Spring 2019 Vo l . 4 8
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 All genres of original, unpublished writing and visual art are considered for publication.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 2019 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. http://pages.emerson.edu/organizations/emerson_review Design by Sam Kiss. Printed by Shawmut Communications Group. ÂŠ2019 The Emerson Review
Janii Yazon (Fall)
Managing Editor Megan Michaud
Treasurer Malik Selle
Assistant Managing Editor Victor Morrison
Head Designer Sam Kiss
Head Fiction Editor Alison Bellarosa
Readers Brooke Angell Lily Doolin (Fall) Madeline Emmett Lauren Everhart-Deckard Isabel Filippone (Fall) Tom Garback Emma Goodwin Rebecca Johnson (Fall) Leah Kindler Edna Lopez-Rodriguez Kelsey Marlett Kate Obedzinski Allison Sambucini Alana Scartozzi (Fall) Andrew Taets Minah Thomas Nicholas Van Orden
Assistant Fiction Editor Owen Elphick (Fall) Lily Doolin (Spring) Head Poetry Editor Leah Dâ€™Sa (Fall) Johanna Stiefler Johnson (Spring) Assistant Poetry Editor Johanna Stiefler Johnson (Fall) Owen Elphick (Spring) Head Nonfiction Editor Megan Seyler
Painting of a Bruised Thumb and a Glittering Martyr Mateo Perez Lara
Saintly Rollin Jewett
An Armadillo Named Saint Peter Joey Hedger
Balloons Kori Wood
The paper lace-maker Valentine Louafi
Norwalk in August Ashley Park
A Single Note Marsha Solomon
Eggshells Emerson Henry
Life at coast 1 Manit Chaotragoongit
Reverse the Tide Leah Mensch
“routine” Kelsey Day
Clock Tower Alexa Dearing
Swahili Waltz Larry Narron
Diaphanous Jury S. Judge
The Marble Florist Megan Eldredge
Self-Portrait Series Rula J. Brock
8:46 on a Wednesday Wendy BooydeGraaff
Donâ€™t Have to Go Home in a Straight Line Evana Bodiker
Blue Route Christopher Woods
Marriage in 400 BPM Emma Steckline
Holiday Spirit Courtney Garvey
Life at coast 2 Manit Chaotragoongit
4 Flatbush Avenue across from the Marine Park Golf Course, Brooklyn, NY Samuel Lang Budin
Family Picnic Cassi Bruno
The Pencil Thief Miranda Forman
Untitled John Chavers
Bird Stories Gloria Keeley
Rust 2 Fabio Sassi
Floor Show Funeral Emma Johnson-Rivard
Madre Dolorosa Angelica Acero
PA I N T I N G OF BRUISED THUMB & GLITTERING MART YR
M a t e o Pe r e z Lara
“You just don’t know yet which parts of yourself to value” – Kaveh Akbar here is my hand, gleaming wet, raw-purple & swollen make sure to carve it correctly—get the trembling fingers right the best shadows are a prayer unto a stoned-canvas it speaks in red syllables, says: drought his mouth if he buckles or bends down, unlatch stiff dagger bloody in his pants unzip, go on—paint knee bent downward, lick spit, resist what your mother said about boys—they only want one thing a land salted with too many spare parts & a drenched tomb sticky with sentiment, well, this land is queer, bitch watch love between gnarled teeth decay it’s damp & solid, flesh for the knight in shining night in shining gluttony, so how ‘bout we swallow honey, lick sweet juices up from the floor, shhh they like when we don’t speak or even remember our names still stuck to the roof of their mouth, a game worth bashing statues into rubble, building up once more firming, forming in your hand a nation filled with: don’t tell anyone about this
or I just wanted to see how it was different. but nobody knows in which a burning stake embered out just what the books tell us, how the Salem witch trials condoned stoning & drowning truth men half-spent ruining lives, possessing every other human need with touch this, repeat, push in, repeat there it is: gold, beasts rip skin with teeth, repeat, the only deity I believe in is sparkling at its knees, flicking cigarettes into trees sculpting with mud, splashing gasoline on every creation watching everything burn.
Saintly | Rollin Jewett 10
AN ARMADILLO NAMED SAINT PETER Joey Hedger
e only showed up in the morning—Saint Peter, that is. A 10-pound armadillo, Saint Peter had visited the patches of dirt in Martin Opal’s backyard for two years now. He visited from some nook or hole he must have lived, amidst the swampy palmetto fields that extended eastward from the worn back porch. Martin Opal’s house was singular, a stucco ranch painted a single pale yellow, inside of which was a single bedroom, a single bath, a single Florida room hanging off the side. A curt bookish wallpaper lead across a single hallway where stacked boxes reeked of untouched dust. In all his time visiting, Saint Peter never came very close to the back porch but merely appeared in and out of various patches of weeds and rotten wood beside the line of wilderness. His pillbug-body curled as he hunched over to investigate the sodden earth. A triangular nostril was always the first to appear from the palmetto path, followed by two beady eyes, and the pale, colorless ocean of ridges along its mechanical shell. Martin Opal often tried to feed him. He tossed out chicken liver, carrots, moldy onion peels, a little bit of anything, but Saint Peter never ate. Not anything Martin Opal threw out, at least. But in September, when Saint Peter did not show up for the entire morning, Martin Opal wanted to investigate. He velcroed his sandals over two socked feet, applied an excessive handful of sunscreen across his beak-like nose, and ventured into the dirt path and chest-high palmettos. He was about twenty-two minutes in when Jonesy—or rather her ghost—showed up wearing her favorite sunhat and the silver wedding band Martin Opal had given her long ago. She followed quietly a moment, before saying, “You’re thinking about it right now, aren’t you?” Startled, Martin Opal blinked around until he spotted her, nearly three feet to his right. “What’s that?” he asked.
“Death.” The word did not sink as heavily as Jonesy’s expression implied. Her voice sounded tired, much like his own. “I don’t always,” he replied. “You think about it a lot nowadays, don’t you? Dying alone.” “Why would you say that?” he said. “I’m doing all right.” “Everybody thinks of death as lonely,” she continued, “the loneliest thing a person can do—when, in fact, billions and billions of people already did it, and everybody else is going to at some point as well. That’s a reassuring thought, don’t you agree?” “I’m not really thinking about death. Not anymore,” said Martin, pulling back a palmetto branch from the cut its stale thorns had just made against his hairy arm. The conversation irritated him. He did not want to talk about death at the moment. “I’m just looking for Saint Peter,” he told her. “Aren’t we all.” They walked on for a while in the silence of Martin’s hoarse breath and the wind as it tore through palm fronds and rained pine needles down from the sky. “I think rather than dying alone,” said Jonesy, “we’re scared to live alone. You know, without a companion, some person that shares your soul, shares your pain.” “But they’re bound to die, too, aren’t they?” said Martin, raising his eyebrows. He had just taken a seat on a fallen pine log and indulged in a large drink from his water bottle. The sun had been buried in heavy grey shoulders of clouds, but the air still felt muggy and densely unbearable. When he began to walk again, Jonesy had already gone off, and he was alone. Branches broke beneath his footsteps, and each time he heard a rustle of wind or motion in the vegetation, he stopped and called, “Saint Peter. Saint Peter.” But even Martin Opal knew the armadillo would not respond to such a command. “I don’t remember,” he heard Jonesy say from somewhere else, “did I name him that or did you?” “It was you.” The unmistakable whops of tennis rackets from somewhere behind the trees caused Martin Opal to grow tense. He never liked tennis. He had been walking for over two hours now, and something felt wrong. The grey-dust trail was thinner this far out, the pine trees and palmettos were leaning inward as though forming a tunnel. Here, the path ended in brambles, through which Martin Opal could just barely see sunlight, grass, a short chain-link fence, and an open field. Then he heard voices and another tennis racket’s violent whop. It was at that whop when Martin Opal broke through the brush in perfect time to see the flailing body of Saint Peter come soaring across the sky
and land hard against a tree to his right. Back bent, Saint Peter slid down the bark and crumpled against its roots, his body curling into a shelled orb. On the other side of the grassy opening came the usual midday commotion of a squat-looking Holiday Inn. Automobiles filled up its square parking lot, reflecting the bright sunshine like loose change. A few dots of human skin laid around a teal swimming pool in the shape of an arrow, some going in lines back and forth across its longest straight. Beside the pool was an open tennis court from which a father and his fourteen-year-old son had wandered away and ended up muttering happily together at the place where Saint Peter had just been. They both wore baseball caps, white exercise shorts, tennis shoes. Martin Opal’s heart thumped irregularly when he saw what had been done to Saint Peter. As he stumbled into the clearing, clambering over the waisthigh fence, he could not formulate what he aimed to do. He could only see those tennis rackets amidst the glaring sunshine coming down over the hotel, and he urged forward, urged toward the athletic pair. When the balding father in exercise shorts glanced up and saw Martin Opal scramble out of the wilderness and into the clearing, he frowned. Adjusting the grip on his fat racket, he ran out to meet the intruder, showing no hesitation in taking another swing and sending Martin collapsing to a heap at his feet. A run of blood leaked from Martin’s nostrils, paled pink by the sunscreen. “See that,” he heard the father call out to his son, “hit first and hit hard.” Bang. The tennis racket collided again with Martin Opal’s sweaty back. “That way,” continued the father’s lecturer voice, “you won’t have to hit again.” But moved slightly by the expression the fourteen-year-old gave as he clambered up to investigate, the father’s sallow face found a sliver of sympathy. Bending down to place his hands on both knees, he muttered, “Don’t worry. He’ll be fine. So will the little intruder. It’s about protection that we do these things, about teaching them to know better. You have to be strong in life. If you aren’t, people will hurt you. Don’t give anybody a chance to hurt you.” As they spoke, and as they strode back to the tennis court, untouched by the wildlife that filtered in and out of the palmetto forest. Neither the father nor his son noticed Martin Opal weakly drag himself over to Saint Peter and shield the armadillo’s body with his own. Head spinning, a quiver running between the two elbows with which he propped himself up, he wondered how could he be sure they would not strike again?
