Case History

Creative Nonfiction
Marsa Laird


Photo Credit: Kevin Christopher Burke/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

It’s a summer evening and we’ve gathered for a casual family dinner. Suddenly I put my wine glass down so hard that some of the wine slops over the rim onto the dining room table. Our son stares at me in surprise and says my mouth is crooked. Everybody looks. He gives me the STR test: S is “smile.” I can. T is “talk,” which means you’re supposed to speak in a coherent sentence: I don’t have any trouble with that. R is “raise both your arms.” I do. I’ve aced the stroke test, but our son says I should consult our doctor anyway. Next morning I show up at his office with my husband. He checks me out, can’t find anything wrong and sends me to a neurologist, who orders an MRI: it shows I’ve suffered a tiny stroke.The neurologist and our doctor agree I need to take meds stat to lower my blood pressure and cholesterol. As it turns out, I don’t have these telltale stroke signs either. It’s a mystery.

I keep asking my husband how my voice sounds. He assures me it’s OK, but in my head it seems slightly off. When I type on our computer keyboard my fingertips feel a little clumsy and I have to look down at the keys, although I don’t have any trouble composing. I complain of a tingling sensation to our doctor, but all I get in response is a shrug, which means he doesn’t know what it is. Finally I develop a symptom he recognizes: agoraphobia. He tells me there are patients who react this way to a stroke, adding that doctors don’t even always know why some people get strokes in the first place. Whatever brought it on, I think my agoraphobia reflects a sudden sense of vulnerability. Suppose it happens again when I’m by myself? I’m afraid to go out. I can’t leave our apartment without my husband. One afternoon I decide to take a nap and ask him to check in on me to make sure I’m not dead.

He urges me to talk to my former psychotherapist. I call her and explain that I don’t want to resume therapy, just  to deal with my new fear of public places. It will have to be on the phone because I can’t even get into a cab by myself to go to her office. She agrees. After a few  weeks she comes up with a plan that helps me. I like her approach of investigating the symptom rather than the cause, because by then I could really be dead. She suggests I sit on a bench near our house with my husband. I pick a place we both know how to walk to and figure out how long the round-trip should take me. My husband remains on the bench. If I don’t show up in the allotted time, he’ll start looking for me. I return sooner than expected feeling shaky, but pleased. We do more practice runs over the weekend to different locations. When he returns to work, it will be up to me to set a daily goal for myself, leave our apartment and carry it out.

I invent errands nearby. Drugstore, market, cleaners. I even get my hair cut, which involves a short bus ride. It’s not easy. I feel as though the whole world is divided in two parts: Everybody else—and me. But by the end of the summer I think I’m ready to rejoin the human race. I decide to document the experience for a writing group I belong to. When I try, I can’t. Fall comes and I’m afraid to even show up for the first meeting. My therapist urges me to go. I go. The others are talking about what they did over the summer when I get there. I mutter something. When it’s my turn to read—an essay I recycled—I’m conscious of the sound of my voice as I move my dry lips. Although it still doesn’t seem quite right to me, nobody else notices a difference.

Eight years have passed since then and I continue to be well. Even my voice sounds OK to me now. But I still haven’t been able to remaster touch-typing.

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After teaching art history for 20 years to undergraduates, Marsa Laird took up memoir writing. Her work has appeared in One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo, a story collection about the Peace Corps in Africa, and in Toasted Cheese (“Transmutation” and “How I Spent My Summer”). She also published an op-ed in the NY Daily News about starvation in Somalia, the country where she served as a Peace Corps teacher. Email: marsalaird[at]yahoo.com

Ventured

Creative Nonfiction
Tracy Lyall


Photo Credit: Hannah Swithinbank/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

The ancient T-Rex and Brontosaurus, a Route 66 beacon jutting out to the highway from beyond the grave. Was it Big Bang? Our oil, our fossil fuels from you giant beasts have taken us many miles across this America, the bold and the beautiful. I drive for you. You Godzilla of city-crushing monsters we long to pet and adore. Your bone oil is brewing beneath the surface of the earth like a stew. Like a golden black curse, killing earth and destroying families.

Mothra’s outfit is sewn out of canvas and he flutters off to the side, kicked out of theatre like an angry gay man watching the play die.

They are trying to revive Route 66, bring us all out to play, to drive, to live and roam the American dream again. Fill the Grand Canyon up with water like a giant backyard pool party, barbecue with tiki torches, the wife, and kids. Your buddies and one—only one—wife, you know, the one you’ve loved since high school, sweetheart letters in a photo album next to prom and a cheap backyard wedding in an old suit and dresses suitable for evening wear. That one. The one you forgot, turned your back on, and rode away on a motorcycle with a fake blonde to drown out the pain. The one who drank and cried, took a job, quit a job, traveled and overdosed

—only to not care anymore
—so you could come back
—calling her ugly
—the wear and tear
—calling her washed up
—her dying dreams
—calling her broken
—no shit, really?

This highway wouldn’t exist without the dinosaur; its bone dust ground to petrol for man’s steel machines—the oil, the petroleum, and gasoline.

Like the stuffy stairwell up the dinosaur’s belly into the gift shop, you think you can buy time, buy a souvenir of a time gone and recollect like a tourist. As if you weren’t the one responsible, as if you weren’t the bully kid who kicked the chair out from beneath the little freckled girl who fell on her face, busting her lip, and knocking out her teeth.

So you can call her ‘ugly’.

Driving, driving

—to the Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles. Check my bag in at the front door and walk past the Snuffleupagus head mount on the wall and up the stairs. Red and black, brown, burgundy spines of books pieced together, the vertebrae of literary dinosaurs melting in tar pits of film images gone plastico. The black type words strategically placed, line after line, letters and letters, the dots on pale white pages I long for. As if I’ve created a narrator in my head, the voice you gave me in silence. I hear your words alone in dusty aisles. Buried beneath cinders and dollar sections, stupid titles and possible relics. Where are you now? Failed writing etiquette or the history of sea lions or crappy detective novels with boring, depressed main characters who die by page three. Working at CVS or all-night diners?

I’m walking through your tunnel sculpture, the creak of wood beneath my heel. I close my eyes and touch spines.

I never told my mother I was on a journey for a mate, a lover, a cross-country husband hunt—anything outside that mundane hot and humid hell-town—beyond the traffic and views, sweat, oppression, and fear. I give her my license plate number “in case I go missing.” She says no one would take me. In case I never come back. Except to pack up my belongings. No one knows I’m here.

After coffee at Intelligentsia, five-dollar espresso and university culture, trying to find a reading, a closed-down theatre, black coal on a Sunday afternoon, after Whole Foods and green machine smoothies—two-day socks and suburbs.

The mountains are always in the background, always landscape for a silent sprawl, lava of highway and clusters of homes to hide our wads of body. Bags and chain link fence. Driveways and gay parrots.

F— you god, f— you and your little dog too. Your sick joke of life, I proved you wrong—I drove off smiling with clothes, paintings, CDs and camping gear.

Look away.

I walk away and come back twenty minutes later. His long curly brown hair beneath a baseball cap, white T-shirt. ESP. Wishing he could read minds.

A stack of books in my hand, I set them down.

“Do you mind if I take a picture?”

He doesn’t but it’s intrusive so I say maybe if you turn.

They say you traveled cross-country to Maine once, had a breakdown.

The fishing boats, the docks, and the eerie cold water—dead fish frozen beneath the surface as the lighthouse scans the sea. The cliffs are dry and water calm. I heard you went looking for Stephen King and his fictional, mystical town. You found donuts and snow boots, old trucks, and lonely wives. The ratio of male/female was 100 to 109. You were looking for an angel, someone to take back home. God wasn’t listening because his damn yippy dog was all the noise.

So in the middle of the night on the edge of town, you jumped off a cliff into the green sea—and didn’t die, did you sweetheart?

Dove into the freezing water, thought about that punk rock song “People Who Died.” Died. You shivered and rose up. Holding your breath. Tried but gradually resurfaced. Then slept in a ball on the beach, digging beneath the sand like crab, it kept you warm.

You lived. You came back.

Ventura, was it? Return to the hills, the smog, the crowd, like pushed to the edge of a dark bar. Your back is against the wall—body stench, bathrooms, and stale beer. Your shoes stick to the floor. Your mother calls, you lie in bed for days peering up over the windowsill, watching gulls fly through the end streets, the roar of ocean just outside. Someone knocked your mailbox down with a bat, tossed beer cans in your yard.

She says you’ll be fine, invites you over for dinner, and tries to hook you up with the frumpy neighbor. Now look at you, not dead and hanging out with your mother who suggests more night school and another job. Kick your shoes off, get rid of that old dog, it’s stinking up your apartment.

I took your picture. You stood nervously then sat back down again, looking at me as if asking, “Can you read minds?” It’s too soon; we’ve just met. Sit down again. I am over your shoulder, an amber glow. Books, shelves of books, and a black light overhead, radar knobs and dials like submarine. Submerged deep beneath a hundred-year city, black-and-white silent movies, quiet beauty, freak shows and gay parades. Smog sun. Cemeteries on a grey day.

This is it, this is your only life—let’s just live.

It’s three p.m., the rental car is parked in the lot down the street. Where have I been? Asleep, having babies, working jobs I loathe, and looking for a guy like you—like high school, mid-life prom. Let’s go. We ‘um,’ we go stupid… I walk away with your image in my camera—three of a hundred or so. Pay for the dollar books under my arm, get my bag from baggage check, hoping you ask about me. I call a day later but it’s too late. Look back one last time at the mannequin by the front then drive to the mountains to camp out, got there too late and had to rent a hotel room. One of the attendants is chasing away a cat who’s bothering tenants. I tell her I will watch her and she spends the night in my room. Quick to leave in the morning while I drink coffee, hunt donuts, count the cars in the parking lot next door, watch the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada worming its way through the mountains. Bikers eat at cement tables outside the gas station.

