Pushcart Prize nominations

It’s always so difficult to pick among our wonderful work each year for Pushcart Prize nominations, but we’ve finally decided. Our nominees for 2018 are:

“Robbing Pillars,” a short story by Sheryl Monks

“Write to Save Someone,” a poem by Terri Muuss

“Asha in Allston” a short story by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

“Science and Survival,” an essay by Virginia Chase Sutton

“Teeth,” a flash by Joe Mills

“Going Places,” an essay by David Marchino

Congratulations to those nominated and good luck!

“Going Places” by David Marchino


“Drifting” by Jane Cornish Smith, acrylic, gesso, charcoal, and wax on paper, 2011.

Cars were powerful, sacred things in my family. Mom’s first car was a baby-blue Camaro, flipped twice on her way down to Florida. Dad’s second job was on the pit crew for NASCAR. Pop-pop, Uncle Turk, Aunt Dee—they’d head down to Roosevelt Boulevard after dark to watch the street racers compete. Pop-pop would always share the details with me the next day. How they squatted alongside the road in the buzzing yellow glow of Philadelphia streetlights making wagers, watching the drivers zoom down their makeshift track, and waiting, ultimately, for the sound of police sirens which signaled it was time for them, too, to disappear into the night. I remember once asking why they raced there on the Boulevard, when it had so many stoplights. Pop-pop half-wheezed-half-laughed. “If you want to win, if you need to go, you don’t stop just ‘cause someone says you got to.” I was just a kid. I didn’t get it yet.

We were made to drive. People could tell wherever we went. Us heavy-footed sons-a-bitches, with the wind-swept hair and the squinty eyes, would pull up at car shows and immediately be shepherded by the fellow gearheads. This cylinder, this block—they had to show us. It was ritualistic. We patted the dash in gratitude when we passed stragglers on the highway and extended skinny middle fingers when tailgated. Every car had a soul, and every car needed a name.

Grace came into my life just before I left for college. She was a 2002 Ford Focus, red, given to me as a graduation present. It was clear at the dealership that she’d seen a lot. The engine was a transplant, still bearing the garish yellow-highlighter serial number from the junkyard. Left idle, she’d struggle to avoid overheating. On hot days, the engine fans were cacophonous. When I picked up dates, I’d leave Grace running in their driveways. The girls balked at the noise she made, the 115-horsepower-fueled wheeze exploding from behind the grill.

“Gracie gets separation anxiety,” I’d explain. “She’s jealous, too, so you better watch it.”

Grace had a storied life before me—ten years of hard drives and poor maintenance. The battery cables needed a jostling to carry the current. The windshield wiper controls worked less than half the time. She’d fall out of gear when going faster than 70. She was temperamental and bitchy and worked when she felt like it. No, she wasn’t perfect—far from it. But, being only eight years older, I wasn’t perfect either.

I didn’t need perfect to be happy. When I took her for the test drive, she felt right. Driving the wrong car is a lot like dancing with someone else’s girlfriend. Back straight, eyes forward, hands where everyone can see them. There’s no rhythm, no sway. It’s the kind of mechanical motion that driving never should be. I was always comfortable with Grace. On that very first test drive, I let my arm slack onto the door and leaned far back into the grooves of the driver’s seat. I knew her alignment, her brakes. I felt her, and in that instant she was mine.

We learn to drive the way I imagine people learn to diffuse bombs. It’s a methodical process. In Driver’s Ed and in the instructional videos, it’s all Point A to Point B. People are always going places. But driving can be meditative and liberating. There is no greater freedom, I believe, then passing over smooth, striped asphalt with no destination. To be lost and curious behind the wheel. The Zen of it.

As a teenager floating in the interstice between high school and college, these pockets of Zen were plentiful. I remember how the city was new viewed from the driver’s seat. The pedestrians jaywalking, the bicycles weaving, the flashing of diner signs, and the weight of the other cars. Behind the wheel, these things were no longer static scenery, they were living and electric. I’d often get lost, following large avenues into side streets into alleys through bad neighborhoods. I took comfort during these trips in the safety Grace provided. Inside that car, it was my world—shelter from what existed outside.

At the end of the summer, in the foamy grey backseat, I lost my virginity. I’d parked Grace behind a Hilton Hotel that overlooked what felt like all of Philadelphia. It was with a girl named Mary, whose skinny, freckled body laid uncomfortably along the curvature of the interior. It was hurried and breathy. I dug my finger into an old cigarette singe in the seat while our feet jostled the doors. It was the kind of sex had through unzipped jeans, the young clueless kind where every “I-love-you” is followed by an “I’m-sorry” or a “you’re-on-my-hair.” We filled the car with giggles and steam and scattered after a manager spotted us. I can still see that manager’s brown-lipsticked scowl in my head when I think of that night. I remember how her hair-sprayed curls bounced as she threatened to call the police. Snickering from behind the window, I climbed to the driver’s seat and revved home. On the way, Mary and I poked at each other’s still-naked bodies. So foolish, so very young.

In college, I grew up, and Grace grew old. Of all the lessons learned at my university, perhaps the most indelible is that my university was incredibly expensive. Desperate for cash, I took a night job delivering pizzas. The perils of working delivery are well known: the harsh weather, the robberies, the attacks. But it is also achingly lonely. A pizza boy is a transitory entity—coming and going—and, as a result, permanently in the way. Cooks hand you food. Customers hand you money. Doors slam, few words are exchanged. For a pizza boy, being good at his job means being invisible. Peace exists on four wheels, with doors locked, dry underneath a metal roof. Familiar voices come in the form of radio. The cheesy shock-jocks and DJs become company, and their over-the-top attempts at humor begin to register, at the very least, nods of familiarity. Grace could only offer so much. I loved and was grateful for the passenger seat, but in the midst of those double shifts at the shop, I wanted nothing more than a passenger. Jackie BamBam of 93.3 cackled out of my radio speakers most often. I’d text in during his Saturday shifts and hover over the speakers, waiting for that moment when he’d render me whole again: when his voice would bounce out into the airwaves and acknowledge me, the pizza boy with an identity underneath his store cap. This one, my fellow vampires, goes out to David, delivering in Port Richmond. A thankless job but an honest one, too. We raise our devil horns to you, Dave.

The job was hard on Grace, too. She was perennially winking due to a short in the headlight circuit. Belts snapped regularly, often costing a day’s worth of work and hundreds of dollars in repair costs. We shambled on like this together. I’d walk into the mechanic’s office, my head hung low underneath my pizza cap. He never learned my name, instead greeting me by make and model. “Ford Focus, 2002. What now?” My explanations felt like an admission of guilt, as though I had been abusing this poor car. The mechanic would click my descriptions into his computer, with a resigned smirk. I’d place the keys in his thick-fingered, oily palm, and he would sigh.

Shortly after college graduation, Grace’s radiator began to fail. She couldn’t make it twenty minutes without overheating, at which point her engine would seize. I spoke with my mechanic over the phone. He informed me of the repair cost. It would be steep, most of my savings. I figured he could sense my feelings over the phone. “I tell you this because you’re a good Italian boy,” he grumbled. “We can fix her this time, probably the next time. Hell, probably the time after that. But, at a certain point, it’s worth considering other options.”

Junking my car, initially, seemed like a betrayal. But it was clear Grace was suffering. I conferred with my family—the racers, the elder statesmen among the gearheads. They understood my relationship with her, but they agreed it had to be done.

Not long before this, I’d been conferred my degree. Standing proud in my cap and gown my family huddled around me, fighting over whose arm would rest on my shoulders. I thought of this as I said goodbye to Grace in the junkyard. I thought of what my family said that day—the promises they made. That I would be “going places.” As I closed the driver’s side door after cleaning out my possessions, I looked over her interior one last time. The groove formed by my slumping, delivery-boy posture. The traces of rock salt on the floor mats left over from winter. The gaping cigarette singe in the back. Going places.

I closed the door, and, for the first time in what felt like forever, I walked home.

 

 

David Marchino is a Philadelphia-based creative nonfiction writer, whose work has appeared in The Penn Review. His essay “No Goodbyes” won the 2016 Penn PubCo Award for Best First-Person Narrative, and his short manuscript He Will Be Remembered earned him honors from the University of Pennsylvania’s Creative Writing Program. In the mornings, he jogs at the rising sun—without sunglasses—squinting hard through the light. He is reading. He is writing. He is searching.

 

“Calling Out” by Izzy López


“Blue Path” by Jane Cornish Smith, encaustic, oil, paper on board, 2014.

When I typed the number for Counseling and Psychological Services into my phone, I discovered that it had already been saved to my contacts. In truth, it was a relic from orientation week, when overly exuberant upperclassmen had recited the numbers to us from a stage in Irvine Auditorium and I had diligently entered them into my phone, like the ever-prepared Ivy League student I had recently become. Still, as I pressed the formidable green circle to dial, a small voice taunted me. “See,” it sneered, “everyone knew you were crazy. Told you so.”

