Happy New Year! And welcome to our January 2018 issue with the theme of “UNSPOKEN.” Putting together this issue has been a wonderfully transformative experience and I’m thrilled to share the results with you.
But first, a personal story.
For most of 2017, I questioned whether or not I should keep publishing r.kv.r.y.—there was the smaller question of whether I had it in me to continue shouldering the workload that publishing a journal requires, but also the larger question of whether or not its existence made any sort of appreciable difference in the world. But I’m stubborn, so…partly to keep my own interest high and partly because I was behind in securing an illustrator, I decided to illustrate this issue by reusing artwork from previous issues. Another form of recovery, if you will, and a way to create more connections in an increasingly disconnected world. As I searched through past issues, it became clear how much wonderful work we have published in the past nine years and how many exceptional artists we have been able to feature. That in itself was encouraging—seeing the scope of what we have done. (Consider this your reminder to occasionally look behind and not only ahead when feeling discouraged.) It was also incredibly interesting to see the tendrils of connection that form between two pieces of writing with the same illustration. Fascinating! And inspiring, arriving at a time when I was greatly in need of inspiration.
So, dear readers, in order to share those fascinating connections with you, I have added a “See also” link in blue beneath the illustration for each piece of writing in this issue. If you follow that link, it will take you to another thread in this vast artistic conversation that we all have a part in creating. May the process of making those connections bring you joy.
As always, thanks for reading.
Yours in Recovery,
“Eve & The Apple” by Elizabeth Leader, pastel on Fabriano paper.
(See also “In Flight Safety Card” by Lauren Eyler.)
She runs toward the water and the sun holds tight on the horizon. It wants to watch. It wants to illuminate her as she makes her way into the water: ankles, knees, waist, and then she dives into the water. Her body swallowed, the feet flip up and flirt toward shore before they, too, disappear.
He’d like to submerge his body along with hers and feel the weightlessness of swimming and the excitement of sliding his legs by hers without being able to see beneath them. But he can’t swim, so he watches from the shore until she returns breathless.
She replaces her shirt and shorts. Darkened splotches appear throughout her clothes as the water seeps into the fabric. “Is that your first memory? You were three?”
He’s told her about his father. His memory of him throwing him into the water, teaching him to swim.
“Yea—yea, it is. I can recall a circle of the scene—not all of the background, not the entire setting, just like looking through a telescope, you know? Just a circle and there I am in my shark swimming shorts and there he is in a faded yellow polo shirt.” The childhood emotion returns. The pit of his stomach raw with it.
“Have you tried to swim since then?”
He shakes his head no. He has a tan complexion. Time in the sun. Hardened lines around his face. Once the season shifts to fall, she thinks his hue will lighten, but the structure will remain the same. There’s a certain vulnerability to those lines. His past present on his face.
“Fathers have a way of penetrating our futures, don’t they? Without even knowing it. Subtle choices causing distant effects.” She decides in that moment to take him home. Back to her small apartment, a place nestled at the city edge. She boasts its view of the lake, although at night, she confesses, it’s a blackened version of its former self.
He surveys the area: one main living space with a kitchenette, a bathroom and a bedroom. She has squeezed and fitted trinkets and treasures throughout the landscape. Oddities, she calls them. Collections from her former lives. The oddest of them all catches his eye—an entire presentation of false teeth sitting in an open box on her window sill. He bumps his fingers along one of its rows.
“My father was a dentist,” she says to his back. “He saved antique gear like that.”
“Was. Saved. It’s all in the past now.”
“What did you want to show me?”
She pulls a purple-and-blue dyed fabric to one side and motions for him to enter her bedroom. Along one wall someone has painted a seascape mural. An octopus drifts through coral and seaweed. He spies jellyfish, swordfish, and other urchins.
“You paint?” he asks.
“I dabble,” she replies.
A small lamp on a corner table is fitted with a blue bulb. She lights candles and a stick of incense. The smoke flows through the space. She hits play on a small radio on the dresser and it’s too soft for him to discern what band it is—if any—or what instruments are played.
She indicates for him to lie on the bed. When she straddles him, he tightens his eyes on hers. He thinks of her as a character. One with marbles for eyes that turn others to stone. A hybrid of mythology and reality. She dives in to kiss him and he thinks she tastes like seaweed. They wrestle about the bed in the blue light. He comes up for air periodically and spies the mural. He feels at ease with her. He feels the weightlessness he had wished for earlier.
They fall asleep, her hair kinked and splayed against the pillow.
He wakes at an uneven hour. A strand of moonlight bounces onto her collection and he stands and scrutinizes each piece. He asks questions about her through their weight, how each one feels or looks. One of the smaller items fits nicely in his palm. He carries it back to the bedroom and rubs at its glass mold.
In the morning, light crashes against the windows. The lake is now visible: placid, at peace with a mild mist at its lips.
“You’re like the undertow, you know?” He tugs at her and pulls her under the covers with him and they kiss, morning mouths and last night’s naked bodies.
Her back rocks against him and flutters with the sheets. She feels the glass object at her feet and nudges her big toe toward it. She recalls the motion as if searching the ocean floor for a sand dollar.
Pulling it out of the sheets, she eyes it. Wraps her fingers around its curves. Its shape cavernous to other worlds.
