“Birth” by Millicent Borges Accardi

First Stage in a Lost Relationship (Millicent Accardi)
“First Stage in Lost Relationship,” oil on canvas, Darwin Leon

Not wanting to disturb the marriage,
my parents, or you: I enter backwards,
door through. The hallway strains
with my struggles: thick blooded pores enclose
my shoulders. If I can make it into the safety
of our bed without the angry walls screaming:
“Guilty, Jezebel, guilty,”
then I will be able to breathe.

In the living room, you my dear husband, my love,
you sleep: on the worn out sofa, like a child,
or a man who has given up. If my four legg’ed shadow
can crawl past you all will be well.

The Bible and the headstones will rest
with me, buried deep in trampled grass:
it is where they belong. You never gave me
any trouble, dear husband, but you never gave me
any encouragement, either.

Do not utter a word, sleeping man;
this life we have is not so safe.

Forced into this world with cold forceps,
I now bring myself back. Husband, husband
who is asleep, holding the umbilical cord
like a rubber band: You keep tugging on my body,
making me small.

I am your boomerang who must return;
dragged back like Circe with sperm in my hair;
it is a planned breach un-birth.

And so, tonight after tonight, I will carry
my purse, hide my cigarettes, and pray
that you do not awaken.

Never staying born is a crucifix that weighs
and digs into my bloody shoulders;
it happens every time I leave him to go home.

Not wanting to disturb the marriage,
my parents, or you:
I enter backwards, door through.

 

Millicent Borges Accardi is the author of two poetry books: Injuring Eternity and Woman on a Shaky Bridge. She received fellowships from the NEA, California Arts Council, Barbara Demming Foundation and Canto Mundo. A second full-length poetry collection Only More So is forthcoming from Salmon Press, Ireland in 2012.

Read an interview with Millicent here.

“Watermark” by Patricia Heim

Watermark

I lie face down on the black leather couch. After three years of coming here, I am finally weeping.

I hear him rise from his black leather chair, feel the air swoop as the blanket falls over me. Gently, he smoothes it around my shoulder; I hadn’t expected such a gesture. He’s an analyst, after all. Yet, it feels right.

Back in his seat, I sense him leaning forward, head bowed, hands clasped between his knees. He is my witness.

My arm, sleeved in cashmere, covers my face. I am steeping in memory, forget how old I am, middle-aged I suppose, heart flash-frozen at thirteen.

The Sondheim song spins, round in my head. Last night, alone, I played it over and over. Ethereal and so sad, I never realized. The bid for clowns made me think of her, though I don’t know why. I cried inconsolably like the child I once was.

~

I see her in the kitchen. Springtime, she’s fixing supper, her gingham house dress hugging her form. I sit at the table, reading aloud my geography text. I’m content just to be in the room with her. The metal scent of screens mingles with the twilight air, marking the hour I educate her−tonight of watery places. Their names, all poetry to me: Isthmus of Panama, Straits of Gibraltar, Marianna Trench, Lake Meade; the pulsing cadence, soothing, incantatory.

Below us, in the basement, a turtle conch from the Philippines hums a chorus of the ocean. When I was small she held to my ear. I found it beautiful and then fascinating, how it cradled in its chamber the might of the sea.

The days lengthen. In the dining room, dust motes twirl in columns of sunlight. On my knees, I’m waxing the mahogany. She sits at the window sill, chatting on the phone with her sister. They are laughing like schoolgirls. She doodles in blue ink; cups and saucers in the curled margins of the yellow telephone directory. On the backs of torn envelopes she scribbles grocery lists, saves the loose-leaf for notes, sometimes to my teacher.

Seventh grade finally ends. I’ve wiggled my way into the popular group. My best friend and I make prank calls to strangers. We think this is funny. She invites me for dinner, so I dial my mom.

“Are you sure you don’t want to come home?” she asks, as if I’m the one who’s wavering.” I’ve made roast beef, one of your favorites.”

“That sounds good, Mom,” I say, hoping my warmth will tide her over. “Save me some leftovers? I won’t be too long.”

~

Midsummer, I’m off swimming at the pool, mastering the back dive. She sleeps in her bedroom, tangled up in the sheets, pale and incoherent. A week before, she was quarantined at the hospital, thrashing about, tied to the bedrails. We stood in the corridor, faces poked through the doorway, our words (“We’re here, Mom … getting better… home soon…miss you”) sailing across the room, straining to reach her.

“Meningitis,” they said, though they hadn’t a clue. Finally, they released her.

“Exhaustion,” they concluded.

The morning she returns, I race to the front porch at the sound of wheels, the engine cut to an eerie silence. Eternity passes. I can barely move or breathe. From the driver’s side, my father appears, then, circles to her door before craning to lift her. I don’t understand why she slumps into his frame, why he practically carries her.

I steady the door as they shuffle through, a rhyming couplet, a living pieta. He sets her down on the sofa, head flopping beneath the weight of the mass lurking in her brain, growing like a grapefruit. Only an autopsy will eventually reveal it.

Either she doesn’t know me or can’t say my name. “It’s Patsy” my dad exclaims.

“Patsy,” she repeats, as if learning to speak.

Stunned, I stumble through the downstairs before lurching onto the back porch where I’ve been known to dance and sing. I clutch my chest, because I can’t inhale, then crumple to the ground, choking and sobbing.

Days later, my friends and I are planning a funfair, my debut as gypsy fortune-teller. She’s not supposed to wake up, while I hold my breath and tiptoe toward her bureau.

“What are you doing?” I hear her say.

“Borrowing some jewelry for a fair we’re having,” I answer, not daring to face her. “I’m supposed to be the gypsy; I read palms and predict the future. I’ll bring them back as soon as it’s over.”

“You never help me,” she scolds, before drifting back off. I gaze out the window, fists  dripping with rhinestones, the green world calling.

“Help you?” I want to scream. “How am I supposed to help you? You’re always asleep. Most of the time, you don’t even make sense.”

Days later, she disappears.

“A seizure,” my father explains, hours after I’ve come home from the pool, darting up and down the stairs, yelping for her. He’d rushed her to the hospital. There wasn’t time to leave a note.

I wonder if she’ll ever come back, as I think about lilacs, how she gathered them in vases. At the hospital, she dreams of her dead mother. “I’m tired,” and, “Take care of Patsy,” she moans to anyone in sight, especially my father, seizing his arm, her gray eyes glaring.

The nurse phones at dawn on a Sunday morning, “Mr. Finn, your wife’s condition is very grave.”

A flock of dresses eyes me from the closet. What to wear poses the biggest question.

Am I a girl or a woman?

The minute hand won’t move. The wardrobe doesn’t answer.

We weren’t late. She died moments after we got the call. It wasn’t my fault, but still, I blamed myself all my life as if I had been selfish, as if I were a criminal. How could I have known, at thirteen, that my world had overturned and nothing could be done, that my need for control was perfectly normal?

Eighth grade, acorns thud into puddles of leaves. My mind fingers a stone, ponders it ceaselessly. Never, it reads. Never, I repeat, over and over. Once, the word had meaning, but in the reciting, it gets whittled down to nonsense. The unconscious fails in its attempt to represent absence.

Before long, I recite all manner of things, facts and formulas, stirring lines of literature, skeins of poetry, and litanies of prayer. I held onto my mind, but the girl that was me, I can’t seem to locate. Even beyond the closet, choosing is still difficult. Things often aren’t quite right. Almost always, something is missing.

In my mind, I open the door, while alone in the living room, she sits very still. Her face looks vacant, disapproving, I think.

