Volume 50 Spring 2021
The Emerson Review is an annual literary journal by undergraduate students at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. All genres of original, unpublished writing and visual art are considered for publication. The reading period for the 2021 issue ran from August 1st through February 1st. All submissions are handled anonymously. Materials can be submitted to The Emerson Review through our Online submission manager, http://emersonreview.submittable.com. Complete guidelines can be found on our website. General questions and comments should be sent to email@example.com. https://websites.emerson.edu/emerson-review Design by Haley Brown. Printed by Flagship Press. ©2021 The Emerson Review
MASTHEAD EDITOR-IN-CHIEF Nicholas Van Orden
MANGING EDITOR Abigail Michaud
ASSISTANT MANAGING EDITOR Sean Etter
HEAD FICTION EDITOR Lauren Everhart-Deckard
ASSISTANT FICTION EDITOR Michelle Moroses
HEAD POETRY EDITOR Kelsey Marlett
ASSISTANT POETRY EDITOR Olivia Loftis
NONFICTION EDITOR Cassandra Koenigsburg
TREASURER Andrew Taets
HEAD DESIGNER Haley Brown (Spring) Sam Kiss (Fall)
READER Olivia Lusk Rachel Stern Gracie Warda Alexa Gallant Taylor McGowan Athena Nassar Samson Malmoli Jacob Hardin Susan Kuroda Kinsey Ogden Alexis Shultz Kathleen Nolan Ashley Park
1 SPLASH B Jeff Mann 2 WEREWOLF B Hala Alyan 3 AFTERNOONS WITH TOM B Lis Anna-Langston 11 ROJO Y AZUL B Kelly Talbot 12 ODE TO LIBEN, I B Tarek Ghaddar 13 TEA PLANTATION B Tianru Wang 14 AN APPARENT OPENING B Tyler Toy 26 THE PRICE OF OLIVES B Dani Putney 27 CATSPOTTING Anannya Uberoi 28 RUMORS B Joseph Rein 40 OVERGROWN B Emily Rankin
41 DELA TORES B Dani Putney
77 THE SHED B Lily Greenberg
43 HOW I KNOW YOU’RE HERE B Joe Baumann
79 ALL THE ROWDY PRISONERS B Briana Gervat
53 GARLIC LAMB MEATBALLS John Leonard
80 HOW TO BE AN IMMIGRANT IN AMERICA B Thais Jacomassi
54 ROBERT E. LEE BLACK LIVES MATTER B James Reade Venable
85 ONION GRASS Stephanie Niu
55 LUCKY SOCKS B Emma Snyder
86 LANGUAGE ROUNDELAY B Elina Katrin
66 ON THE LINE B Manit Chaotragoongit
88 SOMETHING TO REMEMBER B Alexey Adonin
67 UNDERWARER SKELETAL REMAINS B William Brown 68 CHERRIES B Sisel Gelman 69 THE HUDSON FLOWS EVERY WHICH WAY & B THE ESSENCE OF GRIEF IS THAT IT DOES THE SAME Grace Gilbert 76 FISHERMAN AT SUNSET B Tianru Wang B
Je f f Mann
W E R E WO L F Hal a Aly an
A body is a calendar of breaths,
sleep, bones, and I don’t tell you about the long and eerie in the X-ray, and, somewhere, someone other lives sweeping an iconography of gravity and already knowsyour expiration calcium levels in Oklahoman date, through my cortex, the tap water. It is noon. I am still nerves slick and glossy inside my mother, growing while off the eastern coast of my longest tooth. I am still India, we are two tamarind as lychees sucked from their in bed kissing my pillow. I trees falling coats. When you dream, know what I want and what I want is to be my own tender in love again. We bicker every house is you. Every husband. on the walk home at dusk: flotilla is you. There is mortgage, dog, religion. The snow thaws on sidewalks, that ache of gray, that ache of water.
a doorbell and it is you, smoking and happy and alive.
Sometimes I’m so tired of you I invent another house with the lawn clipped to an inch. The heart is the first cage. Then tongue. Then migration. Let us be both easts of the border, let us helix and tangle, cut with the blades our fathers made. Look how the song changes in every temple, how there is always the wolf that breaks you and the wolf
body and pour it into a hoodie. Some days, a haunting of
language: Arabic Jazz. My mouth changes the tenor of Fatima’s voice into a regime. Every bad sex. The ancestors live in night I rocket myself back the fiddle-leaf tree, in the to 1999. My nervous system leaps like a deer at your bathtub drain clogged with exhale; I am always waiting to dark hair. I always think eat. In the darkest dark, I wait for the moon the tanks won’t come back, but here’s my pretty head, my tongue a sprig of silver, a comet, the bullet
that turns you back.
AFTERNOONS W I T H TO M
Li s Ann a - L ang s t o n
he first time I went to the grave of Thomas Wolfe, I told him I was going to die.
Shellshocked, I sat on his grave and told him I was going to die exactly like he did, and I cried because I was too young to die. Wolfe died at thirty-seven years old in 1938 and was buried in Riverside Cemetery. The sprawling resting place stretches over rolling hillsides in a district of Asheville, North Carolina, known as Montford. If you didn’t know it was there, you might pass by the sign or the small park just before the entrance. A few weeks earlier, on my first night in town, I went to the Wolfe memorial angel. It was a Sunday evening, eleven o’clock, and I stood in front of the art museum reading a quote aloud to an empty street: “Whereon the pillars of this Earth are founded, toward which the conscience of the world is tending. A wind is rising, and the rivers flow.” I knew the quote well. At the time, Asheville was still a small mountain town steeped in the deep history of Wolfe and Fitzgerald and Sandburg. It appealed to me. A place where artists once retreated, while others came home to die. I’d reveled in the idea of moving south from Wisconsin where I’d been living. I was going to live in the mountains. I was going to write a book. I was going to do a lot of things. Before I could get down to business, I needed a job to finance my dreams. A pre-employment screening returned a positive test result for tuberculosis. Test after test was administered. All positive. I didn’t know anyone living in town, so I went to the grave of one of the best writers who ever lived, because that’s how he died. I thought he’d understand. 3
On my second afternoon with Tom, I told him I’d read You Can’t
Go Home Again when I lived in Florida. I didn’t have a T.V. so I read constantly. I told him I’d read the entire book aloud like a true fangirl. I laughed at the irony. Me, at the edge of a dead man’s eternal bed, in a town he spent his life escaping. Crows were everywhere. On the ground. On the graves. In the trees. I told him about a crow that showed up on our doorstep after a huge storm when I was a child in Mississippi. A crow who waited for me every morning and clacked off down the brick walk at night. The crow never wanted food nor tried to come inside nor did it seem to be injured. That crow appeared and shepherded me through a time when my mother’s life was falling apart. That crow and I existed inside the confines of a friendship born of mystery. An odd couple. An unlikely duo. Like Tom and me. Riverside Cemetery was a form of weird therapy. Nothing stayed in my life, but that grave was real, and it wasn’t going anywhere. I returned weekly, taking photos, sitting in silence, talking to dead people. I see now that I was getting used to becoming one of them, easing into the hereafter, making my peace with a life I wasn’t going to live. Meanwhile, insomnia followed me like a shadow. I found a dog starving to death on the side of the road. She was wild. I had no idea what would happen if I took her home, but I knew she’d die if I left her behind. When I opened my car door, she jumped inside. In between driving to the health department to have my lungs X-rayed and to the vet to figure out why the dog was so sick, I’d grab coffee from Krispy Kreme and ascend the mountains to listen to the BBC in the middle of the night. I could finally get mad about all the injustices in the world. I opened the door and let out my anger. I felt everything. Night air crackled with a living hunger I’d never known. On the top of a mountain, staring straight at death’s door, I felt in ways I imagine people only dream of. With nothing left to lose I became bolder, braver, stepping out into places where even angels fear to tread. I wasn’t leaving this planet without telling the universe what I thought. Nothing escaped my wrath. Not religion, or politics, or absurd cultural conditioning. From injustices in Sierra Leone to corruption in Chicago, I let it roar. I was going to die but I was going way out in the uncharted territory of total reality beforehand. I was 4
going to die in a cold city full of strangers, but I wasn’t going to do it by navel-gazing into a world of comfortable delusions. Out I went into the dark madness. My afternoons with Tom were more reflective. I marveled over the fact that there were no pilgrimages to his grave, no lines of people curving around the hills. Usually it was just me and him, a murder of rowdy crows, and my dog on a new round of antibiotics. I’d lie on the freezing ground in a coat and close my eyes with my head in the lap of a grave. It was cold in the mountains, a cold that burrowed deep into my bones. Still, I returned to the cemetery even through the holidays. One afternoon, I realized I’d returned to the place of my ancestors. My family told stories about how our people fled the Appalachian Mountains when the Europeans came. They hid in middle Tennessee and escaped the Trail of Tears. My family was a strange one and we never celebrated holidays. My grandmother never even had a Christmas tree. That year, instead of celebrating, I spent December looking for a new apartment and moved in on New Year’s Day. The sun set at the end of my bed like an apricot glow hovering above the mountaintop. My dog loved it. After months of antibiotics, though, she was worse than before. Finally, I stood in a treatment room and refused to leave until I had answers. They sent me to another vet. After almost half a year, I learned she had a deformed bladder that constantly trapped bacteria. Eventually, the infections would move to her kidneys, and when that happened, my dog would die. She and I sat in the parking lot trying to come up with a plan. There we were together, the two of us struggling to stay alive. She stared at me with her sweet furry face, put her paw on my leg, and barked. “I’ll work this out,” I said, putting the car in drive. “We’re gonna do this. We’re gonna be okay.” Then I corrected myself. “You’re going to be okay.” A surgery to reform her bladder was scheduled. I worked overtime to get the money and spent afternoons with Tom, asking if he’d bargain with God on my behalf. I figured he may have developed a personal relationship with the Almighty, given his predicament. It wasn’t a selfish request. Well, maybe it was. When you’re dying, you’ll 5
do just about anything to keep everything else alive. My dog survived surgery and recuperated on my futon. When she was well again, I took her to the cemetery where she chased rowdy crows. I was even more conflicted. I’d helped her live, but needed to find someone to take care of her. Wild and completely in love with me, I couldn’t imagine her ever bonding with anyone else. I worried that if something happened to me she’d die of a broken heart, or run away, get lost, and end up back on the side of the road. It was a hard call, but I trusted my roommate and asked if he’d take her. He became immediately suspicious and pestered me until I told him why. Shocked that I was going to die and had been dealing with it on my own for years, he insisted on going to the doctor with me. Bargaining, I said he could if he promised to take care of my dog. When I took my roommate with me to the health department, it was like God suddenly rewarded me for being brave and going way outside my comfort zone. After years of having my lungs X-rayed, the doctor believed I didn’t have TB and was instead having a reaction to the test. I was administered a different test. After seventeen positives over the years, I finally returned a negative. I drove straight to the cemetery to tell Tom the whole story. That afternoon was long. I always thought my afternoons with Tom would end with me in the earth, but more than two years later I was told it was a misdiagnosis. Convinced Tom bargained with God on my behalf, I pledged to finally write the book I’d been putting off. To celebrate my newfound life, a week before Christmas, I put my dog in my Honda and drove from North Carolina to southern Mississippi, crossed into Louisiana, and kept going. We stopped at roadside motels and drive-thru coffee places. I jotted poems and stories on paper bags smeared with ketchup, stray fries still hanging out in the bottom. I remember sitting in a diner in Shreveport and realizing I didn’t know what day it was. I was exhausted. It felt like I hadn’t taken a breath in years.
I kept going.
