Threshold

Billiard’s Pick
Cindy Clarke


Packing
Photo Credit: Ryan Hyde

The night stretches in a long line of laundry and packed boxes
with dogs by the back door, panting for rain.

This is not a house by the sea.
I am grateful to feel him near.

Uncomfortable in this body,
even warm air triggers distance.

Sleep stalks the edge of wakefulness.
I crave breezes winding through rooms.

Out walking, I stare into the windows of other houses.
Every life displays a different configuration.

Nothing sounds right. I fit nowhere,
a cup of coffee in my hand.

Against the pull of sleep, words
bicker in the corner.

This is not the end of a hall, but
a doorway into a brighter room.

pencil

Cindy Clarke lives and works in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She has had poetry published in several journals including Freefall, Ottawa Arts Review, and The Antigonish Review. Cindy recently completed an apprenticeship in the Saskatchewan Writer’s Guild Mentorship program. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Curriculum Studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Email: cindy.clarke[at]spiritsd.ca

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The Quilt

Billiard’s Pick
Cezarija Abartis


chenille pram quilt
Photo Credit: Leslie Keating

Paula wanted the world to be perfect, as her mother, Rose, had wanted the world to be perfect, and Paula must have inherited that flaw. Larry once said that about Paula. Larry, who loved birds and flew away like a bird.

Outside the window, the sun slanted across the yard for an instant; the television meteorologist predicted rain later on this April day, but the showers would bring May flowers, right? The gray hung low on the horizon like a billowing quilt, but overhead blue shone through brilliant white clouds. The brightness dazzled the eyes. She had to look away.

The semester was ending. The students would take their final exams and leave school, and she would never see most of them again. She had wanted to teach a perfect course; she wanted the students to be perfect; she wanted to hold on to them until they learned the material perfectly. They squirmed and wanted to be finished and out. She reluctantly understood that.

Paula put down the red pen. The gray evened out overhead now, but from time to time, a streak of sunlight pierced through the clouds.

Candide too looked for perfection, she told her students, and finally he learned to stay home and tend his own garden.

Larry had loved her and not loved her, and she in turn had loved him and not loved him back. Larry married someone else. And Paula was an old maid, well, a career woman. Funny, that sounded as if her career was being a woman, instead of her being a woman with a career. A fulfilling career, she semi-mocked herself—filling the heads of the young with diminishing knowledge about the old.

Patches of perfection did exist—she admitted that. Shakespeare was perfect and Jane Austen and Chekhov, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost. One could climb into their laps and be warm like a cat. Her mother had told her a story about fairies and princes, about Cinderella separating herself from her peasant roots to take on her royal identity. Paula’s grandparents had left Poland to travel to America and work in the factories. Her grandmother, Stanislava, named her daughter, Paula’s mother, Rose, though there were not many flowers in either of their lives.

Paula’s mother wore black to her parents’ funerals, did not accept death gracefully, writhed against the memory of her miscarriage from decades ago, was saddened by her father’s stroke that left him paralyzed on the right side, railed against corruption in the U.S.S.R.

Her mother had once not cared about imperfection: there was proof in an old photograph of her mother as a young child wearing a nightgown and sitting up in a bed covered with a patchwork quilt with no design, just leftover rectangles and squares of cloth sewn onto each other. Her mother gave Paula the quilt, ragged now but with one perfect sky-blue square in the center.

In the black-and-white photograph, Paula’s grandmother Stanislava sits on the bed, with her six- or seven-year-old daughter, Rose, who is wearing braids, the way she still wears her hair sometimes. The child smiles into the camera, full of anticipation and knowledge, unlike her mother. Stanislava, with her dark-bead eyes, is slumping. Young and distracted, she looks as though she wants to smile but is tired from working in the factory and does not remember how to curve her lips. It must have been Paula’s grandfather who took the photo of his wife and daughter. Perhaps he borrowed the camera from a friend and wanted an impromptu record of their young domestic life. The windowless walls show spots and cracks, but the little girl, Rose, Paula’s mother, smiles all the same. She owns this universe. It is perfect.

pencil

Cezarija Abartis’s Nice Girls and Other Stories was published by New Rivers Press. Her stories have appeared in Per Contra, Prime Number, Waccamaw, and New York Tyrant, among others. One of her flashes was included in Wigleaf‘s 2012 Top 50 list of flash fiction. Recently she completed a novel, a thriller. She teaches at St. Cloud State University. Website. Email: c.abartis[at]stcloudstate.edu

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A Few of Us in the Desert, Listening

Billiard’s Pick
Michael Spring


just take a pebble
Photo Credit: Pierre Metivier

He sat opposite us with his elbows on the table
Idly picking apart the fish with his fingers
Throwing the pieces into the wicker baskets
That someone had found and lined with vellum.
His eyes were like pebbles under water
As he talked of the wilderness in his heart
The weary struggle against the void.
We forgave him because his skinny arms,
Browned from the desert, were like hempen rope and
Hid mercy amongst the fine blond hairs.
Eternity won’t be like that at all he told us,
Ripping more bread into pieces and cursing
Suddenly, his fate, which was to be among us.
pencil

Email: michael[at]wildwildwest.co.uk

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The Missing

Billiard’s Pick
Dianne Rees


Marsh in the woods
Photo Credit: Jeff Myers

Tom had been missing for three weeks. His mother and father had not called the police because Tom had a habit of dropping out of sight and then slouching back as if no time had passed at all. Appearing in the kitchen or hallway like a revenant, his eyes would narrow angrily and his shoulders would hunch in a pugilistic stance if one threw a questioning look his way. Disliking confrontation, his parents soon stopped asking where he went. His boss at the electronics store, also used to Tom’s erratic behavior, was grateful for this final unexplained absence which now gave him an excuse to terminate Tom’s employment. Tom had no girlfriend who could be reached to discover his whereabouts, though there were two dark-haired, flint-featured young men that he hung out with. His mother Jane supposed they were her son’s friends. They never came inside the house, but Jane had seen them lurking about the fence posts—much like her own son who also lurked as if not wanting to lay claim to the house he’d grown up in.

One of the young men, Deke, or Sam, rasped into the phone one day that first week, “Tom in?” and Jane, who’d picked up, confessed that he wasn’t. She thought for a moment of asking if the caller had any ideas about where Tom might be, if only to learn the possible repertoire of habitats he frequented these days, but she hesitated and the moment was lost. When Deke or Sam hung up, she didn’t feel regretful. What would she have done with the information after all, but file it away as another part of the puzzle that was Tom? She’d decided years ago, it was a puzzle she might regret piecing together.

The days of missing Tom soon settled into habit and Jane sometimes caught her breath at her imaginings that he’d finally pulled up stakes and got his own place as he’d always threatened to do. True, Tom was only 23, but his presence in their home was a constant ache, sometimes dull and sometimes sharp, and made worse now that Nick was retired. Nick, who could never back down from a fight or turn away from some vicious thing the boy said, as if it was still in his power, after all these years, to change his son’s behavior.

Jane knew it was wrong but she felt a prickling of exultation when Tom disappeared. The atmosphere in the house was like an exhaled breath and she was finally able to step off the eggshells she’d felt herself poised over whenever her son was around. Nick too, was more relaxed. The flustered, harried look on his face slipped away as the days of Tom’s absence turned to weeks. He settled into his recliner with books that Tom would have denounced as trite, watched television shows that amused rather than educated him. The tightly strung bow of Tom’s sensibilities no longer set off its corresponding resonance in her husband and this stilled Jane’s own inner vibrations.