“Was it a gift,” he asks, “from your dad?”
She brushes back her wild hair, imagines each soft, existing memory of her father—a collage the expanse of a skyscraper—and sighs. She holds up the object which catches the sun’s ray and illuminates a yellow glow. When she finally responds, her voice hovers above a whisper and he hears seagulls in her throat. Distant and sad. She tells him, yes, it was a gift and a promise and a lie and a lesson and it was everything.
He wonders if he’s meant to respond, but has nothing to say. He pictures her dad. In this awkward silence he’s surprised to find himself imagining his face. Imagining what lines or curves of hers were other gifts of his.
When he leaves, an amalgam forms in his mind of her and the undertow. A raging beauty that seethes with some type of untouchable vengeance. A distance spreads between where she remains in the bed and where he descends. The space dark and exact but empty all the same.
Katie Strine tolerates life through literature and dark beer. She lives in the east suburbs of Cleveland with her family—husband, son, and dog—who accompany her on oddball adventures. Her work has been or will be published in The Writing Disorder, The Wayne Literary Review, Visitant, The Furious Gazelle, and BONED. Stay in touch via Facebook, @ktstrine.
Sudha Balagopal‘s (Leaf Music) recent fiction appears in Ellipsis Zine, Spelk Fiction, Jellyfish Review, Lost Balloon and Whiskey Paper among other journals. She is the author of a novel, A New Dawn, and two short story collections, There are Seven Notes and Missing and Other Stories. More at www.sudhabalagopal.com
Gina Marie Bernard (this is not a love poem) is a trans woman, roller derby vixen, and full-time English teacher. She has completed a 50-mile ultra-marathon, followed Joan Jett across the US, and purposely jumped through a hole cut in lake ice. She lives in Bemidji, Minnesota. Her daughters, Maddie and Parker, own the two halves of her heart. She has written one YA novel, Alpha Summer (2005), and one collection of short fiction, Vent (2013). Her poetry has recently appeared in Mortar, The Cape Rock, New Plains Review, and Leveler.
Roy Bentley (Time Under Water) is the recipient of a Creative Writing Fellowship in Poetry from the National
Endowment for the Arts, and fellowships from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs and the Ohio Arts Council. Books include Boy in a Boat (University of Alabama), Any One Man
(Bottom Dog), The Trouble with a Short Horse in Montana (White Pine), Starlight Taxi (Lynx House); as well as Walking with Eve in the Loved City, a finalist for the 2018 Miller Williams Poetry Prize selected by Billy Collins and due out from the University of Arkansas Press.
Wanda Deglane (Christmas Lights) is a freshman at Arizona State University, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She is the daughter of Peruvian immigrants and lives with her huge family in Glendale, Arizona. When she isn’t writing, she paints and spends time with her dog, Princess Leia.
Alena Dillon (Mei Lei) is the author of the humor collection I Thought We Agreed to Pee in the Ocean. Her work has appeared in publications including The Rumpus, Slice Magazine, The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review, and Bustle. She teaches creative writing at St. Joseph’s College and Endicott College and lives in MA with her husband and their dog. “Mei Lei” is an excerpt from Mercy House, a manuscript she’s currently shopping to agents about a gritty nun who goes against church doctrine to advocate for survivors of sexual assault. Visit her at alenadillon.com.
Lanier (Lane) Wright Fields (Fuel) is a southern transplant living and working in Boston, Massachusetts. Professionally, Lane has performed technology witchcraft, taught sociology, worked in a factory, and gone corporate. Besides poetry, Lane’s hobbies and interests include music and shows, leftist activism, veg*n cooking, straight edge and hardcore subcultures, video game history, philosophy and social theory, and spiritual development.
Jacqueline Jules (His Grey Hoodie) is the author of three chapbooks, Field Trip to the Museum (Finishing Line Press), Stronger Than Cleopatra (ELJ Publications), and Itzhak Perlman’s Broken String, winner of the 2016 Helen Kay Chapbook Prize from Evening Street Press. Her poetry has appeared in over 100 publications including The Broome Review, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, Hospital Drive, and Imitation Fruit. She is also the author of 40 books for young readers. Visit www.jacquelinejules.com.
Sarah Kunstler (The Imposters) is a criminal defense lawyer, documentary filmmaker, and lifelong New Yorker. She is a member of the Rumble Ponies Writing Collective. You can find her on Twitter at @skunstler
Margaret MacInnis’ (The Unspoken) essays have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Brevity, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, River Teeth, Tampa Review, and other literary magazine and journals. Her work has been distinguished by Best American Essays (Notable Distinction 2007, 2009, 2011) and Best American Nonrequired Reading series (Notable Distinction 2009), and is anthologized in the 2015 Love & Profanity and the 2009 River Teeth Reader. She lives in Iowa City with her partner, Ryan, and their daughter, Lila. Since 2010, she has worked as personal assistant to Marilynne Robinson, American novelist and essayist.
Sabyasachi Nag (Indian Rememdies for Tereusitis) is the author of two books of poetry: Bloodlines (Writers Workshop, 2006) and Could You Please, Please Stop Singing (Mosaic Press, 2015). His work has appeared, or is forthcoming in several publications including, Contemporary Verse 2, Perihelion, The Squaw Valley Review, The Rising Phoenix, Void and the VLQ. Originally from Calcutta, India, Sachi lives in Mississauga, Ontario with his wife and son. He is an alumni of the Squaw Valley Writer’s Conference and is currently a candidate in the Writer’s Studio at the Simon Fraser University. He works in education and human resources.