Hot tears graze my cheeks, while a voice inside whispers, “You have to say, ‘good-bye.”

“Good-bye,” I say, sounding like I mean it.

It is necessary, sometimes, to be firm.

 

 

Patricia Heim is a psychotherapist in private practice in Philadelphia. She received both her B. A. and M.A. from Immaculata University and post-graduate training from the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia. Pat lives with her husband on a farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania and writes with the Greater Philadelphia Wordshop studio.

Read an interview with Pat Heim here.

“Chance Reunion with Monsters” by Jesse Cheng

The Strangers (Jesse Chang)
“The Strangers,” oil on canvas by Darwin Leon

Some beastly friends from long ago have teeth that became the most luxurious pillows. As we start to reminisce they throw back their heads, roaring, then tongues unfurl as down comforters.

They beckon me in with gaping grins, though I can tell by the crinkles of their eyes: They still want to eat me. But how can I keep distant, they’re so terribly inviting. I dive in and kick off my shoes, sweeping angels into the cool linen. The monsters gurgle blah blah blah, their plush gullets, once muscular and hard, struggling to swallow. Not that they have reason to gripe. At the end of my stay how tenderly I’ll smooth the flat sheet over the bedcover’s top edge. What care I’ll take to palm wrinkles off the sham. My old friends pat my shoulder as I duck out, their tongues rolled up in compact bundles. Their smiles appear all delight, but I see it in the tight crease of their lips: Curses! I imagine them gnashing their teeth watching me saunter off—frustrated, natch, though I’m more thinking how good and fluffed those pillows will be should I ever come back to town.

 

 

Jesse Cheng is from Southern California. Works have appeared or are forthcoming in NANO Fiction, Pear Noir!, and Asian Pacific American Journal.  His website is jesse-cheng.com

Interview with Kathryn Winograd

Kathryn Winograd

Joan Hanna: We were so excited to have “Afterward: a Draft” in our April issue of r.kv.r.y. This was a personal and intimate piece about a rape that took place in the early 70s. Can you share a little with our readers about how the passage of time factored into your perspective?

Kathryn Winograd: Of course it was the poet Wordsworth who said poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquility,” and I think the same can be said for creative nonfiction. The raw wound, that “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions,” does not always allow language its transforming capacity for communion, for enlightenment, even transcendence, dark as that might translate itself. Now why it took me almost 40 years to reach a state of mind from which I could write this is something for me to ponder. When I was raped in the early 70s, I was a scared little girl, overwhelmed by the weight of familial, legal and societal expectations, and, to be honest, only half-veiled condemnations and ridicule, especially by my peer group. Despite the efforts and the progress made by women advocate groups at the time to shift legal scrutiny from the women rape victims themselves–states still required victims to prove that they had resisted “to the utmost” despite most certain physical imperilment and jurors were often instructed to give the victims’ testimony “special scrutiny,” a sobering 17th century residue from when women rape victims were referred to as the “never so innocent,”–publically, rape victims were still regarded as culpable or tainted and thus pressured, however unconsciously or well-meaning, into silence, into the acquiescence of shame. I think having my own daughters and seeing their fragile, beautiful innocence unfold before me gave me the distance I needed from that little silent girl I carried inside me to begin to understand the ramifications of an act of violence on all levels. I am not that little girl, but a woman of 52 years who can look upon her with the greatest of tenderness now, and maybe even look upon those who wounded her most with at least wisdom or clarity, or, more powerfully for me, with neither as I try to understand the great gaps, as the poet Natasha Trethewey might say, in this history.

 

JH: In your essay you make a very strong distinction about your attacker being a “boy” at the time of the attack and the feelings you had about your attacker spending 25 years in prison. How do you think that changes the perception of the attack from your present perspective? Do you think his age factored in at all for you at the time of the attack?

KW: At least for me at thirteen, a nineteen year old seemed very old. A grown up I had no understanding of.  My parents’ periodic “updates,” I barely registered–ashamed, embarrassed to be reminded of something I was trying so hard to bury. My view of him as a “boy” emerged, again, as a result of my daughters and their friendships with male friends who seemed sometimes so heartbreakingly clueless and immature despite their outward bravado. One of their friends did something, nothing even close on the scale of what my perpetuator did to me that could have affected him legally for the rest of his life. Despite his good upbringing, his manners, his intelligence, he committed a stupid act against a girl his age, done out of great immaturity for which he regretted and still regrets to this day. What if the authorities had not recognized his immaturity, his capacity for change? Of course even as I write this, I am thinking that perhaps this is the crux of the issue: this boy had a core of goodness from which change could come. Did my perpetuator (notice here I don’t even call him a “boy”)? He already had a long list of offenses, each more invasive, more violent. Is there no hope then? Right now in Colorado, the courts reconsider a law that allowed children under the age of 18 to be convicted as adults for felony crimes, convictions that include life in prison without parole. Even for 14 year olds. Yet children under 18 do kill. Even 14 year olds kill. And families grieve. In the Super Max prison located in Florence, Colorado, inmates are in isolation 23 hours a day. For life. And yet some or all would kill me, and a hundred others, without a thought. I have no answer here. I could call myself a “bleeding-heart liberal,” yet the thought of stepping into a prison to teach inmates creative writing as some of my colleagues do leaves me sickened. My present perspective? That is still a gap.

 

JH: How do you think the pressure of a young girl knowing she “had to be the one to stop him” affected recovery from such a vicious act?

KW: Now I see it differently, but back then I was my parents’ loving, obedient daughter, affectionately called “KeeKee” by my father. This is what they said I must do and so I did. They did not ask me to do this unkindly. I know now, as a parent myself, that it must have been agonizing to watch me, so awkwardly clueless, have to answer the questions I did, meet the people I did, testify on the sexual matters that I had to.  I think only the summer before my mother had taken me into her bedroom and presented me with a pink Kotex box and helped me read the instructions on how to use them and why. I still remember the little blue belt that fastened around my hips. And that year, our junior high phys ed/health classes were still showing us cautionary animations about light bulbs (boys) and irons (girls). My parents could have buried this, sheltered me, but they both had a fine sense of moral responsibility, which I respect. They wanted to protect other girls and so they hoped through the concept of altruism to give me strength. Traumatic as the court procedures and all that went before might have been (I remember so little of it), I think they had little effect, good or bad, on my recovery. But of course once more I am dealing with gaps.

 

JH: You quote some horrifying statistics including, 40 women raped a day in the Democratic Republic of Congo and 200,000 women raped during the Bangladesh Liberation War. Can you talk a little more about the use of sexual violence as a tactic of war?

KW: I don’t know when I first heard the reports that the whole concept of rape in war had changed. I still had the Hollywood version in my head: rape happened as a side-consequence of brutal men, renegades swept over by the primalness of war. Then I began to hear of women raped by the thousands in a systematic manner designed to destroy whole cultures through decimation of the family unit, the introduction of the enemy sperm into the very bloodlines of a civilization, the civilization usurped not just by death, but, by birth. When I thought I had finished my manuscript on my own rape, I realized that I needed another voice, another perspective; one that looked beyond the individual case into the spectrum of gender worldwide. Too long I had nursed this as something that happened only to me, not realizing that I was merely a statistic, not even a faint blimp on the world radar. I barely had to do any research before I began to be overwhelmed by the vastness of this sisterhood I had unwillingly and unknowingly joined, and the ferocity of the men who would maim and annihilate what birthed them. Start with the United Nations Human Rights website and look up “Rape: Weapon of War” and learn for yourself.