You’re still alive.

We’ll meet again.

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Tracy L. Lyall was born in Houston, Texas during the time of roller-disco and cool, cigarette-smoking tomboys, she spent her early years traveling on greyhound buses and experiencing life, much of which became the basis of her writing/art/photography ventures. After working with underground zines her writing spanned into journalistic media. Published by university presses, magazines, and small press, she actively hunts the ‘big time’ while raising a series of fiction and creative non-fiction novels along with two joeys, degrees, paintings, photography, and running an online literary zine. She currently resides in a dungeon. Email: yedicat[at]yahoo.com

Confessions of a Sinner

Creative Nonfiction
Fiona Chai


Photo Credit: Matthew Peoples/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

1. “I wish you were a lesbian,” I tell my boyfriend.

He rolls his eyes. “Well, I like girls, so I’m halfway there.”

Later, after we are full of dinner and each other, he asks me,

“Why do you wish I was a lesbian?”

I sigh and roll over. “I’m sick of all this heteronormativity crap. I want to disappoint my parents again.”

I think with the temerity of a war anthem.

2. I am thirteen years old, and I am saying we love all men. Is this forgivable, at thirteen? I am saying, “We love gay people. We just don’t support their lifestyle.” My crush is bisexual, his anger at me bright and brimming. But it’s hard to yell at someone who says so vehemently,

“We love you.”

I think to remember that I am a part of everything.

3. My family prides itself on cleanliness; we have always swept everything under the rug. I don’t know what “bisexual” is until my fifth grade Growing and Changing unit. Then Mom tells me that sometimes men touch their penises together. This is wrong, but we still love my uncles.

The other thing Mom tells me is that bisexual women were probably all abused as children. This sticks with me for a long time. To the best of my knowledge, I have never been abused.

I think so no one can do it for me.

4. I am called a bigot in tenth grade. Earlier, my father said, “If you have to take so many hormone supplements, well, it says something about whether or not you should do that to your body.” It’s an internet forum called Wattpad, and I’m responding to some diatribe about the awful suicide of Leelah Alcorn. I say,

“It’s not helpful to rail against her parents. They just lost a child. They’re hurting too.”

“Bigot,” is the reply. “Get off my page.”

Bigot. Bigot. Bigot. Bigot.

I don’t like what you say

but I would die for your right to say it.

5. I’ve never called anyone a bigot. I’ve thought it—I’ve thought all sorts of horrible things. But I don’t say it. What’s the point? Saying “bigot” has never changed anyone’s mind.

I think to change my mind.

6. I don’t like what you say but I would die for your right to say it. “When did you lose your virginity?” he asks.

We’re both hungover, aftereffect of a drunken threesome. I can still taste the vodka clenching down my throat. “I was seventeen,” I say.

“Who was he?”

“Her name was Emily. We still talk.”

“Oh. But, like, when for real?”

I think to destroy.

7. “So who wears the pants in your relationship?” he asks. This is a different he. I almost can’t believe I’m faced with this cliché question, so stereotypically unacceptable. I should say, who wears the pants in your relationship? I should say, screw you. Instead I mouth, weakly,

“Well, she’s wearing pants right now.”

My skirt feels childish around my kneecaps.

I think to raise and calm a storm.

8. I leave the church when I am sixteen because the prophet decides that gay marriage is as immoral as child abuse, rape, and murder. There is a vinegar taste in my mouth, intangible and prickly. When my Sunday School teacher says gay people make him want to vomit, I get up and leave. No, I don’t. I want to leave, but instead I stay, tasting the vinegar. The silence of my own tongue is a mute agony.

What would they do, if I told them I am gay? I know a kid who was kicked out of his home. I know a family who houses many kids like that, the pariahs, the rejects. We are all outcasts or conformists. I spend freshman year of high school trying to fit in and fail in epic proportions. I leave the church because I’ve never had friends there, anyway. It’s hard to be religious without conforming.

I think because it is better than being invisible.

9. My family is in little pieces, tiny ripped paper confetti, a kite in shreds. We don’t talk about it. I am not allowed to tell my little sisters I am gay; my brother doesn’t know what bisexual means. It doesn’t exist. I am on my fourth girlfriend and have only dated one person. I don’t exist. My mother erases me, the burnt-out match head beneath a dying flame.

I think you are killing me.

10. Emily and I get into our second-largest fight over her joining the church. The first largest is when we break up, but that is ancient history by this point. We are over each other, we have told each other, again and again. But we care about us and that is why it is so infuriating when she tells me she is becoming Mormon.

“I hate the church. You know what it did to me. How can you—”

“I have a community here. I have friends. Why can’t you—”

This is what it did to me:

11. Snowflake cuts, paper-thin lines like rusty ink, my wrist a trembling menace. I am very young and very old, this is an eternal slice. I had to steal a pocket knife to do it. My sister found out and took the first one, a gift. At some point, I can’t stop, and the paper lines become cardboard, thicker. These are pinstripes of calamity, my head is a calamity, this is havoc, and I am praying, over and again, again, again,

Change me. Change me. Change me. Change me.

Maybe I should kill myself before I sin again

Maybe I should kill myself before I sin again

Maybe I should                                             

12. Her hair tosses in the wind, unbridled and rampant, laughter scattered in staccato streaks. I’m laughing too, and I am always restrained but right now there’s a quality of hope behind the sound. She is gorgeous, her hand soft under mine, and the sun glows carmine over the steering wheel. She turns the music up. I think,

What’s the point of Heaven

if you can’t be with the people you love?

13. My mother writes: Did we see this coming? Will she outgrow it? Does she just need to find a nice Mormon boy who will appreciate her precocious and feisty nature?

My mother writes: My beautiful daughter.

My mother writes: She will never outgrow it.

My mother writes: She will never graduate from Seminary because the test questions asked her to explain why homosexuality is a sin.

My mother writes: She’ll never go on a mission because how can she preach about a God of love when she feels no love in His church?

My mother writes: You are divine, exactly as you are, because that is how God made you.

My beautiful daughter.

14. My parents are better now. My dad asked for donations to pro-LGBTQ organizations for Christmas. Mom lets me tell my little sisters that there are sexualities besides hetero, and that I am one of them. I am better now. I do not love all men; the only sin is hurting others.

And still, there is so much. I feel so much of everything. I am not permitted to talk to my little brother about being gay. Mom is worried he’ll make fun of people at school. Teasing is taught, but I say nothing, because she has come so far, because I remember when I was worse than she is now. We love all men will always be painted on my tongue. The scars on my wrist fade but never disappear.

The Sunday School teacher who said gay people make him want to throw up is now a bishop. When I leave for college, he sends me a letter. It doesn’t matter what it says except that what it says is not an apology.

I should tear it up.

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Fiona Chai has been writing since she was eleven and is currently pursuing a Creative Writing Major from the University of Colorado Boulder. Her work typically focuses on LGBTQ themes and interpersonal relationships while making use of poetic language. Email: fchai.veritatis[at]gmail.com

How I Spent My Summer

Creative Nonfiction
Marsa Laird


Photo Credit: Carl Grant/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

It was the worst summer of my life. But it really began in the spring when my parents were yelling at each other all the time; I don’t know why. My mother even threw a dish at my father’s head. She was cranky and I was usually her target because my father was at work and my older sister could anticipate her bad moods and disappear. But I was only eight years old and usually didn’t know how to read the warning signs.

One morning I fidgeted while she was braiding my hair. When she yanked too hard, I yelled “Ow!” She stopped and said she had enough of my whining and snipped both braids off with a pair of large scissors. If she was sorry she never said so. I cried. I looked like a girl I saw once in a picture of children at an orphanage. The only good thing was that school was over for the summer so none of my friends would see me. My hairstyle already stood out because all the other girls wore theirs loose. But my mother insisted on braids—so my hair wouldn’t get in my eyes, she said—until she lopped them off. Right after that she took me to a resort hotel in the mountains, without any explanation. We went by bus. My father stayed in the city and my sister had a job at a girls’ camp.

It wasn’t a vacation. My mother left me alone for a few hours every morning and afternoon because she had to work. I learned she had taken a summer job as a chambermaid, which meant you had to clean other people’s rooms and change their sheets and towels. If they were satisfied, they might leave you a tip. It seemed strange to me they couldn’t make their own beds. At home my sister and I did, although my mother never really taught me how. To this day my husband marvels at the labor-intensive way I change pillowcases, which I worked out for myself when I was around six and have never abandoned. But I didn’t know why my mother needed a job anyhow, because my father had one.

I ate breakfast alone in the hotel kitchen. Also lunch. My mother and I had supper together, but by then she was tired and didn’t ask me much about how I spent my day. Mornings I explored the hotel grounds. I picked wild flowers and tied them together around my head because I thought they made my ragged hair less noticeable. I also picked up stuff I saw lying on the ground if it looked interesting. When I found a few bird feathers I stuck them in my floral headdress so I could be an Indian princess. A fancy cigar band was a ring. Sometimes I took off my shoes and waded in a shallow stream nearby to watch the frogs hop around. When I imitated their croaks it scared the rabbits out of the bushes. I made dolls from twigs and straw and scolded them if they were bad. One I named Sonia after a Russian doll my aunt gave me for my birthday. Sonia always behaved. After lunch I looked through old magazines and books I found on a shelf in the hotel lobby. Best of all, I played with a dog that belonged to the owner of the hotel, a black cocker named Inky. He was always jumping on me and licking my face. But even with Inky to play with, I was lonely.

