An Eligible Life

Broker’s Pick
DRC Wright


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

The residents of Brookside Hospice were a colourful bunch, a living oral history I was fortunate to engage with daily that summer. I called it my internship but that was a bit of a stretch. I had no intention of pursuing a career in medicine or any such profession, although I’ve always found enjoyment in helping others. And while the myriad of stories were both inspiring and fascinating, the job could be downright depressing. But that’s the way it is with end-of-life care.

Of all the residents—we didn’t like to call them patients—Henry was my favorite. When I first arrived, he was cantankerous to the point of cliché. Mumbling, growling, and calling me “boy” every time he wanted or didn’t want something.

“Come now, boy, I asked for that water an hour ago.” (It had been two minutes.)

“What did I say, boy? No onions in my salad!” (They were radishes.)

Then he’d get flustered and wave his hand, shooing me away with a grumbling bah. I guess I saw something of myself in him.

Some of the nurses referred to him as Scrooge 102—on account of his room number—but I never saw the humor in it. It only made me question why they chose such a line of work in the first place.

Much to everyone’s surprise it took just three weeks for Henry to finally warm to me and I told them it was on account of my radiant smile. It was a Wednesday afternoon when he finally came around. I knew before he opened his mouth that a kind word was coming. I could tell because that acidic glare of his was no longer there. His eyes had let me in. It’s always in the eyes.

“Excuse me, son, may I ask you a question?”

“Of course, sir. That’s what I’m here for.”

“That’s actually my very question.”

“Sir?”

“What are you doing here? I am of course aware of what your job function is, so I guess the better question is why are you here?”

“I’m here to make the residents more comfortable. To help with—”

Henry raised a palm. It wasn’t the first time he cut me off in this manner, but he did so in a much gentler way. “No, son, that is the still the what. You sound like you’re reciting a job description. I am curious as to why you chose to do this work. Why you have chosen to surround yourself with death on a daily basis? Why deal so much with the ending of lives when you are at the beginning of yours?”

It was a question many people asked me and something I seldom answered truthfully. But I wanted to be honest with Henry, so I told him the story of my brother.

“When Francis passed away, even though he was only eleven, he was ready for the end. And even though I was two years younger, so was I. But without the palliative care he received, neither of us would have survived that day.”

I rarely spoke about Francis to anyone. Not even my parents. But that summer I spoke of him a lot. I told Henry about the time we got lost in the woods overnight and about the treehouse we built in the forest behind our house. I told him how Francis could multiply in his head any two-digit numbers faster than I could type them into a calculator.

Henry shared tales from his childhood as well. He told me stories from throughout his life, often with his eyes closed, and I felt like I was there just as much as he did. Whether through embellishment or some form of eidetic memory, his recollection of detail was as extraordinary as it was poetic.

As we neared the end of summer I knew there was still one story left untold. But I didn’t want to pry. So far I hadn’t directly asked him anything. Everything just flowed naturally into our conversations and he seemed to prefer it that way. And so did I.

But there had been signs that Henry and I wouldn’t share too many more stories. His coughing grew harsher and more frequent. His eyes grew heavy sooner and his mouth got parched after fewer and fewer words.

“Is there something you want to get off your chest, sir?” I thought I knew what it was.

Henry looked at me. He was lucid and awake and his eyes were sad and yearning for someone or something.

“Maybe some other time.” I shrugged. “But you told me all about college, about your work, about your incredible travels, but you never told me if there was someone special. You never got married?”

Henry chuckled. “Not for me, I’m afraid. I’m not really the marrying kind.”

“You mean like Thoreau?” I smiled, teasing him.

“I was hoping you saw me more as an Al Pacino.”

He laughed so I decided to risk it. “My grandfather used to say there are only two kinds of lifelong bachelors: womanizers and homosexuals. But he got married at eighteen.”

“And you don’t see me bunny hunting at the Playboy Mansion, is that it?”

“I don’t know too many people who would fit in at the Playboy Mansion, but I don’t think there’s any shame in being yourself. Especially nowadays.”

“I’ve led a careful life, son. One that, unfortunately for me, exceeds discretion. Perhaps I’ve finally let my guard down talking with you these past months. And don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed it. It even now feels liberating to a degree, but my family is a different matter altogether. They have never had—and never will have—the slightest inkling about my orientation.”

“Well, sir, I’d hazard to wager that your family has known for a very long time.”

Henry shot me a startled look, almost defiant, but he quickly conceded and I noted a glint of introspection unfolding beneath his brow. He sat silent, pensive, quickly scrolling through a reel of eighty-plus years of memories. He winced halfway—focused and concentrating—slowing to review frame by frame a moment in his life. How far back had he gone?

Reading my mind, Henry picked lint from his lap and answered. “It was 1961.” He shook his head. “So long ago.”

“Over fifty years.” I used the obvious to fill the echo of silence that followed.

“For so long.” He sighed. Lifting his eyes to meet mine, he stiffened his jaw. “You’re right, you know.”

“Right about what?”

“All this time. The swinging sixties, selfish seventies, and excess eighties. Even the nineties when gay became en vogue, I remained in the closet. And this new century—when nobody even gives a damn—what was I thinking?” He closed his eyes and dropped his chin. “What have I missed?”

“Are you okay, sir?” I had pushed him into a place he didn’t intend to go, perhaps ever, and it was not a comfortable place for him to be. A knot of compunction swelled in my chest and I silently prayed for the return of his dignified smile.

“I’m so foolish. Who did I think I was fooling? Evidently I was only fooling myself. All these years—these decades—I guess I’ve been quite the joke to those who know me.” There was no smile.

“Sir, I’m sorry if I—”

“No, no. Please, none of that.” He spoke softly, raising a frail palm from beneath his robe; the mauve silk sleeve hung loosely from his wrist. Then I bore witness to catharsis. Embracing some long-dormant introspection he mustered his composure and his jawline relaxed. “In fact, I should thank you.”

“Thank me, sir?”

“Most certainly. For a stubborn old weight has been lifted from my chest. You’ve outed an old man, albeit one who was apparently never quite in except to himself. But now, for whatever time he has left—be it weeks, months, or years—well, he can at last be himself. Who he truly is. Who he always should have been.”

“Sir—”

“Would you please, please, stop calling me sir? You make me feel like a withered old schoolmaster. Call me Henry for god’s sake.” He smiled. “I think you’ve earned that right.”

“Okay, Henry—” I adopted my most challenging tone. “—tell me about 1961.”

He looked out through the thin glass of his bedroom window, then focused on its white wooden frame. “The paint is peeling. Has been for years.”

“If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine. Honestly. We can talk about something else.”

He lingered a moment longer on the window and I saw a faint tug at the corner of his upper lip. The charming dimple of his younger years was still visible among the gentle corrugations of a modest yet comfortable life.

“Peter.” He was distracted as though observing someone on the lawn. “His name was Peter.”

“The man in 1961?”

“Man?” He chuckled again. “I guess he was. I guess we both were. But in my mind we are just boys, it was so long ago.”

“How old were you?”

“I was twenty-seven; Peter was a year younger. We had both left our suffocating small towns in search of fresh air. In search of freedom. In search of each other is what Peter used to say. He wrote that to me in one of his impromptu poems during coffee and Eggs Benedict overlooking the bay in Sausalito. I still have it you know, the napkin he wrote it on. A cloth napkin, if you can believe that. It’s in a small wooden box in my dresser’s bottom drawer.” Henry’s smile fell. “Hidden away like some dirty little secret.”

“All important keepsakes are hidden away. It simply makes them precious, not dirty.”

Henry gave me his wryest smile. “How old did you say you are?” He quickly raised his hand. “Don’t tell me. I feel ancient enough as it is.”

“You must have loved him.” I was hesitant to pry but the urge was too great. Not for my own curiosity but to help Henry reconcile a seminal piece of his past. “What happened? You didn’t stay together?”

His face paled with somber introspection. We had unearthed long-buried feelings and I felt guilty for digging.

“No, we didn’t stay together. We had planned to. Oh, how we had planned. Peter was a remarkable dreamer.” He paused, eyes shut with a closed-lip smile. “First a trip to Europe—Paris and Rome. And Greece, of course. Then back to the Bay Area to open a bed and breakfast. That was one of the plans. Another had us in New York with a bookstore in The Village. It all sounds so cliché now.”

“It sounds nice.” I smiled because it was true.

Clasping his fist he spoke with sudden fervor. “The young dreamer, full of potential, must not risk becoming a lifetime of missed opportunities!” He blushed then lowered his hand and smoothed his lap. “Another thing Peter used to say. Especially when I’d start in on him with my stifling rationalities—how would we pay for this? How would we pay for that? Romantics are not the ideal match for pragmatic men.”

“Everybody needs romance.” It sounded glib and my cheeks got hot but he was kind enough to keep talking.

“He fancied us as another Sal and Dean, you know, from On The Road, when truth be told we more like Oscar and Felix. But somehow we made it work. For a while at least.”

“Oscar and Felix?”

The Odd Couple? Are you serious? It was a play that became—oh, it doesn’t matter. Opposites attract, isn’t that what they say? He had long hair, you know. Can you believe that? Long hair.” His sigh unfurled into a grin overflowing with adoration. “Perhaps it wasn’t long by today’s standards, a snip below his ears, but in 1961 it made quite the statement. And he would toss his head back to the side and he seemed to move in slow motion. Like a shampoo commercial before there were shampoo commercials. Shiny, chestnut brown and so straight. Not a wave in it. Not even a ripple.”

