Storey Clayton recently received an MFA in creative nonfiction from West Virginia University. He’s worked as a youth counselor, debate coach, strategic analyst, development director, rideshare driver, and poker player. His nonfiction has appeared in more than twenty literary journals, including upstreet, Pleiades, Lunch Ticket, Typehouse Literary Magazine, and Blue Earth Review. Learn more at storeyclayton.com.
I’m trawling around the French Quarter at an almost pre-dawn hour. I’m in the eastern part of the Quarter that’s foggy and deserted and makes you think a pirate might stumble out of one of the beautiful shutter-doored two-story shotgun homes lining the street. I’m thinking about how many more riders will need Ubers tonight and when I should get home and whether that particular shape of fog looks like it could hide an apparition and what I would do if something incontrovertibly anachronistic happened right in front of me. It’s always in this mood, at this time of night, when people see witches or spirits or alien craft or shadowy government agents.
A ping calls me just around the corner, to the Clover Grill, a kind of old-school one-off Waffle House at Bourbon and Dumaine, in the heart of the eastern Quarter. This is a great pickup spot because Dumaine, which has been blocked for construction on and off the last few months, is one of the only northbound one-ways in the Quarter that is accessible from both directions of Decatur, itself the best east-west thoroughfare through the area. Plus, folks leaving the Clover are usually sobering up a little.
I pull up alongside to see a mismatched couple looking distraught on the street corner in front of the welcoming glow of the 24-hour greasy spoon. The woman is young and put together and almost pretty; the man is disheveled and haggard and could pass for homeless. Both wear expressions of resigned doom. I wonder if this is the time that I’ve long anticipated when a Good Samaritan calls an Uber for a homeless individual and I ferry them to their last remaining relative who hasn’t given up on them.
They both get in, reluctantly. I confirm the name (it’s the woman’s) and then swipe to start the ride, confirming the address.
She asks if we can make two stops and I readily agree, grateful for the extra distance on a slow night.
She turns to the man in the car, who is slumped over, inattentive, refusing his seatbelt. “Are you sure you want to go?”
“Yes, I’m sure, fuck it, let’s go.”
I’m not wild about their disparate enthusiasm for departing and pause while she checks with him once more. I raise my eyebrows into the rearview mirror and she nods almost imperceptibly. I feel the need to verbally verify and then pull us gently away from the curb.
“Babe,” she gushes, “I am so sorry. I’m so sorry all this happened tonight. I’ll make it up to you.”
“You were already trying to make it up to me,” he says, slowly and miserably, each syllable seeming to require tumultuous effort. He is facing the window on his left.
“I know,” she says quietly and withdraws.
He sits up, slowly, and inclines slightly in her direction. “I know it’s not your fault.” There is a straining sweetness in his voice.
She clasps his hand in the wide space between them on the back bench. “I know.” She sounds like she doesn’t.
“Look at me. Look at me. It’s not your fault. You tried your best. Shit happens.”
She drops her eyes, refusing his dictate. “It does.”
The Quarter recedes in the quiet, the last visible walker disappearing behind a shrouded doorway. I consider how many souls lie slumbering in this ancient town, dreaming of their day to come, full of beignets and etouffee, jazz and gyration. I still can’t determine the exact relationship between the couple in the back of my car.
“Are you going to tell mama?” he asks.
“Why would I?”
“She’s going to want to know what happened.” He pauses. “She’s going to see.”
“Yeah.” She hadn’t thought of that. “I guess so.” She asks if he thinks he should tell her.
“I don’t want to. Don’t. Don’t put that shit on me.”
Hurt, she tries to explain herself, but he cuts her off. They stare out opposite windows into the night.
We wander through the fog, the GPS giving me more turns than seem strictly necessary on this low-visibility journey. The Marigny gives way to the Bywater, an up-and-coming neighborhood whose hipness has recently replaced a reputation for danger, with the rents quickly trying to adjust to the new paradigm. Low-slung porches sag beneath ornate rotting balconies. Freshly painted neighbors with renewed right angles sit smugly beside them. The destination pin approaches, the map slowly zooming in at a closer and closer view of our location. I ease into a stop. The silence, enhanced by the fog, is powerful.
She sighs. He makes no moves. She looks at him. “So, I’ll call you. Maybe we can hang out again soon?”
He relents, slightly, reaching out for a hug. “Okay, sure. You can call me.”
“It was so good to see you. Really. I mean it.”
They come apart, more magnetic repulsion than disentanglement. He reaches for the door, opens it, is working toward heaving himself out. She puts her hand on his arm, urgently.
“I love you.”
“I mean it. I love you.”
“Loveyoutoo,” he mumbles.
And then he’s gone. She stares at him as he lopes to the porch, one of the lowest slung, fumbles in his pockets, looks genuinely worried for a moment, then relieved as he removes the small jangle and inserts a key into the broken-looking lock. He disappears behind the door.
She sighs, heavily.
“So, where to now?” I inquire after giving her a moment.
She stutters, then offers me an address on a street I don’t know.
“In Algiers, across the river?”
“Westbank best bank,” she says without mirth.
“You got it.”
“You sure you don’t mind? I could call another one.”
“Don’t be silly. I’m happy to take you.” I’m especially happy her morose companion won’t be joining us.
She looks out the window, forehead against it, contemplative but not tired. We zag through the narrow crumbling streets of the Bywater and finally pull onto St. Claude, the main drag to take us back toward the highway. I am trying to discern how best to start a conversation when she interrupts my thoughts.
“You mind if I ask you something?”
“You got any brothers or sisters?”
I’ve always resented the presumptions that come with this label, sure I exhibit almost none of them. “Only child.”
“Shoot. I was going to ask you how you possibly live with a sibling.”
“That was your brother?”
A long sigh. “Yup.”
“Is he – are you – okay?”
“Want to talk about it?”
“You don’t mind?”
“I don’t mind,” glancing at the GPS, which says 15 minutes lie ahead. “We’ve got a long ride to go.”
“So that was my brother. I haven’t seen him in… six years? I mean, not really. We talk occasionally, once in a while, but I had to draw some lines. He’s a heroin addict. Well, was. Well, is. I don’t know. It’s complicated. He’s been through a lot of shit. Our father. He wasn’t very nice to him. Left me alone, but he really took it out on him. It’s been hard. He’s been through a lot.”
“Is he older or younger?”
“Older. Two years. Fuck, man, we used to be so close, you know? And then he got older and got… weird.” I know what she means. “I moved down here to get away from him, honestly. New start, got a job, got two jobs. Then he comes and visits maybe eight years ago and I’m not so sure, but I’m like okay, come on down, and he does and he loves it. Just goes all in on it, you know? Just loves this town.”
“It’ll do that for you.” I’m speaking less from experience than vicariously here. My job affords me the ability to go out every night without going out. As someone who doesn’t drink, do drugs, or eat animals, I make a better bystander than participant in the Big Easy.
“Sure, sure, I love it too, but not like that. You know? Like I have some self-control? Like I know when to go home, you know? But of course he doesn’t. He stays out all night, disappears for days at a time. And he’s staying with me and mom says he’s my responsibility and we’re all freaking out wondering where he is and shit. And then he just turns up like nothing happened and says he needs money. And I want to put him on a bus home. I fucking buy him a bus ticket home. But do you think he takes it? Of course not. He’s been here ever since.”
“Did he stay with you?” We’re nearing the freeway, passing her brother’s cohort, the homeless and derelict who overstayed their invitation to New Orleans’ endless party. The city’s chronically poor huddle together in vast tent cities and makeshift shelters under the wide spans of interstate.
“At first? For a while? Like maybe three months and then I kicked him out. I actually had to move out, myself, tell the landlord to kick him out if he kept coming back. Said he should change the locks. That’s pretty much when it started. The not talking. We’d try to see each other every few months, but I couldn’t handle it. I have enough of my own shit to deal with, you know? Like I’m working two jobs and this ain’t an easy city and that’s about all I can do.”
“I hear you.”
The gargantuan twinned cantilever bridge looms in the distance, offering us safe passage across the nation’s mightiest river.
“So why’d you call him tonight? After six years or whatever. What changed?”
“He did. Or he said he did. No, that’s not fair. He’s been really trying. I mean he doesn’t have a job or anything, at least not one he can tell mama about. But he’s working to get himself cleaned up. And I mean, I can’t believe what happened. I feel so bad.”
“So he’s been actually going to a dentist and a doctor and all that. He’s trying to get clean. Going to meetings. So he just got these teeth. His teeth were all rotted out, lots of pain, an excuse for the heroin, you name it. So he got fitted for a set of teeth. Real nice ones, he was proud, could smile again. And he took them out to eat, because he’s still getting used to them and he has some teeth left in the back, so we were there eating, and, and –”
She starts to choke up, heaving little sobs, and they suddenly overtake her in a subtle but poignant way. I wait for her to continue as we descend from the 170-foot-high bridge into the fog once more. She takes thirty seconds to compose herself. Gas stations and convenience stores shine through the mist.
“I don’t, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to cry, but it’s just so hard.”
“It’s okay. Take your time. We don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to.”
“No, no, I want to. It’s hard, but I need to. I need to talk to someone and mama’s no help.” She sighs shudderingly and blows her nose. “Okay, I think I’m good now. Someone threw out his teeth.”
“They were just down on the table by the plates and someone must have picked them up or something and they threw them away. We looked for them for like an hour. And we finally found them in the bottom of a trash bag.”
“Seriously? Was he able to get them?”
“No. I mean, they were seriously deep in the trash, like we barely saw them in this huge bag they hauled back from the dumpster. It was disgusting. He wouldn’t even touch them.”
“But teeth like that. I mean. They must have been expensive. Can’t you just – wash them off?”
“From the trash?”
“Wash them off… really well?”
“You should have seen them. I mean, I don’t blame him. You can’t put something like that in your mouth after that. So they’re gone. And then he realized he’d lost his glasses too.”
“He needs glasses?”
“He’s needed them forever, but he just got a pair. Real nice ones, too, he was so proud of the frames. Thought he looked real good in them. I haven’t seen him… proud… in a long time.”
It’s hard to picture the man she’s describing in light of the man I’d met at the outset of this ride. I ask if the glasses were in the trash and she responds uncertainly. I suggest that perhaps he’d just left them at home.
“Maybe. But I doubt it. He just fucks everything up.” Another sigh. “No, that’s not fair. Things get fucked up for him. Or, well. That’s the thing, right? He normally fucks them up, but this time he didn’t. It’s all my fault.”
“Well I invited him out. You see? I just wanted to see him, to give him a chance. To give us a chance. To reconcile, you know? I wanted to reach out because I know he’s trying. He’s trying so hard. And then this happens. And if I hadn’t asked him to meet me, to go hang out, shoot some pool, get a meal, then he would still have his fucking teeth and his fucking glasses and he’d be okay.”
“You can’t put that on yourself. Someone threw them out. That’s not your fault.”
“I know. But it kind of is, right? I wish I could just go back and not ask him. It’s the kind of thing he thinks is always going to happen. And so now getting his teeth is just another piece of bad luck for him. It was good and now it’s been ruined just like everything else in his life. I’m just worried… I’m worried he might do something. Something to hurt himself.”
“Yeah. That’s what I want your advice on. I don’t want to push him too hard, but I’m not sure he’s going to be safe tonight. I just kept getting that feeling as he was going in the house that that was the last time I was ever gonna see him. And I almost went in after him. I wish I had. But maybe then he would’ve lost something else he needs.”
“You really think he’s that close to the edge?”
“I mean, it’s such a big deal. He was going to start interviewing for jobs with his teeth now. And now what’s he going to do? I’m worried he’s going to start using again or that he knows he can’t and there’s no way out and he’s just going to give up. End it.” The sobs are back, though fainter. We’re traversing the narrow streets of Algiers Point, a parallel part of New Orleans on the south side of the river, which everyone calls the Westbank. It’s significantly quieter here than even the eastern Quarter, and more residential.
“You have to tell him he matters to you. And give him some hope.”
“What kind of hope could he possibly have?”
“Sometimes it’s not about the long term or the big picture. I’ll be honest, I’ve struggled with suicide myself.”
She’s incredulous at this and I worry briefly that I’ve distracted her from the point I’m trying to convey. We are nearing her destination and I’m running out of time. I could tell her about my first attempt as a washed-up ten-year-old who’d been pulled out of school, dragging a shard of broken plate across my throat. I could tell her about decades spent wavering unsteadily on train platforms and windy bridges. I could tell her about what I don’t think was my second attempt, just two years prior, slamming the back of my skull into a plaster wall until I nearly lost vision. It would be a distraction from what she needs.
It is so hard to explain suicidality to the unsuicidal. So I tell her about shortening one’s outlook on the future so time doesn’t look so insurmountable. I note that everyone needs something to look forward to, however small and seemingly insignificant, to get them through the worst moments. I suggest she should plan to see him again, soon.
“I’m not sure he wants to.”
“He wants to. Everyone wants to have people who care about them. He might think that you just think he’s fucking up again after losing everything. You have to show him that you are proud of him, that you like his company, that you haven’t given up on him.”
“Yeah, that might work. Should I call him now? I’m just so worried about him.”
“Text him first and if you don’t hear back, you can call. But no need to sound the alarm if he’s actually okay. You don’t want him to feel pushed.”
We arrive just about then. And I sit with her in front of her driveway while she drafts the text message. I suggest a couple of edits to sound less judgmental and more excited. She agonizes over each word before sending it. And then, as soon as I hear the little chime to indicate the message has been sent, she loses it. Just starts sobbing in the car, heaving and shaking, then choking out apologies between sobs. And I tell her it’s okay, it’s all right, she’ll hear back, he’ll be okay, and it’s understandable to cry in this situation. And she cries and I wait and listen, then tell her she’s a good sister and it’s not her fault and he’s going to be okay. And she dries her eyes, futilely as the water keeps getting replenished, and tries to smile awkwardly through the mess, and looks at her phone and sobs some more.
And she apologizes and apologizes and I say it’s okay, it’s okay. And then her phone chimes and it’s him and he’s alive and okay and says that he liked seeing her too and they’ll talk tomorrow. “Tomorrow,” she whispers. “He said tomorrow.”
