Blue Mesa Review
Founded in 1989 Issue 45 Spring 2022
Blue Mesa Review is the literary magazine of the University of New Mexico MFA Program in Creative Writing. We seek to publish outstanding and innovative fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, along with compelling interviews.
BLUE MESA REVIEW
Spring 2022 • Issue 45
Cyrus Stuvland Ruben Miranda Evelyn Olmos
Emmy Alameda Kyndall Benning Jared Gallardo
Tyler Mortenson-Hayes Cyrus Stuvland Anthony Yarbrough
Elizabeth Beecher Marisa Cabanillas
Carnely Guana Alena Gonzales
Jessilyn Hobby Nell Johnson
Áine Pierandi McCarthy
Sayra Ramos Matt Rowe
Table of Contents
Letter From the Editor 7
On Form: A Roundtable Discussion
Rhea Ramakrishnan with Tess Fahlgren, B. Tyler Lee, and Ari Laurel 9
A Study of Intimacies
Gardiner Brown 19
Captive Bolt Stunner Kasey Peters 43
S.N. Rodriguez 32 ní de aquí Marvin Contreras 51
The Time Donor Justin Anderson 33
Deya Bhattacharya 53
Agave Two the Point David Goodrum Cover
After the Kiss Ronald Walker 6 Here Rhea Ramakrishnan 8
Sunrise on the Mesa C.R. Resetarits 18
Swimmer’s Gold Kelwin Coleman 29
What if I Remembered How Kristina Erny 31
Traces XII Catherine Skinner 42 Cuatro Janus 49 Lost Reem Rashash-Shaaban 52 Solitude Rainy Batroff 64 Author
After the Kiss RonaldWalker
Letter from the Editor
2020 was the year I began reading stories, essays, and poems for Blue Mesa Review. In January, February, and the beginning of March, I met with a group of other readers in a classroom in Albuquerque to discuss the pieces we’d been delegated to read. Often, I brought a tupperware container of sliced apples and a jar of nutella. I couldn’t imagine that, within the year, my relationships with the strangers and acquaintances I sat in a room with would become so mired, all of our lives so much more obviously tied together. And also, I couldn’t imagine a world that feels as small as the world I live in now, where I can, more often than ever before, click a button to listen to an author perform a reading in Galway, a time zone five hours ahead. And, indeed, I did just that this past Friday. The writer was Claire LouiseBennet and, in response to a question she was asked about how she approaches the “trauma narrative” in her work, she said, “I haven’t written a trauma narrative. It’s just a story about two people.” And, increasingly, I agree that, in my reading, I don’t want to be provided with a message, a clear-cut moral, or a path to understanding. I want to see people interacting with one another and I want the difficulty of that interaction to be rendered authentically.
The pieces in Issue 45 of Blue Mesa Review present the tension between strangers, friends, acquaintances, and lovers better that I can in my summary of them. They present disturbingly imaginable futures in which people can donate years of their lives or eviscerate memories completely. They pick at long scabbed-over recollections of past violences, both physical and emotional. They tell of domestication and disease and the ways that people shape their lives around what they come to see as natural. You’ll have to read on to see what I mean.
A part of me likes to think that I read simply for entertainment. But then, I’d have to admit that I’m entertained by seeing the friction of another person’s mind coming at a hard thing again and again until it bends. I wouldn’t say that the pieces in this issue are easy reading. But I will say that they have helped me parse those difficulties that make more sense represented than experienced. There is a certain satisfaction in that. In 2020, I read stories, essays, and poems for Blue Mesa Review in a classroom in Albuquerque with ten or twelve other people. In 2022, I read them alone alone and also across from other readers, though through computer screens thousands of miles apart. And, still, they hit that same nerve, the same one I hope you all share with me too.
Thanks, as always, for reading.
Sincerely,Rhea Ramakrishnan Editor in Chief, Blue Mesa Review
On Form: A Roundtable Discussion
In this interview, writers Tess Fahlgren, Ari Laurel, and B. Tyler Lee discuss their writing process, their audience, borrowed forms, and the boundaries between genres.
Read Ari Laurel’s story “Farewell to the Last Mango in the Pacific Northwest” in Issue 44
Read B. Tyler Lee’s poems “Recipe: Rhubarb, Chili, & Ginger Jam” and “Recipe: Snowplow” in Issue 43
Read Tess Fahlgren’s essay “feast day: a lyric” in Issue 42
Rhea Ramakrishnan: I often think about how writing gives form to thoughts and ideas. And I think sometimes it can go the other way too, where writing isn’t fully equipped to represent our thoughts. But then I love when writers play with form because it allows us to make new associations. Sometimes it even commands us to make new associations and to bring things together that we normally wouldn’t put together. So going into this discussion, I just want to be thinking about how form is working in the things that we write and how that informs our genre and the way that we are presenting certain ideas. How would you describe your writing? Does it typically fall into a specific genre? And if so, how do you approach the traditional conventions of that genre?
Tess Fahlgren: When it comes down to the basics, I only ever write nonfiction, really. But then when I think about the particular piece that brought me into this conversation, it is extremely lyric. It’s like a hermit crab essay in four different ways. It’s completely experimental. And it’s not really the way that I write that often, but I do think that some things just kind of demand new forms and new ways of thinking. And I like to be open to those moments, you know? But I think, generally speaking, I’m more often going to have full sentences and big paragraphs. A twelve page essay is more likely to come out of me. But whenever I can find that reason to do something experimental, it’s always a lot of fun.
Ari Laurel: I was going to say something similar. I don’t actually think of my writing as that experimental with form. Actually, I’ve written a lot of conventional stories. I think the one thing that might make my writing a little unconventional with form or that might guide form a little bit is that in a lot of traditional craft environments, it’s often seen as a no-no if you have a story that’s really politically motivated or the politics are really the motivation of the story. In a lot of craft environments, in my experience anyways, they want to really remove the politics from the craft and just talk about the quality of the writing. But for me, it’s a really huge motivation for a lot of what I write, and I want, just as with craft, to make sure that the politics are doing what they’re trying to do, that they’re not too alienating, that they’re asking the right questions, but they’re still inviting though they might push things a little bit. And I think that’s really hard to find in a traditional workshop. I guess in some ways, because of the political motivation, I
intentionally think of my work sometimes as propaganda, and I think that that can be frowned upon in certain environments.
B. Tyler Lee: I totally see what you’re what you’re saying. I mean, I’ve witnessed that happen frequently. And I think it’s interesting because I do have a lot of poetry that I will, depending on the day or the time, send out as nonfiction because it is drawn from real life. [A lot of my writing] takes on hybrid forms, so it depends on what the requirements of the publication are. Sometimes I’ll have five different pieces that could be poems or they could be nonfiction, but usually [a publication will] only take one nonfiction piece, so I’m going to send them out as poems and then see what happens. Sometimes things get taken and put in a hybrid section or put someplace else and that actually brings me great joy. I like the idea that the piece doesn’t necessarily have to be confined by genres because I think the genre classifications get in the way of what we want to do.
Ari Laurel: And I think also, you know, lots of writers have a political point of view, right? And just because I want to introduce mine and that’s like a forefront of whatever it is that I’m writing, it doesn’t mean that I want my stories to lack pathos and complexity and want to paper over things.
B. Tyler Lee: I see this actually happening in the way that you use form in your piece, Tess, too. So, for me, sometimes I’m trying to get at these really difficult things that I don’t necessarily want to go into the depth of, especially in terms of personal trauma or something like that. Like, I don’t want it to be this meditation on this bad thing that happened or whatever, but it informs the piece in some way. And so if you use the form to maybe jump around from idea to idea or you put it in a footnote or you do something else with it, then that keeps it from dwelling in that place that’s just a surface level addressing of the issue. And you’re able to juxtapose that, I think, with the form too.
Rhea Ramakrishnan: Now when you say this, I am thinking about form as a way to approach something that is not as simple to approach head on, whether it’s we don’t fully understand it or it’s related to grief or trauma. That’s really interesting because I think that our brains don’t really process grief and trauma the ways that society or cultural or social norms would expect us to process those things, and I feel like that can be a really interesting—and political in some ways too—approach to writing and form in our writing.
Ari Laurel: But I did actually have a question for Bethany—you were saying that you submit poetry as nonfiction sometimes. Does that bother you at all that that it might color how other people read your work? To approach it in a different way that you intended? Or is it pretty easy to let that go?
B. Tyler Lee: When I was younger, I really wanted people to read stuff in a certain way. [But] there’s no way to ensure that people see things or do things in the way that you want them to, whether that’s in parenting or writing or teaching or, you know, anything. And so I think that embracing that has made it easier. But I also have poems that are, for me, very clearly poems. There is no option for them to be
something else. And one of the things that I’ve always appreciated about poetry is that it can be fictional or it can be nonfiction, right? But I write a lot of these recipe poems, and I also have some others that are done as lab reports or where the poem is almost entirely in footnotes. Sometimes a container will shape something in such a way that it no longer is nonfiction. And that’s fine. So I won’t submit any of those as nonfiction. I know there are a lot of recipe form haters out there, but for me, the recipe form is very interesting because recipes inherently have this kind of commentary on domesticity on the body and embodiments, right? They have these very clear physical connections. They are directive, right? So there’s always an implied you on the other end of a recipe. There’s a clear implied audience who has these physical items in front of them and that creates a different relationship to a recipe to me. We can call them hermit crab nonfiction or we can call them poems or whatever we want them to be. The recipe itself is so embodied that I think that allowing the genre to form around that is this strange queering of the form. I approach a lot of the food stuff and the domesticity stuff through the lens of queerness.
Rhea Ramakrishnan: So I’m interested in which comes first, the structure or the content. Bethany, it almost seems to me like you’re saying you have a content or some sort of subject material that you want to address. And then you create a structure around it. I’m wondering if, Ari or Tess, you have a different way of approaching that or if you just write and then the structure comes later. What is your process?
Tess Fahlgren: I definitely just write and the structure comes later. The “feast day” essay—the way that that even came about was born kind of out of frustration. It was my first semester with the MFA and I was like what is life, how do I do anything? And I happened to just go to the website of the church where I grew up and I was just looking at the website and it happened to be the feast day of my patron saint. And so I thought, oh, well, that’s kind of interesting. And then, again, out of frustration, I thought, what if I just copy and paste this and said what I really think in footnotes? I ended up really liking it and then wanting to go forward with that. I ended up doing a bunch of research and then I started writing cow essays and I was like, what if they’re together? And so that, I think, is kind of a unique way to have gotten to a form. I’m also a visual artist so I work very intuitively and try not to overthink form very much. I think that I’ve gotten in trouble when I’ve tried to force it. When I tell myself I’m going to write a thing that’s going to look a certain way, I end up writing myself into a corner and feeling like I’m not using my own voice. So whether that means form comes first or content—I feel like they’re kind of coming out together and the way that the content shows up is telling me how it wants to exist on the page.
Ari Laurel: I’m so glad you described how you your process for that piece. I think it made sense and I think it also speaks a lot to how I do stuff as well. I think I really try to do what I can to get into any sort of flow, whether it is a rant or something like that, just pretty much anything that gets the words out first. And then I always figure that if it’s no good then I can do something with it later or not do anything with it. Usually the content does come first for me. So I’ll say, I want to write about blank. Blank is so interesting and there’s so many things to say about it. And so when I’m in that mode of excitement, I don’t try to set myself up for any sort of particular form or framework. I just go in and I write what’s so great about this thing or everything I know about this thing. And it encourages me to just think deeply on
the topic and what I like so much about it and kind of preserves the excitement that I have for it. And then I think, like you said, the form comes later when I see patterns and when I see a particular voice that is coming through.
Rhea Ramakrishnan: That’s very interesting. Something in both of your pieces that I’ve noticed is the footnotes. And Bethany, you were also talking about using footnotes in some of your work. I just wanted to tell you that while reading the pieces, those footnotes really do work to ground me in the piece. I’m a reader who gets lost in other thoughts as I read, and I’ll often find myself having to backtrack. But having to keep up with footnotes does keep me really present. I think it expects a lot from the reader, but I think that readers don’t really want to be spoon-fed either. So I find those pieces really interesting. Bethany, I’m interested in your thoughts on content and structure, too.
B. Tyler Lee: Sometimes I do content first and I think about, yeah, I want to write about this thing, so how am I going to get at it? And sometimes I write blocks of text and then I edit it and move it around and keep moving it until it seems to cohere. But then other times, the form really does [come first]. The first of the recipe poems that I wrote in the particular way that I’m doing them now was because I had been writing this manuscript for a couple of years that had a lot of food related work and I found this recipe for something called an “Obituary Cocktail.” And I was like, that’s a great name. But it also worked because my partner was in the process of grieving the loss of her father and I had been trying to write something about that that didn’t hit it head on. And so the name “Obituary Cocktail” had everything that I needed in there. I was able to use the idea of absinthe. I mean, it’s a really heavily alcoholic cocktail, right? So you drink a couple and I’m assuming that you’re under the table, right? And so I was thinking about that as a metaphor for loss. That sparked these ideas for me about how to approach things that I wasn’t necessarily planning to write about right then. Sometimes I start with something and then I want to find the container for it. And then sometimes the container shows up and I’m like, oh, I’ve got content to stuff in here. I’m curious, Ari, because you said that you generally start with the content - what was the content that you were starting with for “The Last Mango”?
Ari Laurel: Actually, it was the mango. I was thinking about the conventional Asian-American migration story. I complain a lot with other Asian-American writer friends about these tropes. Sometimes it feels like I’m still reading things from like 2010, and I’m like, when are we going to get over these mangoes, man? And I love mangoes. But I was also thinking about, for my dream future, would I give up this thing that I love so much—which is a mango—and I was like, well, certainly. And so then I thought, what would that look like to give up this thing that’s really sensual, that’s been so celebrated in a lot of people’s writing, that carries a lot of metaphorical weight about migration and people’s homeland or ancestral land. And I wrote, I guess, sort of an obituary for that. But yeah, I appreciate what you were saying—a recipe poem adds this extra sensory layer. Like not only as a metaphor, but you start to be able to taste and smell things. And so it was sort of surprising when you referenced that there are people out there who really don’t like recipe poems. I think that’s really wild. That’s something that I learned today.
B. Tyler Lee: I think it’s the same people who viscerally hate any hermit crab. They want it to [just] be writing and they don’t want it to reference this other thing. I found that most people who hate recipe pieces hate most borrowed forms. But it’s very appealing to me. My partner’s field of study was food writing, but I also I dealt with food instability at certain points and had an eating disorder when I was younger. So I think that a lot of those things have really made my relationship to [food] very visceral. I was curious about the mango, though I obviously don’t have that heritage connection, but I had put a mango in a poem intentionally that takes place in winter time to indicate some of the things that I get at in that piece, which is the availability of this thing that’s out of season, out of place, out of time. I’m very interested in the way that we encounter food.
Rhea Ramakrishnan: I’d love to hear more about all of your preoccupations or what sort of themes and motifs you find continue to show up in your work. I’ve heard a little bit about them so far. I know the recipes and food is interesting to you, Bethany. And Ari, you’re interested in Asian-American issues and also the Pacific Northwest. You want to tell me more about what’s showing up in your writing?
