Judith Baumel is a poet, critic and translator. She is the director of the MFA program at Adelphi University. Mark DeGasperi is Executive Director of Media Development International and teaches screenwriting at New York City universities. Frank Sautner is a native New Yorker and works as a union steamfitter. Rachael Vrooman is an Obstetrics and Gynecology Resident in Columbus, Ohio. Rachel Young is Coordinator – Business Affairs & Distribution for Turner Broadcasting.
[FOUNDERS] Vanessa Gabb Crissy Van Meter
[INTERN] Jessica Gray
ISSUE No. 1
Elsewhere, Somewhere Else | David Whelan  Our Respective Homelands | Robert Alan Wendeborn  Losing Heaven | Michael A. Gonzales  Little Boxes | Tara Rogan  Taboo Blue | Jessica Hagemann  Eating Clocks | Lawrence Yoon  Epilogue | Andrew Reynolds  Reel to Real | Erik Adams  This Is Having | Ben Philippe  Sexy Little Neurons | Barbara Perez 
Elsewhere, Somewhere Else | David Whelan [BIO]: David is a fiction writer and journalist, based in London. Look at this little scamp, Peewee to his pals, at his momma’s computer when she’s out working for his dinner. He don’t know what he up to, not particularly, just browsing and scrolling and clicking and re-clicking through an endless gallery of websites. Look here! – A young man is shot dead in Harlem! And now, big DC is taxing the air! What say you, little Peewee, to that? Not all fine reading of sports and computer games here. Sometimes the sad old real world gets in. What? Not for you? Why? Oh, just an oldfashioned spam filter reconfigured to block what you want. Set up to hide what you don’t like and you’re good to go. It’s user-controlled, of course. Content dictated by observer. Little Peewee has cut school again. That’s what he does when his momma is out working. He’s a scamp, is all. Gets on bus, waves to momma (never kisses on the cheek, the bigger kids laughed at him for that and he got nuggies for a whole week), plugs in his music player, watches the city flash by, talks to no one, bus arrives, he stays on and rides it all the way back home. Takes about an hour in total. Not bad, not much time wasted. He’s a smart kid, so uses his time to browse the online world from his phone. It’s amazing what technology can do! Recently he’s got to talking to some old English guy in an anonymous chat room he visits. Updates him about the state of the economy and the weather over there. Little Peewee doesn’t quite understand all that high-brow nonsense, but he clued up enough to keep the old fart pip-pipping away!
The Internet is slow today. Little Peewee, he hates that. The worst day is when you wake up and the news hasn’t changed from last night. Today is one of those days. How’s a kid supposed to get his information fill when all you got is a replay? Has the world stopped spinning, or summat? His momma ain’t home for at least another 6 hours, so it’s fine: he can wait. And so he does. Peewee takes his coffee black, like he’s seen on the cop shows. It gets his body all hot and electric. One time he got Annie to drink a whole jug, telling her it was flat Coca-Cola. She pissed herself in the classroom, and everyone was laughing, Peewee the most. Annie didn’t come back the next week. Teach sez it because her parents want to put her into boarding school. Peewee has read about these schools. He doesn’t like the sound of being plugged into them for most of the year. He’d miss his momma and his freedom. He thinks that maybe, possible, Uncle Ralph went to one because he’s old and weird, and momma calls him a queer. Look here – the Internet is starting to pick up! He’s got an email. Good, that’s some points. He was worried he’d get no achievements for the day. He’s not gone a day without an email for at least a year. His average is 13 a day. It’s unlucky, or so he hears. He’s been trying to up it to 14. Currently 13.33333. Ah, it’s from the English guy. Wonder what the crumpet it could be about. Opens it up. It’s got an attachment. Peewee’s momma always sez, don’t go downloading no attachments. She sez, why else do people ask if there are any strings attached? Nothing is as simple as an email. They always lead somewhere. Peewee thinks his mother is a crazy. She works in a factory. He’s not sure what. Probably rolling up string into balls. He wants to click the attachment – it’s a video, the best kind – but he waits. His stomach is grumbling and that’s because he chucked his breakfast away. It was a banana chopped into some corn flakes. He hates bananas. It’s a hot day outside so maybe he can just use that to dash over to the little market on the corner. They’ll probably just think he’s sick. If it’s the girl working maybe he’ll get something free. So, little Peewee goes rushing out of the house and out into the small garden out front and is hit by the huge wave of heat-nausea that he gets on hot days like these. That’s how this all started, this obsession of his. He got to a certain age and realized he wasn’t like the other boys. He wasn’t tall or fast or thin or coordinated. He wasn’t even bad at catching or throwing. He just couldn’t stand the sunshine. He takes a little moment now, hands on knees, breathing heavily like he sees the athletes do on the television, half keeled over, but not quite, to compose himself. Then, he runs at 50% to the corner shop.
Inside, the man is working. He’s never given much attention to Little Peewee but he does now. His big white eyes light up like he’s never seen a kid before and he shrieks, like a cartoon, ‘Hellooooo, Mr. Devlin, no school today on this fine day?’ Peewee has learnt how to deal with these sorts of people. ‘Not for me, sir. I’ve come down with something awful.’ He coughs for the extra points. The man looks pleased with what he’s seen and says, ‘Very good, young man.’ His accent is rich and not from around here. Peewee wishes he wasn’t such a squirt and could talk like that. Peewee scuttles off into the cool back area and picks out a large chocolate bar and vanilla shake. It don’t come to much, and he’s relieved to see he’s got enough spare change to come back late for seconds. When he exits the shop he’s careful not to run, and this time the sunshine goes easy on him. He sees Mr. Carmichael working on his lawn. He goes round and round the garden every morning behind his lawnmower. He starts on the outside and gradually spirals his way in. Little Peewee used to watch him from his roof in the spring. Every time Mr. Carmichael got into the center of the circle, he’d look around for a way to escape the boundaries he’d drawn out for himself in the grass. Peewee liked to imagine he was on an island, miles away from home. Eventually, always, Mr. Carmichael would pick the big lawnmower up – his muscles shaking with the effort – over his head and carry it out behind the house. He’d then come back some minutes later and sit down on the outer ring, and drink a glass of lemonade or some other clear liquid. Then come the next morning he’d do it all again. Inside now, back at the computer, it’s cool and the coffee is cold. The chocolate bar is already gone, and the milkshake is halfway down. He’s a smart kid so the attachment had been set to download. Now it’s ready. He opens up VLC Media player and commands it to play the video. Maybe it’s a clip show from London. He’s heard all about London from the television. The video loads up and he’s waiting. After it finishes, Little Peewee knows what to do. He goes online and uploads it again, and shares it back across the Internet. It’s an impulse, but it comes from somewhere deeper. He knows that other people will want to see this and the first rule of the Internet is that when you come across original content, you must share it. He begins to get lightheaded when the first comments come in. By the end of the morning he’s seen another five versions of the video uploaded. He knows he’s onto something. Eventually he replies to the English guy and tells him he did a good job with the video. He liked it very much.
Later, much later, his momma comes home and spanks Little Peewee red-raw. He’s banned from her computer for a week. That night he hears her typing on it. Then he hears her sobering or something or maybe laughing, he can’t be sure. He’s locked in upstairs in his room. He’s got a radio, which he never uses, but it’s on regardless and tuned to a station that plays music for old people. When he hears his momma dial on the phone, he turns it way up. He hears her saying stuff like suicide and scare tactics and he knows what’s coming: he’s gonna be sent to boarding school, like Annie. This is his momma’s last straw. He falls asleep, listening to country rock music. The sky outside is a dark blue. Many of the house lights don’t go off all night. The next day the police arrive. * Little Peewee’s dada, ya see, well he ran out on them when his kid was jez three years old. It was the fashionable sort-of thing to do in them days. It was even considered gentlemanly, depending on who you were talking to. If a man can’t care for his family, well there ain’t no point in him being around, sucking up his wife’s money and wiping his babies’ ass. You know the deal. So he ran, that was what he did. Ran far away, out into another State where the lines were more blurred and he could hide behind a tall glass of whiskey and some cigar smoke. Little Peewee had never met his pop. Not since he came out of him. So it’s kinda odd to him why these big ole policemen are asking these funny questions about, ‘Have you seen Mr. Pewtersmith recently, young man?’ or ‘Where is your daddy these days?’ Peewee tells them what he knows. Which is about as much as a donkey’s backside. One of the policemen laughs at that, the youngish one, but he shuts up when his boss sends him an awful glance. ‘Your mother is very scared,’ they say to him. ‘She thinks you’re talking to your daddy on the internet.’ Then he goes off and rattles off big words and phrases that he doesn’t get, like restraining and public disobedience. He tells them as much as he can that it ain’t his daddy that he been talking to, no sir, but a strange queer fella from England. ‘England?’ Everyone seems to find this the funniest word in the world and they all fall back laughing. Little Peewee doesn’t feel very funny. ‘No, boy, we traced that IP. That guy is nowhere near your Engerland.’ Again, they laugh but this time it hurts Peewee, because he knows that it’s directed at him and he doesn’t think that’s very polite, no not polite at all. Before he knows what he is doing, he’s up on his feet and he
knocks the older policeman straight in the gonads with his elbow and runs out into the lawn, where the sun is out and the smell of cut grass is in the air. ‘Little whippersnappingshit-‘ he hears from inside. But they don’t follow him. They got his momma locked up in the kitchen and they asking her now all sorts of questions. And look who is coming down the road! None other than Sammy Saxophone, that tall Negro with the lung capacity of an elephant and the eyes of tar. How many times the people round here have talked about his musical prowess, and his length, but Peewee wouldn’t know nothing about that. The kids at school they been saying that big Sammy been fooling around with his momma, playing cards in Julie’s, but Little Peewee knows for sure that ain’t the case, because he installed one of those webcams in her room just to be sure, and there ain’t been no one in there but her. ‘Hey, boyo,’ Sammy sez. ‘Why all the tears?’ He comes over and takes out a small handkerchief and mops the wet patches under Peewee’s eyes. ‘What’s up, little man?’ he asks. ‘The cops in my house. They saying bad things about my daddy and they all gone and laughed at me like I had no feelings.’ Big Sammy coos him back up to health and Peewee smells his skin, which smells like coconuts and the sea. ‘Well, I sure the cops wouldn’t be harassing you if they weren’t there for a good reason,’ he says. ‘You got any idea why they here?’ Little Peewee shakes his head. Right now, he just wants to be held. Sammy is a nice guy but he ain’t too used to holding kids other than his own, so eventually wriggles free and sez he is off to check on Peewee’s momma. As he’s about to enter the house, the cops come out looking all pleased with themselves. They stop and talk to Sammy for a bit and then walk on out the garden. The younger one tilts his hat in Peewee’s direction, who sticks up his middle finger in return. ‘Spritely kid,’ one sez to the other, who nods and looks at the sun. ‘They all are, around these parts.’ Inside, Sammy is chatting to Peewee’s momma Meg, who has just told the cops about the strange calls she’s been getting late at night. ‘You think it’s him?’ Sammy asks. Meg nods her head, slowly. ‘I can’t think of no one else.’ This is true. She can’t. Since she kicked that guy’s butt to the curb she ain’t heard or seen no other man in her sheets. ‘What do you think he wants?’
