Non-Fiction Archive

First Apartment (St. Paul, 2013)

I met an FBI agent once. Tess and I opened the door to find a woman in a grey peacoat and a low ponytail. She looked about mid-20’s, medium height, and frazzled.

“Hello?” Tess said. The floor creaked as I peered over her shoulder.

“Hi, I’m with the FBI?” she said, showing us an ID on a lanyard.

“Um, I was wondering,” she continued, cringing a little at her own phrasing, “If you know anything about the woman who lived across the hall?”

“No, I’ve never seen her,” Tess answered. I shook my head in agreement.

The agent glanced at her notepad. “Are you sure? You haven’t seen her coming or going? Or talked to her in the hall?” she asked.

The three of us looked at the closed door down the wallpapered hall as if someone was about to appear there.

“I really don’t think so,” I said. Tess and I looked at each other. My memory started to falter, “I don’t know, maybe I saw her in the hall once?”

The agent left, and we never saw her again. We often mused about the encounter, how she wasn’t like FBI agents on TV. She seemed timid. She didn’t come with a partner. She wore a peacoat. No one we knew had ever met an FBI agent before, but we had within our first month of living in this apartment. Already we were learning new things.

“You look like an FBI agent,” Tess told me the next morning when I pulled on my peacoat to go to class.

 

The day our landlord showed us our new place, he said we were lucky. It happened to be the biggest apartment in the building with plenty of cabinet space and cute built-in bookshelves.

“My wife is jealous,” he said while we marveled at hardwood floors.

There was an electrical outlet in the shower and one L-shaped bedroom with no closet. There were sinkholes in the hallway carpeting. Tess whispered to me about the layers of white paint pulling away from the walls. We made our deposit on paper checks, feeling very adult about the whole thing.

Tess and I had lived on the same floor our freshman year of college, the year prior. I mistook her for an upperclassman for the first month I knew her because she didn’t have the frantic freshman vibe of I-need-a-friend-group-ASAP. We bonded over the fact that we were both still dating our high school boyfriends and once spent an afternoon watching 27 Dresses in the basement. Other than that, she wasn’t a core friend of mine. I wasn’t used to having close female friends, but that year I had found a cliquey group of Catholic girls and knitted myself into their group. They were the only ones I cared to impress, which is to say I didn’t expect anything from Tess.

We decided to live together because we both needed to live somewhere cheap. Neither of us were getting much financial help from our families—my father was an electrician and Tess’ was a philosophy professor. While most of our friends would be living in fresh smelling on-campus apartments, Tess and I would be in the grimy brick building across the street. We thought ourselves mysterious and bohemian in comparison.

Tess set up the WiFi. She figured out how to pay the utilities. Before moving in, she emailed me about furniture, appliances, and room layouts. She wanted to discuss the chandelier she was making out of cupcake liners and pushpins. I could feel her annoyance at my disinterest in the planning and shopping, but I liked giving in and being taken care of. Cooking utensils, plates, and appliances appeared when we needed them. She contacted maintenance dozens of times to my one. When we divided up chores, I told her I would never be able to take out the trash because I couldn’t stand the smell of the dumpster. I really said that, and I never took it out.

 

It was sweltering hot until it was freezing cold. Winter air shook the thin glass windows and seeped in through the cracks. Every so often, we were hit with a cold gust of air, and I would check to make sure the windows were actually closed. They always were. Tess shoved paper towels between the window and the sill.

There were a few reasons why that year marked a time of anxiety. I was lukewarm about my college major and my long-distance boyfriend. I would have preferred living with my friends on campus, but I couldn’t afford it. And that was the year I spent $40 a month on groceries. I would often wait to eat until my shifts at the restaurant, where I could eat for free, and I would eat Tess’ food: cereal, ramen, grapefruits, and Thai peanut sauce. Tess would eat my restaurant leftovers: grilled chicken, packets of salad dressing, and orange juice brought home in water bottles. I complained to my friends about her eating my food.

We were confused about how to live on our own. We paid for cable TV, even though we only watched Netflix and streamed America’s Next Top Model. We bought cable because we thought the Internet came “through” cable. Like you couldn’t have one without the other. When I set up Internet for the next place I lived, I was surprised to find out I could purchase Internet alone for half the price.

As we got into our semester routines, Tess made me coffee in the morning. We pretended to be old-fashioned housewives—“Oh I’m just pulling cookies out of the oven! Let me slip into a fresh dress!” We never actually made cookies; it was just something we said. She joined choir because I was in it. We walked to rehearsal together but never sat next to each other. I told her everything without a second thought because whatever, it was just Tess. We talked about getting a cat together and complained about our boyfriends. We applauded ourselves for finding this cheap gem, right across from the manicured lawns of our private university.

“I could live in a mansion for that much!” Tess would say about the cost of on-campus housing.

“That has to be the highest rent in the state of Minnesota,” I agreed.

When we ranted together, it warmed my insides. Like here was this person who understood my problems and could articulate them so smartly. Finally, someone who gets it.

 

“We should start a compost pile,” Tess announced.

“Where?” I asked. “In the alley?”

“No, like here.”

“Inside the apartment?” I said. “What? Tess, no. There would be fruit flies.”

Tess’ eyes drifted in thought.

“Tess, literally no. That’s not happening,” I said.

Several weeks later I swatted fruit flies away from my ear while sitting on the futon and couldn’t figure out where they came from.

 

Tess liked science, sports, agriculture, animals—everything I couldn’t care less about. She was a foot shorter than me with blue eyes and freckles. She got better grades than me without trying and had jobs like “Research Assistant” with flexible hours while I worked in food service. She could type emails in class then raise her hand to ask a super relevant and well-phrased question a second later. She was a tomboy and a daredevil. She had purple hair. She was messy, leaving coffee grounds in the sink and letting her betta’s fish tank go from yellow to green to darker green. “But they always do the same thing,” she would sigh when I invited her to hang out with my other friends. She barely slept more than five hours at a time and usually fell asleep on couches at parties while everyone was yelling and drinking around her.

I was studying business in lieu of wanting to be a writer. I made calculated decisions. I over-studied for exams. I erred on the side of safety in finances and opted to work weekends instead of going out. I was tall and lanky, and Tess made me feel like a disproportionate giant. I liked girly things, like reality TV and sweater dresses with tights. I rarely spoke in class and hated talking to people I just met, but around my friends I talked like I had no control over my mouth, spouting jokes, gossip, bad impressions, and secrets I’d promised myself not to reveal. I even talked in my sleep. I prioritized sleep over everything.

At some on-campus event, my friends were standing in a cluster cracking jokes at each other when I noticed Tess chatting with a group of strangers about existentialism. When I left for the night, she was talking to them about Descartes or Dante’s Inferno. There was something about Tess that I both envied and was disgusted by.

 

I was alone in the apartment the first time I saw a mouse. Cooking noodles with my bare feet against the speckled linoleum, I saw a skitter under the cabinets and a tail disappear under the radiator. I screamed like I saw a ghost.

“We need mousetraps,” I told Tess later.

“I don’t want to trap it,” she protested. She stuck out her lower lip like she was thinking of something cute and harmless. “I want to like, put food out and see if it comes back.”

“Tess!” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

We compromised by doing nothing. A few weeks later, we were cooking omelets in the kitchen, and a little brown mouse scurried across the floor towards our feet. We both jumped on a chair, screaming and hugging as it disappeared under the cabinets.

“See!” I yelled, still clutching her atop the chair.

“Uhh, I can’t believe I got so scared,” Tess said, her face red. “I usually don’t get scared like that.”

 

We both had boyfriends until we didn’t. We were dating our high school sweethearts attending colleges hours away. Our breakups were long and drawn out, punctuated by tearful make-out sessions and wondering if we’d made a mistake. In the late winter gloom, we decided to bounce back. We made a deal to pick new guys to have crushes on and focus our shared efforts there.