One afternoon while I was throwing a stick for Inky to fetch, a boy my age came over and wanted to join us. His name was Monty. For a few days we had fun acting Robin Hood and Maid Marion; I got him to agree that a girl could shoot a bow too. We also pretended to be pirates looking for treasure from a map we made and rubbed dirt on so it would look old. When it rained we played checkers with an old set we found in a hotel closet. I beat him.

But Monty came over to me one morning with his head down and said in a whisper so low I could hardly hear him that he couldn’t play with me anymore because I wasn’t a guest. His mother told him she didn’t want him to “associate” with the children of the help. We really couldn’t understand it and I didn’t tell my mother. I was by myself again except for Inky, who didn’t seem to mind that my mother made beds.

By the time we got home, school was about to start. My parents stopped yelling at each other as much and my hair had grown in a little. My mother evened it out so it didn’t look as terrible and bought me a barrette in the shape of a bow. At school our first assignment was to write about how we spent our vacation. I wrote that I had a great summer and made a new friend.

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Marsa Laird retired after teaching art history to undergraduates for 20 years and took up memoir writing. Her work has appeared in One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo, a collection of stories about the Peace Corps in Africa, and in Toasted Cheese (“Transmutation”). Last spring she tried her hand at op-ed writing and had a piece published in the Daily News on starvation in Somalia, the country where she served as a Peace Corps teacher. Email: marsalaird[at]yahoo.com

Secret Admirer

Creative Nonfiction
Zixu Fan


Photo Credit: Chris JL/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Kids in China do not call elderly people “Mr.” or “Mrs.,” but “grandma” or “grandpa” instead. As there were lots of neighbors living in our old apartment, I got many chances to call “grandma” and “grandpa” every day I saw them during my childhood. I still remember one of our neighbors, Grandma Duan, who lived on the third floor with her grandson, Hao, in our apartment. She was a very nice lady, and often liked to share some parenting experiences on Hao with my mother each time they met in the corridor. As Hao was 5 years older than me, mom told me to call him Brother Hao. Since I was the only child in my family and seldom met my own grandma, the more “grandma” and “brother” my mother taught me to say when seeing these two neighbors, the more I felt they were my own grandmother and brother.

When speaking of Brother Hao, almost all my neighbors could not stop praising that he was such an excellent student in my primary school. As a straight-A student and the leader of Young Pioneers at school, Hao also developed lots of hobbies and got numerous awards in academic competitions.

Every morning, Hao would walk to school from our community, wearing a clean white shirt and a bright red scarf* on his chest. I often liked to follow behind him, thinking he looked really handsome and full of energy. I could not bring myself say hello to him, as I considered myself such a nobody in school.

I could never forget that Monday when Hao was chosen to be the flag-raiser during our flag-raising ceremony. His hair was cut smooth, his uniform tidy, and his figure tall and straight. When the national anthem started to play, he threw the red flag highly in the air and saluted, like a loyal soldier. After the ceremony was finished, Hao came to our audience and started to introduce himself in a loud and clear voice. Hearing he had such a great academic performance and won so many competitions, I came to think it would be mission impossible to become as successful as Brother Hao, let alone greater than him, as I still couldn’t recite all the pinyin in class.

When I gathered with other six- or seven-year-old girls at school, we usually liked to talk about our family members. By showing off our talented, strong or handsome brothers or cousins, we could be admired by everybody in the group. I couldn’t tell when I first began to brag that Hao was my brother, but some kids remembered it very well and spread it out quickly, until one day my dear friend, Lan, even told it to my science teacher in class.

“Mr. Miao? Mr. Miao is Zixu’s brother?” our science teacher Miss Liu asked us as she also taught Miao’s class.

“No, no, no, Mr. Miao is my brother. Zixu’s brother is Mr. Duan Hao,” Lan corrected it to Miss Liu.

“Mr. Duan? Mr. Duan Hao is your brother? You are not kidding, Zixu?” Miss Liu no longer cared about Miao any more, as this news was no doubt unbelievable. Her small eyes sparkled with excitement, as if she was going to think highly of me from then on.

Then everybody at school changed their attitude to me as the whole world came to know I had an outstanding brother. Even I became proud of myself and held my head high when passing other kids. But nobody actually knew Hao was only my neighbor, not brother, and what’s more ironic, I never had the courage to speak to him even once.

One afternoon after we finished our art class, I was playing paper airplane with Lan on our way home. We raced to see who could fly the plane further, but I did not take it seriously enough until I noticed Hao was walking behind us. I was quite sure he was watching us, so I suddenly stopped messing around and tried to show off in front of him by flying my plane as hard as I could, but to my disappointment, it flew nearer and nearer. Damn that paper.

When I failed many times and wanted to give up, the miracle finally happened. This time my plane flew out of our sight, and when we rushed up to catch it, we found it was lying peacefully on the roof of one apartment’s basement, so high and far that we could not reach it.

Lan and I tried to use a nearby broom to sweep it down, but in vain. As I lost my plane, we did not enjoy our game any more and headed home instead. Lan arrived at her apartment first so we joked outside the gate for one or two minutes and said goodbye. Then I continued to walk on my way, but found Hao disappeared without any trace.

Thinking I could go home and fold a new plane, I did not feel disappointed at losing the old one and walked happily towards home. When I finally reached the lawn in front of our apartment, I found Hao was waiting on the stone step, with my lost plane in his hand.

Before I came to realize what happened I had already gone to him. Looking at me, Hao took out the plane and handed it to me: “Here, your plane.” His voice was loud and clear as usual.

To my surprise, he had swept my plane down! I was too exited and nervous to say anything, so I just took the plane from his hand and ran away quickly.

It was a pity that I did not say “thank you” to him on that day, but it didn’t matter as he had already become a hero to me.

I don’t know why I was braver and braver later, that I started to send him one present after another. One of my hobbies in the first grade was pottery, and every weekend after I came back from the art center I would ask our cleaner to give my masterpiece to Hao when she went to work at his home on Monday. Almost all the pottery I created was sent to Hao, and later I even began to make some watercolor paintings for him.

However, my happy days didn’t last too long. One noon before having lunch, our music teacher Miss Yang gave my deskmate and me detention as we quarreled in her class. I didn’t think I’d done anything wrong, since it was this annoying boy who bullied me first, so I tried to explain the situation and put the all blame on my deskmate when Miss Yang questioned us. Though she didn’t seem to believe what I said, I still spoke with great confidence until our science teacher Miss Liu, who worked in the same office, came to interrupt.

After hearing what happened between me and that boy from Miss Yang, Miss Liu looked at me, and sneered, “You know she’s told me Mr. Duan Hao is her brother!”

“Aha?! Are you serious?” Miss Yang immediately turned to me. “You mean the straight-A student in the sixth grade?! The Young Pioneer’s Leader… is your brother? But why are you so different from him?” she said it so disdainfully that I blushed again and again.

Miss Yang still let us stay for ten more minutes, but I didn’t say a word this time, as all I wanted was run out of the office and never return.

It was such a shame so I determined to hide my admiration for Hao deep in heart, without mentioning to others that he was my brother from then on.

When I rose to grade two, Hao already graduated and went to the best middle school in our neighborhood. Seeing him dressed in a dark blue and white striped uniform, riding a bicycle to school as fast as the wind every morning, I decided to study hard and go to the same middle school when I graduated. One day before I realized my dream, Mrs. Duan finally called my mom in the corridor and told her not to let me send any presents to Hao, as my kindness was too much for them. She sent some Japanese stationery to me in return, which was brought from Hao’s parents who worked in Japan. I still remember there were some beautiful tissues with famous cartoons printed on its wrapping paper, which I liked so much that I never used it. When I opened it many years later, those tissues already turned yellow.

After graduating from junior high, Hao went to No.4 High School, one of the top high schools in Beijing. At the same time I also came to be a top student and won many competitions at school. I worked hard step by step, and came to realize he was not beyond my reach.

I got enrolled into another top high school in Beijing, though it was not the same school Hao had attended. We seldom met as he went home much less frequently, and I almost forgot him when my school life turned busier and busier. Aside from studying, I also made lots of friends in class who were also talented, hardworking, and attractive. Once my mother said she met Mrs. Duan on the third floor, who told her Hao was rejected by his dream school, Peking University, so he decided to prepare Gaokao for another year.

After going to college for two years, I came back to our old home with my father one afternoon. I found Mrs. Duan was standing outside the gate, together with one middle-aged man and one young man. My dad went straight to say hello to them, which confused me for a second. When I went further, I finally recognized that grey-haired man was Hao’s father, and that chubby guy with a round face and a pair of round glasses was actually Hao!

To my surprise, he didn’t look like the standard good boy he used to be.

Seeing I was coming, Mrs. Duan began to praise to my dad that I studied very well and went to a top university, that I grew into a beautiful girl she even didn’t recognize. When my dad said thank you in return, I took a glance at Hao, and found he was peering at me at the same time.

Feeling a little embarrassed, I forced a smile to him, and he also smiled shyly to me in return.

 

*All primary students are supposed to wear red scarf, which is the sign of Young Pioneers.