“You’ll talk to him tomorrow.”
She heaves a long sigh and turns away. Amid more thanks and apologies, she opens the door, closes it gently, so gently it doesn’t latch. She opens it again and says “Sorry,” and closes it fully and then walks gingerly up the three wooden steps to her door.
Cathy Ulrich is very tired of thoughts and prayers. Her work has been published in various journals, including Vast Chasm, Sepia and Juked.
Being the Murdered High Schooler
The thing about being the murdered high schooler is you don’t set the plot in motion.
You will die wearing your boyfriend’s borrowed sweatshirt. He wasn’t actually your boyfriend, but almost — you had kissed a few times, met his mother, ate lunch in his car. You were making him a scarf for Christmas. Your parents will find it in your room later, your parents won’t know who it was for. Your mother will wrap it, unfinished, yarn-dangling, around her own throat, think of your last breaths, think of you lying on that hallway tile, think of the boy who stepped over your body, the boy tracking your blood down the hall, the boy firing and firing his pathetic gun.
You will die on your way to sociology class. You’d been fighting with your best friend, one of those stupid little fights you got into sometimes, and she will have slammed her locker shut, strode quickly ahead without you. She won’t remember, later, what it was about, she won’t remember what she said, what you said, she will only remember a flush of anger, a locker slam, leaving you behind in the hallway.
She will hide under a desk when the teacher turns out the classroom lights, tells them quiet, quiet, be so quiet, she will text her mother in the dark Im scared, but Im ok.
She will say Im safe, Im ok.
Her mother will be waiting outside, after, with the other parents, her mother will sob and smile at the same time when she sees her daughter, god, her precious daughter, her mother will hold onto her, tight, tight, tight, like something that might float away.
The parking lot will be full of parents and flashing lights. Your mother will be the one that screams, they will show it on the news, your mother in the school parking lot, covering her face with both her hands, banshee-wailing into the air. Your mother’s scream will be a hovering thing, will be a shatter, a break, a desperate scraping hollow.
This is how your best friend and almost boyfriend will learn. This is how they’ll know.
Your almost boyfriend will attend your funeral. He’ll attend all the funerals, even the service for the biology teacher nobody really liked much before, the biology teacher who stood like a sentinel in the middle of the hallway, who told the kids behind him run, dammit, run.
There will be services every day for a week, there will be candlelit vigils, there will be thoughts, there will be prayers.
Your best friend will see a therapist. She’ll say she thought I hated her, she died thinking I hated her.
Your best friend will remember the sound of footsteps in the school hall, the sound of her own shuddering breaths, the dark and the cold and the wait, the wait, the wait.
Your best friend will stare at her hands in the therapist’s office, she will look at her hands like they are holding answers, she will open and close her hands, only emptiness within them.
You won’t set the plot in motion.
The same people will say all the same things, will offer all the same thoughts and prayers. The same people will say now is not the time to politicize their deaths. The same people will say something must be done and do nothing. The same people will close their eyes and turn their heads, will think at least it wasn’t me, at least it wasn’t here.
You won’t set the plot in motion, nothing will change, nothing will ever change, and your car will sit in the school parking lot for days after, weeks after, vanishing under a blanket of chill-white snow.
And when your parents remember, finally, to bring it home, your mother sliding into the driver’s seat, adjusting the steering wheel to reach, she will find the crumbled petals of the flowers that had been left for you dotting the passenger seat beside her. She will touch them with the tip of her finger, she will say to the cold winter air, they’re so delicate.
She’ll say it’s all so goddamn delicate.
Justin Karcher (Twitter: @justin_karcher, Instagram: the.man.about.town) is a Best of the Net-and Pushcart-nominated poet and playwright born and raised in Buffalo, NY. He is the author of several books, including Tailgating at the Gates of Hell (Ghost City Press, 2015). He is also the editor of Ghost City Review.
The Art of Putting Yourself Back Together in Buffalo
A long walk around Buffalo to clear my soul. A man near Allen asks me for a dollar and I don’t have any cash but ask if he wants a cigarette instead. He asks me what kind and I tell him, “Marb Reb.” He thinks for a moment and politely declines. A sudden rush of excitement fills me like a balloon. I love how Buffalo rejects you in very tiny ways. They add up over time, but at that very moment, I’m floating like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade of masochism. He must realize my unhealthy euphoria, because he says, “Thanks for offering me something” and I’m brought down to earth. A couple minutes later on the one corner of Elmwood and Allen, the place where restaurants go to die, there’s a woman dancing for all the cars stuck at the red. She’s smiling, but there’s probably more to the story. She waves at me and I wave back. I love how Buffalo does everything it can to cancel out its tiny rejections. A wave of a stranger’s hand can make all the difference. As I make my way toward Downtown, I realize a few things: this time of the year, every hour feels like the witching hour, that there’s magic everywhere; you just have to summon the strength to conjure it… it might get dirty, it might get depressing, but you gotta do it. A moment of magic is sometimes all you need. I also realize that the closer I get to Downtown, the more I think I hear Xmas music. It’s probably in my head, some Eyes Wide Shut kind of walk, but I won’t plug my ears. Never plug your ears. Maybe I’ll head to the ice rink and find no one there. The night is still young. But first, I need a cup of coffee.
My night is spent on the corner of Delaware Rd and Willowbreeze Rd staring at the little old cemetery trying to read the names on the headstones, but they’re tough to make out. The big plaque though reads, “BURIAL LAND SINCE 1816.” I stand there for a few minutes looking into the dark while listening to some random electronica playlist. I find it overwhelming thinking about how long people have been dying. We still haven’t cracked that quandary of mortality. Anyway, so I make my way to the Tim Hortons up the road, because I need a quick fix of anything and no matter where I’m at in Western New York, I can’t seem to find a decent cup of coffee when the moon’s out. We’re basically vultures circling the sky for caffeine scraps, always making do with whatever’s out there. For better or worse. Walking into Tim Hortons, I realize that they close in like 5 minutes, so I’m impressed with my timing and after I get my coffee, I scan the room – some people still lingering in booths – and I see a familiar face, but I don’t know his name. I would see him at Caffe Aroma all the time. Little cute old guy. Cane. Buffalo Braves sweatshirt. Always reading some nonfiction book. I nod in his direction, he nods back and that’s all I need for tonight. He packs up his belongings, puts on a face mask and heads out. I exit a couple seconds later and lean up against the wall. I puff on my JUUL until the entire parking lot clears out, so it’s just me and all the help wanted signs on Sheridan Dr. Some giant burial land that needs a hug, a nod of the head, for someone to hit the delete button on the keyboard of its longing.
I’m incapable of sleeping in anymore, which is a good thing, especially on a day like today… because it’s the first snowfall of the season. It’ll never get old for me. It’s like magic, as if the sky after months of being bottled up has decided to gracefully fall apart. Each snowflake a feeling and when the ground becomes swarmed in white, I’m always reminded just how many emotions and thoughts we all have. There’s a beautiful unity in the things we have in common. A mountain we can climb to touch constellations if we want. Just don’t fret about the cold. Don’t worry, because worrying is praying to the devil. And I’m thinking about Terence McKenna right now as snow continues to fall, that if you know the words that the world is made of, you can mold it however you see fit. Like a snowman. So maybe I’ll go bare-chested out into today, let all those skyward feelings introduce themselves to my skin. And I’ll assign a word to each snowflake. There’s melancholy. And there’s exuberance. And right over there, draping itself on that branch, is hope. Now let’s see what we can build.
What a weekend. I watched a urinal cry a lifetime’s worth of sadness before I told the bartender that there’s something wrong in the bathroom. I was at a dance party on E Utica where I couldn’t see what was right in front of me and it was nice, being left in the dark like that. There were leather bears doing coke on islands of rhythm…I admired their insatiable need for honey but was jealous of their desire. There was a back porch where the lights, like Xmas stockings, were hung up with care… it illuminated the backyard just enough and I saw so many trees. All the city forests you don’t know about, all the different ways you can get lost. I imagined Bigfoot having a panic attack somewhere out there and to calm their nerves, they had to scratch up the bark until there was nothing left. I guess love happens when you beat your blood into the dirt until there are roots. There are worse ways for the heart to flourish, but never disguise your feelings. I saw my past, present and future come together as one on that cryptozoological porch. It was a little scary, because it’s tough to tell if we’re overdeveloped or under-demolished… and I prayed for any kind of answer, for blueprints to fall from the sky. But anyway… there were New York poets with English accents and dirty buckets as big as buildings for all the cigarette butts. The waste was piling high and as I was staring at our dirty parts, I made a decision to never stow away my feelings, that from now on, I will always admit my hurt. There were good conversations at least, about how Bangkok is nothing like Buffalo or how some people are just not cut out for the cold and if that’s the case, how do they deal with the turbulent weather inside their brains? Maybe we don’t and there are always storms and no urgency to solve them… people with problems always hovering in doorways. We try feeding them quesadillas, but they enthusiastically refuse… their shadows fall to the floor and start crawling toward the light. I will always find it beautiful, how we scrape by, day by day, not knowing anything at all.
Walking from Eric’s apartment to my house is a 45-minute walk. More like half an hour the way I’m sprinting through the Kenmore night like a comet learning how not to chase after its own tail. That’s how I’ve always been really, so desperate to harness the fire burning in my brain. It can be dangerous, always internalizing heat like that. Sometimes it makes you want to die. And the last couple of weeks, my mind hasn’t been right. Like a fistful of ancient debris from the Big Bang. How your old demons, or at least the echoes of them, are constantly following the new you. So you start feeling that the new you isn’t quite so new after all. But I assure you it is. There’s just a painful faith keeping the good parts whole. It’s always turning to us in dreams and asking for help. It remembers rolling around like a dog in a soil of molecules when everyone seemed a little more bonded together, but a memory is a memory for a reason. I’m coming around again though, this time with another pair of eyes. And I’m very excited for everything I will see. Tonight, the afterdark ghost town of Kenmore is my playground. It’s like 60 degrees in November and every storefront seems necklaced in otherworldly lights. I have a long conversation with the buffalo sitting on the bench outside King Condrell’s. We talk about what it means to really have a sweet tooth, how it’s not about ice cream or pastries, but it’s about embracing the good in everyone. Then we both stare at the never-ending ice cream in their right hand and start weeping. How the world, despite our best intentions, forces us to hold onto something that only sets us back. I wish them well… all life demands struggle. I make my way up Delaware Ave and come across The Wedding Agent, Buffalo’s experts at providing extraordinary items for your special celebration, and as I peer through the window, all I see is an empty showroom. Two thrones with nobody in them. I chuckle at the Swarovski bloodlessness. Then I begin to wonder if there’s an invisible reception happening, phantoms having the time of their lives. It’s a nice thought and I smile to myself. Hope keeps us alive, like how stargazing is one of the best side effects of depression, like how it’s healthy to say goodbye to what’s clogging you up, all that rust-stiff euphoria that gets you nowhere. And so I keep walking toward Sheridan Dr still loving the world.
Friday night I walk from Bidwell Pkwy to Symphony Cir straight into the heart of Lit City. In the parking lot of Kleinhans, I’m greeted by a colorful bus with graphics and the words of Lucille Clifton. We have indeed arrived at the gates of the city, and I imagine forgiveness blowing them open. It also feels like there are lights everywhere and they warm my trembling November skin. It’s tough not seeing the enormous potential when art is allowed to meet the public head-on. Public transport is the perfect symbol for poetry… for art in general. They seek to accomplish the same thing: picking up a person when they need it most and carrying them to their next destination. It’s all about positive movement, positive momentum. And too often in this city, we get tricked by negative momentum. It’s an illusion, and we must help each other break it. Anyway, so I head inside Kleinhans and into the VIP reception room where I start swallowing tiny cubes of cheese like I’m Pac-Man. I catch up with friends and colleagues. At one point, while talking to Julio, I compare the creative process to the trailer of Spider-Man: No Way Home, how you can never predict the wormholes that will materialize in the sky or what villains will crawl through them, and you sincerely hope that you’re a different person than who you were yesterday. It’s a breath of fresh air. As for the main event, Chang-rae Lee gives a wonderful reading and talk, and I think what sticks with me most is when he talks about novelists being like sharks: when they stop moving, they die. You always have to chase after inspiration or beauty… it might be the only way to satiate your hunger. And maybe that’s what I’ve been doing lately with all these walks. I guess only time will tell. When the event wraps up, I say my goodbyes and continue walking, this time to Main St and Matinee, picking up a Red Bull on the way there and after I drink it, I contemplate crushing it and sliding it into a mailbox, because good news needs to travel fast… good news needs wings. When I hit W Tupper, I experience a joyous vision. A pillow fight happening tonight. Everybody I know grabbing pillows and taking to the streets. They start beating the concrete with softness, because we can remake the city in the image of our dreams. Something tenderer. A colorful bus that picks you up when you need it most.
I’m staring out the window of the Elmwood Spot while listening to the entirety of Rilo Kiley’s The Execution of All Things. Maybe I’m depressed. Maybe I’m not. It’s tough to tell these days. It seems that everyone is back to wearing masks. Two steps forward, three steps back. Nights like this I just want it to snow. There is an annoying sense of anticipation when it’s this chilly. Like the sky’s holding back. And I’ve never been a fan of coasting on middle ground. Make a decision, one way or another. At least cafes across the city have decided on something: to close early, right before the Muses finish singing their songs. Obviously, I disagree with this. 16-year-old me would’ve never been able to fully explore his feelings or write his shitty poems without those later hours. Katie tells me it’s a crime against artistry to make restless minds work on bankers’ hours. All those hours not available for the taking… I imagine this crooked city clock that has learned to think and act for itself. Maybe it detached itself from some government building. Maybe we can’t see it. Maybe it’s always hungry and zooming through the city right now swallowing up all the hours. Pretty soon, there’ll be no more hours to spare. And we have to go home. And maybe we have to crawl deeper into ourselves without getting closer to any kind of truth. At this point, we would be okay with a half-truth. Or maybe this super corrupt clock whizzes by us, we blink and suddenly it’s morning. The anxiety that takes the shape of a jockey who rides the sun like a racehorse toward our doom. A trail of fire that stretches down Elmwood Ave until it touches the water.