‘His boy. His money. His house. Who knows what’s going on inside that man’s skull.’ Meg bursts into tears just as Peewee had done and for the second time in a day, Sammy finds himself consoling a white person. He’s good like that. Then, he thinks that a beer will do just the trick so cracks two out from the fridge and hands one to Meg and keeps one for himself. She pretends to, you know, be offended that it’s too early for a beer, but takes one anyway and is the first to be drinking. ‘I just can’t believe, after all this time, he’s back.’ ‘Hell. Men get bored. They get lonely. He might be sayin’ sorry.’ ‘What? By leaving blank voice messages on my machine? By talking to his son on the internet? That’s not reaching out, Sammy. That’s pure A-Grade stalking.’ She had him there. He hardly knew the father, and to be frank he didn’t really want to. White people’s problems were always too crazy. They had a way with making life unsimple. He only knew one thing about it: he was damn sure that if the father tried to come near the family, he’d be there to help. He told Meg as much, who smiled and kissed him on the cheek. Inside, he prayed to God that the old dried-up father never set foot back here again. ‘You, sir, are a bonafide American hero.’ ‘Just doing my duty, ma’am.’ What a lot of people didn’t know, and didn’t care to know, was that Sammy wasn’t from America at all. He was up from Ghana, through first France and second Britain. It was just easier to blend in, rather than stick out. Eventually, even the accent didn’t seem forced, it was almost his mother slant. He’d told everyone in this town – everyone who’d listen, mind – that he was a vet. Not the one with the animals, but the good kind. The one who had spilt blood for his country. Played the sax for his regiment band. Killed three turbanheads with his bare hands one night when he’d caught them creeping into camp. No one had ever asked him why he didn’t use a gun. They liked the phrase, he guessed. Killed with his bare hands. Made them think of bears and climbing and the great outdoors. The story had always made Sammy sad when he told it. His own father believed in all that and had put him up with some friends in Bow when he was in London and, blimey, if they weren’t the kindest and simplest and most loving
people he’d ever… And that Mosque! Rows and rows of people all kneeling and praying and singing. It was beautiful, is what it was. There wasn’t much beauty out here, ‘cept in the form of Meg. The town folk had been whispering that she was a niggershagger but Sammy had never touched her, not once. He had his kids to think about and what they might think if he replaced their mother. She was long gone to the grave, true, but still a man can have his sentiments and she, that princess, she was the one he would take with forever after. He liked hanging about Meg and her little scamp because it put him at ease, not because he was thirsty for something carnal. People round here didn’t really understand that type of love. They all about the sweat and motion, things outside of feeling. It was sad. Some strangers, tourists most like, had come around last month and seen Sammy playing with Little Peewee. He could hear them whispering, ‘But he doesn’t even look black…’ Later, when the moon had just peaked its rose-tinted face over the horizon and the town had all but settled in for the night, he came. Quietly at first, ghosting along the hedgerows that connected garden to garden, ducking behind cars and crawling beneath their suspensions, he moved silent as anything he could think of to compare it to. The brave and wronged daddy, coming back to make amends and maybe take a few bob whilst he at it. Get that nice bottle of Rock and Rye he had been so awfully robbed of. Maybe make a night of it. Surely the little runt and cunt would be in bed by now. Such were the thoughts that traveled through Mess Pewtersmith’s cavernous mind as he slugged his way toward his old resting place. Mess had been terribly framed. He didn’t know by who, but he suspected it was that nigger. He’d seen the way he looked at Meg, eyes alive with lust. Such things would have made the face of God weep. Got smacked on the back o’ the head one day and wake up feeling half the man you were before and lying red handed in the middle of the bar with the cash register. He can’t for the life of him (or the half-life, yez see) understand what happened or remember the face of the perpetrator, but all the force on the back of the head in the world couldn’t stop his suspicions. Big Ole Sammy. Never trust them types. All he knows is that he woke up on the floor of the bar, with blood on his face, and not a thought in his head. Lost the ability to function in society, the doc had said. A mental break, happens to the weak. He’d become a reprobate, a member of the criminal classes. Couldn’t even work back at the farm, such were his jitters.
Britney, a kind young woman who poured a good measure, well she told him that there had been a blackout the night it had happened. ‘Was it Sammy?’ he’d asked, his head atwitter. She looked at him like he’d run over her cat and then told him that she meant there was no electricity. ‘Couldn’t see who hit you. But I don’t remember seeing Sam around that night at all.’ She offered. Women, as Mess knew full well, chose to see what they chose to see. Well, days went by and slowly that became months and a year and still he hadn’t recovered and the little sack of potatoes was getting bigger and crying and weeping and he didn’t know the first thing about being a dada and the little bag wriggle out of his hands and fell to the floor so fast so he up that night and decided to run. By the time he’d gotten over to the next state he’d been told that Meg had put out an order on him. He didn’t understand what was going on, such was his brain malaise, but he felt the pain of seeing his kid crying on the cold ground. Before he knows it he’s in the garden and standing up. He catches himself feeling happy to be home. It ain’t changed a bit, ‘cept some new plants in the garden and don’t Meg remember that he’s got allergies? A-Choo-A-Choo! He can’t stop himself sneezing and snotting everywhere. His body is all out of control, tingling with some horrible natural repulsion to nature. A-Choo! And then the front door opens and it’s Sammy coming at him, looking all mean and ex-Army. ‘Who out there?’ he bellows into the darkness and it is only then that Mess realizes how big this bastard is. ‘It only me,’ Mess answers, pulling out the knife he’d been saving all this time from his pant’s pocket. ‘Don’t you come around here, Mess. The police are after you.’ The police? How they know anything about this? He asks as much. Sammy just shrugs and makes a whistling noise. Mess takes in the scene. There will be no way around Sammy and in, so he’s gotta figure another way up into the old storage room where he left the dough. Well, what? Sammy about six foot something, and the roof comes down to about … yeah, so maybe if he gets him up on the porch steps, he could… Mess goes and runs at Sammy who quivers a little and moves back onto the first porch step. Mess swings that knife in the air like someone scattering ashes and Sammy, again the coward, steps back, and then Mess is on and climbing up him and jumping off his shoulders and up onto the roof. He makes a crude gesture to Sammy
from the rooftop but just then, as he does it, Little Peewee, who for all this time has been on the internet looking at that video he’d been sent again and again, decides to get some fresh air in his room and opens up his window, which hits his dada unaware and plumb knocks him off balance, sending the slightly bigger scamp a’rolling down the roof and back into the willing arms of Sammy Saxophone… And the father falls right down from the roof and this is when it becomes obvious that Sammy has never been in a fight in his life and has little to no idea how to throw a punch. He just cradles the criminal in his arms like a momma would a sow and Mess, all evil and desperate, takes his knife and cuts it right across Sammy’s throat. It’s like a red waterfall, Little Peewee thinks, as he watches from above. Such beautiful colours and that’s inside of us? And who is this little fella trying to get in my house? Is this dada? ‘Dada’, Little Peewee cries from the rooftop and Mess looks up, his eyes wild and inhuman, and for the briefest of seconds they share a moment of connection. Then the sirens come on loud and clear and two cop cars park come screeching around the corner and stop right in front of the garden. Mess, knowing what an awful mess he in, flops to the ground alongside Sammy and goes to cut his own throat but the big man from Ghana, well, he’s using all his last strength here, grabs Mess’s arm to stop him right until the moment the police arrive and handcuff the little monster… Well, the odd thing about all this was what happened to ole Mr. Pewtermsith when the cops got his ass into the police station for questioning and registering. Turned out the man was illiterate. Down and straight blind to the written word. Could hardly sign his own name. Kept on complaining about how his own daddy had set him to work on the land almost as soon as he could walk and that it wasn’t his fault he’d been deprived a basic human need. Then moaned about the time Sammy had smacked him over the head. ‘Twas the big man’s fault he dead,’ he moaned. ‘His fault I tell you. It’s all karma.’ This, of course, got the whole department scratching their heads and wondering who had Little Peewee been talking to all those nights. Surely not his daddy, unless he was some sort of genius and was tricking them all. ‘Unlikely,’ said the Head of Department. ‘The man struggles with his own shoelaces. Plum retarded. Most likely he was just looking for a petty theft. Couldn’t organize a drink in a whiskey brewery.’ So, they went back and they checked the records and the IPs and the locations and any use of proxies, but they found nothing. Sure as day, the records still said that
the man on the chat servers was from whereabouts Little Peewee’s dad was hanging. When they questioned him on it, he looked white as a sheet but had no clue at all what they were talking about. Kept asking if someone was threatening his son and if they were, that he’d ‘cut their fingers off myself, one by one. All nine of them.’ The chats themselves weren’t particularly dangerous, they concluded. They just talked about some weird things. Like Russian names and soccer and city living and what it’s like to be young and full of hope. Head just concluded it was some sad, retired old man, trying to get back his youth. ‘No threat there,’ he said to Dirk, who’d been worrying about it all night. ‘Just tell the Mother and the Kid what they want to know. It was the daddy. He’s locked up now. It’s over.’ So Dirk did and they went back to their normal life and the police station closed the case of the Murder of Sammy Saxophone, and Little Peewee grew up to be a farmer and forgot all about his time with Johnny from England. Well, that’s what the records say anyway, and who don’t trust them records. ‘Cept, there were some rumors going around, you know, whispers and such, that Little Peewee was still talking to that guy from England long after the police gave up on it. The guy told him things they said, taught him the ways of the Other World. Spiritual stuff, that here the governments want to keep quiet. How to live forever or how to fake your own death. How to learn the ancient languages. It was all creepy kinda stuff, the sort of things you heard every day if you took a drive out into Nevada, but stuff that stuck around nonetheless. We all saw the video he’d been sent a few months after he got old enough to know what it meant. Some man in front of a camera with a gun to his head and then there was the wire attached to the trigger, which went to the door, and then someone opened the door and the boy died.
Our Respective Homelands | Robert Alan Wendeborn [BIO]: Robert has an advanced degree in writing and is a composition instructor at San Juan College.
I am wearing nothing but a beard and sandals on the beach and you are wearing sun glasses. I am dating you in secret. We are spies. We write messages back and forth and hide them in a pair of your cowboy boots that we leave at the side of the pool. Your messages say, I’m coming to the capitol, but I’m not alone this time (stop) no need for the lamb skins. And mine say, there’s nothing left between the ribs and the loins so I’ve left a stack of pillows (stop) I’ve brought the liver instead. You are a good spy and I am a bad spy. We are both double agents. Our insatiable appetite for new cultures and secrets, brings us together. Right now on this beach we are in love: the sweaty and bearded nakedness that is me, and the mysterious glowing figure that is you. The only thing we love more than new cultures, is each other. And like all couples, the only thing we love more than each other, is our secrets.