I chose this choir boy, whose roommate happened to like Tess. It was the perfect storm for spending a lot of time together with no productive outcome. After weeks of banter, the guys invited us over to their on-campus apartment for dinner. It felt good having a friend to go with. I doubted anyone else in the world would go somewhere just to help me flirt with a boy.

They made us French bread stuffed with layers of meat and cheese and mayo slathered from a gallon-sized tub—“This stuff never goes bad!” I was given the crusty end of the bread. There was no fathomable way to eat this in front of a crush, so I picked at it.

I wasn’t in the right mindset to be there, heartbroken, trying to flirt through a game of chess, and watching Tess show pictures of her trip to Costa Rica. I wanted to turn the choir boy into a loyal boyfriend like the one I’d lost. That night, Tess and I watched America’s Next Top Model on one side of her laptop screen while she typed an assignment on the other side.

Tess’ crush would be a guy from her rowing team. We devised a plan to start a beach volleyball team where they could get to know each other, but it snowed in late April, and by May all anyone cared about was finals.

 

It rained hard one night, which was how we found out about the leaks. Water sloshed all over the kitchen floor. Water dripped onto the top bunk where Tess slept. Wind rattled the windows by our heads. The next day Tess reported the leaks to maintenance, and they gave us a tube of caulk with instructions to return what was left over. We took turns filling in corners and cracks on the ceiling, knowing it wouldn’t make a difference. The ceiling sagged and dripped from nowhere in particular.

After the rain, Tess had a cold for three weeks straight. She rattled about the apartment, hacking her lungs out and dripping from her nose. Nothing could stop her though. When Tess was sick, she still did all the things she would have done if she was feeling normal. I marveled sleepily as she got up early for rowing practice. I watched the clock as she stayed out late with study groups at the library.

 

“Just so you know,” Tess had said during one of our first weeks living together. “Sometimes I get sick of people.”

“Oh,” I said.

“It hasn’t happened with you,” she smiled. “But sometimes it might be too much and I’ll have to leave or go on a walk or be like, I have to get out of here.”

“That makes sense,” I said.

For some reason, her telling me this made me feel loved. It sounded like she was saying I was different to her. Like, “I get sick of other people, but not you, Lizzie.” Now I realize that wasn’t what she said at all.

 

We were both fine until we weren’t. Several months after our breakups, we started to unravel. I barely left my bed for a week. I attended most of my classes, tearing up on the walk and sinking into bed the moment I returned. I called my friends, but they said not to come over because there was too much drama at their place. Tess cut her hair into a pixie and started staying out until four o’clock in the morning. She was never around, and even when she was, she was talking on the phone or falling asleep watching TV.

As we unraveled we grew further apart. We had no tolerance for the other’s crap. One of her chickens died at her childhood house, and I told her, “It’s just a bird, not a person.” Her words had a sarcastic edge or a dismissive, “sure, Lizzie.” She invited people over and served them my food in front of me. I began feverishly writing letters to my ex.

 

The morning of our choir concert, I woke to find the water off, the bathroom sink sputtering out its last drops. Tess was already gone. I threw on clothes and left for rehearsal, smelling like the dishes I’d washed at work the night before. Luckily I was able to shower at my friends’ place before the concert.

When I got back to the apartment, it was late afternoon, and I was feeling a little better. The water was just another funny thing, like the mice or the ceiling leaks. In a rare moment of confidence, I decided to talk to maintenance myself.

“Um, our water is turned off?” I said when I found the maintenance guy.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “We had to shut off the water.”

“Well, do you know when it will be back on?” I asked.

“By the end of today,” he said. I waited for him to explain further, but then his voice changed, “I think your girlfriend was down here earlier.”

“Tess?” I asked.

“Yeah.” He looked at me curiously.

It didn’t occur to me until halfway up the stairs that he thought we were a couple. I smiled to myself.

“Tess, I think maintenance thinks we’re like, together,” I said, flopping onto the futon next to her. I liked the idea of us being such close friends that someone might mistake us for lovers.

“Well did you correct him?” she snapped. “Did you say we’re just roommates?”

Tess was right. We hadn’t acted like friends in weeks. Maybe months. We just lived together.

 

What I most remember from our last days in the apartment is that we didn’t have money for toilet paper. I started stealing toilet paper rolls from work and only shared them reluctantly. At some point the apartment lost its charm. It no longer felt like a whole unit, only pieces: bunk beds, a futon, empty mousetraps, and Tess’ fish in dirty water. Her stuff and my stuff. We stopped talking about getting a cat together, and I got back with my ex-boyfriend. I complained about that apartment and Tess. I think she complained about me too.

Tess continued to live there after I moved into a house with my other friends. Our goodbye was overly pleasant, as if we realized too late that time would run out and the way we treated each other would be how things were. We promised to hang out over the summer, knowing we wouldn’t, and she had a new roommate by the fall. It took me a while to realize she had been hurt. Maybe it was the comments I had made or the times I dismissed her ideas. Maybe she heard how I talked about her to my friends. Maybe I relied on her too much to take care of me. I’d thought of her as an elevated person, unbreakable, the kind of person I wished I could be. I didn’t feel like apologizing until long after our year living together—after graduation and weddings, after my friends started calling her crazy over some guy drama, and after I’d stopped talking to all of them. But by then, I couldn’t think of anything specific to apologize for.

 

About a year after I moved out, I saw Tess at a karaoke night with this guy I heard she’d been dating. She looked pretty and happy, her hair still in a pixie. She wore a strapless dress and a new tattoo on her shoulder.

“By the way,” she said mischievously. “I had a secret compost in our apartment.”

“What?” I said. “Where?”

“Under the sink,” she shrugged with a smile.

“Seriously?” I laughed. “That actually explains a lot.”

We looked at each other a moment.

“Tess, you look amazing,” I said and touched her shoulder. Her eyes were icy blue and full of life. I wondered what I looked like to her.

 

 


Lizzie Lawson’s essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Identity Theory, Atticus Review, Gravel, and others. She is an MFA student at The Ohio State University and can be found at lizzielawson.com or on Twitter @lizziedoos.

Evidence, Niece and What You Will Become

Evidence

I know why I care about your final resting place. I’ve never found one suitable on this earth. I’m estranged from your impulses, and I’ve envious of your solitude. All the words in the world don’t soothe me.

What was last night’s dream is today’s fuzzy imperative. I’m a warrior that way. I don’t allow myself the clear narrative, the happy birth, the being late for an appointment or pickup that might mark me a man of this century.

What I predicted was a song, the music of good labor. I wait for minutes and seconds. I breathe the air.

 

Niece

The subject itself ushers in a lifetime of mediation. Who, rightfully, could rage on this capital? What is the disaster?

Here is where a part of my life becomes more blushed than the whole. Here are so many parts I kept inside until the whistle of the kettle.

I would love to laugh in kinship and queer the listening. It would be rich to rush the throat closed with bindings. Everything I notice, however, suggests we hike the medium point.

 

What You Will Become

When my heart grows great bushes, I worry I will worry about whether you will be able to march down the street and carry the flag of your resistance. I can’t be the guide of your motion. The oil knows nothing, like our bodies thrumming in this heat, our scars the last evidence of this planet.

 


Thomas Cook is an Editor and Publisher of Tammy. He lives in Los Angeles, CA and Galesburg, IL. His nonfiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Eastern Iowa Review, New World Writing, Rappahannock Review, and The Dead Mule: School of Southern Literature.

Start with the Presser Foot Down

How it possible to grow up in 3 different houses, each next door to the other? I cannot know if this is unusual. All I know is, everything I am, because of who she was—began at google.com/maps/place/197Magnolia Ave/San Bernardino.