I pictured Peter in my head, affording Henry a spell of quiet to reminisce.

“It garnered a lot of attention. Unwarranted of course but you know how people can be. Especially back then. He got a lot of looks. Whispers, sneers, and sideways glances. But Peter didn’t care. I think he actually fancied it.”

Henry grinned at the memory of his whimsical lover, and I knew he had recovered a long lost part of his heart. He had me invested as well and I dared to pry a little more.

“So what happened between the two of you? If it’s not too…” I draped the words across our freshly-found confidence, still offering a way out.

“I killed him.” He said it softly but firmly.

It was not the answer I was expecting. “You what? What do you mean you killed him?”

“Not directly, of course.” His frail hand waved away my nonsense.

“What do you mean?”

“How can I put this delicately?” He paused a moment. “Before Peter, I had never—”

I let another moment pass before lifting the silence that had fallen upon us like a heavy winter blanket. “You had never been with a man?”

“Been with anyone.”

“Oh?”

“Yes.” He nodded, a slight blush on his forehead. “I was a virgin. A double virgin, I guess you could say. I’d never had a girlfriend, even in my youth. Actually, I hadn’t been attracted to anyone. All through high school I’d not had a single crush, boy or girl. Isn’t that a little sad?”

“I guess so—well, no. That’s pretty common, I guess. Maybe.” I shrugged. It was a lot sad. “But how did you, or why did you…?”

“Kill him?”

“Yes.”

He exhaled and began. “Seeing as I had never been with anyone before I was naturally quite hesitant. I was afraid. Heck, I was terrified. Peter and I met in the spring of 1961. On April Fools’ Day if you can believe it. We connected immediately. Right from the beginning we were close. Intimate, but not in a physical sense. Peter knew I was a virgin. He knew everything about me. So we took it slow. But by August he was growing impatient. Justifiably so, I’d say. So one night after enjoying a wonderful dinner and two bottles of wine at our favorite restaurant, his patience had seen fit to expire.”

I knew where this was heading and half-raised my hand. “You don’t need to—”

“Oh no, my God no. Not what you’re thinking. Peter would never do anything like that. He was fit and strong but he wasn’t a violent or forceful man. No, but we did have an argument. Right out on Market Street walking home from the restaurant.” He closed his eyes, took a breath, then looked up at me, almost apologetically.

“We’d both had more than enough wine. We were both yelling. Saying hurtful words we didn’t mean and careless words we did. When I tried to walk away he grabbed my arm and yelled how much he loved me. How he couldn’t live without me but he needed more. He needed me. It was time. Some men on the other side of the street, complete strangers, caught the end of our little fracas. They saw me struggling to get away and thought he was trying to force himself on me. So they came running over and they stopped him. And they beat him. They beat him so bad he fell into a coma. He was in the hospital for three long days before he died.”

Had they been spray-painted on the wall behind him I could not have found the words. “Henry, I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine. I don’t what to say.”

“Thank you. But really, it was a long time ago. Certainly well beyond the window for condolences.”

“Regardless.” I was in shock but needed more. “Did they catch the men?”

“It was 1961. There were no men to catch. They didn’t run. They thought they’d rescued me from a sexual deviant. So did the police. So did everyone.” His cracking voice slipped through a whisper, like a song fading out at the end.

“So you never met anyone else?”

“I had already met my soul mate. Where can you go from there?”

“I guess. So your whole life, you’ve never—” I was confused, but then again I hadn’t met my soul mate.

“Never had sex? No, never. And you may think that’s the saddest thing of all. But I didn’t view it like that after Peter died. It’s possible that I’m the only octogenarian gay virgin to ever walk the Earth.” He winked. “Something of a miracle I guess.”

We shared a smile.

“I don’t know about that, Henry. It’s a big world. And quite a few people have walked upon it.”

“That is very true.” Henry looked off the side of his bed. “Do me a favor, will you? In the bottom drawer, under the green sweater.”

“The box?”

Henry nodded and I freed the small wooden box hidden deep beneath his clothes. He lifted the lid and gently removed an old cloth napkin. He didn’t unfold it. He didn’t need to. A hitherto unseen serenity transformed his demeanor and he wore it well. I’d never seen him look so relaxed. So at ease. Unguarded. And content. He passed away three days later, his secret safe with me.

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DRC Wright lived across Canada before settling in Japan where he lives with one leg, two kids, and his wife. This is his first published story. Email: drcwright[at]hotmail.com

Sienna

Beaver’s Pick
Laura Mazzenga


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

I’m in therapy. Technically, it’s one incident that landed me here. The baby started crying, and it wouldn’t stop. I forced myself out of bed and pulled it out of the bassinet. I let it nestle in the crook of my neck, bounce in my arms, and spit down my chest. I don’t know for how long. It wouldn’t take formula. Shushing and humming seemed to infuriate it. Jake said he woke up and saw me, arms extended, shaking it like an old piggy bank.

The next morning, I sipped my coffee black and pretended to look through the bay window at a passing bird. I watched Jake fidget behind me in the reflection of the glass, trying to find his words. Finally he said “Um, about last night.” That’s why we’re here.

The office is in the same building where we consulted with a fertility doctor two years ago. It couldn’t be more different from that sophisticated suite we visited, with screens emerging from flat surfaces and espresso on demand. There was so much hope in that room, and whether or not it was false, I liked the feeling of being there.

Family therapy was my suggestion, but I’m questioning it with each minute that passes. It happens in a tiny room on the ground floor, with a drab color scheme of browns and grays. It smells of day-old soup. The therapist is a thin, fragile lady with round frames on her powdered face. She wears pastel cardigans and speaks in a soft voice that I imagine all therapists were instructed to speak to patients with. She sits across from us, behind a small, lamp-lit desk. There is a window behind her desk, too small for me to even fit through, which faces the parking lot. I see a dumpster just a few feet away and wonder if that’s where the soup smell is coming from.

She starts the session by asking how life has changed for us since we became parents. I hate her first question, but I run through the list. No sex, no sleep, no sanity. Today, I could barely find a bra under the heap of diapers and onesies and burp cloths my own stuff was buried under. I’d love a cocktail, a cigarette too. I could go on, but I already sense that these observations aren’t being received well. I stop myself and course correct, say something like “less time for me.” Jake nods and puts his hand on my lap, as if we’ve had this conversation before in private. He says that it’s been “particularly tough on Marla.” The therapist wants to know more about that, but I can’t find words that will satisfy either of them. What I really think, I am not ready to say. I think the baby and I have a mutual dislike for one another.

In the hall, I can hear the faint ding of the elevator, the sound of the doors opening and closing. I can’t help but envy the people out there, with medical problems that have solutions. Bad joints can be replaced with artificial knees and hips. Dermatologists can scrape off a troublesome mole. Plastic surgeons can laser off belly fat or chisel down a bumpy nose. But there is no cure for this. I want to go back to suite 306, where the pretty people are, with the lattes and the jazz music. Even if they will lie to me and tell me I have a chance at my own kid, I’d prefer it to this.

The shaking incident comes up halfway through the session, but only because I bring it up. Jake and the therapist had been waffling, dancing around it for twenty-five minutes, so I put us out of our misery. I shook the baby, I say. I am waiting for the questions to start, the same ones that have been swimming around in my own head, which I have no answers for. I expect I’ll be escorted out of therapy and taken directly to some inpatient facility to get my head examined properly. There’s no way I’m going back home.

But the therapist looks caught off guard by my admission, frozen for a moment, and then her eyes dart from me to Jake. Maybe she thought she’d have to slowly work that confession out of me, and I’ve taken that opportunity away from her. If there’s a certain choreography to these sessions, I’m certainly disrupting it. Jake shifts ever so slightly next to me, and I hear his chair squeak.

There looks to be a trace of empathy in the therapist’s eyes, but it’s intended for Jake, not me. She nods slowly and leans forward in her chair. She tells us that shaking is dangerous because babies’ craniums aren’t fully formed yet. They’re soft, so when you shake them, the brain bounces around in the head without anything to absorb the shock. Jake listens like he’s never heard this before, but of course we both already knew this. All new parents are warned of the dangers of shaking a baby. Is this what we’re paying $220 a session for, I joke. No one laughs.

Again, I have said the wrong thing at the wrong time. Jake is looking down, his neck a deep shade of crimson. His knee bounces, while the rest of his body is oddly still. I look past him, to the framed photos on the therapist’s desk. They are all of her and the same woman, in various places: sitting on the beach, at some event in cocktail dresses, lying on a hammock with a furry dog between them. No kids. I wonder how she could possibly be qualified to tell me not to shake my baby.

Session two, Jake does most of the talking. He has come prepared this time, summarizing the whole history of our failed attempts at IVF, and the subsequent adoption process. He is the person who keeps track of details. He knows all the dates, all the specialists and procedures, the amounts of money that corresponded with each exhausting step in the process. I remember less. I wanted a baby, more than anything, but the memory feels so distant it’s paper thin. It’s like when someone tells you of something you did when you were drunk. You were there, you know you did it, but you can’t touch the memory in any meaningful way. All of it, the miscarriages, the doctors, the poking and prodding and inserting, even the disappointment, feels like a distant dream. I can only remember suite 306, when I still believed I’d make a good mother.