At Jack Rabbit with Kevin for an open mic. We split a plate of tater tots and I stare at the menorah on the shelf above the register. No one wilderness looks the same; everyone has their own struggles. But sometimes our trees meet in the middle. There are prayer candles surrounding the menorah and a nutcracker trying to organize all our pleas for help. Crack through the pain if you want, but it won’t get you very far. I overhear this girl talking about how when she went to House of Charm, she got so drunk and the tab was only $28. A holiday miracle… especially in Buffalo. I run into Gretchen who I haven’t seen in forever. She loves hair and the gossip she hears. Living in a loft Downtown, but still missing the Village. She mentions my first book, how much she likes it. “You’ve always been cool,” she tells me. It’s the little things that lift you up, how every night we fill up balloons with our egos and let them loose in the skies above Buffalo. Maybe they float far away or maybe they get tangled up in powerlines. LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” comes on. “Where are your friends tonight?” Something you ask more and more the older you get. The answers you hear might break your heart, but we press on. When Kevin gets on stage to tickle the keys, he is flanked by two Santas and there are Xmas lights hanging from the window behind him. They flicker every time he sings. It’s a hauntingly beautiful set, songs about King Kong lost in a city where the buildings are jukeboxes. How other people’s music mold the skyline you see. Sometimes you have to smash through the noise to find a song that works for you. A hand to hold. After we’re done, we drive around town looking for an all-night diner, but find none. So we head back to Elmwood, to Louie’s, where the cashier likes my leather jacket. “You’re cool,” she tells me. More balloons flying in the sky. Me and Kevin get root beers and chocolate shakes and talk the rest of the night away.
Piano lounge, Lafayette Hotel. There’s a bittersweet horse ungalloped on the middle of the bar. Giddy up, but you can’t move. No matter how hard you try. Take this time to grow, to get better. James in his purple fur but the bartender calls him Jimmy. Kerrykate singing Xmas songs. “I hope they play “Greensleeves”,” I say to Kevin, who is sitting next to me. “Is that a Christmas song?” he asks. Might as well be, I think to myself. Eric, this drunk guy, bumps into me and apologizes. We strike up a conversation. From Syracuse, moved to Buffalo on a whim three years ago after his divorce. He hated Syracuse, lives in North Buffalo now. Norwalk, to be specific. Likes it here but has no friends. I ask about the group of people he’s with. He met them at a bar on Hertel and they all decided to come Downtown. Doesn’t remember what bar they were at though. His drink of choice is a Diet Coke and a shot of Fireball Whisky. I watch him throughout the night striking out with every woman at the bar. He’s just lonely. I wait with him outside for his Uber, because he needs a friend. He pukes on one of the tiny Christmas trees. I wish him well. It’s emotionally tough out there for everyone. Back inside, Kerrykate is done and the pianist is flying solo. Lots of John Lennon with some Beethoven thrown in for good measure. He’s very good. The snowman in the corner starts swaying, little bits of frostbite flying in all directions. I imagine catching it on my tongue then running into the lobby and breaking the glass case imprisoning that giant bottle of wine. How I would drink and drink while running through the empty hotel. But I don’t do any of that. Remember, this is about growth and getting better. Instead, I look for the bathroom and come across an empty ballroom. It feels like The Shining, but less murderous. I stand alone on the stage and recite some poems. Everything weighing me down drifts off into the waltz-dust of the future and I have never felt more beautiful.
Today I’m donating plasma and while waiting in line, I strike up a conversation with Elaine. This super nice lady who tells me how it sucks spending Christmas Eve at CSL Plasma, but it’s worth it. She has two rabbits, Coco and Snowball, and the extra money will help buy more hay for her babies. Coco is old, Snowball is young. Snowball’s also in heat and won’t leave Coco alone. I tell her, “My cat is named Coco & I know some dudes like Snowball.” Elaine’s laughing as we both get called up to lose parts of ourselves. As the needle goes in, I stare at the poster on the wall that says, “You’re a lifesaver.”
After I’m done, I walk up Delaware Ave when these two jubilant, possibly stoned, hippies run up to me: “You’re beautiful, we love you!” I wish them a Merry Christmas and they run off to spread more cheer. Their tie-dye sweaters glow like lights in the distance. I imagine them treating the season like a jam band. The cheer never ends until everyone passes out. Never forget that a well-timed “I love you” can go a long way in improving the life of a stranger.
Eventually I make my way to Spot on the corner of Delaware & Delaware to charge my phone. There’s one guy standing alone in the gazebo, a boombox at his feet, and he’s belting out songs from Frozen. A beautiful voice, but no hat to collect any money. Maybe he’s not interested in that, because he’s not making eye contact with anyone. Instead, he’s staring at the sky. With each song he sings, his eyes become a little more focused as if he’s trying to resuscitate any gray clouds. I drink my coffee and simply enjoy the show. Merry Christmas, I think to myself.
Goodbye 2021, a year spent lost in a forest of broken washing machines where none of us could get clean. Now the future is full of instructions. How to revisit our old haunts, the places where we fucked up the most. Float over them like candy wrappers dancing in the wind raining whatever sweetness we still have left. We’ll be better this year. Our raindrops congregating in the holes of broken windows. The most beautiful bodies of water have a love that always knows where to go. How to wake up not feeling like filibusters, when the worst parts of us are always obstructing progress. Always wondering when the sunrise will sledge our frozen assets. No more loose change in hospital socks, no more grief. How to come up for air, how to tear down all the “help wanted” signs because outer space is possible. Fairytale where we’re a flock of birds carrying our nostalgias toward a landfill far, far away. No more regret, how to breathe in deep. How to kiss the city before it shrinks. How to rile up magicians so they reverse engineer the illusion and we can always recognize the truth… that being alive is such a gift. How to start from scratch, sandpaper gravestones taking the backroad looking for a little porch and the sound of music.
Late last night I watched The Book of Boba Fett, which was the perfect way to start 2022. How to come alive again. We all have a Sarlaac we gotta escape from. Snag extra oxygen from the half-digested things in your mind. Like how recalling positive memories can help ward off depression. Now the ball’s in your court. Use your inner fire to make your escape. Once you’re free, take a deep breath. You might be faced with an unfamiliar world, big holes where your loved ones or best friends used to be. There’s a long journey here and this is just the beginning. But imagine the possibilities. Snow-worn cities airlifted to a different season. No more doorknob lullabies or espresso stretch marks. A paradise where we don’t have to spread ourselves too thin. Life… but the self-destruction in reverse. It might still be messy though. Metamorphically cutting off your hands so they never form into fists. No use for anger as we walk across the desert.
Despite the Lake Effect snow warning and the piles of monoclonal antibodies covering our driveways and sidewalks, it’s been an okay day. New Father John Misty. Starbucks employees walking off the job over unsafe working conditions. How my mom texted me a photo of this perfect rose she found in the yard. Moments of joy in an otherwise absurd world. We can do this. As the wind picks up outside my office window, the only thing I can reflect on is how surprisingly well I’m holding it all together. How humiliation takes many forms. A New Year’s Eve wrecking ball dropping onto an empty home. 3, 2, 1. Debris everywhere. Pick through the wreckage. How time flies. Kind of, but not really. I think I’ll wander shirtless through the streets of Tonawanda picking up windblown shingles. I think I’ll reinforce my chest with other people’s asphalt. The art of putting yourself back together in Buffalo. We can do this.
Last night I spent an hour shoveling. I was looking for the high road, which had been covered up with snow. I found it but wasn’t too sure if my legs were strong enough to walk it. But if I’ve learned anything these past couple months, it’s that things can change at the drop of a dime. Gotta toughen up I guess and adapt, continue to turn my sensitivity into a strength. Whatever that may be. Anyway, after shoveling, I climbed up the snow pile I had made and gazed out at Western New York. All the eggshell empaths pushing shopping carts full of broken thermometers down the unsalted streets. Sometimes it’s impossible to read the temperature of a room and then it’s too late. Then there are the used bookstores disappearing in the blink of an unvaccinated eye. You can hear the ghosts left behind. Oh what a cauldron! So many feelings and ingredients. We’re always looking for the right combination of things. Gravediggers squeezing electrolytes out of wilted flowers. Any way we can regulate our chemical reactions. Or how there’s always a little bit of birthday cake caught in our throats. Secret wishes torpedo through our teeth to get out into the open. Then it’s a free-for-all. I’ll politely decline. Dust from heartaches forming a cherub that takes flight.
Meghan Dairaghi is an MFA student at University of Missouri-St. Louis. Her work has previously appeared in Alien Magazine, Belle Ombre, Tiny Spoon, and Mochila Review.
The Boyfriend Story
On our first date, my boyfriend says he only has a few months to live. I laugh. I think it’s a joke. I think I laugh too loud because people stare, and this is understood to be a nice restaurant. We sit on the patio with strings of pearly lights above us. My sherry is diamonds under it. I wanted to order something that sounded like it would be ordered in a place like this. Besides, my boyfriend says he will pay, and I don’t want him to think I’m greedy, but I also want to try sherry.
“I’m serious,” he says. “I understand if you don’t want to get involved with me.”
My boyfriend wears a button-up that I’ve only seen men wear on job interviews. Usually, the boys I date wear T-shirts. I see where a comb raked even lines through my boyfriend’s slicked back hair. It looks like a cornfield.
“Look,” I say, “I think you’re attractive, and this date’s gone good. You don’t have to lie to get me in bed with you.” I think he is too young to die because he looks about my age.
“I’m not lying. My doctor said I’m lucky if I make it to Christmas.”
It is June. The air drips with humidity. I know I am sweating bad because of it, and because I am nervous. He is too. I see wet patches under his armpits. This doesn’t make me like him less.
“You don’t look sick,” I say. “You look healthy to me.”
There’s a tremble in his jaw that happens sometimes. He twitches like one of Dad’s horses when a fly lands on its skin. If my boyfriend didn’t tell me he was sick, I wouldn’t have noticed. It would just look like he is nervous on a first date.
He shrugs. “Some days are better than others.”
“What do you have?”
“Does it matter?”
I guess it doesn’t. It certainly doesn’t matter when he takes me to his place. He is good in bed, and I tell him so.
“Thank you,” he says, like he wasn’t expecting that. I think it’s cute and maybe a little sad.
“So, if we do this, how will it work?” I ask. “How do know when…it’s the end?”
He pulls me against his slick chest and squeezes hard. “You’ll know,” he says. “You’ll feel it.”
Before I introduce my boyfriend to my family, I tell them not to ask any rude questions. They are not a polite bunch. Growing up, Dad said Ma’s teeth fell out because she says so many rotten things. That’s how he always scared me and my sister into being nice. I think my boyfriend will feel better knowing my family is also not whole when he sees Ma’s mouth. Those five dark specs along her gums, black as tar.
“This is my boyfriend,” I say to them. “We’ve been dating for two weeks.”
My dad is not a tall man. He looks bigger though because he works with his hands, and his muscles are his tools. When he stands from the kitchen table, I notice dirt under his fingernails. My boyfriend shakes his hand all the same.
“It’s nice to meet you, sir,” my boyfriend says.
“I hear you’re dying,” Dad says.
My boyfriend just smiles. It makes me think people ask him this all the time. “You hear right, sir.”
“You get a second opinion?” Ma asks. Her hair is up. She only wears her hair up for guests. It is frizzy around her head.
I bet she is thinking about how much money it costs to be sick. When we were little, Ma used plants or oils that smelled like sleep on our scratchy or burning skin. She said the earth will heal you if you let it.
“Yes ma’am. I’ve been to many doctors.” I know my boyfriend is thinking about IVs and pills that come in paper cups.
Ma grunts. “That’s too bad.” Her eyes are shiny like a cracked egg.
Sister slouches in her chair. Her dark hair covers her face. “Then why date anyone now?” she asks.
I did not want it go like this. I look to my boyfriend to say sorry, and he puts his arm around my shoulders.
“I figure I might as well die a happy man,” my boyfriend says.
Dad crosses his arms and wrinkles his nose.
Sister sticks out her lips like a duck. “Yeah, but it won’t be happy for everyone else when you kick the bucket.”
“Don’t talk like that,” I tell her. “It’s rude.”
Ma fans herself with a magazine. The pages curve under her fingers. “It’s a fair point.”
It is the middle of the day, and the sun bakes the kitchen. Dad doesn’t believe in AC, so the window is open. The family dog drools a puddle by my sister’s feet. Its panting is loud and wet. It’s an old dog, and it’s gone blind with milky eyes.
“Do you want anything to drink?” I ask my boyfriend since nobody else has asked. I ask loudly because I want my family to know they are not being welcoming.
He nods. “I’d love some tea if you’ve got it.”
“What do you do for work?” Dad asks. He is still standing because my boyfriend is also standing.
“I’m a cashier. I work at the market.”
“Which market?” Ma asks. “I hear the one downtown carries bad food. Our neighbor got sick off their meat.”
“It’s not the one downtown, ma’am.”
Dad says, “I know someone who’s hiring. You do yard work? You can make good money, put some hair on your chest.”
“He’s not looking for another job,” I say. I do not tell Dad my boyfriend already has hair on his chest.
Sister is eyelevel with the table. She keeps sliding. “Why do you work anyway if you know you’re going to die?”
The family dog wobbles to its water bowl and laps. The sound is loud in the stiffness of the kitchen.
“Well,” my boyfriend says, looking around the room, “We’ll all die someday.”
That shuts Sister up. I am glad he said it.
I hand my boyfriend his drink. “Want to go downstairs?”
“Leave the door open,” Dad calls after us. “And think about that job offer, boy. Get back to me.”
I close the door loudly.
I have been thinking of all the other things that can kill my boyfriend before whatever is inside of him does it first. I think about an armed robber at his cash register. I think about a freak accident involving lighting or geese or a loose screw. It makes me question the way I’ll die, when I’ll die, but it is a luxury to have answers to those questions.
Death makes us only see the best in people. I want my family to remember me, dirt and all, and not pretend like I was any more than I was.
When he sleeps at night, I put my finger under my boyfriend’s nose. He breathes quietly, and I can’t tell sometimes. He usually catches me doing it.
“I’m alive,” he always says. “I told you, you’ll sense when it’s time.”