 

JH: I think that people may often have a strong reaction when presented with these types of statistics of sexual violence as tool a of war but do you think that they have as violent a reaction to rape when it occurs as yours did, in the everyday?

KW: No I don’t think so. I think there is still the residual of “she deserved it” or “she made some stupid mistake that I would not make.” Or “he must be sick.” Who wants to believe that, on a large scale, the men we love, that we are paired with biologically, could have such evil in them that they could knowingly, systematically, strategically rape innocent women, girls, children even as they woo, wed, make tender love to their women at home?

 

JH: One thing that I found interesting in your essay was your perception of perpetuating the crime through silence. But, to me, it seems as though you were anything but silent. You went the authorities, you identified the attacker, you testified and he was sentenced. So you did speak up in the legal sense but I began to see another psychological dimension emerge as a sort of social silence, which becomes significant in the aftermath of a rape. Can you embellish a little on this aspect for our readers?

KW: I still remember, and it’s in the first essay I ever wrote about being raped, “Speaking the Word,” this ugly little bald male poet (whoops, I guess I’m still a little bitter) basically slapping his hand across my mouth the first time I was able to write the word, “rape,” down in some kind of cathartic attempt to make sense of what had happened:  “I know what you are saying,” he wrote in a little note on a little poem. “Kick it in the teeth and don’t ever say it again.” How can you talk about it? Who can you talk about it to without exposing this vulnerability?

 

JH: These are uncomfortable issues to discuss in many ways, thank you for speaking so honestly not only from your very personal perspective but also for giving us a little more of a worldview. I know that you have much work that is not specific to this topic; can you share links to your website and other publications to give a broader sense of the your writing?

KW: My website is www.kathrynwinograd.com.

Perhaps a good view of me as NOT the rape victim can be read at Literary Mama: “Talismans of the Whirlpool”

 

JH: Thank you for sharing your essay, Afterword: a Draft and for taking the time to discuss your essay and your writing with our readers. Just one final question, can you tell us what “recovery” means to you?

KW: Perfect example:  I started a creative writing capstone project with a student who presented me with a cute little essay on adopting an abandoned dog. The woman is an excellent writer in terms of voice, style, and language. But her work was always on the glib and witty side, something she herself wanted to change. We talked about her essay on the little cowering sheltie and then she made the statement:

“Well, you know this is all about me. My fear of everything.” Really?

She drew connections for me. She wept and said, “I can’t write this.” Really?

Week after week, tissue after tissue, we drilled down to her fear of death beneath the trembling dog, her fear of abandonment beneath the peeing dog, her stint in a Scottish prison for a DUI where she, numbered, abandoned, unable to bear children herself, brought food to the women prisoners who had killed their infants. No dog there.

Some weeks, she could barely uncrumple herself from the chair.

“Don’t ever let anybody read this,” she made me swear.

“Don’t ever make me read this,” she said.

Really?

This week, the two of us bent over her newest draft, weighing it line by line, word by beautiful word.

“Cathartic,” she declared it and sat straight up in her chair.

“I’ll read it at the capstone reading if you want,” she said.

Dry-eyed.

Writing: that is recovery.

“Hot Glass” by Michael Milburn

Man Attempting (Michael Milburn)
“Man Attempting to Comprehend his Place in the Universe, Time, and Space,” Darwin Leon.

“That was lethal,” my mother said, closing the front door behind her.

I didn’t know if she meant lethal for me to have downed three vodka screwdrivers before getting behind the wheel of my car, lethal to have arrived drunk at a college friend’s New Year’s Eve party the night before, or both. My parents and I had just returned from a neighbor’s house where my father wrote a check to repair the lawn I detoured through on the way home, churning up sod and sideswiping trees. Before disappearing into his study, he ordered me to come up with a repayment plan, the extent of my punishment. His restraint surprised me until I remembered that his own chronic recklessness with alcohol made it awkward for him to sound too disapproving.

In time, my parents came to refer to that incident as a typical youthful bender, a rite of passage for an eighteen-year-old boy who had reached the legal drinking age a few months before. I saw it that way, too, though it ceased to look so harmless in the wake of subsequent alcohol-related calamities. Factor in my childhood exposure to my father’s copious drinking, and my troubles with alcohol later in life, and that New Year’s Eve scene turns into an omen that I should have taken more seriously. Gulping alcohol has always been my way of pounding my nerves into submission; in those days, three drinks was the minimum required to get me out of the house to a social engagement.

Later that year, my college roommate announced that he had invited two girls to our dorm room. I hurried out to buy a pint of vodka and a quart of orange juice to neutralize my shyness. I drank so avidly in preparation for the girls’ arrival (they only stayed for twenty minutes) that I passed out in my clothes and woke the next morning having wet the bed. A Halloween party that fall ended with me carried home in my devil costume, my roommates (one of whom had just completed reserve training at Quantico) chanting a Marine fight song as they marched me through the quad. After that, it became increasingly hard to laugh off my binges, and I have since given up alcohol many times for periods ranging from a week to a year. Today, I strictly limit my intake with regard to when, where, how much, and how often I drink, but I have not stopped for good, a failing that I blame on alcohol’s power to extinguish my anxiety.

For as long as I can remember, I have suffered from phobias provoked by crowds, heights, enclosed spaces, and social interaction. Even alone and remote from any threat, I am subject to apprehension with no identifiable cause. By quelling these symptoms, alcohol makes me feel right in a way I never do when sober, a way that I imagine people who don’t crave it feel all the time. In his article “Who Falls to Addiction, and Who is Unscathed,” the physician Richard Friedman suggests that drug and alcohol abusers “may have blunted reward systems in the brain, and that for them everyday pleasures don’t come close to the powerful reward of drugs.” A study in the Archives of General Psychiatry confirms alcohol’s attractiveness and its danger when used as a balm for anxiety.

…of 34,653 American adults, 13% of the people who had consumed alcohol or drugs in the previous year said they’d done so to reduce their anxiety, fear, or panic about a situation….People with diagnosed anxiety disorders

who self-medicated at the start of the study were two to five times more likely than those who did not self-medicate to develop a drug or alcohol problem within three years.

My affinity for alcohol began in my father’s bar, a tiny room centrally located between our house’s living room and den. Its contents reflected his pride in being able to serve anyone’s beverage of choice on demand. A small antiquated refrigerator always stocked a six-pack of Heineken for him and my three older brothers, a bottle of rosé for my mother’s nightly two glasses, a vintage white or red wine for dinner, and on holidays a magnum of champagne wedged between ice-trays in the freezer. A cupboard held half gallons of vodka and gin alongside various expensive whiskeys received as gifts or earmarked for guests. Reserve cases of beer and wine filled a narrow closet.

I never had any difficulty obtaining alcohol growing up. My brothers were too prolific in their drinking to miss the Heinekens I carried out to my tree fort in the woods, and there were enough leftover bottles of dinner wine that I could sneak one up to my bedroom while my parents napped. A six-pack of beer and bottles of my mother’s rosé accompanied me back to boarding school after each vacation, swaddled in my duffel bag. If my father had discovered me pilfering his booze, his reaction would likely have been “That’s my boy.” He was far more eager to educate me in the rituals of alcohol than to shield me from its dangers.

