Meanwhile, Behind the Scenes…

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Stephanie “Baker” Lenz


Some journals have editors specific to each section, like a fiction editor or a poetry editor. Although we’ve kicked that idea around, when it comes down to it, Toasted Cheese‘s editorial board works best as a collective. Think of us as a virtual queen-free Borg cube floating through space, accepting submissions on a rolling basis and sponsoring four contests a year, only with more dancing bananas.

For us, working as a collective makes the editorial process easier. We recently compared notes and found that even though we work individually when making our editorial decisions, when we pool those decisions, we pretty much arrive at them the same way.

Each month, two of our editors do a preliminary sort and submissions are labeled “consider” “no” or “disqualified.” At this stage we notify everyone of the submission’s status; the authors receive an e-mail and the other editors remove all but the “consider” submissions from their reading lists. This saves time and gives the writers updates on the status of their submissions.

After a submission period closes, we read all of the “consider” submissions and then give each piece either a grade or a simple “yes,” “no” or “maybe.” Submissions labeled “maybe” or given a borderline grade are reread until they fit into “yes” or “no.”

How do you get on the “yes” list? We’re pretty simple people to please and I think most editors would agree with this little list:

  1. Follow the guidelines. For example, we ask that “submission: [category]” is the title of your e-mail. We do that so that our spam filters, which put many legitimate e-mails into the junk folder, recognize the e-mail as a submission. For example, Gmail’s “star” system might add a star to any e-mail with “submission” in the title. When going through hundred of daily spam messages, that little gold star will rescue a submission from junk mail purgatory.
  2. Write well. Many of us don’t even read cover letters. We skip straight to the good part: the submission itself. Your credits are nice to add to your biography when we print your story but we like to see “this is my first submission” just as much as a list of impressive journals.
  3. Proofread. Make sure the technical errors are eliminated (grammar, spelling, homophones, apostrophe usage, etc.). Multi-character glyphs are enough to make some editors stop reading.

Okay, you’ve done those three things. Now, how do you get the editor to keep reading? Here’s how the Toasted Cheese editorial collective defines quality:

  • Tight writing, without wasted words
  • Stories and poetry that cause genuine emotional reactions
  • Pieces that stay with us long after we’ve read them
  • Vibrant settings and characters
  • Interesting language
  • Evocative mood
  • Believability and, when applicable, realism
  • Fresh narrative voice
  • Good flow of ideas and words

What are good ways to turn the editors off? Use gratuitous sex, gratuitous violence, dead pets or dead children to shortcut to an emotion. Send us porn (some of us don’t mind reading erotica but we can’t publish it so it’s wasted time on all sides). Rhyme your poetry. Rebut your rejection (and submit again). Instead of bringing your story to a natural ending, cut it off when you near the word count. For contests, take an old or pre-written story and force the theme into it. Better yet, don’t use the theme throughout and then toss it in as a line of dialogue or the unexpected twist. Finally, throw in a character who doesn’t know he’s dead or, better yet, is a vampire!

What are our favorite things to read? It may be shocking but really bad submissions are high on the list. We don’t mean the stories by new writers who just haven’t learned the basics but stories and poems that seem to have some effort put into making them truly awful (or x-rated—always crowd-pleasers, those). When it comes down to it, however, our favorite things to read are piece that make us say “wow” or “yes” on first read. Flash, when it works, seems to have the greatest appeal for the editors, outside of the contests they run. We also like creative non-fiction when the “creative” element is showcased.

When it comes to our contests, things are the same but different. The grading and sorting system is similar but we all tend to be more lenient or forgiving with contest entries. Judges of our “Three Cheers and a Tiger” contests, in which the authors have 48 hours to write a story within a set word count and using a theme, tend to give writers a pass on some things because of the time constraint. After all, it’s part of the challenge. Contest entrants still need to follow those three steps and meet our definition of “quality writing.”

Each editor, whether reading a contest entry or a regular submission, is rooting for you, not against you. We want to publish your best work.

Being a collective, we don’t always agree on what should go in the e-zine. Sometimes a submission is “on the bubble,” as we say. If an editor really wants Toasted Cheese to publish a submission that’s in danger of being rejected, that editor can use an “editor’s pick” or “EP.” We invented the EP to rescue pieces that had at least one editor’s seal of approval. Because the EPs are based on personal taste and are more selective, they can show off work that’s a little less mainstream than what one might find in the average literary journal.

One thing we definitely agree on is that we don’t want Toasted Cheese to be “average.”

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E-mail: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com

Ideas

Best of the Boards
Liz Mierzejewski


Pictures fell and rolled
as she thought them.
On the ground behind her,
they drifted like dry ice
trails and eddies,
curling about her feet.
Tribes of half-done creations
fought and melted
in her retreating wake.

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Liz Mierzejewski is a middle school science teacher in Connecticut. Writing fiction is a recent fascination, including a successful 2006 NaNoWriMo. Just a few more dreams to be realized… E-mail: mizem55[at]yahoo.com

Shopska Salad

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Jinevrah Aljin


The beach is strange after rain—sand shifted, stones swallowed, landmarks changed, buried, submerged. It becomes unfamiliar, even to eyes that know it well, once the familiar has vanished, washed away into the sea, which alone is unchanging. We, however, cannot know what has changed. We are strangers here, my mother and I. This beach, this sea, are completely alien to us. This sea lacks the Mediterranean’s cerulean hues, those hints of emerald and amethyst flecked with gold, but it is sea nonetheless, and hence welcoming, comforting—a new lover chosen not for his allure, but because he reminds us of another, whose memory we are loath to relinquish. This is the Black Sea, and although I am sure that, in the sunlight, it would be of a blue that belied its name, we have seen only myriad shades of grey, for it has rained every day since our arrival.

Today promises no change. Dawn comes veiled by haze, blanketed in cream, blindfolded by yellow-white clouds that seem too heavy to remain suspended. As I watch from our hotel room window, they sink toward the horizon. We had paid extra for a sea view when we made our reservations, only to find ourselves relegated to a back room overlooking a mosquito-laden estuary. My mother had not wanted to let the matter lie, not even when offered a discount. It wasn’t about money. It was for me. She has brought me here to the Black Sea coast because today is my thirtieth birthday, and she wants very much for me to be happy, for it to be perfect, for she knows that my life has been far from perfect, and because she loves me, she wants to make it right.

I have sworn I will not indulge in the predictable glumness that seems an inevitable part of turning thirty. I want to be happy today, as much for her as for myself. Nonetheless, treacherous thoughts crept into my mind as I slept, before I could prevent it, and I woke with a lump in my throat. Waiting in the hotel room is not helping.

My mother is in the shower. I knock on the bathroom door.

“Yes?”

“I’m going for coffee. I’ll meet you in the dining room, on the terrace.”

“Okay. I’ll hurry.”

“Take your time.”

Everything on the buffet is labeled in Bulgarian, and only some things in English. I’m glad I can read the Cyrillic letters—I can pronounce the words, although I can only guess at what they mean. I fill a cup with sad coffee from an automatic machine and claim a table on the terrace, facing the beach. No one else is outside. The plastic curtains are flecked with water. Still, despite the cold, the slate sky, the thin coffee, I am happy to be here by the sea, any sea. I am so thankful to my mother for this.

She comes, dressed too lightly. We packed our suitcases for a beach vacation, and neither of us are prepared for this chill. She puts down her cup of tea and sits. “Happy birthday,” she says, taking my hand, and without meaning to, without even suspecting it was about to happen, I start to cry. Her smile disappears as completely as the sun behind these never-ending clouds.

“I’m sorry,” I say, “This is so cliché. I feel stupid.”

“You’re not stupid!” she says, squeezing my fingers. “Tell me.”

“I just can’t help thinking of all the things I wanted to have done by the time I was thirty. I promised myself that I would have a book published by now, and I haven’t even finished my first novel. Most people my age have a house, a job, a—”

“But you never wanted that, did you?” My mother knows my heart well.

“No,” I say, “I didn’t. I don’t. It’s just—coming back to live at home makes me feel like a failure.”

“You’re not a failure,” she says, defending me as sharply as nature’s most well-fanged mother. “I’m glad you’ve come home,” she says. “We can help you, like we never could before. You’re writing! Not spending your time bartending, living in those terrible apartments.”

The reasons I left New York still stand. My mother is right. So here I am, in Bulgaria. Of all the places I envisioned spending my thirtieth birthday, this one had never entered the most obscure antechamber of my mind.

“Best of all,” my mother says, bringing me back to the terrace, the grey waves, “I get to have you with me. We know each other so much better now than we ever did before. You’re my good friend.”

I look up. Her face is so earnest, so dear to me. “And you’re mine,” I say. She smiles, but she has never been able to remain impassive when her children cry, no matter how old we become.

“There’s one more thing,” I say. The beach is blurry, an undulating mirage through the plastic curtains, buckling in the biting breeze. “This is the first time I’ve been at the sea since that summer.”

“With…” she says his name softly, as though someone might overhear. My mother knows the story.

“Here at the sea, I can’t help but think of… I know it’s silly. I thought I’d put it behind me. Do you know what I realized, after I had packed my suitcase to come home? I had brought my diary from that summer, the photos of him, but not a single photo of Matthew*.”

“But don’t you love Matthew?”

“I don’t know anymore.” I look out at the sea, as though the answer might be written there, outside of myself, but I know the truth already, difficult as it is to admit. Love is terrible, implacable, consuming. Love is often treacherous, but it leaves no room for doubt. “I keep thinking, ‘What if that summer is all I will ever have?’ Then I think, ‘If it is, that’s all right.’ I knew more of love that summer than some people will ever know, and maybe I can be content with that. Maybe it’s enough.” As I say the words, I find that they are true.

“That’s so sad,” says my mother.

“I suppose,” I say, “but it’s all right.”

There is a silence. She is waiting to see if there is anything more. “Come on,” I say, “let’s get some breakfast.”

“Try to be happy today,” she says, her hand on mine still as I stand.

“I will,” I reply. “I am.”

We fill our plates with slices of cucumber, tomato, and cheese made from sheep’s milk, white, dense and moist. Its flavor is salty, both delicate and pungent. We have eaten it every day since we arrived. We return to the terrace to find the sun has fought its way out from behind the clouds. They retreat swiftly, exposing a sky of pale, fresh blue. We eat hurriedly, run to put on our swimsuits, neglected in our suitcases until now.

The attendant at the private beach speaks little English. He carries our rented chaise longues to the shore. The sand is soft and cold after so much rain and shadow. It is whiter even than my pale ankles and feet. My toes sink into it. I wriggle them down deeper.

We sit for a few minutes, then walk to the water. In the newborn sunlight, the blue of this sea gives the lie to its gloomy name. I put my sandy toes in the path of an incoming wave and gasp. “It’s so cold,” I shiver. In an instant it raises gooseflesh on my legs and arms. I laugh at the grimace on my mother’s face when she tests it. We return to our chaise longues. An hour passes, then two. We read our books. When I look up from the pages, I am content to watch the waves.

A young man comes toward us over the sand, purposeful. We wait, wondering what he wants. “English?” he asks.

“Yes,” says my mother.

“We have now game! Lesson. Bocce-ball. You want play?”

He works for the hotel. I glance over to where he has managed to gather a meager handful of guests. I feel sorry for him. He is, after all, trying to do his job, but I have no desire to play bocce-ball. “No, thank you,” I say.

“I’ll play,” says my mother.

I look at her in surprise. “Good!” the young man nods enthusiastically. “Fifteen minutes, we start. Okay?”

“Okay!” says my mother.

The young man walks away. “Bocce-ball?” I say.

“It could be fun,” my mother says. “I’ve always wanted to learn.”

I grin as she goes back to reading her book. In ten minutes she gets up to go. The young man is beckoning excitedly.

“Bocce-ball? Really?”

“Yes!”

There is nothing worthwhile in this world that my mother does not want to learn, and for her there is much that is worthwhile. She was born with an eager mind, a curious soul, a generous heart. Her hair is white and she looks very small as she walks away from me, and I feel a sudden pang of fierce love for her as she goes. I watch as she throws the ball. It misses its mark. I can tell, from the way she raises her hand to her mouth, that she is laughing. After a while, I gather our things and go over to watch. Soon I no longer feel the sun on my skin. I look up and find that a new battalion of clouds has mustered in the west. Its steady advance toward the sea has already obscured the fragile blue.

We walk along the waterline, barefoot, in search of lunch. Each hotel has a private beach, and each attempts to charm its guests in a different way. Some have wooden chaise longues, others shiny chrome. Some umbrellas are brightly striped canvas, others uniform red or blue. Some are woven of wicker, bamboo, even palm fronds. Everywhere the sand is the same—soft, white and clean. The Bulgarians have taken great care to make this place beautiful, attractive even to tourists from the West—of whom there are many, as the signs in German, French, and English attest. All is as clean and well-tended as civic pride can make it, so much more gracious than we, unfairly, anticipated.

