“The Brussels Sprouts Rule” by Ali J. Shaw

gnome, ginger root
Image by Kristin Beeler, 2011.
(See also “Groceries” by Cathy Smith Bowers.)

I can feel the pink alabaster frog judging me even here, in the safe space of my reading corner at home.

“It’s rude to keep people waiting,” I hear it say in my father’s voice. I want to argue with it that my father has never been on time for me and, in recent years, has averaged not a few minutes or hours late, but days. Its stony eyes stay trained on me.

It was a gift from my father when I was a teenager. Until last month, I didn’t even realize I still had it, that it had followed me through more than a dozen moves, from trailers to dorm rooms to apartments to houses. I found it after the most recent move, away from the islands of Southeast Alaska and down to the desert of Southern California. When I brought a set of plastic storage drawers into my home office, I impulsively tugged on the handle of one drawer until it surged open like a toad’s tongue snapping for a fly. There sat the frog, perched on top of various forgotten art supplies, as shiny as the day Dad had given it to me.

I slid my thumb over its smooth skin until it landed on a pockmark. An imperfection. Surely, Dad didn’t know that was there. He might have said, “A perfect frog for my perfect girl,” when he gave it to me—he often professed lines like that. But he reminded me every day that I was not perfect, that I needed to try harder to be more like him. I dug my nail into the pockmark and then displayed the frog on my bookshelf, a reminder that I was making an effort to maintain a relationship with the man who’d brought me life—a resolution to forget how he’d left me questioning the value of my own existence.

Now I break the frog’s gaze and focus on my feet. I rub my toes on the carpet, trying to ground myself. Deep breaths. I tell myself I’m okay despite the fact that I can’t stop fidgeting with my phone, can’t break the frog’s echo of “rude,” and I definitely can’t slow my heart. It’s just your dad. Call him.

For years, no matter where I lived, this has been my routine every other Sunday. Wake up, drink coffee, have a panic attack, and call my dad. If I didn’t call, I’d be breaking one of Dad’s rules.

When I was growing up, there were a lot of rules, but they all boiled down to the same basic edict. I called it the Brussels sprouts rule: if your dad told you to like Brussels sprouts, you’d say, “Mmm,” and smile despite the gagging you couldn’t control. If you didn’t—I learned from watching my brother—you would be “restricted to your room” for the night, the weekend, or the week, depending on how much Dad was drinking. You might even be hit, maybe with a hand or maybe with a belt.

I always smiled and ate my Brussels sprouts.

The Brussels sprouts rule could be applied to anything. If an adult told you to vacuum, you smiled and did it. If you were told to go to bed at seven, when the sun was high in the sky and the neighborhood kids were still playing outside, you didn’t whine or ask why. You never questioned an adult, especially Dad. If you were told to let someone kiss you, you did it, no matter if that person made you want to cringe. Suppress it. Cringing would make the other person uncomfortable, and you could never let that happen.

And as a teen, when you wake up in a panic, in the fetal position, pushed as far against the wall as you can, briefly seeing your father tiptoe back out your bedroom door, you pretend it didn’t happen. Saying something to him, or to anyone else, might make him uncomfortable. Better to just roll over.

I don’t know who I would be now if it wasn’t for the Brussels sprouts rule. If I hadn’t been trained to shrink for men.

When I was twenty and studying abroad in Spain, I once went for a run and found myself on the deserted cobblestone streets during siesta. I slowed to savor the way my footsteps echoed off the stone walls in sync with my heartbeat, the way the sun was bright and hot on the top of the walls but down in the alleyways, the air was cool and calm. Then a man emerged from a side street and smiled as he looked me up and down.

Bellísima,” he called to me, his arms reaching.

Qué?” I asked. It’s bad manners to ignore someone who wants to talk to you—that’s the rule. He stepped closer, and my heart pounded, not just from the run anymore. I stepped back, only to find that I was already against the building. The narrow streets suddenly felt like a trap. I glanced around, searching for some other harmless stranger to intervene, but it was siesta. The whole city was sleeping off their sangría and paella.

He rattled off something in Spanish and then gestured to his lips. “Besos, besos.” As he leaned in, I could smell his breath, see the craters of his gums where teeth were missing.

Lo siento, I’m late.” I wanted to run, but I hesitated. Don’t be rude.

Es tradicion.” He persisted and leaned forward, kissing me first on one cheek and then the other.

The only part of my body that moved was my panicking heart, a jackrabbit in my chest. When he stepped back, I fled to the sound of his cackling.

Now I get up from my reading chair to look at the frog, straight in the eyes, ready to interrogate it. If I’d been raised with different rules, who would I be? Someone who kicked the Spaniard in the crotch and ran off? Someone who didn’t even stop? Someone who didn’t attract creeps in the first place?

But as usual, my anger quickly dissipates into self-flagellation and I sit down again. If it hadn’t been for my father, I wouldn’t know about the inner workings of an airplane, or the wonder of used bookstores, or countless other lessons he taught me. The carpet is matted down where I’ve been rubbing my feet, but no amount of grinding my toes in will make me feel grounded. It will only get worse the longer you wait, I tell myself. Just get it over with. Shakily, I scroll through my contacts and press Dial.

It hasn’t always been like this. I used to just do what he said without thinking about it. I devoured bottles of Tums, but as far as I knew, I wasn’t stressed about my relationship with my father, or with other men.

Dad asks me prying questions about my work, my boyfriend, my friends. I answer vaguely. “Oh, it’s good. Yeah, Tim’s good. He’s watching football. His team?”

My breath catches. How might my father use this detail to hurt me? Just playing the possibilities in my mind starts a crushing constriction around my ribs. He could start calling during every 49ers game, finding ways to put me on edge so when I hang up, Tim and I will fight. He used to do that when I was visiting my mom. “Oh, Tim doesn’t really have a specific team.”

Next he wants to know about my clients, which new books are coming out. I worry he’ll start showing up to their readings, waiting outside to confront me like he used to at my high school dances. I tell him there’s just a book about menopause and hope that scares him away.

I’m not sure when it dawned on me that my relationship with my father was not normal. That most women didn’t grow up fearing punishment for being late if track practice ran long, then worry that their fathers might not come home at all, both in the same night. But over time, those stomachaches turned into chest tightness, teeth grinding, rashes, heart palpitations, and chronic pain until I could no longer deny that something was wrong. I like to think my life would be drastically different without him. I like to think that I would be a strong woman who trusts her judgment and sets people straight when they bully her.

When I hang up, I think maybe I could be that person now. Maybe.

But recovery isn’t as simple as recognizing your childhood as traumatic and deciding to be different. I do speak up now, to other people, but only after years of therapy. I tell people when they’re rude, when they’re making unfair assumptions about me, when they’ve crossed into what is unwelcome personal territory. But it’s never without wondering if I’m overreacting, if the problem is really me. If I’m enforcing dysfunctional rules just like the ones that were once pushed on me.

I pick up the frog and heft it into the air, catching it again like a pitcher idly tosses a baseball. My body tenses with the dichotomy of it all. I want so much to be good, strong, in the right. I want to be intuitive and self-protective. But what if the offense I feel influences others to suppress themselves? I will never serve Brussels sprouts, but if I serve Greek salad and someone is upset about it, they should be able to say so, shouldn’t they? Even if I feel it’s rude?

I’m aware that things like this must seem so black and white to the functional adult. You put the Greek salad out as an offering. People can eat it or not. If they’re rude, you can say, “That was rude,” then you move on. You don’t dwell on it because it doesn’t matter. And you definitely don’t let a toothless man kiss you in an alleyway.

But for those of us who learned that following the rules to please others was a matter of self-preservation, this cognitive and emotional process is harder than rocket science. We must study it and practice it for years. We must talk ourselves through the story problems. We must take test after test and hope for a better score next time. We want to believe that at some point it will become second nature, but we know on some level that it will probably always be work. Hard work.

Two weeks have gone by since the last phone call. Tim and I get up, drink our coffee, and I go to my reading chair. The alabaster frog is still eyeing me, but I stare right back. I need a break, I tell it. I need to know what I’m like without him in my head. I’ve left my phone in the kitchen and brought a Psychology Today to my reading chair instead. I have a panic attack anyway, and by early afternoon, I put the frog back in its plastic drawer and go outside to garden. But I don’t call.

Four weeks later, I’m breathing easier. I’m letting go of rules and ignoring men who try to force their way into my space. Sundays still trigger me, though. On these days, the fears creep in. What if my father shows up at my house while Tim’s not at home, pushing his way in, interrogating me about why I’ve broken the rules? But with every day that that doesn’t happen, I start to relax. To live.

I want it to stay this way. If I picture having to let him in again, I cry. I repeat to my therapist over and over “I can’t do it. I just can’t do it” until she tells me I don’t have to. This can be my life now. Finally, I send him a letter to make it official: I’m going no contact.

