Non-Fiction Archive


I ordered food I could not eat.

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


I ordered food I could not eat.

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

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

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


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


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


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


I can’t right now, I said.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


“Magic Kingdoms”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“An Orange Glow”

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

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

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

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

Under the oak they built a sandbox.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“To Love Him”

Tesia’s eyes were like a fly, bold and alert from the expression on my face. I had never heard my mom cry before. She was a strong woman, sometimes scary, and she commanded the house without question. So, as I sat across from Tesia silent with the phone to my ear, I was more in shock from my mother’s gurgled words than what she actually told me. I got up, phone still to my ear, and shoved my notebooks from the table into my bag.

Andrew hurry. The click of the phone was frantic.

“What’s going on?” Tesia asked, the stick of her DumDum swirling across her lips.

“I gotta go,” I said, adjusting my jacket. I wondered if the guilt I felt was plastered on my face. Either way, her embrace was comforting, and while I waited for my older brother Chris to leave his class, I had never felt more in need of consolation. His door slammed, and the frustration on his face was obvious. His soft hazel eyes juxtaposed the deep canyon crease in his forehead, arms tightly crossed.

“Dude, what the fuck? I just failed my quiz.” Chris and I were always taught failure is not an option; A’s are not a choice. Maybe he’ll understand.

“Ryan’s been in an accident,” I say.

“What kind of accident?” he said, arms uncomfortably dropping to his sides.

“The kind that ends at the hospital.”


When our Ford Focus whipped out of the Chaffey College parking lot, Chris’s eyes only left the road to check the clock on the dashboard. I knew what he was thinking, because I was thinking it too. Is mom timing us? It’s already been twenty minutes since I hung up the phone, and we are only passing the 15. “It’ll be at least another thirty before we reach Loma Linda. Tell her that.” The red taillights in front of us paced themselves, and while Chris’ grip on the steering wheel grew tighter from nervousness, my seatbelt reminded me of Tesia’s hug, her hands patting my back as if to say it’s ok, you didn’t know.

“Dude, she was crying,” I said. His eyes widened from surprise. I suspected his reaction was the face I made when I heard mom stumble over her words for the first time.

“And she didn’t tell you what happened?”

“ No. Just…” I couldn’t wrap my head around anything she told me. “Just to come to the ER at Loma Linda.” I felt irresponsible for not remembering. I knew keeping quiet was easier; he couldn’t judge me for my apathy. Chris was always hard to gauge. He was as distant to Ryan as I was, but if he received the call first, Chris, the rebel, worldly and relatable, would have turned into Superman and drifted across the sky like a lens flare to meet my parents in the lobby.

Ryan was always in his own world. When Chris and I would be up late studying for finals to top off another 4.0 semester, he was watching reruns of SpongeBob. While we were seventeen and twenty touring overseas under a record deal, he was fourteen, flooding the front yard watching the intricacies of the flowing water stream down the sidewalk. Everyday, he waited by the mailbox for hours to talk to neighbors about whose Christmas decorations were still up in April or how late the mail women was today.

It was never his fault. He was born that way, but I chose to accept it rather than understand it. As the car jolted with every acceleration of traffic, the shame in my stomach that usually dissolved in the acid only cut deeper on the long drive to the hospital.


The ER smelled like dry blood and rubber. People lined up cramped along the walls in wheel chairs and on gurneys. They all looked dazed, glossed over eyes never meeting mine. We ran up to the women behind the desk, idly typing away. She didn’t have any fucks left to give.

“Hi, we are here for Ryan Eames,” Chris said. “He been admitted to the ER.”

She skimmed her computer screen and looked up at us, her screen glaring across her glasses. “Down the hall, make a left.” She handed us stickers with the words guest on it. “Here.” The tone of her voice was deep, unmoved by the chaos around her. She was used to the rubber and blood. No matter how we left, she wouldn’t remember us, and I’d never felt so insignificant.

“Thanks.” Chris grabbed them, handed me one, and rushed down the hall. I followed behind, eying a drugged teenager on a gurney with his leg in a cast. He breathed so quietly, drowning out the cries and screams around the corner. When I passed him, he stared blankly at the wall. It didn’t matter if his eyes were open, everything was a jungle he turned his back to, and I was just another strange tree.

“Andrew, you made it.” My grandma’s crackled voice grabbed my attention, and as I collided into her one-armed embrace, I could tell she had been crying. “Your mom called, and oh God, Ryan…he just didn’t pay attention.”

