Browsing Tag

relationships

Guest Posts, Relationships

Temperance

May 31, 2024
nick

I was two weeks from starting house arrest for DUI’s, also pretending to be blonde, when Nick and I officially met. It was Halloween and I was dressed as Marilyn Monroe in her Seven Year Itch white dress. We were at a bar whose name has changed so many times it’s not worth trying to remember what it was called at the time. I was wearing a blonde wig and red high heels, the whole shebang. I had seen Nick around the bars of Downer’s Run, but I had never considered him romantically before that night. That night, the strobe lights cavorted in slow motion in my peripherals when he danced into my line of vision.

My first thought was, “He’ll do… for now.”

I slept with Nick the first time he came over. After two months, he moved in. By then, I had moved out of Aunt Marnie’s for the second time and into my own apartment on the Avenue. I picked Apartment Z because of its proximity to bars. Ten bars within walking distance and I still managed another DUI.

As my second charge, the judge ordered counseling and sixty days of house arrest. It was brought to my attention late, like day fifty-seven, that incarceration doesn’t technically begin until the first full 24-hours of imprisonment. So, for sixty-one days, I wasn’t allowed to leave. I had work release. I could grocery shop. I did leave, but when you’re stuck inside, legally not allowed to leave, house arrest feels entirely different from any self-imposed isolation. It fucks with your head.

Especially when your live-in-boyfriend is hiding full beers in the couch cushions.

Apartment Z was shaped like a crooked letter Z: the hallway connecting the two rooms was one diagonal line. During a nap, a second room appeared. A new room through a new door on my living room wall. How had I lived here for so long and never known this room existed? Why hadn’t the landlord told me I had this room? I was paying good money for it, too, I thought. Then I woke up.

My interpretation: there were new parts of myself I was about to discover.

A year after Nick moved in, we were lying in bed, and I embraced him. He was snoring, obnoxiously drunk, and yet, I loved him almost impossibly. I prayed to the universe to bless us. To please, please, please, take care of us. I could feel energy surrounding us like an ethereal blanket. Love, pure love, is the secret to magic.

Three months later, Nick won a poker tournament for over three-hundred thousand dollars. He proposed to me next to a slot machine. He told me I was the biggest jackpot and went down on one trembling knee.

“Yes.” I said, “Of course, yes.”

The only thing I could think was, “Would you just get off the floor?”

With his winnings, we bought a little house with a little yard. One night, he came back to the house after his shift at the restaurant, his face pink and shiny from the booze. He was cheery and blubbery. Liquor always made him emotional.

He squished me in an embrace and told me that I tricked him.

“I had never planned on loving you. I just planned on moving into your apartment. Using you, until I found something better.”

He shook his head like there was no way I could possibly understand.

He went on, “You got me stuck. I fell for you, hard.”

His bearded face smiled at me, blinking back tears. He genuinely believed he was utterly romantic. A week later, my sister Rebecca delivered me a pregnancy test. I was smoking a blunt while she and I awaited the results.

Rebecca was gentle with me. “It says here, a plus sign, no matter how faint, is a positive test.”

I remember dramatically squishing the burning weed into the ashtray. I texted Nick right away. I swiftly typed, “Hurry home. I have a surprise for you.”

I took a pea from a bag in the freezer and left it on the windowsill and waited.

When Nick arrived, hours later, he was beyond drunk. His cheeks not jolly pink, but red like rouge. The pea had softened to mush.

He walked through the back door straight to the refrigerator.

My heart was pounding. The words had burst from my mouth, “That’s how big our baby is right now.”

I was pointing to the windowsill as the refrigerator door closed.

He cracked a beer in response.

“Whaaat?”

Maybe I should’ve waited until he was sober, though my words seemed to have processed because his face widened.

He bellowed, slurring one long sentence, “We’rehavingababy!”

He kissed me. Hard. An assault of liquor and beer permeating beneath the sweat and grease of working over a fryer with little ventilation. I felt suffocated.

“We have to celebrate! I need cigarettes and I’m going to get us lottery tickets.”

Nick grabbed the keys, even though the gas station was half a block away. After all, he had just walked from the restaurant. He turned for the door.

“Wait, Nick.”

I stumbled over my words. “Hey, you know, over the next nine months, you’re going to have to slow down drinking… Just cut back, I’m not saying stop completely… if I can’t party… it’s going to be harder than house arrest was… watching you drink.”

He turned on his heel and kissed my cheek. “Baby, you knew I was an alcoholic when we met,” as though it were the sweetest sentiment. “You know that’s not ever going to change.”

He left the backdoor open as he strode to the driver’s seat. I listened over my heart as he started the car and left.

For the next twenty minutes I stood by myself in the kitchen. Visualizing my belly growing. Six months pregnant. Eight months. Holding a baby. Chasing a toddler. In every visualization, I saw myself alone.

I saw in my mind, kids playing in the background as I answered the phone. It was the police calling, he was at the station, and needed a ride. The phone rang again, this time to tell me he wrecked the car and was in ICU. There the police were, knocking on the front door in the middle of the night, there to tell me he was dead.

When I discarded the pea, something inside of me changed.

Gina Moriarty is an emerging writer who earned her MFA through Chatham University in Pittsburgh where her thesis was the recipient of the Katherine Ayres Award. She’s mostly a nonfiction writer but dabbles in poetry. Typically, her work covers the themes of addiction, heartache, and coincidence beneath an umbrella of hope.

Her nonfiction has been published by Permafrost Magazine, the AROHO Foundation, the Braided Way Magazine, and 3 AM Press. Upcoming by Marrow Magazine and Purple Ink Press Bimbo Feminist Anthology. Her poetry has appeared in the Brief Wilderness, the Ekphrastic Review, and the Classical Poets Society. Find Gina online here

***

Looking for your next book to read? Consider this…

Women, the exhilarating novella by Chloe Caldwell, is being reissued just in time to become your steamy summer read. The Los Angeles Review of books calls Caldwell “One of the most endearing and exciting writers of a generation.”  Cheryl Strayed says ‘Her prose has a reckless beauty that feels to me like magic.”  With a new afterward by the author, this reissue is one not to be missed.

***

Our friends at Corporeal Writing continue to offer some of the best programming for writers, thinkers, humans. This summer they are offering Midsummer Nights Film Club: What Movies Teach Us About Narrative. Great films and a sliding scale to allow everyone the opportunity to participate. The conversation will be stellar! Tell them we sent you!

***
***
Your voice matters, now more than ever.
We believe that every individual is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their skin color, gender, or religion. Everyone deserves a fair and equal opportunity in life, especially in education and justice.
It is essential that you register to vote before your state’s deadline to make a difference. Voting is not only crucial for national elections but also for local ones. Local decisions shape our communities and affect our daily lives, from law enforcement to education. Don’t underestimate the importance of your local elections; know who your representatives are, research your candidates and make an informed decision.
Remember, every voice matters.
Guest Posts, writing

I’m Just Curious About Your Soul

May 28, 2024
Sky Alexanderplatz

“I’m just curious about your soul.” This thought found its way into my journal one December morning. I was sitting in bed, finally alone, when the distant church bell rang, softer than I remembered. My gaze drifted out to the dusty sky. “A cold blanket,” I wrote, “muffles the world today.”

I don’t usually write in this setting. The morning often stirs my thoughts, like beasts awakening from under tree roots. These thoughts tug at me, leaving a scatter of hair in their wake—on my ivory sheets, across the floor, throughout my day, and in the mirror. I can’t stand my reflection. But sometimes, I can’t look away, not even when the electric kettle clicks off. My tea is doomed to turn cold, forgotten until I’m staring at my screen, pondering the amount of hair I lose in a day, with nothing else to write.

That morning, a desire to write kept me sitting in bed. It had started while I was lying down, my thoughts drifting to a story unlike my usual reads—‘The Cafeteria in the Evening and the Pool in the Rain’ by Yoko Ogawa. The feelings it evoked reflected the view outside my studio—stretches of windows distant enough for private viewing pleasure. This view hadn’t changed since I came back to Berlin, except for the twinkle of Christmas lights through a window and dead branches. As I stared, the word ‘evergreen’ buzzed at the tip of my pen.

But my thoughts seemed to get stuck, whether between the pen and the page, or between my thumbs and the screen. Not just the story, but also the person who had introduced it, lingered in my mind. I pulled my phone out from under the blanket, hesitated to text him. It wasn’t gratitude I struggled to put into words, but wonder—a feeling I could never contain. ​​It was like walking with glitter in my hands, leaving a shimmering trail wherever I went. The glitter spilled without my permission, offered to the wind, the sidewalk, even the strangers I passed by. And at night, when I looked back on my paths, I wished for a sweeper. Under the starlit sky, I’d gather these scattered sparkles, just enough to return to my vial and bring them home.

I dropped my phone and wrote a phrase I hadn’t used since my teenage years: “I’m wonderstruck.”

We had met at a writing group, back when hair was the last thing on my mind. Our apartments shared a U-Bahn station, separated only by a boulevard, so we often took the train home together. Thoughts and dreams poured out during these rides; conversations flowed the way time rushed as we were about to miss our train. “I love it,” he said about the dissonance of Alexanderplatz station’s post-war architecture. “These ups and downs remind me of Sonic the Hedgehog, the video game.”

The scene came to life as we dashed across the platform. Tiles pixelated. Beeps quickened. We slipped through the closing door with supersonic grace. Later, as we stepped out onto our station, drifted toward opposite ends and up separate stairs, pixels settled like confetti. I marveled at the sight, comfortable in the mystery.

Another church bell echoed through the hazy sky. I noticed a crack on my phone screen, but it was just a hair. I flicked it away, only to pull out another one from my mouth.

