val’s parents were out. Facing each other in Val’s bed, they made each other feel good. Rachel had never been attracted to another girl, and her lingering feelings about Val confused her. She tried to find other girls attractive, focusing on the swell of their breasts, their curves. She fixed her attention on eyes, lips, hair, but only Val’s dimpled smile, her full, glossy lips, brown eyes, and shoulder-length blond hair, loose and curly, snagged Rachel’s attention. Rachel noticed how good Val looked in her leggings. Her cut-off shirts revealed her belly button and light skin. When Val spoke, she gestured with her hands. Her laugh was as bright as her costume jewelry.

Rachel was excited the next time she and Val were alone in Val’s room; she sat closer to Val than she usually did while Val sketched and Rachel painted with watercolors. When they watched a horror movie, Rachel leaned closer to Val, put her head on her shoulder, and held her hand. They rested their arms on Val’s thigh. Rachel hoped Val might change her position, lean in and kiss her, but she didn’t. Rachel assumed Val was anxious about her parents coming in her room, but another day when Val’s parents were both out to dinner, Val didn’t come closer as Rachel hoped she would. Val never asked to touch her again, and Rachel wondered if Val thought their moment in her bed was a mistake or a distraction from boredom. Rachel’s stomach lifted when she thought of them together, and then fall with shame for what she wasn’t supposed to feel.

Rachel tried to keep a distance between her and Val. She lazed around the house, muddled through chores, watched romance films with tidy endings. She attended to her grades as a distraction and to keep her parents off her case. She memorized the limbic system, math formulas, irregular verbs. She fed and walked her dog Cinnamon, played with her ferret Stella, went out on two dates with Jonas Martino, a senior. He made good money at his part-time construction job and flashed his thick wallet, bulging indiscreetly from his back jeans pocket.

After dinner and a drive through the mountains, where Jonas pointed out his favorite estates, he parked his Jeep in a dark parking lot and pressed his tongue in Rachel’s mouth. He tried to go up her shirt. She pushed him away. “Stop.”

His eyes narrowed in hostile impatience. “If that’s the way you want it,” he said.

She wanted a slow kiss from soft lips, gentle fingers, hair on her cheek, the smell of lavender shampoo, vanilla and honeysuckle. “Keep doing what you’re doing,” she had told Val. “Don’t stop.”

Unable to restrain herself, Rachel cried.

“Holy shit,” Jonas said. “Sorry.”

Rachel wiped her cheeks in quick fury, snapping, “I’m fine.”

As Jonas drove her home, she recalled Val scratching her back, laughing as Rachel murmured, “That feels so good.”

Rachel shivered; chills raised bumps on her arms.

I’ll never be free of this.

I don’t want to be free.

Rachel hung out a few times with Gianna, but only felt an aching emptiness when they sat in her dull blue-gray room, listening to music, gossiping about bullshit. She imagined kissing Gianna, but the thought enticed her as much as kissing her own hand.

Tuesdays after school, Rachel stayed late for Key Club. Her mother wanted her to join more activities, and this was Rachel’s compromise. While she waited for her mother to pick her up, Dan Chalmers approached her in the near-empty parking lot.

“I fixed up my Corvette,” he said, tipping his head vaguely to the right. “Do you want to go for a ride?”

He was the only red-head she knew. He had small eyes and flecks of acne on his cheeks. He smiled hesitantly, as if the wrong word from her might destroy him.

“Sorry. I’m busy. I have all this homework.”

“Maybe we can study together then.”

“I don’t think so.” She shifted her backpack straps.

He came closer to her with surprising quickness. His body was long and lean. “I like you a lot, Rachel.”

She shook her head.

“I think about you all the time.”

“You’ll get over it,” she could have said, but he had been kind to her, slicing into the cat’s chest cavity while she gagged, giving her his notes when she was absent with strep throat.

“Won’t you give me a chance? I’ve had a crush on you for so long.”

And yet she had not noticed it other than what Gianna reported. Now, she wondered if Mrs. Moss, their anatomy teacher, knew about this crush and assigned them as lab partners, hoping for the best.

“I’m sorry. I really am.”

“Is there someone else?”

Unbidden, an image of Val, laughing, dimples pressed into her cheeks, rose to the surface. She shivered, remembering Val’s fingers on her skin.

She shook her head. “I’m just not ready.”

He kicked at the pavement with his black Nike sneaker. “Do you think you could ever be ready?”

“I don’t know.”

He exhaled a labored breath and slouched his shoulders. He was too thin. “Can’t we just go for a drive? The car is great. You’ll love it.”

She couldn’t tell if his persistence was more exasperating than her consistent refusals. It pained her to see his cheeks flushed, the acne more prominent.

“I can’t.” Why was her mother so late?

“You mean you won’t.”

“I guess.”

“Will you at least think about it?”

She nodded, but his expression fell, his hope gone.

As her mother drove home, Rachel imagined telling Val and the rest of her friends about Dan, but decided to keep his agony to herself. Another thought of Val intruded: They got out of Val’s bed that day, naked, a little shy with each other. They handed each other their clothes and dressed in silence. It was a complete moment, a fulfillment of a desire they’d hidden or didn’t know they had. But Val, somehow, stuffed it away. Rachel’s heart sank as if, instead of Dan, she were the one rejected, left alone to suffer.   

Val continued calling Rachel, asking to get together. Finally, Rachel gave in, accepting Val’s request to go to the Halloween bash as zombies. Val had been practicing makeup techniques online. “I can do wounds,” she said. “I’m perfecting the weeping sore.”

Rachel and Val spent hours in Val’s room getting ready. Rachel’s mother, Kate, came to take pictures.

“This is absolutely disgusting,” Kate said, wincing at the bruise on Rachel’s eye, the oozing gash on her cheek.

Rachel gave her mother a look.

“I mean it in a good way,” Kate said. “You’re talented, Val. You should do makeup for Hollywood.” Val beamed. Her lipstick, the deep-red of blood, made her lips look kissable.

At the Halloween bash in the school gym, all the chaperones made Rachel and Val pose for pictures in their ripped flannels and jeans and boots, their hair wild, teased with a comb and hair sprayed. Everyone agreed that if zombies walked the earth, this is what they would look like. The principal created an award for Val, giving her free cupcakes and snacks. She took her fairy godmother wand, a shimmery silver baton with streamers, and handed it to Val.

“Here, my dear,” she said. “You’re queen of the apocalypse.”

 Val laughed and took the wand. “Not sure you want me to be in charge, Mrs. Cullen, but okay.” She pointed the wand at her friends. “Now, who am I going to turn into a frog?”

In spite of the music, played at normal volume, not many people danced; Rachel and Val gathered with Gianna and Gianna’s friend Tara by the bleachers. Rachel startled to see Dan Chalmers, dressed as Pennywise the clown, by her side.

“You look really creepy,” Rachel said. “Who did your makeup?”

“My Dad.” Rachel imagined that Dan came from an intact family like her own. He might have told his father about her, plied him for advice about how to ask her out.

“Your dad did your makeup?”

“Yeah. He has a steady hand. He paints model airplanes and boats.” Dan rocked back and forth on his heels. He would have a good father. That sounded right.

“So,” Rachel said. What else could she say?

“You did a great job on your makeup,” he said. Val, seated not far from Rachel, looked up.

“It’s all Val,” Rachel said. Val turned and smiled. Rachel’s felt a warm pressure in her chest.

“Awesome job, Val,” Dan said, raising his voice and leaning in.

She acknowledged him with a wave of her wand. “I did it by magic.”

“Huh,” he said as Rachel felt herself grow warmer. She knew Dan wanted to speak to her, erase the rest of them.

Rachel noticed that Tara made eye contact with Gianna, opened her eyes wide and tipped her head to the left. Gianna gave a quick glance over her shoulder at Dan and said, “Hey, guys. Let’s get something to drink.” She still had a soda can in her hand.

Only Val looked back at Rachel, shrugged her shoulders, mouthed “I’m sorry,” and, swinging her wand, jogged to catch up with the others.

“That was subtle,” Dan said. Rachel had to smile.

“I didn’t mean to take you from your friends. I just thought I’d come say hi. How are you?” He had to raise his voice a little to talk over “Thriller.” He leaned in toward her, smelling vaguely of Axe. She wondered if he’d put it on, hoping to see her. To impress. He’d helped raise her grade from a ‘C’ to a ‘B+’ in anatomy, and she was grateful, but standing beside him all she wanted to do was escape. She wanted to be with her friends.

“I’m good,” Rachel said, looking away. It was hard to look at the clown makeup without feeling uneasy.

“So, maybe… I was wondering if you might like to go out sometime.”

“Dan—”

“It doesn’t have to be like a date. We could just go as friends.”

But we’re not friends. “I don’t know.”

His voice tensed. “What does that even mean?”

His eyes, black-rimmed, looked cruel; the red slivers of makeup, sharp against the white background, ran vertically from his forehead to the edges of his mouth like ribbons of blood. This and his red hair, thick on top, looked menacing.

“I don’t know,” she said again; sweat gathered on her forehead.

“You think I’m a loser, don’t you? You think I’m pathetic.” His voice was flat; dull.

“No.”

“I am, maybe,” he said, looking down. He tapped his black Nike sneaker against the base of the bleacher. “You know I’m crazy about you. I’ve made it so obvious.”

She looked down at her nails, painted black. Val had decorated her completely.

Crazy about you.

When she didn’t answer, he said, “This is going to sound stupid to you, but I feel like we belong together.”

“How could you possibly know that?” she said, an arch rising in her voice. “You don’t even know me that well.”

He spoke methodically, as if reciting a list: “I know you love animals. I know you’re a good friend, especially to Val. You work hard, you listen well. I like your clothes. Your hair—”

This hair?” she said, pointing at her ragged head, the raised strands stiff with hairspray.

He smiled, but she sensed his latent annoyance at being interrupted. He shifted his position and cracked his knuckles.

“I notice you. I notice everything about you. You’re beautiful, Rachel.”

There was no way to make her escape. She felt dizzy. Trapped. Yet she had an impulse to kiss him on his white, unblemished cheek. She almost smiled, thinking of the silly image: this zombie and clown sharing a moment of affection.

“I don’t like you that way, Dan. I just don’t. I’m sorry. And I can’t go out as friends, pretending… you know. Why waste your money on me?”

He gave her an actual smile. Combined with the painted-on grin, he looked like he wanted to rip her head off. She shivered.

“It wouldn’t be a waste. I’d be honored.”

She shook her head, knowing how ridiculous she must look with her weeping wound and her teased hair, so messy and fake amidst all this gravity.

“I’ve got to go,” she said. She turned around, walked a few paces, then turned back. “I just want to tell you: You’re the bravest person I know.”

After the Halloween bash, Val and Rachel waited outside the gym for Rachel’s mother to pick them up. Val told Rachel she had a boyfriend named Clay who she met online.

Rachel’s head spun and temples throbbed. “Online? Where online?”

“He follows me on Instagram. Does it matter?”

Rachel pressed her with questions: How old is he? Where does he go to school? What does he look like?

“He’s almost twenty-one. He works for a towing company. He has brown hair, brownish eyes. They’re light brown, sort of like maple syrup.”

Rachel looked at Val’s dark lips, the fake blood smeared on her cheek; it looked almost like a bruise under the streetlamps.

“What?” Val asked. “I thought you’d be happy for me.”

Rachel’s chest burned; her stomach lurched. She felt hot; even her scalp prickled. “What about that day with you and me in your room? What about that?”

Val looked away; Rachel could not sense of Val were angry, sad, or simply indifferent.

Rachel touched Val’s arm gently. “Val?”

“It was good,” Val said, though her expression belied her words, her mouth pulled down, her eyes askance. “But you know it can’t be more than that. I—”

“Why not?” Rachel spoke with a new confidence, born of anger. Good wasn’t a strong enough word. She pressed against it.

“Because we’re not gay, Rach. That’s why not.”

Rachel felt dizzy; nausea gripped her. “You know what, Val? You can just fuck off.”

She stepped away from Val just as her mother pulled up in her Escalade. Rachel got in the passenger seat, left Val to sit by herself in the backseat.

At Val’s house, Val said, “Thank you, Mrs. Downey,” and gave Rachel a weak good-bye that she did not answer.

“What is it?” her mother said as soon as Val closed the door. “Oh, sweetie,” she said. “Come here.”

Rachel shook her head; her mother handed her a tissue. Rachel wiped her face, the tissue smeared with red paint that looked like bright blood. Rachel shivered, recalling Val’s fingers on her skin as she applied the make-up, her warm breath on her cheek.

She imagined Val kissing over-aged Clay, her tongue in his mouth, her satisfied smile as she pulled away, gazing into his maple-syrup eyes. Rachel wished she could recall the feel of Val’s tongue upon hers, the taste of her, but she could not. It was as if the entire moment was a fantasy, fake as the costumes Val conjured for them.

When Rachel got home, she ran to the bathroom, stared at the face Val had created: the damaged cheek, the hollowed eyes surrounded with blue-and-purple shadows as if she’d been punched.

At the cafeteria the following Monday, Rachel approached Dan Chalmers at his lunch table, asking quietly if they could talk. He had just taken a bite of a whole-wheat sandwich. She could feel all of his friends looking at her.

“What’s up?” he asked as they stood by the vending machines.

“I’m ready to go out… I mean, if you still want to.”

He paused as if he hadn’t heard her correctly.

“You mean it?” he asked. “This isn’t some bet?”

“Of course not,” she said. “I’m sorry I put you off before.” She noticed his acne had cleared a bit. He wore a dark green Henley that accentuated his light green eyes. He looked almost handsome.

In the dark movie theater, Rachel settled close to Dan. He was hesitant, holding her hand like an egg. He told her she smelled good.

Rachel thought all night about whether or not he would try to kiss her.

In her driveway, he leaned toward Rachel in his Corvette, a barely perceptible motion. She moved in, uniting their lips, touching her tongue to his. She closed her eyes, and she was in Val’s room, Val’s bed.

It was Val’s lips she kissed.