Ari Laurel: I have a hard time thinking of [my answer to this question]. But I think a huge part of that is because, [since] taking a break from my writing, there’s been a political shift. And so it seems like a lot of the things that I’m working on now feel really different. When I was a young person, I used to read fan fiction, and even when I moved on from reading fan fiction, I really liked this idea of literature that was actually fan fiction. So like Paradise Lost is Bible fanfic and like Wide Sargasso Sea is Jane Eyre fanfic. I really like creating expanded universe stuff for people and putting in Easter eggs and creating new facets of that universe. And I think a lot of people enjoy that kind of stuff, too. But I think it was sort of a roundabout way for me to arrive at the thing I’m doing now, which is just thinking about history and thinking about the present and trying to work within this universe in a weird way. What would it mean to put in Easter eggs about our time now looking back from the future? So that kind of thing.
Rhea Ramakrishnan: I love that—an expanded definition of fan fiction. Would you say also that you’re interested in writing about climate? I kind of read Farewell to the Last Mango as climate fiction.
Ari Laurel: I think that this project, in particular, is a response to different sorts of nihilism that people experience, myself included. I see a lot of dystopia that becomes really popular. And I think dystopias are a lot of fun and they make you think. But I think they tend to make me a little bit cynical as well. There is a lot to be cynical about. I think that there is climate nihilism or economic nihilism and I think [my writing] is supposed to be a response to that because it’s really hard to build on. I think having kind of like a critical foundation is helpful for you to see through sort of a film of capitalism, we’ll say. But it’s hard to build on. So I’m trying to, I guess, find another thing to build upon, like writing about the natural strengths of the region of the Pacific Northwest and things that I know about the land and its history. Like the salmon runs here—they used to be so prolific. You couldn’t even see the water and like, you can’t imagine things being like that anymore. But maybe one day it could be like that again. There are a lot of groups and tribes that are working to make it that way again. I think that is a huge deal. So I’m trying to
write about the strength of the people who live here as well.
Tess Fahlgren: What you’re saying about the land is resonating with me a bit. I am extremely preoccupied by growing up where I grew up in the middle of nowhere and especially as someone who didn’t fit in at all. I’m kind of obsessed with it. And that obsession has been really frustrating for me because it’s like, why can’t you just move on? Why can’t you leave? Why are you so obsessed with this place that never loved you back? And the way that [rural America] behaves politically in our culture—it is rural America’s fault that we got Trump, so what do you do with that? Can you defend a place where a large amount of people will never feel welcome or safe? And where do I fall in that? Where do I go if I can’t love this place, but I don’t have anywhere else that I love either? So I have this huge struggle with where I grew up. But there’s all these things that I find really interesting about it. I think that the train is interesting. I think that the history of the train is fascinating because it’s the history of colonization and it’s the history of industrialization and immigration and all these things that are so fascinating. And it’s just a part of our life. Every single day it goes right through town and we don’t even hear it anymore. There’s all these different ways of looking at the train—like, can you tell that I’m writing about the train right now? So I find I find this place really, really interesting. When I was in grad school, I think I was trying to kind of fight that off a little bit. I was like, find something else to write about, no one really wants to read this. And I think that was getting me in trouble a little bit, just making it hard to write the whole time. My main preoccupation was about abuse. I was coming to terms with an abusive relationship that I was in when I was younger, here in this place. So that’s another thing that kind of brought me back. I wanted to look at it head on. I wanted to focus on it. I read In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado and I was like, OK, we can do this, we’re allowed to write a book about this experience. Maybe you guys can think about this or have something to say about this, but is there some happy middle ground between a preoccupation and an obsession and a job where ‘it’s my duty to talk about this thing’ is maybe less productive than ‘I’m curious about this thing’? Because I ended up eventually giving up on that project. It felt like work and didn’t feel fun and I wasn’t enjoying myself. But I felt like it was important, like I should talk about this, but I don’t know. I don’t think I’m going to. But what do you think? Is there a difference between a preoccupation and the various responsibilities that we have?
Ari Laurel: I think a preoccupation is kind of like, you’re going to do it even if you feel like you shouldn’t do it. What you were describing about the land really reminded me of James Joyce’s relationship with Ireland, where he had such a complicated relationship with Ireland and Dublin, and he would leave all the time and then write about it and come back and then leave again. But that’s all he ever wrote about. And so to me, that means something. And maybe it is more of a preoccupation than a duty.
B. Tyler Lee: I like what you said about curiosity and I think both Rhea and Ari have said something about the idea of not fully pinning down exactly what something is. And I think the problem that comes out of something being a job or something you’re writing out of duty is that it becomes like a term paper or it becomes something where the truth is the thing to get at. And there’s this inherent value in it being true, but then if the value is because it’s true then that’s all there is to it. That doesn’t take it outward.
Rhea Ramakrishnan: Yeah. And I’m also fascinated by this difference between like preoccupation and obligation. I do feel intimately aware of that feeling where it’s sometimes like I have to write about this certain thing because I need to represent it for the people who I’m representing. And it’s important for that reason, but I’m either not interested or I don’t feel like I am the person to do it. There are various different reasons why I don’t follow through with a project like that. But I am interested in what we feel like our obligations to our readers are. Do we think about our readers at all? Like, I hate thinking about the marketing my own writing, but especially editing a magazine I think about it more and more because I know how people are reading things when they’re published and I do want people to read it. I don’t want to be writing in a vacuum. So what are your thoughts on that?
Ari Laurel: My professional background is in marketing and communications and I’m pretty bad at it. I’m not sure I would hire me for that, but I think that feeling of like, oh gosh, I’m representing so many people—I think that I feel like I understand where that’s coming from. And I think for a really long time that really paralyzed a lot of what I was writing or it stopped me short from completing projects. And there is a really good author named, I think Matthew Salesses who called that “rep sweats.” If you have all this pressure of entire communities or imagined communities on you it makes it a lot harder to complete a project. And so when I think about what I owe to other people, I guess I’ve just kind of made peace with the fact that if people aren’t interested, then they aren’t. And so it’s made me kind of contend with like, well, why am I even writing? Like why do I keep writing, even though I submit to the same kind of intimate workshop of friends that I have been for the last five or six years? And it’s a lot of fun. I enjoy that community. I like making stuff. And if nobody wants to read it in the end, then I guess that’s OK. I feel like I’ve made peace with that. I think since getting in Blue Mesa, I felt like, oh gosh, other people are taking this a lot more seriously than me. So maybe I should start taking this more seriously. I think I sent you a URL to a writer website that I’m putting up soon. And it’s kind of like, well, I guess it’s time to do something like this, even if I don’t get any hits on it, you know what I mean? It’s kind of just responding to the outside, but not trying to be too carried away with it because I just try to remember that I write for myself or for my community, for the people that I like and enjoy, who I know enjoy reading it.
Tess Fahlgren: Yeah, that’s very important. And I think I feel like I’m finally landing there myself. I think that I got kind of wrapped up in an idea that was the whole reason I wanted to get into the MFA program when I was 27. When I was going through the application process the thing I told myself at the time was, OK, you want to be a writer, you’ve wanted to be a writer your whole life. You’re poor. You don’t have any time to write because you’re working all the time. So let’s see if we can do it, you know? And then it was like, once you graduate, you’ll have a publishable manuscript and you’ll be done. That was kind of what I told myself and that wasn’t the case at all. So as the MFA went on, I started thinking I was really just putting a lot of pressure on myself. Like [telling myself] if you’re going to do it, this is your chance. This is your chance to write a thing that people are going to want to read. They’re going to like it. And like I keep saying, it just didn’t work out. That project wasn’t what I wanted it to be. It changed
my whole perspective on writing, I think, because the major flaw in that project was that I was looking at it from that angle. Especially in the way that the world is right now, we need to be able to pay our bills. Life is hard and I find that I need to think about money, you know? I don’t want that to be a part of my writing process, but it is, unfortunately. But I think I’ve kind of moved past that a little bit. [I’ve had to tell myself], that’s not going to be your income, so you don’t have to think about the reader so much anymore. At the beginning of this conversation, I was thinking about what you, Bethany, were talking about with essays versus poems and when they’re seen differently from your reader, what does that mean? And a lot of times I have read something and had people come up to me afterward and congratulated me on my poem and I’m like, that was so not a poem. Like if you could look at it on a page, you’d know that was not a poem. And I’ve been introduced like, “This is my friend who’s a poet,” and it’s so funny. I do not write poetry, but I think that’s cool, actually, because, at a certain point, these genre specifics are conversations that writers have with each other. And I really, really believe in accessibility. Especially because the people I grew up with don’t know or care what the differences is between a poem and an essay—most of them, I don’t want to generalize—but they can still enjoy it and it doesn’t really matter to me what they call it. As long as somebody can pick it up in the magazine and read it and be touched by it, then that’s great, no matter what. So, I guess that comes back to audience as well.
B. Tyler Lee: I think a lot of times people, when they say it’s a poem or it sounds like a poem, they’re commenting on some kind of creativity of ideas or some kind of emotional response. They’re seeing images in there and so they have this idea that they know what a poem looks like when they encountered on the page. But then when they hear it out loud, for example, they’re like, I guess that’s what a poem sounds like, right?
Tess Fahlgren: It’s funny that after teaching nonfiction, my educator brain wants to be like, “No, it’s not a poem, it’s an essay! Isn’t that cool?” Because it is exciting when you think about all the different things that an essay can do and can look like and can feel like. It’s cool, but it doesn’t really matter if they walk away thinking it’s a poem or an essay at the end of the day.
Rhea Ramakrishnan: Sometimes when people say something is poem I wonder if maybe they’re also commenting on their inability to access it because people are provided with fewer tools to read poetry. That’s not really taught to most people. We were talking a little bit about accessibility, but how do we think about access in terms of who gets to see our writing and who we want it to be for and who writing more generally is for?
Tess Fahlgren: I used to write for the local paper and I just wrote a column that was kind of random. It was in my hometown local paper that often has such bogus political stuff in it that is just insane. And it was a really strange experience, but it was really, really fun because it was directly to my community and that felt really good. I feel so different from, for example, “feast day,” which I will never tell my mom about. And like, when I’m stressed out, I worry that she’s read it, you know? I’m curious, too, if you guys have, just a blanket idea of who all of your writing is for or if you also have like this way of
compartmentalizing your work?
Ari Laurel: I want my writing to be for everyone or for every kind of working person, I suppose. But I’m afraid that it’s not because of my own personal background, just kind of dealing with coming from a more academic background. I think that sometimes my writing leans into that cerebral space a little bit. I think that’s just something that I have to work through and just kind of see how I can make it more for everybody and less theoretical or less convoluted in some ways. And tell stories of everyday people or people that I know and encounter.
B. Tyler Lee: Writing is an interesting art form in that, unless you’re giving a reading, your reader is always accessing that piece asynchronously. So, you don’t really have any control over where it goes or who’s reading it or how they’re encountering any of that kind of stuff. And so, I find that if I get too hung up on the idea of an audience, getting too caught up in that idea, makes it so that I’m not going to produce anything because I’m trying too hard to meet some moving goalpost of expectation. I can’t remember who said it, but was a poet and I’ll probably remember it later, but he said, “I want to write for someone like me, but smarter.” I’ve always loved that idea of this imaginary reader being the person who has your interests and preoccupations and obsessions and whatever, but is also smart enough to figure out what you mean. I would love for someone to maybe understand what I wrote even better than I can. That for me brings me joy in terms of writing.
You can listen to the extended cut of this interview on the Blue Mesa Review Blog.
Sunrise on the Mesa C.R.Resetarits
A Study of Intimacies
When I was very young, my mom stored business cards in the cupped palm of a black, wooden hand. Its curled fingers were a perfect fit for the small pieces of cardstock. The hand had been a gift from her friend, Todd, who’d snatched it off the arm of a mannequin. He took it home, painted it black, and gave it to my mom. This was almost a decade before I was born, and I was fascinated with this hand when I was little. I would remove my mother’s cards and turn it over in my hand, enjoying the feeling of its pointed fingertips pressing into my palm. The object was imbued with something special because it was a connection to my mom’s past from before I’d existed—still a strange concept, then—and because it had been a gift from someone who’d died—even stranger. The hand was an article of history. It was a relic of a person I never knew but who, because he was close to my mother, I felt a kind of kinship with.
As a field, ecology is well-equipped to explain similarly distant relationships if space is what divides them. Parts of Canada and Mexico are ecologically connected by butterflies who migrate between them. Unlike the more restrained concept of an ecosystem as a contained (though porous) unit—ecology accounts for these distant relations. I am not an ecologist, or really any kind of scientist, but I find the field’s attention to connection moving. In its definition of ecology, the Oxford English Dictionary includes that ecology is not just the study of these relationships, but “also: the relationships themselves.” Ecology grants us language for understanding how entangled we are with the fabric of life.
If we also use ecology as a way to study lives separated by time, not just space, then we open ourselves up to examining the relationships between beings who never lived a single day together. Ecology across time can help us understand our own place in a biological history. Where I grew up in Central Texas is one of the places where the migration lines of monarch butterflies making their way south converge. When I was six, my elementary school pulled us all outside one afternoon to watch as a steady stream of butterflies passed overhead; when I was twenty-eight, my partner and I made a game of spotting the monarchs as they emerged from behind the tree line. What are the interrelationships of these events? What is the connection that enables butterflies to so reliably make the same pilgrimage decades apart? Did my mother and her friends catch sight of the butterflies when they were in Dallas in 1984? What is the relationship between me and this person I never knew who, once, was friends with my mother?
That Dallas summer in 1984 was when my mom first met Todd. He was tall, with a Romanesque nose: a model for a local agency in Dallas. He was a good cook. He was “real loyal” despite coming from a conservative evangelical family who showed him no loyalty. If my mom got scared at night alone in her apartment, she called Todd and he’d tell her to come over. He and his boyfriend Joe would set up a bed for her to sleep in there.
It’s strange to think of this nearly-mythic version of my mom being afraid of the dark, because I grew up thinking she’d been fearless. She was nineteen at the time, living in Dallas to attend fashion design school and swiftly becoming the person friends would call “the Contessa.” I’ve heard bits and pieces about the Contessa all of my life—this version of my mom I never got to know—from her and the friends she still has from that time. The Contessa was a partier, a club-goer who always skipped the line inside
because the bouncer knew her. She didn’t pay for drinks. She once met Stevie Nicks on the dancefloor. She’d earned her nickname after one such night, when a friend announced her entry: “The Contessa!” The name stuck.
She never really used the design degree, but for a while she interned at a small, local fashion company. They’d send her out to department stores to sneak a sketch pad into the changing rooms so her company could create knock offs of the name brand clothes. There’s a black and white portrait of her from around this time—she was also trying to get into modeling—she’s posed in front of a fountain, and the exposure of the photo makes the drops of water look like a shower of light. This photo, like the mannequin hand, was a strange artifact for me when I was little—the laughing, posing woman in the picture looked both like and unlike the mother I knew. Now, that photo lives with my mom’s best friend, Michael, who’s among the people who knew her at that time.
This time in my mom’s life, Michael’s life, and the lives of their friends, was defined by the rise of the AIDS crisis. When my mom first moved to Dallas, the crisis was already under way, but although her circle of friends included many gay men, she barely heard AIDS mentioned in the early days. When she did hear it mentioned, it was euphemistically called “the bug” as in “You better back that shit up. Don’t wanna get the bug.” When she left Dallas five years later though, the subject had long since stopped being avoidable.
Susan Sontag called AIDS “a disease of time.” As compared to other diseases believed to develop in a spatial spread across the body, she claimed AIDS was understood in terms of its linear progression. AIDS was the final phase in a series of temporal stages in HIV’s development. For this reason, those with HIV, she argues, are always already regarded as being ill—whether or not they are symptomatic or have developed AIDS. This element of eventuality was part and parcel of the discrimination faced by people with HIV.
