“Letter from Haiti: ‘Jesus Was a Zombie?'” by Annie Nocenti


Jesus is dragging his feet. It’s not his fault; his legs are long and the beast he rides is squat. It’s scorched-earth hot, and hard walking for a mule in wet sand, weight of Christ on his back. They say mules are stubborn, but maybe they’re just resigned. Draped in a white sheet, slumped bareback on the burro, Jesus sweats.

“Who’s that on the donkey?” Caco asks.

“It’s Jesus,” I answer, but my thought is: Black Jesus. Down here in Haiti, kids see a white Christ in their Christian missionary picture books, but a black one in Haitian paintings and processions like the one that drifts by us now. I want to ask Caco what he thinks of this black/white Jesus thing, but it might be rude. We’re on a beach south of Jacmel, watching the lazy parade stumble by: a flock of girls in pink dresses, a litter of boys in blue uniforms.

“Who’s Jesus?” demands Caco.

“You know Jesus,” I insist. Then I wonder. “Don’t you know who Jesus is?” Caco looks glum. He’s only eleven years old. I love how he can fold his limbs up and collapse his body like a folding chair. “The son of God,” I explain.

“God has a kid?” Caco’s amazed.

“He had one,” I say, “but his kid is dead now.” My Kreyol is pathetic, Caco’s English not much better, so even passing my Kreyol/English dictionary back and forth, we end each sentence with a headache. There’s a guy next to us pattering away on a small drum, sliding his thumb hard on the drumskin, bending notes. His English is decent, and he tries to help us communicate, but mostly I think he gets his kicks laughing at our gibberish.

A woman on high, fat green heels, in a green dress, probably a teacher, walks at the end of the crucifixion procession. We watch her and she watches us. A few of the girls from the flock of pink dresses pause before us, whispering. One breaks away, runs at us, hesitates, reaches down, touches my toe, dashes back to her girlfriends. They squeal at her bravery. A soccer game is in the direct path of the procession, and the parade cuts
right through the middle, but no one seems to notices. The boys adapt their kicks and passes, the two groups mix together then pull apart and move on. The kids dragging the cross stumble and drop it, splashing Jesus but he barely looks up. The burro steps over the cross and keeps going.

“Yeah, that’s the story, God had a son,” I say, piecing together a halting sentence that’s half pantomime. “He died for the sins of man, whatever that means. They nailed him to a cross till he was dead, buried him, but he rose out of his tomb on Easter. That’s what this parade is about. It’s Palm Sunday, or something like that.”

“Jesus was a zombie?”

A zombie is no B-movie undead joke sticking pins in dolls; a zombie is a real deal in Haiti. Apparently people do get cursed and die and rise undead from the dead, but a zombie can be kept at bay with rhymes and incantations. Religion in Haiti is deceptive. Vodou worshippers were persecuted, and so they cloaked their worship in a veil of Christianity to hide their real beliefs. Now it’s hard to tell who believes what. But zombies attained a terrifying status when the tyrannical duet of Papa and then Baby Doc Duvalier had their personal militia, their death squad ghouls, the Tonton Macouté, wear dark clothes, dark sunglasses to hide their eyes, and speak few words- a kind of zombie mystique, a murderous dictatorial fashion statement.

“Yeah,” I tell Caco, “Jesus is a zombie. They put his body in a cave with a rock as big as a house blocking the entrance, and he rose from the dead and rolled that rock away like it was nothing.”

“Zombie!” Caco is up and kicking aside imaginary boulders. I’ve been teaching Caco and his friends karate on the beach, and they’ve been teaching me such Haitian essentials as proper machete hacking technique when splitting a coconut. Caco’s buddy Jean Bernard joins us. Jean Bernard is pissed at me. I’ve been painting their watercolor portraits, and Jean Bernard says I got his nose wrong. He took a pen and drew himself a bigger nose, but he’s still insulted. I think my mistake was painting him as a boy when he wants to see himself as a man.

The boys leap into a karate zombie game- their spinning kicks are right out of chopchop movies, but they kick with such gusto they topple with each kick. I’m trying to teach them balance, but they think falling is a small price for high drama. I lurch toward them, ghoulish and undead; my zombie based on American ’40s horror films like “I Walked with a Zombie,” but the boys scream and run anyway.

I like hanging with the Haitian kids because they haven’t quite figured out yet that us pale-skins that jet in from imperialist countries are somehow the source of all their problems, which are overwhelming. Haiti was country founded on the only successful slave rebellion in history, and yet, or maybe because of that, small acts of opposition are squashed and bravery is considered suicidal. Caco doesn’t connect all this with US sanctions and coups and hundreds of years of European colonialism but the older Haitians, sometimes they stare at us “blancs” with open hatred. Or perhaps I’m just paranoid. It’s hard telling not knowing.

Now Caco and Jean Bernard are holding hands and laughing, and the beach drummer explains “They’re making fun of your date.”

“I don’t have a date,” I protest.

The drummer and Caco talk in fast Kreyol, which makes them impossible to understand since they’re also laughing so hard. Finally the drummer translates: “You made a date with the old man that’s fixing the roof.”

I remember the roofer, a sturdy Haitian, somewhere in his sixties or seventies; so weatherworn it’s hard to tell. He was on the roof all day, laying palm or banana or coconut fronds, I don’t know which, in beautiful, fanning rows. I watched him casually use his machete to scratch his back. Once, he used it to swat a fly on his cheek. I told him how much I admired his skill. I do remember saying “oui” a lot, but “yes” is the new linguistic  tick that peppers my speech whenever someone rattles Kreyol at me so fast it whizzes by in an unintelligible stream. Apparently, with one of those polite “yeses” I agreed to a date.

“When did I say I’d do this?” I ask the drummer. “You’ll know it when it happens,” he shrugs, as if to say, whenever. This is Haitian time, it’s not that different from slacker or surfer boy time. Whenever.


Jessica struts out to the beach in camo capri pants, blond hair tucked into a red kerchief. The boys stare at her bandana. It’s only later that I read in a book that a red kerchief signifies a vodou worshiper.

Jessica is perfect. Cultured, funny, beautiful. Everywhere we go Haitians gaze at her. With what emotions, I don’t know. Lust and disgust? Awe or intimidation? Curiosity? Jessica’s a fashion photographer, just in from a Miami shoot, on a detour jaunt to Haiti for “artistic inspiration,” on her way to New York. I met her poolside at the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince.

Port-au-Prince is a city built for 200 thousand that holds millions. The rich Haitians speak Parisian French and live in gated mansions with sniper security guards on their roofs and attack dogs on their grounds. There seems to be a small middle-class, but the majority live in slums; crowded acres of cinderblock, tarpaper, and corrugated tin shacks with no electric, water or sewers. Even where there is electricity, it’s only for a few hours a night, so people buy food frozen. That’s their refrigeration.

Flying into the Port-au-Prince airport is nightmarish, a gauntlet. First, you have to navigate through a swarm of men with “official” badges that want to carry your bags and get you a taxi. Then there is an exit-area, a green-metal rod pen, a kind of holding tank, with a mass of men pressing against the fence bidding for you to choose their taxi. Like a goat in a livestock pen, up for sale. Luckily, I see the friend I came to visit waving from his jeep. The drive into town is over so much rubble, with so many men at work piling rocks, pounding rocks, dragging wood, it’s hard to tell if the city is being built or destroyed. There is garbage burning everywhere, and kids squat roadside selling gasoline by the gallon out of plastic jugs. A tap tap, one of the beautifully colorful buses of Haiti, almost plows us off the road, and as it drives off I see the smile of Tupac Shakur, painted on its backend.

The Oloffson is a great hotel to stop at just long enough to get confused. The Rhum Barbancourt flows, the country’s insanely hopeless political situation is discussed and plans are made to go into town and mix with “the people” or go to the disco, but in the heat of the day no one wants to leave the oasis of the hotel. There are few tourists. Mostly the bar crowd is journalists, health workers, embassy officials, missionaries, art dealers, drug
dealers, white hippie women pretending to be vodou priestesses, and men who are hiding from something. There are displaced, angry foreigners who lurk in the hotel for months at a time, ostensibly to do “good things” for Haiti, like bring in shipments of condoms. Everyone sits out on the veranda, where the walls surrounding the hotel are just high enough that all that can be seen of the city’s chaos is the occasional bundle that floats by, balanced on the head of an unseen woman, or the tip on an uzi from passing military.

The waiters at the Oloffson are wise sadists. They make you wait too long, then bring you the wrong drink, to see if you will get rude. They test you. If you are fine with whatever they bring you, whenever they bring it, they become excellent waiters . One American has become so bitter and entrenched at the hotel, and is so rude to the waiters, that everyone’s convinced they piss in his drinks. Even he knows this, but he doesn’t care. “I’ve drunk worse,” he claims.

Strangers meet at the bar and talk easily. Conversation swings from hope to hopelessness and back again, over and over. The malaise and intense heat breeds rumor and distortion and fear. Any news is nurtured until it’s “true” and then later dismissed as a “lie.” News ripples through the hotel: a woman was killed, a riot started. Paranoia rises. There’s a rumor that the airport is closed, no one can leave town. They’re burning tires in the street, making blockades. When will it be safe? The embassy is closed, Thursday will be bad. Oh, fuck it, have another drink. Sunday will be a good day to fly the hell out of Haiti.

Aristede, now exiled but then still president of Haiti, is discussed endlessly. He’s beloved, he’s inept. He’s a poet, he’s corrupt. He speaks in wise but futile parables. He sold out. He’s built a swimming pool and taken a light-skinned mulatto wife. It’s all lies, he doesn’t have a swimming pool, he’s a savior. He’s taken money from the wrong people, he poses for pictures with Duvalierists, he’s the best the people can hope for. Whatever is true, at least Aristede believed people should have a say in their own affairs, something no other leader allowed.

In a few crazy days, one can learn just enough about Haiti to know you’ll never understand anything. I get drunk with a so-called missionary until he pulls out his standard repertoire of “missionary position” jokes. I meet a handsome man who casually “spills” the contents of his wallet, taking his time before picking up his many I.D.s, each showing a different identity, just so I’ll know “he isn’t who he seems to be.” This must be something that gets
him laid a lot or he wouldn’t be doing it every time a pretty girl joins the table. I meet a beautiful young botanist who tells everyone how some sharks have two penises and two uteruses and the babies eat each other in the womb until there is only one left. She holds the attention of all the men at the table with that story, the journalists musing at the metaphoric possibilities of incorporating self-devouring shark babies into the stories they were supposed to file about Haiti months ago. As the night gets later and drunker, the guys start talking about going to town; there’s a new military-themed brothel, where one can do it airborne, ground combat style, or choose naval-op sex. Everyone speculates on what kind of props and rigs the brothel could have to accomplish all this.

The terrific vodou/rock house band RAM plays, led by the hotel owner and his wife, which someone brings us to a hungover dawn. I travel south with my friend, a filmmaker, and the fashionable Jessica, bouncing with the bad roads, in the loud jeep. We pass stores with names like “There for the Grace of God Haircuts” and “Wait for the Lord Cleaners Expedient Laundry.” Last night, sweat slick from dancing, I remember taking air on the veranda and meeting a little girl who introduced herself as “God Willing.”


We spend a few days in huts on the beach, getting to know Caco and all the other boys. I want to meet some of the girls, but while the boys seem to have time to hang out, the girls have chores and are shy. Jessica, gazing out at the ocean, decides her upcoming New York shoot will have a sexy revolutionary theme: tattered Che Guevera T-shirts with red brassieres showing underneath, red kerchiefs and low-slung hip-hugging camo pants. She
demonstrates all this by pulling and tugging at her clothes and vamping with her body until Caco’s jaw drop like a cartoon. I turn away to watch a woman drag a brown pig into the ocean and wash it. I don’t want to go anywhere in the heat, but Jessica keeps chirping: “Come on, let’s go to market and shop for lingerie! I want red, pink, crimson, I want magenta! It’ll be fun!”

The outdoor marketplace is wonderful and disgusting and seems to sprawl for miles. A bustle and stench of life, a mass of swarming, haggling. Everything for sale, from gasoline to pineapples, garlic to shoes. Hunks of uncooked meat lie in the scorching heat; red slabs covered in flies. At the edges of the market, men stand in the shade with wheelbarrows, offering to cart anything anywhere. I see a little boy in a dress, a girl wearing a sandal on one foot, a sneaker on the other. Jessica takes it all in, and I imagine these fashion accidents transformed into fashion statements in the pages of Vogue next month.

We buy some fruit. The paper money has been in circulation so long it feels made of dirt. Bargaining is expected, it’s a sport, and a way to get to know people. Jessica, of course, speaks French, so she can understand a bit of Kreyol. A woman with enormous breasts sells root lumps; she squats on the ground in a “Hooters” T-shirt, her twisty roots neatly wrapped in newspapers and spread around her like rubble. I’m on a mission to find the  right herbs for a neighbor’s bad blood pressure, but I’ve forgotten to ask if it’s too high or too low blood, and the herbalist woman laughs at me and tells me to come back tomorrow. A girl who looks to be no saint wears a New Orleans’ Saints shirt. A skinny schoolboy slouches against a pole in an FBI T-shirt. Sparse electricity, few roads, no clean water, but plenty of American T-shirts, the flotsam of some defunct relief program.

Jessica and I are the only whites as far as the eye can see and we’re shopping for leopard underwear. Jessica is so self-possessed she seems oblivious to the irony. I’m in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere shopping for candy-red push-up bras.