What I had wanted was a baby of my own by 33. Preferably a little girl. I would name her Sienna. What I got was a three-month-old boy, a virtual stranger off a waiting list. He looked so alien—bald with bulging gray eyes that always drifted desperately beyond me. We named him Nicholas. By the time we got him, I was 36 and it was already too late. The grueling path we’d taken to become parents had already changed both of us. It had made Jake ashamed and passive. It had made me sarcastic and inconsiderate. One of us would have probably left if that baby hadn’t arrived when it did.

I am still here though. There is a gentle tap on my forearm, and I realize they are both looking at me. Sorry, I say, I’m tired. This time, the therapist seems annoyed. She doesn’t smile, but instead she flops back in her oversized chair as if I’ve exhausted her too much to even sit up straight. It has always bothered me that the doctor gets the nicer chair than the patients. We are sitting on creaky high-backed chairs that wobble when we move. I notice a piece of cardboard shoved under the left leg of my chair. I don’t remember the chairs in suite 306 but I imagine they were ergonomically designed for women struggling with fertility. She says she would like to know how I see myself as a mother. I look at the clock above her head. Still fifteen minutes left.

I give my clumsy answer, trying this time to be honest. It’s been hard for me to see myself as a mother, I say. I still don’t feel like the baby is mine. The therapist writes something on her pad, then looks cautiously from her notes to Jake’s face. He does that close-lipped twitch that passes for a smile. It means I’ve said something less than satisfactory. It means “sorry about her.”

The therapist reassures me that people often panic when they finally get the thing they have wanted for so long. It’s overwhelming. She says it’s natural to feel depressed that being a mother is not what I thought it would be.

I suppose she is right. It’s not what I thought, because the baby isn’t mine. We all know it. On some level, even the baby knows it. I want to tell them that I feel lonely, and that every time I walk into the room the baby seems to detect my smell and wrinkle his nose like the room is filling with noxious gas. In my arms, he is a fussy, squirming thing, never content. I don’t want him, and he knows it. I want to run away, leave both of them, but I don’t even have the guts to do that.

Thanks, I say. I think you’re right.

On the way home, Jake cuts someone off on the highway, then curses under his breath when they honk at us. I am sure it’s because of something I did or didn’t say in therapy, but he won’t talk to me. I wish he’d yell, or do something to show that he’s in pain too. I’d give anything for a good fight. But he’d never do that. At some point, around the third miscarriage, he stopped saying what he was thinking.

Session three, I resolve to tell the truth. I won’t let Jake or this holier-than-thou therapist bully me into saying what they want to hear. I’ll be real and raw and fearless, no matter how much it hurts me, or how much it scares them. The only trouble is that we are doing some ridiculous show-and-tell exercise, which feels like another attempt to get us speaking from scripts. We’ve been asked to bring in photos of the baby and discuss our selections. We are to say how the photo makes us feel, why, and what we perceive as obstacles to our fulfillment as parents. The therapist warns us to avoid blaming language—“you” statements—and instead focus on our individual experiences/feelings as parents—“I” statements. I practice in my head.

I am not good at bullshit nursery school hand-holding exercises.

I find it impossible to express myself without getting steamrolled by two sets of judgemental eyes.

I want to run away and leave this entire nightmare in the past, before I do something I can never come back from.

Predictably, Jake goes first. Always prepared and eager to please, Jake has brought exactly the photo I expected he would. It’s a photo his mother took from the week we brought the baby home. In it, he’s sitting on the couch, cradling it robotically beneath the white muslin blanket it’s wrapped in. He is smiling, but I know that particular smile means he’s nervous. His mother is the type to stage photos with frilly pillows and accent pieces to “add dimension.” She’d been sliding around furniture and adjusting lighting. She’d put a vase of lilies in the background, making sure everything was perfect for the photo. The only thing she’d forgotten was me. Not that I cared.

This photo makes him proud to be a father, he says. It makes him want to be a better person for his family. Looking at it now, it occurs to me that the baby looks a bit like Jake. Just by chance, they have the same coloring. In the future, people will probably say things like “he takes after his father.” I don’t have the same Nordic features. I’m darker, with wiry hair, eyes that are a shade shy of black. I look like the one who doesn’t belong in the family.

When the therapist prompts him about obstacles and fears, he keeps his eyes on the photo, his voice shaking as he speaks. There is a worry in his heart that he will be raising this baby alone, he says.

“I feel like Marla is not giving this baby a chance,” he says.

I am stunned. Somehow Jake has found a loophole around the language rule. He found a way to attack me while using an I statement. I want to attack him back.

I never had a mother or anything that even resembled unconditional love.

I wanted to start my own family more than anything.

I can’t help my past, just like Jake can’t help that he was raised by a cow who wears pearl necklaces and talks down to busboys.

Instead I present the photo I picked. It’s a close-cropped photo from the christening ceremony, just before he was dunked. I hadn’t wanted to have a christening—we aren’t church people—but his mother insisted. He resembles a little old man in the white collared onesie I got him, and for once he appears content in the priest’s expert hands. It went as these things always do. The priest takes the baby, holds it underwater, everyone watches with bated breath, waiting for him to lift it out. Then the baby emerges, sputtering and crying, but alive and saved. The guests applaud, relieved.

What are you feeling, the therapist wants to know.

During that sliver of silence, when the baby was underwater, I could finally breathe. I felt the air fill my lungs completely, and my heart expand. Relief stretched over me like a warm blanket. I never wanted it to end. Looking at the photo, I can almost inhabit that moment again. I run my fingers over the baby’s glossy image, his face and hands, the lip of the water basin just barely visible at the bottom of the photo. I’ve been chasing that moment for weeks and months, but I can’t get there.

“I think Jake is right. I cannot do this,” I say.

They tell me I am strong. That I am so much more capable than I think.

There is nothing you cannot do, the therapist says.

You have everything you could ever want, Jake says.

Those are not I statements, I want to point out, but the therapist is relentless with the script. Why. The next question is why do you feel that way.

Most nights when he cries, I squeeze him so tight that he can’t make any noise. I feel his arms struggling to free himself, fighting against me like a weak little puppy. The more he struggles, the harder I squeeze. Sometimes I feel bad after. Other times I’m just more angry. But I always let go, eventually.

“I don’t trust myself,” I say.

There’s something in me that’s growing stronger, more powerful everyday. It’s suffocating that other part of me, the tender, loving part. The part that would let go and stop myself before it’s too late. Every day the hopeful girl from room 306 gets smaller and smaller. And the angry, orphaned, resentful, infertile version of me expands to take her place. Soon there won’t be any way to contain her. Soon the old me will be gone.

“I’m scared that something will happen, something of my control. I will hurt it.”

I’ve said it, I think. It’s all on the table now and there’s no taking it back.

The therapist takes a long breath, removes her glasses and uses the corner of her cardigan to wipe a smudge. When she puts them back on, her face is rearranged, from confusion to understanding. I sense a shift in the room and automatically I feel better, an ounce lighter. Jake has turned his head to look at me, but I’m pretending I don’t notice.

The therapist rarely takes notes, but now she’s scribbling on a pad, nodding with more certainty as she goes.

“I’m writing you a prescription,” she says.

She slides it across her desk but I don’t touch it. The letters are long and neat, but my eyes won’t focus. I’ve been on plenty of meds in my life. Clomiphene citrate. Xanax. Bromocriptine. Paxil. I am certain there is no prescription for fear that I will strangle and kill my baby.

Lack of control is a common struggle, she says, and it’s typical among new parents.

I want to interrupt her. She’s misunderstood, again.

But now Jake has chimed in to agree. He is nodding and squeezing my hand in that really genuine way and I can feel his relief that we have finally found the source of my neurosis and a pill that can fix it.

The photo explains a lot, she goes on. You’re afraid that you’ll fail as a parent and leave your child in a vulnerable position. That some kind of harm will befall him because you aren’t doing enough. “That’s why I recommend these exercises,” she says, clearly proud of herself for her unfounded diagnosis.

I am so pissed off that one hot angry tear slides down my cheek, followed by another, then another. Jake tenderly wipes them away. The therapist beams and praises my vulnerability. She says that the raw emotion I’m sharing is where healing becomes possible. I think she might actually start clapping. Jake gathers me in for a hug. I love you, he whispers. It’s going to be okay. He hasn’t said that in months. When we separate, his smile is toothy and pleading. It begs me not to correct him.

I give a brave nod and swallow my feelings, tucking the photo into my back pocket. I can’t bring myself to pick up that Rx paper from the desk, but Jake’s eager hand extends to take it before I have a second to waver. We stand and say goodbye, Jake holding onto me tighter than he did on the way in.

Thank you, I tell her, smiling through tears.

Inside I am screaming, as the last trace of that hopeful mother-to-be fades away.

pencil

Laura Mazzenga is an MFA student at San Diego State University and the associate editor at Fiction International. She writes short fiction and non-fiction, and is currently finishing her first novel. Email: lrmazzenga[at]yahoo.com

Four Poems

Baker’s Pick
Marchell Dyon


Photo Credit: Chiara Cremaschi (CC-by-nd)

Tiny Dancer

She dances…
Like all ugly ducklings do.
After, finally, discovering she is indeed a swan…

She dances…
With her daydreams.
Here metal never chimes—

Her leg braces the link of chains and
Hinges will never
Weigh enough to hold her down.

She dances…
In daylight to California rock she sways—
Watch her dance while sunlight glistens her room.