A Mittyesque daydream pops out of nowhere. I am the star of a children’s dance troupe robed in lilac Double Georgette. In unison we float like clouds from stage left in our accentuated princess-style waistlines. Edith, our brilliant costume designer, watches like a hawk. Actually…she isn’t watching us, she is worried the arm seams might tear. Ta-pockita!

Map out a grid of dots on the fabric.

My mother could make lattice smocking from just looking at a photo. She would draw out a brilliantly measured pattern, cut, and then iron the fabric folds in place. Next, the piece would be carefully and loosely gathered on the machine. After a having a look, a second go-round with tighter stitching would be permanently sewn in. She made it all look so effortless, her sewing. Most of my creations were easy patterns that I always sought out and never graduated beyond, but my mother’s skills always improved; she seemed to have begun her sewing life at difficult. I never met another individual in my life so capable of achievement in being self-taught.

My dad described her as stubborn, but I always knew in my heart that was too simplistic. She was driven to creativity—not resting until she mastered things like a chair cover decorated with piping and dust ruffles. She had a work ethic that was relentless, a desire to form life from her hands, despite painful surgery in her right hand from an old ringer washing machine. Nothing slowed my mother down. Late into the night, I would wake to the light outside my door. There was no tv, no radio, only the soft sounds of seams being ripped out. In the morning before school, in her room, on the floor by her 2 sewing machines, were tiny bits of fabric dust and threads, where she had tried, failed, and then figured something out. On the mannequin form—a stunning dress would hang in victory!

I wished I could have told her, how wonderfully proud that made me feel, how her hard, silent work, and spot-on chalk lines, resulted in perfectly undetectable hems—that she did a great job—that her father who judged and hurt her spirit would be proud, that her perfectionist mind-set did not go to waste. It wasn’t possible to tell her then since I was only a kid. She can’t hear me typing, but I am telling her now.

I was a shy little girl raised in fabric stores—who didn’t talk much—but knew by touch, the difference between velvet and velveteen. I could describe three types of lining by age eight and knew how darts enhanced the fit of a blouse.

If your fabric has nap, the pattern requires you to buy a little more fabric.

My mother’s name was Edith. In the 60’s, we lived alone for 10 years in small apartments on Magnolia Avenue. On one particular corner lot, we lived in three different dwellings, moving every few years as they vacated, like graduating to a new class, from tiny to small to the last and largest, a 1920’s bungalow duplex that had a front and a back porch. The landlord/owner of all 3 units had become friends with my mother. You know Edith, he announced one day, Mrs. Malone moves out of the 2-bedroom next month, I think you would love those built in drawers! My mother had always made all our clothes, but once moved into the larger space, she also took in work for other women. I walked to school and took piano lessons and made pencil sketches near our black and white tv. It was my last apartment with her, as she would die of cancer right before my high school graduation—a place of both extreme creativity and immense pain that would shape my life (and my tiny dress-form) forever.

Fold fabric evenly.

My mother’s orderliness resulted in a pristine home, as well as perfectly placed and spaced button holes. If you veer from the guidelines, you could end up with button C being lined up with buttonhole B. I always believed those instructions kept her mind in order, it’s rules, a comfort that only an OCD brain can understand. Edith never took short cuts. She would stay up till 3 a.m. and prove that persistence in doing it right paid off. In her world, her solitude with me fast asleep, every perfectly placed hook and eye, was a survival guide to loneliness.

There were early mornings before school, I would tiptoe in my mother’s room (in case she was asleep) to see a completed dress ready for me to wear to school that day! That was so much better (she told me) than buying one off the rack. Nonetheless, as I held it up under my chin in the mirror, I believed her and was excited, even more so, if I had been allowed to select the fabric. My heart soared when trying them on the first time.

My dear Edith—always busy, never still if an unfinished project lay about. I stared at her endlessly, mesmerized by her cutting technique with pins in her mouth. And who, after being told she had roughly 3 years to live, accelerated her skills by a surprisingly purchased knitting machine. She enrolled in some classes and did very well, making sample swatches—taping them to scrapbooks for referral.

She never stopped, or gave up, or showed discouragement in front of me.

My mother was as remarkable as a delicate chain stitch. She memorized pattern guides and symbols, contemplating and studying them like scripture, while I would forget and had to reread the hated things until I could grasp them—the convoluted diagrams made my head spin. Edith was patient and made me feel as though the process would get easier.

Edith knew everything.

Always know your Selvages.

Before our journey to Magnolia Avenue, when I was in first grade, I was old enough to cut out the tissue pieces. Paper doll cutting had prepared my tiny nimble fingers for such duty to help my mother. I can still hear the rustling of the ultrathin paper, that could tear by simply breathing. By second grade, I was allowed to carefully iron (warm setting only) the wrinkles from the tissue. I was told where to stack the paper pieces after ironing. In third grade after the divorce was when we moved to Magnolia, and by fourth grade I helped pin pattern tissue to fabric, even though the temptation of pushing every pin (dozens of them) into the pin cushion ALL the way in was overwhelming at times. I tried to be careful. Edith did not tolerate too much playing around in the sewing room, which was good because I was now handling sharp scissors and helped cut small shapes.

Don’t get me started on the crazy scissor collection. To this day, I still have my mother’s pinking shears. There was nothing pink about them, and it was critical they be tack sharp—those weird jagged teeth—critical, I tell you!

By sixth grade, my mother began teaching me how to sew on the old Singer. The Pfaff, the newest of her machines, and the serger (the second oldest) were off limits, and as it played out, I never did sew on the last two. After my mother’s funeral, my aunt asked me to give her the Pfaff, and the serger was sold.

Some fabrics are unsuitable for obvious diagonals.

We had lots of visits to fabric stores. The first stop was always the giant pattern books full of colored drawings of women and children in thousands of styles. I was tiny, so my legs dangled in the large plastic chairs where the giant books laid open. You had to find an empty seat or wait for other women to get up. I tried to choose seats near Simplicity, a favorite pattern company. Another pick was Butterick (the pancakes and syrup one) and the girls in the drawings looked happy. We made flipping paper noises as we searched, but if you were too loud with the books, the other women might give you a stare.

I loved searching those pictures—mostly pale faced females posed 3 different ways, front, back—three-quarter view. Mannequins in print, making their sales pitch in watercolor gingham. We mostly avoided Vogue, regardless of how gorgeous. Vogue patterns were complex. Vogue patterns were rated ridiculous. Once my mother made up her mind, she wrote down the catalogue number from the book page and carried it to a huge filing cabinet of small packages stuffed in divided drawers. It was there I would close my eyes as my mother shuffled through. I mumbled while searching. Please, pleeease, let there be a child’s 6. Voila!

Next, we strolled among rows of fabric—fingertip heaven. All those bolts of cloth, my arm out stretched, like Tom Sawyer with a stick on a fence—my method—my hand, sampling the feel of a thousand threads, rough, soft, silky, stiff. As I walked between fabric bolts, touch, touch…touch. I made this playtime, but my mother used it to teach me their names. I would learn

to feel differences between taffeta and tulle, linen and silk, voile and nylon lining. It was pointed out and made abundantly clear how the choice of the wrong lining would ruin the entire drape.

Mother, agitated, This thread color won’t work at all. I need periwinkle. I sauntered down an aisle like a detective. Corduroy… I whispered to myself, cataloging it in my head. Wait. Mom! Come look at this one, pointing to a marvelous print.

Together we would wander up and down racks of tiny silver bits in packages, hooks, eyes, needles, snaps and pins; peg boards full of zippers and buttons in order by size and color, rainbows of threads. You might find five different shades of teal, and then the same color in various strengths or different textiles.

Edith always knew what was needed. For someone who barely finished high school, she had her own kind of sewing PHD. And she could envision the result, but it would take time; it would take many walks down aisles of solids and sheens.

