By Angela M Giles
By Jen Fitzgerald
Flagstaff, AZ feels like a place where it is safe to be in between. Maybe not between any two things as tangible as a wall and a bear, but in between way points, between jobs, between mountains, or in between a question and the possibility of its answer. The geographic placement of the city mirrors the position of Megrez, the star that marks the end of the Big Dipper’s handle; Tucson, Phoenix, Flagstaff then pouring into the deep bowl of the Hopi Nation and branching out into the entirety of Ursa Major.
Those from Flagstaff don’t stay in Flagstaff for very long without feeling some sort of way about it. The reasons are varied, but all seem to loop back into, “Flagstaff has got a lot of problems but it’s better than where I was.” I could like it there until it became too familiar. I could like it until the novelty wore off and I was the only stationary creature. I could enjoy the train coming through until the first fatality, the first near-miss I witnessed— until it solidified as a place where things happen.
There is much to love about this Dark Sky City, one of our rare 13 in the United States. The come as you may and are vibe is a holdover from the golden days of Route 66 and the Santa Fe Rail Line. Almost everyone there is from somewhere else, and that somewhere else is mostly Phoenix, with Tucson at a close second. This is a city that prizes movement—and I know what it means to move. Continue Reading…
By Catherine Curan
At age 19 I fell in love forever, with Odysseus, with Yiannis, and most of all with Constantine.
My mother had said college would be a happier place than high school for me, a bookish would-be poet marooned in small-town Long Island, dreaming of a life of the mind. What better place to find it than Princeton University, the pinnacle of the Ivy League and my father’s beloved alma mater? But when I arrived in September 1988, the intellectual paradise I had naively expected shimmered out of reach. I was wait-listed for creative writing workshops. I floundered in philosophy classes I took instead. I drank cheap beer, discovering a drunken hookup culture my mother didn’t know had replaced dating. I was so unhappy, I nearly dropped out.
My parents wanted me to stay. So I did, enrolling sophomore year in a comparative literature class with an appealingly weighty title: Myth, History, and Contemporary Experience in Modern Greek, English, and American Poetry. On the first day, a dozen students crowded around a long table headed by an avuncular professor who opened a book and immediately began lecturing, engrossed in the text.
I can’t recall exactly which poem he read. I like to think it was Cavafy, encouraging Odysseus to keep his beloved lost homeland of Ithaka always in mind, without fearing the monsters or angry gods he might find along the way. “You won’t encounter them / unless you bring them along inside your soul, / unless your soul sets them up in front of you.” The poems we discussed that day, and Professor Edmund Keeley’s unassuming love for them, captivated me. I bought Keeley’s collection of translations, “Voices of Modern Greece”, a slim paperback with a plain cover that gave no hint the verse it contained would crack my life wide open. My passion for these poets—Constantine Cavafy, Yiannis Ritsos, and Odysseus Elytis—would send me on an odyssey thousands of miles from home, leading to a new language, a new home, love, betrayal, loss, and heartbreak. I didn’t know it then, but my personal epic journey began in that classroom with a few lines of Modern Greek poetry.
Both scholarship student and Princeton legacy, I was navigating an uneasy mixture of struggle and privilege. My father had graduated in 1958, but he still bore childhood scars of poverty and loss. I grew up watching him hoard 32-ounce cans of imported Italian plum tomatoes so he would always be able to make sauce, and hearing stories of how he and his five siblings cared for each other after their mother died and their father abandoned them.
I had no interest in my grandfather’s language, Italian, or in German, the language of my grandmother, whose death remained an ever-present tragedy. Greece had always fascinated me, and in Keeley’s class, Modern Greek poetry began to take shape as an appealing island I could explore on my own, apart from my family.
I was in awe of any person with the exalted title “professor”, but Keeley was friendly and supportive, introducing me to Dimitri Gondicas, the Assistant Director of the Program in Hellenic Studies. When I decided to write my junior paper on Cavafy, Gondicas arranged for philosophy professor Alexander Nehamas to advise me. Some of my happiest Princeton memories are of meeting with Nehamas in his office at 1879 Hall to discuss Cavafy. For years afterwards (until it was lost in a move), I kept Nehamas’ translation of my favorite Cavafy poem, “I’ve Brought to Art”, above my desk.
My work with Nehamas showed me the limits of writing about poetry in translation. Gondicas suggested I study Greek in Athens, offering me a scholarship.
I told my mother first. As a teenager, she had wanted to be a flight attendant, and still dreamt of traveling the world. We decided to tell my father I’d won a prestigious scholarship. Only after he congratulated me, glowing with pride, did we mention my trip to Greece.
At last I was sailing closer to a life of the mind (something I had not even tried to define, or realized I could create). A childhood friend traveled with me, and we skylarked around Paros with two handsome brothers from the UK. Then my friends returned home, leaving me in Athens, alone. I had never been farther from home than New Jersey. Athens seemed too intense: loud, hot, bright, and utterly baffling. I knew no one, and the other students in my Greek class were already a tight-knit group from the same American university.
The language I had longed to learn seemed nearly impossible, too. I remember sitting in my apartment, struggling to sound out a new vocabulary word. Greek is notorious for complex multisyllabic words, but I wasn’t going to give up until I got this one. “Soo-ppp, soo-ppp-eh,” I intoned. “Soo ppp eh, rm, ar, ket.” Supermarket. I had just spent ten minutes deciphering an English word in Greek. I gave up and went to buy canned tomatoes for the marinara sauce I was cooking, gesturing to the shopkeeper to make myself understood.
The next day after class I spotted a guy in a Princeton T-shirt, and tapped him on the shoulder. Photis invited me to lunch. He and his father, a Greek-American professor, were so friendly, I forgot to be shy of the man with the exalted title, and his handsome son. I was headed back to Princeton in two weeks, while Photis was spending a year in Greece. Both of us were surprised by how quickly our attraction deepened into love.