Dinner is always an event, and Jessica sure can throw a dinner party. That night she whips up mango margaritas, makes a yellow pepper and melted anchovy sauce for pasta, then adds beets and the whol e dish turns a brilliant orange. She has the boys drag the long dinner table right into the ocean, where we eat with the waves lapping at our feet, red lanterns in glittering competition with the stars above. She tells a fabulous rags-to-riches story about a Vietnamese busboy who rose to the top of the trendy NYC restaurant scene by swallowing gold and bringing it into the US. When Jessica breaks into song, belting out titillating lyrics from Eartha Kitt’s “It’s Fun to be Evil”, out come the drums.

The boys pour rum onto their hands, rub it on the drums and strike a match; the blue flame dances in their palms and as the liquor burns off it somehow tightens and tunes the leather skin of the drum. Little Man, nicknamed for his small stature and mature face, writhes in what seems to be possession by a good spirit, while the rest of the boys play bandito, taking turns trying on Jessica’s red kerchief. Little Man has loose limbs, and they dangle and jitter as he shuffles, swing as if broken or boneless. He wears a huge white shirt and nothing else, and when he moves it billows like a sail against the dark ocean. He puts one hand on his belly, the other  outstretched wide, begins to lurch and careen as if tugged by invisible strings, flinging himself to the sky, to the earth, into the water,
crawling in the sand, then springing up to spin some more. All the while his eyes are closed, but somehow, with the aspect of being open wide. The thin-boned blond dogs writhe in the sand, the ecstasy of possession contagious. The boys use sticks on wine glasses for added percussion. They play so hard the glasses shatter.

That night, the little boys crawl onto my mattress with me, and soon their limbs jerk and kick from chase dreams that in turn cause the stray dogs that prowl outside to howl. The moon is high when I see a Haitian cowboy standing silhouetted in the doorway of the thatched, open-air hut, beckoning.

It’s the old roofer. My “date” is wearing a cowboy hat and boots, machete holstered to hip. He nods and turns his back to allow me to pull on more clothes.

We walk east along the coast for a long time, then head into the hills. I wonder where he’s taking me, but conversation is impossible without my Kreyol phrase book. We climb until we top a mountain, as I try to remember the course home in reverse: down mountain, find the ocean, turn right.

I hear drumming, and eventually we step into a clearing ringed with chairs. There’s a makeshift structure like half a gazebo, an altar wrapped in white cloth, with a center pole. Trees bloom with colorful red papers and hanging lanterns. Women in red kerchiefs holding red flags and wearing red and blue dresses squat on the ground with bags of cornstarch, drawing delicate, lacey white curlicue patterns on dark ground-vévé, they call it. I try to make myself as invisible as possible, and watch the quiet, industrious preparations for what I assume will be a ritual or party. Everyone is busy decorating the clearing, but stop when they see me, I hear the familiar whisper: “blanc, blanc,” and know something isn’t right.

The Cowboy Roofer gets into a fight with a few elders; it is clear that he should not have brought me. I make an apologizing gesture, and turn to leave. Two men block my way. Finally, a man who knows a bit of English explains to me what I suspected; whites are not really permitted at vodou ceremonies; I have to leave. I tell him I’m sorry, I’m happy to go. He tells me it’s not safe for me to go back alone. He glances at some mountain homeboys-on-the-plateau slouched in the corner. I take this to mean he doesn’t want to point fingers, but alone in the woods I might become prey.

The drumming starts, hypnotic. Abruptly, violently, the Cowboy Roofer is spinning and flailing with what seems to be premature possession. Unlike Little Man’s visiting spirit, this one doesn’t appear benevolent. At first the others just keep an eye on him, but when he angrily un-holsters his machete and begins slicing the air around him, the men jump on him, restrain him, and take him away. It’s not his fault; I learn later that when a spirit  inhabits a prepared vessel, the actions of the possessed are not theirs, but the spirit’s. I assume it was a violent spirit that entered my date, perhaps Baron Samudi, who I later read is one of the first to show up at a vodou ritual, and tends toward violence. A long conversation follows, with much pointing at me. They tell me that the roofer has been “thrown off the mountain,” and I hope that’s just a figure of speech. I try to make it clear  that I can find my way home and will take my chances with banditos, but again I’m blocked from leaving. They tell me I’m to stay for two hours, then I must go. It’s clear that once I stepped into their domain, I handed over my free will.

I’m not afraid. There are women and children here. The ritual builds slowly, but build it does, the drumming, the swaying, the electricity in the air. Women saunter around carrying sex in their eyes. Everyone writhes and sweats. I see a woman dance low until she is rubbing her face in the sweat of a man’s chest. They slap each other, spin, dance again. When someone falls out of possession, they are hugged and cradled as the spirit leaves.
An ancient woman who looks like a collapsed bundle of sticks, so brittle if she were to move she’d break, does move. But then, she surprises me by rising, not like an old woman but graceful as Martha Graham, with a youth and power that is startling. She is given great berth and respect, and as she swirls into possession, she sees me.

Our eyes lock. I panic. Of course she can see deep into my soul, I think, and she’ll see whatever rot is there. I’ve been unsettled this week by how the children won’t believe I don’t have my own kids, and how sad they get about it. They tell me the only women they know with no babies are witches. I imagine the grand mambo sees all this, my missing babies, what a fuck-up I am for forgetting to have kids. She dances over to me, clutching a bottle of yellowish water. None too gently, she yanks my head back and pours. I gulp down the sweet honeyed liquor, which must be clarin, the sugarcane moonshine everyone drinks. I think of dysentery and dengue and dyspepsia and dystopia or whatever microbes lurk in the water. I drink obediently, knowing it’s an insult not to. To my total shock, she kisses me full and hard on the mouth. Then she smiles.

Suddenly the mood shifts, as if I’ve gotten the kiss of acceptance by the mother of all mambos, which I hope is what just happened. A chair is brought for me. Someone offers me some seeds cupped in their palm. People are shoved out of my line of vision, so I can see the dancing. Every once in a while someone approaches with a bottle. They jerk their chins up, over and over, till I tilt my head back and accept a drink. There is an intoxicating
fear and ecstasy one can experience in this country, often in the same moment. I decide I’d better resist nothing, not even abuse. Children come up to me and pinch my arms till I give them a few gourdes. Men begin to collect, one puts his arm around me and I see some women snicker. I’m getting drunk. I want the man to take his arm off me, but I’m scared to ask. He keeps saying “fouk” or “defouk” and I think he means fuck, but later someone tells me he was probably saying something like “crotch, open-crotch.” Which I guess is the same thing. One of the women comes over and tells me that when a man touches me, just hit him. She demonstrates by hitting whatever men happen to be standing around her. It works, they back off quickly. In the distance I can see new Haitians arrive, protest my presence, then relax when they are whispered something. I never find out what. All through the night various kind Haitians come up to me with offers of food or drink, or to ask if I am okay. “Mwem kontan, mwem kontan,” I say, over and over. I’m content, I’m happy. Bel, bel, everything is beautiful.

A great sound comes up the mountain. A ra ra approaching, a music parade that travels the countryside in the spring, blessing the land. The band and all its followers move like a sinuous centipede. If you encounter a ra ra on the road, they swarm your car and won’t let you pass without giving some money. Now they seem to be swarming over the whole mountain. The cowbells, drums, scrapers, long bamboo horns like digeridoos, and  whistles all combine to make a crazy sound as the procession slithers up the mountainside. They undulate. Every body movement seems to echo and ripple and repeat in all who follow. The bells and whistles give the music the aspect of a disco. The two ritual dances, ra ra and vodou, intersect in libidinous waves, mix, take hours to finally part and
move on. By now I’ve been forgotten. Something larger sweeps over the night, and I can move about as I please.

The devil arrives in a red sequined jacket, all hip swagger and cocky eyed, possessed by the sexiest of spirits, and the dancing gets downright dirty. There is a fight, the devil is subdued. I’m lifted into a dance, and the rest of the night is a blur that seems to go on for five years or a minute. I wake up very late, in my bed. Someone made sure I got home safely.

The next day a big wind rises. The smell of charcoal cooling and the dark clouds that cover the sky create a foreboding uncertainty in the air. During the night, a dog got accidentally closed in a room, and he has eaten his way out, leaving a hole in the hut. The rum hangover, a rumor of civil war, blockades made from piles of burning tires, it all descends like a shroud. I know I’ve fallen in love with Haiti, a country of terror and ecstasy,  mystery misery and joy, even though it is a country that I could never hope to understand.

I go to the beach and see a little boy dragging a tiny puppy by a palm leaf leash. The puppy is shivering. The boy digs a hole and buries the puppy in the sand. I squat next to them and try to tell the boy the puppy is sad, tris, sad. The boy smiles, unburies the dog, only to drag it down the beach and bury it, again, far away from me.

When I leave Haiti I will leave my hat on the bed. It’s bad luck everywhere else, but in Haiti, it means you’ll be back some day.


Annie Nocenti is a writer and editor living in New York. “Jesus is a Zombie?” was previously published by Counter-Punch.

“The Color, The Brain, The Heart” by Tara DaPra

“I will definitely quit smoking,” I told Linda, as I struggled to match her pace. It was my
second day in Montana and the first time I had seen a mountain. Linda kept her strides
long, her calves flexing and contracting with ease through the unmarked path.

“Isn’t this amazing!”  Linda’s gentle voice shone contentment. “I never get tired of hiking
the Beartooths. Little different than Green Bay, huh?”  She looked back, cheeks flushed
through her olive skin. “How ya doing?”

I paused, leaning against a boulder. “Uh, I’m hanging in there.” Linda smiled and kept

Though my heart beat double time, my lungs wouldn’t open any wider. I kept climbing
anyway, scrambling on all fours, pulling myself up with tree roots, watching carefully for
which rocks were suitable footholds and which were better to send me tumbling down
the mountain, if tomorrow that were more to my liking. Despite my wheezy lungs, my
heart spread warmth I hadn’t felt in months. Sweat cleansed my body of last night’s beer
and began to release the last six months of grief.

In truth, I was relieved not to be accommodated. Since December my friends had been
walking on eggshells, careful not to mention Matthew’s name. As if saying it would
remind me of what happened. Remind me?  That’s all I thought about. I breathed it in
and out all day long, my heart reminding me with every weak beat. I was tired of
changing therapists, trying to find one that fit. I was tired of my family’s frustration that I
wasn’t better yet. I was tired of being that girl whose boyfriend had killed himself.

When my Aunt Linda heard the news, she sent a condolence note on a thin white card
with an orange and yellow nature scene. After the tidbits of family info and the customary
“I’m so sorry,” she closed with the first exchange to raise my interest in months. “If you’d
like to come to Montana for the summer, we have an extra room for you. New scenery
might be nice.”

I had never been to Montana, and since I was spending most days buried in my down
comforter, I accepted.

My first summer home from college, Matthew and I waited tables together at a pasta
restaurant. We fell in love over the Spicy Garlic and spent the summer drinking wine on
his roof. Every morning, Matthew played songs on his guitar, and every night we made
love before falling asleep, limbs entwined. Come fall, I returned to college in Iowa.
Matthew struggled against his tendency to fade with the seasons. I gave him emotional
mouth-to-mouth for three months from 300 miles away.

December 3rd, the anniversary of his engagement approached. Matthew became
overwhelmed with his patterns of self-destruction. This time he sank beneath the surface
and did not come up for air. His last words to me, in a suicide note I received through the
mail, read I love this world and the people in it, but I cannot love myself. I dropped out of
school, drank more beer, smoked more pot. Summer was approaching again. Time for a

“What do you want to do after this?” Linda paused, waiting for me to catch up.

“Have a beer.”

People like to believe, “If only I didn’t have to work/go to school/take care of my kids, I
would watch more movies and read more books.”  After three weeks of a fruitless job
search in a state where I only knew three people, renting one or two movies every night,
reading one or two books each week, I was no longer under that delusion.

Just as I considered serving unlimited salad bowls at the Olive Garden, I got an
interview at Walker’s Grill. Walker’s occupied the garden level of a historic landmark, the
old Chamber of Commerce building. Bill, the owner, toured France every year, sampling
wines and sending cases home. (“Before I die, I’m going to drink a five-figure bottle of
wine,” he told me once.)  I wore a button-down, light cotton shirt with my dark-rimmed
glasses to the interview. The shirt’s shade of blue soothed my nerves and the glasses
made me feel smart. I entered the restaurant with a Midwest work ethic, an eagerness
to learn, and an air of fake confidence.

“How long do think you can commit to this job?” Bill asked.

“Indefinitely,” I replied, blinking slowly.

“I’m the only one who’s here indefinitely,” Bill squinted. I shifted my gaze. “My point is,
we don’t hire people who will only be here for six months.”

“Um, at least a year,” I offered, which wasn’t totally a lie. I had no plans past the
summer, as I was incapable of looking that far into the future.

After the interview, I returned to the cozy 1940’s bungalow on one of the “tree streets,”
a few blocks from Montana State University. Linda sat at the dining room table, head
bowed, sorting through stacks of paper. Her dark hair was clipped in short waves, curved
neatly around her nape. She looked up from the mess. “How’d it go?”

My brain buzzed with clips of the interview. “I think it went well but it’s hard to say. They
asked me a lot of questions and I remembered to ask questions back so I looked
interested. I tried to make a lot of eye contact to seem confident but I just don’t know.”
I took a deep breath and exhaled. I could feel my heart beat through my fingertips.

“You should send a thank you note.”  She rummaged through the pile and found a stack
of cards. “Here you go.”

Three days later, I got a phone call.