We find a glass-enclosed café on the beach. We order shopska salad—the same thing we had for breakfast, but in a bowl. “I think this is the best thing I’ve ever eaten,” says my mother.

“It’s perfect.” I agree.

We’re not even sure how to spell its name, as every restaurant has transcribed the Cyrillic letters for “shopska” into our alphabet phonetically, however seems best to them. We have asked every waiter the name of this cheese, only to get the same, slightly puzzled, reply. “White cheese,” they shrug, the answer self-evident.

We will try to recreate this salad at home, using sheep’s cheese bought in Greek, Turkish, and Romanian delicatessens, but it will never be quite the same. Years will pass, and we will still reminisce about shopska salad, about Bulgaria.

After lunch, the threat of rain becomes more immediate, the clouds more substantial, but we refuse to let the mere idea of rain dampen this day. We have planned, since the day before, to rent bicycles. We will not be daunted.

We walk to the center of town. We stop to buy sweaters. I see white and orange sneakers. I love the bright mandarin orange, so cheerful my steps become lighter as soon as I try them on. I wear them out of the store. We buy beach towels with smiling dolphins, so that we will take a memory of Bulgaria to whatever sea we next visit.

We rent sturdy bicycles and set out along the coast. Eventually, the paved road becomes to dirt. At the farthest end of the resort we find a simple wood-paneled restaurant with a sea view. The men who work there make us laugh, and we tell them we will return for dinner. By the time we finish our coffee, it has begun to rain—just a few drops that kick up tiny exclamation points of dust from the road. “Should we keep going,” says my mother.

“Of course!”

The narrow dirt track hugs the restless sea. Soon we have left the resort far behind. We come to a café, lonely and incongruous. The owner watches us obliquely as we pass. His dog runs after us, teeth bared, until its chain snaps it back. This far place is not so friendly, not meant for tourists, but we are thrilled by its ruggedness, eager to see what lies beyond the high scrub that blocks our view at each turn.

There are no more beaches here—only boulders heaped between the road and the water, dropped there carelessly by some giant hand, held by their mutual weight, by chance or by gravity. The air is humid, pregnant with unborn rain. I round a curve to see my mother waiting, her feet planted on the ground to balance her bicycle. Unbridged emptiness, too wide to cross, stretches before us, where the road has collapsed into the sea. Suddenly I become aware of the loose boulders on the slopes above. The large stones that we swerved to avoid on our way deliver their belated warning to my mind. Still, we remain there, looking out over the sea. To the east the sky is clear, a surprising sapphire rendered more vivid by masses of dark cloud that lie like a lead dish over the resort that seems so far to the south of us, stretching along the curve of the distant beach. “We should head back,” I say.

“It’s a shame,” says my mother.

“It is,” I reply. My mother and I have both been graced with explorers’ souls.

We turn back. The road feels longer, now that we are racing the menace of those creeping black clouds. I watch the slopes above with growing apprehension, searching for any movement from the precarious rocks each time the thunder rolls—each time rolling closer. Finally we come to that last—or first—outpost of civilization. The guard dog barks viciously, straining at its chain once more as we pass. We pedal furiously. The first drops of rain begin to fall, and in the time it takes to regain the asphalt, the sky opens. With a deafening peal of thunder, the storm falls upon us. We ride through the rain, past Bulgarians who watch us, amused, from beneath shelter they had taken long before. We consume what little extra breath we have in laughter. We arrive at our hotel, drenched, shivering, exultant.

The storm offers a respite as evening falls, though armies of clouds remain camped, obstinately, in the sky. Lightning flashes far out over the sea as we ride into town to return our bicycles. The night-carnival of disco-music, karaoke, and spinning carousels has begun. We walk past booths selling crafts and trinkets. My mother buys us each a pair of silver earrings with mother-of-pearl. “For your birthday,” she says. I put them on, put the ones I had been wearing in my pocket. We buy mugs with seashells glued on them, the name of the resort, Albena, painted black above. We laugh at ourselves for it, not knowing, when we buy them, that we will use them for years, but only when we can have our tea together.

We walk the length of the resort to the restaurant where the asphalt ends. The waiters are so happy we have returned as promised. We are their first customers and, on such an inclement night, we might be their only ones.

We start with shopska salad, of course. Halfway through our meal, the storm renews its assault. We hear the waves beating on the rocks below, see them illuminated in flashes of lightning through the picture window. We laugh, we talk about all we have done today, promise each other we will return with my father and sister.

The waiters bring our desserts, and mine has a candle. Adding their thick Bulgarian accents to my mother’s alto voice—I listened to its lullabies before I could speak—they sing “Happy Birthday.” One waiter is older, the other young. They seem to think it makes perfect sense to ask us out for karaoke later. We decline. Later we will laugh about this, and laugh harder when we tell my father the story and see the look on his face.

One drenching is enough in a day, so we take a taxi back to our hotel. We fall into our beds, laughing. We sing snatches of nonsense songs, making up the words as we go, words that fit our adventures. The storm rages over the Black Sea.

“What will we do tomorrow?” asks my mother.

“Eat shopska salad?” I suggest.

“Of course. And rent bicycles?”

“Play bocce-ball?” I grin.

“It was fun!”

“We could always sing karaoke with the waiters,” I say.

“Ha! Right!” she says, and I can hear her smirking in the dark.

“Mom?”

“Yes?”

“Thank you. It was a perfect birthday.”

“Really?” she says. “I’m so glad.”

“Sweet dreams,” she adds, after a moment.

“You too.”

Silence.

“Can you believe those waiters really asked us out?” my mother says.

“Why wouldn’t they?” I say.

She laughs. It is contagious.

“Good night,” she says, finally.

“Good night,” I reply, but it will not be the last time we say it that night. It will be tomorrow before we stop retelling our adventures, pulling each other back from the brink of sleep time and again. The clouds clash, black above the sea. Inside, the darkness is punctuated by our sudden bursts of laughter.

*Name has been changed.

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Jennifer Delare worked as a translator, manuscript reviewer and magazine writer before deciding to dedicate herself to fiction. For the past seven years she has worked on various projects, from short stories to full length novels, funding her true work with day-jobs ranging from bartending to retail management. The daughter of a diplomat, she grew up traveling throughout western and eastern Europe, but has resided alternately in Italy and New York since 1990. She currently lives in Rome. Jinevrah Aljín is her pen name. E-mail: jdelare[at]gmail.com

The Final Wave

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Mary Wuerth


The road was rough and rutted, and at times they had to detour around potholes that would have engulfed the tiny rental car, but the beach here was primitive and untamed. Wild goats browsed the sparse grass. Startled by the car’s approach, they took to their heels. The terrain grew rockier, the wind rose and the sky took on a coppery glow as the car’s shadow straggled along behind them like a deflated parachute.

At a beach totally unlike the benign sugar-sanded stretches that they had been admiring all day, they stopped to read a sign: CAUTION! Hazardous Waves. No Surfing.

But wait, I’m jumping too far ahead in the story. Let’s go back to September.

*

He had been in Vietnam for seven months and they were beginning to think his R&R would never be approved. Twice it had been turned down and she could sense how low his spirits were. Their letters spoke of a feeling they shared that they were drifting off course.

Then the letter came that said: Guess what? I finally got my R&R approved today. I will leave here October ninth and go to Saigon and then fly to Hawaii on the 10th, your birthday. She stood reading the words, her emotions like the waves and dips of an EKG reading, pinging back and forth from eagerness to trepidation to eagerness, to eagerness, to eagerness.

Her hastily written reply was: This will be the best birthday of my entire life. It seems we’ve been apart for an eternity and I wonder, will you even recognize me?

There was so much to do and she had so many questions, but for each volley of questions there came a barrage of answers. Do you need new clothes? she asked, to which he replied: The only clothes I have to take are two pairs of pants (one has paint on the legs), two paisley shirts (one with a big hole), one dress shirt and my old loafers. Please write and tell me you are as excited as I am.

Should I bring your sport coat and what clothes will I need? And what about birth control? (She’d been off the pill since he left.) His reply: Bring my sport coat if you think we’ll be going somewhere nice. For yourself, be sure to bring your swimsuit and summer clothes and since it’s too late for you to go on the pill, bring some of the foam stuff. I forget what it’s called.

Nearly 22 years old and she had never flown before. During the day she frightened herself inventing new scenarios on how the plane would crash into the Pacific. By night she was plagued with nightmares from which she woke with the sensation of careening helplessly through space. In one dream the plane slid silently into the water and sank, fish swimming alongside, goggling at her through the windows. Rest and Relaxation? So far it had been Anxiety and Aggravation.

But then on the second of October he wrote: I am so excited about seeing you next week I don’t know what to do. I wish I could go to sleep and wake up in Hawaii. It seems like next week is so far away.

The night she left a friend took her to dinner and to a movie to get her mind off flying. She barely sampled the spaghetti, absent-mindedly moving the mound of pasta from one side of the plate to the other and rolling the napkin into a tight tube that she wove back and forth through her fingers. She drank the restaurant’s complimentary glass of rose and gratefully accepted her friend’s as well. Later she would have absolutely no recollection of the movie they sat through.

On the way to the airport the temperature sign at the savings and loan showed 28 degrees, weather more suitable for December. She shivered and stifled a burp; the butterflies from earlier in the day had been replaced by a bag of roofing nails that churned uneasily in her stomach.

At the airport she got flustered when they called the flight, couldn’t find her purse, found her purse, would have left her head sitting on the bench if it hadn’t been attached, but remembered at the last moment to hand over her coat for safekeeping. She wouldn’t need it where she was going.

The engines revved and whined and the plane vibrated menacingly as they rose into the air. Below twinkled the lights of Council Bluffs, Iowa and then the plane banked sharply, one wing pointing tipsily toward the Missouri River, before leveling out and heading west. Within minutes the lights of Omaha had receded and she was picking out the illuminations of farmhouses that grew more and more sparse as they neared the Rockies. She marveled at moonlit rivers and streams: capillaries of quicksilver against a crumpled tapestry of black velvet. With a blue United Airlines blanket pulled to her chin and warm air hissing comfortingly from an overhead vent, the plane’s cabin felt as cozy as a pup tent. She slept.

The predawn hours found her sitting bleary-eyed in the passenger terminal at the Los Angeles Airport waiting to continue on the next leg of the journey. Her throat felt scratchy and her nose ran. The previous day she had tried to ignore hints that a cold was coming on, but now it was a certainty and she thought ruefully of how bad the timing was.

The flight to Honolulu was intended to be jolly. The cabin stewards’ white slacks and Hawaiian shirts did add a festive touch, but their leis gave off a sweet scent that made her think of funerals. They circulated with breakfast trays and steaming coffee. Later, though it was barely eight a.m., they came down the aisle, perky and efficient, with stubby green bottles of champagne and poured freely into their plastic cups. On the first round she was wounded that they had judged her underage and passed her by. On the second round she spoke up. The champagne was sour, raw tasting, but the bubbles brought a temporary soothing to her throat.

Finally the pilot came on the intercom sounding as though he’d just been roused from a nap. “We’re starting our final descent, folks. The temperature in Honolulu is 80 degrees. Aloha and welcome to the Land of Eternal Summer.”

She stepped into the blinding light and fragrant, earthy smells of a tropical morning. Jostled by the crowd at the luggage carousel, she felt perspiration start to slide down her sides and wondered what she could have been thinking when she picked a red corduroy suit and black turtleneck to wear. She removed the jacket and calculated how many hours it had been since she applied deodorant. Following his instructions, she took a shuttle bus to Fort De Russy, site of the Maluhia Service Club, referred to in the brochure as “your gateway to R&R.”

The building was teeming with nervous women, all waiting for their men to arrive. Painstakingly-applied makeup showed the ravages of their travels and carefully-coifed hair was under constant siege from the big ceiling fans that churned the sultry air. Looks of commiseration passed among them. Most of the women wore pastel-colored summer frocks, and in her turtleneck she felt like Nanook of the North. Repeated trips to the ladies’ room yielded reams of toilet paper for blowing her nose, which was now taking on a hue not unlike the color of her skirt. On the jukebox Mick Jagger punched out the words to “Paint It Black.”

Nearly two hours later she was sharing a table with a woman from San Antonio who, jazzed up on a potent mixture of adrenaline and strong coffee, did a filibuster on her three-year-old daughter Amy. The woman rummaged in her purse for a wallet that spilled an accordion-fold of baby photos and proffered a bottle of Aspirin.

Two plane loads of men from Saigon had moved through. Witnessing reunions that deserved to take place in private, she felt she should divert her eyes, yet found herself staring in fascination. Laughter and catcalls greeted a fat woman who got up such a head of steam as she ran to meet her husband that she bowled him off his feet and sent his hat flying.

Men from the third plane were beginning to straggle in and there he was. At first she didn’t recognize him; he was thin and the contours of his face had altered to reveal jutting cheekbones and a pinched look about the eyes. And he was so deeply tanned. She ran to him and pressed her face into the front of his combat shirt, then lifted it to receive a kiss.