No matter that he lived in Athens. It was thrilling to long for him, back in Princeton. It was thrilling to walk to the copy shop late at night and receive a page of curling paper, fresh from the fax machine, containing a love letter he’d just written, 3,000 miles away. No matter that I now associated the language of Constantine, Odysseus, and Yiannis, my trio of perfect poets, with the flesh-and-blood Photis. Our love had survived my return to America, and was strong enough to lure him back for the spring semester.
After I graduated, we spent the summer in Greece. This time he was returning to Princeton, while I stayed in Athens for a year, teaching English and studying Greek so I could finally read Cavafy. Confident in our relationship, Photis suggested we see other people while apart. I didn’t like the idea, but I agreed. What difference would a meaningless fling make?
In November, I met a young Athenian. A professional-studies student and an aspiring composer, he struggled, as I did, to balance duty with creative dreams. Unlike Photis, my Athenian loved Modern Greek poetry, too; the first present he gave me was a copy in Greek of Elytis’ “Diary of an Invisible April”. And so once again I embarked on a romance that could not last. My Athenian was preparing for two years of mandatory service in the Greek Army, while Photis planned to join me in Greece after exams.
By the time my parents visited Athens that spring, I had astonished myself and everyone else by breaking up with Photis. My father had tolerated him, just barely, deriding our transatlantic passion as “puppy love”. In Athens, my parents smiled through a dinner with me and my new love, but I knew they feared losing me to Greece. I was happy with my Athenian, but I hated that I had hurt Photis, and I wondered, if I could abandon him, what other betrayals was I capable of?
That spring, I forgot about Yiannis, Odysseus, and Constantine. I squandered the opportunity to read Cavafy with my undergraduate Greek professor, Richard Burgi, who had retired to Athens. My Athenian’s knowledge of my native language was so much better than mine of his that we rarely spoke Greek to each other, and I did not complete the few translations I started of the poems he’d given me. Shutting out my guilt about Photis and anxieties about the future, I lived in a desperate but exalted present tense. My Athenian would soon be joining the army. My job, and the on-campus housing that came with it, was ending, and so was my time in Greece.
I had no plans for what came next. It did not even occur to me to request another deferral on my student loans, or try to find a new job, so I could stay. I had been away for an entire year, enjoying myself, perhaps too much. It was time to go home.
America had become a foreign country. New York felt unreal, a temporary detour until I could sort out a scholarship for graduate school in England or Greece. I found a job and started repaying my Princeton loans, while my Athenian coped with army life. We had no money for traveling, so long-distance landline calls and hand-written letters sustained us. During our separation, my relationship to the language I had started learning so I could read Modern Greek poetry deepened and changed. It took on the tenor of his voice on my answering machine, the sweet silliness of the pet name we created from one of my funnier grammatical errors. The shaky alpha, beta, gammas from my copybooks the summer I met Photis solidified into the shape my Athenian gave the Greek alphabet when he wrote to me from the army camp.
Over time, the stress and unhappiness on both sides grew too great, and in early 1995, we admitted defeat. Single again for the first time in three years, I discovered that I could not reestablish a purely academic connection to the language of my love for these two men. I quit my
Greek lessons and abandoned my comp-lit career plans. I felt I had failed myself and my mentors. I couldn’t even admit why. Modern Greek had become a lexicon of heartbreak, and I had to leave it behind me.
The man I married is the kindest person I know. Understanding my desire to study Greek in a new way, he found an app for me last fall, and since then I’ve been practicing Greek almost every day. Just this week I’ve been able, for the first time in years, to read a few lines of Cavafy. I’m also discovering, in English and the original Greek, new voices collected in the bilingual anthology “Austerity Measures” published in 2016.
“As you set out for Ithaka, hope your road is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery,” Cavafy wrote. “Keep Ithaka always in your mind. / Arriving there is what you are destined for. / But do not hurry the journey at all. / Better if it lasts for years, / so you’re old by the time you reach the island, / wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way.”
I won’t have the Modern Greek Studies career I once envisioned, earning the exalted title of professor of comparative literature for myself. I’ll never know what my life would have been like if I had stayed in Greece. But I’ve returned at last to the Modern Greek poets I once loved for their beautiful, dangerous, passionate words. They will always be with me.
Catherine Curan is a fiction writer, independent journalist, and writing teacher based in New York City. Her short stories have appeared in Arts & Letters, Fiction, Many Mountains Moving, Ozone Park Journal, and the SalonZine. In 2011, she won a Freelance Fellowship from Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. for a three-month investigation into residential foreclosures in the New York City area, which was published by the New York Post. She is working on a novel set during the Great Recession, titled “Unsecured”.
By Kathryn Streeter
I posed a million-dirham ($272,260.72 in today’s US dollar) question: “Do the children of Dubai play in sandboxes?” Our family, newly transplanted from the Washington, DC area where sandboxes had provided our children with hours of fun in earlier years, mulled over this question the summer we moved temporarily to the desert metropolis of Dubai. Even with all of Dubai’s development, if one catapulted high enough above the impressive skyline, Dubai seemed not too unlike one massive sandbox with ribbons of various roads lying thickly near the coast and rapidly thinning out in numbers the further away from the sandbox’s edge of the Arabian Sea, until only interminable sand remained.
The subject of driving, however, quickly claimed our attention as it rapidly morphed to the level of top priority. This critical arena of living required quick-study because learning this new turf involved navigating Dubai’s roads, roads which often betrayed the foundation they were laid upon: sand.
