Death at a Distance

Creative Nonfiction
David Sapp


Photo Credit: Tim Pierce/Flickr (CC-by)

Somehow, I navigated my mother’s death from a desk. Actually, I wasn’t that far away—only eighty miles or so from everyone and everything, but there was a distance between us. I got a call at the office from Rosemary. Aunt Rosemary and Uncle Perry, my mother’s phlegmatic older brother, lived on the edge of Cincinnati amidst cul-de-sacs, in a tidy, ordinary raised ranch with avocado green siding. Even at eighty-something, her thick German accent came clipped and efficient over the telephone wires.

Perry brought Rosemary back from Germany after he was stationed there in the army not long after WWII when her country was still hungry and ruined—love among mounds of bones and brick. The last time I’d seen them I was fourteen, when I stayed a couple of weeks after Mom returned from the psych ward—when Mom and Dad pretended to sort out their marriage. I rode roller coasters at Kings Island with cousins Clara, Carl, and Kevin. I never really liked them very much and never really knew why. Still don’t. I gathered the details from Rosemary, politely asked after her family, and braced myself for the funerary routine.

Apparently, funeral homes, in turns, receive the indigent or corpses with inadequate instructions. Over the phone with the undertaker, overall a nice-enough-man, I got right to it as I’d been through the checklist with Dad: forms, prices, pick-up and delivery. (Was grief on the agenda?) No, I wouldn’t be buying a casket or urn. Very cordially but evenly I said, “Waive the surcharge or I’ll walk away.” With striking alacrity, he took my credit card numbers. I never saw Dad dead. I’d taken a day off from the hospital vigil and missed the end. To comfort me, the hospice volunteer said, “Sometimes they wait.” And, oddly, “When the toes curl, it’s time.” But there on the computer screen was my mother’s digital face required for identification. I was compelled to claim her after all. (What if I didn’t?) Her image fixed and final, I wouldn’t know how she aged or what about her remained the same. Was there a gesture or expression I’d recall? I typed, “That’s her,” and I envisioned her being wheeled to the furnace. My newly re-discovered cousin Candy picked up Mom’s ashes packed in a non-descript bag and box (I wondered at the lack of advertisement printed on the cardboard to boost sales: Bob’s Funerals: Caskets for Corpses and More.) and returned her to our hometown where she sat, still flummoxing us all.

I never traveled to the Nazareth Apartments, the Catholic-run assisted living facility in Columbus (coincidentally, just around the corner from Grant Hospital where, for a short while, Dad was pumped for-no-damn-good-reason with chemo). Was it a home? Was it a good or bad place? Were her keepers kind or incompetent? The first person I talked with when I called confused Mom with another, I’m sure, much more pleasant resident. There were two deaths that day. When I explained who my mother was, the nice lady seemed to be unaware of my mother’s absence. And when the identity finally dawned on her, her condolences thinned, her voice strained—distant. Either, oh, I was the son who never visited, or she was also the recipient of Mom’s mania. I didn’t know. Didn’t ask. Didn’t care.

The second seemed to be a little more with it, an administrator in charge of something or other. From her voice I imagined a thoughtful but naïve young woman. After Mom’s body was discovered and removed, her room was surveyed and inventoried. I asked knowingly, “And what did you find?” Clearly astonished, she described a hoard of wide-eyed baby dolls glad to be rescued, precarious towers of paperbacks, and ten grand in small bills rubber-banded in rolls, some of the cash stacked in a cigar box wrapped and padlocked with a rusty dog chain—likely my dog, Smokey’s, who would not be tied and who’d died forty years before. The reliquary rattled her a bit. She sealed the room and I wished her good luck and “Do whatever needs done.”

Before the cremation, I sent an email to the Diocese of Columbus asking for a priest and last rites. I thought this would be what she wanted and what a dutiful son might do. Hopefully, they’d forgotten about how she’d sent the bishop a fetching Playboy centerfold with hard candy glued to the nipples. I was informed that no priest was available (Couldn’t they rustle up an altar boy at least?) and that last rites were reserved for those still breathing—thus, the qualifier, “last.” Maybe there was simply a shortage of holy water at the time and they were too embarrassed to confess. I dispatched a fiery email to the Vatican, I’m sure, handled by the Swiss Guard with asbestos gloves, and a cardinal’s secretary assured me that Mom was with God. I thought, so what’s with all the fuss over these rituals? What’s the point of the essential oils? I should have reminded them of Luther, his 95 Theses and the public relations disaster of indulgences. Instead, I pretended to be a good Catholic boy, felt guilty, and let it all go. There remained a distance between us.