I worry I won’t. My boyfriend says that when two people love each other, they have a special connection that way. I try to love him extra hard because I want to have extra sense. I will never forgive myself if I can’t feel it because that means I don’t love him the way he thinks I do.
My friend asks me if I think my boyfriend will propose before he dies. My pretty friend is especially excited about this question.
“I’ll be in the wedding, right?” she asks me.
“Of course you will, but that won’t be anytime soon.”
Pretty Friend is married, and she has two babies. One of the babies is bouncing on her lap now. Baby’s gums are wet on Pretty Friend’s finger as he sucks it.
“Why not soon? Don’t you love him?” Pretty Friend asks.
“Yes,” I say, “Very much.”
“Then you should get married.”
“I don’t know if he’ll propose.”
Pretty Friend rolls her eyes. “He will. You two are meant for each other like that.” She adjusts Baby by pulling him up under the armpits. Though, she has never met my boyfriend.
I think death is a love accelerator.
“I can’t believe you haven’t talked about it,” Pretty Friend says.
“Never the right time,” I say because I don’t know why we haven’t either. I feel bad for never even thinking of it. Maybe my boyfriend thinks about it. That makes me feel worse.
“You could propose to him,” Pretty Friend says. “He might be waiting for you to do it.”
Pretty Friend thinks of me the same way she thinks of herself, but I do not have the same courage as Pretty Friend.
“Maybe,” I say. I cannot afford a ring, but Pretty Friend will not understand this, so I think of an excuse. “Where would I even get a ring?”
“The pawn shop. My uncle owns the place.”
Baby fusses, but Pretty Friend sticks her finger back into his mouth, and he stops. I hope she doesn’t ask me about kids because then I will look even more foolish.
“You make it sound so obvious,” I say.
Pretty Friend shrugs. “It’s obvious to me. That’s what people do when they’re in love.”
I do not mention that her husband is gone most of the time, but I think this is true enough. Maybe love changes after people get married.
“Do you ever feel your husband?” I ask.
Pretty Friend looks at me strange. “Huh? You mean if we still have sex?”
“No. I mean, when he’s not here, would you sense if something bad happened to him?”
Baby babbles and grabs Pretty Friend’s hand with his fat fists. Pretty friend doesn’t really know how to answer me.
When I go to my boyfriend’s house that night, I ask him to marry me. I get down on one knee, with no ring, and I ask him to be my husband. We are outside, and the cicadas are screeching. My boyfriend has a plate of grilled corn in his hand. He looks amused at the sight of me down on one knee in the dirt.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
He laughs. “Stand up.” He takes my hand and helps me to my feet. “I love you so much, but this isn’t the right time.”
“Don’t you want to marry me?”
“I love you,” he says again. “I love spending my days with you. You make everything feel better.”
He speaks nice to me to make the rejection feel light. I have to search for it in his words. I think he does it to protect me, but it just hurts worse.
“But you don’t want to get married.”
“Why are you proposing?” he asks.
I bite my lip. “Never mind. I’m not proposing anymore.”
“Don’t do something just because you feel like you have to,” he says. “Don’t do it just because I’m dying.”
I start crying. I think it hits me all at once that my boyfriend is dying, and one day I will be here without him. I cannot stop.
My boyfriend hugs me. The plate of corn drops, but we leave it on the ground. His arms are strong around my back, and I think how unfair it is that someone that strong can be so sick. I think if I were the one dying, it would seem more fair.
“Maybe the doctors are wrong,” I say. “Maybe you have more time.”
He looks at me and shakes his head. “Let’s not lie to ourselves.”
I want to believe all this talk of presence and feeling and the afterlife, but I have never felt these things before. When he leaves, it scares me that I will never feel him again.
One night Sister walks into my room. She does not look me in the eyes.
“I was thinking about your boyfriend,” she says.
It is late. I hear Dad’s snores through the walls. Outside the sky is black, and there are endless stars.
“Okay,” I say. “What are you thinking?”
Sister leans against my wall. “I’m worried.” Sister’s voice is so small, it is hard to hear her. Her tongue wets her lips.
“You’re worried,” I repeat.
“You know he’s going to die soon.”
I will not lie and say this doesn’t worry me too. Of course it does.
“Yeah,” I say. “He will.”
“You don’t have to have a boyfriend. You can break up with him.”
Sister has never had a boyfriend, so she doesn’t understand. She is too young to know what that kind of relationship is like, but she is not too young to know what fear is. I know she is just trying to help me that only way she knows how.
“I love him,” I tell her.
“That’s why you’re going to be so sad.”
“Yes,” I say. “I’m already sad.”
Sister has not done this since she was little, but she climbs into my bed. She sits there with the covers around her chin. My bed is not that big, but I let her stay because I know she’s scared for me. I am scared too.
We do not say I love you to each other because we both already know that.
Lately, I have been thinking about when things will happen for the last time, but I don’t want to think too hard about it because it will ruin the moment.
My boyfriend and I are in my basement watching a movie. My boyfriend is drinking beer, and his mouth is sour when I kiss him. I’m not really sure what we’re watching. My boyfriend said it’s his favorite movie, something with superheroes and bad guys. I think it’s boring, but I won’t say anything because he likes it. He lets me watch with my legs on his lap.
“You’ll like this part,” he keeps saying. “Watch this.”
And then there will be bad visual effects, like a smoke bomb or an explosion of light that makes the screen go white.
“Wow,” I keep saying. “That’s cool.”
I don’t think he hears me. He is too involved in the movie. When he leans forward with excitement, I think he looks boyish. I wonder if he was like this as a child too. I bet he was. I wish I knew him when he wasn’t sick, but then I wouldn’t know the same person.
“You like it so far?”
“Yeah,” I say. The beer helps.
“Okay, so pay attention to this part,” he says, pointing to the screen. The neon of the TV makes his beer can turn blue. “You’ll want to remember this.”
I am looking at him because I do want to remember this.
I hear my family upstairs. There is Ma in the kitchen, fiddling with the stove. I hear the ticks of gas sputter to life. Dad’s boots are hard against the wood floor. Sister is whining. I hear echoes of her nasal voice. Ma snips to be quiet. This riles the family dog who barks, and Ma snips louder. I know that one day when my boyfriend is not here to share bad movies with me, they will be, and my family will be the kind of lovely that people are to each other when they know someone’s in pain. I won’t think they’re so bad.
It is early August. I know what I am giving my boyfriend for Christmas already. It’s another button-up shirt because I know he likes those, and I like the way he looks in them. Yes, I know it is far away, but I am used to preparing by now.
One night when I close my eyes in bed with him lying next to me, I sense his body. We sleep together with our limbs tangled like a bird’s nest. This is the first time I’ve seen my boyfriend with my eyes closed. I am getting better at understanding what I can’t explain. Or at least accepting it.
I wake in the middle of the night with a feeling in my chest like hatching eggs, like pecking and clawing. I have never felt this way before. I try to find myself in the dark because now that my eyes are open, it is harder to see. When I whisper my boyfriend’s name, he does not answer. There is no warmth under his nose where my finger rests. I close my eyes. Find him. Take his cold hand, hold it close.
Shifra Sharlin has recently completed a memoir, Lopsided. Her essay about marriage and the Marquis de Sade appeared in the 2021 anthology, The Contemporary American Essay (Random House). Her work has appeared in Bomb, Salmagundi, Raritan, Southwest Review (a Notable), Yale Review, and elsewhere. She has recently retired as a Senior Lecturer from Yale where she taught and co-directed a popular multi-section course on reading and writing the modern essay.
POTLUCK OR POTLATCH?
Naomi’s wedding was held at the East Side Club, an establishment built in the 1950s, situated on the grassy shores of one of Madison’s three lakes. The architectural style – flat roof, horizontal lines, low ceilings and pine paneling – is in style once again, although it had never gone out of style in Frank Lloyd Wright’s home state. The marquee would not have pleased him; it was an additional selling point for us. It was retro and kitschy, in short, delightful. We had booked the place sight unseen, trusting a friend’s recommendation.
When we saw it a few days before the wedding, I was only a little bit disappointed. As Kris had warned me, it was a bit shabby. In truth it reminded me of the basement of the First Baptist Church where the Ames Jewish Congregation used to hold its Purim carnival, except that there was no stage.
That must have been my pre-wedding jitters because on the day of the wedding it seemed perfect. The enormous room was nothing like the Baptist’s basement. There was an enormous C-shaped bar complete with well cushioned bar stools. The view out to the lake beyond the sloping lawn seemed to extend into the unadorned room. There was no barrier between the outdoors and the inside. The giant trees cast their soothing shade in our direction.
Naomi is the youngest of David’s and my four children and the last to marry. Her siblings, Phoebe, Gideon, and Isaac, helped with setting up. Gideon and David assembled the wedding canopy polls, acquired at the last minute from Nora whose second husband had a serious woodworking hobby. I had sewn the wedding canopy itself for Phoebe and Gahl’s wedding about seven years earlier. At Phoebe’s wedding, the blue-green organza rippled like water. Gahl means wave. At Naomi and Carl’s wedding the organza’s blue-green had the shimmer of leaves blowing. Naomi compared her love for Carl to a linden tree.
The memory of Phoebe’s wedding was like the view of the lake, distant and suffusing the present with its glow. She and Gahl had also been married in Madison at a small, nineteenth-century synagogue, Gates of Heaven, on the shore of another one of Madison’s lakes.
I became aware of past and present getting mixed up. Phoebe and Gahl’s wedding was the first time I experienced this confusion. Gazing at the wedding guests from under their wedding canopy, I had found myself thinking my cousins were the same age as my children as if all those years had never happened. At Naomi and Carl’s wedding, I kept forgetting that my children had grown up. Watching Phoebe with Daphne and Netta, I thought, for a moment, she was their sister, not their mother.
Watching the children talk to the wedding guests helped this impression along. There was Gideon with his wife, Dominoe, talking to Marc and Judith and the present moment was connected to the time when Marc had tutored Gideon for his bar mitzvah. Although we no longer lived in Madison, we held the wedding there. At first, the main considerations were the logistics and expense of having a Brooklyn wedding where Naomi and Carl lived. Once we had booked the East Side Club, however, I lost myself in imagining how our Madison friends and the Fab Four would get to see each other again.
My dreams were realized and preserved because of an excellent photographic record thanks to the advice of my daughter-in-law’s mother, who would later knit socks for me while she was thinking/praying for me when I was undergoing treatment for cancer.
I didn’t see neighbors and friends in Naomi and Carl’s wedding pictures. I saw guardian angels. The hugs and smiles were benedictions. The soundtrack ought to have been a hallelujah chorus. “Praise be God, Ruler of the Universe, who has sustained us, saved us, and brought us to this moment.” Jews recite this prayer to mark both a culmination and a beginning. It seems symbolic to see one friend after another leaning over Naomi to re-button the small button at the neckline of her dress.
It was the spirit of the potluck. Naomi’s wedding couldn’t be an actual potluck, as I had at first hoped it could be, but we ended up staying true to that blessed midwestern tradition. In part, because the meal was served up from giant stainless steel trays, like the ones I served from when I worked in the cafeteria of the Iowa State Memorial Union. And the menu was potluck type food. Macaroni and cheese. Green beans. Salmon. Potatoes. It was the kind of food that was behind the tongue-in-cheek going away present that Lou had gotten when she left San Francisco for Madison: a casserole dish with a secure lid. Potluck food is easy to serve and to transport.
Nothing says community like the willingness to eat each other’s casseroles. A potluck is more than a way to feed a lot of people. A potluck unites people. In my mind potlucks are like barn raising. I’ve never been to a barn raising, but the First Baptist Church, my First Baptist Church in Ames, had been built in a barn raising fashion, as a joint effort by the men of the congregation. Potlucks are one more example of American civic religion. Out of many, one. Potlucks are harmony. Potlucks are reciprocity perfected. Giving and receiving are perfectly balanced as we hover over each other’s casseroles, plates in hand.
I believe in reciprocity: potlucks are its sacrament. I believe with perfect faith in a perfect harmony between all people. I believe in a world where nobody disappoints anyone else, where there are no misunderstandings. Reciprocity is the credo of my civic religion.
How could an anthropologist writing in France at the beginning of the twentieth century illuminate a wedding that took place in Madison, Wisconsin at the beginning of the twenty-first century?
Marcel Mauss was an observer, a modest man, deferential towards and devoted to his famous uncle, Emile Durkheim, who is considered the founder of sociology. Mauss was the sort of person who was the secretary of an organization, the one who did all the work, and not the president who got all the glory. Biographers can find little to say about his personal life. When he recalled his career and the future of social science in France, he dwelled on the loss of a generation on the battlefields of World War I. His uncle, he said, was as much of a casualty of World War I as those who died in battle. Mauss watched him die of grief over his son’s death in battle.
Both Mauss and Durkheim were Jews, natives of Alsace Lorraine and descendants of rabbis, who dedicated themselves to understanding social solidarity. Religion was one source and so was, said Durkheim, the way societies organize work. Mauss’ genius was to realize the enormous significance of the seemingly small, trivial practice of gift giving.
Mauss was not prolific. He praised the French university system for nurturing scholars who would write less and think more. All but one of his books was written in collaboration with another scholar. Mauss tells his reader that his book, The Gift, is a mere provisional, incomplete and sketchy foray into a topic he is not really qualified to write about. The French title, Essai sur le don, expresses this more than the declarative English one, The Gift. And yet, the scope of the book is fiendishly broad.
The Gift is not a book about what a bad idea gift cards are or the evolution of the bridal registry. Or, it is not only a book about gift cards and bridal registries (by implication only). That’s what makes it so fiendish. Because Mauss won’t let you pick out your gifts in peace. He doesn’t believe you pick out your gifts in peace. Society is always and everywhere looking over your shoulder.
You’re not alone as you browse those gift registries. You’re participating in a society -wide system of exchange. You’re participating when you invite a few of your besties for wine and cheese. Mauss puts hospitality of all kinds in the same category as gifts, which are in the same category as contracts and any form of exchange in national and international relationships. Gifts are one manifestation of “total services,” which are, he writes:
Apparently free and disinterested but nevertheless constrained and
self-interested. Almost always such services have taken the form of
the gift, the present generously given when, in the gesture
accompanying the transaction, there is only a polite fiction, formalism,
and social deceit, and when really there is obligation and economic
Only the self-deceiving deny their own social deceit. Our gifts and all our social interactions are constrained by “obligation and economic self-interest.”