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Zixu Fan is a Chinese student studying fiction writing in the MFA program at The College of New Rochelle. She published her first Chinese novel, The Falling Flowers, in 2012, and came to join the MFA program in the U.S. to further sharpen her writing skills, as there are few programs to train creative writers in China. The prose “Secret Admirer,” tells about her secret admiration for her neighbor, a straight-A and talented boy in her primary school. Email: zf4059gs[at]cnr.edu

Japan

Creative Nonfiction
Mary Street


Photo Credit: peter-rabbit/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The tires on the rental car crunched on the gravel as we pulled into the parking area. We could see the lights on in my mother’s first floor apartment, a sign that she was waiting up for us. My brother and I had spent the day flying to the Eastern Shore of Maryland from California where we lived. We came to sort out why my mother had collapsed on the sidewalk and could no longer walk. She was later diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Aunt Millie greeted us at the door, since she had been staying at the apartment to nurse her sister, our mother. We weaved our way through an overcrowded living room to the back bedroom where my mother lay. I had last seen her one year ago, and she had shrunken in size and spirits since then.

At her bedside we kissed and hugged, trying to seem brave and cheerful in the face of what was transpiring before us: she was dying of cancer.

Her final passage at the end of her life was as peaceful as we could make it. Having been a nurse, she knew her body was winding down, and she accepted this with grace. True to form, she cared more for those around her than for herself, so she bore her sorrow with great dignity.

We had her readmitted to the hospital for palliative care, and we contacted her siblings to come visit her there. Her older brother, my Uncle Bill, met me in the hospital’s waiting area. While my mother slept, he and I sat on the red vinyl sofa, speaking softly about her condition.

Uncle Bill grew quiet, folded his hands on his lap, and contemplated his fingers. He stood up slowly and walked toward the window, which looked out on a massive elm tree whose lush green branches extended toward the building.

“Oh, yes… the day she was born was a special day in May,” he said. His back was to me as he addressed the tree outside the window, his voice growing deeper and richer in tone as he recalled that day. Uncle Bill was an extraordinary storyteller.

“Me and Calvin and Mildred, we were told to leave our mother in peace. So we ran down to the barn to be out of her way. We found old Howard near the mare’s stall. He was anxious about that mare. She was giving him signs that her foal was ready to be born. And, do you know? That very morning the mare did give birth to a beautiful foal. A beautiful colt. All sleek and shiny black. We children had never witnessed anything like that on the farm until that morning. Oh yes, oh my, we were so thrilled and excited. Why, we ran out of that barn and on up the hill to the big house. All the way up the hill, we shouted ‘the mare has a new baby colt!’ And, do you know? In our great excitement when we ran inside the kitchen, we were told to hush up now. Our mother, Miss Annie Rebecca, had just given birth to our own new baby sister.” Then he turned away from the window and faced me. “And that was Louise, your wonderful mother. Oh yes, oh yes, it was a very wonderful day in May.”

After she died, a crew of family members courageously sorted her belongings at her apartment. She was a saver, but most of her treasures were destined for the thrift shop.

Of all the items that I came across, including childhood drawings, photographs, and other mementos saved by a loving mother, there were three significant things. She kept every letter I had ever sent to her over a thirty-year period. She had a box of many white kid gloves, elbow-length with pearl buttons, the kind of gloves that would be worn in another century with a full-length fancy dress. I kept both of those boxes.

The third box held something that I could not keep, even though it took my breath away when I opened the box. Inside was my hair. Until I was thirteen years old, I had never had my hair cut. My long blond ponytail reached my waist. She had kept this remnant from my youth like a relic preserved in a box.

One year later, I travelled to Kyoto, Japan, on a textile tour. It seemed fitting to make this trip, since my mother and I had shared a passion for sewing. She made most of my clothes, picking out the patterns and fabrics with me. When I was old enough, she taught me how to sew and gave me a sewing machine. I felt she would be looking down on me as I visited kimono designers and ikat dyers in Japan.

As I wandered through a flea market in Kyoto, I saw many old kimonos and obis for sale in the stalls. I was told that the Japanese are superstitious about wearing a dead family member’s clothing, so the clothes are sent to the flea market. I thought of the box of my blond, wavy hair that my mother could not bear to throw away.

Since then, I’ve tried to travel lightly, without too many possessions to weigh me down. But no doubt, once my life is completed, there will be a raised eyebrow, a shrug, a little laughter, as others sift through the things I have chosen to carry on my journey.

I still have the box of gloves.

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Mary Street will have her work published in Inscape NCC Literary Journal in September, 2017. This submission is part of a memoir she is writing. She is a graduate of California College of Arts and Crafts and resides in California with her husband. Email: marystreet65[at]gmail.com

Ethnography of an Adult Ballet Class

Creative Nonfiction
Laura Marostica


Photo Credit: Angie Chung/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

The Old Lady, first, is important to the adult ballet class (“adult” here carries not a hint of eroticism). The Old Man also occasionally makes an appearance, though because he is frequently outnumbered or simply alone, his is a quiet presence. The Old Lady ranges in age from late forties to early eighties, her title used primarily because of the contrast she provides to most students at a ballet school. She and her fellow Old Ladies can make up as much as forty percent of any given class. She may be attending because it was the joy of her youth and now she can return to it at her leisure. It may be an intrinsic aspect of her exercise regimen, supplemented with Pilates and perhaps Zumba.

Not every Old Lady is motivated by nostalgia or endorphins. Sometimes she has built up a brood of Old Lady friends. They lean their forearms on the barre and discuss children and home additions, brought back to class again and again by the companionship that blossoms between breaks in the music.

The Old Lady contingent provides two key components to the adult class environment: enthusiasm and indignity. She complains cheerfully of her sore hamstrings from the grueling class the day before and her inability to quite master the petit allegro combination. When the teacher asks another student to demonstrate a particular step, the Old Lady will often proffer an admiring comment of her own or a smattering of applause. Sometimes the Old Lady will throw up her hands during jumps—her knees are giving her problems again—and sit to the side, rubbing her joints and watching class as avidly as if this were the Royal Ballet, the students not a mélange of sweaty women in leggings, uncoordinated and barely keeping up with the patient pianist, but the corps of Swan Lake, arms lifted in flight, head pieces glimmering as Tchaikovsky’s wailing violins fling them up, up, up—

The Old Lady contingent is good for morale. Some may be irritated by their chattiness, their indifference to musicality, their total lack of spatial awareness. Someday, though, all dancers join their ranks, grasping the barre with gnarled fingers and lifting unpointed toes just barely off the floor, too deaf to notice the piano but sure, so sure that dance will never leave the body.

The presence of the Old Lady, the future, is tempered by the frequent attendance of the Student, the past. The Student also takes adult class for a variety of reasons. Perhaps her training program is off for two weeks after Nutcracker performances, and she wants to stay in shape; perhaps she is visiting from another city, and takes class to stay in shape; often she is neither of these, but a current student at the same studio, and she takes class twice a day, to stay in shape. Students take class. Always take, never go to, never have—they take the experience into themselves, drink it, capture it, keep it—because it is the timepiece for living. The barre is as familiar as the dining room table, more welcoming than the desk. A week without ballet class has the same feeling as the first week of summer vacation: disorienting, aimless.

The Student stands out for her discipline and adherence to ballet class conventions. Her hair is frequently in a neat bun, perhaps pinned and hairsprayed. She wears a leotard and tights, the inescapable, universal ballet uniform ideal for identifying misaligned hips, observing muscle groups, and crippling self-esteem. (But because she is taking adult class, the Student is probably wearing black tights instead of pink, worn fashionably over the leotard and rolled low on the hips).

The Student lends an earnest note to the adult ballet class. Her movements are precise and musical, arms gracefully supported but airy and relaxed even as her legs move with lightning speed. Every head and hand movement is coordinated, in sync with the piano, even when the combination has just been demonstrated for the first time.

If her pirouettes are off that day, the Student will spend time in the corner of the studio, practicing the turn again and again, her head whipping around to spot her own fierce face in the mirror, one, two, three times before landing. She will always stretch carefully before and after class, not unaware of the envious glances directed at her from the Old Lady cluster nearby.

Indeed, the Student demographic may heighten the tension of the adult class atmosphere. This is especially the case if the teacher is prone to pay more attention to these participants than to others—which, of course, he almost always is. (For mysterious reasons, teachers of adult ballet classes tend to be male.) He is captivated by the presence of a work-in-progress, a student in line for performances and maybe even a career, so he will shower the Student in corrections. And corrections to technique, in ballet class, are signals of a teacher’s admiration; dancers who are passed by without comment are beyond help.

This degree of attention is often disgruntling to the Old Lady, as she and her friends faithfully worship the Teacher, laughing at all his jokes, clustering around him like preening hens.

The Teacher may deal with preening in a number of ways. Sometimes he is oblivious to it, preferring his own pearls of wisdom to class conversation. Example A: “If I were born a musical instrument, I would have been a trombone. But I would have wanted to be a viola.” At other times, in other studios, he appreciates preening and selects a few participants to flirt with during class, leaning across the barre, stopping to chat during grands battements. Example B: “You should do hair commercials.”

Interestingly, the Old Lady is not disgruntled by the presence of and attention received by the Professional, another common demographic of the adult ballet class. The Professional, like the Student, may be in class because she is off-season—in which case she is simply taking class because it is her life’s work—or she may be coming back from an injury, in which case she must take a class below her normal company level to ease herself into recovery.

It is in fact impossible to be disgruntled by a Professional in class. The Professional is disinterested in taking attention away from anyone, although naturally she accumulates stares. Her grace is unstudied; teacher and fellow dancers alike lose sight of the combination’s particulars and are simply moved by her movement. She is likely to be sloppily dressed. She will frequently not follow combinations as they’ve been explained by the teacher, or stop in the middle of them to stretch. No one minds. She is lovely to behold in every position; in arabesque her leg stretches behind her in a sweeping arc and her back lifts in a supple bow. It is breathtaking—

Because there is nothing in this world so beautiful as a good arabesque, and because that is why I’m in class, in my faded leotard from the tenth grade and my ill-fitting sweatpants. Here I am, the Lost Dancer: nowhere near a Student (not anymore), light-years away from the Professional, but still beyond the gentle interest and rudimentary technique of the Old Lady.