Exhaling, I waited as the phone rang on the other end. I sat perched atop my too-tall dorm bed, which I never figured out how to lower. That semester, my sophomore fall, I had gone to great lengths to make my single dorm room as cozy as possible. Truthfully, it was a vain attempt to try to reconcile the fact that a four-walled, cinderblock box was the closest thing I had to a home. The paisley sheets on my bed contrasted well with a dark purple tapestry, a trick I had learned in an art class. Across from my bed was a desk and a small mountain of library books and coffee mugs.

The phone kept ringing and my free hand flitted in indecision between my shirt collar and my hair. Finally, the receiver clicked and a voice answered.

“Hi, thank you for calling Counseling and Psychological Services, how can we help you today?”

I couldn’t help wanting to laugh. It was incredible how much a receptionist at a mental health center sounded like a drive-through employee. One happy brain and a side of functional family dynamic, please, oh and a milkshake. I told the anonymous voice that I was looking to set up an appointment with a counselor, anyone really. From there, the call was very logical, as he took inventory of all the things that had or had not lead me to call for help. Age? 20. Student? Full time. Ethnicity? White. Eating disorder? No. Issues making friends? Not that I’m aware of. Problems in class? It’s fine, just too expensive. Issues at home? A deep breath. Yes. With your parents? Yes. Abuse?

I paused.

This was, after all, the reason I had called. To be honest about what had happened, to have someone listen, to tell the truth. My tongue curled behind my teeth, waiting to say no, the answer it had been trained to deliver. In my moment of indecision, I noticed that I had been clutching the comforter of my bed, morphing the soft fabric into a sweaty ball, suffocating the pastel blue and purple that swirled across it. Like lifting a wrecked car off a child trapped beneath, I forced my tongue out from behind my teeth and propelled it forward.

Yes, I answered.

I heard the receptionist pause and shuffle some papers around. A new line of questioning began, asking the particulars of events I had only recently seen as unusual. Had I been sexually abused? No. Had I been physically abused? A few times. Verbal abuse? I paused again.

Yes, frequently.

I released my grip on the comforter.

“Thank you for your honesty”, he replied, his voice soft and calm.

The conversation moved forward to appointment scheduling and an explanation of services offered, but my mind hovered on his gratitude for my sad story. Why would he be grateful? It was his job, I supposed, to care. Still, in all the times I had spoken candidly about my parents, which I could count on one hand, no one had ever thanked me. Maybe, I thought with equal parts fear and hope, this was what therapy felt like.

 

 

Izzy López is originally from Boston, Massachusetts and is currently a creative writing student at the University of Pennsylvania. This is her first publication.

 

“The Bridge” by David Jauss


“Windblown One” by Jane Cornish Smith, mixed media encaustic collage, 2012.

If I had it to do over again, I’d still go to the funeral, but this time I wouldn’t wear a disguise. And if I heard anyone say, “What’s she doing here?” I’d just give them my Mona Lisa smile, then take a seat in a pew up front, right beside the grieving widow. Everyone would be staring at me, but I’d just sit there, ignoring them and looking only at the casket, trying to imagine what he looked like in there after the accident. And I wouldn’t cry, not even once.

As it was, of course, I made a world-class fool of myself. And I don’t even have the excuse of being drunk, since I’ve been on the wagon for nearly three years now—pretty much ever since he said he’d had enough of me. I don’t know what made me decide to put on that stupid wig and sunglasses, but it wasn’t a pitcher of margaritas. And it wasn’t love. Don’t you make the mistake of thinking that.

I read about his death in the Sunday paper. I was just turning the pages, and there his photo was, on the first page of the Arkansas section, right next to a shot of what looked like the Leaning Tower of Pisa but was actually a concrete bridge support stuck in a riverbank. I knew it was him even before I saw his name because of the missing eyebrow. I was with him the night he lost it on I-40. We shouldn’t have taken the motorcycle out in the rain, but this was right after we were married and we were immortal in those days. I remember how the bike just suddenly disappeared out from under us, like we’d only been dreaming we were riding it, and we went skidding face-first across the wet asphalt. No helmets, of course. He’s lucky he didn’t die then. Me, too. I got a road rash you wouldn’t believe, but at least I didn’t lose an eyebrow. As he liked to say, you never realize how important it is to have eyebrows until you lose one. I think he grew the mustache so people would look at it, not his missing eyebrow. But it didn’t work.

I wonder now if the undertaker drew in an eyebrow for him. He probably didn’t, since the casket was closed, but I like to think he did. If I’d still been his wife, I would have made sure he did.

It’s funny he died helping to build a bridge. He loved bridges, especially rickety old ones. One year he bought us a calendar of covered wooden bridges in Vermont or New Hampshire or someplace like that. And he once said that if he knew how to take photographs, he’d take a whole book full of shots of old bridges and make a fortune selling it. He said there was a real market for bridge nostalgia. And a few times he drove me up to Heber Springs on his bike just so we could stand on this old wooden plank bridge they call the Swinging Bridge and feel it sway a little in the breeze over the river. He loved that feeling, he said. He said he felt almost like he was about to float up into the air and fly away. Other people went to the Swinging Bridge to fish, but he went there just to stand. Frankly, I never thought the bridge was that big a deal. But I didn’t say that to him, of course. I think he knew, though, because once when we were standing there, swaying in the wind, he started to sing, real slow and somber, that old song “Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and stupid me, I thought he was joking and started to laugh. He stopped singing right away then, and when I looked at him, I could tell he was hurt. I told him I wasn’t laughing at him, that I was just thinking of a joke I’d heard at work, but I don’t think he believed me. He was very smart, even if he did do some dumb things. Anyway, I’ve always felt bad about laughing at him that day. I should have known better. I should have remembered he had a deep, serious side.

According to the paper, what happened was, a cable on a crane snapped and dropped the bridge support on him. He’d been guiding the base of it into the hole they’d dug for it in the riverbank. The coroner said he probably died instantly, but it took his coworkers and paramedics seven hours to dig him out from under the concrete column. They had to jackhammer their way through it. Sometimes when I close my eyes I can hear what it must have sounded like. Like a machine gun, only louder. And I wonder if he heard it, if only for a second, and tried to figure out what that sound was.

It shocked me to hear that he’d been killed, but what shocked me more was that the paper said he’d remarried just a few months before. Why none of my friends told me, I don’t know. I wouldn’t have minded. I’d have been happy for him, and I would have gone to his wedding just the same as I went to his funeral. Only I wouldn’t have worn a disguise to the wedding. I would have gone as myself. I would have waited in the reception line like everyone else to shake her hand and kiss him on the cheek. I would have said, “I hope you’ll be happy this time.”

I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. I stopped loving him long before he stopped loving me. When he told me he’d had it, we were already history as far as I was concerned. But not loving someone doesn’t mean you hate them. And I didn’t hate him.

I didn’t hate her either. In fact, the reason I started crying at the funeral was that I felt sorry for her. Even from where I was sitting, a dozen or so rows behind her to the right, I could see her lips and chin were quivering, and once when she reached up to adjust her black veil, her hand just fluttered. She was trying so hard not to cry that I felt I had to do it for her. And did I ever do it. I’ve always been a loud crier, but now I was crying so hard that I was gulping air, which made my sobs sound kind of like seal barks. I can’t help it. It’s the way I cry. And isn’t crying normal at a funeral? The way everyone turned and looked at me, you would have thought I was singing “Happy Birthday” or doing a striptease or something. Even the minister stopped telling lies about him to stare at me.

It was the same minister who’d married us, but it wasn’t him who recognized me, it was the wife. How she knew it was me despite the curly blond wig and sunglasses, I don’t know, especially since we’d never met. Most likely she’d seen one of the photos he took of me, maybe even that one where I was all laid out on a blanket in a bikini like the main course at a picnic. Or maybe he’d told her about the way I laugh, which is a lot like the way I cry. He couldn’t have told her how I cried. He never heard me cry. Not once. Not even the day he took off his ring, dropped it in my glass of José Cuervo, and walked out the door without so much as a fare-thee-well. I just sat there, looking at that ring. It looked so much like a dead, curled-up worm I almost had to laugh. But I didn’t. And I didn’t cry either. There’s no one alive who could tell you otherwise.

Anyway, she said my name. She didn’t shout it or anything. She just looked at me and said it. Then someone said, “What’s she doing here?” and someone else said, “No respect for the dead.” I also heard the word bitch, and more than once. And the word drunk, too. But like I said, I wasn’t drunk. That’s the thing about a reputation: once you’ve got one, it’s got you. To his friends and relatives, I’ll always be the drunk who cheated on him. He got to start his life over with a new wife, but me, I don’t get a second chance.

I could be bitter, but I’m not. And I suppose I could move away from Little Rock, go someplace where no one knows me. But I like it here, and I’ve got a good-paying job—lab tech at Baptist Medical Center. I deserve my second chance here, just like he did.