Losing Heaven | Michael A. Gonzales [BIO]: Michael is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist. Easter Sunday, 1987 Having given up meaningless relationships for Lent, forty days later I was still alone. Rolling over in an empty bed, wiping sleep from my eyes, I rose early on Easter morning. Listening to the children upstairs noisily preparing for church, I groaned loudly as the homesick blues binged in my heart. Deciding to ride the iron horse uptown to spend the Sunday afternoon with my mom, I boarded the uptown local at 14th Street. Treated to a colorful fashion show as screaming children and too cool teens strutted onto the subway freshly dipped in their new Easter clothes. Dressed in faded jeans, black t-shirt, a light jacket and sneakers, I bought some wilting purple tulips from a short, smiling immigrant, playing guitar. Exited the train at 145th Street and Broadway, I held tightly to the flowers. Three years had passed since I spent an Easter afternoon hanging out at momâ€™s bar the Oasis. Located three blocks from the train station, she had worked behind the bar at the O since I was a boy. Yet, even on that overcast day celebrating the resurrection of Christ, nothing was sacred on those uptown streets where the crack plague was in full effect. Â
Having swooped down on the citizens above 110th Street a few years back like something out of Camus, crack wreaked havoc on the once decent neighborhood where I grew up. The same streets where I once popped wheelies on a beat-up Ross Apollo five-speed bike and perfected graff-bombing skills down the hill on Riverside Drive had become a war zone. Whenever I saw a toothless crack head obliviously tottering onto the train smelling like piss and bad decisions, I remembered that bleak night in the winter of ’84 when my best friend Smokey Miller showed-off a few red-topped plastic tubes containing beige chips of cooked coke. “Got the package from a Dominican dude down the block,” he bragged, as though there weren’t a million Dominican dudes living on our street. “This shit is going to make me rich.” Although we laughed about his name “Smokey” being perfect for a crack dealer, the end result of the latest get-high-on-the-lives-of- folksin-our-hood wasn’t quite so funny. As the crack casualties multiplied daily, it became obvious that President Reagan’s “war on drugs” was the real joke. While politicians and pop stars smiled for television cameras, begging kids to, “Just say no,” the streets of the New York City ghettos overflowed with illegal guns and cheap cocaine. Seemingly overnight, the once expensive white powder that was a favorite of both Sigmund Freud and Sly Stone, became as inexpensive as aspirin. In ramshackle rooms throughout the city, crack was cooked up by new jack chefs and distributed like free meals on Thanksgiving, as drug dealers boom blasted nine millimeters at all hours of the day and night, blighting neighborhoods one block at a time. Whereas old-school drug dealers were shady dudes operating in the shadows, the new jack peddlers weren’t afraid of the police. Strapped with powerful guns, the boys brazenly sold rock while chilling on their tenement stoops. For once, the cops were as vulnerable as the victims as they patrolled the dimly lit streets of the city with their outdated firearms. Stray bullets from random shootouts slaughtered children strolling home from school, while the living dead could be seen everywhere. With their mad eyes and
unwashed faces, they lurked in front of dilapidated buildings hawking stolen stereos and 8-track players; they snatched gold chains from young women standing on crumbling subway platforms and solicited strangers with offers of oral sex in public places. “Suck your dick for five dollars, baby,” one chick said as I strolled down the filthy sidewalk towards the Oasis. Talking out the side of her mouth like a stroke victim, I stared at the damaged crack whore sloughing in front of me. It took a few moments to realize that she was someone I once knew many years ago when she was a press ‘n’ curl teenager living next door. Brenda Coleman, I thought. Though I don’t think she recognized me, there was a strange flicker of familiarity in her vacant brown eyes. In those distant days of our youth, Brenda only sucked lollipops from the Blue Funk Candy Shop after school, ambling down Broadway with her cute girl crew, giggling in that way that innocent schoolgirls do. “Mister, did you hear what I said?” Acidy bile bubbled in the back of my throat. “Maybe next time,” I quickly replied, stepping into the doorway of the O. After giving mom a big hug and kiss, she stuck her dying flowers in a beer pitcher filled with tap water. Although there were a few patrons in the bar, the only one I knew personally was the retired pimp Red Jackson. Dressed in a stunning black suit, he looked like a million and one bucks. On the bar, the overflowing ashtray was cluttered with Chesterfield cigarette butts. “Glad you got a chance to come uptown and see the old folks today,” he said, flicking ashes as he shook my hand. Red had been sitting in the same spot near the front window for over twenty years. “Don’t see you much since you moved so far away.” It always made me laugh how some folks acted like anything outside of their small community were another country. “Personally, I’m glad he ain’t around here much,” mom blurted. Standing behind the bar, she poured me a draft beer and shook her head in disgust as an old James Brown jam blared from the jukebox. “Folks around here done lost their minds. Shootouts in the middle of the day, dying over dumbness. I’ve been looking out this
window for twenty years, and I’ve never seen stuff that made people act so crazy. It’s a damn shame.” “At least heroin made them nod the fuck out,” Red Jackson said. “But that crack shit keeps them wide-eyed and crazy. Glad I retired from the game when I did, because that shit is kicking hoes in the ass worse than any pimp ever did.” The three of us roared with laughter. “The only pimps on these streets now are crack heads and their crack head girlfriends,” I said, and Red slapped me five. “You can say that again, youngblood,” he agreed. “You ain’t messing with that stuff, are you?” mom asked, staring into my eyes looking for lies. Ever since finding a sack of weed in my pants pockets when I was a senior at Rice High, she suspected I had the fiend gene. Before I finally moved out, she randomly searched and sniffed through my belongings like a new breed of drug dog. Of course, I couldn’t confess that I had tried crack once, but the high was too much to handle. Laid up in a ravaged $35.00-for-four-hours hotel room with some ragamuffin chick I had picked-up at the Hide-A-Way, she had pulled a glass pipe from her purse and prepared her blast. “I don’t smoke all the time, but it does relax me,” she said, stuffing the stem with a sticky substance that reminded me of chunks of chalk. With a cheap plastic lighter, baby girl lit the pipe’s tip and fiendishly sucked down the noxious fumes. Her eyes grew wide as though her brain was surprised by the hit. Not yet a full-fledged rock star, the moniker uptown boys gave to smokers of rock cocaine, she offered to share her stash. “It ain’t going hurt you baby,” she murmured, passing me the heated stem. “In fact, it might be the best thing you ever had.” Yet, from that first blast, I knew I had made a mistake. Nerve-shattering, grotesque thoughts spooked my fragile mind as I closed my eyes. Feeling as though I’d climbed aboard a screaming rollercoaster whooshing downwards at five hundred mph, my heartbeat became faster and faster and faster, as I detected whispered death threats coming from behind the crumbling wall.
Black spiders scrambled across the dirty floor. Swinging from the naked light bulb, the Virgin Mary squatted from above, pissing on my head. From the broken door of the closet, headless rats the size of cats peeped from the broken closet door and my chest was tighter than Mike Tyson’s fist. Gasping for air as drool rolled down my chin, my eyes slowly began to focus and I crashed like a lead balloon. Although the frightening ordeal felt like hours, only twenty minutes had passed. Whatever it was about crack that got people hooked after the first few puffs had completely backfired on me. “Come on ma,” I replied finally, as though her question was straight-up stupid. “Just because I puff weed don’t mean I’m riding every damn drug merry-go-round in town. You know me better than that.” Refilling the chilled mug with Bud, she eyed me suspiciously. I quickly sipped the brew before the rising foam spilled onto the bar. After rinsing a few glasses, mom wiped down the bar with a damp rag. “All I’m saying is, you never know who is doing what these days,” she sighed. “Just look at Mama Turner’s little girl, Brenda. She was a beautiful girl once. Took classes at City College, worked at a good office downtown and everything. Now look at her, just another junkie giving these nasty men blowjobs for five dollars.” * Brenda Coleman had been my first stone-cold crush when I was eight years old. Her dark skin was the color of chocolate sprinkles and her breath just as sweet. On the nights Mama Turner cared for me until my own mom got home from work, I gazed lovingly at my “future wife” through her bedroom keyhole as she slow danced in front of the mirror in her sheer black brassiere and panties as Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “If This World Were Mine” blared.
Peeping through the keyhole, her pink girly bedroom was a shrine to the Motown macks. While most girls her age swooned over the jumping jive of The Jackson Five, this little bitty pretty one desired the aural loving of real men like David Ruffin, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye. Countless pictures of her idols were carefully trimmed from the glossy pages of Ebony, Sepia and Jet and taped to the walls. “What you doing, boy?” Mama Turner screamed, her down-South Carolina twang ringing throughout the apartment like a big cowbell. A big-boned woman who was constantly cooking, she had managed to keep her country ways in the big city. “Leave that girl be and come help me clean these collards.” In the summer months, Brenda’s flawless features and angelic Afro stirred my prematurely raging hormones. Lustfully, I stared as she roared down the hill, riding on the rear of her boyfriend’s loud mini-bike. In tight blue jeans, her supple booty stuck out like a soft pillow. “Stop following me, David,” she screamed on those days that I tried to trail her. Dressed in tight white tube-tops, her brown nipples were as radiant as the sun; the sight of her pretty toes squeezed into brightly colored high-heeled sandals gave me my first hard-on. A few nights later, the Brenda Coleman pinup floating through my mind induced a sticky icky wet dream. My first, I awoke scared to death, but pleasantly satisfied. * “Jesus, mom, since when has ‘blowjob’ been part of your vocabulary?” I asked, stifling a laugh. “Well, it’s the truth isn’t it? Don’t act like you’re so innocent, mister. And, don’t use the Lord’s name in vain, especially on Easter. I got eyes, I see. Your so-called friend Smokey is the one selling that poor girl that poison. Both of you boys used to love that girl, now you just ignore her and your best friend is trying to kill her.” “Word on the street is that girl will crawl across shattered glass just to get a blast off the pipe,” Red sniffled, rubbing his broad nose. Although he was a notorious coke tooter, the street hierarchy of drug culture considered crack heads the lowest addicts on the junkie totem pole.
“I had a crush on that freak a million years ago, ma,” I countered. “And what Smokey does is Smokey’s business. I don’t counsel nor do I take confessions. I don’t even live in the neighborhood anymore.” “What Smokey and Brenda both do to this neighborhood is everybody’s business,” she chided. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you, David. Did I raise you to be like this? If you ask me, seeing her pretty daughter turn into a junkie is what killed Mama Turner in the first place.” “Don’t forget the stomach cancer and her bad heart,” I replied. Mom snapped me with the dishrag as though I were a disgusting roach that had just crawled across her bar. “Don’t speak ill of the dead, boy.” Mom slapped me without moving her hands, her word stinging. “Mama Turner was a good woman,” she screamed, no longer in a joking mood. “That woman cared for you many nights like you were her own child. Some weeks she refused to take even one cent for babysitting your bad ass. Always said, ‘We gots to look out for each other.’ Well, who was looking out for her?” “So, what do you want me to do about all that?” Mom looked at me as though I were a stranger, as though it were impossible for this crude, rude person sitting in front of her to be her child. “I’m sure with you kids, being indifferent is cool, but would it kill you to care?” * It was the spring of ’74 and on the first day when Quincy Jones’ “Body Heat” came out, Brenda rushed to Mr. Freddy’s Record Shack a few blocks away. Weeks before its release, whenever WWRL played the album cut, "If I Ever Lose This Heaven," she got a faraway look in her eye. In her wanting to be grown fifteen-yearold heart, Brenda believed that singer Leon Ware was crooning to her, for her and about her. That same year, she and Mama Turner was also planning Brenda’s sweet sixteen festivities, which was going to be in July. From her lavish lavender gown with matching mules to the colorful decorations that would transform their massive living
room into a faux Savoy Manor to the bombastic grooves her boyfriend Mark would play on his newfangled Hi-fi, Brenda’s party was to be the ghetto gala of the season. The day before the party Mama Turner steadily prepared a vast southern spread that included fried chicken, chitlings, potato salad, corn bread, deviled eggs and honeyed ham. “We’ve invited so many people, I’m not even sure if everybody will fit,” worried Mama Turner. “But at least won’t nobody be hungry.” She stood erect in the sweltering kitchen with a red bandanna tied around her hair. There was no sweat on Mama Turner’s round face. “When you done cooked in as many kitchens as my family, the heat don’t bother ya none,” she somberly reflected. Helping her, mom’s yellow face looked as though she had just stepped out of a sauna. “You a better woman than me, Mama Turner,” mom said, sticking her head out of the first floor window for air. Dressed in black hi-top Pro-Keds and worn jeans, I busied myself trimming varicolored Cray paper streamers to hang from the ceiling. The night of the party, Brenda looked like an inner-city princess who’d just stepped out of an Ernie Barnes painting. Stereo music blasted as mini-skirted girls danced beneath the white light and Dashikis-wearing dudes sat on the couch as though stuck to the sticky plastic slipcovers. Brenda’s drunken Uncle Butter bumped butts with his niece’s best friend Joy. “No fools, no fun,” he screamed, spilling his drink. Older bros with blood-shot eyes poured cheap gin into the red Kool-Aid punch while the adults played a loud game of spades in the kitchen. Wearing new Marshmallow shoes and a rainbow hued applejack hat, I tried to reflect Super Fly suaveness. Leaning against the cream-colored wall, my shoulders jerked while my head nodded to the music’s soulful beat. Like a million moons in the July sky, Mama Turner beamed. “Why you not dancing, David?” she asked. Without answering, I meekly shook my head. “In all my years, I ain’t never seen nobody who could dance so well standing in one spot,” she laughed, walking towards the kitchen. Before rejoining the grownups, I watched as Mama Turner whispered something into Brenda’s ear. The birthday girl grinned.