The Lost Dancer is the unmoored dancer, who knows that life has moved forward, outward, upward without ballet, but who cannot bear to leave it. We are legion, found in classes the world over, standing at the back of the room.

I wonder if my teachers can see from the timidity of my movement that half the time I hope they don’t look my direction at all, ashamed as I am of my diminishment. I wonder if my teachers can see, the other times, the asterisk that I will so desperately to glint above my left shoulder when I go to class: the one that says, “I know her extension isn’t what it was, and she can’t remember the combinations as well anymore, I know her feet used to arch better and jump higher, but look how much she loves this! Look at her dance to this music!”

For the Lost Dancer, adult ballet class is pleasure and pain. Pain because visions of Sugarplums dance in her head all months of the year, choreographed and set to music; pain because she knows that when she chose college over dance, she closed a door that has sealed and will not, will not open again; pain because she might always wonder what was over its threshold.

Pleasure because of this: there is a moment before every combination, before the pianist plays the opening notes that start every dancer’s metronome, when we wait in fifth position. Then as the teacher says “And” to signal the music’s beginning, we move one arm in preparation—a gentle extension from the elbow, six inches, a bit more.

Just a breath. Just that.

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Laura Marostica’s writing has appeared in, among others, Rum Punch Press, Iron Horse Literary Review, and Buzzfeed. She blogs inconsistently at lauradomenica.wordpress.com. She lives in Northern California with her husband. Email: marostica[at]fordham.edu

The Goddess of Sunday Brunch

Creative Nonfiction
Autumn Shah


Photo Credit: Sam Howzit/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Sam Howzit/Flickr (CC-by)

The Tiki gods look forlorn, their power stripped. Pale yellow sticky notes with numbers written in Sharpie adhere to the sides of their wooden heads. One Tiki, the size of a seated Labrador, sits on the ground, posing beside a stack of old phone books and printer manuals. Another, with a blue scowl, cowers under a metal workbench while a third waits by a dimpled brass umbrella stand, a highly perturbed look on its face.

I have never been to an auction before. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I pictured something a little more distinguished. I thought auctions were quiet, tense affairs with lots of money on the line, where people spoke in nods and raised eyebrows. I thought they took place in grand estates in the country or auction houses with Rococo chairs and heavy, velvet drapes, not in small warehouses tucked behind the outerbelt, items stacked everywhere next to junk that hadn’t sold in past auctions. The warehouse looks like a rummage sale booth at an antiques mall.

This stuff is barely old enough to be in my grandmother’s basement, though. The Kahiki Supper Club, where the current auction items came from, opened in 1961. It would have been a unique attraction for any city, but it was an especially big deal for unassuming Columbus, Ohio. Suddenly there was a sea dragon soaring off of a dramatically-sloped roof built to resemble an enormous Polynesian fighting boat, looking right out over Broad Street.

It was an extraordinary thing in the 1980s, when I was a shy teenager searching for something—extraordinary or otherwise—inside myself.

*

From the time I was very young, my sister and I had begged for a peek inside the restaurant. We drove by it probably once a week on our way downtown or to the strip mall across the street where our mother’s favorite clothing stores were located.

“It’s not really a place for children. It’s too fancy and too expensive,” Mother would say.

She had dined there several times. Each new boyfriend sought to impress her by taking her to Columbus’s most unique restaurant.

My mom was blonde, vivacious, and beautiful. And to trump it all, she was British. Other than the Kahiki, she was the most exotic thing in our nook of Columbus. Friends and teachers gushed over my mom’s beauty and her accent. Inevitably, people would ask me, “Where’s your accent?” I never admitted that I secretly wanted one, or that I could put one on if I chose. Because at what point can you decide you’re something else and not be called a fake? Somehow my mom’s accent lifted her above our grungy apartment and the precariousness that was our life after my dad left.

My mother told us about the swaying bridge just beyond the doors, waterfalls and birds, even the cracks of thunder. She told us there was a “Mystery Girl” in a grass skirt who served bubbling drinks in a large bowl after offering it up for a blessing from the Tiki god. It was so wrong, even taboo to my Jehovah’s Witness upbringing, but so fascinating.

Most compelling was the giant Tiki god himself, who, she said, towered over everything, his eyes burning red and a fire raging in his mouth.  “As soon as you walk in, he’s right there!” she said.

As my mom regaled us with descriptions of the Kahiki I pictured myself in her place, being served flaming food with pineapple and cherries while sitting among birds in a rainforest. I longed to be my mom: beautiful and sought after, making conversation with men in fancy restaurants and sitting in wicker butterfly chairs. I promised myself that some day, I too would sit in a butterfly chair and order dinner with fruit in it.

*

I didn’t come to the auction to buy anything, just to reminisce. Twelve years have passed since the Kahiki closed. As I wander around, I can’t imagine taking any of this stuff home. I try to imagine the carved wooden warrior mask with googly eyes on the bare wall above my piano, a light fixture that resembles a puffer fish over the kitchen table.

There had been a souvenir shop inside called The Beachcomber that stood off the restaurant’s foyer which was commandeered by a feisty old Chinese woman. Rows of Zombie and Headhunter mugs were sold, along with other Kahiki souvenirs, Tiki kitsch, and Asian knickknacks.

I’d like to have a single Headhunter mug to replace the one trapped in my mother’s attic in a box. I kept the original as a souvenir from my first trip to the Kahiki.

*

I walked through the parking lot beside my mother, who was bouncing in excitement or perhaps because of the frigid December air. It was so cold that year I could taste it on my tongue. For my sixteenth birthday I was finally going to step through those doors. Daniel, my mother’s boyfriend, loped along on my other side.

The parking lot lay to the side of the entrance so that when we walked around the corner we were transported to another world, another time even: primitive, geometric designs colored the façade; the roof overextended, pointing outward and upward; the sea dragon looked about to take off into the ocean of sky.

As we approached the Easter Island heads standing sentry on either side of the hexagonal doors, my stomach tightened in the same way it did when I was called to the board to do a math problem at school. Flames from the torches on their heads snapped in the chill wind.

We walked across a swaying bridge and through the front doors into a cave hung with greenery. I marveled at the tape-generated sounds of birds and the walls trickling with water. We stepped through another door into a circular foyer dominated by an eerily-lit, unfriendly-looking monkey-head fountain. Through the foyer, to the hostess stand, we entered the main area of the restaurant. A thatched hut village sprawled out before us, surrounded by palm trees and tropical plants with leaves larger than my head, Tiki torches staked throughout.

A hostess with soft waves of black hair, dressed in a Hawaiian sarong, greeted us, but I barely heard her as I gawked at the fearsome, angry-eyed Tiki god looming at the far end of the restaurant. His prominent, square forehead and elongated nose, nostrils flared, accentuated his disapproval.

My mother told the hostess that we wanted to sit next to the aquarium or the birds.

“Do you have a reservation?” she asked in a melodic, accented voice.

“No. We’re here for my daughter’s birthday.” My mother beamed and I blushed, because even I knew that at a fancy restaurant you need a reservation.

“Well, there are no bad seats, so don’t worry,” a woman with white-blonde hair said, taking charge. She took up her pen, examining her map, then told us there would be a bit of a wait.

As we waited, I watched the servers flit around in their floral uniforms and leis. I felt as if I were in another country—all the servers looked Asian, the scent of the food was tangy and fruity, the music that played in the ether was a twangy calypso-rock blend.

We finally followed the hostess through the dining area and my heart beat faster until we were led to a booth surrounded on three sides by wicker walls. No butterfly chair, no birds in sight. I could see the aquarium if I looked between two poles that served as a corner into the aquarium seating section.

“You don’t have anything next to the aquarium?” Daniel asked.

“No. You need reservation,” the hostess said, her English abrupt.

Once the hostess put down our menus and turned away, Daniel got up and my mom looked at him questioningly.

“I’m going to go see if they can get us something better.”

“Daniel, no. This is nice! Isn’t it, Autumn?” Mom said, her eyes wide and eyebrows high.

It wasn’t, but I slid into the booth. Something in my chest pinched in disappointment.

“We can see the aquarium behind us just fine, can’t we?” she prompted me. But I remained quiet.

Every now and then I heard a bird screech in the distance. The drinks menu, which was as lengthy as the dinner menu, listed cocktails with names like Blue Hurricane, Jungle Fever, Headhunter, and Zombie. They came in sculpted mugs in the shape of a Tiki god, a warrior or a totem-like animal. Daniel ordered a fancy drink so that I could have the headhunter mug it came in.

I don’t recall what I ate but I remember thinking it was nothing special; it tasted like Mark Pi’s drive-thru Chinese that we brought home once a week—with the addition of pineapple.

Toward the end of our meal, the ukulele-playing waiters delivered a small cake and set it in front of me. I bashfully blew out the candle. The manager who had assigned our seat came to our table right behind the musicians and told us we could tour the restaurant. I was embarrassed enough about the cake, but somehow I was coerced. I made sure from my sloped shoulders and dour expression that people knew I was being forced to look over their food at the scenery behind them.

We walked along the aquarium side where fish with flowing tails and dorsal fins glided past diners’ faces. On the opposite side of the restaurant, in the rainforest section, it rained and thundered every fifteen minutes and the cockatoo fluffed its white, wet feathers.

We threaded our way through tables under a thatched roof hung with colorful, bizarrely-shaped lanterns to return to the front of the dining area. I stood at the threshold and looked up at the ceiling, seemingly as high as the sky.