BALLOONS Kori Wood
uby watched the spider float above her hospital bed. It swayed and bumped into the balloons tied to the headboard. Get Well Soon Get Well Soon Get Well Soon. Stupid. As if she weren’t trying. The whole place had a smell—a moldy sickness edged with electricity. If Ruby wanted she could reach up and pluck a balloon out of the air. Maybe if she ate it, let the latex letters pass down her throat, its promise of good health would come true. But the thought of food made her stomach tighten, became a lump in her throat. Anyway, she was thirteen now, halfway to adulthood, and her mother told her she was too old to make up stories. The stink of the cafeteria crept its way under the door frame and coiled into the corners for the room, and a sharp pain lodged itself under Ruby’s breastbone. She wanted to sit up and smash the spider. Smear it along the wall, but the urge faded fast—sparked at the edge of her fingertips, before smoldering into the thick air. She couldn’t hold on to those kinds of feelings anymore, and that scared her most of all. It was a kind of fear that folded over her without effort, pressing into her collarbone and radiating along the knobs of her spine. Light filtered through the open window. Dust motes cut through the air like a magic spell, circling the visitor’s chair like a halo. Most days her grandmother sat there, but today she was gone. What good would killing the spider do? She read somewhere that killing a spider was bad luck. Her spider had an egg sac, the shape of a stretched-out cotton ball, so it was a mother, too. Besides, it was the only visitor Ruby had because hospitals are expensive and people have to work to pay them. Stupid. The spider wrapped-up a fly in sticky silk. It bent and twisted over the fly’s bloated body. The more Ruby focused on it, the more the smell of the cafeteria hung in the air—greasy fat from the grill stuck to the walls, making her gag and choke like there was some part of her that was forcing its way out.
Ruby pulled her blanket tighter around her body. Please no more food. Phlegm dripped down the back of her nose and burned the edges of her throat. The rims of her eyes were raw and itchy—lines and borders collapsed into each other—and both the room and the spider blurred through the fat tears. Ruby thought this version of the world really was better. Magical even. She slid her fingers down the soft edge of her blanket and pulled it up over her head. Above her, the balloons bumped into each other. Get Well Soon! Maybe if she concentrated really hard, she could travel to the past and fix the whole mess. She let the blanket slide down her face but squeezed her eyes shut. When she opened them, the spider would be gone. She’d be the little chubby girl who ate alone at school. She’d be lonely but happy. But it was there. It was always there. Ruby watched the tiny aerial dancer wrap its body around its silk ribbon, throwing this leg over that one, crawling up and dropping down. A contortionist. Her grandma used to be a dancer, but that was years ago. Another fly got stuck in the spider’s web. How stupid. Sometimes spiders use their webbing to fly away, a technique called ballooning. Ruby wrote that in a report in the sixth grade. Got a “C” because she’d only ever been average. Get Well Soon Get Well Soon Get Well Soon. She was sick of balloons and flowers. The only way to shut them out was to close her eyes and pretend that the smell of latex and the sweet rot of carnations wasn’t invading her nostrils. She wasn’t here, not really. She was in so many places at once—the ball of light around the visitor’s chair. She was frayed thread charged with static ballooning through the air. She was the electricity running down the wires of her grandma’s TV. Her grandma watched the Travel Channel at night. All the kids at school took vacations and came back with t-shirts and hats—Mexico, France. One girl took a cruise to the Galapagos Islands and came back with pictures of blue-footed birds. Once Ruby’s uncle came back with a magnet in the shape of Texas. It was on the fridge for a while and Ruby started looking at atlases and maps. She plotted the trips. Vacations. She even brought the magnet to school: “Look,” she said. “This is from my trip to Texas.” Ruby’s bones swelled with resentment. Her life would always be made up of other people’s moments. Memories she’d watch behind a screen. Stupid. It was all so stupid. She was so light. She barely weighed anything anymore but somehow her bones were so heavy. Get Well Soon. These days she thought in fragments and inky images that
bled together: the hospital waiting room, driving under the tunnel on the highway, the darkness that swelled behind her eyelids right before she fell asleep. The spider danced behind in the dark behind her eyes, too. If it would just go away, she’d be cured, but it was always dancing. It was hard to imagine life beyond the hospital. She didn’t even know how long she had been there. The days stretched out as if time had slowed—expanded. One of these days it would burst and fast-forward. She’d melt into the sheets and become entangled in the threads with another girl who couldn’t eat. Everyone would forget them and the hospital would wash what was left of them away in one of those big industrial washing machines. Still, she had dreams. They floated around her head. When she grew up, she would travel. Her whole fridge would be covered in magnets. The lump in her throat would disappear. Maybe she’d go to Germany, Berlin. Nothing too popular, or sunny. She always liked the idea of rain. Or maybe a place with moors or bogs. Some place better than Texas. She read about a place in Italy where you walk over human bones. Her grandma would say it’s bad luck to walk on dead people. Ruby imagined the pressure of sneakers walking across her bones. It didn’t scare her as much as she thought it should. Ruby’s eyelids bore a weight the rest of her body couldn’t hold. When she closed her eyes, the room melted and she saw herself with the spider, both of them dancing on a ribbon. I always wanted to be a dancer, she said to the spider. I know. That’s why I made this place for you, the spider said to her. Music started playing, and Ruby danced, contorting her spine in a way she couldn’t do with her eyes open. She swung this leg and then that one, and pulled herself up the spider’s silk. Each vertebra was exposed, but she danced anyway with the spotlight at her back. Her classmates were there, too. Clapping. Get Well Soon, Ruby! The ribbon spun around her, holding her tight—and a calmness spread through her veins. She twirled in a circle, and it wasn’t stupid. It wasn’t stupid at all. Ruby’s chest rattled—the weight pressed into her collarbone. She was back in the room, hospital lights beating down on her head. She noticed the egg sac in the corner. Tiny spiders burst out like fireworks. They sailed through the air—a thousand tiny spiders ballooned all around Ruby. Like magic. Her grandma would be back soon and she’d sit in the chair with the halo around it. Her mother would call after work, because hospital rooms are expensive and require overtime. The air separated, retreated. Lifted. Became electric. The spiders danced around Ruby in a halo. She reached up and untied a balloon from the bed. She was so light, she rose up with it—like the spiders, ballooning, out the window towards the sky, flying higher and higher, until she couldn’t smell the grease on the walls, and the hospital disappeared behind the clouds. Her balloon twirled in a circle Get Well Soon Get Well Soon Get Well Soon.
The paper lace-maker | Valentine Louafi
N O R WA L K I N AUGUST
A s h l e y Pa r k
remember those fat beetled insects, with shelled wings like painted aluminum, whirring gently over fresh-cut grass. slit the stem of clover blossom with the stubby curve of my fingernails. pull another stem through like my grandmother threading a needle over her fat pincushion. it smelled like her and she smelled like lotion. remember curling up in the linens like cool water washing my forearms. like tiptoe in swimming pool, extended to bursting, ramrod back and framed face. like the rich smell of galbi on an empty stomach, wrapped in rice and halmoniâ€™s lettuce, rinsed wet. remember red wagon trundled out to the street, collecting plants left out on the curb, a horticultural mother teresa. she could resurrect an orchid. my mother took her out to the gardens and she stole clippings home in her pockets. she used to scrape crescent moon slivers of apple into my gaping mouth, she used to sit us down on her front porch with a jar of smooth peanut butter and two spoons; while the laundry machines rattled, she squatted over a plastic strainer of fresh-picked jujubes, with their musty smell, or maybe it was the warm breath of dryer exhaust, seeping through like heavy air in her mid-city jungle.
when i visit her, she doesnâ€™t understand my american no thank you so i accept the money and the plate of sliced kiwi and mango. i learn to like the way their juices prickle on my tongue, like my black hair in porch sunlight. like my empty swim-stretched stomach. like the grass curling around the sensitive skin of my bare ankles, squatting in halmoniâ€™s garden, between the green peppers and the jujube trees, the tomatoes and the cucumbers and the gently swelling lettuce, all wrapped up to bursting in the summer heat.
A Single Note | Marsha Solomon 20
EGGSHELLS Emerson Henry
leave my room late at night. I go to the fridge for a drink. Juice, maybe water. On the couch is the ghost of my father, lying there as though it is his last friend in the world. I am not sure that he knows I am there. He never moves, not when I enter the room, not when the light from the fridge reflects off his clammy eyelids. He falls asleep listening to his yellow Walkman. I walk past him slowly, pausing at the foot of the couch. He breathes so quietly. He is caught in something much larger than either of us. In February of ’00 we flee across continents and end up in Ecuador. My parents met there in the Peace Corps, and here we are in El Esfuerzo, my mother’s placement site. The town is carved into the banks of El Babas, a river named for the way the water drools down the rocks. Life here had been so hard to establish that the town’s founders named it “The Effort.” Establishing ourselves there is not so hard. After a few months, we find a crack-your-head-open cement house. The sounds of our feet slapping the floors give my mother a headache, but she says, Well, at least you two are running around. From the roof you can see the mountains where my father spends his time. Up there, on the farm, he puts in a different kind of effort. My brother keeps getting into my things. He’s figured out that I keep my dearest treasures under my socks, and every so often I find another object missing. But my birthday is coming up, so I beg my father to make me a box. What kind? he asks. Any kind. As long as I can lock it. It’s beautiful, and it lives under the bed I share with Aaron, and it has a good, solid weight, and it’s made of birch wood. It has two metal rings, through which I can hook a lock. It locks. And in it I put all my secrets.
When it rains, monster toads find ways into our house. In the mornings I find them squatting in the corners of our shower, living room, kitchen. My brother grabs our amphibian lodgers, his tongue sticking out at the corner of his mouth. He holds them out to me: a gift. No, a threat. I back away; he gets closer. I turn and run. Around and around the house we go. Sometimes he waits at one end of our route and surprises me; other rounds I make it up to the roof without him noticing, tiptoeing so I won’t give myself away. But always, always, the chase is the same: me screaming, him toddling on fat, mosquito-pocked legs, and toad parts poking out from between his fingers. And just once, the last time, toady urine spattering all over his feet. My mother sends me to the store for ketchup. The good kind. You know which kind. What’s it called, though, I ask. What does it look like? Well, go check if you want to know. So I go to the kitchen, pull out the empty bottle. The brand is called Los Andes. A mountain range on the sticker. It has started to rain. She hands me an umbrella. Here. She gives me a twenty-dollar bill. Here. Don’t lose it. It’s a lot of money. The rain is conquering the dust on the roads. Maybe you should wait, she says. I put the umbrella down by the door. Five minutes later, the squall has subsided. I head out. In the store, I study the ketchup bottles until I recognize the sticker my mother wanted. The good kind. Ese, I say. Los Andes. When I reach in my pocket, the money isn’t there. The storekeeper levels me with a cataract gaze and says, Dile que te pegue con la cascara de guava. I pace the stone-studded road between my house and the store forty times. There are no flashes of green amid the browns and grays. Pockets all empty. Ketchup waiting for me on the counter. No people or cars have gone by since I left my house. It is not a windy day. Had I dropped the bill, it would have stayed where it landed. Where’s the ketchup? Mom says when I walk in. I lost the money. Where? How? I don’t know. I looked on the street, in the store. It’s not there. Jesus Christ, she swears. One thing I tell you to do, and you can’t. I look at my feet. Mami, I say, Doña Greta says to hit me with a guava peel. My father guffaws. I just might, she says, grinding her teeth. Might want to stick that book of yours in your shorts, my father stage-whispers. For protection. I look at him. Why won’t he protect me from her? But I think about his suggestion and then decide not to. She’d probably make me take it out before she hit me anyway.