Like magic, it would be time for the big table. While Edith waited for the cutter, creating separates in her head, I engaged in sensory play, smelling mixed perfume—seeing particles of cloth in the air, listening to the comforting, thump, thump, thump as the bolts were turned and measured.

I knew the rules: You must stand around a giant table and wait for the cutting lady who stands in the middle. When your turn comes, you may place all your bolts down and wait for the lady to ask questions. How many yards of the plaid? The sales lady pulled out a length for measuring. I knew my mother was pleased and would smile or nod in agreement, Better give me 2 ½ more yards of that one. Soon it would be time to go…thump.

I remember Edith fondly in taxicabs. She would fuss with her packages, inspecting the contents for reassurance and then rubbing her hands over fabrics while I popped Bazooka gum. I would stare up at her face, studying her mouth—the lines near her eyes, desiring to connect to her gaze. If I was cooperative and not too fidgety, I was sometimes rewarded by a comic book from SAGES (where she worked as a waitress) on that peaceful ride home. I wanted to please her so badly, so gum snap was kept to a minimum. When my mother was happy, it was enjoyable to be in her world. With each expedition, I realized over time, she was sharing her secret garden with me.

I bonded deeply with my mother in 100% cotton twill.

Check your bobbin.

There was such a sweet coming and going of women on Magnolia Avenue. With door wide open, they greeted my mother in low decibel chattering, and once inside, our couch became a stream of purses and sweaters. They were mostly but not always waitresses my mother worked with. I loved watching them stroll around, the lovely sound of soft laughter as they undressed to their slips. Ladies in full slips, with matching lace borders above the bra line and hems, sheer nylon in white—draping at the knee; someone would slip off a shoe, another would stand arms outstretched to be measured. Ladies in white slips—the uniform of perfect femininity. Sometimes, one of them would smile or wink at me. The room would fill with scents of powdery Avon perfume—the most wonderful memory of womanhood I have ever known; it comforted me endlessly.

After the fitting sessions, I remember the ladies leaving my mother with stacks of folded fabric and various sundries. The process would usually involve a final fitting before the garments were completed. It pains me I was never able to have photographs of so many beautiful creations. Some of them would involve a formal cocktail dress with a matching coat, the coat having a satin lining in a vibrant color. There was something thrilling to see a coat opened to reveal this lining and the visual excitement, as it is slipped off, and finally, the complimentary dress underneath. My mother created fashion experiences.

Keep your threads pulled back.

After she died, my mother’s love of making clothes became inextricably woven into the

way I viewed life, even though I never took to it as she had, I became hyperaware of

clothing details. After moving into a school dorm, shocked, I confronted my roommate. How on earth do you not own an iron? Aren’t you going to maintain the folds in that wool-blend pleated skirt?

A few years later as a maid of honor being fitted for a strapless dress, I warned the seamstress that her selection of chiffon and slippery lining would cause the bustline to sag. Eye roll. And so, it goes—in some distant place, I think my mother was laughing, as the entire female wedding party, arrayed in pink florals, when nobody was looking, spent the entire day tugging their bodices. That was the most exhausting experience of wearing one single dress, ever, even for a small chested girl. Dear pink dress: Say hello to Goodwill.

Seams do not hold well unless you check the tension.

As time went by, my own clothes making achievements failed to assimilate. I never mastered sewing like Edith, although, when my daughter was little, I enjoyed a few crafty-sewy projects. I managed to make a stuffed Easter rabbit doll, including its dress (on the old Singer, naturally) with lace and flowing satin ribbons. I taught myself embroidery in order to embellish the rabbit’s face using French knots. Although the dress turned out adequate, the rabbit resembled an alien. I discovered the doll a few years ago on the back of an old bunk bed. It stared at me with a creepy expression, and although it seemed questionable to give something scary to charity, I relented, sans the cute dress.

Don’t force the fabricfeed the fabric.

As my mother got sicker, but just in the last few months, the sewing was put away as she became too weak. I was surprised, after she passed away, when cleaning out drawers, the sheer volume of fabric and various remnants, notions, thread, zippers, and lace that had been packed away. She had her own small fabric store stash and would have found use for all of it, had there been time.

I still keep tucked away, a vision of Edith in that dark house late at night, a sliver of light emitting from her door; the sound of a machine starting—stopping—resting—starting again, each starting, a sleeve, a cuff—a labor of love. That unforgettable space, a boudoir of occasional clarity, and other times, a respite for pain. Embodying her fairy-godmother spirit, she made something out of nothing—shapeless threads became a ball gown. That sewing room, simple and unassuming, was her heaven on this earth.

Stitch 5/8” (1.5cm) seams unless otherwise stated.

I still have my mother’s small handheld seam ruler, a lovely dark navy blue with white numbering that is easily seen in dim light, and like the sewing room—the memories of it and her seem farther away than ever before. What I wouldn’t give to walk there one more time and see remnants on the floor—inhale her fragrance while she turns to me, grinning—the light in her eyes— a catchlight from her floor lamp. To see her lay down the pattern guide, reading glasses on nose tip, her gaze, inviting a squeeze. While I exhale from her comforting body heat—the steadfast adherence to self-discipline, never wavering spirit—the immensity of everything she embodied— all in the tiny space of our duplex, envelopes my soul.

One of my last memories on Magnolia avenue, was in the back room, as I, a seventeen-year-old about to graduate high school, opened a large bureau drawer to discover the most splendid coral knitted dress and matching sweater with fluted sleeves. My mother made and admired it but then tucked it away out of view. Perhaps she was saving if for me, or for a spectacular event; I never knew. But as it turned out, I chose the coral to be her very last fitting—and it was perfect.

Do not sew over pins. Edith taught me how to sew over pins! 

My old singer (her old singer) is now a table for my Keurig. Underneath the coffee pods, creamers and sugar bowls, sits a now silent lockstitch machine, made of solid steel, the one I was carefully instructed to oil at regular intervals. There in that dark place, resides a million more memories of Edith.

 


Marsha Leigh has been published by the Palo Alto Review as well as articles for American Airlines. Since retiring from the airline, she pursues writing, photography and digital painting and is a featured artist with Corel Painter software. She lives in Southern California with her husband and ragdoll cat.

Krag Krag, Sound of Crows

  1. The universe has a billion worlds centered by a holy mountain and ringed with wild oceans of teal— swooshing and crashing with the primordial pull of myriad moons. A trichiliocosm, with clusters of thousands of worlds.
  2. “Vibrating and vibrating—shig shig, quaking and quaking—yom yom, the vessel of the inanimate universe is shaking from all sides.” [1]
  3. In the Jungle of Nool, an elephant named Horton hears a wee noise, and finds a speck of dust that turns out to be a tiny planet with tiny people on it. Trying to prove their existence to outsiders, the people of miniscule Whoville make a ruckus, and “great gusts of loud racket rang high through the air. They rattled and shook the whole sky!” [2]
  4. According to Bön Buddhism, the indigenous religion of Tibet, there are spirits everywhere. They live in rocks and trees and waters, amongst the sounds of wind and the grumbling thunder. Uttering their names beckons the spirits near. But I cannot hear them. And I am not in Tibet. I am far from the eighty springs of turquoise where the spirits are appeased with smoke offerings of juniper and cedar. I am in my home office in Utica, NY, watching the Naga (sea creatures) ritual on a webinar streamed live by Chaphur Rinpoche (2019) from a Bön temple in San Francisco[3]. Thirty other people on the webinar send greetings and prayer emojis by chat from many time zones. A bell rings to summon the nagas, who politely breeze in when invited: “Bswo! Ha! Traveling spirits gather! Bswo! Ha! I invoke white lioness with the very big turquoise mane… I invoke the flying birds khro lo lo.”[4]
  5. My college-aged son is home visiting and he walks by my open door. What will he think , I think about me spending a Saturday mornings listening to religious chants? We are not religious people. I imagine that Terrin knows my thieving ways; I am searching for resonant lines, jarring translations, fragments of Himalayan mountain songs. While I dig through 11th century Tibetan ritual texts in my office, I can hear Terrin in his room next door editing beats from shavings of found sounds. I have missed his symphony of sounds: the drums in the basement, his marching band mellophone, his podcasts and movies and guitars. It is so quiet in my house these days that I can hear the cat jumping out of the litter box upstairs, and clumping down the steps one by one. I only realize that I talk to myself when he is home and asks me what I’ve said.
  6. Back on the live webinar, we learn that the nagas are half-human, half-fish. Chaphur Rinpoche reports that some nagas are formless. “If they had forms, there would not be enough room for them in our universe.” He laughs from his belly. The nagas are everywhere. Big, powerful nagas live in clouds. And there are tiny little nagas that live on the dew drops on the tips of blades of grass, maybe holding on and swaying in the wind. Nagas mostly sleep in winter but they are very active in summertime. He claps. “Don’t give them meat though. The nagas are vegetarian, I am sure,” Chaphur Rinpoche says. “They like milk mixed with water, or yogurt.”