I felt I was under the scrutiny of the Tiki god, felt the warmth of the fire that raged in his gaping mouth. I imagined that in the rainforest of New Guinea or at the foot of a volcano in Hawaii, the sight of this would make my knees shake. I wanted to know the secrets of this place. I wanted to be a part of it.

I took one last look at the formidable monolith and, on an impulse, asked for an application on the way out.

*

I find a Sauder bookcase displaying various mugs. My heart races as I wonder what the starting bid is for just one Headhunter. I look down at the auction list I was given. The mugs are being sold by the case. I peer down into a box of Zombie mug shards. I’m wondering why anyone would want this when a large shadow falls across the box.

“Are you a mosaic artist?” a thick man in a shiny, gray suit asks me.

What a bizarre question, I think. But then I realize that must be what you would do with a box of shards.

“No, I’m just looking,” I say, trying to sound casual but not really knowing how to behave since I am an impostor here, posing as someone who might actually buy something.

He holds out his hand and introduces himself. He’s the auction writer, the manager. He has a waxy, ruddy face and puffy eyes. His blonde hair looks unnaturally slicked back, like he chooses to fight with it only during these auction preview days.

“Do you have a connection to the Kahiki? Or you just like Tiki?” he asks.

“I worked there as a hostess when I was sixteen,” I say.

“Really?” He leans back, as if to assess my face to calculate how long ago that actually was. I don’t help him out.

“That’s lucky!” he continues. “What an experience. We’ve had a couple people come through that used to work there. I wonder if you knew each other.”

I often think about some of the people I worked with and how easy it should be, with all the social media, to look them up, but I have no last names. There must be a hundred thousand Lisas, a million Joses.

*

No matter the weather outside, the atmosphere in the restaurant was constant: artificially lit to perfection, cool breezes from the cave entrance and warmth from the blazing bamboo torches and the Tiki fires.

It was closer to school than it was to home so I often went straight there and waited for the dinner shift to begin. Sometimes Lisa, the manager, was already there when I came in, conducting a server’s meeting around a rectangular table in Ship or sitting at the bar, a fizzy, clear drink beside her, scrutinizing important-looking papers. I respected her privacy and her absorption and skirted around her. I’d pick an area that suited my fancy that day and do my homework or read before changing into my green floral polyester sarong and pink lei.

Above the low-playing music and the fall of water, no other noise invaded the hushed atmosphere of the pre-dinner hour. The occasional busboy sat at a table rolling softly-clinking silverware into cloth napkins, the birds behind the glass perched with their heads tucked beneath a wing. Even in the kitchen, with its slick, oily floor, the sous chefs chopped, unhurried, in the temporary calm before the maelstrom of diners blew in.

Once the shift started, I stood at attention waiting for Lisa to give instructions on the general strategy for the evening. She was in the habit of wearing ruffled white blouses that accentuated her already-large breasts. She disguised the rest of her plumpness attractively beneath A-line skirts and tailored, flared jackets that made me feel under-dressed and overexposed in my V-neck sarong.

On slow weeknights, like Mondays and Tuesdays, it was often just the two of us. Between us, we mapped out seating, controlled the music and the thunder, restocked boxes of matches, wiped down menus, and dusted plastic foliage.

I wasn’t quite sure what to think of Lisa. Her authority and my own curiosity about her intimidated me. She was ten years older than me and about ten years younger than my mother. She was part of a world more secret and sophisticated than mine. She went places late at night after the restaurant closed, she ran in flustered from other unknown places at 4:30 in the afternoon. She often arrived to work disheveled, her chest red and splotchy, but once she was all tucked in and buttoned up, she was ready to command. I watched this transformation and it set my mind to imagining who she was when she wasn’t at the Kahiki.

*

I try to find an excuse to buy something, to take a piece of history home with me. If I could simply take an item up to a register and walk out with it, I would. But the process of an auction requires more dedication and perseverance than I have.

Aside from a single mug, the only item I might consider is a cheaply framed 11×17 photo of the Kahiki taken from the outside. In its heyday, celebrities, such as Milton Berle, Robert Goulet and Zsa Zsa Gabor visited, fresh flower leis were flown in a couple times a week, and a wahine on a giant billboard winked seductively, advertising the restaurant. The photo evokes that time and is still striking as flames and outdoor lighting illuminate the building beneath a purple-pink Ohio dusk. It highlights the anomaly of this otherworldly structure that should be surrounded by hibiscus, and palms bearing coconuts rather than sparse fir trees and blacktop.

*

In the 1960s, most of the servers and all of the Mystery Girls were Caucasian but when I worked there at the beginning of the 1990s a variety of nationalities held those positions. Josephine, the most seasoned hostess, was vivacious and as outspoken in English as she was in Tagalog. She had long, straight hair with severely cut bangs. She was petite and sassy and her hips swayed in the grass skirt that at least one of us was required to wear. Maggie and I were always grateful that Josephine happily donned it.

Josephine was my best friend at the restaurant. When I started at the Kahiki, Lisa trained me in my duties but Josephine guided me on the ins and outs: which servers to seat lightly and which ones could handle anything, how to gauge their moods, and which cooks gave leftover cake after the buffet. She shooed the busboys away when they hung around me too long. She pinned a tight grass skirt and taught me how to say ‘I love you’ in her bird-like Tagalog—mahal kita—and ‘I’m hungry’—nagugutom ako.

*

As I turn away from the rows of mugs, I entertain the thought of buying a case and imagine myself trying to talk one of my daughters into having a Tiki-themed birthday party with Headhunter mugs for the party favor. If I were a more charming person, maybe I could charm that auction manager out of just one little, itty-bitty mug.

The few butterfly chairs are scattered throughout the warehouse, perched alone, out of their flutter, their weave unfurling, the bamboo strips frayed. I wonder about the assortment of people these chairs have held in their wings. It calls to mind a photo I have, one that I will rush upstairs to search my albums for once I get home.

All of my pictures from the Kahiki are of the people I worked with; I suppose I didn’t dare to point a camera at the Tiki god himself. When I search, I find the one I am looking for. It is a Polaroid of a silver-mopped man in oversized glasses, an open-mouthed smile on his face, sitting in a butterfly chair with Josephine on his lap. I don’t know how I ended up with this picture; it should have gone to the silver-haired man but must have been discarded for a retake. He is one of the hundreds of strangers she had her picture taken with. When I examine the photo now, after so many years, I notice that Josephine looks different from the way I remember her. She has the same haircut, the same rose-tinted, butter-pecan complexion devoid of makeup, the same red floral bikini. But now I notice the dark look on her face. I stare at the picture and try to guess what she’s thinking. She sits stiffly, facing the camera but with her eyes averted.

For the first time, more than twenty years later, I think about how she might have felt sitting in all those men’s laps as the Mystery Girl. She was an immigrant woman from the Philippines with a poor command of the English language. What kind of life had she come from? Did she have other aspirations, dreams she wanted to follow in this country? When she made her plans to immigrate to the U.S., did she imagine herself hanging leis around men’s necks so they could pose for photographs with a “native”?

*

I don’t remember if I was told beforehand that I would have to wear the grass skirt outfit on Sundays. As self-conscious as I was, it still would not have deterred me. After all, I was working on breaking out of the mold I had put myself in, trying to figure out if I was the type who could wear a grass skirt and bikini top in front of people. The outfit was the same one that the Mystery Girl wore. I was too young to be mysterious and thankfully deemed too young to award a kiss and a lei. A server carried the smoking bowl while I gave a weak-armed thump on the gong with herculean effort—a much more anti-climactic ritual.

No matter what I did, I looked like a pale, spindly, uncooked shrimp in the grass skirt outfit, my skin so white it was almost blue. The cloth of the outfit was frayed, the eyelets stretched, the colors fading. I wondered if the get-up had been around since the sixties when the restaurant first opened. I tried to cover as much skin as I could. I wore pantyhose underneath the grass skirt for warmth as well as to give some color to my legs (no underwear, because mom always said, “Don’t stifle yourself down there—they put built-in panties for a reason.”). I piled on the leis to hide as much of my sunken chest as I could. I used a half-dozen pins to keep the multicolored floral bra on; it was made for someone much bustier than I was.

One slow Sunday, as they’d all been lately, the cleaning lady let me in after I knocked on the inner door several times. I started the atmospheric soundtrack and the slack-key and ukulele music. The servers spent the last few minutes folding silverware into napkins and Jim, the less scurrilous bartender, dried glasses and poured out fresh maraschino cherries that he would sneak to me throughout the day.

I moved the hostess podium to the walkway in front of the bar, where I would be more accessible to greet and also seat guests. I fiddled with my bra and adjusted the pins on my skirt as the first guests entered. It was an elderly couple, coming straight from church, it appeared, by his grey suit and her powder-blue dress.

“Welcome to the Kahiki. Do you have a seating preference?” I asked as I gathered two menus to my chest.

“Surprise us,” the husband said with a wink.

The couple moved slightly ahead of me, gawking at the Tiki god as I swished around the podium.

A sudden cold rush of air swirled around my legs and bottom. And just like in the cartoon when Wile E. doesn’t realize he’s just run off a cliff until he looks down to see the empty abyss below, I looked down. And yelped.

My skirt was gone.

I looked up and there was Julio—a charming, flirtatious, yet moody server. He stood gaping at me, eyes wide and his face flushed pink. He dashed back from the direction he had come.

I looked behind me and saw my skirt hanging from the bamboo wall where it had gotten snagged. I used the menus to cover myself and with my free hand snatched the skirt, wrapped it around myself as best I could, and held it in place as I proceeded to seat the couple. They had been so entranced with their surroundings that they had not noticed a thing.