I plowed on across Texas, where I had to stand for hours in the 6
desert waiting for my dog to come back because I’d let her out to use the bathroom and she chased wild bunnies into the dark tumbleweeds. The low desert, that massive, waterless expanse of shrub and sand, lit up my imagination. The further I drove, the more I started to form an idea for a story. A story I loved. A story about a little boy who finds something in the forest. It was right there. Pieces of a story floating around inside my car. It had something to do with holidays. I drove through El Paso, stopping only for gas. I passed the border and drove to Deming, to White Sands, to where Billy the Kid was jailed. I ate way too many avocados. I drove to old Indian sites. Hiked up cliffs and down into caverns. I blazed my way through barrels of fresh salsa, red and green. I started to get the feeling that I was closer to Christmas than I’d ever been. I bought a telescope and took it out into the desert. I’d always wanted to see the planets. It wasn’t sophisticated, but it was portable. From a dirt road in the middle of New Mexico, I could see the moons of Jupiter. Seeing those moons locked in the pull of a planet so far away created a shift in me. A shift that pushed me closer to a magic I’d never been able to define. Not hocus-pocus magic. Real magic. The kind that exists when flowers turn to face the sun. Beyond science and stars and moons, out into the subatomic world of sheer possibility. I could feel it; like it was just around the corner, watching me. I thought about Tom when he asked, “Is this not the true romantic feeling; not to desire to escape life, but to prevent life from escaping you?” I knew he was right. I kept going. I put my dog in the car and headed towards Tucson. It was beautiful, but not my destination. I headed north, towards Flagstaff. The first time I saw the Grand Canyon was at 3 a.m. under the light of a full moon. The streets were clear, but a white blanket of snow covered the ground. Enormous elk stood under the moonlight, so huge that their bellies came up to the top of my car. Coyotes roamed the wide-open spaces. My dog sat in the front seat, staring in wide-eyed wonder. The world was aglow, alive, in that strange canyon. Cold, clear, and perfect. I drove to a hotel and prayed they had a vacancy. 7
My good fortune continued; they had a room. While my dog sat in a chair and stared out at that new world, I lay awake in bed and wrote down the beginning of a book. A book inspired by the moons of Jupiter, life on other planets, strange objects found in the forest. It combined some of my favorite things: holidays, ketchup, and aliens. For the first time in years I had a future. A stunning, snow swept landscape was like the sparkle of golden wrapping paper, the smells of fresh-baked popovers, extended outward to reach new places of possibility. A place where magic and meaning intersect. A place where new stories come to us fresh and wonderful, and light the road to new destinations. When I returned to North Carolina, I took my telescope outside and set my cup of coffee on the hood of my car. It was me and my dog, the flying squirrels, and the moons of Jupiter for hours. During meteor showers, little pieces fell so close I could hear the sizzle. When I drove to the top of the mountain, I could see the Milky Way. I was going to live, but the world was going to end. During one afternoon with Tom, I told him about the prophecy, the galactic center, precessions and Mayan calendars. By that time I’d been spending afternoons with him for so long that I thought I should visit his childhood home. I spent a full afternoon at Old Kentucky Home. I thought I’d be able to feel his presence in the house, but I didn’t. I went back to the cemetery from then on. That year I found a crow behind my favorite coffee shop, digging for food in a dumpster. I had a bag of peanuts I’d purchased for the squirrels in my yard. I put a pile on the ground a few feet away and sat down with my coffee at a picnic table. The crow saw the peanuts and came to investigate. As the crow approached, I realized he was so old that some of his black feathers were gray. I’d seen a ton of crows in my life, but never anything like that. Not bothered by me or my dog, the crow cracked open peanuts as I imagined he was my childhood crow, crossing time and space to return to my life. I loaded my dog in the car and drove to Boston to do research for a story. I impulsively bought a ticket to whale watch on a boat in the Atlantic with money I didn’t need to spend. 8
An hour from the coast, I looked out at the first whales I’d ever seen and burst into tears. On a boat full of strangers, a pod of whales brought me full circle. I thought about what it meant to be human. What it means to be alive. For the first time since being misdiagnosed I realized I was going to live. I realized that everything is at once foreign and familiar, known and unknown, perfect paradoxes that lead to perfect synchronicity. Seeing the bodies of whales break the surface of the water made me more aware of life than I’d been before, more aware of the breath I needed to finally take. I knew that Tom had crossed the ocean on his way to Europe. I knew he’d floated on these same waters. I could feel him out there like he was alive. By spring of the next year the old crow stopped coming to meet me, and I knew he was gone. I’d brought him food every day for a year and a half. He knew the sound of my car and flew over before I had time to park. When he didn’t arrive at the picnic table, I wondered where he’d last seen the world, how his end had come. I wondered what it must be like to be so old your feathers turn gray. The following year, just days before Valentine’s, the dog I’d saved on the side of the road all those years before, died of old age. It was a long year, full of brilliant beginnings and intense endings. The end of the world came full circle for me. After more than a decade, with my entire house packed in boxes, I drove to Riverside Cemetery but couldn’t bring myself to go inside. When I first moved to Asheville, I’d never even published a short story; I was just a girl who loved Proust and Shakespeare and Chuck Palahniuk. In that time, a grave became my school, a dead man my teacher. In the end, I’d written the book I promised to write. I always imagined I’d move to the mountains, fall in love, and live there forever. That was the Proust in me. Instead, Asheville constricted me into a ball made tighter and tighter by every obstacle I faced. A ball so tight it became a seed. A seed so tight that, under the weight of its own force, turned to dust. From that dust, I learned to rise. I sat in my car facing the gate until I turned around and left. My dog had died just three months before. It was the first time I’d been to the cemetery without her. A box of her ashes was in my car. I 9
wasn’t leaving her behind. She wasn’t going in the ground like Tom. She’d bequeathed me the gift of grace, and I was taking her with me. A close friend once said, “You always say you saved that dog but that dog actually saved you.” I left Asheville on a late spring day, haunted by the words of Wolfe when he said, “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.” Tom said it well. I did not return to him that afternoon, nor did I say goodbye. Those afternoons with Tom taught me that we are never losing and finding the same thing. We are always gaining new insights, new opportunities, new moments. We can’t go home again, but we can all come to new places. Places of new traditions and stories that wash over us in the glow of an uncertain future. The gift of the living and the dead is how stories shape us and define us, especially in the most trying of times. In the swell of this pandemic, I feel like I’ve been coming to this moment my entire life, a place where magic and miracles intersect. A place where I am constantly reminded that we don’t need to save each other, we only need to find one another.
ROJO Y AZUL Kel ly Talb ot
Tuesday fists. Friday smiles. Red is rojo, blue, azul. When you’re three, the world is huge. Manual is Manuel, my first best friend. A bond beyond syllables, una lengua sin palabras, two boys in June, running through the trees between shadows and sunlight, light and dark, light and dark, dappled laughter in the park. Una dia con un cielo perfecto, your eyes filled with rain. Tu madre, el hombre blanco con dinero, una casa nueva, your father’s broken corazon. Too far away, too soon. I remember screaming at the sun. And then you were gone. God, how I hated the white man. He built a wall of time and space to separate me from mi hermano. When you’re fifty-three, the world is huge. El hombre blanco still builds his wall, and my heart churns with magma and ice. Blue is rojo, red, azul. Dark is light, and light is dark. Sometimes, as I walk the park, I look for Manuel. Never Manual. Only Manuel. I know he is there, somewhere, running through the leaves. 11
O D E TO L I B E N , I Tarek G h a d d ar
I used to stay up with my cousins, on hot summer Ramadan nights. The sweat would roll down our legs, and we would play cards and laugh, beneath the stars of Sharkiyyeh, the Nmairriyeh valley in the distance. Tata’s cedar would glow silver in the moonlight, and khalo Abed would imitate us, and we’d laugh, eating watermelon, choking if we laughed too hard, waiting for the athaan and then me and my cousins would sleep in the same room, bundled together like kittens, listening to Simon and Garfunkel, singing along to I am a Rock, The Sound of Silence, until we drifted to sleep... I used to stay awake with my cousins on hot summer Ramadan nights now I stay awake punching poetry into an iPad listening for an athaan that will never come because what can an exiled boy in America, playing at being a doctor, do for his starving friends and family back home? What value does the sadness of poets bring them, what ear of corn made and harvested, put on the plate, what water is made clean, and illness cured, and what shoes are tailored and what love can a page of poetry possibly inspire a page of poetry, written by a boy, only playing at poetry, and what can I do, besides cry, from afar, as my home is self-cannablized as my childhood love dies as I bid Libnen goodbye. 12
T E A P L A N TAT I O N Ti anr u Wang
A N A P PA R E N T OPENING
Ty l e r Toy
aroline is late getting out of San Francisco, and it’s midafternoon by the time she arrives at the cabin. Her father’s car is parked in the clearing out front, and she parks next to it and grabs her bag from the trunk. She opens the creaking door of the cabin and puts her duffel bag down next to the shoes, but her father is not inside. Bread, of course, is proofing on the table, and she knows that he cannot be far.
She walks out the back door, and there her father is, resting on his knees on a rectangular patch of ground that he has cleared for his garden. He’s smiling to himself, something he’s done a lot more in his retirement, and she is still not quite used to it. He has a spade in his hand, and to his side there is a cardboard flat of potted plants, echeverias and jade plants and little cacti, plants he must have brought from his yard back home. “I’m sorry I’m late, Dad,” she says. “Brian and I got breakfast before I left.”
“Your mother loved succulents,” her father says.
“I know,” she says. “I remember. But what are you doing planting them here?” It is hot already back down at sea level, but here in the mountains it is still spring. Nighttime lows have only now stopped dipping below freezing, and the snow is still melting out in shady patches on the ground. The frost has left for now, but in a few months it will return and freeze these leathery, waterlogged leaves. “I just wanted to see how they’d do,” he says. “It makes the place feel more like home.”
His home in San Francisco, as well as the deck, the yard, and even 14
the brighter rooms of the inside of the cabin have become overrun with succulents. Only a few years ago, the rooms and the walls were bare. He was a practical man, not concerned with aesthetics or decor, especially after Caroline’s mother passed away. Now, since he’s gotten into plants, walking past all the hanging leaves and the cacti that are potted on shelves and counters and any available surface or hook feels like walking through a desert jungle.. It is beautiful, yes, but it is also too much for one place.
“They’ll freeze once winter hits,” she says.
“Maybe,” he says. “We can always dig them up and bring them back down.” This seems eccentric. Only a few years ago, he didn’t even have plants. He would have told her that plants are for people who have too much time on their hands, that she should be applying her efforts toward things that matter, like her work or her MBA—never mind that he himself was taking more and more to sitting in front of the television and reading baseball magazines. Hard work is how he provided for her and her mother, he used to say. It was how he had worked his way up from being an immigrant with not a dime in his pocket to being someone who could afford a vacation home. But now it seems as if their roles have reversed. Plants like these succulents, she thinks, plants that would need to come back down the mountain to San Francisco come winter, are too much work for a place so seldom inhabited. It’s not good ground for these plants. All it takes is one cold front, one night of frost, and all of these plants that he has worked so hard to grow from seed or cutting will freeze and rot out. This is the last thing she would’ve expected him to do. She was with him last month when the doctors diagnosed him with early-stage Alzheimer’s. They said that, for all intents and purposes, he would be normal for now, if a little forgetful. It would take a while for change to set in. This planting must, then, simply be the normal sort of eccentricity that men in their latter years take on, the sloughing off of youthful self-consciousness. Despite what the doctors say, she can’t help but think that this is some reflection of the drying synapses that used to connect neuron to neuron slowly separating. 15
“That’s a whole lot of work,” she says. “And it’s just for this season?” “I was thinking I should stay here this whole summer,” he says. “I don’t really need to go back down to the city. I want to enjoy this place while I can.” Their family bought this cabin twenty years ago. They drove up to Yosemite on a vacation and found it so captivating that they had to buy some property nearby. They found this place on the window of a real-estate office in a nearby town, drove the ten miles of dirt road to see it, then bought it on the spot. It had no electricity except by generator, no cell phone signal, no cable television. The water was pumped from a well. “We’ll come up next summer too,” she says. “And the summer after that, and after that.”
“Of course,” he says. “Of course we will.”
He still drives. He still cooks. He still lives by himself back down in San Francisco. He’s fine for now, and she needs to stop thinking the worst of things. Sometimes, though, she just can’t seem to help it. “Well, it was a long drive up here,” she says. “I hit a lot of traffic coming out of the Bay. I think I’m going to lie down for a while.”
“I’ve already laid out the bedspread for you,” he says. p
Caroline wakes up in a sweat. In her sleep she pushed the covers off, but the place is still stiflingly hot. She gets out of the bed and slides open the window, and a rush of cool air hits her face. She walks out into the main room, and there is a fire roaring in the wood stove. The stove’s door is ajar, the damper is fully open, and the fire is almost too big for the chamber. Heat rushes out of it and fills the room. On top of the stove is a flat-bottomed wok. They’ve been coming here for years, and this stove has been here from the beginning, but it’s still a strange sight to her to see this Chinese cooking implement sitting on top of this stove that evokes log cabins and American pioneers. The room smells of the hot, smoky oil that has been lacquered onto 16
the wok’s surface as seasoning. She turns on the tap and wets her hand, then with her fingers she splats water onto the wok. It sizzles loud, but only for a moment. It is hot, too hot for cooking. It has been sitting on that stove for a long time. Next to the wok, on the cooler-but-still-hot side of the stove, is a pot of rice. The acrid smell of char emanates from it, and the rice on the bottom must be burnt. She lays a towel on the kitchen table, puts a potholder over her hand, then takes the hot pot off the stove and places it on the towel. Her father is outside, she knows, and she opens the back door to find him standing in the garden, looking down at the succulents he planted earlier. He steps slowly along, his hands behind his back, trowel gripped in his fingers.
“Dad,” she says. “It’s a million degrees in here.”
“I’m cooking,” he says. He walks up to the door and enters the cabin.
“You don’t need a fire that big,” she says as she follows him in. “You’re going to burn the cabin down.”
“I’m going to stir fry.”
“You burned the rice.”
He takes the potholder, removes the lid, and smells the rice. Caroline can smell the acridity, the bitterness that the rice emits. “It’s fine,” he says. He puts the pot on the table. “We’ll make faan ziu out of it.”
“It’s too burned for that,” she says. “And bread, too?”
“It wouldn’t be a meal without bread,” he says.
“Jesus, dad,” she says. She laughs. “This might be too many carbs.” He squirts oil from a squeeze bottle onto the wok. It turns to a shimmer and flows over the pan with little viscosity. A wisp of smoke 17
curls from its surface. He takes a plate full of chopped onions and garlic, vegetables he must have prepped earlier, and tosses them onto the wok. The vegetables sizzle loud, and the cabin fills with the savory smell of alliums. Caroline opens the windows and closes her bedroom door. The crisping of garlic smells to her like elemental food. It is the aroma of cooking, of dinnertime when she was younger, when her mother used to do all of the cooking. Since she died, her father has found new joy in the act of it. He tosses on the chicken and douses it with soy sauce and mirin. A sweetly alcoholic aroma fills the room. He tosses the contents of the wok like a professional, taking bottles from the counter, pouring in rice wine and black pepper and cumin then stirring with a steel ladle, tossing wok and food in decisive shoves. After only two or three minutes, he tips it over into a steaming bowl. He sets it down on the table next to the fresh loaf of bread and the rice.
“Dinner is served,” he says.
They sit down at the table with this spread of food before them. They eat, and it is good. There is color on this table—the white of the rice, the brown of the bread, the greens and reds of the vegetables and chicken. There is enough for five or six people. There is way more than Caroline would ever think practical to make.
“You don’t eat like this every day, do you, Dad?” she says.
“I bake bread almost every day,” he says. “I don’t always steam rice.”
“You eat a loaf like that every day?”
“No,” he says and laughs. “I give the rest to neighbors. I usually only eat half.” “That’s still a lot,” she says. She’s surprised that he even knows his neighbors. It is outside the city, after all, and it is him. A few years ago, he would have never even said hello to them. “You should be eating greens and protein.”
“Caroline,” he says, “I think at this point I can eat anything I 18
“You’re not that old, dad,” she says.
The father with whom she grew up did not eat like this. The father she knew saw food as an entirely utilitarian endeavor. There were no regular family dinners. Food was not a reason to gather. In fact, until high school, the only interactions she had with him over the course of most days were when he checked her homework with a calculator or when he told her it was time to go to sleep. She remembers those times, him sitting at the kitchen counter late at night in the cold light of fluorescents after a long day of work, barely looking away from his newspaper or his Sports Illustrated as he shoveled into his mouth whatever he could find in the fridge or whatever Caroline’s mother would warm up for him. There was always some grain of rice or fleck of food stuck to his cheek that he hadn’t even bothered to notice. Food, back then, was more of an obligation he owed to his body for the work it did than an opportunity for pleasure. Now, though, food is a gourmet experience. With each bite he takes, even just of the plain white rice, he smiles in bliss. “So you’re just going to stay up here?” she says as she pokes at her food.
“Why not?” he says. “All of my plants are here.”