From our company apartment’s location, we easily realized that we were isolated without a car. As urbanites, we had associated walking with city living. Going to a coffeeshop or grocery didn’t require a car. Walking the kids to school? No problem. Bike trails and sidewalks connected neighborhoods and ultimately, people. Not so in Dubai, where pedestrians were merely walking to their cars, that in and of itself often life-threatening because Dubai was built with cars, not people, in mind. Continue Reading…
By Kristin O’Keefe
Of course she paced the van’s third row. Zoe knew what suitcases signified and she did not like to be left.
Abused as a puppy, our rescue dog would flinch when strangers raised a hand to pet her. She got better over time, but she was still frugal with affection. Zoe loved five people: my husband, our two children, my father and me. She tolerated everyone else.
Unfortunately for the dog, we promised friends in Europe that this was the year we’d visit.
At least Zoe wouldn’t be kenneled; she was old and sensitive and keened mournfully the times we dropped her at one. She’d be with family: first my sister-in-laws’ home for a few days, then off to my parents, where she’d rest her head on my father’s lap and patiently wait to be petted. Our dog was in good hands. Continue Reading…
By Liane Kupferberg Carter
“I’m kidnapping you to Italy and this time I’m not taking no for an answer,” my college roommate Pat announces.
Pat bought a vacation house in Umbria, Italy eight years ago, but my husband Marc and I have never visited. We aren’t able to travel together much because we have a developmentally disabled son. “You should go with Pat,” Marc says. “It’s the trip of a lifetime.”
Still, travel is a mixed bag. There’s the pleasure of it, of course. But there is always an undercurrent of longing and sadness too. I so wish Marc and I could travel together. And I feel guilty. Doesn’t he deserve some respite too? Why should I be the one who gets to go gallivanting?
“What can I bring you?” I ask him. “Gloves? A wallet? Wine?”
“An ancient Etruscan artifact,” he says.
“Right,” I say. “I’ll go digging up Pat’s back yard.”
Pat has invited three of her closest friends. None of us knows each other well. “What if we don’t get along? What if the others don’t like me?” I ask Pat.
“Lynne and Eve said the same thing!” she says. “Do you think I would have put us together if I thought we wouldn’t click?”
So I pack, in my usual anxious way, for every contingency. A first aid kit. A four inch folding umbrella. An Italian phrase book. I’m the kind of girl who always remembers to bring the toothpaste. Continue Reading…
By Debby Dodds
A loud thumping on the door seemed indistinguishable from the thundering pounding in my own head. All I could think of was that scene in Sixteen Candles with Long Duck hungover, moaning on the ground “…the Donger need FOOD!”
Florence, Italy I told myself as I surveyed my pension bedroom through the watery slits that had previously been my eyes. I slid out of bed and crawled to the door.
In 1992, I wasn’t the wine drinker I am now, so the few glasses I’d had with my new Italian friends tortured me mightily that morning after.
I was backpacking overseas with a new boyfriend, en route to Sardinia where we’d planned to stay with my old boyfriend, with whom I’d never officially broken up. In retrospect, that might have had something to do with my imprudent imbibing the night before.
I opened the door a bit and peered through the crack I’d allowed.
“Your Vice President is an IDIOT! He cannot even spell POTATO! HA!” A fiercely triumphant Roman in a red banana-hammock bathing suit stood outside my door gesticulating with his finger at me.
I pinched the bridge of my nose to try to quell my raging headache. “Carmen? From last night, right?” I vaguely remembered him heartily guffawing at my stories in the common area of the B&B around 2am. I’d been making him guffaw, telling him stories about working at Disney World. He especially enjoyed hearing how some American tourists made it their mission to “drink around the world,” sampling beer or wine at every country pavilion when visiting Disney World’s Epcot Center, but my goal had been to “date around the world” when I worked there, as every country from England to Morocco was staffed exclusively with cast members hired from that country. Continue Reading…
By Jillian Schedneck
At 21, it was stomping through the streets of Bath under a perpetual pissing of rain, reading the obscure poetry of Anne Finch and Lady Mary Montagu, hanging around pubs in between class waiting for English men to talk to me. It was liking myself more than I ever had before. I had left Boston a shattered, friendless virgin, but after only a few weeks in England, I was rapidly turned into someone new: a version of myself I’d only dreamed of. I spoke up in class, made my new friends laugh, and managed to capture the attention of English men, at least for a little while. And this was only the beginning.
I fell in love with waking up in Bath, blinking into the light from my bedroom window. I fell in love with ravenous lunches of Cornish pasties or brie and ham sandwiches, sitting on a bench in the Abbey Square with my knees pulled up, a book resting on the curve of my thighs, listening to the clipped accents of tour guides. I fell in love with Great Pulteney Street, a long stretch of limestone colored terrace houses that I liked to imagine myself living in one day.
My body felt different, lighter, as if I stepped on springs, as if the great knot of tense energy that had once existed in my chest was now unraveling. What had taken me so long to get away? After all, I stood on the same earth, breathed the same air, and lived by the dictates of the same sky. And it was so much better here; more than that: it was as if life, my now luminous life, happened only here, and the rest—before and after—could only be grey, dull filler.
Strolling the streets of Bath, I saw myself following in the footsteps of the eighteenth century women writers I’d so admired last semester in my survey of British literature course. I had improbably recognized myself in these women—countesses and literary hostesses, austere wives and the scandalously single—and their struggles to write. I hadn’t read Alexander Pope or Samuel Johnson in this personal way, but as old men in wigs, penning polemics that never stuck with me. But when I came to those women’s poems and diaries, I wondered, what would I have done in their places? If writing meant I would likely appear foolish and incompetent in the world of men, would I have had the courage? I didn’t think so.