I pinned the skirt back in place as I detoured through Fish and returned to my podium. My face was on fire and a bubble of dread floated in my chest. I imagined Julio laughing and teasing me as soon as he got the chance. Even worse, I could hear him telling everyone, so that when I came for my next shift, the whole crew would point and snigger behind my back. It would be like middle school all over again.

I’d quit. Yes, I’d call Lisa now, tell her I was sick and never show up again.

Back at the podium, I avoided looking at Jim, not wanting to know if he had seen too.

On my way to seat the next group in Rain, wishing the ground would swallow me up, Julio caught my eye and put a finger to his lips. I melted with relief.

*

Working at the Kahiki was liberating in a way I couldn’t comprehend at the time. Like the butterfly chairs and the Tiki gods in the auction house, I was out of my element. My wings were unfurling: I was metamorphosing into someone others found interesting and fun. By placing myself amidst a community of so much diversity, I was the unique one and also privy to another world. I wasn’t just dining there across from men who wanted to flatter me; I was digging deeper into this culture and into myself.

Without a reputation, without a history, I could be who I wanted to be. No one there knew me as the mousy bookworm who had cried at my desk over Lassie Come Home in the third grade or the girl who sat out gym class because she couldn’t stand the humiliation of being chosen last and with obvious reluctance. There was no one there to compare me to my mother.

The confidence I gained carried over to school. I found that if I could make decisions (and mistakes), prove myself indispensable, then I could also raise my hand in class. I could make myself stand out to be chosen in gym class, rather than slinking to the corners. I could take responsibility for my schoolwork and activities. If I could banter with strangers on the way to a table in Fish, maybe I wasn’t as shy as people always said I was. At the Kahiki, I could reinvent myself, and I didn’t even need an accent.

*

There is a Sauder computer desk minus the computer and a chair, displaying cloth napkins and cocktail napkins, old menus, and banquet information pamphlets. While I browse, I think of Mr. Tsao, the second and last owner of the Kahiki. He came in several times while I was working and his heft seemed to fill the room, his body spilling over the bar stools. He was bigger than life, just like the Tiki god itself, except that he wore a smile to light up the room and possessed a big belly laugh. Because he was such a comforting presence, it alarmed me to see him talking over papers in hushed, serious tones with Lisa or with men that none of us recognized. I realize now that the restaurant, even then, was in trouble.

I remember the physical signs: the shredding bamboo walls, the crackly static of thunder in the bathroom, the rain that sometimes clogged in Rain, the threadbare carpet, the sputtering fountains. There were sections of the restaurant that we didn’t use, or only for special occasions. I remember how, near the end of my time there, patrons went from wearing their finest to dropping in wearing jeans or shorts and flip-flops. How it became a sad decline of campy, Polynesian pop culture.

I think of when the Kahiki closed its doors for good in 2000, almost ten years after I quit. Bits of it were sold off and shipped around the world before the beautiful fighting boat was conquered and destroyed by a wrecking ball. The local news showed coverage of the monumental Tiki god being hauled out in sections by a crane from a hole in the roof, his face ripped off. Seeing him at the mercy of cables and levers, he didn’t look so fearsome. I remember having to look away with that heavy, tugging feeling at witnessing someone else’s humiliation. His kingdom had fallen with the swipe of a pen and the historic landmark was junked for a chain drug store.

I take a last scan around the warehouse, breathing in the scent of musty carpet, hoping to see something that will ignite a lost memory. But they’ve all become mere objects, so incongruous that I barely recognize them. There is a blood-red, crackled glass orb with veins of purple that once hung, lit, from the walls of a hut. Away from the wavering lights of the flame, it has lost its essence.

As I leave empty-handed, I realize that working at the Kahiki was liberating in a way I couldn’t comprehend at the time. Like the butterfly chairs and the Tiki gods in the auction house, I was out of my element.

It saddens me to think of the once formidable, enigmatic Tiki and where he ended up, supine on a bed of rotting leaves in Vermont, a tarp pulled tight over his face.

pencilAutumn Shah lives in Dublin, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus where she is a stay-at-home mom of two girls. She graduated magna cum laude from Ohio State University in 2001 with a degree in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. She has worked in information technology and as an ESL teacher. She likes to write creative nonfiction essays and is currently working on a novel. Email: autumn.shah[at]gmail.com

Late Blessing

Creative Nonfiction
Linda C. Wisniewski


Photo Credit: Jodi Green/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Jodi Green/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

I slid a pan of cornbread into the oven and blessed it, like my mother, who made the sign of the cross over every cake, bread and pie she baked.

In middle age, I took up the practice in homage to her and because I could finally do it without cringing. I believed I had put down the heavy load of pain she handed me through a religion I now saw as outmoded and rife with meaningless ritual.

In my eyes, my mother was a long-suffering martyr, verbally abused by my father and devoted to a fantasy of happiness in the hereafter. She read books about saints who endured hideous torture, and quoted their stories to me, her little girl. Suffering earned points with God, and justified staying in a bad marriage. Even then, I didn’t buy the message. My friends’ parents were loving, their homes quiet and safe, and they went to church too. I thought it should be easy for her to leave and take me with her.

I saw her as cold and uncaring. When a big girl pushed me against a locker in junior high, I came home after school in tears and told my mother. She shook her head for a second in sympathy then told me to get over it and went back to cooking dinner. She had to, after all, live the life she had chosen. I planned my exit every day. I would leave for college and be free and happy, nothing like her.

Although she told me to get over my hurt, I don’t think she ever let anything go. No insult was too small to add to her storehouse of suffering. Bitterness colored the stories she told as far back as I remember: My father stood her up when they were dating. Her mother told her to marry him before he changed his mind. He tried to hit her and knocked off her glasses while teaching her to drive. As I listened to her woeful words, I disappeared to myself and became her sounding board, for she had no close friends. Her own mother often told her, albeit in gentle Polish phrases, to calm down.

In the era of women’s liberation, I recalled the walk on our knees down the aisle of the church on Holy Thursday to kiss the feet of the crucifix. To me, a young woman now, we were the image of humiliation. I didn’t know then that humility has the same root.

Now I bless my bread, knowing there was more to her, each memory another facet to her complexity: Her merry laugh when her brother Johnny told a joke. Her worn hands making me pretty dresses after sewing all day in a factory. The Saturday mornings she led me through five stores to find the right Easter shoes. The grocery list she filled for her elderly mother every Wednesday. And the way, in her own old age, she tried to learn and grow.

She shared her disappointment in her lifelong friend.

“Agnes is so prejudiced. She hates the Puerto Ricans on the East End.”

“Didn’t you live there when you were kids?”

“Yes, I guess we were the ‘spics back then. She just can’t see it.”

One Christmas Day she made all the food herself. With a full serving dish in each hand, she whispered: “I feel like I’m going to pass out.”

“For heaven’s sake, sit down.”

“I can’t.”

“It’s okay, we love you.”

Her eyes filled. Horrified for making her cry, I carried dishes from kitchen to table and cleaned up afterward.

When I was a young wife, I could barely stand to be around her. She was so anxious, so eager to please and so easily cowed. She offered me leftovers to take home.

“If you don’t take them, I’ll have to throw them away.”

“So you’re giving me your garbage?” My disdain hit its mark.

I winced at her downcast face, never dreaming I would ever be like her.

Now she is gone, and I know just how hard it is to change. Lifelong habits, even as they hurt us, even as we are aware of that hurt, are easier to continue than to act in a different and completely conscious way. I chase after my grown kids with bags of leftovers as they leave my house. I grab stuffed toys and children’s books to entertain my nephew’s children, to keep them with me just a few minutes longer, believing those minutes are all I need to make them like me. It doesn’t cross my mind that they already like me. Even love me. There is always more for me to do. By myself, without the gifts and the doing, I am never enough.

When my baby cried in his crib, my friend asked if he liked to be picked up. Yes, I said, staring down at him. When she held him, he turned his head to me.

“He knows your voice.”

I didn’t believe her.

When he fell, at three, and shrieked in pain, I frantically asked him what happened. His little playmate spoke up.

“Why don’t you just give him a hug?”

A smart and easily-bored teenager, he kept his nose in his Game Boy for days, making me look like a bad parent to my friends with high-achieving kids.

“Go outside, call a friend,” I said.

A quiet and bookish girl myself, here’s what my mother said to me: “Why do you always have your nose in a book? Go outside and make some friends.”

She must have felt inadequate. Her child was not popular enough and it was her fault. Now it was mine.

With cornbread in the oven and my apron folded over the back of a chair, I long to take her hand.

“Let’s sit,” I would say. For just a moment or two, we could step off the treadmill of worry, and stop caring whether we are working hard enough, doing enough, being enough.

God knows, now that I’ve been all the things I didn’t like about her, I understand. It took a lifetime of therapy, meditation, being loved, and actively, consciously loving others who are fraught with worry, just as they are patient with me.

I used to worry about my son. We rarely talked. He clammed up around fifth grade, the year I had major surgery after painful bouts of diverticulitis.

“Who will take care of me if you go in the hospital, too?” he asked his dad.

That same year, my mother was a widow sliding into dementia hundreds of miles away, and I could do little to help her. My marriage hit a rough spot and I criticized my husband at home, not caring to hide it from our son, believing I was sticking up for myself. Unlike my mother.

During those anxious years, I pushed my boy to be more like the active, popular children of my friends. I made him volunteer at the theater and join the track team. At dinner one evening, I snatched a Left Behind novel from his hands. What I knew of those books was fear and punishment and not being saved. Judgment and suffering for choosing the wrong faith.

“You’re not reading that crap,” I said.

He rolled his eyes but did not argue. Now I am haunted by his downcast face. I want to go back and have that helpful parent discussion, the one where I let him read the book and we talk about it, but he’s 25 now, and living on his own.