“Did you see him, Gram Cracker?” I asked.

“No, but they’re all in there; Papa too,” she replied while pointing her good arm to the wall behind her. “I saw Chris came too. That’s good. He needs you both.”

“I know.”

I told her I’d be back to keep her company once I let everyone know I arrived. I was unclear if I said that to keep her company as Papa, the veteran, stood knee-deep in the action, or if I just couldn’t handle what was on the other side of that wall.

When I let go of her hand, I rounded the corner and saw my mom, grandfather, and Chris on one side of a room separated by a curtain. I stepped in.

“You’ll be ok Ryan,” Papa said to the back side of the curtain.

As I stepped further in the room, I saw Ryan’s weathered down Vans sticking off the edge of a gurney. They twitched incessantly. As my mom turned her head as a gut reaction to Ryan’s scream, she saw me and wiped her tears.

“Ryan, Andrew’s here too.” She motioned me to come closer, and I cautiously obliged. With each of my steps, I saw more of Ryan. He was unmistakable. His tanned legs squirmed, covered in hair and dirt from the showers he never took, and his ratted brown shorts he wore all summer were torn, as if a velociraptor has chased him down.

“Un-dwoo.” My named slurred from his mouth. I took my last step and looked up at his face the surgeon was sewing together.

His face was split down the middle horizontally. His top lip laid limp like a torn flag, separated into two halves beneath the base of his nose. The bridge of his nose, once round like a parrot beak, was flat as if the earth grated it down like it was nothing. He extended his bloody hand to me, shaking from the weight of his arm.

I grabbed his hand in mine, as my father held his other. I never touched his hand before. It was so coarse, from the sprinklers he dug out of the ground and weeds he pulled. And when he gripped my hand harder, still shaking, I wondered if my father noticed the same things.

“Yuh hewa Un-dwoo,” he said. His brown eyes were splattered red from his river tears, and as I stood in the ER, holding his nubby fingers in my palm, I was Simon of Cyrene, helping Ryan carry his cross. The mountain he faced felt so large, and all I could do was ease the burden of his climb. And beneath his blood-soaked hair, he didn’t remember all the times I wasn’t there; he only lived in the moment. This was the first time I saw my little brother, an extension of me, my blood across his disfigured face.

“Yes, I’m here Ryan,” I choked.

“Big brothers always come to rescue their little brothers,” the surgeon said beneath his mask. “Now, I’m going to give you another dose of anesthesia before I put your lips together, ok big man?

“Nuh shouts. Nuh. Nuh.” Ryan tried to shake his head, but all he could was clamp down on my hand.

“I have to give you a shot, big man. It’ll make you feel better.”

It wasn’t the surgeon’s fault. He couldn’t have known. The autism wasn’t as obvious as his lips. Shot was a bad word. Like fuck. To him, the surgical needle was less scary than the injection needle because when the doctor said stitch, Ryan thought of Disney Channel.

The surgeon turned to my father who stood unwavering in Ryan’s grip with a worried look in his eyes. “Sir, he’s eighteen. I don’t need parental consent to not prescribe the anesthesia, but, I’m asking if you’d like me to continue.”

My father nodded.

As the surgeon looped the needle through Ryan’s flesh, his body flailed like a drunken seagull. I never saw him react to pain before. When my mom noticed Ryan had sliced his hand as a child, he hid it in his pocket until his entire pant leg was bloodied and stained. He was afraid he would get in trouble. Like always. He stomached pain like an alcoholic. But here, beneath the white lights and his terrified audience, Ryan made it very apparent ever prick of the pinpoint hurt.

“Da-ee! Da-ee!”

“I’m here,” my father responded. “Daddy’s here.”

Every time the needle entered his lip, he screamed like clockwork.


And like clockwork, my father responded, “I’m here.” Even he, the man of men, patriarch of my life, let his tears puddle on the floor.

We stood in a semi-circle around the operation, trying to soothe his pain, his aches, the hurt he finally felt comfortable showing, because everyone in the room remembered that his body was eighteen, but his mind was seven. This was a child covered in the body of a man.

For the first time, I wanted to hug him. To love him. The love that I never gave him. I wanted to go back in time and jump between his face and the pavement he slammed into at forty miles a hour on his bike. I wanted to be his helmet. But I couldn’t. I was just a brother’s hand.