One midnight, walking home together from a samba evening, the wonder man asked what it was this thing between us. The air was fresh, the sky clear, yet I danced around the topic as if we were still on the dancefloor of Café Atopia. In response to my ambivalence, he mentioned Wong Kar Wai’s film, ‘In the Mood for Love,’ and suddenly we were enveloped in a cinematic haze, a curtain of cigarette smoke dividing us. Goodnight bid with glances, the boulevard dissipated into glamorous alleyways, bringing me home.

Reading ‘The Cafeteria in the Evening’ felt like peering through a gap in the cigarette curtain. To my surprise, the story took me to another time, an evening at a wine bar, where my ex and I sat surrounded by midsummer fairy lights. Like the two strangers in Ogawa’s story, all remained between us was anguish. It was our last in-person encounter, a goodbye before he left the States after losing the visa lottery. As we delved into the past, two different versions came to light: one where he believed I hated him, and one where I had failed at communicating. A few glasses in, his eyes glinted rosy. His voice cracked as he asked, “Where was the feedback all this time?”

The McKinsey card he used to pay for our drinks lay clipped on the table.

I stared back, spellbound. My vision swirled, like looking too long into a rose. Words spilled out of my lips, a flurried speech about how our differences—or perhaps just youth—had made raw honesty impossible between us. And when I stopped talking, he leaned in. His hand came so close to my face that I could feel the force of my breaths, the stirring of anguish. His touch warm and raw.

If I hadn’t been sitting frozen, I would have registered his fingers brushing my hair. I would have felt the soft weight of those long, thick strands. Despite a gentle sway, they remained firmly rooted as if vowing never to shed, while my ex fought back his tears.

Instead, my spine stretched, unnaturally stiff. So did the distance between my waist and the high-rise of my girlfriend jeans. Although they were made to sit lower, I preferred to wear them cinched at the waist, to see how far I could extend the tail of my belt. This reminded me of the delicate parts of my body I overlooked. They were like tender moments, unacknowledged as I plowed my way through life and kept myself from falling apart. As my ex gave me our last-ever hug that evening, I didn’t budge. Every fiber taut. My goodbye bounced off his dazed look as they had a few years before—when I had ended our relationship at Café Milano.

Café Milano, too, had lights strewn across the wall. Each bulb twinkled like a figment of memory. The campus nearby held fairy-tale spots: a rose garden, iron gates, moonlit terraces. Once, the Philosophy Hall had turned into our giant sandcastle. In a dimly lit nook overlooking Strawberry Creek, we made love. I had just returned from my study-abroad summer in Berlin, the city where, a decade later, I found myself typing in the dark, “I saw fire in our fate.”

December morning came Berlin-style—in wisps of snow. My writing stalled. I reread Ogawa’s story and collected the strands on my bed, fashioning them into beautiful swirls. My scalp tingled. Inspiration pulsed like electric drumbeats across my crown, urging me to reach out—to my ex-boyfriend, my old self, to the man from the writing group.

“Soon,” I promised my journal, “because I felt a long-lost glow I’d been missing like fate.” I missed it like the gaps in my waist, like the sandcastle terrace and the stars that seemed forever etched to the sky.

Two months passed. I still hadn’t kept my promise. A flurry of doctor appointments had swept through my calendar, and I was stuck in a crowded U-Bahn. In a bus with my head pinched in a saran wrap, beneath a polka-dotted shower cap beneath a hood. My head still tingled. But the sensation wasn’t the gold flash of impulse. It was the silver of injection needles. The tiny red marks they left on my skull resembled constellations, burning brighter than the phone screen as I confronted the empty inbox. Snow blanketed my view overnight. No point in recovering lost or tracing causes, the doctors said, addressing the mystical nature of auto-immune conditions. “It could be anything.”

My reflection echoed their words until half my hair had fallen—settling on the pillow, the shower drain, on the dustpan—swept up like words taken back too late.

Seated once again before my screen, tea in hand, I put the glow I had felt into words. The thing between me and the wonder man. Unlike the wildfires of my Californian years, it was the glimpses outside my window—the flicker of December spirit over a lifeless tree, the new year buzz in the fog. My Christmas had no crackling fire, just embers. And when January arrived, I would drift through a lonely forest, circling bare patches. Hair would snap like twigs, fall among dandruff snowflakes. Each fall ushered me back to my roots, my studio solitude.

As I write, a question hums in the background: Will I be bald, or is it just my bold imagination?

There’s no answer, just anguish. This is the condition of autoimmunity, of self-preservation.

But there is—and this is—also the promise of wonder. Electricity flows from my head to my fingers, short-circuits millimeters from my heart, and still, I can see glitter drizzle down the sky. Stardusts I’d spend nights, maybe a lifetime, sweeping up.

If my words read like a confession to you, dear reader, it’s because I let them fall—without permission. And if they resonate, then I hope that’s enough—the glimpses of our wondering.

This is how it starts: I’m just curious about your soul.

Ning De-Eknamkul has lived in Thailand, the San Francisco Bay Area, Germany, and on the road. She helps people learn languages as a product manager, while also learning a couple herself. When she’s not writing, she likes to explore sunlit spots in forests where she daydreams about life’s mysteries and unforgettable characters.

***

Looking for your next book to read? Consider this…

Women, the exhilarating novella by Chloe Caldwell, is being reissued just in time to become your steamy summer read. The Los Angeles Review of books calls Caldwell “One of the most endearing and exciting writers of a generation.”  Cheryl Strayed says ‘Her prose has a reckless beauty that feels to me like magic.”  With a new afterward by the author, this reissue is one not to be missed.

***

Our friends at Corporeal Writing continue to offer some of the best programming for writers, thinkers, humans. This summer they are offering Midsummer Nights Film Club: What Movies Teach Us About Narrative. Great films and a sliding scale to allow everyone the opportunity to participate. The conversation will be stellar! Tell them we sent you!

***
***
Your voice matters, now more than ever.
We believe that every individual is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their skin color, gender, or religion. Everyone deserves a fair and equal opportunity in life, especially in education and justice.
It is essential that you register to vote before your state’s deadline to make a difference. Voting is not only crucial for national elections but also for local ones. Local decisions shape our communities and affect our daily lives, from law enforcement to education. Don’t underestimate the importance of your local elections; know who your representatives are, research your candidates and make an informed decision.
Remember, every voice matters.
Guest Posts, Relationships

How I Met the Love of My Life on a Small Ship to Antarctica

April 10, 2024
Antarctica

 It was the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ music score for the film, “Scott of the Antarctic”, scored for a soprano soloist, women’s chorus, organ and wind machine, as much as the cinematography, that triggered my interest in Antarctica. I loved the film so much that I never forgot when I’d finally seen it and thought of it wistfully every subsequent year. That was in December 1954 when I was 14, in Thurso, the northernmost town on the mainland of Scotland, where I grew up.

My first marriage ended in divorce after my then-wife got the wrong idea when I’d taken a purely platonic female friend to a concert in London. The concert was a performance of Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antartica. That rang a bell for me. What was it about Antarctica that was affecting my life every few decades or so?  Various fortune tellers had told me that I was blessed with a strong sense of intuition and that I should listen to “my voices”. But they weren’t so much “voices” but more feelings that felt like they couldn’t be ignored. I chose not to ignore them.

Ten years after my divorce, I‘d been summoned to a hospital near my hometown where my mother had just suffered a debilitating stroke. After holding her hand and talking to her every afternoon for two months, she died in my arms, I took her wedding ring and for some unknown reason, placed it in my trusty leather purse, to carry with me wherever I went.

A week later I booked my first expedition to the Antarctic with a company called Clipper Cruises. Their ”World Discoverer” cruise vessel was all of 3,500 tons. How was that going to be when we crossed the infamous Drake Passage, I wondered?

The morning before the cruise, I joined all the other excited travelers on the patio of the Sheraton Hotel in Santiago, Chile for a buffet breakfast. That was when it all fell into place.

She was standing all on her own, away from everyone else. I could empathize with her desire for solitude. Nevertheless, I approached her with the pathetic chat up line, “You look like you’ve come from a cold climate.” As it was about 34 degrees C that summer morning in the southern hemisphere, I had dressed in shorts and open sandals. She was in heavy boots, with woolen socks, a thick jacket, and an anorak.
“Well, it’s winter in New York,” she said. “You’ll be in trouble when we get to Antarctica, but I could always lend you some warmer clothes if you like.” She gave me a cheeky smile that immediately warmed my heart. After a very short chat about her plans for the day, she stopped me with, “You’ll have to excuse me now. I have to call my mother to let her know I’ve arrived safely.”

And then she was gone. What was her name? No idea. What about her room number? No idea, too forward a question anyway, but I remembered she did say she might go on the city tour.

We both chose the last bus for the tour of the city, which was practically empty. I didn’t think I could suddenly sit beside her but I did sit on the opposite side of the aisle to her seat. During the tour of Santiago, the bus stopped every now and again to let us all get off the bus to walk to various important sites or viewing points. I followed her around like a lost dog; too shy to speak to her and too frightened of being rejected.  What must she have thought of me, I wondered?

The next day we checked in to our charter flight to the Falkland Islands where we would board our small 3,500-ton expedition vessel. I did manage to have a brief conversation with her and learned that her name was Eileen, but our allocated seats were widely separated on the charter flight. During the flight I left my seat and walked up the aisle.

I found Eileen near at the forward exit of our plane—sitting on the floor of the airplane. She had been sitting in the last non-smoking row of the aircraft but was still surrounded by the cigarette smoke from the rows behind her. She decided her new location would be much preferrable.

“That was a short takeoff run we just made,” I said, doing my best to make conversation.

“Yes, it was only 24 seconds,” she replied.

“What? You timed the take off?” I exclaimed. “So do I, every time.” I was amazed. Was that serendipity or just another sign, I wondered.

During our first briefing on board the ship we were advised to choose a “buddy” so that, as a safety measure, we could walk together during all our shore excursions. Eileen asked me if I would be her “buddy”. My heart leapt and I immediately replied in the affirmative. After that we became inseparable and people quickly began to think we had come on board as a couple.