When I was ten, he taught me how to make a mint julep by mashing mint leaves against the bottom of a tumbler filled with Jack Daniels. I poured this concoction over crushed ice, stirred in a packet of Sweet N’ Low—a nod to his current diet—and served it to him on the patio in a frosted silver goblet. I hated the taste, just as I hated the Budweisers that my uncle expected me to have open for him when he visited, but delighted my elders by taking healthy swigs from these drinks before handing them over. When I turned seventeen and my father allowed me my own glass of wine at dinner, I had been accepting sips from his glass for years. By then I had already acquired a taste for beer and wine and made myself sick enough on scotch, gin, rum, and tequila that I have never been tempted by them since.

At boarding school, drinking felt like a natural rather than a criminal activity. On weekend nights, I’d sit in the window of my dorm room with a smuggled bottle of my mother’s rosé. These solitary sessions would have astonished my classmates, who tended to break rules boastfully and in groups, and who knew me as the straightest of straight arrows, not just because I played sports, studied hard, and wore bland preppy clothes, but because I was so shy. None of my close friends drank, and I wouldn’t have dared approach anyone who did to invite myself along on a debauch. I had been getting drunk alone since I was thirteen and didn’t crave company or recognition. I drank to ease the anxiety that I felt in my school’s academically and socially competitive environment.

After midnight one Saturday, a boy strode into my room to borrow a book while I was occupied with my bottle of Mateus. He stared at me with a combination of surprise and respect before wordlessly accepting a glass. By the next day—or perhaps that evening after he left to spread the word—my reputation had undergone a dramatic makeover. One of the chronic miscreants who lived on the floor below passed me on the way to Sunday brunch, and with a medley of winks, nods, and oblique compliments let me know that he knew that I wasn’t as innocent as I seemed. This was unwelcome news—I knew how naughty I was and saw no profit in others knowing too, especially an image-conscious slacker unlikely to make it to graduation.

In college, where my multiple roommates made solitude impossible, my drinking retained its private aspect, as I focused on ingesting alcohol rather than enjoying the party. Several times a week my roommates and I partook of a local bar’s happy hour, surrounded by other freshmen. As my friends paid attention to each other and to the girls in the room, I hurried to get drunk enough to cope with any of the latter approaching our table.  An observer would have thought the scene harmless—a college freshman relaxing in boisterous good company. I was passing my courses and playing two sports. Looked at another way, I was spending most of my evenings drunk and much of the rest of my time looking forward to getting drunk. A ubiquitous public service ad at that time warned, “If you’re drinking to be social, it’s not social drinking.” Then what is it, I wondered, and why do it? Why not switch to ginger ale?

Even in comfortable company, with a friend or two in my dorm room, I outpaced everyone. I couldn’t plead social or other stresses at these times; getting drunk was a race to get out of my mind as quickly as possible. My tendency to pass out early usually spared me embarrassments like the New Year’s Eve drive and Halloween march. An exception occurred one evening in the college dining hall. Primed by several pre-dinner beers, a friend and I sat near two boys who lived in our dorm—precocious intellectuals who dressed conservatively and read The Wall Street Journal. I began making fun of the pair in a loud voice, mocking their dress and speech as my friend tried to shush me. “I think we’re being insulted,” one said as they rose to leave.

The memory of that scene still mortifies me, as if a demon had seized my tongue and forced me to speak as someone I neither was nor wanted to be. I can’t remember how I faced the boys in the dorm afterward, but three years later on the eve of commencement I encountered one of them walking through a quiet neighborhood near campus. Before he could stride past, I stopped him and apologized for my behavior as a freshman. He listened, nodded in acceptance, and walked away. Even if my immaturity mitigates my offense somewhat, it’s hard not to find evidence of alcoholism in my drinking at that age, my future temperance notwithstanding.

I first noticed the duality between drinking as fun and as destructive behavior in my father’s practice. On a typical weekday he might have a cocktail and wine at lunch with his Wall Street cronies, one or two beers in a Penn Station bar while waiting for his commuter train, another in the bar by our local Long Island station before my mother picked him up, a glass of sherry upon arriving home and wine with dinner. On vacations he’d announce at breakfast the precise time he planned to start drinking that morning. Once a year, usually on New Year’s Day, he went on the wagon as part of a new diet or on doctor’s orders for hypertension. After a week or so his resolve faltered, especially if one of my older brothers arrived home and began draining Heinekens in front of him.

My ex-wife used to press me to admit that my father was an alcoholic, and I’d exasperate her by demanding a precise definition of the word. How could a man so successful warrant that label? He was a Wall Street lawyer who worked full-time into his seventies and retained several clients beyond that age. He provided for his family, came home in time for dinner when he wasn’t traveling or preparing for trial, attended graduations and sports events, and took us on vacation to Bermuda every March. He was also a surly, vindictive drunk who humiliated my mother and taught his children to avoid him, and whose scorn left psychological scars on every member of his family. He showed up intoxicated and limping at my sister’s wedding after causing a car accident on the way to the church. Alcoholic? It depends how you look at it.

Perhaps my quibbling over labels betrays my reluctance to diagnose myself; I have drunk so sparingly for the past twenty years that there’s little outward evidence of a problem. A friend in AA jokes that if he had my self-control he’d never have had to quit drinking, though his sobriety demands far more discipline than mine. I simply avoid alcohol in situations where it impairs me. After squeezing my four-year-old son’s arm too hard during a beer-fueled scolding, I stopped drinking in his presence, and have not done so for the past twenty-one years. Realizing that disagreements were likelier to turn ugly if I was even mildly hungover, I stopped drinking around my girlfriend. In my thirties I stopped drinking in my parents’ house, where moderation was impossible in the face of my father’s persistent hospitality. My final withdrawal came a few years ago when two glasses of wine made me so inarticulate at a dinner party that I stopped drinking in public.

Today I only drink by myself, some wine or cognac on week-end nights when my family is asleep. I’d like to say that I stop after achieving a pleasant buzz, but in truth I drink the way I always have, fast and purposefully until the alcohol blots out my anxiety. As long as I stick to a strict schedule, I tell myself, I need never join my friend in recovery. Besides, what difference would it make if I stopped? My longing for alcohol would continue, and the only negative effect of my solitary binges is a slight hangover the next morning. That and my awareness that I cannot stop, and that calling my drinking harmless is as self-deluding as when I drove across the neighbor’s lawn thirty-five years ago.

In his essay “Under the Influence” Scott Russell Sanders worries that growing up with an alcoholic father has made him susceptible to abusing alcohol himself. As an adult, he confines himself to “…once a week, perhaps, a glass of wine, a can of beer, nothing stronger, nothing more.” Sanders recalls seeing his father take his first drink of the day: “I watch the amber liquid pour down his throat, the alcohol steal into his blood, the key turn in his brain.” For me that key turns when my first sip begins to deaden the quickened, frantic feeling that anxiety maintains in me. Nothing else, not therapy or meditation or success or love has given me such relief, and that’s why I do not or cannot give up drinking for good.

A few years ago I mentioned my fondness for English beer to my son and he said, “But I’ve never seen you take a drink.” Drinking alone allows me to keep my troubled relationship with alcohol a secret. People who know me would laugh at the idea of me being an alcoholic or even concerned about the possibility. At parties, my request for water or ginger ale elicits curious looks as I imagine strangers speculating about my alcoholic past. Like a man with that grim history, my outward temperance belies an inner craving. I look forward to my weekly ration more than to anything in my life. “Right now I would eat hot glass / if it got in the way of this fantasy” a line in a friend’s poem goes. When it comes to alcohol, that’s how I feel.

 

Michael Milburn teaches English in New Haven, Connecticut. His essays have recently appeared in New England Review and Hippocampus. His third book of poems, Carpe Something, will appear this summer from Word Press.

