Non-Fiction Archive

Todos estas cosas que me gustaria decir a ti (Una carta para me hermano)

 

Hey Hermanote,

So, Grandma ran away from home today. Well, technically, she ran away a few days ago but I found out today when Black-Girl-Named-Becky answered Grandma’s phone and told me. (What’s weird about Black-Girl-Named-Becky is that she actually sounds like a black girl named Becky. Like, if there were a sitcom called “Black Girl Named Becky,” she would be that Becky.) She smacks gum in my ear while she tells me nonchalantly that Grandma and her cousin told her they were going to Connecticut and Becky told them not to but they decided to go anyway—but what they actually did was hop a train to Miami instead and now they’re both in the hospital because Grandma didn’t take her medicine for three days and her cousin fell down and couldn’t get up.  You said it best: two old birds on the run. Thelma and Louise—The Golden Years. I should’ve known she was going to see you; you’re the only one besides me who gives two shits about her at this point. And I know you don’t wanna hear it but I’m gonna say it anyway: it was her own damn fault and I’m glad you were in Hawaii that day she came calling.

I think of her when I see my 2nd grade school portrait in that red frilly sweater, part of a Christmas care package along with a pair of Lee Jeans. You were with her the day she substituted for Santa. She tried to explain that you were my brother, but with that trademark condescension, as if never-before-mentioned half-siblings that drop out of the sky and onto your doorstep was a common occurrence for every 8-year-old little girl. And you looked just like me (more like me than Astrid, my everyday sister) except older and mustached so I knew it was true but I couldn’t figure out how. Where had you been that whole time? How old were you then—18? 19? Who was your mother? Did you look at me and see yourself, except smaller and chubbier? There’s a photo where we’re lined up from the youngest to oldest: me, you, Dad, and Grandma. Astrid didn’t wanna be in the picture. She didn’t fit; she was the baby doll in someone else’s Matryoshka set. But the four of us—we were a clan, our own tribe. My mother looked at that photo and said with a laugh that all she saw was the devil split into equal parts: Same face, same coloring, same evil.

I remember the “O. P. P.” summer in South Philly: that song blaring unceasingly from speakers across the neighborhood—in English, in Spanish, in Jamaican patios; it wouldn’t die, it would only multiply. Shit graffiti tags along the side of Grandma’s house and Tio Elliott’s Santeria candles all over the place—though the blessings did keep the burglars out. You and Grandpa Teddy used to roll your eyes about it but I kinda believed in the magic too. What other reason could there have been when every other house on the block got hit? Remember when that dude OD’ed in the park across the street? Astrid and I wanted so badly for you to take us to see the dead body.  You, growing up in the Bronx, thought we were the dumbest girls on the planet but it never even occurred to us that it was weird. We just assumed that’s what happened in Philly: people keeled over and died in the street, unlike in Atlanta, where people had the decency to die at home.

Grandma was never nice, even then. That final summer in Philly, she informed us that we couldn’t marry anyone darker than our shoes and pointed that statement directly at Astrid, like she couldn’t afford to dip the family pen into even inkier wells. She broke my dinner plate in half because I wouldn’t eat her frijoles negros. “What kind of Puerto Rican are you?” she roared and then made me clean that shit up off the floor. “You been spending too much time with those country niggers,” as if her nappy-headed ass was 100% Castilian. “And what do you think you are, bitch, with your fuckin’ pigeon peas and chicharrón?” I replied. “Go look in a mirror.” We never saw that house again, I still can’t stand frijoles negros, and Astrid would hate her forevermore after that day.

It’s weird. I know it’s a generational thing but the Black versus Latino thing was what always made me so angry about her (well, one of them). Like, she thought she wasn’t just as black as the rest of us. Like, being a morena gave her some kind of super power that erased her stigma, made her white, made her better. I remember a black friend of hers telling us a story about searching for her roots and ending up in the Congo and Grandma actually said, in all earnestness, “I wonder if our family has any African blood?” Astrid thought it was funny/not funny but I wanted to fuckin’ slap her. And now she wants to explore the Motherland. Did you know Grandma asked to go to South Africa with us last winter? She called me and said that since Teddy died, she didn’t have anyone to travel with but she would pay her own way and she would keep up with us, she promised. She wouldn’t be any fuss. I tried to convince Astrid but she wasn’t having it. Not even for a second. If Grandma was coming, she wasn’t. I had to choose. Dad had to be the one to tell the old biddy no.

So now she’s in the hospital. Those three days on the run fucked her up real good. Between the insulin overdoses and not taking her blood pressure pills, it’s a miracle she’s still alive and not in a coma. By the way, she’s pretty pissed at you for going on vacation when you’re supposed to be taking care of her. And I’m kinda pissed, too. I mean, what can I do for her from Brooklyn?

She actually thought I could drive her home from the hospital and had one of the nurses call me yesterday while I was at work. I did not appreciate the tone of that nurse-bitch, acting like I was negligent or something for not knowing what was going on. She had the nerve to tell me that the drive from Atlanta really wasn’t that bad, like just because I have a 404-areacode, I was still living there.  Like I was fucked up for not coming, even though they’re not even in the same damn state. “Bitch,” I said to her, “have you ever driven from Atlanta to Miami? Didn’t think so. But you know what? I have and that shit takes at least 12 hours, not to mention that I live in Brooklyn now and don’t have a car anyway. So no, I can’t make it down there.” I hung up feeling indignant and self-righteous. But dammit if being smug didn’t make me feel like shit, knowing that Grandma’s sitting in that room, alone, begging for my help and I can’t do a thing about it.

And why, Vaughn? Why do I feel so compelled to help? She’s a miserable hag who’s never said a kind word about anyone unless she was trying to fuck them over somehow. At first I thought it was the whole golden rule, humanitarian blah blah that I’d been jedi-mind-tricked into believing. But it goes deeper than that. Somehow, her failure at life is becoming mine. If I neglect her, I’m turning into her; I’m inheriting that which I swore to never be.

Honestly, I never quite understood your relationship. You seem to be the only one who never lets it affect you—her racism, her rancor, her unmitigated anger. You said that after Teddy died Grandma got worse because he wasn’t there to absorb all her causticity. I responded that, like Jesus, he’d sacrificed for her sins. And we laughed. And then tears ran down your face like a nosebleed: sudden, overflowing, eyes fit to burst. Our Grand Teddy. Gone. Astrid wondered aloud why God always takes the best ones and leaves the assholes here with us. I thought it was because he didn’t wanna deal with their shit anymore than we did. And you said God didn’t like ugly but you were referring to us instead of Grandma. But seriously, why did Teddy do it? How did he do it? How did he stay so sweet and gentle? Why did he use himself as a buffer for Grandma’s spite? Was that his price of admission to Heaven?

I don’t believe in the After Life. I always found it hokey and unfair that all you had to do was repent your sins and you got to chill on God’s Island for eternity and act like you never did anything wrong. What about getting what you actually deserved? If you’d spent your whole life crushing people’s dreams, stealing their happiness, mocking their pain, shouldn’t you spend eternity being tattooed with all the nasty words you’d called others? Instead of slurping on ambrosia and playing catch up with Joan of Arc? That little caveat at the end—right before your last breath—seems like a cheap trick God plays against the Devil in order to win more souls. But whatever. Teddy deserved better in death than what he got in life, so for his sake, I hope he at least gets to play stickball with Coltrane or something.

I guess what I really want to know is why we’re doing all this—the calls, the visits, the caretaking. Why are we so devoted to this particular cause? I must admit that I find our sudden alliance strange. You and I barely know each other now.  In fact, we never really have. In 25 years, I can’t think of one real conversation we’ve ever had that wasn’t about her. So what does that say about us? About Grandma? About family? Are we just a couple of dopes too sentimental to realize that we’re fighting a losing battle? That she’s a bad egg that will never turn into gold?

I have that picture of Grandma as a small child next to my bed, framed with a picture of me around the same age. We could be twins. I see her face now and I know exactly what I will look like when I’m 89 years old. It’s weird to see yourself in the future. Is that my legacy? Old, unwanted, loved but not liked, taken care of out of principle and not tenderness? Is this my penance, dealing with the mess of Grandma’s life, trying to make peace with her so that I can be absolved, not in the after life, but here and now?

Tu Hermanita,

nico


Writer, researcher, and activist, Nico Rosario’s work meets at the intersections of creative arts, politics, culture, and education, with a focus on youth and subcultures. Nico was drawn to these interests primarily through his undergraduate work as a Riggio Writing and Democracy Fellow at The New School for Public Engagement, which accented the concept of the “writer in the world” – a role that, for me, includes intellectual engagement and critical analysis of both my community and the world at large. Nico recently completed an MA in Education in Arts and Cultural Settings at King’s College London, where he wrote extensively on gender, race, and ethnicity within educational paradigms as well as a dissertation on the history of stigma in dance music culture. He has presented work at the EMP Pop Conference in Seattle, the International Hip Hop Studies conference at the University of Cambridge, and the Keep It Simple, Make It Fast conference at the University of Porto and my work has been published in 12th Street, The Inquisitive Eater, Goldfish, and Ink (forthcoming). Nico is currently completing his first novel, which he began as postgraduate in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Big Fat Sissy

 

They say you’re supposed to piss yourself if someone dips your hand in warm water while you sleep. I was never totally sure who they were exactly—scientists, probably, yet the instructional charts and graphs they could have provided must have eluded the other boys in my tent that night. I woke up to find my hand cramped in a plastic cup of water. Lifting myself onto my elbow, I looked around the dark canvas walls of the room from my sleeping bag. The boys watched me from their places, lined up in cots across the concrete slab where we slept, olive green tent flaps folded back to reveal the sparse woods in which the camp had placed us. I pulled my hand out of the cup.

“Whoa-hoaaaa man,” said a boy on his hands and knees on the floor, as he steadied the cup of water a foot below me, “He was totally about to pee.” His name was Hunter Sharp, a rat-toothed runt of a person from Grand Prairie, Texas. His dull face sloped like the back of a spoon. The sunburned skin below his eyes matched the stiff thatch of hair on his head, and when his face finished peeling the burns would be replaced by abstract splatters of freckles.

The rest of the boys were perfectly still in their beds. With the lights out, they looked as though they might have only been a backdrop painting of camping children, prop dummies brought in for the evening, frozen in place, squinting confusedly. I wondered if they, too, had just been pulled out of sleep by this experiment.

The same fourteen years that each boy in the tent had lived seemed to have been far more generous to Jason Davies. He had a deep-set tan and prismatic, perpetually windblown blond hair that whitened naturally at the ends, matching the down that covered his shins and forearms. His teeth were spaced perfectly like piano keys, and his knobby wrists must have been engineered by god for the sole purpose of displaying an impossible abundance of friendship bracelets. Jason Davies, light of my life, bane of my existence. Equal part middle school archetype—a reminder that things in life can be effortlessly beautiful—and equal part funhouse mirror, into which I might stare miserably, comparing my own form. The living reminder that I was a flesh-covered bean bag, a gigantic sunburned California raisin.

By the age of fourteen, I had grown to the size of a child who, when introduced to parents of friends, was often asked if I had any interest in football. The question was always posed, not because I appeared especially athletic, but rather because I looked difficult to knock down. You’re a real linebacker in the making was an easily translatable code for Oh my, aren’t you a fat little boy.

From across the tent, Jason Davies, who actually was on a football team—Jason Davies, with his perfect shins and knees and elbows—cleat-owning, shoulder pad-wearing Jason Davies—stared at me and my dripping wet hand, clearing his throat before rolling over and closing his eyes on all of us without saying a word.

Our counselor continued his uninterrupted sleep beneath the batik canopy he had strung up on bamboo fishing poles at the beginning of summer. Using his sleeping bag as a cushion, he slept above the covers in tan linen pants tied with a drawstring. In daylight, he wore only a bright red lifeguard’s bathing suit, a camouflage bucket hat, and iridescent, severely angular sunglasses that suggested he might be the type of person who would crash your aunt’s Sea-Doo and lie about it. He smelled like Coppertone and burning rosemary and greeted us exclusively with a lazily shaken “hang loose” gesture. He insisted we call him Jellyfish.

“Get back in your bed,” I threatened Hunter, “or I’m gonna tell Jellyfish.” Hunter got up and looked around cautiously at the others, finding they had stopped paying attention. Once he was safely back in his cot, he leaned towards me and whispered.

“I’d like to see you try, fatass. I’ll get it to work tomorrow night. You better believe, you’re gonna piss.

Morning air pulsed through the open windows of the bus and dried the dampened temples of a dozen sweating children as we rattled down the gravel road toward the lake. I tucked my knees into the back of the green vinyl bench seat in front of me, letting air pass under my thighs as Hunter and Jason sat beside each other, shared turns playing music on battery-powered computer speakers attached to a yellow Discman. I sat beside Ashley, across the aisle from them. She was a girl I knew from afternoons spent in the craft barn, where we’d sewed leather wallets, weaved delicate knots into chevrons with embroidery thread, and carefully trimmed the silken cords with etched pairs of scissors shaped like palm-sized silver herons.

She carried the clean scent of chlorine bleach in the folds of her clothes like perfume. Every spare inch of her pocket-less, thin cotton shorts were filled by her legs as though they had been sewn for her body specifically. When she rolled her sleeves, tying them up with ribbons decorated in stripes and polka dots, she exposed the white bands of skin above her elbows normally covered by a soccer jersey. She exuded a natural athletic prowess and strength that teen boys had yet to grow afraid of.

Halfway to the lake, Ashley’s attention turned toward Jason. She lowered the metal headband of her earphones to a spot behind her neck and shifted the weight of her left leg out, straightening it into the aisle of the bus in his direction. Hunter watched Jason turn away from him, and in an instant, he was standing on the ribbed rubber walkway that lined the aisle between Jason and Ashley, demanding they watch and listen, reaching out to take my CD player from me.

“What are you listening to, Alex?” he asked as he opened the lid and removed the marker-covered disc inside. He held in his hands what I had aptly labeled Awesome Mix, Vol. 4, not quite as awesome as volumes 1 through 3, but considerably better than volume 5. I had decorated it with safari-themed stickers shoplifted from a Hobby Lobby down the road from my house. “Let’s listen to it on the speakers.”

“Hey, wait,” I said, reaching for the disc, still jarred from the abrupt stop of music. I ran through the playlist in my head, then panicked as I remembered the first track. “No, give it back.”

“Come on,” Hunter said, mimicking my nasal whine as he clipped the CD into his Discman, “let us listen to your awesome mix.”

Silence fell upon our fraction of the bus as we waited for the music to begin. Hunter held the speakers at ear level as though waiting for a punchline. The music started with the bass-heavy pounding keys of a piano; then the jazzy flourish of horns and the mechanical beat of a ticking electric typewriter, the ring of a bell; and finally, the blackstrap molasses-coated chipmunk voice of Dolly Parton.

“No, no, no,” I thought, please not this song, any song but 9 to 5.” I pleaded for the CD. I wanted to knock the speakers from his hands, rip the cords from their jacks, split the speaker wire and strangle Hunter with it. I leaned out of my seat, arms swaying outward in a desperate final bid to stop the song, but it was too late, the chorus had begun.

 “Nooo-oo-o-o!” I screamed as the bus vibrated my insides, my voice shaking in rhythm with the benches below us. Hunter cackled as he triumphantly held out the speakers, unfathomable pleasure in my protest, victory in my embarrassment. He must have felt so purely satisfied watching me sink deeper into my seat away from them. He squealed in glee and hollered over the chorus.

“What kind of sissy music is this?!”

Jason Davies canted his head and gazed into the mesh speaker cover as though it alone possessed the voice singing to us, then peered into my horrified face.

“He doesn’t want you to play it,” Ashley said, signaling for Jason to end my torment and take the CD from Hunter. He stared at Ashley as he unplugged the speakers and handed the mix back to me, the good guy, the sensitive hero, the sissy sympathizer. Their knees stretched out farther into the aisle of the bus, colliding occasionally with a thump of rocks splitting beneath the tires or a frantic last-minute turn onto a dirt road, providing the two with endless opportunities to blush and apologize. The hero and the starlet, a weeklong love story. Hunter’s smugness deflated as he saw the pretty girl’s disapproving face mirrored by that of our golden boy Jason Davies.

“Come on,” Hunter said, “I was just kidding. Me and Alex are friends; right, Alex?”

With the spotlight now fixed on me as Ashley’s charity project, I recognized my new place of power, narrowing my eyes at Hunter’s miniature pinscher face. I leaned forward, speaking loudly enough for the surrounding rows of the bus to hear me. “He used up all the film in my disposable camera with pictures of the ground while I was swimming!” A gasp hushed the bus as we pulled up to the lake.