“I’m just a little worried about you being here alone,” she says. “What if something happens and nobody else is around?” The cell phone service here is spotty. If things are worse than the doctors say, and if he should fall and hurt himself, it would take hours for help to arrive, assuming he could get a signal and contact someone in the first place. She was the one who discovered her mother supine on the kitchen floor, alone in the house, dead of a heart attack. Her mother had lain there on the floor for an hour or so while her father was away at work and no one else was home, and that was in the city, where help was readily available.
“What? You mean like a heart attack or something?”
For him, maybe, talking about this is not a big deal, but the casualness of his tone nearly makes her choke on her food. 19
“I won’t be alone,” he says. “We’ve got neighbors. They’re around a lot. And you’re going to be coming up to visit, right? You’ve got weekends off.” “I’ll see,” she says. “I’ve got a lot of projects on my plate this year.” They finish dinner, and she volunteers to do the dishes. He steps back out into the backyard. The days are long now, and he wants to take advantage of the late sun and tend to his garden. Through the window she watches him as he hunches over his plants, sweeping the soil over their roots with his trowel. p The next day she slips out for a hike nearby. She hikes hard up a steep trail and back down, but no matter how fast she pushes herself or how loud her breathing becomes, it is never quite enough to drown out her anxious thoughts about her father. How much longer does he have? How much longer will it be before those memories of her childhood, of her mother, of those summers they spent here together as a family, are gone? Has she already lost the father she knows? Is this man here, the chemistry of his brain in flux, a different man? She returns home late in the afternoon, exhausted but not quite emptied out in the way she hoped. Inside the cabin there is a fire burning in the stove with nobody there to tend it. This is normal, she knows—wood stoves burn all the time without incident. They are safe. They don’t need constant tending. But she still imagines the cabin engulfed in flames, tongues of fire licking at the trees above, a forest fire that destroys everything within twenty miles of here including the neighboring cabins and campgrounds. The thought of leaving her father here alone, with fires burning in unattended stoves and help so far away, is unthinkable. On the kitchen table there is bread rising. Dishes from a big breakfast are left in the sink. The coffee pot still has an inch or two of coffee that has gone bitter and cold. She looks out the back window, but she does not see the familiar figure of her father crouched and digging into the soil. His car is here, but he is neither in the kitchen nor in the garden. She can’t think of anywhere else he would spend 20
his time. She steps into the backyard. She shouts for her father, but she hears no response. The succulents are all planted now in neat rows along the border between yard and forest. The forest off the yard is thick, easy enough to get lost in. A person can walk a hundred feet in and lose all sense of bearing. Her father must have wandered in when he was working in the yard. “Dad!” she yells, but there is no answer. “Dad! Where are you?” She peers through the trees. She looks for his red jacket. She looks for signs of movement. Amidst the dense trees, though, there is only the slow waving of pine branches in the wind. He has wandered into the forest, and now he could be lost.
“Dad!” she yells again. Still no response.
There is a small gap in the plantings, a clearing in the yard that seems to lead down a path, an apparent opening between trees and brush. She steps into it, still shouting for her father, hoping he’s just walked a few steps into the trees and is waiting for her there. The forest is close. The trees are thick here, their limbs interlaced, crossing against one another as they jockey for the drips of sun that leak in through the canopy. Scrub grows over the ground, a foot or two of spiderweb branches that make it impossible to walk over the duff except by a few paths. It feels as if the forest is directing her, as if the forest has determined only one way by which human feet may cross. She follows the path, time and distance becoming strange and abstract in the trees, and she guesses she’s gone a couple hundred feet in, the view of the cabin now obscured. At the edge of her sightline, before the trees converge into an opaque mass, she can see a figure standing, head turning up then turning down, observing the features of this late-spring forest. He is silent in the trees, and his movements are rhythmic, repetitive, slow. This deep into the woods the sun is barely visible, and there are no buildings or markers in sight. “Dad?” she says. Her feet crunch through a patch of late-season snow. It’s hardened and compacted, but it gives into her treads and it supports her weight as she walks over it. 21
“Daddy,” she says. “What are you doing here?”
“Daughter,” he says. They are still far apart, but their voices carry through this muted forest, the sound of wind and passing cars that might distract muffled by the isolating mass of pine needles and soft forest floor.
“You shouldn’t wander out into places like this,” she says.
“I found this stand of snow flower,” he says. He still has his gardening trowel in his hand. Snow flower begins to bloom as the snow melts out. It shows for only a week or two at the beginning of summer. It is bright red and pokes up from the ground like a spear, with no green leaves or stalks to gather sunlight and photosynthesize. It attaches itself to the mycorrhizal tendrils that enmesh the ground, the networks of fungal thread that connect everything to everything in this lush soil. It uses them to draw nutrients from the forest, to pull energy to grow from the stands of great trees that surround them. “That’s nice,” she says. “But I got back to the cabin and you weren’t there. You left the fire going, and you weren’t in the garden. I’m lucky I found you here.” He wandered off into this dark forest with no more than a windbreaker. He left the stove burning, the dishes unwashed, and the lights still on. He could have hurt himself, gotten himself stuck, and no one would have found him for days. Is this the Alzheimer’s? Has it gone further than the doctors say? Will she need to talk him into coming back down to San Francisco? Will she need to find him live-in help? Will he need to move into some kind of community? She’s saddened at the vast store of his memories that will slowly drip out of his brain like a leak from his ear canal. They will fall into the dirt, and the dry dirt will drink them up like rain, leaving nothing to show in this parched mountain air. His memories of her mother, young and pretty with streaky black hair, long before Caroline was born, will be gone. His memories of San Francisco in the sixties, riding his bicycle to the aquarium with his brother or buying bait in Chinatown so that they could go fishing in Lake Merced, will be gone. His memories of holding Caroline, a pill of a baby swaddled in soft 22
blankets, all of them will be gone, absorbed back into the earth and never seen or experienced by anyone else again. “Caroline,” he says. He signals for her to come over. He holds his hand out to her. “You must come over here and see this.”
“Let’s get you back, Dad,” she says. “You’ve got bread proofing.”
She wants him to sit back down in the cabin, to breathe the indoor air, to perhaps touch with his hands the dough that is rising on the table, or to dip his spade into the ground and to smell the green scent of soil. She wants him to do something familiar, something that might ground him again in the reality of his memory. “In a minute,” he says. He waves off the concern he hears in her voice. “Just look. Please look.”
“Dad, are you confused?” she says.
“What?” he says. “No, of course not. I just want you to come over and see this. Please.” The flies are gathering around the dishes. The fire is still burning. Maybe, though, standing with her father in this gathering of flowers, if even just for a moment, will quiet his tangled and inflamed neurons. So she walks over to him. As she nears him, the scrub oak and manzanita on the ground give way to an openness, and she begins to see what her father sees. They stand in the middle of this clearing, the fallen pine needles laid out like an orange carpet, and around them the electric red spears of snow flower pierce up out of the ground like lanterns. Their scarlet florets curve like bent trumpets, and the edges of their horns are fringed. Without leaves or green stalks, they bob in the light breeze like underwater creatures, like soft coral wavering in a current. There is a glow to this miniature forest of red that Caroline cannot explain. The sunlight falls down on them in speckles, and the trunks of the trees, dark-brown and matte, absorb much of the light that remains. But this only accentuates the luminescence of these plants, the near-blinding brightness with which they declare their red. Caroline knows enough about them to know that they do not generate light. They are not bioluminescent. They do not glow in 23
the dark. But to her eyes, they somehow bring the diffuse light of the forest understory into concentration, a brightness that is greater than the light that falls.
“Dad,” she starts. But she has nothing to say.
Her father takes her hand. These plants, without leaves of their own, turn root life into siren-red flowers that bloom against the dirty white of late-spring snow. Though she can’t see herself, she can imagine the red gleam that is reflecting from these flowers onto her cheeks and back out into the forest. p There is a hush to her voice as they return to the cabin. The coals are still quietly burning in the stove, but the flue has cooled to warm, and though the damper is wide open, the roar of the fire has calmed to a whisper. Their steps are silent as her father walks over to the table on which the bread is proofing. He pokes at it with his finger, then he takes a towel from a cabinet and covers it. “It’ll still be at least another hour before we can put it in,” he says. She’s impressed by his ability, with just the touch of his fingertip, to tell how far proofed the dough is. She imagines the ridged tip of her father’s finger pressing its imprint in on this mass of wheat and flora and air, so much like a forest, sensing just by surface interface the state of its wildness.
“Should I get the fire going again?” she says.
“I’d like to do a few more things out in the garden,” he says. “Things can wait just a little longer, can’t they?” She knows that the waiting will be difficult. She is hungry from her hike. She wants too much to taste the bread, the crisp crust and the gelled crumb, the sour bite of the natural leavening. She wonders at the fact that her father, even in his late state, his time ebbing like the shores of an autumn lake, has developed such an ability to wait. He gets up out of his chair and walks out the door, and she follows him. She will wait until the food is perfectly ready. She will sit with 24
her father in the loose dirt of the garden while he digs into the ground and plucks out the dried leaves. She will pluck a few of those leaves herself as she listens to him ramble on about flowers and succulents and bread and whatever else it is that he wants to talk about. She will remind herself that there is nothing really to wait for, that it is all right here before her.
THE PRICE OF OLIVES D ani P ut n e y
I’m the most beautiful person I know. I’m an ancient Greek deity by 21st-century postcolonial norms. Did you know racial mixing was illegal in America until 1967? During Loving v. Virginia, my mom was born across the Pacific— it must have been cosmic. 29 years & several wars later, my Visayan aunties were pleased to welcome ripe olive flesh into their tower: We did it. No sun necessary to darken my skin, no melanoma price tag, but my chest still bleeds Euro hegemony in the acne scars beside my nipples, the tiny hairs along my sternum. With Ma’s color & Dad’s texture, I’m the poster child for every whitening aisle across an archipelago I only know through someone else’s story. I want to touch the history in my bones, but all I feel is skin, beauty, the American Dream. We did it.
C AT S P OT T I N G
An anny a U b e ro i
Jo s e p h R e in
Trigger Warning: Assault
even months after, they finally bring Teresa to a doctor. The office is scant, begrimed. A dying fern wilts beside a window that allows only muddied sunlight. The doctor fingers the stethoscope around his neck. He speaks to his chart.
Any burning? His accent is slightly Sureño, the words slow from his mouth. Any recurring pain? Yes. The doctor nods but writes nothing. Where exactly? There, or in other places too? Teresa nearly laughs. He is a federal doctor, so she must forgive his idea of pain as singular, quantifiable, as though the only parts that can hurt are those that were stolen from her. So she indulges him, cataloguing the physical pains she has felt that day and since. Her wrist, the bones that jarred and bruised as she failed to pry them loose from her handcuffs. The shudder in her jaw, the way she cannot chew tough food without feeling as though a bolt is snapping into place. The headaches, the irregular menstruation, the insomnia. The doctor swipes his pen in broken sentences that appear illegible. She continues to the night sweats, the jumpiness, the ashen nightmares. The fear that she may never be intimate with a man again. She lays bare all of her pain, not because this doctor will help her relieve it, but because he needs to hear it. Because he needs to know. The doctor disrobes her. Her body convulses on instinct. It’s okay, he says, but still she looks away to the fern, at the guard holding a rifle at the door. She listens to the doctor’s empty reassurances as he probes for traces he will never find, for evidence of a thing both long since passed and, in his touch, frighteningly present.
Two weeks before the assault, Teresa sat at her kitchen table with her childhood friend Lupe. It was hot, even for July. They sipped lukewarm water and ate from bowls of corn that sighed steam. Teresa scooped two apples from the bushel alongside the table, handing one to Lupe and keeping one for herself. Want to go sit in the shower? Lupe asked. Bikinis and a bottle of tequila. Let it rain down.
Sure, Teresa said. Then you can explain the water bill to Benny.
Where is that asshole anyway? If he’s good for anything, it’s showing up for food.
He’s my boyfriend.
Still an asshole.
Teresa looked down to her unappetizing food. She felt her hunger on the lines of her stomach as though it was a crawling, living thing. Lupe played with the cross pendant resting on her chest, the faux-gold chain sticking to her skin. You ever worry about...you know? Lupe asked. She threw a lazy gesture to the door. It’s been a couple days.
Of course. Who doesn’t?
Yeah, Lupe said, but it’s different. They don’t have any good reason to come for me.
They need reasons now?
Benny gives a pretty good one.
Teresa set down her fork. Lupe never liked Benny—too much like both of their fathers: sweet-talking, flighty men whose eyes appraised younger women like livestock. Teresa’s mother, were she still alive, certainly would not have approved of Benny’s nonchalance, his ease around dealers and corrupt police officers. His headfirst, blind dives into shady opportunity. Such chickens always come home 29
to roost, Teresa’s mother would say. Such checks always cashed. But then Benny was more than charming; in the right mood he was affectionate, doting. He called Teresa his angel, sang José José songs to her, rubbed a particular spot on her back that sent shocks through her. Whispered of opening his own cantina in town and filling her home with their children. They needed only enough money to start. Benny’s no different than half the men in this town, Teresa said. We all do what we need. I hope you’re right, Lupe said. She took her bowl to the sink. But you’re not.
Ten months after, they release Teresa without charge. Her reemergence into the world is silent and unceremonious. Her eyes smart at the sun, at the appearance of things other than unchanging adobe walls and a concrete floor and a shit bucket. Without money for the bus, she meanders in no certain direction, zig-zagging through the city streets as though someone is following her. A tavern blasts a football match, the announcer’s voice intermittently drowned out by ardent cheers. A teen with colored hair saunters past her, a Natti Natasha song spilling from his large headphones. The world continues. She walks, aimless. Before the assault, before her incarceration, Guerrero had felt to Teresa larger than its parts, its twenty gridlike blocks filled with shops and bars and restaurants and two competing gyms with indoor swimming pools. Not quite a city, but not the vast country its outskirts suggest, the land spread wide and barren, punctuated only by mountain ridges that run like hilly cracks in the dry land. The nearest neighboring city is thirty miles south, and considerably smaller. The nearest airport a hundred. Teresa’s friends, including Lupe, always spoke of getting out, as though Guerrero itself was a prison. Only now can Teresa see that they may have been right.
