“Detox Unit – Day Zero” by Chris Jansen

“Daybreak” by Lisa Boardwine, Oil/Cold Wax on Panel, 12 x 12.

Thank God things are quiet. I guess it’s medication time everywhere in the hospital, the same way it can be Christmas everywhere in the world. All the mental patients of Cottage C are lined up at their own medication room. They may be crazy, but no one is crazy enough to skip meds. There is the same weird half-light as last night, the same chairs lined up around the open dayroom, which reminds me now of a sad, empty dance floor; a lonely disco ball throwing fake starlight around the room would not seem out of place.

            Behind the glass wall, I see the Tear Woman sitting on the edge of her cot, wiping her nose on the sleeve of her gray WELLESLEY sweatshirt. The only other patient who hasn’t disappeared into the medication room is the regal-looking man in designer pajamas, still sitting there like a monument in front of city hall, staring into space. With his strawberry beard and refined features, he looks like a lost professor. His broken, one-eyed eyeglasses still sit precariously atop his aquiline nose.

            Like the professor, many of the other patients here look almost normal, but there’s always one crack in the egg, one weird tattered edge that sticks out, as if they are struggling mightily to contain it, yet the madness is bulging inside them like an overstuffed suitcase. [In case you’re wondering, you can easily spot crazy people in the wild because they are crazy about accessories. Especially hats. Weird hats, glasses, mismatched gloves = crazy. Don’t even get me started on shoes.]

            I slink around the dancehall, a curious wallflower, a tourist in the strange country of insanity which lies just over the border from Detox. I spot a battered bookcase against the wall and I’m magnetically drawn to the leaning-a-little shelves.

            Books. Reading. Books have always been my anchor in troubled times. When I was a depressed and lonely teenager seeking answer in religion, Jesus didn’t help me, but reading the Bible did.

            I finger through the paperbacks, picturing myself a scholar in the professor’s library, grateful to be able to gently peruse something rather than be behind that glass wall like the Tear Woman, crying into a cup.

            The books are in even worse shape than the patients. I assume they only put bland, inoffensive stuff in here because they don’t want to trigger a reaction in some brittle psychotic. Or maybe it’s just that nobody gives a shit. The collection is mostly science fiction and fantasy novels that pre-date the 1980s. Isaac Asimov, Agatha Christie. The few that still have covers show fanciful 60s-style artist’s concepts of moon colonies, astronauts with crew cuts. Robots. Monsters. Most of the books are yellowed, torn in half, or drop a few pages when I pick them up. The only book that looks brand new is a paperback copy of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I grab Best Science Fiction of 1974 even though I don’t know if I’ll ever read it. It’s a pacifier. It’s a book. It’s something to clutch in my hand and walk around with, like the memory of my former life.

            By now the Suboxones are starting to dissolve under my tongue and I’m afraid of what they will do to me. I hold the science fiction book to my face, as if focusing intently on the text, and discreetly spit the pills between the middle pages, and walk back the way I came, pushing the heavy metal door open with my shoulder as I hustle through the dark hallway back over to Detox with the book tucked under my arm. I feel like I’m getting away with something. I have some control now. Addicts love to get away with things.

            I pass the medication room, noticing the last of the junkies are at the window. I feel like a shoplifter. I pass Jonah-the-Joker in the hall, tossing away his own medication cup.

            “Hey, do you know anything about precipitated withdrawal?” I ask, with my book full of Suboxone tucked under my arm. “I mean like, is it over in a few minutes?” I’m asking this like I’m asking how bad cancer is.

            Jonah’s joker-mask dissolves into a look of concern. He shakes his head. “Hours, homey. That shit lasts hours,” he says, and shuffles down the hall after Lindsey, the cute blonde. I hear him calling after her, “And how was your medication tonight?” in a voice as smooth as top-shelf whiskey.

            Back in my room I sit on the bed and open the book. The half-dissolved pills have left a chalky paste on the yellow guts of the pages. “The sentinel passed Jupiter on its way to Io while Captain Danby slept in his cryochamber…”

            I close the book and look around. I open it again.

            I’m worried about everything as usual. The combination of tranquilizer and anti-seizure meds I’ve been given has blunted whatever feelings I am capable of feeling and left only a shape-shifting dread where my soul should be. The opiate withdrawal, as inevitable as the sun coming up, has not been as vicious in its return; I’m still frantic and terrified, but so far I’ve received a small dispensation. A little grace. Yet I know there is no way to cheat the dopegods. They were always watching, waiting for one little slip-up to rain down pain and misery on mortal junkieflesh. Vengeance is mine saith withdrawal.

            I sit up and flip to the chapter containing my pills. They’ve turned into four clumps of stuck-on moondust.

            Given a choice between taking something and not taking something, addicts will always choose the taking. Every time. It doesn’t matter if it’s just Tylenol. We are frantically empty. There’s a poem by Galway Kinnell which says ”that enormous emptiness / carved out of such tiny beings as we are / asks to be filled.” But that poem is about love, about the need for human contact, not drugs.

            I fold back the pages of Best Science Fiction of 1974 and scrape the Suboxone moonlumps into my mouth. It tastes faintly sweet. I press the book close to my face and tongue the last of the powder off the pages, the moldy, decaying-book smell burning in my nose and lungs.

            My thirsty cells drink again, as if straight from the mouth of a wild red poppy, and I see the world, the actual physical world, transform in front of me. The harsh light of the hallway is suddenly a warm glow beckoning me to life again. My dry veins fill with warm saltwater, the waters of the sea from which we were born. Though it’s still mercury-lamp gray in here, I know the sun is out somewhere in the world above me because I feel its rays penetrating down, down through the ceiling and walls of the hospital, down to hold me close and keep me safe in its warm embrace. It feels like going home. It feels like love.

            I’m. High.

            Now my strength is returning, my limbs loosening. I’m no longer shot-through with terror and anger. I can’t believe it—I’m really high! My problems seem manageable now. It’s like an actual answer to prayer, a love letter back from God. I hear talentless, awful Bob Marley singing in my ears—“…every little thing / will be all right.” My heart pumps the beautiful warm blood inside my chest. I think of Yeats: I am blessed and can bless.
            Yeehaw fuckos, your boy is high! 

The tattered and dry-rot science fiction book is a lot more interesting to me now. I leaf through it, amused, smiling to myself. I wonder what will happen to brave Captain Danby when he gets out of that cryochamber! What a wonderful book with a wonderful author about a wonderful place—the moons of Jupiter—which I must remember to visit sometime on my next swing around the universe.

            I hear the bell do its ding-ding dance again. It’s time for…who cares what it’s time for, I’m up for it! I shuffle out, doubly happy at being high and at my good fortune at being high in this terrible place. Haha, screw you, friends and family and coworkers. I do what I want. I don’t have consequences. I’m that fucking special. I’ve always been that special.

            “Dinner time,” calls the sour-faced woman. Her nametag says Pamela, but in my mind I call her Nana because she has a busybody grandma thing about her. Her bitterness doesn’t bother me now. “Thanks for calling us to dinner, Pamela,” I say, a gentleman’s gentleman. I think about a happy time in New York while I was sitting at Bemelmans Bar, waiting for my friend Tracy to join me for dinner. “Would you have Ellis make us an Old Cuban?” I ask her. 

            Nana is not amused. Because she isn’t high and I am, and I am a junkie and I bet she is too, or she was before she got caught. “Just regular dinner,” she says, without looking at the annoyance.

            This is the first time I’ve been calm enough to take interest in who my fellow Detox-mates are. I don’t know enough yet to tell the new people from the old—“Old” being anyone who has been here for a couple days. The veterans.

            We shuffle down to the end of the hallway, children following our Nana.

            I’m standing next to the surfer kid, a tired-looking middle-aged presumable housewife with a tiny frown permanently weighing down the corners of her mouth, a trembling-at-middle-age ex-sorority girl who looks beat up but a little too good to be here, and there is a new zombie, a plump little daddy’s girl with a pink shirt, sweatpants and flip-flops, like she just came from the yoga studio. Jonah the joker is standing next to Lindsey, the blonde nymphet with the green-stars-and-moon tattoo behind her ear, who is looking into a small hand mirror and adjusting her lipstick.

            People talk about the fragility of civilization, how a war or natural disaster can turn us into primitive animals. It turns out Detox does this too. Everyone looks tired and sick and desperate except for Lindsey and a tall guy with long dark hair and a white v-neck t-shirt pulled tight over his rippling, fatless physique. I notice a gold football-shaped St. Christopher medallion shining in the deep valley of his chest.

            With his boiled-corpse skin, Jonah looks no better than the rest of us, but he seems to be driven by some inner reserve of social energy. “Cassie dear,” he calls to the sad-faced housewife, “when we gonna turn that frown upside down?”

            “Pauline, you have to stop smoking,” he says to a pudgy zombie with wavy brown hair down to her ass, who looks like she just abandoned her register at the Gas ‘N Go.

            “Oh gaaawwwwd, not noooow, Jo-naaaah,” she whines back at him, her smoked-through voice sounding like she just got done crying buckets or is about to.

            He turns back to me. “Chris, you met Scotty-too-hottie yet?”

            “Me?” Other than Nana no one has spoken directly to me in hours and I feel invisible. Addicts often think they are invisible.

            “No, the other junkie named Chris standing behind you.”

            I limply shake Mr. Handsome’s mighty, handsome hand. He looks like he belongs in a body wash commercial instead of a Detox chow line.

            “You look pretty together, man,” I offer to this giant among us. He shrugs and shakes his handsome locks. He could easily be cast as Jesus in a Bible movie, if Jesus was also ripped and huge.

            “Oxy, man. Oxy,” says Jesus.

            Nana’s enormous keyring is swinging and turning in the lock. She cracks the heavy door open and we pour out into the sunset. This is the first time I’ve been outside so I take note of the grounds for potential escape routes. We are surrounded by a dense forest of trees that goes along the perimeter of the hospital grounds and up to the ridge rise. I can’t see a road or any real civilization from here. I guess they have to keep us mental patients hidden away so we don’t frighten any sane people.

            The cracked cement sidewalk makes a hard left turn and slopes down back under the building we just came from. A large magnolia bows along the walkway, its branches bent low under the burden of its sweet-smelling blooms. Our little group follows Nana as she walks with her keys jangling out of one pocket and a small walkie-talkie clipped to her belt. We are silent except for Jonah, who never stops talking.           

            “Okay, hurry up people, I want to eat. Come on Cassie, vamos Eduardo, Scotty-too-hottie, go long.” He grabs a pinecone and hikes it like a quarterback in the shotgun. “Get open, Scotty. Go long, I said.” Scotty laughs and catches the pinecone pass behind his back. This is silly stuff I used to do when I was a kid, but I’m still glowing from my high so I laugh at the class clown too, grateful that someone is bringing life to this death house. Nana walks ahead of us and doesn’t even bother to look back. I guess she sees idiots all the time. The walkie-talkie on her hip crackles.”Cshhhhhh….10-4. Dr. Hush to admissions…Dr. Hush…cshhhhh.”

            Jonah hikes another pinecone and drifts back in the pocket, scanning ahead for the pass rush. “Dawgs are in an I formation,” he growls, ”He’s looking for his receiver. Scottie get open!!!

            “Y’all need to quit plaaayying,” cries Pauline, in her weepy baby-voice. “Y’all are gonna get us Doctor Huuuu-shed…” Kerph, kerph, kerph, cough.

            “What’s ‘Doctor Hushed’?” I ask.

            Cassie the depressed housewife perks up. “That’s when you cause trouble. ‘Doctor Hush’ is code for all male staff members to wherever you are.”

            “And then you get the booty juice and they put you in a rubber room,” says Jonah.

            Oh. I’m not sure if that is horrifying or attractive right now. At least you get a shot.

            We reach the end of the walkway at another set of security doors that lead to the cafeteria, which is tucked underneath the main building. It reminds me of a dream I had once where I was in a swanky hotel in Manhattan but was stuck in the kitchen, which was in the basement. In my dream, food came and went through holes in the wall, but I couldn’t eat anything, just look at it.

            “It’s nice to be outside,” says Cassie through her tiny frown. “The magnolias are pretty.”

            This seems more like a wish than an observation. I’ve never seen the beauty in flowers. They just seem like monstrously swollen genitals to me. When I look at the natural world all I see is suffering, decay, and death. I’ve always thought the love of nature was a form of mental illness. Stockholm syndrome. But this is a mental hospital, so…

            “Yeah, it’s nice,” I say.

            We make a single-file line going into the cafeteria. The smell of dinner cooking, the hollow ringing sounds of kitchen workers banging pots in the steamy air—this is all reassuring. Someone is expecting you and they have made you something to eat. We file up to the counter where a big bitter-faced woman scowls at the assembly line of junkies.

             Jonah throws his tray down, still laughing at his own football antics. “And how are we doing this evening, Miss Gayle?”

            At the site of Jonah her bitter face breaks into bloom like the magnolias outside. “Pretty good baby, pretty good.”  

            “Your grandson do okay?” he says to her now-beaming face. How does he know her? How long could he have been here?

            “He did fine, Jonah, passed all his studies.” I’m not sure if he really cares or is just doing this to get an extra dessert. It doesn’t really matter though, does it? Jonah grins and takes his tray, now heavy with side dishes and desserts, and moves down the line.

            “Hi Miss Gayle!” I say. In my mildly intoxicated state I think I can imitate Jonah’s bouncy joie de vivre. She frowns again like I’ve insulted her and drops a square, gray meat-ish patty on my plate. You ain’t Jonah. I take my tray and move on. Just like airport security, the only unforgivable sin in a mental hospital is holding up the line.
           
            The cafeteria is small but airy. Even though it’s in the basement, the ceilings are high, likely designed for summers in the South before efficient air conditioning. Spiky, star-like fixtures dangle from the beams in what must have been imagined as a “space age” look back in the 60s. It reminds me of the decaying science fiction where I hid my Suboxone. I think how everything in the world that was once futuristic and full of promise is now hopelessly dated. Even me.