Christine C. Heuner has been teaching high-school English for over twenty years. She lives with her family in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in Narrative, Philadelphia Stories, Flash Fiction magazine, and others.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Tangalooma Dreaming

January 1, 2021

By Nicole Adair

Breeze, breeze, breezes. Lotti sat on a blue, plastic seat on the top level of the Tangalooma Flyer, as the cool morning air rushed past her. For a moment she closed her eyes and just breathed in the smell and salt of sea water, her shoulder-length brown hair whipping around her. She could hear the propellers underwater alongside the boat shooting out frothy bubbles of the churning ocean. They left two long strands of white, which floated on the surface behind the ferry before dissolving back into the ocean, as the blue and white aluminum catamaran bounded over Moreton Bay.

Lotti had missed the ferry with seating at the front. From where she sat facing backwards, she could still see the Sandgate mud flats on the mainland and the urban sprawl of greater Brisbane. The ferry terminal, where the river met the ocean in brown, brackish water, the muddy, beige beach extending out on either side, had already disappeared from view. Once out of the docks, the ferry had picked up speed over water that was already bluer. But it was nothing yet like Moreton would soon be, with its shimmering translucent turquoise and the bleach-blonde sands that ran around the entire shoreline of the island. Here it was wild and deep, and the ferry’s dramatic jumps over the surface made it clear that the ocean wasn’t flat like it seemed from above. Only from the moving boat could Lotti tell that the bay’s waves, though they would never break on the sandbank, were still monstrous. Once she got to the island, to Issa’s house in the Tangalooma hinterlands, she would look out at the water below, still and glimmering, like an open lake, and the island would be transformed into a lake of land itself, wrapped inside the calm and cool and meditative expanse of blue.

On the seat beside Lotti, two little girls, already dressed in their togs, with thick white stripes of sunblock painted on their cheeks and noses, scrambled over the empty plastic in a game that involved jumping to the ground in sync with the bounds of the Flyer. Lotti moved her small duffel bag onto her lap to free up space for the girls. The older one began the game, showing her sister, who was younger maybe by a year, how to jump. She landed with her hands and knees smacking the painted metal floor of the boat as the Flyer jumped upwards. From the ground, she grinned at her younger sister who prepared to follow suit.

Out of her peripheral vision Lotti could see their mother, a young women, possibly in her early-to-mid-twenties, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, a tight-fitted white polo shirt, and cropped denim shorts. She inattentively read Cosmopolitan Australia, but kept one eye on the girls who jumped from the plastic seat one last time and then changed games, now running out toward the back of the boat to peer over the side. Lotti watched their small bodies collide energetically with the railing. They began to point knowingly out toward the now horizonless water, pointing to things that Lotti couldn’t see, things that were just for the two of them. Lotti felt the urge to glance back at their mother. But she resisted, realizing in the moment that she didn’t want to risk making eye contact with her; she felt that the girl might see through her, that she might somehow guess and then judge what Lotti had been doing for the past few months, how dangerously she had been playing with fire. Feeling a wash of anxiety–also for how quickly the seventy-five minute trip would take to Tangalooma and for what she would have to say to Issa once she got there–Lotti looked back out over the water.

The mid-morning sun was beating down on the water’s surface. At sunset, the rays would flicker and catch like fire on the waves. But with the sun now already high in the sky, the ocean looked like a giant pool of rolling crystals. Lotti adjusted the light jacket she wore over her long halter dress and thought of how the air would be hot on the island, especially up in Issa’s tin-roofed home that had no air-conditioning, that was thick and stifling in the dead of summer. Only when the wind was blowing inland would the breezes up there rush stronger, the draft through the house bringing with it the air that spun up from the crests of the waves on the rough side of the island. Tangalooma had a quiet, understated temper, but it was on the east coast that the Pacific Ocean was always raging.

She turned in her seat toward Kooringal, the most southern tip of Moreton Island and the meeting point of bay and wild ocean, where the island seemed to collide with the water that reached the shore from so many angles, where the sand bank ribboned out for kilometers, just barely contained beneath the water. She couldn’t see it yet, but she knew where it would be when the color of the evergreens came into view. She already imagined the light sands swirling with the aquamarine blues of the shallows, where you could lay, cooled by the water but warmed by the air, sunbathing both in the sea and out on the sand itself. But Lotti regretted the fact that she had no front view because it meant that she couldn’t watch for the iconic sand walls of the island’s west coast to appear on the horizon line, as the rest of it came into view, the tall dunes that marked the midpoint between the Tangalooma Island Resort and the Wrecks.

She thought about the Wrecks: fifteen rusted metal ships sunk decades before, now lying just off the coast, a strong swim away from the beach, an artificially natural habitat for fish and coral. They’d named the wrecked vessels after wildlife and small Australian towns: Groper, Morwong, Kookaburra, Platypus II, and Uki, Maryborough, Bermagui. For a second, Lotti couldn’t remember where she’d learned their names–or the very fact that they had names at all. But then she remembered and swallowed. It was Issa, of course. Issa always knew the history of artifacts and monuments, random sites and stories about South East Queensland, and she loved to tell Lotti stories each time she visited the island, somehow bringing each story back to Charlotte and Melissa, Lotti and Issa, as they would always say.

And then their adventures–Issa always had a new one. Lotti couldn’t help but let her mind remember how many experiences Issa had given her: Kooringal in the four-wheeler, Blue Lagoon on quad bikes, a hike up Mount Tempest the month after the wildfire stripped it bare, a run on the beach that continued on for miles in the middle of one of Moreton’s wild summer hailstorms, learning how to snorkel at the Wrecks, to swim out from the beach when the tides changed. Her memories of snorkeling she would treasure the most. She thought then of Issa checking her printable, salt-stained timetable of the tides, as they stood on the shore looking out at the ships, mask and fins in hand.

“Ten minutes,” Issa had said, sitting back down on the towels they’d laid out on the sand.

“Then what?”

“Then we can go.”

“Why ten minutes? Does it make that much of a difference?”

“When the tides change,” Issa told her, “the current is completely still for about five minutes. We won’t get swept out into the bay or, you know, down into the propeller of the Tanga ferry.” She held Lotti’s gaze for a moment, and then they both burst out laughing.

“Fine, you queen of tides,” Lotti replied playfully, “my life is in your hands for the next fifteen minutes.”

Issa kissed her on the cheek and said, “Yes, once we get out to the wrecks, you’re on your own.” And they laughed again.

When they finally geared up and headed into the water, Lotti got a thrill, as she did every time, not just from seeing the small, white fish that darted through the shallows, but from the sand bank’s drop off, which angled downward steeply for some time until it turned into dark blue and then almost to black, and Lotti couldn’t see a thing through her mask as she swam. Only the white specks, like snowflakes, of sea dust were visible, and the translucent bubbles that her arms made in front of her as they pulled the water back to push her body forward. Sometimes she caught a glimpse of Issa’s dark arms and neck and torso gliding through the water beside her. Often Issa tried to speak to her through the mask, pointing to fish that she had seen, exclaiming everything delightedly to Lotti in an incomprehensible gurgle. But Lotti’s eyes always missed them, as the fish darted from the surface. Concentrating on her breathing, she couldn’t turn her head fast enough to spot them against the ocean darkness.

When Lotti and Issa finally reached the ships, the metal walls and hulls and rusty pieces of cabins and chains and door frames came into sudden view sitting beneath the water. Even the ocean floor would inexplicably become visible, and Lotti would examine with joy the creamy sand color that was always covered in schools of brightly colored fish darting in and around the coral or floating with the rushes of waves, which came with every passing motor boat that spun up on the surface. On special days, they saw the sea swarming with packs of wobbegongs. Speckled with patterns of orange and yellow, the carpet sharks moved quickly but gently over the sea floor, and Lotti always felt lucky whenever she saw them.

A shriek from the Flyer pulled her back to the present. Hanging onto the railing, the little girls had begun a new game. The older sister pulled the younger’s hat down over her eyes so it covered half her face. Then, laughing, she cupped her hands to yell against the wind something into her sister’s ear. The younger immediately pulled up the hat, pointed out over the water, and laughed wildly, gleefully in return. Then the Flyer bounced over a particularly high wave, and the girls swung around, one hand still gripping the railing but their bodies smacking against the metal.

Lotti’s face flushed with maternal anxiety. The sun pricked her arms, and she looked around for the mother. She no longer felt self-conscious but rather indignant, a little self-righteous, about the mother who was mindlessly, it seemed, letting her daughters be thrown around by the boat. But when she saw her, the young mother, she was waving calmly at the two little girls, a relaxed, unfazed expression on her face. The girls were waving back, jumping up again with grins on their faces. They giggled to each other and turned back to the railing.

Lotti looked away over the water. She felt annoyed at the mother, at how unrealistically collected, how unworried, she seemed. But then her eyes focused, and she saw the green strip of island coming into view on the horizon. They were forty-five minutes away. Lotti knew that Issa would be standing on the jetty already, holding lilies and wearing sandals, her toenails painted royal blue, her legs long and brown and wrapped in a sarong at the hips. The blue bikini she wore would match the color of her nails, and she would have no shirt to cover the bikini triangles that held her breasts. Issa would wave and smile exaggeratedly as soon as she saw Lotti on the ferry, and the dimples on her cheek would deepen. Lotti could picture her long braids, which Issa often pulled back into a thick ponytail, and the half-moon birthmark tattooed by her eye.

Lotti’s face flushed again, but now for a different reason. She didn’t want any of this anymore. She didn’t want Charlotte and Melissa, Lotti and Issa. She didn’t want the “escape” from real life that was no longer working. She had felt it on her last visit, the claustrophobia of the perpetual holiday, the fear and guilt that came with her attempts to flee the real world. There was something tight and bitter about the idea of Lotti and Issa forever. The mantra that she had repeated so often in her head, as a way of getting through her other life, had begun to sound dull. As fun as her memories were, she could barely tolerate the thought of having to continue actually living them. The rhythm of Charlotte and Melissa, Lotti and Issa battered her mind, now an involuntary chorus inside her head.

This trip was the last time she would see Issa at Tangalooma, she had determined. It had to be. She had felt it on her previous visit and increasingly since then, the need to catalyze her life, the real one, in some way. She could no longer pretend that she had no other life at home in Brisbane. She had a family. Children of her own. The sun was suddenly burning Lotti’s arms, and she felt sick thinking about the affair that she’d carried out for so long, how all this time she’d been playing with fire. How she was risking it all for something that would only ever be an illusion.

But then, she thought, maybe Issa sensed this too. The last time Lotti had visited, Issa had pressed her about the time she spent away.

“I wanted to work on our canvas,” she said, “but you missed spring.” She had twisted around from where they sat on the floor of the living room, where Lotti had been mediating on the yoga mat. Issa lifted a wooden box from the couch.

The box was an old miniature desk for a toddler, the surface small and angled on a slant. Issa had decorated it a while back when the two first met. Eyes from photo magazines cut out and pasted all over its top and sides, then covered over with the clear paste used for paper-mâché. The box lid was coming loose from its hinges.

Lotti took the box from her, scooted backwards on the mat. Issa came beside her to watch her lift the lid. Inside, filled to the brim, just feathers and feathers and feathers. Tiny plumage, whites and blacks and blues. Many blues, some like the royal blues Issa always wore, others greying, others almost purple. They all came puffing out. Some were blowing with the breeze. Others just swayed gently, but stayed inside the box.

“There are so many.” Lotti said. “I can’t believe you remembered to collect them all while I was gone.”

“Of course I remembered.” Issa frowned. She paused. “I always remember.” Then she looked Lotti straight in the eye. “I am always going to remember.”

Lotti glanced up at her. “Well,” she started, trying to be chipper about it, “there are so many. We’ll have so many to work with.”

But Issa wouldn’t let it go. “I had a lot of time.” She shook her head. “I didn’t want to keep working on it without you.”

Lotti inhaled sharply, but before she could reply, Issa stood, her face barely expressing the unspoken words between them, and headed into the studio. Lotti followed her in and watched as Issa pulled back the giant sheet that covered their canvas that leaned against a set of chairs, a makeshift easel. It stood by the window on top of a thick plastic floor cover spattered in paint splotches.

“You really did keep it right where we left off, didn’t you?” Lotti said, trying to laugh good-naturedly and examining the canvas. It was their ocean masterwork, a thirds of the way covered already with the small feather puffs glued as close as possible, marked by the longer feathers, some white and some black, of cockatoos. Those were the shadows that dipped and rose with each wave on the ocean. But most of the feathers were so small, some even the size of half a finger, and even the tiny ones were always colored. Lotti and Issa would dot the small white keratin strips of each feather with a cue-tip of glue and then softly pressed the feathers into the canvas surface. The smaller feathers made the rough texture of the canvas even more noticeable.

“It’s all ready for us to jump right in,” Issa said, pulling up their two chairs in front of the canvas and setting the box of feathers on a small table beside the chairs.

“Shall we ease into it?” Lotti said, trying to laugh, to keep the mood light. “Maybe we can start tomorrow.”

Issa dropped her arms, her brow furrowed. She swallowed and turned to look at Lotti. “We have a lot of work to do.” Her voice was filled with anxiety, annoyance, desperation. “You were gone so long… if we want to get through all the feathers I collected, we need to start straight away.”

“Issa…”

“Don’t you want to continue the artwork?”

“Of course I do, but…”

Issa shook her head and, without another glance in Lotti’s direction, she grabbed an empty paint bucket from the floor of the room. “I’m going to gather the macadamias before they all start rotting.” And she left, the bucket swinging in her hands.

Lotti heard the screen of the front door squeak open and then clang shut.

“You’re it!”

Lotti looked around the on the ferry as the little girls ran past her.

“No, you’re it!” The older sister tagged the younger on the shoulder who squealed as they changed direction, running between the rows of plastic seats that lined the ferry balcony.

Then Lotti heard another voice. “Ava, Aria!” The young mother was standing up now. “We’re almost there. Come back up your things.”

Lotti looked back toward the island. It was true, she could see Tangalooma coming into view. She could make out the tall palms that stood at the edge of the sand and the townhouse villas that lined the beach behind them, though they were mostly just a wash of white and blue amidst the dark green trees. Behind the first row of residences was the taller resort complex, built partly into hillside. In ten minutes they’d be docking at the jetty, and Lotti would see Issa’s face appear, her black sunglasses blocking her eyes, her black braided hair bleaching ever so slightly in the sun, the light kissing her face.