She passes corner markets, the dance hall, the church square. 30
She openly scoffs at a woman genuflecting in front of the Virgin Mary. But then the engine of a rust orange El Camino fires out behind her and a paralyzing shock shoots to her limbs. Her shoulders pinch, her knees lock. She falls. The meat of her palm, one elbow and both knees, alight as they scrape along the pavement. The man driving the car stops suddenly. He leaps from it. Teresa’s eyes dart catlike to him, but he’s approaching slowly, muttering: Sorry, Sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you. He reaches a hand down to Teresa’s shoulder, but her body recoils. She forces herself to stand. It’s the damn muffler, the man says. He is older, sixties, with cirrus-like clouds of hair combed across his balding head. He is unassuming, placid. Are you okay? You don’t look... The man stops himself from saying more. Teresa’s body shivers against its own impulses. She feels a cavity in her throat where the words should be. A young woman in a Raúl Jiménez jersey, cigarette smoking between her fingers, watches from afar. The man sees her, sees the potential for a scene building around them. If you’re okay? he says. Teresa gives him no answer. So he backs up, step by step by step, until he reaches the El Camino’s bed. Then he rushes to his door and drives off. Finally she arrives home. The house is modest, sandwiched between two larger families, but her mother, and Teresa after her, always maintained it with pride. Flowers in boxes outside the windows, lace curtains. Scents of baking bread in the morning. Small things that made it theirs and theirs alone. But now, Teresa finds it a scant shell of what it once was. Her mother’s curtains and knickknacks and little joys have all been pilfered. No kitchen utensils, no bread pans. No flower boxes. Only one of a dozen hand stitched quilts left in the bedroom closet. They’ve left all the large furniture except the bed mattress, the empty wooden frame standing guard in the middle of the room like a warning. She has never wanted to leave her home. With or without Benny, Teresa has never considered another roof under which she would raise her children, another bed onto which she would slide after a hard working day. She has wanted a life of self-sufficiency and 31
freedom right here in Guerrero. But then, the last ten months have stolen so much from her. From this very house. From her dreams.
A week before, hours into a stymying double-shift, Teresa stole behind the final tree rows with two ripe, pilfered galas. Their skins shone a brilliant lipstick red. She began working the orchard at fourteen, the year her mother died, and found the work both onerous and satisfying. The land was prized in the area, one of only a few fertile patches that yielded year-round crops. The work was steady. But of the three bosses she’d had since she started, this one—a gaunt, pale-faced cigar aficionado named Felix—was the most plantationlike in his regimen. Even on bumper crop years, he could not accept the inevitable percentage of loss; he glowered at fallen, bruised apples as though they were a personal affront. Any worker caught eating profits saw their pay docked at double market value. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Teresa found herself stealing more and more apples, hiding them under her armpits and between her thighs as she waddled beyond sight of her coworkers. Many times she took only a solitary bite before discarding them; savoring for the brief moment the tart, treacly juices of her own forbidden fruit. She left the remainders as minute messages she hoped Felix would find. She gave the first gala all her attention. This was their moment. But before she could bite, she felt a snake’s slick skin against her ankle and she recoiled. The snake nipped at her shin. Through the years she had grown to appreciate the wild snakes, to welcome their sly bodies along her heels like feral cats testing friendship. But since Benny’s disappearance, she had become keen to harbingers of her own undesired and undeserved fate, to precursors of what she hoped would never come. She expected something cosmic to tell her it was her time. Car horns, cuts in her radio reception. Dogs rasping in the night. Each one was it, and then it wasn’t.
Until the snake was. 32
The man stood like a pillar. He was young, thick, his chest huge like two apple barrels. Teresa had no idea where he came from. Beyond him, her coworkers had inexplicably disappeared. His shirt donned a ring of sweat around the neck like a smile. Dangling from his belt, almost as an afterthought, was his police badge. Nice shoes, he said. He pointed at Teresa’s Nike’s, purchased by Benny when he saw the blackness of her feet, the weeks-old dirt beneath her nails. The fields had similarly stained the Nike’s, but her feet had never been cleaner. Far too nice, the man continued, for this kind of work. She forced herself to return his stare. You should get a pair. Then you could wear them wherever you like. He laughed. His eyes drifted from hers to the weak branches of a sapling. I wonder, he said, how often your trees die. So many dangers. The conditions for living must be... He stopped, put his fingertips to his lips to finish his thought. But ah, he continued, even then survival is so difficult. He touched the sapling with a strange affection. Teresa reached for the name of her boss, to call out to him, but it eluded her. She realized she was holding her breath. She wished in vain for the snake to return. The officer took back his hand and smiled. Felix, she remembered. Her boss’s name was Felix. But the officer had already turned. He slid into the next row and vanished as quickly as he had come. Slowly, in staggered pairs, her coworkers returned. For the remainder of the day they spoke only to each other, avoiding Teresa as though she now carried some visible, infectious disease.
Eleven months after, Lupe brings bags of rice. Pounds upon pounds of it. More than they could eat in a month. She also has tomato paste, cumin, garlic cloves fat as baseballs. She will make 33
Teresa’s mother’s recipe, the one young Teresa ate when nothing else would do. She walks immediately to the kitchen, past Teresa under an old quilt. The weather has turned hot again, and yet Teresa can’t spend minutes without her fingers and feet turning cold. Without a shiver seeping into her body. It is in part, she knows, because of her weight, the disappeared pounds she didn’t have to lose in the first place. She simply does not want to eat, and even though the hunger sings sonorous songs from her stomach, Teresa often goes without. She feels cold and faint. In the mirror, the skin sucks into her hipbones, her ribcage. When Lupe first saw her without a shirt she gasped with such force that Teresa’s body shook. Oh no, she had said. Oh no no no. Lupe enters the kitchen and puts a pot to boil, all the while talking about people with whom Teresa has lost contact. While Teresa was held prisoner, Lupe had put Coatlecuean yet surreptitious efforts into finding her: private Facebook groups, anonymous calls, clandestine late night meetings. In the effort, she regained many of the relationships they had long since left behind, and now she catches Teresa up: Rudolpho went to such and such concert last night, Maria is on kid number whatever and still looks like a goddamn teenager. Teresa supposes that Lupe does so to avoid asking about Teresa. She finds herself both annoyed and grateful. The scents from the rice pepper the air, bringing Teresa not hunger but a deep longing for her mother, for times past. Lupe serves it, and turns her talk to one of Teresa’s former boyfriends. Not Benny—no, Lupe would never mention that name again—but the baseball player, the left fielder, atrocious with the bat but explosive in the field. His diving acrobatics a thing of wonder. Vincent was his name, which Teresa only remembers after Lupe says it. After leaving home, he worked for a year peddling wooden wares at an all-inclusive resort—shitty work, Lupe knows—but with his savings bought a lathe and started making bats. He now owns three factories with forty-odd workers under him. The one that got away I guess, Lupe says to finish. Then she slides next to Teresa and plunges her own fork into Teresa’s plate. Half 34
her scoop falls to the floor as she moves it to Teresa’s mouth.
Come on, Lupe says. Do I have to say open wide?
I’m not a child.
Sure eat like one. I’m not your ma, but I will be. Lupe holds the fork centimeters from her mouth until Teresa acquiesces. The rice is overcooked and mealy, almost like child’s food itself. There. Wasn’t so hard was it?
I know you are. Lupe looks at the fork for a moment before scooping another bite. But I won’t let you die in the process. Fair enough? Behind the fork Lupe smiles one of her lofty, smarmy smiles. Teresa accepts the bite. Fair enough.
Three days before, the pounding knock arrived at her door. But it was only Lupe, armed with mangoes and a slew of rumors. One of Benny’s friends taken into custody and beaten unconscious with splintered broomsticks. Forced to crawl over thumbtacks and lick clean the boots of an officer who’d paraded through pig shit. But that wasn’t the worst of it: she’d heard another guy, connected to Benny but loosely, was asphyxiated with a garden hose until his voice just flat broke. Couldn’t talk, couldn’t breathe except through a straw in his neck. Brain hemorrhage this, broken legs that: rumors everywhere. Rumors that circled like vultures around their entire lives until they spotted flailing prey. Not all of them could be true—Teresa would have heard something about Benny before now, she would have—and yet, as Lupe continued, as she moved from the men to the women, Teresa found herself smacking a mango on the tabletop with such unexpected force that it split open, its saccharine juices leaking in rivulets down her palm. As though she’d injured herself, or someone else, she started to cry. 35
Jesus Christ, Lupe said. She rushed to the sink for a washcloth. She took Teresa’s hand with geriatric care, wiping between her fingers, up her forearm. Listen, she said to the hand, you need to get out of here. Take a bus north. Maybe someone will hitch you to Chihuahua. Farther. Hell, the border. Cut your hair, change your name. They don’t know. You could be anybody. And Teresa knew, in the remote recesses of herself, that Lupe was right. That day at the orchard, the officer had left an invisible, indelible mark upon her. But he hadn’t returned in four days, and so might not a fifth, or a sixth. Each day a slighter chance. After all, she didn’t want Lupe’s imagined future for her. She didn’t want to be anybody but herself. Didn’t want her very core to be so dramatically distorted by a force she never asked to oppose, a force that she felt now like that same emptiness of hunger in her stomach. A force there always, at shops, in the orchard. In her own home. She felt it as she imagined one might feel a phantom limb, some concealed yet unmistakable presence. Something like a god.
Fourteen months after, Lupe escorts Teresa to the market seven blocks from her house. Lupe carries the basket but refuses to pick out anything herself. After three aimless aisles she stops and, with sharp eyes, forces Teresa to grab something. A box of crackers, canned ham. Bouillon cubes. Lupe circles them back to the fresh goods until Teresa picks out potatoes, a large red onion. A grocer boy in a too-large vest watches them while shelving produce. Teresa knew his name some years ago, Miguel or Manuel or some M name, a kid with too many sisters to count. She can tell by his unabashed eavesdropping that he has heard the rumors about her. They retreat to the corner with dry grains as Lupe suddenly says, I hear they’re allowing women to testify now. In court. Teresa bends down to a sack of oat flour. She squeezes it, and a puff of white seeps out its crevices. 36
Although, Lupe continues, I heard it might backfire. Like, if you freeze up—I don’t mean you, as in you would, I didn’t—just, if the woman freezes up, then it might cause some doubt. Might lead to a lesser sentence. Lupe grabs the oat flour and tosses it into the basket, forcing Teresa to look up. Anyway, you’ll finish the written testimony, Lupe says. That should be enough. She looks down the aisle, to the grocer boy who has followed them. Let’s get out of here. Back at home, Lupe makes a large pot of soup. Teresa wraps her hands around her glass bowl until its warmth stings her fingers. The soup is overspiced, the brackish broth replacing Teresa’s hunger with an urgent thirst. Okay, so, Lupe says. Teresa notices Lupe’s untouched soup bowl. God, why don’t I just say it. I love you, okay? I love you.
I love you too.
Lupe theatrically rolls her eyes. Not the same you idiot. And I know it’s selfish of me to say this, but it killed too me, all right? I couldn’t do shit... Lupe’s eyes ring with the glossy beginnings of tears. She tries to blink them away, but some still fall. Look, she continues, I know it’d be asking a lot. I know it’d be so, so hard. But it’s... Teresa removes a hand from the bowl and places it on Lupe’s. Just tell me, Lupe. Whatever’s on your mind. Lupe looks up, and in her eyes Teresa sees the love Lupe has just expressed. The love that has always been there.
I think you should testify.
The day of her assault, there were no knocks at the door. No harbingers. Just the crashing sound of abruptly split wood, which Teresa mistook as one of Benny’s haphazard shelves tearing from the wall. But then followed the voice, the unmistakable male voice, speaking loudly enough it was clear he didn’t care who heard. It sounded much different than it had at the orchard, when he waxed poetic about death. When the pretense still existed. She was in the bedroom, lying on her mother’s bed, a romance novel in her hand. She looked at her bedroom door. She thought to run. The barrel-chested officer called out her name. Teresa thought also to scream, or hide, or grab her mother’s old candelabra and fight. She knew what she could have done. But she also knew that none of it mattered. It was too late for her.
Inside the courthouse, the emptiness spreads from Teresa’s stomach to her lungs, her arms and legs. All of her. She can’t remember the last time she ate. Her tongue yearns for the tart tang of an embezzled apple. She has purchased a dress and shoes on credit, has tried to hide the tags so she can return them, but the one on her back inches its way up and out, blossoming like a white bud every time she moves. Beside her, Lupe pulls at the sleeve of her own blouse, unspooling thread like a clown with a parti-colored handkerchief. They sit in the small audience comprised mostly of accused convicts and those who love them. Teresa is, as far as she can tell, the only victim. And Lupe was right: for as difficult as Teresa imagined this would be, it is worse. Far worse. Lupe takes one of Teresa’s shaking hands, but Teresa suddenly yearns for someone on her other side to take the second. If only Benny were here, if she could believe that somewhere he is alive. If only her mother were still alive. If only. The judge enters, a woman with short hair and a young face. She’s the opposite of what Teresa expects of the law. It is a small token for which Teresa finds herself immeasurably grateful. 38
After four fast sentencings, the barrel-chested officer is summoned. After his plea, the judge beckons Teresa. She gets her legs to move with considerable effort. She cannot feel her arms. When the judge asks for her testimony, she shifts and the tag scratches against her back. It’s okay, the judge says. Just start with the first time you met Mr. Alcuaz. And just like that, he has a name. Not officer. Not man in black. This simple fact buoys Teresa, gusts the emptiness out of her in a single breath like the popping of a balloon. She turns her eyes for the first time to Alcuaz, sitting in a secondhand suit jacket next to his lawyer, his shoulders up near his ears. For a large man he looks painfully timid. She keeps her eyes on him. She breathes in.
And she begins.
OV E R G R OW N
Emi ly R an kin
D E L A TO R R E D ani P ut n e y
One sound can mean the difference between America and alien. Linguists describe this phenomenon as articulation: tongue moves forward, muscles contract around the vowel. Have you ever wondered what makes an accent seem foreign? Mouth organs have different settings, ask any gringo in Spanish class. I’m set to American English, a patriot in my voice. I must remind phone bankers of another SoCal Democrat who surfs too much. I was raised to believe the immigrant dream meant living indistinguishably, but if you pronounce my first name with an unrounded vowel, I’ll know you understand treason. Ma left her Philippine tower so I could call her mother in perfect English, but my lips crave the saltwater shores of Mactan. My name feels most real when it sounds like Lapu-Lapu: a mango against my cheek. When I speak Spanish, I think of my mom’s famous sunburn story— 41
she fell asleep on a beach near her childhood home. I was born with Ma’s blaze along my tongue, her plea to never forget our past: colonization in two languages.