In the weeks when he was gone, Jane found herself revisiting the earliest moments of her life with Tom, always comparing her experiences to those with her older children. Mark and Sarah had been born twelve and eight years before Tom. They’d certainly gotten into scrapes. But they’d healed and they didn’t wound other people, or leave deep, abiding sorrow in their wakes. If either of them had gone missing, Jane would have felt a boundless chasm in her life. What kind of mother was she to relish the peace that Tom’s absence had brought?

She was a terrible mother, she thought again at the funeral, watching the priest clasp his hands together in prayer. His face obscured by sunlight, Father Francis spoke of a stranger, some shadow Tom she’d never known. “Who can divine God’s plan?” the priest intoned. Jane’s gaze snagged Nick’s, both of them weighing their culpability if not their sorrow. Beside Nick, Sarah stared straight ahead, her head slightly canted as she chewed on an errant strand of her hair. Beside her, Mark fiddled surreptitiously with his Blackberry.

Jane was not unmoved by the fact of Tom’s death, his body found the way it was, torn apart by dogs in the marshy part of the state park. There was hardly anything left to look at, but she’d forced herself to look, just as she’d forced herself to look at the small pile of bones and feathers that had been neatly piled in the corner of the woodshed ten-year-old Tom had claimed for his clubhouse. Just as she’d forced herself to look into Tom’s eyes, narrowed with the incandescent rage at her invasion of his privacy. She’d looked and looked. She’d tried to summon from some deep maternal well her love for him to say the right thing to save him. “Wash your hands, Tom, when you come in the house” was what she’d said instead, stepping away finally. She’d been stepping away from him ever since.

Nick, listening to the priest saying various silly things about the kind of young man his son wasn’t, glanced at Jane, whose eyes were reddened but not watering. He inclined his head to take in his remaining children. Sarah looked confused, as if she was trying to replay the story of her brother’s life and found the film snipped apart and randomly spliced together. As for Mark, he seemed resolutely annoyed to be pulled into Tom’s final drama. He looked again at Jane, catching her eye this time, knowing that she was tied to him by the guilty relief they shared. Their youngest boy, the hopeful experiment of their more settled years, such a resounding failure.

He’d been a querulous, grasping child from birth, easily startled as if the lights were always too bright, the texture of his Onesies too rasping, the sounds around him too discordant. He’d arrived and remained with his own peculiar sounds—piercing shrieks he let loose when things displeased him. And his features—he didn’t resemble either side of the family. His head, lumpy and round on his angular body, made him look like a pumpkin boy, some Halloween fright. His eyes were too close, his mouth too large, and those teeth… In the early days of Tom, Nick had thought, well, all babies are ugly, wizened creatures, aren’t they? But though Tom’s body had grown, his face had remained both cunningly infantile and malevolently ancient, and when he’d tried to cling to Nick, grasped by some petty insecurity, well, God help him, Nick had had to push him away. There was just something about the boy that was too repulsive.

Then there was that incident at school with Tom’s injured classmate. Nothing had been proven, but there were claims made nonetheless and Tom was in the principal’s office denying everything, so angry at being falsely accused. He’d been so convincing that Nick, referencing his memories of his other nearly perfect children, had nearly believed him, until, just as he turned from shouting at the principal that he would not let his son be falsely accused, he caught a glimpse of Tom’s small, slipping away smile, revealing those gray, slightly pointy teeth. Catching the merriment in his son’s eyes, Nick recognized with a chill that his son’s conscience was only very loosely tied to him. Though he could not hide his disgust, he’d grasped his son’s hand and pulled him from that office nevertheless, as if they were the righteous ones.

Nick knew it was not a natural thing to feel that the mangled boy in the closed coffin, lanced by sunlight, had finally focused all his destructive tendencies on the right victim. It seemed almost profane to have him up there by that alter of mercy and redemption. He felt Jane take his hand and squeeze it. Her fingers were cold. He practiced saying the words to himself. “We are burying our boy.” Like a sneaky thief, other unspoken words followed, “We are putting an end to him.” Nick looked at Jane and knew she would not hate him for this thought. He squeezed her hand in return.

Mark glanced up from his last text message to see where the priest was in the service. His investment was going through the roof and he felt the predatory thrill of knowing that all the players had come together exactly as he’d seen they would. He shifted in the pew. He was hot and uncomfortable in his suit and tie and the air in the church was close. He felt put upon that he had to pretend to mourn his shit of a brother Tom. He was only here for his mother and father. He knew it was a terrible thing for them to be here in this church, even if it was to grieve for a psycho son.

His brother had fit all the stereotypes; he’d been a whiny, sneaky loner from the start. Mark hadn’t been able to shed him fast enough when he’d gone away to college, relieved of the burden of keeping Tom from being beat up by the neighborhood kids. He’d always seemed to bring it on himself. He had a way of speaking, of needling you, that made the red mist descend even on boys who were not otherwise inclined to violence.

Mark had tried to speak to him once. “Look you have to stop acting like this.”

“Like what?” his eight-year-old brother had asked, genuinely puzzled. But what could Mark say—like yourself, like someone who enjoys it when another kid trips or gets reamed by a teacher? Like someone who concentrates rage and hate and… otherness?

As the priest murmured, “We hardly knew this young man,” Mark snorted, then covered the sound with a sneeze. He knew his brother all right and though he begrudged this day which had been stolen from him, he would not linger upon it too long. He texted his girlfriend that he would be home soon and would pick up dinner.

Sarah flinched at the sound of her brother sneezing. Self-consciously, she plucked a strand of hair that had escaped from the braid she’d been chewing on. She was embarrassed as usual that she could not make herself right. She could not contain her hair neatly, could not refrain from ingesting it, could not manage to find the right clothing for a funeral, could not summon the right emotions with which to bury her brother. She tried to imagine what Tom’s last weeks had been like. Had he too needed to put all the pieces together and failing once again, finally put an end to things? The medical examiner had found drugs in his system but not enough, had found signs of a body abused by cold and the elements, but had not identified anything clearly fatal that might have reached Tom before the dogs did. Had her brother met someone—a dangerous boy or girl who had captured his heart and then cast it fatally away? Someone who had met her brother’s violent nature with a violence of his or her own? Sarah shook her head. She shouldn’t transfer her own proclivities to fill the emptiness that lived inside her Tom.

Tom had always perplexed her. He’d always seemed like a mirror of an awkwardness she’d flirted with and cast aside or at least had managed to disguise. She used to get so frustrated with him; he let himself be such a victim. But she never knew what to say to him and he was a boy and the strangeness of boys was different from the strangeness of girls. She’d always assumed that Mark would take him in hand and then when he hadn’t, well, by then it had seemed too late.

She supposed it was strange that she was weeping. She must look a fright. Everyone else had so much more control. She tried to picture Tom inside his coffin. She pictured herself in there with him, nudging herself beside him. Like the way she used to crawl into his bed when thunderstorms came, knowing he’d be too frightened to leave his room to crawl into her own bed. As the house rattled and the lights flared outside the windows, they would cling to each other. He’d been so terrified. Or had she been? She remembered the warm heat of him beside her, his muddy eyes acquiring unexpected depth when the room lit up and the tree branches snapped against the window like whips “Don’t be afraid,” one of them had said. “I’m here,” one of them had whispered. “Always,” one of them had lied.

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Dianne Rees is a writer and instructional designer living in Irving, Texas. Her fiction has appeared in Vestal Review, Farmhouse Magazine, Spillway Review, Neon, Bartleby Snopes, Storyglossia, Offcourse Literary Magazine, and other journals. Email: diannerees[at]sbcglobal.net

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Elephant Nannies

Billiard’s Pick
Diana Dominguez


At the elephant orphanage in Kenya,
dozens of gentle men
mother the elephants
made motherless by poachers,
exploding the myth
that maternal instinct
belongs to women only.