A two-story dock floated at the end of a rotting wood walkway leading away from the shore. A line of children marched slowly along the bridge towards a skeletal ladder that would lead them to the second story where they would leap blindly into the murk of Texas ground water. I bobbed along within the roped-off swimming area, scanning the other floating heads for a face I knew. Ashley and her friends, the crew from the girls’ tent, sat closely in a row, towels below them, their burnt pink legs dangling in the water like a regiment of flamingos, T-shirts for pillows. I marveled at the way the girls in her tent got along so easily. It seemed as though they had known each other long before their parents had shipped them away across the dry grass and church-lined highways of Texas. They laughed in unison at their Kool-Aid blue lipstick lips and sandy tiger-stripe sandal tans, as though they had auditioned and won their parts in the camp, born for their roles.

A heavy wave of water filled my mouth and ears, and I felt the weight of a body sink me below the lake’s surface. I gulped, coughed, and spit mouthfuls of the children’s wake as two hands grasped my shoulders and pushed me deep toward the muddy lake bed. The water tasted like iron or copper, a mouth full of pennies. I struggled back to the surface, using the boy’s body as a ladder. When at last I found air, I heard Hunter’s cackle greet me. Flecks of water sprayed his as I wheezed and thrashed in front of him. Floating face to face for a moment, I briefly considered my weight advantage. How easily I could hold him underwater, feel him fight below me, feel his panic as he clawed at my arms and fought to keep his mouth and lungs closed. I wouldn’t have to drown him, I could just scare him enough to make him cry. I’d get everyone else’s attention after the fact, all the campers pointing and laughing as Hunter blubbered in the dirt and wiped his snotty face with his sun-bleached beach towel.

The chirp of a whistle called us all to shore, where we stood dripping in little mud patches, barefoot, foggy goggles draped around our necks. Someone had dragged an orange Igloo barrel from the rear hatch of the bus onto a long wooden picnic table, where Styrofoam plates held gummy white bread sandwiches filled with sour mustard and square ham. I wrapped my towel around my middle, hunched forward, and ate, concealing the sag of my stomach over the taut waistband of my bathing suit. I hid behind the coconut-scented team of girls from Ashley’s tent, distancing myself from Hunter’s gaze and his attempts to put himself in mine, crudely revealing the yellow clumps of mustard-soaked bread caught in the spaces between his teeth.

We rode back to camp at dusk and showered off the green lake water, leaving our bathing suits hanging like signal flags along a clothesline strung between two awkwardly sprawling mesquite trees. Jellyfish ushered us from the rickety wooden shower stalls back to our tent, where he had rearranged our cots so that the heads of each bed met two more at their corners, forming a large asterisk in the center of the concrete platform.

“I want to show you all something I learned from a yoga teacher last summer in Cancun,” he said. “She actually saw the Dalai Lama once when he was in Houston. Everyone sit like this.” He sat firmly in the center of his cot with his legs crossed, palms resting over the curves of his calves. In that posture, Jellyfish looked uncomfortable, his back arched, his elbows pulled inward, his chest bent before his navel. As he quietly waited for us, he seemed bridled to an invisible post, like the horses that the counselors let us ride along the hay-soft trails between stables. We sat on top of our sleeping bags, surrounding a citronella candle that Jellyfish lit and set in the center of our five colliding beds. He closed his eyes and filled his lungs with the air inside our tent, the scent of puberty and burning mosquito repellent, and then exhaled through his mouth.

Jason Davies was the first to follow suit, shutting his eyes tight as though waiting anxiously for someone to tell him to open them back up to reveal a surprise. His chest expanded and sunk as he breathed deeply. Hunter went next, mimicking Jason mimicking Jellyfish. The time we spent breathing was endless. I took the breaths and pushed the air, making the same sounds as the other boys, but I left my eyes open, watching the chests rise and fall on their cots. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light of the candle, Jellyfish told us to imagine a river running slowly over a stone bed, to be pulled along like silt in the current.

“Imagine the leaves in the trees above you, the wind in the branches,” he said, impersonating the yoga instructor. “Be one with the leaves, be one with the river, be everything, and be nothing.”

He told us to visualize a goal, to clear our minds and think only of one thing, one beautiful moment in life we had yet to accomplish, to pick a spot on our perceived horizons and imagine it approaching rapidly, coming into view and transforming into a reality.

Right now,” I thought, inhaling the lemony-floral smoke of the candle, a formless thought taking shape and becoming lifelike, “right now, I could punch that stupid motherfucker right in his ugly fucking face.” I exhaled.

Jason nodded with his eyes still shut, agreeing profusely with whatever image he had conjured up. What were the goals of a boy like Jason Davies? What could he possibly have left to accomplish? I struggled to think there might be more to imagine than cheering football fans, screaming as they carried him through a football stadium, or perhaps a ribboned set of keys to a newer version of a dirt bike he already owned.

“When I count down from ten, we will all be very relaxed,” Jellyfish whispered, “and then we will lie down for bed. I want your last thoughts of the night, before you fall asleep, to be of whatever goal you’ve set for yourself. Visualize it, and make it happen.”

We lay there for the rest of the night like a five headed star, a creature with ten arms and ten legs, painfully unsure, yet growing a little more each day, bones aching, wishing silently to ourselves for something better.

The smooth strokes of the blades barely made a sound as I reached over and trimmed the pointed crimson hair from the ridge of Hunter’s sleeping eye socket. A 14-year-old’s virgin eyebrows cut perfectly like warm silk. He lay perfectly still while I worked, clipping across his face, watching as the hair settled on his cheeks like flocking powder. I held the blunt pads of my fingers to the tips of the blades like stoppers to avoid pricking him.

The next morning, I was the first to wake up, followed shortly by Jellyfish.  Then the recorded song of a trumpet projected from a bullhorn, stirring through the trees and waking the rest of the boys and girls in their usual tents, in their usual spots, in their usual states. Except for Hunter Sharp, who woke up to hundreds of shimmering red splinters of hair stabbing him in the eyelids, sticking to the sweat on his cheeks and the drool on his chin.

“What going on?” He asked groggily, rubbing his face and looking at the sharp hairs on his fingertips. The portion of his left eyebrow that still grew from his face formed a small period above his eye. There remained a few stray hairs, but nothing substantial enough to give the illusion of a full brow. His surprised expression, altered by its new absence, made a tiny horizontal question mark across the top of his face.

As we went to take our turns in the shower stalls, the counselors lined us up to question us. Jellyfish pressed a stern face down upon us, fighting a smirk with every new line of interrogation. Who had removed the majority of Hunter’s eyebrow while he slept? Who had access to a razor? Jellyfish himself was the only person in our tent who shaved, and even then, surely the electric buzz would have drawn our attention. Wouldn’t he have felt his face vibrating as the silver device hummed across it?

“I saw a thing on TV,” I offered, “that said a cockroach can eat an entire eyebrow off your face in one night if you don’t move while you sleep. If it’s hungry, I mean.”

Jellyfish considered the possibility, then waved me off, laughing. “I know it wasn’t you,” he said. “It was probably one of the girls in the other tent, using one of their leg or armpit razors.” He stood and held his electric razor out to Hunter. “Well, I guess this means someone over in the next bunk has a crush on you. You might want to try and even it out.”

He looked vaguely extraterrestrial at assembly later that morning. A visitor from another planet who raised his eyebrows so high in suspicion of his fellow campers that they sprouted wings and flew away. We were given a final 15 minutes to wander the camp general store, buying any supplies we might need for our long journeys home, back to our different cities and suburbs across Texas. Single servings of chips; traffic-cone-orange crackers smeared with powdery crumbling pads of peanut butter; autograph books and cologne samples; sewing kits and stuffed zoo animals in different miniature camp sweatshirts. I replaced the disposable camera that Hunter had used up, and spent the rest of my money on new spools of embroidery thread to practice the knots that Ashley had taught me in the window-unit-dampened afternoons I spent in the safety net of the craft barn.

Away from the grimy lake water in my sinuses and the fire ants at my ankles, I watched rain run in veins down the bus windows as we waited on our cold rides back to our parents. Soon, we would all separate into groups heading to Dallas or Houston. Ashley and Jason exchanged pages of bubble-lettered rainbow notes and phone numbers before a final goodbye worthy of the two hours of weeping she did alone at the back of our homebound bus.

I dragged my suitcase up the steps of our charter and scanned the dwindling population of campers that remained in clumps scattered across the lawn. I watched as Jellyfish talked over the back of Hunter’s head to an older strawberry-haired woman who held his duffle bag in her arms. Unable to make out Hunter’s expression, I instead pictured the way he’d looked just an hour before, his mouth stained with single-serve Neapolitan ice cream, as we sat in the grass eating. He tilted and scraped the inside of his miniature Blue Bell carton with a plastic spoon and licked the melted pink and brown foam streaming down his arm.

“I hope I get to do this again next year,” he said, the remaining traces of his eyebrows stared back at me like the hidden eye holes cut into a latex Halloween mask. For a moment, I found myself wanting to sorry for him, imagining him as though there might be a face behind the one he wore, something less ghastly. “Do you think you’ll come back?”

For people like Jason and Ashley, camp was a place to be exaggerated versions of the people they always had been. Camp was a dress rehearsal for the school year, the lives they had in other places. For me, it felt like an audition. I could have pretended to be anyone I wanted, trying voices on for size, seeing how they fit. I considered the possibility that in those seven days I might have been any number of things. I might have been a victim, or a villain, a star, a many-limbed beast, I might have been everything, I might have been nothing.

I like to think my final portrayal had a certain nuanced cruelty to it, an unexpected ending, the gnarled set of claws digging their way up from a pile of rubble to grab you at the last minute. As the bus rolled along the wet road towards home, spanning the rain-pounded haze of the river below us, I smiled wide and took an imaginary bow. The big fat sissy, and his sharpened pair of embroidery scissors.


Alex Ebel is a writer living in Boston, where he is currently receiving his MFA at Emerson College. His work has previously been featured in Hobart, The Rumpus, Punchnel’s, and Hello Mr, among other publications. He can be found online @alexsebel

Blood, Water, Sin

1

Since my sister, Erica, and her husband, Jeremy, had moved to Dallas as newlyweds, Erica had precious few opportunities to teach me everything I needed to know about young adulthood. “Everything I needed to know” consisted of religion instruction—which Erica didn’t trust my parents to properly execute—and Cross Country training.  As a former Cross-Country captain and current die-hard Christian, Erica cared immensely that I followed in her fast and holy footsteps.  Erica became rapacious during our twice-yearly visits, transforming my Christmas breaks and summer vacations into periods of intense self-improvement.

“Things are different in high school,” she warned me one morning, twisting her hair into a ponytail as we left for a four-mile run.  “You’re going to face spiritual struggles you can’t even imagine.”

Toweling herself dry after a post-run shower: “You might feel a little different than the other kids at school.  I can only remember one boy from my high school—besides Jeremy, of course—who really walked with the Lord.  It was a really awesome thing to see, but still, it was only one boy.”

Over diet sodas in a café: “I won’t lie to you about sex.  It’s tempting, it really is, and there were times when it was such a struggle for me and Jeremy.  That’s actually why we didn’t wait until after college to get married.  After six years, we just couldn’t hold out anymore.”

When Erica’s lectures ended, we read our Bibles together in silence.  Erica suggested I read Galatians, and Jeremy popped in periodically to ask if I had any questions about the text. He’d just completed his first year at the Dallas Theological Seminary and was brimming with answers.

One afternoon in early July, my family and I decided to explore the downtown strip of the little Arkansas city where we were vacationing. We meandered over the cracked sidewalks, our skin sticky from the humidity, our noses assaulted by the tarry smell of car exhaust. Erica kept ducking into the nicer-looking shops, hoping to steal a reprieve from the heat.  I followed her into Kathryn’s Antiques and Jewelry—a musty box of a place, all glass shelves and narrow aisles, the kind that made me acutely aware of my elbows.  It was the kind of shop that sold birthstone necklaces and hand-blown glass kittens.

“Sissy, come here,” Erica hissed, poking her head out from behind a display in the middle of the store.  “I found the perfect thing for you!”

I stepped carefully around a precariously placed glass vase.  “Yeah?”

“A promise ring,” Erica said, holding up different bands and examining them.  She gravitated toward the white-gold ones, the ones like her own wedding ring.  “You don’t have one yet, do you?”

I shook my head.

“That’s great, then.  You want one, right?” Erica didn’t look up as she plucked another band from its velvet pocket.  “I like this one; it’s a little less flashy.  Not as big.  What do you think?”  She slid the ring onto my finger.  The delicate band was adorned with a heart bisected by a cross.  Erica was already asking Dad for his Mastercard.

At first, I loved how the ring volleyed sunlight skyward whenever I moved. It was only when I shut myself in my hotel room’s bathroom that the ring struck me as menacing, no longer kissing me with sunlight but spotlighting me, policing me with anemic fluorescent light.

I plunked myself down on the toilet and pulled at my underwear.  Stamped across the fabric, in red and blue and green and yellow and purple, was: all I want for Christmas is everything.  The underwear was too thick for July, too tight for my ballooning butt, too threadbare to still be wearing.  Plus, it made me recall the godless materialism of the holiday season, a topic that made my pastor’s ruddy jowls tremble when he railed against it.  My promise ring winked ominously as I fumbled with the roll of toilet paper.

The hotel’s pilly toilet paper came up rusty.  Not bloody, the way My Body, My Self had said it would, but sickly brown.  (Wink-wink-wink went my promise ring.)  I frowned at the three misshapen blots that stained the center of my underwear. I thought: I finished Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret four years ago!  I’ve given up on my period!  Shouldn’t it have given up on me?

My church friends had all gotten their first periods years ago.  Lizzie had busted out of her 34C bra the previous summer, and Sara was always talking about cramps in the same excited tone she talked about MTV’s reality show The Hills.  Esther had even gotten her period before sixth grade!

They couldn’t be real, those penny-colored blotches, but they were.  They were mine, given from God. They were God, or rather God’s message, telling me—no, warning me—that He had His eye on me.  That He was more vigilant than Erica; that He was closer than the ring on my finger.

Mom was thrilled when she heard the news.  She insisted that I’d “finally start to thin out” now that I was “a woman.”  Erica showed me how to use applicator-less o.b. tampons, conveniently forgetting to mention that 99.9% of women use applicators—which, I would find out a decade later, make the job down there much easier.  Dad kept grinning and making comments like, “Should I order a Bloody Mary with dinner?” and “Maybe the restaurant will have red velvet cake!”

But I stared stoically at my promise ring and shut out my family’s chatter and understood that nothing—not my period, not my virginity, not my impending high-school career—was a laughing matter.  How could it be, when God’s eye was smothering me, when I was one slip of His hand away from suffocating?

2

I abandoned my jog mid-stride, letting my shoulders slump and my hands clutch my hips as I surrendered to the hill.  Erica had said Cross Country would challenge me, had canopied her voice over the he-hers of my asthma attacks to warn me about it, and still I was unprepared.  August was scorching Centre County mercilessly, its heat only relenting for murderous thunderstorms that forced our two-a-day practices inside.  The coaches worked us just as hard indoors, though, commanding us to hold planks and V-sits until our bodies gave out on the gritty gymnasium floor.  The worst part of practices, I decided, was whatever our coaches were demanding at the current moment.  There was no easy, just different shades of pain.

“Come on, don’t quit now,” Tina said, appearing out of nowhere.  I had noticed her a few miles ago, running slowly and laughing loudly with the other captains.  Tina never broke a sweat at practice, yet managed to run sub-23-minute races, her blond ponytail a shock of lightning as she tore from the starting line.  She exuded strength like no girl I knew, not even Erica.  Erica couldn’t do a pull-up or hold a three-minute plank or secure a scholarship to West Point.

I shuffled my legs to match Tina’s stride and we crested the hill together, pressing forward into the endless humidity. Tina spoke since I couldn’t.  “It really does get easier,” she said.  Her hazel eyes were sprinkled with gold.

I made a hangdog expression and Tina laughed.  “It does,” she repeated.  “I remember my freshman two-a-days—terrible.  But you get used to it.”

I shook my head, willing air into my lungs.  “Even Gigi?”  I’d never met anyone with a more terrifying gaze—or more muscled quadriceps—than our assistant coach.

Tina laughed.  “Oh, don’t worry about Gigi.  I’ll protect you from her.”

I blinked.  I liked the thought of Tina protecting me.  I liked it a surprising amount.

When the run finally ended, Tina and I stretched in the shade of a big oak tree.  The boys’ team jogged past us, their skeletal chests translucent in the morning sunlight.

“They’re so weird,” Tina said as one of the boys shouted, off-key, the lyrics to an old ABBA song.  The other boys joined the caterwauling in an ear-splitting avalanche of noise.

“Kind of cultish,” I agreed.  “They always move in a big pack.”

“You have no idea,” Tina lowered her voice.  “John Walker told me they shower together.  After practices.  Like just blast music and all run in there together.”

My eyes widened, imagining the mass nakedness: waves of flesh undulating in the pink-tiled room, Spartan except for the rusted spigots spaced along the walls.

“John Walker,” I echoed.  I’d heard about boys like John, even though as senior class president his social circle spun as far from mine as possible. “Isn’t he—?”

Tina nodded, watching the boys disappear from view.  “Yup.”