***
Thirteen days later, at the end of the Cruise, I accompanied Eileen to the Santiago Airport check-in desk as she was about to depart to New York. By this time she had videoed an interview with me to show her family, before I visited them, and also invited me to travel to New York to meet her family and stay with her for Christmas, and New Years.

Since my divorce, I had never thought of remarrying. How would I ever learn how to live with another person? I worried.  But now everything was different. Eileen was the person I wanted to be with for the rest of my life.

Suddenly I had an important realization: I had my mother’s wedding ring with me.

I had been carrying it around in my leather purse ever since Mum had died earlier that year.

Now I knew why.

I extracted the ring from my purse and approached Eileen at the airline desk.

“I just wanted you to know this is not just some holiday romance for me. It’s very serious. This is my mother’s wedding ring,” I said as I slipped it on to her ring finger. “If this doesn’t work out, I want it back”

”Oh, my goodness, Robin,” she said. “Don’t worry, I do not anticipate having to return it to you.” Then there came that smile again. I was in heaven.

On 18 November 1994 we were married in Garden City, NY.

During all this time my fascination with Antarctica did not diminish. That all these tumultuous developments in my life should have resulted from a visit to Antarctica was really no surprise to me. I felt that it was all “meant to be.”

We returned to Antarctica in January 2023. It was our third trip.

Robin Macdonald was born in Edinburgh in September 1940 and refers to himself as The Ancient Scot. He has been writing  memoirs for 8 years. He enjoys writing and sees his memoirs as legacies for his five grandsons ranging in age from 16 to 26. He has been living in Long Island, New York, since he married in 1995. He and his wife continue to enjoy traveling to all seven continents.
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Wondering what to read next? 

This is not your typical divorce memoir.

Elizabeth Crane’s marriage is ending after fifteen years. While the marriage wasn’t perfect, her husband’s announcement that it is over leaves her reeling, and this gem of a book is the result. Written with fierce grace, her book tells the story of the marriage, the beginning and the end, and gives the reader a glimpse into what comes next for Crane.

“Reading about another person’s pain should not be this enjoyable, but Crane’s writing, full of wit and charm, makes it so.”
Kirkus (starred review)

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The ManifestStation is looking for readers, click for more information.

***

Your voice matters, now more than ever.

We believe every individual is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of skin color, gender, or religion. Everyone deserves a fair and equal opportunity in life, especially in education and justice.

It is essential that you register to vote before your state’s deadline to make a difference. Voting is crucial not only for national elections but also for local ones. Local decisions shape our communities and affect our daily lives, from law enforcement to education. Don’t underestimate the importance of your local elections; know who your representatives are, research your candidates, and make an informed decision.

Remember, every vote counts in creating a better and more equitable society.

Guest Posts, Relationships

The Book Exchange

March 26, 2024
book

“He stole my book,” I moaned to my friends and co-workers, my bodega guy, my bodega cat. Anyone who would listen. “He stole my book. I love that book.”

They responded patiently.

“I’ll buy you a new one.”

“He probably lost it.”

“Don’t you have one of his too?”

All valid statements. But I wasn’t ready to let it go.

After work one night I sat at the kitchen counter, hunched over my phone, willing a text to come from this book thief I went on six dates with. Six. Then, without so much as an abracadabra, he disappeared like a white rabbit in a magic trick.

My roommate at the time told me to forget him.

“He’s a butterfly,” she said. “He flits from one thing to the next.”

I nodded. I knew she was right, but I was still stuck in that place where every word, every text, every kiss seems to hold the great unknowable answer to what went wrong. If I could just remember exactly what he said on that last Sunday date when we aimlessly traipsed around Greenpoint, surely I would be able to figure this out, I thought. But a close reading didn’t help. There was no subtext. No hidden meaning.  His disappearing act said it all.

On the subway soon after it ended, I winced as the train stopped at Delancey Street. A few days earlier I almost crashed into him as I rushed out of this station. I was running late for what would become our final date. He was standing on the corner, leather jacket unzipped, bass guitar strapped to his back, and that look. That look that I swear he must practice in the mirror—a mixture of sheepishness and amusement and something else that I could only describe to my friends as fearlessness.

“It’s weird,” I said to my friend on the phone after date number three. “When you start to see someone there’s a level of fear isn’t there? That you’re not going to fall or the other person isn’t going to fall with you. He doesn’t seem to have that fear.”

“Maybe he’s just braver with his emotions?” she offered.

“Maybe,” I replied, but I caught my voice trailing off the way it does when I want something to be true, but know it’s not.

Still, I held out hope. We went to dinner and the movies, his neighborhood and mine, a cute park date mixed in, several craft beers, and an impromptu bar crawl. And finally, The Book Exchange. After drinks in Bushwick, we were back at this place. I gravitated toward his bookshelf as I always do. I work in publishing. We sat cross-legged on the hardwood floor, perusing his collection. My eyes landed on a few Ishirugo books.

“One of his is my favorite,” I said.

And that’s how it happened. He gave me When We Were Orphans, and the next time we met, I gave him Never Let Me Go. The irony is not lost on me.

Soon after that, the texts started trickling out. The staring contest with my phone began. He was fading. I grasped a bit at the empty space he left until I didn’t anymore and left his last noncommittal message unanswered.

What he didn’t know—when he was ignoring my texts for days, when he was lending me a book and taking one of mine, when he was pulling me in only to push me back—is that I’ve had only one serious relationship. That all that’s been in between is a smattering of dating. He didn’t know he had been the first person in years I actually liked. He didn’t consider what was between the lines. It wasn’t bravery in his eyes; it was indifference. And only six dates or not, it still stung.

Weeks after I let that last text hang, deleted the message thread, and un-followed him on Instagram, I heard through the grapevine of our mutual friends that my story followed a very particular pattern. A friend’s friend had been down this very road: a handful of dates. He seemed to like her a lot. He totally flaked.

My mind flashed to the bookcase in his living room. I remembered the collection appeared to be growing. Books were stacked haphazardly on top of others and shoved in tight like misplaced puzzle pieces. Many of them were yellowed, with faded spines and dog-eared pages. They looked awfully well-loved.

I hope, at least, he reads them.

Jess Harriton is an editor and writer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her writing has appeared on HelloGiggles.com and in Concrete Literary Magazine. 
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Wondering what to read next? 

We are huge fans of messy stories. Uncomfortable stories. Stories of imperfection.

Life isn’t easy and in this gem of a book, Amy Ferris takes us on a tender and fierce journey with this collection of stories that gives us real answers to tough questions. This is a fantastic follow-up to Ferris’ Marrying George Clooney: Confessions of a Midlife Crisis and we are all in!

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Guest Posts, Fiction

Mirror

November 26, 2023
kelly

The afternoon I returned home from taking Paul to college, I stepped out of the car and stretched my creaking limbs with a groan. After seven hours of travelling, I felt at least a hundred and six years old, and even though Paul had done the driving up to school, we had been crammed into the front seat with the entirety of his belongings filling up the rest of the car, leaving not a molecule of daylight. I took stock of the dry grass, and hesitated before climbing the three stairs to the front door. There was a stranger in the house – Paul’s absence – and I was not yet ready to confront it. To my left, I saw what appeared to be a pile of mud on the ground in front of the kitchen window. Late August heat seared my bare shoulders as I walked across the strip of lawn to investigate. Sunscreen had been the last thing on my mind at 6 am that morning, as I packed my son, with his bedding, photographs, and a garbage bag full of sneakers, into my car to move him away from home forever.

Year after year, robins built their nest in the juniper tree which stood dead center in front of the house, and which was growing so tall it seemed to bisect the structure into two distinct halves. When I went downstairs each morning to start my coffee, and the kitchen window had been left open overnight, I startled the birds and they in turn startled me with a flapping noise that was always unsettling for a moment, so close was it to my ears.

I did not remember the night before as distinctly windy, though I had lain awake, trying not to focus on the enormity of the day ahead. My boy was leaving for college. He’s ready, and so am I. In two more years, it would be Kelly’s turn. I needed to wake up in six hours, now four, now two. But at some point, something had unmoored the nest from its perch, and there it was, flipped onto the strip of lawn, slightly flattened due to its tumble to earth. Shards of eggshell were scattered in a small radius on the undergrowth but one unscathed egg sat close by in sky-blue perfection, balanced on a myrtle leaf. I turned over the nest, whose center basket retained its curve, and patted down the grass and mud on the underside. I put the egg inside, and rested the whole apparatus on the top step by the door, in the corner.

I regarded this archaeological finding as more than a little absurd, and laughed out loud. It could be that the fallen nest had been there for weeks but in the last month, I had barely looked up, so focused was I on getting Paul ready, on my new responsibilities at the hospital, and on Kelly’s breakup with the wealthy boy from Ames. There was no way of knowing; some signs can only be read by the willing.

During the year that my husband Dan thought about leaving me, and then finally did, the disturbance honed my senses and I became superstitious. Not about ladders or black cats, although I did avoid the panther cage when I accompanied Paul’s sixth grade class to the zoo.  Rather, I assigned power to whatever was littered in my path, as if my surroundings offered a puzzle of encoded messages, and none of the pieces could be ignored.

I believed that a dried leaf that floated around my feet nudged me with a message (decay is also beautiful?), or that my grandmother’s topaz that sat in my jewelry case suddenly caught the light and my eye, with ancestral wisdom I had to decipher.  I began to collect charms which I wore on a chain around my neck. A seahorse, which only swims forward; a sun, which glows behind rainclouds, the cross from my baptism, to remind me of the child I had once been. But despite my attempts at sorcery, soon Dan moved in with Laura, a grad student in town, whom he loved as much as he had loved me when I, too, was twenty six. The talismans that dangled around my neck seemed like pathetic attempts at optimism. So, I removed them, and everything became what they had been before: A dead leaf, a rock in a box, a bunch of gold charms.