Yes, she knew they had received the special R&R rate, but the hotel room was a disappointment. The receptionist had called it a Garden Level room, and she now understood that “Garden Level” was a polite way of saying it had a mildewy odor and avocado-colored walls, against which her skin took on a deathly pallor and his appeared jaundiced. When she went to the window to examine the tropical foliage outside, a tiny lizard closed its papery eyelids over bulbous eyes and froze in position. Its color nearly perfectly matched the big leaf to which it clung with splayed toes.

Their seven-month separation had changed him, changed them both, and she couldn’t quite shake the feeling of doing something illicit. With her head resting on his shoulder, she lay awake deep into the night listening as he recounted tale after tale of what his life was like in Vietnam, stark descriptions of the things he could not verbalize in his letters.

Morning found them sitting under a beach umbrella on the hotel’s terrace, watching people frolic in the surf. She was wearing a blue-checked bikini with a row of white eyelet ruffles that helped hide her flat-chestedness; he had on the new plaid swim trunks she had brought. The tortures of the cold were at their peak. A volleyball was being inflated inside her head and her ears were playing tricks. Unsure whether she was bellowing or whispering, she couldn’t seem to regulate her voice and had the sensation of being underwater, bubbles of words slipping from her lips to rise to the surface and make flabby popping sounds. Her forehead was clammy, yet she chafed her icy feet together under the table.

In the afternoon they joined a tour group headed for the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial. Later, in the hotel lobby they were collared by a man with a clipboard who signed them up for the evening’s Polynesian feast. It proved to be more false merriment, unfamiliar foods (roasted pig, poi, baked bananas and an undrinkable concoction of fruit juice and rum), writhing hula dancers and a pitiful Don Ho impersonator.

Suddenly the days were slipping away and they’d had their fill of wandering through the overpriced shops and bars of Waikiki Beach and gazing listlessly out the window of a tour bus. Brochures littered the bedspread. He picked up one and read, “Three dollars a day for a compact. Plus mileage.”

The lady at the car rental agency showed them a map of Oahu and made a squiggly red line through a section of road on the north end of the island. She wrote off limits in capital letters followed by an exclamation point. “This stretch of road is unpaved. Military personnel are forbidden to take it,” she intoned. They could tell she had been through this spiel hundreds of times before. He rolled his eyes when the woman wasn’t looking and they both suppressed a smirk. Frankly they didn’t think she’d care if they drove the little blue tin can off the top of Diamond Head.

They set out with no destination in mind, driving the road that skirted the beach, past graceful palms, lazy villages and fields of sugar cane. Here and there they paused to watch surfers. It felt so free, just like in the old days when they used to strike out on long rambling drives, passing through the small towns and the corn and wheat fields of home. Evening found them shoveling pepperoni pizza into their mouths at a Shakey’s Pizza Parlor in Pearl City.

The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast, they were on the road again, heading north on the highway that snaked along the beach on the other side of the island. She was feeling better, yet she bore a new heaviness in her chest: the knowledge that this was their last day together. They were both quiet, subdued, having in the last four days said all that needed to be said. They settled into peaceful camaraderie, she resting her head on his shoulder, he draping a hand companionably across her thigh, lifting it only to change gears. Like a spool of ribbon slipping from their fingers, they felt hours unwind erratically and far too quickly.

It was late afternoon and they’d seen most of the island. She pointed out that the “forbidden” stretch of road, which had become a joke to them, lay not far ahead. If they were to take it, they could cut across to the highway that ran south through the pineapple plantations at the heart of the island instead of retracing their route along the coast. He liked the idea, and removing his hand from her thigh just long enough to make a crude gesture with his middle finger said, “Here’s to you, bitchy car rental lady.” They guffawed and were rebellious teenagers again.

And so they had taken the forbidden road, over the ruts and past the goats, and had stopped to read the CAUTION! Hazardous Waves sign. Getting out of the car he pointed to the silhouette of a lighthouse on Kaena Point. They clambered over tawny jagged boulders to reach the beach, kicked off their shoes and waded in. The waves didn’t look that threatening and the water was surprisingly warm. Ankle deep in the surf they prepared for the first wave. It broke over their knees and exploded in a flurry of foam. As the water flowed back out they felt the vertiginous rush of the sand being tugged from beneath their feet. They laughed and hooted over the pure exhilaration of it and waded out a bit further—only knee deep, but this time taking the precaution of linking hands. The next onslaught slapped in even harder, hitting waist high and spraying their shirts with foam. Gasping, they stepped back, playing a game of advance and retreat. They knew they needed to be careful, but the waves were intoxicating and finally they were standing in the surf up to their waists.

They hadn’t expected the fury of the next wave. It broke over their shoulders and tore their hands apart. Without him to steady her, she was knocked onto her hands and knees and just when she thought things were okay and that she’d be able to stand, she was grabbed by the undertow and tumbled over and over in the surf. Suddenly he was there, seizing her by the back of the shirt and hauling her to safety. She coughed, spewed salt water and felt the grit of sand between her teeth. Away from the waves they stood and clung together, shivering, chastened, sobered by thoughts of what their folly might have brought.

That night the frenzied hunger of the previous days’ lovemaking was replaced by a sad, slow clasping. She willed herself to remember each sensation to play back to herself in the lonely days to come. Music drifted softly from the clock-radio and they paused to listen to a hymn-like lament that began with the strains of a Hammond organ. The melody seemed the very product of their emotions and in the years to come they would never hear Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” without recalling that moment.

They slept through the 6:00 alarm and were in a rush. He complained of a sore throat and she, bruised and sand-scraped, found she had seriously sprained her wrist in the fall. Packing brought such misery that she gave up trying to fold things neatly and tossed her clothes into the suitcase in a confused jumble. What did it matter? She was going home.

His flight back to Vietnam left after hers, so he accompanied her to the airport and helped her pick souvenir postcards and little vials of pikake perfume. At the customs counter a gruff agent opened her suitcase and, to her mortification, began pawing through her rumpled underwear. Her cheeks burned with indignation.

Far too soon her flight was announced and they clung together once again, every bit as tenaciously as they had the night before, and braced themselves for the final wave.

*

The year was 1967. The she of the story is me and the he is my ex-husband Dave. While the big wave spared us, the relentless ripples of daily life finally did us in. But don’t feel sorry for us. We still have this memory (or at least I do) and we still have our song.

pencil

“When I was a kid, right after the phase where I wanted to become a jockey, I became certain I’d grow up to become a famous author. Aptitude and talent didn’t have much bearing on my occupational aspirations. I’ve supported myself in a variety of ways, primarily proofreading and typesetting, but have never lost the urge to write. Now, however, I understand that pleasure, not fame, must be my motive.” E-mail: geraniumgirl[at]aol.com

Fear of Drowning

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Dena Riggs Hein


In my dream I am writing. I am working on a project at a familiar desk in a house near the ocean. The smells of the salty air mixed with sunscreen radiate from my skin. The sound of the waves lapping the sand works in rhythm with the glide of the wind through the trees. I can’t help but look up from my work to savor the postcard image before me of sun and surf. My husband and I bring our children to this place each year for one week of escapism to the beach. This small cottage, although dwarfed on either side by much larger and more modern homes, pays homage to the simpler life we seek while on vacation. In my dream I am here alone, motivated by the choreography of Mother Nature and my solitude. My attention returns to my writing. There is a pad of paper, but I cannot initially decipher the scribbling. Just as words come into focus and the writing reveals itself, I feel a pull on my arm, catapulting me from the calm of the sea and this mysterious project to my bedroom in a small town outside of Chicago.

My four year old daughter leans on my nightstand grasping a pink blanket in one hand while a black plush dog hangs by its ear in the other. She whispers, “Mommy is today the day we go to Hilton Head?” I lie still for a moment, changing gears from sleep to parenting. I turn my head to her and whisper back, “No, honey, we don’t leave until next week.” I am awake enough that I can now squint at the digital clock on my husband’s side. It is 2:23 a.m. “Go back to bed and we’ll go on vacation next week.” She sobs softly, choking out the words, “But, I want to go today. I want to leave right now.”

Each July we rent a house for our family on the beach and spend a week in our bathing suits—swimming from morning till night, grilling dinner on a little Hibachi grill, and counting stars from the edge of the boardwalk. We know it is a cliché when we tell our neighbors that our lives revolve around this one relaxing week, in this one small house, on this one strip of beach, but we brag about the redemptive qualities of our vacation anyway.

The countdown for the trip begins in mid February. But it is the final stretch of the last ten days before departure that the house becomes electric—buzzing with stories of years past, peppering them with predictions for this year. “I’m going to dive off the lion’s head at the deep end!” Andrew yells from his room early one morning. He is now six and a stronger swimmer than last year. Adrienne counters, “I am going to swim every night until midnight!” Adrienne won’t make it to midnight, but she will give her best try to keep up with the rest of us as we go from beach to pool and back again, and again, and again until someone admits defeat and surrenders to bed.

We have been doing this since Adrienne was 18 months old. She is the most excited because she is convinced she can finally “stay up the latest,” but if there were a prize for that I would get it. I am always the last one to bed because although we are on vacation I am still the mommy and have the mommy jobs of laundry and picking up. There are nights, that despite my own exhaustion or the work that should be done for the next day, I sit outside alone replaying the events of the day in an effort to mentally record the sweet melody of Adrienne’s giggles or to file away the details of Andrew’s first jump off the diving board. There was a time in my former life (my life before them) when I would have written things down then shaped the details into essays or stories. I was a writer. Although inspired by my children, the effort to write anything down continually escapes me. I know my memory cannot possibly hold all I want to record, but I am not sure being a writer will ever co-exist with my role as a parent. In the dark and quiet of the night I look to the stars to release the guilt I feel for not even trying.

The slide of the screen door startles me. It must be 10:00pm when Andrew finds me sitting on a wicker sofa I have pulled from the screened porch out to the open deck. After my date with the stars, I was meditating to the crashing waves and was near ready to call it a night. Leaning against the door in his swim shorts he looks gangly—bony. Last year he was still round and toddler-ish. A year later his jaw line has developed and his eyes clearly match the shape of mine. I want to quickly file away these details, but his voice interrupts. He says, “Mommy, will you swim with me in the spooky nighttime pool?” I had also noticed the irregular rippling across the deep end. I had deduced the patio lights were reflecting strangely off the water due to patchy cloud cover and the position of the moon. “Spooky is a good adjective,” I say.

The four bathing suits I brought on the trip are draped a few feet away from me on a matching wicker chair dripping water to the cedar plank flooring like a metronome. The idea of putting on one of those suits was not appealing, but Andrew’s eyes (my own eyes looking back at me) were pleading. He ups the ante on his proposition and says, “We can tell stories. Tonight the moon has a funny shape behind a scary cloud. I think that’s a really good beginning and don’t forget we have the spooky pool, too.”

This is part of the ritual of our vacation. When we swim at night we tell stories. Once we pick a main character then dream up a conflict, we take advantage of our own setting and describe the trees swaying in the wind or the birds that fly across the clouded sky. We talk about the sounds we hear or the smell of the ocean. Sometimes we tell true stories of me when I was a little girl. Sometimes Andrew wants to be the hero and sometimes he likes to give his younger sister a starring role. In last night’s story I was a superhero mom on a jet ski saving jellyfish from being left behind when the tide went out. Their favorite stories are the ones of the two of them when they were babies—things they don’t remember, but find hysterically funny now that they are older and wiser at six and four. Andrew knows I cannot resist the stories; his smirk betrays his confidence in me.

I begrudgingly shimmy into the least damp bathing suit then wade into the pool. Andrew climbs on my back as I dog paddle the two of us from the edge over to a set of steps where we can hold onto the rail and allow our bodies to freely float behind us. The water is warm and reminds me of the YMCA where I learned to swim. “Can I tell you a story before we begin?” I ask. “Sure,” he says.

“I have loved the water since I was a baby. I took lessons for the first time at the age two. I dangled my toes off the edge for just a moment then plunged into the deep. Mimi and Poppa said I had no fear. When I bobbed up to the surface and paddled to the side they clapped with pride.” Andrew smiles and says, “What else? Tell me more.” There is more to tell, but I am not sure my mom wants her grandson to know she never learned to swim. I am not sure she likes to admit that she enrolled me in swimming lessons at age two to ensure I would not live with the same embarrassing regret. Her cheeks turn pink and she shakes her head in remorse when she tells her history of sitting by the pool for years as a young girl pretending not to fear the water in favor of being unashamedly social when in fact, she was too scared to even wade in from the steps. I am not sure Andrew would understand why today she and my dad live on a lake with a boat in which she seldom enjoys because of the fear of drowning.