It’s one man to one elephant;
they feed, bathe, cuddle,
soothe, sing lullabies, and
sleep alongside their charges
ready to chase away
elephant versions
of monsters in the closet.

The bond is established early;
upon introduction
serpentine trunks caress
the nannies, imprinting
the unique smell
that will forever mean “mommy”
in their pachydermal memories.

“This one,” says a nanny,
gently patting the head
of his fearful, agitated charge,
“witnessed his mother’s murder;
it will be years before
he learns to trust me.”

“The drawback,” he says,
“of having a memory
like an elephant.”
pencil

“I am currently an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Texas at Brownsville/Texas Southmost College where I teach primarily ancient, classical, and medieval literature and women’s studies. Both my research and creative writing activities focus primarily on giving voice to characters and historical people, especially women, usually overlooked or forgotten by traditional history or current news reports. I have presented creative and scholarly work at various regional, national, and international conferences, and published fiction, creative non-fiction, poetry, and scholarly work in regional and national publications.” E-mail: gypsyscholar[at]rgv.rr.com

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Little Mother

Billiard’s Pick
Amber Cook


My mother’s wedding ring taps the steering wheel in time to the dull melodic strains filtering through the speakers. One tap, two tap, three taps and I want to throw myself from the window.

“I always loved this song. It’s so… springy.”

Springy. I ignore her and focus my attention on the sidewalk flying by outside. Girls with pink book bags and light-up sneakers walk in pairs, skipping over cracks and laughing so loudly I can hear the noise over my mother’s incessant tapping. One stands aside from the rest, a science book pressed against her developing chest. It flattens the barely visible lumps I know are behind it and my heart strains. She is me, a younger me, and I want to scoop her up and tell her everything will be all right. I’m one of them, or I was, once. I don’t know anymore. Maybe I’m just a shell of what they are and what I used to be.

Tap, tap, tap.

My mother, she sings. God help me. As if the tapping weren’t enough to bear. In time to the music her foot presses the accelerator and the bags and blinking shoes turn into a melded blur of white and pink and light. My stomach turns and I have to look away.

“You’re carsick. I told you to stop looking out that window.”

She knows. A creep of panic flutters through my stomach. No, she can’t know. She repeats the same statement every time we get into the car. I cover my legs with my coat and pull down the visor mirror to check out my reflection. No sign of green or water retention. We’re safe.

She’s watching me and it feels like she’s been doing it since the day I was born. The checklist is being covered in her mind, I know, as her eyes dart from one inch of my body to the next.

Shirt— no profanity or visible cleavage.

Check.

Skirt— knee length and of a reasonable tightness.

Check.

Teeth and hair— brushed and combed.

Check.

If she could lift up my skirt and measure my underwear for full coverage, she would. She is the imperial involved mother. No foul language or g-strings shall pass by the maternal walking radar in Bill Blass flats. Her ultimate pride comes in knowing every aspect of her children’s lives and balking at the lack of parental skills in the mothers around her. At least once per newscast, she will raise her voice loudly and proclaim if the carjackers and drug dealers had been under her raising they would have been at home in bed instead of warming a jail cell on block C.

Tap, tap, tap. It’s a case of tragic irony, I guess.

I feel suddenly naked beneath her stare and pull my coat a little higher. Coats shield everything. They hide what needs hiding and cover up those little stains that can ruin a day. Today, it will cover my stain, and maybe tomorrow too. After that, words will have to be said that I don’t want to say and she doesn’t want to hear. But, until then, I will live in my silence and she in her happy bliss and together we’ll both be content for at least a day or two.

She sings again. Her voice fills the SUV like water and I close my eyes for a moment to listen. She sounds like fuzzy wool sweaters and denim straight leg jeans. I tug my coat a little higher.

I’m the good girl, or the bad girl, or maybe a little somewhere in between. I have good intentions that sometimes don’t pan out and good morals that ultimately get compromised here and there. It doesn’t make me a bad person, but that doesn’t stop the guilt from seeping in. My resistance is just a little too thin, or lax, maybe. She would call it a case of “severely impaired judgment,” but it doesn’t sound right to me. Judgment had nothing to do with it, though it will now. It just won’t be my judgment she’ll have to worry about.

The song changes and the rhythm of the wedding bands slow down a beat or two. I resist the urge to turn my head to the passenger window and stare out the front one instead. White paint lines rush toward us then shoot beneath our feet and disappear in the rearview. We rush ahead and she’s pressing the accelerator a little harder. Life comes too fast, too soon, and with too much reality and I just can’t handle it. Again, my stomach turns and I close my eyes and rest my head against the seat.

“Life goes on…” My mother chirps like a bird.

I can’t breathe. The seatbelt is tight against my chest and it’s leaving a red imprint in my skin. It’s binding, cutting off my air. I pull it away and breathe deeply in, out. That’s better. Beside me, a car passes by with a child’s face pressed into disfigurement against the backseat window. He sticks his tongue against it, making moist swirls and ripples on the glass. Such innocence. There could be any number of deadly germs breeding on that window and there’s no telling how many fingers have touched it, but he doesn’t care. He is a man living in the moment and after his tongue leaves the glass it will probably find some dirty fingers to wrap itself around. It’s all in a days work for him, and I feel a surge of envy twist my insides. I want that kind of innocence. I want it back. It left so quickly, and I never even noticed it gone. No one told me it happened like that, without any sign or warning.

It was supposed to be the epitomizing moment of my life, my awakening, like some sort of Jackie Collins-narrated sexual enlightenment. I would journey from childhood to high heels and big breasts in one defining moment and my whole world would be changed for the better.

What a disappointment.

Things have changed, but not for the better, and I certainly don’t feel any different. Except, perhaps, a little more regretful than I was last week. I’m not a woman, and if I am I don’t know it. Maybe I’m a woman in a child’s body or the other way around. I don’t know anything anymore.

“Sing with me, Stephanie. You have such a beautiful voice.”

I ignore her. The light ahead changes from green to red with no in-between and my mother slams on the brakes with every ounce of force in her lead foot. My stomach turns again and this time there’s no stopping the party. In a flurry of fingers my seatbelt is flying against the door, which I fling open wide. Next breath I’m leaning over the wet pavement spilling a Cheerio and English muffin cocktail into a drain gutter. The sight makes my stomach turn again and I have to close my eyes. I spit twice, cough, and crawl back into the SUV before the light turns green. I don’t want to open my eyes because I know what I’ll see. But I do, anyway, and I was right. My mother stares at me with shocked curiosity and blinks three times slow.

“Are you feeling all right?”

I wipe my mouth with the sleeve of my jacket. “I’m fine. Much better now.”

She stares a moment longer. “All right.”

There will be more questions later, and probably a doctor’s appointment. God, help me.

The light turns green and we’re on our way again. I glance at her and pull the coat over my torso again. She’ll know soon enough. For now, there’s a parent teacher meeting and I failed my last history exam. She puts on the turn signal and turns carefully into the school parking lot. I sigh. Here we are. Two little mothers.

She’ll know soon enough.
pencil

“I am twenty one and currently unpublished, though I am actively seeking outlets to change that. I live in Nashville, TN and I’m an executive assistant by day, though eventually I would love to write full time.” E-mail: lilmsambernic[at]yahoo.com

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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.

pencil

“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

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Coffee Cups

Billiard’s Pick
Charity C. Tran


Coffee and cigarettes were Jason’s cologne. He was the scattered stream-of-conscious novelist. His coffee was black, two packets of Sweet’N Low, and an air of disgust to anyone who suggested he add milk. Everyday, he sat with a black laptop and a yellow notepad in a coffee shop on Third Street and Oak.