Moments later, someone switched off the bright ceiling light and turned on the two gaudy lamps on each end table; both glowed with identical blue bulbs. Backlit in the aqua light, Brenda emerged from the shadows of the living room. The sultry scent of her Chanel No. 5 wafted through the humid room as she sauntered across the hardwood floor as though moving in slow motion. With a voice gentle as a summer breeze, Brenda whispered in my ear, “Would you like to dance, lil lover man?” I tried to stutter a sentence, but nothing came out except balmy breath. Without waiting for an answer, Brenda grabbed my small hand and led me to the dance floor. As though on cue, Mark dropped the stereo’s sharp needle into the deep black grooves of “If I Ever Lose This Heaven.” The moment the seductive bassline gushed from the speakers, all the couples in the room moaned in harmonized orgasms as they rushed towards floor. Yet, as far as I was concerned, Brenda and I were the only ones in the room. Reaching as far as her budding bosom, Brenda held me close. Although I was awkward, the brown sugar of Brenda’s erotic movements hypnotized me as I sacrificed myself on the sanctified alter of her divine body. The architecture of her fine figure brought to mind grand monuments and exquisite cathedrals as the voices of the song’s singers Leon Ware, Al Jarreau and Minnie Riperton captured the smooth timbre of tumbling dice rolling across crushed velvet. Placing my small hands on her silk-swathed behind, I fell deeper and deeper into the abyss of desire. After the dance, Mama Turner ran across the floor holding a Polaroid camera she had bought especially for the party. From somewhere behind the crowd, I heard C.C. and Smokey’s juvenile laughter. “You two don’t go nowhere until I snap this picture,” she screamed over the music. “Turn on the light, so I can do this right. I want to remember this night forever.” Over a decade later, the flash of the Polaroid dragged me back into reality. * Across the street from The Oasis, the once beautiful Brenda drifted like a ghost beneath a gray street-lamp. For many years the paint-chipped lamppost had
doubled as a dead sneaker cemetery with soiled sneakers of various brands, sizes and colors dangling like strange fruit from the top, casting creepy shadows on the concrete. Mom stared at the lost girl sadly, obviously spending time with her own memories of the person Brenda used to be. Reaching across the bar, I grabbed her moist hand. As the three of us observed Brenda frantically trying to scrap up cash for a few rocks by offering blowjobs to every man who passed through the block, the bar was quiet. Holding back her tears, mom tensely bit her bottom lip.
Little Boxes | Tara Rogan [BIO]: Tara is a writer in Minneapolis and is currently at work on her first novel. It was still cold outside, the air still bit me when I started to bring over trinkets to your home, layered little boxes that were just parts of mesome clothes, a proper skillet, a silver necklace from my grandmother. You'd come home and then you'd smile. "I love how you fill this space," you'd say. You moved your things to make room for mine: my records, my winter sweaters. There was never a want for space or a demand for room; the walls knew our warmth like a kiss on the forehead, they knew the tone of your laugh when you were seconds from sleep. New latitudes will learn the way our legs and fingers tangle before we rise, and nights when we'll swallow sangria and marvel at it all: at the sound of what our life looks like.
Taboo Blue | Jessica Hagemann [BIO]: Jess received her MFA in Writing and Poetics from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. I asked them all--Taboo, Lies, Blue, Underage, Rocky, and Centerfold--to think abstractly, to answer the questions without thinking at all. The task should not have been hard but became so, since all they were doing was thinking. Only Taboo performed beautifully. Poetry slipping right off the tongue. Questions I shot at her rapid-fire, and answers she always had ready, sharp as her black skunk hair. Thanks, I said, meaning I love you. You’re awesome, I added, meaning let’s do this again soon. Words were the Colt 45, gold-plated, Lies took in a trade, and words were all that Blue thought to defend himself with. Taboo saw through the ruse as she does all insincerity. I opened my mouth, tumbled, not meaning to, Fine, I’ll be your moron. Because really, it was the same knight, different chess board--a woman on a steed jousting the things in her head. Underage just shook her ears and lit a cigarette. Taboo plucked the cigarette from her lips, inhaled, and kissed Underage deeply. Blue nodded along with his iPod and feigned nonchalance, dark hair flopping over one fat eye so casually. He tossed it back with a well-practiced flip.
Rocky entered the greenhouse wearing only his underwear, accentuating toolong, nicely-muscled limbs. I wanted to stretch him and see him bounce back, limp. Lies made an inappropriate joke, heavy with envy. Taboo and Underage stared coolly. Horizon, Taboo spoke through the airy center of a smoke ring. Kurt Cobain, Underage echoed. His face was groovy. Centerfold came out of hiding, where he’d been nursing a patch of hemorrhoids. A meteor carved the space around his curly combover. Way I see it--, Centerfold offered. But, I said. What if? And everyone looked or they didn’t. It’s fight night. Rocky speaking. He kept trying to use his legs, which was against the rules. I’ll bring my cello: Taboo. Concerning being Vietnamese American with facial piercings. (I have saddlebags and wear too much make-up. My jackets shrink in the dryer.) [You know what will make you feel better? Some Riesling and a book of zombie haikus.] Quiet! Underage screamed. Everybody! Let’s lay face-down and meditate. Sometime in the evening Rocky had an idea. All of us, he declared, shall dress in fine corsets and hose, sing and throw sliced bread at one another. Taboo considered the fishnets she was already wearing. Lies got flustered and became uncivil. He broke a guitar string and excused his impotent penis, citing the timely death of a beloved. Blue reminisced about the time he made out with his best friend’s friend, just for kicks, and seemed very much a part of his own conversation. Underage maintained, I once had three girls at the same time, why not? And applied more black eyeliner. Centerfold, skeptical: Just what do you guys think you’re doing? Rocky retied his green shoelaces and changed out his underpants for gold ones. Ready! He crowd-surfed away. Centerfold stoked the fire. I roasted a marshmallow and allowed him two questions. I answered honestly. Lies filed a restraining order and publicized all death threats against him. Blue was called a man-whore but couldn’t take the accusation seriously.
On TV a smack of jellyfish attacked the town. Underage laughed and ordered tentacles tattooed across her abdomen. Stubbing the cigarette into her flesh, she detailed suckers on their danglies. I really, really hated animal print. Taboo began to suck the base of Centerfold’s skull. There was more hair on his neck than anywhere else. She wheezed: Amen. Lies just kept on crying and slept with his dog. He’d paid $500 for her anyway. Blue shifted and did a shimmy, meaning I’m hungry and probably bisexual. Let’s get banana milkshakes. With malt. On me. He led the way. Finally, I thought. A man with a plan. Unfortunately, Blue’s swim trunks kept bunching. The night was warm though and Underage contemplated the stars. Said her mother was watching us, and she yearned to be somebody’s bitch. Taboo snapped a picture of the moment. I feel like dancing, Centerfold mouthed. Who wants to dance? Who will dance? Dancing being the thing that kept me alive. We found Rocky at the theater, prophesying to the masses. His yellow hair had dreadlocked in the wind. He’d worn through the soles of his vintage sneakers. Kata, Rocky explained patiently, requires ironing out all the wrinkles. Underage was smitten. One pursed his lips and the other stared unconvinced at the camera. Both wore thick-rimmed glasses. A pair of wooden clogs hung on the wall and clicked its heels together occasionally. Centerfold crossed his arms, modeling Blue’s newest black hoodie. Together, they built a cardboard pyramid. The sky was gray and the clouds were blue and the ashtray kept filling up. Taboo’s orange cat swished before an electrical socket. A broom lay in a corner where it was never used. Underage moused over her laptop, twisting. I sat under the Chinese lantern. Ppfff. Lies was off the grid and Rocky hadn’t come home. In response to the questions there were only more questions, asked in hindsight, without erotemes.
So that one year later: Lies had sold the Colt 45, and Blue was still proclaiming, in words, that his actions were true. Rocky had taken a sabbatical to Wisconsin, and was only ever heard from via technology. Taboo, after washing Rocky’s old underwear, wore them on her head, ensconcing her black skunk hair. Centerfold was creaming another semi-annual outbreak. When: Underage hollered. Her cow came ambling up to the fence. She propped a sheet of black cardstock against the barbwire and with white chalk drew its skeleton. A humerus and extra-large scapulae. I’m the Pope, Blue announced. What’s up? He wore a tube sock on his head around a styrofoam cylinder. Spreading his arms: let the snot-nosed children come to me! He rode an elephant whose feet were shod with bottle caps. And I’m not gettin no more life back, Centerfold lamented to no one, serving us coffee. My tongue slavered and prickled. I took Taboo and two surfboards, and we drove to the coast. The sun was low and not warm, so we rented wetsuits and zipped each other up. There is nothing to worry about, I assured her. The water is not too salty; there are no sharks; and tonight we shall go dancing. We paddled and paddled, past a sandbar, and out to the farthest break. I prepared for the wave. Back on shore, Taboo said simply: There are berries on the briar now. And that’s how we measured the passage of time. Taboo spotted Underage at the club. House music whipped through the air with the light show. Blonde now, are we? Taboo hissed. See that one over there? Underage pointed. He’s going to buy me an island.
Eating Clocks | Lawrence Yoon [BIO]: Lawrence is a senior at Stuyvesant High School and plans to study engineering. He has been eating clocks. Its hands, faces, and digits. Clutching his ears, he can still hear The screaming of time. His mind is sent back To his childhood, re-living The terrors within every nook and cranny. Fear grips his shaky hands. The green fairy gently tempts his father Into trances, as if he was a stringed marionette. He would mumble gibberish. Such spirit spat into his face. The fuse to his father runs deep. Mouth to lung to mind, black powder Ready to ignite, ready to burst, Yellow stained fingers lash out, stabbing. He eats clocks. Its hands, faces, and digits. He is prisoner to time, And prisoner to himself.
Epilogue | Andrew Reynolds [BIO]: Andrew received his MFA in Poetry from CUNY - Brooklyn College. The city rose until the lake beneath it dried, and then it hung there, suspended in air. Riding with a sidecar on our motorbike we round the horizon's shadowy knoll. Human beings are indecisive and bejeweled by desire, you say, Lock a city in time and it dies. How out of the night sky your words allow mountains to drop through the continent. It came to us in the days when the city was little more than a scaffold that the inferno of the living would burn at the core of polis, drawing into itself as a nautilus. You say, the city is an aspect of human anatomy, and I catch the side of your face in the fading light.