Rae Pagliarulo (Chain Smoking) holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College. Her work has been featured in Full Grown People, Ghost Town, bedfellows, New South, Hippocampus, The Manifest-Station, Quail Bell, and Philadelphia Stories, and is anthologized in The Best of Philadelphia Stories: 10th Anniversary Edition. She is the 2014 recipient of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize and a 2015 Pushcart Prize Nominee. Rae works as the Writing Life column editor for Hippocampus Magazine, and as Development Director for a Philadelphia arts nonprofit.
Ali J. Shaw (The Brussels Sprouts Rule) has Rocky Mountain air in her blood, but she calls the Pacific Northwest home. Her nonfiction has been featured in Hippocampus Magazine, VoiceCatcher, and the Dime Stories reading series, and was a finalist for the Victoria A. Hudson Emerging Writer Prize. She is currently at work on a memoir. Ali is an editor who collects typewriters and rescue animals.
Billie R. Tadros (Convalescence) is a Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. She earned her Ph.D. in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and her M.F.A. in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her first book of poems The Tree We Planted and Buried You In is forthcoming from Otis Books in 2018. She has also published two chapbooks, inter: burial places (Porkbelly Press, 2016) and Containers (Dancing Girl Press, 2014). Her poems have recently appeared or will appear in Crab Fat Magazine, Entropy, Lavender Review, pnk prl, and White Stag Journal, and she has also published work in the anthologies The Queer South (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014), Bearers of Distance (Eastern Point Press, 2013), and Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013).
Meg Tuite (Nobody Scars the Same Landscape) is author of a novel-in-stories, Domestic Apparition, a short story collection, Bound By Blue, and won the Twin Antlers Collaborative Poetry award for her poetry collection, Bare Bulbs Swinging, as well as five chapbooks of short fiction, flash, and poetic prose. She teaches at Santa Fe Community College, is a senior editor at Connotation Press and (b)OINK lit zine, and editor of eight anthologies. Her work has been published in numerous literary magazines, over fifteen anthologies, nominated nine times for the Pushcart Prize, five-time Glimmer Train finalist, shortlisted for Bristol Prize, and Gertrude Stein award finalist. Her blog: http://megtuite.com
“God Asks Why” by Peter Groesbeck.
(See also “Fecundity Expanse” by Sasha West.)
My father swears up and down
that, when he was thirteen,
he mistook an unmarked vat
of kerosene for water. In this
as in all things, he drank
with gusto. Everything burned
inside him for days.
I cannot help but feel sick
superiority when I tell someone
I don’t drink. Vodka, whiskey—lesser spirits
might heed whispered invitations
to woozy, jet-propelled calamity. But each
shot of firewater is exactly that
to my guts: corrosion, all the way down.
Walking down my street
past the liquor store, I watch
the neighborhood boys siphoning
gasoline to trade for nips.
Two teenagers hand the tube
to a younger one. They say, “Don’t worry,
everyone swallows some the first time.”
Lanier (Lane) Wright Fields is a southern transplant living and working in Boston, Massachusetts. Professionally, Lane has performed technology witchcraft, taught sociology, worked in a factory, and gone corporate. Besides poetry, Lane’s hobbies and interests include music and shows, leftist activism, veg*n cooking, straight edge and hardcore subcultures, video game history, philosophy and social theory, and spiritual development.
“Womb” by Mia Avramut, wax on paper, 5.8 x 8.2 in.
(See also “Fulfillment” by Avital Gad-Cykman.)
Certain alpha hoopoes have the taste
For both, Philomel and Itys.
In India, they prey after dark when exhaust
From the beer factory gags the sky so tight
One can taste the malt in their wing pits.
Gods know. They respond by reforming
Believers into nightingales; into swallows.
Then they take a break from trying.
Conjure new Ovids, request new hosannas.
Certain ranting rebel birds—
They reconfigure into line-following photovores
You find, clung to guardrails
Or reflected on neo-colonial candelabra—
Their muscles pumped with plastic blood
Programmed to put them in auto reverse
Soon as they hit a wall.
Then they make walls, beautiful walls.
Then they take down the lights. Observe.
Those that repeat-fail clearly-laid rules,
They transform them into fire ants
You find, after a storm has warped the steel,
Their arteries choked with moon-lather
That would put them on burn
Soon as someone touches them.
Sabyasachi Nag is the author of two books of poetry: Bloodlines (Writers Workshop, 2006) and Could You Please, Please Stop Singing (Mosaic Press, 2015). His work has appeared, or is forthcoming in several publications including, Contemporary Verse 2, Perihelion, The Squaw Valley Review, The Rising Phoenix, Void and the VLQ. Originally from Calcutta, India, Sachi lives in Mississauga, Ontario with his wife and son. He is an alumni of the Squaw Valley Writer’s Conference and is currently a candidate in the Writer’s Studio at the Simon Fraser University. He works in education and human resources.
Image by Dawn Estrin, 2010.
(See also “Shot Through the Heart” by Jim Ruland.)