Who doesn’t dream of withdrawing into a happy, private kingdom or, as a friend’s Viennese refugee father liked to say, “Sewing buttons!” Mauss won’t let us sew our buttons in peace and in private. Even if you never leave your house and resolutely think only of buttons, Mauss will show you how you and your buttons are enmeshed and entwined and inextricably bound up with your society.
That’s also a good thing. It is social solidarity. Each of us is bound to the other through that system of obligation. The wealthy are bound to the poor. Mauss was a socialist and fought for what we now call a social safety net. He observed that the Hebrew word for justice also means charity. Justice is equity and reciprocity.
Marcel Mauss, like his uncle, was an armchair sociologist. In the spirit of Agatha Christie’s detective, Hercule Poirot, who scoffed at detectives who studied footprints and the like, preferring to sit in his own armchair and exercise his “little grey cells” to solve crimes, Mauss also preferred pondering in his Paris study. He did not travel to the countries he studied, depending instead on the experiences and notes of other people.
If he had read my account of Naomi and Carl’s wedding, he would have skimmed past the bit about the lawn and the lake. He would not have cared about the marquee or the curved bar. He might not notice that the wedding canopy shimmered like water or leaves. The menu would also be inconsequential. Marcel Mauss was the kind of social scientist who saw those material details as mere instantiations of universal, timeless human impulses. He would not be distracted by lawns, lakes, silk organza and other stuff in his pursuit of universals. That is to say, he would have taken one look at me in my long linen dress and old sandals and seen a chief of a tribe in the Pacific Northwest watching over her potlatch.
I am willing to agree. I can set aside the vanity of my individuality. I’m a creature, a creation, of my society and of human nature. I’m a speck in the universal flow. It’s like looking in the mirror. My wrinkles get wrinkles just like every other aging person I know. I’m not so different from a tribal chief. I can put aside my love affair with the East Side Club. And it is not even difficult for me to forget about angels, prayers, benedictions and the rest of the transcendent ecstasy of a child’s wedding.
Like Marcel Mauss, I am also a follower of Emile Durkheim. As an impressionable first year student at the University of Chicago, I read Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life and it felt as if the veil of illusion had fallen from my eyes. With that book as my guide, I showed how my bat mitzvah, held in the lounge of the First Baptist Church filled to capacity, was an exercise in social solidarity down to its smallest detail. Writing that paper did not depress me.
Lifting the veil of illusion was not the same as disillusionment. Letting go of the spiritual claims and accouterments of my bat mitzvah made it easier for me to be happy about it. The high stakes had been lowered. I did not have to believe in God. I was a good Jew if I believed in my dear co-religionists in the Ames Jewish Congregation, if I wanted to make my parents happy, if my brother, Allan, made an extra trip home from college (the University of Chicago!) for the occasion, if both my brothers were proud of me.
Thus educated by Durkheim, I cringe only a little at the notion of letting Marcel Mauss lift the veil of illusion on Naomi and Carl’s wedding.
Mauss calls the potlatch “agonistic,” from the Greek agon, meaning a struggle or a contest. Potlatch is competitive hospitality. Nobles from the same tribe would host celebrations for weddings and other occasions to display their wealth, going so far as to destroy their own possessions, the ultimate demonstration of conspicuous super abundance. Nobles can be killed in the rivalry of the potlatch. When one noble potlatched, another had to potlatch in return. Potlatching was compulsory. While potlatch is a specific social phenomenon practiced only among the Haida and Tlingit tribes of the Pacific Northwest, Mauss, with his taste for universals, identified the same rules in other cultures. He saw them in the Paris of his own day.
I see them in the Madison, Wisconsin of my day. I’d rather not admit to my self-interest, polite fictions and social deceit. I hate thinking of my hospitality as competitive and manipulative. There’s hostility behind my smiles? On the other hand, to be more potlatch than potluck offers a less stringent notion of reciprocity. Mauss also lowers the stakes on my enjoyment of my child’s wedding. It does not have to be all tranquil, transcendent heaven-sent harmony. Mauss makes room for unease and tension and disappointment.
Nobody needs a groundbreaking work in social science to know how fraught wedding invitations are. Nonetheless, I feel better thinking about Nora’s hurt at not being invited to Phoebe’s wedding at the Gates of Heaven in Maussian terms. That hurt was her eagerness to maintain our close social and emotional connection. Mauss identifies three obligations common to all potlatches: to give, to accept and to reciprocate.
Another person might have been upset about not being invited because they wanted to attend the wedding. Not Nora. I thought that when I told her that the Gates of Heaven had a strict limit on capacity, she would relent on the invitation question. Not Nora. She said I could have sent the invitation and slipped in a note telling her she couldn’t come! Thinking she would be relieved, I told her I wanted to free her from the obligation to send a gift. Not Nora! She wanted to be obliged! “I want to give Phoebe and Gahl a gift!” she exclaimed. Nora, along with her intuitive feel for the power of symmetry, also understood the power of the potlatch without ever having read of word of Marcel Mauss.
Giving, accepting and reciprocating were risks Nora welcomed. That brave woman did not fear the unwelcome gift. Accepting an invitation was like jumping onto a merry-go-round. There would be no easy way to get off. She would have to keep going. It was like double-dutch jump roping in which two children swung two long jump ropes in opposite directions. The two girls (only girls jumped rope in my day) swinging had to keep an even pace. The third child had to enter the swinging arc of ropes and jump back and forth over the two ropes. The swinging ropes were an invitation and a challenge. Slap and slap, they smacked the ground with the force and finality of a guillotine. Misjudge the pace and risk a bad fall and ruining the game for everyone else.
Giving, accepting and reciprocating are risky. Error and disappointment threaten at every step. Who, aside from Nora, does not fear giving an unwelcome gift? Accepting in the wrong spirit? Reciprocating inadequately?
Joy, tranquility, harmony – and other heaven-sent blessings -- are not a required part of a potlatch. They are not necessary for reciprocity. Violence is often a part of a Pacific Northwest potlatch. The giver can be disappointed and anxious. Will their gift be accepted in the spirit it was given? Possibly not. Differences make the potlatch difficult and risky.
David and I were not sure how Naomi’s in-laws would feel about the wedding or about us. Aside from having four children, we seemed to have nothing in common with them. I had gotten in the habit of telling people that Naomi and Carl’s wedding was a meeting of two Wisconsins. Ours was college town academic, professional, Jewish; and theirs was small town, small church, evangelicals. Those differences did not disappear in the potlatch. Where would be the fun in that? They joined in. They came bringing good cheer and positivity, wild flowers for the tables and cake for everyone. On the day of the wedding, they tracked down a sound system so that everyone who wanted to danced the night away.
Some people left early, some before the food was served, some before the dancing started. Mauss also understands the risk I took in inviting the couple I still hate to call former friends, people with whom the reciprocity of invitation had broken down. I relentlessly criticized them behind their backs, but I still liked them. What kind of friend does that? Marcel Mauss knows. Tribal chiefs. Potlatches are about affirming a relationship, not asserting its perfection.
The desire for this social reciprocity is as deep as our expectation of symmetry. Mauss searched for evidence of potlatch everywhere and through all time. That we want to enter into these relationships of giving, accepting and reciprocating, bound in social solidarity is universal, obtaining in all cultures and pervasive within each culture, a pattern that can be seen in private relationships and between large groups of people.
Among the original potlatchers, refusal to potlatch could be a declaration of war. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between gift giving and intimidation. Some throw a gift at the would-be recipients feet, imitating the gesture of “throwing down the gauntlet.” Gift giving can be veiled hostility, manipulating the recipient into a position of obligation. Gifts force the recipient to become debtor.
Mauss’ theory of the gift has implications for other relationships between unequals, for instance, parents and children. No wonder children criticize parents, says Boris Groys in an article on Mauss. What is a parent’s dedication to childrearing, but a parent whose giving, willy-nilly, turns a child into a debtor. That debt can weigh heavily. Children criticize parents to diminish the parent’s so-called gifts and thus free themselves from their debtor’s prison.
R. is my oldest friend. We have known each other since we stood in line together to take the Hebrew placement exam before classes started at the University of Chicago. When we lived in Berkeley she used to scoff at the naiveté of people who thanked her for the presents she gave them. Didn’t they know that gift giving was all about power? I think back to that comment when she refuses to give me her current address so that I can send her a present.
The power of gift giving to create relationships attests to the power of things. Which brings me to Mauss’ research question, “What power resides in the object given that compels its recipient to pay it back.” Once, when Dvori pressed a small, inexpensive zip-up cloth bag on me, she said, “So that you don’t forget me.” Without thinking, I replied, “I don’t need a gift to remember you!” I thought I was being generous, thoughtful and kind – assuring her of my affection. I was, and I was also missing the point.
Because I do always think of her and that conversation when I use that small and useful cloth bag. She is present whenever we use the wedding canopy. True to her principles, Dvori always tells me how much she prizes the boiled wool blanket I made for her and her husband Eitan the first time we visited them in Tel Aviv. Mauss makes me believe Dvori’s claims. Mauss helps me accept her mixed motives—she gives so lavishly both to show off, to dominate, and also to connect and to nurture. In one of the cultures Mauss describes, parents-in-law never meet, but exchange presents regularly. Are we competing for the soul of our children’s marriage?
When Mauss writes that the potlatch is “A struggle between nobles to establish a hierarchy amongst themselves from which their clan will benefit at a later date,” I take him to mean that children are the reason tribal chiefs organize potlatches. The point of the photographs was to photograph the children talking to our old Madison friends. At the wedding, a Madison friend, Judith, told me that Phoebe had introduced her to one of my cousins as “my Madison aunt.” It’s a story from the wedding that I often tell.
When we moved to Madison, David and I thought we had realized our real estate fantasies with a six-bedroom, white with black shutters, center-hall colonial built in 1922. What could be more real than that? But as soon as our children left home, we moved out. What was the point of four bedrooms in four corners without four children to sleep in them? Or, as they so often did, have “sleepovers” with each other, that is, drag a mattress into a sibling’s room so that they could whisper to each other as they were falling asleep.
It turned out that an essential element of all those dream-come-true parties and dinner parties in a fantasy house was that our children were there. What good was a large dining room with four large windows and French doors that could easily seat 15 people, if none of those 15 were the Fab Four? My fantasy was realized when I overheard Isaac explaining to Naomi that being Jewish meant having friends over for dinner on Friday night and talking.
And besides, I had my ultimate affirmation when I was once “problem of the week” at a Weight Watchers meeting. Let me explain. Part of every meeting was set aside to identify threats to dieting in the week ahead, i.e. the problem of the week. One week, my friend Sue, without naming me, named dinner at my house as that week’s problem. As if that was not distinction enough, someone else guessed that I was the thoughtless diet buster. And what makes me so proud is that, even though Sue did not out me as the thoughtless diet buster that I am, another friend, Jane, did. All she had to hear was that dinner at this unnamed person’s house would be a threat to sensible eating and she knew it had to be me. That’s how successfully I had insinuated myself into the potlatch traditions of my adopted city.
After the wedding, David and I agreed that we should have parties at the East Side Club every few years. Maybe some day we will. When we left Oxford, our friends were shocked. One after another said, how can you leave, you’re one of us! One friend said, but you’ll move back. You’re our friends, they said. In contrast, nobody was surprised when we left Madison. Maybe that is the sad thing about living in the provinces. Our friends said: we always expected you to leave! Were the nobles of the Haida and Tlingit tribes also motivated both by undying, unrequited devotion and by deceitful social fictions?
Zach Peckham is a writer, editor, and educator. His work has received Pushcart nominations and has appeared in jubilat, Territory, Poetry Northwest, Always Crashing, on the Academy of American Poets website, and elsewhere. He currently teaches at Cleveland State, the Cleveland Institute of Art, and is managing editor at Cleveland Review of Books.
What Will Happen to All Our Emails When We Die
so here you might imagine an arrow
shot from a bow and traveling deep into space
but let’s be honest
it looks like slow motion at this distance
leaving a location on earth
but probably the Midwest
going out and on for lightyears
imbued with importance
carrying a message
our last great hope or something
a sign that we were here
all the mothers
heroes explorers doctors artists writers musicians philosophers humanitarians pilgrims city planners politicians MRI technicians software developers middle school English teachers well-tipped golf caddies NASCAR drivers sailors child actors magicians’ assistants managers of Subway® sandwich shop franchise locations air traffic controllers social media influencers DJs event planners arborists and dads
our final memory of having lived
shooting majestically out into expanding space
MAKE MONEY AND CHANGE YOUR LIFE NOW! WITHIN 5 MINUTES YOU COULD BE MAKING REAL MONEY WORKING FROM THE COMFORT OF YOUR OWN HOME!
precious golden arrow
carry us gently into infinity
you wake from a dream about the future
you are hungover or have lost the ability rise under imperfect conditions
hours of sleep, units of hydration, levels of blood sugar and cortisol
an ongoing state of lack
this requires substantial effort
a being may see its life
as a discrete sequence of events
lined up like dominos
waiting to topple
one moment into the next
each after the last
this other might see
a long and gentle arching
beam of multicolored light
to be ridden like a slide
or kind snake
a geoduck (phon. gooey-duck)
is a giant saltwater clam
with an elephant trunk
overspilling its shell
no brain or eyes
for its distinct savory flavor
living 160 years
OPEN NOW TO LEARN HOW TO MEET AND ATTRACT BEAUTIFUL WOMEN! EVEN IF YOU AREN’T TALL, RICH, OR HANDSOME
you see lights
flashing in the pines
the average human life lasts 79 years
the oldest koi fish
when are they coming
to get you
so then an exploratory committee was formed
and the leaders were very pleased
because the readouts promised excellent conditions
for a condo with a patio
development of more beachfront property
salt water blue and fine
good yellow light at the center
all these benevolent marsupials roaming the yard
beautiful stuff carpeting the ground
breathing life into the air
which was also full of all these other things
singing and breathing
about everything else
but then someone on the excavation team
discovered a critical error
in the calculations
an untreatable cancer
had already infected the body
and was beginning to spread
maybe you see it now
just a glow starting around the edges
RETIRE EARLY AND NEVER HAVE TO WORK AGAIN: SAVE MORE AND WORK LESS, IT’S THAT SIMPLE!