It was almost time, and Lotti thought of everything she wanted to say. That their feather artwork was great, but that she needed to find a way to be creative more regularly, in her real life; that their adventures were thrilling, but that too, she needed to learn how to make a part of her who she was back in the real world.

She imagined Issa’s cold response. “This is real life, Lotti.”

And Lotti would pause because she wouldn’t know how much to tell Issa. In her momentary cowardice, she would concede a little. “You know what I mean.”

Issa’s suspicion would appear in the scrunch of her eyes. She would cross her arms and say, “Not really. No, I don’t know.”

In the imaginary conversation, Lotti was still searching for the words. “Come on, Issa. You know what I mean. This is…”

“This is what? What is it?”

“A holiday… a special time, outside of time… it’s an escape from the real.”

Issa’s face would get tighter and darker. “I’m not real?”

Lotti would try to laugh, but even then she knew it wouldn’t be convincing. She could say, “Of course you are.” But then she’d be thinking that, no, Issa wasn’t real. She wasn’t real enough. “Not anymore,” she would say instead, letting her arms fall limply at her sides. And then she would have to watch Issa’s face fall too in the confusion and the upset and the anger that would take a hold of her entire body.

And it wasn’t just that it wasn’t real, but that it was too risky. She was risking her own children, playing with fire. She needed to be there for them, no matter how unhappy she was.

The Flyer was pulling up to the jetty now. Beside Lotti on the boat, the two little girls had been calmed. At their mother’s command, they were threading their arms into the loops of their backpacks. The young mother was rubbing another layer of sunblock onto their toes, then slipping back on their thongs.

Lotti reached down to the blue plastic seat for one of their hats. “Don’t forget this.” She passed it to the young mother.

The girl took the hat, looked up at Lotti, and smiled. “Aw, thank you so much. You must be a mother too, eh?” She shook her head with a laugh. “They’re a wild bunch, aren’t they?”

Before Lotti could reply, the little girls ran off toward the front of the ferry, racing each other to be first in line, their mother following closely behind.

Lotti watched them step off the boat onto the docks. She wasn’t searching for Issa’s face in the crowd, but thinking for the first time ever that this place was still real. It had always been real and would always be. Suddenly she could picture herself out in the real world, here, coming back with her son, with her own two daughters. The four of them renewing this place together. She could already see it, each of them gripping each other’s hands as they stepped out onto the island.

Nicole Adair is an Australian-American author, composer, and game designer based in New York City. She received her MA in English-Creative Writing and her PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Adair has worked closely with authors such as Joyce Carol Oates and Vikram Chandra on long- and short-form fiction that explores themes related to Australia, climate change, and the different mediums of art (image, text, video) as tools of storytelling. Her fiction appears in World Literature Today.

Recommended Reading:
 

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Pay Me In Attention

November 27, 2020

By Francesca Louise Grossman

My eyes are too far apart. My skin isn’t rosy or olive, the two options on the online makeup matching quiz. My hair is mid-length and curly. Sometimes frizzy, but I can usually get that under control with some of the expensive hair gel I steal from my mom. My lips are thin. My eyebrows aren’t thick enough. My lashes are nubs. 

My thighs do not gap.

I stand in front of the mirror in my attic bedroom and look at myself. My mother says at sixteen this is the best I’ll ever look, so I should cherish it, but if she’s right I might as well shoot myself now. Thankfully she’s not right about most things. Except the hair gel. 

If only I were pretty. It’s such a lame thing to think, but I can’t help thinking it. If I were pretty, I would be able to walk down the halls in school without slouching. I would be able to raise my hand in class without worrying that my classmates will see my pocked face. I would be able to get my best friend to fall in love with me instead of treating me like a friend with benefits. 

But I’m not pretty. And I know that. And so does he.

I hear my phone buzz. I scan the room and zero in on a pile of sheets on the floor from when I kicked them off last night in the heat. Summer is so gross in New England, and my parents still haven’t put in central AC in our house. They say I can use a window unit if I want to go back down to my old room on the second floor, but I set up my stuff in the attic three months ago and no way I’m moving back downstairs. For now I will fry. 

It’s worth it to be two whole floors away from my parents. They aren’t terrible, but it’s too hard being an only child. Why they stopped at one is anyone’s guess because my mother’s suffocation is enough for at least three daughters.

I shake out the sheet and my phone bounces on my makeshift rug, a bunch of beach towels laid out on the floor because my mother said I was not to bring my shag rug from my old room up into the dusty unfinished attic. I scramble to pick it up. 

Where are you? It’s my best friend, Walter, the very same one with the benefits. We have to go to Annemarie’s party!!!! 

Last thing I want to do. I love hanging with Walter alone, just the two of us, but as soon as we’re around other people, he forgets I’m alive. 

When? 

Tonight!  

I’d so much rather just hang with Walter at home. 

Ugh, I text.

Shut up you’re coming

You’ll owe me 

The text lingers. 

Like a party would kill you, he adds.

It might 

Crystal

OK fine what time? 

9:30. i’ll come get u 

Fine

I throw the phone onto my bed, an old cot that my mother put up in the attic for when my cousins come for Christmas. It’s covered with some couch cushions from a springless loveseat that’s pushed in the corner.

 

I go back to the mirror, turning this way and that, trying to ignore the pimples that have ravaged my cheeks, squeezing my stomach to approximate flatness, trying to see myself as maybe a sixteen year old boy could see me if I could just look a little bit better. 

Maybe working out would help. Maybe not. 

 The truth is I actually don’t really care about most of the sixteen year old boys who might see me. I only care about one. I’m as cheesy as the 80’s movies my mom makes me watch with her when I’m sick and can’t refuse. I am desperately in love with Walter, and I have been all my life. It ripped my heart out when he told me he didn’t feel the same way about me.

It wasn’t long ago. A few weeks. I thought things were going well. I thought we were both on the same page. We had been hooking up for a couple of months, nothing major, making out in his room or my attic. He had his hand up my shirt. I was sitting on his lap. And then I made the mistake. 

He was kissing my neck, making his way up to my ear. His palm lay flat on my boob, like he was going to squeeze but was waiting for something. He stopped, took a breath and looked at me. For a minute neither of us spoke. Then he smiled, kissing my nose. 

“I love you,” I said. It slipped out. 

Walter coughed. In my face. He coughed in my face and I swear he laughed, just a little. 

“Crystal, you know what you mean to me,” he said. 

“What do I mean to you?” 

“Don’t do this, don’t screw with this, you’re my best friend.” 

“But that’s it,” I didn’t want to say it, but I couldn’t help myself. He was still so close to my face, his hand was still up my shirt. I could feel myself starting to sweat. 

“I don’t want to ruin what we have,” he said. 

“Which is what?”

Walter took his hand from my chest and scooted up to the top of the bed. He ran that very same hand through his hair and looked at the ceiling. 

“I’m sorry Crystal, I just don’t feel that way about you.” 

I should have been mad. I should have yelled at him for taking advantage of the situation, told him I wasn’t an object he could play with. I should have thrown him out. But this wasn’t just some guy. This was Walter. He was my very favorite person in the world, my best friend. And he hadn’t promised me anything. 

“OK Walter,” I said. 

He took my hand. “I’m sorry.” 

Me too. I thought, but this time I kept my mouth shut.

Later that night, after Walter had gone home, I lay in my cot staring at the ceiling. What would I have to do to get Walter to feel the way I did? What would it take to make him see me like that? How could I make a change?

 

That was weeks ago, but I feel the same. Rejected. The next morning, I do my face for school. I put as much foundation on as I can, slathering concealer over the hot red bumps that cover my cheeks. I line my lips with a brownish mauve, dabbing a little gloss in the center as the YouTubers have taught me. I line my eyes in black flicking it out a little from the corner of each eye. I brush on mascara and powder my whole face. Hopefully everything won’t melt off in the heat. I look ok, passable.

I go downstairs to the kitchen, walk to the pot and pour myself a cup of coffee. 

“Morning Hun,” my mom says, coming over to hug me. I don’t want to mess up my face so I pull away, something she misinterprets as me not wanting to be close to her. She thinks I hate her, which just makes me hate her. 

“When are you home today?” she asks. 

This question. If I answer it, she’ll be waiting for me, and get upset if I’m “late.” If I don’t, she’ll think I’m hiding something. 

“Text me later and I’ll tell you,” is as much as I can give her. I grab a banana from the bowl on the table, and make my way to the bus. 

 

About an hour later I’m in math. I touch the grooves on the old wooden desk. Years of teenagers have scratched the surface with points from a pencil, a protractor, a ruler, a pen. Teachers can see if we’re writing something, but they never notice us etching, slowly and silently, at the pace of a math class.

I stare at my desk to avoid looking at Walter. Watching him from the back, out of the corner of my eye, even though I know he can’t see me, I notice him squirm. I can make out his waist between the wooden slab and metal rungs that keep the chair upright. I can see how the fabric of his faded tee shirt follows the curve of his sides, grazing him, almost meeting the waist of his jeans. That inch of skin. It is so pale, and so smooth, I can imagine, without much effort, how it might feel, how it might taste.

Today Mr. Parker is talking about sines and cosines in the faint background, but my thoughts are far away from anything resembling Trig. I trace my gaze upward, landing on the back of Walter’s neck. His dark brown curls reach his earlobes and I wonder if they tickle him. I’m jealous of his hair for getting to be so close. 

The bell rings. Mr. Parker looks directly at me as he says, “We’ll have a quiz on this on Monday.” His look suggests he knows I wasn’t paying attention. I hide behind my hair, and

gather my graph paper, completely blank, following  the herd of sophomores out of the classroom. 

I squeeze past kids clogging the hallway, stumbling, and there he is. I tuck my hair behind my ear and smile. My heart beats too fast. My hands get too sweaty. This is my best friend. I know him. He knows me. I don’t understand why my insides don’t know this. I have to be cool. 

“Hey Crys.” 

He waited for me. 

“Hey Walter,” I say, and I can’t help it, my stomach flutters. I have told myself a million times to let it go. But look at that hair, those eyes, his smooth cheeks. 

Truth is, I’m pretty sure he loves me too. He just won’t admit it. I’m the one he calls when he needs a pep talk. I’m the one he texts to go out when his parents are fighting. I’m the one who knows he’s afraid of the dark, and sleeps with the TV on. 

“Wanna walk me home?” he asks.

My pulse speeds and I nod, my voice failing me. This happens all the time. My brain forgets. It makes new realities that I believe. 

Walter hooks his arm through mine. It’s almost summer and our arms are bare. A shiver runs up to my shoulder from where our skin touches. 

Walter leads me to the big double doors that go out behind the high school. His house is on the far side. We walk slowly, making our way to the other side of the wide set of fields, where the younger kids have their soccer games and the JV girls play field hockey in the fall. 

Walter is telling me things like the party is going to be epic, they should make a pact to drink only two beers so they don’t get out of control, should he wear jeans or shorts? but it’s the thick arm hair in the crease of his elbow that I’m focused on, so unlike my own smooth crease it feels almost pornographic. 

 

When we get to the edge of the first field, Walter pulls me towards a large oak, one side covered in a florescent green moss. He leans me up against it, taking me by the hips. Why does he do this? Doesn’t he know what this does to me? 

One of the many problems with the situation is that Walter is more than willing to fool around in secret. This should infuriate me; and I sort of wish it did, but I let it happen because, in a way, it thrills me. If we hook up in secret then I’m a secret, and if I’m a secret I’m worth keeping secret. Right? Could that be a good thing? 

I wish that I believed that. I wish that were true. But I think Walter wants to hook up with me when we’re alone in the woods because he doesn’t want anyone to see us. That kind of secret is not the nice kind. 

Walter puts a palm on my shoulder. Our chests brush up against each other. Sparks fly up my leg and land between them, but I don’t flinch. I don’t want anything to stop what is about to happen. 

“Should I stop?” Walter asks, trailing one finger along my collar bone. 

“Yes, no, yes, stop,” I answer, even though I know in my mind this is all crazytown. Teenage boys are obsessed with sex, my mother would tell me, it doesn’t mean to them what it means to you. Be careful with your heart, Crystal. 

 

He looks at my mouth and I can’t look away. The small woods are quiet. I can barely hear school letting out through the trees. 

I’m aware of how I must seem to him at this moment, sweat pouring down my back, the sides of my head wet behind my ears. My foundation must be dripping down my face in globs. I am not a polished girl. I know girls like that, of course, who somehow never sweat, whose shirts are never wrinkled and whose hair is never mussed. Walter could have any of them. He could have anyone. But right now he’s here with me, and that has to count for something. I glance back at school. It seems so far away, a canopy of trees guarding us against all of the possible teenage eyes and gossiping mouths. 

A soccer ball comes bounding through the trees and hits Walter in the leg, dissolving our sun dappled moment. A freshman comes jogging to retrieve the ball and stops short when he sees us. He lifts his eyebrows, waits a beat and winks. Walter stands up and passes the ball back to him. “Nothing to see here,” he says. 

“Thanks, man,” the kid replies, chuckling to himself as he jogs back to the field.

The moment lost, we walk to Walter’s house, hand in hand to the basement entrance and into his room. His space is totally private, he took it over when his brother moved out. 

“You’re still up for hanging later tonight?” I ask him.

“Yes! Annemarie’s, it’ll be epic” he says, and he kisses me on the forehead. Epic. Awesome. Forehead. 

I take Walter’s hand. It’s so big, my fingers fit so nicely inside it. How does he not see how perfect this is? 

 I look at him. Walter dresses like a typical parking lot boy, low-slug jeans, tee shirts; in the winter a cracked leather jacket he inherited from his older brother. He wears faded black converse, low tops. When he smokes, which is not as often as people might think, he lifts his face towards the sky like he is praying. 