Check out our feature on Michael here.

“Afterward: a Draft” by Kathryn Winograd

The Rape (Kathryn Winograd)
“The Rape,” oil on canvas, Darwin Leon

In the early 1970s, ’71 or ’72, I think, (see how already the narrative breaks down), I was raped by a man I did not know.

I was 13 or I was 12. I was in the 8th grade or in the 7th, both years lost, only an image left, an English teacher, who had dyed black hair, who was kindly, who asked me in the middle of class one day if I were okay, if I needed to leave the room, to go home. She touched me on the shoulder, I want to say. (What is the right narrative?) I don’t know what I was doing or what I looked like to cause her such alarm; I only remember sitting on the end of the row nearest the door and her asking me if I were okay, and my mother telling me later (so even this is wrong; where is the silence I only remember?) that this teacher had had a daughter raped too and so she was concerned for me, she understood. I don’t know if a year had passed by then or if it were in the same year; I don’t know if I left the class or if I stayed.

~

Most of my life I have not remembered this man’s name, this boy’s. (He was 19, and, at 52 now, I realize that I cannot think of him as anything else), and I won’t give him his name here, even though once I had the idea of looking his record up, of researching his life as if that would prove my indifference to him finally. He met me half way up the lane along the cemetery to our house; he must have watched from the graves as I stepped off the school bus. He asked me his question. I answered him. Politely. (I’ve read somewhere now that young girls are most often attacked because of this vulnerability. We are asked to be nice, to be helpful. And so we are.) He came up to me on the driveway by the cemetery. He asked me where the Smiths were. I told him. I pointed the way for him and then I turned away. Without fear.  Without surprise. (Small comfort, this, when I hear of another young girl or woman raped, murdered–I think when I was lying on the ground and he was finally leaving me that he could so easily have put his hands around my throat and I would have died. Or he could have stabbed me with a knife and I would have died. Without fear. Without surprise. Everything happened so quickly; everything was simply something that happened–detached, removed from me, my every sense heightened, but not in fear, only in wonder, only in minute-by-minute half-comprehensions. What I hope for those other women.)

He put his arms were around me from the back and said not to scream. He tried to punch me in the stomach but my coat was thick and sturdy and I felt none of it. He said he wanted to go steady, for me to be his girlfriend, all the time taking me further into the woods. The only fear I remember now was when he pushed me to the ground and ripped my pants from me and the wad of gum I had been chewing jammed up against my throat and I was afraid I would choke so I turned my head to the side to spit it out. I saw the dead leave then, what I remember most. He lay on me. I felt pain. Later a lawyer would ask me in court if I thought he had used his fingers to “penetrate” me. (I didn’t know what he meant. I had never been with a boy. Why would anyone want to put their fingers there?)

I bit him. Not bravely. He put his fingers near my mouth, so I bit him. He stood above me, crying. He said I had hurt him. He backed away from me into the woods, still crying. Only then was I afraid, that he might return. I wrapped my torn pants around my waist and ran to the barbed-wire fence that ran along the roadside. A man on a tractor appeared. I waved at him, crying. (He must have been a farmer in the area, but I don’t remember who he was and no one ever said anything to me about him.) I don’t remember how we got to my neighbor’s, if I rode his tractor or if he walked me there.  I sat on the couch with the girl I went to school with who lived in this house with no plumbing, no mother.  My parents were out of town, in Florida. There was no one to come and get me. I don’t know if I rode in a police car or if an ambulance took me someplace. My mother would tell me later how she wept and cried at the airline ticket counter in Florida, begging the airlines to give her a ticket home so that she could be with me. (There is that other narrative. And yet I keep saying we never spoke of it.) I was examined; evidence taken. I remember little of this: nurses talking to me, the curtain they pulled around the bed, perhaps some more pain. Medical students in a residency program my father oversaw came to take me home–I think. They had been staying with me. I don’t remember how we got home. I do remember vividly passing through our gate and being greeted by the large pack of dogs that roamed our farm and how much I wished that I had made it that far, to the gate, to the dogs that would have helped me. (I have kept dogs ever since.)

My mother arrived sometime late at night. I was asleep or half sleeping. She appeared, weeping. I remember little else of that night. My father offered a large reward for information regarding this boy.  He and I drove to the sheriff’s station one night, sat in the back of an unmarked car with the overhead light turned off and watched the sheriff call a possible suspect out of his home or out of a bar. I don’t know which. I didn’t recognize him. I think there was a lineup at some point, but I don’t know for sure. A young man my father and mother had befriended told them about seeing someone at a bar that night, with a band-aid on his finger. He had been bragging. He was arrested. We went to court.

My mother told me that I needed to do this, that the boy had attacked other young girls my age, that each time he had gone a little further, obviously accelerating what he was doing, that he had to be stopped in case he killed someone. That I had to be the someone to stop him. I remember little of the trial. My mother and father would take me, before or after, for ice cream. I don’t know what we talked about. I found out later, or I think my mother told me, (here again, that narrative of silence falters), that the judge for the case was the father of a young girl in my class. My mother made me a dress for the day I testified. It was red. It had blue anchors on it and a white collar. My mother said that I was so young it was really bad for this man. (I didn’t know that at the same time I was going through trial, women’s groups in the seventies were fighting to change rape laws that had forced women to prove physical resistance to the attack and personal chastity.) I don’t remember what I said in court or what was said to me except for that question about the fingers. At the end, he was convicted. I sat in the courtroom when the sentence was announced. The police led this boy past me. His mother appeared from the rows across the aisle, crying, “You told me you didn’t do it. You told me you didn’t do it.” I think I threw the red dress away, but I don’t know.

~

I think of the nineteen-year-old boys I teach in college now, the friends of my daughters, how young they are. Of the life I’ve had these past thirty-nine years–school, college, graduate school, marriage, children, work. A man, a good man, who loves me. Only last year my mother told me that “this guy,” she called him, had gotten out of prison after twenty-five years. (Could this even be right? I have been married twenty-five years and didn’t marry until thirteen years after this rape. Where is my narrative now?) I think of the Super Max prison in Florence, Colorado. And of the men I read about who are in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, for years and years. I am not sure what we are trying to accomplish. I ask myself if even this boy deserved to be imprisoned for so long for such a stupid act when he was nineteen. (I remember hearing that my father, every year the boy came up for parole, submitted his statement that he shouldn’t be released. Later my mother telling that this boy’s sentence was extended over and over again, not because of me, but because of what he did in prison. “It’s not about you anymore,” she told me.) I don’t know what this boy did in prison. I don’t know how many other girls he touched before me that day. I don’t know what might have happened if he had not been stopped, had not been imprisoned. I did good, I tell myself.

Today I know this about rape–my own is insignificant. In 2008, after decades, centuries of systematic rape, the United Nations Security Council finally recognized “that women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic of war.” As of today, 200,000 women raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo: forty women a day. 200,000 women raped during the Bangladesh Liberation War. 20,000 women raped during the Bosnian War. In Liberia, 92 percent of 1600 women interviewed reporting sexual violence. Rape as a tool of war in Darfur, Uganda, Sierra Leone. Women not just incidentals now in the course of a war, but chattels of patriarchal societies, defiled to dishonor, to harm a man, his family.  Hundreds of thousands of women raped multiple times until their bodies are irreparably injured, until they bear the children of their rapists, and, through some grace, must still love these children, even as their own families ostracize, isolate, shame, humiliate, stone, kill them.