This morning Jason’s attention was directed toward his laptop screen, ignoring briefly the yellow notepad that held his great American masterpiece. He was piecing together another spare-change article, something that fed his mouth more than it nourished his mind and soul. He hated this world of column lengths. If it wasn’t for the money, the only role he would accept in this world was one of the scathing editorial writer. Unfortunately the newspaper had plenty of those and they weren’t interested in his “perspective,” so he drank his coffee, gritted his teeth, and walked the line of lackluster news.

Then Rebecca walked in and writing became second in his mind.

Today she was in empowering pink: a rose Ann Taylor silk blouse and a black Donna Karan suit. Her hair was pulled into a neat coil, highlighting the diamond studs on her ears that matched her tennis bracelet. Her left hand fiddled with this bracelet as she stood in line behind a man yelling on his cell phone about stock options.

She tried momentarily to avoid looking at Jason in his self-proclaimed corner property, but the effort was soon lost and her eyes found themselves in his direction, taking in his tousled hair and gray eyes. As the businessman ordered a venti soy latte, she smiled and Jason grinned in return.

“What would you like today?” asked the cashier.

Rebecca said Jason’s favorite words: “Venti drip coffee, no room for milk.”

While she waited for her order and fiddled with two pink packets of Sweet’N Low, Jason scribbled a few words on his yellow notepad. They were always observations of her beauty and her grace—the way the flecks of gray in her hazel eyes seemed to speak to him.

Jason and Rebecca had a history, an on-going love affair through glances.

It began at approximately 7:35 a.m. when she walked in two years ago. Both were fresh out of college. He was less bitter and jaded. She had a mind full of goals and her eye at the top of the corporate ladder. He saw her first; she caught his gaze, and then they both smiled. In their heads was the outline of an adventurous romance. They would live together after having a rushed exchange of “I dos” in a Vegas chapel. They would own a Downtown LA loft overlooking the city where the kitchen smelled of brewing French Roast coffee every morning. Jason would write his novels by his desk to this aroma, and Rebecca would grab her thermos of coffee, kiss him, and then hurry out to her CEO career.

This romance, however, could only exist in this coffee shop, through these glances.

If she knew, she would wrinkle her nose at his dingy studio apartment above a Chinatown restaurant because of its location, because it smelled of mushroom chicken and chow mein. Without an established career, he would be too uncouth, too eccentric for her business crowd. With a life too busy for anything but self-interest, she would only pretend to read his novels, spouting off automatic praise without much thought—the brilliance of its darkness, the raw genuineness of America portrayed in his words. She was in love with the idea of being with an artist, but loved herself too much to ever spare any time for him.

In his head, she was an innocent lost in the cutthroat world of corporate business, but her perfect shell would crack and shatter with any knowledge he had of her non-fictional life. He knew nothing of her drinking habit—two glasses of dirty martinis most nights out of the week. He would never envision that in her Downtown LA loft that very morning she had left her second lover of the week lying naked and drowsy beneath her Egyptian cotton sheets. This lover would be gone by the time she came home, and she would never return any of his calls.

Rebecca and Jason stopped their romance before hello, not because of these details but because they were content. In her, Jason had a muse. In him, Rebecca had a relationship that could actually function because it was perfectly untrue, untouched by her destructive manicured fingertips. Anything else would have been like pouring milk into perfectly dark cups of coffee.

At 7:45 a.m., they shared one last glance before her exit. Their love affair would continue the next morning and in subsequent tomorrows to follow for another year before Rebecca stopped coming in.

After a few months, Jason was forced to write her out of his script: she could no longer handle his growing fame as a great American novelist and their relationship ended in a stormy, bitter divorce.

Rebecca, meanwhile, had transferred to a management position on the East Coast, forgetting entirely that she had left a lover in a coffee shop on Third Street and Oak.

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Charity C. Tran is a Los Angeles native who frequents public transit, arts, and culture. She currently studies in the Masters of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California, where she also graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and two minors in Web Technology and Applications and Psychology and Law. She can be found randomly updating her website and traveling Los Angeles through experienceLA.com. E-mail: charity[at]intellichick.com

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My Father’s Last Breath

Billiard’s Pick
Laurent Boulanger


City public hospitals are all the same. They are crowded with the sick, the wounded, the weary, doctors, nurses, specialists, cleaners, visitors, and flower sellers. They smell of commercial detergent and chemicals, and nobody ever smiles unless they feel like they have an obligation to cheer someone else up. They are maze-like, and it’s easy to lose oneself right at the end of the west wing when one is supposed to be at the end of the east wing, or to go up and down for a half hour just to find a toilet that is accessible to visitors, not just patients and hospital staff.

I’d been in and out of hospitals whenever my father’s health deteriorated, but I had never attended a hospital on such a regular basis. My father usually came back home on the same day after being checked and administered the right cocktail of medication like a victim of an epileptic fit who needed to get on with life.

Hospitals scared me. They are like churches, where someone else decides the fate of other people’s lives, where the sins from the past come to haunt you, where you find yourself repenting and praying to a God you have ignored for the majority of your life. In hospitals, the doctors are the gods, and the nurses are the angels.

Sometimes, while sitting in the waiting room of the critical care unit and flicking through a magazine or losing myself in Proust’s A La Recherche Des Temps Perdus, my concentration was snapped by someone’s cry of pain and despair. The shriek of another person’s suffering cleaved the core of my soul like a hand to the throat. I was suddenly reminded that nothing lasts forever, and that life doesn’t always end in the peaceful quietness of the night in the comfort of one’s home amongst the familiarity of objects accumulated over a lifetime.

During my first month at the orphanage, I visited my father every Tuesday. The people at the orphanage wouldn’t allow me more visits, no matter how sick my father got. There were rules and regulations written in stone over a century ago, and nobody was willing to bend them, even if the sky suddenly fell to the earth and swallowed us all. I could beg and put on a sorry face—I could have bribed the entire establishment had I had the means to do so—but it would have made no difference whatsoever. The rules were the Ten Commandments of the orphanage, and the only ones who lived outside those rules were those who had escaped to a better world.

My father’s left lung had collapsed without warning on that sunny June afternoon when our lives had radically changed. The doctor in charge of my father’s convalescence at the hospital told me the technical term for a collapsed lung was tension pneumothorax, but I could refer to it as tension pneumo. Doctor talk, he confided to me as if he were my big brother. I liked him. He was in his late-twenties and good looking—different from other doctors who sported grey hair and bulging stomachs like overfed turkeys ready for the annual festive season slaughter. I was a child, but he spoke to me as if I were an adult. He never bothered to change his intonation or vocabulary to bridge our age difference or tried to patronize me with his encyclopedic medical knowledge. He shared complex diagnoses and prognoses like loved ones give you a cuddle after you’ve run into a door left ajar.

We were sitting in his office at the hospital when he explained what had happened to my father. He used the help of a color chart pinned to the back wall, right behind his chair. The chart showed a full-frontal cross-section of the respiratory system, including the larynx, trachea, bronchi, diaphragm, and lungs. Next to it was a chart of the heart in blue and red sections, showing the pathway of blood traveling from body tissues to the right atrium and to the right ventricle. I had seen similar charts pinned to the walls of the science classroom back at school and remembered the difficulty I had in memorizing all the strange names that someone a long time ago had assigned to every organ and function of the body.