I folded over for a hamstring stretch, grabbing handfuls of grass in my flushed palms.  “And that’s not awkward?  The shower thing?”

Tina bent down too, her ponytail cascading close to my cheek.  “Who knows.  All he told me is it’s like one big dance party.”

Tina and I didn’t discuss John Walker or his sexuality again, but I found my mind skulking back to that conversation many times when Tina and I changed into our running clothes or waited in line for the bathroom.  I wondered how the boys could sing and holler and dance together naked, and then make eye contact in the hallways the next day as if nothing happened.  As if they hadn’t gyrated together as the faucets rained overhead, as if they hadn’t laughed and sang lay all your love on me in the midst of each other’s exposed bodies.  Then I wondered about Tina and me in the shower, if we could rinse our hair and sing songs and then wave hello afterward as if nothing had changed.  I wondered if Tina’s hair would glint like bronze as the water saturated it, if it would cling to the nape of her neck and the curve of her shoulder blades.  I wondered what Tina would do if I traced the water as it streamed down her back.  Would her skin shiver with goosebumps?  Would she push me away?  Would she pull me in?

I started keeping my Bible on my nightstand, and then in my locker at school.  I needed it for the same reason I needed my purity ring: I needed to remind my roving mind of God’s omnipresence.  He was hearing my thoughts—all my thoughts.  And I didn’t need another inauspiciously timed menses to make me understand that He was displeased.

Erica’s phone calls kept coming every week, doggedly as the dawn.  When Erica’s voice danced in my ear, I closed all thoughts about Tina behind a hermetic seal.  I felt sure Erica could detect sin in my heart. I couldn’t understand why I was struggling with impure thoughts.  I was at Erica’s old school, on her old Cross Country team, settled in her old bedroom.  And I had her constant advice to boot.  How could all that not be enough?

3

For my high-school graduation present, my two best friends and I took our first vacation without our families.  We couldn’t stop giggling as our bus barreled toward New York City; everything seemed hilarious in the wake of our adventure, from the bushy-bearded Hasidic Jew who offered Julia bubblegum to the stranger who fell asleep on Mary’s shoulder.

Have a great time sissy, Erica’s text read.  Can’t wait to hear all about it.

I was surprised that Erica had remembered my trip.  Ever since Jeremy took a job at a ritzy law firm and Erica traded her engineering job for stay-at-home motherhood, their lives had constricted to almost exclude me.  Our relationship survived best when I visited: I could accompany them to the church where Jeremy volunteered as an elder, could babysit their daughter while they hosted Bible study, could deejay the Veggie Tales music while Erica made dinner.  I’d return from those sojourns exhausted, albeit proficient in speed diapering and Bible quoting.

Julia shook the back of Mary’s seat, her elbow nearly dislodging the cell phone from my hands.  “Move back with us,” she whispered, tapping Mary on the shoulder.  Mary’s seat partner hadn’t stirred when the driver sped over a pothole or jammed the brakes before a merge, and his head hovered dangerously close to her shoulder again.  “Just sit on our laps.  You weigh, like, ten pounds.”

“I was waiting for you to ask,” Mary smiled, maneuvering out of her seat and crawling over Julia to sit on my legs, her back flush to the window.  Her buttocks dug into my thighs, their needle-sharpness the only downside of her lithe dancer’s physique.  “And you won’t regret it because, wait for it—” she clawed through her purse “—I’ve got mangoes!”

I laughed as Mary waggled a Tupperware container in my face, popping its lid to display the slivers of yellow fruit.  Mary and I had first bonded over fruit during lunch hours in the darkened eaves of the auditorium.  The first time she invited me to sneak up there for secret meals, I marveled at the foods she packed: plump raspberries, electric-green kiwis, dewy sections of blood oranges.  I loved most when she brought blackberries.  She would pluck them out of the Tupperware, fat and glistening, and roll them around her mouth, her eyes fixed on me as I rambled about my day.  She listened to every word I said, drawing me out on taciturn days and laughing with me on ebullient ones.  Sometimes when we’d eaten all the food we sprawled out over the worn carpet and gazed at the unlit spotlights.  Sometimes I’d roll over and tickle her taut stomach, whisper teasing words in her ear.  Teach me to be a sexy ballerina, I’d say between giggles.  Sometimes she’d tilt her face so her olive cheek kissed the carpet and say, come to dance class with me. 

But only sometimes.  Other times, our friends joined us, and on those days we sat up straight and chewed our food quickly and discussed AP tests.

“I also brought a loaf of sourdough,” Mary said, rummaging through her bag, her long honey-colored hair tickling my forearm.  “Just in case.”

“You would, Mary.”  I made a teasing face and poked her thin waist.

“I feel carsick,” Julia said, her head lolling on my shoulder.  Her eyes closed, leaving Mary and me virtually alone.

“I’ll put these away,” Mary whispered in my ear, nodding at the mangoes.  “We learned in Physiology that even talking about food can activate the salivary glands.”  That was what I loved about Mary: she had the answers to everything.  To the rest of the world, she probably looked like a normal seventeen-year-old girl, but in my eyes, she was ethereal, effervescent.

By the time we arrived at Hotel Carter, Julia looked alarmingly pale but at least she’d kept her breakfast down.  We’d booked our dingy room for the low price, not the atmosphere; we’d decided the Times Square location mattered more than luxury.  We’ll have to check for bedbugs first thing, Mary had warned when she filled out the reservation information.  I’d twirled her hair around my finger, insisting everything would be fine as I watched the brassy strands reflect the light overhead.  I always fiddled with Mary’s hair; sometimes she cascaded it across my legs, closed her eyes as I braided and unbraided it to the soundtrack of a Broadway musical.  Les Mis and Cats were her favorites.

New York overwhelmed me, but not Mary.  “All these people,” I said, pushing back my cuticles as we cut a path through the congested sidewalks.  “I feel like I’m in one of those movie scenes—you know, when a character has a panic attack?  And the background noise gets louder and louder until the person can’t even think?” So Mary grabbed my hand and navigated us both around the bustling sidewalks, teaching me how to weave around slow walkers and dodge the snaking food-cart lines.  In the shadow of a skyscraper I noticed how truly short Mary was—5’2’’ seemed more significant back home; it seemed on par with my 5’9”, on par even with the clouds. But, in reality, Mary was way below the clouds, down on earth with everyone else.

And so was I.

On our last night in the city, Mary, Julia, and I retired early to the hotel.

“We’re such dorks,” I said, drunk with laughter.  “Going home when it’s still light.”

“And yet all I want to do is get in my PJs and have a slumber party,” Mary said, hooking her arm through mine.

Unbelievably, I was the one who suggested what happened next.  I shocked myself by voicing my idea; Mary shocked me with the alacrity of her agreement, effortless as water flowing downhill.

“I’ve always wanted to do something,” I said shyly as we sat cross-legged, all three of us crowded on Mary’s bed.  “Like…like a rite, or a baptism, or something.”

Julia blinked.  In her signature deadpan voice, she asked, “What?”

But Mary didn’t laugh at Julia’s joke.  Instead, she looked me straight in the eye.  “How so?”

I was thinking of a book I’d read, a paperback whose pages I’d fingered until they felt soft as skin.  I was thinking of the book’s three heroines, the ones who swam naked to a rock in the middle of a lake and made offerings to the gods and goddesses.  I’d always wanted that sort of magical life, a life where best friends smoked pot and sneaked out in the middle of the night and swam nude under a full moon.

My idea was crazy, mortifying, irrational.

And Mary agreed to it.

We were doing this, I rationalized to myself as Mary turned the bathtub faucets, because we both loved mythology.   As the showerhead sputtered to life, I told myself: we’re doing this because Mary once confided to me that the Icarus story terrifies her; because one night, when we were messing with a Ouija board, she squeezed my hand and whispered, imagine being burned by the thing you loved most.  When all you wanted to do was see the sun.  As steam thickened the bathroom air, I convinced myself that The Rite was only happening because of New York, because of the deliriously sinful energy of the city, because of the anonymity, because of the people with crazy-colored hair, because of the strip clubs and streetwalkers.  Because I hadn’t brought my Bible on this trip, and because Erica would never expect I’d step into the shower with another girl, and because maybe if I did it once…I’d what?  Be cured?  Be damned?

Julia read a magazine on the bed and laughed uneasily when Mary and I stripped down to our underwear.

“I’ll grab extra towels,” I said.

“I’ll take my contacts out,” Mary said, reaching for her makeup case.

I froze mid-step.  “Wait, what?  Mary!” I fumbled for my own contact solution.  “You need to tell me these things!  If you take yours out, I can’t leave mine in.”  What would it have meant, I worried, if I’d seen Mary’s body when she hadn’t been able to clearly see mine?  Why hadn’t I thought to remove my contacts?

“Okay, I’m jumping in,” I said, screwing the contact case closed.  I needed to escape the drafty hotel room, needed the blistering heat of the water and the muggy, torturous-on- asthmatic-lungs air.  I needed out of my head for a while.

Mary and I barely fit in the narrow stall together.  We had to grasp one another’s shoulders for balance every time we rotated out from under the spray.  It took Mary a long while to lather her hair, to knead the shampoo throughout, to rinse it away.  By the time she finished, her shoulders flamed from the hot water.  It was my turn to rinse the shampoo from my hair, but instead of trading places with me, Mary lingered under the showerhead, letting the water stream down her temples and suspend prismatic in her eyelashes.  Thin, hot tributaries meandered down her breasts and hipbones, carving sinuous little paths I wanted to trace.  But I didn’t.  I raised my eyes, noticing how Mary’s hazel eyes hesitated before daring to meet mine.  I wondered who besides Mary’s parents had ever seen her naked and soaking wet; I assumed no one had, and I marveled at the grace of being allowed into such an intimate moment.  My throat bow-tied closed as if I were in the throes of another asthma attack, but this time I didn’t panic and hope for it to end.

“Switch,” Mary whispered.  And, eventually, we did.

We never discussed The Rite; neither with one another nor with Julia, who didn’t look up from her magazine until we’d both donned our pajamas, until I’d hung the last towel.

On the bus ride home, with Mary balanced on my lap, we talked about college: what we hoped, expected, feared.  We talked about our friend Sarah who was taking a gap year in Morocco, about how maybe she’d meet a handsome African boy and stay there forever.  Julia fell asleep and Mary and I talked about other boys, the boys we imagined for our friends and the boys we imagined for ourselves. I told Mary that I hoped to meet a nice Christian boy and marry before age 22, just as Erica had.  Mary said she couldn’t dream of marrying that young.  My thighs prickled and numbed under the weight of her wraithlike figure, and by the time the bus pulled into our hometown, I’d  forgotten that, just last night, my entire body had crackled with life.


Alaina Symanovich is an MFA student at Florida State University concentrating in creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Superstition Review, Sonora Review, The Offbeat, Fogged Clarity, and other journals. In 2016, she was awarded Best of the Net for my essay “The M Word.”

Os Sacrum

On average, the adult human skeleton is composed of 206 bones weighing 30-40 % of the body’s total weight.  Water accounts for half that figure.  Desiccated, then, the skeleton weighs 15-20% of a body’s original weight at death.   So if my father weighed 170 pounds when he died nineteen years ago, his skeleton— marrow dried, flesh gone—weighed between 25.5 and 34 pounds when my sister dug him up this past July.  I wasn’t there to see how the blue pine coffin had collapsed on him.  I didn’t watch the forensic anthropologists (two couples from the University of Montana and two graduate students) search for his bones in the dark earth.  I didn’t see how they dusted each find with a fine horsehair brush.  I didn’t see them hold each one to the light or hear them identify the flat bones that shielded his brain, heart, lungs.  Skull, sternum, ribs.   I didn’t hear them identify the long bones that tethered muscle, skin, and held his weight for 71 years, just one longer than he believed Psalm 90:10 promised.  Humerus, ulna, femur.  I missed how, finally, they sifted the complex bones from their bed.  Vertebrae.  Sacrum.

It was after 10 p.m. when they finished counting and cataloguing their finds.  Midnight, by the time my sister Bobbie drove the ninety miles to Missoula, a cardboard box of bones strapped into the back seat of her Honda Civic.  She took them to the crematorium the next day.

*

Three weeks later, she calls to tell me.

It took ten hours for them to find all his bones.  

I can’t believe you dug him up without telling me, Barb.   My sister changed her name to Bobbie several years ago.  We both know I revert to Barb as an insult.

Why would I want to tell you?  Her tight tone confirms the sting.  You wouldn’t have wanted to be here.    

*

My father died Father’s Day, 1996.  Or the day before.  Another twenty-year argument between my sister and I.  She insists he died on Saturday, the day before Father’s Day.  I say he died on Father’s Day.  I prefer the symmetry of it, the way it carries the hint of a cosmic wink.  Plus, I’m a lawyer.  I tend to defer to written proof.

Look at the funeral program.  It says, Passed Away, June 16, 1996.  Father’s Day.

Every lawyer knows how unreliable eye-witness testimony is.  Still, her account casts doubt on mine.  I was there, remember?  I’m the one who watched him die.

He was working on a new house the weekend he died.  It would have been his fourth in twenty years.  The baby of the family, I was the only one still living at home when he built the first one.  We’d been living in a trailer on twenty acres of scrub, and while he’d talked about building Mom a house someday at the far end of the property-line where the Smith River pooled algae-green in spring, it seemed little more than a fantasy to keep him going.  He was fifty-one.  I was three months away from turning eighteen.  As far as I knew, he’d never built anything other than a screened porch once, but there he was, standing in the charred rubble of our burnt-out trailer, saying, Guess I’ll go ahead and build that house now.

A man with no education, no money, nothing to make you believe he had any rational basis for thinking he could build a house.  But he did.  No architect.  No drafting table or blue prints.  Just some men from church and a six-sided carpenter’s pencil he’d sharpen with his pocketknife while staring into middle-space, calculating next steps on slabs of sheetrock.  There were mistakes.  He didn’t treat the wood properly.  For as long as we lived there, red and black box elder bugs crawled out of the logs oozing red juice on every flat surface, flying at us, clinging to our clothes and hair.  There were injuries, too.  One of his friends lost a thumb in the power saw and Dad couldn’t find it in the corner where it had flown, not thinking to sift through the piles of sawdust lining the wall until it was too late to reattach the shriveled stub.

I spent the day before my father died dragging my husband and five-year-old daughter through a drizzly day of open houses I’d seen listed in the Atlanta Journal Constitution that morning.  We weren’t in the market.  I’d just started a new job, my first at a silk-stocking law firm.  While I hadn’t yet exposed myself as wholly unsuited for the position by nature and nurture both, I was beginning to sense that nub of truth, beginning to suspect I wouldn’t be around long enough to jump into the senior associate ranks.   Or earn their salaries.  Still, I felt compelled to spend the whole afternoon opening the doors of strangers I’d never meet, traipsing through places I’d never belong until the realtors waded into the rain to retrieve the last limp balloons from their Welcome! signs.

When we got home, the phone was ringing.  My sister, calling with a message I didn’t want to hear.

Dad.  Hospital.  Unresponsive.

The only time I’d ever prayed harder was four years earlier, February, 1992.  I’d taken my nine-month-old daughter Rachel on her first visit to see my parents in Montana.  Dad had finished the house in Plains the previous year, his third since that first one thirteen years earlier.  Tongue-in-groove floors, refurbished brick fireplace.  He’d built a barn out of weathered wood, a dozen sheep grazed on snow-covered thistles while two furry burros stood guard.  They had peacocks, chickens, everything he’d wanted.  Bobbie still lived two states away.

A few days before the end of our stay, Dad invited their pastor over for lunch.  He was right out of my childhood—an unctuous man courting tithers like my parents.  Dad was at the island fixing sandwiches.  Baby?  Would you make us a pot of coffee?   He stood behind me chatting with his pastor while I filled the Mr. Coffee pot with water.

The air went out of the room.

I turned to see my father clutching his chest.  His face, grey.  What?  Dad?  What?  

He said I kicked the baby on the hand or head.  I am still shamed, twenty-four years later, by how I turned to him instead of Rachel—how I didn’t even notice her at his feet, flat out, arms wide, her breath held that long moment until I knelt and she screamed louder than I’d ever heard her scream.  He had on his cowboy boots, the ones I bought him just out of law school.  I saw a quarter-sized dent in the side of her head, the precise imprint of his boot’s toe.  Its depth drained my blood, because your blood really does drain when you believe you’re losing the only one you’ve ever fully loved.

I picked her up.  Stood, dazed.  He told me he’d thought she was one of the dogs nuzzling his feet, he hadn’t looked, and anyway, said Mom, I was her mother, why wasn’t I paying attention?  They blamed me.  As if I needed help with that.  I said let’s go, we have to get her to the hospital.

Dad’s pastor stood.  Wait, let’s just pray for her, he said.