After, comes the fallout. The calls. The letters. Stiff handwriting on envelopes made out to Tim’s and my new address in Oregon—the one I haven’t given to anyone for fear it would find its way to him. I recognize the gaslighting, thanks to Psychology Today. I bristle at the words “that never happened” and “your mother brainwashed you.” When I remember the alabaster frog, I dig through my boxes until I find it. Still grasping the latest letter in one hand, I clutch the frog in the other, wrapping my fingers around it and squeezing. It won’t give, no matter how strong I am, and I know in my aching bones that my father will never change.

The panic attacks come raging back, but they’re different now. Instead of crumpling under their pressure, I let the heart palpitations pump blood to my arms and legs and prepare me to fight. I drop the frog into a community garden bed and write back to my father with one simple message: No more.

Then…silence. Blissful quiet.

Two years later, my breath comes easily, my heart stays calm. It’s over.



Ali J. Shaw has Rocky Mountain air in her blood, but she calls the Pacific Northwest home. Her nonfiction has been featured in Hippocampus Magazine, VoiceCatcher, and the Dime Stories reading series, and was a finalist for the Victoria A. Hudson Emerging Writer Prize. She is currently at work on a memoir. Ali is an editor who collects typewriters and rescue animals.


“The Unspoken” by Margaret MacInnis

“What We Leave Behind,” Image by Dawn Surratt.
(See also “Those Who Once Lived There Return” by Wendy Miles.)

When my fifth grade English teacher, Mr. Garabedian, asked me to stand, the room went suddenly quiet and still. Everyone in the class turned their attention to me, and holding my breath, I stood wondering why I had been singled out. Was I in some kind of trouble, and if so, what had I done wrong?

Mr. Garabedian handed me the homework assignment I’d given him the previous day. “I’d like Margaret to read her poem.” My class had recently begun studying poetry, and this poem was our first homework assignment. “Live from the Bijoux Theatre,” Mr. G. said with a swish of his arm, pausing dramatically, theatrically, and drawing out the syllables of my name, “Maaaaargaret Maaaaaginnis.”

I confess to finding this kind of attention slightly intoxicating. I wanted more of moments such as this, and I’d read and write anything he wanted in exchange. Modeling my teacher’s behavior, I silently summoned what was dramatic and theatrical in me, and read,

I watch the waves roll out to sea,
and wonder what the ocean thinks of me
in my faded rolled up jeans
and a beach hat ripping at the seams.

“A beach hat ripping at the seams?” my father said. “Where did you get that idea?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know where it came from.” I didn’t even have a beach hat. The poem was about me and not about me. My father asked if the ocean represented God.

“I don’t know what it represents,” I said. “Maybe it’s you.”

He laughed. “Maybe.”

Maybe it did represent him; maybe everything represented him—the waves, the sea, the ocean, the faded jeans, and the beach hat ripped at the seams. Or maybe I sought to represent not my father but myself in that which was faded and ripped and alone in the cold vastness of the ocean. It was hard sometimes to distinguish where he ended and I began, that is if he ever really ended, and if I ever really began. I’ve spent my life trying to discern this.

The night I’d written the poem had been a typical Saturday night at my house, everyone in bed except me. As usual, I had been waiting up for my father to come from his AA meeting since for me there was no sleep until my father was safely home. As a young child, I used to keep my mother company while she waited. We would sit huddled together on the couch with only the glow from the TV illuminating the darkness. This had been our nightly ritual for years, but at some point she stopped waiting. I cannot say exactly when or why she stopped, all I know is that I am forever alone at that kitchen table, either reading or writing, forever ten, forever reading Judy Blume and rereading Laura Ingalls Wilder, learning from them what I could not learn in a house where the deepest and truest thoughts and emotions had been relegated to the realm of the Unspoken. Before Mr. G.’s poetry lessons, I read as I waited, raising my head from the pages before me whenever I thought I heard my father’s car in the driveway. After the poetry lessons, I would write while waiting for my father’s return. Thirty years later, I’m a light and restless sleeper, part of me waiting for a car that will never come again.

The night I wrote that first poem for Mr. G., my father had come home. I’d read the poem to him, delighting in the expression on his face—the soft glow in his eyes, the gentleness of his smile. He had this peculiar way of looking at me in the dim kitchen light, staring really, as if he were seeing me for the first time, or the last. It’s hard to know. This look haunted me then, and haunts me now. This look was one of the reasons I couldn’t go to bed until he came home. Every time he left the house, I was afraid I’d never see him again. But this night the look had a little something different in it, and he said softly, “It’s a very good poem, Margaret.” Margaret. He always called me by name. “Maybe you’ll be a writer someday.”


I cannot remember which came first, fifth grade or that little pink hardcover book on my mother’s nightstand. Fifth grade memories of Mr. G. and his poetry writing lessons are among my most vivid; they appear fully rendered in the florescent light of my fifth-grade classroom. The pink hardcover, however, is a dimmer memory that flickers in the shadow of a bedside reading lamp my mother seldom turned on—she was too busy, too anxious, too preoccupied to read to me or my younger sister. My father was the reader, disappearing for hours with a book or two, reappearing in time to read something to my sister or me. Yet it was on my mother’s nightstand I found the little pink book of poems. I picked it up. The cover was shiny and smooth as were the pages. I wasn’t supposed to be in my parents’ room if one of them wasn’t there. I was snooping. I was a snooper, my nana, with whom we lived, used to say, whenever she caught me rummaging through drawers, cupboards, and armoires. I didn’t call it snooping; I called it searching. I was searching for all that went unspoken in our house.

I stood alone on my mother’s side of the room, transfixed by my latest discovery, slowly turning the smooth pages of the book. I don’t remember the book’s title or anything I read on those pages except for the poem:

Though my soul may set in darkness,
It will rise in perfect light.
I have loved the stars too fondly
To be fearful of the night.

~ an old astronomer to his pupil

The child I was had not yet imagined that a poem, someone else’s words on paper, could articulate my feelings before I myself could, but the minute I read these words I knew it was true.


When my father was a boy of sixteen, his sister Margaret died when the passenger door of a girlfriend’s car opened and Margaret fell out, hitting her head against a guardrail. She died on impact they said, which was supposed to make everyone feel better. Who would want to consider Margaret lying in the road, half-alive, waiting while a friend ran to someone’s house to call an ambulance? Because she died on impact, she did not have to endure death’s cliché, watching scenes from her life as she began to die, seeing things she never wanted to see again. She was just eighteen. How much of life existed beyond the family parameter? Not much. It’s the pain and disappointment she’d see again as she tells her parents she’s leaving home. She cannot live with such anger and resentment; she cannot watch them further destroy each other; she cannot watch as her brother’s pain turns to self-destructive rage. She never asked to be the favored child. She didn’t ask to be spared. She would have traded places with him. That’s how much she loved him. She is dying in the street and the memory of her brother’s detached vacant stare makes her shudder. Her last thoughts will be of him. What kind of man will he become? She thinks she sees him approaching and dies straining for his hand.

But this is not what happened. Margaret died on impact. But my father had been approaching her. He reached across death for her and kept reaching for the rest of his life, and this is what I heard in his voice, every time he said my name.

At the end of the fifth grade, I wrote a poem about my aunt and wanted to present it to my father as a gift. But I showed my mother first, sensing on some level the significance of her role the Keeper of the Unspoken. I found her in the upstairs hallway. Because I interrupted her sweeping, she barely read the poem before she handed it back to me, but she’d read enough to say, “Hide that, Margaret, or throw it away. Please don’t show your father.”

My hands trembled as I folded the poem, but my eyes remained dry. I swallowed the lump of tears in my throat. I wouldn’t disobey my mother, not in that moment, because I didn’t want to upset my father, and clearly my mother thought I would if I showed my poem to him. So, I tucked the folded poem in a drawer and didn’t look at it again. I cannot remember what I wrote in that lost poem, but I must admit that I’ve been trying to recapture it for thirty years. It grieves me that I never showed the poem to my father. Never told him that his pain was mine.


In a somewhat passionate burst of inspiration, I wrote another poem for my father. This time, however, I didn’t go to my mother with it first. I was twelve now. I didn’t want to hear that I couldn’t or shouldn’t show my father. I didn’t want to relegate the poem or my feelings to the back of the dresser drawer, where they would lay tucked under scarves or underwear, seemingly forgotten. I titled my poem “The Last Time I Saw Paris” after the 1954 film that had inspired it. The film starred Elizabeth Taylor and Van Johnson as Helen and Charles Wills, the tragically flawed and ill-fated main characters of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Babylon Revisited.” Child actor Sandy Deschner played the couple’s young daughter, who lived with her aunt and uncle after her mother’s death. Charles has returned to Paris to reclaim his daughter and make peace with his memories. I cannot say with whom I identified more: Charles, Helen, or their daughter, who was called Vicki in the film and Honoria in Fitzgerald’s story.