That unnamed fear nettled me, made me pause and finally decide that on this fleeting, life-altering study abroad, experience was key. I had to gain that courage. In order to create worthwhile stories, I told myself I needed the insight that come from chance encounters, longing and love. And I wanted to see my see my transformation in the eyes of another, this new version of myself reflected back at me. So one night, when an older man asked if I’d travel to Barnstaple with him the next day, I said yes.
He approached my friends and me as we sipped black ciders at our local pub. “Smile for me please, ladies!” I squinted up at him and flashed a smile.
He was in his early thirties, barrel-chested, with hazel eyes and thick lashes. “I thought so! You are American. I had a bet with my mate.” I glared at him, confused. “Because you all have perfect teeth! Most of us English haven’t been so fortunate.” He let out a roaring laugh. I was the only one to join him.
My friends quickly found other men to talk to, and soon it was just the two of us. Aaron didn’t ask me the usual: how long I had been in England, my impressions so far, or where I was from in America. Instead, we made fun of each other’s accents, sang along to cheesy pop songs playing in the pub, and ordered several more rounds. I learned he was a regional salesman for LazyBoy furniture, and when I said I was studying eighteenth century women writers, he looked at me with a kind of wonderment.
After half an hour of chatter, he put his hands on my shoulders. “Listen, I’m going to Barnstaple tomorrow for work, so you might as well come along. See a bit of the country while you’re still here.”
I took a step back. Was he serious?
“Don’t you fancy me?”
“I don’t know!” I shouted. But I did like the way he was looking at me, determinedly, willing me to fancy him. “Ok,” I said, figuring simultaneously that this was just the kind of invitation I was hoping for, and that I could change my mind in the morning. “I’ll go.”
“Brilliant.” He grabbed my waist. “Can I kiss you?” Then he leaned in, soft lips on mine, hands pressing into the small of my back.
The next morning, I couldn’t work out if I was being romantic and adventurous, or insane and duped. But he exuded a kind of light, an effervescence. I liked it. Why make things complicated? I nearly skipped down the steps and waited outside in the bright, fresh morning for Aaron to pick me up. Wearing the new red coat I had bought in London, I felt pretty, magnanimous, in love with the turn my life had just taken.
A white hatchback slowed and then stopped. Aaron stepped out of the car, handsome in the daylight wearing a dark grey suit.
“Happy to see me? Or do I look too old for you now?” He said, squinting at me.
“You look fine,” I said, rising and walking to the car, and then worried that sounded wrong. “Good!” I shouted. “I think you look very nice.” Aaron laughed as we got into his car and gave my thigh a big squeeze.
Then he tossed a spiral bound book of road maps onto my lap. “You’re in charge of directions.”
For the whole day, we drove around the English countryside, visiting quaint towns. His job seemed cursory and cruisy. He checked in on furniture stores nearly as an afterthought. Aaron even made a house call, fixing an ailing chair in an old woman’s living room. Throughout the day, I learned that he was thirty-one, a vegetarian, and, crucially, that he lived in a flat in Great Pulteney Street. I couldn’t believe he lived on the most beautiful street in the world and he wasn’t even famous.
By the time we got home that evening, the sky was deep pink and the sun was falling beyond clusters of brown roofs. I wished we could remain just like this: anticipating our entrance to the stunning city below and marveling at the night ahead. A great sense of possibility overwhelmed me, and I saw myself following in the footsteps of some of those bold eighteenth century women writers, Hester Thrale and Lady Mary Montagu, who wrote diaries and letters about choosing love that would defy their worlds. Like them, I was a woman who could fall in love deeply, recklessly.
“I never want to leave here,” I said.
Aaron glared at me, his hands perfectly still at the wheel. “You can stay with me.”
And so I did. Even when I cooked at home with my roommates or went out for pizza, Aaron would pull up at my corner of North Parade when I was through, and we would travel the short distance to Great Pulteney Street. It was always a relief to slip into his car, his green eyes flashing, his laughter booming.
We spoke of a life of travel. Aaron wanted to take me to the Canary Islands, Majorca, the Maldives, places I had never heard of. For my graduation, he said we would ride the ferry over to Calais, in France, and drive through Belgium, Germany and Holland. England suddenly seemed so ordinary.
When the semester ended, we had a tearful goodbye at Heathrow airport. But I saw Aaron a few months later, when he visited me in Boston that summer. Suddenly there he was, my connection to Bath, the embodiment of my transformation into someone desirable and worldly. While lazing in the Public Gardens, we solidified our plans: I just had to get through my senior year at Boston College, and then I would move into his flat in Bath. It sounded like a dream, to live on Great Pulteney Street, to wake in Aaron’s apartment every morning and take ruminative walks in Victoria Park with notebook in hand, teaching myself to write a novel.
When the new semester started, Aaron and I emailed and talked on the phone regularly. What in the world did we tell each other? The papers I wrote, the dramas of my roommates? Footy scores and his loneliness without me, driving through the Southwest of England alone? He went for broke on calling cards and visits to Boston, and paying for my flights to England. I was continually elated that someone who lived in Bath wanted me to return there as badly as I did.
Did I mention he was barrel-chested? A big frame, overweight: fat. Even now I cringe at the word. On his first visit to Boston, my twin sister wondered what I was doing with him. Her gay best friend sneered and asked why I was with a fat guy.
“He’s not fat,” I replied, exasperated. But he was. He was vegetarian, but not the kind who ate tofu wrapped in lettuce leaves. He consumed cheese and onion flavored crisps, pasta and pizza and veggie burgers with plenty of chips. He purchased a can of Coke wherever we went. His only exercise was a jaunty walk to the service station to pay for petrol. But I never tried to change his habits. I could overlook anything when it came to Aaron.