The doctor’s name was Alfred Herrmann, and his family originated from Germany. He’d been born in Strasbourg, in the very same hospital he was now working for. He insisted that I call him by his first name, which felt strange because at school we were forced to address the teachers by their surnames. Even the teachers addressed us by our surnames. I wasn’t Clotilde, but Mademoiselle Benoît.

With his plastic biro, Dr. Herrmann pointed to the left lung on the color chart—the one colored blue—and said, ‘See this large blood vessel?’ He indicated a large artery attached to the top end of the heart.

I nodded.

‘For some reason, it has burst and caused the lung to collapse in the process. As a result, your father’s heart doesn’t pump enough blood, and thus is incapable of delivering the required amount of oxygen to the vital tissues and organs. Your father will remain in critical care for the next few days, but we’ll look after him as best as we can.’

‘Is he going to live?’

‘He’s stable and he’s being constantly monitored. His heart is still weak from the trauma, so it’s important that he rests.’

‘When can he go home?’

‘I can’t say at this stage, but I’m going to be honest with you, Clotilde, you’re looking at least at another two to three months in hospital, and that is in the hope that his condition improves gradually without any complications.’

I sighed. How was I going to cope for that long at the orphanage by only seeing my father once a week? I missed him like a plant misses the healing rays of the sun.

Dr. Herrmann took me to the hospital canteen and bought me a lunch of salad and Swiss cheese and a chocolate mousse. I told him they didn’t feed us well at the orphanage, and the food tasted horrible. I told him people were making fun of me, called me Virgin Mary, and I was scared and I wished I didn’t have to be there. I wanted him to know he had to hurry up and make my father feel good again.

‘I’m doing the best I can,’ Dr. Herrmann said, ‘but life is cruel sometimes. We’re not always the ones who decide on people’s fate.’

I locked my eyes with his and said, ‘It’s God’s Will, I know.’

He didn’t reply, but his face expressed surprise at my answer.

He reached for my hand and squeezed it.

I let tears roll down my face. ‘I’m so tired of everything, I want a normal life again.’

‘You’re a brave little girl,’ he finally said. ‘Maybe I can do something about getting you out of the orphanage. I have a friend who knows a friend who’s a caseworker with the department of social security. A few phone calls, and we might be able to find you a placement with a nice family.’ He smiled as if he’d just revealed the meaning of life. ‘How does that sound?’

‘It sounds fine,’ I said because he was being nice, and I hated the idea of upsetting him.

But his offer wasn’t agreeable.

I didn’t want a placement with a nice family. I wanted my father back, and I wanted to go home.

*

I shared a room with another girl, Martine, thirteen years old, long greasy dark hair down her back and a china-white complexion. Her green eyes peered out from two small slits, which looked as if they’d been cut into her flesh with a scalpel. She wore the same pair of jeans every day, jeans so tight she could hardly move, and a white, cropped cotton top, and no bra. Her little nichons were clearly visible through the T-shirt. I had no breasts to speak of, so at times I was envious, and at others I thought she was cheap. She spoke to me even though I didn’t respond, because the last thing I needed was people trying to be friends with me. Most of the time I was moody and thought about nothing but my father.

I stole a packet of shaving blades from the nurse’s room and tucked it on the inside cover of my pillow. I wrote everything I thought and felt in my diary. If I beat the odds and somehow managed to live to be older, I would remember what it was like to be the girl the world had rejected like a dog forced to fend for itself in a world that no longer had the heart to care for those who needed it the most.

I recorded my innermost desires.

If my father died, I wanted to die on the same day. They would bury us together in the same grave, shamefully hidden at the back of the cemetery amongst tall weeds, a site that nobody visited, where the homeless, bastards, and criminals were concealed from the public.

When it was known that I was my father’s daughter, the Catholic Church stripped him of his ministry like a judge strips a convicted criminal of his dignity. I was the burden of his shame, and I would follow him to the grave.

*

‘Martine!’ I yelled.

Martine—who was sleeping next to me in a single bunk—grunted in reply. She’d been at the orphanage on-and-off for six years now. Her parents were junkies, and she’d been made ward of the state. Every time social security found her a placement in a home, it didn’t last. It was hard for her to get on with everyone, including myself. I didn’t like her, but on that particular night, there was nobody else I could turn to.

I jumped from my bed. ‘Martine, I think I’m dying!’

She stumbled from her metal-frame bed and flicked on the light from her side table. ‘What? What have you done?’

I looked down my legs—dark blood painted my thighs and my nightgown like random brushstrokes from the doubtful hands of a painter’s apprentice—and remembered the shaving blades hidden inside the cover of my pillowcase.

‘I think I cut myself.’ I pulled my nightgown up to my thighs. Where did the blood come from?

Martine’s eyes met mine and I read cruelty in them.

‘You’re menstruating, espèce de petite conne,’ she said with a smirk.

*

‘You’re a woman now,’ my father said. The skin on his face appeared gaunter than during my previous visits, almost translucent, and the bags under his eyes were so heavy, they might as well have been drawn with a charcoal pen.

His room at the hospital was small, but at least he didn’t have to share it with anyone. A large crucifix hung above his bed head. A plastic tube was coming from under the white sheets, as well as wiring attached to an EKG monitor. All this machinery scared me. Even though I knew nothing about medical procedures, I was certain that if someone still had to rely on a lot of equipment to stay alive, it meant that he couldn’t be doing all that well.

I sat on a white plastic chair next to his bed, my small hands grasping at my knees. He no longer smelled of pipe tobacco, but of freshly washed sheets and disinfectant. His hair was dull and combed to one side like a schoolboy whose mother had just cleaned him up before he had to go out into the big, dangerous world. He looked helpless—a lamb caught in a hunter’s trap. This was not the father I knew and the memory of him I wanted to take back to the orphanage with me.

‘There are many things I should have told you about what happens when a man and woman get together,’ he said. It should have been your mother’s job, and I didn’t know how to go about it.’

‘It’s all right,’ I said, ‘Martine has told me everything.’

The expression on his face eased as if someone had just announced he would be able to go home that same afternoon. I realized he must have been counting the days backwards as to when it would have been appropriate for me to know about human reproduction, but Martine had fortuitously saved him from the burden.

I explained how Martine was my roommate, how her parents could no longer take care of her, and other family members didn’t want the burden of bringing up a child who wasn’t their own. I told him there had been a court case where her mother tried to retain custody of her child, but a government social worker convinced the judge that she was an unfit mother who was still a junkie, and that Martine was better off without her. I told him Martine had been raped at the age of twelve by a twenty-five-year-old man whom she’d become too friendly with. I told him how she wished people would understand what she’d been going through and stopped treating her as if she had a mental disorder. If they could only realise she was just a victim of fate. She refused to talk to psychologists or psychiatrists because she was too proud, and doing so would have been an admission that there was something wrong with her.

My father listened attentively without interrupting.

‘Is she a good friend?’ he asked when I had nothing more to day.

‘She’s just here and I’m just there.’

There was a pause, which felt like eternity. I could see the effort it took him just to breathe, and it made me sick to my stomach. I wished I were the one lying on his bed with him sitting next to me, comforting me and telling me how I was going to pull through. I didn’t know what to say to him to make him feel better. He’d always been the parent, and now it was my turn. He didn’t say how guilty he felt that he’d become an affliction in my life, but the pain was clearly visible in his eyes, like that of a man who’d stopped believing in angels.

When I left the hospital I cried all the way to the orphanage.