My mother’s remains languished with Uncle Wayne—Mom in Limbo, what-to-do-with-her Purgatory. Her three brothers, a blind, morose lot, insisted on this and that: “Your mother would have wanted…” I asked how much they’d like to chip in for what she “would have wanted,” thousands to bury her grit beside their mother: hole, crypt, plaque, fees and commissions. I suggested scattering her in a field near the farm where they all grew up. To be fair, this probably resurrected memories of a hard life with their cruel, abusive father. When I offered, “How about I dump her in a ditch?” abruptly the letters, emails, and phones fell silent. How were these uncles, themselves victims, unaware of the violence she brought to our home—the flying jelly jars and coffee cups, garbage neatly tucked in shoes, Dad’s torn shirts?

After writing the obituary for the local news, I’d had enough. (I included her high school senior picture, a portrait when all was black and white, when she smiled with genuine Eisenhower-era optimism—before divorce, custody battles, the years of rage, and three decades of exile.)

For a while, the decisions and details were all mine. When my sister finally returned my calls, our first conversation in ten years, her voice was more shrill than I remembered: the ignorance, prejudice, and purposeful poor grammar more pronounced. When she commented tangentially on Obama, “that half-breed in the White House,” I nearly hung up. I could hear our mother. We wouldn’t be meeting for a nice quiet lunch. The distance remained between us. Still, thankfully, my sister took over: probate, checks, the sorting of possessions. When I spoke with the lawyer, our tone was conspiratorial. I pointedly treated him kindly knowing he was required to work for the ghost of our dead mother. There was a service. A priest blessed Mom after all. I wasn’t there.

I showed up in person a few months later. My sister found a plot in St. Luke’s Cemetery, a nice, cheap spot overlooking the blue-hazed Ohio hills. Dad was there. Mom would be a few slots down and to the right. But that was a guess as the headstone wasn’t planted yet and there were two fresh graves from which to choose. To weep, I’d need to return, but either little mound of earth was, equally, a complete stranger. Despite the popular and over-rated notion of closure, a distance remained between us.

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David Sapp, writer, artist and professor, lives along the southern shore of Lake Erie in North America. A Pushcart nominee, he was awarded an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence grant and an Akron Soul Train fellowship for poetry. His poems appear widely in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. His publications include articles in the Journal of Creative Behavior; chapbooks Close to Home and Two Buddha; and a novel, Flying Over Erie. Email: danieldavidart[at]gmail.com

Write As If Your Parents Were Dead

Creative Nonfiction
Kimberly Cullen


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

I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. My friend Dan, a writer himself, recommended it to me many years ago when I first started posting my writing. I bought the book and then held onto it until this summer. I have read it at a snail’s pace, a few pages at a time, giving myself the chance to absorb her advice and sit on the thoughts for a while.

When I announced at work over a year ago that I would take a sabbatical beginning this fall in order to focus on my writing, I spoke with honesty and openness. I also unknowingly set myself up for failure. Because I created an expectation that I have not met. People honestly don’t really care what I’m doing on my sabbatical, but by committing to writing publicly, I created this expectation in myself to produce. And so as I slid into the start of the sabbatical, I frantically and frenetically created this website where I moved all of my blog posts over and told myself and others that I would write. I wrote a piece, one that came from the heart, highlighting one of the many silver linings from the COVID confinement we all experienced last spring. I did a little marketing campaign on social media: get ready, coming soon, just a few days left, launching tomorrow. And I published. I had tons of readers, lots of support. I even got an email from my son’s high school English teacher saying he loved the piece and would be following my work.

And then I froze. I tried to write, and couldn’t think of one thing to say that was worth a damn. I wrote fragments, and realized that the only thing I wanted to write about was stuff that I wasn’t sure people should have to read (I mean, really, why would they put themselves through that?). I started rereading things I’ve written in the past — other unpublished work: thoughts that I had, feelings that I processed, events that happened.

I read through the account of my brother’s funeral, and that horrific night — when my dad lost his shit and my mom wanted to leave, and everyone was drunk, and I walked into the screaming match and stayed most of the night. And I realized that I wanted to write about those things, to wrestle with the demons that my optimism tries to stifle. I realized that I want to write about the times when my dad was drunk and horrible, the abuse he dished out to my mom, and the shitty parent he evolved into as we got older. I wanted to write about my brother —the one that is left — and the disintegration of what was once an idyllic mother–son love story. And I sat there in front of my computer screen, unable to write any of it because all I could focus on was the hurt those words might cause.