Rinpoche rings the flat bell (sil nyen) and chants in Tibetan to the multitudes of naga— to the white, blue, maroon, yellow, and green nagas— a smoke offering. Rinpoche places the bell face up on the table, the Bön way, and invites us to offer smoke to the nagas of all the planets. To the nagas on every side of the mountain, in the water, rocks, and winds— a smoke offering. May all diseases of humans, cattle, horses, and sheep be resolved. Chant 108 times, or twenty-one times, or seven times. Blow across the top of the jewelled vase, add the pellets, cover the ritual vase with red fabric, and address the nagas: “O! All ye Nagas great and small I come not to harm you but to ask rain for the good of the world, and especially for this place… And if you do not [obey], then by my mantra spells I will break your heads to atoms” [5] May the spirits rain ambrosia, flowers, and soft healing rain down upon the worshippers.

Rinpoche tells us that late afternoon is a good time to offer milk tea to the nagas, by throwing the tea in the air towards the west. “O! O! We turn towards the western sun, to the celestial mansion where the sky is of turquoise…to the master of the sky.”[6] I look out my window and imagine throwing a cup of milk at my neighbor Ray’s house, with its old brown shingles and crumpled March leaves around it. I start daydreaming but am drawn back to the podcast when I hear Rinpoche laughing and saying that people pray for their yaks, “we need to change that.” I watch the recording back four times and still do not understand why it is a joke, and why it is funny. Rinpoche finishes chanting prayers to the 360 naga treasures and then sits in silence, hands clasped gently in front of his heart. Next, there is a technical problem and the webinar cuts out. I try to reconnect and it doesn’t work. I can see Rinpoche frozen in prayer, saying nothing.

  1. Listen! Listen carefully to me with the ears on the top of your head![7] In Tibet, sounds can challenge or appease, defile or purify, and sounds can liberate.[8]
  2. On recent trip to New York City, I meet a Tibetan woman on a train. I am going to an opera, which I don’t do. But it’s a special Tibetan opera and it has just enough Bön Buddhism in it to make me buy a ticket. I have been learning about Bön for my memoir, not sure yet how it will fit but confident that I can find a way to make it fit. We are just past the Albany/Rensselaer station, in an overheated train car, but the sun feels good flickering in and out of my eyes. An Asian woman about my age has been sleeping against her window on the other side of the aisle from me since I got on the train in Utica. There are no springs of turquoise, but there is the mighty Hudson River on our right. The trees rush by and I lose sight of the river, and its chunks of grey ice bouncing along, and then I see the water again. I am watching a YouTube video on my laptop about a Bön lama (priest) traveling across the mountains to India, but the wifi signal on the train keeps dropping. I close my eyes for a rest. When I open them again, the train lurches left and I see the woman across from me has spilled part of a hamburger out of her cardboard lunch tray and onto the floor. “Thank God the hot coffee didn’t burn anyone,” she says.

We start to talk and she asks me what I am doing in New York. “I am going to see a Tibetan opera.” I say.

“What? I am Tibetan! What will you see?” she asks.

“The Story of Milarepa. You want to come?” I tell her I have an extra ticket.

“I would like to, but I have work when I get back. I am a massage therapist and I already took my vacation going to Syracuse” she pouts, playfully.

She tells me her story of coming to the United States from Tibet as a refugee, and how hard it was to find herself in Queens as a teenager after growing up in a Boudhanath, a section of Kathmandu where Tibetan refugees have been living in exile for many decades. She tells me about a relationship with a wonderful man, her new apartment in Manhattan, her elderly mother, and her family’s hopes for her future. All she wants is peace for herself and all sentient beings.

The train stops to let people on and a man asks to sit next to her. She hesitates for a moment and then says comes across the aisle to sit next to me, apologizing to the man for moving. Once settled, she shows me a black cell phone that she found on her seat. She can’t open the phone because she doesn’t know the code, and so far no one has called. Eventually, the phone owner texts and gives an address in Utica. I tell my new friend that I can bring the phone back when I go home and she is so happy. “I like my small acts to be simple. Not a lot of strings attached. You don’t tire yourself out that way.” She is quiet for a minute, then picks up again. “I was so worried about the person whose phone it is. It’s terrible to lose your phone.”

Kunchuck tells me her name. She asks me if I like Nepali food. I say yes, that I love Nepali food. “You must come to my home tonight. Where are you staying?” I give her the name of my hotel and she says, “I can see that hotel from my window. It’s next door to me!” Not one to shy away from awkward social situations, I agree to go to her house for dinner. It’s a simple studio with a view of city rooftops and the light tan walls of my aging hotel. She has made a Nepali feast of fresh steaming rice and curried yellow lentils (dhal bhat), string beans with chicken, and a spicy pickled cucumber (achaar). We sit on the couch next to each other and eat with spoons. I try to think of something to say but then remind myself that it’s not necessary. She asks me if I am happy. I don’t know if she means right this minute or in an existential sense. Today I would say yes to both. I yawn, still tired from sitting on the hot train for five hours today. I give her a hug and thank her for the hospitality. She says, “I am not good at texting but when I am with someone, they have my all. Thank you for coming. I know we will meet again…” As I put on my coat, she says, “If you ever forget my name, just ask any Tibetan. It is Kunchuk, it means God.”

  1. Listen! The sound of the nostrils of the swift horses! [9]
  2. My one-mile walk over to the Tibetan Opera at the Prototype Festival is cold. New York City is so windy in January, and reminds me of the Belgian/French explorer Alexandra David-Neel and how cold she would have been traipsing across the frigid Tibetan plateau in the 1920s, seeking knowledge and adventure in the forbidden land. She often dressed as a local, and sometimes as a man, in a coat of animal skins and yak wool. I know how locals dress in New York— black— but on this trip I don’t bother. A hardy Central New Yorker, I have on my warmest fleece, an Irish wool hat that was a gift from my mother, and a leopard print scarf with flat white tufts of the finest quality cat hair buried in it. I buy some cough drops at a CVS across the street from the theater, just in case I need them, and then I find my seat, and take out a tissue. The man next to me, and well-known opera director named David, tells me he hasn’t had heat in his apartment since Thanksgiving, and now it’s mid January. He sniffles and borrows a tissue. “What is the sound of enlightenment?” asks the composer. The opera, “Mila, Great Sorcerer,”[10] warms us up immediately, with fiery sounds, passionate swirling backgrounds, and an audience of admirers of the opera, the Himalayas, Buddhism, and Milarepa. Mila, the bard. Mila, the sorcerer. Mila, the murderer. Mila, the repentant. Mila, the builder. Mila, the listener. Mila, the teacher. Mila, the poet. Mila, the saint. Mila, the beloved.