*

Martine and I inevitably became close friends. I turned twelve, and she made me drink two full glasses of white wine to celebrate my rite of passage to womanhood. My father usually diluted the wine with water before giving it to me at lunch or dinner. I had never drunk wine undiluted before, and the alcohol went straight to my brain. It was liquid fire blended with fruit juice, and firecrackers exploded in my head.

I shared my first cigarette with Martine and coughed through its entire length. With my second cigarette, I stopped inhaling completely, but held the smoke in my mouth for a few seconds before releasing it in the confinement of our bedroom.

We were not allowed to smoke or drink at the orphanage, but Martine had never been caught.

‘If you get caught, deny everything, there’s nothing they can do.’ Her fishnet stockings had a hole in them, and she wore her mascara generously like Brigitte Bardot did in the sixties.

‘But lying is a sin,’ I protested.

‘So?’

‘So, you shouldn’t lie.’

‘If it gets me out of trouble, I lie. It’s easy, nobody can tell the difference anyway. No wonder they call you Virgin Mary. Haven’t you ever done anything wrong in your life?’

She kept the cigarettes and the wine locked in a large, green metal trunk under her bed. She was really clever, assertive and proud, and her defiant attitude excited me.

*

That night when we ate dinner at the canteen, I threw up all over the table and was sent to the infirmary. My throwing-up had a domino effect, and three other kids vomited straight after seeing me emptying my stomach contents onto my plate of mashed potatoes, green peas, and low-grade minced meat.

‘Have you been drinking?’ the nurse asked, her pointy nose too close to my breath. She was young and seemed to cause no serious threat. She was almost smiling when she asked me the question.

‘No,’ I lied.

‘Who gave you the wine?’

‘I haven’t been drinking.’ A headache was thundering on both my temples, and I just wanted to lie down and die.

My first white lie.

Maybe they’d put me in hospital in the same room as my father’s, and we’d share the same EKG monitor—two heartbeats pulsing into the one machine. Maybe they’d think my left lung was collapsing, that I was suffering from some kind of hereditary illness that’s passed on from fathers to daughters, and then they’d realise we were meant to be one forever, and it would be pointless to separate us because fate would inevitably bring us back together.

‘I’ll let it go for the time being,’ the nurse said. ‘I’ll put it down as indigestion, but if you come back here drunk again, I’ll have to report you.’

She gave me a tablet and sent me to my room.

Martine was right.

Lying was easy.

*

That same night, Martine told me more about boys.

‘They’re only after one thing,’ she said, both of us lying on my narrow, single bunk in the dark, sharing a cigarette. A lamppost outside lit the room brightly enough for us to see. The glow of the cigarette was the most visible thing, and every time one of us took a drag, the smoker’s face became clear.

‘What?’ I took a puff, coughed and passed it on to her. I felt grown-up because I did what grow-ups told me I couldn’t do.

‘Your body.’

She said that as if it was a bad thing, but I wasn’t so sure myself. At school I began to notice boys, but I never wondered if my curiosity was a bad thing or not. I knew their thinking differed from our thinking, and I was intrigued about my own body, so maybe it wasn’t so strange at all. I could understand why they’d be interested in Martine’s body because I was too. I wanted to look like her—to have more curves without trying, to walk with my butt wiggling, to project an air of confidence, looking as if I knew what life was all about. I wanted that badly. I didn’t want to be a girl any more. I wanted to be a woman, and I wanted boys to look at me the way they looked at her.

She told me how her father forced her to have sex with him when she was nine years old, and at first I didn’t believe her. She had already told me about how she was raped at the age of twelve, so how much worse could her life have been?

‘He used to come at around midnight,’ Martine said, lighting a new cigarette, ‘when mum was asleep, her brain simmering in Valium and alcohol. The bastard crept into my room like a killer in the night. I never got to sleep before then because I knew he would be coming. He made it sound like there was nothing wrong with what we did. I didn’t know at the time because I never told anyone. It just felt bad, that’s all. I didn’t like doing what he made me do, but he was my father, and at school they kept telling us that we had to obey our parents. I thought other girls’ fathers did the same to them—I thought that was what fathers did.’

I couldn’t even imagine my father doing what he did to her. It wasn’t even something that had crossed my mind because I had never imagined that people could be horrible enough to do things to their own children.

I blew smoke into the air.

‘But why?’ I asked.

‘Because he wanted to,’ she said and took another drag.

‘But why? What about your mother?’

‘It wasn’t the same. He liked them tight.’

‘Oh,’ I nodded, pretending I understood what she’d just told me.

I thought about my father at hospital. Dr. Herrmann told me that he was getting better. Herrmann also told me that he’d rung up a friend, the one who knew a caseworker, and they would find me a family soon. But now I was getting used to being with Martine. She was older than me, and she knew more than I did, and she told me things about life that my father never told me. I liked that. It was like having a big sister.

‘You want more wine?’ she asked.

‘Don’t think so, I’m still feeling sick.’

‘Ah, come on, don’t be a baby.’

She poured me another glass, a cigarette butt hanging from one corner of her mouth, and we fell asleep drunk into each other’s arms.

*

On my next visit to the hospital, I wore tight Levi’s and a white-cropped cotton top. When I climbed the steps to the foyer, I noticed people were looking at me more than they usually would, especially the men. It didn’t matter whether they were older or younger, doctors, janitors, or patients, they all looked at me the same way—I was a slice of chocolate cake and they hadn’t eaten for a month. I loved the attention I was getting.

I kept my chin up and walked straight across the polished floor. I didn’t need to stop at reception because I knew where my father’s room was. I had been visiting for three months now, once a week. It was my thirteenth visit, and the visiting felt as if it would never end. At times I wondered what my life would be like if he died. Probably not much different from now except that I would visit him once a week at the cemetery instead of the hospital. I felt a lump in my throat.

In the elevator, I checked my reflection in the mirror. Martine had helped me with the make-up. I’d never worn make-up before and still had to get used to the idea. My lips were bright red—painted with blood—and my cheeks rosy like those of an alcoholic. I had Brigitte Bardot’s eyes—eyelashes twice as long and thick as they were that morning. Martine said I looked sensual. I checked sensual in the dictionary and it read tending to arouse the bodily appetites, esp. the sexual appetite. That was exactly what I had been aiming at. My father said I was a woman now, and he was right. I was going to make him proud.

*

‘What on earth has got into you?’ my father screamed when he saw me walked in the room. How could he scream so loud with his lung condition? The beeping on the EKG quickened like I had seen on TV when someone gets a heart attack. He hunched himself over on the bed.

I stood there as if someone had just grabbed me by the throat and held me against the back wall of the room and was about the shred me to pieces.

‘Is it this Martine girl?’ he went on.

I had never seen him so angry before, thundering words at me like bullets from a gun when all I knew from him was kindness and patience. For a split second I thought about Martine’s father, and how maybe there was a dark side to every man that I didn’t know about—even my father.

‘But, Papa—‘

‘Look at yourself, Clotilde, you look like a slut!’

I wanted to tell him that that was exactly what I wanted to look like, and who was he to tell me off since he wasn’t even looking after me any more. I wanted to tell him that none of this would have happened if he’d never let my mother leave us, and if he’d married her. I wanted to tell him that he’d ruined all our lives by not marrying my mother, and that I missed her even if I didn’t remember ever being with her. Fat tears rolled down my cheeks.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said.

‘What were you thinking, Clotilde?’

‘You said I was a woman now.’

He rolled his eyes to the ceiling and forced a smile. He seemed upset by my crying.

‘Come here,’ he said.

I walked hesitantly towards the bed and thought about what Martine’s father did to her.