I have felt so responsible for my mom since my dad and oldest brother died that I couldn’t even begin to imagine causing her to revisit so much of the pain that she has tried to overcome. And I cried. I cried at frustration for her that she has experienced so much pain and had to work so hard to redefine who she is in this world. And I cried at my own pain, this sense of impotence washing over me. If I can’t write about this stuff, how the fuck will I ever deal with it? And if I can’t deal with it, how am I supposed to connect with others who may have experienced similar things? And how will my life have served any purpose if my growth doesn’t help others? And this sense of frustration threw me into a dark writer’s hole… a space where I have all of the ability, but none of the motivation.

Write for what? became my mantra. I continued to journal, relying on that to feed my daily need to write. But the journal was more of a homework assignment as I was dutifully following Julia Cameron’s instructions from The Artist’s Way. I found that I would pour out a few thoughts on those pages, and then would go about my day without writing anything more. I continued to work on a much more straightforward writing project that I’m collaborating with a friend on, and what little creativity might have been sitting under the surface came out in those pages. But the real stuff — the raw and bloody emotions that are deeper down —they stayed where they were, safely hidden away from the eyes and judgements of others —most of all those of my mom.

And then yesterday, I was sitting on the sofa, reading a few pages of Bird by Bird. I was tired from having slept very little the night before. I am in Florida with my mom —making up for some lost time since we hadn’t seen one another since December last year. We were prepared for a tropical storm, but not quite the roaring and howling that came with the unexpected Cat 2 Hurricane Sally. So after a night of craziness, and as the winds began to die down, I sat there on the sofa —in my pajamas because there is kind of no place to go on the day after a hurricane —reading Anne Lamott.

My mind was alert enough to consider what I was reading, and my body tired enough to not pull me away to the usual distractions. And I read this: “Write as if your parents were dead.” I stopped cold. I looked out the window, watching the palm trees moving in the wind, and then read it again, slowly. I highlighted the sentence and those around it. I took pictures and sent them to my husband.

Write as if your parents were dead. I realized that that is the only way for me to do this. To write with the honesty that would exist if they weren’t there to read it. And so this morning, I woke up with a new perspective. Write for what? For me. Maybe I don’t need to publish everything. But I can’t publish anything if I write nothing. Writer’s block be damned. I am going to face those demons one by one. Writing for me will not be an act of betrayal. It is an act of hope and at its core, an expression of love, and it’s time for me to get back to the joy that comes with wading through a whole lot of muddy shit to find that single solitary flower that might otherwise not have been noticed.

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Kimberly Cullen is a thinker and learner, writer and storyteller, counselor and coach. After almost of quarter of a century in k12 education, she is now on sabbatical, taking some time to breathe, reflect, dream, explore life’s many gifts, and write. When she was around 8 years old, she starting writing down my dreams and these turned into stories. She has been blogging about life since 2010, and has published several articles about the need for change in how and what young people learn. Hope and gratitude are common themes in her writing, her work, and in her life in general. Email: cullen_km[at]hotmail.com

Shelley Hack Black

Creative Nonfiction
Celestine Woo


Photo Credit: rocor/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

1979

My bangs are now sophisticated and asymmetrical, ready for entering junior high: they swoop down over my right eye, baring the left part of my forehead. My shoulder-length hair bounces slightly if I have managed to fluff it. I get body waves maybe twice a year, and have discovered mousse, which my mom is willing to buy for me, unlike hair spray. In eighth grade, I get one of the best compliments of my life (to this day): someone tells me with my hairdo, I look like Shelley Hack, who was then the newest of Charlie’s Angels. My hair is really black, and I wish it were brown like my mom and sister. I try to imagine an Asian Angel, or any Asian in a prominent, positive TV or movie role, and laugh at the absurdity.

Here is a picture of that Shelley Hack hairdo.