H OW I K N OW YOU’RE HERE
Jo e B aum ann
hen Riley’s dad hits him, he flees his house and comes to mine. I pull a roll of wax paper from the pantry and tear off a strip while he removes his shirt. The spot where his father’s fist has bitten into his chest is a bright orange splash, the same color as Tang. I can still see whispers of the salt-and-pepper mark from the last time, a circle of disappearing snowmelt that crosses over his belly button: the edge of a roll of duct tape Riley’s dad threw at him like he was tossing a fastball from a pitcher’s mound. And around his arm, a nearly invisible ring of faded forest green from the time two weeks ago his dad cuffed him too hard when Riley tried to slip away while being screamed at for accidentally burning a frozen pizza.
I document this evidence, these marks that capture Riley’s hurts like brushes of psychedelic paint, kaleidoscopic scars that I alone see. I push the wax paper against his skin, the orange standing out against the ruddiness of Riley’s chest so I can trace the bright splotch with a grease pencil. Riley’s breathing is slow and careful and the expanse of his lungs doesn’t disturb my ability to trace. I prop up the paper with my left hand and can feel his body heat in my fingers. Sometimes it feels like my lips are going to burn when we kiss. But I never wince or pull away. We sit cross-legged while I color in the splatter, which looks like the burst from a water balloon, four plum-shaped spots more intense in color than the rest: his dad’s knuckles. I unfurl my pastel set and we both look down, scanning for the right shade, and point at the tangerine at the same time. This makes him laugh, a dry, angry noise. My room smells of my mother’s perfume, heavy with carnations and something sandy, a hint of balsa. Riley inhales and leans back into a prone position while I fill in the color on the wax paper. His jeans slip low, his hip bones a bowl around the tight muscles of his midsection. 43
My mouth feels watery. I want to touch him, but I need to finish this first. When I’m done, I hold the drawing out to him. He takes it with both hands, one at either edge, fingers pinching it like clothespins holding up a sweater. His face is blurred by the orange mess, but I can see the purse of his lips. He never offers a word of approval or disdain. After staring at it for a minute he sets the drawing on my nightstand and then leaps upon me, his weight heavy and welcome. If providing him reminders of the hurts he suffers is the price I must pay to feel his body atop mine, it is an expense I will shell out forever. p Other times, when Riley’s father is sober or has gone off on a bender, I go to his house. I wear some junky T-shirt I bought at Goodwill and let him cut it off me. He likes this; he says the noise of the swishy scissors, the crunch of separating fabric, and the appearance of my skin are like unexpected gifts. The lower jaw of the scissors grazes my stomach, my solar plexus, my sternum, the sharp points whisking near my Adam’s apple. Riley straddles me, his knees suctioned around my hips, one hand punched into his sheets near my right armpit, the other pushing the scissors. When he’s done he lets the fabric hang there and looks at me. I look back at him, and we don’t share any words until his fingers tickle around my belly button and I can’t help but wriggle and laugh. “What’s the matter, Ben?” he says when he drops the scissors on the floor so he can poke at me with both hands. When I snort and grab for his fingers, he tries to pin me. We roll and roll, and I get dizzy fast. His hair smells of Pert shampoo, and it’s thick when I run my hand through it. His crooked nose is straight up close. When we’re breathing hard, we stop. I peel off the T-shirt and he pins it to the sheet of corkboard he’s mounted above his bed. If his father hasn’t been around for a while, hasn’t had occasion to charge into Riley’s room and rip down all the evidence of things he refuses to see, the shirt joins several others: fabrics destroyed at Riley’s hand. They give him something to take control over. That’s why I let him cut them. That’s why I let him win when we roll around and try to exert the force inside our muscles upon one another. I know he’s 44
jealous that my parents don’t care, that sometimes, when Riley comes over for dinner I’m willing to fishhook my fingers around his beneath the table without a worry that they’ll catch sight and say something. They saw us, once, when we were walking home from school. I’d let my fingers get caught up in his and when we turned the corner onto my street there they were, unpacking groceries, my father’s arms snuggling a trio of paper bags. I could see the fringes of cilantro sticking out, obscuring half of his face. Riley tried to yank his hand away but I held it tight, and he looked at me and I tried to smile. My father waved and asked for some help, scanning us with squinted eyes. His gaze landed on our braided hands and he said that if we moved fast enough, he’d let us gorge on the gallon of ice cream he’d bought.
“They’re almost too nice,” Riley said once.
“Too nice?” We were in his bedroom. He was tacking up a fresh shirt. Riley had opened his window, and gusty spring air was flowing inside. My skin prickled.
“Like cakes that are too sweet or have too much icing.”
I didn’t argue, because I knew this was something Riley needed to say, even if it wasn’t something he really felt. When he was done tacking up the shirt, he didn’t mention it again. Instead he gave me a thorough stare and said, “Well?” and then started taking off his clothes. p My mother thinks I don’t know that she sits in my bedroom when I’m not home. She doesn’t rummage; I would know that, too. I spent my childhood taking meticulous care of my things: hiding magazines I pilfered, clearing my internet search history on the family computer, stacking t-shirts over my journals in a precise order with invisible pecks of paper stuck in the stacks so I’d know if they were disturbed. I lined my shoes up against my closet door in particular pointed patterns that my mother would never be able to replicate exactly if she shoved them out of the way to search. They were never once out of place. 45
I can picture her while I’m at school, her Chanel perfume
filling my room. Her hands glide across my Egyptian cotton sheets, smoothing down the bumps I leave when I make my bed in the morning. She leans back and smells my pillow—smells Riley, smells me—and holds my scent in her lungs. She stares at my popcorn ceiling, where glow-in-the-dark stars I tacked up when I was twelve still illuminate the dark at the end of each day. At first, I wanted to form real constellations, but I gave up after I kept forgetting what the Big Dipper needed to look like. One night, Riley said he liked them better in scattered, random formation. “The way they’re organized in real life is just dumb luck anyway,” he said. His arm was over my shoulder, thumb padding at the back of my head near my left ear. He was like a heavy, quilted blanket. “Some stars are lucky to fit together, others are unlucky enough to be alone.” He took a deep breath. “Your pillow smells like your mom.”
I expected him to say I was lucky, but he said nothing else. Soon enough, he was asleep. p I sit on chilly bleachers, the cold seeping through my khakis. The wind is whippy but the sun is bright, bathing the soccer players in a glow that has absorbed into their skinny arms and strong legs. It’s not hard for me to pick out Riley, not only because he has the ball so often but because an aquamarine stripe runs up his right thigh from where his father slapped at him with his belt just two days ago, beaming across the field like a nightlight pushing through darkness. The stands are full; the team is undefeated with only three games before district playoffs. Riley is the leading scorer. In real life, he walks slowly, canting forward like he’s balanced on stilts. His gait is forgetful, plodding, and he turns in small circles regularly, as if he’s completely lost track of where he’s going or what he wants. But on the pitch, he is like a gazelle on a savanna, driving away from a predator who’s ready to sluck the meat off his ribs. When he possesses the ball he maneuvers it down the field like an extension of his body. He has scored at least once in every game; somewhere in the crowd are scouts from Stanford, UNC, Southern Methodist, all waiting for him to announce where he’ll go when we graduate. 46
He scores, and the crowd around me erupts. The bleachers shake, the rattle echoing in my teeth. I stand and clap too, looking for Riley, who is caught in the center of a scrum of teammates who are grabbing at his jersey, tousling his sweaty hair. Through the forest of legs, I can see small blips of his blue stripe, as though I’m looking at a neon sign flickering on and off. When the players reset, I keep staring at him, wondering if he’ll look my way. But this is the soccer field, the world where Riley forgets everything outside the painted white lines, me included. p His mother sends birthday cards to my house because she knows Riley’s dad will tear them open and pluck out any cash or checks. She also doesn’t want him to know where she is. Riley sees her once in a while. He tells me she apologizes for not being there, but she can’t afford to take care of him. When he says that his father isn’t in any condition to do it either, she bites her lip, sometimes so hard she starts to bleed, and Riley feels queasy.
“I shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for that,” he says.
“No,” I say. “You shouldn’t.”
He comes to our house for Thanksgiving, and as a surprise his mom appears, ringing the doorbell right before we sit down to eat. The way my mother says, “I wonder who that could be,” tells me she’s arranged this. Riley squeezes my hand beneath the table, hard, his foot pressing down on mine so my arch aches. “It’s fine,” I tell him. His eyes are as wide as ping pong balls. His face is flushed white. His mother bounds in, a grocery store pie in a cardboard box in her hands. She smells of motor oil and cigarettes, and her eyes are puffy, her hair greasy. Riley rises like he’s made of lead and accepts her buoyant hug, the pie clattering against their chests before she laughs and passes it to me. She squares him in front of her, her hands on Riley’s shoulders. Her smile is genuine, revealing yellowed teeth. I want to ask her hard, sharp questions, like: Why are you here now? Where have you been? When will you take care of him? But I do not. No one does. My parents and I hover in an awkward orbit around them. 47
“Happy Thanksgiving, sweetie,” she says, pulling him close again. I know she’ll be gone in hours. Riley, stiff, peers at the wall past her. I watch his hands clench behind her back, fingers contracting, relaxing, contracting, like a pair of hearts struggling to beat. p When Riley isn’t around, I draw him. I draw the both of us, but on separate pieces of paper, so his hand is reaching out of the frame of his picture toward mine, and my fingers are barely pressed into the borders of his portraits. I’m no good at faces, so we both look square, and our proportions are off, our arms and legs rigid and unrealistic. I fail to capture the oval girth of his eyes, the straightness of his teeth, the cleft of his chin. My own gangly arms and legs are blown up and cartoonish, but Riley laughs at them with kindness anyway, telling me he loves them. “They help me remember I’m still here,” he says when I try to take one away from him after he let out a particularly barking laugh.
“What does that mean?”
“Hard to explain,” he says, and then kisses me goodbye before disappearing out of my house. He’s comfortable leaving on his own, waving to my parents as he traipses through the living room and out into the dark. I watch his shape from my window, memorizing the way he moves. Three weeks before Christmas, with clumpy snow pattering on the windows, he pounds on the door at eleven at night. My parents are already in bed, and they flutter to the foyer in matching bathrobes.
Riley’s nose is bloody.
“Oh goodness,” my mother says, and I know this red is not the kind only I can see. Something spikes in my chest, and when I look down I half expect to see my own blood cascading out of a hole in my torso, but instead all I see is the T-shirt Riley picked out for me at Goodwill last week, the one he asked me to sleep in for seven nights without washing it. The gray material is fuzzy, and it itches a bit at the armpits where it’s too tight. “He came back,” Riley says, his voice gummy. I can see a flash of red outlining his teeth, and I wonder if any of them are missing. 48
“We need to call someone,” my father says, his voice thick and strong. Riley stumbles into the house, his head pressing against my chest as his knees wobble, and I feel the heat of his bleeding nose connect to the shirt, turning a coin-sized spot sticky and warm. I don’t pull back but instead pull him in, bringing his body close to mine and letting whatever wants to move between us travel without resistance. p Riley is gone. I feel like Band-Aids have been ripped off from all over my skin. Two days after the police came for his father, Riley doesn’t show up at school. I go to his house and he does not answer. The lights are out that night when I come back, even the front stoop’s glass-encased bulb that was always turned on. I climb the trellis around back and peer through the dark into his bedroom. The corkboard is still there, but it bears no T-shirts. I can’t see much else. I can’t pull open his bureau’s drawers or rifle through his closet. I can’t find Riley’s secrets. The soccer coach has a conniption; the state championship is only days away and no one will tell him what has become of Riley. I feel like a chewed up mass of food that has spent hours clogging someone’s throat. My parents keep their eyes on me for too many seconds at a time, and when I ask if they know something, they shake their heads. I feel as if everyone is telling me lies. I count the days since I last saw him. For the first ten, I lie on my bed, head buried in my pillow, except for when I drag myself into the brisk cold to help my mother bring in groceries or give my father a hand shoveling snow, which falls in heavy, wet droves. He asks if I want to go sledding, and I only say yes because I can hear the urgent worry in his voice. Because I’m on break from school, my mother has no opportunity to come in and sit in my room, suturing at my sheets with her scent; the atomized smell of her perfume has dissipated. So has Riley’s musk, and so all that’s left is the sour-sweet of my own sweat. The next five days, crossing into a two week stretch that is the longest we’ve ever gone without seeing one another, I sit cross-legged on my floor, staring at my sketchbook. I have nothing to say, nothing to illustrate. Every page remains a creamy, blank failure. The pencils in my hand 49
feel like foreign objects, alien things beamed down from a different world. Some nights, I look at my own body. I poke my fingers hard against my ribs or my stomach. I clutch my arms tight, wringing them red. I step on one foot with the other, squashing my toes. Unlike Riley’s skin, mine brightens pink and then reverts to its normal peach color. I yearn for something brighter, more meaningful, but I am what I am and Riley, wherever he’s gone, is what he is. I wear the same T-shirt for three days, a fresh Goodwill purchase, but can’t bring myself to cut it off my body by myself. Christmas comes and goes. I spend the day curled up on the living room couch at my parents’ behest. I ignore the shower of presents they have slid under the tree for me, a meaningless new video game console that I should love staring at me from where my father has set it up beneath the television. The games are all multiplayer, but I have no one to shoot terrorists or chase ogres through the woods with. My mother and father ask me if I would like to go see a new Star Wars movie. My dad turns on the James Bond marathon we watch every year. Neither of them mentions Riley by name nor attempts to comfort me with saccharine words. They don’t suggest that I’ll get over it, and for this I’m grateful. I should be enjoying eggnog with Riley, staring at the way his throat looks wrapped up in a cable-knit turtleneck while we torture each other with the cold bottoms of our feet, but instead I’m left with an empty bed and a silent room that becomes so uncomfortable that I sleep on the couch. The living room is illumined by the Christmas tree that one of my parents unplugs sometime after I finally conk out. I am woken the next day to my parents moving around, turning on the coffee maker and frying eggs. Three days later, after twenty-four days have passed since Riley was whisked away in the night, a thick envelope arrives. There is no return address, but I recognize the handwriting as Riley’s after having helped him with the rough drafts of his English papers. I shut myself in my room and tear it open with an indelicate fury, accidentally ripping the drawings inside. Riley has sent me two, one of each of us, and I recognize them as the last pair I sketched: he is slumped in a chair, legs splayed out like a pair of checkmarks, his shoulders uneven because I am terrible at perspective and symmetry. He is staring 50
down at his lap, where I’ve tried to knot his hands together but have made it look like his arms end in a contorted Christmas bow. In my self-portrait I am standing straight up, my eyes slanted to my left; I’m looking at him, but askew, as though I don’t want anyone in the world to know where my gaze naturally flows. He has changed them. Riley’s body is striped with all sorts of colors, splashes that angle across his hips, blotches that cover his eyes and mouth. His stomach is a black ball, his elbows serrated pink. He is both fluorescent and opaque. Riley has colored me in, too: brass, gold. I glow all over. Light shines from me. Light I do not feel anywhere on my real body. His touch on my skin has already faded to a lukewarm memory. p He kissed me first. We were both freshly sixteen. My parents threw a party for me. Kids crammed into my basement, spinning the handles on the foosball table, chatting next to the pool table whose felt was skimmed with dust; the chalk for the cues had turned to blue onyx. My friends drank watery Kool-Aid, some of which was spiked with vodka someone slipped in via a flask, and the room started to smell like a doctor’s office from so much exhaled booze breath. They swallowed down pizza by the slice and wiped their mouths with their forearms. My parents said no gifts, and none were offered. The kids with real parties to attend, with kegs and Jell-O shots and rap music and making out, filtered away. Then so did the rest, until it was just me and Riley. My parents went to bed. We sat on the living room sofa. His neck was ringed a cartoonish saffron, and I reached out and touched it. He winced and admitted that his father had roped him with a tie.