At age twelve, I hadn’t heard of Fitzgerald or his celebrated story, but years later, as an undergraduate English Literature major, the story had left me weeping over the bible-thin pages of my Norton Anthology. My grief was raw and real: two years prior to reading “Babylon Revisited,” my father had succumbed to his Unspoken, ultimately taking his own life.

I cannot say which precise moment in the film provided the inspiration that made me run for a pencil and paper, or if there wasn’t one at all; maybe it was the story itself that moved me, a story of grief and regret and recklessness and love, the kind of love that manages to grow in the midst of such suffering. Though the daughter clearly loved her mother, she thrived on her father’s love and attention; here was her source of joy. Twenty-eight years later, I do not remember the poem in its entirety, but I recall the first stanza:

The last time I saw Paris,
I was free and young at heart.
I didn’t even think of us
As so very far apart.

I don’t know where my mother was, but I found my father in bed with a book propped open across his chest. I handed him the poem and he read it, and then asked if I would read it to him. Then he asked if he could keep the poem. Of course, he could, it was his. “Thank you. I’ll treasure it,” he said, and at his words, I felt a palpable joy. In that moment of shared words and feelings, my life made sense. My father folded the poem and tucked it in the top drawer of his bureau. When my parents weren’t home, I used to go into their room and open my father’s drawer to make sure the poem was still there. Every time I saw it lying there in the drawer, I remembered the passion I felt in the classroom and the passion in that burst of inspiration. I remembered the joy and pleasure I felt sharing my words with my father, such deep satisfaction, the writing itself an act of defiance in the face of the Unspoken.



Margaret MacInnis’ essays have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Brevity, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, River Teeth, Tampa Review, and other literary magazine and journals. Her work has been distinguished by Best American Essays (Notable Distinction 2007, 2009, 2011) and Best American Nonrequired Reading series (Notable Distinction 2009), and is anthologized in the 2015 Love & Profanity and the 2009 River Teeth Reader. She lives in Iowa City with her partner, Ryan, and their daughter, Lila. Since 2010, she has worked as personal assistant to Marilynne Robinson, American novelist and essayist.

This piece first appeared in The Briar Cliff Review

“Chain Smoking” by Rae Pagliarulo

The Disintegration of Adam (Matthew Gasda)
“The Disintegration of Adam,” oil on canvas, Darwin Leon.
(See also “A Poem for Today” by Matthew Gasda.)

We lay on an unframed mattress in the basement of his mother’s row home. He’s sick with something—walking pneumonia, I think—but keeps lighting one hand-rolled American Spirit after another. “Smoking makes me feel normal,” he says. I bury my nose in the sleeve of my sweater—I’ll have to wash everything I’m wearing as soon as I get home, as usual. If I put my clothes in the hamper after a visit, they contaminate everything else with the stale smoke smell and I can’t stand it. Here, the stink is everywhere—in the carpets, the couch, even the food somehow. No escape, so I give in and light up along with him, even as I cough my way through the first few drags. I lick my lips, still salty from his mother’s red gravy and something else, something wrong—ash.


“Eight months,” he says, when I ask him how long he’s been clean. “Oxy,” he says, when I ask him what he’s clean of. Immediately I remember a rule about not dating someone in recovery until they’ve been sober a year. There was a dumb movie about that, wasn’t there? I can feel my throat filling up with questions: did you snort it, or swallow it? How long did you do it? What made you start? Are you getting help, or going cold turkey? It’s only our first date, so I swallow the third degree and sip my second cocktail with heightened awareness.

This moment will bother me for months, because I am confronted with this opportunity— to date an addict, just like I always thought I would, just like I knew I deserved—and I’m going to take it. He is charming and beautiful and strange, and he speaks with sharp words and has a dark wit. He is the kind of person I should be dating, besides this one thing that I’ve been running from my entire life. It has always scared me. But after all that running, I am now afraid it’s inevitable. That it’s the reason I’m still alone. If I just got with the program and realized I’m destined to be with someone in recovery, someone just like my father, I could finally be happy. Or at least, as close as I’ve ever been.


Once we settle on a Kelly Drive bench overlooking the water, he pulls out a bottle of white wine and two plastic Dixie Cups. “I thought we could have a drink and talk.”

It seems so rehearsed and cheesy, but I can tell he’s nervous. He wants to do something nice for our third date. So, even though white wine gives me a headache, I take a cup and raise it to him. Now that we know the basics of each other’s lives, we get into the weeds. What kind of stuff do you write? What kind of relationship do you have with your parents? What do you want to do with your life? The more we talk, the more I like him. He’s sarcastic, and esoteric. He’s also wounded and bitter. The part of me that always wants to fix people starts to stir, but I tamp it down. He’s not a project. He’s fucked up and fine with it—unlike anyone I’ve ever been with. Self-assured, sometimes even cocky. He owns his damage, and when the wine is gone and the kissing begins, I can’t stop myself from guiding his hand up my skirt. We giggle and writhe against each other while college students whiz behind us on bikes and roller blades.


“Not in a million,” I say, as he points towards the penthouse floor of a nearby building. Rittenhouse Square is surrounded by them: too-high buildings full of too-rich people paying too much money for tiny apartments.

He sighs and adjusts himself closer to me on the wooden bench. “Fine, we won’t live there. How about a box on that corner?”

I glance over to see a guy panhandling for change in this painfully ritzy neighborhood. “Yeah,” I laugh. “That seems much more our speed.” But then we move from apartments to furniture, talking about the antique stove he’ll restore for me, or the mismatched chairs and tables we’ll collect from estate sales. We talk about the separate rooms we’ll need for writing, and the spaces we’ll share, and suddenly we are kissing, and laughing, and I feel dizzy. I realize what’s happened a moment too late—as though in a fever dream, he blurted out a proposal, and I accepted.


He texts me a short poem. Something about water and waves? I know it’s a metaphor but I can’t tell for what. He asks me what I think. It’s nice, I text back. I don’t really get it, to be honest.  A few minutes pass.

I wrote it for you, he responds.

Everything I could say seems stupid now—oh, well now that you mention it, I really like it? It’s sweet?

The next afternoon, I walk into his mother’s house so the two of us can hang out in his basement bedroom. His sister stops me before I even hit the deco coffee table. “You gonna say anything about the poem?” I shrug. “Well, you better. He’s fucking devastated.”

“Because I didn’t understand the poem?”

She sighs gravely. “Because you didn’t like it…his work,” she says. I walk slowly towards the basement door, where clouds of cigarette smoke are wafting towards me. I steel myself before starting down, rehearsing apologies and explanations that feel strange in my mouth because I’m not actually sorry.


He and my dad have been out on the back deck smoking for an hour. “It’s a good thing,” my mom says. “It means Dad likes him. You know that.”

I do—but I don’t want Dad to like him too much. It’s not uncommon for my boyfriends to fall in love with my quirky, charming parents and spend more time kibitzing with them during family visits than with me. During dinner, watching them is like watching a really great first date—my dad taught at the same technical college that my new beau now attends. They both like working with their hands, construction and electrical work, but are ferocious autodidacts, too. And of course—recovery. My dad finally quit drinking after three decades a few years ago. They bullshit about the program, the meetings, the higher power, the fearless moral inventories, and at one point, I hear my dad call him strong. “To overcome something like that,” he breathes. I think about my dad’s rocky journey to sobriety, the pitfalls that waited for all of us on the way to better, and smile thinly at them both.


My mom and I walk along the water’s edge, looking for clearings in the brush, just beyond the white gazebo. It’s perfect, I think—I can already see myself in a vintage dress, him in suspenders and a jeff cap, the two of us quoting obscure literature against the backdrop of a man-made suburban lake.

“Your aunts will just love walking through this,” my mom says as she navigates through a patch of wet soil, overgrown with vines and roots.

“They’ll deal with it,” I snap back, more curtly than I intend. We settle back into silence, scoping out a good place to line up the chairs or put a huppah.

“I just want to make sure you’re thinking this through,” she says carefully. “You only met a couple of months ago. What’s the rush?”

I don’t know the answer to this, or to anything, but I tell myself that’s how I know it’s right. It doesn’t make sense, maybe it even defies logic, but I feel pulled in this direction. Like I have no choice. Like all the doubt filling my head is just proof that I’m broken, and I won’t let myself be happy for once in my life. I shrug and smile at her.

“I just want you to be happy,” she whispers, with an edge of something I can only identify as defeat.


It’s been almost a week since I heard from him. Usually, I’m fielding dozens of texts a day, asking how I’m doing, what I’m doing, what we’re doing later, how work is. He’s been acting weird, too, lately—not sharing as much with me, canceling plans at the last minute. Finally, I get him on the phone as I’m pulling up to my house after work.