I had enough of my wits about me to know that if I said, no you fucking asshole, I need to get her to the hospital, it wouldn’t make things go any better.  Dad could get stubborn.  It was embarrassing enough for him to have his pastor see what little faith I had, for him to hear me say, Dad, you can pray on the way to the hospital. He drove me to the Plains hospital where the ER doctor, even more incompetent than I’d feared, chuckled, that’s just a goose egg.  It cost me another chunk of my tongue when I didn’t tell him he was fucking asshole too, and instead said to Dad, I think he’s wrong.  I need you to take us to Missoula.  We sped the 90 miles to Missoula, where the ER doctors were marginally more competent.

It’s true, as Carson McCullers observed, that the most loved one holds the power in any relationship.  As between us, my father held the power.  Until that drive, when it shifted forever to the one I held in my arms.

Yes, it was dent.  It looked bad.  She’d need a CAT scan, twenty-four hours of observation.  The next day the doctors said she’d dodged a bullet.  Despite how bad it looked, the dent hadn’t been deep enough to intrude into the brain-sac.  No bleeding on the brain.  No concussion.  It would have been a different story if her skull hadn’t still been pliable.  All good, they said.  But even they could see it wasn’t.  For meOne of the nurses pulled me aside.  It was just an accident, honeyYou’ve got to forgive your Dad. 

I couldn’t.  Her injury conjured a past I’d pretended to forget: the casual violence and negligent nurture of my own early years.

*

The anthropologists were friends of friends of Bobbie’s.  I can’t say I would have been able to make the trip to Montana, even if I’d known.  Seen most magnanimously, my sister’s decision not to tell me in advance came from a protective prompt.  But she’d lost that instinct decades ago.  And now I can’t help seeing it from another angle, seeing it as a grudge.   She seemed to believe that as the baby, I’d found a way to wedge myself into our father’s mercurial heart.  I believed a more difficult truth.  I believed our father’s love proportionate to our professed adherence to his faith.

And yet.  I remember:  I am six.  Flu sweeps over me, and I cannot get to the toilet fast enough.  Clots of vomit in my hair, diarrhea on my legs.  Dad cradles me, cleans me with a warm washcloth, changes my sheets while I’m still in his arm.  He spoons ice chips into my mouth and smooths my sweaty head until I sleep.

Or, I am five.  He comes home from traveling all week selling farm equipment up and down the Coachella Valley.  I run to the door to meet him, put my bare feet on top of his polished wingtips, and we spin across the celery colored carpet while he whistles “Waltzing Matilda.”

Or, I am four.   We are at the San Diego zoo, a splurge, I know, even at that age.  When he places me on the back of Speedy the tortoise, I clutch the smooth hardness and intricate geometry of its shell.  It leaves a pink imprint I still see.

I don’t know whether Bobbie got what she was looking for when she moved back in with our parents.  From my angle, all I could see was my 40-year old sister immersing herself again in their faith, the only way we knew to stake a claim with him.  As a testament of faith, she opened a Christian bookstore in Plains, a town of 300 souls in a county so rural it didn’t have a single streetlight.  When I said the idea seemed crazy, Dad’s eyes narrowed.  He believed it was God’s will, was certain she’d be blessed for rededicating her life to the Lord.  Something I ought to think about.

The fissure between my father and I grew when he called to tell me he wanted to build a house for Bobbie on the property, wanted me to give her 80 acres.

Your sister needs a home.  She’s promised to live there with your Mom if I go first.  

I had a three-year-old and was still in debt nearly seventy-thousand dollars in student loans.  They’d lost their home in a shady deal while I was in law school, and I’d offered to buy them 300 acres Dad found in Plains, a place he could build on, he said, one last best place.  I’d been paying for the property with plastic, digging my own family deeper into debt so I wouldn’t have to retract an offer I’d come to regret.  But in Dad’s book, fair meant providing for the daughter walking with the Lord.

Later, I learned that he’d starting seeing visions the year he turned 70.  He didn’t say anything about them to me, though.  Instead, he said, My three-score and ten years are up this year.  I ignored the message.  Or didn’t recognize it.  Or maybe I’d forgotten how literally he relied on every written word in the Bible, the one he’d carried with him for decades, its brown leather cover worn smooth, the pages of its onion-skin paper thinned nearly transparent in places.  All I could see was how easily he broke faith with me for the promise of a future I didn’t believe.  Focused on the wound, I ignored the worry.  For the first and last time in my life, I said no to my father.

As the baby, I’d been spared most of his wrath.  But I was grateful for the continent between us when his voice turned mean.  He told me he’d just sell the place.  If that’s how I was going to be about it, he didn’t want to live there anyway.  Okay, I said, sell it.  We were hurting each other as much as ourselves, but we didn’t know there wouldn’t be time to repair the damage before he’d die.  Eighteen months later.

*

Was his skeleton intact?

What do you mean?  

Was it like you’d see in a movie or science class?  

The lid of the coffin had caved in, Sis, get it?  No, it wasn’t intact.  

That last statement makes me cry, softens Bobbie a little.  She says all that was left of him was bones, boots and his belt buckle.  She had them toss the boots into the oven with him, but the buckle got lost somewhere between Paradise and the crematorium.  I don’t believe her, but I understand the lie.  I would have kept the buckle, too.

He died building the new house, the one he’d designed with an attached apartment for my sister to live in forever.

*

It’s just the machine breathing.

Please don’t unplug him until I get there.  Just wait for me.

I called Bobbie the next morning to check on Dad and give her our schedule.  I’d missed a late night plane, squandering time with my brain fused, unable to manage the simplest tasks—the bank I’d used for two years disappeared for hours, the clothes in my closet blurred together, Rachel and David hovered at the door, unsure of the woman with the glazed eyes, blotchy face.  The most direct flight would take us through Salt Lake City the next morning.

I can be there in eight, nine hours.  Wait, please.  

They didn’t.  While the rest of the family saw him still breathing, warm, the look of sleep instead of death on his face, my last sight of him was his rubbery embalmed body.  They’d dressed him in Levi’s, his pink-and-blue plaid dress shirt with the pearl snap buttons, the cowboy boots I’d given him the year I graduated from law school, soles worn through.

My parents believed in a literal resurrection of the body, a belief that proved a barrier to cremation as early as 6000 B.C., when the Egyptians began preserving their royals through embalming and mummification, conserving the body for the soul after its return from a 3,000-year journey, the circle of necessity.  If, after the soul’s journey, the intact body awaited, the two reunited and lived as one with the gods.

Even with decades of distance between my parents’ beliefs and my late middle-age, when I start to consider my own death, I research burial + green + not cremation.  I may not believe in the body’s literal resurrection or the soul’s reunification with the body.  I may believe even less in the lake of fire my parents feared.  Still, something in me recoils at the thought of my mortal husk turned to ashes in a crematorium’s fires.

I don’t know if the hope of resurrection prompted my mother’s decision to bury my father on the small hill, barely ten yards from her back door.  Maybe it wasn’t even her decision.  His unexpected death left her catatonic.  She’d never spent a single night alone.  Had never written a check.  Had no idea how much, or little, they had in the bank.  I can see her sitting at the kitchen table, with her three oldest children hovering nearby, staring out the window at the muddied yard with his tools scattered around an empty sawhorse, see her ceding all decisions to her other children.  Coffin, funeral, burial site—all decided by my older siblings before I could even manage to get from Atlanta to Paradise, the day after Bobbie called to tell me he was in the hospital.

Part of it had to be money.  Turned out they didn’t have enough in the bank to pay for the funeral, let alone a plot in a cemetery.  The blue pine coffin built by my parents’ pastor was a simplicity Dad would have appreciated, but didn’t plan.  My older siblings must have calculated the costs, convinced my dazed mother how nice it would be to keep her husband close.  If she buried him on the hill in her backyard, he’d always be there for her.  She could still see him every day.  Talk to him.  And she would.  Over the years, Bobbie said it wasn’t unusual for her to walk in on Mom sitting at the kitchen table talking to Dad.  Oh, honey, she’d say, going on to tell him about a friend from church, a need for prayer, or how the house was progressing without him there to do the work.

After the funeral, everyone ate fried chicken and potato salad that ladies from the church prepared.  People talked about how healthy he’d looked.  What a shock his death was.  He’d worked all morning on the new house, spent the afternoon helping Bobbie move furniture for a garage sale.  No one noticed his breathing go ragged.  His face wince.  Mom might have noticed, if she’d been there, but she was eight hundred miles away visiting my oldest sister.

When Dad called Bobbie late that afternoon, all he said was, It’s bad baby.  She heard it, then, asked if he needed to go to the hospital.  His maybe so, sent her into a panic.  Dad hadn’t been to a doctor since he’d joined the Navy in 1942.  She raced to the house, the ambulance two miles behind her.  She found him in bed, gospel music on his tape player, his t-shirt wet with sweat.  He asked her to put his boots on him.  She told me later that was the last thing he said before blood leaked from his nose, mouth, ears.  Even his eyesIt looked like he was crying blood. 

Six men lowered his casket into the ground.  We tossed red roses and fists full of dirt on his coffin before staggering inside the husk of a house only my parents could consider habitable.  Blue and red electrical wires spilled from the walls, dun-colored sheetrock hung in their bedroom and bath, between the main house and the apartment for Bobbie, his writing on it, figures for floor and ceiling joists written in the thick lead of his carpenter’s pencil, messages from a ghost.  Outside, a light rain.  We stood at the window watching ochre rivulets drizzle down the mound of fresh earth.

*

The Christmas before Dad died, I was in a Blockbuster Video store with Rachel.  She was four, and it had been two years since we’d gone back to Montana.  Half a lifetime, for her.  She was playing in the aisles while I looked for videos.  Ma’am?  Is this your daughter?  An African-American man waved me over.  He was about Dad’s age, but taller, his smooth face and neat grey Afro nothing like my father’s peppery hair and white beard.

Rachel, what are you doing?  I took her hand.  I’m sorry.

His eyes were a French roast color, so dark you could barely see the pupils, nothing like Dad’s sea green eyes, the kind that changed color with his mood.

It’s not my business, honey, but I’m wondering how long since this baby’s seen her grandpa?   

She beamed at him while I said, It’s been a minute.  He smiled back at her, told me maybe it was time for me to take her to see him again.  My father was in perfect health.  He was building a house.  He wasn’t going to die anytime soon.  But some shadow must have crossed my face, because the man laughed.  A big-throated laugh.  My father’s laugh.

Don’t go looking like that, he said, I’m not psychic.  She just asked me if I was her grandpa, said she’d been looking for him everywhere.

Six months later, I picked out a few of Dad’s favorite gospel tapes to send for Father’s Day: Doyle Lawson, the Bluegrass Cardinals, the Carter Family.  Someone had stolen the shoebox of tapes he kept in his van and I knew he’d love getting new ones.  I sent the package from my office’s mailroom, deciding against the extra postage even though the clerk told me it wouldn’t get to Paradise until after Father’s Day.  I didn’t think it mattered, that wasn’t the kind of thing Dad worried about.  But as the day wore on, the image of the man in Blockbuster kept appearing.  I couldn’t get his words out of my head until I went back to the mailroom and paid the extra postage for a quicker delivery.  Bobbie told me he got the tapes on Saturday.  He was listening to the Bluegrass Cardinals sing I’ll Fly Away when she got to the house and found him in bed.

In the weeks before he died, my father had two visions.  He saw the first one on a stretch of road between Hungry Horse and Polson.  It was early light when he stopped to pee at the side of the road, and as he looked across the field he saw Jesus standing there, arms extended.  He told Mom the wounds in Christ’s hands were big enough for a grown man to slip into.

He saw the second vision at church, the Sunday before he died.  He was praying, when he looked up and saw a field unfurl in front of him.  He watched as bearded wheat sprouted and grew to maturity, watched as wind carried the ripe seed across the field.  The stalks shriveled.  He stared at the dead stubble until he saw, all over the fallowed field, scattered shoots like tiny green threads undulating out of the ground.

I don’t know whether his visions were like William Blake’s, appearing infinitely more perfect and organized than anything ever seen with a mortal eye.  Dad’s poetry only went so far as to say they were clearer than anything he’d ever seen wide awake.

After a few weeks of grieving, I called the Plains hospital, asked to speak to Dad’s treating physician.  Without an autopsy, it was impossible for him to say with certainty, but he conjectured a comorbidity: internal carotid occlusion and an aneurism.  Heart and brain went at once, he said.  Your Dad had a massive blow out.

It made me wonder if his visions had been triggered by something as unspectacular as a small stroke or the early stages of dementia.  Lewy Bodies are known to goo up the brain, trigger hallucinations.  On the other hand, neurologist Oliver Sacks found that ten percent of the population—perfectly healthy, no brain goo, no explanation—have one or more hallucinations in life.  One third of those are religious or ecstatic in nature.  I didn’t want to discount God’s hand coloring on his cornea, but I found some comfort in thinking my father’s moods and decisions those last few years, the ones that stung me almost as much as his death, left me nearly as bereft, might have had a physiological explanation.  It made sense, too, when I thought about my last trip to Montana, two years before he died.

One afternoon, he drove us to Ravalli for Buffalo burgers and homemade Huckleberry pie at his favorite spot off Highway 41.  After we ate, he pulled out of the gravel lot and into traffic, misjudging the speed of an oncoming semi.  It missed us, but barely.  This was a man who’d never had an accident in his life, despite spending the bulk of his adulthood as a traveling salesman, routinely putting fifty, sixty thousand miles on his cars every year.  I’d driven with him thirty times or more from Montana to Colorado, believing in the protective bubble that never popped while he sped down I-25 at 110 miles per hours, the hood of his LTD trembling, until we reached the Wyoming border and he’d pull back to 80, 85 the rest of the trip.

For a moment after the big rig blew past we just sat there while he stared out the windshield.  Quiet.  He looked, although I only see this now, like a man who’d lost something too precious to bear.

*

Bobbie never lived in the house Dad died building, or the future they’d planned.  Within months of his death, she closed the bookstore, remarried, moved to Missoula.  She tried to teach Mom how to use the checkbook, how to budget her Social Security, but it frustrated and frightened Mom.  A few years ago, Mom told me she’d given Bobbie a power of attorney over the house, that they’d taken out a reverse mortgage to pay some bills, finish the house, travel.  I’ll never know the details, how much went into my sister’s failing business, how much went to the church.   By the time I found out about it, they’d rented the house to some people in a last-ditch effort to keep from losing it.  It didn’t work.  When they sold it, the buyers only had one condition: they didn’t want Dad’s grave on their property.

*

I wish I could have kept a bone.  

Why would you want a bone?

Just to have something of him.  

Which bone would you want?

I don’t know. Were his bones white? 

Yeah.  But broken up, Sis.  Scattered, like I said.  

After we hang up I think about how our family is like that, too.  Broken up.  Scattered.  Although my sister and I let years of mean deposits calcify soft tissue, and occlude familial arteries, the way our voices soften at the end of that conversation, the way we call each other Sis, conjures the time we shared a less frayed connection.

Her question, unanswered, echoes long after the line goes dead.

What bone would you want?

At first, I think I’d choose a rib, imagine the smooth curvature of the one that most closely cradled his heart.  But the coffin had caved in.  Most likely, the earth’s weight crushed his empty cage of bones to shards.  So then I think, a finger.  Something small.  Intact.  I could polish it.  Paint it.  Slip a silver chain through it.  But I tend to lose small things, and I couldn’t carry it with me or wear it around my neck.    Although I long to save some impervious part of him, I’d fear wearing a bone might carry a whiff of necromancy repellent to my father’s spirit.  Finally, I settle on his sacrum.

Sacrum.  From the Latin os sacrum.  Literally, sacred bone.  The sacrum’s Latin etymology derives from the Greek, hieròn osteon, holy bone.  The Egyptians associated the sacrum with Osiris, the god of the dead and the afterlife; Hebrews and Arabs believed the seed of resurrection resided in the almond-shaped bone at its base; and Mesoamerican Indians considered the sacrum a portal to the spirit world.

It truth, the sacrum isn’t actually a single bone.  It’s five bones fused into sheath, a fusion that turns it into the strongest bone in the body, makes it the hardest to break, the last to disintegrate.  To me, it looks like a mask with eight vertical holes, four on each side.  If I had that strong bone of his, I’d thread the holes with red silk and hang it on a wall painted pale yellow, a color he loved nearly as much as rust or turquoise.  Over the years, I’ve collected a small cache of folk art for this wall.  Only now do I notice how many times angels appear in this art: a guardian angel painted on particle board; the silhouette of a flying angel cut from plywood, the resurrection trumpet held to her lips; Jacob kneeling in front of the angel he’d wrestled into blessing him, the artist’s caption, A vision from an Angle, printed below in black Sharpie.

This is where the flat, animal-like face of my father’s sacrum would rest.  I imagine what it would be like to spend years with that relic hanging there.  Tucked among angels.  I imagine tracing the fastened seams with my finger, admiring its fractured strength.  But mostly I imagine how, years from now, I might see it in a certain angle of light, how it might reveal some translucent shred of his soul shimmering there, poised at the edge of eternity, bearing witness to his obscure faith.