            The seating area is a set of Balkan nations. On the far end there is a long table that looks like it came out of Da Vinci’s Last Supper. There are young kids, teens and even younger, sitting with a strawberry-blonde minder in too-tight jeans who looks barely older than her charges. The only way I know she’s staff is the keys on her lanyard and the walkie-talkie attached to her hip like a barnacle.

            Seeing kids here is depressing, even with my chemically reinforced happiness. There’s a tiny African-American boy with huge square-framed glasses and a basketball-themed shirt that’s so long it looks like a dress, holding in his small hand a hamburger that’s bigger than his little round head. There’s a husky, fat-faced kid with red cheeks and his head cocked to one side in a hangdog expression that looks like pain and malice simultaneously. I recognize the ugly demeanor of every bully I had in middle school, and though I am a man and he is a boy, I hate him. There’s a young girl with straight black hair and black clothes and little red lines all up and down her arms that at first I think are cute little smiley sticker tattoos, but when I look closer I see they are razor cuts, and not just a few, but a dense red rose-thicket of wounds. She holds a cardboard milk carton in one of her razored arms and laughs next to a fat girl with curly hair and braces who is wearing a pink sweatshirt emblazoned with four fiery gold letters: L-O-V-E.

   

Chris Jansen grew up in a notorious shithole called Albany, Georgia. He has been a nursing home janitor, a paramedic, an IT guy, and, up until recently, a very dedicated heroin addict. He currently lives in Athens, Georgia, where he teaches boxing and cares for a disinterested guinea pig named Poozybear. He has a degree in molecular biology from the University of Georgia.

“A Fundamentalist Girl’s Guide to Cussing” by Bethany Hunter

“San Angelo Verde” by Lisa Boardwine, 40 x 40, Oil/Cold Wax on Panel.

Middle school is tough on everyone. Middle school in Arizona is especially tough on a chubby fundamentalist girl who wears long skirts every day and can, at first glance, be mistaken for a teacher.

In eighth grade, John D. asked me if I cursed. I let him know that I did not. Still suspicious that the fundy girl was that innocent he pressed, “Do you curse in your head?” I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) lie any more than I should cuss, so I conceded that yes, I did curse in my head.

My friend, Nicole, a fellow fundamentalist, had the perfect solution, fake cursing (slightly more hardcore than Mormon cursing), and she was more than happy to show me the ropes. “Don’t be such a bench!” “Funk you!” There was even lifting your ring finger as a faux bird. It was the height of rebellion.

Summers in Arizona are about as close as one can get to hell. There are jokes about how hot it is: “go to hell” someone says, “I’m already there” you reply; and you get to tell your friends and family in other states that you live in hell adjacent, just north of hell or in a little suburb of hell called Arizona.

The one that never gets old is, “Hot enough for you?”

Laughing it off shows how tough you are at surviving inhumane temperatures while silently agreeing and pondering your location choices. It can easily be 110 degrees in the shade and yet you’ll walk an extra fifty feet just to park in it. It may be a dry heat, but dry heat doesn’t prevent second degree burns when poolside.

Arizona and its climate provide a great opportunity for doomsday pastors to remind their congregations every Sunday, “If you think this heat is bad, just think about how hot eternal damnation is.” To this day, that statement pops into my head whenever I burn my hands on the steering wheel or scald my fingers on the seat belt buckle: only hell is hotter.

It was on one of those exceedingly hot days that I was in the backyard feeding the semi-feral, neighborhood cat that had adopted us. While standing on the patio, I spotted a creature that terrifies me to this day: a black carpenter bee. Research tells me they are one inch long and do not sting unless molested. I disagree. They are six inches long and armed to kill from ten feet away. When I saw this supposed gentle giant of the bee world, a phrase came out of my mouth that was shocking even though I was alone. It was, “Oh, my gosh.”

I was nine and had just said my first curse word. Disappointment followed shock; how could I have let the Lord down? I immediately asked for forgiveness, there in the blasting heat, a bag of cat food in my hand. “Jesus, I am so sorry, please forgive me. I’ll never say another bad word again.” Appeased, I went inside where the air conditioning and bee-free environment soothed my guilt-ridden soul.

I’m pretty sure I stayed true to my word through the rest of elementary school. Third through sixth grade wasn’t especially taxing and growing up in a majority Mormon area, rough language wasn’t even on my radar. Not that it wasn’t there, but the company I kept was interested more in friendship bracelets and Big Stuf Oreos.

In high school I came into my own. Seeking sophistication and hoping to sound like an adult, the word that would define my freshman year was bastard. Everyone was such a bastard, I would say as I flipped my uncut waist-length hair over my shoulder. I felt safe enough to use it around my friend Amber (also a fundamentalist, but open to scoring cool points). She said it wasn’t that bad of a word, but that I shouldn’t use it in front of my mother.

My mother was (and still is), without exaggeration, the judge and jury of the language court. “Awesome” is only meant for God’s creations. “Butt” is a no-no. “Gosh” is obviously a hair short of taking the Lord’s name in vain, as are “gee” and “golly.” A proper and acceptable exclamation would be, “Well,” prefaced with a tsk of the tongue and then dragged out for a few syllables, “Weeeellll.”

When I was little, I remembered her saying “rats” fairly often, as in “Oh, rats, I forgot to get bananas at the store.” Later she felt such a strong conviction about proper language she even repudiated rats; too close to meaning shit, I guess. In an emotional and heated exchange with my mother I once let her know something was such crap. She demanded to know when I had started cussing.

During high school, my parent’s marriage fell apart. No one thing was to blame for it. Perhaps it was the small church congregation they pastored growing smaller every Sunday, taking their much needed tithes with them. Maybe it was that my parents married too young and grew apart. It could have been my mother’s lack of sympathy or understanding for my father’s lifelong struggle with depression; her commands for him to just get up out of bed only added to his paranoia and anxiety. More than likely it was his extramarital affairs.

At home, my father wandered around the house muttering to himself, having imaginary exchanges with my mother, cursing her up one side and down the other, laying into her for years of frustration and disappointment. I would invariably walk by the bathroom and see him, in a cloud of citrus scented room spray, surrounded by the gold foil shell wallpaper, leaning over the shell-shaped sink, glaring at himself pointing in the mirror. Those mutterings didn’t have much clarity, so most of what I would hear were the staccato pulses of “uck and unt.” The words sounded mean and dirty but his secret mutters kept me safely in the innocuous curse word territory.

My home now a place of tension and silence, I invited myself to dinner with any friend that would have me. On an especially emotional day of general teenager-ness and family upheaval, I shared a dinner of McDonald’s cheeseburgers with my two best friends. They stared at me in bewilderment while I ate and then asked about my recent commitment to be a vegetarian. “Fuck it,” I said taking another bite, though it probably came out sounding like “fughgit.” I didn’t hang my head in shame and I didn’t have that nagging feeling in my chest the way I had when I was younger. I said the granddaddy of all cuss words and I was okay with it.

From there my confidence grew. Things were shitty. People were motherfuckers, assholes, asshats, shit-for-brains and total dicks. A month after I graduated from high school, my parents finally divorced; they had promised each other to be miserable until then. My mother and I moved out of our house and into a third floor apartment where she became an emotionally distant roommate that I saw in passing. I spoke to my father as little as possible. Life was totally fucked up. “Vulgar” words gave me an emotional outlet. It was a way to reach in and give my feelings the words I hadn’t figured out how to give them. I was depressed goddammit, confused and heartbroken that my family was no longer together.

More than two decades have passed, and in that time I have grown and matured. I’m not a foul-mouthed adult who can’t identify and express emotions; most of my cursing now comes after insult or injury, primarily the latter, and I’m just as likely to use a more creative turn of phrase. Unfortunately, my father isn’t around to read the latest research that shows cursing is actually a sign of high intelligence and dropping an “F bomb” really can relieve pain and stress. My mother remains uptight and ever careful to never offend the Lord. She probably thinks evil scientists are doing the devil’s work by encouraging cursing. I just wish I could have participated in the study. My cursing was modified after becoming a mother and the “F word” became flibbertigibbet or fluffernutter or whatever nonsense word eased the pain or frustration of the moment. My daughter is a teenager now; I don’t need to sensor myself anymore. She hears me and rolls her eyes when someone cuts me off in rush hour traffic, “Fuck you and your piece of shit car, asshole.” Science backs up what I’ve felt to be true for a long time, now: a little cussing can be good for the soul.

   

Bethany Hunter is a recovered fundamentalist who adheres to the old adage that writing is cheaper than therapy. She writes for and about the girl who needed to know she wasn’t that weird and that even if she was, she’d have good stories to tell later. Her first essay, “Barbie’s Going to Hell,” was published by The Furious Gazelle and “Behind the Pulpit” is upcoming this spring in The Other Journal.

“Graft” by Laurie Saurborn

Painting by Anna Rac.

Back to the green tiled wall, I watch the surgeon apply clamps to a patient’s fingertips. Unrolling a length of gauze, he winds it through the clamps and then the loops of a cloverleaf mounted at the top of a metal pole. With one pull, the arm is lifted. In a blue hairnet, blue shoe covers, a mask, and a giant white onesie—a “bunny suit”—it looks as if a cloud swallowed me. When I modeled it earlier for the patient in pre-op, they laughed, asking if I was married because my husband would certainly find the sight of me hilarious.

From an uncovered leg, a long, rectangular strip of skin is peeled away with a tool that looks like a potato peeler. Surprisingly gray, the skin is dropped into a stainless steel basin filled with sterile saline. A resident removes it and passes it through a device that looks like a pasta machine. The resulting skin mesh is applied over an injury that was prepared by washing, cutting, and cauterization.

Under my bunny suit I wear bright red scrubs that mark me as a nursing student. Thinking of my students in the creative writing classes I taught only last spring, the list of what I have lost runs through my mind: my house in Texas, my poetry and art books, my cat, my cameras, my marriage, my job as a lecturer of creative writing. This is the second surgery I have witnessed at the university hospital and when the arm is finally lowered I think not, Why am I here in an operating room? But: How did I get here?

 

“You’ll be the one who’s blamed,” my therapist says. “The one who left.” In Texas I found my way to her office more than four years ago after an outburst of frustrated anger during an argument with my husband left me shaken and unmoored. During our sessions I learn that expectations of people in our lives are “premeditated resentments.” Outside her office, my reading of Buddhist practice teaches me of the option to have no expectations, which feels like trading the twins of hope and despair for a flat, lifeless line.

The closer I get to my husband, the more I lose my frequency to a fog of static, and so when I return to Austin from Ohio on semester break I stay at a hotel. At my therapist’s office I comment on the new landscaping. Pale, heart-sized river stones now line the space between her office and the next building over. “I was worried the deer would be unable to navigate these rocks,” she says. “But they aren’t having any trouble.”

As I stumble through a new state of re-positioning my life over a Mid-western landscape, the metaphor of animal experience continues to appear. Through late summer and into fall, geese come and go from a pond near my apartment. But one remains, swimming, eating grass, honking at intervals when I walk past with my dog. A lone heron stalks along a small creek and I wonder if the two birds find any company in one another. Is the goose injured? Mourning? Two days later the goose is still there, maybe: there are now six geese, all standing and eating, and I cannot tell if the possibly heartbroken goose is among them.

 

Synchronicity is unconcerned energy. It does not ask what you imagine of the future: Who you will marry, where you will live, if you will have kids. What I experience in leaving Texas for Ohio is not serendipity, that fateful pull a friend and I recall as having too much influence over our younger lives when we wanted to believe everything had a meaning to decipher. Synchronicity is worrying over my accumulating out-of-state student debt and the emotional cost of my destabilized marriage, and in moments of peak anxiety looking at the clock on the stove, the car stereo, or my phone, to see the time as 4:44 or 3:21 or 11:11 or 12:34. On some plane—mathematical, chronological, invisible—I am walking the right track even when most days feel like a series of falling overs as I learn how to take blood pressures, how to assess levels of consciousness, how to cleanse and pack a deep wound.

Usually I do not turn on the TV during the day, but when the Kavanaugh hearings are aired, I take a break from studying pathophysiology to watch. For the second time, I have left a marriage to a successful man. Again, I see how easily people—female, male, gay, straight—take sides on a split and how commonly they lean towards power. Sometimes knowing yourself means being alone with yourself, means letting go of everyone you thought you loved and who you believed loved you. How did I know my marriage was over? Not while sitting in Al-Anon meetings struggling with my desire to fix the unsolvable. Not when I convinced my husband not to throw me out of the house by having sex after another argument that escalated. Not when I scanned his cellphone text-log in the years before, and the months after, I left. When we are still speaking, he recounts another encounter with a tearful female student who thanks him for making her feel safe in class. Over the phone, I feel him glowing. It takes a month of not speaking to him to wonder why making me feel secure was not his priority.

How I know: Another month passes and I begin to wake up happy. Or what registers as a close approximation to the feeling as I begin to live without daily storms—mine and his—crashing through my life.

 

To save what I can, I buy most of my furniture at Ikea, unpack it in the apartment parking lot and carry it upstairs, piece by piece. The couch, however, I have delivered, and the men who carry it in are friendly even in the rainy later-summer gloom. After they maneuver the box into the living room, one guy looks at his hands, covered in mysterious black dust (which soon covers my own hands, as I begin to cut the cardboard away from the couch), and instead of shaking my hand bumps my forearm with his own. He’s a type, the sort of guy I see in Ohio—skinny white guy with piercing blue eyes, tattoos that cannot be hidden, a missing tooth or two. We are ground zero of the opioid epidemic; men who perform manual labor are stuck the hardest. These blue eyes I see later in the semester in patients who lose significant amounts of skin and muscle tissue, possibly from injecting drugs. I attend a training session where I learn how to administer the antidote to opioids, a drug—naloxone—that rips the high right out of the synapse. “Don’t expect a thank you,” the organizer warns.