She rounds again, her many phantom partners.
A chair-bound Ginger Rogers,
Popping wheelies, turning angles,

This wheelchair is not a defeat.
These four wheels are a part of her magic.
This chair

With rainbows streamers is
A thing of beauty
As art is the faith of doing.
All her moves are holy:
All are sacred rhythms.
She sways to the bass section—

Her fingers draw a guitar from air—
While she bangs and grooves
Her head as much as her body would allow,

Like footprints on the tile floor
Her wheelchair makes step impressions.
Her soul has choreographed,

Every movement
Like an appendage the music and she
Become one pulse.

One electric nerve.
A lightning sharp as each of her senses.
Never are her movements dull or in vain.

Never are these movements without metric feet.
A harmonious dance of metal and skin, pure poetry!

 

The Guitar

He named the guitar Maria.
Upon her body,
He caresses each chord.
Like long-lost lovers untied
Once more in the dark.

Behind a locked door she occupies
A space.
On tall fragrant lit candles
Her ghost shadows, on all four walls
Her torso dances.

She twirls her skirts high above her thighs…
In rainbows of chiffon
Heels clapping,
She breathes through walls.
In waves of wild raw and ravenous chords

She echoes when finished a cool Cuban smoke.
That takes him farther away from me.
Far from the kiddy carpools and the mortgages
Back to tequila sunset
And cabana nights

Back to the beach where he roamed.
Where he found the girl with perkier breasts
The one he made love to all day on the sand.
As he tanned, eclipsed in blankets of ebony hair
Under a then-jealous sun.

 

Two Left Feet

The measure of the dance has
Never been with me.
The rhythm of body language
The curve speech like

Red polished fingernails.
The sway of hips
Like a Victorian fan singling seduction.
Only the sway of hormones

Caught me.
Through a sorted pique of feelings
A funnel cloud of emotions
Breaking and turning dancing sideways

Up and down.
Many tap dance romances surround me
Down these high school halls
Everyone is coupled up.

Everyone knows how to dance
Everyone but me.
My two left feet trip up
The interest of willing to try.

He tries to square dance pass
My naive awkwardness
I step on his toes too many times.
He walks to

The locker next to mine.
To a girl that
Knows
How to bat her eyes.

In my sad soliloquy
I am a grieving prima ballerina
At my first recital, tutu feathers thinning,
Glass in my slipper, singing the blues.

 

Eurydice’s Ghost

I electric slide through mediums
My eyes light up like disco balls
My eyes even sparkle in deep shadows

My voice of rhyme—mirrors that of poets
Listen as I smite
The sea with the colors of thunder

While my laughter becomes one,
With the phases of the moon
Hear me, singers

Melody makers—dancers before the flame.
Turn kings into beggars begging for the smooth moves
Of urban urchins.

Make proud queens envy us,
We, who can lift our skirts swinging them high—
Till all can see our embroidered thighs

Make the priest and all the holy rollers tap-
dance into the underworld and
The choirs of Orpheus sing.

And the great doors of Hades open; let those freed, and those still.
Be charmed to climb out of darkness into daylight.
But speak not a word or try to see my face.

Like smoke,
I will ghost away into the wind—
Leaving all without

The musings of a gypsy woman’s hips
Watch as she gyrates to deafening guitar chords
She invites all—

To step into the fire
Dancers become one with flames
But when the melody of this moment ends

The gypsy woman wanders away
Lite as a feather—
Into the crowd

So too, am I.

pencil

Marchell Dyon is a survivor of both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. She has published in many magazines over the last twelve years. She has been nominated for the Best of the Net prize as well as winning the 2012 Romancing the Craft award from Torrid Lit Journal. She has taken many workshops; she has worked hard to improve her education within the craft of poetry. With stars in her eyes and a deep-rooted imagination she continues to write in Chicago, IL. Email: marchelldyon[at]yahoo.com

The Reunion

Broker’s Pick
Allison Meldrum


Photo Credit: Christian Guthier/Flickr (CC-by)

Rebecca knew that letters would command their attention. Lovingly handwritten, individually addressed letters where each stroke of pen to paper connects the reader more intimately with the sender. Words that are uniquely composed just for them.

This had to be part of the plan: to make sure that an impact was made from the very start.

Each letter was opened and devoured immediately on receipt. The words were strangely sparse and formal given the relationship of the author to the recipient: not what you would expect from the daughter, granddaughter, or sister you had not seen for five years. Whatever the content, Rebecca always had beautiful writing. She took the time to craft her letters like a work of art, even as a young child. But the message that landed on the doorstep of her parents and siblings on this particular day was far from elaborate.

I would like us all to come together at the farm on Saturday 3rd October as I feel the time has come for me to explain my recent absence to you all. Please come on your own just in time for dinner at 8pm. I sincerely hope to see you then.

Yours, Rebecca.

‘The Farm’ to which she modestly referred was the family’s extravagant six-bedroom property in rural Oxfordshire which, as well as being the home of Peter and Eleanor Stuart and all three of their children, has borne witness to a generous catalogue of epic dramas.

Eleanor Stuart was an undeniably beautiful and graceful lady who fiercely protected her dream of sitting at the heart of a happy and protected family, brimming with love for each other and driven to make the world a place of order and peace.

The reality of the passing years, with all the stubborn imperfections of those she held so dear, had led her to a very different place. A place of hidden sadness and varnished cracks.

For her husband Peter, however, the varnish had long since worn away.

“So this is how it’s going to be?” The words spat from Eleanor’s mouth with the customary dose of bitter resentment reserved for her spouse of thirty years.

“This is how we discover just how much damage your behaviour has caused to our precious child.”

Eleanor’s husband Peter Stuart registered the words but refused to take the bait. He was used to dissatisfaction from his family and well accustomed to being blamed for their varying failures and disappointments.

Peter’s well-intentioned devotion to providing his family with all the wealth and privilege they could need had led to a degree of domestic absenteeism that ate away at the once close bond the family had with their father.

Despite enjoying the classic lifestyle of a millionaire’s wife in every material sense, Eleanor’s world had recently descended into a rather familiar story of heartbreak, the kind of scenario that has no respect for hard graft, dedication, and financial gain. She had slowly but surely felt the attention of her one true love, previously reserved for her alone, drawn uncontrollably elsewhere. Her heart bled with belief that her fading beauty and lost youth led her handsome prince into the arms of another.

“It wasn’t enough for you to chase our daughter out of her family home with your constant disapproval but then you had to find solace in some convenient comfort elsewhere. Just because your wife was a bit too distracted to put you first. Have I summarised that well?”

Again, Peter Stuart remained silent. He had learnt by now that no good came from stoking the flames of this fire.

In the first few weeks and months after Rebecca left her home and everyone she knew, Eleanor clung painfully to the few words which her daughter had written for her just before she disappeared into the night. They spoke of an urgency to escape. She had no interest in living the life of indulgence that her older sister and mother seemed to wallow in with ease. She promised to correspond often enough to reassure her family that she was safe and well but did not want to be contacted or found.

These words cut through her mum’s heart to the core. They never truly made sense no matter how often she read them. Admittedly, there was no predestined path for Rebecca toward leadership of the family firm which awaited their brother, the hallowed son and heir, but her mother showed her no less love and affection than her siblings. Night after night Eleanor tortured herself with what could possibly make Rebecca abandon her family like this. Deep down she had her suspicions but blocked them out as best she knew how.

“We didn’t give her credit for finding out what a fraud her father was.” She spoke these words to Peter with such ferocity it felt like she was trying to convince herself of their truth.

“She must have been the first to discover your affair and couldn’t bear listening to your hypocritical sermons on living an honest hardworking life.” By focusing her energy on resentment towards her husband, Eleanor found relief from the gaping hole in her heart. Not only had she lost her youngest child, but she had also lost the love of her husband at the same time.

But here she was, at long last facing a reunion with the daughter she treasured so completely. In seven days, they would be sitting together around the extravagant family dining table that had witnessed so much, together once again like a family should be. But there was something more than relief swirling in her head. Something more unsettling.

“You must be happy now, Mum,” said Lucy, the elder of Eleanor and Peter’s daughters. “The mysterious wanderer is returning to enchant us all with tales of her meaningful adventures.”

Lucy was three years Rebecca’s senior and, from the moment she arrived, seemed to fit neatly into the mould of respectability expected from her family. She happily revelled in the society parties and pursuit of a ‘suitable’ husband to keep her protected from the world outside.

“Just when we were all daring to get on with our lives without wondering when the next attention-seeking letter from nowhere would arrive from our darling Rebecca.”

Lucy had learnt so much from her mother and resentment was no exception.

*

The day of the planned reunion arrived on a beautiful Autumn weekend. The splendour of the Oxfordshire countryside had fully turned out for the show to come. The trees lining the grand drive to the farm were gently shedding their leaves, lit up by the row of lamps which lined the edge of the sweeping lawns on either side. Nature had delivered a luminous red carpet to welcome the actors to the stage.

Peter had been at the house all week, attending an annual shooting party with fellow estate owners and their competitively raucous and overindulged offspring. Eleanor was the first to arrive, from their residence in London: a suitably exclusive and fashionable Georgian townhouse just on the border between Notting Hill and Holland Park. Arrangements had been made for a caterer to provide sustenance for the evening. Eleanor liked to play the role of hostess but peeling vegetables and washing dishes was rarely her thing. She wanted to devour every precious moment of spending time with her children together rather than wasting it ruining her nails with a potato peeler.

Next through the doors was elder daughter Lucy, having just left a friend’s house where she had been staying while work was completed on her own ‘lodge’ in the grounds of the farm.