He made me sit on the bed next to him. His hand reached for mine, but I couldn’t take it. He wiped the tears from my face with his bony fingers and covered them in dark mascara, like black ink stains on an illustrator’s skin.

‘You’re burning steps,’ he said matter-of-factly. He pulled a tissue from a box on his side-table, wet it with his saliva, and began removing the make-up from my face. ‘Don’t rush through the stages of your life. This girl you’re with, Martine, she’s not the same as you. That’s a girl who’s been around the block a few times. Who knows what she’s been up to.’

‘But she’s nice to me, she’s the only one who gives a shit.’

‘I’m not saying she’s not a nice person, but look at the influence she has on you—even your language, listen to yourself talking.’

He pointed gently with his right hand to the crucifix above his bed to make me aware that God was in the room with us.

He added, ‘You’re not my little Clotilde any more, are you?’

‘I’m sorry, Papa, I’m only trying to do my best.’

‘I know you are, and I’m sorry things have turned out the way they have.’

‘I just want to go home.’

‘Soon.’

I wanted to believe him with all my heart, but he looked sicker than he ever had. The veins on his temples and neck were snakes crawling out of his skin. Dr. Herrmann told me in two to three months my father would be ready to come back home. Three months had passed. Nothing had changed for the better.

‘I want you to be careful out there,’ my father continued. ‘People are going to take advantage of you if you’re not careful.’

I had nothing to be taken advantage of—no money, no home, no belongings. What could possibly be gained from taking advantage of me?

I stayed seated on the bed a little while longer, but neither of us said a word. Sadness weighted his eyes, and I couldn’t help feeling that I’d let him down. I wished I could just go back a few steps and be the little Clotilde he wanted me to be. I wished I’d never met Martine and her so-called ‘wise ways’. But I somehow realized that it was hard to step back into darkness once you’d seen the light. The world wasn’t made of lollipops and pink fairy floss, but of fathers and sluts, vanishing mothers and people who mysteriously took advantage of you.

I was on a full pack of cigarettes a week when I heard the news. Dr. Herrmann said that my father had put on a hell of a fight until the last minute. His right lung collapsed from doing too much work. There was nothing they could have done.

Back in July, Dr. Herrmann had told me my father was going to make it, and he didn’t.

A little white lie.

And I believed him.

I was learning fast.

*

The night Martine left the orphanage for good, I removed the shaving blades from the cover of my pillow. I didn’t know what I was doing. It was dark and my eyes were welled with tears. I cut my forefinger while pulling the first blade out of the plastic packaging. It didn’t hurt. I placed my finger in my mouth and sucked the blood. It tasted good, like the first ray of sunrise.

I’d never seen people slash their wrists before, and I’d never read anything about it, so I cut across my left wrist. Had I cut along the main artery instead, I would have bled to death in a crimson pool, my soul united with that of my father. They would have found me in the morning, the little Virgin Mary, the ‘nobody-gives-a-shit-about-you’ girl, the slut, the ‘little-Clotilde-bad-people-are-going-to-take-advantage-of.’

I dreamed of white wine turning red. The crucifix above my father’s hospital bed bleeding where the hands and feet of Jesus had been nailed. My face covered in bright red lipstick. People throwing stones at me while I walked my way to school. People taking advantage of me.

I dreamed of being alone and everyone leaving. I dreamed of screams no one could hear. I dreamed of my father’s face distorted with pain as he tries hard to breathe the suffocating air around. I dreamed of his pipe and smelled his eau de vie, of the way my small hand felt in his, of the way he sometimes laughed when I made a joke. I dreamed of a black crow. I dreamed of Provence and Marcel Pagnol as a child. I dreamed of Marcel Proust and Jesus Christ. I dreamed of sunsets over the Cathedral of Strasbourg, of English and German tourists with cameras.

I dreamed of blood.

Lots of blood.

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Laurent Boulanger was born in Strasbourg, France in 1966. He came with his family to Australia at the age of thirteen without any English. After working a multitude of dead-end jobs, he returned to study and earned a Bachelor of Arts in Writing from Deakin University and subsequently a Master of Arts in Writing from Swinburne University. Since 1995, he’s been Australian Correspondent for Writers’ News, UK’s largest circulating magazine for writers. He is currently a tutor in the online postgraduate writing program at Swinburne University, where he is also completing his Ph.D. in Writing. E-mail: laurent[at]boulanger.com.

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I’ve Come to See the Show

Billiard’s Pick
Daniel Lanza


It was a coffee shop downtown where I first saw her. I know it sounds obvious to say that, boring maybe, but it’s the truth. I wish it had been some place more romantic like on MUNI moving off in a different direction, or ordering the same thing at some obscure Afghan restaurant, but plain as it may be, it was a coffee shop. She was sitting at a table in the far corner with a book in her hands. Her hair was long, the shifting brown of dying leaves. She wore glasses and read while sipping from a petite cup of coffee. I knew then—at that first view of her—that I was in love, madly and intractably. The kind of love you experience solely during high school or those first fumbling years of college, back when you can still do so without reservation or fear of complication and disappointment.

I didn’t have the courage to talk to her then, she was so beautiful and serene. Like a statue or fantasy.

She caught me looking and I turned away.

*

I was sitting in the corner seat, near the window when he first approached me. There was a touch of swagger in his step, obviously forced. He was a little insecure for someone his age. Early forties maybe. Around the age of those who always seem to look, but never touch. The ones with wives and kids at home, who take their seat on stools toward the back of The Blackbird to watch, and fantasize, their eyes filled with guilt and longing. His hand trembled slightly in mine when he introduced himself. His eyes were tightened into a false casualness. I was reading Ellis: Rules of Attraction. He told me later that he thought the book and its title were just a coincidence.

They weren’t.

When he asked for my number, I gave it to him. I didn’t have any paper, so he got out his wallet to offer me an old receipt. Instead I plucked out a twenty.

I wrote slowly, including my name, lest he forget it: Amelia. His was Harry, or—I guess—still is, wherever he may be.

We smiled.

He lingered for a moment, waiting for something more. I coyly directed my eyes back to my book and pretended to read until he left.

*

I didn’t want to seem too desperate, so I waited a few days to call her. She told me later that she was impressed. She was sure I was going to call that day, if not the next. In fact, she’d written her number on the bill to ensure just that.

It was four, to be exact.

Four horrible, hopeful days spent struggling to remember her face instead of just colors and a feeling. I’d picked up the phone nearly a dozen times. In the end I would will it back into the cradle, but it was always a struggle.

I was never good at dating games early in life. During those years, I would always fumble my way through the etiquette and hope that I came off as endearing, instead of crass. When, much later, I told Amelia this, she said she’d never have thought to call me crass, boring, maybe, but never crass.

Her voice was calm through the receiver when we spoke. We agreed to meet for dinner by the pier. Some event or another was going to be setting off fireworks over the water, and she wanted to watch the rockets explode into fiery ribbons. She said it was as close as you could get to seeing shooting stars in the city.

I told her I’d meet her there around eight.

I arrived fifteen minutes early and circled the block. When I got back, I found her standing out in front of the restaurant looking luminous.

*

The suit was cut impeccably across his shoulders. The fabric shifted slightly as he approached, showing off the curvature of muscle underneath. His smile was slight and hesitant. When he arrived, I felt his hand slide to my elbow. A braver move than I’d expected.

“Have you been waiting long?” he asked.

I shook my head, even though I had. The July day had begun to wind down, but I noticed faint traces of nervous perspiration dotting his hairline and neck. I thought it was cute.

“Shall we?” he asked.

We did.

