The Tomato

Creative Nonfiction
Carol Shank


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

Day three of my stay in Nice, I returned to the hotel with a magnificent red tomato I’d bought with the last of my money. The tomato couldn’t possibly satisfy my hunger, but it would have to do. I wondered­—should I eat it now or wait? Waiting was all I’d done since arriving in Nice.

It was early September and I was expecting a letter from my mother with money from the sale of my car, and another letter from Poal, my Danish lover, telling me when he’d pick me up for our trip to Rome. I’d been traveling through Europe on five dollars a day like so many other young people, and I wasn’t ready to return to the states. My Eurail Pass had just expired so I wasn’t going anywhere. I’d thrown my fate to the wind.

My hotel room was windowless, and by the elevator on the sixth floor. It had a narrow bed, a small stuffed chair, and a floor lamp. There was a stool by the chair that I used for a table. One wall was part of a brick chimney. Had the room been a maid’s quarters? A broom closet? I suspected broom closet, since the faint odor of cleaning supplies lingered.

I’d paid for two nights only, and stayed a third night. I’d sheepishly pass by the desk clerk who’d been kind enough to rent me the room at a special rate. One more unpaid night and I could be homeless, and sleeping with the hippies farther down the beach.

The first couple of days going to the American Express were disappointing. The middle-aged clerk behind the counter wore Clark Kent glasses and was dressed in a fine suit, which I found odd considering his lackluster job. I’d ask if I had any mail and he’d say, “Nothing. Next,” at which point I’d go outside and join the hippies who sat on benches lining the shady grove of trees. They’d bum cigarettes from me and we’d chat. I figured they were also waiting for letters containing money or information, lifelines to help them move on.

Ian, a tall Canadian, had a lion’s mane of brown hair streaked with gold, and a five o’clock shadow that highlighted his angular face. He seemed like the leader of the tribe of drifters running low on their luck. He’d ask how I was doing and I’d assure him that any minute my letters would arrive. I had some bread and butter and a couple packs of cigarettes to help ward off hunger. Somehow I’d manage until my ship came in.

Besides going to the Amex twice a day, there wasn’t much to do other than act the part of a tourist, donning my two-piece bathing suit for dips in the glorious Mediterranean, an infinite bathtub of light blue water. I’d float on my back in a dreamy state, tilting and gliding as the sea sought alignment with the shore. Somewhere beyond the cloudless sky an invisible moon orchestrated the gentle waves so different from the rough, dark waves of the Atlantic that I knew. This was the sea I’d seen so many times on maps in college classes as I learned about the ancient world and beyond. It seemed any moment Botticelli’s Venus would float by on her half shell. Neptune would rear his head, holding his trident high. These waters had rocked the cradle of Western civilization and now they were rocking me. Me! I loved that thought.

However, stepping from the water and weaving through the crowd of sunbathers, I felt out of place amidst the bronzed men wearing expensive sunglasses and the bikini-clad women tending to their toddlers. It seemed Western civilization had been reduced to a postcard of bourgeois pleasure seekers, and all that heady historical and cultural stuff I’d learned was sitting idly in my brain without any practical purpose. Yet, on the surface, I was part of the scene—an American chick on her holiday perhaps? I entered the hotel like other sun-kissed guests, sand between my toes, before vanishing into my broom closet.

On day three I awoke to sounds inside my stomach. Gurgles echoed. Boings ricocheted off cavern walls. This body needs food!

My bed groaned in sympathy as I sat up and placed my feet on the cool linoleum. I had the end part of a baguette left to eat and a tab of soft butter. I spread the butter with my finger and gnawed on the bread like a dog—so unladylike! I smiled and thought, “If Poal could see me now” and was glad he couldn’t.

On my morning visit to the Amex, before I could open my mouth to ask for mail, the impeccably dressed clerk shook his head and said, “Next,” fixating his gaze on the customer behind me. I was stunned. I stared at him, but he failed to acknowledge me.

Cheeks hot, thoughts racing, I walked out. I must have looked distraught, because Ian, who was sitting on a stone bench, gestured for me to join him.

