“Still Born: Finding Madeline” by Suellen Meyers

Photo Credit: Cady Guyton

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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


“Now That I Was Unquestionably Single” by Geoff Graser

“Free Flying” by Kathy O’Meara


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Sure hope so,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

I nodded. I didn’t want to argue.

“I miss you,” I said. “I’m lonely.”

“You should get a TV.”

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


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

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

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

Maybe I needed a TV after all.

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


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

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

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

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

“Where are you from?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

“Oh, you have kids?”

“One’s 18. About on her way out.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

“Wooden Gates” by Mark Liebenow

“Transformation,” by Kathy O’Meara

Memory believes before knowing remembers.
~William Faulkner

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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



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


“Torrents” by Benjamin Selesnick

“Aladdin, Fogged In” by Kathy O’Meara

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

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

I was coming from a therapy session.

Before that, I’d come from Boston.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


I didn’t sleep that night.

I was restless.




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When I came out, Scrooge was gone.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She suggested that I might need inpatient psychiatric treatment.

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

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

That, I could not own.


Monday the 25th—Van Vleck Street.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was no sound.

No blood.

No pain.

No one else was hurt.

It was clean.


Like watching a film replace reality.

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

I checked myself in the following afternoon.



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


“Fat Class” by Jenne Knight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“💪” she texted back.

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



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


“Dear Baby Witch” by Sara Finnerty

“Road of No Return” by Jean Banas.

Dear Baby Witch,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


“Grade School Fashion Faux Pas” by Optimism One

“Moving Through Space” by Jean Banas, acrylic on canvas, 46″ x 47″.

We had gone running early that morning but cut it short, stopping after three and half miles.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” Cortney said, and started to walk.

“Big potty?” I asked, trying to be delicate, speaking her third-grade-teacher lingo.

“Yes.” Her cheeks reddened under the lamps that lit the trail.

“You can poop in my hat,” I said.

“No. I wish I had brought some toilet paper. I’d go in the bushes.” We were on the Virginia Corridor Trailway, a two-lane paved path that replaced a dormant set of train tracks and bisected neighborhoods to the west and east. I pictured the doggie pick-up bags in dispensers and shuddered at the thought of cleaning up after her. Thankfully, I kept my mouth shut. Thankfully, she didn’t want to crap in my favorite fitted running beanie.

I had to go, too, but I was more used to running through the urge.

Ten minutes later, back at her apartment, Cortney rushed to the bathroom. I started making a smoothie and heard the shower. Since there is only one bathroom in her apartment, I held it and got her lunch ready. The relationship was pretty new in those ways.


Cortney was running late for work. She had already left the apartment and walked down the stairs to her car but rushed back in. “Have you seen my cell phone?” The force of her words pushed the door open as much as her hands.

I popped my head out from the kitchen at a 45-degree angle, shaking my hands toward the sink. “No, I don’t think so. Is it by the b—”

She reached between the cushion and the arm of her reading chair. “Oh, here it is. Okay, gotta go. Quick kiss.” She walked and puckered as I met her in the living room.

In unison, we exaggerated, “Muah!”

“I’ll walk you out to your car,” I said.

She sped through the door and hurtled down the stairs. “Don’t lock yourself out.”

“I won’t,” I said, closing the door behind me and rushing to catch up. Suddenly it felt like we were working out again, running down bleachers at the track, head and eyes down, intent on each step, a mixture of concentration, caution, and exertion. At the bottom and on flat ground, we jogged the twenty yards to her car.

“Okayhaveagreatday,” she said.

“You, too. See you this afternoon.”

I stood in the mini parking lot like I was waiting for her plane to take off, not wanting to turn around until her car had disappeared from my sight. I watched her pull out in reverse. The gravel in the alley crunched under her tires. She drove away after we gave our final waves, metronomes from elbows to fingertips, and blew our final kisses.

Floating back upstairs, belly full of butterflies, I glowed with the thought that I was an attentive, exciting boyfriend.

The front door was locked. I gripped the cold, gold handle and shook it like I was trying to tear it off, as if I would somehow overpower the locking mechanism with brute force. The windows rattled.

“What the fuck?” I said out loud, knowing Cortney was already down the street, out of sight, zooming to work fourteen miles away and two towns over. Knowing I didn’t have my own cell phone on me. Knowing I didn’t know her phone number anyway.

I walked around the wrap-around balcony to each hand-crank window, hoping that one had been left cracked open, digging my fingers into the gaps on the sides to pry loose the old, rusted frames.

What the hell am I going to do? I had rented out my house when I went on sabbatical and was crashing at Cortney’s before I went traveling again. Everything I needed was locked inside of her place.

I started to get cold in my running tights, running shoes, and form-fitting, long-sleeved running shirt.


Now I was stuck outside without a key to my car, a phone, money, anything. The morning air added an extra chill to my smoothied bones. And, still having to go big potty, it felt like I was going to mess myself.