“Why don’t you tell me a story instead?” I ask. “Do you still like the moon or do you have another idea?” On cue the bugs in the trees and bushes surrounding us, in mass begin their nightly communication. Crickets, grasshoppers, and locusts simultaneously squeak, chirp and sing their messages to each other and use their musical bravado to vie for the attention of a mate. Andrew looks to the trees and into the bushes around the perimeter of the pool with narrowed eyes. “I think I will tell a story of these bugs,” he announces.

The creak of the screen door calls our attention to a sleep disheveled Adrienne standing in the shadow of a dim light. She rubs her eyes and yawns, then speaks emphatically, “You are nighttime swimming without me. I want to do it, too!! I want to tell stories of the bugga buggas!”

Within a few minutes the pool swims with small voices spouting big ideas. “These bugs must be having a meeting and everyone is arguing, which is why they are so loud!” Andrew says. “I think the bug mommy has lost her bug baby and all the bugs are worried,” Adrienne retorts. As they toss around their ideas they eventually get back to the bug meeting. Andrew begins, “Once a year, the bugs of the trees meet with the bugs of the beach to review their laws and to give awards for good citizenship.” We laugh at the incongruity of citizenship to bugs. Andrew continues, “When the moon is a funny shape and it hides behind a spooky cloud the sea creatures know that is their clue that they are allowed to join the bugs for a dance party.” Adrienne laughs very loud then interjects, “Since they haven’t seen each other in a year they are probably all talking at once like at Mimi’s house on Thanksgiving.” I laugh that she remembers the holiday chaos when family from all over town have the uncanny ability of year after year arriving at the same time. Then I smile at Andrew’s invention of a grasshopper and crab reunion.

The story stalls for several minutes as the kids debate new characters. Adrienne wants a fox to barge in on the meeting and send the bugs and sea creatures running, while Andrew (much more sensitive than his sister) suggests that a crab get the citizenship award for learning not to be “crabby.” We laugh at the double meaning. Our skin begins to show signs of water wrinkles just as the bugs rev up their buzzing and chirping again like a soundtrack to our story. Adrienne, nodding in agreement with the crabby ending proclaims loudly, “And the bugga buggas said, ‘Good night, everybody!'” We blow a kiss to the stars and bid good night to the sand and the surf, the trees, and the bugs, but especially to our award-winning crab.

Inside the house I help the kids wiggle from their wet suits then into pajamas. I give good night kisses then quietly slide into bed next to my slumbering husband. It only takes a few laps of the surf to carry me off to a dream.

I see myself sitting in a beach chair writing in a notebook. The tide is out, so I am surrounded by the dark, hard sand that is perfect for sand castles. I see Adrienne in the distance with a bucket digging a moat around her creation. Andrew is inspecting all the urchins the water left behind on its drag out to sea. With each swish of the waves the water moves closer as it performs its magnetic dance with the moon. Out and then in; out and then in. I look back to my notebook and begin writing something down as my mom enters the dream as herself in 1961 when she was a high school beauty queen. She is a petite girl with short dark hair that frames her face and highlights her eyes—brown with black lashes long and thick. She resembles a collectible doll with creamy skin and features that fit perfectly together, all in proportion. She is beautiful, but it is mostly for her smile. It radiates a friendly nature that makes you feel like she’s always been your friend even if you are meeting her for the first time. She is wearing a yellow and white polka dot bikini. I smile—maybe at the bizarre nature of this meeting or maybe because my mom truly is the epitome of the swimsuit competition. I want to write this down, but she touches my hand. I look up at her youthful face. She says to me, “You know honey, I never learned to swim. I have regretted that my entire life.”

For no reason I startle awake. I look around to place myself in time and space. I hear my husband’s rhythmic breathing and the subtle splash of the surf outside our room. The smells of the salty air mixed with the faint odor of chlorine and sunscreen radiate from my skin. I gently slip out of bed and tiptoe to my favorite desk in the main room of the house—the one with the large window that overlooks the pool and the ocean waves beyond. In the daylight, I can’t help but savor the postcard image of sun and surf. In the dead of the night, there are only shadows created by the pale moonlight. I cock my head to listen. It is very still, even the bugs are sleeping. I fumble through the desk for a pad of paper then blindly grasp the pen to keep our stories from drowning.

pencil

“When not in Hilton Head I spend my summer days playing Scooby Doo checkers, monitoring Webkinz computer time or patching the Slip and Slide. I have been known to occasionally set up a very challenging obstacle course if asked nicely and am always willing to ride any roller coaster. My kids’ favorite song is Beastie Boys, “Brass Monkey,” which can be heard blasting from our car on any given day. When the kids, the husband and the cats are all sleeping I work into the wee hours writing. I have one semester left to complete my Master’s Degree in English.” E-mail: d.hein[at]comcast.net

Epilogue

Billiard’s Pick
Lindsay Tang


Being supervised by my thirteen-year-old sister is weird because I’m one-and-a-half times her age. It’s weirder that she’s supervising me going to the bathroom. Well, ok, she’s actually just waiting outside the stall. But I knew she would follow me, I knew she would wash her hands, and I knew she would linger. So I use the bathroom, open the door, and she’s just standing there casually. “What are you doing?” I ask, even though I know.

“Just waiting for you.”

“Oh. Okay.” And I’m not supposed to be mad at all, even though the situation is awkward and I can’t get any privacy when I’m just using the bathroom. It irritates me that this doesn’t happen when I go before lunch.

Rewind to late May when I’m so near death, I can brush it with my eyelashes. Jon and I are competing to lose weight and I can’t shake off his “It’s ok if you don’t lose as much weight as me, Lindsay; after all, I’m a guy” statement. I don’t like losing anything except for weight, twenty pounds of which disappears in a month-and-a-half. But ten pounds in, it’s not about beating Jon’s ass and winning the $200 bet anymore. I stop wanting to look thinner. I start needing to look thinner.

I could look so amazing if I keep this up. I’m convinced, though, that it isn’t enough to just keep exercising and scraping by on water, hard-boiled egg whites, and salad (which is actually just lettuce and tomatoes… no dressing, croutons, or even corn because there are too many carbs in that). If I want to be tinier with every glance in the mirror, I’ll need a better strategy. So I become a double-barreled bulimic; I’m the purging type and the non-purging type. Purging is just a pleasant way of saying “self-induced vomiting.” It isn’t pleasant at all but people are convinced that I eat. Non-purging, also called exercise bulimia, is when I sweat off what little I’ve eaten and more. One website calls it “secretly vomiting,” but I think of it as added insurance.

I recommend bulimia for anyone self-deluded enough to ignore feeling like shit all the time. This bottle of Aspirin must be full of placebos because my headaches won’t go away. The doctor is insane; I’m not over-running and my knee and hip pains can’t be early signs of arthritis. My esophagus isn’t corroded. My voice isn’t raspy. I can keep getting away with this. It’ll be worth it. I feel fine. I’m not bulimic. And now I’m wailing my confession to Jon about having two types of bulimia and how much work it is to hide it and how I’m scared about not getting my period this month and I hate myself for developing bulimia in the first place and I need to stop it and I know I cheated and I’m sorry but I need to back out. And he says that’s fine. We’ll fix it together. Plus, he misses pizza. For the next month, I only eat with Jon so he can be sure I relearn to eat healthfully. At first, I feel criminal for only exercising once a day and eating food that I can taste, but my complaints are short-lived.

It’s the end of July and I’m driving with Kelli. Kelli knows I helped stuff Jesse McCreery’s mailbox with defective donuts from the Krispy Kreme dumpster. I’m the only person she told when she backed into another car’s side door. Secrets are only fun if you have a best friend to share them with.

There’s a lull in the conversation before she says, “You never told me who won that thing between you and Jon.”

The saltiness of my fingertips floods my tongue and tickles my throat. “I called it off.”

“Really? Why?”

Shit. Lie, don’t lie, lie, don’t lie, lie, don’t lie, lie, don’t lie, don’t lie, why would you lie to your best friend, lie, lie, don’t lie, lie. “Because I became bulimic.”

“Oh Lindsay.” She turns her head from the road and looks right at me.

I’ve never heard Kelli say my name in a disappointed tone before. “But I’m ok now. Really! Jon and I worked through it and I’m fine.”

“Do you mean that?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. I believe you.”

Good. “Good.”

There are times when you should be honest. That wasn’t one of them.

Kelli calls the next afternoon and asks me to come outside because she’s parked on my driveway. She starts sobbing when she sees me. Crap. She says that she cried all day yesterday while researching bulimia and calling eating disorder hotlines. She doesn’t understand why I have a negative body image. She insists that I don’t need to lose weight. She is scared for me. I am beyond pissed. Didn’t I tell her that I was fine? Why didn’t she believe me?

“Lindsay, you have to tell your parents.”

What? “What? Why! It isn’t even a problem anymore. I don’t want them to worry over something that’s in the past.”

“I know, but they need to know.”

“No. No they don’t, actually.”

“Lindsay, if you don’t tell them, I’m telling them.” Shit. “If something happens to you and they find out I knew, I won’t be able to live with that.

“Since when was this about you, Kelli?”

“I’ll give you time to tell them. If you don’t do it within that timeframe, I’ll tell them. But don’t worry, I’ll warn you before I do it.”

You’ll warn me? Are you trying to strike a deal with me? I knew I should have lied. “Fine.”

“I’m doing this for your own good, Lindsay. You’re my best friend and I care about you.”

I don’t feel myself hug her back. Fuck you. If you really cared, you’d let it go.

Kelli never brings the subject up again. I forget about the incident and figure she has too. The “your-time-is-up-so-I’m-telling-on-you” ultimatum disintegrates into an empty threat. See, Lindsay, you can trust your friends.

I go back to school in September and don’t come home until October ends. I lost a few pounds by eating healthier and my family is happy for me. On the way to the airport that Sunday afternoon, my dad says, “You look great, honey, really, you do.”

That was random. “Thanks.”

“Uh, okay. This probably isn’t the best time to bring it up, but I need to ask. You didn’t lose weight by being bulimic, did you?”

Oh my God. “She told you?”

“Lindsay, don’t be mad at her. She was really scared to tell me and your mom.”

I’m not mad at her. I’m furious at her. “When was this?”

“Right before you guys left for school.”

“And?”

“Well, she called and said she had something important to tell us. Your mom and I went to her house that night; I think you were out somewhere. Anyway, we went there and she was sitting in the living room with her parents. Kelli was crying because she wasn’t sure if she was doing the right thing. She didn’t want to lose your friendship. It took her ten minutes to finally tell us.”

I’m crying too now, but not out of sympathy for Kelli. “What did you guys do?”

My dad’s tone of voice is still calm. “I didn’t want to believe it. Your mom didn’t say anything.”

I’m thankful when they let me walk through security with sunglasses on. I’m not looking forward to Thanksgiving anymore.

My parents have stayed together for me and my sister, but they still act like they’re divorced. They won’t stand next to each other in the few pictures they both agree to be in. Conversations between them inevitably become arguments. The word “your” is always bitterly emphasized when they say “your mom” or “your dad.” I don’t remember the last time they kissed, hugged, or smiled at each other. I didn’t want my parents to find out about my eating disorder and blame each other for it; they fight enough already.”It’s your fault that Lindsay turned bulimic! You always pushed her too hard!”

“I did not push her too hard! I just wanted my daughter to grow up strong!”

“It didn’t matter if she was valedictorian or tennis team captain or a concert pianist or whatever! She was just never good enough for you.”

“At least I wasn’t babying her all the time like you were! It was your coddling that made her cave like that!”

Although I’ve accepted their chronically loveless marriage, it still hurts to hear my name involved in it. I doubt Kelli meant to give my parents another thing to argue about, but it’s easy to blame her anyway.

Even though I’m finished with bulimia, it isn’t finished with me. A common side effect that I suffer from is gastroesophageal reflux disease, where my gag-reflex fires involuntarily and my stomach contents come back up. This looks incredibly suspicious to people who know I have a history with bulimia.

I’m window-shopping with my mom after dinner one night when my stomach muscles tighten. Oh shit, not now. I squeeze my lips together right as liquefied pork loin and asparagus spill into my mouth. As she’s pointing out some copper cookware, I snatch the two-second opportunity to spit while she’s still distractedly eyeing that kettle. My mom is staring at me when I turn back around. “What was that?”

Damn. “Nothing.” She’s suddenly finished talking.

I’m looking at Christmas ornaments with my dad and sister a few days later. I can’t decide if this one is a gingerbread man or a really tan starfish when my stomach tightens again. This time is worse, though, because my stomach is empty of anything except acid. I imagine this is what it would be like to iron the inside of my throat with a pair of flaming soccer cleats.