As a youth, Milarepa was called “Delightful to Hear,” and grew up singing. In the opera, Mila’s words in English are projected above the stage in soft, white letters. Mila’s father died and he had a horrible childhood, hurt by the greed of his extended family. The scene where Mila is losing a sense of himself and sings that his body has forgotten him is excruciating to watch, beautiful and tragic. I look up when he is singing, “Who is my enemy?” and see the response above is, “You will know your enemy by his putrid smell.” He knew he was trying to kill someone but can barely remember why. Unfortunately, he was convinced by his furious mother to take revenge upon his greedy family members by mercilessly killing 36 of them at a wedding. A humble barley farmer by origins, Mila was struck so heavily with remorse over what he had done that he went half crazy with guilt and sorrow. He heard about teacher on a high mountain who may be willing to teach him. He went there to the frozen and windy land clad in his thin cotton cloth from Nepal, and begs for teachings. Marpa, the Great Translator (1012-1097) did not let him off easily. Like Sisyphus and the massive rock he had to push uphill for eternity, Mila must build and rebuild and rebuild a new house by hand for Marpa. Every time it was complete, Marpa changed his mind and forced him to redo it. When his spirit was almost broken and his repentance clear, Marpa takes Mila as his disciple and teaches him how to follow the dharma teaching of the Buddha, and how to listen. I wonder if there is anything I have ever done that is unforgivable. If so, would I tell the Santa Ana Review about it? Has anyone done anything to me that is unforgivable? I am learning that it is the same thing.

  1. In many traditions, crows’ calls foretell the future: crows call out “lhong lhong” for luck, “krag krag” is for speed, “krog krog” brings a surprise friend, and trouble is predicted by “i’u i’u”.[11] Would only that had I listened to the crows. Would they have warned me of the dangers, illnesses, and loss that marked my middle age? Would they tell me what is going to happen next? After raising two stepchildren and a child of my own, I am so tired. For dozens of years, I danced in the laughter and talking, crying and singing, of those children, I celebrated the drumsets and the parties. And now, with none living in the house, silence soothes and heals. I watch the crows in my backyard trees in Utica. Should I be listening more carefully to their kaws and gaws?
  2. “Ha! I invoke the black yaks with the deep resonant sound. Ha! I invoke the lha [spirits] of the horses…I invoke the hundred thousand territory protector singers.”[12]
  3. There is a room in Minnesota that is silent, the quietest in the world. In fact, it measures negative for background noise. No one has been able to sit in the anechoic chamber in the dark for more than 45 minutes because it so unsettling to hear their own blood rushing through their bodies, and the sound of bones and tissue crunching and grinding together. “You become the sound.”[13] I wonder if the room can hear the parts of the body that have suffered, and what the pain of stillbirth sounds like, reverberating for decades and lifetimes.
  4. In March 2019, Nasa released the first sounds on Mars. At first, the recording was too low to be audible to the human ear. When the sounds were adjusted for humans, it was wind. “All songs in the world are in water, and only wind can bring them out”[14] said Palzang, the Wanderer.
  5. Lose a stallion, gain a dozen wild horses. Good luck, bad luck, who knows? Non-duality tells us not to judge anything too quickly. Like all things, chanting can be good or bad. In the past, people looked down on the Bön because of the magical power of their chants. Some said the Bönpos’ tongues became black or brown from chanting so many mantras. Tibetans still stick out their tongues to show respect and their innocent pink tongues.
  6. Listen! Do not set in motion idle talk and gossip! [15]
  7. When Bön lamas wanted to keep their teachings secret, the lamas hid the sacred books in caves, whispered them to the disciple, or transferred them directly from mind to mind. When I want to keep a secret, I bury it deep inside my body where no treasure revealer can unlock it. Where do you keep your secrets so that no one can hear? The early Bönpos had no paper so they used oxhide to take notes about founder Buddha Tenpa Shenrab’s teachings. Once during a fierce snowstorm, they had to cook and eat their books in order to stay alive. Now, the descendants still keep that knowledge in their stomachs. “When they are called upon to perform a ceremony they usually get drunk, which makes the knowledge in their stomachs rise to their heads, thus enabling them to chant the necessary texts which had been lost or otherwise forgotten.”[16] I picture these men lying on rocks and singing to the dakinis (sky-goers).
  8. “Your skull is an ear” tells the story about the patient who heard music in his head during an eye operation. His question was where did the sounds come from. The vibrations from the surgeons’ cutting of his eye’s vitreous gel were perceived by the patient as the most beautiful music he had ever heard. Constantly being tuned by the rest of the brain, the ear sometimes make sounds by triggering nerves by accident. Popping and buzzing sounds bounced off his skull. The patient recalled, “I become part of the sound.” We don’t think of this much but the body itself creates a murmur, a low-level hum. “We like to think that sound is ethereal, that it comes from some higher place, more refined dimension. Here for one trembling moment and gone the next. No, sound is meat. It’s flesh and blood and bone.” [17]
  9. In summertime, I impulsively buy a cello. And a beautiful wooden stand. They look so good in my living room. I reach page 4 in the practice book. In wintertime, my house is dry and the cello falls out of tune, the strings slipping. It sounds bad. Worse than my neighbor’s son on his trumpet.
  10. Celestial Grandmother Queen of the Heavens, your eyes are like the great star at dawn and you play the most lovely sounds on your drums, bells, and thigh bone trumpet. The sounds of a summer thunder anticipated across the dusty plain. Your body is decorated with beautiful ornaments and you are circled by one hundred thousand fairies. You ride a white lioness around the heavens and you are followed by a blue dragon. Are you the sound of the queen of winter?

I think about my grandmother, after whom I was named. Her children called her mother, and we called her, “Grandmother.” A formal type, she liked to drink tea and read at the table. I mostly knew her when I was a young child. Her green eyes were like a great star at dawn, and her admirers were many. I have a gift from her that is on my office wall at work. It’s a rubbing on cream colored paper that she brought back from a cruise to Thailand. It shows a Thai dancer naked but for a small skirt. I imagine Grandmother buying it from a mostly Thai-speaker vendor during a Laem Chabang port of call in Bangkok. I’ve seen pictures of my celestial grandmother dining and dancing while on that 70’s cruise, and she is laughing and surrounded by men. I remember visiting Grandmother at the cottage off the Long Island Sound, where she hurried me and my cousins out onto the porch to read, or better yet down the road to the beach where we would be quieter, less of a bother. She was legend in these parts because she feared little. When a huge wooden sign was erected on “her beach”, she tried to cut the sign down with a hand saw. Before the police came, she tucked the saw into her nightgown and walked gracefully down the path back home. When she was in her eighties, she and her 90-year old neighbor fought about their shared hedge, arguing and threatening each other without ceasing until one of them died. Does it matter if she was the cutter or the cuttee? They were both cut. They both died. I wasn’t there but I can hear the sound of the saw and the police sirens, and I can see it too— the saw, the nightgown, the cottage and the waters rising in the marsh out back, soft waves lapping against the crabgrass. Did I get any of this story right?