“Hi Tara, this is Gala from Walker’s Grill. If you’re still interested, we’d like to offer you a

I had mornings to myself at Linda’s house. I’d come up from the basement, eyes blurry
with sleep, and pour a cup from the French press my Uncle Paul had made that morning
before riding his bike to work, off to fight the polluting oil companies. I splashed in some
water and microwaved the mug for a few minutes, added cream, then sat down at the
antique oak table. Sunlight streamed in the east windows as I read the Billings Gazette.

Montana was run by large landholders, and the state had only voted for one Democratic
president since 1968. I tortured myself every day reading the opinion page. Misguided
souls preached “no state sales tax” despite Montana’s poverty ranking as the highest
outside the Deep South. They called for an amendment to privatize public ownership of
water, one the state Constitution’s founding principles. And they loved their guns.

“Teddy, weeeee!  One, two, three . . . teddy, wee!”  Linda and Paul’s son sat on my bed
sending a brown teddy bear spiraling above his head. My dad had given me that bear for
Christmas two years ago—the annual present he picked out on his own, apart from the
meticulously foolproof list. When I started spending most nights at Matthew’s
apartment—much to my father’s dismay who promptly kicked me out of the house—I
brought it along. Matthew’s parents found the bear when he was in the hospital, and
they tucked it under his arm as he died.
“Dante, it’s time to get ready for swim lessons. Can you put Teddy back please?”

It was Tuesday, one of the afternoons I watched my six-year-old cousin. Dante ran to
retrieve the bear from its crash landing on a pile of dirty laundry. “Ooga-booga,” he
replied, giving Teddy one last spin onto the bed.

“Dante. March.”

“Okay, Tara-tory,” he replied, racing up the stairs. He pulled off his shirt, discarding it the
hallway before he reached his room. Dante was quite proud of his clever nickname. A few
years later, picking up on a buzzword in the media, I would become “Tara-rism.”

With Dante buckled in the backseat, we made the short trip to Rocky Mountain College.
After I secured a parking space, Dante slipped his soft warm fingers in my hand, and we
trekked across the blacktop. The sight of brick buildings and lush green lawns invoked a
twinge of sadness that I was no longer in school.

Inside the pool, the smell of chlorine recalled the excitement of summer vacation. Dante
joined his swimming group, and I sat on the bleachers with a copy of Utne Reader,
content reading to the hum of echoing voices, splashing water, and tweeting whistles.
Between paragraphs of “Four Weeks Vacation: a Campaign to Give Americans more Free
Time,” I glanced around at the other responsible adult figures. I wondered what they
thought of me. Did I look like a single mother?  The nanny?  The depressed niece whose
aunt pitied and brought into her home?  Dante waved from the sidelines, shivering in his
green and orange trunks, lips blue. I smiled back, happy to be the important figure in
someone’s life, if only for a few hours each week.

On other afternoons, I explored the parks near the house, soaking in Montana’s brown,
rocky landscape. Jagged bluffs surrounded Billings. Up the steep hill towards the airport,
I climbed car-sized boulders comfortably positioned at the edge of the cliffs. Wildflowers
grew between the cracks. Twisted pine tree roots grappled through the rocks in search
of water and security. I sunbathed nude in the protection of the rock’s walls, reading
Prozac Nation. Ninety degrees of dry heat beat down from the sun, radiated off the
rocks, and soaked into my tender flesh. The sun—steady, enduring, optimistic—relaxed
the tension grief had twisted through my muscles. My mind went mercifully blank.

At the Yoga Center on one of Billing’s oldest streets, I learned how to breathe. The
space circulated calm, gentle energy between its polished wood floors, uneven brick
walls, and slow chanting music. At the end of each class, in Shiva Sana, the instructor
would tuck blankets under our chins, lay an eye pillow across our brow, and gently
squeeze our shoulders, forearms, calves, and feet. During one particular meditation,
between gentle deep breaths, a bright blue image flashed under my eye pillow. I was
back between the sky blue sheets lying next to the searching blue eyes. My lashes
dampened, and my heart began to pound. Before I could grasp hold, the moment passed.

What took me from that memory?  Since Matthew’s death, I had wished, hoped, prayed,
pleaded, demanded, and bargained to recapture the sensation of Matthew. If he must
stay dead and I couldn’t find the energy to quit living, at the very least, let us meet
somewhere in the middle. I read books with titles like Hello from Heaven! filled with
testimonials of the bereaved communicating with loved ones. I stopped reading them
when the book claimed communication with suicide victims was not likely. Suicide deaths,
it explained, were trapped between this world and the next for leaving the earth before
“their time.”  I crossed “books written by psychics” off the list of helpful things to read in
moments of desperation. I wiped my eyes and disciplined my breath.

On free nights, I had dinner with Linda, Paul, and Dante. Linda would make curried
chicken in a clay adobe pot or polenta with saltissa, the sausage you could only buy at
Stan’s Big Dollar in my parents’ Upper Michigan hometown. We often had dinner guests,
which kept the household fresh: Kane, the son of a family friend, a medical student with
whom I had a one-week fling; Jeanne, Paul’s sister who was running for State
Representative and lived on a grasshopper-infested ranch (as discovered from behind
the safety of a car window); Marjorie, Paul’s mother who was unhappily transitioning to
assisted living. She was entering early stage Alzheimer’s but still had many sharp

“I heard you lost someone you loved,” Marjorie said to me one night at dinner. I was
taken aback, so used to people avoiding the death topic, suicide especially, at all costs.
“I buried two husbands but nothing like that . . .” she said. Her milky blue eyes searched
my face without pity, without judgment. Marjorie just looked sad.

During my training at Walker’s, Bill catalogued each ingredient in every dish on the
menu, describing the origin, kitchen prep, and cooking technique. I learned the five wine
regions in France and how the grapes transformed when planted in the US, then
Australia, then Argentina and Chile. I made a list of food description words and mixed
and matched them to the salmon, lamb, and pasta specials each night. Tangy and sweet
pork chop chutney; halibut in buttery, rich buerre blanc; bright, tart, blood orange crème
brulee. Our patrons were fierce regulars in the fourteen days morels were in season,
summer vacationers driving cross-country sent by the Sheraton, ranchers requesting
specially cut twenty-four ounce steaks. They listened intently to my descriptions and
trusted my recommendations.

“Hi Bill,” I greeted my boss early in the dinner rush. Conversation buzzed between
patrons among the dimmed lights, white linen, and elaborate floral arrangements. I
placed my tray on the bar and began arranging drinks in a circle. Bill leaned against the
bar, one cowboy boot crossed over the other.

“Not yet,” he quipped. “But I will be after a few more Martinis.”  He swallowed the rest
of his Cosmo and raised the empty toward the bartender. “I’ll take a Mandarin this time,

Two rounds of tables later, the night began to wind down. “Do you wanna go out after
this?” I asked Corrie. She looked up from the order she was punching into the
computer. “I was thinking about the Brew Pub.”

“I have to get Jake from my mom’s,” she hesitated, brushing back a dark curl.  “But I
guess I could have one drink.”

Corrie was a great mother, but she was still young. After working as a nude model for
art students in Missoula, she dropped out of college and moved to LA. By her second
waitressing job, Corrie was picked up by an agent who worked with after-school
specials and made-for-TV-movies. “I was the only fair-skinned brunette in a city of sun-
soaked blonds,” she told me. The week she met her agent, Corrie discovered she was
pregnant. Two months later and one boyfriend lighter, she drove home to Montana,
stopping every thirty minutes to throw up.

After work we drove the three blocks to the Brew Pub. Late night Billings was crawling
with drunken homeless people, most harmless, but it didn’t feel safe to walk. The Brew
Pub was a long space, with a polished oak bar in the center and high tops radiating
around it. We drank pints of Blond Ale. Corrie had one and left. I stayed for four more
as others from work joined the table.

As high as Bill, I climbed into my car and started the engine, paying special attention
not to fasten my seatbelt. I drove a coppery-brown Toyota which badly needed new
brakes, shocks, and a muffler. Driving a beater was liberating. I had no fear of an
oversized pickup parking too close and dinging the door or the stereo getting ripped
off since the tape deck only played on one side.

Pulling out of the parking lot, I made a wrong turn off Third Ave. “Fuck,” I muttered. I
think I can go this way, I thought, avoiding the effort of a U-turn. I rummaged through
my purse to find a light for my Kamel Red and didn’t notice the orange cones
approaching. The car dropped off the edge of solid road into torn up construction
gravel, bouncing roughly. I continued to rummage through my purse until I found the
light, flicked the fuse, and inhaled the incense, before gunning the Toyota back onto
solid road.

“I’ve got the day off tomorrow,” Linda said as we each chose a page from the
Mandala coloring book. Her Eastern European immigrant/lesbian/artist friend designed
the books. This one was a compilation of Mandalas created by children around the
world. “I was thinking about going for a hike. You wanna come?”

“Sure, I’ll set my alarm for seven or so. Can you pass me the orange and blue,
please?”  Walker’s was closed on Sundays. It was good for me to have something
planned on those days – otherwise I might miss the daylight hours.

“I’ll knock on your door around eight,” Linda replied.

By 8:30 the next morning we were buckling into the black leather seats of Linda’s 88
Saab. “Where are we headed?”  I glanced over at Linda. She was replacing her
delicate metal-framed glasses with multi-colored, bug-eyed sunglasses.

She gauged my expression. “I thought the frames were fun at the time.  Now I’m
stuck with them.”  She laughed. “We’re going to the Beartooths but not through Red
Lodge. This spot is along the Wyoming border. It’s much more secluded….

We drove south past the smoke stacks of sugar beet refineries. There were only
about three towns between Billings and the Wyoming border, but there was plenty of
earth, the color of deep pumpkin, faded by wind and dust that stretched out to an
invisible horizon. When the two met, they melted perfectly into each other, creating a
soft purple haze you could only see if you relaxed your eyes, breathing into the beauty
of perfect union.

“So how are things going?”  Linda glanced at my copy of Veronika Decides to Die. “You’
ve been napping a lot lately.”

I finished my sentence and put the book down. “Okay, I guess.”  I paused. “Work is
going really well. I’ve been hanging out with Corrie a lot lately. Jacob is such a fun
baby – he loves going out to lunch with us.”  I paused and picked at my fingernails.

“Linda, what would you do if Paul died?”

Linda adjusted the volume on the stereo and thought for a moment. “Well, I’m sure I’
d be very sad. I would probably put a lot of energy into Dante, but I like to think I
could find another partner someday.”

“But what if he’s your soul mate?”

“I guess I hope there’s more than one match for each of us. Why should there only be
one?  Anyway, who says a soul mate has to be your spouse?  Can’t you find that in a
child or a friend or more than one match?”

“I guess I never thought of that.”  As I let her words soak into my brain, I stared at
the mountains slowly rising through the windshield. “Linda, do you know that when I
was young, you were the only adult who spoke to me like a person and not a little

She patted my knee and we drove on in silence.

Two hours later we pulled onto a gravel road. The Saab bounced roughly between
potholes. Long pine tree arms brushed the car windows and scented the air. A few
minutes later, the trees receded and the skyline opened. Linda pulled along the edge
of the gravel opening, took the key from the ignition, and turned towards me.

“This is it.”  Her dark eyes sparkled in anticipation.

As we stepped out of the car, I strained my neck to soak in the mountains. Island arc,
continental collision, convergent plate, subduction zone, compression, reverse thrust
fault during the Late Permian to the Miocene describe how these mountains rose from
the earth; understanding those things made them no less magnificent. The brown
giants lined with pines sat quietly as monuments of endurance. The ground around the
mountains was dusty and dry, covered with sage and other tough brush. My heart
jumped as a small pinkish-gray lizard shot out its tongue and captured a cricket.

We began our hike through a field of tall grasses. Pickers tangled into the laces of my
tennis shoes; twigs and rough groundcover scraped my unprotected legs. I narrowly
missed stepping in a huge pile of dung. “This is also a horse trail,” Linda said.

As we ascended the trail, the landscape changed quickly from an open grass field to
thick mountain forest. The dirt path forked and Linda led me through a narrow ledge.
Holding tightly to rocks for security, we crawled under a narrow arch toward the smell
of moisture. The scattered sagebrush gradually transformed into bright green moss.
Fresh mint and lavender perfumed the air, and I heard the rush of moving water. Then
I saw our destination: a tall and delicate waterfall splashed over a boulder, trickled
down the rock wall, and landed gracefully in a small pool. The mountain walls on three
sides created a private sanctuary. Long smooth grass covered patches of earth, and
tiny flowers in purple, white, and orange bordered the edge of the pool.

Linda and I stripped down and stood under the waterfall’s shockingly cold shower.
The water washed the salty sweat from our hands, hair, and backs. Under the
waterfall, a thick cushion of moss carpeted the rocks. I inhaled the sharp, clean
mountain air, sending fresh oxygen to my brain. Linda took pictures of me from across
the pool, legs crossed, knees hugged to my chest, head turned toward the camera.
The pictures revealed a grin I recognized from another lifetime.

The basement steps at Linda and Paul’s house opened to a ceramic tile landing, with
doors radiating in all directions. My bedroom was across from the laundry room and
shared the floor with Linda’s massage room, the office where they were launching a
bike tour business, and a sauna. The morning of my birthday, I was buried in navy
flannel sheets and a gray-blue down comforter when I was unhappily awakened by
Dante’s voice.

“See you!  See you!” he chimed to the opening and closing of the sauna door.

He seemed to be playing with some imaginary Pokémon friends or maybe his guinea
pig, but after a few more refrains, Linda’s calm voice, neither irritated nor neglectful,
called out, “Dante, can you please keep the sauna door shut. You’re letting the heat

It was silent for a few moments before Dante began again. “See you!  See you!”