 


Kelly Beard is a recent graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA in Creative Writing, July 2016). She works as an employment discrimination lawyer in the metro-Atlanta area where she live with a poet (David Bottoms) and a dog (Jack). Her work was chosen as one of the top-ten essays in the 2014 Tucson Literary Book Festival Creative Nonfiction Contest and she published an extensive interview with Andre Dubus III in the literary journal Five Points.

Past Sense

It begins with something sharp, a smell forced up my nose and down my throat. A vision flashes, just a snap of memory, so vivid I feel its edges: I am back in St. Louis, running my pre-adolescent fingers through freshly cut grass; in Mesa, walking among succulents and mangy coyotes in clay-sided storm drains; in Philadelphia, lighting a Camel Filtered with matches as I wait for the bus in the breath-freezing air.

For a moment, I can time-travel. The person next to me—friend, colleague, stranger—might be able to see me, but I am not there. I am five hundred or two thousand miles away: watching Lambchop on my parents’ scratchy Fairfax sofa that smells like hand-me-down furniture, studying Amarillo tumbleweeds in the high school parking lot as I try not to choke on the smell of cow shit that punctuates the air. In my favorite, and most infrequent hallucinations, I am back in a Kaunienen sauna, skin broiling in wooden humidity as I wait, just one more minute, before running outside naked to roll in the snow.

The memory dissolves like a Listerine strip, leaving me disoriented. The taste of abandoned homes clouds the back of my mouth.

“What’s it like moving around so much?” someone asks me at a bar or a college party or in a classroom. Cologne reflected off his—their—cheekbones, a musk that is always the same.

I have never known how to answer this question. How do I explain hallucinations without sounding schizophrenic? How do I tell him—them—that it’s like being lost?

I take a drag of a cigarette, exhale a cloud. “Moving means never really knowing where I am,” I say, and change the subject.

“Hey Amber,” I call up a café’s oaken stairs that smell like dust and unground espresso—the way all cafés smell. “Amber!”

Ashlie emerges, thick black eyebrows pursed together in a frown. “You mean Ashlie?” She asks, irritated.

She thinks I mean San José Amber, our ditzy strawberry-blonde coworker whose ample cleavage erupts over a low-cut crop-top. San José Amber almost got fired for improperly cutting apple strudel, for ruining coffee drinks, for texting instead of prepping the panini meat. Her job was saved when another employee was killed by a drunk driver. The store couldn’t afford to lose both of them. I didn’t mean this Amber. I meant San Diego Amber, a different coworker at a different café in a different California city, who, in my memories, shares Ashlie’s black hair, pumpkin hips, and general fuck-off demeanor.

But Ashlie does not want to hear that she is not the original, that the reason I felt immediately comfortable around her was because I’d met another version of her before. “Shit, sorry Ashlie,” I say, an easy apology to replace the difficulty of unwanted explanation. It took me two months to stop calling Ashlie Amber, to erase the files of previous friends and make way for their new resemblances. Most of the time, erased friends stayed in the past where they belonged.

“I’m starting a new business venture with Dom,” Jon, an old buddy from college says, two states and six years later. He’s looking worse for wear, a steady diet of heroin, alcohol, and cigarettes written in bruised circles under his eyes.

I used to fuck him? I question silently, churning my memories for images of the devilish smile and nonchalant six-pack—the guy who cut me off because he worried I was getting too attached. He dropped out of school that semester. I hadn’t seen or thought about him until he showed up in San José.

I squint my eyes, as if I can reboot deleted images. “Who?”

He cocks his heavily-angled jaw at me, cigarette dangling haphazardly from the side of his mouth. “Dominic, you remember, sophomore year, short guy with the big pick-up truck—we used to go on beer runs?” He laughs. “Except you only drank wine coolers.”

I run through the Dominics I remember: from high school in Philly, short with coarse black hair and a penchant for dead baby jokes; from the café in San José, short with fine, almost blonde hair and a baby face to match. But San Diego Dominic?

I close my eyes, trying to force the shimmer of memory. I see the shiny white Ford pickup, the two thirty racks of Coors Light in the back, me leaning out the window to smoke a Camel Crush, Jon in the passenger’s seat. But I can only make out a hairstyle driving: close cropped, steel-wool brown, the kind that would get curly if it was allowed to grow long.

I open my eyes. “Wasn’t he in the military, or something?” I ask, pretending I can see the face.

Jon shakes his head. “Wow, Kym,” he says, not bothering to mask his disappointment. “It would hurt his feelings to know that you didn’t remember him. He had a pretty big crush on you back in the day. Wow.”

You mean, back when we were fucking. I smile at Jon’s inability to see the hypocrisy in the larger picture. Some things don’t change.

Most things don’t change. The people I befriended at USD resemble the people I know now as an adult in San José; the friends I had in elementary school in St. Louis were interchangeable with those who lived in Mesa or even in Finland, except that the Finns knew more languages and the kids in St. Louis had more money.

When I left a state, I imagined I left it and its populace for good. I didn’t take pictures, not necessarily because I was trying to hide anything, but because it never occurred to me until it was too late, until I was already in the process of erasure. As far as I was concerned, the only evidence of relationships or actions remained in those memories that blurred with each mile I put between my past and myself.

But sometimes the people from past lives showed up where I least expected them. Sometimes the people I knew in high school in Philadelphia were among the fifty other recent college grads I ended up living with in Boston during a yearlong tutoring residency.

“Holy shit! Dylan!” I said, hugging the same football shoulders I sat behind in Honor’s Spanish four moves and six years ago. “Remember me?” I asked, immediately wishing I had re-phrased the question.

I was out of my element. Philadelphia Kym, the one with a penchant for blowing coke in bathroom stalls and dropping acid or x on the weekend, hadn’t existed since I left eleventh grade. When I move, I shed personalities like a snake, picking up one with less baggage as I cross the next state’s lines. I have never worried about my reputation, or the consequences of my actions because I could always leave. Where my peers were fettered with their pasts, I was free.

And yet there was someone from my past to remind me that the world was not as infinite as I thought, that my actions in high school could influence relationships with future coworkers, that I could never fully live without regrets.

Dylan’s blue eyes narrowed under a mop of ginger waves. He smiled, uneasily showing still-crooked teeth. “Yeah, I remember.”

It took self-control not to ask: how much? But I’ve learned I fare better with statements than I do with questions.

“What place was your favorite?” asks someone with thickly batting eyelashes. It’s the ubiquitous female question; girls want to know how their hometowns stack up against the rest of America, the rest of the world, as if I possessed the authority to rank these places.

I answer the opposite, evading the pouting mouth’s desire for geographic fidelity. “I hated Boston; it snowed from October to May and the people kind of suck. Amarillo was pretty awful, too. I mean, it was the panhandle of Texas and smelled like cow shit when the wind blew from the South, which was about half of the time.”

This is a rehearsed answer and varies little in diction or intonation. It comes out of my mouth before hers has stopped moving, a question I can anticipate, like the non-gendered: “Why do you move around so much?”

I sigh at this point of the conversation, controlling myself against the defensive retaliation I feel building at the base of my neck: why don’t you?

Instead, I breathe deeply to get out the short version. “My dad works for Boeing selling airplanes to different militaries, so we moved whenever he got a promotion.”

I move on.

A longer version: a whirlwind of chaotic, half-nonsense narratives against the backdrop of a middle class family, whose stay-at-home Catholic matriarch had to raise six feral children.

The real answer: I don’t know.

I never questioned my parents’ choice to buy houses the way other families leased cars. Even as a child, I knew that moving was our narrative. I never decorated the rooms I lived in because they were not my rooms, as the houses I lived in were not my homes. Every house felt like a prolonged rest stop, a motel on our way to somewhere else.

When I moved to San José, my roommate was disgusted at the institutional whiteness of the fake stucco inside our new apartment. I barely noticed.

“It looks like a prison in here,” she said, wrinkling her freckled nose. I nodded as though I understood. “I can’t believe they won’t let us paint even one of the walls.”

I shrugged my shoulders when she turned away.

I accompanied her to Cost Plus and Ikea to look for curtains and furniture for our barren living room. “What about this color?” She asked, caressing thin linen the hue of Mesa sage after the yearly rain.

“Sure. It looks nice,” I replied in the same tone I used to imply empathy after she told me that her parents had sold her childhood home.

“Jesus Christ, Kym! You have to have some kind of opinion,” she chastised after the color of our future futon elicited the same response.

Normal people decorate their rooms, I thought. We spent a hundred dollars on Salvador Dali posters to accompany the new charcoal futon. Our Wall of Dali, or Wall-I, I laughed to myself, hanging up my most expensive décor project to date.

Now, my partner gifts silk-screen printings from his father’s photography studio to hang in my apartment. Instead of waiting for me to put them up, Ernest brings a nail and hammer to accompany his presents. “Here,” I say, arbitrarily pointing at empty wall space, smashing his portraits of Shakespeare and mountain sunsets up against robot cartoons.

He smiles, teeth delightfully crooked, having long since understood my aesthetics to be as erratic as my moods. It’s as difficult for me to be consistent as it is for me to control spaces I know aren’t mine in the first place.

“What do you need for your birthday?” My mom asks over the phone.

I anxiously look around my room. Clothes spill out of drawers onto the floor, assortments of climbing shoes, ballet flats, and motorcycle boots collect in corners, papers and essays amass dust on wire bookshelves and in cardboard boxes, pennies sit on my windowsill, two quarters and a nickel stick to my bedside table. But the mess does not bother me; it comforts me, it seems a natural extension of my own contradictions.

Rather, it is the thought of moving all of this nonsense that infuriates me, that makes me tear through my belongings every month for a sweatshirt I can sell to a thrift store or useless jewelry I can pawn. The thought of not being able to grab a few boxes, pack a few suitcases, and go leaves me trembling over roots I didn’t know I was planting.

“I don’t need anything, Mom,” I say, forcing my voice to relay humor in place of anxiety. “I have too much shit as it is.” I think of my motorcycle, and how I’ll need a U-Haul to move it along with my car, and I press my calloused fingers against the bridge of my nose to lessen the thrumming of my brain.

She laughs. “Look, I know you love this minimalist lifestyle. But really, having more than one pair of sneakers isn’t the end of the world.”

“Why would I need sneakers? I don’t run,” I reply, rummaging through my shoe corners for any pairs I haven’t worn within the past month.

“You know what I mean,” she says, more amused at my obtuse response than irritated. “It wouldn’t kill you to have some nice things.”

My mother never forbade me from decorating; in fact, I’m fairly certain she viewed my residential apathy as more worrisome than anything else. She would spend weeks planning the artistic layout of each room, waiting until my father returned from a three-day or two-week business trip to painstakingly organize, level, and hang each family portrait or school photo or incongruous art installation.

In each house, she set up her collection of Arabia glass sculptures, finding new whitewashed niches and oak mantles to accentuate their Finnish blue. After an icon painting class in Finland, she began collecting richly colored, gold-sheathed wood squares of her patron saint or the Virgin Mary. In each new house, my mother had to find a new space of worship for these holy relics, spending hours praying over the perfect burgundy wall or wooden fireplace to appropriately accentuate their sanctity.

Two or three years later, she would pack them away, folding them in brown recycled paper and bubble wrap, gently placing them in boxes caustically marked, FRAGILE; THIS WAY UP, in black Sharpie on five sides. She does not trust hired movers to understand the delicacy of her past.

My eldest brother, Chris, shares my mother’s accumulated identity. Each piece of art on the walls of his neat SOMA apartment reflects his affinities: a wooden plaque of St. Christopher coiled in bronze snakes, a Carnival mask and a Real Madrid fútbol scarf from his semester abroad. For my brother, every decoration is a narrative, a root snaking its way deep into the earth, something he can hold onto if he slips and falls.

Chris files friends the way I file smells: he travels to Chicago and Frankfurt to hang out with college buddies and old exchange students. Even my closest friends fade into memory, shades of people I once knew or will meet again, each new acquaintance an amalgamation of the past.

In spite of our differences, we both must face the inevitable question: “Where are you from?” We have learned not to dread this question, simply by answering in half-truths.

“Long Beach,” Chris answers without pause—his birthplace, where he lived for no more than two years.

“Nowhere,” I say with a flatness that makes people stare. Or, “Zimbabwe,” I lie, not caring if I get caught. The lie isn’t even mine; it’s a lie I stole from my older sister, Jeanette.

“Oh god, I hated it when drunk frat guys would try to hit on me at parties,” Jeanette declared over mojitos at a bar in Austin. “It always starts the same: where are you from, as though that question is the end-all be-all of identifiers. It’s like, first off, I don’t even want to talk to you, and second, I know you don’t actually give a shit about my life story; you just want to get into my pants. Not going to happen.” She paused, pale thin fingers swirling the black straw in her cylindrical glass. “So I tell them Zimbabwe.”

She shrugged flippantly and hunkered down into the cool fizz of minted seltzer and spiced rum. “At least now that I’m an adult I’m no longer subjected to the Zoo Animal Syndrome of being the new kid in school.”

In grade school, I reveled in the stares that being ‘the new kid’ elicited. The fourth child of six kids, I basked in attention, too young to differentiate between curiosity and genuine interest. My experiences were too myopic to realize that I was being asked the same questions, that I was giving the same answers. Instead, I was entertained by how original I appeared to my peers. They didn’t realize that I had appropriated words like rad and actually from Jeanette or that my other older brother, Russ, was behind my penchant for dark clothes and piercings.

“Say the word, ‘room,’” friends in middle school asked me, exaggerating the vowels in the middle.

“Roooom,” I tried not to laugh at their earnestness.

“Good. Now say, ‘I went to my room.”’

I smiled, truncating words in my own personal joke. “I went to my rum,” I said, and watched their hands fly up in exasperation. I didn’t understand why my pronunciation was the subject of so much attention, just as I didn’t understand where “my accent” came from in the first place. But it made people pay attention to me; it made me special so I allowed friends to try to teach me the right way to speak.

The novelty began to wear off in high school, after a boyfriend’s younger sister noticed, her eyes round as globes: “You’re not from around here, are you?” Then in Amarillo and Boston, even in San Diego, the observation shifted: “You don’t belong here,” they would say in drawls or nasal tones or valley-girl inflections. I shrugged, not bothering to ask them where I did belong.

This sense of belonging—the desire for some sort of geological foundation—is why Chris’ answer, “Long Beach,” is both true and untrue. It shows more about his character than he would like to admit.

I remember when I visited Chris in Chicago shortly after I graduated from college. He woke me up at 8am to go watch fútbol in a wood-covered bar. The yeasty smell of beer made last night’s rum turn in my stomach as I choked down cheese-covered tortilla chips, miserable, a headache thrumming in the back of my skull. Why the fuck are we here? I thought, shrinking back into the booth as the bar erupted with: “GOOOOOOOAAAAALLLLLLL!”

I looked at Chris, his angular face shining with equal parts excitement and perspiration. He hugged a few friends, clapped some strangers on their backs, jumped up and down with a topaz pint raised above his head. He belonged in this dank, musty bar lit exclusively by television screens. He belonged in this city of industrial metal and congruous, flattened skies.

But he didn’t stay: he left the home he made in Chicago for Cleveland, a place that was never home. Two years later, he moved to San Francisco, a city he resents for not being Chicago. He works on a California visa; his heart beats, chokingly, awaiting his return to his chosen home.

I, too, am waiting. The night before my partner left to attend grad school at UC-Irvine, we lay in my too-small double bed, silent after weeks of conversation. We had been talking about everything—our childhoods, people we hated, embarrassing adolescent sexual experiences—anything to make up for the void we knew was coming. My vocal chords are stretched almost to breaking; I press my face against his armpit’s black coils. His eyes are glazed, staring my ceiling into abstraction. I close my eyes, breathing in the smell of black soap on warm skin and Old Spice deodorant.

Picture-smells flood my brain: birch trees and snowfall and exposed wooden beams, reflective lakes and worn stone buildings, the wind over warmed deserts. Too many to catalogue, too quick to understand, the hallucination is over as quickly as it began.

But it sears a word, etched in light, in the back of my throat.

Home.

 


Kym Cunningham will receive her MFA from San Jose State University with emphases in creative nonfiction and poetry. She is the lead Nonfiction Editor of Reed Magazine, the oldest literary magazine West of the Mississippi. She received the Ida Fay Sachs Ludwig Memorial Scholarship and the Academy of American Poets Prize for outstanding achievement in her writing. Her writing has been published in Drunk Monkeys and Reed.

Ethereal Girls

I understood—instinctively, if not denotatively—the word ethereal before I stumbled across its definition during junior-year SAT prep. Ethereal: extremely delicate and light in a way that seems too perfect for this world. Ethereal: it’s the silver ribbon of sound that threads the air when Elise reads her lines for Pandora’s Box; the twist of Lauren’s hair in its ballerina bun; the cowlick in Meghan’s hair, the one that sets off her heart-shaped face like a shower of sparks. Ethereal is the China-doll skin of Emily’s neck when she bends over her algebra homework and the thrill of my sister’s Clinique Happy perfume. You call a girl ethereal when her eyelashes dust her brows, the way Julie’s do, or when a glance at Ella’s limbs makes you think of willow trees.