“Where have you been? I was worried about you.” I hear television static and the crackle of a burning cigarette, then his scratchy voice, coming through in fits and starts.

“Don’t need you to worry about me… don’t want you to fix me… need time… leave me alone… told you… told you.”

“I just want to help,” I manage to interject.

In a full-throated howl he warns me, “I DON’T NEED YOUR FUCKING HELP.

I pull the phone away from my face, tempted to throw it out the car window. I slam my hands on the steering wheel over and over, trying to hit it so hard I forget to cry. But I don’t. I can’t hear him anymore. All I can hear is the voice in my head saying you asked for this, you asked for this, you asked for this.


Shit, I knew it was him. I came to this party with a friend, feeling strangely nervous about it from the start. Now I know why. He’s here. I haven’t seen or heard from him in over a year. A year I spent imagining all the things that could have happened to him, to us. When we lock eyes, he comes right over and asks if we can talk outside for a minute. He seems okay, I think. Lucid. Just as skinny as ever. When we reach the wet pavement outside the bar, he pulls a hand-rolled cigarette out of his tobacco pouch.

“You want one?”

I shake my head. It occurs to me that he has no idea I actually hate smoking. As he drags and exhales, I listen to him with my arms crossed across my chest. As I feared, he started using again.

“While we were still together,” he admits. “It got really hard to hide it from you. That’s why I disappeared. I didn’t want you to have to deal with all that.” I lower my head and sigh. He keeps going, seemingly unable to stop. “I just wanted to apologize to you. I’m so, so sorry.”

I recognize the sentiment: the ninth step. We made direct amends to persons we had harmed wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. I look up at him and smile weakly. I am careful to be kind and distant. Keep myself out of the smoky haze that surrounds him.

“Water under the bridge,” I say with a shrug. Eight months. I should have known.


In the five years since our breakup, he will come up to me and ask if we can talk outside three more times. Each time I will ask him, “Why are we doing this again? You already apologized. We’re good.” Each time, he will insist that since he’s fallen off the wagon again, it’s important that he start fresh, not take shortcuts, go through the whole program. The last time it happens, on a busy side street, I’m tempted to invoke the conditional clause in the ninth step and tell him, “If you apologize to me one more time, you will be injuring me,” but I don’t want to risk that kind of vulnerability. When I loved him, I was sick on cigarette smoke. When I loved him, I was sure I didn’t deserve anything more. When I loved him, I ignored all my instincts and said yes. He’s gotten enough from me. So I bite my tongue, waiting until he’s done exposing his addicted heart to me in public. I watch him as he prepares for the walk home. His skinny fingers roll American Spirit tobacco shreds into a thin sheet of paper, working it back and forth until it submits to his design. I barely see his tongue flick out as he lifts the cigarette to his lips, sealing the seam. I’m distracted by the staccato shhtak, shhtak of his old Zippo, trying to light the end. The crackle of burning tobacco sounds like static from a television, the station turned too far to the left, barely showing a picture of what should be there.



Rae Pagliarulo holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College. Her work has been featured in Full Grown People, Ghost Town, bedfellows, New South, Hippocampus, The Manifest-Station, Quail Bell, and Philadelphia Stories, and is anthologized in The Best of Philadelphia Stories: 10th Anniversary Edition. She is the 2014 recipient of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize and a 2015 Pushcart Prize Nominee. Rae works as the Writing Life column editor for Hippocampus Magazine, and as Development Director for a Philadelphia arts nonprofit.


“Going Places” by David Marchino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


“Science and Survival” by Virginia Chase Sutton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remove the gown, please.

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

Open your legs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

May I help you?

She needs to be fitted for a bra Mother says.

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

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

Please remove your dress, young lady.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


“Circles” by Rebecca Khera

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

  1. The West Porch

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

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

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

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


  1. The Front Entrance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. Cafeteria

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


  1. Primary Group

Dan is my counselor. I hate him.

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

Jenny: alcohol

Alex: opiates

Sal: benzos

Danny: opiates

Erica: heroin

Matt: heroin

And me.

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


  1. Community Group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

I don’t have anything good to say.


  1. Pastor Phil’s Office

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

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


  1. The Octagon

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

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


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

Codependency Group in the Media Room

Anger Management[3] in the Community Room

Book Study in the Tiki Hut


  1. Media Room

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


  1. The Serenity Room

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


10.1 Room 18

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

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

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

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

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

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


10.2 The Bathroom (Room 18)

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


  1. Patient Care

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

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

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


  1. The Garden

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

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

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


  1. The North Porch

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

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

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

We go around the circle.

Katie: Dead.

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

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

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

Jenny: Still clean, married with twins.

Alex: Relapsed.

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

Erica: Still clean, married with a daughter.

Danny: Still clean, married to Ashley.

Matt: Went to Good Decisions. Dead.

John: Relapsed.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



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


“The Memory Keeper and the Myth Maker” by Carroll Sandel

Memory Keeper_Sacred Blossoms
“Sacred Blossoms” Image by Pam Brodersen

”…the remembering self” has two different aspects. “On the one hand, it has the temperament of a librarian, a keeper of memory’s most important archives. It can be fastidious in that role, guarding its original records and trying to keep them pristine.” On the other hand, “memory’s archivist by day has a secret passion by night: to fashion a story about itself… that some of us call the personal myth” — not “a falsehood but a comprehensive view of reality” that seeks “to generate conviction about what it thinks is true.”

~ John Kotre, WHITE GLOVES: How We Create Ourselves Through Memory

We wore white gloves to church on Sunday. When I was eight, my favorite pair had small petaled flowers around the cuffs, with a tiny pearl in the center of each one. A different pair when I was ten had scalloped edges. At twelve, another pair had a pearl button and a loop to close the opening at the wrist. The gloves fit snugly around fingers and thumbs. They stayed white as cotton balls since my sisters and I only wore them for a few hours each week and never touched anything. As we changed into our work clothes, we put the gloves in our top dresser drawers, one on top of the other, next to our underpants. My white church gloves fashioned part of the story of my childhood.

My mother drove us six kids from our farm into town to the Episcopal Church every Sunday, no matter whether snow gusted across the road or sweat wet our armpits. We tumbled out of the car, my younger sister, Nancy, and I heading to the choir room to dress in our black robes, white surplices. In the pews that faced each other close to the altar, she and I giggled and chatted until one of us glanced at the third pew where Mom sat with the other kids. Our mother’s furrowed brow and the shaking her head “No,” told us to cut it out now. Mom used to say, “Taking you all to church takes all the religion out of me.” We wore my mother out no matter where we were.

Six had not been Mom’s choice for the size of our family. But my father wanted to be like Frank Gilbreth who wrote Cheaper by the Dozen, so he talked her into another baby every two years. My mother on occasion admitted she had preferred two children. Then she would add, “But if I had to choose, there’s not one of you I would give up.” This was hard for me to believe. Though she loved infants she could cuddle with, my mother did not really like kids. When we argued with each other, when we embarrassed her by talking too loud, when we didn’t show off our good manners, she’d sigh and turn her head away as if correcting us was not worth the bother.

Life on the farm was relentless for Mom with the marathon canning and freezing beans, peas, tomatoes, applesauce all summer and early fall. Before school, she drilled us for our spelling tests while packing our lunches with lettuce, mayonnaise and peanut butter sandwiches. At night, we sat on the red metal stool and read aloud to her back as she cleaned up in the kitchen. Her energy went into chores, less so into kids.

While Mom covered the bases of being an adequate mother, she showed little inclination to nurture. She never recognized when we girls had outgrown our dresses. On occasion, she’d say, “Come here, I want to feel your nose.” If it was cold, she’d add, “Go get a sweater.” But for the most part, she paid little attention to our clothes matching the weather. She seemed to think we could figure those things out on our own. In particular, I don’t remember her noticing me. Mom never picked up on me feeling sad about something that happened at school or that I was terrified of the dark when she sent me to get more milk from the refrigerator in the cellar.

My father was the worrier. One evening when we still lived in town and I was three, he arrived home from work and asked my mother where the older two kids were. She said she had no idea, she hadn’t noticed they were missing. My father scoured the neighborhood, asking folks if they’d seen his five-year-old girl and his seven-year-old son. He expanded his search, street by street. My older sister remembers holding my brother’s hand, knowing they were lost. My father found them ten blocks away, across a busy street. My sister saw my father get out of the car and raced into his arms.

He once told me his “heart jumped into his throat” each time he checked on my little brother at night and found him buried under the covers at the bottom of his bed. “God, I’d think, what if he’s suffocated?” my father said. When a thunderstorm barreled through and the same brother raced into the hall to brighten his florescent cross under the night light, my mother laughed at how foolish he was to be so fearful. These memories helped construct my story that my father was the caring parent, not my mother.