We spend ten minutes in tension. Then my mother says, You might as well put that umbrella away. I do. There on the floor underneath it lies the twenty dollars. I found it, I found it! It was under the umbrella! Great. Now would someone please go get the freaking ketchup. One night, there is a storm so magnificent, so loud and feral, that it knocks out the electricity for the whole town. I am nine, my brother is four, and my mother is alone in the kitchen, keeping watch through the window above the stove. My father is on the farm, or we thought he was. It has been dark for hours. The radio in the kitchen wails pure static. Do you have a seven, my brother says, and I shake my head, watching wax dribble down the candle and pool on the table. Go Fish. My mother stirs a pot of chicken half-heartedly. The rice was done hours ago. Do you have a king, I ask, and my brother pushes a card across the table. Thunder rolls. The doors outside slam against the wall in the wind, and I see my mother flinch. We spent the afternoon waiting for my father to come home. His motorcycle is a different make than most of those in the town, and by now we know how to distinguish its sound, so that when we hear him coming, we can race to open the outside doors. He always rides the motorcycle straight into the living room, and we flatten ourselves against the wall to let him pass. But today, this afternoon, we waited for so long that we stopped distinguishing between the roars of motorcycle engines, and whenever we heard one go by we ran to open the doors, thinking it would be him. It never was, and we eventually left the doors propped open. Now they swing in the wind, cracking against the walls as lighting cracks overhead. I let my brother win the game. We eat dinner in silence. My father’s portion sits on the stove, the radio its only company. The sound only comes when we have finished, and my mother is washing the dishes. His engine, sputtering in the rain, stops in front of our house. My brother and I look at each other and slip out the front door. He seems battered from the trip: toes just touching the ground, windbreaker slick, helmet dripping. The front tire points toward the house. We hold the doors open, and as he passes, I notice a patch of gauze, stained with red, over his right eye. My mother, standing in the living room, finally speaks. Where the hell were you, she says. It’s so late. It’s been raining for hours. I didn’t think you were going to come home. He is parking, turning the key in the lock. The exhaust pipe coughs. He swings the kickstand down and dismounts. In the candlelight, every wrinkle
on his face is highlighted, and each wrinkle casts a shadow. He is old. His eye is covered in gauze. The gauze is covered in red. Paul, my mother says. The candles flicker, and I close the door. What happened? she asks, holding onto his cheekbone with her fingertips as if it’ll keep her from falling. He takes off his helmet. I was going around a sharp bend. His voice is weary, drowned. It was dark, and I couldn’t really see because of the rain. There was a fallen tree or something at the edge of the road. I was going so fast, he says, placing his wet hand on my head, because I wanted to come home. I knew you would be worried. Of course I was, my mother says. She steps closer to him. My father moves his hand, places it on my mother’s waist. Your eye, she whispers. She begins to cry. I was going too fast to swerve, he says. She is sobbing so hard she cannot breathe. Her hands clench on his raincoat. Water pools around his boots. My brother and I stand in the shadows. We stay like this for some time: my mother crying, my father dripping, Aaron and I holding hands. The candles flare, the thunder rolls. Then, she reaches up with one questioning, unsteady finger, and touches the gauze. A dot of red comes off, and she gazes at it steadily. Suddenly she brings it close to her face. Sniffs it. Licks her fingertip. She looks at him and says, Paul. Paul. This is not funny. He is smiling. He takes his backpack off and leans it against the motorcycle. Paul, she says, really, this isn’t funny. I was so worried. Her hands curl into fists, and she slams them against his shoulders. He opens the front pocket of the bag and takes out a little packet of ketchup. April Fool’s, he says, grinning. April Fool’s. Waiting for him in the dark like that, we’d all forgotten. Our first Christmas back in New York, in 2003, is strange, static. No matter how much we beam and gush over the presents, my father’s face won’t change. My mother’s smile remains glued. They have been separated for a year and a half. But they are both here, because my brother and I insisted. It’s Christmas. What is Christmas without your parents, both your parents, there? We rip apart the presents and thank them dutifully. They nod and hug us and say, You’re welcome. We love you. They stay on their respective sides of the room. When they speak to each other, they do it without making eye contact. When there is no longer an excuse to keep him, I walk him to the front door and kiss his stubbly cheek. I love you, he says. But as he leaves he looks so lost, so lonely.
When he is gone, my mother says, That won’t happen again, guys. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it is. Her tone is strong, insensitive. I’ve spent years hiding from it. I retreat to my room, and kneel on my bed, looking at a picture of my father. It is dated from that August, and in it, my father is standing by a tree on the farm with an awkward smile on his face. On the bottom of the picture, in the white space that was left over after my mother printed it out for me, she wrote, Hi everyone from the farm in Febres! I kneel on my bed and look at my father and at my mother’s optimistic, curling handwriting, and wonder how she had the energy to write so cheerily when the world had fallen apart. It is fall 2009. I have begun to see a therapist. Dysthymia, Elizabeth says, holding a pocket-sized version of the DSM-IV. Oh, I say. That. You know what it is? She crosses her legs and looks at me over her glasses. Sort of—yes. My friend was diagnosed with it maybe a year ago. When she told me, I looked it up. Ah. What do you remember about it? she asks. She puts down the DSM and picks up her pad and pencil. Uh…I don’t know. Some of the symptoms, maybe, like psychomotor retardation, although I’m not sure what that is, or how I remember it, I say, laughing slightly. She smiles but doesn’t say anything. Um. Well, it’s a kind of depression, so I guess general…depressed…mood. Sadness, right. Suicidal ideation and that sort of thing. She nods slightly. Then she picks up the DSM again and says, I’m going to run down a list of symptoms. I’d like for you to tell me if you think they apply to you. Poor appetite or overeating. I tilt my head. I don’t eat very much, but that’s because I don’t like to eat. I don’t know what that has to do with anything… She makes a note. Insomnia or hypersomnia. I sleep when I’m tired. I can’t take naps. Sometimes I have trouble sleeping. I’m tired a lot of the time, but not necessarily sleepy. Ah, she says. That’s the next one. Low energy or fatigue. Oh, definitely, I say. That’s me up and down. Always tired. She nods. Low self-esteem. I’ve gotten better than I was. But I don’t think very highly of myself regardless. Poor concentration. Weirdly, no, I say. It would make sense for me to have dropped everything, and to still drop everything, when I felt or feel sad. But I usually focus pretty well—just as well as kids my age can be expected to focus with the Internet at their fingertips. I smile, and so does she. She makes a note on her pad.
Difficulty making decisions. I laugh. Why is that funny? she asks. Because I can’t decide anything for my life. She writes that down. Why do you think that is? It feels like I shouldn’t get to have an opinion, I say slowly. Like if I voice my thoughts I’ll get shut down or rejected. I’m not sure why. I’ve felt that way for a while—can’t remember not feeling this way. I pause. For instance, I say, feeling foolish but going ahead anyway, I can’t even call for takeout because I think the person on the other end is going to yell at me. Really? she asks. You think they’re going to yell at you? Yeah, I say. I laugh. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it, and I know it is, because why would they yell at me when I’m the customer and they want my business? But that’s what I think. We can work on that, she says, and for a moment I feel encouraged. Yes! We can work on that! I envision us, Elizabeth and I, plowing through my neuroses like a freight train of sanity. But she clears her throat and says, Feelings of hopelessness. Oh. And then I’m right back where we started: dysthymia. Depression. Feelings of hopelessness. It’s not so much hopelessness, I say, as it is loneliness. December dwindles to a close as I am sitting at my aunt’s kitchen table. It’s past midnight. The Ohioan cornfields are sleeping. My father is up. Daddy, I say, and he takes my hand. My scarred arm and his tropic-tanned skin, meeting over a sea of crumbs and pills. I don’t know if I told you this, if anyone’s ever told you this, he says, and licks his lips. But your mother—oh, a while ago, but these things don’t go away—your mother was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. What, I say, and my hand is an icicle inside of his. What. She hasn’t told you. When my father talks, his lips never part from his teeth. He went through years of metalmouth, just like me. I didn’t know what that was, he says, and I nod, because neither do I, because who knows about that kind of thing before you have to? When I read the description, I was like, Wow, that’s Rachael. He looks at the floor, the dirty dishes, the orange pharmacy bottles. My hand starts to go numb; I cannot help it. Everything that you experienced in Ecuador, he says quietly, slowly. Well, not everything, but a lot of it, most of it even, was because of that. I nod. I know—here he takes his hand away from mine and rubs his eyes with his knuckles. It is 1:37 AM.—I know that I can’t make excuses for what happened. For what she did, or for what I did. I just want you to understand why. While dysthymia is a low-grade or less severe form of depression, Elizabeth says, it is still considered chronic and long-lasting. She stops and looks at me
over her glasses. Like other forms of depression, it runs in families. Yeah. That makes sense, I say. Does it? I guess. I look down at my lap, hide my hands between my legs. We sit in silence for a bit, and then she says, Would it help you if your father came with you to our sessions? I bite my lip. I only ask because I think it would, she says, but if you don’t feel the same way it doesn’t need to happen. And it seems as though your relationship with your mother has gotten much better. Yeah. Yeah, we’re pretty good. If we have an argument we take time to kind of chill out before we talk it through. That’s good, she says, that’s very good. I’m proud of you. I smile. But your relationship with your father is not so strong, probably because of the lack of communication between you. Would you agree with that? I look at the lilies on the little table in front of me. I can’t stand the smell of lilies. I guess so, I say. It’s hard when he’s here because I only see him on weekends. But it’s harder when he’s not here, because writing to him feels like an obligation, and if I don’t do it, I feel guilty. She nods. Remind me again how his schedule works? He’s here from April to July, and October to January. The rest of the time he’s in Ecuador, I say, crossing my arms. I can’t help but be matter of fact. I’m done mourning over his absence. My goal now is to make his presence mean something. My father and I stand in his kitchen. He is scheduled to be on a plane to Ecuador in four days. How are you? he asks quietly. We haven’t talked in a while. Tell me about your life. I’m okay. Better ’cause we’re on break. Less stress. He nods. I can’t think of what else to say. What do I tell him? Everything is too much, and too vague. I can’t imagine that he’d want to know everything. But my only other option is nothing. This is small talk with a man whom, seven months out of the year, I see on alternate weekends. This is not a heart to heart with my father. How are things with Elizabeth? You still going to see her? Yeah, I’m still going. Things are pretty good. I look up at him, and there is a light in his eyes that I haven’t seen in a while. Something about it prompts me to go further. Actually, I say, she’s been helping me realize that I’m not responsible for your happiness. Oh, God. Did you think that? Sweetie. He takes me into his arms. Please don’t think that, he whispers into my hair. In any case, you’re certainly not responsible for my unhappiness.