I know that there are women in refugee camps today, their men gone, dead, who are forced to gather wood or water or to take their children somewhere outside of these camps, their tents, to defecate. And they are raped. And their children raped. I think of the small inventions that can save them: the stove that does not need wood, the small community well dug for potable water. Amnesty International reports that Native American women are two and a half times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other women in the United States. I think of the women teachers I have worked with on the reservation for the past six years. What have they been through? What have they seen their daughters suffer? Their granddaughters? Even the statistics tell us nothing: most Native American women are reluctant to report sexual assault given the lack of assistance they are given in the process and the few times the perpetuators are even convicted. And yet it is the men who are the “holy” men, the only ones who can hear the holy voices. As in every society.

I know now that I perpetuated a crime in my silence, that every moment of my silence meant another moment of secrecy for a sect no woman wants to be a part of, that no woman should be blamed for. (No one said anything to me that I remember, except for the one English teacher whose daughter had been raped, who might have touched me in tenderness. Well, I know now I want to say that, to keep the narrative, but I know I am wrong. One day I was riding horses with a friend—round hair, round face, round cheeks in the sunlight on her horse. “You know what they are saying about you, don’t you? You should go to another school. Move away,” she said. Later my mother wanted to write the school a note for the principal to read over the intercom, to thank everyone for how good they had been to me. I had told my mother nothing of what had been said or not said.

“Where is my little sunshine?” my mother once asked me, forgivable now because I see the silence was mine, not hers.)

My daughter asks me a simple question: why should a penis have power over a woman? And I feel a physical shock. I have no answer for that. She tells me of a village where rape is unheard of simply because the society will not accept the idea of rape, that somehow the penis could be more powerful than the vagina, that a man taking a woman should mean ruin for anyone. I think of the simple physiology of that moment when I was raped–what I can’t even remember well, describe well, have not even forgotten well. I know now that my single experience, my five minutes, has cost me more than I should ever have allowed myself to pay, and that this is the real narrative.

Here I am: poet, essayist. I am supposed to transform all this into something, some metaphor about trees and rock, about a spinning wheel and a woman who keeps ripping out the shroud of her life, but I can’t. And now I won’t.

 


Kathryn Winograd, poet and essayist, is author of Air Into Breath (Ashland Poetry Series), winner of the Colorado Book Award in Poetry, and Stepping Sideways Into Poetry (Scholastic, Inc), a classroom resource book for K12 teachers. She recently won 1st place in the Non-rhyming Poetry category of the Writer’s Digest 80th Annual Writing Competition 2011, and 1st place in the Chautauqua Poetry contest. Her essay, “Bathing” was named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2011 and is included in The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction along with “(Note to Self): The Lyric Essay.” Recent or forthcoming publications include Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Hotel Amerika, Puerto del Sol, and Literary Mama.

Read an interview with Kathryn here.

 

“Becoming” by Kelly N. Cockerham

Lean on Me (Kelly Cockerham)
“Lean on Me,” oil on canvas, Darwin Leon.

It was dark, a hand
over her mouth, nose.
Thump of feet kicking,
writhing in ribs,
cool cloud of it’s over
and dogs barking across
the bare roads of her arms.

The hand lifted—
not in mercy or regret—
came down again
somewhere else.  Then
a word came, repeating its name
until its meaning flew
into the leaves outside the window.
The word spread its long hair
over her eyes, rolled her lids
down on the busy desk of her body.
The word was a girl walking out a door.
The word was a lock clicking.
The word was a lost room on
the top shelf of a linen closet.

At night, the word
was a red-winged blackbird
in a flock of grackles, a shock
of color that mimicked light.
Beside her, the word traced
her features, spelled her name,
held onto her sleeve and didn’t let go.

 

Kelly N. Cockerham felt the soft tug of words at an early age and has followed their trail ever since. A graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars in Vermont, her poems have appeared in The Leveler, Palooka, Soundzine, IthacaLit, and are forthcoming in Pebble Lake Review. She currently lives in Maryland with her husband and two children, but her heart resides on the west coast of Florida.

Read our interview with Kelly here.

 

“Ontario, California” by Kurt Mueller

Universal Acrobat (Kurt Mueller)
“The Universal Acrobat,” oil on canvas, Darwin Leon, 2010

A single caraway seed rolls back and forth across the dashboard as I navigate these curves and there’s a bag of juniper berries in the back and I think there may be some aniseed in here somewhere and I should be able to smell it, but all I smell is the jasmine oil some girl spilled on the front seat weeks ago and now I see the jasmine lines on the sides of the road, once a grander yellow, golden, fading to blend with the setting sun and it’s pretty, but I’ve seen this sunset before and I’ve been west before and this is not romantic. This eighty miles an hour is not romantic.

It’s only a hundred and fifty miles to Vegas and I’ll be awake all night and it’s been exactly thirty hours and twenty two minutes since I left and I’ve not slept at all. I look out the window.  I look at the sky and wonder where it is the angels fly. I look at the ground and wonder how many bodies are in it and why so many bodies are on it and that’s all we really are and I do not give a shit about anybody. We all need a villain and I suppose I’m my own.

I keep driving. Left hand midnight, right hand fixing my hair in cse I get stranded and some attractive girl should stop to help me. Even now my vanity is killing me. Right hand adjusting the rearview so I can make sure my collar is straight and my teeth are clean. Right hand turning the music up, and boy would I love it if someone would ever call me Big Poppa. Left hand out the window. Right hand waving at the desert around me. Look ma, no hands.

The Japanese beetle I picked up in Iowa is on its back on the dash and I watch it struggle to right itself, and its small wings, green and brown, metallic, flap until the bug finally flips over resting in the center of the panel, warding off evil like its ancestor scarabs of Egypt ages ago, the talisman and ornament to the pharaoh I’ve become. The beetle waddles about looking at the pictures I’ve taped up and left lying around and looks at me seemingly not believing my life, but it’s the only life I’ve got and these pictures prove it.

My car has one of those roofs with a piece of glass in it so I can get breeze in the day and create a sexy atmosphere at night with a girl in the car. It used to be called a sunroof. Now they call it a moonroof. Sexy.

So I look out the sex-in-the-roof and see nothing. I look through the windshield and wish everything else was this transparent. There’s some dead animal in the middle of the road. It must have been hit a few days ago. It looks real dead. I want to say it’s a raccoon, but I’m not sure. There is some fur left on the carcass. Most of it, though, is stuck in the little rubber crevasses in the tires of cars now scattered across the country. The animal must have been about fifteen inches long, minus the tail, if there was one, but it’s been condensed a bit. There’s a piece of lung becoming asphalt, and I can see the reflection of my tiny blue car in a shiny little tooth still attached to the head, and it can’t see me because both its eyes are missing and I’d assume some bird had them for breakfast this morning and I didn’t have breakfast this morning, but if I did I certainly wouldn’t have eaten eyeballs. A flat upturned paw waves me goodbye and I think all the claws are still in it and now I only see gray and red on the pavement in the side mirror inches from my left hand, and I’m pretty sure it’s a raccoon.

I see myself umpteen years ago on the center console and in the picture I’m trying to convince my mother’s sister that I’m dead and my brother is laughing at me and my mother has the camera and her eyes show me sprawled on the living room floor with my tongue out to the side and I have on some little shorts and a baseball shirt with partial sleeves and a Huey Lewis and the News logo ironed on it, and I remember now how my favorite song was Heart of Rock and Roll and my father took me to see them, and I would sing that song every time we watched Back to the Future and eat popcorn and I’d even eat the hard seed that didn’t pop and my brother said they would break my teeth but I didn’t believe him and he’s laughing at me, and it’s hard to pretend I’m dead with my eyes open.