Sontag’s argument was about how AIDS (the disease) has been understood, but I am interested in thinking about how AIDS (the crisis) might be understood. The crisis, of course, had both spatial and temporal elements: it congregated in clusters; it changed social ecosystems; and, like any disaster, its consequences have continued long after any declaration of the crisis as over. I am interested in what the present can tell us about the past and what the past anticipated of the present which was, once, a future.
I would like to extend Sontag’s claim to say that HIV is a disease which puts us in relationship across time. I was born in 1993, just as the drugs meant to treat AIDS were improving, after the first great wave of deaths had crashed. I am of a generation of gay men who weren’t alive for the worst of the crisis, who came of age at a time when the most major queer activism centered marriage equality, a metaphor for life and joy that emerged in part out of a communal exhaustion with activism that centered death. My generation also grew up with a lack of older gay men, in part because so many of them were lost to the crisis. I am interested in the ways in which AIDS continues to define what it means to be gay and in the relationships between “then” and “now.”
AIDS emerged into a moment of political activation of gay folks across the nation. Cities with large, concentrated gay populations were seeing an emergent gay political movement, and growing ecosystems of gay spaces. Queer health clinics were emerging in major cities across the country a decade before
the AIDS crisis. Local Gay Liberation movements organized around the repeal of sodomy laws and the promotion of gay rights bills. Many major cities had neighborhoods (called “gay ghettos”) where a greater density of gay people lived and gay-owned businesses thrived.
Dallas had Oak Lawn, one of the only true “gay ghettos” in Texas, but the city’s broader, more traditionally conservative culture had fostered a gay community that was notably less politically organized than those in other large American cities, including Houston. Even in less politically-active cities, spaces like Oak Lawn were a matter of safety. The existence of sodomy laws necessitated the creation of a network of gay businesses and social clubs safe from patrolling by the police. In the early 80s, Dallas resident, Donald Baker, was fighting the state in court over Section 21.06 of the Texas Penal Code: an anti-sodomy law. This statute, which reads, “A person commits an offense if he engages in deviant sexual intercourse with another individual of the same sex,” was rendered unenforceable by a 2003 Supreme Court ruling emerging out of Texas but has not since been repealed.
In light of politically-sanctioned oppression, identifying gay spaces was a matter of legal and physical safety. Bob Damron’s Address Book was an annual series that began in 1964 listing known gay spaces nationwide. The titular Bob Damron was a gay traveling businessman. The address books were small paperbacks with vibrant, monochromatic covers (I’m personally a fan of the deep purple of the 1971 issue). Inside, the listings use a series of annotations to provide further details about individual locations. Of particular note is HOT, which in this case isn’t speaking to how good looking the men in a given spot were, but to the presence of danger: HOT indicated a place subject to regular police raids.
Digital historians Amanda Regan and Eric Gonzaba have been working on creating a map of all the sites that were listed in Bob Damron’s on their site, “Mapping the Gay Guides.” Their map shows the growing size and connection of Dallas’ own queer ecosystem in the mid-century. Between 1965 and 1980, Dallas went from having six listings to sixty-three.
I reached out to them while I was working on my research about Dallas in the 80’s—their maps currently only go to 1980, and I was looking for a particular club that didn’t open until ’84. I wondered if they might know where I could find online archives of later editions. Their response though, was even better than I’d hoped for: they sent me PDFs of the pages of Bob Damron’s covering Dallas between 1948 and 1989. I opened the files as soon as the email came in, scanning the listings for the club I hoped was listed. There! In 1988 and 1989, the Starck Club was listed. Bob Damron listed the club as “Very Popular, Trendy, and Very M.” “M” stands for mixed, meaning, like my mom’s friend group, the Starck Club hosted a mix of gay and straight people.
My mom, Todd, Michael, and all their friends were fixtures of the Starck in the five years that it was open. It was through the friends that she made there that she became the Contessa. I have been hearing about this club all my life, and even now Michael and my mom describe this time in idyllic terms. The Stark was housed in an open, multi-level warehouse that the owners had decked out with heavy drapes along the walls. There was a staircase down from the main floor onto the dance floor, and you could watch everything happening from a wraparound balcony above. By their account, the Starck Club was a place removed from the prejudices of the outside world, where anybody danced with anybody; I can’t say whether this was the universal experience or not, but my mom and her friends certainly remember it that way. My mom and Todd were going out most nights to party, and most of these nights were spent at the
Starck. Many of the friends she made in Dallas—including Michael—she met there.
There is a photo of Michael holding me on the beach when I am too small to walk yet. Now, I am taller than Michael, but he has retained his appearance of striking physical solidity. He just looks sturdy, and his angular jaw and broad shoulders match an equally stubborn personality. These qualities make him a good match for his rambunctious pit bull. He’s got a country accent like my mother, but his is sharper, more Texan.
I was nervous about talking to Michael in order to write this essay. I felt guilt asking him to talk about the AIDS crisis. My mom lived through the crisis in a way that was more embodied, more real than many straight women did at the time, but Michael continues to live with it. Michael is a rare survivor of the early days, someone who contracted HIV when the medications were making people sicker and still lived.
Looking at that photo now, I realize it must be from around the time he started taking medication. He hadn’t accepted treatment for years before that. Michael is likely an “HIV controller,” someone who doesn’t exhibit the same progression of symptoms as others with the virus and whose viral load usually remains low.
Michael was twenty-five when he was first diagnosed, though he’d likely been positive for a while. “We were all walking around with it. We just didn’t know, or we didn’t want to get tested ‘cause we didn’t want to know…that’s the way most people were. if you didn’t know, you didn’t have to address it.”
He was living in Houston at the time. He described the woman at the clinic who gave him his diagnosis as looking at him “real lovingly.” He was offered counseling, but he left. “I didn’t need to talk to anybody. I learned what I needed to know, so what else did I need to know?”
It wasn’t until doing these interviews that I really understood how remarkable it was that Michael lived to be in that photo. I knew he was positive, and I knew that he’d been positive for a long time. I did not realize though, how unlikely that was. He’d become positive at a time when the life expectancy after diagnosis was vanishingly low, at a time that he himself would describe to me as “the dying off time.”
When I first wrote a draft of this essay, I had no idea that, elsewhere, a virus was bridging the species gap that would in just a few months radically change our world. In the spring of 2020; I was in school in Salt Lake City, two thousand miles from my family. I was living alone and single. I stopped seeing all but one friend in person. I rarely left my apartment except to go on walks through the city—I didn’t even go walking in the park because there were too many people there, and I could imagine their breath as the miasma I walked through. I kept my windows open almost constantly, afraid that the air from other apartments might drift in.
After a couple of months of this near-total isolation I packed what I needed for the summer, and moved back to Austin. In the two weeks before I left, I didn’t step out of my apartment once—I refused to take chances. I made the drive in two eleven-hour days, peeing only on the side of the road and eating from the cooler I’d packed in the passenger seat.
In Austin, our pod was just myself, my parents, and Michael. I was aware, even in those early months, that we were among the most tightly-locked down people I knew. Michael wasn’t even seeing his parents in the early months because they weren’t being as cautious as him. At one point, he bought a hazmat suit just in case (of what I cannot remember). My mom, Michael, and I were all more alarmed than
my dad, who mostly just went along with our desires to remain locked down. This was largely a position of privilege—all of us could work remotely—but I also couldn’t help but feel that the past was making itself known to us.
Michael had good cause to be more cautious than any of us—the prospect of contracting a new, deadly virus with an already-compromised immune system was frightening regardless of how high his T-Cell count stays. My mom knew that if the rest of us weren’t being so careful, Michael might not see us either, at which point he’d have stopped seeing anyone else at all. This played a role in our family’s decision to remain extra careful, but so I think did her and Michael’s past. My mom and Michael were reacting to this new threat from their lived-experiences during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Despite a degree of removal, I was reacting with them.
I was no stranger to risk aversion before COVID. I did not wake up one morning that March and decide that any amount of risk was intolerable. It was a familiar feeling—I joked with my sister at the time that I was either perfectly or terribly equipped to handle a pandemic. I was willing, eager even, to go above and beyond to keep myself and the people around me safe, and I zealously followed the rules. I also lived in constant anxiety. After experiencing my first earthquake that April, I started waking myself up trembling. Worse, I started feeling ghosts of aftershocks in my waking life—I would have to look at my water glass to confirm whether the shaking I felt was real or not. This only added to my fear about COVID, and I imagined ways that even the slightest infraction might open myself—or worse, my parents or Michael—to exposure. I acted with the certainty that perfection could lead us through the pandemic safely.
This was all familiar because, in many ways, it was how I’d organized my sex life for much of my adolescence. I grew up very aware of HIV because of my proximity to it through my mom’s work, aware that though it was no longer described as a crisis it hadn’t simply vanished, but this awareness did not make me a capable, thoughtful sexual being. Instead, it filled me with fear. I don’t think that my early experiences with sexuality were unusual in that they were tentative and halting, but an early STI-scare calcified that early stage into a protracted stuntedness.
I dated all throughout college, but even after I got my negative tests back, insisted on keeping everything above the belt. Like I would later do with COVID, I refused to take any risks at all. I ceased to have sex or any deep connection. I broke things off with men early or let them fizzle out, because becoming closer would have meant that eventually I’d have to accept the everyday risk of trusting them with my body. Wonderful relationships passed me by. I believed, foolishly, that I could have intimacy without risk, which is about as easy as sprinting without breathing.
I lived in this fear for five years. I’m ashamed of this version of myself, because that level of fear is not reasonable caution in the face of a serious chronic illness, but the product of stigma and internalizedhomophobia. These stigmas though, do not appear from nowhere. I grew up aware that I was in a “risk” population for HIV. That is an official designation from the federal government and the CDC. “Risk” isn’t referring to any inherent condition of gay men but to a higher concentration of HIV within our population and to an aspect of all human physiology. The skin is, by design, porous across its entire surface, but the skin surrounding the anus is especially so, and so anyone having sexual contact at that place is particularly vulnerable to infections. That gay men do not universally practice anal sex, and that
this type of sex is not exclusively practiced by gay men are not distinctions being made when we talk about “risk.” It’s this perception of risk, and the fear it inspires over our material interrelatedness, that bars me from donating blood. This perception is also what made it possible for me to access PrEP for free. For two years, I swallowed a daily pill, oblong and blue, made available to me because I am in a risk population.
The very idea of a “risk population” reveals that “risk” is being used euphemistically not to describe any action but an identity. Whether I am “at risk” has nothing to do with how I have sex and everything to do with being gay. I can get this medication for free because I’m understood through a history of death. Risk and its antidotes tether me and my body to a different time.
Anal sex is as close to a complete embodiment of our own porosity as there can be; it is contact at one of the points where our body is closest to the rest of the world. It’s a moment when there seems to be no distance at all between the self and another. I know what the sheath feels, the singing moment when the sword is drawn. Even in the empty afterward, the body remembers the feeling.
The STI scare that triggered my celibate period happened when I was 18. The friend I’d been on-again off-again dating throughout high school called me the summer after our senior year to tell me we hadn’t been exclusive partners like I’d thought. He had had unprotected sex with other people and lied to me about it, and then had unprotected sex with me.
This was six years before I started PrEP, and I think the last year that the official guidance on HIV testing was that you couldn’t get a fully accurate test any earlier than three months after exposure. So I waited that whole summer, uncertain what my status was. When my ex texted me that his test had come back negative, I didn’t write back that he hadn’t waited long enough. I dated again, but kept everything above the belt with my new boyfriend, saying it was because I didn’t know my status. Now, I see that it was because I hadn’t yet metabolized the pain of what I’d learned about intimacy: its double edge.
“Ecology” could otherwise be understood as the study of intimacies. We are, all of us, entangled in intimate relationships not just with friends and partners, but with people we may never meet and with the land itself. I call these distant relationships intimate because they quite literally shape us. While distance and intimacy might at first seem at odds, consider how an unwashed vegetable, if eaten, can suddenly and materially connect you to the insects and microbial creatures of its original soil, or the ways that the statements of the long-dead can reverberate through time and shape own thinking without us knowing. Consider that when Ernst Haeckel first invented the word that would become the English “ecology” in the 1860s, he did so using the Greek oikos, meaning “house,” so from its inception we were conditioned to think of ecology as happening within a contained space (a house), and not as an unruly series of distant relations.
My mother and I’s initial relationship—pregnancy—was not easy. Our bodies struggled against the profound porosity we had to share, and her body poisoned itself trying to flush me out. She was sick, and I was born premature. This fact might be an apt metaphor if it weren’t further from the truth of our eventual relationship, which has always been close. Close enough that she used to say that she could be more herself with me than with anyone else. Close enough, also, that I could eventually tell her I actually didn’t want to be that person. Close enough that when I asked for that distance, she could hear me and
give it to me. This closeness is what made her response to my STI scare so painful. The weight of the past crashed on top of us.
She was on a work trip when I found out, so I waited until she got home to tell her. By the time she returned though, I was bursting with the news, desperate for comfort. I didn’t even give her time to unpack her suitcase. She ferried folded clothes between the bed and her carved, wooden armoire as I said I needed to talk to her. She paused, listened, while I anxiously told her what had happened.
“Well,” she said, “That’s how it happens. That’s how people get HIV.” She turned back to put another load of clothes in its place. I asked for more. “Well, what do you want me to say?” she asked, exasperated. She returned to unpacking, having said what she would.
I felt profoundly betrayed. I was heartbroken and afraid, and the coldness of her response only intensified those feelings. I needed to be told, unconditionally, that all would be alright, regardless of what happened. Instead, I felt I’d been told that, regardless of what happened, I had behaved wrongly by misjudging the safety of a relationship.
We have since talked about this moment, and I have gotten from her what I needed then plus some comfort about the moment itself. I was able to tell her how failed I felt by her, how rejected. We repaired the distance it created between us, or learned to live with it.
I can see this moment from her perspective too though, because I don’t believe she was only thinking of me in that moment; I think she must have been thinking about Todd too.
In the Spring 1988, Todd started losing weight. He joined my mom’s family on a lake house trip, but stayed inside sleeping all day. My mom knew something was wrong, but when she tried to say something, Todd brushed her off. Later that year, he called and asked her to come over, and when my mom got to their apartment, Todd’s boyfriend was the first one she saw, and she knew. “He didn’t have to say anything, and I didn’t have to say anything.” She went back to the bedroom where Todd was laying on his back in bed. “He had gotten really skinny. He said come lay down with me, and I lay down with him on my stomach.”
“Well, I got tested, and I’ve got AIDS.”
There was very little available in terms of treatment when Todd was diagnosed, and like many his care became an act of community. He could take AZT, and there was a clinic in town that could give you a breathing treatment that helped with opportunistic infections. At some point, Todd’s boyfriend was diagnosed too. Todd stayed behind when his boyfriend left for New York City where he believed the treatments would be better. After that, my mom and another friend became Todd’s primary care.
Their friend circle only grew smaller in what Michael called “the dying off time,” when those who’d first gotten sick started to die almost all at once, and when people were swept up by family and not seen again. Michael lost a lot of friends during that time. Another friend of my mom’s went back home to Georgia where he passed away. He said he had some kind of cancer, but my mom didn’t believe it.