But I’m not responsible for your happiness either, I say, pushing back from him. You can’t say one without saying the other. He brushes some strands of hair out of my eyes. No. Of course not. You’re not responsible for any part of it. When I tell Elizabeth, she actually grins. That’s great! she says. You’ve made enormous progress. Yeah, I say. Yeah. I concentrate on the flowers—forget-me-nots this time— and try not to cry. I can see you filling up, she says. What are you thinking about? I was just remembering, I say, what he looked like while we were talking. He looked tired, and a little worried. But there was something else. I look at her, although the tears make it hard to see much of anything, and say, He looked content. I can’t remember the last time I saw that. We are silent. The humidifier hums. My father and I are walking to the train. I am heading back to Queens, and in 24 hours, he will be heading back to Ecuador. I miss you, he says, and I stifle a moan. I don’t know how to tell him that I will always miss him. That even when he is there I cannot help but reach for him as though he is evaporating. Write to me, he says. I like to hear about your life. I nod. I construct scenarios where I write to him every day, little philosophical notes, life and love and the pursuit of happiness. In these scenarios I am so good at writing to him. Every day, twice a day even. I send him a million emails between now and April, and when he comes home, he starts our next conversation as if we’d never been apart. This will not happen. I will try and I will fail. I will write him maybe once a week, open his pictures without crying, sigh with relief about not having to go into Manhattan on the weekends, about not having to plan my social schedule around him. He takes my hand. Sweetie, he says, please. We walk on. I love you, I tell him. This next part is a secret: I am always surprised to find, inside the homemade birch box that is my heart, that what I have said is true. And in that instant, full of love and surprise, I am afraid that he will never know. His hand tightens around mine. We skirt a puddle of slush. I love you too, he says. I love you too.
Life at coast 1 | Manit Chaotragoongit
REVERSE THE TIDE
(A palindrome poem to be read top down, and then bottom up) The waves come crashing It is I who makes The muffled cries in the early hours of the morning because my joy is found in calories eaten, miles run, weight in pounds there is no meaning in the smile I put on every day, the laugh I produce It’s natural, to want to die, just so the drowning will stop I was wrong to think that I have the ability to make a difference in the world my eating disorder has given me my greatest feelings of success in my failure, I have found the voice of my illness reminding me that I will never recover I know I am stronger than The pasta boiling on the stove I love the taste of eating But I cannot stand the feeling I used to embrace an empty stomach Now I strive for even more than that That is where I find vibrancy in my life I look at the books on my shelf and the paper on my desk, the people who love me And I don’t give a damn because there is a nutrition label on the back of my orange juice, a ‘calories burned’ section on my watch
They have no idea what I did behind the scenes To become the woman I am today I fought like hell to be anorexic, to be bulimic, to be a compulsive exerciser, to skip meals, to be depressed My purpose here is not Meaningful Everything I have experienced these past four years has been Dehumanizing, terrible, and saddening My story will not be Light reflecting off of the windowsill and blooming daisies I never expected contentment in looking death in the eyes I swore I wouldnâ€™t give in, Part of me wants to I can count calories but not a single blessing Drowning has been a nightmare I accept this (--) my life will always be riddled with numbers and rain and agony It is up to me, whether or not I choose to live I canâ€™t do another day of surviving The waves come crashing
â€œ r o u t i n eâ€? goodmorning i am awake, and ready for war. two feet on the floor and i feel the first visitor a thought like any other, but not. (kill yourself.) goodmorning i am awake, and ready for war today, i will not listen. i unfold my body and unfold my clothing i brush my teeth in the mirror (you are hopeless) (you are sick) i lean over the sink and spit. goodmorning i am awake, and ready for war (kill yourself ) this is an intrusive thought today i will not (wash your hands) (pinch your wrists) just another day (you are sick) this is an intrusive goodmorning this is an intrusive (pinch your wrists) i know you you are mine but not me goodmorning. i am awake. and ready. for war.
Clock Tower | Alexa Dearing
S WA H I L I WA LT Z English syllables crash into Swahili, walk into walls, bump their heads on the rafters. Both languages punctuate themselves with laughter that requires little or, perhaps, no translation. English words stub their toes on commas & periods; the letters of neighboring words break their fall. Pencils sharpen themselves into flutes to be filled with champagne; syllables sip, become tipsy with the sound of new music.
L a r r y Na r r o n
Diaphanous | Jury S. Judge
THE MARBLE FLORIST Megan Eldredge
am an expert on flowers. The woman who calls herself Mother gives me flowers all the time. Roses, peonies, carnations, violets, tulips—I’ve seen them all. I could tell you about which flowers wilt the fastest, or which smell the best, or anything else you need to know. I have even noticed that flowers, much like my sculpted, marble physique, change with the weather. When the skies were cold, and leaves and snow began to cling to my marble shoulders, Mother would brush the snow away and leave darker flowers, in shades of crimson and scarlet and mustard. When the weather began to grow warmer, I saw every array of color, colors I didn’t even know could exist in a place such as where I resided. I saw shades of blue and purple matched only by the stormy sky. I saw a shade that was a mixture of red and white that I didn’t even have a name for other than “sunrise.” I proudly displayed all the beautiful arrangements Mother left at my feet, for I knew no one else around me had flowers as beautiful as I, if they were even lucky enough to have flowers at all. But I think the most exquisite flower I have ever seen came around late summer. I did not recognize the woman who brought it. She wasn’t Mother. This woman came early in the morning, as the world around us was still waking up. Unlike all the others, black seemed like an almost unnatural color for her to be wearing, a startling contrast against her sun-painted hair and light-colored eyes. Her hand was tightly gripped around a single flower. Seriously? I thought Just one flower? She crouched down in front of me, scanning the engraved pedestal upon which I stood while fighting back a frown. After a few moments of silence, she spoke. “Hey, Madi,” she began, voice cracking. I rolled my eyes on the inside. Everyone who came to visit me always called me Madi. Did they even know it wasn’t my name?
“I’ve been gone for awhile,” she continued, “I went off to college. I really—” She stopped suddenly, squeezing her eyes shut and pinching the bridge of her nose. “I really miss you,” she finally murmured, barely getting the words out. That’s when she unwrapped the flower she had brought and laid it in front of me. I had never seen anything like it. It blossomed like a lily, but its petals were wrinkly like a carnation’s, and the color was more brilliant than any rose I had ever seen. “I brought you a hibiscus,” the woman said after a while. “Now, it’s not from Hawaii, but… it’s the best I could do.” A hibiscus, I mused, interesting. Are they annuals or perennials? They smell better than a lily. And Hawaii? Where is that? Is it another garden store I haven’t heard of? At some point while I was lost in thought, the woman had gotten up and started to walk back towards her car. She zigzagged her way through all of the marble tombstones and statues, which glistened in the morning light, and left.
Self Portrait Series | Rula J. Brock
8:46 ON A WEDNESDAY Wendy BooydeGraaff
he left them for one little trip to Walgreens. She was sitting on the toilet lid thinking she had to defuzz these thighs tonight. She ran her hands over her legs. It felt like she was petting a cat. No time in the morning. They’d be too busy packing up the car and she wouldn’t be able to be alone in the bathroom—not while the girls were awake. Then they’d leave and she’d forget or, more likely, she’d remember, but wax strips don’t work in a moving car, and once they arrived at their hotel, it wouldn’t seem important anymore because personal time feels vain on vacation, and then she’d kick herself when she huddled at the beach, legs pinched, watching passersby for wayward glances. She waited until 8:35. Jon wouldn’t be done with his game until at least 9:30, but waiting gave her some kind of justification. Walgreens, the closest one, closed at 9:00. It was now or not at all. Five minutes to get there, ten minutes in the store, five minutes to get back. What could happen in twenty minutes? The girls had been sleeping soundly for almost an hour; they were most definitely in slow-wave sleep by now. Megan never woke up and Shelby rarely did either. Shelby was safe in her crib anyway, barred by baby-regulation spindles. Molly listened outside their doors one last time. Megan called out, “No! Don’t go!” and Molly’s heart stopped. How did she know? How could she know? She tiptoed into the room to tell her it was all right—mommy wasn’t going anywhere. But Megan rolled over, lips smacking in silent conversation, the blue veins in her eyelids rippling with the rapid eye movement beneath. She must’ve been dreaming about preschool, or else the play date that ended early yesterday. Molly tiptoed out, confidence building, silently descending the stairs, checking the front door deadbolt one more time, grabbing her keys, and leaving the house out the back. The car started with the tiniest screech. Once the garage closed behind her, it felt final: She was leaving the kids alone.
Her heart sped as the car gained speed toward the store. An accident, a traffic cop—these would not be prudent now. Oh no. Her babies were at home, asleep, with their fists curled up beside their soft hair spreading over their pillows. A small smile played across her mouth. They were beautiful. Locked up at home, they couldn’t escape. But she, their doting mother, was free. She parked among the shadowed cars. The clock on the dash read 8:46. How many people were out and about on a Wednesday evening! Now, she was one of them. Flying through the aisles, she stopped in front of the well-stocked hair-removal section and made an instant decision to go with the orange and white box of wax strips. A new brand. Clicking purposefully down the aisle—her heels were the only shoes by the door when she left—she eyed the cashier with one customer in line. Bill Schroeder. The retired CAD engineer from two doors down who ambled over daily on his neighbourhood rounds while she gardened and the kids drew on the driveway with chalk. She snatched a pack of gum and whirled into the card aisle. Bill hadn’t seen her yet, she was sure. She checked her watch. How long until Bill finished small talking with the cashier and walked out to his car? His car. Did she park next to him? Oh no. She closed her eyes, picturing her car in the lot, slamming the door closed, walking between cars that all looked blue in the navy dark. Her fingers unwrapped piece after piece of gum until the wad in her mouth was as large as a plum. She looked down at the wrappers in her hand. Grape Hubba Bubba, something she hadn’t seen since she was ten. The barcode was still intact. She couldn’t pay for an empty gum packet. Incriminating. Something strange for the clerk to remember if anyone checked up on her, if anything happened to her on this escapade, if she never returned home. Someone came down the aisle and stopped to read greeting cards, musical ones that played birthday jingles and tinny songs about love. She let the gum wrappers slide out of her hand onto the floor, then shoved them under the card display with the toe of her shoe. She could play this game after all. The gum stretched her cheek tight. She strode to the counter. Bill was gone. She grabbed another pack of gum. She paid. She smiled and nodded to the cashier, swinging her plastic bag to and fro. She pulled out the pack of gum as she walked toward the glass doors and left the pack on the stack of advertisements in the little wire rack. She’d never stolen anything, not an eraser from the supply closet at elementary school nor a pen from a coworker back when she used to work in an office. She lived completely within the lines of lawful society—except this little jaunt, of course. But she needed this like nothing else. Her heart pounded. In her car, she waited while the person across the lot backed out. If it was Bill—it didn’t matter anymore in these night shadows.