tortoises are frequently cited
as the longest living terrestrial creatures
Harriet, a giant tortoise
disembarked from Darwin’s ship
after the long and harrowing expedition of 1835
and died in an Australian zoo in 2006
Adwaita the giant tortoise
was gifted to a British officer
East India Company, 1750
lived vigorously until his shell cracked
today the oldest tortoise
lives on the Island of Saint Helena
stalking the dewy grounds
of the governor’s lime green plantation house
blind with no sense of smell
but very good hearing
190 years old
the arrow slipping silently through the Kuiper belt
leaves an orange dusted transit path
ribboning smoky memories of us outward
or maybe an impression
indents on a plane made by waves of light
tracing a shape
if each word equals a pocket of air
that stays inflated unless it’s deleted
is this a marker
5 SIMPLE TRICKS YOU CAN START USING TODAY TO EFFECTIVELY REMEMBER EVERYTHING YOU LEARN
Lin Wang, Asian Elephant, 86 years
Greater, Greater Flamingo, 83 years
Cookie, Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo, 83 years
Thaao, Andean Condor, 80 years
Ol’ Billy, Horse, 62 years
Andreas, European Brown Bear, 50 years, World’s Oldest Bear
warm-blooded life seems to have the hardest time
keeping clung to earth
Jeanne Clement, b. February 21, 1875, d. August 4, 1997, 122 years and 164 days
Kane Tanaka, b. January 2, 1903, 119 years, oldest living person
the ocean teems most densely with immortals
this may not be surprising
Freshwater Pearl Mussel, 250 years
Greenland Shark, 392 years
Icelandic Ocean Quahog, 507 years
Giant Barrel Sponge, 2,300 years
Black Corral, 4,265 years
Glass Sponge, 10,000+ years, max lifespan unknown
but it’s just not that impressive
when a sponge outlives a human
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you try to remember a time when you could make it
through a day without some shard of noise
piercing in to strike you with wonder
at whether you’d made the correct decisions
if the path from there to here wasn’t
where else you would be
you are stuck watching a movie of someone else’s life
in 50 years
the number of dead people on Facebook
will start to outnumber the living
some estimate the total deceased
at 4.9 billion
the entire population of earth
much more impressive to think
we have already become immortals
that our selves outlive ourselves
when the afterlife is data
a server farm is Valhalla
the arrow gliding softly into a tide of oncoming waves
parts them in an opposite direction
encrypted chatter mingling with radio static
as your credit card numbers and social media handles
brush hands with deep space distortion
the sky goes dark again
you know they must be there
watching us make our go of it
hear them cheering
they’re waving big foam fingers and drinking beers in the bleachers
if the earth is round it’s a ring
for pro wrestling
SEAFOOD WELLNESS BREAKTHROUGH: ASTHAXANTHIN ACTIVATES THE FOX03 ‘LONGEVITY GENE’. THE TRUTH DOCTORS DON’T WANT YOU TO KNOW
seamonkeys, nematodes, waterbears
for brine shrimp, roundworms, and tardigrades
who stop their metabolic processes at will
should conditions become imperfect
levels of water, oxygen, toxicity, temperature, environmental solute concentration
falling out of balance
into a state of lack
brine shrimp, roundworms, and tardigrades
simply stop themselves from living
and pick it back up later
when the timing is better
turritopsis nutricula, a small hydrozoan
the immortal jellyfish
passes repeatedly backward into earlier stages of its lifecycle
changing one cell into another indefinitely
theoretical lifespan infinite
WANT TO TRANSFORM YOUR BODY FROM FAT TO FIT? NOW YOU CAN! OPEN NOW TO CREATE THE BODY YOU’VE ALWAYS WANTED
the worst thing to imagine
is that aliens have already been here
Facts about humans, animals, space, earth, and the Internet are casually researched and sourced from Googleable articles and shallow Wikipedia dives. Collected here:
Text in all caps is a blend of actual spam email subject lines and clickbait ads with some light embellishments. None of this content is copyrighted.
The “golden arrow” is an echo of the gold photograph records aboard Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, launched in 1977 and exiting the heliopause into interstellar space as of 2012, still in transit.
Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her partner and several intense mammals. Recent books include a creative nonfiction chapbook, Ribald (Bull City Press Inch Series, Nov. 2020) and Dor, which won the Wandering Aengus Press Prize (September, 2021). Her debut fiction collection, Every Mask I Tried On, won the Brighthorse Books Prize (April 2018). Alina's poems, essays, and fiction can be found in Prairie Schooner, North American Review, World Literature Today, Pleiades, Poetry, BOMB, Crab Creek Review, and others. She serves as poetry editor for several journals, reviewer and critic for others, and Co-Director of PEN America's Birmingham Chapter. She is currently working on a novel-like creature. More online at www.alinastefanescuwriter.com.
Someone Failed This Man
The client laid his cheek against his palm and said it was like having sex with your mother. It's always the mother for you people, he announced. I glanced down at my clipboard when he said you, then back up again when he said people. It was like listening to song lyrics that said nothing was red except the coffee mug perched on the windowsill. I felt a cup when I needed a cardinal. There was this failure, now, between us.
Someone had failed him. Someone fibbed. A mother. An aunt. A best friend. Someone failed everyone, no exceptions. Someone carried the weight of the story. Someone else told it. No one knew the truth.
This isn't about the client's truth or his mother. This isn't about truth. Nor is it an essay about how to write fiction while smuggling in some Truth. I'm not writing for the story-as-vessel crowd. I can't satisfy the compartments of magnificence. Nor am I preparing a lecture on the topic of truth as it touches us dimly, wantonly, subversively under the table in an Italian restaurant where it brushes its thigh against ours and smells of green soap or faux shamrocks or forlorn footsies.
I am preparing to brush my teeth and lie to my children about what color my teeth would be if I hadn't brushed them. When I was their age. I never brushed my teeth. Instead, I used the sleeve of my jacket to wipe my teeth clean with tenderness. A little bit of white cream deposited on the navy blue sleeve and it was more satisfying than toothpaste. It was prophetic. I was Cassandra. I don't have anything to say about truth that I can't write on a mirror in Coral Reef lipstick.
Sometimes the best way to be fully present is by becoming a heat-seaking missile, namely, lying on the bed in your husband's bathrobe and imagining how it would feel to have a beard. Or scratch your balls in sad earnest. I scratch my scrotum and wait for the world to brush its teeth. Someone will lie about it. A literary scholar will call the lie suspense.
Rachel Cochran received her PhD in creative writing and 19th-century studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her short stories and essays have appeared in the New Ohio Review, Fugue, Masters Review, and others. Additionally, she serves as assistant editor for Machete, a nonfiction book series through Ohio State University Press. Find her on Twitter at @_RachelCochran.
Girls Kissing Girls
The first time I witness two girls kissing, I’m at Kaylee’s house for her thirteenth birthday party. When I walk into her living room it’s to find that she’s invited a bunch of girls I don’t really know, girls who aren’t in the cloister of advanced classes I’ve been shut away in since we started middle school. I didn’t realize Kaylee had so many friends I didn’t know--but then again, I don’t share many classes with Kaylee these days, and I suppose it’s been a while, over a month, since I’ve had her to my house. (It strikes me that, at my own thirteenth birthday party two months ago, she might have felt nearly as disoriented, in my living room which at one time was as familiar to her as her own, now populated by people she scarcely knew, laughing behind their hands at jokes she wasn’t invited to share.)
This isn’t where the kissing happens, of course: not out here, in the living room, with Kaylee holding court, one girl sitting splay-legged on the couch-back behind her, twisting two fat ropelike braids onto her head, and two other girls crouched at her toes, painting them dueling shades of glitter-pink. There is no kissing out in the open, here where the air smells of hairspray and acetone and cigarette smoke, where the TV shouting out the weekly VH1 countdown has been subsumed by the girls’ laughing voices; here where Kaylee’s aunt and brother and uncle and little cousins trickle through as if they’re going about their regular business, except that they’ve always got one eye trained on the girls, curious, teasing, awed, confused. I am an interloper, too: I may be seated among them, but still I am perched outside, squinting in.
One of Kaylee’s guests, a girl named H., I recognize from years ago, on the elementary school playground, from when Kaylee once pointed at her and giggled, insinuated something I couldn’t understand, in order to explain why she’d told H. she couldn’t sit at our picnic table. Yet here she is, with the others at Kaylee’s party, looking for all the world like she’s the same as the rest of them. She offers to braid my hair, but I decline; many childhood battles with headlice have left my scalp a tattered, flaky ruin, so I’ve never been able to take part in this vital feminine ritual, too afraid that if I allow another girl to twine her fingers through my hair she will uncover this hidden, grotesque part of me, and then everyone will know. In this moment, I worry my refusal has been too vehement, that my hands have twitched defensively toward my head, that I’ve given myself away. I see the suspicion in H.’s eyes, like she’s about to pin me down and pick through my roots to pluck out all my secrets. She could do it, probably-- I’m smaller than she is, have always been undersized--but she leaves me alone.
The kissing happens hours later, after we have retired to the bedroom Kaylee shares with her cousin Jessica, and their bedside lamp is the only light left in the house. The kissing happens when we’re all gathered around, cross-legged, knee-to-knee, ranged on the two twin bedtops and clustered in the valley between, and, in that ancient tradition of girls-in-the-nighttime, someone has suggested we share secrets.
My stomach clenches. What secrets do I have to share? Because I know I’ll be called on, and when I am, I have to offer up the right secret. It can’t be something embarrassing, or they’ll mock me, so I can hardly go with: when I was ten years old and they were casting the Harry Potter movies I sent a letter to the director explaining why I should play Hermione, citing my leading roles in elementary school theatricals as well as my “astonishingly accomplished” British accent, and for weeks I wanted it so badly, so incessantly, that I began to dream of being her, to believe that it would happen, until I logged into the library computer to find that the actors had been announced, and I logged out and walked home crying, and I’ve resented Emma Watson unreasonably ever since. It can’t be something sad, because that will make it look like I’m seeking attention, so I can’t say: sometimes my mother forgets to give me lunch money for weeks in a row, so I sit in the cafeteria every day and watch everyone else eat and, if they ever ask me about it, I tell them I’m on a diet, and hope they don’t tell me I’m too fat to be anorexic. It has to be the right kind of secret, the kind that will make me sound more interesting to them, that will make them like me more. But I’ve always wanted so badly to be liked; those aren’t the kinds of things I hide.
Luckily, nobody asks me to go first. Instead, Kaylee leaps in. “I’ve got a secret,” she says, conspiratory, demanding our attention. “Lately I’ve been thinking... I might be a lesbian.” The term shocks me. I’ve heard it before, but only ever in reference to my mom’s friend Shari, who lives out in New Mexico, and that Ellen Degeneres sitcom my parents used to watch before the divorce, after they’d put me in bed, when I’d sometimes sneak out to watch surreptitiously from the top of the stairs. Yet here is Kaylee, one of my oldest friends, applying it to herself, and I don’t know what it means, not really, and I don’t know exactly what I’m thinking, either, except, I wish she had told just me.
I see H.’s eyes go wide, and I think mine must be wide too, but before anyone can really react to what Kaylee has said, her cousin Jessica jumps in. “I... I think I might be a lesbian, too.”
And then, as if it is the logical next step, they are leaning toward each other, brushing lip to lip, eyes closed; for the first time since my arrival, the room of girls is silent, quiet enough that all I can hear is the ceiling fan clicking above and the two girls’ lip gloss smacking.
They pull apart. Nobody makes a sound. Then, a third girl says, “I think I’m a lesbian, too.” At which Kaylee turns to her, and dares her to kiss her, and there’s some hesitation, and then the other girls are egging them on, and they lean in and kiss too. Soon, a fourth girl says it, too, those magic words that have her leaning over her crossed legs and kissing Jessica.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” I murmur, just to get away, but I’m stuck at the far end of the bed, against the corner of the wall, and so the kissing couples have to part to let me clamber through, the bedtop rocking and tilting in my wake, the sitting girls bobbing like buoys around me. H. stares at me as I leave.
I don’t go to the bathroom. Instead, I search through the heap of girls’ bags piled near the front door until I find my own, which is easy to spot because theirs are gymnastics duffels and Wal-Mart backpacks and mine’s only a ratty pillowcase. I dig out the book I brought, settle into the sofa in the darkened living room, and try to read by the light of the streetlamp that’s pouring through the window. I can’t focus on my reading, though--my heart is surging in my throat, and my eyes are swimming, and all I can think of are the girls’ faces, tilting together, mouths slotting, eyelids drooping sleepily shut.
I think I might be a lesbian, they had all said. How in the world had they known? And did you have to be a lesbian, to want to do that, what they were doing? Do you want to do it? a voice inside me chides. And then, more specifically, Did you want Kaylee to kiss you? Did you did you did you? But it had not been an option, not there in that room, not where I knew nobody and nobody knew me. And so I sit outside, staring at a book I can’t make out, thinking thoughts I can’t understand.
Someone comes up to me, moving quietly through the dark and then settling down on the couch cushion beside me. I don’t look up from my book, but I know it’s Kaylee. It’s the first time all night long we’ve been alone together, and it’s nearly the first time she’s spoken to me when she says, “We didn’t mean it.”
“That,” says Kaylee. “In there. We’re all pretending.”
“We’re trying to get H. to admit that she’s a lesbian. So we decided to pretend we were.” Then, nudging me with her elbow, “Sorry. I should have warned you.”
I realize she thinks I left because I was horrified by what I saw her doing. Maybe I was, but I won’t let her know I wasn’t horrified for the reason she thinks. And I won’t let her know that I’m even more horrified now, now that I know what was really going on. Selfishly, frightfully, in that moment all I can feel is gratitude: gratitude that H. is the one they were trying to trap.
“Come back in,” Kaylee says. “Nobody’s kissing anymore.”
“I want to finish this chapter,” I lie, just to get her to leave me alone. “I’ll be in later.”