Walter walks like he carries a huge weight on his shoulders. He’s tall, almost six foot two, and he stoops, but not too much, just enough to remain mysterious. His hair falls delicately over his hazel eyes and I love nothing more than pushing the shock of it back off his forehead with the palm of my hand. Without the bangs in his face, Walter looks younger, fresh, maybe even innocent. His long black lashes are the envy of everyone, myself included. 

Once we toss our backpacks on the floor I pick up the book on his nightstand and finger through the pages. The cover of the book is ripped off so I can’t tell what it is. 

“What’s this?” I ask.

“It’s silly,” Walter says. 

“Is it for school?” I flop back on his bed, lying face up at the ceiling, turning the book over in my hands. 

“No.” He swipes it from me and tucks it in the back pocket of his jeans. The pages re-form their ripples, like they belong there. 

“What is it?” I lunge for him and Walter shimmies out of the way, arching his back away from me. I dive onto him and grab the book out of his pocket. The corner of his grey fitted sheet comes loose. 

“It’s embarrassing,” he says, flushed. “It’s nothing. It’s a book.”

“What book, asshole?” Does he think I’m not smart enough for it?

“It’s a bunch of short stories. Raymond Carver. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

Oh come on.” I roll my eyes, though secretly I’m swooning.

“It’s good, I promise,” he says. 

This is one of the bazillion things I love about Walter. His mushy side. Most people don’t see it. They see a brooding bad boy with a wallet chain. But I know the real him. The deep one. The one with the soft palms. The one who reads love stories. The one who pays attention. 

 

“Look, don’t make fun of me. It’s great. It’s not what it sounds like.” He smiles. 

I grab the book from his pocket. It’s ripped up on the edges. I put it up to my nose and smell it, the thin paper scent going directly to my head. It smells like the library and cardboard and laundry detergent. And Walter. 

I put the book softly down on the bed and look up. Walter sports a sheepish grin but I can tell he isn’t really that embarrassed. 

He reaches for me and pulls me towards him. Our bodies align front to front. 

“What do we talk about, then?” I ask. 

“When?”

“When we talk about love?” 

“Crystal, come on,” he says. 

We have talked about this. I know. But I know he must feel it too. He has to. And my mind gets all muddled up between what happens and what he says. 

“I know. Don’t worry,” I say, even though I don’t mean it. 

“OK.” 

My mother texts me:

What time will you be home?

What do you want for dinner?

Crystal?

Hello?

Call me. 

“Ugh, it’s my mom, I have to go,” I say and look around for my shoes. 

“You’re coming with me tonight, though, right?” Walter asks and I sigh. I know what will happen at this party. I will go with Walter, he will stand by me until Annemarie or one of her swan-like friends walks by with their long necks and big boobs and bouncy hair and then he will leave me in the dust. I’ll know no one else there, and I’ll have to call an Uber to get home before midnight. 

“Yeah, alright, I’ll go.” 

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I can make him see me like he sees the swans. I can try, can’t I?

After dinner with my parents, I run up to the bathroom and lock myself in. I shave my legs, I scrub my face, I wash my hair with coconut shampoo. I do my face, slick my hair with gel, pick my outfit, spray perfume. I avoid the mirror, hoping that my imagination of what I could look like will catapult me into a reality in which I do. I pull on my blue halter top, tuck my racerback bra in so the straps don’t show. I put on cutoffs, ones that barely cover my butt cheeks, and I tie a sweatshirt around my waist to cover the shorts until I’m outside. As I run down the stairs to meet Walter, I catch a glimpse of myself in the windowpane. I look good. Not Annemarie good, maybe not even her swans good, but good enough for me. 

 

Walter picks me up at 9pm, which my mother thinks is “an outrageous time to go out.” He beeps the horn. 

“Boys should ring the doorbell,” she says. 

“It’s just Walter,” I say. 

“He’s a boy, right?” My mother is typing on her laptop, but his eyebrows lift up and over the screen. “I know it’s not PC for me to say,” she starts, “but do you ever think of pulling back a little from Walter? Let him come to you?” 

“We’re just friends, Mom.”

“You never have to settle for being good enough Crystal, I hope you know that,” she says. 

“What does that mean?”

“It means, my love, that there is something to be gained from letting him wait a little, letting him want more.” 

I roll my eyes but there’s a part of me that thinks she’s probably right. I know the old he chases you in the playground because he likes you and you always want what you don’t have might be antiquated and unpopular unfeminist tropes but they’re sayings nonetheless. And there’s always some truth in a saying. “Maybe,” I say, I’ll give her a maybe. She smiles, appeased. 

 I let her kiss me on the top of the head. 

“Be safe,” she said. “Home by midnight.” 

I nod and run outside, jumping into Walter’s car before my mom can say anything else. 

“You look hot,” Walter says, and kisses me on the cheek. 

I smile. I have put myself together in the best way I know how. Something that looks effortless, but took me over an hour. 

Tonight. Maybe he will change his mind tonight. 

We get to the party, park around the corner. 

Walter looks at his phone, chuckles.

“What?” 

“Just Annemarie. Nothing,” he says. 

The air hisses out of my heart. 

We go in the back way into the kitchen, where kids are lounging on the counter and playing flip cup at the table. Walter heads to the keg, pumps and pours us a beer each, mostly foam. He hands me one. 

“Thanks,” I say, leaning into him. I want him to smell the coconut, a scent I know he loves. But I want more than that. I want him to lean in towards me and kiss me. I want him to take my hand, show this kitchen of kids that I mean something to him, that we mean something to each other. 

He does not.

Annemarie appears in the doorway, a golden fairy, one hand on the doorframe, a waterfall of bronze curls tumbling down her back. The room hushes just from her presence. Annemarie is beautiful, but it’s more than that. Her face is flawless, not one red bump, not one scar, and not one smear of cover up. She wears a low cut top, red and white polka dots. The outline of a black lace bra is clear underneath. Her shorts are low on her hips. Annemarie has a raspy, breathy voice and when she clears her throat we all wait to hear it. She always sounds like she was just laughing. Like she just finished something that took her breath away. A run, a dance party, a cigarette, sex. Somehow this evokes a sense of urgency, a sense that you should pay attention to her, before she’s off again. If I’m invisible, she’s the show.

I see the change in Walter. He is no longer easygoing. He straightens up, breathes more heavily. I can almost smell him start to sweat. 

“Hey Walter,” Annemarie breathes, and I know I’ve lost already. 

“Hey wassup,” Walter says, handing Annemarie his beer. 

“It’s new,” he says. “I’ll get another.”

“Thanks Babe,” she says, taking a sip.

“I’ll be back Crys,” Walter says and follows this breathy fairy into her backyard.  I know he will not be back. 

 It feels like my belly button bumps up against the back of my throat. I take a sip of the foam in my cup just to have something to do and it goes down the wrong tube. I cough and run to the sink, leaning my head to the faucet. I see my foundation streaming onto the plastic cups already discarded. How I could think I’d be able to keep Walter away from Annemarie is now completely beyond me. I can’t compete with someone like her. 

I put my cup on the table and wipe my chin.  I’ll walk home. I’ll be back way before midnight, and my mom will be thrilled. 

I leave through the screen door, letting it slam. 

I can see Walter and Annemarie sitting on the edge of her pool, their feet dangling into the glowing aqua water. He has a hand on the small of her back, she’s stretching, exposing her midsection. He splashes at her. She laughs in a trill. I don’t know how to trill like that. 

I’m a glutton for punishment. I know this, but I can’t look away. I sit down on the grass far enough away that they won’t see me. I stare.

Walter goes inside and gets them more beers; when he’s back they lean into each other and laugh. I see him touch the curve of her spine with one long finger. 

I lay back, I can’t watch. But I can’t leave either. I close my eyes, mortified that I thought even for a minute that Walter would choose me.

I’m not sure how it’s possible, but I fall asleep there in the grass, and don’t wake up until Walter kicks me lightly on the thigh. 

“Crystal,” he says, “Come on, it’s late,” his voice is slower than normal, like he’s dragging it through honey. 

I don’t move, and he lays down next to me. 

“Was it worth it?” I ask. 

“Annemarie?” 

“Obviously.” 

“Don’t do this,” Walter has turned so that he is facing the sky, one of his arms up and behind his head, the other resting on top of my hand in the grass. 

“Don’t,” I say, pulling away. “Someone might see us.” 

Walter sighs. 

I want to be mad. I want to shove his hand away, get up, walk home like I planned. But I can’t be mad, I can’t move. I know that I’m not his girlfriend. I know the deal. 

“I think I can hear your heartbeat,” I say. 

“Oh weird, I think I can hear yours too,” he says. “Do hearts beat louder when you drink beer?” 

I laugh, turn towards him. 

I let him choose. He could easily turn away. Or he could scooch his way up and let me listen to his heart. Or he could scooch down just a little bit and face my face. 

Our heartbeats amplify while I wait. Maybe it’s just mine. The crickets buzz and the grass is wet on my side and the beer is stale in my mouth. 

Walter touches his lips to mine, gently at first. I don’t react and he kisses me harder, pulling my face toward his with his hands. He parts my lips and kisses me more deeply. As he finds my tongue, I push him softly away, our mouths staying pressed together as our bodies part, holding on. 

“Wow,” Walter says. All I can do is nod in agreement. 

Walter places a hand on the underside of my chin. Right before our lips touch again, I feel a trickle of sweat roll down the side of my face. I pray it doesn’t end up in his mouth. If it does he doesn’t say anything. He just kisses me more. Walter’s lips are cool. And soft. They taste like ocean water mixed with malty beer and just a little bit of honey. 

I know he is doing this because he’s drunk. I know he probably kissed Annemarie this same way just a few minutes ago. I know she’s the honey I taste. I know that on Monday I will still just be the best friend, and his guy friends will be asking what it was like to be with Annemarie on Friday night. I know that I should stand up for myself, tell him he needs to choose, that this isn’t fair.  Tell him I have to protect my heart. 

 

But I don’t do any of those things. I kiss him back. I pretend that this moment is all the moments. I pray someone will see us, so that our whatever this is will be out in the world. If it is out in the world then it’s real. I imagine myself with long honey hair and a see through tee shirt.I imagine the choices I might have. We sometimes have to live in the moment in front of us. We sometimes accept second place because it is so much better than losing everything. 

Francesca Louise Grossman is a writer and writing instructor. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Brain, Child Magazine, The Manifest Station, Ed Week, Drunken Boat, Word Riot, and The Huffington Post among others. She runs writing retreats and workshops internationally, and leads an annual intensive workshop at The Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has a BA and MA from Stanford University and a Doctorate from Harvard University in Education. Francesca lives in Newton, MA with her husband and two children and is currently working on a memoir and a novel.

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November 20, 2020

By Cameron L. Mitchell

She didn’t know he was such a troubled sleeper until after they moved in together.  He’d had a problem with sleepwalking for as long as he could remember, he said.  Even on the best of nights, he tossed and turned.  She slept like a rock, on the other hand, drifting off almost as soon as her head hit the pillow.  They had other differences, of course, like any other couple, but they felt hopeful, like they could overcome anything.  Before long, she couldn’t imagine her life without him, though she worried about the sleepwalking issue when he brought it up.  He made light of it, but there was an edge to his voice she didn’t trust.

At first, the incidents seemed minor, occurring only occasionally.  She’d wake alone in the early morning, figuring he was in the bathroom.  Instead, she found him asleep on the couch, and he looked surprised when she finally woke him – and unable to recall how he got there.  Another night, the blaring sound of the television woke her, hours before dawn.  She walked into the living room to find him kneeling before the screen like a child mesmerized by his favorite cartoon.  But his eyes were closed and his face was blank; she found it unsettling, the way he was clearly asleep, sitting up like that, his face set aglow by the light of the screen.  She switched the TV off but didn’t try waking him, having heard it was dangerous to disturb someone in the midst of a sleepwalking episode.  Carefully, she nudged him down to the floor, taking a pillow from the couch for his head.  The next morning, he’d returned to his place beside her in bed.  When she told him about the night before, he laughed, saying it was ok to wake him.  She would remember next time.

And there would be a next time.

There were also long periods when everything seemed fine.  He wasn’t much for spooning since he rarely stayed in the same position for long; yet, when their bodies intertwined as one, it was a treat – even if he later pushed her away, hard enough to wake her.  Sorry, he would say the next morning with that guilty look upon his face that made her think of him as a child caught doing something wrong.  It was that look of unyielding innocence that made her love him.  She loved so many things about him.  The way he quickly averted his gaze and blushed when she caught him staring at her from across the room.  The way he made her feel like more than the sum of her parts, never less.  The way he leaned on her, the way he needed her.  The way she saw herself reflected in his wide, blue eyes, dotted with specks of green and brown – she could get lost inside his ocean of delicate colors.

But were there things she missed?  In bed one night, while gazing up at the ceiling, he said a funny thing.  Do you ever wish you could be someone else?

What do you mean?

I see people on the street, on the trains, and I imagine their lives, he continued.  Their past, the way I can’t see it on their faces, whether it’s good or bad.  They aren’t dragging it around like this big, heavy piece of luggage, you know? 

She thought about it for a moment.  Maybe falling in love is like being another person.

How?

Being able to love someone, to make room for them when you weren’t sure you could, she tried to explain.

He turned to her, smiling.  How’d I get so lucky?  He kissed her on the forehead.  Soon, they fell asleep – she fell asleep, anyway.  He struggled the way he always struggled.  She now wonders why she didn’t ask more questions to see if she could pry loose those secrets he held so close.  Things might have turned out differently if she’d tried harder.

The sleepwalking episodes came to feel like games of hide-and-seek.  He’d quietly disappear from bed, and then she’d search the apartment until she found him.  They laughed about it.  But as the incidents occurred more frequently, they also got stranger.  Despite sleeping so peacefully herself, she woke one night with a gasp, turning to find him gone.  It’s like her body sensed his absence and responded before her mind was able to catch up.  She found him in the bathroom, scrubbing the floor with his toothbrush.  He pulled away from her touch, mumbling in protest.  She gripped his face with both hands, urging him to stop.  No, he insisted.  Not until it’s done.  With more determination than she’d ever seen in him while awake, he continued scrubbing, getting down between each tile to clean the dirt away.  She eventually gave up, returning to bed without him.  The next morning, there he was by her side, smiling.  She told him about the scrubbing, and he laughed at the absurdity of it all.  They laughed together until it almost felt ok.    