My son had been gone for exactly eight hours but my house was already changed. The emptiness consumed the quiet rooms, which seemed to honor Paul’s departure by manifesting a respectful stillness. Baxter, our mutt, did not spring up to me in his usual way, but rather took his time, loped towards me, not wanting to seem too cheerful in case I was in a state of full-on despair.  I slipped the sandals off my feet and joined him on the kitchen floor.

“Bax, Bax, Bax,” I said. “You okay, boy? ‘Cos I am.”

I ran my fingers along his neck and curved around, scratching vigorously around his ears. I had dreaded getting this dog, a blatant attempt to buy my children’s happiness after the divorce. But like any adopted baby, I fell hard for him, and could not imagine life without his good cheer and even keel. It was Baxter who pitched our family into balance, and sometimes I believed he was a better, more capable, and certainly more patient parent than I.

I rested my forearm, and then my head, on his side. “You know, it was time.” I stood up, still stroking his fur.  “You’re getting gray around the edges, my friend,” I said. “Welcome to the club.”

There was a note on the counter from Kelly. Mom, I’m doing the 7-3 today. Tom wants to see me (!!!). Call me! Love, K.

 It pained me to think that after her summer of heartbreak, she would run back to Tom as soon as he beckoned. He was a junior who lived a half an hour away, and he had succumbed, cruelly, to the charms of another girl in June. It had been tortuous for me, as I felt somewhat responsible for their romance in the first place. Tom’s father was an orthopedic surgeon in the hospital where I taught nursing. I had taken Kelly to the university Christmas party last year in lieu of Keith, the man who had been squiring me around but was not much up for the office holiday bash.

She had worn a black camisole dress with rhinestone spaghetti straps, and silver heels she bought online. I marveled at the ease with which my daughter glided across the room, not to mention the salt-covered, ice-slicked parking lot. Tom noticed her, of course, and they got together a few weeks later on New Year’s Eve. I did not care for his father, who still swaggered like the star quarterback, and was known to have skillful hands and an eye for my students, but not much of a healing demeanor. It should not have colored my feelings for the son.

I picked up the phone and dialed Kelly at Bank Street Grill, where she was a waitress. She would be nearing the end of her shift, dead on her feet, wavy hair beginning to unravel from her clip, still smiling at customers.

“Hi sweetie,” I said. “Long day?”

“Totally. We’ve been really busy. Did you get Paul settled?”

“Yes. Alex was there, his roommate. He seems great. They have a kitchen.”

“Are you sad, Mom?”

“Don’t worry about me, Kel. He’s ready and that’s what counts.”

“We’ll see him in a few weeks, right?”

“Very soon. Honey…Tom?”

“I know, I know. But I’m excited.”

“You’ve been great lately.”

“Don’t worry, Mom. Gotta go. I’ll see you in an hour. Love you!”

Don’t worry? I held her like a baby for hours this summer, felt her hair soak my fingertips from the heat and exertion of her sobs.  For days, she had not left the house, despite platoons of ponytailed friends and soccer teammates who came by on bikes and in cars to get her back into the sunshine. Despite my promising her a hundred times that her heart was still whole.  That no boy, or man, or person, could rob her of her soul and that it, too, was intact.

I poured coffee from the pitcher in the refrigerator, splashed in a drop of milk, and grabbed ice cubes from the freezer. Water condensed quickly around the glass and I gripped it as if it could steady me from what might be imminent in Paul’s room. The familiar faces on the wall greeted me. Usain Bolt, the 1998 Bulls. Inside the closet, I gazed at the empty space. I sat on the bed and remembered assembling it from printed instructions, learning the finer points of an Allen key screwdriver, shocking even myself with my ability to do things without Dan.

My brain scanned my body for sadness and regret, but it came back blank. For months, people began to treat Paul’s leaving as if it were his and my simultaneous demise. But I felt great satisfaction at raising a good man. I also felt one step closer to my own release.  My friends and I – parents I’ve known since Paul started kindergarten, from the auction committee and the Little League candy bar drive – all found ourselves in the place that every mother and father does eventually, with kids moving away and for the most part, trying to prove they no longer needed us. It was sad, yes; tragic, no. We had worked hard and prepared them well.  We, too, would be released.

I hesitated and looked blankly around the room. The ceramic mug he made when he was three or four still sat on the desk which was otherwise cleared of his entire schoolboy history.  He had not packed it, and although it did not much surprise me that a college freshman would not be sentimental about a pre-school clay project, I was nevertheless surprised to see it left behind. I had thrown it away once, long ago, after the handle cracked off. Paul had dug it out of the trash, and brandished it before me, shedding angry tears, crying, “This is my CUP!”

I rose to pick it up, felt its smooth painted yellow sides, rough at the broken points, and looked inside. There was a pen cap, some paper clips, a blue cloth patch of some sort and a small bright orange shell. I removed it and wiped off the dust with the pad of my thumb. It was about the size of a nickel, unscarred and whole. A living thing had inhabited this shell in some far-flung sea. Then it floated to shore and was plucked off the sand by a boy. We were landlocked by over a thousand miles, had been to a half dozen beaches over the years, but I had no idea where it came from. I stuck it in my pocket.

I walked out and towards the bedroom, and gazed at the pile of books that sat, ever waiting for me, punishing but welcoming just the same. Now, I might have time for them. I looked up at the shelves stacked high with novels that held not only their own stories but the ancillary ones: where I was in my life on this earth when I read them. There were books from my honeymoon, and ones I had plowed through when I was on bed rest while pregnant with Kelly. Books that I read, or tried to, when I worked overnights as a young nurse, my eyes lacquered with fatigue. Others I had carried through airports, on vacation with the kids.

I picked one up and shuffled quickly through the pages, as if the smell of coffee and black tobacco would float towards me again, as it had while I read it in a cafe in Paris. I took myself there the first summer after our divorce when I had to give up my children to their father for two weeks. I recalled the agony, the bewilderment, the pointlessness of my attempt at escape. The stub of my boarding pass floated to the floor and I retrieved it: Carolyn Schepis, seat 46B. I stuck it back between the pages and as I reshelved the book, I heard the squeak of the front door.

It was Keith, whom I referred to at times as my boyfriend. He had begun to make noises about moving in together but as much as I liked sharing a bed with him when I was in the mood, the idea of committing to his laundry and general caretaking gave me the sensation of a hand gripping my throat. He too was divorced, and we had been together, or something like it, for a year.

“Carolyn?” he called. Always a question.

“Up here Keith,” I replied as I headed for the stairs, still barefoot. Keith stood in the foyer, holding forth a bag that looked like lunch, and when he saw me, he shut the door behind him. As he did, a mass of sticky heat from outdoors lumbered into the house, dissipating quickly in the air conditioning. He was in his coaching clothes, shorts, a gray T-shirt, fresh from pre-season practice with his high school soccer team. His smile betrayed more than a drop of sympathy which I tried to ignore by beaming back to him, widening my eyes gratefully at the appearance of both him, and food.

“I’m just seeing if you’re okay,” he said, wrapping a moist arm around me, and kissing me fully on the lips.

“You’re so sweet.” I continued, “Everyone keeps asking me that. I think I’m not supposed to be.” I looked in the bag. Chips. Good. “But I’m okay.”

“Where’d you find the nest?” Keith asked.

“Out front,” I said.

“Can I at least take you to dinner tonight?” Keith asked. “To celebrate? Or not…”

“Can I let you know?” I replied, grimacing. “I’m pretty tired. Kelly’s getting back together with Tom.”

“She’ll have to learn somehow,” said Keith. “Let me pick you up at 6.”

“Come by at 7. Now, I need a nap. And a shower.”

“Do you need company?” he asked, “’Cos I could use some.”

“Nice try,” I answered. Ridiculous to think I would be in the mood, and he knew it.

“I’m kidding,” Keith said, sheepishly.

“You are not,” I said. “See you later. Thanks for the lunch. I don’t deserve you.”

“No,” he said, “You don’t. But I keep hoping you will.”

I closed the door behind Keith and in the kitchen, opened the bag of potato chips. It was cool inside the house, and in my tank top, I almost needed a sweater.  I chewed on half of the ham sandwich, with mustard only, just how I liked it, and left the second half uneaten. I went upstairs and while getting undressed, I noticed gold tips on the leaves of the sugar maples that lined the back fence. Late August always seemed incongruous, how the trees just knew their time for turning, as if on cue.

After my shower, I heard Kelly come inside.

“Mom!” she cried. “That nest! You know it’s good luck to find a robin’s nest with whole eggs?”

She walked into my room as I was buttoning up my jeans.

“You should bring it inside,” she said excitedly.

“I’ll leave it out on the porch for now,” I said. “I’ll call Flanders, maybe they can pick it up or tell me what to do.” The nature center was a mile away, and could probably offer some quick advice.

“Yeah, you’re probably right.” She plunked down on my bed and curled up like a tired, satisfied kitten. “Do you have any laundry?” she asked. “I need to wash my restaurant shirt for tomorrow.”

“Sure, honey,” I answered, gathering my dirty clothes from the morning, and stopping to kiss her on the cheek as if she were a napping baby. “I’m doing a load now. Bring it downstairs.”

After she dressed for her reunion with Tom, I met her in the kitchen. She was fresh, her cheeks were lightly shimmered. She had done battle with her thick curls for years, had attacked them with all manner of flattening iron, conditioning salve and straightening paste. My hair is thin and barely holds a wave, and so I genuinely envied her mane, even though saying so had me branded as patronizing and, as her mother, I had no credibility anyway. Lately, though she seemed to have embraced her wild hairstyle, which was distinct in our flaxen-blonde town.

“I wish you wouldn’t,” I said.

“Mom,” she groaned. “He said he was sorry.”

“But he cheated on you, Kelly. You can’t get in the habit of thinking that’s okay,” I insisted.