Reel to Real | Erik Adams [BIO]: Erik is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Chapman University. When I woke up and found that Jennifer wasn’t lying next to me—that she had left me like she said she would the night before—I washed my hands and face in the bathroom sink and then slept for an hour longer. We had been living together for two years—eating, sleeping and spending money together. We met in line at the video store. I was renting “Duel in the Sun” and she was behind me, eyeing the movie in my hand. She let out a stunted laugh to catch my attention and said, “Funny, my name is Jennifer Jones.” I told her that Jones’ name was really Phylis Isley, and we both laughed in understanding how nobody our age wanted to be named Phylis. Jennifer had said before that she was leaving me because I couldn’t tell the difference between reality and films. “Things don’t work out in life the way they do on screen,” she said. “Tragic character flaws are not admirable in real humans. You are not a scripted actor! You’re free to choose your destiny!” Then she went out and didn’t come back. I finished watching “Little Big Man”. Remember the part where Dustin Hoffman is caught selling snake oil and he’s tarred and feathered? The day after Jennifer left I was going through some of the things she left behind. I came across a film that we both loved to watch. It was only a VHS copy and
the tape was becoming worn—the strip of snow mixed with charcoal dust streaming a banner at the bottom of the screen like a cable news channel. What I loved about Jennifer was that she would remain quiet through films, allowing me to get absorbed. I enjoy projecting myself into the film, letting it swallow me whole. Sometimes I feel as if it is projecting me. And why not if that is who we want to be, if that is where we want to be? The characters in films are just like us. Haven’t you ever cried at a film? Not at a sad ending or a sweet moment—that’s too easy—but at a spot where you are not supposed to cry. A spot that no one had ever cried at; a point in the film where there is not a tugging at your heartstrings or where brightness dawns and the wrongs are righted; a moment that happens between you, only you, and the film that numbs your cheeks and swells your eyes with salty recognition; a spot that contains only the bland truth of life happening before you on the screen as it is in the everyday. That is your spot, embrace it. My spot came during “Random Harvest” when Ronald Coleman got discharged from the hospital under his new name and identity. The gates shut on his back and he looked both ways before deciding in which direction to head. He gave a look as if he had just discovered life— hopeful and frightened. Once you find one spot, you’ll find others. They become almost addicting. Jennifer always let me enjoy my spots in films, sitting there silent and leaning into the crimp of my arm. One time we were traveling up the coast to visit her parents. We stopped at a small diner along the way. The entire place, from the building façade to the waitresses, was cast in bright colors that were now faded by the sun. I could tell it used to be a more vibrant place that served truckers and travelers from all corners of the nation. Now, it seemed unable to keep up with the rest of the world. We both sat down in a booth, turquoise seats embracing us from behind. While looking at the menu I fingered a hole in the seat cushion, pulling out as much foam stuffing as I could in one pull and then putting it back in. I wasn’t very hungry and was looking for something light to eat. The conversation that Jennifer and I had in the car on the way made me feel nauseous. She lied to me on the first date, and strangely, I found this comforting. It wasn’t a lie that she had to tell. I didn’t ask her where she worked or how she spent her days and nights, made her money, she just started to tell me. “I’m a nurse,” she said, before the meal arrived. I didn’t respond because I didn’t know how to follow that up. I tried to
think of myself as Gregory Peck and stuck out my chin and chest a little, digging down deep for the kind of confidence that comes with the easy made readiness of scripted lines. “Do you enjoy it?” I managed after a silence that was too long. “On some days. I figure it is probably like any other job. You hate it but you don’t know what you would do without it.” She spoke her lines perfectly, just how you see in movies. In real life, human speech is filled with ‘ums’ and ‘uhs,’ mispronounced words and stutters. Her speech didn’t have any of these. She spoke from the diaphragm, with a pitch that was perfect enough for me to hear clearly but would not be audible to the other diners. “Silver Shadows on the other side of town?” I knew the place and nodded in recognition. I had passed it many times before, always trying to figure out exactly what it was—a hospice, retirement facility, or just a place for older people in their declining years. She explained how most of their patients suffered from some form of dementia. Sometimes their bodies were being attacked by cancer or their muscles had atrophied or gone limp to the brain’s commands. Certain organs had failed on most of them, showing scars from replacement and orange bottles piled high to ease the pain. “We’re actually kind of famous. A camera crew came out last year to film Admiral Quincy. He’s this cat that predicts when the residents will die.” I didn’t need to say anything. She could tell from the look in my eyes that I wanted to know how such a thing was possible. I was all too ready to believe her every word. “I don’t know exactly how he does it either. But it works. For the past three years, he has been attached to twenty-three people. He camps out in their room, follows them everywhere and sits in their lap. He is friendly toward others, but does not cling to them like he does the ones who will die soon. All twenty-three were dead within three months of being chosen. That’s what we call it: chosen.” “Do the residents want this cat around? I wouldn’t. Let me die without me knowing it first,” I said. “No. They’re quite comfortable with the fact that they are going to die soon. I think they find the fact that a cat knows when they are going to die before even the doctors do, quite comforting. Charming, in a way. You should see the smiles on their faces when Admiral Quincy starts to get attached.” “Are you sure the cat isn’t actually causing the deaths?” Looking down at her lap, she mumbled a half sentence that I couldn’t hear. Then our dinner arrived and she changed the subject. Afterwards, as we were leaving, she took my arm and whispered to me, “All that stuff I told you earlier about my work was a
lie.” Her voice was deeper and slightly scratchier than before. I nodded and thought about the cat that predicted death and all the old, sickly people who loved him. Her father Larry liked to be called Lars. “Call me Lars,” he said. His handshake was strong, but sweaty. My hand slipped away slightly when he grabbed it. I didn’t want to make a show of wiping my hand on my pants, so I let it dry out in the breeze. Lars’ neck ran with sweat, soaking the yellowed collar of his plaid shirt. The weather was humid, and millimeter long insects swarmed around our dripping pores. Above the screen door there was a piece of flypaper covered with the same insects. Her mother’s name was Meredith. I never told Jennifer this, nor would I ever want to offend anyone with the name Meredith, but the name sounded sinister to me. Marry Death, Merry Death, Mrs. Mary Death. She made a cake, and told us about the robbery on Toole St. last week. The murder that happened not that long ago outside the convenience store on Seventh. “That’s the same store that you got caught shoplifting from,” she said to Jennifer. Jennifer looked down at her nearly empty plate, concentrating on mashing the fork into her cake. “She stole a candy bar,” her mother said to me. “And two cans of cat food. For Biscuit.” “I never knew you stole anything,” I said to Jennifer. That night her parents heard us having sex, as they said so in the morning. “We heard you having sex,” her father said. “Please, a little quieter.” He nodded to us, took a sip of coffee and left the room. Jennifer grabbed my hand up and kissed it. Jennifer started to feed birds in our backyard. She fed them more than just birdseed. Cheap generic brands of cereal, chips, and crackers—the ones we bought because we thought we would eat them, but they just sat neglected on our shelves— were strewn out onto the lawn. Waking up at 6 A.M. to go out there, she would put on her light blue bathrobe, terrycloth, the first birthday gift I ever gave her. Now it has stains, pulled and dangling threads, discoloration around the neck, and its pockets occasionally used to hold bird food. She would throw them our stale bread. Even the bread that wasn’t stale would get thrown in sometimes. The crows would caw in excitement at the center of the feed, while the smaller birds—sparrows and starlings—pecked at the outside. Sometimes she would come back to bed and have a hint of the outdoors lingering in her hair. I would slide toward the nape of her neck to kiss her and she would lean into it. Sometimes she didn’t come back to bed and made herself breakfast instead.
After watching “Laura” together, I asked Jennifer if she would dress up like Gene Tierney. She said that would be kind of difficult. “There’s no costume or style. She’s just naturally beautiful. I probably wouldn’t even be able to get the hair right.” I told her to try it, and she did. She went upstairs to try and came down two hours later. She didn’t look anything like Gene Tierney. “You were right,” I said. She went upstairs and I watched “Night and the City”. A loud group of neighbors across the way could be heard listening to music and working on cars and motorbikes in their driveway. It went well with the music of the film. A certain points, I would mute the film and listen to the soundtrack that the street provided. Before we went to bed Jennifer asked me to open the window in our bedroom. “Close the window,” she said. “My clothes are sticking to my skin.” “Take them off,” I said, and laughed at my own lame response. She laughed too. We fell asleep to the sound of the neighbors revving their car engines. The sounds wafted in with the humid air, creating an enclosure around us as we slept. I’m not sure if Jennifer ever knew the extent to which I confused movies and reality before she moved in. Real people make films, I would assure myself. And films are made about real people, I’d say. And real people even imitate or are inspired by movies, I thought. “Seeing a film is like seeing real life,” I told her one night. “No,” I corrected myself, “Watching a film is like watching a life.” No, I don’t think she understood any of that. At some point I said to her in the middle of a movie, “Don’t you feel that this has all happened before?” “I’ve never seen it,” she said. “Neither have I,” I responded. The birds came in bigger droves as the months went by. First it started out small and then we had to buy bigger bowls. More food. The back lawn was yellow with malnutrition, the sun scorching it during the day while the birds ate off it. Jennifer started making necklaces out of cereal. She would pile them up around her neck and then wait out in the center of the lawn for the birds to feed off her. Four or five would flutter around her, scrape and claw for a foothold and begin to peck away. I asked her if it hurt, and she probably said something like, “It tickled so much I didn’t even notice it was bleeding,” or, “That scratch was there from before.”
The peck wounds on her neck were sizable. Most of the time they just looked like a giant hickey. Only occasionally would flesh be pierced and a kidney bean sized wound spotted her neck. These marks were scattered across Jennifer’s neck from her collarbone to the top of her throat. They would linger there for a few days with Band Aids for cover. She was out there in the backyard wearing the cereal necklace once, and I was inside watching “The Birds”. I could see Jennifer and Tippi Hedren from where I was sitting. Birds attacked them both at the same time, and I couldn’t figure out which one was the movie and which one was happening out the window. Both frames were about the same size containing similar pictures. A flutter about a body, wings flapping, arms peeking through the feathers. The movie cut to the next scene eventually, while the scene in the window continued to play out. Jennifer told the checkout girl at the grocery store that we shopped at that we were lawyers. I was with her when she did it. We laid out our produce: lettuce, carrots and tomatoes, and a loaf of bread. Paper towels and toothpaste were mixed in, then the cereal: ten boxes of the generic look-a-like of Cheerios and ten boxes of the generic fruit rings that looked like Fruit Loops. They rolled along the conveyor belt and the middle-aged woman behind the register plucked them up, typing in sale prices and produce codes. “You two are always in here so late,” she said. It was a little after eleven. I nodded and wasn’t inclined to comment. “We have to come here after work,” Jennifer said, swiping her credit card. This wasn’t true. I kept my own hours and Jennifer left work at three every day. “We have a legal practice that keeps us at the office late.” I looked over at her, but kept my face from showing any shock. She looked at me and her smile asked me to play along. We weren’t dressed in business attire— me in a t-shirt and jeans while Jennifer had on a tattered skirt, sweatshirt and carefullywrapped scarf. We also lacked that self-assured quality that often goes along with the legal profession. The cashier didn’t ask any more questions. She gave a half-hearted sound of understanding while we grabbed our bags of groceries and left. Everyone believed what she told them about herself. She was so convincing in her smile and enthusiasm for whatever she pretended to be. To her doctor she was a freelance interior designer; her dentist had no trouble believing she was a florist; the woman who cut her hair never thought to think that the stories she made up about her firefighter husband and her two kids—seven and nine—were fabricated. “It’s just playing a role,” she said to me once. “If I believe it, others believe it.” I asked if she
really did believe it. Was she a lawyer, or florist? Did she really know what it was to be like those people, have those lives, and work at those jobs? “Every single time,” she said. The magazines tend to like my pictures of things rather than people. They like places too: dilapidated scenery, rusted signposts, quaint country shacks that no one really wants to live in. The way I used to think about photography was that it captured a moment in time and let that last forever. It preserved time. Now, it is the camera that is the distraction. By using a camera, I am called to focus our attention elsewhere other than the subject or moment being photographed. Even if only a slight diversion, the attention given to the taking of a picture causes us to never fully embrace the moments that we believe should last forever. I still take pictures though, and magazines still pay me for them. The last picture I took before I started the assignment was of the cratered spot in the bed next to me—Jennifer’s indentation. If the only information I had about Jennifer’s body was from the shape she left in my bed, I would guess that she were only four feet tall, rather wide on the side, and had an elongated head. The picture captures this pretty well. I took it in black and white to show the contrast. Before I took the picture, I bent down and smelled her side of the mattress. The fruity smell of her body wash on the pillow. Then I moved down to the smell of laundry detergent. She only wore a t-shirt and underwear to bed and the subtle smell of her vagina and ass lingered. More laundry detergent. Then I took the picture. Meredith once told me that Jennifer wanted to be an actress. “That’s a lie,” Jennifer said, when I asked her about it. “She wanted me to be an actress. I wanted to be a veterinarian or a zoologist.” “You never told me that,” I said. There was a silence, and then I asked if she liked working for the county. “You could go back to school, if you want,” I offered. “Get another degree.” “I like my job,” she said, but I wasn’t sure if she sounded honest about it. In film, I can always tell if a person is honest by the way they speak. If I were still unsure, their eyes would give it away. I couldn’t see Jennifer’s eyes and her tone was indecipherable. Her words were never scripted so it was sometimes hard to understand their true intention. But, like a great actress, she made me believe it.