  1. Listen carefully, and incline the ear of your heart.[18]
  2. Grandmother would have adored the Milarepa opera. The New Yorkers with their black outfits, thick coats, high heels and perfumes. The bassoon and the violins. The culture. The gongs and the instruments handmade to sound like Nepal and Tibet. The deep voices and costumes, the conch shell signaling the beginning of the ritual. The thick wildness of it all, neither Tibetan nor classical, and both. I loved the long horns, the drums, and even the farting horns taunting Mila. On stage at the opera, Tsering Sherpa’s thangka scroll paintings in the background mesmerize me as the clouds and flames swirl around, coming ever so slowly to life. They take me back to my time in Nepal as an exchange student, and my longing to understand all that was bewildering. On stage, the handsome librettists sing back and forth to each other, “Listen to the stillness all around”.[19]
  3. My mom told me that she and her sisters called their mother, “Mother.” Once, my mother wrote her parents a letter from college that was addressed, “Hi, Folks.” Her mother wrote back and said, “We are not folks, and we do not address each other with Hi.” It is almost sixty years later and my mother still remembers that rebuke screeching off the page decades after her mother’s death. What must “Hi, Folks” have sounded like to her Grandmother?
  4. Everything is in motion, even our memories of events that we believe are true records of what was, hardly noticing the sneaky way memories themselves are in motion, forever moving away from what may have happened. [20]
  5. The five warrior seed syllables were the very first sounds in the universe: A, Om, Hung, Ram, and Dza. A is white and illustrates the clear desert sky with no clouds. Om is sunlight and is red, acting as flesh, the body. Hung mirrors sunlight and is blue, the likeness of the mind. Ram is red, virtuous, and ripening. Dza is green, representing the actions of enlightenment and effortless confidence. In addition to being healing, these sounds are the essence of enlightenment.[21]
  6. On the train on the way back from New York City, I run into my next-door neighbor Craig, who is a friend and fellow Phish fan. I offer Craig a ride home, because my son is picking me up at the station. On the way home, we drop by the house of the cell phone owner. There is no one home so I drop the phone off in the mailbox, sticking the phone out a bit so they will see it. The phone battery is dead and the karma cycle is complete, the way Kunchok likes it, with no loose ends.

 


Kathryn Stam is a professor of cultural anthropology at the SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Utica, NY. She likes to write about the people she has known in Thailand, Nepal, and Central New York, and the joys of getting to know the resettled refugees who are our newest neighbors and friends. 


[1] Forgues (2011), 191. Materials for the Study of Gesar Practices: A dissertation.

[2] Suess (1954). Horton Hears a Who. New York: Random House.

[3] Chaphur Rinpoche (2019). “Live Webinar about Naga Ritual.” San Francisco, CA: Gyalshen Institute.

[4] Ancient Bön invocation translated by Bellezza (2015), 31. “The Voice of the Gods in Upper Tibet.” in Czaja & Hazod, The Illuminating Mirror. Wiesbaden: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag.

[5] Waddell (1895), 499. Lamaism, or The Buddhism of Tibet. London: W.H. Allen & Co., Ltd.

[6] Waddell (1895), 519. Lamaism, or The Buddhism of Tibet. London: W.H. Allen & Co., Ltd.

[7] Bellezza (2015), 24. In Czaja & Hazod.

[8] Diemberger & Ramble, 2017. Tibetan Vibratory Connections: The effects of sound on living things and the environment. http://journals.openedition.org/terrain/16423 ; DOI : 10.4000/terrain.16423.

[9] Ancient Bön invocation translated by Bellezza (2015), 34, In Czaja & Hazod.

[10]Clearwater, Andrea (2019), http://prototypefestival.org/shows/mila-great-sorcerer/.

[11] Nishida (2014), 322. “Bird Divination in Old Tibetan Texts.” Kobe, Japan: Research Institute of Foreign Studies.

[12] Bellezza (2015), 29. “The Voice of the Gods in Upper Tibet.” In Czaja & Hazod.

[13] Eveleth (2013). “Earth’s Quietest Place Will Drive You Crazy in 45 Minutes.” Smithsonian.com.

[14] Diemberger & Ramble (2017). “Tibetan Vibratory Connections: The effects of sound on living things and the environment.” http://journals.openedition.org/terrain/16423 ; DOI : 10.4000/terrain.16423

[15] Forgues (2011), 224. Materials for the Study of Gesar Practices: A dissertation. Vienna, Austria: University of Vienna.

[16] Rock (1937), 174. Studies in Na-khi Literature. Bulletin de L’Ecole francaise d’Extreme-Orient. Hanoi, Vietnam.

[17] Rosenthal (2018). “Your skull is an ear.” Transom. https://transom.org/2018/your-skull-is-an-ear/.

[18] Neal (2017). “Listen carefully… And Include the Ear of your Heart.” https://www.wordonfire.org/resources/blog/listen-carefullyand-incline-the-ear-of-your-heart-rule-of-st-benedict/.

[19] Abrahams (2019). “A Milarepa Opera Offers an Ode to Stillness.” Tricycle. https://tricycle.org/trikedaily/milarepa-opera/.

[20] Corrigan, 2017. “Memory and Impermanence” in Insights by James Corrigan. http://levekunst.com/memory-and-impermanence/.

[21] Wangyal (2011). Tibetan Sound Healing. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

An Incomplete History of Parents

I.

I suppose we should start at the beginning.

Well, maybe not the very beginning—there are whole lives, entire worlds, that existed B.C. (before children), and I’m not concerned with those. While in the womb, you receive your mother’s life, not her Life. You get her blood and her prenatal vitamins and her lobster bisque cravings. What you don’t get is her first kiss. You, an embryo, do not hear stories about the first time she got drunk, the first time she had sex, or all the men who came before your father, should they exist. You don’t get the scary stuff, either; maybe those tales of fear and sadness and heartbreak and longing will find you someday, but not in the first nine months. You aren’t privy to her goals, her hopes and her dreams, which may or may not have included you. Those stories are not a part of your being; they’re a part of your mother’s. You do not have access to that sealed information because you are positioned among her stomach, her liver, her kidneys, her intestines, and other organs that we don’t write poetry about. While you may be on her mind, you are not growing within it; you are not in her heart; you are not in her soul.

My mother was 37 when she birthed me. There’s a term for that: geriatric pregnancy. Geriatric. At age 37. Who decides these things? I’ve heard from friends who think they’re nurses that any pregnancy beyond the age of 35 is considered dangerous; that there’s a higher probability for things to go wrong. I’m not saying that they’re wrong, and I’m not saying that there’s nothing wrong with me, but there isn’t.

What I’m saying is that twelve days before she was supposed to, with a toddler at home, and during the worst blizzard New England had seen in decades, my mother bore from between her own two legs a living, breathing human.

And what I’m asking is: is that not enough?

 

II.

My parents are architects. Their profession is the single thing that I can point to that has shaped me; built my likes and dislikes, trained my eye, caused me to pick up a pen. I know architecture from the outside. I have good taste—I can tell you what’s ugly and what’s pretty. I can list three famous architects, probably more, off the top of my head because I’ve seen their buildings and their drawings are hung, framed, above my mother’s drafting table. But I cannot tell you the theory, the why or the how behind our most-loved structures. I would probably fail physics. I don’t know how architects do it. I don’t know where those visions come from; I imagine it’s the same place that my sentences come from, but as for what makes theirs three-dimensional and mine linear? I can’t say.

I know my parents in a similar way. I know their history, mostly—I know that they’re from Indiana and some other places, that they met in Calculus, that they were married at 25 and have stayed that way—married, not 25—for 32 years now. Or is it 33? Don’t ask Mom, she can never do the math. But I cannot tell you their why, or their how. I don’t know what it is that makes them love each other so much, or at the very least, what’s made them stay married for 32 or 33 years. I can tell you what makes them good parents and what makes them bad ones, but I don’t understand the reasons for their respective successes and failures. I would say that it’s simply because they’re human, but they’re not. They’re parents.

I don’t know how they do it.

 

III.

Anatomy (n.):

The things that comprise us; the things within our beings; the things that make us whole. ex. Dad’s disbelief in fake Christmas trees; Mom’s conviction that a cheese plate constitutes a well-balanced meal; an unwavering faith in anything created by Leon Leonwood Bean; a proclivity for National Parks.

The things that you don’t realize are strange until you go elsewhere, and meet people who were not incubated within the same four walls as you. See: a hesitation toward maple syrup served cold; a disinterest in Disney World as a legitimate vacation; an obsessively organized dishwasher; “Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers” and “Guy Noir, Private Eye.”