She goes, and I watch her pick back through the living room, the kitchen, until she reaches the bedroom door again. She opens it, and for a moment I can hear the tittering girls, as almost as distinctly as if I am in the room with them once more. I think I will never shake that sound from my ears. But for now, I am far away, on the sofa, curled in against myself so tightly the edges of my book are pressing red lines into me through my nightgown, and when the door finally closes, it is mercifully quiet.
Teresa Milbrodt is the author of three short story collections: Instances of Head-Switching, Bearded Women: Stories, and Work Opportunities. She has also published a novel, The Patron Saint of Unattractive People, and a flash fiction collection, Larissa Takes Flight: Stories. Her fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in numerous literary magazines, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net award. Milbrodt lives in Salem, Virginia, where she is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Roanoke College. She believes in coffee, long walks with her MP3 player, real-time conversation, and writing the occasional haiku. Read more of her work at: http://teresamilbrodt.com/homepage/
My barista sets clean coffee cups on the shelf behind the counter while she explains how the first-year med students do anatomical body painting at the end of the semester. They've spent three months working on a cadaver, but need to be exposed to all kinds of bodies and navigate the experience of touching people. Live ones.
“You've been working on one cadaver all semester?” I peer into my coffee cup.
“It's not gross once you get used to it,” she says. “But I'm excited that we're graduating to the next level. Not everyone wants to paint people, and our prof said that's fine. They can hold brushes.”
“Why are they going into medicine if they don't want to touch people?” I say.
“They have three more years to get there.” She shrugs, less concerned than I am, but the prospect of being painted is interesting. “You can decide which room you want to work in.
Different rooms focus on different parts of the body. I'm planning on bones. You're welcome to come and bring friends. We always need more bodies.”
On Wednesday morning I pick up my sister for this excursion, since she's arranged to leave her two-year-old at play group for three hours. She's said we need to have girl time, though she wants to be in the room with organs, and I'm going with bones. Afterward we can have coffee and a chat.
“And pictures,” says my sister. “We have to take lots of pictures.”
I wear a sports bra and biking shorts under my t-shirt, a loose layer I strip off when I walk into the bone painting room. My sister was more slender than me when we were growing up, but now she has her baby body, and a bulge over her biking shorts. I wonder if they will paint her uterus.
I stand by the window and stretch my arms over my head, then wave to my barista who's by a gurney. The students painting me won't be able to tell I have thinning bones, the result of being a teenager who got painfully skinny. My doctor says I have osteopenia, so I've been taking calcium and hormone replacement therapy and lifting weights to strengthen the structures no one can see. In seventh grade we had to memorize the names of our bones. That was when I was thirty pounds overweight and being prodded by my pediatrician to eat less. But it was the fear of dating that worked miracles in my mind, which was hopped up on hormones. I lost too much weight, along with the names of most of the bones in my skeletal system. I remember fun ones, like tibia and metatarsals and phalanges. My barista already asked if she could paint me, which is slightly less weird than painting a stranger.
She waves me over to the gurney to signal they are ready to begin, and asks if I would like to sit, stand, or lie down. I say whatever would give them the best access, and wonder if I should tell them to paint my bones to look thin, like they could crack if I fell the wrong way. Someday these med students will have to ask people like me for their medical history, but now all that matters is where my bones are.
My barista says it would be great if I could lie down, but she realizes the gurney doesn't have a pillow, so she excuses herself to find one. The pause gives me time to compare my body, childless and forty and sagging in the usual places, to other bodies in the room. According to my barista, last year there was a guy who had weighted three hundred fifty pounds, dropped to two hundred, and wanted people to see his skin folds. There was also a woman who'd had a C-section, and whose ribs had shifted position while she was pregnant.
“We need to feel for bones that aren't in the same place on bodies as they are in the pictures,” my barista said. As she brings my pillow, I watch a woman pace by the window, wearing a sport bra and biking shorts much like mine.
“I can do this, I can do this,” she says.
We are ready to donate our bodies to science for the afternoon. Perhaps I'm willing because I've seen too many doctors in the past year due to a bad bout of bronchitis that held on for months. Now I can choose to be vulnerable and educate someone, rather than being compelled to hop on that table.
When I lie down I wish I would've asked to be seated—it feels too much like I'm having an operation--but my barista says not to be shy to ask for fruit or water. They'll let me know what and where they're painting. Someone announces they're going to work on my scapula, another person on my ribs, my barista will start on my leg bones.
I hum the song “Dem Bones.” Someone giggles, and the artists chat about when they have broken bones. I feel the tickle of four paintbrushes, hear the slosh of water as they clean off one color and ready for another. The guy painting my scapula says he broke his arm while skateboarding. My barista broke her wrist while rollerblading. The guy working on my ribs fractured his ankle while playing basketball and going in for a slam dunk. Eighteen years ago when I was still a college student, I was walking across campus and watching two guys do skateboard tricks when I tripped and hit my arm on a curb just above my elbow. My joint absorbed none of the impact, breaking my bone neatly in two. I wore a hinged brace for two months, one with two metal bars that attached to my arm with cuffs. The hinge was set for a certain number of degrees so I couldn't move my arm too far.
I wait for someone to ask if I've broken a bone, but nobody thinks to do this. I'm a canvas. They talk about whether he's painting my ribs too wide, and how are they going to fit all the tiny bones in my hands?
“I'm going to work on your feet,” my barista says.
“Great,” I say. I understand why it's easy to talk around me, but when the scapula guy starts working on my arm without letting me know, I clear my throat and ask for a drink of water.
“Sure, you want a break to sit up?” says my barista. I do. She brings me a bottle and a banana. I stretch and shake my shoulders, admire my feet with the rainbow colored tarsals and metatarsals. The two other models are lying down. At the end of the day we'll look like Day of the Dead skeletons. The thought of death usually doesn't occur to people when they're young. It's a theory, a figment. Does it have to occur to medical students, or do they only believe in its prevention, even if they've spent a semester working on a cadaver?
“You're good at this,” my barista says. “You stay so still. Maybe you can come back next year.”
I smile and wonder if I should chat more to distinguish myself from a dead person, but when I lie back down and the scapula guy asks if it's okay for him to paint parts of my skull, I say go for it. So much for chatting.
The guy painting my ribs says they're weird. I feel a tickle on my arm. Is that where the bone broke, just above the elbow? When my parents see the pictures of my bright bones, will they ask about the results of my latest dexascan to check my bone density, or reflect on their own bones and joints and organs? My mother takes calcium to prevent thinning bones. Dad's seasonal respiratory infections have been getting worse. His doctors have been monitoring his white blood cell count, but he hasn't told me why. Over the past year we spent a lot of time coughing over the phone to each other, discussing the next regimen of steroids that would hopefully dry out our lungs. My bronchi are still recovering, but my doctor says it will take a few months. I don't like the lingering hint of a wheeze in my voice. My dad sounds the same way.
“You look great,” says my barista. Two hours have passed and I can sit up and look at my brilliant self. The four artists stand back and nod at their work. I peer down at my limbs, which are the color of fruit-flavored breakfast cereal. It’s fantastic. My barista promised to take pictures of me and my sister, so we walk to the organs room where people have multicolored hearts and livers and kidneys and gall bladders. The team did indeed paint my sister's uterus.
“I asked them to,” she says. My barista gets twenty pictures on both of our phones. This is not the stuff of next year's holiday card, but it's interesting.
“I spent the whole morning with other adults,” my sister says.
“Did they talk to you?” I ask.
“Not much,” she says, “but it was time without educational books, songs, or videos. Lila is great, but sometimes I want to be more than a mommy.”
There are buckets of warm water and washcloths if we want to wipe the bones and organs from our skin, but now that we are dry and beautiful, my sister and I put on our shoes and oversized t-shirts and go for coffee in the student union since they gave us coupons for a free cup. My sister's organs are mostly concealed by her t-shirt, though I feel like an art installation and smile at people who look at me sideways as we're standing in line. After we order her mocha and my sugar-free vanilla latte, we flip through the pictures on her phone.
“I'm doing this again next year,” I say. “Maybe my circulatory system.”
“I might be pregnant by then,” she says. “If we time it right Lila will be three or four when she gets a sibling. I just want one set of diapers at a time.”
I look down to my invisible uterus. I've never wanted to grow round with the weight of an infant, but I've been thinking about bodies since I got this freelance writing gig for two medical marijuana companies. I compose content for their blogs, manage their web sites, and call clients for interviews about how their lives have been changed by the therapeutic qualities of pot. I hear about muscle pain and joint pain and incurable everything, pondering the politics of prescriptions while wishing I could find a job that paid a bit more so I could afford all the doctor's appointments I needed this year. My partner's insurance didn't cover everything.
My sister shifts in her seat and says she and my brother-in-law are drawing up their wills and wondered if I'd like to be Lila's guardian if something would happen to them.
“I know it's a big and awful 'if,'” she says.
I nod. When Travis and I got married we decided we wanted cats, not kids, but when it comes to being Lila's guardian, the answer is yes. Should be yes. I should say yes without hesitation. I'm her only auntie, after all.
“My father-in-law said we should think about stuff like this now,” my sister says. “But it does feel kind of weird.”
What would Travis say if I told her yes? Is this question scarier than it should be since I've spent all morning thinking about everything I usually forget is under my skin?
“You don't have to answer now,” my sister says, but I should respond with Yes, of course, don't worry about it. Hesitation feels like an insult. I've spent hours with Lila on my lap reading books to her as she fixates on the page, imprinting everything in her growing brain.
“I'll check with Travis,” I say. “I'm sure it will be fine.” He will look at me with his head tilted and nod slowly, not entirely okay with the prospect.
“It's fine if you want to say no,” she says.
“It's my niece,” I say. My DNA, some of it anyway, lodged in our bones.
“You still don't have to say yes,” she says. I don't want to ask who else she had in mind, but wonder what it would feel like to take a kid home after being told she's mine forever. Do I remember well enough what it feels like to be in a kid's body? When I have lunch with my sister and Lila on the weekends, we drink coffee as Lila brings us her toys, takes them back, and runs around the house after the cat. Did we have that some boundless energy in our bodies when we were little?
My sister is always calling to ponder another child-rearing question: When is Lila’s nose runny enough to call the doctor? How dangerous is eating chalk? What should she do when Lila keeps picking off the band-aids to examine her scabs? It's okay if she just eats peanut butter and crackers for a week, right? I thought she was embarrassed to call our mom for some reason, but could it have been a possible parent screening test?
I flex my multicolored fingers. My sister leans back in her chair and checks her watch.
“Another whole hour to myself,” she says. “We need to do this more often.”
“It's only once a year,” I say.
“You know what I mean.” She smiles. This afternoon I will call a grad student who's studying physical therapy and started vaping to help her musculoskeletal pain. I imagine her fluorescent bones aching.
“I think we'll say yes,” I tell my sister.
“You don't have to,” she says.
“I think we will,” I say. Why does the thought of letting my niece live with someone else makes my invisible stomach wrench in a way I don't understand? Another mystery of bodies. Will my sister's gut churn in the same way when she signs that document to signify her knowledge that her heart will someday stop beating?
I’d rather shove mortality to the side of my (unpainted) mind, think of my sister's brilliant blue uterus painted underneath her shirt, and if next year it will house the start of another life. Perhaps we'll sit here, bodies concealed and revealed, with more stories of doctor appointments and play groups. My latest dexascan will have (hopefully) revealed that I’m not becoming dangerously fragile. Dad won’t have told me anything more about his white cell count and I’ll still be worried, but assume that no news is good news in that delicate balance of trusting our bodies to carry us over the miles, but knowing not to trust them forever.
Sarah Cavar is a PhD student, writer, and critically Mad transgender-about-town, and serves as Managing Editor at Stone of Madness Press. Author of two chapbooks, A HOLE WALKED IN (Sword & Kettle Press) and THE DREAM JOURNALS (giallo lit), they have also had work in Bitch Magazine, Electric Literature, The Offing, Luna Luna Magazine, Superstition Review, and elsewhere. Cavar navel-gazes at cavar.club and tweets @cavarsarah.
"Again Soon," I'll call him. He is a large chestnut-bearded man. He looks like a large rock in the form of a person. He is satisfactorily tan in the summer months, pallid in the winter, always sporting several moles at the margins of his face. He enjoys literary fiction, but only ironically. Likewise he reads The New Yorker, mostly to poke quiet fun at the little dashes: teen-ager, e-mail––bull-shit, he says, nose-deep in film reviews. In the classroom he enjoys drawing little cartoons, each of which dances its way across the blackboard he refuses to switch to dry-erase, calling student after student to write shrieking, illegible words with white chalk, powder parachuting onto their shoulders.
Again Soon teaches underclassmen. He wishes he taught them exclusively. He says that unlike greener students, aware of their place within a wide sea of ignorance, upperclassmen believe themselves wise the moment we find any archipelago of wisdom. So he sticks with the squeaky little freshmen, sophomores who believe a year of high school has them world-weary, and keeps his office door open to strays and longstanding mentees like myself. I had worked with him on my college essay for months, from a desperate summertime outline to an intelligent, polished sob-story. When I told him that in mid-December, he laughed as he shooed me out the door, said, "a decent sob-story'll usually get you where you need to go." It did.
The last time I went to his office, two months ago –– about two weeks before it all happened, because right now before and after The Event are my only measurements of time ––he had a sign taped halfway up his little plexiglass office door window. In his all-caps block print, he had written on the grid-ruled paper
"A GRIM SENSE OF FOREBODING"
in thick black marker, no explanation given.
I'd gone up to his door, done the little door's-open-so-I'll-half-knock thing. He said, "Mallory!" as he always did, as if my arrival were a great surprise. He scooted from his undersized desk in his undersized wheelie -chair to a small, two-person table several paces from the door. We sat, his knees cramped beneath its low top.
I reached into my backpack and pulled out a thick red envelope. "I've decided on ––– U. I just...I wanted to, um, tell you. To let you know –– to say thank you, you know, for everything. For your help."
"A respectable choice, indeed!" he said, presumably of the U. His eyes smiled grudgingly. His mouth was business.