Jennifer had lied to her parents about getting into law school. She also lied when she told them she graduated. Naturally, this leads to the fact that she had to lie about working as a lawyer. I never got the impression that her parents cared whether she became a lawyer or not. There was no family tradition to uphold or any overwhelming expectations put on her. Pretending to be a lawyer seemed to matter more to Jennifer than to her parents. When I asked her why she felt she had to lie to them, she shrugged. “Because it’s the story they want to hear. It’s the one they want to believe. The one I want to tell them,” she said to me. “It’s everyone’s favorite movie,” I said back. When my father told me wrestling was fake, it didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the sport. We were watching it on cable one night. A gigantic man in overalls hit a man in a kilt over the head with a trashcan. There was blood and people cheering. And then he told me. He described the fake blood and the half-assed punches, the hours of rehearsal and scripted lines. I said that they really do look like they are hitting each other in there. “They are,” he said. “But you said it was fake.” “It is. The story lines are fake, like soap operas. They have writers and then they act out the scenarios. Those guys really hit each other, but they know to take certain punches. Make it look like it hurts more than it does.” “The blood,” I said. “They bleed.” “Like the movies. Fake.” He laughed and we watched a little bit more of the match. At the commercial break he grabbed the remote control and switched to a boxing match. I asked if boxing was fake. My father shook his head adamantly, as if any such suggestion to the contrary was out of the question. “No,” he said. “That’s why it’s a real sport.” I asked him why the two men were fighting. In wrestling, there was always a grudge that one person had against the other. Or it’s payback for what was done to a friend. I’ve seen a few where they fight over a girl. Sometimes it’s a re-match, and no one remembers why they are fighting in the first place. “Because they are next in line to fight each other,” he said. “The boxing organization has a whole system worked out to rank each boxer, and how they fight for the position to take on the champion. Eventually.” “So they have no reason to fight? There’s no personal score to settle?”
“They have a reason. They all want to be champion. All that storyline in wrestling is fake. Stuff like that doesn’t happen in boxing. All of that gets left outside the ring.” “Don’t boxers get paid to throw a match sometimes? In “On the Waterfront” and “Body and Soul”, the fighters—” “Those are movies,” he cut me off with irritation in his voice, my questions covering up the commentators’ voices. “In real life, things like that don’t happen very often.” He turned up the volume and continued to watch the two men slowly beat at one another. I couldn’t quite believe that they were giving it their all. Without a reason to fight—a story of deceit or betrayal—how could they truly be motivated? Sometimes they would hug, but my dad explained that they were just resting. Both of them took forever to start bleeding—maybe in the eighth round. I sat there with him for the duration of the fight, thinking how much more real wrestling was than boxing. When Jennifer dressed up like Jane Fonda from “Barbarella,” she came out holding a real gun. “Put that away,” I said, not really frightened, just shocked. I kept my grandfather’s Luger in a locked box in the nightstand, unloaded, and I had to look twice to make sure it was the same one. She was pointing it at me, then to her left side, then to her right, getting down on one knee and looking as if she were in danger. She didn’t seem to hear me. “Is this how she does it?” “Something like that,” I said. “Just put the gun away. I could do without so much realism.” She scratched a scabbing peck wound at her neck with the nose of the gun, then holstered it in a leather strap attached to her right thigh. The scabs put me off a little, and it would take a little extra effort initiating sex. I would be kissing her on the mouth and then naturally stray to her cheek and down to her neck. My lips would glide over the jagged edges of her scabs. It turned Jennifer on when I kissed them, used my tongue to make circles in and around them. The ones on her legs and arms weren’t nearly as sensitive as those on her torso, her breasts and stomach. “You should wear a scarf and a hat, long pants and sleeves when you go out there,” I said one night after a particularly scab-heavy session of sex. As I was lying at her side, naked as she, and exposed to the friendly elements of our life indoors, she took my left hand and extended the index finger. There was a wound that she had above her right ear—it had been there for months and didn’t appear to get better or
show any improvement at all. That’s where she put my finger, in that fleshy crevice that the birds pecked out. The next time I saw her with the gun, she was pointing it out into the backyard at one in the morning. I asked what she was doing, and she said that she was afraid that raccoons and possums were coming at night and stealing the birds’ leftover crumbs. “Does it matter who eats it?” I said. “Yes. I gave it specifically to the birds.” “Would you really shoot an animal over it?” “Yes,” she said, “But this isn’t loaded.” She pointed the gun at me and pulled the trigger. The hollow click resounded in the quiet room and she laughed, holding her arms out and begging me toward her. I went to a movie the day after she left. As soon as the lights began to dim, I started to feel sleepy. There were only maybe ten or fifteen people in there. I slunk down in my chair as the lights continued to dim even further. That is one of the beautiful things about this theater: only small portions of the lights dim as the first coming attraction is played. As the previews go on and the start of the film nears, the lights dim more and more, incrementally bringing the audience unnoticeably from lightness into darkness, as not to damage our sensitive eyes in the process. Once the lights were out completely and the screen came to life, my eyes had completely closed. I jerked my head up as the loud music of the soundtrack started, but thinking about it now, I can’t really be sure. Was it the film I remember or a dream that came over me? If it was a dream, huge chunks of the plot were missing from the story line, most of it not making any sense and jumping in chronology and setting, no recognizable actors. If it was a film, then it probably meant that I should find a way, at some point, to talk to Jennifer again. When the lights come on in the theater, it happens in the exact opposite way as it does when turning them off. Upon the disappearance of the final studio graphic, the lights beam down quickly and forcefully, waking us up out of our film. The same happens when waking up from sleep. I found myself, suddenly, back in reality. That’s how I knew to leave.
This Is Having | Ben Philippe [BIO]: Ben is a Fiction Fellow at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas. My girlfriend has lost fourteen pounds over the past three months. Because of this— this and other significant clues—I believe that she is getting ready to leave me. She holds my gaze when we have sex and says things like, “Right there,” or “No, I’m not done yet.” Last night she cupped my cheek and said, “Hey, stay with me,” before she came. And when I did, when I kept my eyes wide open, gazing into hers, all I could focus on were the sounds we were making together. We sounded like a lone frog swimming across a pond. Afterwards, she went into the living room and wrote letters for a while, with Leno loud in the background. She does that a lot now too, I should say. Writes. Corresponds with people she once knew, way before me. Cousins I’ve never heard of, old friends from her wild days that require two stamps’ worth of delivery. People I don’t know and probably never will. What I do know is this: she isn’t looking for an out, isn’t bored with our life, and is allowed to have meaningful relationships with people other than me and, really, how dare I? These are all things I know, the same way I now know not to go through the letters. * My girlfriend also now sees a therapist once a week.
She sits on what I imagine to be a large and chipped leather couch conversing with this astute professional, while I keep myself busy at home waiting for her. I tidy up the things that ought to be tidied but never are—like the fridge and the kitchen table—and once I see the bus stop below our apartment building, I fill the kettle for her. We’re off coffee now. Tea soothes and more often than not, she’s nothing but nerves after these sessions. In the background of the running water, I’ll hear the scuffing of shoes on the carpet and the weight of her coat coming down on its hook. Some days like today, she’ll have raccoon eyes, which imply that it was, in fact, a good session. Flawless makeup only means that the previous coat ran so badly she had to reapply before taking the bus back. Six sessions in, these are things that I now know. “Hey, you.” She kisses me and rests her forehead on my chin for a while, sighing. I’m asked about my day and about whether or not that’s the same undershirt I’ve had on all day, because there might be a smell. From the closet, I tell her about the beams finally being up at the site and the new second-floor layout that Sanchez is finally, finally going with. When I step back into the kitchen, the soymilk has been moved from the door to the back of the fridge, and the tablecloth somehow pinched straighter than it just was. “Thanks for the tea, by the way,” she says. We’re aimless but focused, lost in a slew of unearthed flaws and inadequacies. Well, new. I sometimes like to guess at what these could be. You let others walk over you, probably. You don’t stand up for yourself. You weren’t responsible for your mother’s failings. Whatever today’s discovery was it clearly got to her. Them. See, we’re a “we” now and a crowded one too. It’s no longer just me and her, but also the many new hers she excavates each week. New hers I’d never met before and that I don’t necessarily like. There’s already the insecure her; the angry her; the her who’s ashamed of being a townie; the college her who doesn’t technically exist and therefore stands a few inches taller above the rest. There’s also the fat her she sees every morning, the not-so-fat her she’ll be in a week, and the size-two her she’ll be in a year, “with time and discipline”. This is still only an approximation and I believe there are plenty more still lurking about, since I only occasionally get to glimpse at these women.
When I asked, I was told the idea is that together they all theoretically make up to a better, ‘wholer’ her. A bold new woman still simmering under the weight of all these strange girls of various shapes and sizes. Her, we haven’t met yet. She hugs me again without a word. When my fingers rub a little too close to that sore spot on her fourth finger, she untangles us quickly and soon after disappears into the bedroom with a cup of tea and a protein bar. We lock ourselves up in our room for three hours, skipping dinner. When the game is over—five to one, Detroit—I find her, them, on the bed in purple socks chewing gum with the journal in her lap. “Be supportive. It’s going well on my end,” we tell me of the diet. I brush our teeth twice to hide the chips. The journal is not to be touched and only occasionally—non-confrontationally, and in a supportive and constructive manner—inquired about. This was established the day it was first brought home from a session, two pages already scribbled into it and the words made cursive by the bus ride. When we reached for it, our hand was quickly slapped away. We have boundaries now. Distance is very healthy. * How we met is technically, a matter of perspective. From mine, it happened when her blouse fell over my head at a party I was hosting two years ago. My old roommate Cedric was moving out West, and my goodbye present had been the go ahead for him to trash the place with a level-two rager that he wouldn’t have to help clean up. She had been up on a table with two other girls, discarding item after item for a growing crowd, and was already bare breasted and unbuttoning her jeans by the time I could make my way to her. It wasn’t necessarily a pretty picture, and the other two girls, who had stopped at their bras and skirts were now joining the crowd in taking out their phones and pointing them at her. I dragged her out of the party and into my room, ignoring the jeers. “No one asked you to do that, y’know,” she grumbled, defensively clutching one of my pillows in front of her like she was still too naked, even with her blouse back on. I chose not to engage.
“Want me to go get one of your friends?” I questioned. “Those girls weren’t my friends. I don’t–” and she’d stopped there, looking away. Both beer and liquor were heavy in the air and would probably be making their way up at some point, hopefully into a toilet. She wasn’t completely wasted yet, though had obviously been planning on getting there judging by the way she was standing: sideways and without the sureness table dancers usually had about them. There was something sunken about her eyes. “Bathroom’s right there. You can sleep it off in here. Until you’re ready to leave or whatever,” I’d said. “I’ll make sure the room’s off limits,” and really, I would have. “I haven’t slept in days,” she mumbled, settling into the bed nonetheless, and pulling my bedspread up to her mouth. Her eyebrows shot up when she noticed the Red Sox logo at the center of it. “If you ask for a Yankees’ one, I’m kicking you out,” and thank God, she’d laughed loudly at that before quieting down with her knees pulled up to her, like she was still somehow showing too much. “God, I’m such a fucking mess.” “I don’t think so,” I immediately replied, realizing that I really didn’t. “I’m not going to fall asleep at a party with some guy in the room. No offense. Juss, I don’t know, sit with me?” And the drunken demands hadn’t stopped there. "Tell me a story." "What?" "When I was a kid," she’d said, scooting towards the wall and making room for me on the bed, "my mom used to make me tell her stories until she fell asleep." "Isn't it supposed to be the other way around?" Something changing in her eyes, "Yeah, well, she didn't think so." "I don't..." "What d’y’do?” she’d suggested, her words still soaked with booze.