I’m bent over like I’m trying to cough my throat out onto the floor (which I wouldn’t have minded) as the scorching gets worse and I’m pretty sure everyone in the store is staring by now so I’m scrambling outside because I saw a water fountain on the way in. Of course, the fountain doesn’t work. Fuck. I’m trying to calm down by taking deep breaths but the frozen air ironically makes the burning worse so I attempt to casually stroll into a nearby Johnny Rockets to ask in a horrifyingly raw voice for a glass of water. The girl smiles because she thinks I’m a chain-smoker but fills a cup anyway and I thank her while trying to control myself because I’d gladly drink all 32 ounces in one gulp but I don’t want to look like a nut so I take a sip and step outside before downing the whole thing. My throat cools but it’s still itchy. My dad and sister are asking what happened and I say I coughed up acid, so we get ice cream to neutralize it. I claw maniacally at a frozen cylinder of Phish Food with a flimsy plastic spork the whole way home, where I finally microwave the block into submission. I’m halfway done when my stomach protests the unexpected influx of food by sending the ice cream back up (at least it doesn’t burn) and I’m running again, except this time to the nearest toilet.

Winter break then becomes a laborious game of avoiding anything that could make me look like I’m still bulimic. I don’t eat too much because I’ll vomit. I don’t eat too little because I’ll seem anorexic. I’m afraid of soda because burping can trigger refluxes. I snack on Tums between meals. Nothing sharp comes near my hands because cuts can be misinterpreted as bite marks. My workouts are light so I won’t lose weight. You may think that even if my parents didn’t know I used to be bulimic, they would still notice my reflux disorder. This is true but having unexplained gastroesophageal reflux disease is less worrisome than having it because of bulimia.

Kelli and I exchange Christmas gifts one night. I haven’t told her that I know she snitched on me, but she probably figured because I’ve barely spoken to he r over the past two months. As she turns to leave, she asks, “Are we okay?”

No. “Yeah.”

“Oh. Okay.” She emails me the next day asking again and even though I know I should call, I just email her back. I insist it was unfair that she didn’t warn me and, in spite of her good intentions, my parents deserved to hear it from me or at least with my consent. I tell her I’ve lost my parents’ trust. I tell her she’s lost mine. I tell her not to respond because I will never believe anything she says again.

Kelli’s letter arrives at the end of January. The envelope reads “You don’t have to read this right now. You can open it tomorrow, next year, or in ten years. Just please don’t rip it up.” The letter lives under a stack of notebooks for a month.

Jon is watching me tear it open because I don’t want to be alone if I get upset. I don’t need to read the letter to know what it says. She’s sorry for lying from the start because she was never going to warn me. Her mom said I would understand if she told my parents. She’s sorry her mom was wrong about that. She hopes I can get over my body image problems and live a healthy life. She wishes me the best.

I’m still mad when I finish reading. Jon asks if it’s a good idea for me to end our friendship when she was just trying to help. I’m irked further and insist that I’m not going to talk to her for a while. Jon turns back to his laptop.

Brian makes the consensus official later that night. As my best guy friend, my boyfriend minus the romance, I call with the expectation that he’ll side with me like always. But he doesn’t respond when I finish. I’m afraid that I’ve created another Kelli situation. It’s useless, but I tell him not to worry anyway.

“I can’t help but worry, Lindsay.”

Not again. “I know, but you have to trust me on this. Kelli didn’t trust me and look how that turned out.”

“Are you sure you’re being fair? She was just trying to help.”

How do I always end up being the bad guy? I have no comeback and I’m tempted to hang up. “I know, okay?! I know! But I’m fine; I wouldn’t be telling you this if I wasn’t, right?”

“I guess.” He’s silent.

I decide to be silent from now on too.

The fear of alienating more people keeps me quiet. I can’t talk about it without getting mad because everyone thinks I’m being irrational for resenting Kelli. No one ever fails to mention that she was “just doing the right thing.” Yes, I already know that so can you just let me be mad now? I’m mad that everyone is defending her. I’m madder that I’m not allowed to be mad.

I’m more frustrated than grateful that everyone is too concerned to trust me. I’m supposed to accept my regression to infancy. Babies wear diapers and require constant supervision because it’s not Lindsay’s fault that she can’t control her bulimia. I ask my dad why no one believes me when I say I’m not bulimic. He says they do believe me; they’re just making sure I’m okay. So no one believes me.

I despise the pity. I doubt that Kelli told anyone, but I flip through a mental yearbook anyway to vote for “Most Likely to Ask Me About It” at our high school reunion. I can already feel them placing their condescending hand on my shoulder as they whisper, “So I heard about your thing with bulimia,” to me like I’ve already died. I hate that I only hear the word “weight” when it is spelled w-a-i-t because people think I’ll relapse if the subject comes up. I’m even more insulted when I’m told that I “look fine” and that I’m “already beautiful just the way [I am].” When did I say I was fat? Bulimia didn’t blind me from reality. I’m not delusional and I can make accurate judgments. No one understands that “bulimic” is not a synonym for “mentally unsound.”

I’m reading the millionth “How I Overcame My Eating Disorder” story that I’ve read this year. Just like the others, it goes like this:

  1. I was the fat kid and everyone made fun of me.
  2. I developed a negative body image.
  3. I became anorexic/bulimic/both.
  4. I was hospitalized after letting it go too far.
  5. I love my body now and I don’t own a scale and I eat whatever I want and life is normal again.

It pisses me off that they all sound like that. It pisses me off that they all end like that. I hurl the magazine at the ground.

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“My op-ed ‘Life as a Banana Peeled at College’ has been published by the Young People’s Press. I am currently studying sociology and journalism at the University of California, Los Angeles.” E-mail: Lindstang[at]hotmail.com

The Two of Us

Beaver’s Pick
Farha Hasan


There is nothing as distinctive as the smell of Indian food. I sat at Indian Flavor, a local restaurant munching on some chaat papri, a delectable mix of potatoes, chick peas, yogurt and tamarind sauce, mentally calculating the number of calories I was consuming and how much time on the treadmill it would take to make up for it. I had come to work early to research my latest assignment and was on my way back to make sense of my notes when the aroma of Indian Flavor lured me in. It was pretty quiet at 2:00 p.m.; the lunch crowd was fading. It was the first time I had been back to our place, alone. I shook off the memories of the last time we were here. I pulled out of my briefcase my laptop and an old copy of South Asian News. On the cover was the picture of a young woman—badly beaten, eyes swollen shut, bruises all over her face and neck.

That’s what Fozia Azize had looked like when they found her in dumpster last year behind a popular Indian night club. She wore a traditional Muslim head scarf but you could tell she was an attractive girl, a sophomore in college. I wasn’t with the paper when the story came out but I felt drawn to it, not just because it caused a sensation in this Toronto suburb that prided itself on diversity, and not just because it had happened so close to the anniversary of 9/11 but because among other things we shared the same name, Fozia. Not at all an odd coincidence, it was a fairly common name. Perhaps I thought of her as a parallel version of me, wondering if this could happen to her who else could it happen to. They never caught the guy who did it. A year had passed and we were no closer to solving the case than we were on day one.

My pondering came to a halt as I saw Priya approaching, turning more than a head or two with her trendy outfit, long legs, glossy lipstick—“the London look,” I thought.

“Mmm… that looks good” said Priya, pulling up a seat and eyeing my chaat papri and gesturing towards the waiter. “I’d like to have what she’s having, and a mango lassi.”

“You look great,” I said. “Maybe, a little thin though. Have you lost weight?”

“I have to sweetie, the camera adds ten pounds.”

“I always felt like it added fifty on me.”

Priya just laughed flashing the perfectly white teeth that she had just got capped, a recommendation from her agent. “Fozia, you’re too much. You know you’re adorable.”

“So, are you all packed, ready for London?” I ask.

“Almost, I have packed half my stuff, the other half my parents will ship over. Anyone you want me to look up for you?”

I let the question dangle. I had no time for ghosts.

“So, have you heard anything,” she said between mouthfuls of chaat papri.

“From who?”

“From him…”

“No, nothing,” I said.

“Don’t worry, he’ll cave soon.”

“Don’t you go and do anything now… It’s better this way anyway.”

“Who… me?

“I mean it Priya.”

Before she had a chance to answer her cell began to ring. “Yes… I know… Oh my God really…” She snapped the phone shut. “I have to go sweetie, I’m already late.”

Priya got up and gave me a big hug.

“You’ll keep in touch right?

“Of course,” she said in between tears her mascara running down her cheeks.

Just like that my best friend was gone. I was left alone still munching on my chaat papri with a vague sense of emptiness and déjà vu. I wondered if Fozia had felt lonely. Had she felt her life crumbling around her in the moments before she died, the way mine did right now. What had been the events that led to this tragedy or had it really been just bad luck—randomness being caught at the wrong place at the wrong time. Was the universe random or had there been meaning to Fozia’s death.

Still uncertain of my angle I went back to work. Our tiny office was located in the town of Markville, a largely desi suburb. I walked to my desk, which looked like a hurricane had exploded all over it. A stale donut and coffee occupied an ever-sticky corner of the desk. I drank the last remaining bits of cold coffee and was about to bite into the half-eaten donut when I saw Kamran peering over a mountain of research.

“Hey,” said Kamran, the columnist for international news. “Don’t eat that crap; there are some fresh Krispy Kremes in the kitchen.” My stomach started to growl. “No, thanks,” I said. Instead I pulled out an unopened package of rice cakes that had been sitting in my office for a while and started munching.

I sneaked a glance at Kamran who was still munching on his donut. He’s one of those tall thin guys that never gain weight. He had powdered sugar all over his shirt as he gingerly went through his third and then fourth Krispy Kreme.

“Kamran,” I said. “You were around when the Fozia Azize story broke?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Are you writing something about the Fozia Azize case? What’s your angle?”

“Not sure. I just think it didn’t get a fair shake you know. It must have been scandalous. She seemed to come from a pretty conservative family.”

“Yeah, he paused. “Her family, her fiancé was devastated.”

“She had a fiancé?”

“Yeah, she was engaged to someone in Chicago. He was stunned, especially since her body was found in the dumpster behind Tantric.”

“Did I ever tell you I was at Tantric the night Fozia Azize died?”

“No you didn’t.”

“Ya,” I said. “Like two ships that pass in the night…”

I remembered that night well. Tantric was a hot new urban club known for a bhangra hip/hop mix frequented mainly by East Indians. It was Priya’s favourite spot on a Thursday nights. The music was blaring. Priya had just broken up with her boyfriend and was guzzling vodka martinis and chainsmoking Marlboros. Her ex could not stand cigarettes. We were two single girls on the town. It was my night to let loose as well. I wholeheartedly worked out the frustrations of my week on the dance floor. Having been born rhythmically challenged I hoped like hell I wouldn’t run into anyone I knew. As we sat at the bar to cool off, the waiter put two drinks in front of us.

“We didn’t order anything,” I said.

“It’s from that gentleman in the corner,” he said.

We both turned around to see a good looking guy nod in our direction.

“Wow, he’s hot,” said Priya licking her lips. “This will help me get over what’s-his-face in no time.”

I caught my breath as he came over and introduced himself. He looked at me and smiled as if I was the only one there and asked me if I wanted to dance.

“I’m a bit out of breath,” I said, surprised by the lilt of his accent.

How strange it seemed coming out of his mouth.

“That’s all right,” he said. “We can sit somewhere and talk.”

I will never get over the sound of his voice and how it made everything he said sound like music.

Exhausted, I decided to call it a night and head home. I sat for a while looking at our large double garage house in an affluent suburb. How quickly we adjust to our circumstances I thought, remembering crammed apartment buildings with multiple families in one unit and the smell of curry lining the hallways, the sounds of Urdu and Punjabi seeping through the corridors.

As I pulled into the driveway I could see the light on in the kitchen. It meant that my mother must be preparing something elaborate. The smell of curry as I walked into the foyer confirmed that my mom and my grandmother had been cooking all day. I wondered what was up.

“Fozia berta, you’re finally back. I was wondering when you were coming home. You have to go upstairs and get ready quickly. Saroj auntie is in town with her son, the one attending Harvard Medical School and I’ve asked them to come over for tea. Hurry, I want you to look nice when they get here.”

Why was I surprised with my father out of town for a couple of weeks it was only a matter of time before the aunties started coming over. I went upstairs too irritated to say anything to my mother. She had already laid out what she wanted me to wear. I looked at the pretty turquoise suit that was meant to set off my hazel eyes. I always thought that was my best feature.

“No, your best feature is your smile,” I could hear him say, sitting on a stretch of grass by the harborfront. “When you smile you light up your whole face. Without your smile your eyes are just a set of cold jewels.”

I heard the doorbell ring. I knew they were here. Better start getting ready…

“Yes, I remember that family. They did very well in the Middle East,” said Auntie Saroj. She was a fair-skinned woman who wore a lot of jewelry and too much make-up. She seemed perfectly comfortable with my cat curled up around her feet. Well, if Einstein likes her, she can’t be all bad. “In fact, my younger sister-in-law married one of their relatives around that same time,” she continued.

