Non-Fiction Archive

Apollo Ascends

In My Personal History of Boyfriends, John D. is subtitled The Drip. From his boy bob to his tentative spectacles to his Eeyorean countenance, John dripped from crown to sole like a crack in a cistern. Midway through my rather educational I-Can- Save-You-with-My-Love period (roughly 1989 – 2009), John’s moping form, wedged in the corner of the living room show at some hipster’s rowhouse, pulled at me like gravity. He was odd, he was smart, and he was missing a piece of his left ear since birth. He had his own record label and liked my songs. We trysted long distance between DC and New Haven, and eventually moved in together in Maryland. I found a darling 1920’s bungalow with a huge basement, a sleeping porch, and a claw-footed slipper tub. In that gorgeous place, I learned to hate John. He was keenly intimidated by my brothers, my friends, the neighbors, the UPS man, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and had they still existed, probably the Avon Lady and the Fuller Brush Man. If anyone came to our door unannounced, John would hide in the darkest room until they decided no one was home. I hid with him once. Afterwards, I just got the door. But it was a phone call I got while living with John that changed everything . Not just everything with John. Everything for always.

It was my brother Dan who called. He was all serious, which wasn’t normal. I was afraid something happened to my parents while they were in Italy. He told me it was our brother Joel. I actually felt a moment of relief, as if the stakes were somehow less high.

“So, he’s spending the night in the hospital,” Dan said.

“The hospital?”

He sunnysided it. “It may be lyme disease. They think it’s probably lyme disease.”

“Or…?”

“Well, it could be leukemia,” he said. “They have to do some tests.”

After hanging up, I related the specifics to John.

I got scared and teary.

“Why are you crying?” John asked. “They don’t know that it’s leukemia.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but it could be.” Why did I even have to explain that?

Later that week, we found out it was leukemia. All the things we never wanted to learn about blood counts and chemotherapy and marrow transplants introduced themselves to the parts of our brains trying desperately to understand. And again, I was crying.

“What are you crying for?” John asked. “He’s not dead yet.”

 

We cannot know his legendary head

Joel was a high school senior in 1978.   I was seven, and I worshipped him and all of his friends. The girls had long hair and wore sparkly eye shadow, leotards with bellbottoms, and little ribbon chokers. The boys also had long hair and wore bellbottoms, but paired them with ringer t-shirts and puka shell necklaces. They rode around in VW Beetles and spilled out onto our driveway, laughing. They were in plays at the high school and ran lines with each other. And unlike Dan and Jon, who continually labeled me a “pain in the neck” or a “spoiled brat,” Joel and his friends though I was “so cute” and “would need a stick to beat the boys off some day.” They actually played with me, included me. It was glorious.

When they were rehearsing for Hamlet, my parents had the cast over to watch the Lawrence Olivier version via a rented projector and a sheet pinned to the wall. After the film, they started acting out the swordfight scene. My friend Kate was sleeping over, and they propped us up on the back of the couch. We were to be the king and queen. Then John Searles, the tall and handsome lead, picked me up and whirled me around in an ersatz waltz that left me dizzy and exhilarated. If I had a fairy godmother, she would have waved a wand and made me just like them.

One year, when Dan and Jon were away at nature camp, Mom took Joel, David, and me to Rehoboth Beach. One of the few pictures I have of teen Joel was taken on that trip. He’s wearing cutoffs without a shirt, holding his hand up to shade his eyes, and reclining in the sand, tanned, his long hair lifted by the breeze. That semester he was in the chorus for the school production of Mame. It cracked me up to see him in that show, all tuxedoed and light on his feet. I never knew he could do that. One night during that trip to Rehoboth, we all took a walk down the beach together, probably seeking ghost crabs. The moon was immense. We didn’t need flashlights. The smell of salt, the warm air, even the feeling of walking around at night was sorcery. I asked Joel what it was like to do all that dancing.

“It wasn’t so hard. I can show you,” he said. He faced me and put one hand on my hip, using the other hand to hold mine out in front of us. “Follow me,” he said.

He started singing Fernando’s Hideaway as he counted out the steps, “One TWO three four, dada dada dum, one TWO three four, dada dada dum…” He showed me how to suddenly switch directions on the beat and said that I should look all serious, like I had a rose in my teeth and meant it. And for the very first time in my life, I learned how to be dipped. Oh, how I love being dipped.

I saw Joel as a celebrity guest star living in my house, and I’ve gathered a fan girl scrapbook from odd bits of memory. On a day when there was no one else to watch me or pick up my grandparents at the airport, Joel popped me in the car. On the Dulles Access Road, he flipped his head around in a cautionary scan, looked me in the eye for a beat, yelled “OPEN ROAD!!!” and floored it, rocketing my mother’s Honda to 75, 85, 90 miles per hour. At eight years old, it was the most free I’d ever felt, heart racing like a chariot, smugly delighted to be in on this little conspiracy. He drove me to a piano recital and introduced me to the word fuck after being rear-ended at the stop light in front of the 7-11. I remember him babysitting and having to use pliers to remove a huge bargello needle that had lodged in my foot through my Keds. And once, I flew to Los Angeles with him so I could visit my friend Laura Steiger and he could become National Model Rocketry Champion for the second year in a row. He built an amazing 2-stage rocket that was taller than I was and a wooden crate to cradle in en route. An article was published about him in The Fairfax Examiner, complete with the head line “Rocket Man Joel is Fascinated by Flight.” It referred to his “saucer-shaped eyes” and implied at several points that he was a stoner. It was probably accurate reporting.

It wasn’t just that he was cool. All my brothers were cool. They were gorgeous and confident, and I was squat and awkward, well aware of the differences between my little body and those of the postered icons of female beauty found within the inner sanctums of their bedrooms, Dan’s Cheryls, Jon’s ubiquitous Farrah, Joel’s 8×10 glossy of Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman. Because I was neither boy nor icon, Dan and Jon rarely received me in a cordial manner. “Get lost,” was the most frequent greeting. In retrospect, I imagine they wanted to smoke weed without corrupting me. I didn’t care what they were doing, I just wanted to listen to the music they had on the stereo. It was a gorgeous ritual: selecting the LP, removing it from its sleeve, placing it gingerly on the well-researched turntable, cleaning it with the discwasher (every record, every time), and dropping the needle. I know I must have been a pest. I know I wasn’t cool to have around if they were getting stoned. But I’m not sure they understood how devoted I was to the ritual. Once denied sanctuary, I’d sit outside the Church of Brother Bedroom and sing every last song beginning to end, as if that would prove me worthy of admittance.

But Joel would invite me in and show me stuff. I’d stare at the weird, fabulous things on his walls, plaques, blacklight posters, a framed engraving of a wheat stalk, and Joel would teach me about the History of Rock and Roll. He turned me on to Jimi Hendrix, saying that Jimi had these extra-long fingers that made him a really great guitar player. I was really excited and begged to see a picture. He showed me some album, and I must have looked disappointed.   Jimi’s fingers looked pretty normal to me.

I may have lived my whole life chasing him. He was so different and so infrequent. If I’m still chasing him, it’s for the same reasons. I still turn to where he was more than I turn to anyone who’s still here.

 

the translucent cascade of the shoulders… like a wild beast’s fur

Joel graduated high school with a yellow honors sash draped across his robe, beneath his stoner anti-haircut. Lord, he had beautiful hair. It was grained maple in the winter, dirty beach blond in the summer, and it fell like a shampoo commercial. I wasn’t even 10 years old before I started trying things to make my wires lay flat like his. I would cake my head in mayonnaise or Hamilton-Beech steam iron it until I could smell it burning, but mine could never look half as exquisite. He didn’t do shit to his hair – I don’t know if he even washed it – but it was glossy as fine furniture, fanning effortlessly out each time he turned to hear his name. He might as well have been the Breck Boy.

He came to me one afternoon with a ponytail holder and a little silk flag. He wanted a ponytail, but he didn’t know how to do it. I relished the opportunity to play with his hair, brushing it to a hypnotizing shine before gathering it up into the requested ponytail, releasing it, then gathering it up again into a more perfect one. He asked me to tie the flag around it like a scarf. It was grossly oversized and fairly feminine. He looked magnificent, half household god, half show pony, skinny, stoned, and strutting.

And despite his habitually heroic intake of weed and acid, Joel not only graduated with honors, he won a full scholarship to my parents’ alma mater, The University of Texas at Austin. I saw a few photos of his time there, shirtless with other long-haired boys drinking Bud and doing bong hits on a little motor boat, cruising “The Loop” in mirrored sunglasses, making human pyramids in that big park, and cuddling with sparkly-eyeshadowed girls at house parties. The first time he came back, he brought me a “Longhorns” t-shirt, a few sizes too big, that I absolutely adored.

The second time he came back, he’d cut his hair short. Gone were the daishikis and baseball ringers. Joel was wearing a v-neck sweater and a yarmulke, and perhaps most shocking for our reform Jewish household, he was keeping kosher. He seemed quieter, more serious, and dead boring, like someone had vacuumed the fire right out of his soul.

Shortly afterward, Joel transferred from UT to the Lubavitcher school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.   His litany of rules became longer and longer as his hair was cropped shorter and shorter. There was the rule about no blade touching his face, which translated into a long, scraggly, Rip Van Winkle beard.   There was the rule about not working one’s horses on the Sabbath, which translated into the pious not being able to flip a light switch. One time when he was visiting, he unscrewed the little light bulbs in both of our refrigerators (being a family of seven good eaters, we eventually got a second fridge) so that he could open the door without working his horses, but he didn’t mention this to anyone. When my Dad noticed that the light didn’t come on upon opening the fridge door, he went to the hardware store and bought a new one. After installing it, Dad noticed that the other refrigerator light was also out, groaned, and returned to the hardware store. Only after Dad returned the second time did Joel inform him of his efforts to be holy.   Eventually, Joel put his lights on a timer every Sabbath. Why this was somehow not working one’s horses, I will never know. Doesn’t the timer count as a horse? Are the horses that are the lights not considered working if a robot (like the timer) wakes them up?

Joel kept his own set of dishes at our house for when he came to visit, which we were not to touch. He was constantly on the phone with someone in Crown Heights, to see what the Rebbe would think the ethical ramifications of every possible decision might be. He wore a tallit or prayer shawl all the time, and was always going into his room and davening, a particular way of praying that involved him wrapping his arm with a thick black lacing, placing a mysterious-looking cube on his forehead, and bobbing his head rhythmically in prayer. My mother began to worry that he’d get stuck in some arranged marriage and then he’d never be able to come back from his lofty cloud of sanctimony. There was only one rule of Joel’s that required my cooperation, which I had little choice but to give. Because I was entering puberty, the Rebbe informed Joel that he could no longer touch me. Not just hugging or kissing, he couldn’t shake my hand or tap me on the shoulder. I became so conditioned to the space bubble in which Joel now lived, that I would engage my muscles on a tight turn to avoid bumping shoulders in the backseat of the car.