Over the past years I have struggled with my own addiction to believing I have the answers and to the belief that making enough effort guarantees success. With this sometimes self-destructive desire to help comes a corresponding addiction to men in pain. Men who blaze and require a continual re-application of fuel. When I first met my husband, his attention was a fire unlike any I had experienced. Passionate letters, gifts of books and jewelry, calls at all hours. It did not register then that there was someone else—or several someone elses—building the heat from the other side. That the circle would shift and I would be the one not pursued, but sustaining.

 

Earlier in the semester I witnessed my first surgery while wearing another bunny suit. Watching the process of removing pins from bone, I learned they can be closer to the size of writing instruments than sewing needles. When the patient awakes in the post-anesthesia recovery unit, they appear disappointed to find a wound vacuum—designed to speed healing—in place. Before I can catch myself, I say, “I’m sorry.” But I do speak from a kind of experience, years ago having seen the same sadness on my husband’s face when he woke from anesthesia with this very device tethered to his body.

What got me into therapy and then into Al-Anon in 2014 was a wooden spoon. I was cooking, my husband and I exchanged words, I threw a spoon and it hit him in the chest. This isn’t you, my nurse practitioner said. See this therapist. I made an appointment. As I moved into my later thirties I began to see how anger ruled me, how it was a legacy passed to me, how trying to avoid anger only made it grow. Yet I also saw how women were not allowed to be angry, in the world or at home. With reason, or without.

A central tenant of Al-Anon is that in focusing on the self, by stepping back from the urge to control and monitor the behavior of a loved one, a positive change can result in the relationship. I found the gains, in terms of the health of my marriage, to be one-sided. Maybe every relationship is meted a set amount of certain things. The less I drank, the more he did. The less I lashed out, the more furious he became. Living with chronic anger and alcoholism—whether yours or someone else’s—is like walking on the surface of a funhouse mirror. It is a destabilized, warped landscape.  

I have read that life is one long room, containing everyone who has played a part in your journey. It is not just the people in the space, though, it is the spaces themselves: the yellow kitchen in my house in Austin, the church basement where I first went to Al-Anon, my office in the English department at UT, my apartment office in Ohio, the patient rooms and operating rooms I move through in school. It is the women I worked with at the mental health clinic at twenty-two, connected to the post-surgical wound care I did for my husband at thirty-two, connected to the patients I cared for with skin infections and burns at forty-four. It is the North Carolina house I grew up in, the upstate barn I lived in for a New York winter, the red house my husband and I rented for several consecutive summers in Berkeley. It is this last house I keep our marriage in, a space in which we were happy, where Pacific coast fog drifted through the cypress trees every afternoon.

 

How I got here: My aunt died and left enough money for me to envision paying for at least one semester of nursing school, wherever I was accepted. Although I loved teaching I was not prepared for the politics and leveraging required of academic life. I wanted to love a job and to be paid a living wage. To not be caught in the current circumstances of the artistic economy. Becoming a nurse practitioner was a dream I put to the side while I earned an MFA. As nearly every week my husband threatened to quit his job, it seemed that if I wanted a safe place to write, psychologically and financially, I would have to make it myself.

When my sister and I visited our aunt in France, the winter of her death, we remained neutral in our expressions as she showed us her house in Bram sitting within sight of the highway rotary. It was a world away from the medieval battlement she and our uncle spent years repairing, in Banyuls with the Mediterranean in view, where a large lizard roamed the walls, where my uncle sat on the patio under the jasmine drinking boxed California rose like the Americans he professed to hate while the hunters tracked wild boars through the vineyards. Now my aunt’s head was swollen to twice its normal size due to radiation treatment for lung cancer that had spread to her brain, her blonde hair long gone and replaced with a crooked wig and worry about her pets. After our week’s visit at a rented country house, we returned her to her home and husband, promising to see her again even though it was unlikely. As we moved through the door I turned to see her face, knowing we were leaving her the only place we could, a place of her making, one of writing, travel, alcohol, and anger.

In my apartment hang two pictures, one of the house in Banyuls and the other a charcoal of nearby Collioure. These I crammed into my car before I left, before I pressed on and did not heed my husband’s pleas to return. This stings: I chose not to turn around. To not go back when he asked. Perhaps this is another addiction, to pushing through. But a life cannot be made in an avalanche. I released as much as I could in an attempt to level the land, but when he drained the bank accounts over several years I had nowhere else to go but away. I could use my inheritance to bail him out, or to shore myself up.

Recently I read a report from the CDC about suicide risk and occupation. Among men, those who work in manual labor—men who deliver furniture, men who build apartments, houses, offices, and hospitals in booming Austin and Columbus—have the highest suicide rates. Among women, those who work in the arts are the hardest struck. I cite the statistics not to imply I was suicidal, but to illustrate the importance of realizing there are choices women can make that will provide an option other than enduring. My husband and I are both writers and artists and we had a system that worked, one that I could depend on, for a while. Teaching requires the control of emotion, response, and expression, as does recovery. But it is impossible to hold everything in: My marriage fell apart when I began to teach at UT for much less than he made, and the self-management I had to do to survive bled over into my creative life. He kept writing. Living in a life of compartmentalization and blinders, I nearly stopped.

 

A relationship ending is being lost from what was, and if there is anything to hang onto it is the connection between how things were and what they will become. The space between is far from empty. In one of my first Al-Anon meetings, someone said it is not how far you have to go, but how far you have come. My apartment windows face a wooded area.  Now that the leaves have fallen I can see the empty swing sets in the backyards of the houses in the adjoining subdivision. Hanging curtains would interrupt the light moving in and out of the windows. I am not sure how I feel about waking up happy; about not living around the drama of another person’s choices and in the safety I found in living apart from myself. In my bunny suit, I take steps, some giant and some small, and learn what I can from where I end up, from the people I meet, from how I navigate—successfully or not—the hazards and confusions of the daily human condition. Our stories, our lives, were connected, but even in marriage they were never the same.

Commenting on the absence of female road narratives, Vanessa Veselka writes that when women on journeys are encountered, they are not asked, “Why are you doing this?” but, “What thing happened to you to make you want to go off on your own?” As time passes I continue to discern the difference between being reactive and having a reaction. A reaction can take time; it does not bear the expectation of immediacy. Staying in my job in Austin, taking prerequisite classes for my applications, going to therapy, sleeping on the couch or asking my husband to: those were reactions to living in a marriage I could not rescue.

How did I get to here from there? I learned to ask for help: how to frame a difficult conversation, how to make it through the holidays alone, how to remove my spouse from my car insurance. When it was offered, I learned to accept it: non-skid grippers for my shoes to prevent falls while walking my dog in the snow; notes from a missed lecture; calls and texts from friends who continue to check in.

 

In my mind spins a loop of all I have gained: space, loneliness, my eyes steady on my own in the mirror when I can finally look at myself again. Moving states has not removed me from anger, but it has decreased my reactivity. If, as Virginia Woolf wrote, there is a line running through each story to which everything cleaves and cleaves—runs to and runs from—what is the line coursing through this layered breakage and regeneration? As winter moves in and it is colder and darker earlier every evening, I walk past the pond less. The last time I see the goose it moves from the bank into the water as my dog and I come closer. This bird is not the woodpecker I found the week before I left Austin, lying on its back on the dog bed we kept outside. Not the woodpecker that clutched my finger with its feet and pecked at my hand, refusing a perch on a branch and instead settling into a stockpot lined with towels. That was small enough for me to catch and hand over to someone else. Synchronicity is not about how things will turn out, but how life carries on while we adjust.

“How do you like Ohio?” A woman asks as she scans my groceries later that day.

“It’s gray, I say,” surprised I miss the sun.





Laurie Saurborn is the author of two poetry collections, Industry of Brief Distraction and Carnavoria, and a chapbook, Patriot. An NEA Creative Writing Fellowship recipient, her work has appeared in publications such as jubilatstorySouthThe Cincinnati ReviewThe Southern ReviewThe Rumpus, and Tupelo Quarterly. Previously, she taught creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin, where she directed the undergraduate creative writing program. She is currently pursuing a graduate degree in psychiatric mental health nursing at Ohio State. Find her at lauriesaurborn.com.  

“Deconstruction Room” by Moe Kirkpatrick


Photo Credit: TL Sherwood

Now we call it “the back room.” It occupies the basement corner next to the boilers, a small, unfinished room, blanketed by the stench of my father’s hockey gear. As I remember, it had two desks, ten chairs, the top of a dining room table, an old TV cabinet stuffed with unfilled notebooks, and whatever else was too big for the family to fit in the upstairs junk drawer. The air tasted like the word spare. A stranger might have described the room as “odd,” or “cold,” or even, “defensive.” It was dangerous to sit on the floor. The mangy beige carpet was half-installed and didn’t cover all of the concrete and the extra carpet left a huge roll along the back wall, a bulge like scar tissue, that pushed up under the chair legs as my best friend and I sat those summers ago and tried to write. This was the room I spent most of my time in from ages eight to twelve and, last winter, was the room my parents asked me to spend a few hours in, organizing the Goodwill piles.

For the years that the back room was mine alone, it was a different place. The walls were bare. There were no tables set up but the top of one, oak and polished, laid in the back corner on a bed of creased plastic. The overhead lights—two exposed lightbulbs nestled among the piping—were unreliable. At least once, unable to make them work, I sat there in the soft grey light, which no one was around to tell me would ruin my eyes.

I came down to the back room for more land, especially land of my own. I was an architect. Out of chairs, stools, and stackable white baskets, I built elaborate cities for my Webkinz and Beanie Babies. Feudal villages with disproportionate castles and steampunk garbage-ridden Victorian labyrinths and futuristic totalitarian military academies all littered the carpet. The back room was not large, so buildings were multiple locations at once. On the table top, I built different castles, mansions, Academies of High Magic, hospitals, fortresses, apartment complexes, army barracks, and once, a shopping mall. Sometimes, these changes occurred within the same story. Sometimes, within the same afternoon.

I found, when clearing out an old notebook for salvage, the remnants of construction-paper advertisements I had drawn for the shopping mall. I don’t know what I had intended to do with them. It wasn’t as if the table had actual walls I could hang them on. But I can see in my mind how it happened: I was arranging the mall. Halfway through, I thought of the ads and picked across the room to the art box, so I could make them before I forgot. Halfway through, I thought of the wedding invitations I had stolen with the intention of cutting tiny wings out, and scrambled to find the scissors… Safe to say, there was never a building in the back room I ever completed. This did not bother me. I saw the world halfway between an architectural blueprint and a finished city. And moreover, I had an odd memory, like grey kneadable eraser, that just didn’t stick— In the back room, what I did not remember I could always rebuild, maybe on a different chair with a different stuffed animal, but similar enough to go on.

Then my chairs were swapped for the kitchen chairs, which had grown creaky-jointed. The Webkinz and Beanie Babies were sold at a garage sale when I was eleven. Everything had grown too old. I had grown too old. The back room had changed.

In fact, when I trusted my best friend enough to let them come downstairs, it was no longer the back room. We called it “the haven” or sometimes just, “Haven.” Posters hung on the wall: movies we hadn’t seen, middle school art projects with discarded aliases, and post-it notes with terrible quotes. We added two tables, a lamp, and a blue mini-trampoline, on account that our neighbor’s actual blue trampoline—our previous den of plotting—had broken. We had also been banned.

It was on the mini-trampoline that I sat for three hour shifts while Hazel got the desk. We alternated chapters. When we were done, we would push the laptop at each other and say, triumphantly, “Your turn!” I would inevitably get up mid-chapter and wander around and close the door and bounce on the trampoline while Hazel—steadier Hazel, medicated Hazel—watched and rolled their eyes.

I remember the door being a big deal for me. I remember insisting it always be shut, because the walls of the house were thin, and the hallways were short. Everything said in my bedroom was heard in the master bedroom, even with the door closed and the TV on. On sleepovers, I insisted we hang out in Haven until we went to bed. There we could yell “FUCK!” with a hope of plausible deniability. We could talk about our novels or questions of sexuality, gender, depression, and attention-deficit disorder, which Hazel, who was diagnosed, just called ADHD. Having ADHD meant Hazel needed to take notes when we discussed our novels, because they wouldn’t remember the next day. It meant I walked with them to the kitchen in case they forgot they went for a glass of water. The notes that Hazel sometimes took kept their memory steady. It was a place to come back to where everything was left the right way, understandable even to tomorrow’s new eyes.

Even now, I cannot define the fear that made me seek thicker walls and longer distances. It reminds me of our post-Narnia stories, when Hazel and I were convinced a different world could exist within an object, and we named the giant pear tree in their front yard “Cascadia,” for the world hidden behind a knot in its bark. I can see why the idea appealed to us so much. To disappear somewhere no-one else could know. To build a home within a home and only let in those you can really trust, whose word you can believe.

There is little left of that back room now. The trampoline has moved. The old toys have been divvied up, the tables swapped out, the posters rolled up for the dumpster. The light does not flicker when I pull the string too hard. The concrete is cool and grimy on my bare feet.

I spend several hours separating the blocks of my cities into various trash bags. The work is pleasant drudgery. Sitting there, on the carpet where I built my childhood, I cannot differentiate between the stories I tell about the place and my memories of it. Which are real? Did my kneadable memory stick to facts or just emotions? It is all so vague. I wish I could walk back in time and know for certain what happened or, at least, have another pair of eyes more trustworthy than mine to tell me how time passed in this one room, which I am still not capable of capturing.

Perhaps it never existed. Perhaps the back room I remember is entirely reconstructed, details arranged and mangled, out of time and context and emotion, because my mind decided it was easier to remember that way. Perhaps it was not two weeks before the big trampoline broke when Hazel and I sat on it—that is all I know. It was not yet broken. My face was scrunched up in thought.