Meanwhile, the gay community of Dallas was organizing systems of care for the ill. As AIDS became more prevalent in the city, gay community centers changed their missions to focus on the crisis, and new care programs emerged. The University of North Texas’ library has a collection of materials documenting this period of gay Dallas. There’s a pamphlet for the third annual Texas Gay Rodeo.
Looking in a magazine published by ARC called “The AIDS Update,” I find a calendar of local actions— every Wednesday and Saturday there was a support group for surviving partners of PWAs (Persons with AIDS), and on May 5th and 19th they hosted “Hot, Horny, and Healthy – Eroticizing Safer Sex” workshops. There’s a blurb in the magazine that simply reads “Hug a PWA today!” and cartoons with a character named “Patti Le Plae Safe.” Pin-on buttons from Oak Lawn Community Services advertise the organization’s services including AIDS counseling and a buddy system. In a notice from the counseling center, they’re looking for volunteers to run an “adult day care” as well, with classes, transport assistance, and medical support.
It got harder and harder to take care of Todd as time went on. There was a day when he wanted to go out to eat at this nicer restaurant in town. He had opportunistic infections on his face; he couldn’t really walk without assistance—“He looked like he had AIDS.” My mom was scared they’d be turned away, people were watching them, but they had a kind waiter, one who seemed like he was probably gay. He was sweet with them. Before their food came though, Todd got sick and they ended up leaving. Todd’s body could no longer keep up with the simple things he wanted to do.
As Todd grew sicker and his care became more difficult, he got back in touch with his family in East Texas. They refused to take him in at first, but he eventually convinced his mother to take him back in while he died. The conditions though, were that he’d have to renounce homosexuality (something my mom sardonically points out was hardly relevant by the time he was that sick), and he would have to give up talking to the friends his mother saw as sinners, including my mom. He moved home in the spring of ’89, and my mom stopped hearing from him.
A couple of months after Todd left to live with his family, my mom went to see a tarot reader. “I wanted to ask her about Todd, but I was scared to. At the end of the session she said, ‘I know there’s something you want to ask me but you’re afraid, and I’m just going to say you need to go see him. It won’t be long.’ That’s what she fucking said to me.”
My mom called Todd’s family home, and, to her surprise, his mom put him on the phone with her. He asked her if she could come see him. She drove there the next day.
The house had a lower floor off the main one, and that’s where Todd was. He was in a hospital bed, and his family had wallpapered the room with glued-on bits of scripture. Todd was so thin you could see the bones in his skull. He couldn’t lie down flat because he had pneumonia and would suffocate. My mom brought white roses—Todd’s favorite—not realizing he could no longer see. But he smelled them when she came in, asking, “Oh, did you bring me white roses?”
My mom stayed the afternoon. Their time together was repeatedly interrupted though by Todd’s mother bringing groups of boys from the church community into Todd’s room, telling these boys that this was what happened to a person if he was gay. At some point, Todd’s mom came in alone and said Todd had made a video she wanted her to see. In another room, my mom watched a VHS tape they’d recorded of Todd saying goodbye to people. When he got to my mom, he said he wanted her to stop being a sinner, that he wanted her to go to heaven.
There are other videos of Todd in his last few months that are now online. They were recorded, presumably against his will, by his mother and the women of her church. Todd’s mom describes the “feminine little ways that he would do with his hands when he was little” to explain how she’d known
from a young age he would be gay. One of these women from church, Joyce, sits next to Todd in his sick bed explaining to the viewer how Todd’s life of sin is what led him to this death, and Todd, barely able to speak, nods assent.
My mom returned twice that summer. The last time, as she was getting ready to go, she told Todd she’d be back the next weekend. “He said:
‘Ok. Well I may not be here.’
‘Yeah you will. Yeah you will.’
‘Well let’s just hug and say goodbye.’
We did hug and kiss goodbye. And he did die three days later.”
My partner and I recently discussed the particular position we grew up in. We were born at the tail end of the AIDS crisis, and we came of age just a few years before PrEP was as common and accessible as it is now. We were the generation after a disaster trying to understand how to live well, living in the shadow of perhaps the most significant historical event of our identity group’s history without having lived through it. We were being told both that the crisis was over and also that we were still in material danger from its lasting effects. It was a confusing time to come into queer adulthood. I understood that my feelings were being affected by what came before me at the same time that I knew I did not understand what it had been to be there at the time.
As Sontag points out, our bodies always harbor infections; more-than-human biotics shape us, but the person with HIV is the one regarded as ill whether or not they are, in fact, sick. This is because HIV has been tied to a kind of eventuality: “Infected means ill, from that point forward.” This rhetorical bent can be seen even in the idea of a “risk population” whose members are always understood as on the brink of illness. Rather than eventuality though, which is only tied to the future, I want to consider the present’s relationship to the past. I want a reckoning with queer inter-generationality, queer space. I want to take the past into the future on my own terms.
My mom’s life exploded in the months after Todd died. She lost her job, her friends were dying or moving or both, and she could no longer afford to pay her rent. She called my grandmother, not knowing what to do. “You’re just going to come home,” she told my mom, and that week my uncle Mark came down to Dallas and helped my mom pack all her things to move back home to Louisiana. She didn’t live in Dallas again.
My mom’s proximity to the AIDS crisis, and her relationship to Todd, changed the course of her life forever, which in turn shaped the environment I grew up in. After she left Dallas, she got into grad school, and when an internship at an HIV prevention clinic was offered through her program, she jumped at the chance. After that, her career centered HIV services and counseling. Last year, she retired from facilitating Austin’s longest-running HIV-positive support group. That group was run through the same community health clinic that prescribed me PrEP for years.
When I came out, my mom called Michael and asked him to visit Austin to talk to me about what it would mean to grow up as a gay man. The mannequin hand was eventually lost in a different move. Something
about that object stuck with me though, enough that I still think about it almost twenty years after it was lost. It was a migratory object through time, a figure of the relationship between the then and now.
Katie Batza, Before AIDS: Gay Health Politics In the 1970s
Michael Bronski, A Queer History of the United States
Kristeen Cherney, “What Are HIV Controllers?” (Healthline, 2018)
Alex Johnson, “How to Queer Ecology: One Goose at a Time” (Orion Magazine, 2011)
Amanda Regan and Eric Gonzaba, “Mapping the Gay Guides” https://www.mappingthegayguides.org/
Susan Sontag, AIDS and Its Metaphors
University of North Texas Library, Special Collections
One day, I heard a high-pitched plea, small, but inescapable. I searched the apartment until I found its source. A young, brown mouse, no bigger than my thumb, was stuck to a yellow glue-soaked tray. It tried to pull itself free, but its underside was coated from tip to tail. Its tiny body rattled with shrieks. I picked up the trap, the skin of my fingers stuck with the mouse, only I was big enough to break free. Like any child, I called for my mother. Mami, do something. Anything. Please. A look of pity flickered across her face. Once, my mother left me under the care of strangers. I was ten. They’re good people. Be grateful He called me, Bone, as in skin and bones—as in, white as bone—as in, something you want to. She picked up the trap and slid it into the trash can, mouse squeaking. When I dig up this memory, I am pressed between rotting produce, unable to move until I suffocate or starve. When I dig up this memory, I feel his rough hand touch my bare thigh. You’re a good kid, Bone. I think of all the traps humans have created. Are the bodies still stuck, or do they fall away one bone at a time?.
The Time Donor
The girl’s hands were knit tightly, her thumb turning as pink as her nail polish.
“Don’t worry, hon.” Bonnie leaned across the desk. “This is very common. I had over a dozen people last month with similar results. You did a very noble thing coming in—most people never even try to donate.” With twenty- to thirty-minute consultations each, these potential donors ate six hours of Bonnie’s already limited part-time hours.
The girl parted her lips, closed them, and looked out the window. A light rain ran down the glass, distorting the red traffic light outside.
“What does it feel like?”
“The donation?” Bonnie toyed with the ring on her index finger. “You might have noticed when you came in, but we place what feels like an oxygen mask over the donor’s nose and mouth. Then, for about ten minutes, we—”
“—I’m sorry,” the girl interjected. “I understand the process. But what does it feel like?”
Bonnie looked at her watch: 3:15. The clinic closed at 4:00, and then she’d need to get across town to collect her mother for an appointment at 5:00. After that, they’d go to the dollar store, so her mother could hand-select some Christmas presents—cheap pens and chocolates and other junk that people would throw away.
“It’s like drinking through a straw, but you’re on the other end. That’s what one patient told me.”
The girl blinked.
“Have you ever donated?”
“Not here.” Bonnie shook her head. This June would be her twenty-fifth year as a nurse. She spent twenty-four of those years in intensive care, and—well—she’d donated more life energy to that career than she could ever donate here.
“I’ll email your results so you can review them further.” Bonnie stood from behind her faux wood desk. “We have a lot of FAQs on our website if you have further questions.”
The report for non-donors was a third the size of the donor report. Very bare bones to deter people from using the facility to gather health data without performing a donation. It had been a problem at the flagship clinic in Austin.
“Seventy-nine years? Is that all?” the girl rose slowly from her chair, “I’m twenty-nine already, and I don’t even have children, and—”
“You have a long life ahead of you. And our estimations aren’t always accurate. As you can read on the website, we tend to underestimate expected mileage.”
“I’m sorry.” The girl wiped her eyes.
“No apology necessary.” This job could be more therapist than nurse, which had surprised and challenged Bonnie. She hadn’t wanted a challenge.
The girl apologized again and turned to the door. “I’ll send in my husband.”
Bonnie sat back at her computer. She closed the girl’s record and returned to her unchanged donor dashboard.
It was the week before Christmas, and she hadn’t even put up the stupid tree. She was picking up her daughter from college this Friday—a two-hour drive to Bellingham—and her daughter would expect decorations when she got home. Bonnie still had to buy (and wrap) gifts for her daughter from her mother. Bonnie refreshed her donor dashboard as if she expected some miracle, but the circle above her name still read 94.6 years. She wondered if the other nurses had completed their hundred-year quotas. The clinic closed for the year after Friday—a nice, long holiday break that had lured Bonnie to this job in the first place. That, and no late nights, early mornings, or on-calls. But the week was halfway over, and she still had an unmet quota.
The husband stood in the doorway.
“C’mon in.” Bonnie smiled. She watched him close the door and sit in the chair across her desk. He sat gingerly, with his back straight and hands resting on his thighs, knees almost touching. He smiled with white teeth and blue eyes, like an adult-sized dress-up doll.
“Thanks for coming in today—” Bonnie checked her monitor “—Newman?”
“Yes. How are you?” His voice was soft but deep “Making it through. Are you a first-time donor?”
“Lovely.” Bonnie surveyed the screen of empty fields she’d need to fill, then turned her attention, at least her eyes, back to Newman. He was a good-looking young man.
“I know your first time can be overwhelming, so let me walk you through the process. I’ll ask you a few questions, which shouldn’t take long—I see you already completed the medical history and waiver on our app, which is fabulous. Then, we’ll take your vitals and prick your finger to draw some blood. This data helps us estimate your expected mileage—”
The clinic issued new verbiage for life expectancy in August to align with the latest version of their donor software.
“—to determine donor eligibility. If everything works out, we’ll proceed with the donation. Can you confirm your full name and date of birth?”
Bonnie scanned the application to validate these and other data—social security number, medications, family history of illness.
“Do you consume alcohol?” “Yes.”
“How many drinks per week?”
“Two or three beers on the weekend, sometimes.”
“Are you sexually active?” “Yes.”
“How many partners?”
Newman blushed. “One.”
Bonnie asked him to step on the scale.
“Should I take off my shoes?”
He wore those running sneakers made from almonds. What did they weigh? Like eight ounces?
Bonnie’s daughter would lecture her about disposable coffee pods this weekend. ‘Recycle those!’ she’d said at Easter. ‘Don’t use disposable! They’ll end up in the ocean!’ she’d said at Thanksgiving. She’d probably gift Bonnie reusable pods for Christmas.
With a healthy height, weight, and blood pressure—albeit high from nerves—recorded, Bonnie asked Newman to place his finger in the blood sampler, a little contraption that looked like a gel nail light. His nail beds were surprisingly healthy for a man.
Newman winced as the sampler pricked him, and Bonnie clicked at the computer to confirm the blood sample and trigger the software that calculated his expected mileage. A clockface loading icon appeared.
Nine out of ten donors were women. Men were a mixed bag—on average, their healthy mileage was 78 years, so the bar for accepting donations was a few years lower than women. But their expected mileage was often lower than the healthy mileage threshold. The algorithm must predict them doing something stupid and dying, or maybe it said something about the guys who donate time.
“Any plans for the holiday?” Newman asked through his straight white teeth. Did he use whitening strips?
“My daughter will be back in town. We’ll probably go to dinner somewhere on Christmas Eve but take it easy otherwise.”
Before Newman could press further, Bonnie asked. “Did you have any questions about the donation?”
It was 3:40. If she could get him on a table in fifteen minutes, she’d be all set. They accepted no new donors at 4:00, but the staff would stick around if a donation was in progress.
“What about exercise post-donation? Is there anything I need to worry about?”
His resting heart rate had been 45 beats per minute. Along with his long legs, that made Bonnie think he was a runner. But he didn’t have that gaunt, weathered look of a marathoner—his face was immaculately smooth.
“Lay low this evening and take it easy for the next two to three days. If you feel faint, just take a break. Don’t push it too hard.”
The application chimed.
“Here we go.” Bonnie swiveled to the monitor.
The animated gauges turned green. Across the board—cardio health, weight, vitamin levels—Newman was top of the charts. When Bonnie reached the bottom of the page, she immediately refreshed.
The page reloaded, and Bonnie discovered her eyes did not deceive.
“Good news, Newman.” She folded her hands on the desk. “Your vitals are excellent, and you have an expected mileage of 94 years.”
Newman placed a hand over his mouth.
“That gives you a donation potential of sixteen years.”
The clinic had a policy capping each donation at five years, but Bonnie had never seen anyone come close to that. She hardly broke one year per patient—even if they had a five-year potential.
“You have plenty of options for your donation: One year, five years, whatever you want.”
Newman was quiet, a hand still over his mouth. He must not have anticipated such a high life expectancy, which, Bonnie supposed, was rather refreshing. Many patients—or prospective donors, as the company had branded them—became indignant, or, like the wife, saddened by their readouts, like they were entitled to above-average scores.
Newman lowered his hand. “What do you recommend?”
The rain pattered against the glass, and Bonnie recalled her training—a recorded video from the pant-suited CEO explaining the benefits of the Quality LifeTM. In the old-world paradigm of the Quantity LifeTM, people falsely assumed more was better. Increased years was the measure of a well-lived life— society would worship the Methuselahs and turn a blind eye to the inevitability of physical degradation in their elderly years. Many financial and social benefits rewarded a life that valued quality over quantity.
“It’s a very personal decision,” Bonnie quoted her training. “You have many factors to consider— financial savings to support long-term care, career ambitions, the lifespan of a spouse or partner.”
Newman stared at the desk. To have such options…Bonnie could only imagine what she would do with that much time. Almost enough to consider a donation herself, something small and annoying, nothing more than a few months, but enough to get the readout. That said, she wouldn’t want to cling on forever, like her mom, and burden her daughter. She’d sooner be shot behind a barn than live in an assisted living facility. Bingo and coloring books and puree dinners, no thanks. Her savings were in an okay place, but her 401k wouldn’t last forever. Her financial adviser made that abundantly clear. Lord knows she wasn’t getting a pension—that concept was dying with her mother.