He was my first. We had sex on his first visit to Boston, on my summer sub letter’s bed, to the background rumble of the T on Commonwealth Avenue. I wasn’t very impressed with the whole thing, and just happy to get it over with. I figured we wouldn’t have to do that again for a while. But of course, it was only the beginning.
I woke to his entreaties for sex one morning in Spain—a trip we took just before my graduation. He told me to stop checking my emails and become more dedicated to our sex life. I was waiting for notification of a writing award from my university, and had begun to correctly presume that I hadn’t won. I wasn’t like those 18th century women writers—Hester Thrale, Lady Mary, or Anne Finch, and the many others I had admired. I wasn’t gutsy or talented. I didn’t have a vision that went beyond my years, let alone my century. I hugged Aaron and said I would do better. My chance encounter, my longing and love, had achieved the opposite intention. Instead of increasing my courage, I decided that Aaron was all I had.
That spring, I bought a one-way ticket to Bath. It seemed inevitable, the fruition of my worldly transformation, and my lack of any other plan. I didn’t envy my classmates and all their worries about jobs and moves after graduation. They were only staying in America, and their concerns seemed so small. I convinced myself that I had everything sorted for a life of love and adventure abroad. Once I got on that one-way flight, everything would truly begin.
Yet something twisted inside me as my roommates spoke about their nascent careers. In contrast, I imagined my post-graduation life, spending every day with my fat boyfriend in his small, drafty flat. I wouldn’t have a job; I hadn’t even organized a work visa. My favorite professor encouraged me to approach a local US newspaper and write a column on my life in England, but I couldn’t imagine who would want to read about my cruisy life in Bath. I began to envision my immediate future as a failure, trudging around Bath alone, totally dependent on Aaron: financially, emotionally, socially. This dream life I had concocted suddenly seemed utterly boring and unproductive. It became crystal clear that this situation was intolerable.
Still, I hesitated putting this decision into action. Quite frankly, Aaron had spent a lot of money on our relationship, and I felt I owed him for that. But what did I owe him exactly? Another year? A few months? The idea of translating his financial investment in our relationship into days and weeks began to seem so preposterous that one night, a few weeks before my flight to England, I called Aaron to say I wasn’t coming. I didn’t think I would actually do it until I had dialed his number and said the words: “I’m not getting on that plane.”
I was back at my mom’s condo in New Hampshire by then, suitcase open in my old room, filled with the clothes I had planned to take to Bath. Aaron pleaded with me to use my ticket, promising to buy my return flight whenever I wanted to leave. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t go to Bath and then leave again. If I went, I would end up staying.
I cried for a few weeks, and then moved back to Boston for the summer. I spent my days waking at 530am to work the early shift at Starbucks, taking afternoon naps in the Boston Commons, and dating a sweet guy who showed me what great sex really was. When the summer was over, I moved to London on a student-work visa with my friend Katie, a wonderful girl I had roomed with in Bath. I got a job editing ad copy in a poorly lit office. Katie and I went out every night with the aim of finding British boyfriends. We found a few. But for me, Aaron was always in the background. I met him all over England, wherever he was headed for work: Nottingham, Brighton, Dorset.
On the trains to meet him, I would take out my notebook and write about the surprising pleasure of looking for a London flat, visiting all those otherworldly pockets of the city and imagining my life in each one. I wrote about the guys I kissed in bars. When they asked me to come home with them, I would just laugh at their proposals, because I had only slept with two people and the idea of having sex with a near stranger seemed hilariously preposterous. I wrote about how different it was here than in Bath, only a ninety-minute train ride away. Those trips, watching the dark English countryside zoom by as I headed toward the first man who ever loved me, are still the purest memories I have of the thrill of writing.
Whenever I arrived back in London after another weekend with Aaron, I would remind myself that this was the grand city of pleasure, enchantment, temptation and vice from the eighteenth century novels and plays I had studied. This had been the glittering, magical world of gardens and palaces and concerts, beautifully attired young people dancing at assemblies under golden lanterns, strolling arm in arm through the mall in St. James Park. This was where the women writers had lived, where they wrote their letters and diaries, treatises, novels and plays, and this was where they had fallen in and out of love. This was that same chaotic place where Katie and I had arrived, jetlagged and useless, where we had gotten our laptops stolen in the first flat we rented, where we shared a two-pound kebab sandwich every night. Our lives in London were neither enchanted nor disappointing, but real, and I was grateful to be there, with or without Aaron.
The last time I saw Aaron was three years later, when I was twenty-five and in graduate school in West Virginia. On my way to a summer course in Prague, I flew through London. He picked me up and we travelled to Cornwall for a few days. Even though he had moved out of Bath by then, I still fell in love with him once more as we strode through the streets of Newquay and ordered a pizza. It had been four years since we first met, and already that person reflected in Aaron’s eyes had changed dramatically.
I was no longer dependent on him for my connection to the wider world; he no longer served as a reflection of my worldly transformation. In a few years, I would move to Abu Dhabi for a teaching position; I would write a book about my life there. At 30, I would move to Australia to do a PhD in Gender Studies, and fall in love with an Australian man. All of this was ahead of me, and when I looked into Aaron’s eyes I saw a love for the soggy streets of Bath and the old dream that that would be enough.
Jillian lives in Adelaide, Australia with her husband and daughter. She runs the travel memoir writing website Writing From Near and Far, and is the author of the travel memoir Abu Dhabi Days, Dubai Nights. She holds an MFA in creative writing and a PhD in Gender Studies. Her writing has appeared in Brevity, Redivider and The Lifted Brow, among others.