He wouldn’t come to my Bat Mitzvah. I remember him being on the phone with Crown Heights for a long time before telling me. He explained that if another Hasid saw Joel enter Reform Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia, they might think it’s okay to go in there. Even at 13, I found this a highly unlikely scenario. I suspected that like all of the recent, bizarre changes Joel made to our relationship, this one was also motivated by an ancient law: sexism. He explained this to me in his old bedroom, after which he said, “I’d give you a hug, but it’s just a physical thing.” Then he gave me some physical things: a book of Yiddish Stories, a Mogen David on a long chain, and a coin from Israel. I thanked him for the gifts and told him it was okay that he wasn’t coming. And it was okay. I didn’t care if he came or not. He’d become so dull and preachy. I just wanted to get this thing over with so I could stop wondering if I’d fuck up my Torah portion. I was thinking about my dress, my newly pierced ears, and how I couldn’t wait to get drunk at the reception afterwards. I had started drinking and smoking earlier that year. There is a photo of me at the reception in my Gunne Sax dress , one arm around each parent, beaming in that beatific way that only a drunken child can.

When Joel did get married three years later, it was to a woman some Rabbi had introduced two months earlier. I guess Mom was right. Debbie seemed okay. I got in a bit of trouble for missing her bridal shower. I had dropped three tabs of acid at a Grateful Dead show and didn’t see why I had to go all the way to New York when everything important was right there in Virginia. I had a mattress and a portable art museum (two sculptures and a thrift store painting) in the back of my hatchback. That’s what made sense. If she was going to be my sister-in-law for the rest of my life, I had plenty of time to meet her later. I’d even sent a present. What was the big deal?

The wedding ceremony was, in theory, the last time anyone but Joel would see her real hair. She and her mother went shopping for the best possible wig, made from the best possible hair, that was the closest match to her own. It looked phony as hell. If she had to hide her hair, I vastly preferred her in a babushka scarf. At least she looked real. The wig made her look like a spy or a charlatan, conveying a creepy sensation that something was not quite right.

It would be eleven years before Joel would touch me again. He led the funeral service for our cousin Rachel, lost to breast cancer. We were standing in the parking lot, and he put his arms around me and squeezed tightly for about 15 seconds, while I frantically tried to calculate what was happening. Finally, I understood that it was okay to hug back.

It must have been then that I started to think he might return to us. After three kids, I think he was forced to reacquaint himself with his sense of humor. He started growing his hair out again until it was just as long as it had been in high school, evoking Jesus in combination with his now trimmed beard. By the time I was in my 20’s, both he and Debbie had drifted from the Hasids. From what I understand, his colleagues started postulating that the Rebbe was the Messiah, and Joel thought that was too crazy for Crazytown. He was outta there.

I was 27 when I got the call from Dan that changed everything. Just as I began to notice that each year of your life is slightly shorter than the one that preceded it, Joel’s hair began to slip out by the roots. The chemo took his appetite, his weight, a healthy chunk of his dignity, and clump by gorgeous clump, his glorious mane. Joel explained how chemotherapy kills the bad stuff by killing all the stuff, good stuff included. He grew brittle and thin, and his tongue turned black for a while. But seeing him unable to raise even a single eyebrow hair – that’s what drove it home for me. Apollo to Sampson within a few eyeblinks. Just. Like. That.

 

that dark center where procreation flared

Joel had an affair. I don’t know if it was the classic variety, full of ruse and subterfuge, or if he announced his intent with his usual burning candor. I don’t even know if it was an affair of the body or just an affair of the mind. I know this much: there were reports of a dark-haired girl perched on the edge of his hospital bed. And there was a drawing in one of the sketchbooks I had given him of a pair of lovely, dark eyes, wet, above a surgical mask. They were not my eyes. They were not Debbie’s eyes. They were eyes I didn’t know.

Perhaps those lovely eyes blinked in front of a more like mind. He was working on a PhD in Religious Studies at NYU, and his new friend was apparently another student there.   I was reminded of John Lennon and his wildly unpopular decision to leave his wife, Cynthia, for Yoko Ono. Though I initially fell into the Cynthia camp, I found one interview in which Lennon’s explanation was hard to dispute.

“I’d never met a woman I considered as intelligent as me. That sounds bigheaded, but every woman I met was either a dolly-chick, or a sort of screwed-up intellectual chick. And of course, in the field I was in, I didn’t meet many intellectual people anyway. I always had this dream of meeting an artist, an artist girl who would be like me. And I thought it was a myth, but then I met Yoko and that was it.”

I liked Debbie well enough, but Joel’s decision made sense to me. He was as determined to finalize his divorce as he was to finish his PhD. The PhD was not awarded posthumously. Neither was the divorce.

I’ll never know if I met his intellectual soul mate, if she attended his funeral, if she had been in the little apartment he took in Yonkers that I had never seen, or even what her name was. She’s a vapor, a specter, a dark-haired question mark. I wonder if the vapor thinks of Joel as often as his sister thinks of her. These days, it’s as if she never happened. Debbie maintains the title of “Widow,” although she apparently had little to do with him as he was dying. Considering she was getting dumped, it’s hard to blame her. But the title seems too grand for someone who could only bring herself to visit the Lombardi Cancer Center in Houston once, to get his Will finalized. She had to wheel him to the attorney because by then, walking was too hard.

My parents rented an apartment in Houston near the hospital so that Joel could have a homier lifestyle than he would staying on the cancer ward.   We all came out for Thanksgiving and logged many hours in front of the TV. Since even the traditional overeating was not a possibility for Joel, watching TV was the one thing we could all do together. My brothers and I would span the couch with Joel’s kids climbing on us and laugh until we cried at Mystery Science Theater 3000. On one of those days I noticed his penis was hanging a tiny bit out of the bottom of his shorts. I guess we all saw it. It had come to the point where it just didn’t matter anymore. I remember feeling surprised that he had one.

When it was time to go home, Joel stood up. I told him he didn’t have to – he seemed so very weak. I didn’t want him wasting energy he could use for healing on dumb old me. He didn’t listen. He hugged me with more strength than I ever could have imagined he would have. I hugged him back carefully. He seemed so fragile. But he almost squeezed the breath out of me.

 

for here there is no place that does not see you

The week after we buried Joel I called his answering machine as much as I could. They were going to unplug it when they packed up his things. I remember a crack in his voice halfway through the message. I wondered if he thought about re-recording it because of the crack. Then I looked forward to hearing that part where the crack happens. When Dan and Jon went to pack up Joel’s apartment, I fought the urge to ask them to record his greeting before they disconnected the answering machine. I didn’t want them to know what I’d been doing.

Joel died on December 23, 1999, a week away from the dawn of the new millennium, like Moses viewing the Promised Land from the mountaintop. And every Christmas, without fail, I’m stabbed in the ribs yet again by loss. Despite our Jewish upbringing, I never had issues with Christmas before. I liked it.   Since losing my brother, the twinkling lights, exultations of joy, and endless rounds of seasonal music piped from every store in the world wrench me open to expose my inconsolable heart year after year after year. I don’t want to hate Christmas. I like ornaments and eggnog and Eartha Kitt’s Santa Baby. But I do hate it.   Every year, I’m that jerk who’s not into it. “Smile! It’s almost Christmas!” beaming elf-hatted clerk after beaming elf-hatted clerk tells me year after year after crap it’s here again year. And I force a smile out for each one. I don’t want to put a damper on their Christmas. Hating Christmas makes you an asshole. A Dickensian asshole. That’s not me.

Jews like to bury their dead very quickly. It is believed that until burial, the soul stays with the body.   But since it was Christmastime, we had to wait until December 26th to have the funeral. It was hard to sleep those few nights, thinking about Joel having to hang out in that spooky old funeral home, just waiting for Christmas to be over. I wondered if he was lonely or scared, stuck in there like that with all those dead bodies. I knew I would be.

His funeral seemed odd. His casket was closed because Hebrews don’t do the open casket thing. It was a shiny blond wood coffin, rounded at the sides, with a tasteful inlay of a Mogen David on the top. The room filled up with people we knew and people we didn’t. Some guy who didn’t know Joel stood up and said some stuff I forgot. I have a vague memory of standing at a podium in turn, after my brothers, reading something I think I may have written from a piece of paper.   We had selected a song to be played. A friend pushed the button on the CD player with a click so audible it made me feel cheesey as I forced a room full of mourners to listen to Jimi Hendrix’s Angel. At the time, I guess, it seemed really important for me to convey to the universe that Joel wasn’t just some Rabbi. He was my brother, and he was cool, dammit. He was the kind of guy who would want them playing Hendrix at his funeral.

The burial was close by, in a massive Falls Church cemetery complex. The entrances for each particular cemetery are on the same road, first the Christian cemetery, then the pet cemetery, then the Jewish cemetery. Ours has no headstones, just flat plaques on the ground and cement benches and little trees. There were streaks of cirrus clouds feathering the sky and I couldn’t help thinking of angels’ wings. My three remaining brothers, my dad, my cousin Keith, and my uncle Stanley carried the box. My dad stumbled a little as they moved, causing the coffin to dip a bit to one side. I noticed a bit of fringed white cloth – Joel’s tallit – that had somehow slipped through the crack where the lid meets the rest of the coffin. I wondered if I should tuck it back in. Should someone tuck it back in? Should I say something? Is this another Jewish tradition that has eluded me? Is that supposed to be that way? I said nothing. We all lined up to tilt a shovel full of dirt on top of him. The clumps of earth were percussive hitting the casket, and I wondered if the beautiful finish would get scratched. After all the mourners had a turn, my brother David picked up the shovel again and furiously dispensed of the rest of the pile until he was sweating through his suit. The gravediggers stood by, watching him do their job in a frenzy until the last clump was cleared.

Afterwards, we sat shiva at the house in which we grew up. Strangers came up to me and held both my hands while telling me some amazing way in which Joel had completely changed their lives.   People brought food and made conversation. I made a crack to my brother Jon about how funny it was that someone offered kugel as a condolence (“Kugel! It’s entirely inedible! How could they not know?”) before discovering it was made by the lovely woman to my right with whom I’d had the one enjoyable conversation of the day. Even worse, it was a cheese kugel – a savory one. I didn’t know there was such a thing. I’d only had sweet kugel, which I found baffling and gross. I tried the cheese kugel, and it was really good. I wanted to cry.

For several months after Joel died, I would recite the Mourner’s Kaddish a couple times a day. They handed me a laminated card at the funeral with the Kaddish printed in Hebrew on one side and phonetically on the other. The latter, of course, served as my reference.   I tucked the card into the secret pocket of my ludicrously oversized silver puffer jacket and filled the lower pockets with round, white stones I picked up on the beach near my parent’s house, where Joel and I had walked together. In Jewish cemeteries, you don’t leave flowers on the grave. You leave a pebble. I wanted Joel to have the prettiest pebbles. Once, I made them into a little heart on top of his flat marker. I wondered if that was against the rules.