Then I said, “Yeah, I’d die for you.”

“Cool,” Hazel said. “Me too.”

Hazel looked, as always, too serious for their age. It had not yet occurred to me that we were ten and we should not have felt the need to make that promise. That perhaps other kids didn’t ask their friends that and didn’t forget about weeks as soon as they had passed and didn’t worry about a nameless, imminent danger that seemed always outside the door, the danger that we would look away and no longer remember what we had built.

Later, I tell Hazel about this. I ask if they remember that time we sat on the trampoline and promised we would die for each other.

“No,” they say. “But I believe it.”

 

 

Moe Kirkpatrick is a queer writer from Cincinnati, Ohio. Currently, he is pursuing a BFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. His work has received multiple Scholastic Writing Gold and Silver Key Awards and can be found in Artemis.

 

“Still Born: Finding Madeline” by Suellen Meyers


Photo Credit: Cady Guyton

There is an application that’s been on my desk for a few weeks now. How to Obtain Certified Copies of Stillbirth and Fetal Death Records. I’m intimately familiar with it at this point, yet, I am taken aback each time I read those words. It tells me to send in $24, and an archive database will be searched all the way back from 1905 to the present. I write out a check and tuck it inside an envelope with the form. The stiff, white paper feels cool and reassuring between my fingertips. I rip the security strip from the back, press the sticky flap shut, then add two small pieces of scotch tape for added protection. In my left-handed scrawl, I spell out “California Department of Public Health Vital Records” with the street address underneath as neatly as I am able.

Walking to the mailbox, my throat tightens. I grasp the envelope as if it could speak the answers I seek, and I almost don’t want to let it go. It’s been thirty years. Back then all I wanted to do was forget, now I burn with the need to know specific details that I’d long ago buried. I wanted that certificate, I wanted something tangible. On one hand, I felt concerned there would be no record, on the other, I was certain that would not be the case. I had been in the hospital, I had given birth, I had named my daughter, surely there had to be documented evidence of that.

I stand at the bank of mailboxes for a minute, breathing in the hot, heavy air. Summers in Las Vegas can be suffocating. I place the envelope in the slot and turn toward home.

~

It is 1988, and I remember clearly various parts of that day, although I cannot for the life of me recall the actual date. By the time I hoisted myself out of bed, Doug, my husband at the time, had already left for work. I stared out the bedroom window taking in the view. Our rented apartment outside of San Diego overlooked the Escondido freeway; it was perched high enough atop the hillside that any traffic below was out of earshot. Coastal sage scrub, tipped brown at the edges from the sun, hugged the landscape, which was punctuated by big gray boulders situated just so between the multitude of sprawling ranch style houses. Southern California’s version of a modern-day Fred Flintstone’s Bedrock. I looked down, rubbed my stomach, “We’ll be living in one of those houses someday. Or better yet, at the beach.”

In the kitchen I made toast, eating it quickly and washing it down with Diet Coke. After showering, I wrestled with my impossible hair. Roseanne Roseannadanna, the similarly coiffed character played by Gilda Radner on Saturday Night Live had nothing on me. The humidity made my hair look twice as big, all ringlets and frizz. No amount of Aqua Net could contain it. I pulled on the maternity jeans I’d bought long before I’d actually needed them, walked to the full-length mirror turning sideways to admire the burgeoning bump, slipped on ballet flats and a light sweater, grabbed my car keys and drove ten minutes to the doctor’s office. There was no reason to think this would be anything other than a routine ultrasound.

“All right, let’s take a look,” the technician said once I’d been ushered back to an exam room. “I should be able to see if this little one is a boy or girl. Would you like to know?” I jumped slightly as she squirted thick, cold conducting gel on my exposed belly, lowered the paddle and began moving it around trying to locate the necessary measurements and appendages. Before I could answer, she removed the paddle, stood up and said, “I’ll be right back.” I lay there, bewildered. Goopy liniment adhered the paper drape to my stomach.

Thirty seconds later Dr. Maresh opened the door, his nurse following behind him. Babies need amniotic fluid to develop he explained. Pinprick leak, extremely uncommon he said. Maybe fluid could replenish he said. Go home and don’t move, UCLA specialist consult, he said.

“Can you tell me the last time you felt any activity?” he asked.

Oddly, I couldn’t. Was it not that very morning as we gazed out the window? All I could think was, no way am I losing this baby.

~

My own mother had a precarious relationship with pregnancy, having several miscarriages both before and after delivering me, my older sister Chelle, and our younger sister Margi.

“Ech, that doctor, what did he know?” She’d tell me. “Had I listened to him Rochelle would be an only child. What’s meant to be is meant to be. Sure, I had you three months early but I looked you over and you had all your fingers, all your toes, you even had eyelashes. That’s when I knew you’d be okay. Well, except for your eyesight, but that was from being in an incubator so long.”

~

That very night, shortly after Doug got home from work, I went into labor. Perched in a sterile birthing bed, I’d felt uncharacteristically small wrapped in a maternity gown large enough to cover the extended abdomens of full-term mothers-to-be, the pregnant equivalent of one-size-fits-most. Splashed with pastel-colored baby animals, perhaps the garment was meant to evoke a gentleness, a last sense of calm before the mayhem of parenthood set in. A fetal monitor stood next to the bed, although I am not sure if it was hooked up to check my progress, or silent of the typical blips and beeps that happened with routine deliveries.

Labor was not the physically painful experience I saw in the movies. Mine didn’t hurt. Instead, deep down my abdomen churned with little pricking sensations, coming closer and closer together until one was almost stepping on the other. I knew from reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting, this meant it was almost time. I dug the heels of my feet deep into the stirrups attached to the bed, thinking this might stop my knees from knocking together with the shivers. “I don’t think I want to do this right now,” I said, as if I were about to cancel an appointment for a pedicure instead of bring a human being into the world.

The nurse, who had her hand between my legs checking my cervix, interrupted my trepidation. “I think we’re ready. What I want you to do is push on my command. Can you do that?”

I nodded my agreement. I do not recall what my husband was doing. Was he holding my hand? Was he worried? Nor do I remember if there was a doctor in the room.

“Okay sweetheart,” I heard. “Here we go. One, two three, PUSH!”

My body expelled my daughter as if she were a splinter. There was no robust cry. Afterward, only the insistent, albeit well-meaning nurse trying to shove a dead baby into my arms, smiling forcefully while attempting to push her agenda. “Go on sweetheart, hold her, look at her. It’s the only chance you’ll have and if you don’t you’ll regret it.”

What the hell did she know of my regret? Was she the one who had just given birth to a lifeless newborn? Had she been forced to name it, the mandate of some California state law that had me cursing the lawmakers, all of whom (I imagined in a rare fit of condemnation) were men?

I caught a glimpse of Madeline’s red, shriveled form but I refused to look at her. Someone offered a Polaroid. She’d been wrapped in a pale yellow and white crocheted blanket from the Women’s League, which was meant to be a celebratory keepsake. They took her away, and left the photo on a table near the birthing bed, as well as the blanket, which now hung limply across my barren stomach. I regarded both with the same welcome I’d reserve for a rabid dog. I picked up the blanket between my thumb and pointer fingers as if it contained a deadly virus, then flung it into the trashcan next to the bed. Turning my head, I whispered to my equally dazed husband, “Let’s get out of here.”

“Sue, you have to sign your release paperwork first.”

There are no words to describe what it is like going into the hospital pregnant, and leaving empty-handed. “I want to go home.” And with that I stood up, wobbled slightly, grabbed my maternity pants and pulled them on as tears streamed down my face.

~

“Hey, Doug. Thank you so much for calling me back. So, this might sound weird after all these years, but I need to find out what happened the night we lost the baby. Like, am I remembering it right? I sent away for a stillborn certificate but they couldn’t find anything for her, and I was wondering if—”

“That’s bullshit!” he said. “She was born in a hospital. How could there be no record of that?”

“Well, there could have been a misspelling on the hospital paperwork we didn’t catch at the time, or the laws of reporting might have been different then. It was a long time ago. It doesn’t make sense to me, either. But they can’t find her.”

I explained the extent of my detective work. How I’d sent three separate applications to the State of California, as well as San Diego County and they all came back with nothing. Then I called the doctor’s office, but Dr. Maresh had retired. I tried the new Palomar Hospital, where he typically sent his patients, because the old one wasn’t there anymore, and I even called several funeral homes in the area.

“Everyone was really nice for the most part but no one keeps records from that long ago. They looked me up anyway, though, just to see if they could find anything, but no such luck. I was hoping you’d be able to fill in some of the blanks. Do you remember any of the details, do you remember anything at all?”

“We were young, Sue, and we were traumatized, you know? I mean, that hurt us. They wanted us to love on this dead baby. They had her all swaddled up, I remember that. I remember we cried together. I didn’t want to hold her. That was tough, man.”

“Do you remember me telling you about what the doctor said when you came home from work that day? Do you remember what car we took to the hospital?”

“I had that black Scirocco. We didn’t get the Jetta until later. Then that damn car got stolen before we even made the first payment!”

“Yep, found it down in Mexico,” I said. “I can’t remember how we spelled her name. Or the date, or how far along I was.”

“We spelled it like Madeline Kahn, the actress. M-a-d-e-l-i-n-e.”

“Oh, right, how could I forget that? I was thinking like Madolyn Smith from Urban Cowboy.”

“And you were twenty-two weeks. But I don’t know the date. It was a long time ago. We were young. We were traumatized. We cried about it together. We did,” he said.

It was hard for me to envision us being close enough to grieve together. I had loved him once, but the divorce and subsequent years afterward had been contentious, and while time had softened that, nowadays we hardly had any interaction. The fact that Doug was willing to contact me back and able to validate my recollections gave me solace, and I felt a stab of grateful softness for a past that, until this very point, had been tainted with hurt feelings. He was the only person on the planet with whom I shared the experience, and there was solidarity in the fact he had almost the same blanks and the same certainties from that night as I did. That was more than enough closure for me.

~

When I am asked how many children I have I always say two. But that is not true. Max was born in 1989, Jake followed in 1990. The boys were ten and eleven when they found out they’d had a sister. We were coming home from seeing the movie, My Dog Skip, when Jake said out of nowhere, “When we were with Dad last weekend he said we had a sister and her name was Madeline. Mom, is that true?” It had never occurred to me to tell them.

Madeline was born sometime in the spring of 1988. I don’t know if she ever showed signs of life outside the womb, although I doubt it. I don’t know for certain what hospital I was in when I had her. I don’t know how there could not be a record documenting her existence, however fleeting it was.

What I do know is she was loved. I held her in my body for over five months and her loss was so enormous it took me thirty years before I could face it.

I am the proud mother of three children. I’ll carry all three in my heart until I take my last breath.

 

 

Suellen Meyers is agoraphobic, and not afraid to talk about it. Currently, she is obtaining an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Bay Path University. She writes true stories about family involving themes of loss, addiction, anxiety, agoraphobia, and resilience. Her work has also appeared in The Manifest-Station. She lives in hellishly warm Las Vegas, Nevada, with her husband Gary, Zoey the Elf Dog, and new addition to the family, Abby the Wiggle Butt. Contact her at https://www.suellenmeyers.com/

 

“Now That I Was Unquestionably Single” by Geoff Graser


“Free Flying” by Kathy O’Meara

1

I’d been to the stadium several times, but somehow never noticed the building I’d eventually call home. It emerged beyond the right-field wall, beyond the crowd, beyond the freight train rumbling and whistling. The brick stretched an entire city block with its eye-catching, if not pretty, Dijon yellow paint job. On the roof, I saw a helix of smoke spiraling from a grill into the cloudless dusk. From my seat down the third baseline at Frontier Field, where the Rochester Red Wings play, I could also make out tiny figures in ball caps on the roof. They took in the game from silver bleachers.

“Now that’s how to watch baseball,” I said, pointing out the fans to my friends. “I wonder how much it costs to live there?”

They answered with sounds instead of numbers—“Jeesh” and “Wow” and “Hmmn.” Whatever the price for paradise, we all knew I couldn’t afford a place overlooking a stadium—not even the minor leagues.

2

            More than a decade earlier, in 1997, Rochester’s leaders envisioned the picturesque minor league stadium as the spearhead for a downtown renaissance similar to what Baltimore, Cleveland, and other cities experienced after building new stadiums for their major league teams. A slew of bars and restaurants opened in the abandoned factory buildings around the stadium and spectacular High Falls (waterfalls high enough to have taken the life of 19th century daredevil Sam Patch shortly after he became the first to jump Niagara Falls). In the late 1990s, this nightlife scene drew lines out the door. However, these establishments were cavernous, loud, and glitzy—places with a bathroom attendant pushing cologne for a tip—and Rochester is a pub-town not a club-town. After the novelty faded, few ventured there during the six months the stadium sat dormant. The gigantic bars and restaurants couldn’t afford a full year of rent on half-a-year’s income. By 2005, the once-lively destinations had either given way to office space or had been deserted. I sometimes wonder how I neglected this omen.

3

At first, I envisioned the picturesque building by the stadium as the spearhead for my own renaissance. Two years after ogling Buckingham Commons with my friends, it had become clear my marriage was over.

We had lived in a two-story colonial my wife discovered on a relatively quiet city street, but I never felt settled there. Perhaps because I didn’t feel settled with my new family—Julie and my stepsons Aaron, 11, and Kevin, 8. I’d fallen in love with each of their unique and bold personalities, yet daily battles ranging from bedtimes to visitation with the boys’ fathers (they were half-brothers) spun us farther away from what I considered a healthy family dynamic. To complicate things, Julie’s mom, who suffered from chronic depression and myriad other ailments, would often stay for days uninvited. By no means a tiny house, it never felt like enough space.