 

1981

My hair is feathered like Farrah Fawcett in her iconic pinup poster, and like every single other teenage girl in existence, except for the OBCs who are hopelessly ugly with their straight limp lifeless hair. Mine’s cut in layers, shoulder-length. One of the rare periods of my life when it wasn’t constantly permed. Every morning I spend twenty minutes with the curling iron making layers of curls. Mine never turn out in piles and piles of puffy perfectly shaped curls like Ada has, like a Chinese afro—she’s the beauty queen of our church, and in the Golden Age of Big Hair, a ‘do like hers is way out of my league. Nor do my curls look like Shannon’s waves that are wide flicks, like the Sprint logo, that really earn the name of feathers. Nor do they look like most of the girls in church, who have curls like little sausages either just framing their face, or adorning their whole head, including the back. Nope, my hair is way too thick, heavy, and coarse to behave right, so at best, I get really great sausage curls on my left side (since I’ve kept the asymmetrical shaping and have less hair on that side), and a few limp curls on the right that fall into my eye but not fetchingly. I curl the back, because I have this great mirrored bathroom cabinet and can actually view the back of my head fairly easily; it semi works, so I figure I look good from the left and the back.

If there’s any fog or even the faintest hint of humidity, the instant I walk out of the house, my hair falls completely flat, stick straight, even if it’s moussed and gelled to death, and I look horrible and feel humiliated, and there’s nothing I can do. (In my twenties, a hairdresser tells me he’s surprised but I really truly don’t look good with straight hair, and I bless him for his honesty.) Plus, that fall, the first PE rotation assigns me swimming first period, which means forget any hair styling because it’s a waste once you’re in the pool. After, we have only ten minutes to get dressed, do our hair (ha ha), and get to our second period class. That is nowhere near long enough to get my thick hair even semi-dry, let alone curled while still damp. So for weeks, my ninth-grade peers only see me as this girl with straight hair, like black pick-up sticks or dried spaghetti all over my head. Squid ink pasta won’t become trendy for decades yet, and even had it existed, I am utterly incapable of joking about my appearance.

 

1982

I begin paying attention to hair on other parts of my body. My mother has no razors or deodorant, and I notice with chagrin, peering clandestinely whenever I get the chance, that she seems to have zero hair on her legs, arms, or armpits. She’s also whiter than most white people. I doubt she even knows that girls shave their legs, and I despair because I have no idea how to learn.

I eavesdrop at church in the women’s restroom. This is how I’ve learned all sorts of things about periods and stuff, so I also learn that you’re supposed to shave your legs in the shower. That sounds clever, I think, and feel sorry for Danielle, who is being ridiculed because she was stupid enough to shave her legs dry, outside the shower (as I have). Some girl in some TV sitcom jokes about not knowing how high to shave, and thus having bangs on her knees. I get the joke, but am worried because I didn’t know there was a rule about how high.

I peek secretly at other girls’ bodies. I am greatly perturbed to notice that Kim, a super cute popular girl, seems to have no hair at all on either her thighs or forearms, or even on the backs of her knuckles. Is she just born that way, or does she shave those places? It’s hard to be sure, since her skin is dark. I look with alarm at the tiny hairs on my knuckles, forearms, and thighs. I don’t mind them, but does this make me ugly and noticeable?

My friend Jennifer at school provides me some relief. I overhear her tell someone she doesn’t bother to shave her legs, because her hairs are fine and nearly invisible, and if she shaves, they’ll grow back thicker and then she’ll be stuck in this vicious cycle. Jennifer is a wonder: Vietnamese, but perfect American English, confident, smart, popular, outgoing, beautiful, unapologetically Catholic, and surrounded by popular white friends. She’s the only one like that in our entire school of nearly 3,000. She’s the first Vietnamese kid to be elected to Student Council. After she takes office, the mutterings begin: the Vietnamese grumble that she only made nice to get their vote, and now she ignores them. The whites grouse that the only reason she won was she got all the Vietnamese to vote for her, except they use a slur instead of “Vietnamese,” by which they designate all Asians except the Japanese, who are cool.

 

1990

The first time I call up a hair salon in my new town, Altadena—99% black and also the place where Rodney King lives, immediately before the infamous traffic stop and riots happen—the receptionist inquires whether I have “white or black hair.” I know what she’s asking, but I’m tempted to reply “black,” since that is in fact the color of my hair. I tell her I’m Asian. Does that mean my hair is yellow? Wouldn’t that be the irony…

I get my first spiral perm and love it. I am now a working adult, earning a whopping $13,000 per year, and so am rich enough to spend the extra money to get the spirals, not just the regular perm. My hair is past my shoulders, almost to my breasts. It takes an hour to roll my hair, and I am fascinated by the hairdresser winding it round each white plastic and then bending it into a big circle, like a giant hoop earring, rather than the purple and pink rollers I always get for perms.