“How long does it take to fit a new kitchen and bathroom? If I had known that it was going to be such a hassle I may have even considered moving in here and putting up with all the animals and strange men in tweed coming and going.” She spat her complaints with a customary sense of entitlement when her father enquired on the progress of her bespoke marble kitchen worktops sourced from Greece. Clearly the ‘discomfort’ of roughing it in the guest suite of her childhood friend’s house down the road was an unacceptable inconvenience to bear.

At least half an hour after the others arrived came the unmistakable sound of Alex, the only son of Eleanor and Peter, as he announced his presence at the event.

“Well, isn’t this just like something out of an Agatha Christie novel,” he roared at the assembled cast. “You’ve even got the fire going and some staff in the kitchen cooking up a feast! I hope one of us doesn’t get shot in the library!”

His mother giggled slightly awkwardly at his humour and Peter pretended not to hear him.

“No sign of the guest of honour though I see. Is she going to make some dramatic entrance via helicopter?”

“Looks to me like we all need a bit of strong social lubrication.” With that Alex marched towards the wine cellar protesting about being thirsty and enquiring who was “running the show.”

By this point the clock was ticking towards nine p.m. and the caterer tentatively emerged from the kitchen to have a word in Eleanor’s ear, presumably asking if they should proceed with dinner. They were quickly dismissed by the lady of the house.

Her husband, however, began to emerge from his contained silence and make his presence known. He was, after all, the head of this oddly dysfunctional household.

“Well, I’m getting a bit hungry,” said Peter, gesticulating to the dining room and apparently pretending not to notice the elephant in the room (or, to be more accurate, not yet in the room).

“Don’t be ridiculous Peter,” said Eleanor. “We’re not starting without her. She’s probably had some sort of travel delay. Give her a chance.”

“Of course, it would be enormously helpful if we could actually make modern-day contact with her through the medium of telecommunication,” contributed Lucy who was by this point on her second gin and tonic and looking bored. “But, of course, it’s far too conformist for Rebecca-the-adventurer to succumb to such a lazy modern-day curse as owning a mobile phone.”

Prompted by further criticism of his youngest daughter, Peter once again found his voice and cut through the toxic resentment. “I’d like you all to follow me.”

It was not a request but an instruction. The tone had changed and so, too, had the atmosphere. For all the family antipathy towards him, Peter clung onto basic respect from his assembled dependents who feared the financial repercussions of overstepping the mark. The only person to whom this usually meant nothing was absent. Rebecca was never one for hierarchy or inheritance and had what she described as a ‘healthy disrespect’ for traditional authority.

But it would appear, the show would go on without her. At least for now.

Conversation was, at first, relatively composed and civil, in the context of a family like the Stuarts. The only true contentment in the house seemed to emanate from Max and Barney, the two black-and-tan spaniels curled up in the hall, sleepy after a tough day on the hunt.

Before long, Peter cut across the vacuous hum around him. “I’m afraid I may be about to ruin your appetite” were the first words to pierce the forced air of togetherness.

Peter watched as his wife and two children paused and turned to their father.

“Rebecca will be joining us a little later.” He delivered this message with an arrogance that immediately rose the hackles of his wife.

They looked each other straight in the eye and something passed between them that felt visceral. Was it hatred? Was it a shared love or a shared loss? Or was it something else, unspoken but much more dangerous?

He took a large swig of Rioja, cleared his throat, and continued. “Rebecca came to see me just days before she left England. She was distraught and I struggled desperately to calm her down.” Peter seemed increasingly nervous as he spoke, but his audience were genuinely captivated by his words for the first time today and there was no going back now.

“Her hands were freezing cold as she had walked in the rain from the train station so I gently took one in my own hand and saw that she was clasping a letter so tightly that it might turn to ash in her palm. After gently unfolding it and holding her tightly on the sofa beside me, I started to unfold the paper and read the words that had been sent to her just days before;”

Dear Rebecca,

I have thought long and hard about writing to you now or, indeed, at all as I probably have no right to invade your life in this way. Whether you know it or not, you have lived a childhood of privilege and love and you have wanted for nothing. Who am I to shatter those strong foundations built around you? But, recently, my sources have led me to believe that you may not find comfort in traditional order, material possessions and the predestined position that others want for you. And, I must be honest, the hastening advent of my own mortality has had a strangely motivating effect. I once thought I could live out my life watching you from afar but alas, I’m selfishly compelled to leave you the only gift I can—which is the truth.

Your mother and I met a long time ago. She was lost and lonely, surrounded by everything she could want, but lacking in the companionship that a young mother needs the most to escape the burden of parenthood. The finest wardrobe or most indulgent gifts can not bring you comfort in a way that a listening ear or a warm embrace can. My greatest crime was simply that I could. And perhaps a little excitement and rebellion too.

I know you have inherited your mother’s beauty, but I can see the other piece of the puzzle rise from you too. I recognise the spirit of adventure, rebellion, and independence as if I am looking in the mirror as a young man.

You have been raised by wonderful parents and I could not attempt to replace them. I do not ask for you to meet with me. I do not even ask you to believe in this truth if that is your preference. You must live your life with the choices that are your own. Your mother and I knew each other a long time ago and her life is not one which would accommodate my existence easily.

I simply ask you to accept my offer of truth if it may help you to understand the part of you that does not fit the mould of those around you.

For now, I will leave you to read these words and let you decide how many more answers you want.

Yours, lovingly,

Michael.

Now unable to lift his head to meet the stares of his audience who were silent and motionless, Peter folded the letter and returned it to his pocket. His wife’s face had been drained of all colour. He simply sat back down and waited for something or someone to take the lead from here.

First to speak was his now-inebriated son who leant back in his chair and crossed his arms like a judge ready to pronounce sentence. “Well, well then, Mummy. Michael indeed? As skeletons in the closet go, that’s quite impressive! Or are you going to claim this is all the work of some unhinged nutter looking to bribe our family out of our hard-earned millions?”

“What the bloody hell are you doing to us Dad?” Lucy was next to deliver her verdict. “Mum—please tell him not to be such a fool to fall for this utter nonsense. Rebecca cannot be this desperate for attention, surely?”

But Eleanor remained rooted to the spot. How can it be, she thought to herself, that the fortress of stability and respectability that she has devoted her life to building since becoming a mother could be shattered so completely by one letter. One letter that reveals so much that she has kept hidden from her loved ones and from herself for so long.

Perhaps what she struggled to understand the most was that her own husband had been handed this poisonous secret five long years ago and had chosen to keep it locked up inside. Eleanor had pushed this terrible secret so far away from her conscious mind. It had no place in the life that she needed for her children.

“You knew all this time Peter?” Eleanor’s face was stiffened with bewilderment. Was it through some sort of loyalty to her or to his children that gave him the strength to contain this devastating truth?

“Rebecca was wild with rage, Eleanor,” Peter responded. “She came to me like a caged animal ready to attack and would have torn the family apart, so I promised her that we would come to terms with this together.”

“Did you not question this truth, even for a minute?” asked Eleanor.

“No. You see, I know you think I only have a head for success and money but I see things too. I remember that first long trip I took without you all those years ago, when I was away for months researching business locations overseas and had no thought for the solitude you must have felt. You were abandoned with two young children in an enormous, isolated house.”

Peter remembered coming home earlier than expected and finding the children in the house with the babysitter because Mummy was out having a walk with the farm manager from the neighbouring estate.

“It wasn’t just a coincidence that Michael could not look me in the eye if I ever bumped into him in the village Eleanor. I will never forget the look on your face as you arrived back home that day to find me sitting with the children.”

“If you had your suspicions, why didn’t you question me about it then? Or at least give me the chance to explain to Rebecca?” Eleanor asked.

“You may not believe me when I say this but I was protecting you. I think it would have broken your heart to see the hatred that your daughter had for you five years ago. I wasn’t protecting you when I abandoned you and our family to pursue my self-interested adventures abroad, but I had to protect you now.”

Peter continued to explain how, step by step, little by little, he had supported Rebecca through the devastating revelation of a biological father she hadn’t known existed.

“I hate her. How could she let me live a lie forever?” Rebecca had screamed as her façade of independence and strength dissolved in front of Peter. His heart had broken just as completely as hers but he’d had to be strong for Rebecca’s sake. She had been only eighteen years old and he’d had to find a way through this for them both. He’d had to step up and be her father in the truest, most selfless sense of the word.

“So I told her to pursue her own dreams of travel and adventure, go and live a life where she will come face to face with the imperfections of everyone she meets, “ explained Peter to his family. “I told her that she would learn in her own time that relationships are imperfect, and love is forgiving.”

She wrote to him often and, as the months and years ticked by, he could feel a growing sense of tolerance and understanding in the words she wrote to him.

“I told her I would come and visit her as often as I could,” he explained, betraying the true nature of the frequent mysterious absences, which Eleanor had, with painful irony, linked to his own affair. “Take all the time you need and, when you are ready, we will all come together again, try to make sense of this and try to heal.”

By now, the words were pouring from Peter’s mouth, like a dam which had finally relented its unbearable burden, letting the flood wash over everything in its tracks.

Both Lucy and Alex remained silent and Peter allowed himself to believe that their judgement of him may be shifting.

Perhaps he wasn’t the villain after all? And, as he finally found the strength to look at his wife, he could see a single heavy tear passing over the curves in her face, cutting a line through her faultless make-up. In her eyes he could see the vulnerability that he once remembered when they first met.