“God,” I said.
“I’m okay,” he said. “He didn’t yank it tight. Also, I have a gift for you.” “No gifts,” I said, imitating my father, who had bestowed upon me a set of acrylic paints before the party while my mother brought an easel in from the garage. 51
“Don’t worry,” Riley said. “This one didn’t cost anything.”
He told me to close my eyes. I was rigid. I was shaky. Even though I hadn’t drunk any of the spiked punch, the world felt woozy when I did as he told me. His hands alighted on my shoulders and I let out a small noise of approval. “Shush,” he said. His mouth was near. Then he put his lips on mine, for only a second or two, but everything became fire. I pictured a licking blue flame passing from him to me. When I opened my eyes, he was staring at me, smiling.
“Why’d you do that?” I said.
“Because I wanted to. And you wanted me to.”
“Do you want to stay?” I said.
“Yes.” Later, when we were locked in my bedroom and the only light came from the plastic stars on my ceiling and my reading lamp, whose nose I beveled down so the glow spread like a serving platter against my nightstand, we would kiss again. I would taste the sugary birthday cake Riley had swallowed down in large bites, and I would smell the mint of his breath from the gum he was always chewing after eating. His fingers would tickle down my ribs as if he was playing an instrument. He would lay them against my skin, his iron-warm hands skirted up beneath my shirt. And when he pulled back and asked if this was okay I would nod and other things would happen: fingers through hair, tongues against throats. I would stutter and hitch, and so would he, and we would laugh, breathless and anxious, wondering where we should search and what we should find. We would barely sleep. But as we unfurled ourselves from the couch, I took the lead as we walked to the stairs. I paused at the first step. Riley stood behind me. I stopped again halfway up, but I didn’t turn around. I lifted my hand from the bannister and extended it backward, then waited until Riley took it, his fiery fingers squeezed into mine so I knew he was still there. 52
G A R L I C L A M B M E AT BA L L S John L e o n ard
Ground lamb, pressed garlic, and pepper. The steel, steam, sweat of cutting your feet on river stones, of dancing blood onto the floor of your childhood home, of returning to nature. As I chop tomatoes, you are petting moss and slipping on emerald algae. I reach for a wooden spoon and your eyes see your brother reaching for the tree branch below you—the oiled sizzle of the pan—his voice calling “Wait the fuck for me!”. Salt of your youth, spilled as we both throw a pinch over our shoulders, first to scare the devil, then to kill the slugs that feasted on your mother’s Alligator Hosta. Lemon zest, the heat of the oven like an August sunset, like the golden-brown flesh of your father’s fingers lifting the contents of a failed pie tin beer-trap to his lips, a shadowy rope of smoke rocking him to sleep in the hammock, the smell of dinner overwhelming the sour glow of his collar. At last, a thin arm waving you and your brother towards the porch light, letting you know he had already eaten; letting you know, it was finally safe to come home.
R O B E RT E . L E E B L A C K L I V E S M AT T E R Jam e s R e a d e Ve n abl e
Emm a Sny d e r
fetch my lucky socks from the rain. They are knotted together at the ankles, one graying toe dangling on either side of sickly pink shutters. It was Mom’s idea to repaint them when we first moved into the house. She said black was too depressing.
When my hand grabs the socks, they’re just moist enough for me to hope the skyfall cleaned them. My arm is exposed for fifteen seconds after I open the window, reach out, and pull the socks inside. I hold my hand out there for another second until I reach sixteen in my head. “God, Liz,” Lew snorts, flipping a page in his book. “Those socks are disgusting.” “They’re not.” I say, even though they are. I slide the window shut and set the damp socks on my desk, whose wood is aged tenfold by various and unidentifiable stains. I rummage for the measuring tape next, sifting through the mess of office supplies and half-empty mugs that rest beneath my windowsill. “When’s your date tonight?” Lew asks. I pause for a moment, like maybe I can blurt out the words to him in time, but I can’t. The muscles in my arm are taunt against the skin, straining. I dig the measuring tape out and hold it out to the stain on the left lucky sock, affirming that it’s four centimeters wide. After this, when my body’s tension dims enough for me to voluntarily glance at Lew, his nose is still sunk in that book. “Why do you care?” I retort, tossing the measuring tape back on the desk. 55
“Because this book says I should show interest in your life.”
“Since when do you care about what books say?”
“Since I started wanting to be helpful,” Lew says, excavating his nose from the book’s pages. He’s sitting on my bed like he owns it, nestled between lopsided stacks of pillows and shoes. His face is peppered with the kind of teenage cystic acne that never breaches the surface, and his hair is greased back with the gel that makes mohawks, not poindexters. “I know Mom’s being a bitch, but at least you have me.” “Thanks, Lew,” I say, trying to sound like I mean it. My life was markedly better before a fifteen-year-old pretended to care about some offhand comment my college therapist made. “And the date’s at six. With Seth.” And then I’m not in my glitzed pink bedroom with Lew, but in the shower with Seth. Sure, we’ve never met, but I’ve seen his shirtless pics on Tinder, and that’s basically the same thing. As I’m standing there under the nozzle with him, water drooling down his filtered, edited abs, I panic. The water’s gone cold, I’m not having a good time, and when he shows me the condom he picked out, it’s pink. Not even solid pink; it’s splattered with little alien faces. They’re bright green and glossy in the bathroom light. Next thing I know, I’m crying as the water gets hotter, because I don’t actually want to lose my virginity to a guy whose first concert was One Direction. When the water stops, I’m still crying, because maybe I do.
“If he’s coming over, you should clean up in here,” Lew says.
I blink back to the reality of my bedroom, batting dry eyes. When I look at Lew, he’s putting my pillows back where socially acceptable pillows should go. He’s already dismantled the shoe stack, unearthing that one pink flip-flop that can’t be thrown away in case I find its pair. “Lew!” I snap. Panic unfurls in my gut, a Jacob’s ladder in motion. My therapist has a Jacob’s ladder in his office. He lets me play with it while we talk about what it means to have obsessive-compulsive disorder, how to let go of the things that I will never be able to let go of. 56
“Mom’s not going to get you help if she doesn’t think you’re trying.” Lew frowns, grabbing his book off the comforter and stepping toward the door. “It’s not just this, either. She told me you’re giving up on school.” “I’m not giving up,” I say, adjusting the pillows until I’m satisfied. “I switched majors, so it’ll take me longer to graduate. That’s not the same thing.”
“She said you failed your major, though.”
“I can’t keep talking about this,” I say. My hands are shaking like Mom’s after she called my therapist’s office for the first time. I really shouldn’t have signed that paper, the one that gave her permission to see all my medical records at school. I thought it would help her move past everything, to know I’m healthy and okay.
Even if Dad wasn’t.
As Lew hesitates, I hide the flip-flop back under the shoe pile and right the other wrongs he’s done. Then, I put on my boots to cover up the lucky socks and their smell. When I pass Lew to leave, he’s still gripping that book. The spine is angled toward me, its title legible. It’s called “Living with Someone with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.” I suppose authors have started writing books for families of people with mental disorders, rather than for the latter. There’s already plenty of manuals about that. My therapist wrote down a list of them for me to buy, but Lew’s the only one who’s been reading them. p Seth is late. I arrived exactly ten minutes early, which is how early I had to be, if the date is going to be perfect. Lucky socks can only be so lucky. All the rain from this morning never managed to turn into snow, but the puddles left behind have shriveled into ice. My boots edge into one that has coalesced on the corner by the restaurant. To pass the time, I count the cars that drive by. There’s not many. It’s a quiet street, one of those uptown roads bricked with cobble. 57
“Hey, are you Liz?”
“Yeah,” I say, motionless. He’s caught me at a bad time. I’m stuck on car number seven, and I can’t look at him until the eighth one passes. My left eye twitches in aggravation.
I hear him closing in, shoes slapping stones. When his steps stop at thirteen, I smack the tip of my boot against the ground so it’s even. That’s when a jaunty pink sedan grumbles past, exhaust curling into the uptown air. It’s pink like the pink on my shutters, the walls of my house, the plastic flowers we left on Dad’s grave so they’d never die.
The tension is still there, pricking pins into my chest and fingertips. This happens sometimes. Once isn’t always enough. I squint my eyes until my nose crinkles up.
Eight. Eight. Eight.
The anxiety slinks away in defeat.
When I finally turn to look at Seth, I find myself staring. His dating profile was for a hot, abbed jock. Hot enough for me to already be having shower sex fantasies about, for sure. I recall his bio mentioning key phrases like six feet tall, freaky big feet, and an unclever tagline from Friends about being awkward for love. Well, the awkward bit was right. And the six foot tall part. The man standing behind me is tall and angular, cheeks sucked in to make room for a tugboat chin. His lips are puckered like they’ve been filled with plastic, wrinkles pressed into the skin where they shouldn’t be.
Definitely no abs, either.
My dwindling hope of a perfect date capsizes when he opens his mouth again. “So, I know we planned to eat out and all, but I’d rather take you back to my car instead. My Dad wanted to know why I was going out, and now he thinks I’m studying at the library. I don’t have too long,” Seth says. He slouches when he talks, arms dangling like the wet socks on my bedroom shutters. 58
“We literally just met each other,” I frown, pressing my own shoulders back until my shoulder blades pinch each other. “I don’t go back to cars with people I just meet. Why does your Dad care where you’re at, anyway?” Seth gives me a noncommittal shrug. I shrug too. Just to make it even.
“Let’s eat,” I say. “We made a reservation, anyway.”
Seth (if that’s really his name) shoots me a puckered pout. He glances back down the route he came, at the winding cobbled road he’ll have to journey through to get back to his car in the cold.
“Fine,” he sighs. “But I don’t have long.” p
Everything is okay until the food comes. We’re in one of those family-owned restaurants that was founded by someone’s twiceremoved Italian uncle. The genetic dilution over generations has filtered down to the decor. Our table is blotted with heart-stopping pizza grease. A wrinkled Italian flag droops from the exposed rafters above, but none of the blank-faced waitstaff show enthusiasm for their family’s heritage. At some point, Seth tells me about his desperate need to get years of Christian repression out of his system with a literal bang. In return, I tell him about switching my major from Psychology to English and how it was all because I couldn’t get through statistics and needed something mathless. I even mention how my Mom has begun to loathe me for this, in case it’ll resuscitate something in Seth’s conflict with his Dad. It’s no use, though. Neither of us is paying attention to the other. “Which one of you ordered lasagna?” asks a waitress, fingers red from holding our plates in her hands. I say it’s mine, and she gives me a canned warning about how hot it is before slipping it in front of me. That’s when I see it. Three chunks of devilish noodle blocks. There were supposed to be four. It’s the only reason I got the lasagna. 59
“I need you to eat one of these,” I say to Seth, who has already
begun lusting after his alfredo linguini. He’s got a gob of them curled up around his fork, which he eats after blasting me with an irritated glare. “No,” he says, wet cheese noises erupting as he smacks his lips. “I don’t eat red sauce. My Dad thinks I’m allergic to the dye in it.” “Please, seriously,” I say. Shrill alarms are chiming in my brain, a brain that has to have what it needs to have or else. “I just need you to take one of them off my plate.” And then I need to say it again, because maybe he’s not understanding. If I don’t repeat myself, he might never understand, and then I’m going to have to eat this lasagna and crash my car into a tree on my way home.
Maybe Mom will leave pink flowers on my grave too.
“I just need you to take one of them off my plate,” I repeat. “Because it’s not safe for me to leave it there.” This is the only part of our conversation Seth’s been listening to. I can tell because his eyes have lost the buttered glaze that took over when I mentioned college. Silence replaces his previous expression. It sours into something muted and stern.
I gesture twice to my lasagna, like this makes it easier.
“So if that’s gonna make you sick, then you want me to eat it first?” Seth frowns, lips bulging at the effort. “Listen, I came here to have fun, not to play mind games. Give it up, or I’m out.” “You don’t get to reject me,” I hiss. “I have done everything, absolutely everything tonight to try to make this go well. If anyone gets to leave first, it should be me!” In a momentary lapse of common sense, I shove my plate of wobbling lasagna across the table at him. I don’t mean for it to go far, but the soiled wood is too slick with grease to hold it in place. Gelatinous noodles spread their oily wings, plastering themselves to Seth’s shirt. I stare, goggling. Seth stands, letting the carnage fall to the yellowing floor. 60
“You’re crazy, you know that?” Seth spits, a little too loud for comfort. A few guests tuck their heads behind their aged menus, pretending not to listen. “What the fuck’s wrong with you? Eat the lasagna, don’t eat the lasagna. I don’t owe you anything.”
“I was just—” I cry, but he’s already out the door. p
It’s dark enough to switch my headlights on by the time I’m back to my car. I text Lew and let him know the date didn’t go well, and no, I don’t want to talk about it, and yes, please don’t tell Mom. When I pull up to my house twenty minutes later, he’s waiting on the porch swing. Like every other extremity of the house, Mom painted it pink when we moved in. It was for male breast cancer awareness, she said.