It didn’t take me long to stop crying. One minute I was wailing and the next I was stone silent. It was not a dignified silence, though. I was trembling all over, and I could feel my face flush red-hot.

That’s when his asshole brother came up to the pew where I was sitting and said, like he was trying to be polite, “Would you please leave?” I looked up at him, my mouth hanging open. Of all the people to ask me to leave!

“You’ve got some nerve,” I said.

His face was so red it looked sunburned.

“Now’s not the time,” he said back, his voice shaking a little.

He got a second chance, too. My ex-husband forgave his little brother but not me. When he found out, I told him it takes two to tangle, but he still blamed it on me and me alone.

“I’m not going,” I told his brother now.

The minister cleared his throat then and asked if he could resume the eulogy. The last I’d heard, he’d been saying something about the corpse having been a loving and devoted husband.

I stood up. “Go right ahead,” I said. “Lie your ass off. The bastard left me.”

Well, you can guess how people reacted to that. No one likes the truth. For a few seconds, there was nothing but arms and elbows and legs and shouting, and then I found myself outside, laying face-down on the sidewalk, my wig ripped off, my dress torn, and my head throbbing. There was a small crowd standing on the top step looking down at me, mostly men but also a couple of stocky women. One of the women was his brother’s wife. She shook my wig at me and said, “You didn’t even have the guts to face us. You’re pathetic.” I rose onto my skinned knees then and reached up to touch my eyebrows. They were still there. Then I started to laugh.

“Get out of here,” a man’s voice said. “Now.

But I couldn’t stop laughing. I stood up then, and my head went woozy, and for a moment I felt like I was back on the Swinging Bridge, my husband by my side, both of us swaying there in the breeze, so light somehow that the slightest puff of wind could lift us up off that bridge and into the blue, blue sky. And then I felt like I really was floating up into the sky, just like a balloon or a saint, and he was floating there beside me, holding my hand. I knew that any second I’d drift back down to earth, to the cracked concrete sidewalk, the scowls and jeers, to the realization that I’d been an utter fool and always would be, but I didn’t care, at least not then. I was with him, and they weren’t. I was with him, and he was holding my hand, and it felt so real, so real and so right.

 

 

David Jauss is the author of four collections of short stories (Crimes of Passion, Black Maps, Glossolalia: New & Selected Stories, and Nice People: New & Selected Stories II), two collections of poems (Improvising Rivers and You Are Not Here), and a collection of essays (On Writing Fiction). He has also edited or coedited three anthologies, most recently Words Overflown by Stars: Creative Writing Instruction and Insight from the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Program. His short stories have been published in numerous magazines and reprinted in Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Awards: Prize Stories, and The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, as well as in The Pushcart Book of Short Stories: The Best Stories from the Pushcart Prize. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a James A. Michener / Copernicus Society of America Fellowship, and three fellowships from the Arkansas Arts Council and one from the Minnesota State Arts Board. His collection Black Maps received the Associated Writers and Writing Programs Award for Short Fiction. A professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, he teaches in the low-residency MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

“The Bridge” first appeared in Arkansas Literary Forum.

“Yard Sale” by Nancy Ludmerer


“Orange Horizon Line” by Jane Cornish Smith, encaustic, oil on board, 2014.

Jackie’s present to Brooke from two weeks before, Richard Scarry’s Mother Goose, was going for two dollars. The baby shoes she bought Brooke were on offer for a pittance as well. “Yard sale! Moving today! Last chance!” clamored the sign.

The screen door hung off its hinge. “Deirdre!” Jackie called softly to her daughter. The only sound was the baby crying. Deirdre’s baby, and Tonio’s. Not yours, Deirdre said last time. Jackie’s ideas about child-rearing were antiquated, Deirdre complained, her gifts well-meaning but off. The pink baby shoes were kidskin — but they were raising Brooke vegan. Mother Goose was sexist.

When she heard they were moving to Tempe, Arizona, to be near Tonio’s people, Jackie said, “I’ll never get to see Brooke.”

Deirdre said she could come visit. She didn’t mention how hard it was for Jackie to travel – how she’d forget her tickets, or her house keys, or even where she was going. Jackie had gone to the library and looked up the city they were moving to, tried to figure out exactly how far it was from Clifton, New Jersey, but couldn’t even find it on the map. An hour later she realized she was looking for Temple, Arizona – a place that didn’t even exist – when the place they were moving was Tempe. She was too embarrassed to tell Deirdre about her mistake, or even what she had learned from her research, which was that Tempe, Arizona was named after the Vale of Tempe in Greece, where in ancient times there was a temple to Apollo. Somehow she knew Deirdre wouldn’t be interested, or at least not interested in hearing this from her.

But she wasn’t there for that. She came to say good-bye to them, and to the baby.

Minutes passed. Then Tonio appeared. He was small and wiry and no match for her Deirdre, who was 5’9” with large, jutting hip bones. “Brooke dozed off before I could feed her,” he said wearily. “At least she stopped crying.”

“Isn’t Deirdre home?” Jackie asked.

“At the gym.” Then he left, too, to gas-up the U-Haul.

Brooke lay on her back in her crib, awake, violet eyes blinking, forehead wrinkled in puzzlement. Jackie wanted to say “I’ll make it up to you,” but knew it was a lie. Your parents are your destiny, not your brain-addled Grandma.

Instead Jackie chanted the one rhyme she could remember by heart: “Pussycat, pussycat where have you been? I’ve been to London to visit the Queen. Pussycat, pussycat, what did you there? I frightened a little mouse under her chair.”

The baby watched her. She kicked her bare feet and moved her small hands like birds, as if she recognized Jackie was her grandmother, as if she knew this was special, like a visitation from an angel.

Little mouse, Jackie crooned, lifting her in her arms.

In the taxi Jackie called to speed her and Brooke to the station, she untied the shoes’ ribbon laces, stroked the soft pink kidskin, and fitted them on.

 

 

Nancy Ludmerer‘s fiction and essays have appeared in Kenyon Review, Hospital Drive, Litro, Amsterdam Quarterly, Green Mountains Review, Cimarron Review, and Literal Latte, among other fine journals. Her flash fiction has been published in Vestal Review, North American Review, KYSO Flash, Grain, Night Train, and Blue Monday Review and her flash “First Night” (a prizewinner in River Styx) also appeared in Best Small Fictions 2016. She lives in New York City with her husband Malcolm and their cat Sandy, a brave survivor of Superstorm Sandy.

“Asha in Allston” by Chaya Bhuvaneswar


“Turned Away” by Jane Cornish Smith, oil, encaustic on board, 2014.

The one thing you promised, you swore, was that you’d never allow her inside our house. Remember, when we came here, that you believed we’d have four sons. An optimistic belief but not outside reality, since I come from a family of ten, you from just five, and the astrologers had said that we’d have sons. Their predictions were what made us get engaged.

You said this was the house where we’d grow old. I say “this was the house” because, though you don’t know it yet, there was a kitchen fire last week. Your patio, gutted. Much water damage to the tiles, the basement, other areas. Cheap melted plastic and disjointed machines, the sound of a soft female voice droning all her broken syllables, pathetic. Don’t bother asking what became of her. I won’t answer. You shouldn’t care. You have her download store-housed somewhere permanent. You have what you need to make as many new Malins as you need. I can’t say the same for making me.

I know you’ve got enough to think about, nodding and bowing your way through the summer retreat with VC’s, trying to make sure you keep your job. Everyone at Ganesha Inc. is aware now, aren’t they, not only engineers, even corporate, that Malin became one with you, somehow? That like an animal researcher who gets too attached to his primates, you seek to protect her constantly?

I shouldn’t say “her.” I never forget what Malin is. A mannequin with hardware, an old-style robot encased in new-style coverings, turning her tricks. A plastic dream. The sum consciousness of notebooks, graph paper, comic books you used to read and collect long years before I ever met you, where women’s breasts were large and conical, leg muscles strong and well-defined enough so they can leap between buildings. Malin’s a fucking joke, the sister of inflatables. She isn’t real. She never will be real. It doesn’t matter that her legs and arms can move so precisely. Her smile plays to your dreams and isn’t her own. She can’t own anything.

But that must be why you love her. Your Malin has nothing to lose.

That old stupid question: What does she have that I don’t? I know the answer without having to ask. Her sight. She can see better than most people. Ninety-seven percent of humans, nearly as good as an eagle. But that reflects on you, not her. You designed and built her laser gaze. I recall just how intent you were that day.

I was just back from the neurologist, a cold morning that left me shivering. The doctor in JP was still too …what? I couldn’t say. Empathic? Guarded? Practical? All of the above? To make my diagnosis definitive, even though I’d read enough and knew enough by then not to be fooled. The best we could hope for was relapsing remitting. Then there would be good days, even Richard Pryor funny days, days I could walk and even dance a little bit. But the doctor wouldn’t confirm even a name. “How many children do you have again?” he’d asked, the absent-minded and respectable doctor. “Zero,” I forced myself to say, only because at that moment, I craved his pity.