“Trust me,” he said. “This stuff is imported, honey. You serve it at your next dinner party, their jaws are going to drop.”
The cheese/quince/cracker combo felt dry in her mouth. There wasn’t enough saliva to work it around, much less swallow it down. One mouse.
She coughed, politely at first, but couldn’t hold it back for long, the involuntary retching that followed as her body rejected the free sample. She put her napkined hand over her mouth, her hand closing into a rigid fist as she secreted the warm, moist mass inside.
“Thank you,” she said, and walked away, abandoning her nearly empty shopping cart, picking up her pace when she heard the man calling, “Hey lady!” after her.
She pushed forward, cart-less, whizzing past the Bakery and Deli sections before making a sharp left and ducking into Bulk Foods, taking deep breaths as she listened to the steady rhythm of shoppers scooping and pouring and scooping and pouring, measuring out portions of rice, grains, nuts, and seeds. Still only one mouse, but one always meant more than one. They were social animals. Everyone knew that. They were also fastidiously clean, a lesser-known fact, for sure, but one that filled her with relief. Things could be worse.
After a few minutes, she was ready to move on. The supermarket was like a maze, with bright orange arrows on the floor compelling shoppers to follow a single route through the store. But it was a maze she knew, and the predictability of the layout was comforting. She’d been coming here for years, since back when she was married and lived in the neighborhood. She walked along, finding herself in Breakfast Foods, picking up cereal boxes and pretending to scrutinize the ingredients with care, trying to blend, even though she knew she wouldn’t be buying anything. It had already been enough of a day.
When she reached The Butchery, she was careful to keep her head down. A wall of glass was all that separated the violence from the retail area. As usual, and for reasons she couldn’t fathom, a throng of shoppers gathered, craning their necks to watch the butchers break down the animals, carving their carcasses into choice cuts or feeding them into grinders, the blood pooling on the scratched and dented surfaces of metal utility tables before spilling onto the floor.
It hadn’t always been that way. When she first started shopping there, the aisle had been called Refrigerated Meats, and the wall had been solid. She had even bought meat there and eaten it, the sterility of the blue-Styrofoam-and-plastic-wrap packaging making it possible for her to enjoy her ground round.
And then one day, without warning, Refrigerated Meats was gone. Orange cones blocked both ends of the shuttered aisle. There were plastic tarps and polite signage. Please excuse our mess while we remodel to serve you better! And when it was all over, when they had taken down the tarps and swept away the debris, when she could finally see the bodies hanging from hooks through the pitiless, streak-free glass, there it was. Or rather, there they were. Thousands of tiny rodents crawling beneath her skin, scratching at the surface from the inside with their sharp, careless claws. It had taken weeks for the mice to subside, weeks more for her to find her way back to the supermarket. The trick, in the end, had been simple. She pretended The Butchery didn’t exist. Some days were easier than others.
Today, she kept moving, following the arrows pointing ever forward, hurrying by Seasonal Products, where lingering too long was like touching a wound, banking left into Household Needs, where she reminded herself to breathe. She had just entered Canned Vegetables and Ethnic Foods, when she heard her name. Melinda. She didn’t look up. Maybe she had imagined it. Or more likely, it was meant for someone else. A different Melinda. And then she heard it again.
“Melinda, is that you?”
She looked up from the floor. He looked familiar, but that didn’t mean anything. He was older, square-jawed, handsome, with kind blue eyes and salt-and-pepper hair. Like an actor playing a man whose virility had been restored, thanks to a miracle drug.
The actor smiled and she smiled back, feeling the muscles in her face stretch. He was a good actor, and she wanted to play along. When he stuck out his hand to shake hers, she held out her own.
“Yuck,” he said, pulling away. He opened his hand, staring at the masticated lump that she had forgotten she was holding. “What is this?”
“I’m sorry,” she said. She was ruining this, if she hadn’t ruined it already. More mice.
“Oh Melinda,” said the actor, dropping the napkin and wiping his hand on his jeans. “Don’t worry about it. Gosh, it’s been so long. You look … good.” He seemed nervous, and his nervousness made her feel calmer, more in control.
“You look good too,” she said. And meant it.
“Stacey has me doing Pilates.” His eyes searched her face. She smiled, hoping that was what he was looking for.
“I know, I know,” he said. “Who even knew that was a thing, right?”
Melinda’s face hurt from all the smiling. She started backing away, slowly, passing the canned beets and heading toward the jarred salsas. She was going in the wrong direction, against the flow, the opposite of where the orange arrows wanted her to go.
“I’m sorry,” she said, inching backwards. The mice were jockeying for position, clamoring for space when there was no space. She turned, intending to head back to the safety of Household Needs but misjudged her distances and collided head-on with a mid-aisle display tower of hard shell tacos. The tower careened back and forth before collapsing, boxes of taco shells blocking the aisle. She tried to clear a path, pushing and kicking the boxes out of her way, squeezing her way through any open space. She had had enough. Too much. There were just too many mice.
The man was right behind her.
“Melinda, just listen,” he whispered, his mouth by her ear. “I don’t know what dreamland you’re living in, but I can’t keep paying for this. I won’t.”
She closed her eyes, and covered her ears. Inhale, Exhale. Inhale, Exhale. She counted to ten—one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand—and then did it three more times for good measure.