Jac Manfield is a published poet and fiction writer based in Southern California. In addition to being an internationally published songwriter, he is currently studying Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside. Jac’s latest project is a collection of short fiction titled “Anguish: A Collection of Short Stories.

“Pale Blue Eyes”

 The sun rose above Mount San Jacinto, east of Lake Elsinore. Fog drifted across the cold water and Sarah sat shotgun in the red mini-van while two boys sat in the back, including her boyfriend, Brendan. I was unsure about this love affair because they were both fifteen year-old autistic kids and Brendan spent all his time in the van sleeping while Sarah told me about anime that she watches, including her favorite; Hetalia: Axis Powers. When I heard them talk, it never went beyond what they were going to do that weekend or what they ate the night before. I’m not exactly sure what constitutes love, but they sounded more like two kids without any other friends.

Sarah asked me to change it to the 60s on 6 while she sat twirling a strand of brown hair and humming to the music. It was the only thing I knew that calmed her down on the bad days. She never listened to any contemporary songs, just oldies, her favorite band being the Beatles. Within the first couple beats of a song Sarah would name the band, song, and year it came out.

“The Lemon Pipers, Green Tambourine, 1968,” she said.

We drove down Lake Street towards the freeway. All the kids in the van watched the hordes of other children crossing the street towards a public elementary. The children outside of the van chased after each other or stood around lazily, avoiding another day at school. Sarah watched this scene everyday while being driven 26 miles to non-public school. I still wonder if Sarah got jealous seeing these kids heading to a “normal” school.

I picked up one more kid farther north in a small suburb. Sarah was unusually quiet that morning as we merged on to the 15 North towards Riverside. I saw her fumbling with her belt but I figured it was just on too tight. When I looked over again she had it wrapped around her neck twice, her eyes and jugular bulged and reddened. I pulled the van over and managed to take the pink nylon belt from her but her hands grabbed her throat next. She screamed, “I just want to fucking die. Just let me fucking die,” over and over.

If you look up Oxytocin on Wikipedia it will tell you that it is a mammalian neurohypophysial hormone that acts primarily as a neuromodulator in the brain. In other words, it is a hormone that is secreted during specific moments in an individual’s life. It also has a couple of nicknames – “The Love Hormone,” or, “The Bonding Hormone.” Sometimes it can be triggered with an action as simple as a hug or holding hands, sometimes it takes much more of an effort, like reaching an orgasm with a significant other.

Commuters tore down the 15. A yellow and blue call box sat next to the passenger side door of the mini-van. I pinned Sarah by the shoulders to her seat for over thirty minutes. The principal, Ms. Tony, was talking over the radio saying everything she could to calm her down. “Be rational, Sarah. This isn’t the behavior that will get you back to public school,” but nothing worked. Then Brendan decided he had something to say. He placed his hand on her shoulder. Sarah turned her head towards him and their eyes locked.

“I love you, Sarah.”

“Really?” she asked.

“Ever since the first time I laid eyes on you, I loved you. You’re beautiful”

I felt her body transform, go limp. She melted into the fabric and cushions of the seat. Her breathing slowed and she announced that she was ready to go to school. In the span of fifteen seconds she went from suicidal to totally relaxed, all after hearing those three words.

What causes that? Love?

Or could it just have been oxytocin flowing from her posterior pituitary gland.

A recent scientific study looked at the relationship between human interaction and hormones, trust and oxytocin. Individuals were given a “trust game” where one person, (the Investor) was given a sum of money and was told they could either keep it or share it with another person. If it was shared, the sum towards the person who received the gift was then tripled and that person had to choose whether to give any money back to the original investor. In this game, the initial investor is left with the question; do I trust or not trust?

In a second round of the game investors were given an oxytocin nasal spray. After the spray the investor’s decision to trust others with their money significantly increased.

There were more factors involved in this study, mainly dealing with the breaking of trust. After many rounds, investors were told that whenever they gave money away they were more likely to lose money. The people who received doses of oxytocin continued to spend regardless of knowing that they were more likely to lose what they were given. The oxytocin spray gave investors a larger inclination to trust other human beings.

It’s not easy working with kids and autism makes it more difficult. Many of these children have different triggers that can set them off; some hate being touched, others need things told to them in a very concrete and direct way. Sarah is no different. The one thing that sets Sarah off is trust.

One afternoon a few weeks after her attempted suicide I was driving her home. We just left school in downtown Riverside and were crawling on 14th street towards the 91 West.