All my girlhood, I wanted to be ethereal. I wanted that watermark—that one perfect freckle, that dainty wrist-flick, that je ne sais quoi so many girls wear like pearls—as much as I wanted to be loved by the girls who had it. I thought of Carrie Ann’s cerulean eyes and Raquel’s electrifying laugh and wanted to cup that beauty in my palms like a lightning bug. Long before I knew I loved girls in a romantic way, I knew I loved them in an important way. The way that I loved the smell of changing leaves, or the crunch of a perfect Honeycrisp, or taking that big breath before blowing out the candles on my birthday cake. The way that I longed to love myself.

One day in second grade, I stumbled across a white hardback book in the nonfiction section of the library. Witches & Magic-Makers, the cover hollered in red block-script. Beneath the title stood a robed man with a long white beard, one hand contorted in a wizardly way, the other holding open a spellbook. Beside him were a cauldron, a broomstick, and a black cat. The book, chock-full of incantations and potions, was my custom-made birthday present from the universe. It was my chance to bid adieu to the piddling magic of Sabrina and Harry Potter and enter the clandestine, cobwebby portal to real magic.

Brimming with anticipation, I dimmed the lights in my bedroom and hunkered down cross-legged on the carpet. After hours of painstaking indecision, I decided that the first potion I’d attempt would be “Aromatic Magic.” The book hailed it as an old favorite for attracting love, and I had a lover lodged firmly in mind. Scott Nichols was the most popular boy in Mrs. Roberts’ class— he beat all the boys in gym class, no matter the game. And he had gelled hair that gleamed under the fluorescent classroom lights. Plus, with Scott Nichols as my boyfriend, I’d automatically be the most popular girl in class.

I followed the book’s instructions as well as I could: I gathered sage, rosemary, and thyme (all McCormick’s brand, all pilfered from the kitchen cabinet) and dumped them in a green plastic bucket (after all, I didn’t have a “satchet bag” in which to keep my herbs) and sloshed in a few cups of water (the instructions didn’t call for water, but how, I reasoned, could a potion be dry?) and stirred the mixture with my mother’s best wooden ladle. I didn’t have bergamot oil to drop into the potion every seven days, and I couldn’t very well keep the bucket under my pillow or next to my skin, the way the instructions said to, so I just sat it under a pine tree in the backyard and hoped for the best.

Days blurred into weeks as I waited for Scott Nichols to realize his dying love for me. I figured it must be buried way down deep in his heart—it had to be, since it was taking him so long to find it. (Sixteen years later, he still hasn’t discovered it.) I waited for Scott Nichols all autumn, and all throughout the slush of winter, and then I unclenched my hopes and let them stagger away. When I rediscovered my green bucket the following year, it was brimful with rainwater and speckled with mud. I dumped it out lest the standing water attract mosquitoes.

So Witches & Magic-Makers wasn’t my key to ethereality—fine. I turned to my imagination for magic, certain that if the ever-so-wise narrator of Matilda was to be believed, we only use a tiny portion of our brains. If I could break out of that tininess, I knew I could be as powerful—maybe more powerful—than my hero, Matilda. All it’d take was focus.

My best friend, Nadia, became the tortured bystander to my quest to ethereality. First, I told Nadia that I had the rare and marvelous ability to see invisible people. In fact, certain people could actually choose to become invisible, and they liked to hang out with me. Aaron Carter was one such person. After a few days of meeting Aaron on the playground during recess, I confessed to Nadia that he’d asked me to be his girlfriend.

“There he is,” I’d whisper, pressing my palm against the window of our second-floor classroom. “Don’t you see him? On the jungle gym? He’s waiting for me.”

Nadia, bless her soul, always kept a straight face when she said that, no, she couldn’t see Aaron, but boy did she wish she could. And I would sigh and smile—with only a modicum of smugness—and tell her that if she focused, she could develop my special powers, too. It’s a testament to our BFF-ship that we kept up the Alaina’s-seeing-invisible-boyfriends ruse for months.

Eventually, though, Aaron and his antics grew stale. When winter suffocated our town, leaving the playground patched in frost and mud and the sky the color of stainless steel, I knew Nadia and I needed an extra dose of magic in our lives. So, one recess, I led Nadia under the big oak tree in the corner of the schoolyard and told her I had a secret.

“This tree,” I said solemnly, placing one ungloved hand on the cold trunk, “is the Tree of Life. It’s the portal to another world.”

How Nadia didn’t roll her eyes, I’ll never know.

“Place your hand on it like this,” I said, nodding at her, my eyes wide. I waited until she complied.

“All right, now, close your eyes.”

When we opened our eyes, we were in an alternate universe. Yes, everything looked the same, but it wasn’t: the skies were grayer, the air was more billowy, and we were witches. We could control the weather and cast spells that our classmates couldn’t see and wage wars against invisible monsters. We adventured over the barren, windy hills, pretending to be battered by storms no one else could sense, and we cast away demons that swooped down from the clouds and banished rival witches who lurked in the woods. We tried to topple power lines via telekinesis so our school would get an early dismissal. We avoided ice because it was infested with Blizzaks (which were, incidentally, the name of my dad’s snow tires, but Nadia didn’t need to know that)—shape-shifting black demons that would rise out of the ice and devour us.

But eventually being witches got boring. Spring came and suddenly the playground didn’t seem the least bit eerie or enchanted. The grass was thickening and the birds were returning and everything looked depressingly suburban, depressingly normal.

And then I happened upon the book Ella Enchanted, and my sense of magic was renewed. I hurried to find Nadia.

“Nads,” I squealed, “I have a secret! But you can’t tell anyone.”

Nadia, now older and wiser, raised her eyebrows.

“I’m cursed.” I waited for this confession to trigger an avalanche of emotion on Nadia’s part. After a few moments of her non-reaction, I forged ahead. “I have to obey any command anyone gives me. Like, if someone told me to do a…a backflip, I’d have to do it.”

Nadia’s mouth hardened into a flat line. “Then do a backflip,” she said in a monotone.

My heart stalled.

“What?” I blinked at my best friend. “Here? You’re really gonna make me do that here?”

Nadia nodded. “Yup. Right here. Do it now.”

I dropped my eyes to my laminated desk. I didn’t do the backflip, and I never brought up my “curse” ever again.

But my nagging need to be ethereal, like a stomachache that wouldn’t go away, sat with me through all of my schooling years. My vision of ethereal changed from wielding magical powers to simply having clear skin and fitting into a size four at American Eagle. Ethereal meant observing and obeying the social order. It meant watching the track team’s sprinters shoot around the track like the arm of a human Ferris wheel and admiring the girls’ chiseled stomachs and metallic bras and taking notes on how to be more them and less me.

I realized I would never be as enchanted with myself as I was with the girls around me, and for the first time in my life I felt truly cursed. Why did I have to be a laundry list of flaws and shortcomings? And why was I so blah, so me, when every other girl got to be silhouetted with starshine, dappled with charisma, candied with the scent of September?

I brooded through the beginning of my college years, hawk-eyeing other girls’ bodies—always better than mine, scrutinizing their personalities—always more bubbly than mine, and festering in self-pity. My therapist attributed my fascination with other girls to low self-esteem, and I figured that since she had three diplomas, she must be right. So I kept pining after the girls around me, now not only adoring their bodies and minds and hearts but also their well-developed self-esteem, and I resigned myself to a life of miserable adoration.

And then, fast as casting a spell, I was stolen from my sorry world and dropped into what felt like an alternate universe. The magical ending came when I was sitting at a laminated desk, eyes down, trying not to look as inferior as I felt—a girl walked in and showed me a magic I couldn’t ignore. I looked at her and I thought: oh. She answered questions I hadn’t realized I’d posed.

What separated this girl from Elise and Lauren and Meghan and Emily and Julie and every other girl who’d ever sent shockwaves through my soul? Nothing. Everything. She wasn’t as pretty as Emily or as lithe as Lauren or as sweet as Meghan. To be honest, she wasn’t pretty or lithe or sweet at all, and yet one glance at her confirmed that my life was rewriting itself.

You see, this girl was openly queer.

Just by existing she showed me how to locate my own ethereality. She didn’t come from ivory-sidewalked suburbs where the biggest scandal around involved which families had skipped Easter service or whose parents were considering divorce. She didn’t shop at Hollister or Abercrombie in meek deference to her better-liked peers. She had short hair and look-at-me biceps and a smile that made my insides feel like a bottle of champagne just uncorked. Truthfully, I knew nothing concrete about this girl, didn’t know if she’d break my heart or remake it, but I wanted to find out. I wanted her magic, but mostly I wanted her. And I dared to wonder if she might want me back.

If there is anything ethereal about me, it’s my queerness, it’s my ability to see a brown-haired girl and suddenly understand the definition of sacred, it’s the way I can read a map of the stars in my girlfriend’s fingerprints. I will never be as enchanted with myself as I am with the girls around me, but I will always be enchanted by the way my girlfriend’s lips undo me and remake me in the same kiss. And maybe I’ll never master telekinesis or harness the wind or concoct a potion, and maybe that’s okay. Maybe those aren’t the brands of magic I was missing, or was wanting, at all.


Alaina Symanovich is an MFA student at Florida State University with a concentration in creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Sonora Review, Entropy, The Offbeat, Fogged Clarity, and other journals. Damaged Goods Press recently published her book of poems titled “Fortune.”

Golden Shower

The love letters awaited me in the thin aluminum box of apartment #2 at the Idalia, a brick, pre-WWII apartment building spangled with ivy. I’d ridden the city bus home from my university. The Ninja woman was on my bus that day. My ex-boyfriend called her that because she wore black windbreakers with black sweatpants and because, supposedly, she never made a sound. I assumed she was homeless because she reeked of urine.

The edges of the envelope were marked with red and blue triangles, like used-car lot bunting. On the front, black fountain pen looped in Palmer-method cursive. I took it to my living room where, through the age-bubbled windows, I heard the heavy traffic on Dodge Street, the central artery through Omaha. In 2003 the letter seemed unreal, a prop out of someone else’s life movie, but then so did its sender. He was an old crush, a soldier in Iraq who’d looked me up a month before when he was on leave.

I’d met him three years before when we had both waited tables at Chili’s, where I fantasized about him in vain, for he was engaged. After I moved on to a better restaurant, we fell out of touch. Two years later, in early January, he called me out of the blue to say he was on leave and wanted to see me. When Joshua arrived at my apartment later that afternoon, the first thing he said was, “Oh my god, look at you!”

“What?”

“You’re gorgeous. I didn’t expect you to look this hot.”

Since he’d last seen me I’d gone from a size 16 to an 8. I’d stopped eating meat and had been subsisting on diet Coke, Power Bars, and cigarettes.

Apart from his close-cropped hair and a deep desert tan, Joshua looked unchanged, so it wasn’t hard to remember why I’d been so attracted to him a few years earlier. His deep brown eyes conveyed both sincerity and shyness. He smiled with his whole face. Dimples dented his cheeks, one next to a small mole that I had an impulse to kiss.

We spent that afternoon sitting on my ugly green-velvet couch, drinking Bud Light and smoking Marlboros. He said war was boring and terrifying at the same time. He told me about his fiancé, Mandy, “Dear John-ing” him.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about you when I was over there,” Joshua said. “That’s why I had to find you. I can’t believe how lucky I am you’re single.” Twenty-two years old, insecure, and recently dumped, I found Joshua’s confession flattering.

 

Joshua’s letters from Iraq were usually only a page or two, and they alternated between small talk and bedroom talk. Even before I broke the seal of this latest envelope, I smelled the cologne he had doused the letter in. The stationery crackled, but instead of the usual blue onion-skin, I felt something smooth and glossy—a folded sheet of slick magazine paper.

I unfolded the magazine page and saw, in full-color, a naked woman squatting on the edge of a galvanized sink. She gazed into the camera with a look of defiance, mouth parted so her lolling pink tongue showed. Her open, ravenous mouth made her look as if she couldn’t wait to lick or suck the next thing those eyes met. Her gaze, made up of silver eye shadow and thick kohl rimmed eyes, seemed threatening. The aggression, which I couldn’t imagine displaying in the bedroom, embarrassed me. Her pubic hair didn’t exist. With one hand she balanced herself on the sink counter. The first two fingers of the other splayed her labia wide as she aimed a golden arch of urine into the metal sink.

This wasn’t the first time I’d seen pornography. About a year before this, my older brother and I got drunk together, and he handed me one of his skin magazines. “Have you ever seen porn before?” I shook my head. “You need to see this so that you know what guys get off on,” he said with his typical big-brother condescension. Not wanting him to think me naïve, I flipped open the Hustler he’d handed me. I had never seen a woman’s naked body like that before: oiled down until the skin looked plastic, boob jobs so fake they reminded me of a cartoon—perfect spheres like beach balls. How unreal. How unnatural. The longer I looked, the more the photographs struck me as absurd rather than obscene. One woman donned a pink negligee with feather trim that looked like one of Jim Henson’s Muppets. I tried to imagine a man being seduced by such a getup. This is what men want in the bedroom? This is sexy? I couldn’t imagine my brother or anyone getting off on such images, yet wasn’t that what these magazines were for?

As I held the photo of the woman peeing, many thoughts raced through my mind: This is a thing? Did Joshua masturbate to this? Does he want me to pee on him?

I folded the magazine page, slipped it back in the envelope, and put it in the shoebox in the closet with the other letters. For the rest of that day I thought about it, as I drove to work, as I polished silverware and folded napkins, and as I bussed and reset tables. The more I thought about it, the more it revolted me.

I thought about other urinous encounters in my life—always with the very young, the very old, or the homeless: the least sexy people in the world. There was Bradley, the potty-training three year old I babysat for a summer when I was a teenager. Bradley woke up drenched in pee-soaked sheets. I stripped the bed, balling up the dry parts of the sheets around the sodden spots so as not to touch them. By the end of the summer, after many hot water washes, his Thomas the Tank Engine sheets had faded to gray.

That wasn’t so bad compared to Grandpa Harvey. He dribbled and had poor aim, so his bathroom reeked of ammonia-laced urine. On visits to Grandma and Grandpa’s, I held my pee until it felt like my bladder would explode to avoid using that bathroom. Grandma decorated it—rather appropriately (but certainly unintentionally)—in yellowish-gold colors. The height of 70s fashion, the plush carpet was a thick ochre. The wallpaper was dark amber with gold flecks. The rank smell saturated that rug. The sticky, padded toilet seat compounded my disgust. On those rare brave times when I actually sat on that seat, it wheezed out a thin fart of plastic air. Mostly I hovered over the toilet, feet wide apart, trying not to step on the urine soaked carpeting. My peeing stance wasn’t unlike Joshua’s porn girl. My facial expression, however, was probably more like those of the white-plastic fish hanging on the facing wall. Nose wrinkled and lips puckered.

 

My disgust with urine wasn’t unique. In 1872 in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin noted that disgust is a universal emotion, experienced by all people regardless of culture. All human beings recoil from the disgusting with the same expression: lips puckered into a sneer, nose wrinkled and eyes narrowed to a squint—a literal retracting of nose and eyes and mouth from that deemed revolting. But the displeasure goes further. It isn’t just the physically revolting that causes such a grimace—things like the smell of putrefaction that arouse our fear of contamination—but those associated with such smells who become stigmatized.

Case in point: the Ninja woman. I encountered her often on the number 5 bus from my apartment to campus. She looked like she was in her late sixties, with greasy, gray hair pulled back in a tangled ponytail, wrinkles etched over gaunt sunken cheeks, frail shoulders hunched. When she got on the bus, I tried not to make eye contact, hoping she wouldn’t sit near me because her rank odor made me gag.

She was Midtown Omaha’s urban legend. One friend at my favorite coffee shop believed she roamed the streets in grief because her husband had been murdered. Another friend, Brandon, painted a series of portraits for a show at the same coffee shop. Among his paintings was a triptych. The left panel was a portrait of the Ninja woman, dressed in widow’s black, her oil-rendered face looking especially desiccated. The right panel was a portrait of his girlfriend in her underwear, her wrists bound in black leather. Flanked by these subjects—one overtly erotic, the other as overtly unsexy, against a similar background of chalky pastel—was a self-portrait of the artist in full-frontal nudity. There were other paintings on display, but the only one he sold looked like porn, which he’d titled “Girlfriend Bondage.”

 

That afternoon back in January, Joshua smelled like aftershave and leather. That’s when I knew I had to have sex with him. In a few days he’d be deployed back to Iraq, to a desert convoy where at any moment an IED could explode. Though we didn’t say it, we knew this might be our only chance to act on our mutual attraction. It’s so simple, I thought, to give him this. I’d show this soldier a good time. It was my patriotic duty.