At this point I was wide awake, pissed to be roused so early on my birthday. I lay in
bed thinking of all the torturous ways I could get back at my cousin when to my
surprise, my anger quietly dissipated.

Late June. Humid. Matthew’s second story apartment, upstairs of a 1920s house. One
oscillating fan struggling to cool the room. “There’s something I want to play for you.”
Matthew watched me carefully as he slipped the reddish-orange disk into the stereo.
“I love this song. It always makes me think of you. I play it a lot when you’re not
around.”  I sat on the honey-colored couch, hugging my knees to my chest. Strumming
acoustic guitar vibrated from the speakers:

These notes are marked return to sender
I’ll save this letter for myself
One thing is always true
How good it is to see you
See you . . . See you . . .

I’ve heard that the dead sometimes communicate through the living:  the young, the
infirm, the insane. They are more pure, more base, closer to the elements. I never liked
that idea. It’s too Hollywood-meets-Sylvia Browne. On my twentieth birthday, I began
to understand that like most things in life, it was simpler than that. More subtle. At six
years old, Dante was open to suggestion. He didn’t self-censor the way we do as
insecure teenagers and anxious adults. He said the first thing that popped into his
head, and that day it happened to be a birthday hello from his cousin’s dead boyfriend.

As the sugar maples turned crimson and began dropping their leaves, December 3rd
crept closer – the anniversary of the day Matthew pulled his car into the garage,
blocked the doors, and let the engine run. All he had to do was breathe in and out. A
neighbor heard music blaring from the garage and broke in the door. Doctors stabilized
Matthew’s body only to discover his brain would never regain any upper level function
– no memory, no consciousness – what the doctors called a persistent vegetative
state. We had to remove his feeding tubes and watch his body slip into physical death.
Death by starvation. His mind, his essence was gone, but his heart still beat and his
lungs pumped air. “His soul is trapped,” my sister said after seeing him in the hospital.
“You’re doing the right thing by letting him die.”

I wanted to do something on the anniversary of that day, to not file Matthew’s
memory into the catalog of under-celebrated events in my life. But I could think of
nothing special that was creative and meaningful and understated enough to honor
the life I lost.

I made no plans that day and accepted an invitation from Corrie to find a Christmas
tree. She picked me up in her black Pathfinder with the bumper sticker Well Behaved
Women Rarely Make History on the tailgate. Jacob was strapped in tightly behind me,
red fleece bulging out of his car seat. He smiled and flailed his arms while I buckled in
the front.

We drove towards Red Lodge, my last trip to the mountains, in search of Corrie and
Jacob’s Christmas tree. As the Beartooths wound tighter, Corrie pulled onto the
shoulder near a flat patch of earth. Scraggly pines scattered the rocky ground.
As we searched the area, I thought about the lore associated with pines trees. In my
sorority, the pine tree had been a symbol of the present, its enduring green needles,
its roots that find water where no other trees can live, its one straight stem pointing
towards the heavens. In Chinese art, the pine tree represents longevity,
steadfastness, and discipline. Early New Englanders adorned militia flags with the pine
to symbolize hardiness and fortitude.

“How about this one?”  Corrie stood next to a tree not much taller than herself. The
tree’s branches were thin and few but its trunk was straight and its color strong. I
steadied the tree while Corrie worked the saw. After tying it to the roof, we climbed
back into the truck.

I glanced at Corrie in the fading light as the sun set behind us. “I’m glad I did this
today. I feel like I should be sad, but I’m not. I can’t really explain it. Maybe I’ve been
sad for so long that I don’t have anything left.”

Corrie searched my face, not sure what to say. “I wish I had known what day this is. I
would have done something.”  She leaned across the seat and hugged me tightly.
“There’s nothing to do,” I said into her hair. I let go of her grip and settled into my
seat. “I guess it’s just another day I have to live through.”

As the one year anniversary of Matthew’s death approached, I felt drawn to the place
we had shared our life, the place he was now buried. I wanted to be with my family for
Christmas, to celebrate my progress from the sad, tired girl whose heart pumped very
slowly to a girl who was reintegrating to the land of the living.

“I’ve decided on Minneapolis,” I told Linda. She stacked books into a box while I
packed away my summer tanks. “It’s close enough to Green Bay that I can visit when I
want but not too close that my mother can pop over uninvited. I want to live in the
city. I need a place that’s big enough to keep me interested. And Minneapolis is nice
because there’s a lot of green space.”

“You’ll love Minneapolis,” Linda said. “I lived there right out of college, on 34th and
Grand. Can’t you get reciprocal tuition in Minnesota?”

For my long journey home, Linda packed snacks of trail mix, hard-boiled eggs, and
dried dates (“I always get irregular when I travel,” she told me). As I pulled onto the
freeway, I soaked in the foggy blue mountains one more time, tiny in the distance, and
cranked up the Foo Fighters. It was warm for early December. Most of the October
snow had melted, and the smell of wet earth entered my cracked window. “And I
wonder . . . when I sing along with you . . .” I sang along with Dave Grohl’s angry,
nostalgic, mournful tune, “If everything could ever feel this real forever / If anything
could ever be this good again / The only thing I’ll ever ask of you, you gotta promise
not to stop when I say when . . . ”

“Shit!”  My car’s back wheels slid in slow motion, rocking to the left, rocking to the
right. I held my breath, as if to suspend the laws of physics, though my racing heart
told me it wasn’t working. I turned off the music and struggled to keep my car on the
road, praying a semi was not sitting around the turn. The shady curve along one of
Montana’s signature rocky buttes had blocked the sun from a lingering patch of icy
freeway. I had not noticed the ice until I felt a shadow cast over the sunroof.

A moment later, I was back in the rhythmic pulse of safe highway passage. For a time,
my shoulders remained tense, teeth clenched, brain on alert. But deeper inside my
chest, my heart gradually returned to its steady, enduring, optimistic effort. I had felt
afraid. I continued driving east.



Tara DaPra is an MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota, Managing Editor for the literary magazine Dislocate,  and a freelance writer for the Rake.  She enjoys equal parts alone time to social interaction, traveling to places new and familiar, and petting her dog Sally.


“Poetry from the Edge” by Zan Bockes


Until a few years ago, I was unlikely to endorse psychiatric treatment as a positive influence on my poetry. Writing became a cornerstone of my identity when I was a little girl, long before the initial appearance of my mental illness, and my love of words has carried me through some rough times. I am unsure whether my experiences with bipolar disorder (manic-depression) enhanced my writing, but I can say that my poetry helped me live through these experiences.

I survived to write because I wrote to survive.  I’ve heard many times that a certain amount of emotional instability is associated with an artistic temperament, but it is unknowable whether poets like Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, or Sylvia Plath could have written more brilliantly if they’d received adequate treatment for their disorders. Much has been written about poetry as therapy, but little investigating the effect of therapy on poetry. I talked to a number of local poets and artists who’ve been diagnosed with a mental illness and all agreed that their creativity was essential and therapeutic, and most agreed that it would have been impossible for them to live and work without some form of intervention.

Had I not received help, I would not have survived several near-fatal suicide attempts, and I would not have been able to enjoy my present recovery. I’m pretty sure that if I’d died, I would be writing less poetry.

During my sophomore year at the University of Iowa, I found myself in a tumultuous and confusing world that I had no name for. I dropped out of school and went back home to Omaha, Nebraska, where I sought help from a psychologist who diagnosed my problems as schizophrenia. Engaging me in an unhealthy and highly unethical relationship, he convinced me that any medical treatment for severe mental illness “masked the deeper problem” and was “a coward’s way out.” After three years of intense therapy (which he originally claimed was enough to induce a “cure”), the yank and shove of my emotional states only worsened. Though I wrote constantly, little remains–I frequently burned my work as a prelude to suicide attempts.

1980, my 22nd year, was a series of firsts for me: My first psychotic episode and exposure to psychiatric medications, my first involuntary commitment to a state hospital, and my first ECT’s (electroshock treatments). All marked the true beginning of my 25-year battle with what I called “The Normalocracy,” which governed the consensual reality most people shared.

My role in life, I believed, was to experiment with the tension between the “real world” and the “sub-real world” I inhabited alone, determining the destiny of the Universe. One fall day, I set fire to a pile of boxes in a public park, symbolically destroying the world so I could recreate it. However, the Normalocracy defended itself with the local police, who locked me up in a hospital before my ceremony could be completed.

I was forced to endure injections of Prolixin, a powerful antipsychotic medication, and I spent eight months in its suffocating grip. I desperately wished I could escape the wet blanket of sedation and be someone–anyone–else, a situation I later described in the following poem:

Wishing I Were Anyone Else

For example, that man I pass on the street,
his grey trench coat pulled tight around his ears
like a shell, shielding him from the urgency
of my wishes. His tall form is a clipper ship
in full regalia–he’s both ship and
the sailor in the rigging, pitching in a gale,
each essential to the other.
I’ve grown tired of my tiny island.
Or the woman at the checkout with her cart of
beans and bread, green tea and a pint of Rocky Road,
counting out her coins and smiling
though she gets no change.
I’d take her battered shoes,
tight and worn, for this lead
that drags my feet.
Or my friend with her long dark hair
and glistening eyes, her widow’s peak pointing
to the purity of her complexion,
and though she has pains in her stomach, I’d gladly
exchange those to taste life as she
tastes it–a sip of coffee, round and full, a
symphony in her mouth that I no longer hear.
Her spoon clinks on the edge like a little bell–
a reminder that the present is as clear as that.
I wake every morning to a day fuzzy with fog, trapped
in the soggy net of this medicated mind, and not even
coffee can speed my thoughts, which fall singly
like the maddening drip of a faucet.
Maybe if I wish hard enough I can change.
Then I’d be anyone else but me,
out here walking in the mist past the houses
with their squares of yellow light.

(A Chaos of Angels anthology, 2006)

My first therapist claimed that pills and hospitals could only “take my life away,” and unfortunately, this rang true for many years. No matter how I struggled with side effects of various medications, recurring symptoms arose whenever I discontinued the pills.  When ill, I heard voices in my head shouting at me: “Liar!”   “You phony bitch!” “You’re bullshit!” These hallucinations drowned out my own thoughts, ordering every move I made and commanding me to “off myself.” My vision was impaired by a shifting curtain of colors where dark figures advanced in the periphery. I smelled a strong odor of blood, felt bugs crawling on my legs. My tiny shred of consciousness cowered inside the rubber shell of my skin.

Besides these psychotic symptoms, I had episodes of mania, characterized by overwhelming awareness, acute perspicuity, and joy so intense it was almost painful. I spoke continuously to myself and nearby others, unable to stop the torrent of words, and sometimes the voices in my head began coming out my mouth. My thoughts careened at incredible speeds in this vibrant and shimmering world, and I had no use for food or sleep.

Several manic episodes involved law enforcement personnel. I was arrested for disorderly conduct several times and for stealing the Fire Chief’s squad car from the Omaha Fire Department. Racing down major thoroughfares with lights and siren blaring is an experience I’d be reluctant to give up, even though I spent three terrifying weeks in a maximum security cell at a county hospital.

Had I been allowed pen and paper, I’m sure I would have written some semblance of poetry. During these episodes, I wrote so compulsively that my behavior was categorized as “hypergraphia,” the relentless push to scribble everything down. But I could only produce fragments which, upon examination, fell to pieces like shattered glass. I truly felt more creative, but my disinclination to revise or finish anything gave me little advantage. The longest fragment that has been published follows:

Eating Ourselves

I tasted my arm last week in an arm sandwich I ate just
before going out the door to play in the pond outside where
fish are bigger than the trees and their fantails stream in
the breeze like the breath of death–caught a whiff on the
stairs. It smelled like buckwheat flap jacks and antifreeze.
I could not help but laugh, for the last time I poured
antifreeze on my buckwheat flap jacks, it spilled on my
trousers and opened a curiously wide hole there into a
moonlit place behind someone’s garage. The children were
watching each other, rapt with fascination, as they defecated
in a performance-style show based more on quantity than
quality. I guess we’d all like to be in that picture with
our sticks in hand, poking the faintly steaming mass and
making faces. Such art cannot be sold in the store where I
work. We do not sell that there. We only sell skullcaps
for the workers, overflowing with guitar strings and posies
that force their way up from the roots of all people’s
sorrow. We sell those for 25 cents a piece, and they sell
like hotcakes that have burned so thoroughly they make better
mortarboards themselves, though we don’t sell those out of
season. What brings me back to the point I get lost from is
a sense of embarrassment about my pride, or pride about my
embarrassment, all of which is based loosely on the
profoundly human notion that my nose turns slightly skyward
every time I introduce myself. I’m a bear talking backwards
in the night.

(Another Chicago Magazine, No. 31, 1995)

I wrote dozens of these “muse-ments,” a new genre I developed that “looks like prose but tastes like poetry.” I focussed my energy on the physical sensation of mind flowing to pen and pen to paper, an activity I’ve always found soothing–linking loops and curls to open new worlds with every word. But these exhilarating periods were often followed by depression–an anvil of sadness burdened my chest, rendering my vision grey and fuzzy with tears. I wrote little poetry in this state, but the theme of darkness and death asserted itself many times in my work. An example is my poem “Nine.”

Nine black maids in an empty corridor–
these are the days that have passed.
Threes are the threads that sew them together;
a father, son, and someone’s ghost
are on the road tonight,
eating by matchlight,
sleeping in the ditch.
Each darkened maid could have had a spouse,
each father’s son has a ghost of a chance,
but I have gone too far these days–
dampened my matches, lost my ditch.
The thick black snakes choke on their tails;
I eat myself and cannot swallow. Three
bites, and I take nine breaths,
one for each life I’ve lead.
I’m on the last one.
Nine months in Mama’s belly,
nine years ducking my father’s fist,
nine years since he became a ghost,
nine years more he’s haunted me.
Father, son, and someone’s ghost
are on the road tonight
and I cannot last one life more.
One more night of rain,
one more bite of flesh,
one more night waiting
to be murdered in my sleep–
I lose count.
The alchemy of my imaginings makes Hell
seem so deep; the cycle turns, with no
shadow and no sleep.