I sat listening to the chatter of the three women. I looked up at Mr. Harvard. He seemed pretty social, contributing in the conversation of the three women and genuinely looking interested. It was more than I could say for myself. Try not to space out too much and smile when someone tells a joke, I kept telling myself. I looked up to see him smiling at me from time to time but I couldn’t tell if he was interested or just being polite. Before they leave, mom takes Auntie Saroj out to the back yard to give her a clipping of her new plant. They are both avid gardeners.

We were both standing in the foyer waiting for our moms to come in from the backyard when he handed me his business card.

“It was nice meeting you,” he said. “Feel free to keep in touch.”

My mom definitely thought the evening was a success. She could not stop raving about the family. I helped clean up. Thursday night, tomorrow was trash day. I stepped outside into the cool air. It was a clear night. The stars were out. The neighbors had mowed their lawn recently and it smelled nice. I stood at the curb, garbage bag in hand smelling the air when a car pulled up.

Kris stopped and rolled down the window. “Hey, isn’t it past your bed time?”

“Hey, I never see you out anymore,” I responded.

“I guess I’ve been kinda of a hermit lately,” he said.

“Well, you know what they say about all work and no play…”

“You’re right,” he grinned. “Care for a ride…”

We stepped into a cool air-conditioned room where brightly-colored walls lit up the place. Teenagers sat giggling across the room. We were seated at a booth at the far end overlooking the traffic. Kris and I had not been here in ages. We ordered our usual and laughed about old times. Kris, looked older, more mature these days, but the eyes were the same reflecting his wild past. After his father’s heart attack Kris had decided to stay home and run the family business. The responsibility was starting to show, after only a year he looked older, more settled. He wore it well. I had never felt this comfortable around him before. It was nice. It was like being with Priya.

When Kris drove me home, it was almost midnight.

“So what are you working on these days, you still with South Asian News?”

“Yeah,”

“I read one of your articles. It was pretty good. Are you writing anything right now?”

“I’m doing one about Fozia Azize or at least using it to tie into a larger issue.”

“That was a tragic,” he said. “She seemed like a nice girl.”

“Did you know her?”

“I knew a guy she dated.”

“But her fiancé lived in Chicago?”

“No, this was someone else. He wasn’t from your community. They were really into each other. I don’t know what ended up happening with them. I don’t think they could have continued given how different their backgrounds were.”

“Wow, I had no idea.”

I was trying to wrap my head around Fozia with a boyfriend when Kris added slowly looking straight ahead. “How’s Priya doing?”

I felt awkward even though I knew it wasn’t my fault. “Priya, left today…” I said. “Are you going to miss her?”

“Do you miss him? Does it matter, they left us anyways. No matter what I did, I always knew she’d end up somewhere I couldn’t follow.”

When I got home it was past midnight. I tossed and turned for a long time before I finally fell asleep, and that’s when I saw him one last time sitting at the bar at Tantric. He was talking to me, only it wasn’t me, it was Fozia, the other Fozia with her headscarf, her black eye and bruises around her neck, looking exactly as she did the day they found her. She turned around and looked directly at me. I felt a shudder go through my body but it wasn’t Fozia I was afraid of. It’s not her ghost that still haunts me.

Still groggy I woke up to the sound of my private line ringing. It was Priya.

“Priya, its 5:00 a.m. what are you doing?”

“I couldn’t wait. Guess who I ran into?”

“Priya… No.” I whispered.

“Oh, I wasn’t looking for him. I was at dinner with a bunch of girls and guess who was sitting at the bar?”

“He asked if you were there… He really misses you Fozia. I think you should hear him out. I told him to call you.”

I don’t remember what I said next or how the conversation ended. It was 10:00 a.m. in the morning. I’ve slept longer than I wanted to. My private line was ringing again and I could tell from the tone it was a long distance call. How did Fozia choose between the one she loved and the one she was supposed to love or did her destiny choose her?

I reluctantly picked up the phone. “Hallo,” said the lilt of a British accent on the other end.

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F. Hasan is a Canadian currently living and working in Boston as a Librarian. E-mail: fzhasan[at]gmail.com

Flight

Baker’s Pick
Matthew Purdy


1.

The man with a birdcage for a chest wakes up. He flings off the quilt and the bird inside the cage begins to chirp. It is a sparrow, small and chubby and cautiously curious about its surroundings. Its chirping is tentative, though it grows in volume and confidence as the man pulls aside the curtains and stands surveying the parking lot six stories below.

“You want to leave today,” the man says to his reflection in the glass, “don’t you?”

The bird chirps.

 

2.

The man gets dressed and goes to work. By now, his co-workers don’t mind the periodic chirping from beneath his undershirt, dress shirt and sportcoat. The office is filled with light music, anyway. Between this and the layers of clothing that stand between the bird and the outside world, hardly anyone hears the bird at all. The bird doesn’t seem to mind.

 

3.

One day when he was thirteen, as he was walking home from the bus stop after school, the bird flew into the cage. He left his door flapping open a lot in those days. He keeps it shut all the time now, and it’s been there ever since.

 

4.

At lunch, the man sits outside on a bench, eating a sandwich. He loosens his tie and drops a few crumbs down his shirt. He hears the crumbs tap softly at the bottom of the cage, then hears the bird scamper after the crumbs. This is a daily pleasure for him, and, he imagines, for the bird too. But he knows the bird would leave if he let it.

“There’s nowhere you really want to go,” he’d told it just the night before, when the bird was chirping more forcefully than usual. Its voice was growing hoarse, and its chirp sounded like the rusted hinges of an unused gate. “Where would you even go?” the man persisted. “You don’t have any family. All you have is me.”

The man checks his watch. He adjusts his tie before returning inside.

 

5.

After work, the man goes out to a restaurant with some of his coworkers. They sit at a large round table in the corner. The music is loud and the air is filled with smoke, but it’s margarita night, so the man feels agreeably hazy. After the second round, Nate, the office joker, leans toward the man and says, “Can I touch your bird?”

All conversation stops, and a nervous, anticipatory lull descends on the table. Everyone looks at the man and then, when he doesn’t say anything, at Nate.

“Come on,” Nate says.

The man begins to unbutton his shirt. Lily, one of the receptionists, smacks Nate in the chest. “Don’t make him take his damn clothes off,” she says, and the tension lifts. Still, the man laughs uneasily, and he gestures to the waitress to bring another round.

 

6.

The night draws on, and the man grows quiet. Around him his coworkers twitter and chirp, but his attention flits around the room, finally lighting on the shoulder of a tall blonde woman. She doesn’t look like she’s enjoying herself either. And there’s something… He hears his bird begin to chirp.

The man excuses himself and makes his way to the bar. She tells the bartender she wants to tab out as he touches her forearm.

“Hi,” he says. Though he has never met her before, there is a look of recognition on her face.

 

7.

Hours later, they are sitting naked on her bed, holding hands, their birds cheeping with delight.

“I’m not alone,” she whispers. “I knew I couldn’t be. But it seemed like I was.”

“Me too.” This is the first time the man has found anyone else with his condition, too. His longest relationship was a month, a woman he met online last year. Incredibly, she said she didn’t mind the bird; she said it was cute. He knew she secretly did, though, and after a while he stopped answering her calls.

She reaches out and runs a finger along one of the brass strands of his cage. Then she whisks her hand across his cage, producing a harp-like sound that reverberates for several seconds. He laughs; he didn’t think he was capable of such music.

 

8.

It’s their fourth date when they decide to exchange birds. They sit in her living room, facing one another. They reach into their own cages, coaxing their birds onto their fingers. First he places his bird in her cage, then she in his. The ceremony of it all is very exciting.

When they’ve finished, they stare a moment at their now-displaced birds. He had never noticed the Zorro-like mask around his bird’s eyes, or the white speckles down its back. He smiles as it cocks its head to the side and chirps, regarding its new surroundings with optimistic confusion.

He leans forward and kisses the woman, and their cages clang like church bells.

 

9.

It’s not that her bird is annoying; it’s just unfamiliar. That’s what he tells himself, at least. But he does find her bird annoying. The rhythm of its chirping is completely different from his bird’s.

His bird’s average chirp goes like this: chirpchirp CHIRP chirp chirp.

Her bird’s average chirp goes like this: CHIRP CHIRP chirpchirp chirp CHIRP.

It gives him a strange, rootless unease. He hardly sleeps now. All day at work he stifles yawns.

After a week, he asks her if she wants to take both birds for a while. She seems a little hurt.

“I’m just thinking,” he says, taking her hand, “it might be better for them to get to know one another.”

“She’s not giving you trouble,” the woman says.

“I think they’ll get along great,” he says.

 

10.

That first night he relishes the quiet. It’s like a fire, and he curls toward its warmth.

But by morning, the unease he had felt with her bird has begun souring into outright dread. He stays inside and eats a yogurt for lunch. After work he goes right home and watches television until he falls asleep.

By the weekend he asks the woman if he can have his bird back. He tells her this on the phone, and he can hear her voice tremble as she says, “Can I see you?”

He spends a few minutes cleaning his apartment, then sits on his couch and waits for the buzzer. It’s mid-afternoon, when he would usually call to find out her plans for that night. But once he answers the door and sees her face he knows he’ll be spending tonight alone.

She reaches under her shirt and hands him his bird. He doesn’t thank her as he takes it from her. He just nods. She nods back. Then she leaves.

 

11.

He goes to bed early that night, lulled by the bird’s familiar songs. He dreams of deserts, stretching without interruption into a barren forever.

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“My work has appeared in the Mississippi Review, the Iron Horse Literary Review, the Mid-American Review, One Story, and Best New American Voices 2005, guest edited by Francine Prose. I am the recipient of a 2003 AWP Intro Journals Award. Currently, I am pursuing a PhD in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University.” E-mail: matthewjpurdy[at]hotmail.com

The Ghost of Quinceanera

Ana’s Pick
Michael G. McLaughlin


Christmas Eve. Chapala, Mexico.

In the twilight of early morning there is no color on Lake Chapala, only shadows of gray and darkness itself. In the city, cobblestone streets belong to hungry dogs and swirling trash and plastic. On backstreets sinners hurry by late from the arms of their lovers, practicing excuses in soft whispers…

Pablo carried a small, faded denim satchel flung over his shoulder. He was short with a thin trimmed moustache and proud Mayan nose. He fished the lake like his father had done. Because of his dark complexion from the sun, the other fishermen called him “El Chocolate.”

Pablo never walked the same streets down to the lake. That was bad luck. Ghosts played tricks on you if you dared walk the same path. Today, of all days, he was sure to be respectful of ghosts. He never walked pass the dress shop with the white quinceanera dresses the girls wore on their fifteenth birthday. On this day he was sure the ghosts would fly out of that shop and take his soul to hell.

He crossed the street and stopped in front of a tienda of women’s clothing. His wife had hinted what she wanted and he gave no clue he would buy it for her. But for months he had saved several pesos from each day’s catch to buy her a Christmas present. He traced her shoe outline on a piece of paper to be sure of her size. Her dress size he knew from sneaking a quick look at labels. Today he would fish the morning and after going to confession buy her the presents. He hoped this would make her happy this Christmas.

When he came to the silent harbor, his rainbow colored boat was tied with the others. The small, Mexican tri-colored flag attached to a metal rod flickered in the gentle wind of early morning. Silently he untied his boat and pushed off. With a few grunts the tiny outboard motor came to a fumy life and he motored out onto Mexico’s largest lake. When he reached the halfway point, he knew exactly where it was by the early morning light on the church steeple in Chapala, he cut the motor and the calm of the lake overcame him. In the noisy church how could God hear all the people praying? But on the silent lake, God could hear whispers. He took out a pink thermos from his satchel and slowly drank hot coffee. It was his ritual to stop and pray in the lake every morning. He looked down into the black water and blessed himself. Then he touched a small holy card of the Virgin of Guadalupe wrapped in plastic and tacked up inside the boat. He looked out at the dark waters not far from his boat. He would never cast his nets there. That would be a sin. What he wanted below was the small fish the tourist ate on the weekend. The charales were fried golden bronze and eaten with a squirt of hot sauce, a squeeze of lime and a cold beer. On a lucky day a fisherman could make 200 Pesos for his family. Most days it was 50 Pesos.

His coffee finished, Pablo fired up the outboard motor and headed out to work. It was going to be a short and happy day he hoped.

In the fading light of the afternoon, Padre Sanchez hurried down a side street toward the church. His hands were in his coat pocket and his collar turned up at the afternoon chill that came off the lake in winter. His mind buzzed with all he had to do on Christmas day. There was a High Mass and many houses to visit. The sick and the poor must be visited. There were endless parties and certainly too many sweet drinks, food and music. He knew he would gain two kilos around his waist. This time of year was hectic, but he delighted in seeing people filled with the Christmas spirit. He walked toward his small stone casita residence and was about to enter when a voice called to him from the shadows. From the dim, Pablo appeared.

“Oh, Pablo. You want what?”

“Confession.”