The wall clock ticked from 3:46 to 3:47.
“Ninety-four years.” Newman shook his head, laughing. “What am I going to do with all of that time?”
“I’d like to donate five years. I’m sure someone else could use them better than me.”
“That’s very noble.” Bonnie’s heart fluttered with excitement as she entered the details into the donor software.
Six padded folding tables lined the room, and two nurses supported a young woman with pink hair on one of them. Another nurse loaded canisters onto a metal cart. The wife sat, red-eyed, on a folding chair beside the window.
The table squeaked as Newman laid down. Cheap things. The clinic had the look of the multipurpose room at her mother’s church—tile ceiling, carts of folding chairs, and a dusty closet to hold the flimsy padded tables. The company had been around for three years now—you’d think they’d construct a more permanent facility.
Bonnie donned a facemask and wheeled a canister beside the table. By far the most valuable thing in the facility, the apparatus sported a sleek, stainless-steel case shaped like a barrel. A white hose emerged from its top and ended in a silicone suction cup. It vaguely reminded her of a beer keg—her daughter probably knew a thing or two about that. She better; Bonnie would have killed for that college experience.
Another nurse appeared across the table.
“We’re going to place this mask—” Bonnie lifted the silicone suction cup for Newman to see “—over your mouth and nose. When we turn on this machine—” she tapped the stainless-steel apparatus “—you’ll feel a light sucking. It might feel uncomfortable at first, but that’s completely normal. Keep breathing, sit back, and try to relax.”
A flush of color graced Newman’s cheeks.
“If at any time you feel uncomfortable and want to stop, raise your arm, and we’ll assist.”
Newman eyed the apparatus. The nurses jokingly called it “the vampire.”
“How long does it take?”
“For five years,” Bonnie glanced at the nurse, whose eyes widened at the number. “Around thirty minutes.”
Bonnie plucked a tablet from a nearby cart and handed it to Newman.
“We have games and TV shows if you get bored.”
The nurse gently lifted Newman’s head from the table, and Bonnie fixed the suction cup to his face and tightened the straps around his skull. Nice and snug. She then knelt beside the vampire and tapped its screen. The interface was clean and straightforward—one field for rate and one for volume, and plus and minus buttons between them. Easier to configure than a microwave oven.
Bonnie set the standard harvest rate—two months per minute—and the volume to sixty months. Her watch dinged, and she saw a message from her mother’s assisted living facility. She used to call these places “nursing homes” until she admitted her mother. She didn’t bother to read the message but saw that it was 3:55. Biting her lip, she upped the harvest rate to three months per minute. Newman was a strong kid; he could handle the higher rate. Bonnie flicked the switch atop the vampire, and it began to whirr like a coffee maker. The screen transitioned to a countdown timer and an indicator for months harvested. Cross-eyed, Newman stared at the cup over his nose.
“How are you doing?” Bonnie asked over the vampire’s buzz.
Newman gave a thumbs-up.
The wife sat tall in her chair, her fingers scratching the top of her chest. Bonnie forwarded Newman’s thumbs-up, but the girl didn’t divert her watch of the table. She must have scheduled their appointments—probably read some article about “giving back this holiday season” and couldn’t resist her urge to “make a difference.” She might have received one of those heart-string-yanking text messages about grandma expiring a month before her granddaughter’s birth. That one made Bonnie laugh.
Newman coughed beneath the mask, and Bonnie watched him settle back down.
“Highest quality, lowest suck,” the trainer had said, making Bonnie think of the slogan from her hometown grocery store: “Highest quality, lowest price.” A lower rate was easier on the donor and harvested higher fidelity months—whatever that means. Even if a month or two got corrupted, these five
years would vastly exceed her past two weeks’ donations combined. Bonnie had four “pregnancies” last week, which she had considered the most lucrative. Three-to-six months was the most common, even though most donors—most women—had a potential of one-to-three years. The company pushed a “donate a pregnancy” campaign to encourage women to give nine months at their next clinic visit.
Newman’s face turned red and sweaty, so the nurse placed a damp cloth on his forehead.
This was a double-win for the wife, really. Not only was Newman’s donation a substantial act of good, but they were enabling an earlier retirement. A reduced lifespan could lower their retirement savings target or allow them to enjoy it more frivolously. They could buy a boat or a timeshare or whatever they wanted. They wouldn’t have to see their nest egg diminished by long-term care, rising inflation, or capital gains tax.
The vampire hum grew louder, and the console beeped: twelve months harvested. Newman’s breathing stabilized, so the nurse removed the damp cloth and motioned to Bonnie.
The nurse whispered. “How about an extra year?”
Bonnie wrinkled her forehead. “We’re already at five, we—”
“—Stravos is coming.”
“His monthly injection?”
The nurse searched Bonnie’s eyes.
“He takes a six-year dose, and, well—” her whisper softened “—last month, he raised a complaint about freshness.”
“What about her?” Bonnie thumbed toward the pink-haired donor. “Can’t we use—”
“—Stravos doesn’t take mixed months, remember? Besides, she only donated three.”
“When’s he coming?”
“His assistant said four.”
It was 4:05.
Newman’s laced fingers rested on his rising and falling stomach. The wife perched in her chair like it was a fire tower.
“I have to pick up my mom.” Bonnie turned her back to the wife’s vigil. “I’ll raise the donation a year, but can you handle Stravos?”
They exchanged a visual handshake and returned to separate sides of the table.
Six instead of five? A simple, fat-fingered mistake. Shouldn’t it be the machine’s job to restrict volume anyway? Why would the device make it possible if they shouldn’t accept six-year donations in the first place?
Bonnie knelt beside the vampire: 42 months.
“Doing well, Newman. Halfway there.”
Newman slowly raised his hand, probably to scratch his face.
Bonnie tapped the big plus sign on the console, and the vampire beeped. Nobody noticed, so Bonnie hit it eleven more times to increase the harvest to 72 months. After the twelfth tap, the vampire whirred like a ShopVac. Newman shuddered.
The other patient coughed, and the nurses brought her water. While the vampire harvested Newman, Bonnie made herself busy boxing up uneaten snacks. She needed more donations like this: quick, easy, high-volume. Not the chatty do-gooders with their piddly three months. A few five-year donations and— She withdrew another tablet and tapped Newman’s shoulder.
He opened his bloodshot eyes.
“Would you like to register for recurring donations? You can donate up to four times per year. We’ll send you email reminders if you’re interested. All you have to do is enter your email.” Bonnie placed the tablet on Newman’s chest and pointed to the form. “We’ll take care of the rest.”
With fingers like pale toothpicks, Newman tapped in his email address one character at a time. Bonnie accepted the tablet when he finished, and Newman lay limply on his back, eyes half-closed and chest undulating like a flag in the wind. The hose draped over him, an albino serpent that latched onto his face. He didn’t have much longer.
It was 4:16.
The vampire buzzed like a chainsaw, louder than the rickety box fan in the corner. If nothing else, the buzz drowned out the adult contemporary droning over the speakers. Stupid thing. If the machine couldn’t handle a three-month-per-minute harvest rate, it shouldn’t give her the option. Bonnie snatched a bottle of sanitizer and sprayed the empty tables. Two, three more minutes, and they’d be done. She rubbed a rag over the surface. Why weren’t the other nurses helping? Didn’t they have lives to get to after this? Where—
The whirring stopped.
The nurses’ heads swiveled to Newman’s table.
The vampire stuttered like a pull-string lawn mower before it caught and resumed its steady hum. Bonnie dropped the rag. “Newman?”
He lay still, his arms splayed and hands dangling off the table. Unresponsive. Bonnie pressed a hand to her forehead. Could she be liable for this? What kind of legal fees would she—
“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god!” the wife sprang from her perch, “No, no, no! Oh my god! Oh my god! Someone, help! Help!”
“Stand back!” Bonnie yelled, and the assistant nurse stepped between the wife and her husband. Bonnie crouched beside the vampire and tapped the screen. 115 months.
How could that be? Bonnie clutched the stainless-steel vampire. The whirring increased. The target volume was still 60 months, and the harvest rate was—
15 months per minute!
Bonnie’s fingers fumbled with the minus button, but the number didn’t drop. 116 months.
“Oh my god! Oh my god!” the wife shrieked.
Should she pull the cord? The sudden end could corrupt the donation.
“Newman! Oh my god!”
A nurse appeared, and Bonnie felt eyes squinting at the console.
She yanked the power cord.
The whirring stopped, and the vampire’s screen went black.
Bonnie rose, lifted Newman’s head, and loosened the straps. The cup slid off his face.
His eyelids fluttered, and then Newman coughed. A nasty, wet cough that made him sound like a smoker. Body shaking, he hacked until his body relaxed, and his narrow eyes turned to Bonnie. Holy Christ. A flood of relief washed over her as she uncapped the water bottle and held it to his mouth. His lips parted in compliance, and she poured the liquid down his throat.
“Newman, can you please tell me your birthday.”
“June—” his voice sounded like Yoda “—seventeenth.”
“Thank you.” Bonnie patted his shoulder.
A red circle lined his nose, cheeks, and chin from the suction cup. He surveyed the nurses that encircled him—watching the worry depart their faces.
“You gave us quite a scare,” Bonnie smiled behind her mask.
Why didn’t he raise his hand? They could’ve helped him long before any of this happened. Did he not value his life? Or did he prefer suffering in silence?
The wife rushed to Newman’s side—gripping his hand and stroking his hair.
“Oh, baby, I’m so sorry. Are you okay?”
The nurses shrugged and returned to their tasks. Bonnie tended to Newman—wiping down his forehead, giving him more water, checking his pulse—while the assistant nurse, bless her, catered to the wife.
“Passing out is very common.”
“Keep giving him fluids…”
As Newman recovered, Bonnie sanitized the mouthpiece and coiled the hose around the canister. When the other nurses weren’t looking, she plugged the vampire back in and watched the screen blink to life. She braced herself for a big goose egg on the month counter. Miraculously, the interface still read 116. Bonnie exhaled. Newman was sitting up now, and the wife was feeding him a protein bar. The config was set to a fifteen month-per-minute harvest rate. Bonnie held down the minus button with a steady finger until the number dropped to two. Then unplugged the vampire.
It was 4:27.
“Take it easy for the next few days.” Bonnie handed Newman a pamphlet with his donor ID and post-donation recovery recommendations. “Avoid alcohol for 24 to 48 hours and try to limit strenuous exercise for the next three to five days. If you feel faint, take a break and rest. Get some extra sleep. Drink plenty of fluids—”
The wife plucked the pamphlet from Newman’s hands.
“Thanks again for your donation.” Bonnie placed a sticker in Newman’s now empty hand—a clockface with Time Donors Association of Western Washington scrawled around it.
“Don’t—” Newman coughed violently, his shoulders shaking “—mention it.”
The wife looked at Bonnie, mouth agape.
“Completely normal to have flu-like symptoms for a couple of hours following the donation.”
The wife shook her head and removed her sweater, draping it over Newman’s shoulders. Sniffing, Newman squeezed her hand and gently swung his feet off the table.
When the couple was gone and the other nurses were cleaning and collapsing the tables, Bonnie marched to her office and, still standing, opened her donor dashboard. Relief rained over her at the sight of her quota circle: green, full, and 104.3 years. A century in a year, a decade in a day. It was 4:35.
Bonnie shut down the computer and pulled on her coat. When she started this job, she wondered if the system recorded donation volumes per patient. She figured it had to. They must monitor the donation volumes to ensure no one exceeds the five-year policy, right? At the very least, they performed audits, of course? She’d given them too much credit. Nobody had time to care. If the quotas were full and no complaints came through, it was all kosher. The wife might complain, maybe, but she hadn’t seen the harvest volume, and her husband walked out of the clinic, so her complaint—if it even appeared—had no legs to go anywhere.
As Bonnie closed her office and crossed the donation floor, the assistant nurse trailed her.
“When you unplugged the—”
“You’re all good.” Bonnie didn’t slow her stride. “All months are accounted for.”
“All six.” Bonnie zipped her jacket. “Even a little extra.”
“Extra?” The nurse paused by the door.
“Merry Christmas.” Bonnie patted her shoulder and exited the room.
As she crossed the atrium, her padded shoes squeaking over the tile, Bonnie withdrew her phone. She opened the map app and navigated to her mother’s nursing home. As the route loaded, she caught a whiff of cigar smoke and looked up. Stravos was shuffling across the atrium, his pearly implants shining between his leathery orange lips. He was smiling at her. Not a smile of recognition, but a grin that modeled his desired behavior. Say what you want, but this old geezer was the real donor—his monthly injection fees kept the clinic open; you didn’t need an accountant to figure that out. Not returning the smile, Bonnie looked back at her phone as they passed. All routes were yellow, and her ETA was a few minutes behind schedule. She fished the car keys from her coat pocket and hastened her stride. If the lights turned in her favor and she drove a bit faster, she might just make it.
Captive Bolt Stunner
We have done an old sheep today, and so I find myself at the helm of a wheelbarrow of eviscera and skin and hooves and spine that must outweigh me by twenty-odd pounds, stumble-jogging down the terraced slopes of a winter soybean field by the lightlessness of a nearly new moon. I am supposed to be writing, but it is butcher season. It is early November, with light frosts overnight, and days sunny and warm enough to butcher bare-handed in the shed without a propane heater, without going numb.
I am making my precarious way to the ravine in the middle of the section—a square mile of field— where I will wrestle the wheelbarrow to the furrowed edge without letting it go over—or, at the very least, without letting it take me down, too—and therein strew the contents for the coyotes, who will make quick work of my mess, and hopefully less work of our chickens. It is not really a ravine, or, it is not supposed to be, but the farmer whose land this is has never been a great manager, he is not very bright, we say about him, and he has been informed by two decades of maximally extractive university research funded by the major ag corporations, and he is expecting any minute to sell this section for development. He will make a killing. So he has over the past few years removed his erosion buffers, ripped out great swaths of brome grass and flowering herbaceous plants in the drainage-ways of the land, and installed, instead, culverts and bare land bridges, so that he can plant right up to the edge of his narrow waterway and drive his machinery across it. The land bridges and culverts each year are washed out, as tons and tons of silty topsoil flow fast down the fields and into the drainage, widening it, clawing down the banks and cutting deeper and deeper into the ground, some ten feet down and fifteen feet across. And each late spring or early summer the farmer drives into his field a front-end-loader with a grapple on the bucket, often smushing out his just sprouted beans or corn, because he must rebuild his road across his ravine or he won’t be able to get his harvest equipment to the two-thirds of his crop on the other side, and he collects the culverts and re-sets them and dozes great heaps of ravine-river-delta back up the slopes of his land to re-pack his road. If he is lucky, it does not wash out again before harvest. What this management style means for me and my wheelbarrow and our absolutely blackout pilgrimage to the middle of the section is that this year’s late, heavy rains have carved treacherous shadows into the ground where I least suspect them. When the wheel drops into a cut in the land, it halts and tips upward, threatening to heave itself sideways. I do not halt until I collide with the wheelbarrow and cut my shin through my jeans, and it takes the whole weight of me to keep the thing from emptying out. Breathing hard, I am not yet halfway there. I rock and pull and push, attempting to surmount the incline on the other side, but am unable. I can only dislodge the wheel from the furrow by backing up. I turn the wheelbarrow ninety degrees. I use my phone flashlight for a furtive moment to get a look at how far up the slope this washout goes, to see where I will be able to get across before I can come back down and continue.