By Rae Pagliarulo
I spotted a payphone on the rainy sidewalk and hurried inside, slamming the Plexiglas door behind me. It felt good to have the persistent drizzle off my face, to give my pounding feet a break from the never-ending avenues. My polka-dotted rubber boots had each sprung a leak, and all day long I had walked in two personal puddles. People walked by the phone booth holding hands under big umbrellas. They laughed as the taxicabs splashed water near their feet, and crossed the labyrinthine streets without looking. Every other person in Paris seemed so effortless, so comfortable. They had woken up here. They knew where everything was – the deli, the convenience store, the pharmacy, and the coffee shop where a friend was waiting. I had no friend waiting. I had a payphone that would charge me forty dollars to make a five-minute call to my mother.
I jammed my debit card into the slot and dialed my mom’s number carefully. After one too many trills, my mother’s voice rankled the receiver, sounding much too far away. I interrupted her cheery greeting with panic. “Mom? Mom, it’s me! Hi!” She screamed into the phone, asking me a ton of questions – how were the Parisian streets? Was the city as beautiful as she’d heard? Did I see the Seine? Did I drink wine, or meet anybody nice, or see the Eiffel Tower, or eat amazing food? Continue Reading…
By Brandel France de Bravo
One late night, a small, jittery man cornered me outside a friend’s apartment building and held a broken bottle to my face. I had no purse so he asked me to empty my pockets. Then he pointed to my hand and said in a Spanish accent: The ring. Give me the ring. My friend upstairs heard a woman’s scream sear the air like acid: “I thought someone had died.”
The mugging occurred in New York, a few days after landing. The relinquished ring was the last piece of jewelry I had left. The rest had been stolen from my suitcase somewhere between N’djili airport in Africa and the carousel at JFK. Crossing the Atlantic, I had gained five hours, but lost the necklace and earrings Mark had given me. The engagement ring, too, had been from Mark. Made of 18 karat gold and wenge wood, we had designed it together over scotch after a long day at the office where we both worked.
We were two Americans living in an African country banded by the equator, fighting a new disease called AIDS. I had just arrived, fresh from graduate school in public health; Mark, who was seventeen years older, had been living there for nearly two decades. He was confident yet self-effacing, and smiled at me in a way no man my age ever did. Fluent in French and one of the local languages, he knew how to navigate the endemic corruption. He shared an office with Ministry health officials, and became my man on the inside. He praised me and my organization to the officials and divulged their private comments to me over dinner. Before long, I was deemed “indispensable,” my organization’s proposal was funded, and my presence in-country assured. But our collusion in matters of work wasn’t the only reason we had kept our engagement secret.
Mark wasn’t exactly single. He lived with a woman he had met in the interior and invited to the capital. “We sleep in the same bed but we haven’t made love in three years.” I was young and didn’t know any men who said “make love.” Unable to bear children of her own, Mark’s companion helped care for the three he had fathered with another woman. Mark met many women as he crisscrossed the country in his Land Rover, chasing down small pox cases and overseeing vaccination teams. In the country that was then called Zaire, needles brought health but also disease. In 1976, some nuns giving vitamin injections to pregnant women precipitated the world’s first Ebola outbreak. Mark’s oldest child was just a toddler, still living with her mother, and Mark had not yet met his future companion.
“We’re more like roommates or friends now,” he assured me. Continue Reading…
By Ernest White II
Fat faggot was what they called me from eighth through twelfth grades. It had been just plain faggot before then. And sissy and sweet thang and Oreo and mutt and sometimes halfbreed and once or twice even cracker. But it was fat faggot that stayed.
It stayed after I had graduated high school and lost 120 pounds, after I graduated college with honors and snagged a staffer position on Capitol Hill, after I finished my masters program and moved abroad, living and working as a college professor, then writer, in Colombia and Brazil and Germany and South Africa. It stayed no matter how much weight I’d lost, how many personal or professional achievements I’d accomplished, how many lovers I had, how many exotic trips—or psychotropic drugs—I took. Fat. Motherfucking. Faggot. Continue Reading…
By Melissa Ballard
One Month Before Going Away
- Try not to think about it. You know it will take you forever–longer than the trip will last–to pack. Even with all that prep, you will take too many pairs of shoes and forget the iPod on which you’ve downloaded the CD, How To Eliminate Panic Attacks.
- Remember this is something you want to do, and will almost certainly enjoy. That the anticipation is always the worst part. Always.
- Tell yourself that anything you forget can be purchased once you get there. Probably. Try not to think about that week you spent without a car at a summer resort where the gourmet grocery store sold seventeen flavors of olive oil, but did not stock peanut butter.
- Meditate daily. Practice positive-self talk. Try not to take yourself so seriously, for God’s sake.
Most people—Americans, anyway—have imaginary checklists with grand items they tick off one-by-one as they go through life. Visit Paris — check! Go bungee jumping — check! Run a marathon —check! When asked about my own bucket list I have to struggle to think of more than two items, and they’re not your usual wishes: kayaking with killer whales in Vancouver Bay and attending the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.
Truthfully, I only remember the kayaking part when trying to come up with a creative answer to the bucket list question. But Davos is a real dream for me. Unfortunately no one on the inside has any reason to send me an invitation, but I’m usually in a different part of the Eastern Alps when the world’s luminaries are convening in Switzerland. Usually, I’m tagging along with my husband for an annual medical congress he attends in the tiny village of Alpbach, in Austria.