By ten-thirty, I’d taken a cab home because of how pressed-down I felt; how held back by the silence in the examining room, the sense of life moving so fluidly all around me. I hadn’t exposed myself on public transportation—I mean “exposed” in the sense of even sitting on the T among strangers—because of how frightened I felt. What would go first? My speech? Mind? Hearing? Where would the plaques surface, white clearings where there should be brain forest? I did not want to know.

You had equipment spread on the table, a naked blond woman open and smiling before you, flat on her back. You had a headlamp on and tiny screwdrivers and tools I did not recognize. But most of all you had the room and there was no way I could have entered it. It wasn’t for three weeks afterward that, spent after your run around Jamaica Pond, you came to me smiling, wanting to make love before you showered, the way you often do, and I had to show you the neurology report, the patient education handout. Wait for you to read it. Blame and even hate myself for turning you so grave. You didn’t run once you found out; you stayed. We stayed in bed for hours. I can’t remember what we did, except that I had you completely, you had me, yet all the while, I felt empty-handed.

That was six months ago. Nothing has changed since. Everything has changed. There is a taut anticipation in our lives. We wait for the worst, know it will come. I lose my balance often. You catch me before I fall. You’re dutiful, perfect, really. The best neurologists. Second and third opinions. The articles you clip, saying it might be Lyme’s disease, Guillain-Barré, benign tumor, even a mild case of herpes. Anything reversible. Anything but what it is. And yet, the more responsible you are, the less I have of you, the less you’re here. You disappear into the closed garage, the place where I once thought of gassing myself. While I still can. While I still have enough control to decide when the end will come. But the garage is your space. The place where Malin was constructed, after a big check was written to your AI program from no less than Paul Allen; after your postdoc at Stanford and your being recruited to a Kendall Square biotech; after you’d earned a big enough bonus to bring me to you from India and bid high for this house.

And now there won’t be any sons, or other kids. There won’t be birds singing in the trees. Sunrises, sunsets. First my balance, then all my senses, ephemera, sometimes working, other times blocked because of muffled synapses, ghosts in the machine of me. My cellular catastrophes.

But you’ll have Malin, won’t you? Yes. This being, first inert, named after some Swedish actress, your crush from that movie about superheroes, but now, quite a bit more. This thing that’s come alive. She can think now. You look like you could spend eternity watching her think.

No doubt, when you build her next version, salvaging whatever you must after the fire that I set, unable to bear the living and moving sight of her, the way she sang songs you programmed in her—no doubt she’ll tell you how frightened she was. When I approached her, leaning on my cane, dousing her with kerosene, lighting the match. At first not caring if I burned myself too, but in the end managing to run while she stayed still. I’d glued her feet. I’d tried to think of every possibility.

I couldn’t kill her. It shouldn’t surprise you, given that I couldn’t kill myself either. The fire was only for her physical body. Your files, your work in the garage, I left intact. So you will be able to rebuild, of that I’m confident, and also—that you’d rebuild me if you could. That if you had to choose between Malin and me, there’d be no choice. But we don’t get to choose. Have or don’t have; we’ll have to wait.

Sorry my love, my dear. I truly hope that she’ll give you comfort.

 

 

Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, The Awl, Michigan Quarterly Review, Redux, Compose, Nimrod, Asian American Literary Review, Notre Dame Review, jellyfish review, aaduna, Bangalore Review and elsewhere. She received a Henfield Transatlantic Writing award, scholarships to Grub Street and Squaw Valley Writers conferences, and is at work on a novel.

 

“Science and Survival” by Virginia Chase Sutton


“Atmospheric Cells” by Jane Cornish Smith, oil, collage, and encaustic on board, 2007.

My belly’s a curious mix of loathing and dread as I look down the long hall to the doctor’s office where I have an appointment in fifteen minutes. Compulsively early, despite my one-mile walk from school, I wait sitting on the top step of the stairs of the two-story brick bank building. I hike the skirt of my too-tight green plaid dress high above my waist so I am not trapped, for the moment, in folds of cloth or body. I open my legs, get some air on my rubbed-red thighs. The quiet hallway leads directly to his office door, a place I’ve been before with my mother, though I never met the doctor. I always stay in the waiting room.

On this brisk fall day, the sky rolls with midwestern grayness that signals emerging cold and eventual winter. In my nervousness, I peer down the open landing. I see stairs spiral into darkness, and I wonder what other offices hide inside the solid brick bank’s respectability.

It’s yet another doctor visit today, one of many during childhood, all instigated from my mother’s urgent issue to solve my weight problem. But since I am eleven, she decides to send me out this time on my own. I’m glad she isn’t here to nag about the state of my dress or to remind me to suck in my stomach—glad to avoid her judgment and the mean comments she hisses before and after each exam. A veteran, I know all about medical visits and my constant failure at losing weight. All I know is to be myself: fat. It is the only way I know myself.

At precisely 4pm, I walk into Dr. Trask’s waiting room. The receptionist gestures me to sign in. I make my way past stained yellow couches, pillows forlornly bunched into corners, a smattering of magazines spread over a couple of battered tables. Achy with nerves, I know what’s behind the door. How I dread the weigh-in, lecture, disapproval, and critique for a problem that seems unsolvable. I pick up a magazine, and pretend to read an old copy of Family Circle. It doesn’t appeal to me with its homey stories, but I’m too afraid of my body to pick up Seventeen or Teen. Mother reads fashion magazines, attached as she is to hairstyles, beautiful clothing, matching sets of earrings and necklaces, the perfect makeup she slathers on each day, then slips on the highest of heels. But I settle for flipping pages of an adult magazine because that seems to be the correct behavior. At least I appear to know what is normal activity.

When the nurse finally opens the inner door, she summons me with one long white finger. The office is empty. I trail behind her crisp figure, entirely dressed in white, until we come to a tiny examination room. Her hair is gray around the edges of her flat face. She looks as if someone hit her with a cream pie, leaving white streaks around her face. It’s true, I think, that nurses always dress the same way. I’ve seen years of spanking white uniforms, white oxfords and white stockings, and always a strange little organdy fluted cap atop the head, with a black band across the front. That hat differs from office to office. But I awake from my rambling thoughts as this new nurse is all business.

Get on the scale. She records my shame on a manila folder after the scale creaks with my weight.

Strip. Everything off, she says, hands me a gray examination robe pulled from a cabinet next to the sink. More scared than modest, I wait until she leaves to hurriedly unzip my favorite dress. I stash my underclothing beneath it on the gray metal chair—my rumpled slip, panty girdle, and white underpants. The clammy robe opens down the back and I maneuver onto the high table, careful to keep the robe tucked under my butt. Already chilly, I grow colder, my belly beads in fistfuls of anxiety as I try to keep rigidly still, my back perfectly straight.

Unsuccessfully, I try to think of anything other than what is sure to be coming—a speech about my fatness from a new doctor who will scold and lecture me about my weight.

I don’t know how long I wait for him, only that by the time Dr. Trask arrives I’m wound so tightly I’m a gassy mix of fear and danger. He does not even look at me when he shuts the door, doesn’t offer his hand or a greeting—just a quick once-over gesture towards me with his ball-bearing eyes.

I peek at him. A short man in an expensive dark tweed jacket, he wears gray pants pressed to a crease sharp enough to slit someone’s wrists. His black loafers are shiny. When he finally looks directly at me, he appears to be truly glad to meet me. I see it his bearded, friendly middle-aged face though I can’t imagine why he’d like a fat seventh grade girl.

We’re here to discuss your weight problem, he says while clasping and unclasping his small white hands. They look like birds pacing the telephone wires by our house, nervously twitching, yet perfectly sure they will never fall.

Please stretch out on the table, he says, offers one dry hand to help me ease along the white paper, directing my body with a gentle gesture. Strangely, he begins his exam at my toes, touches each little piggy with cool fingers then rests one hand on each leg, as he pats and squeezes my flesh.

Remove the gown, please.

I wiggle it off and his hands reach to pull it away. He tosses it on top of my green dress and carefully hidden underwear. Naked and shivering in the windowless room, I stare up at the ceiling, ignoring him as his hands rub my calves and then my thighs. I want to leave, do anything to avoid this moment, but know I can’t escape the tiny room.

Open your legs.

I’m startled when his scratchy hands push my legs open wider than I parted them. He stares and stares in silence. How long he looks, I don’t know and what he hopes to discover I can only guess are signs of sexual activity. This worries me as my father has been having sex with me for years—full-on intercourse—and I wonder how my genitals look. I try to forget the doctor and his light touch as he probes the depths of my vagina, but it is so difficult. Abruptly he closes my legs, runs dainty fingertips over my round soft belly, strokes backward, down to the top of my now-closed thighs. Awash in the unexpected but familiar blend of deep pleasure and shame, all I think about in the crazy whirl is how I am stuck to the paper, my head and back so wet from sweat that I’m embarrassed of my fear.