Every splash of pink reminds me that I didn’t lock the door to my room that day. If I had, Mom wouldn’t have gone in. She wouldn’t have put the piles where she thought they belonged. We wouldn’t have been stuck at home fighting instead of being at the hospital. Dad wouldn’t have flatlined during the mastectomy. Lew and I could still have him, if I had just turned the lock. “Are you okay?” Lew asks. I’m standing a few feet from him, our bodies lit with the crackling glow of the porch light. I shake my head, reaching for the front door. The porch swing jingles as Lew jumps to his feet. “Don’t go in right now, Liz,” he says, scrambling to stand between me and the door. “Mom’s waiting for you. She’s pissed.” “What’s she pissed about?” I ask, frowning. It’s getting colder by the minute, and the thin cardigan I’m wearing isn’t doing me any favors. When I tug the sleeves down further, I have to do it twice, or else. “She saw me reading one of your books on OCD and took it away,” Lew says, playing statue. He’s been broad-shouldered since he was little, which makes him tough to get around. It makes him look like Dad. 61
No one tells him that anymore except me.
“Thanks for telling me, Lew,” I say, narrowly edging past him and into the doorway. I twist the knob and push open the door. The warm light from the living room filters out, and the heat convinces me to hesitate. I turn, able to see Lew better now. His jaw is set, teeth clenched together behind lips pulled into a tight frown. “I was really just trying to help, I’m sorry,” Lew says. His voice sinks, low and quiet. “I just don’t want anything else bad to happen. You guys are all I’ve got.”
“I know, Lew,” I say, stepping backward into the light. “I know.” p
Mom’s waiting for me in the kitchen, a mug of green tea in one hand and her chin resting in the other. We have one of those kitchens with particle board cabinets built back in the 70’s when they were reserved for the rich. Mom stands out among the sea of metallic pink cupboards, still wearing the pencil skirt and fuschia blouse she always parades around the office. The outfit makes her look more tall, slender, and arched than she already is. Her only palpable curve is her sloped belly, which rebounded brilliantly after birthing two children. She moves to stand when I come in, a witness before the jury.
“How was your date?” Mom asks, as if she doesn’t know.
“It was great,” I reply, as if it was.
“Okay, then,” Mom says, pink nails clicking steadily against the sides of her mug. Her expression fixes on mine, unmoving. “So, I guess you don’t want to talk about it.” “Talk about what?” I frown, tendrils of tension beginning to scale my ribcage. “I’m not going to say what you want to hear. I know you don’t think anything’s wrong with me, and that’s great. I wish there wasn’t. But after tonight—you should’ve seen the way Seth looked at me, Mom. I used to be able to go on dates. I used to feel like I could do things without worrying that me or somebody else was going to get hurt. ”
“It’s just stress, Liz,” Mom says, taking a sip of tea. “You’ve got 62
a lot on your mind. It’s only been five months since the funeral. It takes longer than that to feel okay again. That’s why that shrink up at school has been diagnosing you with all kinds of disorders right before he sent you home for break; you’re grieving.” “It’s one disorder. And maybe he has a point, Mom. I’ve been like this for a long time. As long as I can remember, really. I have to do things a certain way, or else. And whenever I don’t, something bad happens. Like… with Dad.” “Your father’s death wasn’t your fault,” my Mom says, almost compassionate. “It wasn’t anyone’s fault. The only thing that you were responsible for that day was the state of your room. It’s just laziness, Liz. Don’t let some shrink trick you into having a disorder.” “I thought you were right, but not after today,” I say, leaning against the frame of the kitchen archway. It’s painted pink too. “Even Lew knows something’s wrong with me. We can’t just avoid it. It’s getting worse. Maybe it’s grief, maybe it’s school, but I need to be able to clean my room. I have to go on dates and not worry that I’m going to die.” “You haven’t even been trying to get better from whatever you think you’re dealing with,” Mom says, setting her mug on the counter. She’s careful to calculate its landing, placing it where a previous ring had formed while it steeped. “Your room looks the same every week, even after you tell me you’ve cleaned it. You don’t read any of the books that shrink recommended, although Lew obviously is. I wouldn’t waste my money on treatment for you even if you were improving, which you’re not.” “It’s different at school. They make treatment free for students on campus. You wouldn’t have to do anything. I want us to be on the same page, to agree about what’s going on with me. You’re the only parent I’ve got left.” I’m tearing up now, trembling. “And you taking me seriously would mean the world.” Something in me has to turn the kitchen light on and off, so I reach for the switch and do it twice. 63
Mom sighs, unimpressed.
“I don’t need another sick person in this family,” she says. “I don’t need to spend your father’s life insurance on shrinks either, or for Lew to deal with more than he already has.” “I know,” I say, still shaking. “That’s why I think I should figure this out on my own. I just want you to support me, or at least admit there’s something wrong. Please, Mom.” Mom doesn’t answer right away, stretching the silence taunt. The kitchen light dims above her, a solemn reminder that the bulb is almost out of life. This casts a somber glow on my mother’s purpling and veiny under eyes, her slouched shoulders. She stares at me, eyes rimmed red. “I want you to stop making excuses,” she says, gnawing at the inside of her cheek. “But we can’t both get what we want.” I stand there at first, ghosts of tears drying tacky on my cheeks. Maybe if I wait long enough, she’ll take it back. She’ll change her mind.
Instead, she leaves.
She takes her mug of tea from the counter and pushes past me. I’m still standing in the archway when I hear her bedroom door slam down the hall. The front door clicks open and shut just after. A shivering Lew slips inside. He joins me in the kitchen archway, each of us pressed against one pink column. His cheeks are the same color, but at least they match the decor. “How did it go?” he asks, rubbing his hands together to kill the cold. “I didn’t hear any shouting.” “There wasn’t any,” I say. The anxiety from before is beginning to wane. My limbs and my choices are becoming my own again. “But it didn’t go well, either.” When Lew’s arms pull me in, I’m thinking about the last time we hugged like this. It was back in August, at Dad’s funeral. Mom was having trouble soaking up all the well-wishes, already saturated. So were Lew and I, which is why we went outside the church to get some air. 64
We sat down in the grass, our backs pressed up against the building. I was the one who reached out to hug him that time, and he was the one who relented. We didn’t have to say anything. We knew what we needed then.
I know it now too.
When we pull apart and settle against opposite sides of the arch, I feel tension trying to root itself in the pit of my stomach again. Before it can get the better of me, I look straight at Lew. “You don’t have to worry about me,” I say, taking a bottomless breath. “I can take care of myself. Don’t read books for me, or stand up to Mom. It’s not your job.” “I want to help,” Lew says, eyes brimming with tears. “I can’t lose you, or have something bad happen, or—” “It won’t,” I whisper, pulling him back in for another hug. “I can handle it.” p It’s not until I’m back in my room, boots unzipped and paired behind the door, that I realize I’m still wearing my lucky socks. I peel them off, one after the other. A wicked stench erupts as they unstick from my skin, rotten and sour. I hesitate for exactly ten seconds, feeling their sick warmth in my hand.
Then I toss them in the waste bin.
If they weren’t lucky enough to make my mother believe me, they’re not so lucky after all.
ON THE LINE
Manit C h a ot rag o ong it
U N D E R WAT E R S K E L E TA L R E M A I N S Wi l li am Brow n
Si s el G elm an On the day I die, I hope time tastes like cherries: Fresh, plump, sweet to the palate —Ripe and never rushed. I hope to trace every memory I have As if I were wrapping my tongue around the pit: I pull it from its crevice, Tuck it inside my cheek, then Bite down on the tender flesh And swirl the juices in my mouth To enjoy the aftertaste. When Death comes for me, I hope he finds me in a rocking chair Leaning lazily at the edge of an orchard. With a twisted stem in my mouth, I don’t have a single regret on my mind. I hope we have a last meal together, Where the blood-red juices drip at the corners of our mouths, And a purple tint seeps beneath our fingernails. And as August slowly turns into September, Summer into Fall, The young into the old, Death plants a cherry pit for me.
THE HUDSON F L OW S E V E RY W H I C H WAY & THE ESSENCE OF G R I E F I S T H AT I T DOES THE SAME
Gra c e Gi lb e r t
I spent with you was a retro film—things moved like T hethelastearthweekend was still in rotation. I held your brother’s hand in sepia
winter sun. You ordered something and wished it were something else. I think you tripped over the café stoop. We laughed. We bought green apples. We saw the deep strip of the River. We loved the way it wanted to contain the sky. Your smell on my shirt. You, my one souvenir, blue and crumpled in my weekend duffel, like something obsolete. Þ When we cleaned out your apartment weeks later, even the apples on the counter were rotted, like they knew. Þ What happens when a body is submerged for a long period of time? I practice the language of it in my head. First, a body bloats and builds within itself: all the small mechanisms of life continue as if they haven’t known an end. Gases swell, and then release. A chest heaves. Skin begins to blue, and blue, and blue. Clothing is torn by rocks or reeds, then eaten by what lives between them. Perhaps remnants of cloth will cling to bruising limbs like flypaper, barely covering what it was originally meant to cover. Maybe someone will see it all, by accident, in the dew of April; the new rot, Earth Day, the first day it’s warm enough to place the new docks. They’ll question what exactly 69
that bobbing blue mass could be. Someone else will pray it isn’t what he thinks. God, please, they’ll beg to no one, frozen in the kind of fear that wants nothing to do with itself. Not here. Þ You were always such a strong swimmer. On your last day, we played Scrabble in the unusual February light in the corner cove of the Christ Church rectory kitchen, frozen sun-melt coming through a wash of windows, hands wrapped around a glut of your momma’s homemade tea. Your momma, the priest, told us stories through sundown: at the public pool you, lithe and child-bodied, were never one to be afraid of the cold. Once, at age ten, you stared a coming storm straight through its gunmetal eye, a still life surrounded by frantic mothers and blowing umbrellas. While no one was watching, you jumped and held your breath as long as possible. Christian! Your momma yelled, running wet, frantic patterns across the pavement. Christian! She darted barefoot down the grassy hill, your name splintering the sky as other mothers shepherded their children into the parking lot and covered their ears. When she slowly paced back up the hill, ghost-eyed and clutching her chest, you were sitting in the early rain, wrapped in a towel.
Hey, Momma, you said with a smirk. I’m ready to go. Þ
February 25, the epicenter of Troy, New York. The Poestenkill Gorge is sentient, a chest: it heaves and swells, contracts. In normal weather, it breathes with a fixed rhythm. The day you fall, thirty minutes after I hug you goodbye in the State Street parking garage, heat-induced snowmelt swells the mighty chest like an infection, eddies and currents tangling and sputtering like a cough. That evening, when your brother and I drive back upstate, all is quiet. The beginnings of a blizzard coat the road. Þ 70
It takes us three days and a call from your work to know the video on the news was of you. It takes an hour to check every local hospital. It takes one minute to drive past the Gorge and see your corroded white Jeep, the lone car still parked in the lot. Þ It takes more than a strong swimmer to come above water every time. Þ I am flying above the River, a slim ribbon on the map. In these dreams, I either kill you or save you. Christian! I yell, and my wings beat against the wind. I am running my mind through the logic of it. I am running water. Running out of time. The Gorge feeds the mouth. The Gorge feeds into the Hudson River. The Gorge expels you. Where did you go? The Hudson River, an estuary: flowing both ways, an arm of the sea. I watch the small tin boats flock and gather, searching for you. I watch the coarse February current, this frenzied arm throbbing and pumping; I look for you, a small vein of it. Þ March. Housebound in the evening blizzard, we are draped in blankets, waiting. Suddenly we are wading through twenty-five years of you: orange onesie, paramecium model from seventh grade, high school swim trophies, old snowboards, crumpled love poems, college graduation pictures, all spread on the timeworn hardwood floor of the rectory—an offering. Your momma prays with her eyes sewn shut, thin limbs bent to wood like rogue nails, arms outstretched like she is expecting something to fall into them. She says, Holy Jesus, you dripped blood when you prayed. I keep an eye open; watch the snow fall between blinds. Þ Our final day cleaning out your apartment, no one speaks. Your brother and I are at the sink. I scrub the rancid lip of a marbled coffee mug, your last. Your father picks up your favorite redwood guitar and sits cross-legged in the center of the empty wooden living room. He strums, back to us, his slight, muffled cries folded into music, tinny 71
and soft. Þ Every day that we wait for news of your body, we gather to bless the Father and the Son. The Father who loved the Son. The Father we bless because He knows our sufferings. But sometimes, when I glance up during prayer, I see other eyes still open, other hands folded to laps—if a Father loves his son, how could he choose to lose him? Þ The language of my prayers is practical and without need of a god. I stare at every River long enough to make out your thin body, a glitch in the current. Þ There is no choice but to leave you. By you, I mean the apartment. There is such guilt in this. There is nothing left to box. On your bed, the last thing to go, the pale paisley comforter is untouched—on it, a hardcover hiking and backpacking guide. Stamped by the Troy Public Library, due February 25. Þ This is the dream where I kill you. I stand at the cliff face, watching your careful pattern, foothold for foothold. Your arms, strong and veined, grip the shelves of shale above you, spreading your thin body across the wall of rock: more surface area, more stability. I am on my hands and knees now. I lean over the edge. A vantage point. Break, I whisper, and your right arm comes loose, the gray shale crumbling to pieces under you. Your blue eyes bulge in shock, right arm flinging wildly against the rock, looking for something to hold. Break, I whisper again, and you have no choice in this. The first thing to fall: your glasses, a small brown blip in the roar beneath. The weight of you is lost to air, space—fragments of shale form a halo around your body. When your head hits the swell, the jutting rock edge, I watch until you become the current, indistinguishable. I blink and you’re here again, gray shirt clinging to shale, careful precision. 72
Over and over I continue this, the pattern of it. I say the word until you’re gone, and gone, and gone, and it’s my fault, and I wake up, and I know it, and I keep the shame to myself. Þ There is a quietness to the waiting, the shame. Your body travels to Troy that weekend to meet me. Your body travels nearly eight miles in fifty-six days, rolls like water-rock in the arms of the Hudson. We all hear the suspension: for you, the cold weight of river above your head; for us, the cold weight of forgetting our speech. Instead of talking, I run my hands over that unwashed, crumpled shirt, the only one left with your scent. It lingers, hung in the closet: suspended, like the feeling of time passing, but not in full. Grief is funny like this: I control how long it will take to forget. Þ At the Gorge again, it is early April. We always find our guy, the head of police assures your momma as the dive team pools together in the distance, and she nods, eyes stale with hope. She glances aside, over the overpass, watching the gorge empty itself into the mouth of the river, a deafening body of sound. We all stand, eyes glazed with river-mist. There is no other noise but this one. Þ On the fifty-sixth day, the man who finds you is interviewed on television. We moved the dock and a body just arrived, popped up, said Albany Yacht Club Commodore John Bergmann, a name I watch scroll across the screen like a slow death. You could tell it had been in the water for some time— Numb, I turn the television off before John can finish, the gruffness of his voice breaking into my mind, etching itself into every limb. Praise God, your momma whispers to your brother, eyes saucerwide and glassy, and I wonder if she means it. Þ 73
It is May. At your funeral, in the lobby of Christ Church, I think
I hear you laugh, a cruel trick of God. I whip my head behind me and watch your father flip tearfully through your momma’s homemade scrapbook: baby pictures, your arm around your brother’s broad shoulders, the sweet smile of your childhood, your mouth open wide, and I can hear it. Oh, how I want to eat this laugh. I want to run my hands through it like prayer, to jump in a river of it. I don’t listen to anything else during the service. I don’t even think I cry. Instead, I crave this sound, that last day, when we saw the sky, the River, the wild—how little I heard those churning mouths. Þ
Now, where is the River but everywhere and spreading? Þ
Where is the heart but teeming with grief? Þ
We grieve and love two bodies: yours, and the body of Christ— the body we eat in remembrance at your funeral, while yours is ash. What is the fairness in this? Your momma made sure of this ritual, the soft flesh of it on our tongues like a reminder—the body is a combination of so many things. It’s nearly graceful, though ugly, how it can lose one piece at a time as it dies. Saliva breaking down a thin wafer. The smile. The teeth. The skin. The once-cherished pair of blue jeans. It all tastes like poison on my tongue. Þ I have done all of this gruesome work—the remembering. I remember the most when your momma grabs me by the shoulders in the lobby of Christ Church. You remind me so much of him. She smiles weakly, her arms heavy and draped in black. Thank you for being such a light. Þ Later, in the wind-soaked sunshine of early May, I sit by the bright strip of Hudson, skirt pulled to mid-thigh, bare feet dangling from the concrete parapet. Church bulletin on my right, first page blowing open and closed in the wind. I watch the River invert in 74
the middle, turning and feeding tiny eddies and rapids, then flowing under the overpass, later to feed the ocean. I am not sure how long it takes this water to travel to the Atlantic, but I know it must be more than fifty-six days—how lonely must it be to become the River, to only know to carry on? Þ I make this visit a game of memory, repetition. I stare as long as I can into the cruel eye of the River. Stare until all I see are spots. I want to close my eyes and still see it flowing, the movement pressed into light, the slim shadow of you between the currents. All it is: a mirror through which I pull myself, and leave the wounds unbandaged. Þ
I force my mind to be the River, and you use it as your home.