Vegas is long gone and so are the mountains and so are a lot of things. I want to go to Disneyland, but the car won’t stop in Anaheim. Through Highland and Pomona I’ll drive past Euclid Elementary and kids will be playing tetherball and swinging and somebody will scrape a knee or get a bruise and I have a bruise on my leg and it’s not black and it’s not blue. It’s green like the shit I cough up in the middle of the night when I think my lungs are coming up. It’s green like the mucus that falls from my nose and hangs for a few seconds before getting stuck in the stubble on my chin. It’s green like the way it smelled when Opa died and I was five and the room was hot and bright and all my relatives were speaking German and crying and I didn’t know what was going on, but really it’s all broken blood vessels and dying skin, right, and all of us are dying whether or not we like to admit it.

There is a vent blowing air into my eyes and I can’t help but cry so I tilt my head back and swallow the gust and I swallow more before I switch the air flow to the floor vent and now it’s blowing onto my bare feet and the separate threads at the bottom of my pants tickle my ankles and I giggle and the threads finally settle, all fraying. All my ends.

I long for the double vision of back home but I can’t go back and I can’t sleep and I can’t stop. I have a bloody nose over on the passenger door. I must be about nine or ten and I’m crying and the picture is black and white but there’s a dark area under the collar of the white shirt I’m wearing.  My chin is pointed out and dripping and I’m holding my nose and crying. The woman next to me is not my mother. She is Tonka, the babysitter, and she smells like old people. I can’t stop crying and all I can think is that I’m dying and that God is letting go of me. I don’t want to go to Heaven. I want to go home, but I can’t. I want the bleeding to stop but it won’t and Tonka yells at me to settle down and I’d like to punch her in the stomach but I can’t see her because she’s making me keep my head back and all I want is for her to shut the fuck up.

I don’t think the leaves change color here. Every tree is bright and all the smiles are fake and the only world I know is this car I’ve been in for the last forty hours. Kids run and play and scream and joy is echoed through the metal and plastic of my little planet and the wheels rotate and my head feels like it’s spinning, everything I know echoing inside. All the cobblestone and history get run over and I keep going. I stick my head out the window, hair blowing in the wind like I’m the rebel without the fucking cause and right now I want to drive this car into something, anything. I wish I could take out the woman jogging on the sidewalk, silicone bouncing even in the sports bra and her hair can’t really be that blond and her skin is wrinkled and bronzed and she looks like a snake and she’s panting like she’s never had it this good before, and she must wish the prick in the blue car would quit staring at her and she wonders why everyone stares at her, and why does everyone have a fucking staring problem, and I’d like nothing more than for her to stare down the barrel of a shotgun and squeeze and get all the clutter out of her mind and onto the wall behind her.

I’ve gotten this far with a body dying behind the steering wheel that makes my hands sweaty and warm and my hands are running out of things to do and I tear down the picture taped in the upper left corner of the windshield over that strip of blue that’s supposed to block out the ultraviolet rays of the sun to make sure the water in my eyes doesn’t boil.  Out the window I go.

Now I can forget the family reunion when I was eleven that my brother brought his girlfriend home from college for and she’s there whispering in my ear how cute I am and how she wishes I was ten years older cause I’m much cuter than my brother and he’s good for nothing and they both laugh and hold their drinks in the air as my uncle sees us through a lens he bought for three hundred dollars and my father is impressed and tells my mother we need to get one and my mother tells me to smile and say cheese and my aunt tells me to say pickles and I don’t know what to say and my cousin punches me in the crotch and my mouth is wide open when the shutter opens and closes and we’ll all be run over hundreds of times today until we get blown onto a sidewalk somewhere and someone picks us up and wonders why I’m screaming and everyone’s mouths are in O’s except for the one little fucker laughing.

I don’t know how far the beach is but if I keep going west I know I’ll hit it and I’m on my way out of town. Billboards tell me to visit the largest mall in California and to eat more ice cream and drink more vodka and a sign tells me to have a nice trip and come visit again and see the new model colony for the twenty first century. In the rearview the windows of buildings become opaque the farther away I get.

The engine hums and I’m off to the beach. I forgot my surfboard and I forgot my trunks. I hope there’s sunscreen. I want to run and play in the sand and get a good tan and meet locals and have a daiquiri with a pink umbrella in it freezing my trachea making my face shiver, me feeling like my head will implode.

This tomb keeps going and all my remains go with it and right now I don’t want to see any of this road or any of these pictures. I want to see the inside of my eyelids and I want to see them for days. I don’t need memories so I take them down and throw them into the backseat with everything else I’m trying to forget, and the blue on the horizon keeps getting closer and I want the salt under my feet and in my mouth, washing away this tongue.

 

 

Kurt Mueller earned his BA from the University of Illinois, his MFA from Southern Illinois University, and currently teaches at the University of Wisconsin – Marathon County. His recent fiction appears in print and online.

Read our interview with Kurt Mueller here.

 

“The Red Car” by Beverly Jackson

lMuse with Long Neck (Bev Jackson)
“Muse with Long Neck” oil on canvas, by Darwin Leon.

The daily papers in the back
seat spread atop the old women
who’ve come from the sex factory–
their mouths replaced
by labia, the desert beneath
their skirts sewn shut. The
passenger side is stacked
with old bones, like firewood.
Dead children and husbands,
parents and forgotten aunts,
polished ivory agleam
from years of travel. The driver’s
foot pumps the accelerator.
She leans into the wheel,
eyes squinting in the dimming
light. A ship of toothless smiles,
coy giggles–but the car
stands still, waiting, waiting
for the traffic light–three
black moons hung
above–to change.

 

 

Beverly Jackson is a poet, painter and writer living in Naples, Florida. She is widely published on the web and in print: credits here. She is currently working on a memoir “The Loose Fish Chronicles,” excerpts of which can be found here.

Read an interview with Bev here.

“My Own Private Wind” Lori D’Angelo

The Path of Irony (Lori D'Angelo)

So there was no “Oh, darling, I hunger for your touch” moment. It was not like that. We were not like that. We were quiet and reserved, the kind of couple who fades into the pavement, blends in with the blinds and the placemats, the kind of people you would walk by without noticing. We were like streetlights. We looked like we belonged.

We were supernormal, one dog, two kids, a minivan, a mortgage that we would have paid off in time. Then, Connor died. There was no weird cover-up/scandal with a bank. Just plastic cups and hospital straws and food that didn’t smell good enough to eat. And then. A funeral. Eternal rest grant unto him Oh God, and may perpetual light shine upon him.

Connor had life insurance and a will and all the things that people are supposed to have but don’t. A friend of mine from college with her long hair, coat down to her feet and boots up to her knees saying, “At least you’re taken care of, Gillie.”

“Yeah, right.” Because that was what I cared about. In the end. Money. I cared about that as much as folding the laundry and cooking dinner, which was why Connor did those things. Or had done those things. Before.

What there was was a quiet breeze on a day when there was no wind. What there was was a bright spot of sun for only me to bask in. What there was was a still, small voice.

We had no medium. It was just presence where there had been absence and then me saying to Jonathan and Gemma: I think Dad was with me.

Gemma at the kitchen counter looking up from painting her nails, the smell of her polish polluting the air, “Sure, Mom.” Gemma, 16 going on 30, talking to me as one talks to an Alzheimer patient. Jonathan, 13, standing in the middle of the kitchen, believing, hopeful. “You think he’ll visit me, Mom?”