The other day, I pressed his number into the keypad on my cell phone. As before, our conversation had long pauses but I let them be, recalling the long comfortable silences between his father and I when we were dating. When my boy finally spoke, I imagined reaching into the phone, touching him.

“I’m sorry for asking you to repeat yourself. My hearing is getting bad.”

“No, it’s all right. I was mumbling.”

In a long sweet flow of words, he told me about his girlfriend, his work, and his plans to travel. It took a long time for him to say these things, and a long time for me to listen, breathing.

“It was good talking with you,” I said.

“Yeah, definitely.”

“Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

Mother Teresa said: “The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.”

Before my mother died, I told her about the work I do at my church, where all are welcome. Because I just can’t stop going to church.

“You’ll have a special place in heaven,” she said.

With heat and time, dough rises, transforms into a loaf. The oven timer pings. I open the door to a miracle.

pencilLinda C. Wisniewski shares an empty nest with her retired scientist husband in beautiful Bucks County, PA. She writes for a weekly newspaper and teaches memoir workshops. Her memoir, Off Kilter, was published in 2008 by Pearlsong Press. Visit her online at lindawis.com. Email: lindawis[at]comcast.net

Medfield Revisited

Creative Nonfiction
Brett Peruzzi


Photo Credit: Wiggle Butts Pet Photography/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Photo Credit: Wiggle Butts Pet Photography/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

In the few old black-and-white photos that exist of my great-uncle Jimmy, he is never smiling. A thin, narrow-faced young man with black hair swept back from a prominent forehead, he peers warily at the camera like a skittish animal, ready to flee at the first sign of danger.

Sometime when he was in his twenties, in the years immediately following World War II, my great-grandparents had their youngest son committed to Medfield State Hospital in the countryside southwest of Boston. Was he schizophrenic, bipolar, or perhaps just deeply depressed? It’s hard to say, since my family barely mentioned his existence and had little contact with him for decades. The only thing I ever heard my grandmother or great-aunt say about Jimmy, since their husbands rarely spoke about him, was that he was shy and didn’t mix well with people.

Just mentioning Jimmy’s name in my grandfather’s presence was enough to send him into a sputtering fit of rage, which was then followed by a gloomy silence that might last for hours. It definitely didn’t help that my grandmother wielded her brother-in-law’s name like a club against her husband, castigating him with his failings as a brother, that he never visited Jimmy year after year, which eventually ran into decades, and this no doubt flooded my grandfather with guilt.

My mother, on the other hand, had no reservations about telling me of the quiet and gentle uncle she remembered from her childhood in the 1940s before he went to Medfield. She told me that when she was training to be an RN in the early 1960s, she did her psych rotation at Medfield and saw Uncle Jimmy often, since he apparently was well enough to be allowed outside on his own to do landscaping and work on the farm on the hospital grounds that supplied much of the institution’s produce and milk. She said he remembered her and would wave and call out to her, and seemed happy to be outside working.

But I heard these stories from my mother, ironically, years after I had visited Medfield with the St. John’s Catholic Youth Organization group in my early teens during the mid-1970s. The church youth group went there once or twice a year to put on dances and holiday parties for the patients, and though my friends and I didn’t belong to CYO, we wormed our way along on a few of the trips not out of a sense of community service or compassion, but more so because we were titillated at the idea we could meet some genuine crazy people.

Had I known at that time that a relative of mine was there, I probably never would have gone on those trips, out of sheer adolescent embarrassment. Though even if I had encountered him, Uncle Jimmy and I had never met and would not have recognized each another anyway, and for privacy reasons neither patients nor visitors disclosed their last names.

After the federal mandate in the 1970s to move as many psychiatric patients as possible to less restrictive, community-based housing, the patient population at Medfield, which at its peak was over two thousand, and in some years outnumbered the townspeople, began to decline dramatically. Eventually, in the 1980s, Uncle Jimmy left the place where he had spent the majority of his life and was placed in a group home in Weymouth, a suburban town that bordered Quincy, the city he was born in and where his remaining family members still lived. But even with this new proximity, his two living brothers (a third had already died), including my grandfather, rarely, if ever, visited him or inquired about him.

Perhaps the dual burdens of both the shame of having a mentally ill family member, and the guilt from ignoring him, kept them away, because neither were cold-hearted men, but their youngest brother was not a topic that was open for discussion. Their wives, however, took matters into their own hands and paid Uncle Jimmy occasional visits. In 1999, at seventy-six years of age, Uncle Jimmy died of cancer, no doubt related to his fifty-year history as a heavy smoker. His oldest brother, my grandfather, Anthony, had died four years before; I wonder if Uncle Jimmy even knew. His only living brother, my great-uncle Albino, would live another two years, but as far as I know my grandmother and Albino’s wife, my great-aunt Gilda, were the only members of the family who attended Uncle Jimmy’s wake, since Albino was notified of his death as next of kin.

Years passed and I didn’t think much about Uncle Jimmy until I started to pass through Medfield to visit one of my sisters at her home southwest of Boston, or while kayaking the Charles River, which ran through the town, right at the edge of the old hospital grounds. When I learned that the grounds were now open to the public as a recreational and historic walking area, I knew this was my opportunity to try to integrate the family’s past there with everything I knew.

It was a humid summer day as my wife and I walked around the gate that blocked vehicle access to the grounds. We ascended a potholed road up a hill that soon passed the white-columned administration building that I remembered from my visits with the church group as a teenager. Then the Neo-Gothic-style buildings dating from the 1890s that housed the patients came into view—red brick, peeling paint, with slate roofs and arched windows, which, now, along with the doors, were completely boarded up to keep the curious out. Without knowing the history it could have been mistaken for an old college campus.

I pictured my mother, who had died the year before Uncle Jimmy, when she was doing her nursing training there in her late teens, walking across the campus in her white uniform and cap from her dormitory, since many of the staff then lived on site. I pictured Uncle Jimmy, contentedly doing landscaping work in the fresh air, waving to her as she passed. As I took photos of the dozens of buildings spread over hundreds of acres of grounds, connected by walkways, lush lawns, and numerous shade trees, my wife remarked at what a peaceful place it was. I hoped that Uncle Jimmy had found a peace at Medfield that had eluded him in the outside world.

The visit to the old hospital grounds in Medfield stuck with me, and I researched the history of it on the Web and tried to further understand my family’s experience within the context of those times. Often families were told that the best thing they could do for a mentally disabled family member was to commit them, and before modern psychotropic drugs and other treatment options came into widespread use, many felt they had no other choice.

There was only one more source of information I had to turn to, in my attempt to fit together the pieces of this family puzzle: my great-aunt Gilda, now ninety, but still mentally sharp, was the only living member that remained of her generation who knew Jimmy, and no doubt could tell me things that weren’t going to be found anywhere else. I called her up and casually mentioned that I had visited the hospital grounds and was thinking about Uncle Jimmy, and asked her what she could tell me about him. Why was he sent to Medfield? She repeated what I had heard before from her and my grandmother: that Jimmy was shy, didn’t mix well with people. My grandmother, with her lifelong animus towards her father-in-law, also used to tell me that Jimmy was not treated well by his father, which she intimated was the cause of his problems.

Rather than try to tell my nonagenarian great-aunt that shyness didn’t get people committed to mental hospitals, I asked what else she knew about his time there. She said that in his early years at Medfield, into the 1950s, they would have him home for a visit at Christmas, but he became increasingly uncomfortable being away from the hospital, and would ask to be brought back right after the holiday, rather than staying at their house for a few additional days, as he once did. I recalled that my grandmother told me once that Uncle Jimmy stayed with them a few times as well, long before I was born, and that she was always afraid he was going to accidentally burn the house down because he often paced the house, chain-smoking at night after everyone was asleep. Knowing my grandmother and her neurotic, worrying, nature, no doubt Uncle Jimmy picked up on the fact that his presence made her nervous. No wonder he wanted to go back to Medfield, where he probably felt more accepted, and had more relative freedom and independence as he performed his work duties on the hospital campus.

But Aunt Gilda had another revelation for me that would prove to be even more surprising.

“Did you know your great-aunt Mary was in Medfield, too?” she asked me.

“What!?” I exclaimed. The only thing I had ever heard about this sister of my grandfather was that she died young, from a brain tumor, before I was born.

That was later on, asserted Aunt Gilda. Before that, she spent time at Medfield. I asked Aunt Gilda why she was there, and half-expected another benign, euphemistic explanation, like Uncle Jimmy’s shyness.

“She went berserk,” Aunt Gilda said bluntly. “Her husband left her and took their only child, a girl, and it made Mary go crazy.” It didn’t take me more than a few seconds to realize that Aunt Mary’s mental illness was probably the reason her husband left with their child, not the cause of it, but I kept that to myself. And also that the brain tumor that eventually killed her may have contributed to the psychiatric problems that got her committed to Medfield.

So Uncle Jimmy was not the lone family member with a major mental illness, as I had believed. And, I thought now, who knows what other psychiatric problems, short of requiring hospitalization, were swirling around in the family’s past, lost to time, shame and guilt, the keeping of secrets, and the passing of the generations? Perhaps the same could be said of many families, if one looks deeply enough, without even walking the grounds of an abandoned state mental hospital, where the ghosts of the past wait to be awakened.

pencilBrett Peruzzi lives in Framingham, Massachusetts. His poems and prose have previously appeared in The Boston Globe, Exquisite Corpse, Sahara, Pine Island Journal, Boston Poetry Magazine, Gloom Cupboard, and other publications. He is currently working on a book-length memoir. Email: brettperuzzi[at]hotmail.com