Sarah spoke first, “Do you have my fuego Takis?”

“You’re what?”

“My Takis. You said if I didn’t cause any problems with Tommy in the morning for two weeks you would get me Takis. It’s been two weeks since you told me that.”

“Oh, right.” I completely forgot. When I told her that I figured it would make her happy for a day and then she would forget about it. That’s one of the many tactics my mom used on me growing up, but then again, I wasn’t autistic. “Well, I can get you some tomorrow. I just gotta check with the school that it’s okay.”

“So you’re not getting me Takis when you said you would?” She hit her head a couple of times on the window. I merged on to the freeway; a three car fender bender up ahead had the left lane shut down. “You’re not trustworthy,” Sarah said.

We didn’t talk the rest of the drive home. The next day I brought her the bag of Takis. For three more days I only got one-word answers or nothing from her.

Since Brendan told Sarah that he loved her he hasn’t asked how her day was or told her that she looks pretty or even uttered those three words again, but Sarah keeps telling me how in love they are. She looks past Brendan’s unwillingness to even talk to her just because he touched her and said, “I love you.” She trusts him.

Galactopoiesis is the name given for the maintenance of milk production and this is the stage where oxytocin comes in. This unique hormone contracts a smooth muscle layer of band-like cells around the alveoli to squeeze produced milk into the duct system that leads to the nipples.

When the child sucks on the nipple it tells the oxytocin to go to work on producing milk. This response can even be conditioned by the crying of the mother’s baby. The interesting thing about oxytocin is that it doesn’t just stay with the mother. It actually flows out with the milk; this is what causes relaxation and closeness for both the mother and child. It’s what gives oxytocin the nickname, “the Bonding Hormone.”

Oxytocin creates the bond between the two, a bond that some say is the strongest between two people.

Sarah lives with just her father. One afternoon on the drive home she was feeling pretty talkative while the other boys slept in the back. Mostly it was her telling me about what happened in the latest anime episode but that day, in between Otis Redding’s, Stand By Me, 1964, and The Beatles, Norwegian Wood, 1965, she told me about how her mother left her.

“I got grounded last night. I hate my dad’s girlfriend.”

“What did you do?” I looked at her to make sure she wasn’t trying to take her belt off.

“I ran away. Well, I went for a walk.”

“Which one was it?” I asked. We drove past Corona Lakes where the small mountain to the left reads, FISHING, in white rocks.

“I went for a walk to my parent’s old house across the street from Albertsons. The family that moved there still had the birdbath we bought and my neighbors were still there. They let me pet both of their Chihuahuas. We haven’t lived there in a couple of years.” She twisted a lock of her curly brown hair – a tick of hers whenever she got anxious.

“That sucks you got grounded,” I said.

“Yeah. My dad’s girlfriend is a bitch.”

Nothing was spoken for a while and she kept twisting her hair. I broke the silence; “Why did you move?”

“My mom left us. She used to always for just a few days. But she would always come back. One time when I was a baby she left me at her friend’s house. My dad didn’t even know I was over there.” She hit her head with an empty water bottle a couple of times.

We drove down the highway lined with eucalyptus trees towards her house. All I could say was, “I’m sorry.”

In order for a woman to deliver a baby her uterus has to contract repeatedly over a long period of time. These contractions are what pushes the fetus out of the body. The fetus, itself, actually stimulates the cervix and vagina which causes oxytocin to be released into the blood stream. This release of oxytocin enhances the contraction of the uterine walls and forces the baby out of the body.

It was two months after Sarah’s attempted suicide when I was driving her home. Brendan wasn’t in the van. The Shirelles were belting out, Mama Said, 1961; “Mama said there’ll be days like this / There’ll be days like this Mama said.”

Sarah had her black and white composition notebook sitting on her lap that read, “Sarah’s Drawing Diary. Don’t look! (Unless I let you.)” The writing ended with a pink heart that she drew herself.

“Do you want to see the drawing I’m working on?” she asked.

I nodded my head and cringed at the stream of brake lights ahead of me. Sarah opened up the book and flipped through pages filled with drawings of anime infants in Technicolor outfits and huge, oval eyes.

“So you like drawing babies?” I asked.

Sarah didn’t answer. She just kept thumbing from page to page. “Here. Here, this one is my favorite. She pushed the book closer so I could get a better look at the baby holding a rattler with a pacifier in her mouth. “Her name is Akari. Sometimes I make believe that she’s my kid.”