The drive home was smooth, clean, practiced. All was well with the world. She patted her purchase on the seat beside her. Once at home, she ran to the girls’ rooms. Each girl slept, peaceful in the glow of the hall light. She took the orange and white box of wax strips into the bathroom and pressed them one by one onto her legs. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been out of the house without the kids or Jon. Was it last spring, when she went shopping for Jon’s birthday? There was a time when she spent hours browsing aisles of products, reading the labels, choosing the best item. Not that she regretted this family; no, she had it good. She ripped off the strips, the sting of hair ripped from the root pinking up her skin. She used up the whole box of wax strips, her skin a series of pink landing strips. She patted on some baby oil, then ran downstairs where she sat on the sinking cushions in the dark living room, chewing the gum, waiting for Jon. Leaning her head back, she closed her eyes. Her breath became even, her heart slowed to its regular beat. The exhilaration burrowed deep inside. Every time she thought about Walgreens at 8:46 on a Wednesday night, her heart beat faster again, and the urgency inside of her grew.
D O N ’ T H AV E TO GO HOME IN A STRAIGHT LINE
After Gabrielle Calvocoressi I love you woman who double flips me off because I hurried and looked away. I love you 7-Eleven on the shoulder of Summer Street blasting Debussy after work and early morning. I love you fallen grape on train floor, forgotten fruit, uncrushed. Bladder, I love you for always permitting me to pee myself a little before a real bathroom. I love that everything I come to love has already become a cliché by someone else loving it. Not the Jehovah’s Witnesses though— with their flyers and their quizzes and their war against my father and all children and birthdays. But you, man leaning against the hip of the Prudential Building saying, “just help me, I don’t know how to fix this.” Your bubble gum ruptures against the grit noise of all else. I love you theater students with no self awareness, body or octave or otherwise. All of you gorgeous women. The ones I want to body-swap with. I really love the Sox fans, all their big talk and anxiety bequeaths itself to me. The chappedness of winter coming. Her orange nails. I love you accordion belly of the T. The unsteadiness of strangers clinging onto each other.
Blue Route | Christopher Wood Or considering maybe everyone here knows each other because itâ€™s not New York. I love to thank God for that. I love you Harvard Avenue and my home run there. Your five dollar baguettes. When I donâ€™t wear my head phones. Change in a pocket, just reaching. If we ever get out of the city. All the poet ghosts. Bishop. Sexton. Plath. I am not afraid of anyone who comes near. I love you, mostly, you, because you stared back.
MARRIAGE IN 400 BPM You call me up through the creaks in the floorboards. You live there— I tip toe so you stay dormant, so you don’t scratch records in my head— drive me crazy. You always hate when I wake up with the screeching sun, vacuum the living room, you say it’s too early for that racket. At breakfast you twist iron on your ring finger like you want to throw it out the window. I knitted twenty-eight blankets in those ten years, stitched myself across fractured ceramic on the kitchen floor. You snap so many plates, tell me I drive you to insanity every night. The doctors say my constant knitting is a nervous tick, I call it my savior.
For ten years in Holy Matrimony you mumble to your God to fix the broken marionette strings in my brain and I know you think I’m too far gone off the rocker and you would know as much ‘cause you married me even though I’m a candle burning without wax. I’ve knitted 28 blankets in ten years. Our voices break like violin strings. We are pizzicato— you pluck on me until your fingers fall off.
H O L I D AY SPIRIT
Cheese, my mother says, dazzle-toothed and holding a camera, her breath. A dry tongue licks the soot from my choppers. Try closing your mouth, she tells me. Then: Thatâ€™s the smile I love, glossed over, tightlipped to conceal the cracks; itâ€™s the same reasoning behind why people stand so close together in a Christmas card. I step away as soon as I can. On the holidays, I am a specter, I am a spectator, I watch how everyone mingles and grins in cranberry-colored cardigans that look like accidents in the factories from which they came. All saccharine schmoozing that makes me imagine my teeth dislodging from my gums like ceiling tiles falling, trilling across the sparkling kitchen floor with a clatter and a clink. Forgive me; my mother says I am too graphic, too sad. Today, she has matched a gouda to a cabernet so that guests are in good spirits. I refill my glass, finish it in one swig and step outside. Dig heels of palms into the pits of my eyes, pull cold, uncontained air into my lungs to clean the place out. Something rattles, my voice: Stop being so sad. When I peer through the window, no one seems to have heard me. I bare my teeth at my reflection, check for wine stains, the impression of something outside of myself. A dry tongue licks the soot from my choppers, tastes notes of cherry, of graphite. My breath on the glass looks like a cloud of dust, or snow maybe.
Soon, I lose sight of myself and see my mother, staring at me through the glass.
Life at coast 2. | Manit Chaotragoongit
4. Flatbush Avenue across from the Marine Park Golf Course, Brooklyn, NY | Samuel Lang Budin 48
FAMILY PICNIC Cassi Bruno
hen Uncle Nick greets you and Mom at the family picnic, you notice he doesn’t hug you. He never kisses you in front of Mom, but you expected at least a hug. Instead, you receive a dismissive: “Hey, kiddo.” He ruffles your hair and jogs back through the grass in the direction of a card game. You comb through your hair with your fingers and smile nice for your other relatives who welcome you to the annual family picnic. Mom begins to hand off Tupperware containers filled with cookies she spent all night baking to anyone that will help. It’s ten in the morning, and the sun is already beating down on your shoulders in a way that you know, even if Mom did remember to bring sunscreen, you will both be leaving the park with sunburn at the end of the day. Before you offer your help to Mom to unpack the car, you make sure to grab your copy of The Hunger Games from the dashboard. “Put that back,” Mom tells you, “I don’t want you brooding off by yourself today. Be a kid. Have fun with your cousins.” She gestures to a group of boys, younger than you, playing tag. One of them is crying. You hardly know any of the kids here. Mom should understand this. She’s always complaining that her family never visits. Except for Uncle Nick, who lives close, though it has been a couple months since you’ve seen him, since he doesn’t babysit you anymore. You wonder why he wasn’t very excited to see you today, and you place your book back in the car. Mom hands you the last three containers of desserts. “Can you handle all that?” she says. You smile at her and say, “I got it,” securing the stacked Tupperware under your chin. Mom doesn’t get many days off, and she loves family picnic day. It’s the only day of the year, besides Christmas, where all five of her siblings are in the same place at the same time. It doesn’t mean much to you. What seems like a hundred people stop you on your way to the pavilion to comment on
how tall you are now; how beautiful you’re becoming. They refer to you only as “Jodie’s daughter.” Your grandfather, carrying his regular donation of two off-brand bottles of root beer, just stops you to say: “Look Elizabeth, I brought root beer.” Uncle Nick is at picnic table talking and laughing with some other men. Each of them juggles a beer, a cigarette, and a hand of cards. You notice he’s staring at you, so you wave. Mom works a lot, and Uncle Nick has always been around to help out. He used to babysit you a few days a week, and because you spent so much time together, you had a special relationship. In fact, according to Uncle Nick, you are his best friend. But, this past year, when you started fifth grade, you became good friends with your up-the-street neighbor, Jaden, and his mom offered to take you after school on some days. Jaden has siblings and a trampoline. You have a lot in common with Jaden. You see Uncle Nick a lot less now. Uncle Nick calls you over to the card game. He pats his thigh and motions for you to sit on his lap. He says they’re playing Rummy. The way your legs dangle over Uncle Nick’s confirm that you are indeed getting tall, like so many adults have mentioned today. One of the men at the table jokes, “Don’t help him cheat.” You point to a three, four, and five of clubs Uncle Nick has in his hand. He acts impressed and plays the cards. After he loses the round, he asks if you want to go to the cooler with him to grab another beer. Uncle Nick drinks a lot. This is one of the secrets you keep for him. He’s even let you try a few drinks. Your favorite is rum and Coca-Cola, but you like it better with orange Fanta. It makes you feel like an adult. Uncle Nick says you have the maturity of an adult, which is why he likes spending time with you. You like spending time with him too, but Uncle Nick drinks a lot. When he drinks too much, Uncle Nick likes to play what he calls “special games.” You don’t really like the games, and sometimes they hurt, but Uncle Nick always buys you a present after, or takes you to the movies, or to Dairy Queen, and you know he doesn’t mean to hurt you. A few times he even cried and apologized to you after the game. These games are a secret too. You can’t play with anyone else, and you can’t tell Mom. She wouldn’t understand. You don’t want to ruin her relationship with Uncle Nick. He’s the only brother that visits her. If Uncle Nick drinks too much, you know he’ll want to play. Even though you haven’t spent time together in a while, you look down at your white Keds and say, “No thanks. I’m going to play on the swings.” He doesn’t say anything, so you walk toward the small playground on site. As you walk through the grass you begin to drag your feet, wondering if you hurt Uncle Nick’s feelings. By the time you get to the swing set, your shoes
are stained green. You sit and grasp the metal chains at your sides, but you don’t swing. After lunch, Great Aunt Kathy gets a hold of the karaoke microphone and announces it’s time for the family picture. Everyone gathers on a small hill. You stand next to Mom who asks, “Do I look okay?” Her hair, which she spent an hour on this morning, is already messed up in a bun; the sleeves of her white V-neck t-shirt are rolled into straps, like a tank-top; and she’s sweat off most of her makeup. Still, you think she looks okay. You open your mouth to reply but Uncle Nick talks before you get a chance to. “I think you look great,” he says, appearing next to Mom and squeezing her shoulder. She rolls her eyes and puts an arm around her brother. “Let’s get all the kids together,” Great Aunt Kathy shouts from her photographer stance. Mom nudges you toward the other children in the front of the group. Sadie pulls you through the crowd to stand next to her. You don’t recognize her at first. “Lizzie! I’ve been looking for you for forever!” she shouts. Sadie is your favorite cousin. Everyone used to say you both looked like twins because of your dirty-blonde hair and brown eyes, even though she’s two years older than you. They wouldn’t say that now. Since last Christmas, Sadie has dyed her hair completely black. Her ears are pierced twice. She wears makeup, well, only eyeliner, but she wears a lot of it. Mom will tell you later: Your Aunt Molly is insane for letting a thirteen-year-old dress like that. Great Aunt Kathy gives a thumbs-up, signaling she’s satisfied with the picture. It’s your idea to ditch the picnic and go exploring. It’s Sadie’s idea to explore the parked cars for loose change. Everyone’s parked in the grass next to the woods, so their cars are under shade from the trees. The pavilion and the playground are just out of sight. You and Sadie take turns tugging on car doors. She takes this time to tell you all about junior high. You pay close attention since you’ll be starting sixth grade this year. In seventh grade, you learn, kids get to walk to class by themselves. Sadie uses her freedom to skip class and hide in the school bathrooms instead. “The bathroom?” you ask. Sadie climbs out of a red car and hands you a nickel. “Nobody ever looks in there,” she says. She opens the door to Grandpap’s station wagon and motions for you to climb inside. “Sometimes I go to the boys’ bathroom, too.”