When she opened her eyes, the man was still there.
“Melinda,” he said. And in that one word—her name—she felt the man’s anger, frustration, pain, tenderness, even his love. But she knew it wasn’t real. He wasn’t real.
“You’re a terrible actor,” she said.
The man’s eyes flashed and turned cold, not blue after all but grey, colorless, like stones.
“Get away from me!” She screamed. “Leave me alone!”
Everything stopped. Canned Vegetables and Ethnic Foods had ceased to exist. She was overrun, her body on fire, her blood thrumming in harmony with the writhing mass, clawing at her, drawing blood, struggling to break free. She wanted to cry, but knew that if she did, there would be nothing left, not even her. Instead, she closed her eyes and focused on her breathing, whispering I am here, I am here, I am here over and over like a prayer to herself.
Sarah Kunstler is a criminal defense lawyer, documentary filmmaker, and lifelong New Yorker. She is a member of the Rumble Ponies Writing Collective. You can find her on Twitter at @skunstler
Image by Kristin Beeler, 2011.
(See also “Groceries” by Cathy Smith Bowers.)
I can feel the pink alabaster frog judging me even here, in the safe space of my reading corner at home.
“It’s rude to keep people waiting,” I hear it say in my father’s voice. I want to argue with it that my father has never been on time for me and, in recent years, has averaged not a few minutes or hours late, but days. Its stony eyes stay trained on me.
It was a gift from my father when I was a teenager. Until last month, I didn’t even realize I still had it, that it had followed me through more than a dozen moves, from trailers to dorm rooms to apartments to houses. I found it after the most recent move, away from the islands of Southeast Alaska and down to the desert of Southern California. When I brought a set of plastic storage drawers into my home office, I impulsively tugged on the handle of one drawer until it surged open like a toad’s tongue snapping for a fly. There sat the frog, perched on top of various forgotten art supplies, as shiny as the day Dad had given it to me.
I slid my thumb over its smooth skin until it landed on a pockmark. An imperfection. Surely, Dad didn’t know that was there. He might have said, “A perfect frog for my perfect girl,” when he gave it to me—he often professed lines like that. But he reminded me every day that I was not perfect, that I needed to try harder to be more like him. I dug my nail into the pockmark and then displayed the frog on my bookshelf, a reminder that I was making an effort to maintain a relationship with the man who’d brought me life—a resolution to forget how he’d left me questioning the value of my own existence.
Now I break the frog’s gaze and focus on my feet. I rub my toes on the carpet, trying to ground myself. Deep breaths. I tell myself I’m okay despite the fact that I can’t stop fidgeting with my phone, can’t break the frog’s echo of “rude,” and I definitely can’t slow my heart. It’s just your dad. Call him.
For years, no matter where I lived, this has been my routine every other Sunday. Wake up, drink coffee, have a panic attack, and call my dad. If I didn’t call, I’d be breaking one of Dad’s rules.
When I was growing up, there were a lot of rules, but they all boiled down to the same basic edict. I called it the Brussels sprouts rule: if your dad told you to like Brussels sprouts, you’d say, “Mmm,” and smile despite the gagging you couldn’t control. If you didn’t—I learned from watching my brother—you would be “restricted to your room” for the night, the weekend, or the week, depending on how much Dad was drinking. You might even be hit, maybe with a hand or maybe with a belt.
I always smiled and ate my Brussels sprouts.
The Brussels sprouts rule could be applied to anything. If an adult told you to vacuum, you smiled and did it. If you were told to go to bed at seven, when the sun was high in the sky and the neighborhood kids were still playing outside, you didn’t whine or ask why. You never questioned an adult, especially Dad. If you were told to let someone kiss you, you did it, no matter if that person made you want to cringe. Suppress it. Cringing would make the other person uncomfortable, and you could never let that happen.
And as a teen, when you wake up in a panic, in the fetal position, pushed as far against the wall as you can, briefly seeing your father tiptoe back out your bedroom door, you pretend it didn’t happen. Saying something to him, or to anyone else, might make him uncomfortable. Better to just roll over.
I don’t know who I would be now if it wasn’t for the Brussels sprouts rule. If I hadn’t been trained to shrink for men.
When I was twenty and studying abroad in Spain, I once went for a run and found myself on the deserted cobblestone streets during siesta. I slowed to savor the way my footsteps echoed off the stone walls in sync with my heartbeat, the way the sun was bright and hot on the top of the walls but down in the alleyways, the air was cool and calm. Then a man emerged from a side street and smiled as he looked me up and down.
“Bellísima,” he called to me, his arms reaching.
“Qué?” I asked. It’s bad manners to ignore someone who wants to talk to you—that’s the rule. He stepped closer, and my heart pounded, not just from the run anymore. I stepped back, only to find that I was already against the building. The narrow streets suddenly felt like a trap. I glanced around, searching for some other harmless stranger to intervene, but it was siesta. The whole city was sleeping off their sangría and paella.
He rattled off something in Spanish and then gestured to his lips. “Besos, besos.” As he leaned in, I could smell his breath, see the craters of his gums where teeth were missing.
“Lo siento, I’m late.” I wanted to run, but I hesitated. Don’t be rude.