The wordless exam continues as he works my body, hesitating here and there, allowing additional time for more focus for particular spots of interest. Much time is spent handling my small breasts and achy nipples. Finally he moves to my arms and hands, leaving nothing untouched. Flips me over. Then turns me face up. Finally, at the end of his exam, he ruffles my hair like someone reassuring an anxious new pet.

Get dressed and come to my office across the hall, he instructs, and closes the door.

I stagger off the table, feeling strangely like Mr. Whiskers, the huge white rabbit my science class is studying. When he gets rattled, he hops around his cage, moving faster and faster. Over stimulation—noise and activity—send him careening around the chickenwire enclosure, desperate to get out. He crashes from side to side until he finally calms. So relieved that the scrutiny is complete, I dress at a languid pace.

Dr. Trask’s office is large, a big window peering into the brick building next door, and one wall is covered floor to ceiling in what I assume are medical texts. When I see him behind his wide desk, I think of my grandmother, so short that when she drives her big car, she can barely see above the dashboard, her body straining on the car seat. He seems far away and strange; he stares at me, those hands clasped in a tight little knot of flesh.

You are too heavy for your age and short stature, he flatly says, pushes a packet of diet information towards me. I want you to be weighed and examined every Friday at today’s appointment time. You have stretch marks on your stomach and breasts and we want to stop that immediately, he adds, a sharp criticism I didn’t expect. My blush deepens.

I listen and try to stay the real me, stuck in this new room, with a strange man who says and did such odd yet familiar things to my body. From a distance, somewhere above the room, I float into the ceiling, watch me, the fat girl, swipe at the packet of papers but I’m too short to reach them. He writes out a prescription and it settles on the pile. I half-stand, grab the papers, stuff them into my purse. The real me stands up.

On your way then. Be here next week. He pushes his glasses up his nose, reaches for a book, dismissing me and my imperfect body. And yet, I think as I flee the building, even with all my blemishes, he seems enthralled.

Walking home, I violently kick piles of leaves homeowners carefully raked to the curb for burning, their dry scuttled skins cracking beneath my heavy shoes and gait. Confused, I’m also strangely elated, which makes me walk faster, kicking additional mounds of leaves into scattered shells. So much bad news he expresses about my ugly body, yet his hands caressed me lovingly, even if I’m damaged. Dimly, I wonder what kind of a girl receives his touch, who trembles in unexplainable longing.

Despite my unusual swiftness, he has already called and talked to my mother about my weight, but only about the facts of the exam.

His instructions she tells me are to take amphetamines three times daily to kill your appetite and speed up your lazy metabolism. Then Mother takes me with her to Walgreen’s and while we wait for my prescription to be filled, we shop the liquor department, purchasing her usual supplies—half gallon bottles of gin and bourbon.

As instructed, I return to Dr. Trask’s office each week to be weighed, swathed in a shimmer of desire and despair. Always the white nurse weighs me, records the success of a half-pound loss or the crush of failure of a weight gain into my chart. Mostly the doctor proceeds to examine me like the first time, touching me a little bit more each time we meet. Yet sometimes he doesn’t summon me at all. Secretly, I’m very sad when I don’t see him, but also I’m so relieved that I have to sit on the floor on the landing when the visit is over in order to catch my breath with my two hands as my pulse hammers in my throat, making it difficult to breathe.

Whether he sees me or not, he always calls my mother weekly, reporting my progress and discussing my eating habits. He orders her to buy me new bras with enough room for my breasts to grow.

He worries my mother tells me, about the stretch marks on my breasts. He wants them, she says to be beautiful. Then she goes back to reading the book splayed on the coffee table next to her martini on its coaster. She ignores me, intent on her activities. I head to my room, puzzled by this new piece of information.

 ~

Mother pushes open the heavy glass door at Donny Caine Intimates and I’m right behind her as the string of tinkling bells announces our arrival at the plush lingerie shop neither of us has entered before. Mother orders all our clothes and nightgowns and underwear from the Montgomery Ward catalogue, so this is an adventure into the unknown.

I walk past the store hundreds of times on my way to and from other shops that make up our town’s little shopping center, barely daring to peek at the store’s lush display window. I’m attracted to its contents: the spill of nightgowns and bras sliding out of frothy white tissue paper from the store’s signature gold boxes. As each year progresses, I notice red bras and panties for Christmas, pink embroidered gowns for Valentine’s Day with red paper heart cut outs, and for Easter, a pastel mix of nighties. For Mother’s Day, sensible terry cloth robes and all summer, bridal finery of pure white pleated gowns, abbreviated satin robes and garters, smeared abundance. Intimates means lingerie which means sex, I translate. I already know a great deal about this, sex and costume, thanks to my father, even before I cross the threshold.

Once inside, I stake out the entire store, from long glass counters running along the north side, mannequins swathed in brilliant satin matching bra and panty sets, along with the sensible display of white, black, and beige underwear. Behind the counter are rows of glass fronted little drawers, each embracing some lingerie. Along the back, slips hang in rows by length and color, and more little drawers hold promises of finery.

A manicured saleslady approaches, wearing a black uniform-type dress and practical black low heels. Her hair is a marvel of upswept curls carefully pinned and hair sprayed. It doesn’t move.

May I help you?

She needs to be fitted for a bra Mother says.

This statement catches me so unaware that I gasp aloud. A trip to this kind of store for an unimaginable treat startles me. I thought we were on our way to Walgreen’s for liquor, but happen to stop here, in this elegant and flashy place on one of Mother’s many crazy whims.

The saleslady gracefully gestures with lovely hands towards a private dressing room behind a gray and pink striped curtain. Quite roomy, it contains a huge three-way full-length mirror, a gray wing-backed chair, and a matching small plush stool. A large gold ashtray stands beside the chair. Mother sits down, fumbles through her black Kelly handbag for her cigarettes and lighter. I stand awkwardly in the room’s center, right in front of the mirror.

Please remove your dress, young lady.

Greatly embarrassed to undress in front of my mother, I prepare for a barrage of insults from her lipstick-smeared mouth. I do what I’m told. The sales lady guides a measuring tape around my breasts then around my ribcage. It’s all surreal—the mirror, fancy underwear, my mother silent on the chair.

You’ll need to take off your slip and bra the saleslady says and quietly leaves the room. The crumpled slip and bra yank easily over my frizzy homemade hairdo.

Then Mother stares at me, as if searching my body for the first time. She seems to want to say something specific, but her face is blank, which means she has had a couple of drinks. Her hazel eyes flick over me, stop at my naked breasts. She lights another cigarette, picks tobacco from the unfiltered Camel from her tongue and turns back to rummage in her bag.

It’s the first time I’ve seen my entire body in a full length mirror attired only in my little girl white cotton underpants with faded sprigs of yellow flowers. The pants are too tight at the waist and thighs, the elastic nearly worn out, stretched to its fullest capacity.

Three versions of me look back, each in tired underpants, naked from the waist up. It’s true, I see a few slender red stretch marks sliding alongside my breasts, but even I can tell my breasts are small but beautiful ovals topped with pink nipples. I tremble at my image, my twinkling breasts. I’m lost in the mirror’s center, loving the side views of all three visions of me, all looking too. I fall in love with my breasts, their pure simplicity, their color and depth.

The curtain whisks open and the saleslady returns with an armful of bras. Right away I see that they are not teenage bras; those are stretchy fabrics and vibrant colors with plenty of give. The bras she sets down on the stool are not like the psychedelic bras I’ve seen on other girls at school when we change clothes for gym class.

A wispy lavender bra outstretched in her gentle hands, the saleslady tells me to bend forward, center a breast in each cup, pull up the straps and hook the back. Her cool hands help me place my breasts just right, then she assists me as I ease into the bra. I struggle a little. She reaches for another bra as I preen in the first, a partial peacock in the mirror.

A perfect job on the very first try she says, her dry face smiling at me in the mirror. The bra doesn’t fit correctly she explains too tight across the ribcage. So she leaves me in the snug but glorious bra and heads out to get a bigger size. In the mirror I see a fat girl who smiles at secrets, adores the way she looks—and brilliance in the way she shimmers in the foam of fabric with lacy cups and satin straps, the way the bra dips, revealing a little cleavage, new breasts bumping together to show a shadow.

Mother, still over on the chair, says nothing. No criticism, no instructions, no commands, not a single word. She crosses her legs and lights up another cigarette. All the while she stares at me in the mirror.

The saleslady returns with another load of bras and we try each one on, discuss advantages and disadvantages of each. I tell her which ones are my favorites, how I like lace in a peek-a-boo neckline, chains of roses embroidered across cups in another, something that shows a little flesh in a third. The bras are a mound of color, butter yellow, peach, wine rose, and then the practical in black, beige and white. They tip over the stool and onto the floor.

These bras fit the best she tells Mother, holding out six to choose from. How many do you require?

Four. Mother points to a black, pink, lavender, and a mint green. She stands says I’ll take matching panties for her, too. Then she leaves the dressing room with the sales lady.