Alpbach is quaint and cute and everyone remembers you when you return because outside of the tourists, almost everyone there is related. It takes about five minutes to walk from one end of the village to the other, but it’s an enjoyable five minutes amongst preserved, unified, traditional wooden buildings. Each roof peeks cozily from beneath a quilt of pristine snow, and each chimney lazily exhales a steady stream of smoke from a fireplace inside. Every year the staff at Der Alpbacherhof Hotel patiently suffers through my broken German. They give me wry, knowing smiles when I stumble through the haze of my jet lag into the breakfast hall just as they’re about to shut it down at 10:30am. Every year the same dog wiggles his way toward Aaron and me for a pat as we walk up the hill toward the glass and metal marvel that is the Congress Centre, a meeting space that is the area’s lifeblood. Because of the timing of the annual meeting and the seemingly misplaced, ultra-contemporary structure, I dubbed the trip “Mini Davos” the first time we went.
This year my husband made an unusual move and signed up for a second conference following the Alpbach congress. I’d been told we were going to Innsbruck. Instead we went to Igls, another small village that is located five kilometers and several decades away from the Tyrolean capitol.
There were signs upon our arrival indicating that we wouldn’t be experiencing the warm hospitality we’ve become accustomed to in the state of Tyrol. My husband checked into the hotel while I organized our things in the car, trying to fully wake myself from the nap I’d taken on the drive. When we walked back through the front door once he’d come to help me, we busily walked toward the elevator, but the woman working behind the front desk came running from it to interrupt our path.
“Excuse me! Excuse me!” she said, putting out her arm to stop me from walking through the elevator door. “This is for guests only!”
Still foggy from my nap, I wasn’t alert enough to be anything but confused for a moment. There was a tinge of familiarity to the unfriendly greeting, but I couldn’t quite place it. All I knew was that I didn’t like it, and I silently raised an eyebrow at the woman as Aaron waved his keycard in front of her and informed her that we were heading to our room. By the time we reached the third floor I was fully awake and haughtily ticked off, realizing that the receptionist had—at best—assumed I didn’t match her assumption of what the wife of a white American businessman should look like. At worst, she’d thought I was a hooker. Once we’d unpacked, I took a page from my mother’s book of make-the-bitches-eat-their-hearts-out. I changed out of my ski jacket and thermal top and into some cashmere, put makeup on for the first time that day (we’d stayed up so late drinking wine with friends the night before!), and completely ignored the woman when we passed her on our way out to find some lunch, cheerfully calling “Grüss gott!” to anyone else we passed in the lobby.
Grüss gott. The phrase means “may God greet you.” In Austria and parts of German Bavaria it’s customary to give this blessing to people as you cross their paths. At busy times of the day in Tyrolean villages the air undulates with a continuous line of these greetings as everyone nods and acknowledges everyone else. In more cosmopolitan areas Grüss gott is used in more direct interactions, such as when entering a store or meeting a friend. The phrase represents much of what led Aaron and I to fall in love with Austria. Grüss gott feels like a friendly reminder to slow down. It feels like a wish to know the people around you. It feels similar to a sort of American Southernism that highlights the region’s unhidden quirks and long, drawn-out conversations. Perhaps this is why we felt so welcome the first time we visited Alpbach. We felt something akin to the warm space within the bubble of friends and family we’d built in South Carolina that kept us from moving away, despite the many signs that we should probably live elsewhere. At home, we were like welcome strangers. The same seemed true in Austria. It seemed that every Grüss gott was sincerely given as a wish for good luck and well-being. On that first trip we visited friends in Salzburg once the conference was over. It was Aaron’s birthday and we dined and sipped local wine while trading stories of outdoor adventures and shopping. We returned to the hotel feeling warm and happy, as if God really had greeted us in Austria, bestowing grace and fellowship upon us.
The cold welcome in Igls didn’t prepare us for what the friendly night receptionist, who grew up on the other side of the valley, described as a “weird, creepy parade” that the town puts on every three years. It’s called Tyrolean Fasching, which, in this case, seemed like a redneck Alpine carnival gone wrong. The men dress up as grotesque peasant women who dance, hoot, holler and drink copiously as they lead a procession of tractors hauling miniature log cabins atop flatbed trailers into town. When the parade is over, the cabins are deposited in the village square and each one contains a different kind of discotheque. But I’m jumping ahead. By the time I realized that much I was already experiencing the feeling of being not being safe in Europe for the first time in my life.
The drunk, grotesque cross-dressing men knew everyone lining the streets except those of us who were in town for the conference. Unlike many of my friends of color, I don’t tend to notice when I’m the only brown-skinned person in the vicinity unless someone is making an issue of it. It wasn’t until one of the drunkest of the monster-like peasants lurched at me for a raunchy hug that I became aware of the fact that I was the only non-white person around. Suddenly, I felt like I was a target.
As the parade carried on, two more peasants lunged for hugs and gropes. Aaron, his British co-worker and I were laughing nervously, unsure of what to make of the situation. I started hiding behind my male counterparts whenever it seemed like I’d caught the eye of another parade participant. The final two men, who would have failed any sobriety test despite the fact that it was noon, were the most determined, and they were the ones who caught me off-guard. I was talking to a couple from the conference when I realized I wasn’t going to get away from the peasant who was suddenly in my face. As I shrank away from his hug I felt two quick raps at the backs of my knees from a surprisingly heavy walking stick carried by his friend. I tried to keep myself from falling to the ground by grabbing my husband’s arm, which was holding a cup of hot gluweïn. As we stumbled, the stick-bearer’s even drunker friend pulled up his petticoat, revealing that he wasn’t wearing anything beneath it and that he’d taken special care to French-braid the hairs of his nether regions. I shrieked and covered my eyes as I hit the ground and gluweïn splashed onto my jeans. I think Aaron may have spit or hurled out the bit of spiced wine that was in his mouth. As the men laughed heartily and moved on, I wanted to burn my eyeballs with whatever mixture of lighter fluid and flint I could find.
The experience was gross and slightly funny, and very unnerving. Even though Aaron and I exchanged tense laughter as we recounted what had happened, neither of us felt right about me leaving the hotel alone for the rest of our stay. I’ve traveled to Europe many times, but this was the only time I’d felt unsafe.