(Visions International, No. 53, 1997)

After all this, it may be difficult to understand my objection to the medicines I was required to take. Often, my court-ordered outpatient commitment involved injections and close supervision by mental health authorities. I was threatened with incarceration if I did not comply with their wishes. The tumult of my symptoms was unpleasant, but familiar. I knew of no other self. And the side effects of the older medications nearly destroyed my life–extreme weight gain, a need to sleep 16 to 18 hours a day, drooling, incontinence and a stifling sense of boredom. My curiosity and ability to write vanished, every emotion dulled by this chemical lobotomy. I was in a double bind–damned by the disease I was told I had and damned by the side effects of the “cure.” But I refused to compromise and so spent many years bouncing back and forth between illness and soggy “reality,” between bland complacency and defiant “noncompliance,” with one foot in the gutter and one foot on the curb.

In the world of money and responsibility, I lived my twenties in poverty, unable to keep a job for more than a few weeks. I was homeless for several winter months. I worked a string of lowpaying jobs as nurse’s aide, janitor, bus girl, manual laborer and shift worker at several factories. I donated plasma to afford groceries.

Finally, when it became clear to others that I was not capable of supporting myself, my father filled out the forms for Social Security Disability benefits. I reluctantly signed my name. Within a few months, I received label “disabled.”  Although I was told by several doctors that I could never return to college because I’d “never be able to concentrate,” I
finally graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in English from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, nine years after I’d started my education in Iowa City. Despite numerous dropouts caused by illness and hospitalization, I also earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the same school and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Montana in Missoula, where I met my husband in 1990. Mike has been a steady companion since then, patiently weathering the storms of my repeated episodes. His loyalty and support have offered a stability that has long been integral to my recovery.

From 1978 to 2000, I averaged two to three hospitalizations a year, some for a week, others for months, and had little time for “real life.” But my condition has improved remarkably in the last five years, partially due to new medications with fewer side effects. I’ve finally “evened out,” which has proved essential for the growth and discipline of my work.

I also contribute in other ways: I regularly co-teach poetry and writing classes in a day treatment program for mentally ill adults, act as mentor for a recovery education course, and work part-time as a “Residential Sanitation Specialist” for my own cleaning business, “Maid in Montana.” I’ve found I can induce the playful inventiveness of my muse-ments through meditation without the looming threat of becoming ill. My creativity is under better control, despite the romanticized notion that these two terms cannot coexist. I am finding great rewards in producing more quality work than I could possibly have done before.

Wordsworth’s quote comes to mind: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” When I was in the midst of a  maelstrom of symptoms, there was no tranquility in which to reflect on the emotions. I feel I owe a great deal to my experiences with bipolar disorder. The screaming highs of a world drenched in beauty and the wrenching lows of a dark and sinister universe form a frame of reference from which to write. Living on the edge of “reality” has been a gift.

Gabriel Heatter, an American radio commentator, said: “Life is never so bad at its worst that it is impossible to live; it is never so good at its best that it is easy to live.” I believe that being in touch with the best of Heaven and the worst of Hell fosters compassion for humanity, and communicating this to others is the highest form of love. I sense that I’ve finally “come out on the other side,” as I sought to do in recreating the Universe.

Poetry has helped me make this transition, and I continue to gather strength from the power of words–the enduring bond that links us all.



Zan Bockes earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Cutbank, Poetry Motel, Visions International, Phantasmagoria, and The Comstock Review. She has had three nominations for a Pushcart Prize.

“Lucky 13” by Tina Alexis Allen


“Shit, Dad’s home,” Frannie giggles nervously at the dining room window. “Carol is that your green Pacer,” she asks even though she knows the answer.

“Yes, why?” Carol, 26,  can’t help but act like the oldest. Even when something’s wrong she tries to act above it all.

“’Cause Dad’s ramming your bumper,” Frannie announces.

A lightening-quick change happens in the faces of my barbecue-eating, 12 brothers and sisters. Their wild jokes and laughter shift into nervous chatter and sharp comments-like a food fight only everyone’s throwing sarcasm and no one’s listening. I check on my Mom, who’s bowing her head and wiping her mouth politely – our only calm before the storm.

The front door slams shut, and the entire dining room shuts down. Barely a peep except for stiff movements: Magdelene,17, gulps her milk.  Luke, 21, puts his head down, buttering a roll and eyeing his wife, Kitty, to take her elbows off the table. Eddie, ”the tease,”  20, pinches 15-year old Mark’s earlobe, trying to make him laugh. Frannie, 18,  keeps blinking her eyes like she’s got a twitch. Sweet Hope, 13,  chews on a drum
stick; while thin as a rail Grace, 25,  makes the sign of the cross.  Terry, 23, hides the empty Tab can underneath the table; her twin, Paul,  folds his arms across his chest
like Mr. Clean, as if he’s going to dare my Dad to lay another finger on him. Once I overheard Terry, say that of all us kids, ‘Paul got the worst of it from dad.’ When
Paul was my age  (11), my Dad would take him into the basement and beat him with his belt.  No one really knows why and I was still in a high chair when it happened, so heck, if I know.

I reach for my Mom’s wrist, slipping my pinky finger underneath her elastic watchband.  It barely fits, but I hold on anyhow.

“Hi Dear.”  My mom always breaks the silence. Dad sways into the room, blood vessels climbing up his nose like a vine. His bottom lip hangs loose; his tongue
licking his lips every few seconds. A long, manicured finger balancing his linen sports jacket over his shoulder. A pale-yellow dress shirt and matching yellow necktie look
wet from the thick wet summer air. He stands at the head of the table like Captain Von Trapp taking roll call with his bloodshot eyes.  Beads of sweat pop up like a contagious
disease on everyone’s tight faces. I bet if you took an X-ray of all the stuff going on inside of me and my brothers and sisters, you’d see howling and screaming and trembling inside. And if we weren’t such a polite family, you might have people scratching and clawing and punching, and maybe there would be a stabbing or even a gunshot. But we’re a nice Catholic family that has good manners and says the Rosary every night after dinner.

So even while my Dad’s drunk and on the verge of something dangerous,  we sit up straight in our chairs;  elbows off the table;  cloth napkins on our laps, chewing baked beans and barbecued chicken with our mouths properly closed – doing our best not to tip the scales of our father’s mood.

As he starts his mouth-to-mouth kissing ritual around the 16 chairs, I smell the mix of garlic, wine and Listerine. While his lips make contact with the lips of my siblings, I quietly pray that he’ll kiss my Mom and at least say, “Hello,” or “Good evening, Mother,” even though he hasn’t looked at her, since he staggered in from one of his long lunches with one of his priest friends. As he makes the sign of the cross on the foreheads of the
three wiggling grand kids, I watch my Dad and wonder: why did he marry someone that he doesn’t want to talk  to?

“Excuse me, I have to go to the bathroom.” I walk out of the dining room, before he can put his moist, puckered mouth on mine. I wait around the corner with my back pressed up against the paneled hallway wall,  as he moves closer to the only unkissed person in the room.  My whole head listens, hoping for my Mom to be treated like a wife and not a “bloody American.”  But nothing. No kiss. No hello. Just hollow, empty air as he
walks past her white swivel chair and disappears up the creaky wooden stairs to their bedroom.  I’m never getting married.

I peek into the dining room at heads shaking and eyes rolling. His moods are as mysterious as a lost civilization.

“Fine, how are you, dear?” My mom’s quiet sarcasm lets everyone know she’s OK. Conversation builds again. Nothing wild. You can tell even the bravest of the bunch don’t want to wake the sleeping giant. I walk back into the dining room, sit back in my seat and
watch my mom scoop out coffee ice cream from the five-gallon tub from Baskin-Robbins.

“I can scoop it, Mom,” I whisper as nice as possible.

“That’s OK, sweetie. You go ahead and finish your dinner.”

I lean onto her round, jelly-like arm and kiss it right where her muscle would be, if she had one. I peck at her arm with kisses, hoping they will erase my Dad’s silent treatment. Only God knows why he punishes my Mom with glares and silence. If it were up to me, I’d choose that he not speak to me and treat my Mom better. But the worst part of all is that the longer his silence, the more dangerous things get.


After eighteen days of not saying a single word to his wife, my Dad’s crazy-person temper finally boils over at exactly 6:45 pm on a Monday night.

“Why the bloody hell can’t someone in this house fill up the Goddamn ice trays when they’re done,”  he barks as he yanks the plastic trays out of the little freezer at the bottom of our brown fridge.

He’s red-faced again from a three-hour lunch today with his good buddy, Father Anthony, a Jesuit from the Catholic Charities Office. Most days, my Mom calls Terry, who works at my Dad’s travel agency, for a report on my Dad’s lunch : Who did he go with?  What time did he leave?  What time did he get back. The length of his lunch let’s us know in advance whether we should walk on eggshells or run like hell before he gets home.

“Tina, run down to the basement and get your father some ice out of the freezer,” my Mom says.

I don’t want to leave her side.

“ Never mind, Christine.” He always calls me by my given name. And then he’s back in my mom’s face waving the empty trays.

“Would you mind telling me why dinner is not on the table? It’s half past six,” he yells.

“Well, I’m sorry dear….,” my Mom apologies in a cracking high- pitched whisper.

“Is it too bloody much to ask? What the hell have you been doing all day, WOMAN!,”  his neck veins bulge out as he inches closer to her.


My mom says nothing and keeps molding the raw meat loaf. Both our are heads bow low;  hers sad and hurt. Mine rushing angry blood; his shouting hammers my temples. And then I explode,

“Why don’t you leave her the hell alone!”

All at once, there’s a flash of light; a burn on my cheek and then my buckling knees.  I lay on the sticky yellow linoleum kitchen floor, as my dad’s tight mouth yells down at me, “I beg your pardon?”

I’ve fallen next to Sam’s red plastic bowls. His black dog hair floats in the almost empty water bowl.  I crawl out of the kitchen, as quickly as I can, not begging my father’s pardon. Still dizzy from his mean hand, I climb up the three flights of stairs to my room and
examine the blotchy right side of my face in the mirror above my dresser. A red-reflection of defeat.

By nine o’clock I’m still hurt, but hungry, so I tiptoe downstairs past the second floor making sure my father is in his room for the night.  The door is closed. I inch down one more flight, and head towards the voices coming from the dining room. Sitting around the now-cleared table are Kate, who just got home from her nursing class; Mark, who’s sliding pennies across the dining room table-some kind of hockey game with coins; Magdelene, doodling in her biology text book; and mom, sitting in her usual after-dinner position at the head of the table, eating Ritz crackers out of the box and sipping a steaming mug of Sanka.

I walk towards the dining room table and lean on my mom’s bare round shoulder. Black coffee breath slips out of her mouth, as she slides the crackers between her lips, first cupping one in her hand like a magician and then sliding it into her mouth whole, pretending she’s not really eating anything. She puts her other arm out to hug me, and then pulls me onto her lap. Her round girdled, body feels like I’m sitting on a rolling hill.

I bury my face into her soft neck.

“Aren’t you a little old to be sitting on Mom’s lap?” Magdelene hates me, I’m sure.

“You’ll get your turn”, Kate teases Magdelene.

“Real funny, Nurse Ratchet. She’s just whiny because Dad smacked her,” Magdelene blurts.

Kate leans towards me. “What happened?”

I pick my head off my mom’s neck, since I can feel some sympathy coming on.

“Dad came home and was screaming at Mom in the kitchen and slamming the ice trays all over the place. And I just said, ‘Why don’t you leave her alone,” I explain.

“You mean, why don’t you leave her the hell alone,” Magdelene corrects me.

“You said that?’’  I can tell Kate is proud of me.

“And then Dad slapped me really hard across the face,” I say.  I feel my mom pulling little balls of fabric off of my green Izod sweater and I wait, holding my breath for a big hug; or a kiss or for her to say,  ‘Awwwwwww, my baby.’

She reaches over her crossword puzzle for her coffee cup and says, “He didn’t hit you that  hard.”

Still on her lap, elbows leaning on the table, everything turns thick and heavy like someone buried me in sand at the beach.  Unable to move, I stare into my Mom’s coffee mug – an oil spill, greasy with cracker crumbs sinking into the dark decaffeinated water. I see people’s mouths moving, but I can’t hear them-not even my mom, who’s back to playing Harry Houdini with the round buttery wafers.  As I climb off my mom’s lap, I wipe my nose with the sleeve of my sweater.

“Get a tissue will ya?” Mark flings one of his pennies at me. I walk out of the dining room into the first floor bathroom. As I shut the door, their voices become muffled like a cartoon. I sit on the toilet lid with my dirty sneaker resting on the plastic toilet-paper holder. I
swallow and tense my face and bite my cheeks – anything but cry.  As I walk out of the first floor bathroom, I slip past the dining room trying not to be caught by the troops. I was hoping to be a hero in today’s war – win a Purple Heart.

As I sneak up the backstairs, I hear my mom calling me, “Tina….Tina, did you go up?’”

I can’t talk to her right now. I might make a big deal out of something – breaking an unspoken house rule.  And it’s pretty obvious there’s only enough room in the house for my Dad’s ‘big deals.’ The rest of us will just have to wait.  So I keep moving up the 36 stairs to my bedroom, pretending it’s not a big deal and trying my best not to feel a thing.