“That man is rude,” I said, collapsing beside him. “He didn’t let me ask for my mail. He dismissed me like… like I wasn’t even there.”

“Oh, don’t mind him. He probably assumes you’re a middle-class American girl waiting for a handout from her family.”

What? Was Ian a jerk, too?

But then he smiled. “You Americans have some nerve traipsing around Europe carefree.”

“Ha, ha. Well, Americans are fortunate, generally speaking,” I said, still feeling defensive. “But my family hasn’t much money. It’s money from the sale of my car that will keep me here longer. I’m not ready to leave. My life in Europe is interesting, not like my drab life back home.”

Ian laughed. “Interesting means many things. What’s it mean to you?”

I felt myself blush and thought a minute. “Adventure, I suppose. Marrying and settling down isn’t for me. Do you know the picture of the Fool on the Tarot card?”

“Yes.”

“Well that’s me. I’m stepping off a cliff with my bag on a stick, a hobo off to see the world, each day a new beginning.”

He nodded like he understood and we talked some more. I gazed up at him, marveling at the contrast between his sandpaper beard and straight white teeth. He exuded goodness. I wondered was this goodness a Canadian quality? He told me not to be upset about the clerk. He was just a bureaucrat doing his job.

Ian invited me to the beach at seven o’clock to play music, and I said I’d go.

With my handful of centimes and other small coins I dug from the bottom of my bag, I went to the outdoor market to buy what food I could, maybe a pear or an apple. Whatever it was, I’d know it when I saw it.

The tomato sat on top of the pile, a plump jewel of a fruit, a queen on her throne! I picked it up, marveling at its girth. The woman weighed it, and looked at me quizzically, probably wondering why an American girl had to pay with French pennies. On the surface I did seem pathetic, but I didn’t care. I was fortunate to have such a perfectly ripe, gorgeous tomato.

Back at the hotel, I took out my travel kit, removed the plate and stunted knife and fork, and arranged them on the stool with the tomato. I sat down on the floor, ready to devour it, but I hesitated. I didn’t want to give in. I didn’t want hunger to win. Not yet.

I found the hippies by the sound of drums, and joined them in a circle on the beach though I didn’t like calling them hippies because they weren’t like the free love, sex-crazed American hippies. They were an international group, ready to engage in conversation on just about anything—books they’d read, music, art, and philosophies of life. One of the men (they were mostly men) handed me a drum, and though I’d never played one before, to my surprise I kept the beat. The guys I’d known back in the states had always hogged the drums, like it was their manly right to play them, relegating tambourines to the girls.

Our arms moved in sync, our sound radiating out over sand and sea. Above the crescent moon, a bowl of stars seemed to twinkle in delight as it received our insistent message of good will. Maybe I could live like this. I could be part of a tribe like this.

Walking back to the hotel, my stomach rumbled from deep inside, a major upheaval was going on. The desk clerk looked up when I entered and said, “Miss,” but I pretended not to hear and kept walking.

Back in my room, I lay on my bed, attentive to the chaos that emanated from my body. The light from the lamp was dim like the glow of a candle, because I’d hung two pair of clean wet underwear on it to dry. The tomato on the stool seemed to shimmer in the soft light, and every few minutes I’d look at it and wonder if the moment had come to consume it. Could I last a little longer? No, it was tempting me. Yes, no, yes. Yes, I could wait. The tomato was giving me strength to persevere. We’d coexist a little longer.

I awoke the next day to the same guttural sounds as the day before, only worse. I sat in the chair and read a few chapters of a novel, barely able to concentrate, until it was time to check the mail.

As I walked down the tree-lined sidewalk, for a wild moment I could feel another body inside me—a woman dressed in rags. She was looking furtively about, something I didn’t normally do. I feared she’d call out to strangers and beg for food. Oh, when would the Fates relinquish the letters and allow me to save face? Please! I didn’t want to be a rag woman.

Mr. Clark Kent clerk shook his head and called “Next!” dismissing me like he’d done the day before. I wanted to both cry and lash out at him, but I just left, eyes smarting. Ian wasn’t outside to calm me. I was on my own.