And, for Eleanor, an overwhelming realisation washed over her: perhaps he is my true love after all.

The sound of the dogs barking excitedly cut through the silence. The arrival of their final visitor was being announced.

pencilWriting has been Allison Meldrum’s career and passion for 20 years. After graduating with an MA in English Literature from The University of Edinburgh, her professional writing journey began in news and feature journalism before progressing to professional communication and content marketing for a number of years. During this time, Allison built a significant portfolio of published work across local, national and digital media on behalf of her clients. Allison has also had guest blog posts published as well as regularly writing for her own blog. She has recently dedicated her time to pursuing her true passion for writing fiction, with a specialist interest in Mystery and Romance. She loves a strong twist in the tale! Allison has contributed two works to an anthology of short stories dedicated to the theme of tolerance which will be self-published and available on Amazon in March 2021. Email: allisonmeldrum1[at]gmail.com

1984 from Julia’s Perspective

Baker’s Pick
Mari Carlson


Photo Credit: smilla4/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I willed myself to wake up before our neighbor, to pluck a few blossoms for Winston on our last day together. I usually heard our neighbor, a buxom older lady, start singing at dawn, as she carried the laundry to the communal wash, so I got up in the dark. Like bells shining in moonlight, it wasn’t difficult to find the flowers in her garden. I crept back inside, filled the hollow stem of an upturned wine goblet with water and stuck the sprig of lilies of the valley in it. We didn’t have a vase. The repurposed container was made of ceramic, glazed blue. Its glassy color mixed with the flowers’ fragrance covered up the rat presence in our little attic hiding hole.

I first saw Winston outside the Ministry of Love a few years prior. We were all staring at a telescreen. His eyes weren’t fixed on what was in front of him but beyond, to something most people couldn’t see. It wasn’t inattention, for which he would have been reprimanded; it was indifference, a nonchalance that made him seem not of this world. Drawn to those far reaching eyes, I began to follow him.

Winston was still asleep when I placed the vase on the table and climbed back into bed. When he turned over, his varicose ulcer peeked out from under the sheet. I knew that ulcer grieved him. It hurt. It was unsightly, which had never bothered him before we started spending more time together, naked. To me, it was a sign of how much he’d lived through. I wanted to live through him, to mature in his accumulated pain. I nestled back into the curve he left me.

Winston went to the community center two or three times a week after work, to drink gin and play chess. I sewed sashes for the Anti-Sex League and painted posters for our marches. From the corner of my eye, I caught him tracing the edge of his glass as if it were the bare shoulder of a lover. He pulled on his cigarette tenderly, making each drag count. I wanted those fingers, those lips. I wanted to count. Chess did not count to him; it merely passed the time. His attention was elsewhere. When he wasn’t moving pieces on the chess board, he held something in his pocket. His hand didn’t move, just lingered on something more important than pawns and kings. Whatever it was grounded him, held him fast between then and this eternal now.

He woke up sniffing my hair. He sought out my breasts and stretched out upon me. We made love and laid in our juices. Today, the rats would speak to us from behind the painting in the living room. Winston didn’t know it, but I did. Ever since he’d gotten that book from O’Brien, I knew he was coming for us. I’d been with men in the Inner Party, like O’Brien. They didn’t see me because I didn’t stand out. I blended in. I was a model Party girl, their Party girl, to do with as they pleased. I used them for the privileges, for pleasure, just like they used me. We were one and the same.

They sniffed out singularity like sharks after blood. The Party’s only purpose was to keep itself intact, a single entity with no room for diversion or innovation or idiosyncrasy of any kind. I let O’Brien give Winston that book as bait, the telltale sign of an individual. To fight either of them would have been sudden death. All I wanted was a little more time, which I bought with betrayal on all sides.

One evening at the community center, I sat on the floor, doodling on the edge of a placard, pretending to come up with a new slogan or a new design. Hate Week was coming up. We girls were busy preparing to honor Big Brother and to celebrate The Party’s many victories. I wasn’t doodling or designing. I was writing a note and planning how to get it in Winston’s hands. If I could just make myself an object for him, I would become real. He would notice me then. I put my foot on the corner of the paper when I stood up, twisting the edge off. The missing corner became trash, a mistake. I picked it up and bunched it in my hand. I pretended to throw it away, but instead, I stuffed it in my pocket. A link to Winston, a first step into his attention. A thing we already had in common.

For weeks, the note burned in my skirt. During that time I went on community hikes with the other girls. I led a few of us down paths toward a creek or into a meadow in search of mushrooms or deeper into the forest to find the source of a bird song. All for Winston, to determine a path to safety for us. I was looking through nature to find a sanctuary, a haven for two lovers.

I made up coffee, real coffee I got on the black market. Winston sat up at the smell. He put his arm behind his head and waited for me to bring it to him. Once, in bed, he said to me, “We’re dead.” I said, “No.” My legs entwined with his said the rest. No, we’re not dead, yet. We’re making a shape together that can never be unmade. We’re making ourselves into a threat. We’ll never get away with it. He could read all he wanted about the Brotherhood in that book from O’Brien, but it won’t bring back the past nor bring about a revolution. O’Brien told us not to hope for that in our lifetimes. I don’t have time for hope. I make time for experiences that stick, the meat on my bones. We sipped our coffee, then, as we did now, and waited to be found out.

Before Hate Week, I caught sight of him on the street. I fell, knowing he’d come to me. He knelt down beside me. I smelled his sour breath. One arm lifted me off the ground and the other cradled my head. I nearly forgot my task: to put the note in his pocket. To transfer my love to him.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Yes, I’m fine. I can walk, thank you.” Not to look, not to make contact, that is how to engage. It was my only defense, to look as though I didn’t care, when he occupied all my thoughts and feelings. Later, he found me in the cafeteria. He sat down across from me. Between spoonfuls of rotten stew, I whispered to him the route to a meeting place in the woods. And there it began. The beginning and the end.

We met as often as we could, every couple weeks, for a few years. Building a life apart from the dead one we waded through. The closer we got, the greater the risk, the more real our love became, sculpted from impossibility. He wanted to make a new life, to bring impossibility into reality. He became part of “the resistance,” the Brotherhood.
As Winston read aloud from the book about the Brotherhood O’Brien gave him, I feigned interest. Instead, I recorded the grid of veins on his legs, the speed of his pulse, the texture of his skin. I memorized him for when we were captured, eating him up so I could still taste him afterwards.

While I set our coffee cups in the sink, a flock of birds burst from the trees and scattered over the neighborhood, like an omen. In their wake, a nasty breeze wafted through the window. The flowers could not scatter the stink of treachery. It was time. A voice came from behind the painting, beckoning us. It was then I saw the tracks I’d left our pursuers: the flower. Unlike my black market lipstick, the joy I couldn’t wipe off my face. The calm in my gait that says I’m okay. Love had become me; I couldn’t hide it any longer. My secret weapon revealed.

Winston’s ideas didn’t betray us. We did. The threat of our love was not razor sharp, like cutting up a two-dimensional world through which we drew out thin lines of existence. No, we stood out in 3D, as round and beautiful as the coral paperweight Winston kept in his pocket. I’d led them to us.

I packed as they came up the stairs. I scanned the room, mouthing the name of every object, stuffing things into my mind like glue in a crack. They can take me, but they cannot take what I carry inside, what keeps me whole. I made the images hard, no sepiaed nostalgia. The edge of the bed, the wart on the toe, the constellation of capillaries on Winston’s calf, my name in his mouth, an ant on the windowsill, the rats in the walls that betrayed us.

We may be dead, but I’m the one who killed us. There’s life in that truth. I may never see him again. I may be tortured to the point of betraying him. I may come to forget the past. That doesn’t change the fact that it existed, that we rendered it. You and I together, Winston, memories that live in the folds of our brain, synapses like a map to buried treasure.

pencilAt the start of the lockdown, Mari Carlson, her husband and son read 1984 out loud to each other over dinner every night for weeks. COVID’s extraordinary circumstances eerily paralleled the novel. She teaches and performs violin, writes book reviews and makes art (which sometimes sells on Etsy!). She divides her time between Eau Claire, WI and Washington, DC. Her short story, “Vandal,” was published last year in The Main Street Rag. Email: mlcarlson1[at]usfamily.net

Three Poems

Beaver’s Pick
Jenny Hockey


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

Waking Up in Someone Else’s House

7.15, not too bad
and bright North Sea light
edging through the shutters.

The floor will be cold, I know—
not the floor but a granite hearth
under my side of the bed.

Nose into socks and tread right round
to the door. All the lights still on. Heating
not yet. But sun tumbles down the stairs

and a city discovers the shape of today.

Into the kitchen, a crunch of crumbs
and ease the curtains back, set Remy
scrabbling in his cage.

An odour of something
under the floorboards, here and there—
a kindred rodent at peace

Find a clean cup.

 

Unreliable Witness

I know that I cried—
I was your child,
but whether the nurse
took hold of my hand
or I took hold of hers
I forget.

I know she called me at 3 am

when the four-lane road
to the Humber Bridge
was mine.

Did she say you were poorly?
I know she lied, your pillowed face
already wax,

your forehead
skimmed by my lips
in the end.

 

Cambridge, June 1969

Elder thickened daily in the yard,
putting pressure on the windows.
It needed hacking back.

I was elbow deep, awash
in tiny bibs and socks,
cold feet on the quarry tiles.