I do this at night without a light because I am not supposed to do it. It’s not our field, after all. This did not used to be much of a problem, because my in-laws’ house used to be one of a half-dozen
residential lots along the edge of this section, which the current farmer’s parents sold off in the 60’s, and on all sides were fields, and there was a general agreement that as long as the residents did not disturb the crop, the residents might play paintball in the long, wide stretches of brome and mulberry with their kids, or sled down the backside of the dam at the far side of the section. Now, the sections on two sides of this one, and just across the road from my in-laws’ house, are almost entirely developed into massive estates with rolling green lawns and lawn sprinklers and those ambient golden property lights mounted on their eves and security cameras and golf carts—people out here have adopted golf carts to navigate their sense of country living, an unironic country-clubbing of rural ideation that I couldn’t have made up—and in-ground pools and brand new maximum-tow-load trucks parked in their detached three-tofive car garages. One house has its pool inside, like a celebrity home, a detail I might not have employed, if this were a short story, for its being too absurd. And these people, or some people, lately, have been calling the cops on people in fields. It’s happened twice. The sense of private property is crystallizing, sharpening around us.
So nobody can see me, is the idea. There are now a few houses on other edges of the section, people we don’t know. We still feel pretty confident that the farmer would not care that we are dumping guts into the field; he gave us paintball permission, and gives other people hunting permission, and I have on the occasional winter walk encountered the site of a deer-cleaning. This is not so different, and I am taking my haul as directly as I can to the coyotes.
This afternoon, the kill did not go well. At the time of it not going well, the thoughts that I permitted myself to entertain were what the fuck, and, I’m sorry, and, think about this later, not now, later. As my feet find their way in the dark over shattering stubble and crop residue clods, I permit myself to think about it. I apologize again to the sheep. It is the first sheep I’ve ever slaughtered. A male sheep is a ram; our guy’s name was Rambo.
When we first purchased the captive bolt stunner, we tested it on an old railroad tie. The tool uses a cartridge, just like a gun, but instead of firing a bullet, it fires a bolt, which near-instantly retracts. I say tool, instead of weapon, though it also goes by ‘cattle gun’ and ‘captive bolt pistol.’ When we tested it, the bolt punched a perfectly smooth, smoking cylinder into the solid wood. I was nervous. I did it multiple times, inspecting after each percussion the depth and angle of my work, to make sure I could perform it correctly. When I prepared to apply it to the back of a goat’s head, I found myself visualizing where on my own skull I would execute the stun.
When we are going to process an animal, we lead the animal into the yard with a little grain, or we close the animal into a stall in the barn where it’s already at rest. The idea is that the animal is not afraid. The animal lowers its head for a pleasant treat, a scratch. We handle them regularly; I think we annoy them, but mostly we do not frighten them. The idea is that this animal never has to get loaded into a trailer, driven to a slaughterhouse, handled roughly in its terror, stand overnight in a chute saturated with the shit and blood of impending death. The idea is that we do the handling ourselves, with compassion— that this is a kind of care.
The stunner is an immediate emptiness. No anticipation, no fear. After the animal drops, I take a very sharp knife and cut below the jaw, opening up the artery. It’s best to pump one of their front legs, to
hurry the blood out.
Once the animal is bled and definitively dead, my husband and I slit the skin around the back ankles, peel it down, and let the knife ease itself between the tendons. We open up these holes so that we can weave the hoist rod through, and then we pulley the animal to hanging. We hang our animals on my inlaws’ swingset. We skin and eviscerate. I’m good at it, have been doing it a long time. The animal hangs in the shed, cooling, until the following morning, when we butcher.
With Rambo, I tried to use the captive bolt stunner per its recommendations. That is to say, from the front of the head. I had never killed a sheep before. Goats, yes; chickens and rabbits plenty. But I haven’t killed too many ruminants, because we only recently started processing for ourselves.
Back in Missouri, where my spouse and I raised these goats for sale to restaurants and families, we took our animals to be processed a few towns over. Asmir was Bosnian (he still is, obviously; the business is still there and he’s still running it, but I’ll write about him in the tense of my experience) and he worked the chute, the kill-floor, the packaging, and deliveries himself. His dad worked the kill-floor, too, barehanded with an inch of ash dangling from the cigarette papered between his dry lips. Asmir’s dad spoke little English. He helped me unload animals: we communicated mostly with pointing, thumbs up or down, and shouts. Raw flesh grit caked his tobacco stained nailbeds. He ate jerky out of his pocket while he worked. I couldn’t imagine an existence so steeped in meat. I couldn’t imagine where he’d been, either.
The St. Louis area had been the site of an extensive relocation of Bosnian refugees in the 90s. They were refugees from the genocidal ethnic cleansing of the Bosnian war. At its peak, the Bosnian population in the St. Louis area was about 70,000 people. I don’t know anything about Asmir’s family’s experience; I never asked. I couldn’t tell how old Asmir was. If Asmir was not born here, he had come over young enough to get pretty good English, drive box trucks through St. Louis traffic, and figure out how to do taxes for a business. The last one was more than I could do. Most abattoirs charged a flat per-head kill-fee for every animal, regardless of size. A seventy dollar kill fee spread out over hundreds of pounds of beef wasn’t bad; on a sixty pound goat—goat already being on the high end of what people were willing to pay for meat—it really added up. Asmir charged a lower fee per head for small animals, even goats, despite the fact that killing a goat is different than killing other animals. Most abattoirs use stunners, which go through the front of the skull into the brain. The animal is rendered unconscious; the worker cuts the animal unconscious. The horn plate on a goat or a horned sheep, which exists to withstand tremendous force, makes this impossible. The stunner bolt won’t reliably penetrate. So goats and horned sheep are cut while conscious. This is also true for all kosher facilities. The animals are simply bled, fully conscious.
I’d only participated in this one time in Missouri, at the farm I managed. We sold live goats to a few Kenyan and Indian families. It is legal for somebody to purchase a live animal from you and slaughter it on your property; as long as you don’t assist them in any way, you are not liable for whatever food safety transgressions or injuries they might sustain. On one occasion, a father came out to the farm with his kids, four of them, and the oldest was eleven. Kenyatti wanted an intact buck. Big horns, rutting, the buck was hard to hold down for the cut. Kenyatti’s eleven-year-old, tears in his eyes and rooted to the hill a few feet away, couldn’t help, and therefore, we couldn’t not. Kenyatti’s knives were not sharp enough.
The animal wailed. Goat cries, as you may know from the internet, sound not unlike desperate children.
One morning in the winter, I pulled up to Asmir’s building with four animals in our little pickup. I’d had to beg for the slot in his schedule: it was deer season. Asmir took our animals on the condition that we would run our own delivery even though we didn’t have a reefer truck, which was pseudo-legal, by which I mean that it was not legal, but that it was Missouri, where regulations on rural people are lax even on paper, and enforcement is practically treasonous. After Asmir’s dad helped me unload the goats into the chute, bloody aproned in his gut-splattered boots, he lit another cigarette and drank from a coffee thermos greasy with his handprints. He gestured to the semi-trailer taking up most of the yard, and then to his own arms, which he sagged demonstratively, to show his exhaustion. Inside the open trailer were hundreds of semi-frozen deer corpses, and I do mean hundreds, thrown in on top of one another at all angles, splayed and tangled legs, milk-eyes and purple tongues lolling. Though it sent a wave of nausea through me, I couldn’t imagine that this image represented more than a lot of long days for Asmir’s family. A volume of bodies was not a shock to them.
The red one was your little buddy, Asmir said to me, when I came to pick up animals.
I caught my breath. That goat had been so friendly. Not even a bottle baby, and yet strangely trusting. I named him Melvin. But I had talked myself out of keeping pets. This was a livestock operation, not a hobby farm. We couldn’t afford pets.
I pet him, Asmir said, his eyes breaking momentarily for the first and only time I witnessed, and it still wrecks me. Both that I took Melvin in for slaughter, unloaded him into the blood-and-guts reeking chute to stand in the cold overnight and shit himself with fear, and that Asmir had to kill him, cut his trusting throat alive and screaming, and move onto the next one, and the next one after that.
What do we ask of people, when we ask them to slaughter anonymous animals for a living? Beyond their bodies, we ask of them a profound desensitization, an internal hardness, a life whose daily fabric— whose nailbed crust, whose hot shower aroma, whose half-sleep visual rumination—is the repetition ad nauseum of the concentrated death required by an industrialized meat system. We ask them to bear a reality that we can’t.
But you know this. You know it when you think about it. And then you drive home, wait for Asmir to call you and tell you when your next batch of animals will be ready for pick-up, so you can coordinate deliveries with your chefs, and give them produce availability lists; and you pull row covers in the high tunnels, and collect eggs, and review the seeding schedule for the following week, and you make dinner and eat it and wash the dishes and close the chicken coops and check your emails and place a few seed orders and walk out into the pasture in the middle of the night in rainboots and your underwear, shivering, to see if you closed the chicken coop, and you did.
Some five years later, I’ve attempted to kill a sheep, and it hasn’t gone well. The captive bolt stunner punched the same perfectly cylindrical, perfectly smoking hole into the sheep’s head, and the sheep did not drop. The sheep with the hole in his head blinked at me. His gentle eye stayed perfectly conscious. I let go of his head, and he turned it, to look me in the face.
What the fuck, I said, almost a whisper. With my legs, I pressed the sheep’s body against the halfwall. He seemed slightly unstable, but I wasn’t sure. I didn’t want to relieve any of my pressure against
him. He outweighed me, and was significantly stronger than I was. If he felt like kicking or dragging his way out of that stall, he could have.
What do I do? I said. My husband grabbed the captive bolt stunner and ran to the shed to reload. My father-in-law and I stood in silence in the stall, both of us with our hands on the animal, me pinning him firmly to the wall, my father-in-law holding the sheep’s face in his downturned hands. I felt the sheep’s chest. I felt for his heart.
His heart is not going crazy, I said, as if that meant something. I wasn’t sure what it meant. The sheep wheezed, then, and blood dripped from his lips.
It did something, my father-in-law said, He’s got blood running.
I’m sorry, I whispered to the sheep.
My husband returned with the reloaded captive bolt stunner, reached over the half-wall, and positioned it firmly at the back of the animal’s skull.
Be careful, my father-in-law said, With your hands. I had taken the sheep’s jaw. The bolt would only eject two inches, but these are exactly the situations, nerves jumpy, trying to re-right the ship of time that has capsized us in uncertain limbo, in which people stupidly get hurt. We waited for agonizingly long seconds, making sure all our hands were positioned securely, holding the sheep’s head so that the force wouldn’t just kick it away, the stunner flush and aimed right. We said, Ready, Ready, Ready, Ready. And finally it went.
Rambo dropped, legs jelly, and reflex-kicked a few times as my husband jumped the wall and pressed himself down on top of the animal, holding him still, while I took the knife and made the cut. Our knives are so sharp you can shave translucent curls from your fingernails. The cut is always easy to make. It happens almost without me.
I’m sorry, Rambo, I said to him again, as my husband pumped his front leg to hurry the blood out. That’s not how I wanted this to go.
Out in the field, post skinning and eviscerating and hosing down, post sectioning and tracing along joints and grinding, in the deep dark, I breathe hard and wonder at some prayer I ought to say to the wheelbarrow full of all that which we will not use. I’m never sure how much is too much.
I try to take a moment before I kill an animal to hold gratitude for its life, but the moment cannot go on too long or I will fall forward into a limitless vacuum of paralysis. I will not be able to hold the contradictory things in my head. It must be turned off. So the amount that is less than too much, in that moment, is just exactly the amount of gratitude I can withstand, and still kill the animal.
Afterward, now, the right amount is just exactly the amount I can hold in my body leaning into the simple tool of itself. Wheelbarrow up, the whole machine of my legs lifting against this broken-down body’s unsteady weight, holding on and letting go. Once the balloon of stomach lurches out, the whole lot slides over, all connected. I lift the head out with my hands, place it gently. This is a small offering to coyotes, and to the sheep who should have gone instantly dark but did not, and to the swale-turned-ravine whose life has been torn out, and to slaughterhouse workers who kill for our living.
In dreams of execution I go willingly. I tell the others, It will be over soon. I exhale my fear and I lend my skull to the hostage-taker’s barrel, calmly. This is the worst part, and so if it is not so bad, then death is not so bad. It is a relief. I wake in a state of profound bodily serenity, the kind I imagine people
experience in sensory deprivation tanks. I hope to go trusting into careful hands, domesticated thing that
I am, in the surround of the ever-encroaching violence of rural suburbia. This care is the small world I am making. I hope that I am trying to do the right thing, even in my failures. It will be over sooner than I think, and now is now, so I vow to try again today, to be kind and to pay attention.
ní de aquí
at home a small brown boy sits in front of the tv his mom tells him to sit farther away but he doesn’t later he plays with his plastic heroes SteveRogersClarkKentBruceWaynePeterParker he knows he is never the hero at school he believes the assembly when they show pictures of dirty corn in bathtubs Do not buy from the corn men they say at a fiesta he hits a piñata harder than the others tearing open Superman’s papier-mâché chest he is the first to grab the little candies wrapped in plastic at school he is given awards for good english he likes being one of the smart ones when Ale says share instead of chair the boy laughs and doesn’t know why
They are being checked each for emotional stability as they enter, the scanner beeping red or green as it sweeps them head to toe. Most of them are green by default but three still turn up red and are ushered off. Marie finds a window seat and turns to look at the two women and one man who are now gazing at the rear end of the bus, vacantly, like pieces left over at an auction. She brings her face closer to the window and breathes, watching the mist grow thick and then recede from the periphery inward, and she is just in time to raise her finger and paint a line through it before the glass dulls over and turns matte black. The reformatory is tall, white and evenly windowed. The little she can see of the surroundings as she exits the bus is flat, topped with a sky whose blue is unrelieved by either cloud or sunshine. Dinner has been sent to the rooms - a baked potato and a chicken salad, no dressing, just like she’d requested. There is a single bed, a cupboard, a grey shag carpet and a bathroom attached. Among the documents she has submitted beforehand is a self-attested statement that she has disposed of all the relics of all her loves except for one memento, something portable, like a letter or a piece of clothing. As she takes off her contact lenses she thinks of how she chose not to bring Francis’ grey T-shirt, one of many he would douse in Old Spice before heading out to work or anywhere else. After he moved out she had hung the T-shirt up unwashed in her closet and allowed herself a single embrace of it every day, rationing it out so the smell would stick longer, until one day all she could smell was moth.
Day One. They are filed into a room with chairs arranged in a half-circle and asked to sit. When it is Marie’s turn to share she holds up the scrapbook tied with green ribbon and talks about the boy with whom she had filled it all the way up to the halfway page, which was when he had stopped taking her calls but she had still held on to the phantom of him and filled the rest of the pages with experiences she wished they had had - movie tickets, concert passes, motel receipts, a condom. A bucket has been brought in and they come up one by one and place their mementos inside. They do it for the most part without hesitation, all except for a girl with bluish-black hair and pierced eyebrows who lets out a howl right in front of the bucket and holds the object to her chest and says she can’t do it, she loved him too much, she’d rather go on hurting than let go of it. One of the nurses steps forward and encloses the girl in her arms. From where Marie is watching it could well be strangulation, the enormous white back of the nurse and the twig-like girl invisible except for her face, which is tense at first but then relaxes muscle by muscle, as though she is winding down, and she doesn’t respond even when a second nurse takes the object from her and drops it in. As the lighter clicks Marie can make out a face on the object, a soft kind like a kitten, and feels a sharp and sudden pang. Motor oil makes a big blaze and the smell is rapidly unbearable. Marie shifts her gaze to the floor and does her best not to cough.