As usual, my hair won’t perm. They check it after fifteen minutes, then five more, then five more. Eventually, the spiral perm turns out beautiful and I am proud of my elegant tresses and preen and toss them around at every opportunity. The next perm, though, they mess up and cut my bangs too short, so I look like a startled poodle, with long wavy hair and too pert little curly bangs. I resign myself to it, but my housemate Ron clearly finds my hairdo embarrassing, because all he says is, “It’ll grow back!” with an uneasy little chuckle.

 

1995

For the first time, I cut my hair all one length, just at the bottom of my ear. The opposite of layering: now the outer layers are the longest, and the underlayers close to my head are short. The perm gives me waves that look professional and sassy. It’s my mom’s longtime hairdo, but I try not to think about that: no woman nearing thirty wishes to feel like she’s turning into her mom, especially when you have a horrible relationship like I have. I get a new driver’s license photo, and am luckier than most: I’ve always had good license photos.

Since I no longer wear bangs, every time I see my mom, she sweeps my hair over my forehead, because she thinks my forehead is ugly. Because she thinks her forehead is ugly, and I look like her.

 

2000

I get lowlights. I learn that logically enough, lowlights are the opposite of highlights: instead of streaks of color lighter than your natural hair, lowlights are streaks that are darker than your natural hue. Except with black hair, I still don’t understand the notion of lowlights, but that’s what the hairdresser calls it, when she streaks a half-head of reddish brown into my hair. My base color has by now turned dark chestnut brown-black, since I’ve been perming it for decades, and I like it, although since the grass is always greener, or the hair always blacker, part of me misses the darkness it used to have.

I wonder if this terminology is yet another sign that it’s white folks who have invented all the terms: if you add brownish or dark red hues into your hair, those colors are assumed to be darker than your natural shade, and thus termed lowlights.

I buy “hair mascara” from my favorite beauty company (CCB Paris), and am sorrowful when they close all their US business branches. Hair mascara is a bottle with a bristly brush, just like eye mascara, only bigger and coarser, and you paint color into your hair, and it washes out. I choose copper, and love streaking the metallic color into my hair. I use it whenever I’m onstage for a dance performance.

 

2015

I have grown out my color, and grown it long and straight. Now that I’m older, my hair is thinner, which is somewhat sad, but the great thing is that after all these years of perming it into submission, it has finally become pliable and even has a tiny amount of wave. I am delighted when I start going grey; I like salt-and-pepper. It’s very subtle as yet: just a tiny hint in gentle waves behind each ear, in a tendril by my chin, in highlights at my crown. My “pepper” is now a faded dark walnut brown, the lightest it’s ever been, which I don’t mind although ironically now I do distinctly miss the blackness of my youth. Most white people, I surmise, have never thought about black hair having a wide range of shades, so it is a delight when I meet with my student, an Italian man who is a passionate hairdresser, and he brings his display board of hair swatches, and locates me instantly in the light-brown section of black.

Nowadays when I visit my mother, she always tells me earnestly that if I eat and drink things with black sesame, it will restore the blackness to my hair. I nod gamely, and try it once or twice, but I don’t like black sesame nearly enough to constantly guzzle it in order to take effect. Mom also tells me about the greatest sign of my Auntie Sophie’s love for her husband, my Uncle Monte: Sophie would mung baak tou faat—pull out his white hairs.

I notice all the popups I’m now getting on Facebook about grey-haired models, models over sixty, and so forth, and I roll my eyes at micro-targeted advertising, since I’m old and literate enough to know what Big Brother is, and I don’t mean the reality TV. I actually like that my grey helps me look almost my age, so my colleagues in their twenties and thirties will believe me when I talk like someone a generation older than they. I go on a date, and am told that my grey is really hot. My colleague-=-five years younger than me, but frankly, she looks ten years older—remarks that she wishes her grey (hidden under bright red dye) looked as graceful and elegant as mine. I’ve now had several years of hairdressers inquiring whether I want to cover up my grey, and I always tell them no. With some gusto.

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Celestine Woo is an English teacher, poet, and modern dancer. She has recently published her first short memoir, as well as her first short story. Email: celestwoo[at]gmail.com

Standards Of Living

Creative Nonfiction
Riley Hansen


Photo Credit: Guilherme Yagui/Flickr (CC-by)

When I was about to turn seven years old, I almost drowned.

My best friend, Dierdre, was having her birthday party at her grandmother’s swimming pool. We kids were enjoying ourselves, though presumably our parents weren’t, as they were sitting fully clothed in the summer heat, watching us play. Only one other girl and I didn’t know how to swim, but she embodied a grace, quirkiness, and damsel-in-distress attitude that made her more endearing than me, who had the attitude of someone that desperately wanted to be in on everyone else’s fun.