I thought, Maybe Paul is awake and I can borrow one of his cars. I walked the five blocks to my friend’s house, reliving the scene in Up in Smoke when Cheech coaches himself: “Cheeks stay together.”

Paul was already gone, so I returned to Cortney’s porch, shaking the same door handle, pulling at the same windows. I looked across the street to my college. It was still before 7 a.m. on a Friday, a non-teaching day. I could wait until the secretaries arrived and call my mom’s house. But what I wore left very little to the imagination. One glance at my crotch gave a clear outline of everything.

Plus, having just spent too many weeks on the road eating crappy food, I looked like I was pregnant and just starting to show. My pecs, too, seemed more like points since I hadn’t done a push-up in weeks. I felt like Mr. Fatness more than Mr. Fitness. This was fine for running in the dark before most of the world awoke but not walking around in broad daylight at my place of employment. Still, the specter of squatting outside to relieve myself overtook all ego.

Where do the homeless go to the bathroom? I wondered.

The science building, otherwise foreign to me, sat close to the road. I slipped into a bathroom with an outside entrance. Warmth, gratitude, and relief consumed me so much that I considered staying until Cortney got home at 4 p.m. But picturing myself pacing back and forth in a bathroom or sitting all day in a stall, hiding and hoping no one would walk in, motivated me to think of other options, like running to my mom’s house three and a half miles away.

The run would keep me warm, allow time for my mom and stepdad to wake up, give me access to a car, and provide the option of putting on some lessrevealing clothes. An added bonus, which I didn’t anticipate, was that the run would give me time and insight to work through my tendency to blame others for anything bad that happens to me.

I knew that Cortney locked the door as she walked out, an unconscious movement from the two years she had spent living alone in that apartment. I noticed her doing it a week before when she almost locked me out, and I had thought several times that I should get an extra key made to stash outside. But I didn’t. And now I wanted it to be her fault that I was stuck outside, stranded, resourceless, and practically naked.

Deep down, I knew better. But it took this extra run through Modesto to figure it out.


My mom opened the front door, her face pixilated through the security screen. “What are you doing here?” she said.

“I’m locked out. I need your car.”

“What? Where’s Cortney? Is she already at work?”

“Yeah, I walked her out to her car and didn’t realize that she locked the door out of habit.”

“Do you have your license with you? You can’t drive my car without your license.”

“Mom, are you serious? Look at me. I don’t have anything. All I have is what I wore to go running. I’m not going to get pulled over.”

She chuckled in that nervous way that conveyed she meant what she said but wasn’t comfortable being challenged about it. “Yeah, I’m serious.”

Dan, my stepdad, still facing the too-loud TV, said, “I’ll take him.”

“Okay, thanks, Dan. But Mom, do you have some sweats I could wear over my running gear? I can’t walk into Cortney’s school looking like this.” I would have asked Dan, but he outweighs me by at least 100 pounds.

She soon displayed a series of matching sweatsuits in pastels and kitten-soft material not meant to go past the front door.

“No, Mom, what about that matching blue Adidas track suit you wear all the time? Can I wear that?”

“Oh, yeah. Let me see.”

Meanwhile, I said to Dan, “If I’m not being too needy, can I borrow one of your baseball caps? My hair is a mess.”

“You bet.” He followed my mom down the hall but turned left to the spare room cum storage closet.

My mom returned with another wrong set of sweats. “This?” she asked. I began to get flashbacks of being in the third grade, shopping for school clothes at Mervyn’s with my mom. She had seemed intent on ensuring that everybody I ever encountered would not only dislike me but also openly ridicule me.

“No, you know, the track suit with that material that makes that swishy sound when you walk and it rubs together? Swish, swish, swish,” I said, embarrassed that I tried to mimic the sound certain clothes make.

“Oh, okay. I think I know what you’re talking about.”

“See if this fits,” Dan said, walking past my mom. “If it does, you can have it. I didn’t realize it didn’t adjust when I bought it, and my head is so big you could put a wine barrel on it and it’d still be tight. That thing’s not even close.”

I squeezed it on, getting an instant headache, but I just wanted this kitchen fashion show to be over. “It’s perfect,” I said. “Thanks.” Meanwhile, I wondered who I could give it to after it served its purpose.

My mom walked into the room holding another set of warm-ups like she was carrying a baby at a distance, one hand on the hanger-hook, and one hand under the legs of the pants. “This one?”

“Yep, those are the ones.”

I heel-pushed out of my running shoes and pulled the pants on over my running tights, then the jacket over my running shirt. My mom’s waist and torso are bigger than mine, so I looked like a kid who wore his big brother’s sweats and his little brother’s hat. To top it all off, the legs came up a little short to show my bare ankles, what kids called “high waters” back in the day.