Night. Dinners have been served and washed up after and the nurses have retreated to their wing. She waits an extra twenty minutes to exit her room and make her way down to the kitchen door. Under a
fold of her shawl she holds the memento, whole and unburnt, that she has retrieved from the secret compartment inside her bag. She goes into the garden and makes her way towards the flowerbeds at the south end where a rake has been left obligingly next to a patch of freshly tilled soil. About a foot deep, she estimates, and the job done and herself back in bed in under half an hour. Perfectly simple - except that there is someone else already bending over the soil.
“You’re not the only one, you know,” he says a few minutes later. They are side by side on a bench with their mementos on their laps.
“It’s hard to destroy something that once meant so much. It’s like setting fire to that version of yourself.”
“So the others brought fakes to the exercise too?”
“Some of them, yes. They’ll hide the real ones here, like us, or maybe they still have the real ones back home locked up somewhere. Just so they know it exists.”
In the moonlight he appears young, almost youthful, but she can tell from the timbre of his voice that he is over sixty. He picks up the scroll of paper on his lap and opens it out. It is a likeness of him in pen and ink, an excellent one.
“My second husband made this for me on our last trip together. It was in Rome, at the Trevi Fountain. I was in the way of a bunch of kids making wishes and one of their coins caught me right at the back of my neck.” He chuckles. “Said he’d never seen anyone as annoyed about being pelted with money as me.”
“Was he a professional artist?”
“He went to art school, yes. Couldn’t ever quite make it big, though. He lacked the - how shall I call it - the panache. The thing you need to get people to listen to what you’re saying.”
“Hustle, is what they call it these days.”
“Hustle, yes.” He smiles. “No, he was never a hustler, my Tomas. Hustling was my wife’s thing - my first wife.”
“I’ve been married to both, you know,” he confides. “Marriage wasn’t about the sex, not for me. It was about companionship, home and hearth, going through things together. It’s even happened that I was married and we never laid hands on each other. That was my first wife too, actually,” he adds. “Used to be a nun, but she left the church after one of the priests tried to get a little too close to her. She came out determined to never let God or a man near her again but she was lonely and she needed warmth and a home, and I was happy to give her both. And she made the most excellent spinach cannelloni.” His eyes take on a faraway glaze, whether at the thought of the first wife or the cannelloni it is hard to tell.
“How many times have you been married, if I may ask?”
“And they didn’t...work out?”
“People change, you know,” he says. “Or they die. No other reason to end a marriage, really.”
“And which was it with the former nun?”
“Oh, she changed. Three years into the marriage. Started volunteering at a charity for fallen women and said she couldn’t in good conscience have a home of her own when so many others were kicked out of
theirs. We put things in order and she moved with the charity to Bolivia. Still there, I believe.”
“That must have been hard to deal with.”
“It was,” he says serenely, “but then the others were too. Different people matter differently - can’t say any one of them was a harder loss than the others.”
“And why does this memento matter?”
He opens his mouth readily enough and then pauses. She doesn’t immediately see it but then she does, the dulling over of his eyes that now stare vacantly ahead, almost as though a veil has dropped between her and them. He rolls up the paper and stands.
“We should finish up soon, it’s getting cold.”
Day Two is about self-affirmation. They are given sheets of paper and asked to write good things about themselves that have nothing to do with how they look. “You need to be in touch with the core ‘you’,” the nurse is saying. “What lies at the heart of you - what makes you tick, what do you have that no one else has?” Here again, the girl with the pierced eyebrows is seen to protest. What she wants to write about, it transpires, is her hair - which, being a physical attribute, she is not allowed to write about.
“But it’s my hair,” she insists. “I fought for it. People kept asking me to change it - cut it, wave it, colour it brown, colour it green - and I just kept doing it and it messed up my hair and I still kept doing it but this hair, the way it looks now, this is me. It is me.”
The nurse listens all the way through and shakes her head, nothing aggressive, just a gentle side to side and then back to centre. It is the same nurse who took the memento from the girl on the first day, or perhaps another - there is a uniformity to their faces and movements that makes Marie suspect they might be androids, and well they might be with what it costs to come here. She looks down at her own page. Who is the core ‘she’, and does one exist at all? How did one scratch out the imprints that life and people had made and be left with anything other than blankness? As a three-year-old she had liked sticking bottle caps onto construction paper to make shapes in geometries that Francis would later tell her were fractal. After a pause she writes ‘craft’. The girl with the pierced eyebrows is the first to leave. She is leaning against the wall outside when Marie comes out, her makeup pooled into her under-eyes.
“It’s all right, you know,” says Marie. “To want to write about your hair.”
The girl shoots her a quick look and says nothing.
“It’s important to you, and that’s what counts,” she continues. “I guess they have certain guidelines here about the kinds of exercises that will work best…”
“They’re just like everyone else,” snarls the girl. “They want you to do all that self-love shit and call yourself things you know aren’t true. ‘I am powerful’ ‘I am enough’ ‘I am a warrior’ ‘I am a goddess’...” She exaggerates the quote marks, rolling her eyes backward in near-comic sarcasm. “Like,” she reverts to her snarl, “do they really think we’d need all this reformation shit if we were goddesses?”
Rhetorical questions have always posed a challenge for Marie, like a thrown gauntlet of sorts. Did one walk away? Nod sympathetically? Shrug it off? For a change, however, she has a real answer.
“You know, my ex-husband used to think the same way.”
She waits for the warning signs, an acceleration in heartbeat or a sudden coldness. Nothing. Almost but not quite surprised, she goes on.
“He had no time for things like positive thinking or affirmations, any of this. Talk, he used to say, idle talk when there was work to be done. Most practical man you’d ever meet. Give him a poem, he’d ask you why none of the commas were in the right place. He was an automotive engineer - great at his job. But then again,” she reflects, “he never did quite get the hang of talking to customers.”
“So what happened with him?” asks the girl abruptly. It’s too personal for a first conversation, and yet Marie has invited it by bringing him up.
“Oh, well,” she says, distilling the truth to the barest of essentials, “he cheated on me.”
The girl looks at her wearily, or is that the makeup?
“Doesn’t everybody, at some point?”
Day Three. The neural scan, to help the reformation target the imprints of the pain they want to forget. There are markers for it that show up on the scanner—Marie can see the screen for the person currently inside, an outlined brain with patches of blue all over like spilt Gatorade. When it is her turn she is given a hospital gown and told to relax. More from ease of association than anything else she thinks about Atticus—her other best friend, one could say, the silent witness to her growing-up years. Arshi and Atticus, Atticus and Arshi. Afterwards her head aches and she goes to the cafeteria. The man from the garden last night is at a table by himself. He looks up as though on cue as she enters and smiles.
“Saw you talking to that punk girl earlier,” he says as she sits opposite him.
“Don’t you mean goth?”
“Quite likely I do. How does one tell the difference, anyway?”
“I was a little surprised to see her here, honestly,” she says. “She looks too young to have been through anything that calls for reformation.”
“One could argue that it’s pretty harsh to have a qualification process for heartbreak in the first place. It’s like the people who didn’t make it are being told their troubles aren’t valid enough.”
“You’d rather it be more democratic?”
“As long as one can pay for it, why not?”
“Why not, indeed? Less trouble for us. No psych evals, no polygraphs, no scanners that might send us off the bus at the last minute.”
“Even the tests aren’t a hundred percent accurate, if you think about it. They make sure you’re emotionally stable at the time you’re testing, yes. But who’s to say the people who passed didn’t go on a drinking binge two nights ago and clean up in time to catch the bus?”
“Is that what you did?” she laughs.
“Of course not.” He laughs along with her. “I stuck to my Vicodin.”
It is a joke, most likely, and yet it makes her uncomfortable. She looks away from him and upwards and notices for the first time that the perimeter of the ceiling is not straight but bevelled, curving upward into a dome of white that makes her feel like something caught in an egg.
“By the way,” she says to change the subject. “My name’s Marie.”
“And a very pretty name it is.”
She waits for ten seconds and then excuses herself.
Day Four is about healing through handwork. Each of them had to mention on the form something they liked doing and hadn’t done in a while, or something they’d wanted to do but never could—“within reason” had been added prudently. Implements are ready at individual workstations and they have three hours to do what they will. She draws a fistful of bottle caps from the boxful they have given her and pushes them around on the construction paper, avoiding anything fractal-like. What she ends up with each time looks like worms, and finally she picks the two largest and starts to flick them against each other like carrom coins. A shadow falls across her desk—the man from the garden.
“Restrictions here too,” he says without preamble. “Just like everywhere else. I don’t think there’s any place or time where you can truly do what you like.”
“So what would you like to do that isn’t within reason?”
“Go skiing in the Alps,” he says at once. “And fall at least seventeen times.”
“Quite the contrast from woodwork.”
He looks at the saw in his hand and smiles. “My grandfather was a carpenter. I grew up playing in his workshop - learned how to make a chair from start to finish by the time I was ten. Later for the Red Cross I made toys. Little bitty things, animals, ships, cars, houses. Kids in war zones, they need things they can keep hidden - anything bigger, their parents will sell it for food. And say all you want, a full belly isn’t quite the same thing as a full heart, especially for kids. I like woodwork,” he adds, almost as an afterthought.
“That was kind of you.”
“Oh,” he says off-handedly, “I only joined after my first husband. Ken was, well, what they call a taker. Lived off me the entire two years we were married and then left me. That was when I figured, if I couldn’t give him enough to get him to stay, I might as well switch the giving to folks who’d need it.”
“And then came Tomas.”
“And then came Tomas.”
“May I say I’m sorry you had to go through what you did?”
“Oh, believe me,” he says lightly. “It’ll hurt him much more. Because when you’re the one who hurt someone else you have to deal with knowing how they’re feeling and that you did it to them. Someday, somehow, he’ll see what he did, and it’ll eat him alive.”
And who is he talking about - Ken or Tomas? Before she can respond he is speaking again.
“She wasn’t with us on the bus, you know.”
He is looking over her right shoulder. She turns around and sees the girl with the pierced eyebrow at the workstation nearest to the door, doing something with a pair of scissors.
“How else would she have come here?” she says.
“You know she’d never have made it past the scanner.”
His eyes are glossy, unreadable. There is a twitch in his jaw which she remembers seeing before, a tic of sorts, appearing in sets of three or four to the southwest of his mouth. A thought strikes her - is Vicodin all he takes? On an impulse she gets up and moves towards the girl’s workstation. She braces for something childish, destructive, but is surprised to see her cutting intricate shapes out of origami paper.
“That’s lovely!” she says automatically.
“So I’ve been told,” says the girl without looking up. She finishes a star-shaped design and pushes it
onto the table already covered with pieces. Marie picks it up and sees that it is in fact the head of a dragon, the jaws open, the fangs pointy. There are no eyes.
Two PM, after lunch. They are lined up in rows and given microphones. The lights have been dimmed. Sonorous music is playing.
“Tell yourselves - I will heal,” says the nurse in front, her voice pitched low.
In almost perfect sync they join in. “I will heal.”
“Say loud and clear - I will survive.”
“I will survive.”
And it could be her wedding day all over again - the candles, the murmuring, the mushy view through the veil. The minister had had a stutter and taken twice the usual time to get them wedded. Someone had called to her to get away while she could. She had smiled—how could she not? and blushed just the right shade of pink—Francis had been picking at something on his lapel.
“I will rise again.”
“I will rise again.”
“I will be whole again.”
“I will be whole again.”
“I will be free again.”
“I will be free again.”
And hearing her own voice in unison with everyone else’s she can almost feel it, a sort of deeper power being unlocked, telling her that maybe she could really rise again, be whole, be free...
“I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.”
She opens her eyes. It is the girl with the pierced eyebrows, standing with her hands clapped over her ears and her eyes squeezed shut.
“Don’t make me do it, I can’t do it, I can’t forget, I can’t…”
Some of them are looking confused, while others continue the chant determinedly. Marie doesn’t know whether a patient can be pulled out this late, but it has to happen, the girl is obviously not ready. And yet no one is ushering her out, or even looking as though they are about to. When a nurse finally does approach the girl it is with a glass of water and what appears to be a pill. She takes both without protest, her thin chest exhaling, and when she walks out immediately after the nurse in front resumes the chorus without change of expression: “I will rise again.”
“I will rise again.”
When they file out Marie goes to the cafeteria, then to the scan room, then to the craft room, and then outside to where the flowerbeds are. The girl is sitting on her haunches and poking holes in the earth with her forefinger. She takes her time about looking up at Marie, and when she does, it is to rap out a question.
“What was your memento?”
“A scrapbook. You saw it.”
“I’m not stupid, you know.” The girl has purple lipstick all over her chin. “What was the real one?”
For a moment Marie is about to tell the girl to go to blazes. And then she smiles.
“A toy horse I made with my best friend when we were both ten years old.”
The girl nods.
“And yours?” Marie feels entitled to ask.
“Oh, mine was real all right,” says the girl bitterly. “A cushion. A fifth birthday present from my dad.” She pauses. “Right before he told me to come sleep with him in his bed so he could keep me safe.”
“To keep you - oh god.”
“It happens all the time, I’m told,” says the girl. “He said we had to build a new world together and that I was the key to that world. He’d bring people to the house - men. He’d call them guardians, say they needed me to unlock their own new worlds. I did it. How could I not? They loved me. He loved me. And by the end of it I loved him too. They tried to get me out of it at the psych ward—told me it was abuse. A trauma response. Bullshit. I loved him. Call me fucked up if you want, but I loved him. I loved him and I’m not going to stop loving him. That’s when they sent me here. Said it was the only way I could get a chance at a different life.”
It is nearly five. The girl is staring straight ahead, her finger retrieved and slumped with the rest of the hand over her knee. Marie would have expected cuts along her arms, but they are stainless, hair-free, like the arms of a statue or fantasy figure.
“When you—when this is over,” Marie begins, “you’ll be able to see it for what it was. What your father did. Reformation - that’s what’s wonderful about it. It puts things in perspective for what they really are, beneath the feelings…”
“But I can’t see it any other way,” says the girl, and now there are tears. “I love him. It doesn’t matter what he did to me - I love him. I can’t help it. I can’t forget him - I don’t want to forget him.”
“You won’t forget him, not exactly, but…”
“What do you mean I won’t forget him, what else are we here for?”
And Marie knows she cannot help her, except to pull the shawl off her body and drape it around the thin shoulders, as she imagines a mother might. As she casts a glance back before reentering the building she sees that the girl has wound the loose end of the shawl around her hand and is teasing the hem, absently, with a nail.
Dinner is silent except for the scrape of cutlery. They eat in focused mouthfuls, their eyes on their own plates and their jaws working deliberately, as though by concentrating hard enough they can distance themselves from what has happened. The announcement has sanitised it for them—deeply regret that one of our number is indisposed, procedure to happen tomorrow as scheduled, etc etc—but the nurses have not been whispering loud enough and Marie is sitting right in front, and so she knows, knows what they caught the girl in the act of doing with the shawl, knows that it took six of them and three shots of sedative to hold her down. The man from the garden is sitting next to her. She avoids looking at him throughout the meal, and pretends not to notice when he follows her outside. For the first time she has been asking herself why she has been confiding in him, a man who won’t even tell her his name, and she is angry at herself and him and everyone else whom she could have spoken to and didn’t. But he is handing her a
peppermint and looking expectantly up at the moon, and so she tells him, as coolly as she can, about her encounter with the girl.