“Gross!” You pull your hand out from under the driver’s seat. “The boys’ bathroom?” “Where else am I supposed to make out with my boyfriend?” Sadie says. You want to say: “Anywhere else!” but you don’t. You can’t believe Sadie has a boyfriend. You’re at about two dollars and fifty cents each when he calls after you. “Hey Miss Lizzie.” Uncle Nick is the only person, besides Mom, who calls you that name. He must have followed you. “What’s up, Nick?” Sadie’s too cool to call anybody “aunt” or “uncle.” “You girls want to go for a ride in the truck through the woods?” “Aren’t you mad at me?” you ask. He gets down on one knee and looks shocked. Now you hurt his feelings. He puts his hands on your shoulders and says, “Lizzie, why would I be mad at you?” He smells like beer, bad. You turn to Sadie. She’s shoving the change you found into the pocket of her jeans. “Sounds like fun.” She looks at you. “Let’s go. Why not?” Sadie doesn’t know Uncle Nick like you do, and she probably doesn’t notice the beer. But, she’s older, she’s in junior high. You trust her judgement, and you’re glad she’s invited too. You try to sound as cool as Sadie when you say, “Okay, let’s go.” Uncle Nick’s truck is a black pick-up with rust around the tires. He pulls the tailgate down, exposing the empty bed, and extends a hand to Sadie. She takes it, and he hoists her up under her arms. You try to get in yourself, but you can’t quite hold your weight, and Uncle Nick grabs your bare thighs to lift you in. Sadie crawls to the front end and sits cross-legged. A thin layer of dirt covers the truck bed, and you wish you were wearing jeans like Sadie, not the pink denim shorts Mom bought with her employee discount from Kohls. Uncle Nick winks at you and slams the tailgate shut. “This is going to be sick,” Sadie stands up. She holds her arms out like a superhero. “Let’s go, Nick!” The engine starts. It’s loud and muffles Sadie’s scream of excitement.You reach up and tug on her t-shirt. “Sit down, crazy!” you yell up at her. She drops down to her knees and yells back, “Relax, Lizzie. I’m having fun.” In the same moment, Uncle Nick blasts the volume on his car radio and steps on the gas. You try to say: “I’m scared,” but the heavy metal drowns out any sound you make. Sadie laughs at your attempts to communicate. Uncle Nick accelerates, and you both fall. Sadie rolls backwards. You laugh and pull her back up. The truck leaves a trail of matted grass from its parking spot. You wonder if anybody can hear the music he’s playing, and if you’ll be able
to hear anything once this is over, and if your mom notices that you’re gone. Uncle Nick drives fast over tons of bumps, sometimes he hits them hard enough that your body lifts into the air. Out loud, you ask Sadie: “Did you see that?” and you remember that she can’t hear you. The trees around you blur together. You and Sadie slide from side to side across the truck bed. You’re sure the tires are skidding off the ground. You try to push hair out of your face, so you can see Sadie, but it’s no use. Sadie grabs your arm and pulls you up next to her by the window that separates you both from Uncle Nick. She grips the side of the truck to keep still. Once steady, she looks out into the forest, leaning slightly over the edge, confident enough to raise one fist in the air. You watch, fascinated by her courage. Then, Uncle Nick must hit something big because there’s a loud screech and the truck rocks back and forth. A tree branch comes over the passenger side where Sadie is desperately trying to hold on and strikes across her face, knocking her down face first into the bed, and she slides toward the tailgate. The truck slows for only a moment before it’s back on track. Sadie pushes herself onto her knees and grips the side of the truck with one hand. She brings the other up to her mouth and spits out a stream of blood. A pool collects in her palm and spills out over her hand. She spits again, or rather, just opens her mouth. This time a tooth falls out and she catches it. The color leaves her face. The music from the radio is still blaring. You manage to hoist yourself up onto the back window and start banging your fist on the glass. “Stop!” you yell as loud as your lungs allow. You might punch clear through the window, but you don’t care if you get his attention. “Uncle Nick! Stop!” You keep yelling. The truck stops. The loud guitar music fades out and is replaced by Sadie’s loud wail. Eyeliner streams down her cheeks; her tangled, black hair sticks out in several directions, and thick twines of blood suspend from her gaping mouth. She looks like a ghost you saw on that Japanese horror movie you ordered on pay-per-view last month when Mom fell asleep early. The tailgate clicks open. Uncle Nick jumps up onto the truck. “Shit,” he says. The shock in his face and voice makes Sadie cry even harder. “What happened?” He grabs her face with both of his hands and inspects the damage. Sadie makes a sound like she’s trying to reply but she can’t move her mouth. The sound turns into more sobbing and more blood spills out. You want to help but you can’t move. Your hands lay flat on the truck bed as if you’re still trying to keep balance. Finally, you say: “She got hit by a branch.” Uncle Nick picks up Sadie, lifts her over his shoulder and carries her off, putting her in the passenger seat. You’re left in the truck bed alone. He drives
a lot slower now, and you sit with your back against the window. You listen for crying, but Sadie’s either stopped or the engine is drowning her out. You wonder if she might die. Trees pass on either side of you until they are replaced with clear blue sky. You’re back. He parks in the exact same spot as before. Why didn’t he just drive straight to the pavilion? Or straight to the nearest hospital? Uncle Nick bursts out of the driver’s door and runs to open the passenger door. He doesn’t pick Sadie up out of the car. Instead, he holds his arms out to you. He lifts you out of the side of the truck. His eyes are blood-shot. He says, “Girls, listen,” but he’s only looking at you. “We cannot tell anybody what happened, okay?” “Why?” you ask. You don’t hear anything from Sadie who’s still in the truck and out of your sight. “Because we’ll all get in trouble,” he says. “We shouldn’t have been out in the truck. You girls have to keep this a secret, okay?” He pauses. “Okay?” You know this conversation. “Okay.” He doesn’t move. “Just go along with what I say.” You nod three times, getting impatient. “Promise you won’t tell.” “I promise.” He reaches into the truck and pulls Sadie out. Her jaw is still hanging open. She looks like she’s going to pass out or throw up, maybe both. Great Aunt Kathy is calling out bingo numbers from the stage. You follow Uncle Nick who is running toward everyone with Sadie over his shoulder. For a second, before he gets anyone’s attention, you see Mom smoking a cigar with Uncle Bobby and some other adults. She’s the only one sitting on the edge of a picnic table, kicking her legs back and forth. Her face lights up as she laughs along with everyone else at a joke someone made. Uncle Nick yells, “Help! We need help!” Multiple adults run over to Uncle Nick and Sadie, including Sadie’s Mom, Aunt Molly, who drops a can of Diet Coke. “Oh my god,” “Jesus Christ,” and “Holy shit,” comes from the adults when they see Sadie’s face. “What the hell happened?” Aunt Molly says. She pushes her daughter’s matted black hair out of her face, revealing a large lump on the right side of her jaw. Uncle Nick responds, “The girls were playing over in the woods, and —I guess— Lizzie threw a rock and hit her.” Now everyone is looking at you. You look at Uncle Nick. “No, I—” you try to defend yourself, but he talks over you. “I don’t think she meant to hurt her. I was just heading over to my car to get cigarettes and I heard crying so. . .”