Eventually I was curious about what the Kaddish meant. Day after day, morning and night, I was chanting, “yit gadal v’yit kadash sh’mei raba….” and assuming it would somehow help Joel navigate Heaven or maybe even help me navigate earth. But my recitations petered out when I learned the translation, which turned out to be all about the greatness of G-d.

May His great Name be blessed forever and ever
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled,
mighty, upraised, and lauded be the Name of the Holy One
Blessed is He beyond any blessing or song…

I was stunned. I had never prayed for anything harder in my life than I did for Joel to live. I’m not about to go trashing G-d or religion or any of it, but it seemed like a cruel little prank, the Kaddish. I have my limbs, I have my health, and most of the important people in my life are still alive. I have plenty to be grateful for. There’s a Yiddish folk tale in which a beggar calls out to G-d to complain about being poor. He is immediately struck in the neck by a lightning bolt, grows a second head, and gains another mouth to feed. “Oh G-d,” the beggar cried out, “I never should have complained! Things can always be worse!” I’m way too scared to complain, but I’ve never asked for anything since. It doesn’t feel safe. I’ll give thanks, but I’m never, ever asking for anything again.

 

You must change your life.

A year earlier, I was still with John the Drip when my parents called to ask for a favor. It was pretty ironic of them to label it a favor, really, after all the food and shoes and clothes and education and whatnot. Joel was still getting chemo and in need of constant care, and my parents, after nearly two years at this crisis pitch, were in desperate need of a vacation. They asked if I could be Joel’s driver / cook / gopher/ company for two weeks so they could recharge. Of course, I agreed. Having chased Joel my whole life, I relished this opportunity to be, at least for a moment, the one person with whom he spoke the most.

Most of my time with Joel over those couple weeks was spent cooking. Because of the chemo, he had a very limited appetite and an extremely sensitive stomach. My attempts to dazzle him with my culinary artistry were limited to plain white rice, chicken broth, and other such unspectacular offerings. At that point, he was still able to give himself injections and tend to his own personal care, getting dressed, walking around, etc. But due to the unpredictable side effects following his chemo, I was still useful driving him to and from his appointments. Hyper-aware of the urgency of my mission and the preciousness of my cargo, I drove with extraordinary caution, and it drove my speed-demon brother insane. If I enacted a full halt at a stop sign, he would make fun of me: “You stop, you look around for a while, then you go…” He was more of a California Rolling Stop kind of driver. Once, after his treatment, he wanted to stop by his apartment in Yonkers to get a few things. I pulled out on to 9A and asked where to go, carefully following the speed limit in the right lane. He thought for a moment, and then told me to pull over.

“It’s hard to explain,” he said.   “It’s be easier if I just drive myself.”

I protested. “But Mom and Dad said I have to drive you. The chemo…”

Joel grew exasperated. “Sarah,” he said, “I’m you’re big brother. Pull over and let me drive.”

I pulled over and slid into the passenger seat. Joel walked around to the driver’s seat and buckled in. As he pulled out onto 9A he glanced over at me with his little half smile. “When Mom and Dad find out about this, you’re going to be in soooooo much trouble,” he said.

Joel and I stayed at my parents’ house, which was a couple blocks from a lovely, stony beach. We’d take a beachcombing walk each day, picking up pretty rocks and chatting. I had an urge to tap his brain as much as possible, and peppered him with questions of love and life and the universe and metaphysics and religion, and he gave me the answers he had. I found a tiny grey rock that had a perfect circle of white on one end, and showed it to Joel. A few steps down the beach, Joel picked up a palm-size grey rock that also had a perfect little circle of white on one end. He handed it to me. “This one is like that one’s big brother,” he said. I put both rocks in my pocket. I still have them.

One topic pressing on me at the time was my relationship with The Drip. Getting away from John for a little while was another advantage of this odd situation. I droned on and on about the tiniest details of my unhappiness for what I’m sure must have been endless and tedious hours, as if I had to quantify it or provide evidence that I was, indeed, miserable. His answer, like so many of his answers, was modeled on Occam’s razor: simple, obvious, and true.

“You don’t have to be with him if you’re not happy,” he said. “Life is short.”

 

 


Sarah Azzara (it rhymes) is a poet, songwriter, memoirist, and visual artist whose work has been published in journals including The Southampton Review, The Whale, Long Limbs, The Din, The GW Review, American Literary, and Wooden Teeth. In 2011, she was selected for the Dramatist Guild of America’s Songwriter Salon showcase in Times Square. Her other awards and honors include The Academy of American Poets College Prize and the David Lloyd Kreeger prize in sculpture. Sarah holds an MFA from Stony Brook University, an MA from The George Washington University, and is a Full-Time Lecturer in the Program of Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University, where she also teaches for the School of Journalism and the Honors College. She resides in New York and cares for a small array of variously-sized mammals.

Shadows and Mole People

Thirty-two pairs of eyes are fixed on the carnage before them.

Bone-white, the mushroom cloud races indiscriminately in all directions, consuming the sea. A red stalk of hellfire supports its fluffy cap and slowly, the white veil parts from the center, revealing a sick and blackened core. Birds swoop, just little white flashes, across the scene. Maybe they’re just flecks of light burned into the reel, but either way, I somehow feel guilty. The scene flashes, changes. A car’s paint job spontaneously erupts into dust. Trees tip like matches. Men in the foreground wear welding goggles and a look of horrifying ignorance, and I feel the guilt again. Another flash, this time to riots, then protests, then WWII, then back to nuclear blasts. A headline: “GREAT WAR FINALLY OVER” scrolls across the screen, illuminating the classroom in dread. My professor, a portly man with gentle eyes and hair more salted than peppered, stands at the front of the class, brightened by sepia-tinted horror, and lecturing:

“Within the Western paradigm, the most common understanding of change is both linear and teleological.” Dr. Hill, as usual, is lecturing on the end of the world. “In the Judeo-Christian perspective,” he continues, “we consider ourselves moving progressively toward some end point in history. In other words,” we all brace ourselves, “a confrontation with the apocalypse.”

Dr. Richard Hill, the kind, almost fatherly presence of our campus, has spent the past thirty years forming a literary theory he describes as “Apocalyptic.” Like any properly stuffed academic with over forty years of research under his belt, it doesn’t matter if the topic is politics, sex, history, pop culture, Hill will find a way to slip in his end of times theory—the magnum opus of his career. For Hill, the apocalypse is always in the context of rebirth, like a phoenix, “Reborn from the ashes.” He says facing the apocalypse is a part of growing up, a part of gaining wisdom. You have to destroy the old to make room for the new.

My husband, Walter, has the same affinity for total-destruction as Hill, the only difference being that, unlike the professor, Walt is neither a man of pretty words nor lofty philosophy. There’s no eschatological reasoning to my husband’s obsession, only a frenzied acceptance tinged with brutal cynicism.

Walt doesn’t just prep for the end of the world, he tempts it. He curses the sky for not splitting open and vomiting inferno down on us all. Our tiny apartment is swollen with cans of food, water, medical supplies, ammo. Our bookshelves are bloated with titles like Homemade Gunpowder, DIY Medical Care, and How to Survive a Chemical, Biological, or Nuclear Event. Walter doesn’t know when it’s coming, but he knows it’s coming, and he’ll be damned if he’s not prepared.

As for me, I try not to think about it.

But vincible blindness is fleeting in a world built on pocket-computers and the proliferation of facts (as well as their alternatives). On October 25th, 2016, only fourteen days after President Trump’s election, I woke up to a healthy dose of reality glaring back at me:

“RUSSIA IS PREPARING FOR NUCLEAR WAR.”

A few moments of confused silence followed as I squinted at the headline suspiciously. I weighed my options, carefully, deliberately, but ultimately realized no, I could not go back to bed and sleep through the entirety of a third World War. So I close the app and dialed:

“Hello?” A smoke-crusted, sleepy voice answered just before voicemail.

“Hey, Vick.” I pulled on my boots, examining the leaning tower of Survival Magazine stacked in the corner with newfound interest. “Yeah, I know it’s early. Yeah, I know, but hey, let’s go get drunk.”

An hour later, with unfitting punctuality, Vicky arrived at the bar before I did. I could see the halo of ginger hair from half a block away—a copper-colored beacon in a grey wash of city. Usually, Vicky was at least twenty minutes late to any affair, but humans, being simple animals in themselves, always behave unusually before disasters.

“First round’s on me,” she said and slid me a cider. “What’s going on?”

I tipped the drink back and downed half of it in two big gulps. Then, I set the glass on the table, wiped my face with the back of my hand, and broke the news:

“You hear Russia’s planning to nuke us?”

***

Strangely enough, if I do think about nuclear apocalypse, I often find my mind drifting, not to the atom bomb, but to the cruel and tragic fate of Hisashi Ouchi, a man whose own personal apocalypse was marked with scientific opportunism and a single flash of blue light.

Ouchi, in the late 90’s, was a technician at the Tokaimura Uranium Processing Plant in Japan. His job was to mix the uranium with other reactive chemicals in a large, metal tank. In September 1999, with Y2K looming like a hysterical fog across the ocean, Ouchi was leaning over the solution when he added a seventh bucket of aqueous uranyl nitrate to the precipitation tank. In an instant, the uranium became over-enriched, and the solution reached critical levels. Ouchi reported seeing an ephemeral flash of neon-blue light before he vomited in the tank and lost consciousness.

Over the next 83 days, Hisashi Ouchi was kept medically alive without consent. Although he had been exposed to nearly double the fatal dose of radiation, the result of which meant shattered, incomprehensible chromosomes and a white blood count of near-zero, the doctors saw his accident as an “invaluable learning experience.” They restarted his heart three times, subjecting him to hours of experimental transfusions, transplants, and treatments—all in an attempt to keep him alive and “invaluably” experimental. Only a week into this ordeal, Ouchi opened his eyes and pleaded with the doctors, “I can’t take it anymore…. I am not a guinea pig.”

We learned a lot about radiation poisoning from Mr. Hisashi Ouchi. The data we received from the close examination of his death has helped others suffering from radiation poisoning, and the nuclear accident at Tokaimura was so widely publicized that it raised concerns regarding safety in nuclear processing plants worldwide. It gets me thinking, maybe my professor is right. Maybe the apocalypse is about growing up and gaining wisdom.

Unfortunately for Ouchi though, after 83 days of nuclear suffering and bodily degrade, there weren’t really any ashes left to rise from.

***

“Wait, what? Who’s bombing who now?”

I explained the whole situation, or at least, what I knew of it. Russians, bomb drills, rumors of a bunker large enough to hold all of Moscow—the terrified predictions of another World War.

“World War Three?” Vicky flicked her cigarette. “I thought we already decided that whole ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ thing was a bad idea.”

“Those guys are dead. I guess the idea is in vogue again.”

“Well shit,” She set her arms on the table and narrowed her eyes at me, like it was my fault she had to plan her weekend around a nuclear apocalypse. “What are we even supposed to do if we get bombed? The old bomb-drill videos from the Cold War era always show kids hiding under desks and stuff.” She looked at me pointedly. “That seems grossly optimistic.”

“Grossly.” I nodded in agreement.