“Construction. Condos, mostly.” “Explains the arms.” She smiled when I stared back too long. “So you build houses then?” and there hadn’t been any judgment in her voice or any of that overcompensating smile along that happened with girls around that time. Just intoxication and a hint of curiosity, maybe. I’d nodded, lying down, head to toes and over the covers, next to her. “Well then tell me: how do you make a house?” So I’d told her. How after the lot was secured and the permits in order, you had to go about excavating the terrain, moving the dirt around and all of that. How the contractor then puts in the footings, followed by the foundation walls—“poured in concrete. Keeps the house standing, basically.” I built a house right there for us, going through the waterproofing, plumbing, radiant floor heating and moving upward from the basement to the HVAC—“heating, ventilation, air conditioning”—and finally the roofing. “...And then you add the kids and the dog and the white pickets and that’s it, I guess.” “Did you always want to do that?” My shrug hit her foot, which had moved in closer at some point. “I like it enough. Money’s good.” By the end, my own words were slurring together and I was having trouble keeping my eyes open. "Hum, Billie, right?" "Hmm?" "You ready to sleep?" "Mmhmm." So we’d spent the rest of the night like this, listening to the party die down outside while various things, none of Cedric’s, shattered. It was the scent of vomit that had woken me up when she’d stepped out of the bathroom the next morning, embarrassed. “We should do something, sometime,” had been enough for her to smile and nod before sneaking out. From what she recalls of the night, that’s how we met. * After the third therapy session, I was her soulmate. We complete each other, she’d said, which is why we (hand on breast) can’t get better until we (flailing in the space
between us) get better. “Until you get better too,” she’d eventually sighed when I was silent for too long. ‘Obtuse’ is one of those things I need to work on. Today she teaches me a new term still fresh on her mind: unnatural attachment. We discuss its meaning for a while. It means that my mother practiced a ‘laissez-faire’ style parenting and shouldn’t have let me sleep in her bed until I was twelve. When I had first told her about that on our first official date, she’d found it cute. It means that as a result of our soul mating, she herself can’t be fulfilled until I’m fulfilled— “And honestly, sometimes, I really don’t think you are.” * My girlfriend has a new friend named Annette she met at a bookstore. Annette is the most successful entry of the “I need new people” initiative. She is a part-time anthropology major at B.U. She is thirty-four and what’s known as a non-traditional student, which means her original college years were at some point interrupted in favor of a state map, shaved head, and an alternative rock female band that stayed on the verge of making it for a little too long. All of this ultimately left her ten years behind schedule. These are also, apparently, the things that make her admirable and brave. She has causes and a nose ring and is one of those vegetarians that expect something more than salad or even pasta when she’s invited to dinner, and will let you know in a way that your menu isn’t all that it could be in a way you can’t reply to. “It’s an entire style of cuisine. People just don’t bother looking into it sometimes, which is such a shame. There’s this tofu casserole recipe I have to, have to, have to give you.” I don’t really like Annette. But her having dinner with us tonight, for the first time since last month, is something of an event, one that requires fancy groceries and a dress shirt. “It’s a chance to mend fences,” my girlfriend says. “I don’t like it, this tension between you two. Please make an effort; I really like her.” Last month, I came home to find them at the dining table with an opened bottle of wine, on its last leg, between the two of them. It hadn’t been a great day at the site and the
gist of it is that when pushed, probed, to sit down and talk about my day, I obliged and told them about that cunt Jeanine in management, who had split the crew between two different projects and promised a new timeline to the clients, suddenly putting us four days behind schedule with one mouse click. Annette got quiet, gave Billie a look, and conversation died. And I mean absolutely flatlined. “Did you really just say that?” Annette eventually said, after putting her glass down. Things had gone downhill from there. Subjugation of women, the Woman, through gendered appropriation of language was one of her causes as it turned out. When I looked for help from the other side of the table, there was none to be found, and the tablecloth was apparently fascinating. I sometimes wonder if therapy has a Backbone Her in the works. Tonight, Annette makes it clear that she isn’t here for me. Conversation mostly revolves around some local politician with a “despicable agenda.” America is also a two-tier system and that’s always a shame. Every few minutes, Billie takes a moment to give me the needed backstory until she eventually stops bothering altogether. This isn’t a conversation that requires much of me, and that’s perfectly fine. The wine makes everything a bit easier this time around, until Annette eventually starts talking about the prospect of getting her Ph.D. once she’s done with Boston University and my face slips. She locks eyes with me while Billie is busy cutting herself another slice of tofu casserole. “I think I forgot, where did you get your degree, again?” her voice is nothing but friendly, but there’s an edge to it that once again can only be noticed and not returned. “Wesleyan,” Billie answers for me. “Didn’t I tell you? He majored in Architecture.” Annette takes this in stride, blinking a few too many times, and conversation soon flows back to the problematic nature of a term like “Axis of Evil”. I go back to the wine. Later, when Annette finally leaves—a tight hug to Annette and a firm, squeezing handshake to me—the air once again becomes breathable. No more landmines to avoid, except the one we’re standing on. “That went well,” she says, closing the door and moving to cup my cheek. “Thank you, really.” I have questions, I do, but alcohol does funny things to the brain chemistry, and she does complicated things to my chest, and that fancy dinner dress she’s wearing, along
with those missing fourteen pounds and tightening new hips, do simple things to my pants and that’s that. Later, when we’re in bed, I finally ask, “Wesleyan?” “She already knew you grew up in Connecticut... It made sense,” she breathes heavily and even in the dark I can tell that she’s looking right at me. We leave it at that, both focusing on the lone fog again. * I practice what is known as emotional blackmail. That’s how it was explained to me on the drive home from the stadium last August, breaking the radio silence that had taken us all the way from the Longefellow. “It’s just not something I think I’d be good at,” she’d said. I didn’t say anything but the steering wheel leather still creased into my hands, which she must have noticed. “You can’t be mad at me, here. You knew that would happen; we talked about this.” That proposing on a JumboTron is neither as easy nor as cheap as it looks lon television, is what she didn’t seem to realize. It had been just shy of seven-hundred dollars in fact. As the man behind the small desk deep below Fenway Park stadium had explained, they processed about a dozen proposal requests every month. “You wouldn’t believe the number of guys that chicken out at the last minute,” he’d said. “Excuse themselves to the bathroom and then start tearing this place apart trying to get to the control room at the last minute, before we run it.” He didn’t know me though, because I don’t chicken out, not ever. And certainly not when it comes to her. In the back of my mind, I had the feeling that if I explained it just right, made a right argument for the once-in-a-decade televised magic he would be getting, he would waive the fee altogether. Still, at the end of my spiel he’d simply said, “Yeah, love’s a grand thing. It’ll still be $685.” And just like predicted, I didn’t chicken out, not for a second. I paid close attention to the game, to the screen, and to my watch. Timed it flawlessly. There was gum on my shoe and something wet was soaking through my jeans at the knee but I stayed the course.
“Psst, Billie. Stand up, will you?” A small part of me was very aware of the people around us, suddenly tugging at each other’s sleeves and pointing at us, almost interrupting in their noticing. The rest of me however, told that part of me to go fuck itself because this, well, it was important. Her eyes were fixed on the screen ahead and her blinking reminded me of Morse code. I gave her the speech and there was a smile tugging at her cheek the entire time. She seemed to catch herself and forcefully shook it away at least twice. By the end, her head was bobbing in low arcs from side to side, but I really didn’t think she was saying no. “Jesus, Reggie, no.” “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me,” she’d whispered, squeezing herself down the row, past the gasps and laughter, without ever looking back. And that was that. People, incidentally, are assholes. When I found her in the parking lot, she was leaning against the car with her arms crossed and her eyes red, a hair trigger away from either bursting into tears or a loud continuous shriek. Maybe both. Seven- hundred dollars down the drain and she didn’t care. “How can I trust you?” “You always make me feel like a villain. Always...” “What, did you think a crowd would make my answer any different? It’s wrong for you to do that.” And that was our drive home. Her talking, nodding along with herself to emphasize just how right she was, and me clutching the wheel wishing it was the stadium attendant’s neck. “You,” she’d concluded when we finally pulled into the driveway. “Make me feel like I’m crazy”. “You are,” I finally said, low and mean. “You’re absolutely fucking insane.” And maybe that was melodramatic and unfair, but you know what, we were building something, and in that moment it was crumbling; so no actually, it was neither. She immediately disappeared into the bedroom and I sat in the living room, unplugging the phone before my mother started calling like I had told her to the day before. Later that night, in the shower, I’d found half-moon imprints of blood in my palms, mimicking the steering wheel’s pattern.
She’s never seen the ring, I don’t think. She may have glimpsed the diamond but the inscription—“To You, My Heart”—chiseled inside for an extra two hundred, is still a mystery to her. A nice surprise one day, maybe, since jewelry can’t be returned once it’s inscribed. * My girlfriend doesn’t want to be my wife. Well. She doesn’t want to be a wife is the thing. It’s complicated, you see. When we finally talk about it nearly a week later, when the frog’s backstroke gets unbearably loud, there’s boiling water whistling behind us in the kitchen and in all honesty, the pot’s shrill makes more sense than her. I only really catch the highlights: “I don’t want to be a divorcee, ever...It’s not about you, I swear...would you even want me to walk down the aisle like this?... A ring doesn’t mean anything...My parents had a ring....” Still, by the time we’re done discussing it—her talking, me listening, with mugs in our hands—she’s smiling and seems relieved. Healed somehow. “I’m still right here,” she promises, kissing the left corner of my mouth with tight lips when she finally stands up. It’s a kiss that says, not asks, that we’re okay now. That she still has some contemplation to do, alone, and that I need to understand that. “I’m not going anywhere. You know that, right?” The placating her. “Maybe,” I allow. She goes into the bedroom and starts to get ready for the gym. * My girlfriend has “University Writing” Monday and Wednesday mornings from 10:15 to 12:15, “Principles of Accounting” from 12:15 to 2:15 PM Thursdays, immediately followed by “Introduction to Anthropology,” 4:15 to 6:15 PM. The last one, I’m told, has nothing to do with Annette—“It really is a fascinating subject.” She has cut her hours at the temp agency, taking call center shifts on weekends instead and we’re tightening our belt to make it happen. She goes to the Bunker Hill Community student gym in the mornings now, which means I get to drop her off there
on my way to work. We have less time together at night or on weekend, but the drive is about twenty minutes—“Look at the chart, it completely evens out.” On chilly mornings, she puts her hand over mine on the stick shift, sharing the warmth of her mittens, and we drive like this, with me steering us, watching the winter sunrise. Occasionally, I’ll go through what’s on the agenda for the day ahead and she’ll nod along. “Do contractors ever start their own business? Like on the side? What? You could do that, with a few of the guys from the site maybe? It can’t be that hard.” “Why?” “Why? Well there’s probably lots of money in it and—” “No, why are you saying this now?” “Nothing, just. Something Doctor Tinsley said,” she says, tightening her hand around mine on the shift. “Nevermind.” * My girlfriend wants to know my weaknesses, those she can’t see or touch on her own. She craves them, I think. “You don’t always have to be strong, you can let me in.” And just like that she’s on the bed, propped up on her knees, holding my hands in a way I think might qualify as pleading. “Just, one thing. Please. Deep down, what scares you?” “You already know I hate flying.” She sighs my name and tightens her grip around my hands. It is warm, but not comforting. “Just, tell me a story, please?” she asks with a desperate smile. I’m not sure which one this is but she’s pushy, stubborn. A lot like on our first trip away together when she wouldn’t budge from the hotel’s check-in counter until we could talk to the manager, keeping me there as visual back-up. But what she wants now isn’t a room upgrade she was promised online. But what she wants now is nowhere near as
valuable. It’s stupid, and insignificant, and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t. But it’s a weakness, one she doesn’t know, and that I hate telling people about because they either think it’s funny or tragic, when it’s actually neither. It’s annoying, sure, but it’s not cancer. “I can’t see red or green very well,” I finally give. “What?” “Colors. Y’know that test? With the dots?” She nods, slowly, trying to understand. I’m used to a tenth of her full attention these days. Maybe half. Two-thirds if we’re alone and she’s drunk, and there is no computer around and I’ve done something she considers especially astounding. To have the full weight of it on me like this isn’t, well, overwhelming is what it is. “Okay, well, I can’t see ‘em. Took the test and everything.” She lets go of my wrists softly, putting one down, then the other. “How did I not know that?” I shrug. “Didn’t feel like something worth sharing.” “That’s it then, you’re color-blind?” You can’t become a licensed electrician when you’re color-blind. Not officially, not if you’re stupid enough to disclose it as a condition. Not even if you take the course, not even if you score great and have an in at the electric company. They’ll shrug and say, “Sorry bud,” after the first interview. But again, this is simply annoying and there’s enough annoyance in the apartment these days. Less benefits than a site job, anyway. I shrug again. “Why can’t you ever just—” I can see two hers struggling to come up to the surface, hysterical and angry, probably and eventually it’s a stalemate. She sighs and steps off the bed, arms raised and palms out. “I’m not doing this,” somehow closing the door with more noise than if she’d actually slammed it. I pick up the remote and change channels to something loud, booming, that even the
walls feel. Let her write through that. * My girlfriend is something of a hypocrite as it turns out. “She’s not licensed,” I tell her one day, as soon as she comes in. Her make-up is flawless but that doesn’t deter me—tea can wait—she needs to know this. “What?” She frowns with her forehead and smiles with her mouth in a way that’s more threatening than anything else. “Your Doctor Tinsley? I looked her up online. She’s a life coach. That’s not therapy.” “So?” she says, dropping her bag unto the counter and inhaling. “So you’re getting help from a quack.” “I really thought you were past this,” she says, shaking her head. “She’s been doing this for years. She spent years studying this; she used to work at a practice in New York. She helps me!” “None of what she does requires anything! This is why you’re not getting better.” So many things pass through her face that I can’t read them quickly enough. A new her stands there for a few seconds, one I can’t recognize. “Getting bet –” This isn’t about a damn ring. Do you still not get that?” “I’m just saying, you should see someone who actually studied this stuff. What you’re getting is just back-alley surgery. “You’re kidding yourself,” I say, slamming the kettle down and throwing my hands up. “Just, whatever. Thought you should know.” We spend the rest of the evening in silence until, just as I’m about to turn off my lamp, we’re not anymore. “...And where’s your degree exactly?” * My girlfriend’s therapist understands my reservations and wants to meet us together.