“Poor child,” he whispers as she finishes.
“Here’s what I don’t get, though,” says Marie. “Why reformation? Reformation’s meant for heartbreak. Lovers. The kinds of memories she has, how can one ever not feel pain? It doesn’t feel right.”
“As to that,” he says, “it would depend on how you define reformation.”
“Well, a drug’s a drug, isn’t it?”
Several seconds pass before he answers.
“The thing is, I don’t suppose any of us stopped to ask what reformation was really all about. Can’t say I blame us—I suppose it was too good a deal to question. A single procedure, goodbye heartbreak. But how does it work, exactly?”
“Well, that’s for the doctors to know and us to benefit from.”
“If I were to ask you now,” he continues, “as a layman, to tell me about reformation, what would you say?”
“It...” how had the brochure put it? “It takes away the pain from past hurts. Gives us a clean slate to start over.”
“And how does it do that?”
“By removing the memory of the pain. The neural scan picks up on the imprints of it, targets it…”
“Can it what?”
“Can it really target the pain?”
“That’s what the scan is for, isn’t it?”
“The scan picks up on the pain you’ve already felt. What about the pain you haven’t felt yet?”
She opens her mouth and then closes it again. At some point the moon has gone behind a cloud— bathed in the near-darkness he is speaking gently, almost dreamily, and it is as though the world around them has slowed down to match, like a record played on half-speed. Even the wind seems to be listening.
“Kind of genius, you know?” he is saying. “The way the mind can torture us. Get over one thing, you’ve got ten more waiting in line; set up one block, you’ve got a hundred others to contend with. It isn’t just about the actual heartbreak, you know—it’s all the attached memories. You can forget the memory of what your loved one said, but what about what someone at the next table was saying right at the same time? What if you think about that and then it hurts all over again? And then there are the things you don’t remember now, but which you could—suddenly, out of nowhere. Little things, maybe. Things your loved one did, and the things he said he would do but never did, and the things you forgot you did. And then there are the people. People you didn’t know were there at the time but they were, and you could run into them years later and they’ll say something, anything, and suddenly you’ll remember, and it’ll hurt all over again. A million parts of your brain, waiting to fire, and we don’t have a clue when or if.”
“But then why the scan at all?”
“You told me yourself,” he says quietly. “What that girl said. She came here to forget.”
“She came here to…” And then, like ice, it slides home.
“It can’t be,” she says. “All the exercises we’ve been doing…the affirmations…”
“Paving the way,” he says quietly. “Getting us ready to let go.”
“But you don’t know for certain.” She struggles to keep her voice level. “You can’t know for certain.”
“I don’t.” And now he meets her eyes. “The question is, do you want to find out?”
Some years ago, after a minor operation, Marie woke up in the middle of the night and found herself in a void. The world clicked back on only seconds later, but during that spell of blankness the thing that Marie had been most conscious of was the silence - not a voice, not a machine, not a strain of music anywhere. It was the silence that made her debate the chance that she had slid briefly into a parallel world, for in this one, surely, even in a power outage, people would talk? When she had asked Francis about it he had laughed and said that the drugs must have messed with her hearing. But she looks now at the man hunched over on the park seat, at the skin drawn across cheekbones that must once have been beautiful, and she sees on his face that same void - a complete, almost beautiful blankness severing him from the rest of the world. She thinks of the drawing he had shown her, buried now near the rosebeds, and then she thinks about Atticus buried next to it, soil or even insects leaking in through the torn seams, and how she and Arshi had stitched him together out of scraps of felt and pearl buttons. How long was it that she had cried over Atticus the day she’d found out, up in the attic, the knees of her jeans gathering dust that never quite came off after? Something brushes her cheek—it is a hawk, gliding onto a treetop and perching there, a near-invisible cutout against the sky. And she knows then that the man cannot stay in that void any longer, any more than she could have stayed on in that hospital or in that attic. Their place is here, in the world of the hawk - she has to bring him back out.
“About Tomas,” she begins. The man’s face spasms almost imperceptibly.
“You said earlier—that it hurts far more when you know you’ve hurt someone and have to carry the guilt of it. But the ones who got hurt—they’ll never know if that happened. What if we have to live all our lives wondering whether the people who hurt us know what they did—or was it maybe our fault instead?”
Instead of responding, he examines his fingernails.
“These little white specks,” he says, extending his hand palm-down. “They’re supposed to indicate a vitamin deficiency, but most people, they just wait for the nails to grow out so they can cut the white bits out. Did you know,” he says suddenly, “that every cell in the human body regenerates itself in seven years?”
“Sounds like something that would circulate on the Internet.”
“Well, that’s where I first heard of it,” he admits, “and then I did my research and found out that it was true. And, well, it became something to live by. I’d keep comforting myself with it every time I was hurt. Told myself that every seven years I would literally have a new body, that the people I had loved back then would have loved a biologically different me. And yet the mind persisted. No cell regeneration there. I remembered things from twenty years ago, thirty years ago, and if I tried hard enough I could remember how it hurt too. And I was tired of it. People talk a lot about learning from experiences, but it felt like I’d taken about as much wisdom from my pain as I could, you know? But I - I see it now. It isn’t about learning, it’s about living. The cells you can’t shed, you adjust to. Reformation, it’s a cheat code. And I’ve been cheated too often to do it to myself.”
“Which is why,” he gets up and looks around at the garden, “it’s time for me to leave.”
He has moved closer, and now for the first time there is warmth in the eyes that lock with hers, as do his hands. And when the kiss follows it is natural, unhurried, the affection of two people who know that they do not have time and thus have all the time in the world.
“You could come with me, you know,” he says to her as they walk.
“It wouldn’t work.”
“We’re paying to be here. They can’t keep us against our will.”
“But where would we go?” she reminds him. “And more importantly, how? This is the middle of nowhere.”
“Which means that every step away from here is a step closer to somewhere.”
“Or deeper into nowhere. Maybe the middle of nowhere is really the closest we are to somewhere.”
There are twelve hours to go until the procedure.
“So what will you do when you go back?” she asks.
“Grow flowers, I think. There’s much to be said for a garden of one’s own.”
“Flowers have a language, you know. Floriography. That’s how men courted women in the old days.”
“Perhaps I’ll send you letters in floriography.”
“Perhaps you will.”
They kiss again.
“And just in case you remember any of this,” he says as he turns to leave, “you may call me Cain.”
“Is that really your name?”
“It might as well be.”
She wants to say something else, but he is already walking away, his shoulders squared back. In another world there would have been alarm lights, commands to stop, but there is nothing now except the unlatching of the gate and then the click of the latch back into place, smooth and creak-free, and then he is gone.
Day Five. The nurses are wearing blue scrubs. Blue for birth, blue for regeneration. The head nurse is even wearing lipstick.
“Everything you have experienced with regard to heartbreak will be gone,” she is saying as a doctor doles out syringes full of something orange and viscous. “You will be whole again. You will be free from all the hurt. And if you want to, you will be able to love again as though for the first time.”
Fall had just begun, she remembers, that day when she and Arshi had their last picnic. They were taking turns throwing stones to try and fell the apple from the tree, and for twenty minutes had done little but shake it. And then Arshi had grabbed Atticus from the picnic blanket and hurled him nose-first at the apple and they had fallen, apple and Atticus together, the one on the soft belly of the other. Arshi had split the apple down the middle and held one half out to Marie, and Marie had accepted it and they had eaten their shares in four identical bites, but when Arshi’s back was turned she had picked up Atticus and slipped him into her jacket. She should perhaps have talked to Arshi about it rather than doing what she did - ignoring calls, refusing playdates, sitting at different tables in school - but perhaps even then she had sensed who Arshi really was and had wanted to avoid her, however crudely. It wasn’t long before
Arshi started responding in kind, and when the boy they had both liked since kindergarten had chosen Marie as his date to junior prom it had been easier than ever for them to stay apart. And now Marie can lean back, both literally and figuratively, and think about whether things could have gone differently if she had told Francis the truth about Arshi and what she was capable of. As things were, he’d had no warning— she had just been a woman he’d met at a bar. It had been Arshi who had known, who had planned each step with the care of a secret service agent, tracking him down and studying his movements and deducing his preferences and then putting herself in his way and working on him slowly, inexorably, until he had no option but to give in. When Marie had found out she had known at once that it had been this way —divorcing him had been a matter of form. She had called him only once after, when she heard about their accident—speeding Honda, straight to the liver—and how he had escaped with a broken arm and a chipped tooth. He had answered the call, and for ten minutes had talked evenly and unbrokenly about the baseball score and the weather and the kayaking he would like to do that summer. It wasn’t worth it, she had wanted to say then to Arshi, Francis wasn’t worth it and neither was the boy at prom, men rarely were. And she wonders if the man who called himself Cain will send her flowers after all.
Five more to go before Marie’s turn. Up in front the ones who went first are waking up, stretching their arms as nurses hurry forward with glasses of water. Three more to go. The girl with the pierced eyebrows gets her dose and slumps back, mouth hanging open to reveal tiny teeth. There will be more pain after this, Marie wants to say to her, there will always be people who hurt you, whether they love you or not, and maybe it’s the people who loved you the least that will break your heart the hardest, and sometimes they’ll die and you won’t have to try and forgive them but sometimes they’ll live on and that’s okay too. The floor beneath is an ash-blonde, newly swept, momentarily free of dust.
“Right arm out,” the doctor says.
Ari Laurel is a fiction writer in Seattle who writes about radicalism, orientalism, climate, and the Pacific Northwest. Her work has appeared in Ninth Letter, Passages North, Blue Mesa Review, The Conium Review, The Toast, Duende, and more. You can learn more about her work at arilaurel.com.
B. Tyler Lee is the author of With Our Lungs in Our Hands (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2016) and the winner the 2021 Orison Anthology Award for poetry and the 2020 Talking Writing Prize for hybrid essay. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in 32 Poems, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Crab Orchard Review, and elsewhere. She can be found online at www. btylerlee.com. A Texas native, she now lives in the Midwest with her partner and two sons.
Tess Fahlgren is a nonfiction writer based in rural Montana. In past lives she directed the Montana Book Festival, taught K-12 art, and drove an Art Mobile across Montana. Her work has appeared in Joyland, Blue Mesa Review, Permafrost and elsewhere. She has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Minnesota and is currently at work on a memoir.
Justin Anderson is a writer who lives and works in Seattle, Washington. He earned his bachelor’s from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He’s interested in how technology and humanity shape one another, so he enjoys the wild (and mild) possibilities explored in speculative fiction.
Deya Bhattacharya is a freelance writer and former business development manager from India who started writing fiction during the Covid-19 lockdown. Her stories have been published or are forthcoming in Eclectica, Litro Magazine, Beloit Fiction Journal, Blackbird, and elsewhere. Her work has received support from the 2021 Sewanee Writers’ Conference and has been nominated for a Best Of The Net award. Deya holds a Bachelor’s in Economics from St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata and an MBA in Marketing from Management Development Institute, Gurgaon. She really, really loves cats.
S. N. Rodriguez is a writer and photographer in Austin, Texas. She is a Writers’ League of Texas Fellow, and her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in the Journal of Latina Critical Feminism, River Teeth, and elsewhere.
Marvin Contreras is a poet, editor, and outdoor enthusiast. He was raised in the San Gabriel Valley, and he has since graduated from the University of California – Riverside with a bachelor’s degree in English. When not working, reading, or writing, he is outside watching the sparrows. He currently lives in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Kasey Peters has been a small-scale farmer and occasional school teacher for a decade. She is pursuing her MA in Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her work can be found in Pinch, McNeese Review, and North Dakota Quarterly and her book reviews are forthcoming with The Chicago Review of Books and Nashville Review. She co-hosts a podcast with poet Katie Marya called “The Tell Don’t Show.”
Gardiner Allen Brown (he/him) is a queer essayist and environmental writer from Texas. He holds an MS in Environmental Humanities from the University of Utah and currently works as a writing instructor. Much of his writing and research is about disasters, our relationship to more-thanhuman nature, and queer perspectives. His work has previously appeared in Edge Effects, the Boiler Journal, and elsewhere.
David A. Goodrum lives in Corvallis, Oregon. His photography has been juried into many art festivals in cities such as St. Louis Missouri, Columbus and Cincinnati Ohio, Ann Arbor Michigan, Bloomington and Indianapolis Indiana, and Madison Wisconsin. Additional work can be viewed at www. davidgoodrum.com and www.instagram.com/goodrum/
C. R. Resetarits is a writer and collagist/artist. Her collage art has appeared on the covers and in the pages of dozens of magazines and book covers. She lives in Oxford, Mississippi.
Visual artist. He studied Graphic Design at the University of the Gulf of California in Baja California Sur. His worldview comes from figurative and abstract art along with his experiences as a resident in the cities of Mexico, Puebla, Tijuana, Los Cabos, and, for a long period of his childhood and adolescence in Tennessee, United States. An innate inclination for the arts, a family environment that fostered a culture, as well as a revealing visit to a painting workshop at the age of six, defined his vocation as an artist.
Ronald Walker lives in the Sacramento area of CA where he paints and teaches art for a living. He holds both an MFA and an MA degree in painting and his work has been shown in more than 45 solo exhibitions over the years.
Rainy Batroff is a multidisciplinary artist based out of Albuquerque, NM. They started their career in Phoenix, AZ where they were born and raised through creating zines, designing t-shirts for the restaurant they worked at, and tabeling art events through the valley. Primarily self and community taught, Rainy’s current medium focus tends toward digital, acrylic, graphite, and ink. Rainy moved to New Mexico in 2019 where they are now learning the trade of relief printmaking. Their current ongoing project is a study of gender perceived through the lens of their own identity as a trans nonbinary person.
Kristina Erny is a third-culture poet who grew up in South Korea. She holds an MFA from the University of Arizona. Her poetry has been the recipient of the Tupelo Quarterly Inaugural Poetry Prize and the
Ruskin Art Club Poetry Award, as well as a finalist for the Coniston Prize. Her poems have appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Yemassee, Blackbird, and Tupelo Quarterly, among other journals. After over a decade of living as an alien abroad, she currently lives and works in central Kentucky with her family.
Reem Rashash-Shaaban is a poet, writer, and photographer. After spending thirty-three years teaching at the American University of Beirut, she decided to go back to her passion: art. Reem uses her original photographs to reconstruct a new view of life and cities and mixes collage, pastel, ink and paint in her effort to keep the culture, thoughts and traditions of people alive.
Raised in New York City, Kelwin Coleman is a well rounded traveler. As a queer multi-racial cis male, he champions new discussions of social narratives rather than the regurgitation of racial and sexual traumas often found in contemporary art. Coleman attended Purchase College (BFA)and received his MFA from Tulane University. From private to public print shops and galleries, he has been able to work with/ for a wide range of artists. He has also curated several grassroots shows of artists he feels are underrepresented in the aft world. Coleman currently lives in New York City.
Catherine Eaton Skinner illuminates the balance of opposites and numerical systems – ranging from simple tantric forms to complex grids, reflecting mankind’s attempts to connect to place/each other. Skinner’s creativity stems from growing up in the Pacific Northwest, her Stanford biology degree and Bay Area Figurative painters Nathan Oliveira and Frank Lobdell’s painting instruction. Between Seattle and Santa Fe studios, she concentrates on painting, encaustic, photography, printmaking and sculpture.