We tried family counseling, but it provided only temporary solutions to what I eventually deemed an untenable situation. After three years of marriage, I moved into a basement studio in a modest apartment complex. I saw the boys sporadically but had almost no contact with Julie. After more than a year, I missed her. I initiated reconciliation. The first month or so came with forgiveness, open communication, and renewed hope. Everyone, including my two stepsons, were on their best behavior. On our first family outing, we paddled canoes through marshes in a park. When the boys took a different path in their canoe and lost us for 10 minutes, nobody fought. Julie and I snuck passionate kisses.

I slept at our house many nights, but still kept most of my belongings at the apartment. “Maybe it’s the secret to marriage,” Julie quipped about our separate dwellings. After a couple of months, though, familiar issues arose. I wanted a child of our own. Julie wanted to stay at home with the baby I desired. I couldn’t see how I’d make enough money to support a wife and three children. I started noticing women without children and contemplated a life without my current responsibilities. The holidays approached, and I couldn’t fake my way through them. I returned to my basement studio full-time.

4  

The following fall, I decided to find a place I really wanted to live. I researched loft apartments like an advanced scout planning for a draft. I’d fantasized about a building like the one by the stadium even during my marriage. Once, I made the mistake of sharing this daydream with Julie and she prevailed before we even made it to the expense. “The boys finally have their own rooms,” she said.

The loft by the ballpark cost less than I first expected—$1,000 a month. Sure, $300 more than my current monthly rent wasn’t a pittance, but with my big expenses—family health insurance, for instance—now eliminated, I decided to live the high life. I’d turn 35 in a few weeks, and I thought this might be my last chance.

A maroon banner trumpeting “Buckingham Commons” spanned the front of the building from the second floor to the seventh where I lived. The banner proclaimed a residence fit for royalty rather than a guy who wrote letters for a payroll processing company. Oh well, my new job as a cubicle clone earned more than any other position I’d held. It also catapulted me from the subterranean studio I first rented after my separation to the top floor of a building with the best view in the city—a perch I thought guaranteed the eradication of any doubts about my current lot in life. I had doubts about staying in Rochester, doubts about my career, doubts about true love.

During my first few days at Buckingham, I’d stroll through the lobby, replete with leather couches and modern art, and sing “The Jeffersons” theme song (“Well, we’re movin’ on up”). I’d learned the building started as a railroad equipment factory in 1898 and closed nearly a century later as an optical manufacturing company. Another decade had passed before a real estate mogul—on a mission to revive the once-bustling downtown—resurrected the idle warehouse into a nouveau, urban, mixed-use building with offices on the first three floors. So here I was in 2009, relishing the Industrial-era vestiges of exposed air ducts, pipes and wiring. At times, I would run my hand over a grainy wooden pillar in my apartment as you might a tree. I saw the loft as an opportunity to rediscover my roots and reclaim things I loved. Like baseball.

5

When I told people about my new apartment, I bragged about the ballpark first. As a child, I loved baseball most, and it’s the one sport I played until varsity. My view of Rochester’s Camdenesque grounds offered a daily reminder of youth, my life before adult responsibilities. Every morning of my first month there, I soaked in the view through windows more than twice my size. AM radio broadcasts of ballgames crackled in my imagination, and I swear the smell of fresh-cut outfield grass and my oiled mitt wafted into the apartment.

Baseball requires both deep concentration and split-second reflexes. Playing shortstop, I’d glance at the pitcher in his wind-up and then lock in on the hitter. With men on second and third, one out, I planned where I’d go with a hard hit grounder in the third base hole. Or a soft roller just past the pitcher’s mound. In the batter’s box I’d gently rock on the balls of my feet, anticipating a lefty coming with a backdoor curve after an inside fastball meant to back me off the plate.

If only I knew marriage like baseball. After our failed attempt to reconcile and subsequent visions of moving away, I chose this apartment so warm nostalgia and spring revival could ease my pain. Only one problem. The Red Wings season had ended the month before I moved into the loft.

6

A few days after landing my dream apartment, my laptop’s hard drive fizzled. The $1,000 I’d planned to spend on furniture went toward a new computer instead. And once I’d drained my savings, I discovered the meaning of “house-poor.” Except for bookshelves from my dad and a couple of rickety bar stools from the thrift store, the living room remained empty. At first, this didn’t stop the party.

On a crisp early October night, I invited friends over. We drank beers on the rooftop paradise I’d once envied from the third baseline. We couldn’t watch baseball, but at least the roof had a place to sit.

From the aluminum bleachers, we surveyed the stadium and other landmarks, including the 19-story Kodak headquarters that dwarfed its neighbors. Above the gold “KODAK” letters, the tower culminates with the semblance of a church steeple. The story goes that after the Times Square Building (directly behind us) eclipsed Kodak as the city’s tallest, George Eastman, the founder of the camera giant, added another three floors and a spire to reclaim top-dog status. Whenever I caught a peripheral glance of the Kodak building, I reminisced about gawking at the Empire State Building from my friend’s Chelsea apartment a decade earlier. I didn’t live in the Big Apple anymore, but my thin slice of the high life seduced me into feeling in league with Eastman and the city’s powerful. My past apartments had all been livable, but slanted floors, peeling walls or dour roommates usually thwarted my urge to entertain. This was the first apartment I wanted to show off.

“Is this where you’re gonna bring all the ladies?” asked one of my friends.

“Sure hope so,” I said.

Most nights after that, though, I headed to the rooftop myself. There were no buildings obstructing the view to the West, so I’d stand at the railing and watch the sun slip down the expressway out of town. Trains chugged below me and then into the distance. This was where I’d figure out what to do with my life, now that I was unquestionably single.

In baseball, a single means success. The crowd cheers at the crack of the bat. A single sends the hitter in the right direction, toward home. In our society, being single is not applauded. While many people relish the independence in spurts, it lacks the value given to something bigger, being a part of a couple or family. Discontented couples should always scrutinize the hue of green on the other side of the fence before leaping. Perhaps even more than I did.

Pink autumn dusks on the drives home to my new loft eventually darkened. And opening the door didn’t feel like coming “home.” My fancy apartment hadn’t burst into the swinging bachelor pad I’d envisioned. The ballpark remained lifeless and the security measures at Buckingham Commons were the modern equivalent of a mote. Guests would have to call me to open the gate to the parking lot. Call me again to buzz them into the building’s front door. And then wait for me still to open a locked door after the elevator brought them to my floor.

“It was easy once I made it past the guard dogs,” said a friend who visited.

As winter loomed, it started to feel like my studio apartment. Higher, sure, but just as lonely. As I looked past the unlit stadium onto the once-happening High Falls neighborhood night after night, the chorus to a David Byrne song sometimes played in my head, “With glass, and concrete, and stone / it is just a house, not a home.”

I’d struck out. In baseball, you get a break, a seventh-inning stretch. In life, it’s no given.

7

Two months before moving into Buckingham Commons, I’d made one final effort to save our marriage. Julie met me at a coffee shop near my office. She dressed in business casual, too, but her lips glistened and she wore enough make up to look ready for a date. I knew it wasn’t one. I’d recently heard from a friend that Julie had been seeing someone for several months.

We sat at a table outside, far enough to prevent anyone from eavesdropping. I felt at ease, friendly. We chatted about her volunteer church trip to Peru with the boys. She was still tan.

“I’ve been thinking about you,” I said.

“I shut the door back in December, Geoff,” she said. “I can’t do it anymore.”

I nodded. I didn’t want to argue.

“I miss you,” I said. “I’m lonely.”

“You should get a TV.”

I laughed. I’d stopped watching TV. I read books now. Within a couple months, though, I couldn’t look at the living room wall in my loft without envisioning a flat screen.

8

At times, I would gaze upon the caricature painting of Franz Kafka above the desk in my bedroom. My heroes had become writers instead of ballplayers. Still, I sometimes second-guessed spending that $500 the previous year. That could’ve been a flat screen TV, I thought. I’d fallen in love with Kafka not because of “Metamorphoses” but instead a lengthy letter he wrote to his father. In this 40-page correspondence, Kafka ostensibly seeks reconciliation rather than retribution. Nevertheless, he attributes his ineradicable self-doubt to the harsh upbringing by his father. In several instances, Kafka describes with stunning accuracy the same feelings of insecurity, timidity, and despair I’d experienced as a child but could never articulate. Sometimes, I admit, I still suffer these emotional handicaps.

The impetus for Kafka’s letter to his father was the unraveling of his third and final engagement. Kafka called marriage the “pinnacle of life” and saw himself as a failure for never marrying. Likewise, I believed the end of my marriage was a failure. I had wanted to make the boys’ and Julie’s broken family whole. I’d failed.

Kafka’s writing originally provided solace, but the more I read his letters and stories, the more I worried about looking up (literally) to a man whose gifts as a writer and intellectual seemed to offer little reprieve from his emotional anguish. I began to see Kafka and his trapped characters like “K” from The Castle as a cautionary tale. Similar to Kafka, I always craved time away from my day job to write. I was well aware that my passion for individual pursuits like writing and reading had factored into the undoing of my marriage. And now, without a family, I had all the time I could ever want to write. So why would I sit at my desk staring at the empty ballpark?

Maybe I needed a TV after all.

Early in December, like a Christmas miracle, a friend texted me to say she’d driven by a couch on the sidewalk. The next day, I hauled the abandoned treasure into my living room. Now that I had a place to sit, I went online and shopped for less than an hour before buying an early Christmas gift for myself —a 49-inch flat screen.

9

The cable guy was a 6 foot 3 hulk whose boots clunked across my living room floor. He turned down my offer of Christmas cookies.

Later, however, as I worked at the desk in my bedroom, I heard him say, “Mmm. Wow.” I went to see what was up. Maybe he’d changed his mind on the cookies. Before I said anything, though, I found him with his back to me looking out the window. Snowflakes fell so slowly they might have melted before reaching the ground.

“Reminds me of back home,” said the cable guy whose name I’d learned was John.

In spite of the darkness, I could make out the shape of the stadium’s grandstand and the field covered in snow from corner to corner. It hardly matched the idyllic image of America’s pastime I first saw when I moved in, but the smattering of city lights proved enough to illuminate John’s memories.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“The Bronx,” he said, and tilted the blinds for a better look. “Right by Yankee Stadium.” Maybe he saw the tracks below and remembered the subway rattling the windows of his childhood. I saw the glow of the TV as I fell asleep to a late-night Yankees game.

“You’ve got the spot,” he said, laughing and shaking his head.

“I’m splurging,” I said. “Don’t know exactly how long I can—”

“Only live once, man. If I didn’t have kids, I’d be spending a lot more on myself.”

“Oh, you have kids?”

“One’s 18. About on her way out.”

Had we met before this apartment, I probably would’ve told him about my stepsons and shared a couple of “kids-do-the-darndest-things” chuckles, but I was trying to move on. I went back to work and he did the same, but before he finished he asked me something from the living room. I thought he’d asked about having a TV.

“Haven’t had one in two years, ” I said, almost boasting.

But then he walked in with a cable coiled around his wrist and asked again if I’d be putting a TV in my bedroom, too.

“Nah, don’t want to become a junkie,” I said, before he hinted at giving me the cable for free.

“Never know. I have one in my bedroom, just for company.”

Had this behemoth of a man just admitted his loneliness to me? His face looked peaceful, as if he could doze off standing up.

“When I’m not at my girlfriend’s,” he continued, “I’ll watch for a couple hours to get to sleep.” I pictured this giant under the covers eating cookies and giggling at “Simpsons” reruns.

“You know,” he said again. “Just for company.”

It was as if he’d sensed my loneliness. I had no choice but to take the cable and smile. Until baseball awoke the stadium in spring, I would probably need some company. Now that I was unquestionably single.

 

 

Geoff Graser writes nonfiction and fiction. He holds a Master’s in Journalism from Syracuse University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College. His work has appeared in USA TodayWashington City Paper, Rochester’s City Newspaper and Democrat and ChronicleMedium.com, Santa Clara Review, Timeline and The Big Brick Review. He is currently working on a book about the life and art of Rochester, NY, graffiti artist Bones.

“Wooden Gates” by Mark Liebenow


“Transformation,” by Kathy O’Meara

Memory believes before knowing remembers.
~William Faulkner

I wasn’t thinking about dying when I hiked in Yosemite. Really, I wasn’t. Mostly I didn’t care. But mistakes happen. In front of me stretched a rugged wilderness. It was going to be a rough journey.

Surrounding me was a dark forest. Dante says this is when the journey becomes interesting. We’re obviously in different forests. “Interesting” is not the word I would use. “Daunting,” maybe. Or “Fearsome,” “Traumatic,” “Chaotic.” But I’ve never lost anyone close before. What do I know? And how long can I stumble around in this darkness trying to reach the light before I give up and turn hard into the night?

There is solace here from grief, yet I’m crossing a dangerous line because some people do not come back from this.

~

After Evelyn died, the life I loved, and had grown accustomed to, ended. Because my friends are young, they don’t know what to say and wait at a distance, intimidated by grief’s intense and emotional wilderness. It feels like there isn’t much left. We had no children, my job is only something to come home from and forget, and every dream I have included Ev. I don’t even know if I make enough by myself to stay in our home.

My body feels heavy and moves awkwardly through the day as if I’m wearing winter clothes. Every step takes effort. I don’t care about anything or anyone, and I’ve grown tired of pretending that everything is okay. In public I look angry or lost, and while I’ve resumed holding doors for people, I’m not friendly about it, and they look at me worried. At the same time, a stranger smiling at me for no reason makes me cry. Today is the seventieth day after Evelyn’s death. I’m a widower who goes into public without someone first checking his clothes.

Friends thought I’d be done grieving after a month. I thought so, too, being new to grief. But, having made little progress in seven weeks, I realize that recovery is going to take more time than I budgeted. I’m also worried because I don’t deal well with strong emotions, and grief is bringing me bucket loads. Today, everyone needs to come up and confess that they’ve never lost anyone as young as Ev. This does not help. It tells me that something went wrong, and she wasn’t supposed to die.