“So, if ‘duck and cover’ is just an optimistic scam, what are we really supposed to do?”

“Run?” I shrugged, and she snorted. “No, no, I’m serious! I read somewhere it takes fifteen minutes, or something like that, for a warhead to get from Russia to here. They say we’d be alerted within about four minutes.”

“So what’s that?” She tapped her fingers on the table, counting. “Eleven minutes? I can’t do anything in eleven minutes!” Vicky threw her hands in the air. “I can’t even do my makeup in eleven minutes… Besides, where would we even go?”

“Not far, I’ll tell you that. They say underground is best.”

“How would we get there? It’s not like we can drive. Traffic is gonna be terrible during the apocalypse. I mean,” she looked around at the busy intersection surrounding us, “it’s already awful.”

“And that’s without societal collapse.”

“They say you shouldn’t run, anyway. Nuclear attack isn’t exactly a running kind of scenario. It’s more of a hold-on-to-your-DNA-boys-it’s-gonna-be-a-bumpy-ride kinda scenario.” Vicky sighed.

I thought of Hisashi Ouchi, the grainy black and white photos, the distant, detached medical reports—shattered chromosomes and liquefied organs. I shuddered.

Silence settled in as we sipped our drinks in somber mourning, soaking up the rain and music of the city around us. Suddenly, the people, the cars, the industrial claustrophobia seemed to lean in closer. The sheer vulnerability of our situation sank in like a fatal wound.

“If we do get hit,” I finally broke the silence, my voice quieter than before, “and traffic is as bad as we think it is, I just hope I’m vaporized. Like, if I had a choice, I’d be one of the people who were just incinerated. BAM!” I threw my hands up for theatrical emphasis. “One second you’re there, the next you’re a spot on a step, a tourist attraction for people ‘mourning the 2016 bombing of Portland’.”

“You mean like one of those shadows from Hiroshima.”

“Yeah, those guys.”

Vicky tilted her head to the side and thought for a moment. “I guess the next best alternative would be to end up ‘just’ a cancer victim,” she put air quotes around the word. “If you were lucky, maybe you’d die from something else before the cancer really set in, like a bike accident or something normal.” She sighed. “It’s better than the blast zone, at any rate. They say the edge of the blast zone is the worst place to be. There, you’re not incinerated but you’re worse than sick. They have to deal with all the illness plus the burns,” she winced at the thought. “Have you seen the pictures of people from Hiroshima, the ones that were close to the blast but not close enough to die?”

I nodded. “I had a book when I was a kid that called the burn victims ‘mole people’. You know, because they had no faces.” I could still remember the pictures. Men and women with burnt-off noses, cracking, curled, lips, and skin like leather. Their eyes had turned a milky sky-blue, scarred from looking at the blast, branded by mushroom-cloud irons.

“You know they still have faces.”

“Yes, I know. It’s just what the book said. It said ‘The Faceless Mole People of Hiroshima’.”

She narrowed her eyes at me. “Moles have faces too.”

“I didn’t write the book, Vicky.”

“But isn’t it kind of fucked up to call them ‘mole people’?”

“It’s kinda fucked up to call them ‘shadow people’ too.”

“The whole thing is fucked up.”

“At least we have each other.”

“But what if one of us becomes a mole person and the other doesn’t?”

I shrugged. “Then I guess you can just visit my shadow.”

***

“Do you think our phones will work when it happens?” Vicky and I were still discussing doomsday plans as we walked back to my apartment, our knees and tongues loosened by booze.

“You mean the alarm?”

“No, no. I mean, for personal use. Do you think we’ll be able to call or text each other during the end of the world? Maybe our phones won’t work.”

I paused for a moment. “Well, if the government can text me about warheads, I’m sure we can text each other. Seems just as important to me.”

“That’d be nice. We’ll just text our way through the apocalypse. Nobody has to be alone that way.”

“We can Snapchat!”

Vicky laughed. “Snapchat the apocalypse!”

“Future historians will thank you.”

***

“In the American tradition, the apocalypse is often seen as an inevitable step towards growth. In this sense, the apocalypse is both an end and a beginning, a paradox of possibility for the American character.” Hill pauses, looking around the room for emphasis. “We have an understanding that beyond the void, beyond the nothingness of apocalypse, there is a new dawn, a potential for something better. Do you understand what I’m saying, class?”

I raise my hand. “Are you saying that there’s a potential for the world to be a better place after all of humanity is gone? That it’s not about us? That we’re insignificant? Our destruction may even be a benefit to the world at large.”

He smiles kindly. “No, not quite. I wouldn’t call that a ‘rediscovery of possibility’. If everything is destroyed, there’s no possibility for anything after that. When I talk about the apocalypse, I’m talking about events like Hiroshima or 9/11. Or, on a more personal level, divorces, puberty, death—events that are ‘apocalyptic’, but not necessarily the apocalypse itself.”

I tell that to Walt when I get home, and he shakes his head. “It’s always sad to see people lose hope in a better future.” He smiles and continues cleaning the guns.

***

By late afternoon, Vicky and I ended up back at my apartment, wrapped in every blanket I own, watching cartoons and eating junk. Vicky played around on her phone, her feet propped up against the wall.

“The world is ending and I’m googling how to remove nicotine stains from my fingernails,” she moaned, her eyes never leaving the screen.

“And watching Zootopia,” I pointed out, lazily gesturing at the television we weren’t watching.

“That’s the one bright side of the whole apocalypse thing. At least it gives us an excuse to act like children.”

“Like we ever needed an excuse.”

She wrapped a blanket around her tighter, sighed deeply, and leaned her head against my shoulder. “This is how all people should prep for the apocalypse. With blankets, and snacks, and friends.”

“It’s not like we’re really gonna be able to stop anything anyways.” I mumbled, glancing at the MRE’s we had stacked along the wall.

“Exactly! We might as well enjoy everything now! While we still have the chance. We have to enjoy the world, enjoy people, while it’s still her. That’s more important than collecting all these-” She read the label on a loose MRE, “-Menu Number 7, Brisket Entrée, gravy with seasoned beef… Ew, dude, that’s gross. There’s a lot of things more important than whatever that is.”

“I don’t know, man. Surviving would be pretty sweet too…”

“Stop all that negative thinking. We already agreed traffic will be too bad to survive.”

I laughed and pushed her. “That’s stupid.”

“Yeah, but so is everything else.”

A long silence followed before I replied. “Do you think there’s still hope for us?”

“You and me?”

“I mean in general. When the apocalypse comes, how do you think it’ll pan out? Do you think it’ll take out all of humanity, or all of civilization? Do you think we’ll just fuck ourselves out of existence, or do you think we’ll learn a valuable lesson and come out better than we were before?”

“Does it matter?” she laid her head on my lap and looked up at me. “Either way the world will never be the same, and you and I will never live long enough the see the recovery, even if it does happen.”

“It’ll be like all of humanity was for nothing.”

“As far as we’re concerned, all of humanity was for this moment, right here. So you and I could make a blanket nest and watch cartoons. That’s it. That’s the point of everything.”

I smiled. “We might as well just get comfy and hope we wake up as shadows then.”

“Exactly.”

We cracked open two more bottles of cider and settled deeper into our blanket nest. Outside the window, through only a thin sheet of glass, the end of the world persisted. The sky erupted in lavender-colored flames. The Earth opened up and swallowed whole cities in its quest for water. Mercury raced to the top of the thermometer. Garbage drowned the poor. The poor devoured the wealthy. Whole cities became empty ghost towns, whole states became blazing infernos. Children ran the streets with bellies full of lead.

And we, laughing prophets of the apocalypse, Children of the Atom Bomb, refugees of the Garden, can only wait and hope, in whatever way we can, while we still can.

But like I said, I try not to think about it.


Randilee Sequeira Larson is a graduate of Portland’s Concordia University, where she was awarded “Thesis with Distinction” for her personal memoir, Savages. Her work has appeared in Concordia’s The Promethean, ZPublishing’s Emerging Writers of Oregon Series, and is scheduled to appear in a future issue of the Ilanot Review.

The Story I Forget How to Tell

When you are bulimic in 1985, you lose a lot of jewelry in public restrooms. Rings mostly, bracelets and watches, all carefully removed in bathroom stalls and placed on any available flat surface, like the lid of the trash receptacle for feminine hygiene products or, if you’re lucky enough to find a large stall with its own sink, the built-in soap dish. In the moments before you make yourself throw up you are focused and careful, listening for others to leave the restroom, making sure your jewelry won’t be damaged or in the way. Just one more time, then no more today, you promise yourself. You break a lot of promises. And somehow in the breaking you become less careful, less attentive. You forget. It’s hard now to remember what was lost, though you feel certain your grandmother’s wedding ring went missing this way. When you think about the missing jewelry, you imagine so many precious things, piles of sentimental objects tossed aside in haste and then forgotten about. You do not forgive yourself the losing or the forgetting. You remember only one lost object—a small gold heart-shaped ring, your favorite at the time, gone forever because of your carelessness.

You forget so much—trains of thought, appointments, names. Your eating disorder is made of forgetting. You can’t even remember when, exactly, you started making yourself throw up, or why, only that bulimia is the natural next step in your dysfunctional relationship with food and your body. You are ready for it. You are expecting it. It is part of your story as the daughter and sister of alcoholics, so you march right into your first 12-step meeting as soon as you say to yourself I am bulimic now. But you can’t remember what made you decide to do it the first time or when the first time was. It is as if you have always been this way. You picture your reflection in the bathroom mirror—the look you gave yourself when you knew, your eyes red-rimmed and wet from gagging yourself—was it the first time? There have been so many such encounters with yourself in the mirror. Every time is the same.

1985—a year after we first met. He agreed to meet me. I don’t remember the details, though I imagine we must have spoken on the phone. Someone must have given me his number or given my number to him. I’d heard that he was in town, that things were not good with him. He was depressed, doing a lot of running, either taking a break from law school or a year off. The information pushed against what I knew, made me think of questions I did not want to ask. I thought I could rewrite us. I thought that if I could do that, if I could make him fit into a new story, then what went before wouldn’t count. It would be a first draft, full of mistakes, now revised. I did not expect him to be real. I did not expect to see him damaged.

I remember walking with him along the sidewalk near the sorority house where I lived, coming back from wherever I’d gone with him. Did we get coffee? Have dinner? Did we just take a walk in the dark night? He said very little. I did not recognize him this way, though I tried to conjure a feeling I may have had before, some idea of him I believed in once. I was committed to my revision plan, but it wasn’t going well. I began to feel uneasy.

He asked Why didn’t you answer my calls? Why did you just cut me off that way?

He knew what had happened. He understood what he’d done. I recognized and refused to accept this. I could not have him knowing. I could not have him saying it. I told him that I was bulimic, that I’d been struggling with eating disorders for years, that it wasn’t him. It was me.