I don’t remember many of the specifics after we sat down. What I do remember, though, is that the evening went well. Harry was witty and self-deprecating. His eyes lit up when I laughed and cuffed him gently on the arm, letting him know that I was hooked.

Back then, he was still pushing papers downtown. When he asked what I did, I told him that I danced for a living and that I’d been in a few productions around town, but left out the details. For the most part, it was the truth.

*

We were seated inside next to one of the windows with a view out over the bay. The sun began to set out into the west, throwing a blanket of hues across the sky. Oranges and yellows mingled with the clouds and sea air in a way that appeared far off and lonely. I didn’t look when Amelia’s fingers covered my hand. It was fear, I guess. Fear that if our eyes met, she might realize her mistake and pull away. So instead we watched the light play over the sky and water.

Sometimes, I think you can pinpoint the height of a relationship; its cresting point, if you will. If you’re lucky, you never reach it. Marriages, births, grandchildren, these things form an ever-rising peak of accomplishment that death ends before you reach the summit. Other relationships peak too soon. I wonder, then, if the moment would have changed, had I known back then that it was the peak. Could I have traded that instant of perfect silence for something deeper, grander? Maybe if I’d looked into her eyes, I could have smelled out the lie and settled things then. Maybe.

Instead, I stared at the sunset, which no longer seemed so lonely. When the sky was finally dark enough for the fireworks to begin, their reflections were blurred and beautiful on the surface of the bay.

*

I wondered when I woke up beside him the next morning, if the time to come clean about my job had passed.

I should have done it at dinner, I can see that now, but I didn’t want anything to ruin it. I didn’t figure him for the kind of guy who would overreact; I told myself I was waiting for a better time. As it turns out, that time never came.

His eyes were sleepy when he finally woke, and he wrapped an arm around me. Light filtered in through the shades and he was so beautiful there. I didn’t mind that he tasted like sleep. I shifted next to him. The lie fluttered in my chest, like wings of a moth against my rib cage. I looked into his eyes and smiled.

It could wait.

This was too perfect.

*

Things were wonderful, for a time. We spent afternoons and weekends making love and sharing expensive ethnic take-out dinners.

Amelia worked late almost every night leaving us few precious hours between the end of my day and the beginning of hers.

She told me she’d been cast as an extra in some number downtown. It saddened me then, to think of her face lost in a crowd of dancers. When I asked if I could watch her practice, she mumbled some excuse about the director being strict about guests.

If I had to pinpoint the moment that sparked my suspicions, that was it. Something in her voice, her movements, seemed off. Amelia, who was always so suave and self-assured, was suddenly cagey and evasive.

Weeks went by. She stopped talking about work, and I stopped asking. Even our silences grew strained and seemed liable to break at any moment.

It got so bad that I tried following her to work one night. She didn’t notice me, that I’m sure of, but when I turned the last corner, she was gone. I stood in front of the strip club while the Market Street crowd shuffled past. It had grown dark and no matter how much I looked, there was no sign of her. I even circled the block in a vain attempt of spotting the dance studio. It was cold and windy. After half an hour I returned home.

*

I could feel the guilt tighten in my stomach every time he asked about work.

I could tell he was getting suspicious, but for the life of me, I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t in love with him yet but I wanted to be, which is almost the same thing. I knew that he was in love with me, but I kept waiting for the right moment. In retrospect, I think that was my mistake. I convinced myself that if I framed it just right, then he’d be the one to get it. The one to understand how hard it was to get by as a dancer. He’d see it like I did: as a transition, not a destination.

Before things got bad, he used to look at me and I felt something flow between us, an understanding maybe. But as time went on, the understanding turned to inquiry. He didn’t look at me anymore; he studied me. Each glance was an attempt to figure me out and I was too afraid of what he’d find when he finally did.

*

We were getting coffee when it finally broke. It wasn’t the same coffee shop we met it. Or it might have been; I’ve forgotten. Amelia was standing off from where I was. Some guy recognized her—some lonely, disgusting, strip-club guy.

“She’s got a great ass,” he told me.

I said, “Hey. Lay off, buddy. That’s my girlfriend.”

His expression sobered. “Fuck. I’ll just wait to see it tonight.” The words were almost under his breath.

Amelia was oblivious to what was happening. She didn’t notice until I’d already dropped him. She yelled and her coffee slipped from her hands. I’ve never been a violent man, so I guess I surprised us both.

He got up and felt the split in his lip. “Your girlfriend’s a stripper, you fucking moron,” he said.

I told him to shut his fucking mouth and leave. He did.

We didn’t touch or talk the entire way home. When we were back at the apartment, I called her on it. She cried, but didn’t deny it. I was furious.

“This doesn’t change who I am,” she said.

I remember turning away. I couldn’t look at her then without seeing it. In her face, in her body.

I told her she disgusted me. She told me I was a judgmental prick. Both statements were true, I guess.

She grabbed me and turned me toward her. She asked me to look at her, and tell her what I saw.

I did and she slapped me.

I think I deserved it.

*

There was a moment of silence after my hand connected. His face was turned away from me and suddenly my insides grew heavy. I swear I could feel my heart break right there. Shattered on the point of a word.

Whore.

Part of the appeal of Harry was that I’d never thought he was capable of breaking my heart. People have a way of surprising you.

I don’t remember leaving, just walking home in the rain.

I didn’t even call in to work that night. They tried calling when I didn’t show up, but I unplugged my phone before they could leave a message. My apartment suddenly seemed lonely and quiet. All I wanted then was him. Even after what he’d said, even after he’d pulled open my insides and spat on them, I still wanted him.

Love’s funny like that. It never leaves when it should. It just lingers like an illness or an unwelcome guest.

*

I didn’t know whom I was angrier at. I’d known that I was only fooling myself. I just hadn’t seen her lying to me too.

I picked up the phone to call her nearly a dozen times. In the end I managed to will it back into the cradle, but it was always a struggle.

I called in sick to work, and spent the week listening to music and watching daytime television.

I hated the way my pillows still smelled like her. The way I still yearned for her. The way I thought of her each night before sleeping. I’d lie in the bed we’d made love in and pretend it was one of those times.

Back when things were good. Back before she’d wrecked it all by revealing herself to me.

I’d been too quick to fall for her. If I’d been more careful, or taken more time then maybe I could have dealt with it better. At least I could have pulled away without hurting as much from it.

As you get older, each failed relationship seems to sting more. Maybe it’s just from the familiarity that seems to accompany that moment of parting, or maybe it’s the daunting fate of singularity that creeps closer with every goodbye; I’m not really sure any more.

When I couldn’t take it any more, I went back to her work, knowing where it was, this time. It was called The Blackbird. She wasn’t there that night, so I came back the next.

It wasn’t until my third visit that I saw her dancing on one of the platforms.

Up there she seemed real for the first time. Not a fantasy, just a girl. A tired, heartbroken girl who’d gotten caught up in a lifestyle and a lie that I couldn’t handle.

I pulled the twenty from my wallet where it had stayed since the day we met. Funny, the ink still looked wet.

Soon it was gone, and I was just another customer.

*

The shadows made his face look hard, but his hand felt warm in a way I missed. I felt it when he slipped the bill into my waistband.

I didn’t need to look to see what was written on it; I’d put I there.

With his back turned, he couldn’t see the misstep.

He probably wouldn’t have noticed it anyway.
pencil

“I am currently an undergraduate at Sonoma State University in California where I study Liberal Arts and English. I have been previously published in the December 2005 issue of Toasted Cheese and in the Sonoma State literary magazine, The Zephyr. Last year I finished my first novel and I am currently at work on my second.” E-mail: Lanzad[at]sonoma.edu.

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