“He made a mistake. We all do.” Kelly took a can of seltzer from the refrigerator and plunked it on the counter in front of me, popping it open with the aplomb of a veteran bartender.

I wanted to add, “And his father is such a creep,” but I held my tongue, knowing that it would be unfair to pass such judgment onto his son. It was, in fact, awkward to see Tom’s father in the hospital corridors, and I assumed he was doing perpetual reconnaissance on the fledgling nurses, especially the petite, busty ones. I felt sorry for his wife.

“Mom, you just hate men,” Kelly said, matter-of-fact.

“Kelly! I don’t either,” I said, recoiling somewhat from the sharp sting of her words. “What a horrible thing to say!” We fought rarely, and when we did, it wore me out for days. I scrambled for a reply. “You don’t deserve a cheater.”

“I’m sixteen, Mom,” Kelly exclaimed, hands extended before her, palms upturned.  She looked at me and gulped from the soda can. “Not forty-four. Which should be considered young, but which you have redefined as “Time to give up.”

“Kelly,” I said limply.

“Look at how you treat Keith,” said Kelly. “Why do you even bother?”

“That’s really none of your business.” The unspoken words soured in my mouth. I cursed the rulebook that I wanted to tear up again and again, the one where it says a spurned spouse is not allowed to disparage the ex—ever, under any circumstances—to the children.

“Mom, so my heart broke. And we’re getting back together. It’s good and I’m happy.” I stared at her and she continued, “He screwed up. Who doesn’t?”

“It doesn’t mean you have to be waiting at the bus stop as soon as he wants to see you…” I began to feel something close to embarrassment, so I stopped.

“I’ll be home by 12. Promise. I have to be at work at 6 in the morning.” Kelly leaned over and pecked me on the forehead, and I stood to walk her to the door. Confidence lightened her bearing, it was impossible not to see that. “Don’t forget to put my uniform in the dryer! Thanks, Mom!”

My daughter disappeared into the early evening sun, which pooled on the walkway between the hedges. Above it, a wall of heat and light formed, thick and blinding.         

Keith picked me up for dinner in town, and afterwards, I promised my favors for some other time. As we said goodnight, I asked him about Kelly’s accusation – there was no other word for it. I was not angry, but rather mystified.

“You don’t think I hate men, do you?” I asked.  Moths congregated with loud flapping all around the porch light. One sat large and still on the door, a deep celadon green.

“Why do you ask that?” he said, tucking a lock of hair behind my ear, twirling it for a second around his finger.

“Kelly said that,” I answered.

Keith took a deep breath. “She’s a preternaturally wise young lady.”

“Uh-oh,” I said.

“You don’t hate men,” Keith said. “You just don’t like that most of them love women and have no idea how to do that right.”

“That’s absurd,” I protested.

“That’s the truth,” he said, kissing me again. “Now hurry up inside.”

I undressed in the dark, listening for a noise, any noise. I went to Paul’s room, and lay across his bed in my summer night gown, grasping the still-strong scent of a teenage boy. I stared at the ceiling while tears flowed straight down my cheeks, pooled around my ears, soaked my neck and eventually the pillowcase under my head.

Around midnight, I heard Baxter welcome Kelly home with the gentle bark that informs me of my children’s arrival, and not the one he employs to warn me of something menacing or unfamiliar. The door creaked open, and I could hear the faint whisper of the kids on the front porch. There was a sudden quiet, during which I assumed they kissed each other goodnight.

Kelly’s shoes plunked on the floor. She tiptoed into my room. “Mom?” she said, “Mom?” Her voice raised in alarm.

“In here, sweetie,” I said, swinging my legs around to the floor where Paul had planted his size 13 feet every morning. Kelly walked in and sat down beside me.

“I think a raccoon or something got to the nest,” she said, and tears gathered in the corner of her eyes.

“It’s okay, honey,” I said. “What’s wrong? Did tonight go okay?” I took her head in both hands and tilted it up to face me.

“It was great, Mom. Really.” She was crying. Briefly, her expression showed relief.  “Now it’s gone. It was going to bring you good luck.” She looked around, wiping her cheeks and then waved her hands towards the darkness

“The robin’s nest?” I asked. Kelly nodded. “It already did, honey. Now go to sleep. You have an early morning.” I stood and walked her to the bathroom, and myself to my own bed.

When she left for work at 5:45, the sky was just pale enough for me to see her bicycle whir to the stoplight and veer towards town.

Kelly had gathered the eggshells and put them back into the nest. There were a few scattered bits on the porch, but whatever had eaten it had swallowed the inside whole. The trough held the pile of fragments. They were so blue. Aegean, celestial, oceanic blue. I could not bear to think of the devastated mother robin. I wedged the nest into the dark interior of the juniper tree.

In the kitchen, I started my coffee and made my foray to the laundry room. Every morning my feet carried me there, unwittingly, to my children’s clothes. I folded them and put them in piles, which, with an ache of tenderness, I patted and pressed with my palm. With Paul gone, there would much less housework to do, at least until Thanksgiving. In six days, I would be back at the college, with a new school year of my own.

I opened the dryer, gripped the lint catcher, and peeled off the soft gray sheet. It was satisfying, as it always was. Something fell on the floor, bounced once, and landed square and whole. It was the orange shell from my jeans pocket, from the deepest ocean, from a beach somewhere, from a small boy’s hand. I went to Paul’s room and returned it to the cracked clay cup.

Marcia DeSanctis is the author of 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go, a New York Times travel bestseller. She is a contributing writer at Travel + Leisure and Air Mail, and also wrote/has written for Vogue, BBC Travel, The New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, Tin House, Coachella Review, The Common, and many other publications. She has won five Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers, including one for Travel Journalist of the Year.

 

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Wondering what to read next? 

We are huge fans of messy stories. Uncomfortable stories. Stories of imperfection.

Life isn’t easy and in this gem of a book, Amy Ferris takes us on a tender and fierce journey with this collection of stories that gives us real answers to tough questions. This is a fantastic follow-up to Ferris’ Marrying George Clooney: Confessions of a Midlife Crisis and we are all in!

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Fiction

The Same Country

October 14, 2023
bobby

My best friend Kate gathers my thick brown hair into a ponytail and shakes it gleefully. “I’ve been waiting a hundred years for this day! You sure?”

“Positive.” I haven’t done more than trim my hair since my mother died six years ago. But now it’s time for it to go. The wavy bulk, the split ends—all of it must go. I’m sitting under a bald lightbulb in the chilly, unfinished basement of my fiancé’s South Side bungalow. I watch in the mirror as Kate straps on her hairdresser’s holster. Her tiger-print pouch holds scissors, combs, sheers, a razor, and complicated clippers.

“You’re the only one I’d trust to do this,” I say. “But not at Sassoon.” I just can’t waltz into her Gold Coast salon with all those contrast-heavy Nagel prints of Joan Collins and sultry, red-lipped brunettes. I don’t want a bunch of fussy hairdressers giving me the side-eye for my French braid.

Kate pulls a comb from her pocket. “What about Bobby?”

“That’s why we have to hurry!”

“He’s going to freak.”

“Maybe not. And, it’s going to be a big change. I can understand…”

“Does he come straight home after market close?” she asks.

“It’s Monday, so he might come straight home.”

“We’ve got a couple hours,” she says. I close my eyes, not wanting to think or worry about Bobby’s reaction, and what this radical hair change will mean to him, or how it might manage to offend him. But I’ve made up my mind. I need a change.

“Let me make a braid. You can save it,” Kate says.

“For him?

“For you.” Kate digs the comb into my scalp and divides it into three thick plaits. The comb hurts, but I can take it. She binds it with a hair tie, then starts to braid, mildly painful tugs at my temples. “Have you got anymore shit from people about the holiday party?”

“No. And at least I don’t have to see anybody until after winter break.”

“They’ll get over it.”

“I dunno,” I say. “They thrive on gossip.”

“Bunch of pretentious assholes.”

I won’t defend my fellow grad students because their pretentiousness is the one topic on which Kate and Bobby agree. But I want to be accepted by my art-school cohort more than my best friend and fiancé could understand. The photos I’ve shown this first semester of my MFA haven’t been great. It’s hard enough to be judged on my art, but I’m also judged for being twenty-four and already bound to a twenty-seven-year-old stockbroker who acts like he’s forty. Everybody else in the program is so free—making out, staying out, clubbing. At the holiday party, Bobby fulfilled all their expectations, by being an arrogant jackass. He argued about the inflated art market with my professor, Peter. Kate might be right that my program mates are pretentious, but Bobby didn’t need to be so ruthlessly rational about the long-shot nature of what we’re all trying to do: be artists. Is it so farfetched to imagine making a living this way?

Kate’s scissors catch the light from the dangling bulb as she opens them. “Ready?”

“As I’ll ever be.”

“I swear this is going to look awesome.”

It’s not easy to cut through my thick hair, but Kate has the strongest hands of any woman I know. She saws through the hair and hands me the heavy dark braid. I drop it in the hammock of my skirt and close my knees to hide it.

“You down with the Annie Lennox look?” Kate asks.

“I think so.” Annie Lennox has a bleached-blond crewcut. Sweet dreams are made of this. Princesses have long hair, braids that touch the floor. I think of Rapunzel trapped in a castle. I think of Samson, and I hope that Kate’s right, that cutting off my hair will have the opposite effect: I will gain power by losing it. She thinks this is all about changing my style, getting edgier. She doesn’t know about Peter’s cutting remarks during critique about apple-cheeked Midwestern girls in overalls and braids. Even a pixie cut won’t work. I need something drastic, something not docile: a crewcut. I want walk into the photo studio looking like totally different person next semester. Maybe I’ll feel that way too.