Sadie’s father pulls up in the family’s minivan and your Mom runs over from her table. She must get a glimpse of Sadie’s face when Uncle Nick turns to put her in the car because she says, “Jesus Christ. What happened?” Before anyone else has a chance to reply, Aunt Molly says, “Your kid threw a rock at my daughter’s face.” She climbs into the side of the van and slams the sliding door shut. You feel the sound it makes in your chest. Tears well up in your eyes. Mom is waiting for you to say something. “It’s not my fault—” Uncle Nick cuts you off again, rubbing your back, “It had to be an accident,” he says. You want to tell Mom what really happened, but he’s staring at you. Your face feels hot, and you tug on the collar of your shirt. You’ll all get in trouble if you tell. You’re already in trouble. Mom grabs your hand and pulls you out of the small crowd that’s formed. You sit across from each other at a picnic table. She hands you a bingo card and a marker. You don’t look at her until she asks how you could throw a rock at your cousin. “I didn’t.” “Then what happened?” Uncle Nick sits next to you at the table. Mom taps her bingo marker on the table. “Well?” she says. “I don’t know.” Uncle Nick says that accidents happen. He thinks Sadie will be okay. He tries to make light of everything by saying, “I’m surprised Aunt Kathy didn’t get a picture for her scrapbook.” Great Aunt Kathy picks up the microphone from the karaoke machine and continues calling Bingo numbers. She calls “B-8” and “I-16.” Mom has both and doesn’t mark them. She folds her hands over her card and bites down on her bottom lip. You ruined her day. You shouldn’t have gotten into the truck. At the edge of a small creek in the woods, you sit on a small boulder covered in moss, poking into the water with a stick. The adults were whispering about what they thought you did, so you left the picnic. “What’s up, Miss Lizzie?” You turn to see Uncle Nick. The stained blood on his white t-shirt has turned brown and looks like dirt. He walks toward the creek, holding something behind his back. You ignore him. Something tickles your leg. You look down and see a daddy-long-legs spider crawling up your shin. “C’mon. Don’t be mad at me, Lizzie.” The spider rests on your knee cap. Uncle Nick takes a step closer to you,
and you cup your hand over the spider. It tickles your palm, trying to escape. One of Uncle Nick’s shoes is completely submerged in muddy water. He doesn’t seem to notice, and he pulls out an ice-pop from behind his back, offering it to you. “You lied,” you say, ignoring his peace offering. You flatten your hand over your knee, crushing the spider. You can feel its guts burst out from its body. “Everyone hates me. It wasn’t my fault.” “It wasn’t anyone’s fault, honey,” he says, “you did a good job.” One by one, you peel the spider’s legs off your skin. Uncle Nick puts his arm around your shoulders and leans in to kiss you, the way he does when you’re alone together. You squirm out of it and tell him, “If I wanted an ice-pop I would have got one myself.” You slide off the boulder, and begin to walk away, hoping that would be the end of the conversation. You’ve never rejected one of his presents before, no matter how tired or sick you felt. “Lizzie, wait,” his voice cracks as if he might cry. You stop and look back to see him standing with his arms out at his sides, looking helpless. Turn around and leave him that way. The sun is almost down, and everyone is packing up to go home. When you offer to help, Mom says, “Why don’t you wait in the car?” so you do. You recline the passenger’s seat as she loads the trunk with her belongings. Each object lands with a muffled bang. Outside, Mom says her goodbyes to her siblings, Grandpap and the rest of the family. Some of them tap on the car window to say goodbye to you, but you pretend to sleep. “It’s been a long day for her,” Mom tells them. You hear her make plans and promises to call siblings and cousins. You hear Uncle Nick ask if she needs anything. You hear Mom tell him to get home safe. You can tell when Uncle Nick leaves because of the music blasting in his truck. Mom gets into the car. You feel her reach over you to buckle your seatbelt. She starts the car and pops a tape into the cassette player. It’s an audiobook. Stephen King. Your left arm is getting numb from the way you are lying on it, but you don’t move. You fall asleep for real sometime after chapter two starts. Mom wakes you up by shaking your shoulder and asking, “Do you need to use the bathroom?” You open your eyes to blinding florescent lights. You’re at a truck stop. In the girls’ bathroom, you wash your hands, and your arms, and your armpits, and your legs with the pink hand soap that comes out of the metal dispenser at the sink. The soapy water drips from your body and forms a puddle around your feet. Mom comes out of her stall and observes you, for a moment, through the mirror. She cranks the paper towel dispenser a few
times and collects a bundle of brown paper, and she hands it to you to dry off. Then, she turns to the sink and washes her arms and legs too. You get paper towels for her too. You hand them to her and say, “I have to tell you something.” “Alright,” she says as she pats herself dry. You tell Mom about the truck ride, what really happened. You tell her how Uncle Nick found you by the cars, how he smelled like beer, how he always smells like beer, how you were supposed to keep his secret, how he tried to kiss you. You get carried away. You tell her more secrets. Mom stares at you for a while, like she’s still listening even though you’ve stopped talking. She nods and shifts her gaze to look at herself in the mirror. She doesn’t say anything except for, “huh.” She bites her lip and goes back into a bathroom stall. The stall locks and, over the faint Shania Twain song playing over the speakers, you can tell she’s vomiting The toilet flushes. She comes out and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. “What were you doing by the parked cars?” she asks. “Looking for loose change in Grandpa’s car,” you say. “I’m sorry.” She turns the sink on and pumps the soap five times. She doesn’t look up the entire time she washes her hands. She fills them with soapy water and rinses her mouth. You get paper towels for her again. “It’s okay,” she says as she takes them from you, “That’s okay.” Back in the car, she wants to know more about the secrets. You tell her everything you can think of. You talk for a long time and she lets you. She doesn’t interrupt. She focuses on driving, only looking at the road. She cries a few times, and you do too. But you don’t stop talking. You tell all the secrets you can remember. You talk until you run out of things to say.
PENCIL THIEF Miranda Forman
ost of the other kids in fifth grade are all about winning the fun-size Hershey Bars and M&Ms, but if I could win anything, I’d pick Mrs. Rodriguez’s pencils. Every two weeks, the day before a math test, she has a game, and the winner gets a pencil. Her pencils aren’t just any plain yellow pencils; they’re mechanical pencils, with pristine white erasers that aren’t dried out and horrible like the pencils I get from home, and each has a pattern on it. Not one of Mrs. Rodriguez’s pencils is like the other. The last one was checkered with five different colors. The one before that was decorated with a fish pattern that turned into taxis like Escher’s work, which we’re learning about in art class. There are only three people in math who win Mrs. Rodriguez’s pencils. It’s always Isabel, Kayla, or Suzy. They’re super smart, and they can work the problems faster than anybody else. I’m the slowest in the class, and everyone knows it. I’m always last to finish my tests, and sometimes Mrs. Rodriguez keeps me in at lunch to finish my homework. It’s not that I don’t understand; the numbers just don’t work for me. I read them on the page, and then they swim around in my head, and I can’t make them sit still long enough for me to subtract or divide them. Mrs. Rodriguez always says I’ll get there, that I just need to keep at it, that I’m on the right track. But I’m beginning to think that my train is asymptotically approaching the mark. I’m going to get closer and closer and closer, progressively slower and slower and slower, and I’ll end up part way to nowhere. Asymptotes are way above fifth grade math, but I read the word in one of my favorite Heinlein books and the idea stuck. Last week, Mrs. Rodriguez offered me a mint from the basket on her table. It wasn’t a pencil, but I smiled with my gross braces-bound teeth and kept it in my pocket for the rest of the day, rattling the clear plastic wrapper with my fingers. My asshole younger brother stole it later, when I was toying with it in front of the TV. He ate it and put the wrapper in the trash, which was poopy
with our baby sister’s latest diaper. Anyway, I’m never going to win a pencil. Today’s Tuesday, and Mrs. Rodriguez gives Kayla what must be her hundredth pencil after Math Jeopardy. The tinny bell rings, and then I go to English. Kayla is in my English class, so she’s walking ahead of me with her new pencil poking out of her back pocket. It’s right there, like Kayla left it for me. This one has little frogs all over it, and each frog is a different color. One frog holds a beach umbrella. The one beside it catches a Frisbee with its long red tongue. Another rollerblades. They’re having a blast on the bright blue background. I could spend all day at school looking at these frogs. I almost ask her for it, but when you don’t ever get anything you ask for, you stop asking. I don’t remember the last time I asked for something. I glance behind me down the hall. There are other kids there, all milling around their lockers or going to their next class, but no one is watching me. Kayla’s in a posse of girls, their hair flowing down their backs. Kayla’s hair is perfect, like the rest of her. But she wouldn’t notice if I snatched the pencil. I hurry toward her and I reach out my hand. My fingers almost touch the pencil. Then, Kayla’s friend Mindy whirls around. “Why are you running, Victor?” she says. My hand falls. “Just worried I’ll be late to class.” Mindy tosses her hair. “Worried after half a year?” What am I supposed to say? I shrug. Mindy turns around. English is all the way at the end of the hall. The bell rings before we get there. Mr. Hudson is at the door calling, “Let’s go, let’s go! Langston Hughes won’t read himself!” It’s after lunch when we’re leaving the cafeteria and I see the pencil again. Kayla’s got it in the side mesh pouch of her purple and black backpack. She’s going down the steps from the cafeteria to the hallway of the cooking and tech classrooms. She’s carrying a giant math textbook across her chest. And so I reach out and I take the pencil out of her backpack. That’s where it went sideways. She must have felt me grab it, or maybe I surprised her when I stepped near her, but she turned toward me, and then she was flying backward down the steps, falling onto her backpack like a turtle, or the skateboarding frog on the pencil. She yelled as she fell, and then her head hit the side of one of the steps. She stopped moving at the bottom of the stairs. My hands shake for twenty-five minutes before the EMTs decide that
Kayla is okay and not bleeding in her brain or concussed. I don’t let go of the pencil. Each frog tells me in its own way that I was an idiot. When the whole story comes out in Principal Phillips’s office, Principal Phillips calls in Mrs. Rodriguez. I am getting an in-house suspension, and it’s going on my school record. Mrs. Rodriguez’s face is sadder than I’ve ever seen. Her look makes my throat ache. She holds her hand out. I passed her the pencil. She said, “I would have given you one if you’d just asked.”
Untitled | John Chavers 61
BIRD STORIES I aging birds that once hopped fields, sang on clotheslines, now straddle trees. hot wind across the desert fluffs cactus wrens, branches bend; eaves hide warblers that echo dark canyons. under cumulus skies, thunder claps like flaps of feathers upsetting the balance of alighting night owls II a robinâ€™s egg hatches in the trellis, sparrows jet over blooms then dance on the woodblock tree at the end of spring, is the nest half full? half empty? vines hang to cover light the babies nest above the doghouse
G l o r i a Ke e l e y
III crack/break of hummingbird eggs shelled beaks chanting canticles background fiddles weave patterns violins, violence opposites attract the doves crow for harmony
Rust 2 | Fabio Sassi 64
FLOOR SHOW FUNERAL
Emma J o h n s o n -Ri v a r d
Take a memo: death needs stage lights a makeup chair, hand mirrors big mirrors, all the mirrors and a hundred shades of lipstick. Just in case, an assistant for the script. She’ll mind the tears, manage the eulogy. You’ll fall in love with the assistant, a little. Dream of her when it’s done. Later, photo moments photo montage artful, still life, no life. Someone will weep. Flowers come in rows, roses like little soldiers, all of them in love. You’ll think of the assistant again. Buff the coffin, thread count strict eyes stuck mouth soft stiff words, scripted accept goodbye before accepting it. Save chocolate, coffee sweet wine then sugar. Tip the assistant when she takes your hand and guides you to the tomb. She has already paved the way.
MADRE DOLOROSA Angelica Acero
hey were crowded around the dining table, English words spilling from their mouths in a staccato melody Maria had no hope of understanding. She did the only thing she could do, the only thing she had done for years and years after her children had stopped speaking Spanish to each other: she cleaned the kitchen. Having finished washing the dishes and putting away the tortillas and salsa into the fridge, she rinsed a kitchen towel in the sink and wrung out the excess water. Plopping it onto the counter, she wiped in circles, stretching on her tiptoes to wipe the other side. When was it, Maria thought. When did Dani and Javi stop speaking in Spanish to each other? She remembered them as babies, toddlers, preschoolers, overhearing their happy babbling and being amused at their determined and frequent attempts to pronounce galleta or platano, their favorite snacks. Or having mastered that, attempting sentences expressing their desire to eat, to sleep, to play more: ¡Tengo hambre, mama! Mami, tengo mucho sueño. No mama, déjame jugar un poquito más. And through it all, Dani and Javi, only a year apart, would fight and laugh together in a language Maria understood: ¿Te da risa? ¡Dámelo Dani, dijo mama que a mí ya me toca! ¿Viste eso? ¡Que chistoso! ¡Ya, deja de enfadar! Vas a ver, le voy a decir a mamá que me pegaste. Their constant arguments and high-pitched excitement would become overwhelming at times, the last thing Roberto or Maria would want to deal with after a long day at work. How she wished, then, that she could take their boundless energy and make it her own. Take it and use it to finish all the things that went undone in the house: to finally put away the piles of folded laundry atop the washer, to hold the yard sale and sell the things that Dani and Javi had long outgrown, to deep clean the refrigerator, repaint the walls covered in scuffed marks from Javi’s toy trucks, tear out the stained carpet and replace it with tile, and so on. In those days, it was all Maria and Roberto could do to get dinner started after getting home from a ten-hour work shift.