~

Death is traumatic no matter how it comes — illness, accident, suicide, or old age. But Evelyn dying in her 40s from an unknown heart problem has excavated a dark depth to reality. Unfortunately, I’m not alone.

Mark Twain lost three of his children, including beloved daughter Susy to spiral meningitis at age twenty-four. Of her young death he wrote, “I did not know that she could go away, and take our lives with her, yet leave our dull bodies behind.” Then his wife Livy died, and he became a bitter man. He said, “The secret source of humor is not joy, but sorrow; there is no humor in Heaven.”

I grew up entranced by Twain’s writings — his humor, wit, and astute social observations. I visited his childhood home in Hannibal, Missouri, and played the lead in my high school’s production of Twain’s The Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. After reading his famous books, I came across the works he wrote after the deaths took his laughter away, and I stopped reading because there was too much anger. Now I want to read what Twain wrote about the humorless wilderness to see if he found a way through.

~

One Friday after midnight a couple of months ago, we went to the local emergency room because Ev was having severe upper abdominal pain. After waiting for an hour in the quiet ER, the doctor gave her a mild sedative and sent us home. The pain returned, and Ev spent the rest of the weekend kneeling on the floor in discomfort. Holding her in my arms, I rocked her, hoping that she would relax enough to get a few hours of sleep.

The next week we saw a variety of doctors, including a world-famous gastroenterologist at UCSF. He couldn’t find a cause, and the tests were negative. Driving back from San Francisco over the Bay Bridge, we hit rush hour traffic on the Nimitz Freeway and slowed to a crawl. This bypass replaced the double-decker Cypress Freeway that collapsed during the earthquake twelve years ago during rush hour on another ordinary day, and forty-two people died.

Watching Evelyn sleep from exhaustion in the passenger seat, I felt the bleakness of a dark wilderness decending that I had never known. There was nowhere for us to go. There were no other options. Whatever had been set in motion was going to happen, no matter what we did, like the people unable to stop the concrete of the Cypress Freeway from falling and crushing them. A month later Ev had her heart attack.

On the evening news tonight, a medical study reports that women experience different symptoms than men when they’re having heart attacks. Valerie Reitman, of The Los Angeles Times, found that 10,000 American women younger than fifty died of heart disease in 1998, more than the 6,286 women who died of breast cancer. In addition, women were twice as likely to die of heart attacks than men of the same age because women were more often misdiagnosed in the emergency room and sent home.

~

Rumi wrote a fun thought, continuing my preoccupation with dark matters: “With this pain, you are digging a path for yourself to God.” Buddha had one, too: “Life is suffering.” Two wonderfully bright notes to tape to my refrigerator that I can swear at every morning.

Yet they speak to my reality, so I sit at the breakfast table and think about them. Pain is a signal that something is wrong. It’s also an indicator of progress. By facing its irritation, pain can guide me toward what I need to learn. The message could be to not flee grief’s emotions but embrace them. Usually I head the other way. Evelyn, on the other hand, gained insights from her struggles with Candida and her father’s death, and used them to comfort others when their parents died.

The digging part, though, I don’t understand. You dig a hole, and you clear a path. The image I prefer is Dante’s, blazing your way through death’s Unkempt Wilderness, creating a path through the Forest of Mayhem, finding my way around the Canyons of Despair, and wading across the Cold Streams of Remorse.

Dealing with grief is a struggle that is common in mythic stories like the Gilgamesh Epic, Homer’s Odyssey, and more recently Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Rowling’s Harry Potter. Maybe Rumi is saying that God is in the center of us and we dig a tunnel (path) to reach this place. Whether it’s digging or hiking up the side of one of Yosemite’s mountains, the exhausting, physical effort required feels right for the effort it’s taking to make my way through grief.

~

Coming home after work and not seeing Ev, I check the answering machine to see if she left a message. When am I going to stop doing that? Someone said that showing up was eighty percent of life. That’s all I do; show up and stumble through each day’s indifferent wilderness hoping that the remaining twenty percent will eventually return. That’s what made our struggles bearable — eating meals together, snuggling on the couch, and imagining how wrinkled and funny we were going to look in forty years when we were old.

Sometimes Evelyn seems near, but it’s a fleeting sensation, as if she has other things to do in the afterlife. I don’t want to lose this sense of her presence, or block the thought that she might converse with me now and then. I don’t want to deny any of this, even the possibility of alternate realities, because who knows everything that goes on?

In the evening, after dozing off in the recliner, I imagine Evelyn’s hand touching my shoulder, her blond hair brushing my face as she leans over, and her murmuring next to my ear as she mischievously wakes me to come with her to bed.

~

Photos of Evelyn at different ages hang on our walls, marking her transitions through life — a preteen with her sister in matching dresses, performing with the elite Chapel Singers at the University of Redlands, and one at the La Mexicana restaurant where she looks as innocent and trusting as a child, even though society had abused her for most of her life because she was not thin and had curves. In her thirties, she was still being carded at bars. Then, in photos from the last few years, she began to put on weight as she struggled with Candida.

Unable to bear looking at Evelyn in happy times, I take all the photographs down. A day later I cautiously put one back up — a black and white cast photo from Quilters, the theater show she was rehearsing the night before she died. In her eyes I see hope in things unseen and strength to endure whatever came next.

“Photos are a mixed bag,” Barbara says from Oregon. “I felt the same way going through my photos of Evelyn on our Arizona trip early this year. Often we stopped to take photos of the Painted Desert, a practice that sometimes bothers me with people, but on this trip, for whatever reason, I had infinite patience with Evelyn, and really was delighted to watch her efforts to catch things just so. She had a very good eye.”

Searching around, I find the photos in a shoebox of envelopes that Ev hadn’t had time to put into albums. She took pictures of the red rock wilderness near Sedona, sacred to the Yavapais and Apaches, the abandoned Wupatki Pueblo where Zunis, Navajos, and migrating clans of Hopis met and shared resources for thousands of years, as well as photos of cactus, a sudden snowstorm, and a raven that stayed close. There, walking among the remains of ancient civilizations, close to where Muir found healing, Ev discovered a spiritual home and found the peace that had long eluded her.

~

On Evelyn’s birthday, I throw her a party in Tilden Park high in the Berkeley Hills because I promised her I would, although I think she expected to be here. I don’t want her to come back and haunt me. She was tenacious when upset. Today is also Bloomsday, the day in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses that commemorates when Joyce went on his first date with his future wife, Nora Barnacle, a day that changed his life.

Everyone is having fun and sharing stories of Ev, but while their happiness gives me hope, perhaps my sorrow brings them fear, a grim reminder that life is unpredictable and we can die at any time. After the party, everyone else returns home to their families with their dreams intact. I drive away knowing that no one will be waiting for me at home. No one will worry if I am late, and no one will come and pick me up if our old car breaks down. I no longer have my one person who is always there, and no one to take care of.

When I pull into our driveway, the house is dark. I turn on a kitchen light, pull leftover chicken from the fridge, and eat it cold as I watch TV in the dark living room, listening as the evening news tells me how many other people died today around the world. Lighting a candle for the glowing presence it brings, I say to all who grieve, “May we all find hope in the empty wilderness of our lives.”

I no longer entertain the notion that one day my grief will stop, although it probably will. Every day there will be moments of heart-rending sadness. Every day I will think, “I miss Ev” and tear up. Every day I will get angry, yell, tear things apart, and want to run into a wall so hard that I knock myself out and can’t feel this damn despair anymore. Some nights I deliberately drink too much in order to break free of grief, free of everything but this moment, drinking beer and eating chips with biting, garlic salsa. Some nights I drink just to go numb.

~

After midnight, I walk into the backyard and stand where Ev and I used to watch meteor showers together, our arms wrapped around each other for warmth. Although the darkness of night comforts me, I don’t know what I will do. I have no desire to stay here in this nothingness, because the one who stood with me is gone. Despite my efforts to hold on, Evelyn continues to grow fainter — the twinkle in her eyes, her soft caress in the night, the delightful sound of her laughter. Earth’s wooden gates have opened and she is drifting out on the dark cosmic sea.

The breeze sings its song to the night, and the scent of sweet jasmine floats on the air with the slow rhythm of the world asleep, waiting for the grace of dawn’s light to return. Looking at the Orion Nebula, Ev’s favorite constellation, I watch it in the sparkling wilderness of the universe. Where do I belong?

 

 

Mark Liebenow writes about nature, grief, and the wisdom of fools. The author of four books, his essays, poems, and reviews have been published in over 30 journals. He has won the River Teeth Nonfiction Book Award, the Chautauqua and Literal Latte’s essay prizes, and the Sipple Poetry Award. His work has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and named a notable by Best American Essays. His account of hiking in Yosemite to deal with his wife’s death, Mountains of Light, was published by the University of Nebraska Press. http://www.markliebenow.com

 

“Torrents” by Benjamin Selesnick


“Aladdin, Fogged In” by Kathy O’Meara

Van Vleck Street is two blocks long, barely 100 yards. It’s cut into a hill that’s broken up by North Mountain Avenue and bookended by Upper Mountain Avenue and Valley Road, both busy one-lane streets. I was in my mother’s 2006 Ford Escape—black vents shot stale air.

It was late September. The leaves on the overhanging oak trees radiated in the sun like Christmas ornaments and the evergreens towering over the Van Vleck Garden looked like umbrellas God placed to protect the plants hidden beneath.

I was coming from a therapy session.

Before that, I’d come from Boston.

I had finished three weeks of the fall semester of my senior year at Northeastern University.

On the 20th, five days before driving up Van Vleck, I’d finally fallen asleep after being awake for 40 hours straight.

On the evening of the 19th, I had rushed into Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street right by the Boston Commons. The sanctuary was hushed. There was only a woman’s voice: deep, resonant, and lighthearted. Wishing to not draw attention to myself after entering the gothic hall fifteen minutes into the AA meeting, I hurried to a seat in the third-to-last row of folding chairs.

I surreptitiously turned my phone off and placed my book bag on the floor. Picking my head up to put a face to the voice, I saw a dense, curly mop of brown hair two rows in front of me. It matched the hair of one of my ex’s, Tory. For a breath, I thought it was her. What a relief that would’ve been! Since our break-up, Tory had become a source of strength, a never-ending stream of encouragement. She’d become a medium and whenever I saw her, she would speak of visions she had of me, both joyful and harrowing. She was genuine, expressive, showing off her curiosity, gullibility, and vivacity through her readings.

But the head of hair was seated next to Deborah, Gabi’s roommate.

The recognition of Gabi, my estranged ex-girlfriend, made my toes feel like they were freezing over, detaching from my feet. Then my forearms felt hollow as though the blood and bone had been sucked out, and this led to a lack of circulation in my hands. They felt heavy, sore, pins and needles on the pads of my fingers.

My mind tumbled towards fantasies of embarrassment, shame, separation. I tried to focus on the bronze statues and golden pipes at the front of the cathedral but my attention kept getting pulled back to tangents of grandiose failure: all the times I’d treated Gabi poorly, the nights spent alone in my apartment listening to the raging sound of a drum set coming from an opened window behind my building.

At the end of the meeting, the chairperson asked for everyone to take a moment to introduce themselves to their neighbors, just like at mass. I turned backwards to avoid looking at Gabi. I shook hands with two strangers.

The chairperson then opened the room up for any AA-related announcements. The meeting’s secretary, Devon, spoke up from two rows behind me. I didn’t want to wrench myself around to look at him, so I gazed forward above the back of Gabi’s head. But halfway through his share, Gabi turned around. We didn’t make eye contact, but we were in each other’s line of sight. It’d been four months since I had a clear look at her face. It was transparent, waxed over, giving a glimpse into the brilliant, inquisitive, and tragic mind it protected.

I tried to make eye contact. Why? To prove to her that I still existed? To prove that she couldn’t will me away? To punish myself further?

~

I didn’t sleep that night.

I was restless.

Energized.

Ecstatic.

Manic.

A flip had been switched somewhere inside me. Was it a dopamine dump? Serotonin? Adrenaline? I’m not familiar with the makeup of a bipolar brain, but mine certainly underwent some chemical change.

Alone in my apartment, I laughed at my own jokes, paced ceaselessly around my bedroom, and talked to the empty space in a whisper because I knew that the way I was acting wasn’t normal.

Quickly, though, I got fed up with my stifling room. I tramped outside into the darkened evening—it was nearing 1am. A torn-up couch sat in desolation on the sidewalk. I ran across it length-wise, leaping as high as I could off the couch and onto the sidewalk, landing garishly—a flick of the wrist, an arm extended to the sky, chin dipped to my chest.

Down the block I found a stray cat, one I’d rarely seen in the daytime but that had always been surprisingly friendly. It was an orange tabby with one eye and a confident saunter—never veering from its set path.

It approached from the opposite side of the street, crossing under the streetlights and into an empty corner lot. The lot was twelve feet square, boxed in by by two four-story homes, each containing twenty residents. I followed the cat into the lot, calling it all the cat names I could think of, hoping I’d strike gold, “Mittens! Snowball! Tiger! Kitty! Poopsie! Meowzerz!”

I could see shapes moving behind backlit windows of the neighboring buildings and hoped that they’d come outside and join me.

After one more Kitty!, the cat sprawled on the pavement, paws stretched above its head, stomach exposed: the sign of complete acceptance. I scratched its temple, lifted it up, and hoisted it over my shoulder. I then carried Scrooge (I’d named it Scrooge) down Mission Hill towards Tremont Avenue. A woman passed us halfway down the hill: a beleaguered college student that took long strides and kept her head down. I raised Scrooge a few inches and called, “Say hi to Scrooge!”

I placed the cat on the sidewalk at the bottom of the Hill and told it to wait while I entered a convenience store to buy it some ham.