"Yeah. Glad you think so. That's more or less it... I just wanted to let you know. But, like, how are you doing?" I asked him, not wanting to be rude. A teetering stack of essays sat behind him, red pen lazing like a princess on top. He cleared his throat, smoothed several stray brown curls back into place, behind his ears. "Just ––" he opened a gas-station-sized bag of pretzels (lower sodium) from a heretofore unseen place on his bookcase. "––Getting excited about March! Camp!" Several pretzels firmly in his mouth, he drummed the table with his fingertips. No mind to the essays. "We've got baseball, football ("by which I mean 'soccer,'" he quickly added, rolling his eyes), swimming, we've got kayaks, tents, sleeping bags, bug spray, all the good shit."
"And pretzels, I assume?" I asked, taking, as I always did, illicit pleasure in hearing him curse.
"Oh, no. They've got, like, Doritos. Don't worry about that. "
I watched him take another handful of pretzels, crunch them, staring into space all the while.
An annual Spring Break tradition, free to anyone at the Academy who could sign up quickly enough, Camp was a beloved destination even for those who could afford Cancun. Nine days in tents, playing sports, scary stories and manhunt in the darkness, all while reveling in the familial atmosphere the Academy sold to parents for $30,000 a year.
"Sorry, I can't stay," I said, glancing at my phone. "I have to go to class in a second."
"Then go forth, Mallory!" He slid the red envelope, now open, back toward me. He had glanced through it without my noticing. I read the name, ––– UNIVERSITY, in its bold capitals, the carefully-posed photos of attractive, well-dressed, diverse students camped out in the library and on the green. Anxiety rushed to my mouth like bile.
"Thanks for letting me stop in," I repeated, trembling only slightly. "I want to, you know, use my time wisely now that I haven't got long left. See people I'm going to miss next year."
"Sure, sure," Again Soon rose from his tiny chair, cracking each knuckle in turn. "But it's not over yet, Malloy. No need to freak out. Solid three months to go, you know?"
I knew. I felt as if my stomach were made of glass. I imagined my life without his office, without the safety –– however wounded –– I felt after four Academy years. This must be the Grim Sense of Foreboding, I thought. I left the door ajar behind me and walked to class, oddly relieved that, in however small and foolish a way, I shared my pain with the universe.
Again Soon had a couple of different personalities, each curated for a different situation. In class he had the whole To Sir, With Love thing going on, except he was surrounded by white Academy kids with little American flags, slashed through with a thin blue line, stuck to the backs of their cars. These types were orders of magnitude more pigheaded than any so-called "urban youth,” yet Again Soon, with his unpretentious insight, wrangled even the worst of them.
As soon as the 2:00 bell rang, Again Soon metamorphosed from teacher to coach, a process in fact initiated not by the bell but one hour earlier, when he removed his button-down for his trademark mesh tank top. He would teach a raucous last period class in it, then run with the rest from the classroom to the fields, voice booming SPORTS! As if he had discovered the word himself.
His last personality was the rarest. I received it by accident the February of my freshman year. I was miserable at the time, but no one said anything about it. I sensed that it wafted off of me as a stench those in my life chose to ignore. Either that or Again Soon was exceptionally well-attuned. He confronted me that February with a shocking tenderness I did not know how to comprehend.
"Mallory," he had said, having already taken to calling me by my surname. I was the last person packing up after a last period class. Winter be damned, he wore the tank top.
"Sorry, almost done –– I know you have to go," I mumbled. He said nothing, walked over to my desk holding a packet of papers. It was my first essay of the semester, marked with a big red A.
"Best in the class. Excellent attention to detail. Astute." He pronounced the T sharply and chuckled to himself. I thanked him awkwardly, all of this feeling uncannily like a Lifetime movie.
"But I haven't kept you about the essay," he continued. "I've kept you because the person who wrote this
," he pressed his index finger against the packet I now held, "isn't the person I've seen in my classroom. Isn't the person I've heard in my classroom, considering all I've heard so far is crickets. You hardly come to class at all these days."
I bowed my head.
"So now, here I am –– acting in my capacity as a teacher –– asking, what's going on?"
And so opened the floodgates. All the fourteen-year-old angst I had piled away behind myself, until now addressed only in the language of blood, came crashing out with embarrassing speed. I was depressed. I was suicidal. I was covered in grotesque evidence of this and unable to resist the blade. On top of that, I berated myself, I was meta-depressed: berating myself for the fact of my depression when I had little to be sad
about. Though only a freshman, the few friends I had were genuine. My parents loved me. I was queer, and no one made a fuss about it. My grades were good; my appearance, as far as I could tell, about average. But even still this unremarkable life had me coming home from school to sit on my bed, head several beats outside my body, eyes too tired to tear, with my headphones screaming loudly enough that perhaps, if I continued listening, my eardrums would deflate like birthday balloons. I couldn't read, couldn't write, could hardly stand to think, and would thus attempt to drown the thoughts in screeching tones, themselves soon proving insufficient.
The cutting had begun as fall turned into long-sleeved winter. Not itself an attempt at suicide, I viewed the cutting as an engagement with death: reminding me of my existence as well as my cartoonish fragility. Either way, I was here, and had evidence, even if nobody cared to see. Again Soon didn't cringe or cry as I explained all this, not even when I later, hesitantly, rolled my sleeve halfway up. He only asked, "And do you have a plan?"
"If I tell you 'yes', you're going to tell the counselor, who will tell my doctor and my parents, and then..." I trailed off. For a moment we only stared at each other.
"Here's the deal. You get this." He took a pen from his pocket, wrote a phone number in the margins of my essay. And any time of day or night, you can tell me."
I made use of the number several times, probably should have done so several more. All this is beside the point. Again Soon paid attention to me. He asked me what I was reading. When he started to ask me what I was listening to, I hesitated, reluctant to say "Korn at full volume in complete darkness," like some overwrought stereotype.
Again Soon told me, grinning, that whatever was behind my hesitation probably meant I needed to learn better taste. To this end, he instructed me to listen to several bands, all of which, to my amusement, sounded exactly like Mumford and Sons. I told him so, and he pantomimed manic strumming as if confirming what I meant.
This was how he became my mentor, the only adult who dealt with the whole of me without making me feel inhuman; a much-needed contrast to the contemporaneous parade of counsellors that treated me at once like a child and like an escaped prisoner. I quickly shut up about my problems around the counsellors, bringing them instead to Again Soon. He made me feel heard. I shared my personal writing. I even (once he lifted his informal ban on Woolf, Plath, or Sexton) shared my perspective on suicidality and literature. Sometimes I'd send an interesting, unrelated article to the phone number he wrote on my paper all those years ago and get a little thumbs-up emoticon in return. Later, he would help me with the successful college essay about the power of collective care, chosen kin, and mentors beyond the family unit.
After all of this, he felt like a family member, a friend. I looked forward to changing his contact name to his first, no more Mr.-this-or-that. It was March. We were marching toward the end, the today I wish were here. But then Until Tomorrow stepped off that chair into a great emptiness called The Event and I christened Again Soon Again Soon.
The story as I heard it went like this. Until Tomorrow, a sophomore, went to camp. I didn't know much about the kid beforehand, but I had seen him around: a generic fifteen-year-old boy, brown hair, arms and legs a bit too long and a bit too skinny for the rest of him. When I try to recall what else I knew before the papers hijacked him, I draw a shameful blank. Until Tomorrow had decided to go to camp only after, we later learned, establishing a rapport with Again Soon. The two had spent the better part of a year periodically discussing Until Tomorrow's depression. Until Tomorrow suffered severely from loneliness. Again Soon
had apparently advised him to come to camp –– an "antidote to any loneliness" –– to make friends, kayak and eat Doritos.
So Until Tomorrow went to camp. To his great dismay, so did four unremarkable boys who slept just a few tents down. These boys had, unbeknownst to Again Soon, been responsible for much of the preceding year's depression, an ongoing campaign of harassment Until Tomorrow was too ashamed to disclose.
The boys' camp-specific acts of terror started small: a rotten banana in the back corner of his tent, a "misplaced" lantern in the middle of the night. Sometimes, in good fun, the boys would tease or wrestle with Until Tomorrow in the presence of Again Soon, like cats pawing at a little mouse. Everybody aww’s, but really, they’re playing with their food.
On the second-to-last day of camp, a Friday, the boys stole Until Tomorrow's knapsack while he swam nude in a secluded lake nearby. To retrieve the bag he walked two miles through the forest shoeless, naked, and cold, body on display for hiking passers-by. The boys watched through violent peals of laughter. That evening all the campers ate their s'mores by firelight and nothing seemed amiss.
Campers returned home the following day, two days before school started up again. I'm sure Until Tomorrow was relieved with this temporary reprieve from the boys, at least until he saw the photos: cell phone pictures of varying quality, all depicting his freezing, naked form, face red with anguish, and penis –– the subject, as one might expect, of much online ridicule –– dangling as he ran.
His father found him in the garage Monday morning.
News spread like sawdust. It got into everyone. My mother learned about it from the morning newspaper.
TRAGEDY STRIKES ––– ACADEMY. Cyberbullying A Factor in Teen's Suicide. She hid the paper from me, but I had already found out, waking up to a flurry of texts. They were all all dotted with are you okays and do you need someones. It was as if I were once again made of glass, a giant sign screaming SUICIDE hanging from my neck. Most of all, I wished selfishly for different timing, better timing, and shamefully raged at the ruin of my senior spring. I had by all accounts reached the dawn-side of my depression. I gripped my future, my U, with a trembling fist. And then this, this brutal conspiracy of fate, which shamed me for having the audacity to survive.
It’s been two weeks since then.
The boys have since admitted to "teasing" Until Tomorrow. At the request of their respective coaches, they were each given no more than three day's suspension so as not to disadvantage the Academy's varsity record. I would keep each newspaper article I could find on the "Tragedy at the Academy" in a manila envelope, read them each several times over, and mark them up with pen and highlighter until the typed text is hardly visible beneath. I made a list:
To understand the epidemic of teen suicide. To understand the epidemic of cyber-
bullying. We ought to change the conversation on mental health. Start the
conversation. No, change. No change. Ask where were the parents? Confront the
scourge of online bullying. To understand unfair emotional standards placed on
young boys. No picturesque campus is safe. No safe spaces. Snow. The way
tvinternetvideogames strips youth of their compassion, their very humanity.
Flakes. But where were the parents? Where were the teachers? In decline.
Again Soon declines requests for comment.
He is still teaching and coaching. He now keeps his office door closed and unadorned. At the school-wide assembly a week after the news, he appeared in the auditorium with hands clasped gently at his belt buckle and eyes downcast, body among all of our bodies in our identical grief.
For a moment it was as though we were all living inside the news stories, lives governed by nothing but sheets of manila text. Students cried in the halls. Students cried in classrooms. Students walked out of class and onto the green and stared at the springtime clouds, sometimes in large numbers, and in all our manic solidarity, we allowed them. I did not see Again Soon joining mourners on the green, but then, after that first assembly, I did not see Again Soon at all.
As spring passed and the flowers opened, the Until Tomorrow stories continued, unrelenting.
Again Soon once commented that writers enjoy death, enjoy tragedy, because they were free to pontificate on a subject who could not meet their gaze.
All my U brochures come by snail mail. In the warming weather I have taken to waiting for the beautiful postwoman, who unknowingly assuages my loneliness each afternoon at 3:45 sharp, on the front porch. She looks young for a postal worker, strawberry blonde and plump with freckles on her face and on her upper chest. She has a cherry blossom tree tattooed on her right calf, with branches extending up her thigh and beneath her shorts. I let myself desire her, stomach fizzing, relieved each day to feel human still.
It’s not like I’m back to old habits, or whatever else I’m supposed to call the cutting. I’ve committed already, that is, chosen. Instead I ritual my envelopes: Upon arriving home from school, I first brush my sour teeth. Then, I make one sandwich with tomatoes, lettuce, Swiss cheese, and mayonnaise and fill my favorite old mug with ice water. I bring my school books and food to the porch and camp out on the wooden steps, knowing that when the postwoman arrives I will rise and two particular spots on my ass will ache with the memory of the unforgiving wood, and I will be grateful for my ache as my desire, grateful simply to feel
I attempt to read while I wait, but most often end up staring at some particular word on the page –– one with interesting vowels, like vacuum –– until I hear the grey sound of the postal truck bobbing along the road. I check my face for food scraps in my phone's front-facing camera before going down to meet the postwoman.
The shifts get lonely, sometimes, she's said to me. Going to door after door, knowing you're supposed to leave the mail and just leave, as if you don't exist. I always smile sadly and tell her that I hope she feels better soon. She says see you tomorrow.
Today we get two bills, a catalog, a thin afternoon paper, and a large Academy envelope, a premature issue of their Alumni Quarterly. The papers and Academy have quit discussing Until Tomorrow's suicide, protracted murder, or whatever it was, so I toss both aside with the bills. I suck on my water.
The U, I imagine, will soon send another round of glossy welcome cards, a parade of which already march across our family refrigerator: one congratulating me on my admission, one awarding me the coveted ––– U Admissions Essay Prize, another congratulating me for choosing to attend. We cannot wait to have you.
I return to my steps with the stack of mail. With my other hand, I pick up my untouched sandwich from the plate and throw it as far as I possibly can, past our empty driveway and into the hedges. I watch the bread and toppings peel apart in slow-motion, hearing several splatters as pieces reach the earth. By tomorrow it will have all vanished into possum bellies or raccoons'; birds, surely, will have played vulture with the lettuce and tomato.
When I'm through, I slip the stack of worthless mail below me as an ersatz cushion and sip my water. The time reads just-past-five, springtime sun shining still; my parents will not be home for hours.
I sit straight-up on my pile like some minute-monarch, still as my disfigured sandwich. Birds arrive.
The Boyfriend Story
Shifra Sharlin- Potluck
Zach Peckham- Cryptobiosis
Alina Stefanescu- Someone Failed This Man
Rachel Cochran- Girls Kissing Girls
Teresa Milbrodt- Body Painting
Sarah Cavar- Again Soon
Tango With God
Maryse Meijer- ESSEN
Bruce Owens Grimm- Inventory of a Haunted House, No. 3
Jordan E. McNeil- What i Mean When i Say Empath
The Life Cycle of a Storm Cell Lullaby