She never had a moment to herself, those early years. After work was cooking and cleaning and chasing the children to feed them, bathe them, settle them into bed. Maria was always working for the future, preparing lunch for herself and Roberto and the children, washing and drying and setting out the clothes for the next day, working her long factory job and stretching that paycheck for a week, and another week, and another week, until she and Roberto were gradually paid enough to start a college savings account for their two children. But throughout those bone-weary years, Maria was able to laugh and tease and shout and rejoice in the family she and Roberto had created. She could reprimand Javi if he said something inappropriate, accidentally learned from watching Roberto fix the dryer, the fridge, the car. She could sing along to Dani’s favorite songs, learned from a children’s telenovela as she played with her dolls. She could overhear Dani and Javi fighting each other over toys or TV and know who was at fault before they came to her seeking justice. As they got closer to twelve, thirteen-years-old, they left the toys behind and started reading books, watching TV, listening to music that their friends from school recommended. They would do homework and ask, “Mom, what does this mean?” until they knew not to ask anymore, that having to explain their questions in Spanish to her took twice as long or longer than figuring it out themselves. They began seeking Roberto out more, calling him during the day while he supervised construction jobs, running out to meet him when they heard his truck pull into the driveway, tugging on each arm and spilling the day’s grievances to his attentive ears. He would laugh and commiserate with them while Maria tried to soften her strained smile as she quietly greeted him, going unnoticed as she finished putting the dinner plates on the table, putting down the envious feelings that would rise in her heart and manifest as little tears in her lowered eyes. She now had more and more time to herself, realizing it on the day Maria saw that English had gradually, insidiously, settled on her children’s tongue, clipped words easing gracefully out of their lips, an image of her own, while the Spanish came out in laborious bursts of air, pushed forcefully through the little crevasses the English had not yet dominated. That day, the day she realized that Dani and Javi had to help each other to complete a full sentence to her, “Me toco un, un…how do you say quiz?.. examen, pero de repente? Es decir…um…right, no me lo esperaba. The teacher surprised us, mom, y no... pues no hice bien,” that horrendous day of staring
blankly at the two pairs of eyes narrowed in concentration and frustration, she felt the bitter sting of regret. Maria regretted their move to Phoenix from that small farming town. Roberto had come home to their square, two-bedroom house one day after working in the fields. He opened the creaky front door and announced, “¿Qué es la diferencia entre vivir aquí o vivir en México? Aqui no hay futuro, nos vamos a mudar a la ciudad.” The small town was not big enough for the dreams he had for himself and their children and Maria didn’t care for it anyway. She had gotten her first taste of loneliness there. She had felt it form in the tip of her unused tongue, had laboriously swallowed its insipidness, had felt it fall into the pit of her stomach with a heavy thud, and had felt it grow for two years like a cancer within her. That gnawing loneliness was momentarily suppressed, forced to make room for the warmth of Dani and Javi in her womb and forgotten during those busy years of raising them, of being able to speak all day, her words having the power to soothe and cajole and reprimand. But she remembered the first two years of isolation. She remembered waiting all day for Roberto to get home, only for him to eat and fall asleep with barely a word or two of conversation between them. She remembered walking a mile or two along a dirt road, occasionally tripping over rocks as she practiced saying “thank you” and “please” and “how much?” over and over under her breath, never able to learn more than these few words but still wanting to practice them when she arrived at the grocery store. She cherished the smalltalk replies she hardly understood but were at least directed to her and made her feel noticed and present. When the children came, one a year after the other, the loneliness was gone and replaced with a new ambition for her children, an education their small town would never be able to provide. She was afraid they would become small and ignorant like her. Roberto got a better job, a construction job, through a friend of a friend already living in Phoenix. He made the arrangements for a small home in the suburbs, bought a used truck for cheap, and helped Maria pack the little they had accumulated in the seven years they spent there. The radio didn’t work, the windows wouldn’t roll down more than three inches, and for five hours Maria had to placate two small children in a truck that smelled of stale cigar smoke and cow manure. They succeeded in Phoenix. Roberto was frequently promoted, his hard work and thick accent no detriment as long as he could speak English, and the children exceeded her expectations in their learning ability. And yet, if they had stayed in their small town perhaps they wouldn’t have overcome their poverty, but the children would surely have spoken to her more. No, Maria regretted moving to that farming town after crossing the border with Roberto. She had been exhausted, yellow dust clinging to her hair, her
skin, her skirt. She could taste the stale dirt in her mouth and feel the dryness of it in her nose. By the time they staggered off the hot, unpaved road the sun was setting, transforming the world with its soft orange light. Not that Maria had noticed. For the past couple of miles, she had been unable to look up, setting her eyes on her feet instead, hypnotized into putting one foot in front of the other. She had worn her faux leather shoes, tailor-made and given as a parting wedding gift. The shoemaker, his shop two doors down from her father’s house, had always made cheap shoes for their family. She had cried when she saw this pair, beautifully crafted, small flowers engraved into the leather at the tip of each shoe. To remind her of home, the shoemaker had said. She had only worn them for three days, and already they were scuffed and dirty and bloody from their walk through the hopeless desert. She forgot the reason for the walking. Forgot Roberto, her bag slung over his back, his calloused hand on her elbow. Forgot the pain in her heart from having to part from her family. All of her focused on moving forward, she had stumbled onto the ground when Roberto gently pulled her elbow back and stopped. She was surprised by the pain of the rocks digging into her small palms and knees. She was further surprised when, in trying to pick herself up, she saw a house on fire. Faintly crying out “fuego,” she fell again. The orange glow from the setting sun had danced against the front of the small, white house, jumping like flames to Maria’s exhausted eyes. Roberto had gently helped her up from the ground, and pulling her forward with their clasped hands, had said, “No María, no hay fuego, no mas luz. Llegamos a nuestra casa. Auqui formáremos un hogar. Una familia.” A home, he had promised, as he ushered her inside the barren house, shutting the glowing door behind her. A family. And they were a family, even as she closed her eyes and her mouth and thought of nothing while her children and her husband ate the food she made for them. She had long gotten into the habit of eating as she cooked rather than sitting down with her family and getting a knot in her throat that made swallowing dinner painful. Maria regretted leaving her hometown in Jalisco, a small bag in one hand and Roberto’s rough hand in the other. There’s nothing for any children they would have here, he had told her. He had no farm, no shop, no roots. The children would have to make their own way, and they had a better chance of that in the States than in their hometown. “Pero aquí tendrán una familia. Apoyo. Amor, Una comunidad,” she had replied. They would have a community, a shared identity, a support system.
But Roberto promised their love would be enough for any future children. A week after their marriage, she said her goodbyes to her father, her mother, her six sisters, and all her cousins and aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews and friends. As she said goodbye, she wondered if she would ever sit on the steps of la plaza sharing a bite of strawberries in cream with her little sisters; the tartness of freshly picked strawberries and sweet, goat milk cream swirling in her mouth and imprinted on her cheeks from the payment of kisses she demanded after each spoonful she gave away. Dani and Javi were certainly loved, and despite her fears, Roberto’s promises for them were slowly being realized. Roberto had worked hard to ensure their children would want for nothing. She remembers now that all promises made for her personal happiness were always in relation to the happiness of her children. Maria regretted marrying Roberto. “Me voy,” he had said. I’m leaving. She had begged him to reconsider, but he was adamant that he would leave his poverty behind and start anew in the land that rewarded hard work. But he loved Maria and would marry her only if she would follow him into another world. He didn’t want to marry her only to leave her behind. He desired a life-partner, someone with whom he could walk the same path with for the rest of his life. Maria had thought carefully over what she could live without, and not seeing Roberto coming up to her and unabashedly yelling, “Mi amor!” from a distance was more than she could bear. She said yes. Yes to marriage and yes to following him into a path of his creation. She was nineteen to his twenty, and in spite of their youth, felt that their love was steady. Roberto didn’t dream of unimaginable riches. He dreamt of a permanent home, a house that wasn’t constantly falling apart. He dreamt of a stable, moderate life, and was prepared to work for it. There was no ring, no grander promises then love and family. But it had been more than enough for her. Now she wonders why his dream became her dream and his path her path, why she never made attempts to disagree or point to an alternate way. Maria regretted falling in love with Roberto. His dimpled smile never failed to disarm her, and their endless walks around la plaza, heads close together in conversation occasionally interrupted by bright laughter, used to fill her with such giddy joy. She had savored the moments when their hands would brush against each other as they walked, a soft whisper of skin, or when roses would blossom on his dark face, determined to brush his lips to her own red cheek even in front of her giggling sisters. He used to surprise Maria by waiting for her some mornings at the bottom of the hill, walking an additional hour across town to take the typewriter
strapped to her back as they walked to school. He was all bravado, pretending the weight of two typewriters was nothing as he huffed uphill with her, inevitably having to stop halfway up to sheepishly give it back. “Un dia,” he had promised, one day he would have the strength to carry her burden. All these years, she was carrying the weight of the sacrifices needed for his new life, their children’s new life, her role in it never going deeper than her more superficial roles of wife and mother. But then, how to make herself known when the language she knew was one her family no longer practiced with fluency. She worked for the future because she was never in the now anyway. She felt the bitter sting of regret and the jagged sword of guilt lodging itself in her heart, carving itself deeper as she thought useless thoughts. What kind of mother was she, to regret having Dani and Javi, to regret marrying Roberto, to regret the life she had long forgotten how to control? Dani and Javi and Roberto sat around the dinner table chattering in English and Maria ignored the corrosive loneliness in her heart, cataloging the state of the house as she wiped a clean counter: the fridge was neatly organized, the laundry had been put away, and the tiled floor had recently been mopped.
FEATURING: • MANIT CHAOTRAGOONGIT MEGAN ELDREDGE • VALENTINE LOUAFI • FABIO SASSI ROLLIN JEWETT • GLORIA KEELEY • EMMA STECKLINE LARRY NARRON • JOHN CHAVERS • ALEXA DEARING KORI WOOD • MIRANDA FORMAN • EVANA BODIKER EMERSON HENRY • ANGELICA ACERO • JOEY HEDGER SAMUEL LANG BUDIN • EMMA JOHNSON-RIVARD COURTNEY GARVEY • ASHLEY PARK • CASSI BRUNO LEAH MENSCH • MATEO PEREZ LARA • JURY S. JUDGE MARSHA SOLOMON • RULA J. BROCK • KELSEY DAY • CHRISTOPHER WOODS WENDY BOOYDEGRAAFF