There is a wooden plaque on the mantel in the den that says, “The greatest gift a father can give to his children is to love their mother.”  We have these kinds of nice plaques all over the house.

Some hang on the paneled walls throughout our house and some just lean up against stuff like a dying fern or a left-over Christmas card from last year. We also have statues everywhere that my Dad picks up on his religious tours. When I look up from my place at the dining room table, I feel like I’m eating at a monastery. There’s a stained glass Madonna; the wooden Saint Francis Of Assisi statue; a round glass case with pieces of
some saint’s bones in it and crosses galore. When I look right-into the living room- I see portraits of my parents wearing their robes from the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher. (A Catholic organization in the Holy Land dating back to the time of the Crusades.) The oil
paintings look like two people I don’t recognize – some holy nun and dignified priest wearing robes with a large, red crusader cross. The wooden crucifix that hangs on
the living room wall between the two caped crusaders, is a constant reminder to anyone who enters our house: This is a very holy place.

“Sweetie, your father asked me if you were upset with him about something. Is anything wrong?”

These kinds of questions feel like someone has pushed the pause button on me.

“No. Nothing’s wrong,” I say, holding my face and neck very still, so it looks like nothing is wrong.

I watch my mom mix the batter for tonight’s corn fritters.  It’s quiet except for the metal bowl scraping on the counter. It sounds like there are crumbs trapped underneath the bowl. With each turn, a grinding sound. I imagine the little bread crumbs from this
morning’s toast screaming to be saved from this torture.

“He said you just put the phone down when he calls without saying a word.  That’s not nice, sweetie. He’s your father. You can’t just not speak to him,”  she says, as she licks her battered knuckle.

I look away. My whole body feels like a huge foot that fell asleep. I stand up trying to shake myself awake, while my mom covers the silver mixing bowl with wax paper and puts it in the refrigerator. I walk towards the empty counter to check on the bread crumbs- now black suffocated grains.  I want to fix them and put them back together.

“Hi, Mom,” Grace shouts from the foyer. I hear the volume of her screaming baby, Teddy, getting louder, so I pick up my basketball off the kitchen chair and slap it hard.  Over the crying I shout,  “I’m going to Chevy Chase Playground to shoot around for a while.”

“That’s my basketball girl,” my Mom says with pride.

She pats me on my arm, like she’s patting the batter for the corn fritters and then reaches to take the baby out of Grace’s arms. I bolt out of there, running nonstop through the hallway, out the front door, until I hit the freedom trail at the top of our street.

With every bounce of my basketball down Brookville Road, another why passes through my brain. Why does she defend him all the time?  Why does she blame me?Why doesn’t she yell back at him? Or tell him to leave? Why does he hate me?

No answers come.

So, I just keep dribbling.



Tina Alexis Allen is an actor, writer and director. Most recently, Tina starred opposite Teri Garr and Paul Sand in “God Out The Window,” which she wrote and directed. Currently, she is finishing up “Lucky 13”, and is in development on  the screenplay version of this memoir. Up next, she will perform her one woman show, “Irresistible,” in New York City. Look for Tina (dressed as a doctor) playing basketball in the upcoming NCAA commercial airing on CBS during “March Madness.” Tina lives and loves in New York City.

“The Weather Outside” by John Grey


It’s raining outside
but gently,
like fingers massaging the roof.
I thought a bright sun
would be necessary
but when the body
makes up its mind
to heal,
then any weather will do.
A roll of thunder
knitting bones
wild wind imitating
sickness blowing out of here
and the lightning begins.


John Grey‘s latest book is “What Else Is There” from Main Street Rag. He has been published recently in Agni, Hubbub, South Carolina Review and The Journal Of The American Medical Association.

“My Grandma Sadie” by Michael Estabrook


One of the survey questions
was to name a few
of the key influential people in my life.
I didn’t have to think about it long:
Shakespeare, Dante, Mozart,
Whitman, Thoreau, and my Grandma Sadie.
just noticed that none of them
are still alive, but that doesn’t
stop me from talking
to them regularly. Fortunately,
I suppose, my Grandma Sadie
is the only one who ever
feels impelled to talk back.



Michael Estabrook says he’s been writing poetry for so long that Methuselah should be
taking notice. In reality, he adds, time is simply doing its thing streaking ahead blithely pulling all of us along for the wild ride whether we like it or not. All of which reminds him that he’s published 15 chapbooks over the years. The last one that just came out was about his Dad. Before that was the one “when Patti would fall asleep” — about his wife. Mike’s a family man and we welcome him to our r.kv.r.y family with open arms.

“Where Have I Been?” by Zachary C. Bush


Fireworks crack, pop-pop, and fizzle over this beach town
then, no more.

The screen door groans as I enter my son’s apartment. I
turn on the fan to cut the stench of whiskey and stale
piss. Orange plastic pill bottles lead me to his bedroom.
I open the door, letting in light from the hallway. The
light casts shadows between his ribs. He is belly up on
the floral print mattress choking on vomit. I sit on the
mattress, resting his head on my lap. I run my hand over
his face, wiping his lips.

He has been dying for a long time.



Zachary C. Bush is a writer of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and magazine features. He lives in South Georgia with his two cats: Luna and Tic-Tac. His most recent work can be seen in edificeWRECKED, 5th Story Review, Eloquent Stories, and Non-Euclidean Cafe.

“Knoxville Soup Kitchen” by Carol Ann Borges


Wobbling in the rain, drunk
or maybe just in pain, thrusting her
three-legged metal cane before her,
she struggled up the concrete bridge-ramp
arching beside the Rescue Mission.

Almost stopped the car to give her a ride,
wanted to ask (just so I would know)
what could have brought her down
that low? Demon alcohol, crack pipe, or
just plain sorrow beyond bearing? Wanted to say-
Hey, sister! What made your life so hard?
But then, thoughts of how she might
smell, of unforeseen obligations,
pushed my foot against the accelerator.

Afterwards, everywhere I looked
white haired bag-ladies, kids on smack
floating like pale water-lilies up sullen streets—
a sign across from Kroger’s,
warning of domestic violence. A number to call.
Suddenly I realized we’re all afflicted
in some way, struggling up the ramp of life,
passing ourselves without ever stopping.



Carol Ann Borges is the author of Disciplining the Devil’s County, published by Alice James Books. She was raised aboard a schooner on the Mississippi River in the 1950’s and learned the art of storytelling from the fishermen and river folk she met along the way. Also from the river itself—the stories it whispered and the lessons it taught. Carole’s poems have appeared in a number of literary journals including Poetry, Kalliope, Bardsong, and Soundings East. Her non-fiction work can be found in The Enlightener Newspaper, Knox Voice, and  Eva Magazine. She lives in Knoxville, TN. and spends most of her time writing or playing in the garden with her white cat.

“Constricted Boa” by Lyn Bleiler


Cracked down the back.  Rattled.  Dry.
Seams splitting fast as a zipper.

Calculated plans.  A convincing collapse.
They’ll find me deflated and empty.

News will spread.  Buzzards will swarm.
My carcass will lie on the heap.

As I slither away far from the fray
Unrecognizable, and perfectly pink.



Lyn Bleiler currently lives in Northern New Mexico. Her writing has been included in a number of
literary journals such as the California State Poetry Quarterly and Nimrod International, and in several anthologies – most recently La Puerta, Taos published by Wildembers Press.

“Heart Breaker” by Christina Gombar

 I never got over my first lover. He broke my heart.


In second grade at Our Lady of Grace, sister Mary Helene told us a story about the little boy who hit his mother. This boy knew hitting his mother was a sin. He did it anyway. Every day. The mother told him to stop, but he never would. One day, the boy suddenly died. The boy had been dead only a few months when a little hand came poking up out of the grass growing over his grave. The mother didn’t know what to make of this, so she went to her parish priest. When, after some questioning, the mother shamefully disclosed to the priest  that her little boy had been in the habit of hitting her, the solution became clear. The priest told the mother that she had to go to her son’s grave and hit the hand with a stick – a hundred strokes, every day. She had to hit and hit and hit this hand, until she had paid her dead boy back for all the times he had hit her.

“Think how much trouble this caused the mother!” Sister Mary Helene said. “She had other children to take care of! And her housework to do! Think what a nuisance it was, for her to have to find time in her busy day to go to the grave and hit her dead boy’s hand!”

Busy as she was, the mother dutifully went, and struck the little hand until it finally sank back into the earth – proof that the debt of offense had been paid in full.

This and similar stories warning of life’s punitive side had been banned from the catechism by the time I met Gene Christie ten years later. But as events would unfold, their essential truth would become clear.

When I met Gene in 1977, I had long been attending the public schools, and even at church, hell and even purgatory were seldom mentioned. No longer was I obliged to enter a confessional stall every Friday, and whisper my sins in secret shame. Now all I had to do to obtain instant forgiveness was to chant, “I repent,” in chorus with the rest of the parishioners, and this just once a year on Good Friday. We didn’t even have to name our sins.  “God is Love,” we sang each Sunday.

“God is everywhere and in all things,” preached the priest.

“All You Need is Love,” proclaimed hand-made felt banners hung on gaily-painted brick walls. It was only be a matter of time before I was sucked into this vortex .

I fell in love with Gene Christie on first sight, and stole him from my best friend the spring we graduated high school. Strictly speaking, he wasn’t really hers yet – he was someone she met up with at parties — but Shannon had marked him for the first boy she was going to sleep with. Gene was from our hometown and a sophomore at the state university where Shannon was headed in the fall, thus their futures seemed sewn up. He had invited her to a party up at his dormitory, and for courage, she had brought me. It was a mistake.  Soon as we arrived, Gene smiled and kissed Shannon hello, then turned to me.

“I know you,” he said. I had never seen him before in my life. He was so beautiful, I would have remembered.

He described my house, said he had been to one of my sister’s parties the year before, and had caddied for my father on the town golf course. I thought he must be lying.

“You know me,” he insisted, smiling. He said he had spoken to me at a hometown bar at Christmas. I scanned a jumble of beer-strewn memories: ex-jocks from our high school coming up to us underage girls saying, “Hello gorgeous,” or “Will you marry me?” I still couldn’t place him.

“This is Celeste,” he introduced me to a friend. “She’s from my home town.” I smiled from embarrassment.

Gene smiled back. He was the type of boy with the big muscles, alligator shirt, pretty face and soft-spoken manner to make mothers swoon.

Every time he spoke to me, Shannon would try to recapture his attention by saying something like: “We went to the beach before we came up here today,” or, “I have some reefer,” or, “There’s a party at the lake next Friday.”

Gene glanced at her as if she were a traffic sign he had elected to disregard, and turned back to me. He knew everything about me – that I was smart, that I had just won a big prize at school, where I was going to college in the fall, and after Shannon stomped off in a huff, he took me by the wrist, pulled me into a room, closed the door, said, “You’ll like college,” and kissed me for five minutes.

It was the best kiss I ever had. He had the softest touch, and when we finally closed our mouths and pulled away, I saw that he had the softest-looking sort of beauty; it was if I were viewing him through a mesh, or mist. His deep set eyes were the exact median between green and blue, and they tilted down slightly at the outer corners, so they had a permanently heartrending cast, like the eyes of a child who is smiling, but also on the brink of tears. His hair was tousled, with gold lights at the crests of the curls, his skin was  smooth and tan, his teeth were white, and his wide mouth was embarrassing, for it immediately prompted thoughts of more kisses. He had a massive upper body, but was slim through the waist and below; he was just an inch or two taller than me, and looking into his eyes I said, “What about Shannon?”

He smiled and said nothing. The room he had pulled me into was the bathroom, and people were banging on the door. Gene left first, then I flushed the toilet and exited.

Shannon had done something stupid, left me stranded at the party knowing no one but Gene. I would dart here and there, sipping watery keg beer from a plastic cup, and he would follow. Upstairs, downstairs, outside the dorm, inside. In time I did have to use the bathroom in earnest, and when I emerged he was leaning against the wall opposite, waiting, his head tilted at an obsequious angle, a curling forelock of hair hanging down.

By the time Shannon came back, Gene and I were standing out in the quad in front of the bonfire – they were burning a couch and other wrecked things from the dorm – holding hands, and I was falling in love. Falling in love, like falling in a dream toward a pile of featherbed pillows. From the start it was unreal like that.

When I saw Shannon I disengaged my hand. Gene said he would call me in a few weeks when he was home for the summer.

“You won’t call,” I said.

“I will,” he said. “Come say good-bye to me tomorrow.”

Shannon and I walked off in silence. We had meant to sleep on the living room floor of her brother’s house off campus, but she stayed up all night, drinking and flirting with his friends, while I lay awake on the basement concrete floor, not wishing to squander this magical time in sleep. Even the next morning, neither of us said anything about Gene. If Shannon had confronted me, I would have said, “I didn’t do anything,” but she didn’t. She didn’t say anything. We had always been allies, never quarreled, and so had no words to  handle the matter. The only rudeness that occurred was when she hogged the last of the orange juice – a highly uncharacteristic act.

As for me, I sensed this breach was inevitable. Shannon and I were on the brink of real life – it was time to turn away from each other, and choose the opposite sex.

Soft spring Saturday morning, with a warm wind stirring the burnt smell of dead bonfire with the fresh country scents of earth and clover. First it was his head popping out of an upper story window of the dorm. Then he descended, and stood lolling against the building’s red brick wall, dazzling in a faded knit shirt that was a deeper hue of his blue-green eyes.

Shannon told him to call her when he came home for the summer. He said it had been nice to see us. I said nothing. After all had been said, he just stood there smiling his smile, basking in the morning sun, our adoration and our anguish. His rending eyes, wide shoulders, lean faded jeans, tanned feet in moccasins without socks – such sick, sick longing.