“But this is Christmas Eve and confessionals are Thursdays and…”

Pablo just stood there. The Padre thought how unusual that Pablo, who came to church only at Christmas, would want to go to confession. Padre Sanchez tried to banish terrible thoughts that Pablo killed his wife or had done a terrible sin.

“All right Pablo, follow me.”

Padre Sanchez took off his coat and draped it on a nearby pew. He directed Pablo to the confessional booths. Both men knelt in the darkness.

“I don’t know what to say, Padre.”

“Tell me why you are here my son.” There was a long pause. “This is the time you must confess, Pablo. Tomorrow our Lord was born. And you too can be reborn again with this confession.”

“Yes, Padre.”

There was another long pause and the Padre thought he smelled alcohol. It was not the first time a person came to confess, filled not with the Holy Spirit but with tequila spirits and confessed in sobbing terms, not to sins, but how hard their lives were. Sometimes a priest was not in the confessional to forgive sins, but to listen and give comfort.

“Pablo, what have you to say? I have matters to attend to. Tomorrow is Christmas.”

“Yes and the anniversary of the death of the girl. Tomorrow would be her quinceanera and she would be a woman.”

“What are you talking about, Pablo? The girl?”

“I put her body in the lake.”

The Padre was sure Pablo was drunk.

“What?”

“It has been fifteen years ago tomorrow when my wife Lupita gave still birth to a girl. Then she cried and told me the child was not mine.”

“Pablo, I don’t…”

“I told her a proud man cannot live with such a thing. And the reason the child was dead was because God wanted it that way! Give me the girl!”

“Oh, Pablo…” It was the only words the Padre could speak.

“On that Christmas morning long ago, to hide my shame and the shame of the family, I went out to a spot in the lake, wrapped the small body in a net, weighted it down with rocks and slowly let it slip down into the dark water. When I returned home I put my wife on a bus to her little village. When she returned in a month I told her to say the baby died there at birth.”

The Padre was silent, holding his breath.

“I have forgiven my wife. And she has forgiven me. To do so is the right thing? Yes?”

“Yes.” The Padre said. “We must have compassion and forgiveness for those that have trespassed against us.”

“Is the girl in heaven, Padre?” He asked with tenderness in his voice.

“I cannot answer for God. I do not judge the souls of God’s children.” The Padre could not leave Pablo without any hope. “Our Lord has special kindness for the innocence of children.”

When the confession was over, Padre Sanchez walked toward his casita and fumbled with his keys to open the door. He walked directly to a big leather chair and sat down, his coat still on. He stared out the window at the dark shadows crawling up near the top of the church steeples. He stared out a long time. Then the church bells rang and he knew he must rise and continue his Christmas duties.

Pablo walked home in the cold and twilight and was not afraid. When he entered his warm house he smelled the stuffed chilies and tamales his wife had cooked. The kitchen table was decorated with a red tablecloth and small candles flickered in the center. Soon the families would arrive and the small house would burst with laughter and joy. The women would bring more food and the house would have delightful smells and tang of exotic spices.

“On the way from church three wise men on camels stopped and told me to give you this.” He held out two small boxes. His wife paused with a puzzled look on her face. Then she smiled.

On Christmas day, Pablo walked to church arm and arm with his happy wife in her new dress and fancy shoes. They stopped to look at the quinceanera dresses in the shop. It was safe now. But he was still sad.
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In 2005, Michael sold most of his worldly belongings in California, moved to Lake Chapala, Mexico and never looked back. His days are now filled with perfect weather, time to write and Spanish language lessons. OK, maybe a Margarita or two. While a captive in the United States he founded, directed and performed with a small comedy theater, appeared in television commercials, industrials videos and was local President of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. His short stories have appeared nationally and internationally in the Orlando Sentinel newspaper, Barfing Frog Press, Piker Press, The Harrow, Gold Dust Magazine (United Kingdom), Write Side Up, Shine, Prose Toad, Poor Mojo, Turbular, Pens on Fire, Gold Dust (United Kingdom), La Fenetre (France), Aphelion (Australia), Ojo Del Lago (Mexico) and Sun Dog. Presently he performs with an improvisational comedy troupe Spanglish Imposition—the only English speaking troupe between Tijuana and Terra del Fuego. He can be reached at michaelmcmex[at]yahoo.com. But not promptly.

Jumping the Tracks

Fiction
Margo McCall


Rafe sits in an antique kitchen chair getting his head shaved. Each time Harrison takes a swipe with the clippers, it creates a new patch of cold scalp. The buzz is deafening, but not loud enough to muffle Fern’s sniffles. The fine fringes falling on the Congoleum seem like the end of something, she says.

“It’ll grow back. It always does,” Harrison assures her as he shoves the clippers forward, casually as if he’s mowing their overgrown yard.

So far in his sixteen years, Rafe’s been Bono, Marilyn Manson, Mike Ness, and Anthony Kiedis. Now he’s trying to channel Eminem and 50 Cent.

Fern’s voice trails into a sob. She’s feeling a little intense now. Soon she’ll start in with that incredible laughter.

“It’s funny, isn’t it?” Harrison says. “When we were young, you had to have long hair or nothing.” Rafe hears the swish of beaded curtains as Harrison slips back into the past.

“What about the Manson family?” Rafe asks. He’s seen the Helter Skelter and Charlie clips on YouTube. Those bald girls waiting outside the courthouse. PIG splattered on a wall in blood. Right here in L.A., just a couple towns over. The Mansons got beat in the mass-murder numbers game, but nobody could match their depravity.

“You sure know your history, kid,” says Harrison, gently bending back Rafe’s ear to clear more head.

Before Fern and Harrison came along, Rafe was as lost as one of Charlie’s disciples. Now, when kids in the neighborhood ask if Fern and Harrison are his parents, Rafe just says yeah. It’s easier than explaining how Fern’s really his grandmother and Harrison his grandmother’s live-in boyfriend and how Rafe came to live with them when he was seven after the supreme screw-up that killed his sweet rocker chick mom and landed his leather-clad dad—Fern’s son, Steve—in prison for manslaughter.

None of which sounds real, more like something from a bad movie. It doesn’t feel like a lie since Fern and Harrison are better parents than his real ones. But who knows, maybe he’s blotted out some tender moments when his mom and dad took a night or two off from the Troub to change his diapers. Maybe that empty feeling of waiting at school for someone—anyone—to take him back to the apartment on Sherman Way was all made up, along with the wrenching stomach pang he gets when he remembers the chipped paint in that apartment. He has an awful image of himself gnawing lead-based paint to fill his stomach.

Most of the memories have washed away. Both good and bad. No memory of his parents shooting drugs. But also no memory of his mom stroking his hair like Fern always does—whether it’s permed, bleached, greasy, or spiked.

Rafe had wanted to spare her by going to Atila’s, where his new homey Taz Tyler went to get cropped. But Fern wanted to see the transformation herself. Rafe, being a mama’s boy or a grandma’s boy or whatever he is, acquiesced to her wishes, and Harrison, perpetually eager to be the recipient of Fern’s sparkling magic, went to the mall in search of the best clippers he could find with all the solemnity of Frodo Baggins questing for the ring in the depths of Mordor.

“Maybe after the trend passes, we can use these on the dog,” Harrison suggests.

“Get a grip, Harrison. Peace is a golden retriever, not a poodle,” Rafe reminds him.

“Yeah, I know,” Harrison says, sweeping up the piles of hair with a little broom and holding up a mirror for Rafe to see. “Well, whaddya think?”

“Bitchin,” Rafe tells him, although he’s not sure he likes the pale Kobe eyeballing him out of the looking glass, or pieces of his dad’s face plastered on top of his own. His head seems naked. Already regretting the whole thing, Rafe looks away.

Fern, her green eyes still misty, lightly touches Harrison’s arm. “Promise me you won’t get rid of this,” she says, tugging the gray braid that hangs down his back like a dirty rope.

Harrison lifts his baseball cap, revealing an assortment of stringy, gray hairs. “Actually, I’ve been thinking of shaving it off too—like that guy from REM. Michael Stoop.”

“Noo!” Fern shrieks, burying her head on Harrison’s shoulder.

“Stipe,” Rafe says. “Don’t do it, Harrison, he’s a geek.”

Up in his bedroom, Rafe practices saying “What’s up?” with hand signals in front of the mirror, and comes up with a moniker, Masser R. He feels small in the big shirt and baggy denims. And still can’t decide if the shirt looks badder buttoned to the collar or hanging open. Meanwhile, the nasty thump of Cream wafts from the downstairs stereo. Rafe laughs, thinking how Fern and Harrison have refused to make the jump to CDs and digital downloads.

He loads Grand Theft Auto into his game player. The game’s not as violent as Fern and Harrison think. Behind all the blood, no one really gets hurt. He wishes Taz—Devil T—had come over to get his ass kicked. Rafe hits the iTunes icon on his computer and buys the new Eminem single. The music makes him want to do something—he doesn’t know what—so he settles on writing a letter to his old man.

Dear Dad,

Hope they’re feeding you OK in there. Can’t be worse than your ma’s tofu glop. School’s OK—don’t worry I’m not ditching. Fern sez she’ll fly me up to visit soon. Will let you know. Been thinking about that time at Magic Mountain. Colossus is a wimp-out compared to X and the Viper. Maybe when you get out, we can check them out.

Rafe always mentions the future to keep up his dad’s spirits. But they both know he’ll be too old to go on a roller coaster by the time he’s released.

The last time Rafe visited, his dad went on and on about the time they rode Colossus together. But Rafe’s not sure it really happened. It might just be something his dad dreamed up during one of the long days lying on his bunk looking up at the ceiling.

Rafe can’t think of anything else to say, so he works on the envelope. Steven Golton, D2846-C328, c/o San Quentin. Personal Mail.

Rafe still wants answers, but doesn’t know who to ask. After he came to live with Fern in their old house—which is surrounded by so many old oaks it feels like a secret hideout—Fern took him by both wrists and said, “You can’t tell anyone about this, understand?” Yeah, she doesn’t always mope around all misty-eyed.

All Fern told him was his dad hit somebody with his motorcycle and his mom flew over the handlebars and landed on the roof of a parked car—it was a stupid mistake, involuntary manslaughter, he didn’t mean to do it. Rafe wasn’t surprised. He’d been expecting something bad to happen for a long time. He signs the letter, “Love, your son.”

The girls at school take turns rubbing his bristles. To Rafe, it feels def, like each hair is a vibrating antenna. “Excellent,” says Kelly Webb, a goth ghoul with a pierced eyebrow, a coal-black bob, and a coiled rattlesnake inked into her forearm.

“Gadowdahere,” Rafe roars, feeling his cheeks get red.

Most days, he sits through classes as though in a dream. It’s been like that all semester, words drifting through a haze. Sometimes he reaches out and catches a few, pondering what they mean. Except in math, his favorite subject. Sanchez, the math teacher, kicks ass.

Proving theorems and solving algebra equations is like a videogame without the flashing lights. Rafe got a ninety-eight on his last test. Course, he can’t tell Taz, who’s still in remedial. But that’s cool. Taz has the right ‘tude. Today, after school they’re going to go chill in Old Town.

At the end of last-period math, Sanchez calls out. “Hey my friend, still going to register for summer math camp?”

“Dunno,” says Rafe. “Might take the summer off instead.”

Sanchez looks disappointed. “Too bad, Rafe. It would look good on a college app.”

“Not sure I want to go to college right away,” Rafe tells him.

“That camp might be fun,” Sanchez says. “Better than working at Taco Bell, right?”

As he walks away, Sanchez yells after him. “Don’t forget the test tomorrow, dude.”

Outside, Rafe spots Taz leaning against the school’s brick wall, watching the kids buzz outta the place like flies. His new friend’s hard to miss, with his rubbed-raw skin and intense, beady eyes.

“So my man, we gonna just hang or what?” Rafe asks. “If we’re gonna just stand around, we might as well go inside where we won’t get soaked.”

For days, the weathercasters have been warning a big Pacific storm is on its way. And looking at the sky, Rafe sees it’s arrived. Metal-gray clouds hang over the mountains, and the air smells wet. Here in the land of eternal sunshine, it’s always a big deal when it rains.

“Nahh, Masser R, les go see wassup in Old Town.” Taz ruffles his shoulders like the VJs on Yo! MTV Raps.

Old Town’s less than a mile away from Blair High. Once upon a time, Rafe rode his bike there. He wouldn’t be caught doing that now. Next semester, it’ll be Driver’s Ed. After that, his first set of wheels.

“Bumpin’,” Rafe says as a black Nissan mini-truck with tinted windows and tiny tires bounces by on Fair Oaks, accompanied by its stereo’s boom-da-boom, boom-da-boom.

“Whossat?” asks Taz. “They got balls driving through our ‘hood with their sound up.”

“Can’t tell,” Rafe says, zipping up his purple Lakers jacket to ward off the drizzle beginning to fall. “Looks like the homeys from high school.”

The truck drives off and they both put up the hoods of their jackets to keep the moisture from their hairless heads. The wind kicks up, and Rafe’s cold for the first time in months.