Another time, she couldn’t find him anywhere.  Again, she woke with a start, keenly aware that the weight of his body beside her was gone.  Throughout their apartment she walked, calling his name.  He wasn’t standing in the dark living room corner like last time, nor was he sitting on the cold bathroom floor, scrubbing away.  When she pulled the shower curtain back, he wasn’t there either.  Back to the bedroom, she checked the closet, she checked under the bed – nothing, nowhere.  Roaming back and forth through the apartment, she started panicking.

And then a small sound came from the kitchen, a rustling that might have been a mouse beneath the sink.  She raced in and pulled the cabinet doors open.  There he was, crammed inside.  She yelled for him to wake up and started tugging at him when he wouldn’t.  She gripped his shoulders, yanking until she finally pulled him out.  He hit the floor with a heavy thud, waking immediately.  Again? he asked, startled.   

Again, she answered.

Huddled together on the floor, they soon broke into laughter, marveling over the fact that he’d somehow managed to fit himself inside such a small, cramped space.  She carefully checked him over, running her hands across his chest, his back, his arms – it didn’t seem like he’d gotten anything hazardous on him from all the cleaning products and insect sprays.  She found a few scratches on his back, but nothing else.  Still, he went off to shower, just in case.  She went back to bed.  She didn’t fall asleep again until he returned to his place beside her, his hair damp, his skin warm.  Even then, it took her much longer than usual.  She was beginning to understand what it felt like to be a troubled sleeper.

Not as troubled as him, of course.  With the sleepwalking episodes escalating, so were the nightmares that often accompanied them, though he claimed he couldn’t remember the dreams at all.  He said he’d never been able to remember his dreams, which struck her as odd.  She recalled her dreams in such vivid detail she sometimes wasn’t sure if something had really happened or if it had just been a dream.  This was made worse by the fact that her dreams were so dull.  If they were more outlandish, it’d be easier to distinguish them from reality.  But most of her dreams involved everyday events, like maneuvering through passengers while riding the train to work – or just being at work in general, warming her lunch up in the staff break room.  His dreams were different.  Dark and terrifying, they left him sweaty and shaking, but he could never recount anything beyond the vaguest of details.  Someone after me, he might say.  Or something from his childhood, a period of time he never spoke of, though she gathered clues here and there – something about a father who hit, something about a mother who hid.  She had her theories, but he never offered any confirmations or denials.    

The two of them laughed together less and less.  More sleepwalking, more nightmares, all occurring more frequently.  With each incident, it became clearer that something was happening.  Something big, she felt sure.  He seemed lost and only half-present most of the time, desperate to find something – solace, perhaps, or maybe just a good night of sleep.

You know me better than anyone, he said in bed one night, staring up at the ceiling like he could see something she couldn’t.  But what does that mean?  Does anyone ever really know someone else?  Can they see through all the bullshit, deep inside another person’s heart?   

He sounded angry.  His questions were big, and she didn’t have answers.  She didn’t think anyone would.

I wish you could know some things, he continued.  Things about me.

What things? she said, her voice cracking.

Nothing, he moaned, covering his face with both hands.  It’s no use.   

He was so frantic and upset.  She tried soothing him, but she feared this not knowing that he spoke of – she feared he was right.  There might be things they couldn’t overcome no matter how well they worked together.

As he got worse, so did her dreams.  They became nightmares, haunting her long after they ended, ruining her once peaceful slumber.  He appeared regularly, always at a distance.  In one dream, she was lost in some dark, cavernous place, dusty and devoid of life, the air thick and stifling.  All was deadly quiet.  When he appeared, she called out to him, but he turned away, fleeing.  She followed, stumbling over rocky, uneven trails that looped around, leading nowhere – leading back to where she started, again and again.  Until she rounded one corner and almost crashed into him.  He stood before her, staring at her with dark eyes she didn’t recognize.  He held his arm out, insisting she take a look – all across his forearm, there were cuts that opened up like little mouths crying out in pain.  He clenched his fist, pushing his arm closer, like he blamed her for the wounds.  But he would never do that in real life, when he assured her she was the best thing that had ever happened to him.

In the dream he shook with anger, opening his mouth and screaming in silence – sweat dripped across his brow, the veins at his temples throbbed with each beat of his racing heart.  She woke so startled it took a few moments to catch her breath.  This time he was there beside her, twitching around in his sleep.  She pushed back a thick strand of hair that was stuck to his sweaty forehead.  She checked his arms for new cuts but found none.  Only faded scars from the self-inflicted wounds from another time, long before they met.  He’d admitted that he cut himself during a particularly rough period right after college.  He said it was something he’d never do again, explaining it was never about wanting to end his life.  It was just a release – or did he say relief?

Just then, his hand reached out in the dark and grabbed her arm, gripping it hard enough to frighten her.  The next day she’d discover a ring of bruises.  She tried pulling away, she tried to wake him, but he held tight.  For a moment, she wondered if she was still lost in her nightmare.  With one more heave, she managed to escape his grasp, stumbling back.  He remained in place, eyes closed, arm out, his hand waiting to clutch her again.  She watched his fingers slowly open and close around nothing.    

Eventually she turned away, deciding it’d be better to sleep on the couch.  The next morning, that’s where he found her.  I think I owe you an apology, he said, bending down before her.

For what?

I don’t know.  He looked confused.  He averted his gaze, catching sight of her arm.  What happened?  Where’d you get those bruises?

I don’t know, she answered.  Did he know he was the one responsible for leaving her marked?  Was he apologizing for that?  Or was he apologizing for something else, like the way he’d behaved in her dream, blaming her for all his pain?

That was ridiculous, she told herself.  He probably felt guilty for driving her out of bed in the middle of the night.  Her dreams and nightmares weren’t some shared experience.  They belonged only to her.

Always waking to find him gone left her exhausted.  One night, she chased after him in yet another dream, though the setting was different this time.  He was on the other side of a green meadow surrounded by trees.  Between them, the tall grass gently swayed in the breeze.  Birds chirped in the distance, and a pleasant, sweet scent filled the air.  The greenery surrounding them was almost too green; it gave off a faint luminescent glow, subtle but mesmerizing.  The colors of this particular dreamscape had a depth unlike anything she could find in the real world.  Lush and alive, this place was so unlike the dusty landscape of her previous dreams that she thought it symbolized a breakthrough.  It felt like the answer to a question neither one of them knew how to ask.  He casually waved at her, just like he would in real life, happy to have spotted her.  Before turning around, he waved again, beckoning her forward.    

She followed but couldn’t quite catch up.  No matter how quickly she moved, a steady, even distance stretched between them.  Out of the meadow and into the woods, he led her up a hill towards a dark hole in the ground – a cave, its opening obstructed by large rocks.  He didn’t turn back but walked on, determined to discover whatever waited inside that deep black void.  He tried pushing one of the rocks out of the way, but it wouldn’t budge.  He shoved his arm and leg inside, trying to enter, but he couldn’t quite make his body fit.  Hanging there, half of him was no longer visible.  She wanted to scream for him to stop but found herself paralyzed, unable to move or utter a single word.  Darkness filled the sky as heavy drops of rain started to fall, pelting her face and arms.  The sudden downpour washed away the vibrant colors.  She lost sight of him as the world turned black.    

She snapped awake, convinced she still had work to do.  She had to stop him.  It came as no surprise when she looked over and saw he was missing yet again.  She pushed the sheet away and jumped out of bed, ready to turn the apartment upside down to find him.  But she tripped over something before making it out of the bedroom.  Turning around, she found him lying in the floor at the bottom of the bed, half his body burrowed beneath it.  She backed up to the wall near the door, slowly dropping down until she was sitting on the floor.  Unable to stop herself, she started laughing.  The wild, maniacal sound was loud enough to wake the dead, but he remained in place, sound asleep.  Her laughter quickly gave way to a bout of uncontrollable sobbing.  The hot, wet tears falling down her face released the immense pressure that had been building inside her head.  She calmed down, pulling herself off the floor to sit on the bed.  She stared down at his leg still sticking out and felt a sudden urge to kick him, hard.  That small flicker of rage disappeared before it could grow into something dangerous.  I love you, she whispered, no matter what you decide.        

The next morning, she woke to his smiling face, hovering over her.  I had the best dream last night.

She rubbed the sleep from her eyes.  What was it about?

His gaze shifted up towards the ceiling.  I don’t know, but it was good, he said in a light, airy voice.  Like I finally figured things out.

He offered no further explanation, and she didn’t feel the need to ask for more.  A few peaceful weeks drifted by without a single sleepwalking incident.  They traded places – he slept easily, she didn’t.  The dark circles left his eyes and reappeared beneath hers.  Each night, she found it harder to sleep.  She couldn’t relax, she couldn’t let her guard down for a second.  She wouldn’t allow herself to be lulled into a false sense of hope that their troubles were over.  She felt it coming, their day of reckoning; it lingered around every corner, poisoning the air she breathed with an unmistakable sense of doom.  She imagined toxic fumes rising from the depths of that cave in her dream.  That dark place was still calling out to him, even if he seemed happier than he’d ever been.  She knew better, so she kept watch over him, waiting.

And then it happened.  He disappeared.

She knew it as soon as she woke to the emptiness beside her.  When she’d fallen asleep, he’d been there, his presence a palpable thing – all she had to do was reach out and touch him.  She could rest her hand across his chest, feeling the way it moved up and down.  With the weight of his body against the mattress, she knew he was there without having to touch him.  It was an undeniable fact.  But his sudden absence was just as absolute.  This time, she knew he was gone.  She could feel it deep down, on a cellular level – she was alone in the apartment they shared.

Still, she searched for him, just to be sure, flipping every light on along the way.  First she looked under the bed and in the closet, then she started her walk through the apartment.  He wasn’t in any of the corners he’d been in before.  She didn’t find him sitting on the bathroom floor, nor did she find him hiding in the tub.  Nothing in the kitchen either, not even in the cramped space of the cupboard.  In the hallway closet, again, nothing.  She dragged out the small step ladder to check the storage space above the closet – it was large enough to fit a body, but she didn’t find him there either.  She’d done all this before, searching for him, except this time, there was no tremor in her heart, no secret rush that came with the anticipation of finding him at last.  This time, she knew she wouldn’t find him.  The search was largely perfunctory, yet she repeated it, checking every possible space, over and over again.  It was like doing load after load of laundry and expecting something other than clean clothes at the end of each cycle.  Actually, it was worse than that since her efforts yielded nothing at all.

She collapsed across the couch, wondering what to do.  Nothing came to mind.  Her mind, in fact, was totally blank.  After a few moments, she looked over at the hallway leading to the front door.  She leapt up, rushing over.  It was locked – even the chain lock had been latched into place.  She’d been in the habit of using it ever since his sleepwalking started getting worse.  She opened the door and peeked out, but the eerie silence of the hallway felt like a warning; at this late hour, the air was different.  She didn’t belong to the world out there, yet she took a few hesitant steps forward anyway.  The floor felt icy cold against her feet.  Where are you? she whispered, calling out his name.  She knew he wouldn’t answer, just as she knew he hadn’t left this way.  With a shudder, she backed up and shut the door, locking it.  Glancing over at the kitchen, a new thought struck her, one that had never occurred to her before: the fire escape.

She ran to the kitchen, stopping at the window.  It was covered by a retractable gate that couldn’t be opened without first removing the padlock.  She pulled open the drawer where they kept an assortment of odds and ends, looking for the key.  Frantically, she yanked the drawer out, spilling its contents across the floor – the sound of everything falling and clanging together was harsh and loud, destroying the uneasy silence.  The noise made her want to run through the apartment, shattering each light fixture with a hammer and screaming until someone answered.  Instead, she searched through the mess, finally finding the key.  She unlocked the padlock, removed it, and opened the gate.  As expected, the window was still locked.  Even if it hadn’t been, the fact that she found the key proved that he hadn’t left by way of the fire escape.  Though improbable, he could have climbed out the window, reaching through the gate to put the padlock back in place, but then he wouldn’t have also been able to lock the window from the outside.  And as far as she knew, there was only one key to the padlock, which she held in her hand.

She went through the apartment checking all the windows, just to be sure.  The one in the bathroom was too small to fit through.  One of the windows in the living room had bars over the outside, and it was locked anyway; the other one held the air conditioner.  In their bedroom was the last window – the last possible means of escape.  She found it unlocked, but the screen was still in place.  She pushed the window open, seeing if she could slide the screen up.  It wouldn’t budge.  They lived on the fifth floor of a walkup, so he couldn’t have leapt from the window and survived.  Besides, she would have heard him if he had gone out the bedroom window.   

Now she knew for sure.  Somehow, he’d found a way out that couldn’t be explained.    

She spent the rest of the night in a fugue-like state.  By morning, she saw that the mess in the kitchen had been cleaned up, though she didn’t remember doing it.  She called the police – eventually, she filed a missing person’s report, but no one seemed to take her seriously, especially when she insisted that he disappeared by unnatural means.  They told her people up and left all the time, that she must have been mistaken about the chain lock being in place when she woke that night.  Despite everything that had happened, she didn’t feel sad, exactly – she felt drained.  It would take a while to muster the energy for sad.

In a follow-up, the police asked if he was suicidal.  No, she answered in a quiet, dispassionate voice, remembering the scars along his arms, how they opened up and screamed at her in a dream from what felt like so long ago.  As far as she knew, he wasn’t suicidal, but, over the sleepless nights since his disappearance, she started doubting herself more and more.  Could the chain lock have been unlatched that night?  She held the image of it locked in place like a snapshot in her mind, but with the lack of sleep and growing anxiety, the picture became distorted.  Dreams seeped into reality, days were hardly discernable from night.  When she managed a few hours of sleep here and there, the one thing she couldn’t bear was the fact that he had gone missing from her dreams as well, which quickly became as empty as her reality.  After disappearing, he never made a single appearance in any of them.  She waited for him there on the other side, hoping he would give her a sign.