Hadn’t I’d gotten exactly what I deserved? I wasn’t the Fool on a Tarot card, I was just a plain fool. I’d tricked myself, thinking I could live in the present moment, a member of the “be here now” generation, but I wasn’t liberated. I was waiting for a letter from home to rescue me, just like other American girls the clerk had to deal with. His job seemed incredibly boring, but at least he could be independent, dress nicely, eat out at cafes. Had he realized early on he wasn’t superman or anyone special? Or maybe he had a special spark, nothing grand, but something worth cultivating and yet… and yet, he had to put food on the table. I wasn’t so different from him. It was just taking me a long time to realize it.

I spent the day in misery with the added anxiety of a note from the hotel to pay up by tomorrow. On my afternoon visit to the Amex there were no letters and more humiliation, but I saw Ian. He invited me to come again at seven o’clock and join the tribe. He assured me if I were kicked out of the hotel the group would protect me and teach me how to survive on the street. I appreciated his offer, and would take him up on it if I had to.

When early evening came I lay on my bed, too weak and hungry to walk down the beach. The rag woman inside was taking over, crying out for me to act.

I rolled onto the floor, and edged over to the stool. I lifted the tomato from the plate, and inhaled the sun-blessed, dry-leafed aroma of the sweet field it came from. I encircled it in my palms turning it over and over, our skins kindred in their smoothness. I could feel the sun’s heat inside it even though it had spent a day in my cool room. It seemed like a warm-blooded creature and I could almost feel a heartbeat, hear the crickets from the field where it had lived, like the crickets by my mother’s cellar door.

I held it close against my chest and the sun’s energy passed into my heart.

Oh! I thought of the sacrifices the priestesses made in the temples in ancient Greece. Of course it was with love they slit the animals throats. I had thought it a terrible thing to do, but in this moment I understood.

I set the tomato back down on the makeshift table, its altar. If time and my hunger didn’t matter I’d keep its beauty whole, a “joy for ever” as John Keats would put it. Its skin shone without blemish as good on the outside as I imagined the glorious interior.

I would eat it European style. I would bring each morsel to my mouth, holding the fork in my left hand, after cutting it with the knife in my right hand. I needed to begin a new path and do it with a sacrifice—something red, something round, something ripe. The life of the tomato laid down for me, to make me right again with the world.

I made the first cut. The skin sprung away from the wound and there was no turning back. I sliced downward and the tomato opened to me.

The architecture was all that I’d imagined—vaulted ceilings like in the finest European cathedrals. Arches. Thick, blushing walls. A bounty of seeds spilled forth. Manna from heaven! I cut a section free and the semi-opaque, seed laden liquid oozed onto the plate in a seemingly endless flow. This was the wet stuff of life. This is how the world began.

I stabbed the piece with my stubby fork and lifted it to salute the gods. Pieces to lips, to nest of mouth, to explosion of taste buds, to blessing of throat, swallowing flesh, seeds of wisdom, seeds of infinity.

Whatever would be would be. I could accept whatever lay ahead, letters or no letters. Yet somehow I knew the letters were coming, clickety-click, speeding through the night on a train. I could see far into the future as well. A tomato seed lodged in my brain would send out its root, keeping this bond, this memory with the tomato alive. Always.

My plate licked clean, I lay in a state of suspension, not unlike my brief floats in the sea. For the first time since renting the room I could hear the sea whispering through the cracks of the windowless walls. The foam of the waves seemed to dissolve in my ears, the retreat of the waves carrying me out to sea, slowly enveloping me in sleep.

The next morning at the Amex I felt certain the letters were there, but if they weren’t they’d be there soon. The clerk couldn’t treat me like I was invisible, because I’d never been more present. I had a name, a voice, and a smile.

I asked if I had any mail.

The clerk smiled back at me and our eyes met. He handed me two letters. Two!

“Next!” he called. Had I imagined his disdain or was I worthy of his glance now that I had something of substance in my hands? Or was he just glad to be rid of me?

I walked out and eagerly ripped open the letter from home, relieved that it contained traveler’s checks though my car hadn’t been sold yet. I nervously opened Poal’s letter and discovered he was coming that day! O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! Roma here I come!