I burst into a 7/11 and stalked the aisles with jaguar-like zeal. I spoke quickly at the register, telling the clerk about the cat in loud peaks and soft ramblings as I tried to explain to us both what Scrooge and I were going to do for the rest of the night. The clerk nodded politely and let me leave without saying goodbye.

When I came out, Scrooge was gone.

~

The mania lasted almost 24 hours. This was typical for me. Suffering from bipolar II, I experience hypomanic episodes, which reach the same emotional intensity as a traditional manic episode, but are less frequent and rarely stretch past 72 hours. Similar to those afflicted by bipolar I, though, those suffering from bipolar II experience steady depressive episodes for an extended period of time.

I sat in my Introduction to Shakespeare class the following afternoon as the mania finally crept out of my body. My eyelids grew heavy and tears formed behind my lids—burning like pinpricks. My breathing became inconsistent—rapid breaths followed by long, intentional ones. My upper body felt heavy; my posture rounded.

I couldn’t concentrate. I tried to put my thoughts together in order to understand what was happening to me what is causing this but A wouldn’t lead to B and B wouldn’t lead to C—they floated separate from one another like planets orbiting the sun.

Outside of class, Olivia asked if I was okay. I walked away shaking my head.

I stumbled across campus to the Spirituality Center where it took me half an hour to fall asleep. My nap wasn’t restorative and I awoke in a panic.

The next day I phoned home and told my parents that I needed to see them.

I saw my therapist in New Jersey on Sunday night, the 24th—God bless her. I confessed that I couldn’t finish the semester—I was losing control, I couldn’t contain myself, I couldn’t change the way I felt in a given moment. She applauded my honesty, but then hesitated, unsure how to proceed. She took a moment before speaking, eyeing my sordid posture with unease: I lay on my side across the beige leather loveseat in her office, looking vacantly towards her potted plants.

She suggested that I might need inpatient psychiatric treatment.

Drug treatment six years prior was supposed to be all the inpatient care I’d ever need. I was supposed to cured, living on the other side.

It felt like failure. Even with six years of routine therapy, active participation in Alcoholics Anonymous, and a prospering social and romantic life, I had reached a point where inpatient was again necessary.

That, I could not own.

~

Monday the 25th—Van Vleck Street.

I saw my therapist again in the morning to see whether my mood had stabilized overnight.

Mood instability, also known as mood cycling, is a feature of my bipolarity. My joy and devastation spike and rarely last more than a few days and never, at least not in recent memory, have I felt okay or even eh for a week straight.

The mood spikes are always precipitated by events, but these events hold smaller responses for those who are not bipolar. It could be said that I’m sensitive to a fault. I’m fatally sensitive. To both joy and sadness; I scare people when I get happy. I twitch. I’m easily irritated. I speak so fast that my sentences become incoherent. I trail after my thoughts like a kid holding a kite in a thunderstorm.

Driving on Van Vleck Street, I twitched and I was irritated.

It’s widely accepted that although those with dampening depressive symptoms may be in greater psychological pain, they are at a lesser risk for suicide than their energetic counterparts. When someone is so depressed that they cannot leave their bed, they cannot do much harm to themselves—they’re liable to stay in bed all day, lose their job, cut off relationships. But those with lesser psychological pain but greater energy are much more likely to act on their self-destructive impulses.

As I waited for an opening amidst the cars at the top of Van Vleck Street, an unsettling experience took over. I’d be remiss to describe it as an out-of-body experience, but that’s the most accurate colloquialism at hand.

Without actually doing it, I felt my foot slam on the gas pedal, launching me in front of the rushing cars. I watched my car get T-boned by an SUV, the driver’s side crumpling in on itself, throwing my body against the inner console and into the passenger’s seat, my head cracking the passenger’s window.

There was no sound.

No blood.

No pain.

No one else was hurt.

It was clean.

Perfect.

Like watching a film replace reality.

My therapist called me shortly after I turned onto Upper Mountain Avenue. There are few things I attribute to God, but her phone call is one of them. She said that she shouldn’t have let me leave her office that morning, that I was too much of a danger to myself. She suggested that I get into inpatient treatment as soon as possible.

I checked myself in the following afternoon.

 

 

Benjamin Selesnick is an undergraduate at Fairfield University and a reader for Memoir Mixtapes. His prose has appeared in decomP, Literary Orphans, The Bitter Oleander, Parhelion Literary Magazine, and others. In 2017, he was the runner-up for the Stony Brook Short Fiction Prize.

 

“Fat Class” by Jenne Knight


“Tabula Rasa” by Jean Banas 37″ x 46″, acrylic on canvas.

Every Wednesday at seven, I subjected myself to the week’s worst humiliations in the interest of narcissism disguised as good health. Each week, I jumped, bounced, and jiggled my way from fatness to slightly-less-fatness. I looked around the gymnasium, at the people at their various workout stations, comparing my body to her, and her, and him. I saw what I was. I saw what I was not.

I had signed up for a weight loss challenge at my gym, not unlike The Biggest Loser, and often, I felt the weight of the word “loser” hang on me like the extra fat I carried around my midsection. At the kickoff party, where over one hundred chairs were set up and filled between the two basketball hoops, I had said “sixteen pounds” into the microphone at the makeshift stage, dedicating myself to this number for the next sixty days. The program teamed me with a small group of other losers and a trainer, a handsome, young man my younger self would have loved to fawn over. I wanted him to be excited when I said I’d lost a pound or two. But he never was, and I suspected it was because I always knew, to the eighth of a pound, how much weight I’d lost and how much I had left to lose. I was, and continue to be, incredibly aware of my body.

When he said, “I want you to add oats for breakfast,” I grumbled and said, “I just eat eggs.” I adhered to a very strict paleo diet so I didn’t have excuses to eat food I shouldn’t. So, I routinely said no to most legumes, to quinoa, to dairy, to anything starchy other than yams. I saw him try to not roll his eyes or sigh dismissively. While I wanted to be a prized student, I simply couldn’t be. Even now, twenty years after high school, I find I am the same person I was back then. Then, as now, I occupied a space between excellent and average, the B+ zone, a place of invisibility. And when you’re invisible, no one expects a damn thing from you.

My life has been a series of phases where I’m either losing or gaining weight. When I run into people from my past, I think of what they must think of me. Did they meet me in 2006, when I was running and proud of how my body looked? Or maybe it was in 2011, when I hit the highest mark on the scale. What must zip through their minds? She looks great or what a mess or she used to look so much better.

I thought about this at the gym, as I snapped my minty gum and curled the ten-pound dumbbells for two minutes or lost track of the number of squats I could drive through my legs in the same interval. My new gym friends didn’t know that I’d lost twenty pounds on my own before the challenge began. It was hard to know when my victories would mean anything to them. When I lost five more pounds, it was just five pounds, not twenty-five pounds. It didn’t feel like enough.

Before each class, we texted each other to make sure none of us would skip. With my human buffers around me, eventually, I would forget a little of what I was doing and concentrate on form and technique instead. With each pound lost, I could be more of myself. But if I had to go through class by myself, I would spring back to silently hating myself the entire time, focused acutely on my body, my breathing, my sweat.

When I started the program, the sales pitch involved asking me why I was there. “Because this is what I do,” I’d said. When pushed, I just said, “I yo-yo,” and left it at that. No one there needed my history of gains and losses. The only thing that mattered now was my new goal.

What I couldn’t say was that I’d just moved back to my hometown after losing a teaching job I loved in a city that made me feel good about myself, despite being fat. I hadn’t expected to like Baltimore, and I hadn’t expected it to like me back. In my last year there, I had regained the weight I’d previously lost, but I didn’t hate myself for it. Yet in my hometown, I did. I was ready to yo-yo down again.

After I signed up, my best friend asked me what I wanted out of the experience. I simply said my scale number. Which was only partially true.

“It’s sad that one day you’re going to be sixty,” she said. Had she stopped there, I would have agreed. “And you’re going to look back and resent the fact that you spent so much time obsessing about your body. And your weight. And how pretty you think you aren’t.”

If only it were really that easy. Dear self: resist the temptation to judge and to compare yourself to her, and her, and her. To guilt yourself when you slip and eat something decadent and forbidden. To belabor your shortcomings and magnify them beyond hyperbole.

But, really, she got it right. When I sat and thought about it, in my most honest reflections, I thought, If I’m going to be fat, I want to be fat and fucking beautiful.

So, I kept going to the gym. I worked out five or six days a week on my own and met with my trainer on Thursdays. I only had one five- and one ten-pound kettlebell at home, so I bought more and heavier bells. I did planks and lunges and squats and swings at home before work. I counted my calories in an app on my phone. I kept my fatness close to me, never very far from a conversation about food or fatness or eating.

I’d visit my mother, and after the pleasantries, I’d show her the app and say, “I’ve lost more weight.” The chart would show my progress as a terraced slope.

Every other Monday, we had to weigh in at 7:00pm. I resented the evening weigh-in, when I’d worked all day, eaten, drunk water, and added weight to my body. I resented going to the gym twice in a day since I always worked out in the afternoon, right after work. Mostly, I resented having to sit in the audience, arms folded across my chest, and be reminded of the body image support group I’d had to go to when I was twenty-one.

At the second weigh-in, I was four pounds down. At the third, an additional four. I was halfway to my goal. I was so concerned with my own progress that I hadn’t seen any of the paper signs posted around the gym, showing the Top 25 Losers. But at Day 45, I finally noticed. I was number 24. When I took my best friend to boot camp that week, I pointed at my name on the paper.

On Thanksgiving, I paced myself, making sure I clocked each morsel, each crumb, into my app. I could not let myself go. The challenge was still at the forefront of my mind. It wasn’t that I wanted to win; I simply wanted to stay on the list.

At the gym the following week, I ran into a teammate who had given himself over to the holiday weekend. Before this, he had been doing so well, and I had meant to tell him that he was looking good. Another teammate had bailed for the previous three weeks, and for the remainder of the challenge, we officially lost her. But one girl, Kaytlin, gave me something to aim toward. Years before, when I had trained for the Seattle half-marathon, I had always chosen someone far ahead, someone I could challenge myself to catch up to. Someone I would eventually pass.

I started spinning again. It was an activity I had loved when I was twenty and had worked front desk at a gym. I found power and strength and forgiveness on the bike. I could get lost in the music as the flywheel carried me forward, through the speed work, intervals, and heavy mountain climbs. I’d end class with a pool of sweat under me and laugh it off with friends I’d made. Soon after, I added a lifting class to my schedule, where I stayed near the back of the room, and worked on my lunge technique and began to add more weight to my chest presses and bicep curls.

I never caught up to Kaytlin. She ended the challenge as number four, a stunning prize of loss. At the finale, she participated in a Before and After photo contest, a cruelty where we applauded the best Loser’s photos. I valued her ability to stand in front of everyone and reveal an old, fat photo next to her current self. She deserved our applause, but some other woman who had lost nearly a hundred pounds over several challenges won instead. Kaytlin simply hadn’t lost enough yet.

In the final weigh-in, as the announcer held the mic up for each participant, I chomped hard, like an anxious cow, on a fresh stick of Mint Bliss and removed every article of clothing I could, plus earrings, rings, and my fitness tracker. In the background I heard, “her goal was seven pounds! How much did you lose?” “Nine pounds,” a woman’s voice said just before I saw her disappear in a tunnel of seated Losers offering high fives.

“Sixteen point eight,” the trainer said to me, writing my number on the sheet with my name on it. I struggled to put my clothes back on, the earrings, the rings, the tracker. I had to ask him again before I walked up to the mic. Was it really true? Did he have me right? He leafed through the pages and found my name. “Sixteen point eight,” he said again, as he weighed the next woman in line. I had passed my goal by .8 of a pound.

As I walked to the mic, in front of a sea of fellow Losers, I caught the eye of my trainer. He looked as if he knew the number already—five or maybe ten pounds, tops. He would eventually tell me that he knew I could meet my goal all along, that I needed tough love. I knew to not believe him.

The truth is that I had been invisible, even to him, hiding myself in plain sight while trying to erase the parts of me I didn’t like. It was that same tactic I had begun in high school, something that kept me safe. But I didn’t want to be invisible anymore.

I smiled as I leaned toward the mic and the too-cheery announcer. She said my name and my goal as my trainer whispered the information in her ear.

“Sixteen point eight,” I said. I walked through the tunnel of high fives and sat with my team, and Kaytlin and I exchanged phone numbers, texting each other for the remainder of the weigh-in, which made our new friendship official.

Later that week, the Top 25 list was posted around the gym. I looked at the bottom of the sheet and scrolled up, expecting to see myself near twenty-four again, but my name was at lucky number eleven. I took a picture of the sheet and texted it to my best friend.

“💪” she texted back.

On my way out, I stopped by the front desk to sign up for the next spinning class and saw that a spinning friend had already signed me up. I tucked a wayward strand of sweaty hair behind an ear and walked to my car, feeling more conspicuous than I had in ages.

 

 

Jenne Knight writes poetry and essays, and her work appears in Bodega, The Rumpus, and The Common, among others, and new work is forthcoming from wildness. Her poem, “Elegy for my Father” was nominated for Best of the Net 2016. Please visit www.jenneknight.com for more information.

 

“Dear Baby Witch” by Sara Finnerty


“Road of No Return” by Jean Banas.

Dear Baby Witch,

We, the women in our family, have a problem with love, little girl. Love inside of us is a hard black hole, baseless, bottomless, always threatening to suck the rest of our bodies through its borders and to consume us until we no longer exist. Love is something too heavy to hold. Love isn’t something we think we deserve. We have been taught love means to clutch, to drag down into the dirt. Love is something to bear. But that is not what love is.

You will be born into a long line of witches, of complicated women capable of great anger and great joy. There are demons and curses in your story, little girl, but our family’s story, like all immigrant stories, is a fairy tale wrapped in war.