The next day, after dinner and drinks, we made out on the couch. I slipped my finger under his waistband and was going for his zipper when he stopped me. In the softest whisper he said, “I have to tell you something.” He could barely choke out the word “uncircumcised.” Foreskin was new to me. I was grateful for the disclosure. How charming, his bashfulness.

Before he went back to Iraq, we had sex a handful of times. Our romps in the bedroom weren’t earth-shattering. He was surprisingly inexperienced. I was only his third lover. We’ll get better with practice. Only there wasn’t time to practice.

 

After he was gone, every three or four days, he’d manage a phone call. His phone calls woke me at 5:00 a.m. because of the time difference. Once, he asked me to masturbate for him. I had to fake it. Without being able to see him, I couldn’t muster up enough desire. The next time we talked, I expected he’d ask me what I thought about the porn magazine clipping. Maybe he’d use it as a way to talk about his fantasies, to describe what he wanted to do when he came home. He never mentioned it, and I was too afraid to bring it up myself.

He talked about other pictures, the ones of me he’d asked for and just gotten in the mail. Even though I had the vague notion he’d masturbate to the images of me, I didn’t send pinups. If I had been braver, more comfortable with my sexuality, or in possession of a digital camera, maybe I would I have sent him something risqué. He told me I looked sexy and beautiful, even though I was fully clothed. He said he couldn’t wait to be with me again. I thought about “The Things They Carried,” by Tim O’Brien. During the Vietnam War, the protagonist, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, carried pictures and letters from a girl back home. It was a one-sided love affair. She never returned his affections. When I first read the story, Martha’s prudishness angered me. It surprised me that in the face of war, Jimmy’s deepest act of cowardice was failing to put a move on Martha. Recalling a date that ended with a reserved goodnight kiss, he tells us, “Right then, I should’ve done something brave. I should’ve carried her up the stairs to her room and tied her to the bed….I should have risked it.”

Between correspondences I scoured the newspaper for war coverage and monitored the death tally. I thought about the video Joshua had sent me. He faces the camera, narrating the site near their camp where his unit engaged in live combat the night before, the place where he could have been shot and killed. I imagined him riding through the desert, perched on a Humvee with a rifle. Maybe he carried my picture in his helmet, like Lt. Cross had in Vietnam.

I thought about sex, too. The photo of the pissing woman brought up other times I’d felt sexual disgust. I remembered my first French kiss, the shock of my boyfriend’s slimy tongue, the musky smell of his saliva. I read Freud, who believed desire couldn’t exist without disgust. Any sexually intimate contact is rife with it. Overcoming this disgust is often what gives sex its thrill.

In The Anatomy of Disgust, William Ian Miller concludes that “consensual sex means the mutual transgression of disgust-defended boundaries.” We are disgusted enough by another person’s body and its attendant smells and fluids that even as we lick, suck, and penetrate, the thrill of the illicit remains incredibly powerful. In this set up, lovers become permission givers and transgressors. Miller argues the more stimulating role to play is that of permission giver because authorizing transgression suspends the disgust rule first (and is therefore the more blatant violation of purity and decency). If Miller is right, it is sexier to let yourself be peed on than to do the peeing.

The picture Joshua sent was presumably sexy because it let the viewer imagine himself as permission giver. At its deepest level, sexual intimacy occurs when both partners mutually play transgressor and permission granter. That way, according to Miller, “Both partners get the same disgust-related thrills and offend the gods of purity equally—a pure feast of misrule.”

If a boundary is crossed without permission, coerced, or if that taboo is breached by a stranger in passing, it provokes disgust. Those that are too young, mentally impaired, or unstable are not in a position to grant consent; therefore, the people that I associated with urine weren’t sexy. Any transgression of their boundaries would be pedophilia or rape.

 

In February, Joshua’s deployment ended. The thought made me queasy. I couldn’t tell if the butterflies in my stomach were the result of horny anticipation or anxiety over what he might expect of me. He’d been living in Denver before his deployment but was relocating to Omaha after his two-weeks of debriefing in Colorado so he could be with me. When he arrived stateside, I drove seven hours from Omaha to meet him in Denver. We spent the weekend in a hotel. I’d bought some sexy lingerie, a lacy burgundy set. I’d even convinced myself that if we did it in the shower maybe peeing might not be that bad.

* * *

I parked my Geo Metro alongside the barracks, a cinderblock building painted seafoam green. Joshua was out front waiting for me, still clad in fatigues. He met me at my car and hugged me. When he smiled, I felt weak, incapable of saying “no.” That feeling was fleeting, since after loading his duffle bag into my hatchback, he ran back inside, returning with a dozen hideous roses. The cotton-candy pink buds vied for attention with a tangle of baby’s breath in a plastic vase. I knew I should be grateful at Joshua’s attempt at romance. Coming up with a dozen fresh roses on an Army base in Colorado in the dead of winter couldn’t have been easy. Yet it felt tawdry. I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that the roses were intended as payment for sexual favors. They made me think of my dead grandmother and the roses at her funeral.

After checking into the hotel we went to dinner at a pho restaurant in a nearby strip mall. Back in our room, I undressed, revealing my lingerie. Joshua loved it. That was the highlight of my evening; the lovemaking that followed disappointed. Joshua was slow, cautious, and favored the missionary position. As I lay under his monotonous thrusts, my dread of being forced into something kinky was replaced by boredom. Hoping to get it over with, I faked an orgasm.

We woke at 4:30 the next morning. I drove Joshua back to base for his drills, and then returned to the hotel to catch a few more hours of sleep. At seven I woke feeling disoriented. My stomach was raw with anxiety. Maybe being with Joshua was a terrible mistake. At the continental breakfast, I choked down half of a bland bagel. I saw no other choice but to finish out the weekend until I figured out what to do. After what he’d been through in Iraq, I didn’t want to hurt him. He’d already put a deposit down for an apartment in Omaha. I knew it’d take him time to readjust to civilian life, so I should be patient. Joshua was a nice guy and clearly adored me. Still I couldn’t shake the feeling that our sexual chemistry would remain stagnant no matter how much we practiced. I’d spent so much time worrying about what was expected of me sexually, I’d forgotten I could have expectations of my own.

By the last day at the hotel, the roses had browned. The water in the vase smelled swampish. Desiccated petals littered the desk. The flower heads hung limp as if bored and exhausted. I wondered if Joshua was just too shy to tell me what he really wanted. I wanted to ask about the letters, but I felt too embarrassed, so instead I suggested we take a shower together. He didn’t take the hint. As he chastely soaped my back, I realized some part of me wanted to feel violated, had come to yearn for it. I wanted Joshua to cross some line. To risk it. It would turn me on. But he didn’t. We soaped and rinsed. Still, I had a glimmer of hope that Joshua and I would somehow connect physically.

Two weeks later, Joshua arrived in Omaha. He sat in my apartment eating a slice of apple pie he had asked me to bake for him. He mentioned the letters for the first time.

“Did you like them?” he asked.

“Well, I was a bit surprised by, you know, the picture.”

“What picture? What are you talking about?”

“The porn.”

He said he didn’t know what I was talking about. I went to the hall closet where I had stuffed the shoebox of his letters. He was shocked when I pulled out the picture.

“The guys in my unit must have pranked me.” Red-faced, he shoved the picture back in its envelope.

“Do you think that’s sexy?” I asked, curious, but cautious.

“No!”

“So you wouldn’t ever want to try something like that?”

“No. I don’t want to talk about it.”

I looked down at the pie on the table between us. Now I was actually disappointed that he hadn’t been the one sending me pornography. I wanted a deeper, more disgusting connection with him, but we couldn’t transgress past that boundary. There was nothing unruly about our fucking. I’d tell Joshua we were through, but first, I sought the comfort of a long, hot shower.

In the shower, I started masturbating, and as soon as a came, I started crying. I realized that sexual passion was more important to me in a relationship than I had thought. I wasn’t going to settle for bland sex. I’d believed Joshua’s handsomeness and chivalrous nature was sexy, but it wasn’t. I wanted to have sex with someone imaginative in bed. We weren’t going to solve this problem by just trying harder. It wasn’t something I could force.

As I lathered my skin I played the scene in my head: Joshua sitting on the green couch as I told him we were over. The crushed look on his face. An angry door slam on his way out. I lingered in the shower long enough that I needed to pee. I released a scentless stream on the white porcelain between my feet. It was as pale as the water it mixed with and quickly washed down the drain.

As I stepped out of the shower and toweled dry, I smelled of peppermint castile soap. And my skin, flushed pink from steam and scrubbing, felt scalded, purified.

______________________________________________

Sarah K. Lenz has had nonfiction published in New Letters, Colorado Review, South Dakota Review, The Fourth River and elsewhere. Twice her work has been named notable in Best American Essays.

 

Eat

I ordered food I could not eat.

I sat across from him and thought I might throw up or pass out and either way the bathroom was probably the best place to be. Not in the booth of the greasy hipster diner, its cushions partially eviscerated, foam distending from the red vinyl there beside his foot. Which was next to my leg, bobbing slightly to some blithe cadence only he could hear. And why now?

 

I ordered food I could not eat.

He ordered chicken and waffles, maybe because I was paying.

He stripped the chicken from the bone, bits left there along the corner of his mouth, an imperfect but confident method, like he’d ordered this before, like it was his favorite dish. I did not know these kinds of things. He hardly ever agreed to meet me out at places that weren’t

  1. the same corner of the regular bar
  2. his car, front seat bent way back
  3. the arm of the couch in his living room, the one away from the confines of the wall
  4. his bed but never under the covers. It was okay by me, though, I mean I don’t like to overstay my welcome.

 

In the diner, he poured gravy on the waffles, then the syrup. He smeared the viscous mess around with the back of his fork. James leaned over his food, his lanky elbows jutting out like carats emphasizing a word, like hyperlinks. Like he was keeping something invisible away from the $14.99 meal he was getting for free.

 

You should eat your food, he said through full cheeks. He gestured toward my plate with the loaded tip of his fork. Why don’t you eat?

 

I stared at the careful pomade-bolstered wave cresting gently up from the widow’s peak of his hairline. He’d dated a hairdresser once, he knew how to make it lay right. He wore a scruffy hoodie to offset the appearance of vanity. He had sloe gin eyes that acted like an opiate drip against my better leanings.

 

I can’t right now, I said.

 

I settled an apologetic gaze on the BLT. Halved and untouched: a perfect cross section of tomato, mayonnaise, crisp rivulets of bacon, and tiny frill of lettuce. The diner’s pride and joy. It looked like food in a photograph and James was saying things that weren’t bitingly sarcastic. That sandwich was a beautiful thing and I didn’t have the right to leave it uneaten. I couldn’t even afford it. I couldn’t really afford any of this. You can’t really eat a BLT later on.

 

If I was being honest I’d have said I ordered food I cannot eat and then maybe a real conversation could have happened. The unthinkable.

 

I could have told him that I was the kind of woman who couldn’t stomach food when things in her life were out of place. And things inside the diner were bending toward unrecognizable. I could have pointed to the metronome of his foot wagging like a dog with a full belly. Or the simple directive of his conversation, mellifluous in its lack of sarcasm. Or the proximity of our bodies, here, in the diner, on a regular date like regular people who didn’t just meet to booze and strip. I could have said I cannot eat because kindness that can appear and vaporize again just as quickly is not to be trusted. I could have told him that this confusion had folded my stomach up tighter than a court summons. I could barely inhale let alone ferry a utensil toward my mouth.

 

I did not say these things. I can’t right now.

 

He seemed satisfied or uninterested in my answer, of course he was. But we were sitting here, together, mid-day, fully clothed and the satisfaction of that small desire fulfilled felt like a rope tightening around my neck.

 

He said he had something funny to show me on his phone, later. He asked me how things were going at the shop. He laughed at some limp comment that I forced up out of my throat. We were here, doing a regular thing that regular friends do, couples, even, and his foot was resting against my leg like a lap dog. The BLT stood, ready. The foot nudged into my leg mindlessly. James bobbed his eyebrows up and asked if I’d seen someone’s post on facebook.

 

A wave of cold pinpricks began to migrate up the field of my back and around my neck like a thunderstorm. Fighting fronts sparring and retreating over the surface of my skin. The sandwich began to glare at me. Don’t be obvious, it said. Eat me. One bite. But everything was out of place. Under the table I put my hand to my stomach, an animal half caught in a metal-toothed trap and half-caught is as good as done for. You cannot eat this/eat me/I cannot/afford this/one bite/and my stomach pulsed inside the metal incisors, mortally wounded; now I was being dramatic. Across the table James worked without pause, his fork skewering square pillows of waffle, one, then the next, then his other hand, offering his already full mouth a bite of meat, a fluid choreography: Ease. Satiety.

 

I excused myself. I mustered the effort to stand up straight and sweep my legs, one in front of the other, to the bathroom. My stomach flopped back and forth in panic, helpless. I put my hand to it and tried not to make it look obvious. I walked as fast as I could, like I did sometimes at the bar when we’d both had a handful of drinks and it was almost time to go, time to head home or to the arm of his couch or into his car, the parking lot, things like that, shameful erasures that got repeated, then swept.

 

We work best as friends, he’d whispered two nights ago, his arm opposite me slung over the young girl who tended the clothing boutique on the best-traveled corner in the city. Her eyes were winged in sharp wisps of black liner. She leaned over him and told me she was interested in seeing my writing some time, a thing he’d never once said.

 

I sat on the edge of the toilet in the bathroom of the diner and remembered how my dad would say, Breathe – like everyone’s parent says. Sometimes when you’re panicking it’s alright to talk to yourself like you would a small child, a recent therapist had said. Breathe, girl. I focused on the chipped tiles on the floor between my shoes, girl pink, too-pink, viscera pink, valentine pink, fuck-you pink. I wondered if he was finally about to ask me to be his girl. I wondered if this would become our place, if the waitstaff would see me come in and ask if he was joining me and would he be having his regular chicken and waffles? I wondered if I was good enough for him now. I wondered how I could handle keeping up with Good Enough, what if I tried and failed? What if he left me in my sleep? I thought of the shop girl’s velvet red lips separating to welcome and then light a cigarette she had slid from his pack.

 

In the bathroom of the diner I wondered, just like when I was a kid, how I could make it look like I’d eaten any of my food. Desperation tactics. An uneaten thing of beauty on a well-washed plate and a hidden wounded thing right there in the center of my gut. When we were kids we reveled in eating dinner at houses that had pets. We watched our cousins drop a single, casserole-stuffed utensil toward the linoleum and in seconds it was as clean as the back of your ear before Sunday Service. But there was no wandering dog-about-to-get-lucky in the diner, except for the one waiting at the booth for me with his legs up on my seat, not that I really minded, it’s not like I needed to take up the whole seat anyway. And it felt good there.

 

I sat on the edge of the toilet and reassured myself that I could stay in the stall for a long time, as long as I needed. Therapists give you these kinds of ideas. Pretend time’s not passing. Behave as you would if you knew you were safe. When we were kids the conversation in the car would die down as the weather got more intense: small talk, some talk, no talk. Then it was just the sound of the wipers on full blast, throbbing, whooshing back and forth as fast as they could go. The rain pushed to either side of the windshield like the slip of blood filling an aortic chamber between inhale/exhale. You should go back in there and try harder to make some conversation, I told myself. I let the air out of my chest as slowly as I could. Everything was pounding. The wounded thing throbbed there in my stomach.

 

I wanted to get to my knees and pray or spill it from my mouth into the toilet. I pressed my head into my hands to block out the blue light of the diner restroom so I didn’t have to wonder why he was being so kind. Or what unknowing misstep I’d make to cause the kindness to evaporate. I just wanted it all to go away and now I sounded like a child and all I could hear was the windshield deluge pulse in my ears. But my hands couldn’t cover my face and hold my stomach and buffer my ears all at the same time, I’m only one person, I’m only me, I’m not that good.

 

I wanted someone to carry me out and lay me down in my own bed. Not him; he was probably scraping the last of the gravy off the Corelle industrial plate, but not unkindly. He’d had a hard two weeks. He’d been bruised by some series of unfortunate circumstances, he’d thought to text me, he wanted my company. He’d not called me Milady before. Like he had when we’d entered the restaurant. He’d held the door open for me, even. The novelty of these two gestures, the pet name, the door, causing me to burp out some ridiculous half-laugh noise along with some half-word sound that I couldn’t explain.

 

James pretended to not hear either or maybe he was thinking about what he’d order but all the same he’d asked me where I wanted to sit, said any place was okay with him, put his feet up beside my leg, so that his foot and my leg were touching, in a playful way, tenderly. We were not usually playful or tender together. We were other things.

 

When we were kids the sonic pulse of the rain forced back and forth by the windshield wipers was the sign that something had thickened in the air. That we could hear it, that sound, suddenly amplified the tension in the car. The weather was menacing us into a focused silence. That we could hear only the wipers abusing the rain, or maybe the other way around, this was the sign that some trouble was afoot. We listened to the rain, watched my father release my mother’s hand and place it on the wheel. A storm could make the bald tires of our old beater skid off the road, spin above the asphalt surface on an unexpected sluice of water, hydroplane you into a tree, over an embankment. The rain could make you forget where you were going, send a deer shuttling out there into the road, end the plan of where you thought you were going, and when you thought you’d arrive.