During winters in southwestern Pennsylvania, the sky shifted from dirty white to thundercloud gray. The sun was merely a rumor. Wind snuck into the window edges, making the house groan. Our jackets, wool caps and mittens never quite barricaded the cold.

We girls were allowed to wear pants under our dresses to school when it froze enough to burn the inside of our noses. One day as I stared at the crystals of frost making dips and drifts in the small rectangular windows running up to the ceiling, Mrs. Scott, my second-grade teacher, announced it was time to line up to go the bathroom. Squeaks of desk lids opening, a girl’s whispering to a friend, rustling of papers filled the room.

As I slid from my seat, my teacher, who did not smile often, but whose eyes never flashed in anger, said, “Carroll, can you come here, please?” I got good report cards and did not misbehave much, so I was curious, not nervous when I walked toward her as my classmates left the room. With her cinnamon hair curled in a tight permanent, Mrs. Scott held out her hands and motioned for me to put my hands out. Both of us stared at my raw, cracked fingers. She leaned over to her desk drawer and opened it. My teacher lifted a bottle of Jergen’s lotion and shook some into her open hand. She greased my fingers one by one, then with both her palms, caressed them, back and forth, back and forth. Mrs. Scott, concentrating on massaging the cream into my red hands, did not notice me looking up at her. She did not know that I was thinking: This is what a good mother does for her child.

When we got off the school bus around four o’clock, two-foot-long icicles clung to the roof of the house. We changed our clothes and headed for the cellar where our snow pants, work jackets and boots were. Before I graduated to milking our Guernseys when I turned twelve, I helped feed the beef cattle who roamed in the rock-hard fields. Either my father or the hired hand drove the pick-up truck, bouncing my sisters, little brother and me up and down on the hay bales in the back. The wind seared across our faces, tearing up our eyes and sending snot down onto our lips. When we arrived where the cows huddled, with feet planted to balance ourselves as the truck kept moving, we pitched hay over the side. Headlight beams funneled dimly across the snow-covered ground. Once our job was done, our behinds bumped against the empty truck bed as we rode back over the fields. We swiped prickly mittens across our faces to scrape off stalks that the wind stuck there. By the time we returned to the barn, we no longer felt our fingers or our toes. Now when I am out in a bracing wind, I remember those dark, late afternoons in the back of the truck.

Inside the barn, it was cold enough for steam to rise where a milk cow pooped on the straw, but it was warmer than in the fields. One evening, I spread hay into troughs without my mittens. Blood scabs dotted the cracks on my knuckles. My father grabbed my sleeve and led me past the stand where the pail lid covered the fresh milk, past the horse stalls to the window at the far side of the barn. He reached up to the ledge, pulled down a lime green can of Bag Balm that he used to soften the cows’ teats. Scooping out a clump of yellow grease, he worked the lanolin into my fingers, one hand, then the other. Pulling his work gloves on, he headed back to the cows. As the oozy grease softened my fingers, I followed my father.


In my house on chilly days now, my cold fingers often tell me I need to put on a sweater. After my morning shower, I cream my body well. I moisturize my face in the evening and add ultra-healing lotion to my hands before I head toward bed. Without conscious thought, I have internalized the actions of those who helped care for my dry skin.

My young granddaughter, since she was a baby, has had skin so dry it feels like fine sand paper. When she was little, her mother slurped mango body butter over her limbs, back and belly. One evening I babysat when she was in second grade. After she had greased her hands, my granddaughter pulled on a pair of knitted mittens. A slice of a memory flashed and took shape: A pair of white gloves, larger than my usual Sunday ones, yellowed and dirty-looking–I had put on my hands as a child before I went to bed. The mustard tinge came from the cream I had slathered on before I slid my fingers into the gloves.

A thrill stirred in my chest as I stared at my granddaughter’s mittens. My mother had figured out a way to deal with my chapped hands. No one else would have given me gloves to encase my hands in lotion overnight.

Yet no matter how hard I tried, I could not remember my mother noticing my chapped fingers. I ploughed through my memories, but I could not determine when my mother gave me the gloves to shield my hands. I tried out scenarios, imagining what might have occurred.

Perhaps one evening at dinner as we all sat round the red Formica table, Mom watched me raise my milk tumbler. My red hands were difficult to ignore. After I brushed my teeth that evening, she held my fingers for a brief moment under the lamp on the bed stand before she said good night. I attempted to invent what she might have said as she inspected my hands, but no words came to mind. The next day I imagined she might have called her friend, Lucille, and together they came up with a plan. My mother then went upstairs to my older sister’s dresser. In the top drawer, she picked out a pair of white gloves, slightly worn, and placed them on the dressing table in her bedroom. That night Mom handed me a lotion bottle and the pair of worn gloves. “Put cream on your hands every night,” she said. “Then wear these when you go to bed.” So simply would she have instructed me on how to help my chapped hands. Maybe I grew tired of wearing the gloves and my fingers once again reddened. Maybe my father was following her lead when he noticed dried blood on my knuckles. But my contrived sequence of events rang false, with a mother I did not recognize.

I worked at imagining me telling Mom about Mrs. Scott lotioning my red fingers. But I would have been embarrassed to let her know that my teacher recognized what she had missed. I tried to envision my mother noticing my rough hands while she washed the dishes and I picked them up from the drainer to wipe dry. Yet my older sister usually was the one who washed while I dried. Shaping memory of a caring mother battled tough resistance. So entrenched was my perception of Mom never noticing of me, I could not see her initiate a plan to help my chapped hands. I dug further to find a palatable version of how I came to wear gloves at night.

The story that made sense to me: That freezing night, after my father rubbed Bag Balm into my fingers, he changed from his dungarees into his pajamas and climbed into bed. My mother, in her nightie, socks and bed jacket, lay beside him. In the darkened room, my father told my mother about my hands. “They’re in god-awful shape,” he said. “The cracks in her knuckles have scabs of blood. You need to figure out something to do about them.” With my father’s instruction, Mom telephoned several friends to see if they had ideas how to salve my chapped hands. One suggestion of applying cream, then putting on gloves each night made sense to her. She found an extra pair of my older sister’s and gave them to me along with the lotion. With three kids younger than I who needed her attention at bed time, I would have been in charge of dealing with my red hands. Without remembering of how I came to wear gloves at night, I fashioned a story that fits what I want to believe. Together my parents helped me.

As a meticulous memory keeper, I remembered the features of each pristine pair of church gloves. I loved that they made me feel dressed up, not like a farm girl. Scenes emerged readily of Mrs. Scott massaging cream into my fingers, my father’s rough hands greasing my cracked ones. I spotlighted my claims of who noticed me.

My remembering self had already been a myth maker, determined to dismiss what did not fit the narrative I crafted. With no memory of a nurturing mother, I stripped her of all signs of her caring for me. My granddaughter pulling mittens on her greased hands triggered recall of a forgotten kindness. Yellowed white gloves added a new dimension to my memory of my mother. One of her chores, it turns out, was figuring out a way to help me.



After a career in social work, Carroll Sandel took her first class at Grub St. Writing Center and felt as though she had leapt off a cliff. That exhilarating, terrifying feeling re-emerges each time she sits at the computer to write again. Her work has appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Pangyrus, The Drum, Grub Daily and she was a 2014 finalist for the Dorothy Cappon non-fiction prize in New Letters. She has recently completed a memoir, Lying Eyes, which explores her untrustworthy memories and how certainty about our memories can betray us.


“Brown Days” by M.H. Lee

Brown Days_King of the Marsh
“King of the Marsh” Image by Pam Brodersen

Dr. Roan suggested that a short walk every evening might clear my head. Even an ordinary autumn is beautiful, and the backyard pulls me uphill to the bank of rocks around the creek. The air is chilly but not cold, and snow clouds are billowing up past the horizon. It’s the best weather for hiking. Halfway to a comfortable perch on the biggest boulder, I realize these woods would be the perfect place for kids to explore. There aren’t any kids, though, and if our adoption fund doesn’t get a significant kick start soon, there might never be any. We’ve only been in upstate New York about a year, and we’re mired in a hazy sort of limbo.

Rural New York hadn’t been the plan. Marrying after graduate school, we were just biding time until those fulfilling arts and education jobs presented themselves. The current jobs were limbo jobs – just to pay the bills until we found something with purpose, just until the student loans were paid off, just until we could really start to live the life we planned. That meant sleeping in our rented limbo that had advertised excellent insulation, but was really a drafty former baseball hat factory that guzzled heating oil. There were days and days of frozen pipes and no water, as we duct taped ourselves in each night to keep the drifting snow from piling up on our side of the French doors. Limbo was full of scrimping and saving, being patient until we could afford a vacation or a baby or two. Everything seemed to be so far down the road – never in the present. Was this life, forever waiting for something to happen? People strive to live in the moment, but what if there’s not much going on in your moment? What if everything is a pipe dream’s length away, always just beyond the horizon or around the next bend, just one more paycheck away? How do you savor the life you’ve got when it’s not what you want it to be? Or is that journey the whole point of existence?