“Es tradicion.” He persisted and leaned forward, kissing me first on one cheek and then the other.
The only part of my body that moved was my panicking heart, a jackrabbit in my chest. When he stepped back, I fled to the sound of his cackling.
Now I get up from my reading chair to look at the frog, straight in the eyes, ready to interrogate it. If I’d been raised with different rules, who would I be? Someone who kicked the Spaniard in the crotch and ran off? Someone who didn’t even stop? Someone who didn’t attract creeps in the first place?
But as usual, my anger quickly dissipates into self-flagellation and I sit down again. If it hadn’t been for my father, I wouldn’t know about the inner workings of an airplane, or the wonder of used bookstores, or countless other lessons he taught me. The carpet is matted down where I’ve been rubbing my feet, but no amount of grinding my toes in will make me feel grounded. It will only get worse the longer you wait, I tell myself. Just get it over with. Shakily, I scroll through my contacts and press Dial.
It hasn’t always been like this. I used to just do what he said without thinking about it. I devoured bottles of Tums, but as far as I knew, I wasn’t stressed about my relationship with my father, or with other men.
Dad asks me prying questions about my work, my boyfriend, my friends. I answer vaguely. “Oh, it’s good. Yeah, Tim’s good. He’s watching football. His team?”
My breath catches. How might my father use this detail to hurt me? Just playing the possibilities in my mind starts a crushing constriction around my ribs. He could start calling during every 49ers game, finding ways to put me on edge so when I hang up, Tim and I will fight. He used to do that when I was visiting my mom. “Oh, Tim doesn’t really have a specific team.”
Next he wants to know about my clients, which new books are coming out. I worry he’ll start showing up to their readings, waiting outside to confront me like he used to at my high school dances. I tell him there’s just a book about menopause and hope that scares him away.
I’m not sure when it dawned on me that my relationship with my father was not normal. That most women didn’t grow up fearing punishment for being late if track practice ran long, then worry that their fathers might not come home at all, both in the same night. But over time, those stomachaches turned into chest tightness, teeth grinding, rashes, heart palpitations, and chronic pain until I could no longer deny that something was wrong. I like to think my life would be drastically different without him. I like to think that I would be a strong woman who trusts her judgment and sets people straight when they bully her.
When I hang up, I think maybe I could be that person now. Maybe.
But recovery isn’t as simple as recognizing your childhood as traumatic and deciding to be different. I do speak up now, to other people, but only after years of therapy. I tell people when they’re rude, when they’re making unfair assumptions about me, when they’ve crossed into what is unwelcome personal territory. But it’s never without wondering if I’m overreacting, if the problem is really me. If I’m enforcing dysfunctional rules just like the ones that were once pushed on me.
I pick up the frog and heft it into the air, catching it again like a pitcher idly tosses a baseball. My body tenses with the dichotomy of it all. I want so much to be good, strong, in the right. I want to be intuitive and self-protective. But what if the offense I feel influences others to suppress themselves? I will never serve Brussels sprouts, but if I serve Greek salad and someone is upset about it, they should be able to say so, shouldn’t they? Even if I feel it’s rude?
I’m aware that things like this must seem so black and white to the functional adult. You put the Greek salad out as an offering. People can eat it or not. If they’re rude, you can say, “That was rude,” then you move on. You don’t dwell on it because it doesn’t matter. And you definitely don’t let a toothless man kiss you in an alleyway.
But for those of us who learned that following the rules to please others was a matter of self-preservation, this cognitive and emotional process is harder than rocket science. We must study it and practice it for years. We must talk ourselves through the story problems. We must take test after test and hope for a better score next time. We want to believe that at some point it will become second nature, but we know on some level that it will probably always be work. Hard work.
Two weeks have gone by since the last phone call. Tim and I get up, drink our coffee, and I go to my reading chair. The alabaster frog is still eyeing me, but I stare right back. I need a break, I tell it. I need to know what I’m like without him in my head. I’ve left my phone in the kitchen and brought a Psychology Today to my reading chair instead. I have a panic attack anyway, and by early afternoon, I put the frog back in its plastic drawer and go outside to garden. But I don’t call.
Four weeks later, I’m breathing easier. I’m letting go of rules and ignoring men who try to force their way into my space. Sundays still trigger me, though. On these days, the fears creep in. What if my father shows up at my house while Tim’s not at home, pushing his way in, interrogating me about why I’ve broken the rules? But with every day that that doesn’t happen, I start to relax. To live.
I want it to stay this way. If I picture having to let him in again, I cry. I repeat to my therapist over and over “I can’t do it. I just can’t do it” until she tells me I don’t have to. This can be my life now. Finally, I send him a letter to make it official: I’m going no contact.
After, comes the fallout. The calls. The letters. Stiff handwriting on envelopes made out to Tim’s and my new address in Oregon—the one I haven’t given to anyone for fear it would find its way to him. I recognize the gaslighting, thanks to Psychology Today. I bristle at the words “that never happened” and “your mother brainwashed you.” When I remember the alabaster frog, I dig through my boxes until I find it. Still grasping the latest letter in one hand, I clutch the frog in the other, wrapping my fingers around it and squeezing. It won’t give, no matter how strong I am, and I know in my aching bones that my father will never change.