A year younger than everyone in my class, and as the school’s fat girl, I know the importance of fitting in. I was thrilled to have a bra at all, though my breasts are small.

And suddenly, unexpectedly, miraculously, I have four beautiful bras to wear and show off, such a sudden contrast to Mother’s disdain just this year when she told me I really didn’t need one at all. Then she bought a Chubette bra, made for fat girls, without cups, just fabric.

Fully dressed, I leave the dressing room, wander over to the cash register and watch as the bras and panties are folded in layers of tissue paper, sealed with a gold DC sticker, then gently placed in a gold box, and slipped into a gold and white striped bag.

Strangely, Mother writes a check for what has to be a huge expense without complaint. Stunned at my good fortune, I reflect that Mother has never purchased her underwear from Donny Caine Intimates. She buys from the catalogue, too.

On the brief ride home, I clutch my bag, ecstatic with filigree and color, with the pure sexiness of lingerie. I don’t understand until later that all this glory has been acquired simply because Dr. Trask called my mother and insisted I needed grown-up underwear.

Next Friday’s office visit, he admires satiny straps and checks the cup size to be sure the mint green bra is roomy enough for my growing breasts. He likes observing my breasts, how I mold into the new bra. He likes me, still a child, dressed in adult panties that match the green bra. Without being told, I know what to wear, somehow guess that this largesse is not Mother’s idea. All the touching continues as he carefully removes the bra and fondles me, his pale fingers pinching my nipples. And the panties are removed for more touching, for penetration. He does what he always does.

But I notice the atmosphere in the tiny office is charged to a higher level, heightened as his little hands rub my body. Somehow I sense an understanding of my own desire and fear.

On the way home that afternoon, I wonder what he tells my mother after this first visit in my new adult underwear. Does he speak to her about anything other than my weight and the underwear? I doubt it. He grows less and less interested in weight and more interested in molesting me. And he makes me feel sexually strong with such a gift in the new lingerie that excites him so much. He is under a spell of his own making.

And even if that junior high school me in the three-way mirror has only one opportunity to discover her own beauty until adulthood, at least she has a bizarre shopping trip where the doctor’s name is never discussed. I dimly understand that preparation for that man is a combination of some weird kind of care, desire, abuse, love, and more—how could there be—and additional secrets.

But all fall and winter the pills inside my belly make me want to rocket out of my seat in class, they want me up and moving. Despite my extreme shyness, I even volunteer to take the homeroom class attendance sheet down to the principal’s office, much to my teacher’s surprise. My heart’s wild beating makes me sew endless seams in the hideous yellow-brown dress I’m making in home economics class. It makes me volunteer to clean out the rabbit cage in biology class where Mrs. Whiskers has now joined Mr. Whiskers in a family experiment—two rabbits locked up in a confined space.

Always light-headed, my problems with sleeping worsen because my body can’t rest, bumping and thumping along with every raggedy heartbeat. I wish to race out of my body, leave only a puddle of melted fat and a pile of bones behind. The weekly medical visits continue. Now deep into winter, each visit seems to take forever, endless and desperate, leaving me shaken with my dual burden of uncomfortable sense of wrongness and deep sexual desire. Each trip means a walk with the split me, each half so nervous I stutter as I open the office door. One half of me is terrified that I will see him. The other half is terrified I will not.

Months pass and very afraid at her reaction—what might happen to Dr. Trask, the man I desire and who shames me—I finally tell my mother about the touching, the sexual exploration after one afternoon when I spend an extra-long visit with him. I decide it must be wrong, his small hands on my breasts, soft hand on my thighs, my neatly folded clothing and adult sexy lingerie the only witnesses to Friday afternoons.

You’re just a kid Mother responds when I tell her part of the story. She laughs. Why would he be interested in a fat kid like you?

She laughs again and pours another martini in the kitchen, laughs on and on, back on the living room couch, no doubt at the naked and flawed vision of me she remembers seeing in the three-way mirror. Mother refuses to understand—to her I am the fat girl no one ever really notices, except to make fun of, though she dresses me for the doctor at his command. I don’t know that she desperately needs him for her increasing pill habit. It’s no wonder he can do no wrong. I’m the bargain she creates with and for him.

And it’s complicated. There isn’t anyone else to tell. No trusted teacher—my mother is a teacher—no close-by kindly aunt or adult friends. No friendly grandparents. My immediate family makes sure that we haven’t formed any bonds with either distant set. Not my little sister. Certainly I can’t tell my father. I’m his personal property and his legendary temper would cause unimaginable mayhem at the thought of another man in my life. My family lives in a confusing bubble of complete isolation, the four of us separated from one another and the world.

And the continuing molestation shows the worst of me, frantic like Mr. Whiskers in the cage. My ruined body aches for excitement, begs for attention. And I wonder how part of me still says to myself no, no, no and part of me says I have to have more of him. Mr. Whiskers and Mrs. Whiskers flutter in their cage, pound into the chicken wire sides, want both to be stroked and loved, and also crave and want to be left completely alone in darkness.

The amphetamines keep my heart knocking so hard I see it jump in my chest beneath the baby blue jumper with the white blouse or in the black dress with the two rows of gold buttons climbing my belly. Finally, too frantic to think of what to do anymore, I stop taking one pill per day, walk past the lunchroom water fountain without a look back. Mother never notices, has forgotten my pills in the lurch of her own. Bottles stagger over the kitchen counter, are stashed where the unused good dishes are stored, pile up inside the bathroom sink cabinet, and totter across her bedroom nightstand.

I stop another dose and I breathe a ragged breath. And since even on full dose, my weight never really budges, down only an occasional half pound from week to week, the pills are never the treasure trove of pounds and pounds eliminated as Mother planned. Soon I toss them all away at school, my sweaty palms unfurling, pills skittering into the girls’ bathroom garbage can.

The weekly doctor visits slowly become every other week. Still I worry if I’ll see the doctor or the nurse. Dr. Trask tells me he’s disappointed with my slow weight loss, that I’m not performing the way he wants me to. Hopeful, he continues to pass the monthly prescription over the huge walnut desk, his little hands cocked like animal paws from the distance where I sit. Or they rise above, a distant balloon. But he always calls Mother to give his report. And plays with me, his beard nestling into my belly, into my thighs, against my breasts.

During the spring, my weight-obsessed mother becomes less attentive to my fatness as she has her own weight to worry about. She’s distracted by uppers and downers, afternoon martinis, diet beer for dinner, the bourbon bottle cracked open every night. The record player moans Peggy Lee’s Is That All There Is? or Billie Holiday’s Gloomy Sunday. She stops keeping track of my pills entirely. Mother has her own bottles to empty, pills to speed her up and drug her to sleep, too many nights on the floor passed out in her own piss.

As spring continues, and the days seem a little brighter, I stop going to the office. I decide I despise him. And I hate his small hands as much as I hate my own thickness and imperfect body. It’s a huge failure on my part, I know, to give up the pills and the man. Maybe if I just try harder I might lose the weight that seems permanently shackled to my bones. I give up—which will it be, the doctor or the nurse? Sick and still afraid of the longing anxiety for the touch, the crazy buckle of my heart on pills, plump white rabbits in the cage while all the students watch me, every move, every shift of my heavy body. I’m barely able to continue.

Without pills, I no longer hurry my way home. Moving again at my old slow pace, I manage to forget the green and white pills, the cold examination table with its sticky paper, adult lingerie, the man with the cool hands, and seventh grade science class. All is lost.

Mr. and Mrs. Whiskers have a litter of bunnies. Too close in captivity, they kill one each night. Every morning, I find a dead baby tossed out of the cage. I wrap each one in newspaper scraps, push it into an empty baby food jar stashed beneath the classroom sink. I bury them, one at a time, outside, beneath the science classroom’s windows. No heartbeats, no mix of pain and fear. Death I understand, as well as neglect. I know the ways a mother stamps carelessly on her baby, or the father does, either one or both slowly smothering the child with their smooth white bodies. And the unearthly power of a stranger who becomes another lover, whether or not I’m willing to admit this is how I must live.

 

 

Virginia Chase Sutton’s chapbook, Down River, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Her third book, Of a Transient Nature, was published last year by Knut House Press and her second book, What Brings You to Del Amo, won the Morse Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in the Paris Review, Ploughshares, Poet Lore, Amethyst Arsenic, among many other literary magazines, journals, and anthologies. She lives in Tempe, Arizona, with her husband.

 

“Circles” by Rebecca Khera


“Many Moons Ago” by Jane Cornish Smith, encaustic on board, 2014.

  1. The West Porch

We chain smoke and tell stories about what it was like outside. Sometimes, Tammy, an older woman with deep wrinkles, whose feet don’t touch the concrete when she sits in the plastic folding chair, yells at us.

“No war stories, or I’ll send you inside.” Her voice is rough, like she has been smoking that cigarette in her hand since she was 14.