Shots echo from deep in the woods. Is it hunting season already? A gust of wind stirs the fallen leaves, and as they swirl by, all of them are dry, crackled brown. The foliage peaked weeks ago, and none of the trees were as gorgeous as last year. The locals say the summer was too hot for good color, and this fall seems more melancholy than most. Autumn is definitely my preferred season, and last year I had interviewed for the job here at the height of the most radiant autumn ever.

The Managing Director had advised caution, “You’re seeing us at our best, but don’t be fooled. It’s not always like this.”

And of course, she was right, but those trees and that Indian Summer sun reflected up from the lake were so intoxicating – why would anyone want to live or work anywhere else in the world? That scenery had beckoned intoxicatingly, calling us to this lovely place to be. How could there not be hope and peace, here along the Glimmerglass?

A year later the vibrant reds and rusty oranges and sunny yellows are missing – and even the warm waxy mochas and chocolatey browns of the autumn palette are few and far between. To be fair, the leaves are certainly brown, but they’re dried up and fragile, bland and bare, ragged and dull. They scuttle by like dirty, amber snow. This wasn’t the anticipated season. Perhaps that other autumn had been a fluke, a taunt, a rare occurrence, happening once every decade or two. Instead of an annual promise of beauty, there had really been a temporary gift that I should have been grateful to experience just once.

There’s still loveliness, but you have to watch carefully. Just when the trees look drab and depressing, a shower of leaves will dance on the wind to remind you that every season has its gifts and its hidden beauty marks. We just don’t always see them when we’re busy mourning what we’re missing.

These limbo days are sad, and I’m struggling, but most days failing miserably. The new anti-depressant, behavioral therapy, joining the gym – I haven’t lost any weight, and I’m sleeping way too much. The feeling is familiar. It’s not about what’s actually going on in life, but that certainly doesn’t help. Work is stressful. The assistant manager was passed over for the job I have now, so he does as little work as possible and sucks the joy out of the office. My husband hasn’t been able to find a job in his field and is working for a miserly boss at terrible pay. This part of the state is as rural as Pennsylvania, but the cost of living doesn’t reflect it. Rent, heating oil, even groceries are a fortune here. Limbo is expensive, too. Four hours from Broadway might as well be a million because there are no funds for weekend jaunts.

The cognitive therapy books say to act like you’re happy until you actually feel it, but more often than not I just feel like a fraud, trying to be something foreign. The books would ask: Can you prove that? Is it helpful? Does it make you feel better? If not, you should discard it and change gears.

A childhood memory flashes to mind. I’m suddenly about seven years old happily coloring with cousins in their basement. The youngest one pulls out a smooth yellow crayon without any paper left on it and asks what my favorite color is. Just one favorite? I preferred to use all the colors so none of them got their feelings hurt. Those were normal thoughts for an only child, right? Looking intently at the big pile of colors, I try to decide which one is the best.

“Brown!” I finally answered excitedly, holding up the waxy well-worn stick that had just been used to make gorgeous tree trunks on manila paper. Brown was the color of furniture and teddy bears and chocolate labs. My hair and my eyes were brown, and so were suede winter boots. No other choice made quite as much sense.

The cousins had laughed at the selection. They said brown was just dirty, the hue of rotten teeth and messy diapers and ugly school shoes. My oldest cousin said brown wasn’t even a color scientifically, just a messed-up shade of orange. Another offered the wisdom that the big mud puddle between their yard and the neighbors’ was brown, and that Tonya the neighbor girl had drunk from the mud puddle and gotten pinworms.

“What’s that got to do with brown?” I had demanded.

She thought for a moment and then said, “Well, the pinworms are prob’ly brown, too. Brown’s a stupid color.”

Everyone was staring, judging the choice, and their negative comments seemed to make sense all at once. Shamed and searching for another tint, one that was clean and pretty and right, I glanced at my manila picture with its sturdy trees and giant four-leaf clovers.

“I was just kidding,” I said smiling desperately and holding my breath, using every one of my night-star wishes that my new choice would be acceptable. “My real favorite color is green.”

The oldest cousin was suspicious. He didn’t quite buy the sudden shift, like he knew in his heart of hearts that I really did love a shameful color like brown, but mercifully he said nothing. Maybe he felt sorry for me because my Daddy had left, while he still had his, and because I didn’t have straw blonde hair like the other girl cousins, or sparkly blue eyes like summer skies full of puffy sheep clouds. Those girls liked pink and red, for hearts and love, and their fathers told them bedtime stories and took them to the zoo. Their hearts never looked like sliced apples that had turned brown inside. So, whatever the reason, he let me pretend that green was my favorite color, and the coloring commenced as the afternoon grew long.

Well into college, I was still claiming that green was the loveliest hue in all the world, and a decade after that, still measuring my responses, making sure to always say what I thought people wanted to hear. That way people would like you and never single you out, but that didn’t always mean you would be happy with yourself. That didn’t mean you would be bold and decisive and the life of the party that everyone admires. Just because you were kind and principled didn’t mean you’d have the skill to express yourself without losing your cool or the argument, and just because you were taking up space on the planet didn’t mean you would feel like an important and effective part of the world.

Leigh suddenly came to mind, a funny and sarcastic friend from undergrad with a gorgeous voice but not so perfect body. She had never been satisfied with her life either, always striving toward something else. Sometimes she made terrible decisions. Some of the things she had done over the years seemed truly scandalous, but she was her own person. She hadn’t liked being overweight in college. As soon as she could afford it, she had bariatric surgery. She wanted to be married and not live alone in a studio apartment anymore. She married a great guy who made good money. She wanted to work in the arts. She practically created a job for herself and produced children’s theatre full time. She wanted a baby. She went through every fertility option, and then when it turned out her husband was sterile and not all that interested in kids, she left him and found another husband who was as eager as she was to procreate. And eventually she ended up with that baby, Arabella, a lovely little girl just like she wanted.

When we last spoke, Leigh had been planning the myriad of details for Arabella’s first birthday, over a month away. Everything was already ordered exactly to mom’s specifications. Leigh was busy, but was she happy, satisfied? Did she want more? Was she savoring every moment of Baby Ara’s first year – or was she just planning ahead? Was she so consumed with the birthday, that she missed a first step, a first word, a new expression? Did she ever sit in her yard on a boulder and think of childhood insecurities, mentally whining about not living up to her personal standards? Was she ever plagued by depression, paralyzed by anxiety? Was her life enough?

I’ll never know. A week before Arabella’s birthday, Leigh died in her sleep, the shocking and unexplained death of a thirty-something woman. Was it drugs, alcohol, her heart, bariatric complications, an aneurysm, an unforeseen stroke? Or had she just gotten everything she wanted, and her journey was over? Did she slip away peacefully with a smile on her lips?

What lessons could Leigh leave behind for those of us still on the journey? How could we keep climbing our mountains, knowing that even for the young, sometimes the next bend is the last one? The last spectacular fall vista? The last birthday party? Can you prove it? Not until it’s too late. Is it helpful? Not in the least. Does it make you feel better? Not even a little.

Taking a deep breath, I will myself to focus on something else. Four things to see, three things to hear, two things to smell, and one that I can touch. The sun is slipping behind the hill now, and the crisp air is starting to bite a little. A twig cracks sharply as the critters start to venture out for the night. The scent of frying hamburger wafts out to mingle with the creekbank and faraway wood smoke. The cold breeze is fresh and filling. I hold my breath as long as I can and pray that I will be stronger tomorrow.

Like an answer, three toffee-tinged maple leaves drop from above, twirling gently until they rustle to the ground. Tucking one into a pocket, I head toward the house. The winter is coming, but I’m still fighting and hanging on tight. So, Dr. Roan was right about the walk. This limbo afternoon is now golden brown, and there’s hope after all, because brown is my favorite color.



M.H. Lee has been published in The Quotable, Green Eggs and Hamlet, Forge Journal, and RearView Mirror. She graduated with an MA in theatre from Texas A&M University-Commerce and a BA in journalism and theatre from Southeastern Oklahoma State University. She has studied with Billie Letts and Stoney Hardcastle. Having lived in several states growing up, she is now working as a foster care recruiter for DHS in Oklahoma.


“When Words Spill Like Rain” by Barbara Presnell

Sanibel Surf (Words Like Rain)
“Sanibel Surf” by Pam Brodersen


March 7, 2008

Last night’s shower has soaked the low-lying roads and swampy ground of the St. Bernard Cemetery in southeast New Orleans. I’ve driven from a work site on a street called Tiffany Court, past an overgrown marsh and a white heron posed in ankle deep water, and have paused at the edge of this damp cemetery. The heavy iron gate shines black from the steady drizzle, the angel perched on the post glaring down with misted eyes. Rain spots my windshield, spills down it. My phone buzzes, and my brother’s name pops onto the screen.