“Kiss me good-bye,” he said in his soft voice, looking at Shannon.

Her manner was defiant as she stepped quickly forward, but her face was a wreck. Clearly this kiss was meant to be their last.

“Now you, Celeste,” he said. I looked into his eyes, deep-set and somewhat small in his tanned face, but couldn’t read them. As much as I failed to comprehend, I bore faith that he embodied the answer to our turmoil. I hesitated, then stepped up to kiss him lightly on the lips. Throughout he remained leaning against the wall, his hands folded nonchalantly behind him.

On the bus ride home Shannon slept across the aisle, scowling. Out the tinted windows the sight of cows, silos and green hills was too bittersweet.

One month later I was sitting on a fold-out chair on our high school’s football field in my graduation gown. Two girls up on the platform sang, “The Circle Game” in shaky sopranos to the strums of their guitars while other girls got up from their seats, embracing and blubbering as if the end of the world were at hand. The only time I almost cried was when Shannon approached the platform for her diploma – the long blond hair falling in a straight sheet over the gold gown, her wide smile and hurt eyes.

Gene had broadcast it all over town that he was going to call me. After he did, I had to tell someone, some other girlfriend besides Shannon. On hearing the news Elaine began screaming into the phone and had come straight over. We had smoked half a joint and had run laughing and singing around and around my basement, blasting records on the stereo – Elaine and me and my little brother Fritz, who we were babysitting, and who was only three and therefore always happy to run laughing and screaming about nothing.

Our date was for the Monday night after graduation, and at the Sunday ceremony I was the envy of everyone. For a gift my grandmother had passed on to me a tiny chip of diamond, her engagement ring, which I wore. Afterwards when we were returning our gowns in the cafeteria, someone said, “Gene Christie gave her that ring,” as a joke and Shannon overheard.

“Bullshit,” she said. “Like hell he did.”

Gene had never called Shannon on the phone, driven to her house, met her parents and taken her away. Theirs had been a stray, sometime thing, indulged in drunkenly, at the end of parties behind a tree, a rock, a fence. She would come home with grass stains rubbed into the back of her white painter pants, of which her mother complained.


Gene came to pick me up when it was still light. He rang the bell as other boys had done before him, yet in truth he was the first one I had ever really wanted to go out with and knew I’d want to see a second time, and forever and ever amen.

I brought hin out to the back deck where my family was eating dinner. I fetched him the beer my father offered, then sat silently by his side, dutifully waiting for the preliminaries to be over, pondering the unknown. For the next several hours I would have in my custody this much sought-after gem, yet I was unsure as to what to do with him. I stole short looks at his turquoise eyes from time to time, but they returned my gaze, cheerful but opaque. A stranger.

In his soft and courteous voice, Gene fearlessly plied my father with golf talk, and succeeded in extracting a number of lengthy responses and a lingering smile. My father was gruff with his family, but kind to strangers.

My mother’s manner toward Gene alternated between over-eager and mooning smiles, symptomatic of her worm-like devotion to our father. Still her presence was a plus, because she and I were nearly identical. Gene could see for himself that I would still be pretty and slim, and my hair a waving shade o f Chestnut when I was forty-three. Little Fritz peed off the deck, which made everyone laugh, and my younger sister Candida, who was blond and shy and ten, sat smiling, because Gene had smiled specifically at her.

Marianne, just down from freshman year, was brusque with Gene, though the two had  something in common — both planned to be doctors. Marianne spoke knowledgeably and discouragingly to Gene of entrance exams, G.P. A.’s, and the near impossibility of someone from State entering Harvard or Yale Medical School, as he said he hoped to do.

“You won’t stand a chance,” my sister said, her mouth a hard line in her pretty face. “Not a chance of getting into any private medical school, come to that.”

We had to make straight A’s, weigh 125 pounds or less, be popular, date cool people. I was lacking in this last arena. Gene was the first A-list guy I had dated, not being more than a B- list girl myself, socially, in contrast to my stellar grades. So I had whisked other boys in and out of the house quickly, in some cases instructing them beep in front of the house, deeply insulting at least one. Better that than have them humiliated by too stringent standards.

My father was a carnivorous eater who made an evening ritual of sectioning and ingesting his steak. He had bulky hands for a surgeon, with the first joint of each forefinger held permanently rigid, each having been jammed in machinery during his factory-working youth. Now his attention, along with his thick smashed fingers, was fully engaged in paring his steak. He gave Gene no encouragement, as he gave none to us, as none had been given to him. My father had graduated from a good private medical school; but only after  attending a small Catholic college on scholarship, only after doing the whole thing on ROTC before the Veit Nam War. I was glad my father said nothing because I didn’t want Gene to have to join the army, nor have to live with him on some God-forsaken army base in the middle of southern nowhere, an experience my mother often recounted with horror.

As if this were his only defense, Gene beamed his smile gently across the table at my sister, but Marianne’s glare was merciless. Then his eyes traveled lightly around the picnic table, finally coming to rest on me.

I blinked at him as if to say, None of this matters, then gazed off through the jungle of trees  to the still blue lake beyond. I could smell Gene’s cologne and was in a daze.

Marianne continued to eye us both with hostility. She was jealous. She had sitting next to her the boyfriend she had brought down from college, who was big and blond but not nearly as beautiful as Gene. I knew that at college they were living together. They sat on the bench, defensively entwined, Marianne’s hand on Paul’s big thigh, Paul’s arm around her waist. Sometimes they sat there and kissed, in front of Gene, in front of everyone. When Paul kissed her Marianne made a loud smacking noise, Mmmmmmwhah.

In the front seat of Gene’s car I said, “How did you get so muscular?” Gene happily reeled off all of the sports he had played in high school – football, baseball, hockey, wrestling.

“Do you lift weights?” I asked.

“No, I can’t lift weights,” he said gently, as if explaining something sad to a very young child. Mine was a loud rude family, and I had trouble adjusting myself to Gene’s niceties, which I had expected to disappear once we were away from the adults.

“Why not?” I asked.

“I have this bone disease,” he said. “It screwed up my back.”

“How long have you had it?” I asked, looking skeptically at his broad back in a white sports shirt, now twisting as he turned to reverse the car out of the driveway.

“When I was thirteen,” he said.

“What can they do about it?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said cheerfully. “It just gets worse as you get older.”

I didn’t know what to say. Gene was so matter of fact that I wondered if he wasn’t making it up, so I’d feel sorry for him and do whatever he wanted later on.

We drove through town in the evening sun, and he chatted in his soft voice, completely at ease. He told me he had three jobs this summer: landscaping with two friends during the week, pumping gas  at nights, and a weekend shift at the factory where his father worked. He told me he was putting himself through school completely on his own. He said there were four in his family and just his father; his mother had died when he was twelve.

“What did she die of?” I asked solemnly.

“Cancer,” he said so lightly I was embarrassed – sorry for him, but also aware that he’d mentioned this to hold over me later on.

A warm breeze blew in through the open window, messing up his hair, which had grown unruly. The wild wheat-colored curls made a pretty contrast with the true lines of his profile.

“I was going to get a haircut today,” he said, smiling because I was staring at him.

We got carded away from three bars. Gene was already twenty, but I was just seventeen and my only I.D. was a temporary license of my sister’s with the old expiration date rubbed out and updated, which didn’t fool anyone.

In the parking lot of the third place Gene got resignedly behind the wheel of his car, which he refused to start. Sunset rays were streaming in, making his head, with the longish curling hair, appear as a face on a Roman coin.

“Well, I guess I’m going to have to take you home now,” he said.

“No!” I almost shouted, and he laughed and leaned over to kiss me. It was so good we had to kiss two or three more times. Kissing him was the best thing in the world so far – there could be nothing to fear in what would follow.

I bubbled over with compliments: his eyes, his hair, his musk cologne – aftershave – he corrected – his profile.

“You’re more gorgeous than any movie star,” I said.

“That was my line,” he said, smiling as he turned on the engine.

At the fourth place, we got in. They let anyone in because they charged a cover. Too early for the band, we sat nearly alone in the big empty place. It was rough going. Oh, he was very gay and laughed a lot – more at his own stories and jokes than at the ones I attempted. He had an abandoned way of throwing his head back and closing his eyes, which in combination with his curling hair and small features made him resemble a little  child.

The night went too fast. While I kept asking myself if this could be real, he kept inquiring if I had known this person or that person from his grade in high school. Though I didn’t know any of them, he talked away about all of his friends, until it became clear that he must wish to be with any of them rather than me tonight.

He seemed especially fond of a girl called Doris.

“She was voted most talkative my year,” he said. “When you’re with Doris Marini, you don’t have to put on the radio,” he added approvingly.

A hint that I was being too quiet, so I said, “I remember Doris, we were in choir together. The teacher used to call us by each other’s names. People thought we looked alike.”

“You do look alike,” Gene said. “But you’re much cuter.”

Gene never criticized, swore, complained or gossiped. I tried to follow his example, but found myself without much left to say. Life was necessarily reduced to a level of smooth platitudes, such as that the small private school I was going to attend in the fall was a good one.

“It wasn’t my first choice, though,” I confided. “I didn’t get into Yale.”

Finally – something we had in common: he had also longed to attend Yale, and had likewise been rejected.

“But it doesn’t really matter where you go to school undergrad,” he said, almost superciliously. “It’s the graduate school that counts.”

He didn’t want to stay long, and paid the bill when it came.

In the car I was afraid of quiet and kept firing random questions at him. Did he ski? Yes, he did. His uncle had a place in New Hampshire, and we would have to go up there in the winter. I murmured that that sounded great. In fact, it sounded unbelievable, like a lie.

To fill the silence I continued my barrage of questions, one after another.

Where did he want to live when he grew up?

“I wanna live in the country and have a blood hound and five kids,” he said right away.

I laughed uneasily at this reference to so many children, and remained quiet with disappointment as we approached our town. It was barely dark, only ten-thirty, which would be interpreted as failure.

He took a roundabout country road by the reservoir, pulled over to a grassy clearing and shut the engine off. It wasn’t completely silent: some purifying pump connected with the dam made a cooing, jingling noise outside.

“And you thought I wasn’t gonna call,” he said.

I went to him probably too quickly. It’s not much use describing what followed note for note; if you’ve ever been with a person who is physically, chemically perfect for you, you know how it feels. What amazed me about Gene was that his muscles were so hard, so obviously powerful, yet every caress, every movement was perfectly controlled, light and gentle; his mouth was like a feather. All of the things which can deter passion – the  slobber, the stubble, the roughness – were absent, everything was in perfect consort to my wishes; all worked toward building desire.

In the half-dark, Gene’s eyes were metallic, and cognizant of his nearly total hold over me. Yet he was not the aggressor, or at least, not always. He never touched me anywhere until long after I wanted him to, nor did he iterate threats, say, Do this, or even, Please. And I never said stop. Between kisses he buried his face in my hair saying, “I can make you feel so good,” repeating in a hypnotic whisper that joined forces with the cooing sounds of the  water pump outside.

At a quarter to twelve a car went by. I woke out of my trance, pulled away and said, “Wait.”

He said my name and held me to stillness in his arms. In the moonlight I could see the child-like supplication in his eyes. “It won’t hurt,” he said. I sighed and pulled away again. How stupid did he think I was? But I went back.

“I would marry you,” he said, and with that I returned to my side of the car.

He said he wasn’t mad.

“Hey, lighten up,” is what he said, turning the ignition key. He was smiling and unruffled.

We kissed again when he dropped me off. He kept saying, “I don’t want to let you go,” and held me so tightly that I believed him.

“I’ll call you,” was the last thing he said.

I was so saturated by this experience, I didn’t care that it took a few days. At my summer job in the mall I worked my cash register like a somnambulist, every movement, word and gesture infused with his presence, drifting along in a cloud of sensuality. When the manager gave us a lecture on security procedures, I pretended to pay attention, but knew that none of it was real. I aided customers, rang up merchandise, gave change, smiled and said thank you.

The entire time I was off in a field of tall grass and white wild flowers with Gene.

Gene called me Tuesday of the following week, and mumbled something about seeing me on Friday. I didn’t mention it to anyone because I could tell his heart had gone out of it.

That Friday he still hadn’t called to confirm. It was raining when I came home from work no one was home at first, then it was just my father. What the hell was going on? Where was my mother? Where  were my sister and the kids? Didn’t anyone leave a message?

I, too, was scared. In those days, my father had nearly nightly temper tantrums — the rising malpractice insurance bill, the patients who called at all hours, the time Marianne and her boyfriend crashed the car in New York, Fritz’s hair wasn’t washed, Candida had a fever. The copper fruit mold ice tray flying across the room, the drawers ripped off their rollers. Dinner time a shambles of roaring accusations, food refused, and much later,  grease splattering on the stove in a self-made, self-righteous meal at ten p.m. We all tiptoed around my father’s anger, no one would deliberately provoke him by staying out without calling. There must be something gravely wrong.

My father told me to call grandmothers, aunts, neighbors, Marianne’s friends. No one knew where they were. I was in that worst state of doomed optimism, telling myself like some mad deceiving person on a commercial that Gene would at the last minute call, and all that had gone wrong this night would be reversed. Every time the phone rang and it wasn’t Gene or my mother or the police or the hospital I grew more furious. Where was  everyone? My father was pacing the length of the house, still in his clomping leather shoes and self-important jacket. Nearly every time he passed through the kitchen he took a shot off of the Vermouth bottle in the cabinet. When he’d paced to the other end of the house I’d dash in and take a hit off of it, too.