  1. When you tried to buy curtains for your new apartment, and your roommate insisted that they were unnecessary because you “already had blinds,” and so you, dumbfounded, interrupted your internal debate between sheer and semi-sheer to explain to her, in the middle of Target, the pronounced difference between “curtains” and “blinds”; that one was harsh, and clinical; that the other was homey, and comfortable; that both were necessary. She, ultimately, found one to be “frivolous,” so you put both the sheer and the semi-sheer curtains back on the shelf and moved on to kitchen trashcans, still dumbfounded.

We don’t realize that our bodies are strange until we see others’. All of that hard work to avert your eyes from the naked older women walking confidently through the country club locker room. You, age 10, wondered if you could ever be that naked, and that confident. You would later find that indeed you could, just maybe not at the same time.

You were returning home one evening and, from the street, you saw your roommate, naked, through her bedroom window blinds; you ran upstairs and told her this is why you needed both the curtains and the blinds.

 

IV.

My father has been present for my entire life—more present, in fact, than my mother—so I’m not entirely sure why he hides in my writing. He never shows himself on the page; letters do not draw him in the same way that they draw my mother.

It’s probably because I am her. I am her stubbornness, her steadfastness. I am her affinity for black clothing; her gnawed-on cuticles; her blank notebooks, and her full ones, too. I am the lists she makes and the puzzles she solves; I am her packed and unpacked suitcases, her shoes you could catch a plane in, her deep love of itineraries, and her deeper love of throwing them out the window, entirely.

Words about my mother are the easiest to find, because though we’ve never been close, she’s been inside me for my whole life—it was just a matter of meeting her, around age 19 when the similarities were finally undeniable; were scary. She’s moved my hands across keys; my feet through the world; my heart through humans, and other loves. We traded places, you see, on that December night during the Blizzard of ’96: child in mother; mother into child.

 

 


Theresa Doolittle earned her B.A. in Writing and Communication from the University of Pittsburgh. Originally from Boston, Theresa is an avid photographer and intrepid traveler who sinks her teeth into art, architecture, and things that follow. Her words and art have previously appeared in Sidereal Magazine, and Zeniada. 

How to Lose Your Religion in 12 Easy Steps

  1. Grow up in a church. Go to Sunday school at Bulverde United Methodist church in San Antonio, Texas, where you cut out pictures of doves, sing along to “Jesus Loves Me,” and then whine to your parents about how boring your teacher is. At home, read a children’s Bible with illustrations of Adam and Eve, who are modestly covered by leaves. Say the Lord’s Prayer and say it with your family at the dinner table on Sundays, hands held and eyes closed. Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
  2. Listen to your parents fight about religion. When you’re ten and your dad decides to be Catholic but your mom is stays Protestant, eavesdrop them yelling “hypocrite!” and “sacrilege!” across the island counter in the kitchen. as they argue over which church to attend on Christmas. Try to decipher the differences between the two religions, when as far as you can tell they are both all about Jesus. Wish we could go back to the same boring church and not two different boring churches.
  3. Pray and wait for an answer. In fifth grade, when Jordan tells the other kids that you’re a lesbian for trying to hold her hand one time, go home and kneel in front of your window sill and ask God to make you feel better. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Even if the evil is a bully in your class. When weeks go by and you feel nothing, lay in bed wondering if God can’t hear you. Consider the possibility that maybe He loves everyone but you.
  4. Go to a Bible Study. Every Monday night, instead of reading Harry Potter and playing with your dog, attend your local Bible Study Fellowship with seventh graders from a different school. Sit quietly and do your Bible worksheets, but wish you were at home. Listen to the other kids gossip about Concordia Christian School, the private school they attend. Be somewhat offended when no one, not even your teacher, notices that you got braces and cut your hair.
  5. Have a really, really religious phase. Like church-three-times-a-week-religious. Please-Lord-I-want-to-be-a-pastor religious. Go to the Chrysalis Retreat, feel “filled by the spirit,” an feel smug that you are a better Christian than the rest of the ninth grade, like Ryan Gabelmann who has sex with her boyfriend. Watch them walk past and think hypocrites! and then remember that God doesn’t love you anymore than He loves them, and go sit in a graffitied bathroom stall for a while, feeling a little bit lonelier than before.
  6. Become a feminist. Learn about the National Organization of Women from your eleventh grade English teacher, Mrs. McDonald, who has a pixie hair cut and Maya Angelou quotes pinned on her bulletin board. Peruse articles online about the pay gap and slut shaming. Remember when your father explained why Catholic priests are all men and your boyfriend said that you drive “like a girl.” Look up Ephesians 5:22, which boys at school love to quote when girls get bossy: Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. Decide that you’re a Democrat, even though you’re not sure what a Democrat actually is.
  7. Get really depressed. In your final year of high school, sink into the shame you feel for liking girls, for not getting all A’s, for not being pretty enough. Pray sometimes and sing back-up in the worship band, but wonder what the point of praying is when it feels like yelling at a brick wall. In youth group, when the 23 year old youth pastor with a pierced nose explains that sadness and loneliness are a sign of distance from God, ask if the same is true for depression. When she says yes and suggests prayer and study, think of the ways you have tried. Think that it shouldn’t be this hard.
  8. Have a super religious best friend. Walk into your bedroom on a Friday night to see Caitlyn, seated with an open Bible in her lap. Watch the fire in her eyes when she tells you that she’s afraid for your soul because she heard that you and Ashley Samples kissed at a party. Try not to laugh while she reads Leviticus 18:22: You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. Thank her for her concern and quietly decide that after graduation you probably will never speak to Caitlyn again.
  9. Date a religious boy. Bask in your parents’ approval. When he tells you that your bi-sexuality is sinful, but that you can still go to heaven because you’re dating him, consider whether he’s been brainwashed or has just lost his damn mind. Come up with too-late retorts, like I may be half gay, but is your chronic masturbation the picture of Biblical morality? The night you finally leave him, scream in an empty parking lot outside of your dorm that you like girls and don’t fucking care what anyone says about it. Flip off the sky and toss a full styrofoam Whataburger cup onto the pavement. Then clean up the pieces of the cup, because you may be gay, but you don’t litter, for Christ’s sake.
  10. Attend your childhood church on your summer break. Roll your eyes when the pastor insists that humans are helpless without God. The next Sunday, tell your mom you’re too tired to get up for church. Stay in bed and binge watch The L-Word on Netflix.
  11. Go to yoga. Dismiss asanas and chakras as just more religion with rules and rituals you don’t want to follow. With every mention of the spirit, remember the Holy Trinity and feel resentment. Imagine spirituality that belongs to you, unregulated by some misogynist dude in robes and unhindered by kissing girls or smoking weed or being yourself. Breathe in the freedom.
  12. Give praying one more try. The day after your college graduation, after your friends and family have gone home and you’re left alone again, sit outside of your apartment in the grass, even though it’s slightly damp and you can feel mud soaking through your shorts. Look up at the sky. Stretch. Try praying again for the first time, differently now. Okay, Universe, you’ll think. Giggle slightly at yourself, but continue anyway. Let’s try this again.

 


Leta Rebecca Cunningham, an essayist and poet, is an University of North Texas alumni from Denton, Texas. She is a graduate of Pacific University’s Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. Her essay “My Mother’s Bread” won 1st place for personal essay at the 2016 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference as well as 1st place in the Humanities devision at UNT’s 2016 Scholar’s Day Student Conference. You can find her work in Ten Spurs Journal of Nonfiction, LiteraryMama.com, The Write Launch, The North Texas Review, and Transcend: A Literary Magazine. You can find her in bed cuddling her dog at almost anytime.

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.

Page 1 of 3