I am reading the directions for the frozen lasagna off the package: Preheat oven to 450. It’s the kind of lasagna that comes in the orange box with a black plastic tray. The kind that all you have to do is turn the oven on and wait and wait.

Gemma, who is dark eyeliner and prominent silver crosses, saying, “Pizza would be faster and probably cheaper.”

“Not in this town.”

“Mom, this is the only town we’ve ever lived in.”

Gemma has a tendency to act like her life history is the only one that matters.

I am not looking to argue. “Okay, right.”

We move then. Like chess players. Gemma goes first. Me second. Jonathan last. Jonathan wears a polo shirt, Gemma mesh stockings. They look like they come from different reality shows. We shuffle into the living room, sit apart.

Jonathan, crosses his legs, sits up straight, and says to his sister from the rocking chair: “I bet Dad won’t visit you.”

Gemma doesn’t respond. Jonathan opens his mouth to wet his braces. He looks like a young Anthony Michael Hall. Gemma looks like a girl in a music video. We all sit tense. The flat screen TV we wanted so badly is turned off and covered with plastic. The stand beneath it has a layer of dust so thick that you could fill the vacuum canister with it. I think I see a cobweb, a spider.

Gemma, from the couch, with perhaps a note of excitement in her voice, saying, “This place would be a good room for ghosts.” She seems to be implying more.

I rise from the recliner, stand straight up. “I thought that we could use some time to talk away from the distractions.” That’s why I covered the TV, put the radio away.

“It’s cool,” Jonathan says.

“A little less conversation,” Gemma responds. Her nails have dried now, so she, too rises. It’s okay to reference the dead if they happen to play music.

Jonathan and I have nothing more to add. So we exit how we entered—Gemma first, Jonathan last. I serve as a buffer between them.

~

Four weeks before, I was lying in bed, sleeping late. The kids had gone to school. I should have gone to work, but didn’t. I knew that Hansel had been tolerant. Beyond tolerant. I waited for him to say: “Gillian, you are no longer needed here. But, so far, that had not happened. I think that part of me wanted to know how far his sympathy would go. The other workers talked. “Gillian was late again,” but Hansel, his wild hair flying high, straightened his tie and defended me, saying, “She just lost her husband. What would you do if you were in her place?” I knew, too, that part of his interest was more than friendly. It came from an attraction. There is something sexual in the grieving widow, the damsel in distress. Something that makes a decent man think, Lord, we have to help her.

I wrapped the sheet around my naked toes, phoned Hansel. “I’m going to be late,” I said.

He sighed. “Gillian. Is there reason?” He meant a valid reason.

The reason was I couldn’t bring myself to get up, to care enough. This was what I told him.

“You should see a doctor.”

It was on the train to work that I first saw Connor. Well, really felt him. That wind. The pages of my book blown open.

I turned to the passenger behind me. “Did you feel that?”

The man, a handsome black man with iPod buds in his ears, shook his head.

How could I merit my own wind in a closed in space? Was there an open window somewhere?

My thoughts didn’t go right to Connor at first.

It was later. Street chalk on the city sidewalks in blue and pink and orange. Let it go. Connor used to always say that. At first, I thought coincidence.

It was later. In the lunchroom cafeteria. The special that day at first read: Peace and Serenity. And then, a moment after, it didn’t. It was back to saying black bean soup and corn muffin.

I liked the other special better, so I ordered it.

“I’d like some peace and serenity,” I said to the woman behind the counter, whose long silver hair was braided and pulled up into a hairnet.

“What?” she asked.

“I’ll have the special.”

Hansel joined me for lunch. He didn’t ask if he could; he just did. He set his metal tray down across from me. I felt like we were prisoners. Or I was the prisoner. He was the warden, the parole officer, the one sent to make sure I made it through okay.

“Gillian, I’m going to have to fire you, if you don’t. . . ”

He tried to continue, but I stopped him. As I spoke, he sipped water from a red plastic cup.

“I know, and the problem is.”

This is the part that I can’t really explain at all. It was like. Time stopped, and everyone froze. I saw no one. But I felt. . .different.

I couldn’t bring myself to say what I would have said: and the problem is I just don’t care.

I felt tears running down my cheeks. “I’m sorry.”

“You’ve not cried since the funeral.”

“No.” I ate my soup with a spoon.

“This could be progress,” he said in a way that suggested interest.

I nodded. “I’ll try, okay. I’ll really try.”

~

For the next two weeks, I came in on time for work. I walked dutifully through the revolving doors and metal detectors. While there, I did what I was supposed to do. Hansel said he was glad to see the change in me.

“Before you were. Headed for promotion. And then.”

We stood in the lobby. With its hard floors and high ceilings, it felt like a museum, and I couldn’t help but notice how often Hansel found time to find me.

“I don’t want to talk about before.”

“I thought we agreed. Talking is good.”

“Sometimes. And sometimes it’s not.”

His hand on my shoulder. A touch of concern. I should mind more. Shouldn’t I? After all, Connor has just died. How long’s it been? An hour, a day, six months, a year. It’s been a year.

Wow. That long. So long and not long at all. I felt nauseous, a wave of queasiness in my stomach. I excused myself to the bathroom. On the mirror, someone has written with a finger or what looked like a finger: Let it go.

“Let what go?” I said aloud.

A woman in the stall closest to the door walked to the sink and gave me a strange look as she applied her red, red lipstick. Pink would be better, I thought. Red made her look too pale.

“I’m just talking on my Bluetooth,” I said. She acted like she didn’t believe me.

I waited till she has gone, and then five minutes more.

Another word came then. A series of them. Death. Let it go, Gillian. Live.

My office is ten floors up. I climbed the stairs instead of riding up. Hansel was waiting by my cube. A bit frantic, he questioned, “Where have you been? What happened? Is everything okay?”

I nodded.

“I am okay. Or I’m going to be okay. After now.” I looked at my calendar. The things I said I’d do yesterday, I did. It was a small step but still a step. I waited for him to go, but instead, he said, “We’re having lunch today.”

We’d had lunch together every day for the last two weeks, but, somehow it seemed an accident. We were just there together at the same time.

Then, he’d made a move to make it intentional. A step beyond, a step toward something else. Now, it was my turn. I had to let him know if we could move forward. Beyond accident to intention. He licked his lips. He waited. With his wild hair and square glasses, he looked nothing like Connor. Connor was wavy hair and working outside. Hansel is inside, office, business, business, business. Hansel waited. And yet, they are both compassion.

“Okay,” I said. “We’ll have lunch.”

~

The night I talk to the kids, I fall asleep on the train home and dream of Connor, and then I wake and think about my lunch with Hansel. It was just normal, except. There was this one moment where we both reached for the ketchup and his hand brushed my hand. An accident. But neither of us moved the hand away. Instead, we held them there. And then he said my name. A moment later, we were back to wherever we had been before, but it was not quite the same. Something had turned. That night, after Gemma has gone to practice guitar at a boy’s, a friend’s house, a boy who could be more than a friend, she hasn’t told me yet, but she will, Jonathan dries the dishes with a pink towel while I wash, and he asks me to tell him how I knew that it was really Dad, so I tell him the truth, which is simply this: Because I felt better.

 

 

Lori D’Angelo earned her MFA from WVU in 2009, and her work has appeared in various literary journals including Word Riot, Drunken Boat, Stirring, and Literary Mama.

Read our interview with Lori here.