Apparently this was just another part of a running theme in my life—a revelation of the cushioning that often surrounds many of my life experiences, intentional or not. The little Tyrolean village we return to each year isn’t necessarily an Alpine utopia of acceptance. We repeat the same steps each time we arrive in Alpbach because we have such a wonderful experience there. By repeating those steps we’re less likely to encounter the unpleasantness we did in Igls.
The truth of the matter is that Austria has been steadily gaining a reputation for racism and xenophobia over the past two decades. In August 2014 the European Training and Research Centre for Human Rights and Democracy published a report stating that 52% of blacks living in Austria have been abused or harassed on public transportation because of the color of their skin. The study also states that 47% of the black population had experienced harassment in the street. Up until this latest trip to Austria I’d remained blissfully ignorant of such growing national attitudes because while my husband was conferencing, I was busy insulating myself into a mode of retreat. I’d sleep in, mosey downstairs to breakfast, go for a walk, then spend the day writing in a cozy corner of the Albacherhof’s lounge. When Aaron and his colleagues were done for the day they’d join me at my perch and we’d order a round of drinks. The Alpbach days were sustained by a mixture of solitude and curated sociability. Continue Reading…
Hi, from Aruba. Whoa! I am in Aruba.
I’m trying to blog more in an effort to remember details. So hi. Here I am.
I have this chalkboard in my room at home where I have written YOU ARE A WRITER: SO WRITE! because I don’t carry a notebook, thinking (naively) that I will remember that man with a speedo, a selfie-stick and a beer precariously taking a photo on the edge of a cliff in Aruba, and how I thought about my mom’s second husband Carl because the speedo man had his beer in one of those cooler things which I just had to google “What are those foamy things you put a beer in to keep it cold?” because I couldn’t think of the name of them (apparently they are called Koozies) and Carl used to drink his beer out of said Koozies. I have been thinking about Carl a lot because there are cacti everywhere here on the island and he collected them- had hundreds in his yard at home. He only drank Coors and I keep seeing Coors ads here so I think maybe, in some way, his spirit is here, and I wonder if he had ever been to Aruba but I can’t ask him because he is dead a long time now and that man in the speedos looks like he may fall into the ocean because of his dumb fucking selfie, so I want to write this stuff down but because I don’t carry a notebook or jot things down. I memorize it until I sit down here, at the table by the window, the wind blowing on my back, and I think if only I had a table at home where the wind blew on my back like this, I would really write, I would really get shit done.
Isn’t it amazing how easy it is to lie to ourselves?
Carl, if you were here, dude, you’d go crazy for the Bringa Mosa Bush and the Yatu Cactus. Also, we hardly wear shoes here and you’d love that. You hated shoes. Especially when you ran on the beach, which to me is just about the worst thing in the world. I tried to do yoga on the beach yesterday and I felt like I ran a marathon, it was that exhausting. My hands kept sinking deeper and deeper into the sand and I had nothing solid to balance on so I kept falling over. You used to run with Monet on the beach at sunset. I miss Monet. Every West Highland Terrier I see is him. We used to call him MoMo. You didn’t, but my sister and I did, especially after you and my mom got divorced and we moved back to New Jersey. MoMo and the cats, Runt and Tiger. And when I drank beer I high school, I thought of you because you were the only person I knew that had drank beer. I don’t recall my father every drinking so lord knows where I got my affinity for it. His thing was speed. Anyway, you’d love it here. So would Monet. There’s so many dogs everywhere. And cactus plants.
And Koozies. (I wonder why they are called that?)
I think sometimes I am afraid of remembering.
I should start writing things down more though because details, they’re everything. I think my mind can store it all, the way that boy with the braces from Houston was collecting rafts in the pool to build a bridge and run across, how proud he was of his achievement, and the way the woman who worked at the hotel bent down by the edge of the pool, a You are making my job more difficult pair of eyes, the way she stooped to collect the glass candles so we wouldn’t break them, her mouth a line of blame. Meanwhile I can’t even remember what I did last week so I should totally start taking notes.
Maybe I am afraid of remembering.
I remember sitting on the floor of the airport in Dallas a few days ago and how there was a little girl in a chair next to me with a sweatshirt on that said Birthday Diva. I asked her if it was her birthday. She had just turned 13 and had these huge stuffed animals on her lap. Her mom snapped photos of her as I sat on the ground and charged my phone. A man talked to me but I have no idea what he said. I wonder how often I lie to myself.
My sister is not feeling well back in the States, in Georgia. I don’t know how to not experience it in my own body. With her, or my mother. I do not know how to separate them from myself. I do not know how to not feel guilty.
I have moments- sitting here, the wind, the perfect Aruban wind and my God, is it ever fucking perfect, I would marry the goddamned wind if I could- sitting here with my coffee and the wind on my back, the sun burning the little patch of skin that is exposed, I do not feel guilty. I feel settled in my body, my ears are ringing as usual, but I am writing and the tinnitus can’t stop me, not when I am truly in it.
I so rarely get truly in it, not lately anyway. This past year I have hardly written a word. Right now though, I don’t feel guilty or like an appendage of anyone else- I am not aware of my hearing loss, or my family, or how dare I be happy because I am in it, waist-high, swimming in the bluest water you have ever seen. I am writing. I hate that hashtag (maybe because I so rarely write) but here I am #Iamwriting and so I am spared the responsibility of my guilt and how it weights me to the bottom of the sea where not only am I deaf, but I can’t breathe. So, there’s moments, brief ones, where I float and I sit on airport floors and watch Birthday Divas, everything still ahead of me, a possibility, not yet a disappointment. Continue Reading…