He was skeptical. My story did not fit with the facts as he knew them, did not take into account what he remembered and I wanted to revise. He did not say what he remembered, however, and I did not say that I was revising. I just kept talking about how messed up I was. I told him I’d lasted only a month at Duke before bulimia caused me to give up and return home. I told him I was already damaged when I met him, that he had nothing to do with it.

My reassurance did not comfort him. He wore the same tired expression he’d worn all evening. I tried to salvage the fragments of my new narrative of us, but he wasn’t having it. He did not want to kiss me goodnight. He was lying to me about what he feared he’d done. I was lying to him, too, having removed myself entirely from what had happened. Neither of us found closure that night. He made it clear that I would not be seeing him again. There would be no new story to erase the old. Not only did my plan not work, it confirmed and deepened my selfcontempt. I didn’t want to know what was true, but it was clear that I would rather betray myself than say it.

We’d met at a graduation party at the large suburban home of one of my classmates. I remember cars snaking down the curved driveway and along the street in both directions, the house loud and crowded with teenagers. Having graduated from high school that week, I felt the familiar exhale of a school year ended, tinged with the promise of something new. He had come to the party with Stuart, a CMU student I’d met the year before at the Junior Prom after-party. That time Stuart had crashed the event with a different friend—Tommy—and later that night, just as the sky began to glow with dawn light and Tommy and I were fumbling around fully clothed in the front seat of his car, Stuart and my friend Colleen had fucked in the back seat. After that Stuart became the focus of many earnest conversations on the phone, in the cafeteria, huddled around open lockers and over slices of pizza on Friday nights. He never called Colleen, never wanted to see her again it seemed, and as friends consoled her and word got around, we learned that Stuart made a habit of trolling high school parties, that he’d slept with dozens of girls in our class and elsewhere, that all this time he’d had a steady girlfriend at another high school who knew nothing of any of this. I often wondered about her with a mixture of indignation and pity: I heard her name was Lisa, this clueless person who was both the cause of Colleen’s distress and the most wronged of Stuart’s many conquests.

So here was Stuart again, this time with another one of his friends, both of them done with their college semesters, back home in time to cruise some high school graduation parties. I don’t know what drew me to him, though I expect it had something to do with Tom Cruise. Risky Business had just come out, and this friend of Stuart’s shared Cruise’s tousled brown hair, short stature, sharp eyes. And maybe I was also looking for romance, scanning every crowd for the one boy who might see me, too. It did not occur to me then, as it does now, that he was too old to be at that party, his late arrival timed to coincide with the highest probability of finding a drunk teenage girl. Instead he found me. I remember worrying about Colleen’s inevitable reunion with Stuart, and perhaps that was the reason I ended up getting high in a car outside the party with Colleen, Stuart, and Stuart’s best friend from high school.

I’d never smoked a joint before. In the stuffy half-light of the car someone said something about how people never get high the first time they smoke. I wondered if I was doing it right. He was watching me, amused and perhaps just a little impatient. He’d supplied the pot, after all. I surveyed myself for signs that did not seem to appear. At some point he and I left Colleen and Stuart in the car and stood outside. He asked for my number and I understood that things had not worked out the way he wanted them to that night. Somehow this came across as chivalrous—he was willing to wait, to invest some more time in me. He kissed me there on a dark June night by a parked car outside a graduation party and promised to call me soon for a date.

I don’t remember what kind of car he drove—a Saab or a Volvo, not brand new but new enough to suggest it was his car, not one he shared with his parents or brother, a car given to him because he needed his own now, an indication of his place in the world, his promise. He walked up the steps to the front door and rang the bell. It felt official—real—not at all like the group flirting, the crushes, the occasional kisses that comprised most of my experience with the opposite sex. I’d had one high school boyfriend in 10th grade, and even then the closest we’d come to a real date in his late model station wagon included two other couples, one in the back seat, the other in the very back, all of us awkwardly eavesdropping on each other. This was different. He opened the passenger-side door for me. We must have gone to dinner, maybe to a movie. I remember only how it felt to sit next to him in his car, to be his date, the one he chose.

At some point in the evening he took me back to his parents’ house. It was large and modern, with expansive windows and sharp edges, tucked into the corner of a hidden cul-de-sac just off a boulevard lined with the stately homes of former industrialists. I remember the silence. No one was home. The tiled hallway was dark, only a few dim lights coming from the adjacent rooms. Did he offer to give me a tour? We must have gone upstairs because I remember how strange the industrial design of the staircase seemed, the stair treads floating up the wall to the second story. Was I looking at something when he disappeared into one of the bedrooms— family pictures on a hall table or museum-quality art on the wall? He had been there, and then he wasn’t, and I knew where he’d gone, and I knew I was supposed to follow him.

He was lying on his back in the middle of a large bed, relaxed, his hands behind his head, his ankles crossed. I thought Is this his room or his parents’ room? He said something I have forgotten, something about what was going to happen next. He had a plan. He thought it was my plan, too. He had undressed when I was in the hall. Was he naked? In his underwear? Nothing comes back but a surge of shame. I thought no, no, no, no, no—did I say it out loud? I left the room. I told him I wasn’t ready. I said Not tonight. Embarrassed, frustrated, he got dressed and drove me home. What’s wrong with you? he said.

You value yourself only as a body. For as long as you can remember it’s been this way. You are expected to get good grades, so when you get straight As they seem to have nothing really to do with you. You never think of yourself as smart or kind or fun. You are too thick around the middle. Your shoulders slump. You should cover your legs, your ass. You spend a lot of time not eating or pretending to eat. You lose a lot of weight, and when you are thin you feel better but also afraid of being found out.

He never mentions your body. When he finds fault, it is with you. He recognizes the person no one but you has ever seen, and he agrees with you. Something is wrong with her.

He did not come to my graduation ceremony, though he’d said he’d try. Afterward, I scanned the crowd in the large marbled foyer, hoping to see him there. I imagined him arriving late and out of breath, a last-minute bouquet in hand. This did not happen. Instead he called and offered to take me out to an expensive dinner to celebrate. I wore the nicest thing I had—a two piece dress with an elaborate lace collar—the same dress I’d worn to the Father-Daughter Dinner Dance earlier that year, where I’d practiced my table manners and danced for the first time the old fashioned way, learning to follow my dad’s lead while I stumbled and laughed and he said See? You’re a natural. The expensive restaurant was small and French. There were white linen tablecloths and silent busboys with crumbers. I understood that he wanted me to appreciate this. I felt briefly like an adult, on an adult date, in a social world my upbringing had prepared me to navigate. When the waiter asked if I’d like pepper on my salad, I said yes, please. I picked up my fork and felt something under the table. He’d taken off his shoe and was pressing against my crotch with his outstretched foot. I looked across the table at him, mortified, frozen. His toes kneaded me. Did I say anything? Scoot my chair back? I remember only that he compared me to Jennifer Beals in Flashdance, saying You’re the one whose supposed to be doing this to me.

Every encounter was a debate. He wanted sex, and he was not going to stop demanding it. Really? You’re 18 years old. Most girls your age have done it. What are you holding out for? I never had a good enough answer. I’d say not yet, meaning someday and eventually and not necessarily with you, and he’d detect weakness, doubt, malleability. These debates were not playful. There was no seduction. He was insistent, pressing his case every time we spoke. I never questioned the foundation of his argument, never considered that he had no rights to me. I dreaded seeing him yet never once thought to break up with him. It got so that he was always dissatisfied with me, but he kept calling, kept taking me out in his car. It never occurred to me to wonder why he did this when he didn’t even seem to like me; instead I thought only about how to hold him off. Eventually I agreed to give him a blow job, reasoning that it was not that different from the hand job I’d given to a summer boyfriend once and that it might satisfy him or at least buy time. This is how I thought about things then. He drove me through the park to a section of the public golf course where teenagers had parties on the weekends. We walked just far enough away not to be seen from the road. No one was around, but we were out in the open, the grass course stretching out in every direction. He stood over me. I did not know how to do it. All I could think about was my awkward and uncomfortable position on the grass. He was not happy with my performance. He grew more and more frustrated and annoyed until finally he pulled away from me. He masturbated the way someone might angrily finish someone else’s job, muttering about my incompetence as he zipped up his fly.

After the night on the golf course he seemed even more determined to convince me to have sex with him. Instead of recognizing my inexperience he was more skeptical of me. He doubted my motives. He suspected that I was lying to him, that no girl could be this inept. I understood that something was wrong and accepted that I was to blame. I don’t remember hating myself then, but I do remember his complaints like burdens I could not put down. I just wanted them to stop.

 

You forget the details of the things that happen to you as they happen. You understand that remembering matters, that telling helps, but forgetting is easier and self-contempt feels right. The bingeing and vomiting start to consume and define you. You joke in therapy that you’ve been majoring in Bulimia for three years. You turn 21. On your therapist’s advice, you check yourself into an intensive eating disorder treatment program in Cincinnati. You try to get better. You think that if you can remember the details, if you can just say the right words, the reasons why will be clear. You begin framing a story you can tell, and then you try to tell it. But you cannot make yourself understood. You are telling the wrong story. You tell it many times. No one can hear you, and eventually you stop telling it.

I thought it was a story about losing my virginity. My therapist said You did not lose anything. My closest confidant said What an asshole. Time to move on. I had agreed to it. There had been no physical struggle. I’d even changed my clothes first, gotten back into his car, gone to the golf course. It wasn’t like what happened to the girl in group therapy—her experience resonated with everyone in the room, all of us silent, listening. I recognized something in her words and tried to tell my story once more. What happened to you wasn’t rape, the group leader said, You’re just trying to get attention. Everyone around the circle agreed, including me. There had been no assault that night. Did I tell them about the burden of his disappointment in me?— that when I let go of my resistance and finally gave in to the pressure to have sex, I let go of my last good reason not to accept everything he’d ever said about me? Did I tell them I bled a lot?— that I didn’t realize what had happened until I saw a bloody hand print on my white shorts?—that I wrapped my sweatshirt around my waist and sat on my heels in the passenger seat of his Saab all the way home—that he said So you really were a virgin? I forgot to explain this to them—or I did not do a good job explaining—or they did not understand me.

I thought it was a story about betrayal, but not about me. When I asked him why Stuart cheated on his girlfriend with so many others, he shrugged and laughed and said that Stuart was different and special and had very particular needs—more than the average guy. I was skeptical but could find no good reply. Was this just the way of men? Was I naïve to expect anything different? No, this couldn’t be true. I held on to the conviction that Stuart was a no-good serial cheater whose day would come. And when Stuart walked into my sorority house over a year after I’d last seen him at that graduation party, when our eyes locked and I realized that my new friend and fellow pledge Lisa was the Lisa, Stuart’s clueless Lisa, the girl everyone in my high school felt sorry for, the girl who didn’t know, I knew I was going to make sure she did. And later, when I called Stuart to demand that he tell Lisa the truth, when he didn’t get angry or try to intimidate me but instead charmed me into forgetting why truth mattered, when I hung up the phone laughing at something funny he’d said, I hated myself. I got up, walked into her room, and told her everything.