Elder thickened nightly in the yard
muffling the strains of May Ball bands
a thousand miles away.

I was swagging nappies
on my shoulder, losing pegs
among the weeds.

pencilJenny Hockey‘s poems range from the sad to the surreal to the celebratory. A retired anthropologist, she takes an oblique view of the ups and downs of everyday lives. In 2013 she received a New Poets Award from New Writing North, Newcastle, UK and, after magazine and anthology publications from 1985 onwards, Oversteps Books published her debut collection, Going to Bed with the Moon, in 2019. Twitter: @JHockey20 Email: j.hockey[at]sheffield.ac.uk

A Wall Of Pictures

Broker’s Pick
Madeleine Claire


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

A wall of pictures
was the reminder of a life built
throughout many years.
In the pretty, white frames
was the pretty family
on holidays,
at weddings,
at parties,
kids’ faces pressed against the glass,
a chronological display of their diaper days
to rosy, freckled cheeks beaming with lost teeth
to moodier, reluctant expressions in photos where
their parents forced them to smile for the camera,
to detach from their phones
for just one minute.

A wall of pictures
served as proof and passage
into the classification as “perfect, suburban family.”
It was a trophy mounted for all to see,
screaming, “Look at how happy we are!”
as guests could admire adoring wedding photos
and adorable baby pictures
and lament
the days when their children
still lived at home,
ruefully eyeing the Lego
splattered around the carpet,
or the sink full of greasy, cold water
from last night’s dishes
that had driven them crazy when their own children
had made a similar mess in the house
but now wished to see again.

But a wall of pictures
could not show that the mother
woke up to a cold bed,
the pillow next to her
still plump from the absence of a husband’s body.
A wall of pictures could not show
the nights he had been spending
at a friend’s,
or the looks of sadness and hatred
that they passed when they did see each other,
unlike the wedding pictures organised on the wall,
where their eyes overflowed with
the promise of spending a life together.
A wall of pictures could not show
the slow, pained steps the mother took
as she crawled into the kitchen for coffee
after another sleepless night,
nor the letter that lay waiting on the mat of the front door,
asking for a divorce.

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Madeleine Claire is a young writer from Calgary, Canada. When not writing or reading, she can be found in the mountains getting inspiration for her next piece or simply climbing trees, and occasionally getting stuck in them, too! Email: madeleinee.claire[at]gmail.com

complexity on my way home

Baker’s Pick
Johann van der Walt


Photo credit: Chris (a.k.a. MoiVous)/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

wait a minute
if you speak only to hear your own voice
you waste time
you told me this back when we shared fluids
you said that we are endless seconds that end up ticking in space
a finger pointed down to our separate shadows
showing our depart seeped out onto concrete
ushering our ultimate defeat
I was all the mistakes that left your mouths unmade
and after you I’d only continue to breathe
half of me reading the signs from back to front
I wonder if we have been fooled?
is this it? lovers until thunder? strangers exchanging fallen glances?
obviously my spine bends backwards
as I collect memories to piece myself back together
how did you move forward while my thoughts drown
cast in a stranger’s image?
we are disconnected but I can’t seem to feel it
lights blur on the way home like broken shackles
always light everywhere to elucidate heavy breathing
behind the steering wheel of every moving particle
I repeat like a familiar song
a worn out duplicated complexity
unwillingly yielded to multiple worlds
but after every journey how many of us really have any heart left to spare?
how many experiences can be purchased and built upon?
every day I convict myself
I ask nobody how small we all have become

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Johann van der Walt has published his debut poetry collection in Afrikaans in South Africa (his country of birth) titled Parlement van uile (translated: parliament of owls) and also his first chapbook in the States—This Road Doesn’t Lead Home—over at Red Mare Press. Email: jlw.vanderwalt[at]gmail.com

Island

Beaver’s Pick
Jerri Jerreat


Photo Credit: robmadeo/Flickr (CC-by)

When you live on an island, you need to practice Buddha-like views on life.

The ferry will be on time, but you will arrive seconds too late. The ferry will be an hour late, and you will be racing to the market with fresh eggs and your sauces tucked all around you.

Om.

The garden will thrive and you will bake gorgeous quiches and exquisite salads to sell at the university. Or there will be heat wave after heat wave and the well will dry up. Or rabbits will eat all the leaves of organic beets and heritage carrots. A thunderstorm will beat your tomatoes into bursting; rows of squash leaves might turn white with mold.

Om.

Your partner will be a great support to you, both reading aloud from farming books at Toronto cafés for a year beforehand, excited for this challenge you truly believe in. He will learn about sheep, and care for thirty—plus twenty chickens—and you will laugh together over silly sheep stories. You will take classes in spinning, weaving and dyeing wool, then hang it up like art around your open kitchen/living area in the fixer-upper cabin that you purchased from the last farmer who failed.

Or your partner will begin to curse the sheep and kick them, tell you the chickens are your job now, and complain the wifi is never working and how the hell did you talk him into living god-knows-where with no f—ing Internet?

Om.

When you live on an island you must learn to breathe. Slowly, deeply. Five slow breaths in, five to exhale, pause. Repeat.

You will learn to drive a standard on a twenty-year-old truck, and to rebuild a chicken pen after foxes made away with all the chickens except the only one who won’t lay. You will learn to hand dig a post hole, put in a post, shovel cement around it, and breathe. You will stretch chicken wire around your large garden, then around your chicken pen. (Also along the broken fence where the sheep keep disappearing and which your partner will not repair.) He will no longer cook joyfully with you, experimenting; will come to think in terms of gendered work, which was not The Deal. You will work at learning to enjoy running a farm alone as part of your own personal journey to completeness.

Om.

 

When you live on an island you will read library books on truck engines in the second year and tinker with the ornery steering problem, though it’s likely a power fluid leak. If your partner has difficulty turning when he makes his fast Friday night trip to the city, claiming he has business in the city and will just crash on his old friend’s couch, again—and the truck can’t make that ninety-degree turn to the ferry at high speed, well he—

—should have practiced his Buddha-like views of life.

Om.

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Jerri Jerreat‘s fiction has appeared in Feminine Collective, The New Quarterly, The Yale Review Online, The Penmen Review, and The Dalhousie Review among others, and was featured in anthologies published by World Weaver Press and Edge Publishers. Her play was a finalist at the Newmarket National Play Festival in 2019. Email: jjerreat[at]gmail.com

It Will Happen to You

Beaver’s Pick
Jeff Bakkenson


Photo Credit: Jennifer Boyer/Flickr (CC-by)

“It will happen to you,” Meghan’s dad Tom, Josh’s father-in-law, once told him. Tom was standing suit and tie in front of the open freezer. He’d forgotten to get ice for the party, and now there was no time to go back out before church. So it must have been Christmas. Meghan and her sister Colleen’s footsteps ran in both directions along the hallway between their bedrooms and the upstairs bathroom. Mary, Josh’s mother-in-law, or future mother-in-law at that point, stood at the top of the stairs.

“You didn’t make a list?”

“If I could remember a list, I wouldn’t need a list.” He raised his voice as Mary turned towards their bedroom. “We can stop by Walgreens after church!”

She raised her voice back. “We’ll be late to our own party!”

Tom looked around for allies and found Josh trying to blend into the couch. “You think I’m kidding, but it will happen to you.”

A spray of magazines lay across the coffee table. Tom was constantly rearranging them, tugging their corners into alignment on an undescribed grid. Sometimes in the middle of a conversation, a headline would catch his eye, Sports Illustrated, Golfweek, and he’d lick his finger and gently, still nodding along as you spoke, open to the first page. Not to the article, not the table of contents, just two full-page ads facing each other, and he often wouldn’t get up again until he’d read the magazine straight through or fallen asleep trying.

Probably he’d been sick even then, before Meghan and Josh were married. After a second exam, he called the family together to tell them the secret he hadn’t known he’d been keeping. Or maybe he’d known on some level, thought Josh. The body knows, right?

A procedure was scheduled, and life continued with deliberate normalcy, which was why the morning of the procedure found Meghan and Josh following a guide named Mehmed on a tour of downtown Sarajevo. Why Sarajevo? everyone asked. Because it was cheap.

“Until you hear sniper’s bullet,” said Mehmed. “You do not think this is happening here.”

Despite their best efforts, they kept finding themselves checking their phones to make sure they’d have enough time to call home when the tour was done.

Mehmed’s memories took the form of snapshots vivant as he asked them to imagine families lined against a wall waiting for water. Lives remembered for their premature ending. “Here is Markale Market, site of massacre 5 February 1994, and also 28 August 1995.” “This Bosnia Dragon Street, where sniper shoot.” And once, a literal Polaroid, pulled from the crossbody pouch he wore at his belly button, of two young men sitting against a sofa pushed onto its side. “This is my cousin Harun. Lived by Markale Market.”

Miracle of miracles, Harun himself came hustling out of a cafe a few minutes later. He kissed his cousin and walked alongside him for the remainder of the tour, nodding whenever anyone spoke.

He nodded vigorously when Mehmed explained the city’s ethnic divisions.

“Bosnian Serb is in hills, shooting. Bosniak is me, shot.”

As they walked around the presidential palace, Mehmed pointed out damage left by mortar fire, as well as skyscrapers rising down the street. Meghan stood in front of Josh and leaned against him.