“What the fuck? You spend all day trying to get us to talk about this shit, and then we get in trouble when we do?” John stands up, he’s from Nebraska or Minnesota, or somewhere else that has more cornfields than people. He has been wearing the same red, Family Guy pajama pants since I met him, with an oversized black hoodie, and a baseball cap for a sports team he doesn’t like. He takes one last drag from his Newport, throws it on the ground—right next to the large outdoor ashtray—and walks inside. I can hear him screaming even after the door closes. No one says anything about screaming in the hallways when you’re a red band[1].

“GROUP TIME!” Tammy draws out the vowels, as she herds us off the porch.

 

  1. The Front Entrance

“Rebecca K.” A familiar voice called to me with way too much excitement. “I saw your name on our admit list this morning, and thought, ‘this cannot be her—one of my favorite patients!’ When they called your name over the walkie, I knew I had to come get you!”

Hallie hasn’t changed much since I last saw her three years ago. Same blue staff shirt, same optimistic smile, only her hair has changed. It’s a bit lighter than before, from a deep mocha to a light caramel. I feel okay for a minute; maybe it’s the lingering taste of cheap red wine, or the Xanax, but it’s nice to see someone I know.

“Man, it’s good to see you. Is Lori still here too?”

“Yeah, she just had a baby, gets back from maternity leave next week.” Her voice oozed positivity, like syrup dripping from her lips. “How have you been?”

“Well, I’m back here…” it hurt to say out loud. “But I stayed clean for a year before relapsing.”

Not even a month. I lie so I don’t look so pathetic.

“That’s okay,” her voice is like a long hug, “you’re here now. Second time’s the charm.”

I take one last long drag of my cigarette, letting it fill my lungs before I follow her inside.

 

  1. Cafeteria

Dave and Corey are brothers from Ohio. They both shoot heroin. Dave is 23 and can’t swallow pills so they always get him yogurt or applesauce to eat with it. Corey is 24 and terrified of putting a needle in his arm, so Dave always shoots him up. They are both very nice; at night when we can’t sleep they come to the cafeteria and make me Sleepytime tea. We listen to Ben Howard on my iPod while they eat snacks. Dave always makes toast with honey and butter; Corey makes grilled cheese. When I imagine rehab, I don’t think all-you-can-eat Activia and a panini press.

 

  1. Primary Group

Dan is my counselor. I hate him.

He wears sweater vests, and talks about how we need to pray more. His hair is meticulously gelled across his head, and he can’t be older than 25. At some point during our intake they asked us all if we were Christian, and if we wanted to speak with a Christian counselor. We all said yes, and that’s how we were placed with Dan. I suspect no more than two of us have been to a church in the past year. Our primary group is made up of:

Jenny: alcohol

Alex: opiates

Sal: benzos

Danny: opiates

Erica: heroin

Matt: heroin

And me.

Dan has never done drugs before; I wonder why he’s here. Why is he a substance abuse counselor? We all think Dan is a tight-ass; he has a very calm demeanor, and yet somehow he manages to piss someone off every day by treating us like we are lesser than him. Joe and Mike storm out of the room on a regular basis. The rest of us would do that, but we have to be good if we want phone privileges. Dan won’t let me call my friends, because he thinks I need to resolve issues with my mother. I refuse to call her, and write letters to my friends instead.

 

  1. Community Group

Community Group is MANDATORY twice a day. Once at 9am, and once at 8pm. The exceptions are as follows:

  1. If you are a red band.
  2. If you are going to an outside AA or NA meeting.
  3. If you just don’t want to go.

Alyssa and I walk into community group late, our hands stained bright pink from hair dye. Carla is leading group tonight.

“So … no AA tonight, because of a scheduling conflict.”

The door swings open and the latest Drake album blasts at full volume. Most of us have borrowed a CD player from Gary, the meditation guy. We all think he’s full of shit, but he gives us meditation CDs and a CD player, and we pretend we care. There are dozens of CDs circling between patients. Only the popular CDs we can buy from Walmart through commissary; Drake, Beyonce, and Metallica. Carla is still explaining group to us while she walks over to the red band blasting Drake and pulls his CD player from his hoodie.

“We are all going to go around the room and name the animal we think embodies us when we are in active addiction, and the animal we want to be in recovery.”

Alyssa rolls her eyes and I start braiding her still wet, bubblegum pink hair.

Everyone is a vulture or a wolf; they all want to be dolphins and golden retrievers.

“Next.”

“My name is Alyssa, and I’m an addict.” She clears her voice and in the most serious way, “I’m like a bird. I’ll only fly away, I don’t know where my soul is, I don’t know where my home is, and baby all—.”

“—Okay,” Carla stops her from finishing the song. “Rebecca, you always have something good to say?”

I don’t have anything good to say.

 

  1. Pastor Phil’s Office

Pastor Phil and Pastor Jay give me a recovery bible; I use it to press flowers and leaves I pick from the serenity garden—they are mostly flowers you’d find in the garden section of a Home Depot.

Once a week we have Drunk Church[2]. It’s very popular because if you go to church regularly, you can sign up to get baptized and spend your Saturday at the beach. Everyone goes to real church on Sundays once they’re orange/blue/purple band. We only go for the coffee. Alyssa always flirts with boys to buy us frappuccinos from the Starbucks next door. Sometimes it works.

 

  1. The Octagon

I sit here writing letters and talking to Jared who became addicted to painkillers after a terrible car accident. He’s rich, southern, and young. He always wears these Adidas pants with a highlighter green stripe down the sides and gels his hair upward, like the Italian boys from my elementary school in New York. He’s one of the very few people who don’t smoke.

He watches me as I decorate plain white envelopes, addressing them to my best friend and tucking our schedule inside. I always write my letters on the back of our group schedule, partly to save paper, partly to show what my day is like here. I circle the groups I go to.

 

10AM-11:15AM          Anxiety Group in the Serenity Room

Codependency Group in the Media Room

Anger Management[3] in the Community Room

Book Study in the Tiki Hut

 

  1. Media Room

People crowd in here during mealtimes and we watch Lock Up. In the evening they watch Swamp Wars, or Swamp Monsters–something with alligators and a lot of mud. There used to be couches, but they traded them out with these ugly cream colors chairs to deter people from having sex. It didn’t stop anyone.

 

  1. The Serenity Room

People think the serenity room is a waste of a space. Other than groups, no one really hangs out in here. I tend to spend my time here because there is a keyboard. Sometimes Kenny and Mark bring their guitars and we play Red Hot Chili Peppers and Sublime. Kenny and Mark were Behavioral Health Technicians[4]. This time around, they’re Patient Advocates and they let me sit in their office instead of going to group. We listen to my favorite bands, and they print me off sheet music. But more often than not, I’m alone and I play the piano warm-ups I learned in 11th grade–all in a minor key of course.

 

10.1 Room 18

Debra is my roommate. She is in her late forties and wears signature mom jeans. We go to prayer group together in the morning. She is kind and always invites me to play cards with the rest of the over-forty group. Alcoholism has a hold on her; she’s been trying to get sober for so long, but it’s doesn’t matter. Addictions don’t play favorites.

Her husband, Alan, is patient and kind; I wish they were my parents. During family weekend we were in a small group together. He stood up for me. When my grandma began yelling at me during our small group he told her to stop and to start treating me like a real person. No one has ever been on my side when it comes to the way my family treats me. When we were saying our goodbyes, my mom asked if I needed anything. I told her I needed money for cigarettes and she said no. Alan gave me $20 and told me to buy some cigarettes—he told me I deserved better. I will always be grateful. Cigarettes are a powerful thing in rehab. So is kindness.

When our third roommate Shannon turned up, we knew there’d be trouble. She’s in her sixties and not all there. Her first night on detox she left her designer luggage in front of the heater and turned it up all the way. The smoke alarm went off and we all had to evacuate.

Shannon is an interesting lady; when it was time to get off detox and move to orange band she refused. I think she’s secretly smart, and played dumb and angry to keep getting suboxone. She staged a little protest outside of the detox window so she could get her drugs. It didn’t work, but she did get on 1-to-1’s[5] for a week.

Our sink is full of her high end make-up, and I strongly debated stealing her Hoola Bronzer and Coralista Blush. But by the time week four rolled around I had grown rather fond of Shannon. She has some crazy stories about her children and her husband who she hates. She’s a nurse; one day she hurt her back at work, they gave her suboxone, and she’s been addicted ever since. She said she would steal drugs from the hospital to get high; it was years before her husband or kids suspected anything. I don’t know how you could miss your mother nodding off into her dinner. She protects me like she’s my mom, and always shares her drawer full of food that she steals from the cafeteria. It’s piled high with cookies, apples, blow pops, and jolly ranchers.

Her last night, she cried and gave me a note. She told me I am always welcome to visit for the holidays and that I’m now a part of her family. Then she gave me a dish towel. I still don’t know what the significance of it is, but I still have it.