I thought telling the Stuart story would make things right. It didn’t. Lisa broke up with Stuart, but nothing was better. I kept talking anyway. For years I told people this story about Stuart, drawing out his cavalier and sexist behavior, adding to the number of girls he slept with, emphasizing the fated coincidence of Lisa and me joining the same sorority at the same time. Every version of this story erased a detail, closed a door, locked it. Time passed, and the Saab disappeared. The house with its angles and windows faded, and the name of the private drive slipped away. I stopped saying his name, stopped identifying Stuart as my boyfriend’s best friend from high school, snipped the threads between the Stuart story and what happened to me until the last one broke. Later, after Stuart became a locally and then nationally famous visual artist, I’d offer the story as gossip, but the more I told it, the more it stuck in my throat. No one seemed to share my indignation anyway.

 

Despite your lack of remembering, you stop making yourself throw up in 1987. You do not forget the date, your first PIN number, an anniversary you mark every year. Your new life begins, and the story you tell now is about recovery and self-acceptance. You build a life with someone, a haven, and as long as you’re in it, you believe in revision. For a while you don’t even worry about what you are forgetting. When being around other people makes you hate yourself, you blame your eating disorder—you call it persistent body dysmorphia and retreat to your safe haven. You tell the mirror that you do not see yourself clearly. You don’t remember that you forget.


Nancy Quick Langer is a writer and college English teacher. Her essays have appeared in Flying South2017 (Winston-Salem Writers) and Watershed Review (2018). Her writing on family life with autism includes the blog series “not a man of words” (bethelcong.org) and “Sunday Morning” (Broken and Woken / August 2016). She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with her family.

Malocchio (The Curse)

1988

Before I had a chance to say hello, my mother’s voice shot through the phone. “You will never guess who called me.”

“Who?”

Indovina,” she said in Italian. Guess.

I settled the phone between my shoulder and ear and waited.

Non puoi indovinare,” she said. You can’t guess.

My interest was piqued, but only slightly. There was a remote possibility the call could somehow involve me – news about an old boyfriend or some gossip she’d heard about a friend – but more likely this was about her.

“No guesses,” I said, looking around my apartment making sure it was clean, even though there was no way my mother could possibly see through the phone.

She sighed in the exasperated way only I could make her sigh. “You never want to have fun,” she said. “Come on – guess.”

I sighed back – loudly and dramatically. “Just tell me, Mom.”

“Giuseppe,” she said, in a voice usually reserved for repeating the Our Father at mass.

I’d heard stories about Giuseppe for so long now, it was like hearing that a character in a book was coming to dinner.

“Giuseppe? How did he find you?”

“Oh, now you want to ask questions,” she said.

1980

At sixteen, I was crazy in love with a fellow high school thespian. Paul, older than me by a few critical years, was already planning a future where my name would be nothing more to him than an old listing in a playbill.

Over bowls of lukewarm queso and glasses of sweet tea, Paul told our regular group about his plans to leave San Antonio the week after his high school graduation. As he spoke, his blue eyes looked clear and fresh, like he’d just taken a long swim in a cool pool. My eyes looked toward the ground, as if I’d lost something everyone else had given up finding. Our friends nodded, in awe of Paul’s news. I tried not to give away how all of this was a surprise to me.

Back in my parent’s driveway, I reached for the door handle. “Wait,” Paul said. “I want to tell you something.”

I waited to hear how hard it would be for him to leave me. I waited for him to ask me to go to Europe with him. I’d have settled for an ‘I’m sorry. I couldn’t tell you this earlier because it made me too sad.’ I took my hand off the door handle.

“Once I land in Italy, I’m taking a train to Genoa to visit my grandfather. He’s been really sick, but imagine when he sees me. I haven’t told anyone yet. I want it to be a surprise.”

I nodded and looked out the side window. This was a guy who had never even planned a date night without my help. How had he done all of this on his own?

“You got nothing?” he said.

“Is this your grandfather who was in the circus?”

“Yep,” he said.

“He’s going to be really happy to see you.”

I walked into the house, ran straight to my mother’s bedroom, and began to cry.

Cosa non va,” she said from the bathroom? What’s wrong? Half her face was covered in Pond’s cold cream.

“Paul’s leaving in June and I’ll never see him again. He made all these plans I didn’t even know about. He told everyone tonight. Before he told me.”

She got into bed and covered us both with the bedspread. I put my head on her chest and listened to her heart beating calmly and gently, as if she’d wound it just for me.

“I know, I know,” she said over and over kissing the top of my head. “This feeling is terrible. Did you know I was in love with someone before I met your father? I was. And I never forgot him. We never forget the first hurt.”

The sound of the word we made me feel like a woman for the first time in my life.

“His name was Giuseppe,” she said.

1988

“He called you today?” I stretched out the phone cord so I could reach for my cigarettes on the coffee table. “Out of the blue?”

“Yes,” my mother said. “Out of the blue. He called me on Monday then I meeted him at Sizzler.”

“Wait,” I said, trying to light the cigarette as far away from the phone as I could. “Meeted him?” My mother’s third language was English and her tenses were never quite right. “You are going to meet him or you already did meet him?”

“Yesterday,” she said. “For lunch. Nadine came with me.”

Nadine. That this was the friend my mother chose to accompany her to Sizzler bothered me. Nadine and my mother became friends in Europe when I was six weeks old. Years later, Nadine’s husband and my father were both stationed in San Antonio, Texas.

Nadine was French in the way Bridget Bardot was French. She was elegant and glamorous and a little dangerous. Hours of my life had been spent eavesdropping while my mother talked to Nadine about her newest lover. Nadine was married to the same man she had been married to for years, and she had three daughters, but Nadine was not tame like my mother and the rest of her friends. My mother was no Nadine.

“What did he want?” I asked, purposefully not saying the name Giuseppe. I exhaled the smoke from my cigarette while covering the phone.

Ascolta tua madre,” she said. Listen to your mother. “Don’t smoke so much.” And then. “He wants my mother to break the curse she put on him.”

1980

In bed, with the lights off, I played with my mother’s wedding ring, twisting it around and around her finger.

“Was he handsome? Giuseppe?” His name was a new taste on my tongue.

“Yes,” she said, without hesitation. “He had dark hair and green eyes. I never met anyone with green eyes before that. And he was tall with big shoulders. I was so skinny that he could put me on top of one shoulder and carry me across the torrente in front of all his friends.”

It was easy to picture my mother serving as arm candy for a nineteen-year-old boy to carry across a creek. She had been beautiful with long wavy hair and perfectly curved lips.

Ecco!” she said. There you go! “You should have seen everyone laughing seeing me on top of his shoulder like a bird. Can you imagine if he tried to carry me today?”

I leaned onto my shoulder and looked at my mother. Her eyes were lit by the bathroom light. They were a light brown with so many specks of gold I used to think something had broken in them.

“You’re still beautiful, Mom.”

Come un porco,” she said, patting her stomach.

“You are not like a pig.” She put my hand on her stomach moving it along the curve of her belly, as if that would prove her point.

“I see who I am,” she said flatly. “No one will carry me on one shoulder again.”

I twisted her wedding ring again. “Did Nona ever meet him?”

Her mother, my nona, was a large, imposing woman who could have easily carried my mother over a creek on her own broad shoulders. While we lived out our lives in San Antonio, my nona was a heavy presence from Italy, looming in the background like the Pope.

“He came to our house once,” my mother said. “My parents were rude to him.”

“Why?”

“My father didn’t like that he was an American who might take me away. My mother hated him because she already knew he would break my heart.”

“How did she know?”

“Because mothers know these things.”

“Will Paul break my heart?”

“He already has,” she whispered.

1988

“A curse?” I said, in a voice as loud as the one my mother had used when she first called me.

E’ una lunga storia,” my mother said. It’s a long story. “I told you Giuseppe wanted to marry me, ‘e vero? In those days the Americans made soldiers who were younger than twenty-one get permission from their parents to marry foreign girls. Giuseppe went to California to get his parents to sign the papers. He never came back for me, recordi? I told you all this.”

“I remember.”

“What I didn’t tell you was that I had a nervous breakdown when he didn’t come back for me. I cried every day. I couldn’t eat for months. I got skinnier and skinnier and then my hair started falling out. My mother was mad at Giuseppe. She told Maria Santo she was putting a curse on him and his family. Maria Santo had a daughter who worked at the army base and the daughter told a soldier at the base about the curse and when that soldier went back to America he contacted Giuseppe and told him about the curse.”

“Why would Nona want to put a curse on his whole family?” I asked. “It seems like this was all Giuseppe’s fault. Even if his parents didn’t want to sign the papers, he could have told you the truth.”

“Your nona had some idea that when Giuseppe got back to America his parents said no to the marriage because they thought our family was trash – poor people. All she could think was the Americans believed we were using him for money. The longer he stayed away, the sicker I got, and the madder my mother was. She wanted Giuseppe’s family to suffer like we were suffering.”

“But a curse? Does anyone really believe in curses?”

Di sicuro,” she said. Of course. “Malocchio is a powerful thing. You know how people want to find something to blame when things are not good. Giuseppe had bad luck after he returned to America. His brother lost his leg in a car accident, his father had a heart attack, and his sister’s baby died right after it was born. Giuseppe decided all these things happened because of the curse. For a long time he didn’t have the money to go back to Italy, but a few years ago, after more and more bad luck for him and his family, he flew to Italy to look for my mother. Nona had already moved to Udine, but he found Maria Santo still in our village. Because he wore a nice suit and gave her some cash, Maria Santo told him where my mother lived. He went to Udine to beg her to call off the curse.”

“Did Nona remember him?”

“She said she knew him right away. He got on his knees and begged her for forgiveness. He brought her candy from the nicest store in Udine and a beautiful shawl from California.”

“That was pretty brave of him to go find Nona. That took some nerve.”

My Nona stood as tall as most men. I imagined her opening the door dressed in her usual black outfit with eyes as dark as her clothing. This was a woman who walked out of her front door and snapped a branch from a tree every day before she walked down her street. She claimed the branch served as a switch to keep the flies away, but in truth she wielded it like a weapon so no one would get in her way on the sidewalk. I hoped Giuseppe had been scared when she opened the door.

“Did she put a curse on his family, Mom?”

Forse sì, forse no,” she said. Maybe yes, maybe no. “But it doesn’t matter what is true – he thinks she put the curse. That’s enough.”

1980

“Mom,” I said. “I’ll never see Paul after he leaves. I just know it.”

“You can’t know that. It’s too soon in your life to know what will or will not be. Niente viene da niente. From nothing comes nothing. Today, you know nothing about tomorrow.”

The phone rang in the living room. My mother’s leg jumped a little, like she wanted to run and answer it.

“It’s probably Nadine,” I said.

“She always calls to say good night. Sometimes we fall asleep while talking.”

I laughed. I’d come home many nights to find my mother on the couch with the phone between a pillow and her ear, snoring. I snuggled closer to her. “I don’t know how, but you always make me feel better, Mommy.”

“Temporary,” she said. “You feel better now, but it’s going to hurt again tomorrow and the day after that and after that. But you are strong and beautiful and you have a good momma here to help you, va bene?”