It’s not couples’ therapy. “You don’t even think it’s real therapy, remember?” She, Sarah not-a-doctor Tinsley, just thinks that since I’m such a big part of the picture, we should all sit down. “Me. She wants to meet me.” I tell her that I don’t believe in these things. I don’t believe in them when the person’s a professional, and certainly don’t believe them when they advertise on Craigslist. “Would you just do this for me? I don’t ask you for anything, not ever.” I list everything, with laser precision, the many things she asks from me on a daily basis. I leave nothing out. “Wow. And you don’t think we could use some outside help? Are you just afraid of being proven wrong or something?” It’s unfair. This woman has been seeing you for eight months now, I say. Ever since she walked by a bus stop ad on the anniversary of her mother’s death and felt it to be significant somehow. Eight months, of course she won’t be on my side, I say again and again. “Just stop it. There aren’t any sides here. There’s just getting better. Together.” I concede. Good, I think. Something. We sit down, look at her schedule and find a session that fits our schedule, the week after next. Later in bed that night, I still notice but don’t particularly mind the lone frog in the wide pound. He’s having a ball, until we stop mid-thrust, “Wait, wait. Stop. Look at me. Tell me how you’re feeling right now.” “Happy? Just, really happy.” She smiles. When it’s all said and done, her breath is warm and comforting in my neck and she’s snoring with one hand on my chest, above the heart. Which her exactly keeps insisting, however implicitly, that my heart is there and that it might need healing, I still don’t know. All things considered, I’m also not sure what this means – her sleeping and me watching. *
My girlfriend’s would-be therapist runs her scam from her a small, yellow house near the college part of town. “Home offices are very popular in the field. More conducive.” Her neighborhood consists mostly of young families and in the middle of a weekday afternoon, there’s barely a car in sight. She has a picket fence but there are no tricycles or children’s bikes to be found on her yard. She also keeps her garage door open when she goes out, presumably because it’s a safe neighborhood, but really, she has nothing to protect. There’s an alarm system on the premises but these things are only helpful if the intruder doesn’t know how to disable them manually. The number of people who know how to do this is, in fact, far higher than most national surveys assume. Especially the old XY-400 models whose override panels reveal themselves by a simple pressing of the upper corners. We offer them in our condo packages and it’s really quite the con. The smell of cat that floats through the living room confirms to any burglar that there’s absolutely no security in this house. The rest of the house itself is ordinary. There’s a half-empty box of cereal on the table and it is nothing too healthy either. Lots of nuts and raisins that sound wholesome but really, have more carbs than a waffle. A real doctor of any kind would know this, I remind myself. This is just an ordinary lady who probably ought to watch her cholesterol, and gets nervous when cars filled with teenagers pull up next to her at red lights. There’s about three old Y2K books in her library, and I wonder if the good therapist discloses to her patients, or even her friends, that her bookshelf hides a monument to her stupidity. Her laptop is on her bed upstairs, opened to a dating site. Of course. Unfortunately, she was smart enough to log out before leaving. There’s nothing of value on there, only music and movies. Going by the radiator under the window, her “office” was clearly designed as a second bedroom. There are actual chairs as opposed to bags of beans and some thick books on her shelves, lots of them in fact. All part of the illusion. There’s also an interior koi pond in the corner. It all falls somewhere between professional and inviting. The computer in there is password protected, and just like that I’m sure that everything I came here for is, in fact, on there. All my guesses fall flat. It’s angering. Right over her desk is a framed diploma, looming with self-importance. It
smashes against the floor and somewhere below in the kitchen I hear the cat. And just like that something snaps. You can’t break people’s homes and not expect retribution. You simply can’t. The books, DSM manuals, self-help, and even Doctor Phil’s stupid face, all rip apart with surprising ease. Especially those thicker library-looking ones. There’s a stack of paper that looks like questionnaires, filled with small bubbles that could be either red or green and I shred through them without bothering to read. I know exactly what her scam is. Cramming people into number two pencil boxes just to feel smart when she writes them off as simpletons. Turning the world into made-up boxes I don’t fit in. The cat eventually makes its way in, meowing frantically at me. See, absolutely no security. The thing she doesn’t get, that she won’t get, is that I don’t weigh her down, not any more than she weighs me down. We’re each other’s tethers. She doesn’t stop me from running towards the cliff, from jumping off it even, but we always give each other enough rope so that we can climb back up and find safe ground again. But this woman doesn’t get it, she just... She’ll take one look at me and see a bluecollar Neanderthal who, silly non-self-actualized him, thinks adults shouldn’t be going around pretending to be school kids, that they should move forward and not backwards. She’ll see that because that’s what she’ll want to see. She’ll tell Billie that she can do better. That a relationship shouldn’t ever be hard, that she’s hardly ever dated. And Billie, Billie, she’ll believe her. She won’t get that this is what having feels like. I blow my nose into her curtain and it’s her fault because really what kind of backwards therapist doesn’t even have a box of Kleenex around. I don’t touch the computer because those things are expensive. Same for the koi pond since there’s an actual fish in there. When the cat’s about to get a paw in there, I pick it up by its neck and carry it out with me, “C’mon, you fat fuck,” closing the door behind us. I’m a good guy, dammit. I look away when women have acid reflux swell up in their mouths. I would even let Billie name our kids something weird and complicated like Feather or Cincinnati, if that was what she really wanted. I wouldn’t care. On my way out, I notice that her bike, just below the staircase, has too much air in its tires. It barely takes a poke of my keychain’s switchknife to pop them. I’ve probably saved her life. *
My girlfriend doesn’t want us to be late to the therapist’s. It’s the sound of the teapot whistling on the stove that wakes me, twenty minutes earlier than usual. Doctor Tinsley has been having some personal issues and had first suggested pushing the appointment back by a week, but Billie had apparently insisted and so she had agreed to see us today, before Billie’s first class. “C’mon, get dressed already. We don’t want to be late,” she greets when I step barefoot into the kitchen. She’s already dressed in a button-down and striped pants, reading over her notes with a cup of tea in her hand. Her hair makes her look like a librarian these days. The difference between this woman and the one who’d first thrown that blouse feels like an entire universe. When she turns, her face is gorgeous, washed gold by the morning sunlight that’s flooding in through the window. It hurts to look at her, but even more not to. “You look great, y’know.” She smiles weakly, “Please. I barely slept last night. I am so flunking this test.” The insecure her? The humble her that will shrug it off as a fluke when she brings in here next A+? The considerate her that doesn’t want me to feel intellectually intimidated? Who knows? They’re all in there, greedy little things with eyes a shade duller than my actual girlfriend. We drive in silence with her flipping back and forth between her notes, hands occupied. We pull into the familiar drive and before ringing the bell she suddenly pulls me down for a kiss. It’s one of those full-on kisses, too. The kind you have to sit through the entire movie to see, the kind that makes you turn your head like a car crash if it's happening to someone else and think, that could have so easily been me. I’ll remember that kiss, I think. “Come in, come in.” The woman that opens the door is both nothing and everything like expected. There’s no uptight bun or hippy braids but a loose schoolgirl type of ponytail, hanging from one side of her head. And it’s not so much a power suit or a floor- length hemp skirt as a pair of jeans and flannel shirt. There are boxes and packing material everywhere
inside. “Sorry about the mess,” she says out of politeness more than anything else, looking tired. “Hell of a business, Doc,” I hear myself chuckle without meaning to, and something starts burning at the side of my face. I don’t have to turn to know exactly which her is staring at me right now. The woman smiles, distracted and barely seems to hear this. “Sarah, I didn’t know you were moving,” Billie says, clearing her throat. The woman smiles without much conviction. “It wasn’t planned. The neighborhood just isn’t what it used to be and my sister has a sublet. Let’s go into the kitchen? My office is an absolute battlefield, I’m afraid. Boxes everywhere.” Something darts between our legs and makes its way up the stairs so quickly that I barely catch its tail. “He’s usually so friendly,” Billie notes. “Ignore him. He’s been like that for days. It’s the weather.” There’s already a notebook on her table, opened to a new blank page and we sit down across from her. We settle into our respective chairs facing her and Billie sends a throat clear my way that causes my back to instinctively straighten. Nothing is written down but the Doctor notices, I can tell. The air is stifling. Dry, re-circulated air in a room that’s not properly ventilated and keeps itself hot but never cozy. Our apartment’s cozy. My girlfriend exhales, a quiet, nervous little sound and that seems to start the clock. “So, Reggie,” she eventually says from across the desk, “Let’s dive right in; why do you think we’re here?”
Sexy Little Neurons | Barbara Perez [BIO]: Barbara received an MFA from the University of Massachusetts, Boston and currently teaches literature and composition at Northwest Vista College. Puzzling little things, I am always thinking of you, those taut little axons unraveling bodily movement from synaptic grace. I give my awe to each neural cinder fulfilling itself as action, as whim. Who’s to say you don’t love my body with the shameless release I imagine you do. Like any lover, I am not my own but the foolish articulation of limbs.
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