The first crack-up was when Sarah slipped on the diving board, scraping her leg wide open. This instance would become my first memory of seeing Sarah cry. Every adult rushed to her aid, leaving us guppies floundering in the shallow end. Dierdre proceeded to procure herself a floatie—she was an avid swimmer, had been since birth, it seemed, and didn’t need a floatie, so I saw this as unfair. I held onto the back of it, letting her drag me to the deep end, imagining myself to be a mermaid or a fish or other things that seven-year-olds imagine. I was about to have my first run-in with Dierdre’s selfish side. She determined, in our few minutes with the floatie, that I was dragging her down. I protested, because of course best friends never drag each other down. She disagreed and pushed my fingers off, sending me to my fate as one of Ursula’s urchins.

All I remember about drowning is the spinning. I couldn’t figure out how to come up for air, so all my flailing did was turn me in circles. I remember the spinning and brown hair in my open eyes, burning in the chlorine. There were no thoughts, just me and the water, before my mother pulled me up. The air was there, mine for the taking, but I think I held my breath for long after I was out of the pool.

 

In eight years, I drowned again, this time for years that dragged out like the end credits of a pricey movie that I didn’t really enjoy anyway. The water was heavy and dark, more like a cloud. I only have a few vivid memories from that time. I was helping with the yearbook at my high school; we were doing a Disney movie theme, and we had created the cover, completely from scratch, on Photoshop. No one asked me why I missed a full week of class, and I didn’t offer any explanation to my teachers other than, “I wasn’t feeling well.” I also started a book club that year with a classmate, Greg. We were each in charge of a semester: I picked a young adult novel, and he picked 1984. I think now, looking back, that I was jealous of his choice. I had wanted to read The Bell Jar. I was told not to pitch that at my religious school.

That same year was the one where I first saw Sarah cry again, when we were outside at our school picnic tables, eating lunch, and she started talking about Boy Meets World and how she’d never experience a friendship like that. The world seemed cruel and big as we teased her for it, even while in the back of my mind I wondered how any of us could really be happy, and at least Sarah knew what she was looking for.

 

In ten years, Greg passed away, the day before Thanksgiving, and I was the first in the graduating class to find out. I didn’t call anyone. I told my parents not to talk about it. When Neil called that night to tell me, I can’t remember if I said, “I know, I know,” or if I feigned pain through my numbness. The first day back from break, most of my high school graduating class, thirteen of us, skipped school, got lunch, and visited his girlfriend at her fast food job in the mall. Months later, we would do this again. Not for a death, just for old time’s sake. We saw Greg’s old girlfriend, and Jeremy asked me if I still thought about him. “Every single fucking day.”

 

In eleven years, I stopped speaking to Dierdre, a slow fade into not getting responses from each other, and maybe the sixty miles difference between us for college was greater than I thought. We got breakfast recently. This meeting was a little disheartening, as I found the only thing we have in common is the past we shared.

This was the same year I thought about succumbing to the drowning, really coming into the spinning abyss I’ve been on the edge of since I was almost seven years old. Twenty-first century Ophelia. The difference is I never made my mind up enough to commit. I was slightly obsessed with Ophelia. I am aware this infatuation was unhealthy. She just knew what she wanted: for everything to be all right again.

 

In thirteen years, I would find myself in the hospital, rooming with a girl who heard things, alcoholics down the hall. It wasn’t like The Bell Jar. It was something new, something I’ve never read in a book. I did crafts, I read books for college. I met some of the kindest people, people that knew I was a little fucked up before even speaking to me. They just didn’t mind. I was there for three days, and I felt I had a new lease on life when I went home. It was a matter of weeks before boredom swept me up again, though, the monotony of life spilling over me like waves.

“I get so bored, sometimes.” I didn’t expect my friends to understand. Boredom wasn’t quite the feeling, but what else could I say?

“Is it because you spend every day doing the same thing over and over again? And you’re scared the rest of your life is going to be like that?” Jeremy asked.

I nodded. I couldn’t speak because I was choking on air—it was humid and thick, but it was air, and I had to teach myself how to breathe again.

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Riley Hansen is a Creative Writing major at the University of West Florida, and previously attended the University of South Alabama, and worked on Due South. Riley’s first fiction piece is upcoming in the University of West Florida’s Troubadour. Email: rileybb4892[at]gmail.com

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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