“Yes,” I said, feeling sleepy.

“You are a better daughter than I was,” she said, looking up at the ceiling. “I understand the first boy – the first love. I take your feelings seriously. Okay? When I was hurt and crying, my mother called me putana. She said Giuseppe left because I was a whore.”

“What?” I said. “Nona is so mean.”

“It’s true, she can be mean, but she can also be right. If I’d listened to her in the first place I wouldn’t have been so hurt when he left. I did bad things with Giuseppe. I let him have sex with me in the fields behind our house. After, he said he still loved me, but we had more nights in the field so what else was he going to say? He went to San Francisco and I never heard from him again. Not a card, not a letter, niente. Like I was no better than a whore.”

We both stared at the ceiling. “I still believe he loved me in some way,” my mother said. “But now that I have your brother I understand how Giuseppe’s mother felt. A poor Italian girl was trying to come to America by trapping her son.”

“Wasn’t Giuseppe’s family Italian too?”

“Yes, but they were American first. His parents had never even been to Italy. They called him Joe. We called him Giuseppe. He said he liked it.”

I had never considered the difference between an Italian-American and Italians before. All of my mother’s friends had been born in Italy, except Nadine. They’d all married American soldiers. I hardly knew any Italian-Americans. Even Paul’s parents had come from Italy.

“My mother said that because I gave him sex too soon, Giuseppe thought I was not good enough to be a wife. I guess she was right in a way. If he wanted to find me again, he would have – mother or not.”

“How did Nona know you had sex with him?”

“I told her,” my mother said. “I was always so stupid. I even told your father before I got serious with him.”

“What?” I said, sitting up.

“I did. I thought he should know. E’giusto, no?”

“Well, sure. I mean I guess that’s fair, Mom, but what did Dad do when you told him?”

“He was mad,” she said. “He slapped me until I bled from my nose. When I went home with blood on my shirt my mother turned her head from me and made the sign of the cross. Colpa tua. My fault.”

“That is messed up, Mom. Dad hitting you was never your fault. Not now. Not then.”

“Easy to say now,” she said. “But I was young then. I didn’t think anyone would take me after I had sex with someone else.”

I kissed my mother’s hand over and over, but kissing her hand reminded me of earlier that night when Paul had been unwrapping the plans that didn’t include me. To get his attention I’d reached under the table and rubbed between his legs. He’d moved my hand away and continued talking.

When I walked to the bathroom, Paul followed me. As soon as the door closed, he locked it and grabbed me by the shoulders, slamming my back into the wall and into the bathroom hand dryer. While I was pinned by his body, he grabbed my breasts roughly.

“Is this what you want?” he said. “Is this the kind of attention you want from me?”

“Stop it,” I said, trying to push him back. My shoulder was aching from the dryer vent.

“Don’t act like that in front of people,” Paul said, pushing me into the wall with each word. “You’re better than that. You’re not a stupid whore.”

And though it should have been the opposite of how my mother felt about Giuseppe, it didn’t feel that way.

1988

“The curse was just an excuse,” I said. “He went to Italy to find you. He wanted to see you.”

“No,” my mother said. Her practical nature was so annoying. “All those years before, he could have found me if he tried. He went to Udine almost two years ago, but he just called me this week. He said he couldn’t call before because he was in the middle of a divorce. He has had a lot of bad luck with women. He’s been married and divorced four times. Can you imagine?”

“Stop,” I said, lighting another cigarette, not sure what I should unpack first. “Two years? You’ve known for two years he was looking for you?”

Certo che no. Of course not. Nona told me a few months ago when I went to Italy. She would never put something like that in a letter or say such a thing on the phone. Can you imagine if your father found out?”

I wasn’t sure what to think of a family matriarch who could keep a secret like this for two years.

A few weeks earlier I had flown from Dallas to visit my mother after she returned from her trip to Italy. While she got ready for bed, I sat on the toilet and waited.

“Hey,” I said, as she pulled her nightgown over her back. “What’s this?” There was a bruise the size of piece of bread below her shoulder.

She shrugged.

“What happened?” In years past she might have kept her secret. She’d have told me she bumped into the wall, or something had fallen off the shelf and hit her, or she’d slipped getting out of the tub.

Cosa importa?” she said, pulling her nightgown down. Why does it matter?

“It matters to me,” I said. “What did he do?”

“The night I came back from Italy, your father was tired when he picked me up from the airport. The traffic was bad and then when we got home there was nothing for me to cook him for dinner. He was upset and hit me with the back of his shoe.”

“Mom. You told that story all wrong. There was no reason for him to hit you – not that he was tired, not that the traffic was bad, not that there was no food.”

She shrugged her shoulders. “I should have thought before I left to have a little something ready for when I got home. He was nice enough to let me go to Italy for six weeks. Your father works hard.”

This was a version of the same conversation we would have forever. My father had an issue, he hit her. In her mind, if she had done one thing differently, she could have prevented the whole thing.

“You don’t have to stay with him anymore,” I said, over the sound of the toilet flushing so he couldn’t hear us. “We’re all out of the house. You can go.”

“I can never go,” she said. “You don’t understand. If I ever leave, he will kill me. He will never let me be happy. Never.”

“How do you know?”

“He told me years ago and he reminds me still today. If I leave, he will kill me. You’ve seen what he can do. So I am staying here and making the best of it.”

“You never told me,” I said.

“What could you do?”

“Did you hear me?” she said on the phone. I put my cigarette out and reached for another.

“Yes, I heard. Was he still handsome? Giuseppe?” I added his name as a gift to her after remembering the bruise on her shoulder.

“Yes. He is as tall as I remembered and he still has all his hair. It’s gray now, but distinguished, like Ed McMahon.”

I rolled my eyes. For some reason my mother thought Ed McMahon was the epitome of class.

“What did he think of you?”

“He said I needed to lose weight. He said I looked the same except I have a stomach.”

“I don’t like that.”

“Eh,” she said. “It might not be nice, but it’s true.”

“What did you do after he said that?”

“We were at the salad bar at Sizzler when he told me I shouldn’t put dressing on my salad because I had the stomach. Well that was it. There was no way I was going to let another man tell me what to do. So I took the white dressing that looks like glue – what do you call it?”

“Ranch.”

Si. Ranch. I took a big cup and poured it on my salad.”

“You hate Ranch dressing.”

“I decided I hate people telling me what to do more than I hate Ranch dressing.”

I put my cigarette out and tried to cough to hide the weird hiccupping noise coming from my gut.

“Are you crying?” my mother asked.

“I’m proud of you.”

“For putting dressing on my salad?”

“You stood up to him, Mom.”

“Ah – but that’s easy. I don’t owe him anything,” she said. “I will eat what I want in front of him.”

“What did Nadine think of all this?”

“Right before she dropped us off at his hotel, she winked at me. She thought he was handsome.”

“You went to a hotel with him?”

Allora, cosa ne pensate.” What do you think? “He wanted to talk in private about the curse, so I went.”

1980

“Mom?” I said. “I wasn’t better than you. I had sex with Paul”

“I know you did. I read your notes to Lisa.”

I thought about what I had put in writing. “Are you mad?”

“No,” she said. “I wish you weren’t so young, but I understand. You just have to be careful, you know?”

“Of course,” I said. “I’m not stupid.”

“Everyone is stupid sometimes,” she said. “Are you sorry you did it?”

I was sorry tonight had happened. I was sorry I’d grabbed between his legs. I was sorry about the bathroom. I was sorry I had taken it.

I was also sorry I couldn’t tell my mother the whole story. She had enough in her life to worry about.

“A little,” I admitted. “But only because he’s leaving anyway. I’m sad I’m not enough to keep him here.”

“See?” my mother said. “That was a stupid thing you said. Paul is young. He wants to try on life. He knows you fit him, but everyone loves new clothes. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong with the old ones.”

“That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, Mom.”

“It might be dumb, but it’s right. I would never tell you not to enjoy being with a boy. Just be careful. With your body and your heart. You are young and people make lots of mistakes when they are learning. Look how many accidents you had when you started to drive.”

“Maybe Giuseppe made a mistake when he left you, Mom. He was young too.”

“Maybe yes, but maybe no. There is a thin line between what we do and what we let happen.”

We got quiet. My mother’s breathing got louder. I thought about Paul and the bathroom and how I’d left feeling shamed. I’d let it happen to me. My shoulder throbbed and I figured there would be a bruise in a few days. When people asked me how it got there, what would I say?

I made a fist and held it against my forehead. I was not going to be my mother. I was never going to let anyone pin me against a wall again.

Without realizing it, I began building walls of my own.

1988

I wasn’t sure what to say to my mother next. She had gone to a hotel with a man she had once loved. She was married to a man who abused her and threatened to kill her. How could she put herself in danger like this?

“What did you say to him about the curse?”

“I said I would tell my mother to break it off.”

“And did you?”

“No. I’m not going to ask her if she put a curse. That would be rude.”

She had been in his hotel room. All they did was talk about the curse?

“Listen,” she said, before I could think. “Nadine took some pictures of me and Giuseppe at Sizzler. I want to mail them to you. Will you keep them so your father never sees them?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Your sister will lose them or I would ask her.”

“It’s no big deal,” I said. But it was such a big deal. If my father found out, what would he do? All of these years she had put her love into her children and now someone could take that away – either my father or Giuseppe. I felt like such an ass for wanting things to stay the way they were. We knew the rules – all of us. It made no sense to change things.

“Are you going to leave Daddy?” I never called him Daddy. Why had that come out?

“You know I can’t.”

“Would you if you could?”

“Yes,” she said. “Giuseppe is so much fun. He likes to dance and drink wine and he enjoys having people around. We could have a full life together. That’s all I ever wanted.”

“Well, I’m glad you had fun then,” I said. I’m not sure it was very kind. “Send me the pictures. I have to get ready for work now.”

Va bene. I love you,” she said. She wanted to say more. I could feel the words waiting in the air like dust after you’ve polished wood.

I should have asked her how it felt to be back in the arms of a man she’d loved so much she had lost her hair because of him. I wish I’d asked her how often she’d thought of him over the years. But I didn’t. I was too afraid to lose the only world I knew. It was all shit, but it was what I knew.

The pictures came in a box packed with the coffee flavored candy my mother knew I loved and a leather wallet. When I looked at the pictures, I was surprised by how small my mother looked next to the tall man with broad shoulders. He held her as if he could still carry her across a stream with one arm. In another picture, they stood in front of the Sizzler bull with his arm around her waist. She leaned into him like she knew exactly where to go. They looked like a couple. They looked happy. They looked natural, like maybe it was meant to be.

2011

When I call my sister, she answers on the second ring.

“I’m so sad,” I say.

“Why?” She yawns, as if she couldn’t be less interested.

“Do you remember those pictures of Mom and Giuseppe? Water got into my garage and now they’re ruined.”

“Mom is dead,” she says. “She won’t care.”

“But I do.”

“When was the last time you looked at those pictures?”