 

But after a few moments this same sound, the whoosh, amniotic, almost, like hearing the mother’s pulse in utero, began to calm us. We were mesmerized into a complacent lull. The sound of trouble, arresting. The sound of trouble all the time is white noise, a nothing. Almost a balm. The rain was a kind of sleeping disaster we could cradle.

 

At first James’s mean gestures fell on me awkwardly, until they didn’t. We have that kind of Punch and Judy banter, he’d said. That’s one of the things I like about us. Don’t get close to that, a wiser part of me whispered, at the beginning. Therapists give you these kinds of ideas. James waxed poetic about Ta-Nehisi Coates and homeless advocacy. James posted feminist articles on his facebook page. James sent photos of kittens cuddling baby deer to my phone.

 

And James interrupted me and James told me to Shut Up. James pretended like he’d lost his phone when I texted that I needed some company or wondered if he could talk. James looked at the blank spot on his wrist after we’d fucked and said It’s time for you to go in a snappish way that made me laugh because of course he wasn’t serious. But he began to push me out of his bed with his hands, then his feet, both of us laughing until I realized I was about to fall on the floor. I put my leg out against the wall to prevent the inevitable. James pushed me off the edge of his bed, my feet catching my balance, my smile dropped. I stood up and reached rapidly for my shoes. I get it, I said, staring down at him atop his covers, looking somewhere else. It’s not my problem if you can’t see that I’m being sarcastic, he said. It was his birthday.

 

Things therapists don’t say: Bitch you can take a licking. James would text me at the usual time to meet for our preferred drinks at the usual place, he’d even bought me a few pints. But James did not meet me out for lunch. James did not take me to the movies. Dudes don’t do that kind of stuff with their friends, he’d said.

 

What do dudes do with their friends, I’d asked.

 

I don’t know, James said. I don’t know what we do.

 

Today he’d hugged me in the street, where we’d met before walking over to the diner. Even slung his arm around my shoulder. And why now? Why now/why now/that sandwich was out there getting cold and his plate was probably clean.

 

I scuffed my shoe across the beaten surface of the bathroom floor, back/forth. I was never a big fan of pink. But thank god for something to stare at. I unpeeled my face from my hands, then set it down there again. What if, what if we were about to become something, what if I couldn’t be that thing, what if this niceness suddenly switched off and why did it have to appear in the first place? Suddenly we were driving into clear skies with no rain, anywhere, no clouds, and surely that could only mean that we’d died in the storm and were sharing some Ambrose Bierce-like hallucination on our entry into the afterworld together. I was never a big fan of Heaven. His meanness was so lovely, and so regular. I didn’t recognize him without it. I ordered food I could not eat. And now I was hiding in the bathroom.

 

I decided to stand up and make it through the rest of the meal, which at this point couldn’t possibly mean anything other than opening my wallet and placing my money over the meal check. I took a long drag off the canned air in the bathroom and looked up at the ceiling, an old flytrap coiled off there in the corner, not one single fly on it. How was that possible in any diner? My father would think that would be funny, he’d make a joke about it now if he were here. If he were in the ladies’ bathroom, that wouldn’t be funny, I guess. And I’d been in the stall a long time, I didn’t know exactly how long. Long enough to spark curiosity or alarm from him and I did not want to have to explain any of this. The half-word/half-laugh sound I’d made when we’d walked in was plenty of awkwardness coupled with this epically long trip to the bathroom where I hadn’t even peed.

 

I ran the water in the faucet for a five or six Mississippis and did not bother looking into the mirror. I thought about how things like this tended to happen in diners. Then I wanted to cut right to where we were bent over the arm of his couch and some iron jaw clenched down over the hurt thing taking up all the space in my belly where a pristinely made BLT could be resting. I wondered if I could fuck on an empty stomach.

 

It could have gone this way, I thought, walking back into the diner, face dried with a one-ply brown tissue from the splash of Get Your Shit Together. I could throw the door open at sixty-five miles an hour and bail, take the bad over the worse. I could take a bite. I could sit down and say, I’m actually in love with you, feel free to get up and leave. I could cut out the back door and leave him there. Hey, free BLT for you. I could move into that space across from him and tell him there was a dying thing hidden in the middle of me and could he help loosen it? I could peel back the veneer of my grin and ask him why he was being so nice.

 

He would not digest any of this. There was already a mass of $14.99 slopping up acidic juices in his stomach. And these were the kinds of things other women did. These truths were the kinds of things I could do were I not the woman he thought me to be – see: couch, see: coverless bed, see: front seat of car he could not afford. Surely I had to have some other skill than holding on to various parts of my body for fear that they’d stage a coup. Or trying to. For fear.

 

Ultimately, we trusted our parents to navigate the storm. We did not know that they did not know either; they only lifted off the accelerator and prayed for the best. Even if we had some inkling that they were confused or anxious, it was their problem. There was no Best Way. There was only a long inhale and the communion of water assaulting the glass. A terse, muscled argument with the steering wheel.

 

I sat down across from James and exhaled. He was absorbed in his phone, his plate had already been removed by the waitstaff. I took a sip of my water and noticed that his feet had retreated back to his side. You ready to get out of here, he said, staring at the swipe of his thumb along the surface of his phone. I looked at the still life of my pretty BLT. A sandwich is only a fucking sandwich. The check came, the server asked if I wanted it boxed and was there something wrong with it? No, I said. I waited for James to take out his wallet because sometimes a storm clears, impossibly, in the middle of itself. James did not look up from his phone. I put my money on to the check tray. I’m ready, I said. Everyone gets a free meal. Once.

______________________________________________

Grace Campbell was born, raised and educated in New York State. She lives and works in Olympia, Washington. Her work has appeared in No News Today and Wendigo, among others.

 

“Magic Kingdoms”

Ponca wasn’t saved. The thought sat like a weight on my chest. Grandma didn’t attend church either, but Mom insisted her mother believed; Ponca, my grandpa, was another story. He was a wayward soul – someone we prayed for earnestly as if faith was something that could strike a person from above, like lightening.

Mom credited me with her own salvation. “You brought me to Jesus Christ,” she liked to say. What she meant was that I had come home from my Lutheran kindergarten singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children” and “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.” She claimed that it was the first time she’d really heard and believed the message that Jesus died to save sinners. She’d had no problem identifying herself as a sinner (her grandmother was Southern Baptist), but the belief part had apparently been lacking during all of those years of attending church with my dad, my sister, and me. Once she did believe, she worried about those who didn’t, including her own father.

Her version of heaven was an exclusive country club reserved for those with the correct set of beliefs. I imaged it looked much like our Lutheran church with God wearing white robes and sandals. According to Mom, our Mormon neighbors who followed Joseph Smith’s teachings belonged in the same unsaved category as Ponca. Instead of praying for their souls, Mom harped on the threat they posed. We had to be vigilant, to resist their attempts to convert us. It didn’t occur to me to question her judgment of our neighbors until I was much older, but even as a child I couldn’t believe that God wouldn’t save Ponca.

 

Once my sister Amy and I were old enough, we spent a week each summer with my mother’s parents at their home in Grand Junction, Colorado. Their house sat on a plateau looking across a vast arroyo at the Colorado National Monument. During our visits, we drove to reservoirs, picnic areas, and national parks. If we were on a day trip, Grandma sat next to Ponca on the ivory, vinyl bench in the red Ford pickup and stared at a creased map. From where I sat opposite Amy in the cab, I could see the top of Ponca’s shiny, brown freckled scalp peeking through his oily strands of hair. His nose ascended ruggedly from his face like a geological formation. The nails on his fingers were thick and coarse from years of fieldwork in remote areas surveying land where uranium mining breathed life into tiny towns and years later sucked it back out just as quickly. With one hand on the wheel, Ponca whistled along to Johnny Cash’s crooning from the 8-track player. Periodically, he slowed down and used his free hand to point out patterns of multicolored strata in sandstone.

Nature was Ponca’s cathedral. He spoke about how the earth was formed the way a priest might read Holy Scripture. When I stood with Ponca, Grandma, and Amy under Delicate Arch near Moab, Utah one summer, I felt my own insignificance next to its grand scale. It was the way I was supposed to feel about Jesus dying for my sins.

The summer that I turned 15, my grandparents took Amy and me to California in their RV. With the brown, rust, and gold décor, the vehicle seemed like an extension of their home: a miniature version that included a removable kitchen table that transformed the space into an extra bed. Our route included natural wonders like Lake Tahoe, Monterey Bay, and Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. Yet, my grandparents also grasped the need for two teenaged girls to experience a slice of American culture a la Walt Disney. I’m not sure it had ever occurred to my parents that we might enjoy a trip to the Magic Kingdom. If it did, Dad likely weighed the money involved along with the infamous LA traffic and quickly dismissed the idea. Disneyland would have been my mother’s worst nightmare: a crowded venue that was a tribute to Walt Disney, whom she disliked almost as much as the founder of the Mormon religion, Joseph Smith. She had little use for what she considered to be fairytales.

The highlight of our trip to the Magic Kingdom came when I convinced Amy, Grandma, and Ponca to ride It’s A Small World. After the four of us stepped into a boat, we entered the tunnel underneath the clock tower. The displays with mechanical people dressed in costume were larger than life. The kaftan-clad African tribesmen looked nothing like the photographs of native people in my parents’ National Geographic magazines. Sombreros and mariachi music blurred past followed by Hula girls shaking grass skirts. Display after display bombarded me with intense colors, patterns, ensembles, and lyrics sung in different languages to the familiar tune.

Finally dolls representing each culture came into view, clad in white versions of their traditional garb singing English words in unison. When the ride was over, I insisted on taking it two more times. Something about the music invited me in and reassured me that we were all the same regardless of what we looked like on the outside. Despite all of its garishness, the ride celebrated diversity. Although I didn’t recognize it at the time, the song “It’s a Small World” contained a similar message, albeit a secular version, of lyrics I’d learned in Sunday school: “He’s got the whole world in His hands” and “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.” These were the songs that had shaped my dream of becoming a Christian missionary, like my art teacher in sixth grade who had lived in Papua New Guinea for a decade. As such, I could convert native people before my Book-of-Mormon-totting counterparts got to them. I had no problem thinking of living among strangers in a foreign land and reading the Bible to them, but approaching Ponca was another matter entirely. I loved him just the way he was.

At dusk, we left the park as fireworks exploded above the Magic Kingdom. Traveling north on Coastal Highway 1 in California and through the Sierra Nevada for the remainder of our trip, I heard, though the mountains divide/and the oceans are wide/ It’s a small world after all.

One night at a KOA campground, Grandma climbed up into the mattresses above the cab wearing her nightgown. Amy took the top bunk and I, the lower near the back of the vehicle. Ponca walked past us fully dressed.

“I need to use the John W. Crapper, then I’ll come to bed,” he commented.

“Carl, what will their parents say if they repeat that?” Grandma hollered from atop her perch.

Amy and I giggled. We’d never tell on him. Such moments were our little secrets. Minutes later, Ponca pushed the accordion door open, snapped it in place, and turned off the lights.

“You girls don’t peek,” he instructed as he stripped down to his white undershirt and briefs that glowed in the dark and crawled up into bed next to Grandma.

From my bunk bed, I prayed for Ponca. Only it wasn’t a prayer for him to have faith so much as it was a hope that God had big enough hands to hold us all.

______________________________________________

Wendy Besel Hahn has an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University. Her work has appeared in So To Speak, Front Porch Journal, andThe Chaffey Review. She is a regular contributor for Around Reston. To learn more about her writing, please visit: http://wendybeselhahn.com.

“An Orange Glow”

There was a house at the bottom of a hill by the shore. It was coated in a clotted-cream-colored siding perpetually speckled with dirt.

A sturdy oak sat in the back yard, centered between the off-white vinyl fence and a deck only big enough to fit a white plastic chair, a small sea-glass-encrusted table, and an ashtray.

In the summers, around 11 in the morning, the sun would hit the glass sending waves of color onto the siding. Blues and creamy whites would crash into deep greens to make a color so similar to the ocean.

After rain, my father’s Newport cigarette butts would swirl around like fish in the murky water of that ashtray. I would take my finger and push them around, sometimes naming them, sometimes not. My father watched me once, pick a snubbed wet butt from the pile and raise it to my lips. His grey blue eyes watched as I lifted it to my lips like he always did. The taste was bitter and harsh and filled my tongue with the taste of ash. Tears filled my eyes and ran in hot streams down my cheeks before my father grabbed my wrist between his thumb and pointer finger, tugging me along as I screamed for my mother.

Under the oak they built a sandbox.

Sitting and drinking Yoo-hoos, my sister and I watched my parents carrying buckets of sand across the three blocks from the shoreline, adamant about not paying for Quikrete play sand with real sand so close. Their faces were puffy red as they trudged back and forth filling the pit my father had haphazardly dug. Her chestnut colored curls were tamed in a ponytail but strands still poked out like a chia pet. His balding head, with its horseshoe ring of speckled grey hair, was damp with sweat. They kissed once when they were done, before my father left to go inside, leaving my mother to watch us play. She gave us a soft-sweet smile as we built sandcastles and dug holes to China, clicking her thumb nail between her two front teeth and looking back at the house.

Now, my mother tells me that isn’t what happened. In her stories her hair was pin straight with the strong scent of Just for Me relaxer still clinging to it. My father sits at the sea glass table overseeing through a cloud of cigarette smoke as my mother poured sand. They both sighed when my sister and I started tossing clumps of sand from the box, peppering the pockets of grass and weeds around us. Snubbing his cigarette, my father turned toward the house, tossing one hand up in frustration, and left my mother to watch us play. I like to believe she remembers it wrong.

Inside it was always warm. The walls were coated in pinewood panels that soaked up the daytime sun. Beige carpeting followed you from room to room, the same beige carpeting that has followed me in every home I have had since.

The entryway was worn, showing the heavy trails of feet that were dragged through the front door. It was stained slightly brown and matched the wood grain on the walls. There was clutter. From that day, and the day before, and a month before that. It was crowded with no hiding places.

On the top floor there was a door that led to a loft. The loft was kept bare except for three bay windows facing east and a bench had been covered in pillows and groaned under the weight of two people.

Often, my mother would wake me, quietly, from my bunk bed to watch the sun rise, nestled in the loft. Wrapped in a soft blanket, she rubbed the sleep from my eyes with a soft swipe of her thumb. We never said anything. But we would watch the sun peak over the horizon till everything coated in an orange glow.

As the sun cleared the shoreline my mother would kiss my forehead, tuck a blonde curl behind my ear and sneak us both back into bed.

My mother tells me now I can’t remember that house or the sunrises. What three year-old could? She reminds me I don’t recall the fighting on the nights that she took me from my bed. The way she trembled from either sadness or anger as she gathered me in her arms. How she would whisper to herself that the new house would be better, that we would be happy there. That things would change.

When I was nearly four we moved three blocks away into a house that was a bastardized mix of Victorian and Colonial style. The yard was bigger and had no oak or sandpit, but we all had our own rooms to escape into. It was painted a sea foam green that resembled no ocean Inearly four we moved three blocks away into a house that was a bastardized mix of Victorian and Colonia would go years without watching the sun rise together.

On the fourth floor there was a tiny window in our bathroom that faced westward enough to see those three bay windows. Inside, the bathroom had a sandy brown tiled wall that mixed with a cloudy sky mural that had already started to chip. I remember stealing a stool from the hallway closet to watch new families when they moved in. I could see the Harrises move in with their dog, and the Olsens a year later with their new baby. No one stayed for long–three families in four years, in fact. I liked to think we left our stain there, that somehow the new family could see our faces in the wood paneling, hear us as the house groaned when the heat kicked on. We were trapped in the walls.

One night, when I was almost six, my mother snuck me out of my room as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. Her grip on me was tight as she strained to lift me high enough to see over the white windowsill. The skin of my thigh was pinched between her ring and middle fingers as she shifted me so I could see the orange glow was a fire.

Glass cracked, wood splintered and sirens clanged as whips of orange light rose from our old bay windows three blocks over.

The flames were bright and stung my eyes as I stared into them. My mother was tense holding me, her breath shallow but constant.

When it was done, and our old home was left steaming and crumbled, my mother carried me to my room without a word before tucking me back into bed.

Now, my mother tells me I remember it wrong, that together we watched the flames burning from that tiny window, my fingers tangled in her curled hair, tugging on the strands till she winced. She gave me a small-sweet smile, the same I remember getting that day in the sandbox, as I took her strands and wiped them across her cheeks for forgiveness.

I like my memory better. The one where she kissed me, no tears in her eyes, and smiled as she tucked me into bed, before leaving me in the blue black light of morning.

______________________________________________

Stephanie Bills is a Baltimore-based writer/photographer/blogger. She is a recent graduate of Baltimore University’s MFA program. She would also like to remind everyone that she can quote Top Gun better than you and all your friends.

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