During the day, she carried on, though she couldn’t manage to leave the apartment.  They’d stopped calling from work.  Friends had stopped calling too.  There was no one left – no one but the delivery boys who brought her what she needed to survive.  One can order anything, she discovered.  She ordered cases of wine, guzzling entire bottles down at night as she stumbled though the apartment, talking to him.  Talking to no one.  She took pills to fall asleep at night and drank entire pots of coffee to wake up each morning, laughing at her new routine.  She didn’t have to leave the apartment at all, though she knew things couldn’t go on like this forever.  The only thing that kept her going was the need to find him.  There was a hunger in her belly, urging her on – like a deep, bottomless hole, it swallowed everything else.  She couldn’t resist, even if she wanted to.

She studied lucid dreaming online but couldn’t make it work.  She thought of sleepwalking and how that might lead her to him, but it wasn’t something you could just force yourself to do.  She thought of him all the time, longing for the way things once were, when she slept so easily and they laughed about the things they couldn’t control.  She spread out across the living room floor, letting her mind wander.  She pictured herself walking down a long, dark tunnel, musty and damp, going on for miles and miles, twisting this way and that; long after losing track of time – walking so far that time ceased to matter – she imagined that tunnel opening up at last, revealing a light so bright it was blinding, though its warmth was strong enough to set her free.

Alone in their apartment, she imagined all sorts of things.

Out of boredom, she took the step ladder and climbed into the storage space above the hallway closet, finding that it really was big enough to fit a body.  Her body.  She crammed herself inside, pulling the doors shut to welcome the darkness.  She waited in silence and isolation, hoping to slip away to that secret place where she could find him.  In minutes or hours, she fell asleep, floating along in the darkness that held her.  Sometime later, she woke with a mind so clear it seemed like a miracle.  She had her answer at last, so she kicked the doors open, letting in the faint light.  She crawled out of that space, ready to find him.  She’d go looking for that tunnel, and that tunnel would lead her to where she needed to be.  Never had she been more certain of anything.        

A night had passed in that dark space, so she had to wait for the day to fade again to get started.  Once evening arrived, she lined up the bottles of pills he’d collected.  There were natural remedies, prescribed medication, and over-the-counter sleeping aides.  He’d tried everything.  And so would she.    

It would take the deepest, longest sleep to find him.  She needed help getting there, so she took a handful of the pills and washed them down with a glass of wine.  She had to go further this time.  She had to go further than she’d ever gone before, because he was worth it.  Being together again was worth it.    

As she started nodding off, a shadow of movement flickered across the room.  Its shape looked familiar.  Though it disappeared in an instant, she smiled anyway, feeling perfectly content.  She knew he was nearby, waiting for her to follow.   

Cameron L. Mitchell is a queer writer who grew up in the mountains of North Carolina. His work has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Queer South Anthology, Literary Orphans, Gravel Literary Magazine, and a few other places. He lives in New York and works in archives at Columbia University. Find him on Twitter: @CameronLMitchel

 

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

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Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Gravel

November 6, 2020
manya

Hi! Jen, Angela and I are thrilled to welcome you to Fiction Fridays!  On the first and third Friday of each month, we will feature fiction, so take a break from all the chaos and read a story or two as you head into the weekend. You’ll be happy you did, we’re sure of it.   TGIFF!  –Francesca

By Misty Urban

The wooden sign said Cabin Rentals. The letters had endured scorching heat, thunderous rainstorms, insect swarms, and the relentless bore of the salt breeze, yet there they stood, a stubborn etching, a well-worn shrine. The building showed quiet neglect. Planks of siding sagged into one another, furred with lichen and warped with moisture. The screen door hung aslant, large slashes tearing the mesh. Faded oaks trailed gobbets of Spanish moss over the toothed wooden shingles of the roof, gracious swag of eaves cupping the flat grey bowl of sky. Before, this had always seemed comfortable, a refuge. Now it was tired.

As she grasped her hand along the wooden rail of the stairs Manya felt a hard, dry splinter pierce her palm. She tugged at the projecting end and it broke, leaving a dark needle tucked beneath her skin.

Inside, the room smelled of seaweed, dark and salt-sticky. Out the window, small green brackenish things poked through dirty white sand.

Manya put the jagged splinter in the pocket of her jeans, smoothed her thumb over the reddening wound. “Hello?”

Maps tracing trail routes dripped from the walls of the rental office. Manya’s boots scuffed the dirty floor. Open brochures advertised prices for cabins and primitive sites. Firewood: four dollars for a bundle of finger-thin sticks. Across the street, Tuesdays and Thursdays, meetings for nature walks led by rangers from the state park. Manya knew them, eager and trained, their pressed brown uniforms with the Florida Park Service patch on the sleeve, a cross between a military rank and a Boy Scout badge. She studied canoe rental prices, restrictions on burning, a guide to the area’s venomous snakes. The small silver dome of a bell stared at her beside the cash register. The plunger made a useless click.

The woman who emerged from the back room had a robust glow that made the place seem quaint rather than shabby. Her cinnamon hair showed a margin of embarrassed blonde at the part. A cotton button-down shirt over a tight tank top, she had the sunburned look of a healthy, athletic woman who had never learned how to use cosmetics but slapped them on now as a barricade against advancing age.

Manya rubbed her stinging palm on her blue jeans. She should have put on a clean shirt. She should have combed her hair. She looked neglected, too.

“Reservation?” The woman’s voice held a rasp, from cigarettes or sea air. She glanced at the binder on the counter, flipped a page.

“Markova.” Manya placed her backpack on the floor and waited. Pages riffled. The woman’s look hit Manya on the chin, thin and narrow.

“Tourist?”

“Not anymore.” She shouldn’t need to explain this every time. The naturalization ceremony at seventeen, the tests and the solemn oath in the courthouse while the Girl Scouts dipped and swirled the flag. The university tried to charge her as an international student, though she’d lived in the country since she was five. She was tired of justifying her existence.

“Says here two adults.”

Manya smoothed her hand along the seam of her jeans. “It’s just me.”

“Same price.” She snapped open a receipt book. Manya looked at the golden wedding band on the woman’s finger. Tanned skin folded around it like protection. Beneath the metal, Manya guessed, the skin was stark white, like the underbelly of a sea-going creature that never saw light.

“The other . . . my . . .” She tried again. “He died,” Manya said.

That look again, a quick swoop, not quite to the level of Manya’s eyes. The woman’s voice dropped a pitch, thick as syrup. “You poor thing. I’m so sorry.” Her vowels opened at the end like wings. I’m so sorr-ah. The gull-eyes dipped to Manya’s left hand, bare of ring or markings. The cotton shoulders gathered in a shrug.

“Need linens?” she said, scratching the paper.

“Yes.” Manya bit her lip. She needed so many things.

“I’ll bring ‘em out before supper.” Her host tore off a receipt and held it over the plastic-capped counter. “You pore thing.”

“It was sudden,” Manya said. “No warning. Just like that.” She picked up her backpack and held the straps with both hands.

“Those are the worst,” the woman agreed. She pointed east. “Last one on the left.”

“You still have canoes for rental?”  Manya handed her cash.

“Oh, honey, there’s weather comin tonight,” the woman assured her, ringing open the cash register. “Didn’t you see that sky?”

Manya regarded the sky as she parked before the last cabin in the row and heaved open the hatchback. Sadie sailed out in a spatter of hot fur. The sheltie was just starting to lose her winter coat. She thrust her nose in the air, desperately sniffing. The sky was the color of the water was the color of the sea oats bending in the breeze. A watercolor by a troubled artist: Glowering Sky with Dog. Sadie charged into the gulf and kicked up a sheet of spray. The droplets sprang high and hung for a moment, turned slowly, then collapsed into the tide while the dog tried to bite them out of the air.

Manya had forgotten the sound of the ocean. That thrumming like an endless world-size heart, hurling the water onto the sand and then, repentant, taking it back.

The tent sat rolled in its factory sealed bag. Manya pushed it aside. They had talked, long ago, of tenting together, going deep into the woods. Interesting couples shared a hobby. Winter camping, trail camping, backwoods country wide open to just the two of them, tucked like turtles into their below-zero sleeping bag. He was a mountain boy, wind in the blood. He left the unused tent with her after that last calm discussion, when he walked down the long flight of stairs into nothing. He left everything behind.

She’d reserved the luxury cabin, the biggest they had. One broad room, a fireplace flagged with attractive grey stone, a deep couch facing the window facing the sea. A sink and more counter space than a restaurant. A door leading to the closeted bathroom, and stairs circling to the loft overhead. The smell of sawdust, motes drifting through the pine-damp air. A quiet mold on the inside of things, like regret.

Manya stood in the center of the room, falling into the forgotten pulse of the ocean. She listened for her heart, for what it was doing deep in there, but had no sense of it beating. Nobody thought about the heart and its steady work until, of course, it stopped working. She wondered who had helped him, who had come around the corner of the locker room to find him stranded on the cold tile, one hand to his gasping chest. The shut row of metal doors slanting down around them. The email sent out to everyone said he hit his head on one of the wooden benches. The coroner’s report noted the contusion, not contributing to death. She imagined his hands clenched into the fabric of his sweaty T-shirt, or perhaps covering his throat. And the person who found him thinking, oh shit, oh shit, this is the end of my nice normal day.

She wondered who had called Jeannette. His wife.

She stood yet in the center of the room, watching the clouds like a layer cake billow from west to east, when a sharp knock blew the door open. Upstairs, a thump as Sadie threw herself off the bed and slip-slid down the narrow stairs.

“Thought I’d bring em now. I got time.” The cabin keeper wore grey slacks and a pair of muddy boots.

“Oh.” Manya held out her arms for the bedsheets. The woman moved past her and set the folded items on the couch. Her eyes moved along the room, looking to see what Manya had brought to the place. Luggage, extra blankets, candles wrapped within them. Hardly any food.

“Y’all right?” Her eyes were grey, too, like the sky. An effect of living too long next to the ocean, where the wind could be cold through the winters. storms drawing the color out of everything, the idle boredom, the visitors leaving, always leaving.

“I’m all right,” Manya said.

“What was it, then?” the woman asked.

“What was what?” Manya put a hand on the stack of linens. Already they bore a fine sheen of sea salt.

“Your husband. You said it was quick.”

“Oh,” Manya said. “Aneurism. Heart.” Had she said he was her husband?

The woman put her hand on her chest, just as Manya had when she first heard the news. Checking. She’d held it there for the most of that day, skipping the class she taught, calling in sick to the testing site. She imagined Jeannette, now a widow, doing the same thing, perhaps right this moment at the wake in the funeral home, holding an arm across her chest as people filed by and collapsed against her. Tomorrow, during the funeral, there would be eulogies from astounded friends. He was so young, they would all say. He ran marathons. He had a strong heart, a many-miled heart. It should have gone on pumping in all its electro-hydraulic splendor for decades, millions more beats left in it.

From the beginning, he called Manya once in a while, late at night. At first she didn’t answer. In the messages it sounded like he was crying.

The storm hung in the sky all evening, waiting. Manya took Sadie for a walk.  She remembered more sand, more wildness, more beach, but there was only a strip of nubbly gravel shielding the water from the bristle of sea oats along the embankment. Shells and pebbles swatched the sand, a tiny crunch beneath her feet. The musty smell like a basement, moisture so thick the air was viscous. She remembered the breeze clean and sharp.

Insects grated from the trees, rising and falling like waves. The sea moved toward her and the sky away, a dappled grey tabby streaked with dust. Sadie’s hair stood straight with electricity. The thunder sounded like distant traffic, the dim row of cabin lights strung like pale bright shells along the shore. The sand was light oatmeal, shale spotted with bits of red and blue, stretching away into a moist fog. Any moment he might walk from it, arms full of driftwood for a fire, stepping from another world where his heart was still beating, a world where she had said yes.

A red, raised nimbus circled the tiny jag of wood in her palm, working its way in. He told her on their first date that he had gravel under his skin. Boyhood accident, a header over the handlebars of his bike. The road peeled layers from his hip and leg but his elbow hit first, driving small rocks deep under the epidermis. His parents, Christian Scientists, saw no need for doctors to tell them the debris was safe to stay there. It was earth-made material; the cells, living and dying, would push the foreign matter out.

But the elbow scabbed, then healed, and a bumpy, bubbly patch remained. Manya had liked the strange texture of it, the terrain of an alien planet. Skin beneath her fingers, but something else terrestrial deep beneath that. She was no biologist; she studied geophysics, the land with its features and fields and inevitable forces. She understood electromagnetics, thermometrics, the hydrology of his sweating body, the moving plates of his bones. The meteorology of their combined atmosphere, with its strange and unmeasurable currents.

Manya paused as Sadie sniffed a spot on the beach. The trees fretted, tossing up their branches. The rustling wind sounded like rain. Small leaves and bits of moss revolved through the air. The chant of the insects grew monotonal. The dog lifted her sandy muzzle and whined.

Manya grabbed a loose stick and pried at the small dome of sand. The scissored claw of a crab emerged first, then its body, upside-down. With the stick she flipped it over. It clipped to the side, leaving small mounds of sand in its trail, then paused, resting. It must have been suffocating, trapped in the small space it had fled for refuge.

He’d planned adventures for them, safaris in Africa, canoe trips down the Amazon. It was she who said they should date other people. He grew heavy in sleep, throwing his arm across her chest, pressing her deep into the blankets. His hands started to clutch. On the wall calendar he outlined in black marker the weeks she was gone for conferences or research. The gravel under his skin itched.

Jeannette was Catholic. She believed in insurance, checkups. His voice on the messages had the tone she’d heard when he called her name in his sleep. Deep in nightmares he muttered the Russian phrases he learned so he could phone her parents. Hello. How are you. I am well, thank you. May I speak to Manya? Is Manya there?

The storm broke when she was still half a mile from the cabin. The trees raged with wind and loose leaves swooped like bats. Tendrils of lightning struck and shimmered, magnified. Thunder rattled her teeth. Sadie streaked for shelter as the first cold drops fell and goosebumps blossomed on Manya’s arms. The rain whirled to meet her, blurring the world like a dusty mirror. Raindrops bounced off her shoulders, her calves, the back of her neck, places that for a long while had been touched by no hand but her own. The rain dotted her skin in frantic code.