The panic attacks come raging back, but they’re different now. Instead of crumpling under their pressure, I let the heart palpitations pump blood to my arms and legs and prepare me to fight. I drop the frog into a community garden bed and write back to my father with one simple message: No more.
Then…silence. Blissful quiet.
Two years later, my breath comes easily, my heart stays calm. It’s over.
Ali J. Shaw has Rocky Mountain air in her blood, but she calls the Pacific Northwest home. Her nonfiction has been featured in Hippocampus Magazine, VoiceCatcher, and the Dime Stories reading series, and was a finalist for the Victoria A. Hudson Emerging Writer Prize. She is currently at work on a memoir. Ali is an editor who collects typewriters and rescue animals.
“What We Leave Behind,” Image by Dawn Surratt.
(See also “Those Who Once Lived There Return” by Wendy Miles.)
When my fifth grade English teacher, Mr. Garabedian, asked me to stand, the room went suddenly quiet and still. Everyone in the class turned their attention to me, and holding my breath, I stood wondering why I had been singled out. Was I in some kind of trouble, and if so, what had I done wrong?
Mr. Garabedian handed me the homework assignment I’d given him the previous day. “I’d like Margaret to read her poem.” My class had recently begun studying poetry, and this poem was our first homework assignment. “Live from the Bijoux Theatre,” Mr. G. said with a swish of his arm, pausing dramatically, theatrically, and drawing out the syllables of my name, “Maaaaargaret Maaaaaginnis.”
I confess to finding this kind of attention slightly intoxicating. I wanted more of moments such as this, and I’d read and write anything he wanted in exchange. Modeling my teacher’s behavior, I silently summoned what was dramatic and theatrical in me, and read,
I watch the waves roll out to sea,
and wonder what the ocean thinks of me
in my faded rolled up jeans
and a beach hat ripping at the seams.
“A beach hat ripping at the seams?” my father said. “Where did you get that idea?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know where it came from.” I didn’t even have a beach hat. The poem was about me and not about me. My father asked if the ocean represented God.
“I don’t know what it represents,” I said. “Maybe it’s you.”
He laughed. “Maybe.”
Maybe it did represent him; maybe everything represented him—the waves, the sea, the ocean, the faded jeans, and the beach hat ripped at the seams. Or maybe I sought to represent not my father but myself in that which was faded and ripped and alone in the cold vastness of the ocean. It was hard sometimes to distinguish where he ended and I began, that is if he ever really ended, and if I ever really began. I’ve spent my life trying to discern this.
The night I’d written the poem had been a typical Saturday night at my house, everyone in bed except me. As usual, I had been waiting up for my father to come from his AA meeting since for me there was no sleep until my father was safely home. As a young child, I used to keep my mother company while she waited. We would sit huddled together on the couch with only the glow from the TV illuminating the darkness. This had been our nightly ritual for years, but at some point she stopped waiting. I cannot say exactly when or why she stopped, all I know is that I am forever alone at that kitchen table, either reading or writing, forever ten, forever reading Judy Blume and rereading Laura Ingalls Wilder, learning from them what I could not learn in a house where the deepest and truest thoughts and emotions had been relegated to the realm of the Unspoken. Before Mr. G.’s poetry lessons, I read as I waited, raising my head from the pages before me whenever I thought I heard my father’s car in the driveway. After the poetry lessons, I would write while waiting for my father’s return. Thirty years later, I’m a light and restless sleeper, part of me waiting for a car that will never come again.
The night I wrote that first poem for Mr. G., my father had come home. I’d read the poem to him, delighting in the expression on his face—the soft glow in his eyes, the gentleness of his smile. He had this peculiar way of looking at me in the dim kitchen light, staring really, as if he were seeing me for the first time, or the last. It’s hard to know. This look haunted me then, and haunts me now. This look was one of the reasons I couldn’t go to bed until he came home. Every time he left the house, I was afraid I’d never see him again. But this night the look had a little something different in it, and he said softly, “It’s a very good poem, Margaret.” Margaret. He always called me by name. “Maybe you’ll be a writer someday.”
I cannot remember which came first, fifth grade or that little pink hardcover book on my mother’s nightstand. Fifth grade memories of Mr. G. and his poetry writing lessons are among my most vivid; they appear fully rendered in the florescent light of my fifth-grade classroom. The pink hardcover, however, is a dimmer memory that flickers in the shadow of a bedside reading lamp my mother seldom turned on—she was too busy, too anxious, too preoccupied to read to me or my younger sister. My father was the reader, disappearing for hours with a book or two, reappearing in time to read something to my sister or me. Yet it was on my mother’s nightstand I found the little pink book of poems. I picked it up. The cover was shiny and smooth as were the pages. I wasn’t supposed to be in my parents’ room if one of them wasn’t there. I was snooping. I was a snooper, my nana, with whom we lived, used to say, whenever she caught me rummaging through drawers, cupboards, and armoires. I didn’t call it snooping; I called it searching. I was searching for all that went unspoken in our house.
I stood alone on my mother’s side of the room, transfixed by my latest discovery, slowly turning the smooth pages of the book. I don’t remember the book’s title or anything I read on those pages except for the poem:
Though my soul may set in darkness,
It will rise in perfect light.
I have loved the stars too fondly
To be fearful of the night.