I’ve tried to act tough in class, but I’m not a great actress. I can’t stay in character. I slip back into being nice again, because—because of the Midwest. That’s how they all see me. The first week of class, L.A. Vivian said, “You look so apple-cheeked today, Maggie.” I was wearing Clinique blush. I must have put on too much. Now they sometimes call me the Michigan Apple, even though I’m from Chicago. She said my photos of garbage cans in alleys reminded her of “after-school specials” about poverty. That my photos pothole puddles, cyclone fences overtaken by weeds in vacant lots would make great calendars. Once Vivian Clark says you’re on that boring Urban Decay bandwagon, or the Peter says your work is “poverty tourism,” then there’s nothing you can do. Nobody takes your side. Your work gets worse because of it. Even I couldn’t find the rosy spin.

Kate’s scissors whiz around my head, cutting as close to the scalp as she can. She pulls out her electric shaver and runs it up my neck. The razor buzzes, it whirs, it’s the sound of my father shaving. It’s a masculine song in my ears. I start to believe in it.

The razor moves over the slight bump on my head, a spot that’s always been sensitive. I once fell backward onto manhole cover.  Every time the tine of a comb or the foil heads of Kate’s razor touch that spot, I remember the summer day, sitting on a neighbor’s lawn, when a neighbor boy playfully pushed me backward, and my head bounced off the metal. The grass was so high, we hadn’t seen the sewer cover. A lump popped up and never completely went away. But what has lingered most in my mind is Joey’s remorse, how sorry he felt, and how sweet his apologies seemed, coming from a boy.

Kate moves over to the cement utility sink, and I touch my hair, feel the soft bristles. My spine shivers with the chill. I’m colder without all that hair on my neck. I open my knees and warm my hands under the braid, cradling this weighty manifestation of my past.  Would I dare to do this if my mother were still alive?  I look over as Kate attaches a rinsing hose to the tap, then tests the temperature with her index finger. She blows into a pair of rubber gloves and slips them on. She pours a packet of powder into a steel bowl, adding water, and whipping it with a boxy brush. I love watching her. She looks so professional, even if she is wearing a blue flannel, ripped jeans, and leather motorcycle boots. Her own short hair is Flock-of-Seagulls long on top, with a spot of blue at the temple.  She skipped college and went straight to beauty school after high school, and she’s worked her way up to Sassoon. She’s a coveted, always booked hairdresser, and she makes so much cash she doesn’t need to work for months at a stretch, which supports her great passion: backpacking in far-flung locales. She’s heading to Thailand in April to meet up with an Irish girl she met in India. She’s in love.

She wags the peroxide brush at me. “You sure you don’t want to stick with your natural hair color? This isn’t going to tickle.”

“Positive.”

Kate dips the brush in the paste and starts to layer on the peroxide, and at first, it’s cool, but then it starts to really tingle and burn. This burning feels like an initiation, and when I grit my teeth with the pain of it, Kate says,“You’ll live.”

In my neighborhood, we goad each other on with these phrases: You’ll live. It won’t kill ya. It’s a question of degree. Take any difficult situation. If it won’t kill ya, then you’ll get over it.

Kate carefully stretches a shower cap over my burning head, and then sets a timer for 40 minutes. While we wait, she pops a cassette of X’s More Fun in the New World in my boombox. The opening riffs get me off the stool, makes me cock my head pigeon style. Kate turns it up louder, so I can’t hear the shower cap crinkling in my ears anymore.  We thrash around the basement, dancing, playing air bass. We dance with no inhibitions, mirroring each other’s hackneyed and comical pirouettes, and when one of us settles into serious oneness with the music, the other lifts an arm, training an invisible spotlight on the other, nodding in head-thrashing approval.   When we sing, “We’re having much more fun!” I feel like we’re shouting at all our enemies. To the tune of an aggressive, exhilarating punk backbeat, we mix all the dance moves from two decades of friendship: the monkey, the nose-dive, the twist, the bump. Kate jabs a finger at the low ceiling, punk John Travolta-style, and comes back with cobwebs threaded between her fingers. She shakes them off, laughing, then grabs my hand and we do a rockabilly jitterbug, spinning each other across the concrete. We’re panting by the end of the “Breathless,” so we raid the basement fridge and chug a couple of Bobby’s Michelobs. We use her hairbrushes as microphones to serenade each other. “I must not think bad thoughts!” We shimmy to the floor, we do bad ballet moves till we’re spent, till the timer ding-ding-dings.

She leads me to the sink, and I lean back in a swivel office chair so my neck rests on the cold lip of the sink. The warm water feels wonderful, as she rinses away the peroxide. Water drips into my mouth and it tastes like metal. I arise from the cement basin a clown, my brown hair now Ronald McDonald orange.

“What the—”

“Don’t worry. This is actually the ‘Sweet Dreams’ color. You need the ‘Here Comes the Rain Again’ color.”

“I don’t have the bone structure to pull off orange hair,” I say.

“Nobody does.”

“You do,” I say. Because Kate is a 5-foot-9 knockout lesbian who came out to me a couple years ago. With all she’s had to deal with, growing up where we do, you’d think I’d have the guts to tell her what’s really been happening in grad school. It’s not that I don’t trust her. I’m just not ready to admit some things, even to myself. Behind Peter’s put-downs, I sense something else—like he’s cutting me down and coming on to me too. Which I really don’t get.  I’ve caught him many times glancing at my engagement ring, the 2-carat cathedral solitaire that Bobby had chosen himself.

Kate wheels me back to the center of the room, and I cradle my braid, as she layers on the peroxide. It doesn’t hurt as much, but still I wince when she brushes that tender spot, and I’m not reminded of the freckles on remorseful Joey’s cheeks; no, I’m remembering the clank of my head against the manhole cover.

“Hurting?” Kate asks.

“Beer helps.” Yet the initial buzz is dwindling into a queasy fatigue, and a glance at the clock fills me with familiar dread. It’s after four, and Bobby might be home in twenty minutes and if not, then he won’t be home for hours.  For once, I’m hoping that he goes out drinking with his trader buddies.

After we rinse out the final coat of peroxide, Kate towel-dries my hair and then works in a cool, silky toner.  “This will make it more lemony.”

She guides me toward the mirror, and I stare at my face. The stark hip hair is a stranger’s. My ears stand out like two washed pieces of marble. My brown eyes look huge against the lemony-white hair.

“Do I look like an alien?”

“Like a foxy alien, baby!” Kate says.

A car door slams in the driveway. Bobby’s home. Kate and I lock eyes. We both get quiet, the only sound the tumble of towels in the dryer. His dryer. I count the empty beer bottles, wanting to toss them quick, but we hear the squeak of his Ferragamo wingtips coming down the basement steps before we have a chance to prepare. Kate grabs her fancy scissors and holds up her hands, showing her weapon. She rolls her eyes, cementing our regression to rebellious kids, with Bobby cast as the Grown-up, the established, hetero male, the college grad, the captain of industry. It’s a force we’ve always rebelled against, and Kate still can’t quite understand how I fell for Bobby two years ago.  Kate’s never spoken against him expressly, while he’s always seen her, my friend who I’ve known since birth, as a threat.

As he comes into the basement, I’m flooded with both dread and a strong desire to melt against his gray suit jacket, to get ahead of his response. My fiancé is 6” 2’, lean as a greyhound, with pearl-grey eyes and straight brown hair. The only way Bobby can reach a state of light-heartedness is if he’s high as a kite or having sex, which means the bedroom is the only place where I can win.  Bobby’s very sensitive, but others don’t get it, they don’t see what I see in him. Though sometimes I wonder what the difference is between sensitivity and touchiness.  Where do you draw the line?

He sets a pile of mail down on top of a table. “Somebody’s parked in the driveway! What the hell, Maggie? What’d you—What’d she do to your hair?”

“Don’t blame Kate,” I said.

“How’s it going, Bobby?” Kate throws back her shoulders and shakes a Camel out of her pack.

“Jesus H. Christ. You look like a dyke, Maggie.”

Kate snorts,. “Nice, Bobby.” She places the cigarette between her lips, freeing her hands so she can zip up her leather jacket. “Look, Mags, I gotta split. Call me tomorrow.”

“Sorry, Kate. He didn’t mean it that way.”

“What do I care?” Bobby throws up his hands, dropping his head and stooping in the exasperated gesture of the Misunderstood Man. “It’s your hair!”

“It sure is, Mags.” Kate says, as she heads toward the stairs. “And hold on to that braid. Maybe I can reattach it for your wedding.”

Bobby starts collecting the beer bottles and putting them in a can by the sink.  After I hear the door shut behind Kate, I turn to him, wrapping my fingers around his wrist. “I can dye it dark again if that’s what you really want,” I say.

“I can’t picture a wedding veil on that hair. Are you planning to wear a tux, too?”

“Our wedding day is two years away.”

“You’ll need white combat boots,” he says.

Upstairs in the guest room closet is a shoe rack full of pumps in in every shade—black, red, navy, even powder blue. When we met, Bobby said all my funky flats looked like waffle irons. I was blown away when he took me shopping and spent hundreds on new pumps. “I don’t want to even think about a wedding till I’m done with grad school.”

“And maybe we can both have best men!” he says. “Or Kate can be your Man of Honor.”

“Shut up. She’s not even butch. She’s a total femme.”

She’s a total femme!” he mocks me.  “She’s in love with you.”

“That’s so stupid it’s not even insulting. She’s my best friend.”

“How do you know for sure though?”

“I know for sure because I know for sure.”

“You’re so naïve. It’s like those assholes in your program. You’re so much better than them. You can’t see the truth. They’re a bunch of wannabes.”

“There’s a huge difference between Kate and them.”

“I’m just trying to help you. Remember what I said. You have to check people’s passports. You can’t just let anyone invade your borders.”

“Kate and I are from the same country.”

“Maybe. But she’s moved to a whole other continent.” He twirls his finger by his temple.

“She’s moved to Lincoln Park. To get away from all the racist bigots around here.”

“So you’d rather be with all the fruits, nuts, and flakes around Wrigley?”