 

10.2 The Bathroom (Room 18)

Alyssa talked to Katie, who talked to her brother, whose roommate has ink. He gave us a small capful and we give each other stick-and-pokes in my bathroom. We both make three X’s on our middle fingers. Jails, Institutions, or Death. This is what they tell us here, you get clean or those are your three options. Katie and her brother both get out weeks before me, they go to Good Decisions[6]. Katie’s brother relapses hours later and dies. Katie dies two weeks later. I feel sad for her parents.

 

  1. Patient Care

The Patient Care window is where we order cigarettes and anything sold at Walmart. This is also where they keep anything we can’t have in your rooms. There is a cubby system, everyone has a number. Mine is 2365.1, the “.1” means I’m here for the second time around. I’ve seen numbers up to “.7”; I don’t know why they don’t try going somewhere else.

Sometimes Carla lets me sit in the office and use the scissors for arts and crafts projects. My first night I cried and asked if I could make a phone call. We aren’t supposed to talk to anyone on the outside for at least a week, and then only at our therapist’s approval. They let me call my mom, because I forgot to unplug my hot glue gun.

Carla has a rule that I can only craft if I shower, put makeup on, and wear real clothes. Most people wear sweatpants every day, but Carla thinks I’ll be less depressed if I make an effort. I don’t know why she only picks on me, but it’s probably because I let her.

 

  1. The Garden

It is warm outside and the backs of my thighs stick to the plastic Adirondack chairs. I enjoy being outside chain smoking cigarettes and listening to everyone talk. The fan is set to a low murmur and blows right against my cheeks. You can hear the cars driving past, and every so often, a police siren.

Twice a week, an activities coordinator plans something. Usually it’s tie dye, but today we are painting stones. I swirl the colors together, mixing deep purples with cerulean and sky blues. It takes a while, but I finally come up with something I don’t entirely hate. I am too impatient to let it dry before adding words. I search my mind for the perfect song lyrics to add to my ocean.

I think about my friends who I’ve left behind. My roommates threw the best party before I left. It was Miley Cyrus themed, and we laughed so much that night. I danced around with a cigarette in one hand, and a bottle of wine in the other, and only took two little blue pills. Church kids really do throw the best parties.

 

  1. The North Porch

Every night at 11pm, we have lights out. We have to stay in our room from 11 to 11:30pm. I think this is in the hopes that we will fall asleep. When 11:30pm finally rolls around, the night owls make their way to the Tiki Hut. We aren’t allowed in the group rooms or the hallways. The rule is that we can have two cigarettes in the hut, make a cup of Sleepytime tea in the cafeteria, and then we have to go to bed. The Techs on the night shift are fun though, so at midnight everything becomes more relaxed.

We all sit in a circle, there are a dozen of us, and we play a game. We go around the circle naming celebrities that start with the letter M. If you say a name that has a double M, the train reverses. M is the best letter because there are so many. Marilyn Manson, Marilyn Monroe, Marshal Mathers; two alcoholics keep reversing back and forth until one of them gets out.

There are a dozen of us sitting outside. Statistically 90% of us will relapse.

We go around the circle.

Katie: Dead.

Jared: Still alive, still sends me Facebook messages twice a year about wanting to hook up.

Tim: Katie’s brother and the sweetest EMT. Dead.

Alyssa: Drinks and smokes weed, but doesn’t shoot up. Now a very successful store manager.

Jenny: Still clean, married with twins.

Alex: Relapsed.

Sal: Went back to South Jersey and relapsed. Now dead.

Erica: Still clean, married with a daughter.

Danny: Still clean, married to Ashley.

Matt: Went to Good Decisions. Dead.

John: Relapsed.

“Mandy Moore” I say, and reverse the circle.

 

[1] Red bands are what we call people who are in their first week of detox. We all have medical bands, red, orange, blue, or purple. Red bands can’t leave the facility, they can’t work out, they can’t go to church, and they don’t have to go to group if they don’t feel well. Mostly because they’re all freezing, or sweating, or screaming, or vomiting.

[2] Drunk Church is the weekly service held in the community room. It’s on a Wednesday during group time. It’s nice because they turn the lights off and a man with a guitar plays worship music. The loud, dark room is a wonderful place to hide.

[3] The Anger Management group is awful and we all know better than to go to it. I’m pretty sure the class just makes everyone angrier. Last week the group facilitator made all the boys sit in the front row and the girls in the back row. There were five rows in between genders. That really pissed off some people, because most addicts don’t like to be told what to do.

[4] In 2010 we called them Techs, now everyone just calls them Blue Shirts. I don’t like the switch. Techs are always the best people. Most of them are in recovery themselves. They’re much better to talk to than any therapist.

[5] 1-to-1’s is when a Tech has to follow you around everywhere you go. They watch you pee, watch you sleep, sit with you at lunch. No one ever wants to talk to you when you have a follower, they all make up rumors. I’m always on 1-to-1’s for about half of my stay, they think I’m going to kill myself. I don’t, but something about seeing scars all over my body makes them think otherwise. At some point I make a game out of it.

[6] Good Decisions (GD) is a halfway house. They have a pool and a gym and they take you to meetings and the beach and the mall. Everyone goes there, they almost always come back. It’s the place to relapse.

 

 

Rebecca Khera graduated from Florida State University in 2014 with a Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing. When not working, reading, or writing, she watches every season of Survivor, scours the internet for cheap flights abroad, and invents new popsicle flavors. This is her first published essay.

 

“Teenager’s Cache” by Meaghan Quinn


“Blue Waterfall” by Jane Cornish Smith, encaustic, oil, paper on wood, 2014.

High school, I gave you my body
and you never gave it back.

For months I baked by the pool slathered in oil sheath,
I lived off Snapple and Mentos just to slip into my prom dress.

Everything was easy.
Nothing was ever enough.

Even before the pain   I ached from a nostalgia
so fierce and human that I still long for things long gone:

Where are all of the Magic 8-Balls?
Where are my training bras?
Where is the gym teacher
the one who had me tip over
and touch my toes
during a scoliosis test?

Who has hidden all of the chalk?
Where have all of the matches gone?
Where are library cards,
yellowing at the bottom of lockers?

I wear my slanted posture proud
now I curve over myself, flipping through a glossary of memory.

I catch questions like a cold fever in June
one of my parts eternally sitting in a blowup pool
I pretend I’m a mermaid   languid   tapping against the glass.

 

 

Meaghan Quinn is an Assistant Poetry Editor for The Tishman Review. She holds an MFA from the Writing Seminars at Bennington College. She was nominated for Best New Poets 2015, a 2015 Pushcart Prize, and was a recipient of the Nancy Penn Holsenbeck Prize. Her poems are forthcoming or have been published in A Portrait in Blues: An Anthology, Off the Coast, Heartwood, 2River, Adrienne, Triggerfish, Free State Review, and other journals.

 

“A Mother” by Leah Jane Esau


“Margaret’s Tenby Harbor” by Jane Cornish Smith, encaustic, oil, paper on board, 2014.

She and Sam were waiting for the bus when he started to get upset. She knew not to speak to him when this happened: he did not like her voice. He preferred other sounds: nonsensical sounds, and he made them now: ticks, and grunts, and shrieks. He crouched in the bus shelter and rocked back and forth, making noises and hitting his head. Everyone stared.

Why can’t you be normal? she thought, and then immediately hated herself.

Outside, there was a discarded coffee cup, and maybe this upset him. The bus stop was usually very clean. She picked up the cup, flattened and smeared with a muddy boot-print, and discarded it into the bin at the corner. Please calm down, she prayed. She did not have money for a cab, and Sam’s therapy session was the only hour where she got some peace. Where she could close her eyes for just a minute, and not worry about an outburst.

The bus approached and Sam had calmed significantly, but a man in a coat was annoyed. She could tell he was hesitating, which people sometimes did. They debated whether to wait for the next bus, rather than ride with her son.

Sam held her hand, but did not look at her. They stepped onto the bus and she paid the fare, and the man got on behind them.

They took the bus at this hour because it wasn’t crowded: the first seats were usually available, where Sam liked to sit. He sat there now and looked at his fingers.

“HOW OLD?” boomed the man behind her.

“Six,” she glared.

“He shouldn’t sit in the disabled seats!”

Now she was angry. Wasn’t it clear that her son was disabled?

No, she would not apologize for Sam. The man shuffled past, muttering under his breath. As the bus pulled away she fought back tears. She was tired. She needed a hug, but Sam hated that: hated to be touched. A hug would set off an episode, so she would have to do without. Isn’t that what children were for? To give hugs? She turned away, and looked out the window, hiding her tears.

 

 

Leah Jane Esau is an award-winning playwright and fiction writer. Her fiction has appeared in PANK, Bodega Magazine, Monkeybicycle, The New Quarterly, Grain, The Dalhousie Review and upcoming in the South Dakota Review. Her short story “Dream Interpretation” was a finalist for the Writer’s Trust of Canada’s Bronwen Wallace Award.