~ an old astronomer to his pupil
The child I was had not yet imagined that a poem, someone else’s words on paper, could articulate my feelings before I myself could, but the minute I read these words I knew it was true.
When my father was a boy of sixteen, his sister Margaret died when the passenger door of a girlfriend’s car opened and Margaret fell out, hitting her head against a guardrail. She died on impact they said, which was supposed to make everyone feel better. Who would want to consider Margaret lying in the road, half-alive, waiting while a friend ran to someone’s house to call an ambulance? Because she died on impact, she did not have to endure death’s cliché, watching scenes from her life as she began to die, seeing things she never wanted to see again. She was just eighteen. How much of life existed beyond the family parameter? Not much. It’s the pain and disappointment she’d see again as she tells her parents she’s leaving home. She cannot live with such anger and resentment; she cannot watch them further destroy each other; she cannot watch as her brother’s pain turns to self-destructive rage. She never asked to be the favored child. She didn’t ask to be spared. She would have traded places with him. That’s how much she loved him. She is dying in the street and the memory of her brother’s detached vacant stare makes her shudder. Her last thoughts will be of him. What kind of man will he become? She thinks she sees him approaching and dies straining for his hand.
But this is not what happened. Margaret died on impact. But my father had been approaching her. He reached across death for her and kept reaching for the rest of his life, and this is what I heard in his voice, every time he said my name.
At the end of the fifth grade, I wrote a poem about my aunt and wanted to present it to my father as a gift. But I showed my mother first, sensing on some level the significance of her role the Keeper of the Unspoken. I found her in the upstairs hallway. Because I interrupted her sweeping, she barely read the poem before she handed it back to me, but she’d read enough to say, “Hide that, Margaret, or throw it away. Please don’t show your father.”
My hands trembled as I folded the poem, but my eyes remained dry. I swallowed the lump of tears in my throat. I wouldn’t disobey my mother, not in that moment, because I didn’t want to upset my father, and clearly my mother thought I would if I showed my poem to him. So, I tucked the folded poem in a drawer and didn’t look at it again. I cannot remember what I wrote in that lost poem, but I must admit that I’ve been trying to recapture it for thirty years. It grieves me that I never showed the poem to my father. Never told him that his pain was mine.
In a somewhat passionate burst of inspiration, I wrote another poem for my father. This time, however, I didn’t go to my mother with it first. I was twelve now. I didn’t want to hear that I couldn’t or shouldn’t show my father. I didn’t want to relegate the poem or my feelings to the back of the dresser drawer, where they would lay tucked under scarves or underwear, seemingly forgotten. I titled my poem “The Last Time I Saw Paris” after the 1954 film that had inspired it. The film starred Elizabeth Taylor and Van Johnson as Helen and Charles Wills, the tragically flawed and ill-fated main characters of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Babylon Revisited.” Child actor Sandy Deschner played the couple’s young daughter, who lived with her aunt and uncle after her mother’s death. Charles has returned to Paris to reclaim his daughter and make peace with his memories. I cannot say with whom I identified more: Charles, Helen, or their daughter, who was called Vicki in the film and Honoria in Fitzgerald’s story.
At age twelve, I hadn’t heard of Fitzgerald or his celebrated story, but years later, as an undergraduate English Literature major, the story had left me weeping over the bible-thin pages of my Norton Anthology. My grief was raw and real: two years prior to reading “Babylon Revisited,” my father had succumbed to his Unspoken, ultimately taking his own life.
I cannot say which precise moment in the film provided the inspiration that made me run for a pencil and paper, or if there wasn’t one at all; maybe it was the story itself that moved me, a story of grief and regret and recklessness and love, the kind of love that manages to grow in the midst of such suffering. Though the daughter clearly loved her mother, she thrived on her father’s love and attention; here was her source of joy. Twenty-eight years later, I do not remember the poem in its entirety, but I recall the first stanza:
The last time I saw Paris,
I was free and young at heart.
I didn’t even think of us
As so very far apart.
I don’t know where my mother was, but I found my father in bed with a book propped open across his chest. I handed him the poem and he read it, and then asked if I would read it to him. Then he asked if he could keep the poem. Of course, he could, it was his. “Thank you. I’ll treasure it,” he said, and at his words, I felt a palpable joy. In that moment of shared words and feelings, my life made sense. My father folded the poem and tucked it in the top drawer of his bureau. When my parents weren’t home, I used to go into their room and open my father’s drawer to make sure the poem was still there. Every time I saw it lying there in the drawer, I remembered the passion I felt in the classroom and the passion in that burst of inspiration. I remembered the joy and pleasure I felt sharing my words with my father, such deep satisfaction, the writing itself an act of defiance in the face of the Unspoken.
Margaret MacInnis’ essays have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Brevity, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, River Teeth, Tampa Review, and other literary magazine and journals. Her work has been distinguished by Best American Essays (Notable Distinction 2007, 2009, 2011) and Best American Nonrequired Reading series (Notable Distinction 2009), and is anthologized in the 2015 Love & Profanity and the 2009 River Teeth Reader. She lives in Iowa City with her partner, Ryan, and their daughter, Lila. Since 2010, she has worked as personal assistant to Marilynne Robinson, American novelist and essayist.
This piece first appeared in The Briar Cliff Review