“I’m fine on the South Side. I like our neighborhood.”

“I’ve got my eye on a bigger house,” he says. “With a coach house. So you can have a studio.”

“Really?” I immediately picture a yellow clapboard coach house with a pitched-roof and rectangular skylights. I’d have a shelf for all my cameras, light stands, light modifiers and reflectors. Maybe some backdrops too. I see vertical files filled with slides, and I can almost smell the vinegar tang of the developing fluids I’ll have in the basement dark room. “When did you start looking? You didn’t tell me.”

“Just put the word out to Tommy Costa. He’s doing real estate now. The Bozo franchise thing didn’t work so hot, surprise surprise. But we’d probably need tenants in a coach house to cover the mortgage the first couple of years.”

“I knew there had to be a catch.”

“What do you want from me, Maggie? I’m already paying—”

“My tuition. I know. I know.”

“Well, you and Kate act like I’m some overbearing ogre. I’m doing my best here.”

“I know you are.” I walk over and hug him, draping my arms around his neck. His hands reach for my waist, and he pulls me close. His tight embrace always seems to swallow me, as I’m a good six inches shorter than he is. My mouth pressed to the itchy wool of his suit jacket, I say, “I know” again.  I know how far he’s come. His mother always expected the most from him—valedictorian, captain of the football team, yet it was never enough. To others in the neighborhood, she’d brag about “Her Bobby,” but at home, with him, she could hold a three-day’s grudge if he forgot to take out the garbage. Ignoring a ten-year-old for two or three days demands a particular talent. People in the neighborhood didn’t know that she’d been caught stealing a can of tuna when Bobby was five. She had planted the can in the back pocket of his pants, but a cashier noticed it and asked him to put it on the checkout belt. But his mother made a production out of it, scolding him and insisting that the cashier call the manager. Bobby stood shamefaced, unable to tuck his face into his mother’s lap, as the manager scolded him, while his mother opened up her wallet to show all the dollars she had, more than enough to pay for a pitiful can of Chicken of the Sea.

“What do you want to do for dinner?” he asks. “Should I order a ‘za?”

“Yeah. I’ll clean up down here.”

He heads up the stairs, and I grab a broom from the utility closet. His basement’s layout is exactly like the house I grew up in, where my dad still lives, alone. I knew Bobby only from a distance back in high school. It wasn’t till I was a junior at DePaul that our worlds overlapped. His pursuit of me was swift; he outflanked his rivals with traditionally romantic maneuvers that he dubbed “pitching woo”: chocolates, roses, Anaïs Anaïs eau de toilette. He ascribes to the dyad of Maggie-and-Bobby as some kind of holy force, but I don’t really need a creed to stay committed in the same way he does. If you read his love letters you’d think that we were engaged in an endless crusade against a cruel world, especially the meddling forces of most of my friends. He uses phrases like “true love,” which, I’ve noticed recently that X calls “The Devil’s chokehold.”

I sweep the stray hairs into a pile on the cement floor, then pick up the braid from the top of the washing machine. Wrapping it like a stole around my neck cuts the draft of cold air that wafts down my damp collar. I touch my head, and the bristles tickle my fingertips. Rubbing the soft fur on the back of my neck feels like petting a hamster backwards, a happy comfort that I wish Bobby could experience. What’s the big deal, anyway? It’s just hair. As my mother used to say, “It’ll grow back.” That’s the tack I should take with Bobby. He gets in a funk about stuff like this, and he needs me to lighten the mood. That’s how we work best. Isn’t that what love means? Your bad point, my good point. Puzzle pieces that fit together? It’s perfectly natural, I think, for a glimmer of pity to underpin one’s love.

Eileen Favorite’s first novel, The Heroines (Scribner, 2008), has been translated into six languages. Her essays, poems, and stories have appeared in many publications, including, The Toast, Triquarterly, The Chicago Tribune, The Rumpus, Diagram, and others. Her essay, “On Aerial Views,” was a Notable Essay in the Best American Essays 2020. Eileen was named a 2021 Illinois Arts Council Awardee for nonfiction. She teaches teach writing and literature classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. her TEDx Talk, “Love the Art, Hate the Artist” is available at eileenfavorite.com.

***

Wondering what to read next? 

This is not your typical divorce memoir.

Elizabeth Crane’s marriage is ending after fifteen years. While the marriage wasn’t perfect, her husband’s announcement that it is over leaves her reeling, and this gem of a book is the result. Written with fierce grace, her book tells the story of the marriage, the beginning and the end, and gives the reader a glimpse into what comes next for Crane.

“Reading about another person’s pain should not be this enjoyable, but Crane’s writing, full of wit and charm, makes it so.”
Kirkus (starred review)

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Relationships

Holy Ground

October 11, 2023
grand canyon

I didn’t want to hike the Grand Canyon.

April is the golden time in Phoenix, when the sun burns just warm enough for hike-and-pool days but not so hot to warrant an escape up north. After a morning trek up Piestewa Peak, Kyle and our friend Andy relax on a couple pool chairs, sipping cold beers and scheming up an adventure for the dry-heat days ahead. Next to them, I sit cross-legged in my pool chair with a red pen and stack of papers in my lap, going through my most recent essay and making up for the writing time I lost to the morning hike.

Andy insists on the Grand Canyon, declaring the national park his favorite place in the world.

Kyle and I look at each other, both thinking the same thing: How could the Grand Canyon be his favorite place in the world? A year earlier we had walked the rim a year, and we agreed that the crater looked the same no matter where you stood. We had taken several pictures of the view, glad to finally see the iconic landmark, but we weren’t itching to go again.

But Andy doesn’t let up. “You have to hike down it to get the full experience. You can’t just walk the rim and call it a day.”

This convinces Kyle, and I just smile at the thought of having a weekend to myself at the apartment, locked indoors by the summer heat, writing without distractions. I don’t care to go on Andy’s adventure to prove the Grand Canyon has more to it. The trip involves camping…outside…and hiking down dozens of switchbacks before hiking right back up, a twisted order of doing things.

Kyle understands. Camping and hiking are his things.

Writing is mine.

I didn’t know what I’d write while the boys adventured at the Grand Canyon, but I knew I needed that time block to see where it took me.

#

Andy tells us a statistic – of the three million people who visit the Grand Canyon every year, only one percent hikes down in it.

Being different is Kyle’s thing. Being with people, keeping a full social calendar, exploring, traveling – these are all Kyle’s things. My curious, extroverted, nature-seeking husband keeps an eye out for the exciting and the new.

I am an introvert and home body by nature, and my husband’s favorite things often make me anxious. I want to be adventurous for him and experience the things he most enjoys, but I also want to be true to myself. All I want to do is write. Ever. Always.

 #

This writing-or-experiencing debate has come up in different ways since I first moved in with Kyle, back in Iowa. One of the questions then: Do I spend the day writing or join Kyle and our friends tailgating for the Iowa State game? Kyle always invited me to go, but the thought of giving up a full day of writing to play drinking games with people we hung out with all the time made me cringe. His friends often asked him about me if I didn’t go, and part of me wished I was closer with them.

One of those Saturdays, I joined him at eight a.m. for the tailgate and brought my backpack. I planned to sit with the group for an hour, get some face time in, then when they’d all get too tipsy to notice I’d walk off to a coffee shop and write.

But I got to talking to the girls at the tailgate. Most of them, like me, came into this group because our significant others all partied together in college. Chatting with them, I understood that I wasn’t the only one who felt out of place. Like me and my writing, they each had a life of their own beyond this day of tailgating and drinking games. The writer in me was curious to know more about them.

So I took my backpack off and challenged them to a game of flippy cup.

I can’t deny that my most compelling stories and memories have happened when I tried out Kyle’s things, even if I slightly dreaded them. Most often I end up beyond glad that I joined him. With a new perspective, I come back ready to write and create with all the new spontaneity and spark within me.

Which is what I’m thinking about when I finally give in after Andy’s umpteenth request. I desperately want to write for a weekend, but the more Andy builds it up the more curious I become about what the Grand Canyon looks and feels like when you go below the surface. I have a feeling it might be life-changing, like most of those experiences I initially dread because they force me out of my comfort zone.

The week of the trip, I decide to embrace the adventure – I look forward to the camping, the backwards hiking, all of it. I make a grocery store run and gather energy bars and ingredients for trail mix. I tell everyone at work about my exciting weekend ahead. If I’m not going to spend the time writing, I am going to have fun with what I choose to do instead.

 #

On a Friday evening in mid-May, we leave the sweltering heat of Phoenix and arrive at our campsite in Flagstaff two hours later, what feels like a different part of the world. The wind reminds me of below-zero wind chill days in the Midwest, although thankfully, the temperature is a kinder fifty degrees.

Kyle and Andy fight the weather to get the tents up, then we drive into town so the guys can reward themselves with Flagstaff’s craft beers. I enjoy a hard kombucha, clinking their glasses and cheering to my first real camping adventure.

No part of me wants to camp the night before a twelve-mile hike. I don’t sleep. The wind provides a nice white noise but its shattering gusts keep anyone from sinking into a dream. I lie in the tent uncomfortable and nervous, knowing what an unpleasant person I am without a good night’s sleep. We are all in for a long day together when the sun comes up.

 #

After so many tailgates in Iowa, I still caught myself referring to the group as “Kyle’s friends.” I had gotten to know all these girls, but we still had our own friends and our own lives and we never got together outside of tailgates. Unlike the guys, we didn’t have four years at Iowa State to bond us.

So I started something – Girls of the Crew, for all of us girlfriends who came to the group by default – and it took off. Everyone picked something they wanted to do – dessert and wine night, bounce center and tumbling, brunch and mimosas, housewarming parties. Everyone freaking loved it, and we all suddenly belonged in the group that wasn’t ours.