I had never looked at the pictures after my mom mailed them to me. A few times, when my mother came to visit me, I’d given her the leather wallet and watched as she went to another room with them.

“Did Mom have an affair with Giuseppe?”

“Of course she did,” my sister says. “Are you that naïve? I met him a few times too.”

“She never told me.” The sun went behind a cloud and I opened the blinds.

“Why would she tell you? She knew little Miss Perfect didn’t want to know.”

When my mother was eighty, I took her to the grocery store one afternoon.

“Guess what? I found a picture of your old house in Ciseris on Google Earth. I’ll show you later.”

“Oh,” she said. “You can do everything with that computer. Can you find my cousin Bruno in Belgium?”

“Where in Belgium, Mom?”

“I’m not sure.”

“We can try later. Would you ever want to look for Giuseppe?” My father had been dead for three years.

“Giuseppe is probably dead,” she said.

“What if he’s not?”

“He would be my age. Eighty-years old. What would we do?”

“Did things get better for his family after he thought your mother took away the curse?”

“He thought so, but the same things happened anyway. His mother died, his sister was in a bad accident, and he lost his job – that’s life. It’s normal for bad things to happen, curse or no curse.”

“Did he ever tell you he was sorry he never came back to marry you, Mom?”

“I didn’t ask,” she said. “No answer would have made me happy. Think about it.”

I put my hand on hers, imagining we were having a moment.

“You made me feel like my mother did when Giuseppe came back,” she said softly in Italian.

“What?”

“Nothing,” she said. “I was just thinking out loud.”

I let us both pretend I hadn’t heard her.


Denise Tolan’s work has appeared in journals such as Lunch TicketHobartStoryscapeThe Saturday Evening Post, and others. Her flash fiction, “Because You Are Dead” was included in 2018’s Best Small Fictions and she was a finalist for the 2018 International Literary Awards: Penelope Niven Prize in Nonfiction.

“Diagnosis”

Notice how cold your hand is. Under the armpit it goes. Enjoy the warmth. Sigh. Shift to the left against the arm of the chair. Your living room is quiet and you gaze into your book. Those plants in the big bay window are leaning toward the sun. Feel startled when your finger presses a hard lump, the size and consistency of a frozen pea. Start to worry when the lump won’t move as you push it with your finger. Try again. Fail again. Let anything but thoughts whiz through your head. Instead, freely allow shock, panic, disbelief, and denial to assume tornado proportions. You can’t possibly have cancer since you just had a mammogram and the doctor said you had nothing to worry about. Every shrink you’ve ever seen warned you not to get anxious, never to panic. Advise yourself to forget all about the lump. Forget your advice. Do you even have enough time to call the doctor? Isn’t her office closed? Focus on the ballet class you’re taking tomorrow morning. Remind yourself that if you call the doctor now, she’ll tell you to come in first thing, and you’ll miss ballet. Put your finger on the lump again. Find yourself unable to read.

 The funny version is the part where I tell my husband, whom I trust to stay calm when I can’t, about the lump and he shrugs: “Probably just some fatty tissue.” Like that cyst he had. Do I remember that cyst he had? My heart lightens, because I think he’s right. This gets us to the short version of this story, namely, “He’s wrong.” The vague version comes from the radiologist, who, when I ask whether he’s seeing cancer on that multi-colored three-dimensional ultrasound, wags his head and says, “60%, 40%.” His face seems to say I am rude to ask, although later I think his face really says he doesn’t want me to get mad if he’s not sure and inadvertently he gives me the wrong answer.

 Before I came down with cancer, I thought people like me who had breastfed three babies, always eaten steamed vegetables and salads, loved sex, gotten lots of exercise, been honest with themselves and enjoyed their lives, never got that disease. I imagined that overly worried or depressed people, people who pretended to love their husbands or mothers when really, they couldn’t stand them, people who suppressed their true desires: those people got cancer, and I even halfway thought they deserved it. After I got cancer, I decided that a bad divorce couldn’t, after all, have been the source of the cancer that infected, but never conquered, my good friend, who got the disease before me. I imagined she just had a gene that “flipped” as my surgeon said. Before cancer, I loved red wine and coffee. After cancer, I worried about the things I loved. I imagined pomegranate, ginger, garlic, blueberries, and avocado, along with my daily miracle aging pill, Letrozol, would all keep cancer at bay forever. I imagine that still.

 After cancer, I felt I’d won, since I got to keep my nipple. After treatment ended, I still had my entire breast, though there were eleven lymph nodes missing. A thin scar decorates the outer rim of the breast, extending into my armpit, but a bikini covers all. On the other side, a thicker scar shows where the metal port used to protrude, like a bolt from Frankenstein’s skull, from beneath my skin. I imagine that might show, slightly, if you were looking for it, under a bikini strap.

 You’d never know. The skin near the incision is still numb, and if I press on the area it hurts, but I can raise my hand high, and even extend my arm behind me; months went by before I could do that. Months will go by before the energy I mustered for the treatment returns; after cancer, you cry for no reason; before, you never did.


Melissa Knox’s book, Divorcing Mom: A Memoir of Psychoanalysis, is forthcoming from Cynren Press (Winter, 2019). Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Clarion Project, The Offbeat, The Other Journal, Concho River Review, The Wax Paper, The Mom Egg Review, and elsewhere. Find her blog here: http://www.thecriticalmom.blogspot.com

Pasty Furner, Two Houses Down

There were a lot of girls  named Patsy in 1954. I remember Fats Domino singing, “And I’m going to get me one.” I wish. Two houses up from ours in the opposite direction from the Dooley’s crematorium lived Jay Furner, his wife Mabel and their daughter Patsy. It’s hard to say how old Patsy was exactly. She was several years older than I and at least three grades higher. We never went to the same school together. She was slightly aloof and rather cool to most of her peers in Bestoville. This may have derived from her opinion that we were a shiftless lot, oafs and louts and no-accounts. If so, she was certainly right. More likely it was a shyness that caused her to turn her focus to horses in general and one horse in particular. Horses are easier to understand and deal with than people when all’s said and done.

From the front, driving along Rte. 50, Jay’s house looked like any other suburban house of the 1950’s. It was only when you came around the block and saw the backyard that you realized it  was more a farm or ranch. The backyard was completely fenced to keep the livestock in and the critters out. There were chickens in the backyard, and they weren’t for decoration like at Catherine and Roger’s: the eggs were gathered every morning. When a hen stopped laying, her life expectancy was until Sunday. Each fall in preparation for winter, Jay had the engine from a Chevy truck set up on blocks in the yard. The engine turned a large wheel which spun a ten foot long, twisted fan-belt (it resembled the mathematical symbol for infinity) that was connected to a smaller wheel  that turned a 36 inch saw blade. It was an infernal combustion machine if ever I saw one. The old Chevy engine had no muffler so when it was going full blast, it was  roaring one moment and moaning the next. The fan belt flapped and slapped against itself; and the saw blade hummed like a nursing mother until it was fed a log and then it screamed holy hell. I remember one Sunday being in the backyard with all hellzapoppin. Jay was at the helm of the murderous contraption making enough noise to wake the dead three miles away. Mabel, who was good country people like Jay, came out of the house and caught one of the menopausal hens, calmly walked over to the cross section of an old log which was used as a butcher block, pinned the hen down and with no further ado chopped off its head. The hen, minus its head, was clearly upset and leaped off the block before Mabel could subdue her. It proceeded to run faster than any living chicken I ever chased during my unreformed chicken-chasing-days. A chicken without a head, as you might imagine, runs into things: fences, barn doors and even a six-cylinder Chevy engine. The other chickens could  be heard voicing their general horror at the turn of events. I expected any second the shit would hit the fan when the chicken ran into the spinning saw blade, a sight I did not wish to witness. It was in that pandemonium of sights and sounds that it struck me what an attractive girl Patsy Furner really was. She was calmly stacking the rough cedar planks that Jay was running through the saw. She had work to do and did it. Saw blade buzzing, Chevy engine roaring, headless poultry pinballing within the fenced universe of her father’s making, these were to her the basic ingredients of life like flour, water, butter and bacon. She was wasted in this namby-pamby world of 1954. Homesteading in Montana, killing grizzly bears with axes, bearing babies alone in the back bedroom and preparing supper that same day before her man came home, these were the deeds she was meant to do. She was a hundred years too far down the wrong road.

Pasty was just right: not too thin and not too heavy. She was strong from all of the hard work that came with her life choices. She was probably my height or an inch taller, but so many of our encounters occurred while she was sitting on her horse with legs widely parted by the western saddle and her hands resting on the saddle horn holding the reins several feet above me that I always envisioned her much taller than she really was. I remember several years after this I had been invited to her birthday party and slowly over the course of the evening the other boys and girls had gone home. Finally, we were alone together at her house. There in her living-room, the same as my own, she came over with arms held out and asked me to dance. Our eyes met on the level. We were the same height.

People who love horses love horses. There is nothing to be done. No cure can save them. Patsy had come to her father several years before and told him she wanted a horse. He had hesitated only because he knew how much work and worry and money the ownership of a horse demanded. It became one’s whole life. He also knew his daughter. He knew how strong willed and determined she was. There was no real choice. They set to work on the garage at the back of the property and turned it into a barn with two stalls and a storage area for bales of hay and straw. When that was done, they set about finding a suitable horse. Seek and ye shall find.

The Furners were good neighbors and Patsy though rarely warm was never cold, and never gave me the impression my presence annoyed her. She was, though,  all too happy to bring up the name of Dick Dobbs, a horseman of course, who was closer to her own age. I was led to believe that this Dick Dobbs was bespangled with 4H  blue ribbons, first prizes and the Croix de Guerre presented by the thankful people of France for his magnificent equestrian skills. These skills had no parallels and he, she hinted, in good time would be her man. This of course tormented me with jealousy and  hopelessness. If horses, as I suspected, were the only way into her heart, then a lonely walk through life, not a cantor, awaited me. I became a more frequent visitor but it would be at least two years before I became heart sick over her. It is hard to court a girl on a horse when you’re four feet below, craning up and squinting into the blinding sun  just over her left shoulder.

If only we weren’t such fools, such cowards, and spoke our minds and emptied our hearts. Let all the parts fall where they may; we have our whole lives to pick up the pieces. How many loves, unspoken and unknown, drifted past on the tides of silence? How many hands  reached  out that never touched the other. How many lips with eyes closed never felt the hot press of the stranger, the unknown lover. For what but fear does our bed grow cold? And someone we knew, we loved, was waiting and is waiting still for eight little letters, two pronouns and a verb, a simple sentence to wrap our legs and arms around and not let go, no matter how high the water rises or how hard the wind blows: I love you.


Richard X. Bailey received his MFA from Bowling Green S.U. in 1973. He recently completed a childhood memoir,  Come October!, which recounts  the extraordinary  years of 1953 to 1959 and the part he played in helping to make them that way. Patsy Furner, Two Houses Down is a section from that memoir. For more information on his writing and photography visit www.rxbailey.com.

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.

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