I rushed over to Ian who was standing with three other tribe members by a huge beech tree. I announced my news and Ian was glad for me.

“The next chapter of your interesting life begins!” he said, and we laughed.

We hugged goodbye. I said farewell to the others and wished them well, but their eyes had veils. A chasm had formed between us, for my luck had changed and theirs hadn’t. I wanted to say I was still like them, that I understood poverty and the communion with food that hunger brings. But I wasn’t like them anymore. Money had changed everything.

I slunk back into the Amex and cashed a check. My brain was spinning. Had sacrificing the tomato brought my good fortune, or would it have happened anyway? Had my tomato experience been written in the stars, always meant to be? I sensed if I told anyone about it, the magical feeling would disappear, so I’d keep it to myself.

The tectonic plate I stood on was sliding away from the tribe, the drums, the broom closet, the sea, from Venus on her half shell. I was moving on.

pencil

Carol Shank is working on a memoir of her European travels. She’s written picture books for educational publishers and her poetry has appeared in Cricket, Ladybug, Chronogram, and First Literary Review-East. Her poem “Bug Lights” won Highlights High Five 2016 Pewter Plate Award for “Poem of the Year.” Carol recently became a dual citizen with Canada, and is excited to be an American/Canadian. Email: crl.firefly.shnk[at]gmail.com

Personal Effects

Creative nonfiction
Kay Marie Porterfield


Photo credit: Tara Calihman/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

That morning when I stood at your apartment door, sweat dripped into my eyes, and I wondered why it burned when tears don’t sting at all. They’re both salty. You would have known the answer without having to Google it. You always were the smart one, Brother. And then you were gone.

Leaving was nothing new. You often moved cross country without warning. I wouldn’t have your address or phone number for months, sometimes even years. Then out of the blue, just when I’d given up on you, you’d call to recommend a life-changing Thai restaurant, and we’d talk for hours. You’d magically show up to give me philosophy books you knew I’d never read. You’d play your mandolin for me.

On that hot day in Austin, I almost convinced myself you’d fling open your front door to offer me a piece of your homemade blueberry cornbread. You’d take the boxes of heavy duty lawn and leaf bags from my arms and tell me this was a big joke. Then we’d both laugh our asses off. But I knew better.

Exhausted from the two-day drive and a summer cold, I willed the maintenance man to hurry with the key so I could get through the cleanup. Then, seconds later, I willed him to forget our meeting. The answers to questions I’d never dared ask when you were alive lurked behind that door. They scared me more than the mess I suspected you’d left me. If he didn’t show, I could wait in the car for a decent interval before heading home, telling myself I’d tried. Hadn’t I?

At least I wouldn’t be mopping up blood and brain tissue. Quick and clean were the words the lead detective on your case used when he’d called to tell me my worst fears were true. He said it was death by helium, and honest to God, I pictured you bashing yourself in the head with a party balloon tank. I felt like a snitch when I told him it was your second attempt in a year and, except for your first suicide note, you hadn’t spoken to me in two.

He said I’d need to collect your belongings and tell the morgue what I wanted done with your remains. The autopsy was finished, so if I didn’t claim you soon, the county would bury you in an indigent plot

You’d made it sound so easy for me to pick up the pieces in your email. “If all goes as planned, I will have been dead about 24 hours by time you receive this,” you announced. “All I ask is that you contact my landlord so they can arrange for the authorities to retrieve the body. Since I’m a veteran, the V.A. should take care of the rest.”

News flash: the V.A. does not pick up and deliver. And neither do they take care of the rest, Mr. Smarty Pants. I was still filling out their forms and looking for a place to store you until I could find money to ship you to Denver, so you’d be close to me. Right then, I should have been shopping for a funeral home to embalm you instead of sweltering outside your locked door.

Twice you stole my name. Did you know that? After you were born, I became Sis. Our parents never called me by my given name again. I’d hated it. Now you’ve turned me into next-of-kin. I hate that even more.