The week before I moved to Arizona, the girls threw me a going-away dinner. After I’d moved, they mailed me a home decor sign they’d made at one of their girls group dates since I’d left. Girls of the Crew still thrives today, four years later, and I Skype in for happy hours, baby showers, and girls’ nights.

If I had stayed home from those tailgates, I might not have those ten extra girlfriends who add a world of color to my life, who ask me every time we meet how my book is coming.

Socializing, I started to realize, gave me an opportunity to talk about my writing, to speak up about the project I’m working on, while connecting with the audience whom my work is largely intended for. Having friends I’m close with allows me the space to go deeper about my passions rather than trying to impress them by sharing details about a job I don’t care about.

I guess socializing can kind of be my thing, too.

#

At five a.m., we pack up the tents and drive the rest of the way to the Grand Canyon. A hot cup of coffee makes up for the windy, sleepless night. I spend the thirty-minute car ride combining almonds and peanuts and dried cranberries and banana chips to make the perfect trail mix.

The top of the Grand Canyon feels as bitter cold as sleeping in the tent in Flagstaff. We start our hike wearing leggings, long sleeves, and hats, but after about a half hour of descending switchbacks, we start sweating and peeling layers. The sun grows warmer the deeper we go, poking through and kissing our skin. We descend for four-and-a-half miles before a one-and-a-half-mile flat stretch to Plateau Point.

If I stayed home, I’d still have one image of the Grand Canyon – the same view from the rim that the other ninety-nine percent of tourists have.

If I stayed home, I’d be left wondering why Andy deemed this his favorite place in the world.

If I stayed home, I might have the beginnings of another essay about something from my past scribbled in a notebook.

But here I am, six sweaty miles down into the Grand Canyon, with something new to write about. The sleeplessness from the night before – and the fact that I left my perfect trail mix in the car – is forgotten, replaced by the adrenaline of truly seeing this holy ground for the first time. My surroundings look different from six miles in, from the lens of curious-writer-on-a-hike rather than uncomfortable-hiker-who-wants-to-be-writing.

From the edge of Plateau Point, I try to stand upright and take in the immensity of my new view – a 360-degree backdrop of vibrant rock, the Colorado River flowing miles below me, its blueish-green stream popping up from the tan rocks it weaves through – but my legs quiver from the work it took to get there. Six miles downhill is not the way our hikes usually begin. It is, however, what it takes for me to realize what makes the Grand Canyon so, well, grand.

That view carries me back up to the top, six miles of constant stair-stepping that’s about triple the Piestewa Peak hike we did a few weeks earlier. The three of us space out as we each grow more ambitious, then more tired, and more sore. When we think we’re close to the top, I see Kyle start running the rest of the way. I’m not far behind him, and I’m at a strong finishing pace. Each leg feels like it belongs to an elephant as I continue trudging step after step. But I feel strong, healthy, vibrant, and when I see Kyle cheering for me at the top, I’m filled with confidence. If I can do this, I can do anything. Maybe even finish writing a book.

There’s writing, and then there’s living a life worth writing about.

Michelle Chalkey is a Phoenix-based writer currently working on her first book, a collection of personal essays about her quest for confidence as an insecure twentysomething. Michelle’s work has been published in The Sunlight Press, The Mindful Word, Across the Margin, The Book of Hope Anthology, and Women’s Running Magazine. You can follow her on her website at michellechalkey.com, or keep up with her reading list on Instagram, @MichelleChalkeyWriter.

***

Wondering what to read next? 

This is not your typical divorce memoir.

Elizabeth Crane’s marriage is ending after fifteen years. While the marriage wasn’t perfect, her husband’s announcement that it is over leaves her reeling, and this gem of a book is the result. Written with fierce grace, her book tells the story of the marriage, the beginning and the end, and gives the reader a glimpse into what comes next for Crane.

“Reading about another person’s pain should not be this enjoyable, but Crane’s writing, full of wit and charm, makes it so.”
Kirkus (starred review)

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Trauma

Toodie

May 29, 2022

My father’s mistress was dying of vaginal cancer and my mother went to see her.  I can imagine how disarming Mom was when she entered the hospital room of her rival.  I’m sure she stopped to check her make-up under the harsh fluorescent lights of the hallway, and dabbed Ooh La Pink lipstick over a smile she’d rehearsed in the car’s rear-view mirror. She would have pulled up her girdle and sucked in her stomach before entering the sterile room with a vase of American Beauty roses from our garden.

Mom would have posed the bouquet on a table with the largest blooms facing the bed and paused to admire the flowers. With the same gentle hands she would have touched the shoulder of her rival’s once voluptuous body, now flaccid, rank and shrouded in blankets the color of her parchment skin. My mother probably held Liz in her arms while she cried and begged forgiveness.

The story goes that Liz said God was punishing her for the way she had lived her life,  and Mom said she knew Liz never meant to hurt anyone and only wanted a little happiness for herself, and God wanted us to be happy, and fun and laughter were gifts from God.

They’d shared the body of a man who could not love them, like all the men they’d known who told them what to do, who to be, and never saw who they were. To Dad, they were just “Broads makin’ a comeback.” Defeated by the prize-fighter who had to win each round, the mistress and the wife, the floozy and the saint, probably rolled their eyes and laughed at their lousy taste in men.

I know my mother thanked the mistress for making my father happy and giving me a Madame Alexander doll.  I’m sure Mom kissed the once strawberry-red crown of hair. Liz died one week later.

All hell broke loose. Liz’s death and Mom’s mercy were the talk of the town. Someone gossiped. I bet it was one of the fishwives at church or a customer from Dad’s bar, who derided Liz’s confession and Mom’s benediction.  I would like to pause here and tell the gossips about the upshot of their slander. Fifty years later, I want them to know, my bond with my mother was forever broken.

One night, there was a crash, a thud, a whimper and I ran from my bed to the living room to shield her from him. One of my parents must have said the name that must not be spoken.

The words “No Daddy No,” choke my throat.

Mom screams, “Toodie Toodie Toodie,”

A shadeless lamp lies sideways on the carpet among Mom’s books. The dog yelps in the corner. Dad must have kicked it and a pane of glass from the French door.  My feet might be cut but there is no blood. There is a rip in the frill of my Peter Rabbit nightgown but I keep screaming, “Please don’t hurt her anymore.”

Mom wraps her arms around my fat tummy. There is blood on the yoke of her nightgown.  Dad must have shown her the back of his hand. His brick-red knuckles bulge through leathery hairy skin. My father’s face is demented; a snarling werewolf with vicious hazel eyes stares down at me.  I meet his stare, and love the way my ten-year-old body feels. This is the ugliest part of me. How much I love my own anger.

“Toodie, Toodie, Toodie,” Mom yells.

***

Today, when I replay this memory, my knees still turn to jello. I gasp for breath and do not understand why she used to call me Toodie. Perhaps it was from a limerick or refrain that soothed her like a blessing that became my curse. Toodie never Clare, or any of the other names on my birth certificate, Sharon, Lynn, Hermine. Toodie was an apparition only Mom could see. I was exiled for seeing the truth.

Call it trauma, but either way the wound made me go sideways through life. The sounds of violence revved my amygdala into overdrive. The weight of shame lodged in my gray matter. Call it the curse of the ancestors, passed down in grandmother’s amniotic fluids, but we all know that when the truth hurts—the mind and the body go blank and the soul flash freezes.

Mom spun our response to the scandal like a Public Relations pro, with a stiff upper lip.

She decreed that boarding school would be an enriching experience. Being educated by nuns and living with girls like me would make me strong. After all, Mom had been sent away to British boarding school during her formative years.  I was sent away to protect me from gossip.

The taillights on Dad’s Cadillac disappeared down the driveway of Saint Joseph’s Academy.  I stood beneath the statue of Mother Mary and touched her outstretched palms and prayed to her for her protection. The Blue Lady did not shimmer or speak. Her heavenly dress was faded by the sun. Her smile had faded too.  Our Lady of Grace could not comfort all the sad sad girls who stood at her feet and shared the secrets of their hearts. The Blue Lady did not bless me. I could not feel her touch or the love in her heart for me. I could not feel my breath.

The Mother was mute.

“Stop pouting,” Sister Alice, my fifth grade teacher said, “You should be grateful to be here.”

I had escaped my parents’ marriage. Outlaw classmates taught me to pilfer frosty bottles of chocolate milk from an ancient vending machine, and penny-candy from the nuns’ closets. I was initiated by broken girls like me, who got angrier and fatter each month.We all woke up sobbing at night, and sought salvation in pancakes and deceit.

The rush of escape was an adrenaline high as potent as free sugar.

 

Clare Simons is aging gracefully in Portland Oregon and awaiting further instructions from the universe.  She has been deeply loved by a Guru and by a great man, and has come to understand that those loves are one in the same. Her memoir, Devoted explores faith, doubt and food.   

***

Have you pre-ordered Thrust


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

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Fiction, Relationships

A Terrible Thing Has Happened

April 22, 2022
tabatha

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

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

She wasn’t married. Never had been.

And she wasn’t a good cook.

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

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

“Not much,” Tabatha answered after swallowing.

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

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

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

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

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

Different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was what Mrs L. M. Everland was.

Kind.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nancy glanced back again and grinned a toothy grin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

For Virginia Woolf

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

***

***

Writing Cohort Opportunity

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

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

Cohort Includes:

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

Email info@circeconsulting.net for more information

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

 

Guest Posts, Humor, Relationships

Better Questions for OK Cupid

April 19, 2022
guaranteed

Compatibility Guaranteed!

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

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

2. With whom do you empathize?

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

3. What do you admire most about bedbugs?

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

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

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

5. What does your cat think about you?

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

6. What is your favorite sound?

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

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

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

8. Why do we die?

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

If all answers match, guaranteed lifelong devotion.

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

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

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

***

Writing Cohort Opportunity

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

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

Cohort Includes:

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

Email info@circeconsulting.net for more information

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change