“I was playing with my phone,” Edwin says when I answer. “I wanted to see if I could get you and Ellen on a conference call.”

To find him playing with his phone on a rainy Thursday morning is not surprising or out of character. “Sure,” I say, cutting the engine. “Go ahead.”

I’m here in the St. Bernard parish with a group of 12 college students and my husband Bill, all of us volunteers in the Alternative Spring Break program sponsored by Habitat for Humanity, building houses to replace those washed out in the floods following Hurricane Katrina. We work all day then spend our nights in an elementary school building used as temporary housing for volunteers, a place now called Camp Hope. Our quarters are bunk beds built from 2 x 4s in what were once classrooms where first and second graders learned to count and spell. Over 400 college students—and just a few adults like me—share this cramped space. Rain has poured down almost every day, mocking our generosity.

This morning, for the fourth straight day, our group was assigned the chore of hammering siding onto a new house drenched by last night’s downpour. Our AmeriCorps leader said something like, “The need for housing doesn’t stop with rain, so we don’t stop either.” Our student leader, a mature young woman named Katie, said to us all, “Don’t work if you don’t feel good about it.”

I pictured broken ankles from ladder falls, lingering coughs and colds and didn’t feel good about working, so I got in the rental car and took off, taking rights, lefts, heading down roads I’d never seen before, and finally pulling into this gravel lot of the St. Bernard Parish Catholic Cemetery. It’s the oldest cemetery still in use in the state of Louisiana, its heavy mausoleums recording some of the earliest names of the Isleños, descendants of colonists from the Canary Islands, beginning in 1767. Many stones are hand-carved, and all are decorated with statuettes of saints or angels, flowers, flags, or crosses, inscriptions, and shadow boxes.

Hurricane Katrina did little damage to the cemetery, other than washing a few sheds and boats through its gates. On this day, its paths are puddled with water that poured down in relentless waves last night.

Edwin puts me on hold while he tries to reach our sister, Ellen. I watch the rivers of rain pirouette across my windshield and wait. In a few minutes, he’s back. “She’s not answering. But I’ve got her voice mail, so we can both leave her a message.”

He goes first, explaining to my sister the missed opportunity to talk to both of us at the same time. Then me: “Hey, Ellen. I’m in New Orleans, sitting here in the pouring down rain. I’m sorry we missed you. I’ll see you Saturday.”

“Okay, that’s it,” Edwin says. “I’ve got a lunch meeting. I need to go. You all right?”

“Tired, smelly, sleepy, and ready to come home, but otherwise, I’m fine.”

Then I remember: it’s March 7, a day that has set me off-kilter for the last 39 years.



March 7, 1969

My mother sits upright on the pillow end of my sister’s extra twin bed, the one that had been mine until I moved into my own room just four years earlier. The light from the nightstand casts a flat yellow beam. We three children gather on both beds around her, Edwin perched directly across from her on my sister’s bed, and Ellen and I awkwardly facing each other on the ends, our shoulders curved downward, already tired, already our burden too much for children our age, already our age much older than it was a few days earlier.

Our father has died. After what was supposed to be minor surgery to repair an ulcerated stomach, he has had a heart attack, and just like that, he’s gone.

At last the house is empty of friends, relatives, and neighbors, sometimes wanted and sometimes not. In a few days, my brother will be heading back to his dormitory at Clemson University. On Monday, my sister and I will go back to school. What would we do otherwise but sit around the house and feel sorry for ourselves? Feeling sorry for ourselves will do us no good. Missing school on Monday would only postpone the difficult return, and throw us behind in important things like algebra or the study of American government.

Outside, unrelenting rain pelts down, pounding on the roof, slicing against window panes. Inside, there are no tears. My mother’s long fingers trace the stitching on my sister’s blue bedspread. I don’t have to touch her hands to know they are cold.

“We will go on with our lives,” she says. “We will go back to school, back to work. Staying home won’t make it any better.”

“Edwin is now the man of the house,” she continues. “Ellen and Barbara, you will help me take care of things. Life will be different but we will be strong. We will not talk about this. We will move on.”

We will not talk about this. We will not call his name. There will be no laughter, there will be no joy. We will be strong, and we will make it.

That night I take the small knot of grief that is beginning to work its way from my gut to my throat and swallow it back down. The tears that flowed only one time in four days, one late afternoon behind my closed bedroom door, seep back into the impenetrable foundation my mother has laid. They will not find their way out again.



March 7, 2008

After dinner in the Camp Hope cafeteria, I wait in line in the community room so I can check my email before falling into bed. We are leaving in the morning, spending our last couple of hours at the worksite before piling into our three vehicles and heading to the airport in Biloxi, an hour’s drive. I’ve taken my last shower, stuffed my muddy clothes into plastic bags and crammed them into my suitcase.

Exhaustion defines the place this evening. It has been cold all week and rainy for half of it. The warm fuzzy feeling of our decision to come here for spring break has numbed beneath the cramped conditions and bad food. We’ll get it back, of course, but not one of our crew is sad to be leaving.

Computers line one wall of the community room, where two soft couches, a few tables for board games, and a TV mounted in a corner provide the best hang-out space of the school.

I log on and type in my password to retrieve incoming mail. There is only one, from my brother, to both me and my sister. The subject heading is left blank. I double-click, and the message opens.

Dear Sisters, I tried to get the three of us on a three-way call today because I was in a deep moment of reflection. Every year since 1969, I and presumably you, relive at some point the biggest turning point of our lives. Since then, of course, other days bring about similar emotions. . . but the events of 1969 cannot escape me as the single most defining moment of my entire life.

I read these words and the story that follows with fear and fascination. It is an hour by hour account of his life over a two day period that begins, I will never forget the dorm phone call I got from Mama on that Thursday at 6 a.m. telling me I needed to come home. . . . hitchhiking to an uncertain destiny, 250 miles that took nearly eight hours to accomplish, not realizing I was heading into a lifetime of questions, literally a lifetime of lessons. He’d spend the next 15 hours waiting by my father’s hospital bedside and the next 40 years never forgetting those hours.

His story is remarkable because I’ve never heard it. It is perhaps more remarkable that I’ve never heard it. It confesses to a truth I have felt all my life but have rarely owned up to: an addiction to loss, an inability to move beyond that single day that comes relentlessly, year after year after year.



March 7, 1994

            I live in Lexington, Kentucky, in a small, rented house with my husband Bill, who has left the newspaper business after a successful fifteen-year career and entered graduate school. Our son Will is 8. He’s a happy, rambunctious child with a creative imagination and a love for his red cat that will carry him through to adulthood. We’ve been in this town now for four years, without any family nearby but surrounded by good friends and neighbors. I love Kentucky, love myself in Kentucky. I’ve found the seeds of a poet buried inside me, and they’re sprouting and beginning to leaf out in my words on the page and the breaths of my life, my eyes focused outward on the vibrant color of the world around me.

It’s a cold morning, the remnants of an earlier week’s snow still lingering. Bill has walked to campus, and Will is home from school and is in the living room with his friends Dillon and Ryan, where they’ve turned chairs and couches on their sides and covered them with blankets to build a fort. Something luscious and economical, like a chicken or stew beef on sale, is simmering in the crock pot on the kitchen counter, and I’m stuffing clothes into the washing machine by the back door.

The phone jingles, and jingles again before I pick up. It’s my mother in North Carolina.

“What are you doing?” she asks in her now delicate, soft-pitched voice. She has remarried, is happy, her life warm and full. Still, I’m surprised to hear from her in the middle of the day during the work week. We chat oddly for a minute or two, and I answer her questions about what the rest of the family is up to, how I’m spending my day.

Then after a pause, she says, “I just wondered if you know what day it is.”

I freeze, tensing from head to toe as though a muscle spasm has claimed my entire body. I’ve always known this day, each year its spinning and darkening into a shape unlike any other in the year, never what I expect and never one I can avoid. “Yes, I know,” is all I can say.

There’s another pause, and then, as though she’s been practicing, she continues, “It’s been twenty-five years. I just wanted to know if you’re all right.”

It’s the question I’ve wanted her to ask, wanted anybody to ask, but if there’s an answer for it, I buried it deep twenty-five years ago, just like she taught me to. Part of me wants to take this moment and tell her everything, to let it spill through the phone line to the other side of the mountain and into her house. I want to let it out, but it’s tamped down too well.

“I’m fine,” I answer.

I’m not fine, of course. I’ve simply moved and moving keeps it from coming up, keeps it out of my face, takes away the daily reminders, the people, the weather, the buildings, the names, the words I cannot say and have never been able to say.

There’s little more to our conversation. A quick change of subject, a few more niceties, and we hang up. When I put the receiver back into the cradle, my hand is shaking.