My grandmother says when she was a child, “Someone put a curse on us, a witch, or they paid a witch, or it was a demon.” Why, I ask, would anyone want to do that do your family? “I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe they were jealous of us. Curses bring trouble to a family. Curses will make people drink, beat, steal, cheat, lie, rape, get pregnant, die. This was a big curse, a bad curse, what they call an Original Curse. The worst kind. Hard, very hard, almost impossible to lift.”

I always loved listening to my grandmother’s stories of Italy and the war. Others groaned at the beginning of a war story, but I leaned in. Stories of the past are in our blood, little girl, in our genes. Even if we never hear the words, they are unspoken in our bodies and they are our framework, our blueprint, whether we know it or not. I want to tell you, always listen to your family stories. They are the story of who you are.

Our people are from a farming village on the Adriatic Coast. My mother was born there and her mother, in a tiny concrete hut, and these two women raised me far away from the farm, as far away as they could get, across an ocean and in what they imagined to be the most magical city in the world, New York, where people come from all over the world to live, where the languages and smells of every country are in every particle of the air, a city of islands on the sea, a city without bombs, a city where the unimaginable was possible.

My grandmother Elena, your great-grandma, will sometimes tell a story of her childhood on an idyllic farm. She will smile and her eyes will go soft. They were five sisters, little girl, and they were bound tight, tight against the outside, tight against their brothers. They gathered eggs from the chickens, they buried meat in the ground, and they washed each other’s hair with vinegar. She will tell us of her sweet father, Rocco, and how he loved her so. When he died, the ghost of her father searched the earth for her and found his daughter in a Queens apartment. He sat on her bed across the sea and placed his hand on her chest. “He was a saint,” she will tell me, but I will not yet know that this is only true because once a person dies, all their sins are forgiven.

The men drank, little girl. They drank and fought and waged little wars. In America today, there would be labels like addiction or abuse, but in Italy then, they were only men. My grandmother will laugh and say, my father liked to drink. He rode Nina, the horse, into town and got so drunk that the men in the tavern had to carry him out and drape him over Nina, and Nina was such a good horse, she knew the way home. When we heard Nina coming, we got out of bed, carried our father inside, we took off his shoes, we washed his feet, we did this with love.

Years later, when I am a grown woman in my thirties, my grandmother’s younger sister will tell me another truth. That Rocco came home drunk and beat their mother. That the brothers didn’t want to see. The sisters were too small or too scared to intervene, but my grandmother was the only one who wasn’t afraid of him. She would stand between her mother and father, fists clenched, body strong and scream for him to stop. This is not your right, she screamed, leave mother alone. Sometimes he shoved her aside and continued to beat her mother, but sometimes Elena got him stop. Sometimes it worked.

In our family, before your father, the men were loose cannons and helpless babies and the women had to learn to be witches. Women learn to orchestrate the family and the town and the universe with their wands. A woman must learn to freeze time, must learn to hold one million things together, hovered in the air, with only her will. Her ability to keep a family and a farm together, in sync with the weather and seasons, in sync with the neighbors, her ability to bend and morph herself in order to keep a marriage together is her magic, and her magic is her love.

I want you to know, little girl, that love was different then, all kinds—romantic and familial. The definition of love is not something constant or permanent. My grandparents’ marriage was arranged. Love changes with the air. Love changes based on space, on time, on geography, on what you think you can handle, or more exactly, on what is put in front of you.

My grandmother grew up on the front line of a world war, little girl. Italy was divided into a north and south, two sides of the same country fighting each other. The farm was on that line, the line that divided the country, that divided loyalties, the line on which every soldier was the enemy, my grandmother said, as nearly every soldier was a bad man.

Germans, Americans, Brits, and Canadians raped farm girls and made their fathers watch then drank all the wine. My grandmother and her sisters learned to scatter into the fields and hide when soldiers came so their father could say, “There are no girls here.” Sometimes this line worked and sometimes it didn’t.

I ask her, how could you move to a country that has men like that?

She shrugs, our men were no better. Men are the same everywhere.

It is important you know this, little girl. In our history, women were for raping, for shaming, for childbearing, for cooking, for beating, and keeping a house together. Often women turned on each other to save themselves.

Mothers and daughters warred while the men stayed out of it, quiet, off to the side, with a drink. The sons were coddled and the daughters were made to be strong, taught to cook and clean and care for the men, there was a different love for sons than for daughters. The magic of mothers clashes with those of her daughters. I will not do this to you, little girl. Nothing will ever be as important to me as valuing you for who you are, loving you in a way that is new to our family.

Love was standing by your husband’s side no matter what he did. There was no limit to what he could do, little girl. He could do anything. The worst things you could imagine. He could rape your daughter. He could rape your best friend. He could beat you almost to death. But you must stand by him and I can’t pretend to know why, little girl. I can only guess.

Because there was no other way to survive? Because there was a war? Because there was God? Because there were neighbors watching? Because if you didn’t have a husband, you had nothing? No rights to your land or your children? Because there was nothing else? Nowhere else to go? No one else to be?

Women used their magic to weave invisible veils, cloaks over their eyes that stuck to their skin and perhaps they were so good at their magic that they forgot the veils were ever there to begin with.

When my grandmother was young she often slept in Nina-the-horse’s stall. In the morning, Nina’s hair was braided into thousands of tiny braids. The next morning, the braids undone.

It was the fairies, my grandmother will explain eighty years later to her adult granddaughter and she will still believe in the fairies, and you will believe in them too.

She kicked me, my grandmother said, when I was young. I almost died. She was sorry. For years. Really, for the rest of her life she was sorry. She loved me, and I loved her.

When the bombs came, my grandmother couldn’t leave Nina behind. She took Nina across the fields, to each point of escape, across hills and valleys, to the homes of family and friends, she took her horse with her as they ran from the bombs that ripped the land apart, shredded houses, destroyed the vineyards and olive groves, killed the animals, scattered the people.

Many ran to the mountains, to La Maiella, where there were caves. People lived for years in the caves, they made chimneys and stoves and rugs and beds. The mountains were safe and strong. We could go to La Maiella, my grandmother pleaded with her mother. We could bring Nina. We could be safe inside the mountain.

My grandmother will stop her story here. She will make me think that it worked, that they lived in the mountains.

“What happened?” I ask. “What happened to Nina?”

“We could not bring her to where we were going,” my grandmother will say. She will not answer my question. Her face, which had been enchanted, animated, returns to its regular state, the resigned face I am used to, ready for whatever is next.

In Italy, and in America, we are taught if a woman has sex and is not married, she is a whore, she is a demon, she is a witch. We can say it is no longer this way but it is. Women are witches and demons and are only allowed sex from husbands to have babies but men can do what they want. A woman’s job is to stay. A whore casts a spell on a man to make him wander.

I will do all I can to make sure these lessons don’t sink into your core, little girl. But sometimes the air around us is so thick with these curses that we can’t help but breathe them in.

When explaining the Original Curse on our family, Grandma Elena says that everyone knows an original curse lasts for three generations: my grandmother’s, my mother’s and mine. You will not have the original curse in you, little girl. But there have been other curses, curses that have landed on me. I haven’t outrun my demons and curses, and I am afraid you will get some of them too. But they are diluted. I diluted them. I tried to get rid of the demons and curses before you came to be but I couldn’t. I can only let time pass and not let the curses take hold of me. I can fight them. I can teach you to fight them.

There’s a new branch of science these days called epigenetics. It is basically the law of the Original Curse. If your grandparents were cursed, it will get passed down to you. The Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution, Genocide, Rape, War, Drug abuse, these things are manifested as methyl tags on our DNA and we pass the trauma to our children and our grandchildren, so you will get my traumas and my mother’s but you will also inherit all of my fight, all of my searching for a peaceful love.

When my grandmother left for America with her children, her father got on his hands and knees and beat the ground with his fists and cursed America for taking his daughter and grandchildren. He wailed and beat the ground bloody. For my grandmother, there is no greater love than this.

I was born into my grandmother’s house, among labyrinths of gardens, vegetables vining up the fences and fruit trees blooming through concrete. In late summer we made and jarred tomato sauce for the year, in fall, salad dressing and wine. On Sunday mornings we pressed fresh pasta in the basement. I pushed my finger into tiny balls of dough to make gnocchi. We made each piece of pasta, one by one.

My grandmother says there was no greater love in her life than her love for her children and grandchildren. All her demons and the curse upon her family followed her across the ocean. There was no love between her and my grandfather, or between my mother and father. Our house erupted in violence nearly every day, the roar of their screaming and the neglect of our parents brought police and child services to our house.

Magical Realism represents a leap over a chasm, a reality impossible to bear. This leap coveys more truth than reality ever could.

When I was young, I thought I could overthrow my past, I could leave, I could move, I could change, I could be my greatest self. But now that you are deep within me, and now that you have slowed every part of me down, I can see that all I can hope for myself and for you are subtle shifts, glacial growth, and bursts of energy and light in unexpected places because we cannot escape our past; there is no way to cleave us of our ancestors, and anyway, even if we could, I wouldn’t want to. I’d want all of it, all the curses, all the demons, all the love, however fraught, however damaged.

The demons and the fairies and the witches and the dead followed my mother across an ocean and fifty years later they followed me across a country, from New York to California. You can live on a different planet, little girl but you will still be cursed. Sometimes we are under water. Sometimes we breathe the water in and we drown. We carry the geography of where we are from inside our bodies.

Immigration stories are about land, little girl, about geography. Not just time. A person is the land on which they were born and raised. My grandmother is long lines of perfectly parallel vineyards that stretch to infinity. She is gnarled olive groves, bombed farmhouses, chickens and dirt; she is a valley, a mountain, the Adriatic Sea. My mother is these things too but she is also concrete sidewalks, she is the bridges and skyscrapers her father helped to build. She is a cacophony of cars, languages and smells. She is the East River. She is a city of islands. And so am I.

You will be these things too, little girl, you will be Italy and New York City but you will be born in Los Angeles, another city on the sea, and like Italy, another city of horses, cypress trees, oleander, long warm days and long cool nights. You will be windstorms and palm fronds scattered in the streets. You will be a glittering and infinite city encased in mountains, you will be the dark silhouettes of owls in the wilderness above the city, you will be wild fires, ashes falling thick and flames curling into the sky. You will be hot pink bougainvillea vines and raining purple jacarandas. You will be packs of coyotes low to the ground, quiet and running in the night.

These places are in your blood. Someday, you might find yourself standing at a counter in Italy, drinking an espresso in the brisk morning air, biting into a sweet cream-filled pastry. A motorino will pass and its exhaust will curl through the cool air, through the dusty and ancient orange trees that line the street, and you will smell the bitter coffee, the pastry, the exhaust, the oranges, and you will feel like you are home again.

I crossed this country for myself, to save myself, and I stayed for you, and for other generations. I wanted to change our fate. I wanted us to breathe easier, have more access to peace.

My grandfather used to dance with me when I was a little girl; he used to twirl me around the dance floor at the Italian social club until I was exhausted. He died just a few months ago. He knew you existed but he didn’t know you were a girl. He didn’t know your name. He will never see your face. It seems impossible that you weren’t with me my whole life, right next to me, knowing everything I’ve known. I don’t know how to let time come and go like that. Let realities exist in different space times concurrently. Except I don’t have a choice. They must. My grandparents are still in Italy. They are in New York. They are being captured and held as prisoners of war. They are being hunted by soldiers through the fields that are, that are supposed to be, their homes. They are working all day and all night inside the factories of New York City or outside making the buildings, highways and bridges that will become a city. They are fighting to break free, to change, and they are failing.

Maybe when we move from one place to another, we become whatever wide-open space we crossed to get here: we are the oceans we have sailed across, the highways that traverse a country, the desert between cities. If we go back, we will not be the same. We will be half-here and half-there, half-nowhere and half empty air, bigger than we were before, so big we may float away.

When I was a little girl, I stood between my grandparents the way my grandmother stood between her parents, so they wouldn’t kill each other. You will never have to do this little girl. I have something no other woman in my family has ever had. I fell in love. I am, so far, the luckiest woman in this long line of women.

I have chosen a father for you that isn’t like the men I’ve known. Your father is gentle and kind. He believes in fairies and guardian angels and your father would do anything for me, anything for you. Your father went hunting with men, little girl, and he couldn’t shoot the birds.

The hardest thing I have ever done, so far, is learn to love him, your father, and to learn to accept his love for me. But I did it, and now I am ready for what I am told will be harder than anything yet: raising you, loving you, and letting you go.

I dreamed your father a few days before I met him on a warm summer night at the beer garden in Queens. It was after two in the morning, our feet were dusted in dirt. He had braces and a baseball cap and a face from my dreams. I’d had plenty of dreams that had come true, but magic had been a letdown, a disappointment. Dreams came true but amounted to nothing. There were many times I thought we couldn’t last. But we fought for each other, we fought for our marriage, and for a long time now, it has been easy. I battled to discard the memories of what men will do, how they will ruin your body and spirit. My war was learning to trust. My dropped bombs were ones of betrayal. I didn’t think I could love, or trust, but I do. There is magic. It exists.

We were all pregnant, little girl, my mother, my grandmother, my great grandmother, and on and on. We all felt our daughters move inside us. We felt her heels move across our stomachs and we felt her hiccups and we felt infinity inside us. The sense of possibility that maybe this time, things can be different.

We can choose the way we look at our lives, at our pasts, we can look both ways. We can say—fairies braided the horses’ hair while bombs dropped from the sky.

 

 

Sara Finnerty has essays and stories in Lithub, Black Warrior Review, Brevity, Longreads, Joyland, The Nervous Breakdown, Fanzine, The Weeklings, Dame, and others. She is the Nonfiction Editor at Entropy magazine, co-curator of The Griffith Park Storytelling Series and The Women’s Center for Creative Work Reading Series. Sara is originally from Queens, NY and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter. Find her at www.sarafinnerty.com.