I remembered you in first grade, sick on the school bus every morning, how small and distraught you were. How I resented sitting beside you waiting for you to throw up that day’s Hostess pie. (Why, in heaven’s name did cherry have to be your favorite?)  But I was your big sister, and I daubed the vomit from your plaid shirt and wiped it from the cracked seat. I held your hand and told you to throw up quietly into your little brown cap so the kids who bullied both of us would maybe stop calling you Puke Face.

I did it because I loved you, damn it. And when the maintenance guy arrived to let me into your apartment, I want you to know I crossed the threshold without hesitating, to be swallowed up by the smell of old cigarette butts and your dirty laundry.

pencil

Kay Marie Porterfield’s essays have appeared in The Sun, Hippocampus, and The MacGuffin. Others are forthcoming in Two Hawks Quarterly and Eastern Iowa Review. She grew up on a mid-Michigan farm and now lives in Colorado where she teaches and writes. Email: kmporterfield[at]gmail.com

Scars

Creative Nonfiction
Dian Parker


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

Eli came to visit with his girlfriend. I was happily married now. Eli didn’t appear happy.

When I’d first told Eli I was getting married, without hesitation he had kissed my hand, said he was thrilled. We were having lunch.

For years I still wanted Eli, even after we broke up. Felt he was my true love, my for-all-time love. But after six years he broke up with me saying we were holding each other down. We were meant to fly, just not together.

I was devastated. Six years is a long time when you’re young. When you think you’ve got it all worked out.

Being married was not my intention but age and finances interfered. My husband’s social security was more than my meager helping. I’d take a third of his. We had savings. We’d live OK. We were in love.

But the other one, when he came to visit us with his girlfriend, turned strange, manic even. He pounded my husband on the back, telling him he’d done great. Our small house was lovely, and our view stellar. Ripe with green. Quiet. Secluded. Who wouldn’t admire our life, especially Eli who still rented a room in his friend’s house? But his girlfriend was sweet, smart and attentive. I was happy for him.

I was not happy, however, with how he took a painting off our wall to see if I’d really painted it, examining the back for marks of forgery I suppose. Or how he paced around the house looking at everything, anxious, pretending all was well. It wasn’t with him. I was well. I was really well. I was living, finally, my dream.

When Eli and I first met, I was working as a theatre director. I had plenty of work and Eli was a construction worker. His body was muscular. He had a wonderful, strong jaw and thick wavy hair. By the time we broke up, he’d lost most of his hair. He was still lean but his muscles had diminished, through no fault of mine.

Before Eli broke up with me, I had given up theatre to travel around the world with him. We only managed to hitchhike through the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East, never making it to India which had been our intention. That was fine with me. After two years of carrying a backpack through deserts, sleeping on a thin Ensolite pad on church steps, and huddled against stone walls in goat fields, I’d had enough. Eli hadn’t. He always wanted more. More adventure, more risk, more hardship.

After the trip, back in Seattle, we rode our bikes every morning. Five miles for our lattes and croissants to a little hole-in-the-wall café. It was in this café that he, out of the blue (at least to me), announced that it was over. I laughed. It was so ridiculous. We’d just finished (for him, triumphantly), a two-year trip to Palmyra, Damascus, Aleppo, Sinai, Cappadocia. We had traveled well together, mostly because I let him lead, stifling my intense discomfort with the heat and cold and incessant company of men. Eli always wanted the next village, the next mountain pass, the next bend in the road. Even late at night after walking miles in blistering heat he’d search out the best place to lay our sleeping bags. I’d beg him to stop. Not one more mile. But he’d smile and kiss me, saying, “My beauty, you’ll see. I know there has to be a grove of trees soon.” Or a rowboat to turn over and sleep under. Or a beach with sand to carve for a bed (sand is hard, no matter how many indentations you make). Once we found an abandoned, wooden lean-to on a beach in Egypt. The first night for dinner we heated up a can of foul, the Egyptian white bean. We had a stale heel of bread and when Eli went to dip it in the can, the whole mess tipped over into the sand. We ate it anyway. The grit was hard to keep down.

*

Mid-afternoon light hems the forest floor. An old growth cedar exudes calm and wisdom. I need this now, to calm down, terrorized by lack of money and the fear of being without Eli, my one true love.