A year will pass before I relocate, kicking and screaming, back to North Carolina, where my choice becomes either to open the Pandora’s box of anger, sadness, untold stories, and unspoken words long buried, or let the poison of denial finish its job of eating away my insides.

My mother will live five more years. She won’t ask about it again.



March 8, 2008

Ellen picks us up at the airport upon our return from New Orleans. Rain still teases around the edges of morning, soft patters against her windshield. After a quick rundown of trip details, I ask, ““So, did you get Edwin’s email?”

“I did,” she says. We are pulling into her driveway now, late afternoon’s overhang of winter chilling the March afternoon.

“So, what’s going on with him?” I ask. “And what are you going to do?”

As middle sister, she never makes up her mind about anything until she weighs all possibilities, checks the lows and highs of everyone’s temperature, and then finds common ground.

“I guess I’m going to answer,” she says.

Tomorrow morning, I will open my email to Ellen’s response, a remarkable account of faith and friends that saw her through the days that followed. Her story will fill four pages. We are survivors with a variety of survival techniques, she will conclude.

But tonight, it’s my turn. That night, after unpacking my suitcase and getting a load of smelly clothes in the wash, I sit down at my computer and reread my brother’s words, the tender story of a boy turned man in a single weekend. I begin my story:

What I remember is him in the bathroom, sick every morning. I tell my version of the day of our father’s death, my grandfather waking Ellen and me at 6 a.m., that day’s rain beginning in fog and unceasing through the long weekend, the long grief within the dark house that followed. Had he lived 39 more years—or even 29 or even 19—how very different our lives would have been. I write for an hour or more, lost in years, before I hit “Send” then close my screen and stand from my chair, stretching my arms behind my back.

I don’t yet know what the months and years ahead will mean. I don’t yet know that beginning to tell our stories will open into volumes of words spilling onto pages, lengthy phone calls, time spent together, the three of us, doing the work of grief that’s 39 years old. What I do know is that something larger and stronger than me has budged, and soon I will—and I’ll mean it this time—be fine.

I pull back the window blinds enough to see the gibbous moon, the face, always in it, still there.



Barbara Presnell is an essayist and poet who lives in North Carolina. Her latest poetry book, Blue Star, traces her family’s involvement in war from the Civil War to the present through military records, census reports, letters, journals, and photographs. Her book, Piece Work, won the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s First Book Prize. She has published work in Cumberland River Review, The Southern Review, Malahat Review, Appalachian Journal, Chariton Review, and other journals and anthologies. She has received grant and residency support from the North Carolina Arts Council, the Kentucky Arts Council, Soapstone, Inc., and Willapa Bay AiR.


“Harbor Lights” by Susan Cole

Harbor Lights
“Emotional Landscapes” by Penelope Breen

John bought the red sweatshirt, fleece-lined and hooded, from L.L. Bean three-and-a-half years into his Stage 4 lung cancer. We lived in Florida then, staying with his sister Pat in her retirement community near Orlando where he got treatment. John could never warm up enough. Chemo and radiation had weakened his muscles. He napped a lot. Even when wearing the sweatshirt, he sometimes shivered with cold.

A year earlier, we sold our catamaran Smooch on which we had lived in Fort Lauderdale, and we moved to Merida, Yucatan. Although not strong enough to sail anymore, John was still robust, and we didn’t want to hang around a furnished Florida apartment waiting for the next CT scan. Merida with its gorgeous colonial architecture, lively mercados, friendly locals, active ex-pat community and economical lifestyle appealed to us. From Merida, John flew to Florida once a month for chemo. He treated the excursions like overnight business trips.

One day in Merida before he was set to go to Orlando for chemo, he woke up feeling extremely dizzy. He could barely walk straight. A doctor in Merida prescribed “dizzy pills” for 100 pesos. I booked a flight to Orlando so I could accompany him for his treatment.

John’s oncologist in Florida ordered an MRI, and we soon found ourselves sitting across from Dr. R., John’s neuro-radiologist. A few small brain tumors had popped up in the past, and Dr. R. had demolished them with gamma-knife radiosurgery. Now, on this trip, Dr. R. brought up the latest MRI on his computer.

White blobs of all sizes glowed like misshapen stars from the dark recesses of John’s brain. He would need two weeks of whole brain radiation. Dr. R. asked John not to fly to Merida until the MRI results of the radiation arrived in two months.

Dr. R. said, “The next two months will be a delicate time for the brain, a little dicey.“

John’s interpretation: “Your brain will explode if you fly.”

Dr. R. was confident that he could keep John’s brain clear of tumors for six months or longer, and if new ones cropped up, he could again perform gamma ray surgery. He wanted to begin immediately.

I reeled from the term “whole brain radiation.” I imagined John becoming a vegetable. Dr. R. assured us that would not happen.

As we stood up to leave, Dr. R. shook John’s hand and said, “We’ve had a good run.”

The handshake reeked of finality. Shaken, John called his oncologist who reassured him that the last scans showed no spread of the lung cancer within the lung. We held onto the hope that Dr. R. would perform his magic: John would come through this awful turn of events intact, a little the worse for wear.

John took the brain radiation well: a little unsteady on his feet but his brain remained sharp. He wore the sweatshirt in the house, loose and unzipped, warming his hands in the pockets. He kept it on even in the 95˚ midday heat of the screened porch. From my air-conditioned spot on a stool at the kitchen counter, I would turn around to check on him—the back of his sweatshirt a stark red against the bright glow of his computer screen through the sliding doors.

We met in our twenties in Connecticut and, once we became a couple, had always lived on or around boats. John had sailed since he was four. Now, as I stared at the back of the sweatshirt, I remembered John’s tanned back and broad shoulders as he trimmed sails, tightened turnbuckles and captured loose halyards on our sailboats. He would haul heavy sail bags from below deck or grab the thick end of the boom on his shoulders to lift it. He’d expect me to hold up the other end. My family did not prize physical prowess and I had disdained team sports. But I loved the physicality of sailing with John.

Before we knew about the cancer, we would set out on Smooch in the soft middle-of-the-night darkness from Biscayne Bay to sail across the Florida Straits to the Bahamas. The alarm would go off and we would bolt awake, nerves jangling. I would brew coffee while John did a final check of the engine and deck, making sure everything was tied down tight. While the engine warmed up, we sat quietly in the cockpit sipping coffee, adjusting to the darkness and taking our bearings-–boats anchored around us, sand glowing on the nearby beach, navigation lights leading out to the channel. John steered from the cockpit while I raised anchor and then ran back to the nav station below to guide us out.

Once we had turned into Biscayne Channel, I would join John on deck. He steered us between the red and green lights towards the open sea, black and alive with uncertainty. The winking harbor lights comforted me as we plunged into the unknown.

Now, as the weeks dragged on at John’s sister’s house while we waited for the MRI, the red sweatshirt, softened and stretched from washings, was worn and supple. Almost imperceptibly, it began to hang more loosely around John’s thinning shoulders. The sweatshirt engulfed my formerly tanned, broad-shouldered sailor who not so long ago had raced headlong across the deck in choppy seas to tame a loose jib sheet.

I missed that sailor. At times, I regarded the shopworn sweatshirt as though it were a flimsy hospital gown–flaps loose, revealing John’s pale legs and back, and exuding the chemical smell of his illness.

After he got sicker—the brain radiation was successful, but the lung cancer spread–I came across a photo I had snapped just a few weeks earlier of John and his sister Pat, with whom we had stayed five months by then, instead of the originally planned three days. In the picture, John was seated at her dining table. She leaned into him, one arm around his shoulder, a hand resting on his chest. Cheeks pressed together, John and Pat shook with laughter. You couldn’t mistake the family resemblance: wide smiles, twinkling eyes nearly crinkled shut, strong jaws.

Pat, six years older, had taught John to smoke when he was eight. She had chanted “loony, loony” when he talked to himself as a kid while playing with his toys. The siblings’ dark humor had always attracted me. In the photo, they could have been laughing about John’s shrunken shoulders or his last cough. The photo lifted my spirits in a way that well-meaning platitudes people tossed my way –“hold strong,” “you can beat this”–did not.

They were laughing at the blackness, the void ahead. John’s faded red sweatshirt took up much of the frame, warming me like the winking harbor lights when we headed to sea at night.



Susan Cole recently completed a memoir about a three-year sailing voyage she took with her husband and daughter from Connecticut to the Bahamas, Cuba, Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. Essays about her family’s sailing adventure have appeared in Daily Palette, Mary, and Living Aboard. She has attended the Iowa Summer Writing Festival every year since 2007. In between sails, she earned a B.A. from Barnard College, an M.A in Psychology from Columbia University, and for many years, ran a successful new-product marketing research firm. She currently lives in New Orleans, enjoying a new land-bound adventure.

Read an interview with Susan here.