F I S H E R M E N AT S U N S E T Ti anr u Wang
Li ly Gre e nb e r g
Kneeling in her garden, Mrs. Summers told us to go on past. “The sandbox is behind the shed. Play as long as you like, but leave the shed be.” So we went. Where the sidewalk buckles, the dirt path fringed with dandelions. Sign: a turtle crossing. Seen: snake flattened to fiber. Our white shoes browning, we found the sandbox jutting out from the shed’s shadow. The box frame held us. A doll bronzed on the edge. We laid ourselves crosswise and bubbled our bellies into mounds—one hill, two hills, heads turned toward the warped head of a tennis racket. Sometimes a web held beads with faces inside, ours. The edge of knowing—how this gave pulse to where we were. What could be in the shed? The doll’s family inert at the table waiting for her to swing sun wide the door home. No, a child—she’s never seen 77
outside. All day, she carves rocks into little moons and hangs them up. They clack together like teeth. Did we call it fun? We came here many times and never could decide. Our mouths made fog of the windows.
A L L T H E R OW DY P R I S O N E R S Br i an a G e r v at
H OW TO B E A N IMMIGRANT IN AMERICA
T h ai s Ja c o m a s s i
atch the way light bounces off of his blue vest as he moves to stand in front of your parents with arms crossed and a furrow in his brow. The lines in his forehead deepen as he raises his voice upon hearing your dad’s accented English. People are paying attention now. Customs and passport control are usually quiet at all times of the day, but this man has the authority to raise his voice above the silence. He wears this vest, and its cobalt hue gives him the right to outstretch his left hand and point to the ‘incoming visitors’ line. You’ll watch as the citizen’s line to passport control gets shorter upon each second as the visitors’ line only seems to get longer. You’ll watch as your dad shows the man his green card and the scowl on his face only deepens.
Look down at your own green card. Hold it gently with two hands and don’t rip the protective sleeve. This card holds your past, your present, and, if you’re lucky, your future too. Ittook you four years to get this card. Remember how excited your mom was when the cards arrived in the mail as she called your extended family to show them your progress. Remember how your dad immediately made two copies of each of the cards as though they would disappear if he turned away; four years gone to waste. You were told this card was the most important document you would ever have. In Houston, Texas, the green card is not important. The man in the blue vest does not see the power it holds. When he sees the green peeking from the protective sleeve, he does not see your future; only the past. He sees the green of your homeland’s flag as a threat to his own. When the immigration officer tells you to go to the foreigners’ line despite the green card in your hand, despite the line being twice as long, despite the fact that you have a connecting flight in an hour, 80
despite the fact that you’ve lived here for years, pivot your feet and fall in line. p The new suburb you move to is like the ones you’ve seen in movies. It’s filled with big empty houses and the quiet seems to stretch beyond your sight. It is unlike the loudness and cheerfulness of the city you come from where neighbors drop by uninvited and the dogs never seem to stop barking. Despite the August sun glittering off the paved driveway, it is cold and inhospitable. The first person you meet is your next-door neighbor, who upon seeing the moving trucks has come out to investigate rather than introduce herself. (“Where you guys coming from?”) Her raised eyebrows don’t suggest she is pleased with the answer, but she does not question it further. Months later, at a dinner party, she will tell your parents what she had thought at that moment. She will tell them of her fears of having outsiders, much less Latinos, in her neighborhood, but she will be quick to respond to the dumbfounded expression on your parents’ face. (“You’re nothing like they show on the news. You’re one of the good ones.”) When she looks down at you and affectionately brushes your hair, make sure to mask the flinch that takes hold of your muscles. Swallow down the question of, “what do you mean by that?”; you will already know the answer, and having it repeated won’t get you any closer to changing her mind. p The first day of fourth grade is a dreadful event. In the days prior, you have spent hours boarding up walls over your insecurities as you prepare to have questions thrown at you from every angle like grenades that malfunction but lay at your feet as a threat. (“Where are you really from?” “What kind of name is that?”) You take them with ease from students and teachers alike as you gently step over the weapons below, never putting too much force on the ground beneath them. When you are given a name tag, do not include the accent above the vowels of your name. A dot over the ‘i’ will suffice considering they will mispronounce it either way. 81
Besides, you do not want to confuse them or worse, burden them. By fourth period, you’ve heard every pronunciation of your name and more. Before class starts, a lady with a blond bob and a green skirt comes in and whispers in the teacher’s ears before your name is called and you follow the nice lady out into the hall. (“Don’t worry you’re not in trouble.”) She raises her voice and speaks slowly to you when she starts asking where you’re from and how you learned English. Remember what your parents told you. (“Don’t tell them English is your second language. If they ask, it’s your first.”) Reiterate these words to her and do not tell her you learned to roll your ‘R’s before muffling them. Watch her gray eyes squint at you above a smile before she guides you to another classroom made for ‘special students.’ This is the moment you learn that whether you are behind or not is not of importance; what matters is that you have not eradicated your mother tongue. p Your father fidgets in the chair next to you as the two of you sit outside your teacher’s door (“Mrs. McCauley, Fifth Grade”). His newly shined lace-up shoes echo in the empty hallway each time he bounces his leg, but you don’t point it out. He’s already self-conscious as it is as he eyes his blazer and looks back at parents in sweatpants and muddy boots coming to and from neighboring rooms. When you told him he had to come with you to parent-teacher conferences, there had been a slight panic in his voice while he tried to pick out an outfit. Don’t try to stop his wringing hands even as they turn red from irritation, but help him as he familiarizes himself with your teacher’s name. (“It’s McCauley.”) It is a difficult name for him to pronounce and he chokes slightly at the vowels in the middle; never having been used to these letters being put together in such a way. When you finally sit opposite of your teacher’s desk, the best your father can do is a string of three broken syllables. (“Mc-Cau-Ley.”) Your teacher begins the conference by praising your English, telling your father your English is good for a Latin person. What she means to say is that you are not from here. It’s a reminder no one needs and you wonder if the punch you feel in your gut is stronger 82
than the blush rising to your dad’s face, but you make no move to address it as you heighten the ‘Th-’ sound in the words ‘thank you.’ To make such a sound, place your tongue behind the front row of your upper teeth and widen your mouth at the sides. You were taught the proper placement for this syllable and as a consequence, you have difficulty pronouncing the letter ‘L’ in your mother language. Don’t feel bitter. This is the price you pay for America. p Make sure to greet Mrs. Khan when your grandmother drops you off. You’ll notice there’s no ring on her hand this week, but it would not be wise to mention this to her so instead let her walk past you to speak to your grandmother while you greet your friend at the front door. Look up and smile when Mrs. Khan walks back over to you. Make sure to keep that smile on your face when she tells you how adorable your grandmother is, how child-like the tone of her voice seems, how her speech is broken like a child’s. Remember to wave at your grandma with that same smile as she drives off. Wave and smile as if you are not thinking about how you will not tell her of the things you just heard. Do not think about how this experience will weigh in the back of your mind each time your grandma leaves the house without you there to protect her from those words. Do not think about how you will spend the next few years of your life eyeing everyone she speaks to and trying to find that same condescending look you see on Mrs. Khan. When you see her again the next morning, make sure to tell her you love her. That’s the only translation you can offer. p Watch the way your friends pull at the sleeves of their new sweaters. In 8th grade, the week after winter break is synonymous with a fashion show consisting of handmade clothing from grandparents and high-end designer clothing from rich aunts living somewhere in the north. You did not get any new clothes this Christmas, nor did you expect to, but being faced with the reality others take for granted is always a bitter pill to swallow. 83
The clothes offer a brief distraction before your friends finally start complaining about how torturous it was to spend such a long time alongside their family. Listen to them complain about their younger cousins’ antics, their uncle’s war stories, their mom’s constant worry, their grandparents’ snoring, and stay quiet. Hold your breath in your lungs if you must and listen to the way your heart beats in your ears as the oxygen leaves you. Repeat this as many times as needed in order to forget. Forget your grandmother’s face when you had to say goodbye to her last summer. Forget how you did not know whether you would ever see her again. Forget the way your aunt waited for your car to pull away before she started crying in her driveway as she watched you leave. p Sit towards the back of the lecture hall so your peers do not see you. When the professor pulls up Frida Kahlo’s Self Portrait on the Border Between Mexico and the United States, do your best not to react. Look away if you must when the pain of relation is too much to bear. When you see Frida standing in her painting holding the Mexican flag with a vice grip, do not think of your green card. When you see the clouds painted over the right side of the painting meant to symbolize America, do not think of the gray eyes that held you back from learning alongside your peers. As you sit in the back of the lecture hall with your eyes diverted and your mind far from your professor’s words, realize that you have become a foreigner of the world and a foreigner to yourself. The more you practice your English, the more you will forget your mother language. The more you emphasize what little accent you have left, the more scrutiny you will face in classrooms and airports alike. Let this sink in and look at Frida as if looking upon a mirror. To be an immigrant in America is to give up identity and home for a premonition of it. It is to be filled with nostalgia for something that was never yours.
ONION GRASS Ste ph ani e Niu
Sometimes a sweetness in the mornings. The smell of the sun opening the heated leaves. Sometimes the memory of your little brother falling out of a pine tree, landing on his teeth. The field behind the tennis courts where you dug onion grass, snacking on the pungent leaves, the spice, the juice, imagined if you ever had to run from home you would come here, where you would have things to eat. Onions by day. Water from the creek. The only part of escape that is easy. Digging until the dirt covered your nails, knuckles, wrist, digging until you could lift the glowing bulb free, its own small miracle, bright and swinging from the grass in your fist.
L A N G UA G E R O U N D E L AY E lin a Kat r in
In Arabic I am a fraud. A wolf covered in sheep’s wool hiding among the herd with no intention to bite but to absorb the language, all the honey-soaked movements of dialect, to unite my fingertips in the pinecone gesture and swear wallah when I mean it, to say shukran teeta when she pours me shai and gulp it down greedily, to feel the sugar nurturing my body as if it’s made of glass on the verge of breaking. My blood is half-ready to fuel my tongue in Arabic but the words coming out sound scalding-cold Slavic, turning my cheeks fuchsia, my mouth a Russian nesting doll. They say if you spin the record backwards, it sounds Russian. Does this make me music? The song escaping is missing the chorus, instead, on repeat I say mama, ya lyublyu tebya, mama, ya skuchayu but romanization blacks out emotion, sifts out lumps of culture, silently births a refined look-alike. English is the perfect cousin, the one with a steady income and white teeth, the one I discuss with friends but never family because I want them to be proud of me, my Russian winter-shaped posture, my Syrian-angled
eyebrows. Any language I speak I bought used, scratched up and painted over, none ever complete while another one breathes. The words I toss join in a roundelay of ethnography, and I am left a naked canvas, pencil-scarred and stretched linen, learning the alphabet.
S O M E T H I N G TO R E M E M B E R Al e x e y Ad onin
FEATURING Alexey Adonin Hala Alyan Lis Anna-Langston Joe Baumann William Brown Manit Chaotragoongit Sisel Gelman Briana Gervat Tarek Ghaddar Grace Gilbert Lily Greenberg Thais Jacomassi Elina Katrin
John Leonard Jeff Mann Stephanie Niu Dani Putney Emily Rankin Joseph Rein Emma Snyder Kelly Talbot Tyler Toy Anannya Uberoi James Reade Venable Tianru Wang