I melt into the ragged bark of the tree, the tender smell of damp moss, the soft cedar breeze. When I stand, the light has severely shifted. Hours have passed unawares. I gather a bough of cedar from the forest floor and tuck it down my shirt, the fan cool against my skin. A slim piece of bark goes in my pocket.

I reach my arms around the wide girth of the cedar, only covering half the circumference with my reach. It is then I feel the gash, a deep irruption in the vertical bark.

Walking around the broad base, I see the cut, a deep slice from a woodsman’s axe long ago. I run my fingers along the wound, now grown over with living black tissue, like an old scar. This forest hasn’t been logged for one hundred years and this tree is well over two hundred, towering above the rest. It had survived the last logging. Why?

Once home, I turn on some drum music, heavy and tribal. I do this when I’m sad, as I am so often these days. In one hand I hold the bark and in the other the cedar bough. It is night and the room is densely black. Closing my eyes, I dance. I will dance long enough to forget myself.

My mind moves inside the layered branches, the thick bark, the tip of the dark green crown. Branches sway in the soft breeze of spring and the icy winds of winter. I dance through thunder and lightning storms, through scorching heat that dries up moss. I dance in the sweet loamy soil surrounding the roots, connected to other roots—lifelines crisscrossing beneath the forest floor. The tree grows taller and taller, hundreds of feet up, and out, and down. Never ceasing.

The axe man begins to cut. The first blow ricochets. The second blow howls in the wind. The third blow spikes downward. To the others. They all know what is coming.

Abruptly, the jagged vibrations stop. There are no more blows.

Human again, gone out of the tree, back inside my hot body, a flattening exhaustion overtakes and I drop to my knees.

The moment has passed. A realization remains. The logger stopped his axe because, two hundred years later, I would dance this tree. The tree and I were one, for one long moment. The tree could not be chopped down and carried away. For I was coming. And I was alive.

*

The scar of Eli remained with me for fifteen years. During those fifteen years after Eli ended us and meeting my husband, I was without a man. I had decided if Eli wasn’t having me, I wouldn’t have anyone else.

Over the years we remained friends. He helped me build a deck around my yurt. Loaned me his truck when I was building my underground (secretly). Late at night we often drove up secluded logging roads into the hills to sleep under the night sky. He’d build a fire and we’d drink wine and eat cheese and bread and stare at the stars. We slept in each other’s arms but never made love anymore. He was my mountain man, my nature boy, my other world—away from cities and social life and money woes. Eli was fearless in the wild and a bumbling fool in society. He left me because he wanted to go into the world of men: politics and dissonance. I wanted out of society, away from cities, into the wild. Untenable.

When Eli visited Tommy and me that last time, he and his girlfriend were supposed to stay three days. They stayed only one night. I was stunned when I woke the next morning and Eli was gone. I’d thought we’d had a lovely day, walking around our land and taking a drive down dirt roads. I’d fixed his favorite food: pasta with lots of garlic, and wine. They went to their room and Tommy and I went to ours. In the morning they were gone.

He left me a note.

Sweet Dian… my apologies to have so quickly worn out your welcome. All fine graces to you. Perhaps, once I am well beyond my present life, we can greet on fresh plains once again. Love, E

I didn’t understand, except that he had scars too.

Eli and I were one once, for one long moment. He ended us. It took a mere fifteen years to the tree’s two hundred, but I found, despite my scars, I could not be chopped down. For I was coming. And I am alive.

pencil

Dian Parker’s essays and short stories have been published in The Rupture, Anomaly, In the Fray, 3 AM Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, Northern New England Review, Woven Tale Press, Cold Lake Anthology, Kingdoms in the Wild, and others. Parker’s arts writing has been published in Art New England, Vermont Art Guide, Kolaj Magazine, and nature writing in Northern Woodlands/Outside Story, Nature Writing, and OpEd News. She is the curator for White River Gallery in Vermont. Email: dianparker9[at]gmail.com

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.

pencil

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.

pencil

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.

pencil

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.

pencil

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.

pencil

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.

pencil

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.

pencil

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