It was cracking thunder now, and I was sure everyone was dead. I envisioned a bleak  future alone with my father.

They all walked in the door at ten – my mother, Fritz, Candida, Marianne and her boyfriend Paul, whom they had on the spur of the moment gone to pick up, three hours away in Pennsylvania. They were happy, rain-soaked, laughing.

My father and I exploded in unison. Their gaiety froze, then faded as they tried to explain.  They had had an adventure. They had been caught in the storm on a country road and found the greatest little Italian restaurant, and see? Brought us loads of take out.

“But you should have called!” I yelled, and ran up to my room. Then started crying.

Gene did not call. Not the next night, or the following week, or the week after that. It took almost to the end of the summer before Shannon and I got back together, and her absence magnified Gene’s loss. In the end, other friends had to step in and explain to her that my date with Gene had been a failed, solitary thing.  Yet of the two of us spurned, she was the luckier. Her hopes had been dashed quickly and brutally. Having been scorned  more discreetly, I was left to taunt myself with a grain of hope. We never mentioned him.

I kept having accidents all summer. I cut my foot on a rock in the lake, slapped a band-aid on it and ignored it until the wound had grown green and infected. I had short spasms of uncontrol – serving off my bicycle, I scraped my knees, and this pain, too, gave me a concrete reason to feel forlorn.

It felt better to eat less and less. This hunger at first distracted me from my longing for  Gene, then came to symbolize it. Through the summer I got browner and thinner, preparing for the unknowable time when I would see him again.

In the evenings after my job, I went to the town park to play tennis or swim. The pool’s basin was patterned with rows of tiles – Greek blue, moss green, a blue that was almost white, and a particular smooth faded turquoise, the exact median between green and blue, which was identical to the color of Gene’s eyes. I did thirty laps in the pool each night, with each turn touching one of these perfect tiles as if it were a talisman. Soon there was  nothing in the town – not a double yellow line dividing a hot black road, not a gas station or street sign, that didn’t signify him.

The summer drifted away. The dusty dirty July leaves swirling up with every passing car,  the silver jet planes piercing the burning glass of sky, every word I uttered, and every thought I dreamed was filled with his presence. I wished I could transport myself to another place, because here, I thought, everyone knew. They could not help but know: every small act, from washing my face in the morning to switching the light off at nig ht – including my work in the mall, washing the cars, weeding the patio and fixing the family dinner salad – was a lie. I told myself I was offering these acts up, but deep down I knew they were all sham and empty of motivation, save the vain effort to masque my deficiency. I never forgot, and because of this I rang false to others. I could not blame my family for disliking me that summer. I washed the dishes even when I skipped dinner, took my brother on  outings, complimented my older sister though she had vanity enough for the entire town, and spoke cheerfully, if awkwardly, to my father when he came home from the hospital each evening. They all responded to my false good will with irritability and suspicion, and how could I blame them? I didn’t have a boyfriend for the summer.

At the drugstore in the mall I searched the men’s aftershave shelf until I found the musk  scent that was Gene’s. I bought a small bottle, not to wear myself, but to open and sniff, and fleetingly summon the swooning sensation of his presence.

I could not put a stopper to what he had inspired. In the hot evenings I would walk alone on the hilly country road by the reservoir, past dark wet woods, till I got to the small clearing of grass where I could hear the cooing, jingling noise of the water pump. I would lie there among the white wild flowers and weeds, brown in my cut-off shorts and peasant blouse, close my eyes against the late sun, and think of him abstractly as all beauty, all sex, trying  to fathom some sense of this new phase of life he had seemed to offer, then quickly withdrawn.

When I was growing up, my town had always seemed a constricting, closed-minded  place. But since meeting Gene it had all become washed in glory. And now it became clear that a golden town had existed all along, one we had shared without knowing each other, and this knowledge brought sadness.

Our town wasn’t large, but I neither saw nor heard anything of him all summer. In time it  seemed as if I had merely dreamed him.

The end of August, and life was turning, this home town chapter nearly over. Soon it would be time to go. In the mornings I heard the birds sing again, welcomed the cool evenings of the shortening days, and on my walks noticed the faint ripe smells carried on the wind from farm fields. There were lists to make, things to buy and pack, meeting after meeting with friends – one more day at the beach, one more bike ride, phone call, tennis  game, swim.

The evening before I was scheduled to leave for college, I walked the three miles up to the  town park. I had vague plans to meet some friends, to watch their tennis game and perhaps take a turn. I had worn my bathing suit under my clothes in case I decided to swim. It was hot, though late. I stood in the shallow end of the pool up to my thighs, and reflected that there had been more to the summer than having Gene, or not having him.  There had been money to earn, there had been all the books I’d read, there had been the weekend at Shannon’s family’s place in Vermont – the day we’d climbed a mountain, the day we’d ridden wild horses. There was now, standing here in the pool, savoring the contrast between the still cold water on my legs and the warmth of the sun on my dry back and hair. There was being able to decide not to go in all the way after all.

I dried off, pulled on my shorts and shirt, and sat on the plateau overlooking the courts. The pop of tennis balls, the screams of children on the playground, the crack of a baseball hitting a bat behind me.  The sound of something shaking the chain-link shell at the bottom of the baseball field. I turned and saw Gene – his pastel eyes in a brown face through the diamond wire. His shirt was off, showing his huge tanned chest, and his trousers were the deep blue green of a landscaper’s uniform.

“Hey, I know you,” he called out softly, with a big smile.

I just stared. He spoke again.

“When you leaving for school?” he asked.

“Tomorrow,” I replied. “Freshman orientation.”

“We don’t have that much time,” he said.

Gene put on a T-shirt and urged me to get up and meet his friends, the other landscapers  with whom he had been playing ball. One was called Bruce, the other Rob. Both were good-looking and preppie, slightly effeminate-looking, and slow in their words and movements, as if drugged. Bruce, in aviator sunglasses and ponytail, crouched on the pavement near their truck, smoking a cigarette that he held between his thumb and  forefinger as if it were a joint. The way he scowled up at me made me feel superfluous.

I sat in the front of the truck with Gene while the other two rode in the open back with the mowers and sheers. I could see them through the back window, talking and sharing a real joint, and observed their struggles to keep it lit in the open wind. As he drove and small-talked, Gene kept turning to smile into my face. He made no explanation for our summer apart, and I requested none. We dropped each of his friends off, and I let Gene talk on and  on about his jobs and friends. Having dreamed him so intensely all summer, I was oddly unmoved in his presence.

My summer alone had sifted out my problem with him, and this time when we went up to  the reservoir I didn’t hesitate. While we were making love and afterwards he was so happy – what did he have to be so happy about? Already I knew I would never be as happy with him as I had been at first. Yet he was so at ease and in his element, that my unease disbursed like stardust.

“See? I told you it wouldn’t hurt,” he said afterwards.

I laughed and punched his shoulder, kissed him on the face in the dark and told him he  was beautiful, and also that I’d decided his eyes were more blue than green. I kissed the muscle of his upper arm and remarked that even his sweat smelled good. We went swimming in the reservoir and afterwards dried off on the rough blanket we’d been lying on, got dressed and he dropped me off home before eleven.

“Have a great, great time at school,” he said, keeping me there at the top of the driveway in  his truck for at least

five or ten minutes. “I love you,” he said. “I’ll see you at Thanksgiving.”


For several days after this I felt as if I were engulfed in a swarm of benevolent bees. Looking about at the neat lawns, white-trimmed brick buildings and steeples of my college, it all seemed unreal, a vacuum place I’d been sent by mistake. My mother, who had driven me up, my baby brother and younger sister who had come along for the ride – seemed like vague shapes, like the ghosts of the Indians native to my home town, whose presence I sometimes sensed sitting alone down by the lake at dusk.

After they left I crept about the sterile dead campus unmoved, as if I were watching a play  I’d seen before. Through a haze I regarded the marble archways and concentric paths streaming with rugby-shirted youths, and felt as if at any moment I would wake up in a world where I would always be with Gene.

Love did not interfere with my success at college; on the contrary, it enhanced it. After three or four days, this cloud of sensuality lifted, like a balloon or sun in the air, but Gene remained safely in my orbit, a guiding force, distant enough to allow my full participation in the new life around me. For him I endeavored to make each day perfect, from my sleek hair, to my minutely organized room, to the excellence of effort I put into my studies, even  to the generosity I tried to show my new friends; all was for him.

The fear and loneliness that plagued other freshman never touched me. Other girls gorged themselves for comfort; I lived on love. Love gave me confidence and great strength, and this reassured others. I sat on committees, wrote editorials, sang in recitals, and on Saturday, pushed ghetto children from the city on swings. I attended rollicking fraternity parties, was asked to and duly attended sedate semi-formals; I swam and  jumped rope, painted and sketched. I had three best friends and circle after circle of acquaintances, like ripples in a pool; I wrote dozens of letters to hometown friends at their colleges. Never to Gene, though, and never about Gene. That would have broken the spell.

Yes, there were fears, moments late at night those first few weeks afterwards, thoughts of accidents and eternal damnation. I would lie on my bunk at midnight with garish red patterns swirling under clenched eyelids. Yet my visions of hell had by now grown vague, were no more than these whorling patterns of red, and before long this dark vision would be replaced by one full of light: a pale altar, strewn with yellow rose petals. I dreamed the  rose petals, saw them at such close range I could feel their velveteen softness where they lay, so faintly yellow against a white linen runner, such as lines a church aisle for a wedding.

I saw him home at Thanksgiving of course, but only out at a bar, only in a group. He came  up to me and said, “Hello gorgeous,” kissed me, sat down on a turned around chair and asked me about school for five minutes. Then went back to throwing chairs and food around with his friends. Shannon rolled her eyes and told me she had run into him at parties up at State. “You should see him,” she said. “He’s a total slut, fucking all the  freshman girls.” Not her, though, she was quick to assure.

I didn’t react. There was nothing to say. He couldn’t be with every girl as he had been with me. It was impossible. And how was she to know the extent of his entanglements? Someone with so fine a profile couldn’t be so debauched.

I, too, had dated other people at college. Sometimes I told them I was attached at home.  Sometimes I passed myself off as just another jittery virgin. I went from boy to boy to boy. Some of them kissed me with obvious inexperience, their lips furiously sealed. Some were rubber-mouthed, leaving wide tracts of wetness across my face like a snail’s. Others were rough, and when they touched any part of my body, kneaded it like some inanimate, despised dough.

Following these disgusting interludes, I would return to my dorm room and open my small  bottle of musk, inhaling deeply to banish the incursions.

Over Christmas break my grandmother died. At her funeral I knelt in church and prayed, not for her soul, which had gone straight to heaven, but for Gene and me. We had been born in a jaded age. How could I expect him to want to marry me in a world of free love, where no one was a virgin anymore?

Sometimes I thought wicked things, such as that he would fall ill. He would recognize me  there at his bedside, see my reigning goodness as some beckoning light. Perhaps even a situation would arise where he’d need my father’s surgical skills. But it was useless praying for impossible things; Gene never called.

Yet he proved benevolent. Before I went back to school for the spring term, I saw him out at the bar again. We were each with groups of friends, and at the end of the night he abandoned his and offered me a ride home. Initially I affected a certain detachment, but could not feign coldness when he kissed me goodnight. Before I left him he looked at me from his rending eyes and said, “Keep in touch.”

Soon after I went up to his college to visit Shannon and some other girls from my  hometown. I didn’t expect to see Gene, would never have sought him out in his wild men’s lair.

“He’s an animal,” people said.

He came looking for me. Came strolling up the hill to Shannon’s dorm, strolling up and down the halls until he’d found us. He took off his giant down coat and took his place with the rest of us, seated on the floor. He was so soft- spoken and polite, it was hard to ascribe the terrible things people said to the person sitting next to me, with the cowlick and innocent eyes. I left with him. He was a resident advisor and so had his own room and a private bath. Everything was beautifully clean and neat. No Farrah poster on the wall, no  Playboy magazines in the bathroom. At first I just sat at the desk while he sat cross-legged  on the bed. The conversation refused to turn personal. An hour went by. My face was a big question mark, which he ignored. No harm done, I thought. Perhaps seeing him normally like this will put him in perspective. I got up to use the bathroom before leaving,  and when I emerged he arose from the bed, stood in front of me and smiled. Soon as I felt  the hard muscles through the soft flannel of his shirt, his kiss, which obliterated all the false kisses that had come between us, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere. Why walk away from the best thing in the world?

But in the morning I was disquieted, buttoning up my blouse and combing my hair in front of the mirror. He crept up and put his arms around me from behind. Our reflected /images clashed; my thick dark hair and stricken eyes extravagant against his fair muted half-tones. He had showered, and his eyes shone like lightning; his shirt was white as snow.

He took me by the wrists and pulled me around so we were face to face. “Don’t cry,” he said. “I love you.”

He put his hands on my shoulders and looked encouragingly into my eyes.

Out in the hallway, big-eyed freshman boys greeted Gene. “This is Celeste, she’s from my hometown,” he said to each, as if I were his chosen one. From their faces it was clear he was their idol. No one laughed.

He clung to me at the outer doorway, his arms so tight around me that I felt a strange shudder deep down, as affecting as any he’d given me the night before.

“Come by any time,” he said after he let me go. “I’ll always be here.”



Christina Gombar won the Geraldine Griffin Moore prize for fiction at City College in New York. Christine’s work has appeared in numerous consumer and literary journals, including Global City Review and The London Review of Books. She is the author of Great Women Writers, 1900-1950 and was a fellow of the New York Foundation for the Arts in nonfiction. Her Wall Street veteran’s memoir of 9/11 has been internationally anthologized