Manya closed her eyes and lifted her face, listening to the message being tapped into her. She was alive. The ocean swelled and roared as raindrops patterned its surface. She’d forgotten how it felt, the ragged desperation of it, the joy that caught in the chest. The man she had loved was dead, and she was alive.

At the cabin, she toweled off and filled the kettle with cold water. Visiting hours were over. The room would be empty save for the chairs and flowers, the poster boards of pictures, his marathon medals and track trophies, the dried corsage from their wedding. Manya had been on a research semester in Brazil but she mailed a leaded glass cocktail set as a gift. A few weeks after the honeymoon, she received a thank-you card embossed with the wife’s new initials. Graceful handwriting expressed their gratitude for the glasses, gave their new address. Much later Manya realized neither of them drank.

And then what? His wife would go home to the house they bought together. His parents would return to their hotel and pray. Jeannette would ask her high school friends to stay with her, the same women who had been her bridesmaids. She was not the type to spend nights alone. She would press her dress for the funeral the next day, set out her shoes, put Kleenex and aspirin in her matching purse. She would stay up late weeping, or staring dry-eyed at the ceiling, into a darkness so complete it silenced the terror.

Manya built a fire and unrolled the sleeping bag on the sanded floor. The kettle boiled. She wasn’t required to fast, but she would anyway. She draped a cloth over a driftwood side table and set out her icons, her rosary, her prayerbook, the candles she had lit for him every night since the call. The air was too thick for thought. She watched the fire climb the stiff currents, bend itself in a plunging ballet.

He thought her work, her research came between them. He thought reasoned arguments would bring her back. In her family they arranged marriages, daughters matched with the nice sons of childhood friends. As mates they were kind, respectful, polite. They did not produce tempestuous declarations, tears and longings. From that first kiss outside out dorm room, the hurried embraces in the halls of her lab, she knew there was no way they fit together, him sweaty from basketball practice, her hands smelling of copper. He was a cowboy and she was Russian. They lived on different tectonic plates.

The phone on the wall rang. Manya dropped her rosary. She’d turned off her cellphone, no service. Who knew she was here?

The phone rang again, and Manya approached slowly, surprised the power had not been knocked out. She lifted the black receiver. “Hello?”

“Call for you,” the rental woman said, and Manya heard a series of clicks, then an uncertain voice, a woman’s. “Hello?”

“Jeanette?” Manya said.

“Manya?” She sounded confused. Manya imagined her looking at the phone, frowning. She’d had a tiring day and would be fuzzy-headed from weeping. “You’re at this number? I . . .” She trailed off. They never knew what to say to one another.

“How are you?” Manya whispered.

Jeannette started to cry. The sounds were quiet beneath the wind pounding the window, but Manya heard the small gasps for air. She felt a needle in her heart and wondered if that was what he had felt, except larger, a swell like the tide and then the startling burst.

“Are you coming tomorrow?” Jeanette asked between hitches.

“I hadn’t planned to,” Manya said.

A gulp, then a small high hiss, like the cry of a bird. “He would want you there.”

Manya looked at the prayer candles, the three flames dipping and dancing in the currents of air. “I’ll come if you want me,” she said.

“It’s so awful,” Jeannette sobbed. “I had to buy him underwear. I bought my husband new underwear to bury him.” That high, steady whine again. It sounded like a gale blowing in from the gulf. “His mother complained about the coffin I picked. She didn’t like the silver handles. And he—Manya, it doesn’t even look like him. They put him in so much makeup.”

Out the window Manya watched the lightning streak between the upper banks of clouds, bands of dark holding the blinding flash. Manya pictured him in his navy suit, his face old beneath the embalming, all the clever tricks applied to dead flesh. He would not look like someone either of them had known, had touched every inch of.

“Everyone keeps talking about how young he is. How sudden. Looking at him to figure out—what I did to him. What I did wrong.” Jeannette lost herself in sobbing.

In the fire a stick snapped its fingers, and Manya jumped. Outside, the trees howled and threw up their hands.

After a while, Jeannette quieted. “I found this number in his work planner.” Manya heard her hoarse breathing. “He said he was going away with a friend.”

He’d come here often with her, their getaway while she was in graduate school, he in training at the law firm. He’d proposed to her in a canoe on the river trail, the vessel rocking slightly as he knelt. The summer heat had itched her skin and tiny black flies tacked to her eyes and her sweaty neck. She closed her mouth when he asked her. The words knocking at her lips were nonsense rhymes her baba had sang to her, games she had played in the preschool of a village that no longer existed. He’d left and she’d stayed, with her lab and her St. Olga cross and her dreams in Russian, and she didn’t have to go to races or office parties or American ball games anymore.

“I come here this time every year,” Manya said. “He must have remembered.”

A long silence, while the wind whined. “He’s been calling you?” The voice tiny, spoken through a small point, far away.

Manya rubbed the raw swell of her palm over her heart. “Once or twice,” she said. “Just catching up. You know he is good—was good—at keeping in touch.”

She stumbled over the tenses. Waited for Jeannette to piece things together, catch her in the lie.

“I don’t understand any of this,” Jeannette said, her voice faint, thin, weary. “Nothing makes sense. I feel gutted.” A pause. “You should be there. For him.”

Manya looked at the red furrow in her hands. “I’ll come,” she said.

She fixed lemon tea and stoked the fire and thumbed her rosary, stroking the old beads, the weighted tassels. The thunder roared and hurled itself across the gulf to the distant lands beyond. She understood what was required. Penance. A final goodbye. Confession, witness, and absolution, so Jeannette believed things were over. Would never know she had almost lost her husband again.

Morning dawned light as a pearl. The sky held the same white tint as the sand, the sea grey as the sea oats. Manya found the crab. It had pulled its body a few inches from its hole and anchored its one claw into the sand, holding against the tide. With her foot Manya bunched sand around the carcass and wondered why no other animal had disturbed it. She couldn’t have known it was dying.

She placed the stack of linens on the plastic counter at the rental office, floral side up. The woman wore the same button-down shirt. The blonde roots showed a wider margin, already reclaiming their own. She patted the top sheet gently.

“Storm keep you awake?” she asked.

“No,” Manya said honestly.

“I guess everybody grieves different,” the woman said. Her sharp eyes fastened on Manya’s left ear.

“I found a crab on the beach last night,” Manya said at the door. She stopped and looked up at the faded map of the Florida Gulf coastline. “It had one claw.”

The woman watched her. “Stone crab,” she said, as if she could still hear the foreign accent, as if Manya knew nothing about the United States, nothing about the deep and secret workings of the earth. “That’s how they harvest them. It grows back.”

“This one won’t,” Manya said.  “It was dead this morning.”

The man’s shirt fluttered as her shoulders rolled, the ring on her finger winking. This woman wouldn’t know how the heart could swell from all that was stuffed into it, hurt and anger, guilt and neglect, growing so fat and gluttonous and engorged that its burst open. What had he thought about in those last seconds? His wife, and his lie to her? Maybe it felt like pitching headfirst over the handlebars, that fiery burn as the blood rushed everywhere, spinning weightless in a moment of space, far from the safe warm hands of prayer.

Manya didn’t have an answer. Why she had told him the date, made the reservation. Why, after all this time, she’d said yes.

A swallow-tailed kite dipped past the window, giving its lonely cry.

“It’s not something you’d wish on anybody,” the woman said.

Manya pulled the door shut behind her.

Sadie leapt into her seat in the back of the wagon and settled on the unused tent. Next to it sat the jar holding her real wedding present from Brazil: rainforest soil, for that trip they’d never taken. In five hours she would be there, file into St. Mary’s with everyone else in their quiet shades of black. There would be beautiful words, tears and flowers, solemn ritual to surround the magnificent blankness of death. Manya would stand with Jeannette next to his grave and say the words she’d owed him for a long time. They would fall the way the rain pockmarked the ocean, brief and then disappearing, bubbling like gravel under an elbow it had once been hers to kiss.

Manya turned the car north, toward the highway, toward the priest and the quiet confession. Behind her the horizon of sea stood empty, blank and still. She looked at her hand and saw that the skin of her palm had closed over the splinter, encasing it as in glass. She would carry it with her, a memory made flesh. If she could not be forgiven then at least she, too, would be marked.

Misty Urban is the author of the story collections A Lesson in Manners and The Necessaries. Recent stories have appeared in Fiction Attic, District Lit, Sweet Tree Review, Literary Mama, and from Write Out Publishing. Find her online at mistyurban.net or femmeliterate.net, a website for women in/and/of books.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

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

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Alcoholism, Guest Posts, Relationships

Fix It

September 17, 2020
bar

By Dan A. Cardoza

It’s never a good thing when you fall in love in a bar.

Especially a treasured sleaze bar where the music is so good and loud the military uses for psychological warfare.

If you love the taste of liquor, as we do, everything that means something is here. Conversely, everything and everyone you love, here, will disappear if you get healthy.

Later that night, at Emily’s we can’t wait so we make love in the back seat of my car she lets me park in the garage. At some disjointed intersection, we end up in the front again. My dash clock pulses 2:30 P.M. It’s the next day. We wake hot and sweaty. She laughs until she nearly pee’s her pants when I share my dream.

“So I’m driving in South France. Vincent Van Gogh is riding shotgun.” I say. “He asks for a tune with stars or wheat. When I play Sting’s, Fields of Gold, I catch him fussing with the bloody gauze on his ear while he falls into a deep sleep. Then I wake up.”

Emily screams, slams the car door and races toward the bathroom.

In the late afternoon, we share a late breakfast of Bloody-Mary’s, eggs, toast, and Italian sausage. If you can believe it, we actually script the next seventeen years of our life. Right up until the wheels fall off.

Getting high brought us together, and tore us apart.

~~~

Being an alcoholic is a young man’s game. It’s when you are too strong and most self-deceptive. I’m in my early 40s’ now, going on 50. Burning dynamite from both ends can do that to you.

My boy and girl need more than a mom and dad that fight a lot, shitty dinners and absentee parents at their school’s open house.

~~~

Emily is angry when I join AA. As for me, I am embarrassed for being so weak, but the group says it’s actually a sign of strength. Apparently, courage is when you cough up blood and throw in the towel.

Everyone on the planet knows about twelve steps. The part I fear the most is about the pain of waving goodbye. Goodbye, to every last fucking thing that gave me a reason to live. Soon after I join, Emily begins cheating on all of us, isn’t present for the kids. She says, “I don’t love you anymore.” She’s a liar when you really love you know each other like that.

What I fear the most has started: the loosing friends, taste, giving up cigarettes, even my rusty laughter at the jokes that weren’t so funny, drunken family and friends. My sponsor put it this way, and he’s no genius, so I can relate, “You have to fix it, son. Your boat is sinking. Just keep bailing the damned water.”

Unfortunately, to save all of us someone had to jump. It was Emily. It broke my heart when she filed for divorce as if I needed anything else broken. That’s when I almost give up, give in. Quick solutions become cravings. Jesus, we were still in love.

At the grocery, loud 90s’Karaoke replaces the intercom’s 60s’ classics. Customers lob cans of beer and whiskey at me like hand grenades, just for reading the labels: clean up on aisle seven please? Someone dropped a bottle.

At work, hidden cubicle doors wag thirsty hinged tongues. Each attached to empty vaults, haunted by distilled spirits.

At home, my Emily infused walk-in takes on the seductive smell of Paris alleyways.

Late nights with the kids in bed are the worse. Suicide guns wait impatiently in drawers and cupboards.

At times I feel crazy, as I endlessly stare at my favorite whiskey carpet stains and the burns from Camel cigarettes, like lovely footprints of extinct creatures.

Before morning, something allows me to catch a few hours of sleep, even though I wake in a pool of sweat and twisted sheets.

~~~

Emily got remarried, after five destructive years of letting go. She and her new husband met at a company picnic. For what seemed the longest time, they quit drinking. I think it was for two months. She had good medical insurance though, through his office plan. It covered all of her expenses when she eventually bled-out at Kaiser. That’s what they call it when your soul oozes from your insides, into your abdomen.

We never see her Ex, at the cemetery, when we leave her bottles of roses.

~~~

Four years have passed since I lost Emily for the last time. She would be proud of me if she’s not drinking.  My religious friends say if you pray enough, heaven is an open bar.