“This finished our tour,” he said. “But I leave you with one idea. My name Mehmed Banjac.” He pointed to his cousin. “His name Harun Banjac. Mehmed and Harun are Bosnian’s first name. Banjac is Serbo-Croatian’s last name. So Bosnia Herzegovina is both Bosnian and Serbo-Croatian.”

Both men smiled. Josh went into his wallet and tipped Mehmed in convertible marks, and as Harun nodded one last time, Josh tipped him too.

A cafe across the street offered WiFi and seemed as good a place as any to FaceTime from. They ordered thimble cups of coffee and sat side by side on wicker chairs, Meghan holding her phone out in front of them. But Tom didn’t pick up. Meghan called again, no answer. She tried her mom, then Colleen, Josh with his own phone ready in case he found a way to help. He watched her cycle again through her mom, dad, and back to Colleen. They confirmed the time difference and she tried again. Nothing. By the time Colleen called back, the procedure had already begun. Whoops, sorry. Enjoy the day, and we’ll let you know how it goes.

They sat blankly for a while. When the time allotted to the call expired, they gathered their things and walked to the car they’d rented to drive down to the coast.

They’d already had the conversation about not feeling guilty for keeping their trip. They’d had the conversation about the difficulty in not feeling guilty despite that being the correct response, and they knew to push the guilt down until they could barely feel it. They were at the point where they could look at each other and say, “I know,” and have that be a whole conversation about their guilt.

At first Meghan looked like she was having trouble swallowing. Once they’d left the curving roads of the city center, she hunched over her phone firing off volleys of texts. The procedure, Tom had told them back in that other world before the procedure began, could take a short time or a long time, depending on what the surgeons found and where they found it. Then, depending, further treatment would be advised.

“It probably didn’t even occur to them because it’s such a routine procedure,” said Josh.

“But didn’t he want to talk to me?”

“Maybe they thought it would make you worry more.”

“I’m not worried. I’m mad.”

Pocket cemeteries dotted the slopes as the city slowly faded into forest. Meghan put down her phone and rubbed her eyes. The highway switchbacked up and up and finally down the other side of a woody mountain, glances of the next valley stealing through the trees, and another mountain beyond it. On the valley floor, they passed a village set around a gleaming slab stitched with consonant-choked names.

“Didn’t Mehmed say the -ic means they’re Serbian?” asked Josh.

“Maybe we’re in Serbia.”

“Check the book please?”

The book, a Rick Steves travel guide, had an inset after the section about Sarajevo. Meghan read aloud, “As you leave Sarajevo, you will see memorials for the Serb fighters who laid siege to the city. While this seems confusing to us now, remember that the conflict… good people on both sides, etc.”

They stopped for lunch in Mostar and ordered a mixed grill plate at a restaurant overlooking the famous humpbacked bridge. A metal cross stood on a hill above, a memorial, said the book, to the fighters who’d used the vantage to fire down into the city. The bridge was a reconstruction.

“I’m kind of done with the war stuff,” said Meghan.

“Me too.”

Their waitress brought out two mounded plates, then two plates more, and two more after that.

There’d been a misunderstanding. Josh waved his hands over the table.

“No more, please.”

“Yes,” she said. “Is more!” She laughed from the back of her throat and brought out a final plate.

They ate what they could of the sausage, another sausage, chicken, thin beaten steak, french fries, raw onions, tomatoes, lettuce, and rice. Meghan’s phone buzzed with a waving emoji.

“She has to text every thirty minutes whether or not there’s news,” she said. “At least this way we’re still in the loop.”

Josh scrolled through his own messages. The last time he and Colleen had texted was on her birthday. The time before that was on his.

“Does she know you’re upset?”

When the bill came, the price was double the price in the menu. The waitress stood over them, waiting.

“Where does it say per person?” asked Josh, but she seemed not to understand.

He relieved himself of a wad of bills while Meghan let Colleen know she might be out of phone range.

Someplace between Mostar and the coast, the woods became scrubby hills. The sky cleared. Meghan played bongos on the dashboard. She folded her arms and picked at her teeth.

“Why is everything here cash only?” she asked.

“It’s real money.”

“So’s a credit card.”

A while after that, Josh heard her humming.

“What are you thinking about?”

“Not thinking, just humming.” But then, “It’s taking a long time, isn’t it?”

The road passed from Bosnia to Croatia, back into Bosnia for a few miles, and then back into Croatia. At each crossing, they stopped and had their passports stamped. At the final crossing, Josh gave a man in a kiosk the rest of their marks, and he gave them a smaller stack of kuna in return.

Meghan read some more from Rick Steves. “Apartment Maria lies steps from the Old Harbor and a secret swimming hole. Nikola is a conscientious host who enjoys helping his guests. Mention this book for a 10% discount.”

Another time she asked, “Are we sure we weren’t wrong not to be there?”

The hills in Croatia were lower, chalkier. There were no more villages with roadside memorials. They rose, descended, rose, and suddenly the ocean appeared, glittering away towards the walled city of Dubrovnik. They pulled to the side and got out to take pictures.

“Fuck!” said Meghan. She sprinted back to the car, found the baggie with the Croatian sim card, and switched it for the Bosnian one. Her phone buzzed with an overdue heart emoji.

At five, 17:00 on the clocks in Dubrovnik, they returned their rental car and caught the last ferry of the day for Riba, an island appearing as the first of a series of smudges stretching out into endless water. They sat on the top deck, bags at their feet. In front of them, a castle passed from left to right along the shoreline.

“What are we watching?” asked Josh.

“Dunno. Check the book.”

The women sitting next to them spoke Croatian. At least Josh assumed it was Croatian. He was a tourist; it was okay not to be sure. There was something comforting, finally, about listening to a voice you didn’t have to understand.

Because enough with this stuff at weddings about, I don’t feel like I’m losing a sister so much as gaining a brother. It was like that thought experiment where you replace all the parts of a boat one by one. At what point does the old boat become a new boat? And at what point do you, let’s say you’re a screw drilled in midway through the restoration, begin to understand why the sails and the rudder pull in opposite directions, what foundational assumptions and unsettled arguments they use to navigate each other? Because whatever else happened, today would be a permanent fixture in that relationship.

Riba was shaped like a goldfish cracker with a walled town at the head and a beach at the tail. Meghan’s phone buzzed just the dock came into view, and she threw her arms around Josh. The surgery was done.

They breathed deeply in and out together.

Josh asked, “You’re doing okay?”

“Better.”

As the crowd gathered on the dock inched closer, they basked in the glow of having been through a close call and coming out the other side still themselves.

“Did they say how it went?”

“He’s still asleep. The doctor will talk to everyone when he wakes up.”

“Then wake him up already!”

Nikola was waiting in the shade of the old city gate. They walked a short distance to Apartment Maria, which was really just a room on the third floor of his house.

Nikola led them upstairs and then back down to the kitchen on the second floor, where a bottle of wine and a scatter of brochures waited on the table. He poured into three glasses.

“The bottle say, Desire is stronger than love, but here there is both.

Meghan went back upstairs to FaceTime Colleen while Nikola shuffled through his brochures. If they wanted to rent a boat, if they needed a guide, his friends had the best prices.

“Now you pay please,” he said. He set a calculator on the table between them, making a show of punching in the room rate times three.

“We have the Rick Steves book,” said Josh. “The ten percent discount.”

Nikola was confused.

“Rick Steves?” asked Josh. “Just a second.”

He mussed around in his backpack and came up with the book and the line about the discount. Nikola shook his head.

“I never have discount.”

“It says so right here.”

Nikola flipped to the author’s photo at the back. Josh thumbed back to the page with Nikola’s name on it.

“This is you, right?”

“You bring this book.”

And a shrug for good measure, as if to say, We have our own set of rules. Like the war had permanently severed them from the outside world. Josh counted out kuna and dropped the money on the table.

“This is my house,” said Nikola.

“Take it or leave it. Do you know this phrase?”

He gave what he felt was a convincing look, and when Nikola reached for the money, turned and ran upstairs.

Meghan was sitting on the bed, phone in her lap, looking out the window. Josh felt a bounciness as he stepped into the room, like his feet were still climbing.

“He’s awake?”

Meghan shook her head. “Nobody’s picking up.”

“Maybe he’s just not awake yet.”

“It’s the same thing all over again.”

It’ll happen to you, Tom had said. Meaning what, exactly? It was like even when they won, they lost. Josh sat on the bed and put his arm around Meghan. The window was a vision of what they were missing, a cobblestone street lined with whitewashed and red-roofed houses, shining for a few more minutes in the summer sun. Below them, a car stopped to let out a man in a leather jacket.

“Do you think they found something bad?” asked Meghan.

According to the guidebook, a path behind the apartment led to a door in the city wall and a stone staircase leading into the water. If they left now, there was daylight left to find the door, leave their clothes by the wall, and sidle down the stairs until the water buoyed them away.

“Josh?” said Meghan.

The water would be warm, and still, and clear. They’d pinch their noses, close their eyes, and slip below the surface.

There was a knock at the door, and Meghan turned to face it.

Josh stood.

“Hello?”

In the darkness, surrounded by water, each would be a universe gently sinking. As pressure pounded their ears, their chests quivered, and finally they’d rise, gasping at each other on the surface. A sense of clarity, that trusty fight or flight, and together they’d swim back to shore.

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Jeff Bakkensen lives in Boston. Recent work has appeared in A-Minor Magazine, Oblong Magazine, Smokelong Quarterly, and The Antigonish Review. Email: jeffrey.bakkensen[at]gmail.com