Walking onto the playground in elementary school was always terrifying. Actually, junior high and high school were no different. It was like playing “Marco Polo” but on dry ground. I just knew someone was going to yell “fish outta water!” and identify me as an outcast, an oddball, the one who wore his big brothers’ hand-me-downs, the one who still wore Toughskins while everyone else had graduated to Levi’s, the one who wore Kinney shoes while K-Swiss ruled. It didn’t even matter that I was generally pretty popular. I didn’t feel like I fit in.

Thirty-five years later, I thought I had grown out of that, but the perfect confluence of mishaps brought it all back.


I swished into the elementary school office wishing that I had shaved in the last three days, that I wasn’t sporting my stepdad’s too-tight baseball cap, and that I wasn’t wearing my mother’s clothes. But I was desperate.

“Oh, you’re Op,” the secretary said. “Nice to finally meet you. Just sign in right there and you can walk to Cortney’s classroom. Do you know where it is?”

“I think so. That way, right?” I pointed in a direction I hoped was south.

“You got it.”

Exiting the back door of the office, I saw miniature people, maybe kindergartners, lining up outside. One of them appeared to ask his friend, “Who is that strange, scary man walking with his head down?”

I sped up my pace, which only made me look more creepy and suspicious, I’m sure.

When I approached Cortney’s third-grade classroom, I heard her voice and suddenly realized I hadn’t considered what I would say. I just stood in the doorway, watching her read to her students in “Library Corner.” The light from behind me made me a silhouette.

She looked up, and her brow tightened over her eyes, defensive and alarmed. “Can I help you?” Twenty-seven tiny faces turned my way.

“I’m locked out.”

She registered my voice and unclenched her jaw. “Oh, no. Come in, come in.” Then her teacher voice returned, a few decibels higher than normal conversation. “We-were-just-read-ing-a-stor-y. Let-me-in-tro-duce-you-to-ev-er-y-bod-y. Class, this-is-my-boy-friend, Op. Op, this-is-Kay-la, Lu-is, A-lex-is, O-mar–”

“Baby, I’m sorry, but Dan is waiting outside. Can I meet everybody at a better time, when I’m not wearing my mom’s clothes?” The kids all giggled, either titillated that I had called their teacher “baby” or looking closer at my get-up.

While Cortney retrieved her keys, the kids still stared at me, so I addressed them like a robot speaking to a group of semi-deaf, developmentally-delayed children. “I-look-for-ward-to-meet-ing-ev-er-y-one-of-you-real-ly-soon. Good-bye-now,” and waved like Ronald McDonald.

As I did this, I kept thinking, Is this how I’m supposed to communicate with third graders? This can’t be right. I was used to teaching adults at the local junior college.

In a chorus, Cortney’s students said, “Goodbye,” unaffected by my self-consciousness, my attire, my mannerisms, or my syncopated speech.


Now, with the key to Cortney’s apartment securely zipped in my pocket, I strode back over hopscotch outlines and basketball courts while two bottles of post-run water pushed for release. I wondered if it’d be okay to slip into the little kiddos’ john to pee. But just then, a waist-high poster boy for cuteness stepped out of the bathroom entrance while still buttoning his pants, and I got a clue. No way was I going in there, especially looking like a forty-something stalker-predator who still lived with his mom.

I didn’t want to add another challenge to my morning of playing Survivor: Central Valley, so I held it again, trying to find the lesson in all this. Like before, what I desired remained just out of reach — a bathroom, my living space, a vehicle, an inconspicuous set of clothes. But really, these were all temporary, and it wasn’t like I was actually homeless. My so-called problems were small in comparison.

I also had to look at my fault-finding. Since I was no longer a kid, I couldn’t just blame others for whatever predicaments I got myself into. Still, I didn’t shit or piss my pants or die from colon blockage, kidney failure, hypothermia, running too many miles, or embarrassment from wearing goofy clothes. Yes, I did have to relive all the anxiety I felt as a kid about what I wore and how others perceived me. But just like when I was in the third grade, I didn’t get laughed off the playground. I lived to learn another day.



Optimism One‘s essays have been published by In Fact Books and The Normal School, among others. He earned his MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Sierra Nevada College and teaches writing full-time at Modesto Junior College in California. He’s currently working on a memoir called Goodbye, Suicide. His blood type is B+ (be positive).

“The Brussels Sprouts Rule” by Ali J. Shaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I always smiled and ate my Brussels sprouts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then…silence. Blissful quiet.

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



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


“The Unspoken” by Margaret MacInnis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He laughed. “Maybe.”

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

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

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


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

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

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

~ an old astronomer to his pupil

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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



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

This piece first appeared in The Briar Cliff Review

“Chain Smoking” by Rae Pagliarulo

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

I wrote it for you, he responds.

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

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

“Because I didn’t understand the poem?”

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“You want one?”

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

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

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

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


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



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