John Bowlby was a psychologist, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst who specialized in studying child development. His largest area of research involved ethology and human attachment behavior. He looked at how important the formation of emotional attachment at the infant stage of life contributed to the child’s development emotionally and personally. Bowlby concluded that an abrupt separation in a toddler’s life will lead to negative impacts on the child’s emotional and cognitive life. He believed that, from an evolutionary perspective, human beings have an innate drive to form close, affectionate bonds.

Since Bowlby’s time, his theories have become further proven, including his thoughts on separation from the mother. Studies have shown that in humans early maternal caregiving is associated with the development of the oxytocinergic system. Also, women who reported childhood emotional neglect showed reduced levels of cerebrospinal fluid oxytocin.


The sun was setting behind the Santa Ana mountain range, west of Lake Elsinore. The mountains were scarred black from a forest fire over the summer. It looked more like the surface of the moon. The radio wasn’t on.

“So I don’t think me and Brendan are together.”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, he doesn’t want me ever calling him babe.” She twisted a lock of her brown hair.

We drove past the lake. Water splashed onto the shore and it smelled like dead fish.

“I tried to hold his hand at school today and he wouldn’t let me. I’m pretty sure when he said, ‘I love you’ that one time he didn’t even mean it. He just wanted to calm me down.”

I turned on to Lake Drive. In the back of my mind I was just praying that nothing would happen. That she wouldn’t try to take her belt off. We were only a couple of miles from her house. “I’m sorry to hear that,” was all that I could stammer out.

“Whatever. This just means that I can play the field.”

“That’s one way to look at it. There’s plenty of fish in the sea.”

“Or in a lake,” she said. “You know Arvin who’s in the after school program with me? Well, we’ve been talking a lot. He’s pretty cute.”

We pulled into the neighborhood near her home. All the houses have balconies that look out over the stagnant water.

“You want to listen to any music?” I asked.

She turned the knobs to 60’s on 6 and waited for the song to play.

Abba’s, Dancing Queen, 1976 thundered through the speakers and Sarah sang; “Anybody could be that guy, Night is young and the music’s high, With a bit of rock music everything is fine, You’re in the mood for a dance, And when you get the chance…”

While oxytocin is known for creating feelings of love and bonding it is also being discovered in correlation with autism. More and more studies are beginning to discover that oxytocin may play a key role in the etiology of Autism Spectrum Disorder. They have discovered a link between the deletion of the genomic oxytocin receptor gene found within people with ASD. In other words, the oxytocin system might be involved in the impairment of social interaction and attachment in people with autism.

If autism is inhibiting oxytocin, what does this mean for someone like Sarah, who not only has autism but also suffers from an abrupt detachment from her own mother at a very young age? This might mean the interaction between Brendan and Sarah was true love.

I only know what Sarah tells me and just yesterday as we stopped at a red light on a hill and looked down across Lake Elsinore – the sun already set and little blinking lights from the many docks protruded like fluorescent fingers grabbing at the dead lake water, she told me something new.

“I’m dating Gregory, now.”

“Oh yeah? That’s cool.”

“Yep. He’s cute.”

She told me to have a good weekend as I pulled into her driveway. It had been three months since the incident and it almost felt like it never even happened. She opened the car door and paused in her seat.

“I don’t know if it’s serious with him, though. Who knows?” Sarah picked up her drawing diary and went inside her house.

It’s impossible for me to know whether it was love or oxytocin that convinced her to untighten the pink belt around her neck, but it was what she needed to hear. I might have been asking the wrong question all along. It’s not a matter of whether or not she feels love or if it is just some chemical, but how she has affected the world around her; how she has changed the way others think and feel. That’s love.

The other day I was driving down the 15 south, heading back home to San Diego and passed by a green road sign that read: “Lake Elsinore, Pop. 55,288.” The freeway sprawled ahead of me, only a few cars in sight as I sped up to 80, the windows down. Both sides of the concrete were covered in homes that sat on hills and I could barely make out the lake to the right. From far away the water actually looked blue, boats skimmed across. It was a picture worthy of a billboard.

My iPod was on shuffle and a new song came on. “The Velvet Underground, Pale Blue Eyes.” I said out loud. I picked up the phone and opened up the search browser, “1969,” I said.


Sean Frede is an undergraduate student at UC Riverside.

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