I have both kids in community college. It’s just a start, but that’s all I can afford right now. They are so smart, I’m sure they will qualify for state scholarships.

~~~

For the first time in years, I can relax in bed with the window open. It’s early morning, when the wounded hunt. I look out at the glassy moon. It’s still so damned confusing at times, the moon. But now I’m able to tell the difference between waxing and waning.

Someday I hope to convince myself it’s always waning, and that hanging onto the sharp edge of the crescent is worth it.

Dan A. Cardoza’s fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have met international acceptance. Most recently, his work is featured in, or will soon be featured in the 45th Parallel, Bull, Cleaver, Entropy, Five on the Fifth, Gravel, Literary Heist, Montana Mouthful, New Flash Fiction Review, and Spelk.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

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Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Mental Health

The Universe in the Kitchen

April 13, 2020
sun

By Adrienne LaValley

I didn’t know that everyone doesn’t spend their lives waiting for the other shoe to drop until I was well into my thirties. I think it was the look on my friend’s face when I said “I’m so nervous things are going well right now. When’s it all gonna end?” She couldn’t quite understand the palpable, stomach twisting fear I had about the inevitable future. I thought everyone had that certainty. That no matter how long things had been good for, the shit was coming to hit that proverbial fan. Hard. You could bet money on it. Because it was fact. Not speculation. Not paranoia. Fact. The better things were, the longer they stayed that way, the more terrified I’d become about the looming fall out. These fallouts that were slowly shaping who I’d become as an adult. Not that I could see it at the time. Or until five years ago really. Enlightenment by therapy. The fallout was dark and moved with the momentum of a freight train barreling around the bend. An unstoppable blackhole that sucked the life out of everything around it. Just writing this I can feel my face fall. It’s visceral. The fallout is far enough away to stop causing damage, but close enough to still make my skin crawl. Not my fallout though. My dad’s.

Living with a bipolar parent is like living with the sun. Forever orbiting someone who wields both the power to nourish and love you and the spontaneous drive to destroy who you are at your core. Like termites eating away at your foundation until there’s nothing left but anxiety and self doubt. Then they die and you’re bestowed the gift of reconstruction. Who will you finally be now that the sun has gone down?

One morning in the nineties I came barreling down the stairs like a kid leaving for Disney World. The house was treading on the thinnest ice sheet of normalcy for a moment and I was cautiously hopeful. Again. A sort of middle ground that only came around when my dad was well medicated. But as I bounced into the kitchen, arms wide and ready to vomit love on anyone I came across, I saw him hunched over in such a way that I knew it was all gone. The air changed. It was thick with tension and smelled of evil enjoying itself just a little too much for 7 am. “Morning dad!!! Sleep ok?” My heart dropped like a ton of bricks at the deafening silence that followed. “Morning…” he said, with the heaviness of someone who’d lost everything and didn’t even know it. Fuck, it’s gone. It’s all gone again. Here we go. Man your stations, war is imminent. Shields up. Head down. Get ready.

…“Did you take my braided belt?”

“Your what?”

“My braided belt. The brown leather one. Did you take it?”

“Nope, didn’t take your belt.”

“Someone god damn took it.”

“No dad, Jesus I didn’t take your belt. Why would I do that?”

“Did one of your friends? They did, didn’t they? Was it Colleen? It was, wasn’t it? Selfish little asshole. You get that back from her. Someone took my god damn belt. Where is it?”

My brain usually fails me when digging through these particular memories. The ones where I meet my other dad. The evil one. “Hello there. You suck so bad. Gotta jet.”

I’m sure I said something for the record books, I just can’t remember exactly what. I have gaping holes in my childhood memories. They come in waves of bad dreams, flashes of screaming a lot and crying until my face was blue, apologizing for something I didn’t do then slamming a door somewhere. Sounds right.

That was only if the sun was pointed at me though. Which I preferred. I knew how to handle it and if for some reason I just couldn’t on that particular occasion, I knew how to live with the constant stomach churning and heartbreak. It was just a regular Tuesday. But to watch the sun shoot flares at my family was like watching our house burn down, helpless to stop it and paralyzed with fear. That barreling train crashed into everyone who loved and supported it and to the untrained eye, it relished in taking as many people down with it as it could.

The sun didn’t always rage and spew flares though. It could be warm. Warm and shiny and really excited about everything in life. And if that warmth was pointed my way, I basked in its glow and relished how lucky I was to know and be loved by someone like that. Someone so bright. So full of life. Someone who convinced me I was incomparable to virtually every other person alive. I was special. To be separated from the pack and nurtured to perfection. Days were full of snowball fights and inappropriate jokes at someone else’s expense, spontaneous road trips, manic fun, 5am tennis practices, and overly eager encouragement to be the best no matter what. At this. At that. And definitely at that. I could always be better. It was an endless merry go round of love and pressure and hurt and betrayal and love and pressure and hurt and betrayal. As the planets circled the sun.

I know all of this because I am one. I’m a planet. And my brother and sister and mom are too. We orbited the sun of our home for half our lives, then from a close distance for the other half. All of us. We orbited and constructed our lives around the unsettling, unpredictable love of my father. Until we ran away. Or he died. Or both.

I’ve heard that children of a mentally ill parent tend to be more empathetic, sensitive, intuitive, malleable, loyal and compassionate. Of course we are. We’ve danced with the sun. Fine tuned the art of tip toeing. We know the delicate ballet of appeasement like we know how to breathe. We can intuit someone’s mood like our lives depend on it. Because it did. For however many years we spent reassuring the sun that someone loved it. We do all of this simply by loving an impossible person. Someone who everyone else gives up on or shakes their head in confounding exhaustion at. And we don’t often let go of our impossible person. Because everyone else already did. Somewhere in the recesses of our hearts we believe impossible people deserve love too, in spite of not being able to reciprocate it very reliably. Even deeper in our recesses we believe that if we do let go, we’ll lose our sun forever. And that’s the scariest thing of all. To be abandoned by someone you abandoned first. After all, saving ourselves was never the first priority. It wasn’t even the second or the third. Frankly, it never crossed our minds until someone mentioned our well-being one day. We stared at them with a genuinely perplexed look. And they stared back just long enough for something to spark in our chest. A whisper of self preservation. Something niggling in the back of our heads that we deserved a better life than this. Our souls carefully tapping from below, just in case we were listening this time. Just leave, it says. Just leave.

But we’ve been well trained to know that the sun can’t survive without us. It can’t survive without its planets and its moon. We’re the only ones who understand how it operates. And without us it would be all alone in the inky blackness of its own celestial abyss. And so the dance of codependency forges on, stronger than ever. I’ve heard that children of a mentally ill parent tend to be more untrusting, desperate for structure, constantly self effacing, full of anxiety and always in search of something more perfect. Of course we are. We’ve danced with the sun.

Last year I rode out to Fort Tilden to catch the solar eclipse. I was in awe of how many people were in awe of it. Millions of gazers all over the country gathering to watch the sun god be rendered powerless by our little planet and its little moon. Our pale blue dot. Even more astounding was that in the looming countdown to artificial nighttime, the life around us adjusted accordingly. Crickets started chirping, a few bats started flying around disoriented from lack of sleep on a long summer day, the fresh scent of early evening wafting through the breeze. A powerful entity going dark, the life around it adjusting. Surviving. When the sun and the earth and the moon are all perfectly in line.

When we lined up in the kitchen to watch our personal eclipse we also adjusted accordingly. We’d hunker down for dark mode, which could last for weeks depending on the season. We spoke quietly and avoided the sun at all costs, careful not to disturb it. Never complaining if it tucked itself away in it’s room for days on end. We were safe if it stayed behind closed doors, doing whatever it needed to do to survive the grip. During these times my walk home from school slowed to a crawl. Surely there was a friends house I should be visiting right now. Maybe Nicole’s mom bought fruit roll ups again. I’d drag my feet and trudge home every day, mentally preparing myself to find my dad hanging from the garage rafters. “Would I get there in time? Why am I walking so slow? Feet, fucking move faster. Would I even be able to get him down though? Is there a ladder nearby? Do we even have rafters? I don’t think we have rafters.” But I could picture it so clearly. Like it had already happened and the universe was trying to warn me. It knew that’s how he’d do it. And that he’d make sure I was the one who found him. I was the one he opened up to, after all. I was the one he’d sit down in front of to explain why my mom was so horrible and why he was unfaithful to her for all those years. Why my friend’s mom was something he just needed. I knew how the sun operated. I’d surely be the one he’d bestow his suicide on. But I’d never find him hanging in the garage. He was always alive. Hunched over, now keenly aware that he’d surely lost everything. But alive. A sad calm would hang in the room as long as it was silent. Sarcasm and utter despair if we engaged. Spinning around and around, getting lost in the orbit of the sun never knowing which dad we’d land on but always knowing the truly evil one would be back. He always came back. Like a heavy shoe forever hovering above.

I can’t help but think about what could have stopped the cycle? What could slow the orbit? Something that could have made our universe even marginally more tolerable. Like ketchup on dry eggs. Sometimes I think naming it would have. Just calling it out helps it lose some power. That’s what they say, right? The enlighteners? We knew who and what our sun was, but we didn’t really talk about it. We blamed the sun over and over and then when that got old we blamed ourselves until the rage came clawing from below. Then we blamed the sun again.

Had my dad really sat us down and named the things he did maybe we’d be better off. Therapy was long and painful and arduous and obnoxiously expensive. And I’m still talking about it, for Christ’s sake. He’s still a star in my fucking galaxy. I still struggle to understand healthy relationships and have a distorted ideas of authority. I always gravitate towards people I think need to be fixed. However irritatingly subconscious that is. Because it’s what I’m uncomfortably comfortable with. Feels like home. Maybe if he’d been able to admit to the things he did I’d be a better version of myself. I don’t know the answer to that and I never will. He took his guilt and shame and apologies to the grave with him. If they were ever there in the first place. That’s still up for debate amongst my family members. Did he even know what he did? Did he clock the damage he caused? Probably not.

At one Thanksgiving dinner where we all know family recovery starts and ends, I reminded him of the time my rabbit Poster Nutmeg was found missing his entire body. I found a small pile of him in the neighbor’s dilapidated garage where we knew this one evil cat liked to hang out. George, the orange striped serial killer. My dad joined me in the garage to stare down at what used to be my fluffy pet. He stuck his hands in his pockets rocked back on his heels and said ‘Hey, at least someone got a good meal.’ Then walked back inside. Even as I was recounting the story to him over mashed potatoes and too much wine I could see on his face that nothing was registering. He was incredulous, even. If that wasn’t enough to satisfy my curiosity, the roaring belly laughter and: ‘I’d never say something like that’ that followed certainly drove the point home. Even if he did know what he’d done at one point, he lied to himself until he believed it never happened. Is there really a difference?

My question for fellow lovers of impossible people is… would you change it? If you were the child of a mentally ill parent would you go back and be a different formula blended in a different bowl if you could? Have a different set of genes? My genes terrify me. Bipolar disorder can be incredibly genetic sometimes ripping through generations of family, as it has mine. Its companions are addiction and eating disorders and anxiety. Who’s kid will have it? Do I have the gene just hiding away in there somewhere waiting to rear it’s ugly head? My own anxiety fuels that fire. But would I be someone else in order to erase all that?

I have family members who suffer on a daily basis. They can be utterly debilitated by the pain their own brain inflicts on them. Would they change that if they could? Would my dad? If he knew what he did to us, would he go back and never get married or have kids? To spare them? I don’t have the answer. But sometimes I think about who I’d be if I never lived this life. If I was born with different parents in a different house with stability and safety and normal mornings. Who would I be now?

I can’t help but wonder if I wouldn’t change it. The more I look into it, the more I look back at the ugly, the more I like myself just exactly this way. If I changed everything, I’d have to change well… everything. I might be less loyal, less empathetic and less intuitive. I might love people less, or want to have conversations about the Kardashians instead of mental health. And then someone who really needed to hear this might never know that someone else grew up orbiting their own personal sun too. And that it all really happened. That someone believes them. I believe them. If the formula changes, so does the product. And if I start to accept that, who knows what road I might find myself on. Learning to love who I am just exactly as I was made? Preposterous. Right?

Sometimes I wonder if living with an impossible person wasn’t the greatest worst thing I’ve ever done. This is only after years of dissecting the facts of course, or what I remember of them anyway. I know I’ll never fix all the things. I don’t even think I want to. All the digging around and ripping apart and examining has just made me think… if hurt people hurt people… what do you think healed people can do? And when will the planets finally be healed from years of orbiting the sun so close? Maybe never. Some burns just leave a scar that way. So they heal the best they can and then they look for shade. Hoping to find another planet cooling off under a tree somewhere so they can finally talk about just how bright that sun used to be.

Adrienne LaValley is an actor, writer and creator of the podcast ‘The Old Man and the Me’. She writes and records in an attempt to expel shame and stigma surrounding mental health issues while also never tiptoeing around the frequent crapstorm they can cause. She tells stories about life, mental health and lack of both in the hopes that people will feel a little less alone out there. Her full length play ‘The Good Father’ recently had a reading at The Paramount Theatre with the Dramatist’s Guild and will start workshopping in the new year. She lives with her husband and superdog Junebug in the Hudson Valley and wishes everyone would pay it forward just a little more often.

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, love

Midrash on Love and Language

February 14, 2019
love

After Grace Paley

By Adina Giannelli

midrash (noun: ancient Judaic commentary or rabbinic interpretation, exposition, investigation)

She had a tendency to ask questions: to seek validation or comfort through others and their words. To inquire: should I do this thing or that? She liked reflecting on others’ insights. By reflecting she meant contemplating; by insights she meant thoughts and feelings, how they varied, how they mapped onto one another, upon her. And then, after gathering points of view, by which she meant perspectives, she liked deciding on her own. By on her own, she meant independently, which is to say, in the strength of her solitude—as she had always done. As she had always been.

When and where she asked questions, those around her volleyed questions back. These boiled down lately to how do you know this is it? She loved these questions even when they failed to reflect her, which they usually did.

Because she loved language, she knew that to reduce her love to language was to flatten it, to poison it. And much was poisoned already. So she answered insufficiently, in watered down words:  she wanted to declaim, but lacked the lexicon to match her feelings’ depth. Instead, she said what people said about love: he feels like home to me; and when you know, you know; and—in a strange and borrowed idiom—she knew like the back of her hand. By hand she meant the part of her body she used to write words and lift children, to knead the pain from where it settled in his, drifting over warm skin like a nightly prayer.

Are you sure? Kelli asked, and she said yes.

Ben said you love him in a way your old ass has never loved anyone before? and she said yes. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Self Image, Self Love

Love Is A Hell Of A Drug

September 20, 2018
love

By Jasmine Sims

You fell in love with the word long ago. You watched the movies and figured out that was something you wanted. You didn’t realize that you had, early on, fallen into an addiction that you’d spend your life looking for.

You looked for it in the eyes of your father. Prided yourself in being daddy’s little girl. You lived for his laugh and nod of approval like an addict. The mere acknowledgment of your presence and masquerade of acceptance was enough of a hit to keep you pushing until the next time. You didn’t know you were the daughter of a drug addict, because he hid it so well that you didn’t realize when you visited his friends and left you in the car you were at a crack house. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood, Pregnancy

Hole

September 17, 2018
hole

By Rhea Wolf

Forgotten already. Absorbed in the mystery.
Into the egg, I come. A mother,
Another one for the
turning, another one for the
wheel, under the ground,
burning waiting resurrecting
falling, singing the long high note and
descending Oh Phoenix oh fire walkers
now I am red and hot inside with
a fractured other,
many wishes,

and a fantastic losing mind.
Thinking those men
think it means enlightenment
but they are still free.
Making big scribbles and smoking sacred cigarettes
losing their minds to art and science,
while they are still free.
And my petals don’t fold out anymore. Continue Reading…