Old Town’s full of kids parading around with plastic bags full of new stuff. Rafe walks with his shoulders pulled up high. This will be the ultimate test for his new vibe.

“Check out them hos,” says Taz, nudging Rafe in the ribs.

“Bodacious racks.”

Rafe gets nervous when the girls head in their direction, wading in their low-rise pants, showing off their piercings and tight abs. Once they get closer, Rafe sees it’s Autumn Karanski and her sidekick, Rosa Nichols. Autumn’s dad heads the historic preservation group Harrison used to belong to. Rosa was named after some old-time radical.

“Wassup, homeboy?” Autumn asks, maneuvering her big, black umbrella to give them all some protection.

“Me and Dev’s just hangin,” Rafe says.

Rafe feels Autumn’s eyes moving over his head, and embarrassed, puts up his hood again. “Whadja score?” he asks nervously, surprised that he summoned enough courage to make words come out of his mouth.

“Stereo adapter for my iPod.”

“Cool.”

They stand around awkwardly in the rain under Autumn’s umbrella. Then Autumn says later. “Sorry—we’ve got to get our asses over to Bliss’s pad to finish our Lifelong Understanding project.”

Rafe watches the rain create a veil between them. He wants her to look back—that’s all. He’s thought of asking her to the rave they have Friday nights at the warehouse in Azusa. But thinking about it is as far as he’s gotten.

Later, walking back through the neighborhood, Rafe’s still thinking about her. In a daze, he hears the mini-truck before he sees it, parked on South Marengo, its stereo booming Ice Cube’s “Lethal Injection.”

“Be cool, be cool,” says Taz. “They ask wassup, say nothin’s up.”

“Man, let’s get out of here,” Rafe says. The truck looks ominous, just waiting there for them.

“Ain’t no problem. T’sar street.”

Following Taz’s lead, Rafe struts forward, doing the gangsta limp. When they get closer, the tinted window lowers and a shaved head thrusts itself out. Rae sees it’s one of the seniors who got expelled for trashing the computer lab with mustard and ketchup from the cafeteria. “Yo B, wassup?” the gangsta asks, gesturing with one hand.

“Nuthin’s up,” says Devil T.

“What you little cracka kids be doing on my street?”

“We be on our own turf, white trash,” Dev says.

“Yeah, well we be holdin it down now. You tykes run home to yo mamas ‘fore ya get hurt.” He smiles, exposing a chipped front tooth, and the next time Rafe looks he’s staring into the end of a gun.

It’s been a long time since Rafe has run, not since he was on the cross-country team his first year of junior high. Even then he wasn’t any good at it.

Panting on the sidewalk in front of his house, it seems strange to see Fern’s yellow lilies still hugging the river rock, their heads bowed with the weight of the rain. The house, however, is dark.

He reads the note Fern left on the kitchen counter:

Dearest dearest,

Harrison and I got the great idea to drive to Santa Barbara to stop by Sylvia and Joe’s for some herbs. Back tomorrow afternoon. Take care of yourself. Food in fridge. We love you more than love itself, sweetness!

F & H

Rafe realizes how hard he’s breathing as he tastes blood while trying to lock the front door. The locks stick, and the door is so swollen with moisture he can barely close it. He wishes someone were home, but there’s just Peace, sprawled out in his favorite chair. There’s not a single weapon in the house. Fern and Harrison believe in talking, nonviolent resistance, hippie stuff.

He considers the bread knife. It cuts through Fern’s wheat bread, but he can’t see it doing much good if that gang wannabe comes to the door. A little jittery, he searches out Harrison’s stash box. He plucks a rolling paper from the carved wooden box and sprinkles pot on it, just like he’s seen Harrison and Fern do. Somehow, he manages to scatter weed all over the floor.

The first hit from the wobbly joint burns, and Rafe nearly chokes trying to hold it in his lungs. But in a minute, danger becomes just an idea. His hands flip idly through their old records, the album jackets feeling rough and dry compared to the smooth plastic feel of CDs and computer keys.

Their huge stereo sits hunched in the corner like one of those dinosaur models he used to have on his dresser. He pulls a Doors record from its sleeve. He’s never examined a record up close. All the grooves, round and round, like etchings in a fossil. It’s a struggle to get the needle to come down in the right place.

Suddenly it’s raining hard. Drops, droplets, gushy wet streaming down, oozing splatter of precipitation. But when he lifts the bamboo curtain, it looks like the rain has stopped. Jim Morrison’s not dead. Or maybe he’s come back from the grave to warn him: “There’s a killer on the road. His brain is hurting like a toad.” The words seem slick with deep meaning.

Rafe knows all about Jimi, Janis, and the Lizard King—has absorbed them the way he learned about Sammy Hagar, Axl Rose, and Tommy Lee from his parents’ old CDs. His grandparents don’t talk about their glory days much anymore—although Harrison still brags about the time he hitchhiked to San Francisco and got backstage for Jefferson Airplane. They carry the past inseed form—add a few drops of memory water and life blooms all over again.

And then Rafe becomes incredibly hungry. He stands looking into the fridge’s bright fluorescence a long time before spotting pumpkin-ginger muffins peeking out from behind a bottle of balsamic vinegar. He smears them with basil-honey butter and sits down on the Congoleum to eat.

The next day, Rafe can’t decide between ditching and showing up for the math test. Eventually, he walks down to Taz’s apartment complex. He has to bang on the door for a whole minute before his mom answers.

“Taz up?” he asks Mrs. Tyler, who he can barely make out through the security screen.

She turns and yells, “Taz, yer friend’s here.”

Rafe hears a muffled “OK” and sits at the bottom of the stairs to wait.

Taz gyrates down the stairs with an energetic stomp. “Hey my man, give me five.”

They slap hands. Then Taz lifts his shirt and shows him the piece.

Rafe’s feels his heart beating faster. “Get rid of that, you crazy shit.”

“Hey chill out. It’s just a forty-five.”

“You’re not bringing that to school,” Rafe says.

Taz smiles. “It’s no niner, but I’ll still show those homies.”

“And how will you get it through the metal detectors?” Rafe asks.

Taz looks confused for a minute, but then his beady eyes light up. “I know, dude. I’ll hide it in the bushes outside.”

Rafe avoids Taz at lunch by hiding in the computer lab listening to the hackers prattle on about distributed computing, Ruby on Rails, and the new Wii. He stares at the blank screen, hunching down low so nobody he used to know will see him. Once upon a time, he’d wanted to use computer generation to create movie monsters so scary they’d seem real.

He tries pressing some keys, but is denied access. “401 error,” the computer flashes. “Bad command.”

When Rafe comes out of sixth, Taz is waiting. “You ditchin’ seventh?” he asks.

“No, I’m ditchin’ you.” Rafe turns and walks away. Inside his head, the gun twists and turns as if on display. He has the feeling of being on the downside of a roller coaster, the car ready to jump its tracks. Halfway through English, a truck outside backfires and it makes him jump. A few minutes later, he decides to screw the math test and asks to be excused.

The sky outside is dark and foreboding, and Rafe has the sudden urge to go to the public library and bury his head in a book. After the accident, he stayed in his room for days, reading whatever he could get his hands on. Stories about stars and the whole universe, astronauts jetting around the planets, dumb adventures where boys end up living in old castles instead of apartments on Sherman Way.

Right now, he wants to hide so deep in the stacks no one will find him. But as he puts his foot on the first limestone step of the solid, old building, the sound of “Rafe, wait up” stings his back like buckshot.

“Man, I told you I don’t want no part of this,” Rafe yells.

If Fern and Harrison hadn’t gone up north, he could call them to pick him up. But Rafe’s on his own. Just like always.

Once this is over, things will be different. Summer math camp, college, listening to Sanchez, getting up the courage to ask Autumn out, letting his hair grow unfashionably long.

“Aww, come on Masser R,” Taz pleads. “Wassup with this?” His face looks stupid and blank. It all seems so clear now. Why didn’t he see it before?

“No, I’m going home,” Rafe tells him, stalking off without looking back.

The clouds commence to dumping their load, and Rafe lets the cold rain bounce off his skull and slither down his neck. He takes side streets he doesn’t normally take, past houses with river rock porches and lemon trees and blooming flowers and shiny front walks. But Taz trails him like some parasitic fungus. Rafe’s sick of his listening to his chant, “Come on, my man.” If Taz didn’t have the gun, maybe Rafe would think about punching him in the stomach.

The rain pummels Rafe’s back. Keeping his eyes on the cracks in the cement will make Taz disappear. Concentration. If he can just make it home, everything will be all right. But a block from his house, the boom of music explodes, and Taz warns, “Watch yo ass, it’s goin’ down.”

The same gangsta stares at them through black locs. Despite the shades, Rafe can see him clearly. He looks like a loser, like Taz will be in a few years. Like Taz is right now.

“Thought I tol’ you schoolboys to stay outta this hood,” the gangsta sneers. “Guess ahm gonna teach you something you ain’t learned in no school.”

Taz pulls himself up to his full height, raindrops falling on his face. “Watch your mouf, mothafo. Quit talkin yo trash.” The Snoop lyrics echo—Murder is the case they gave me, murder is the case they gave me—before the gangsta spits, “Yo ass is grass.”

The flash of light burns Rafe’s eyes like looking at the sun right before it sets. Deafening noise—explosions blast against his eardrums and reverberate in his stomach then there’s only rain.

Sometime later, Rafe gradually comes to understand he’s on someone’s lawn and there are sirens in the distance and Taz is nowhere in sight. He has the same dizzy feeling that he did at Magic Mountain that day. And now that Rafe is lying here with his eyes closed, it’s coming back. His father had insisted he ride the Colossus, even though Rafe really wasn’t old enough.

“It’s the biggest all-wood roller coaster on the entire West Coast,” he remembered his dad saying. “Cummon, don’t be a wimp.”

Rafe had hung onto the safety bar with all his might, and kept his eyelids clamped shut. The one time he did open his eyes, he saw the traffic-choked Golden State Freeway a long ways down and felt like he was going to throw up.

Afterward, his dad laughed at how afraid Rafe has been, calling him chickenshit for the rest of the day. His father’s face looked hollow and dead. He was clearly high. Rafe remembers hearing Fern telling Harrison one night, “Steve’s turned into a speed freak; he’s hooked.” And looking at him that day, Rafe could see it.

Rafe takes the back alleys home, stuffing his Lakers jacket in a trashcan, vaguely noticing part of the shoulder’s been blown away. The rain makes the skin on his arms look translucent, like he’s no longer real, as if someone could pass their hand right through his body. Each step toward home is a step backward in time, until he’s only a sperm and an egg joined by two kids after a Motley Crew concert one night at the Whiskey a long time ago.

Back at home, Rafe examines the round hole in his upper arm. He wraps a towel around it to absorb all the blood. It hurts more than anything has ever hurt before, but Rafe doesn’t know who to call. Instead, he curls up under the herb-drying rack, the closest thing to a cave he can find.

There are details in the leaves that he never knew existed. Some are hard and achingly sharp, others soft and round. He can see right through the veins to their centers. He reads the seed packs to stay conscious.

Chervil: delicate with a subtle celery-licorice taste. Sweet Cicely: fernlike pale leaves with a sweetly delicate anise taste. Thyme: minty, tealike flavor. Sage: musky and mentholated.

Shivers rake his body. Rafe looks at the colors in the stained-glass window. The strangest things run through his mind: how Fern will react to blood on her hardwood floors, the sensation of riding the roller coaster with his father, memories of his mom and dad together, back when they were a couple of kids just out for a good time.

There was a picture his mom kept in a drawer. “Me and Steve—Live Fast, Die Young, and Leave a Beautiful Corpse” it said on the back. His father’s white teeth flashed and long hair cascaded behind him like ribbons as he held onto the handlebars of his bike. His mother, her purple hair equally wild, clung to his waist. They looked so innocent in their tight pants and black leather jackets.

Rafe asked Fern about the picture once. All she said was, “They chose the Highway to Hell.” Her eyes were hard when she said it.

Rafe wonders about their world the same way he used to wonder about Tyrannosaurus Rex. And the Brontosaurus, made extinct by the Ice Age. The only traces are a few old CDs, torn leather jackets, and accidents that leave people dead and locked up.

Their time is gone. What they did has nothing to do with him. For the first time in a long time, Rafe wants to live. He calls out for help, waiting for an answer he knows won’t ever come. The roller coaster has jumped its tracks and he’s soaring through the air alone.

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“I’m a graduate of the M.A. creative writing program at California State University Northridge and a magazine editor by day. My short stories have been featured in Pacific Review, Heliotrope, In*tense, Mind in Motion, Sidewalks, Rockhurst Review, Sunspinner and other journals. My nonfiction has appeared in Herizons, Lifeboat: A Journal of Memoir, Pilgrimage and a variety of newspapers and other publications.” E-mail: mail[at]margomccall.com