goose AN ANNUAL REVIEW OF SHORT FICTION
Volume 7 Spring 2018 Produced at Victoria College in the University of Toronto
CO-PRESIDENTS & EDITORS IN CHIEF Nikta Sadati Tristian Lee-Hyman EDITORIAL BOARD Amanda Gosio Hadiyyah Kuma Amanda Voore-Lewis Isobel Carnegie Arin Klein Jiesi Liu Benjamin Ghan Vivian Li ARTISTS Julia Balm Isaac Khouzam Nikta Sadati LAYOUT EDITORS Nikta Sadati Tristian Lee-Hyman
Cover Art by Isaac Khouzam
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Letter from the Editors
The Blue House
Soap and Water
Benjamin MacLean-Max 32
Letter from the Editors
Not only has it been an honour to serve as co-editors-in-chief
for the goose, but it has been a pleasure. What a wild ride it has been to get to publication, believe us when we tell you, we couldnâ€™t have given this volume any more of our time, attention, and love if it was our own child! Of course, the publication of this anthology would not be possible without our incredibly hardworking and devoted team, so to you all we say: thank you for your passion for art, in its variety of forms, and for your attention to detail. Your care and love is what made any of this, not only possible, but beautiful!
We would also, of course, like to thank our authors who so cou-
rageously trusted us with their words, their voices, and their stories. We could not be more grateful to have your eloquent expressions of love, fear, compassion, and the like, within the pages of this anthology. Your words are what gives way to our journey to publication.
Last, but certainly not least, we want to thank YOU! Thank
you for picking up this copy of the goose, for taking the time to read our words, and to witness our love for literature and student work put on paper. We sincerely hope you enjoy the wonderful stories and thoughtful pieces you are about to experience. Itâ€™s because of you that the printed word lives on! Enjoy!
Nikta Sadati & Tristian Lee-Hyman
The Blue House
I have come to believe that I was an accident. There is no other way to explain how Mom and Dad became Mom and Dad. The thing that throws this theory off is my sister Abby. Two accidents are kind of a lot for two people living in modern-day North America. Philip wasn’t an accident. Philip’s family lived next to ours when we were kids. Now he lives a floor above Abby and me. Philip’s parents were old, even back then. He was an only child. His mom brushed his hair and tucked in his shirts and drove him to soccer, and chess, and swimming. Our mom didn’t do that. She was what you would call a freeform thinker. She’d had her dreadlock days back when they weren’t considered cultural appropriation. She’d had her working girl phase when she bought a lot of stilettos from Nine West. When she picked us up from school, during her “good mother” period, Abby and I were always proud. We’d point her out to the other girls saying, “See her? That one’s ours.” I can’t imagine how she ever met Dad. First, he was a lawyer. Second, he was a Jew, and Mom, even during her most conventional years, said organized religion was the work of Satan. Then there were Mom’s issues, those in the form of little pills she bought from another lady on our street. They must have liked each other in spite of themselves. The only time my parents’ being together seemed natural to me was in the blue house, our cottage about an hour north of the city. The summer before she left we went up in June and came back in September. The first few mornings, when I woke up not knowing where
I was, I’d listen until I heard her down in the kitchen. Then I knew we were at the blue house. She didn’t get up that early anywhere else. Mom took Abby and me to the beach or to the woods or to town for a movie. She made us sandwiches and we ate them sitting on the grass. On the weekends Dad came up. We did the same things with him there, except for the sandwiches. I guess he didn’t like seeing her holding a knife. Philip and his family came up for a weekend each summer. When Philip played with us his mom always came to watch, even if Mom was already there. Mom got worse after that summer. Dad was working more and I guess she’d found another dealer. I understand now that she was sick. At the time, when she went to live at the recovery centre full time, I took my anger out on Philip, whose boring, tidy mom was always around. Philip always let me and for that, I’ll always admire him. She moved out when I was eleven, Abby was nine, and Dad had just been made partner. He was making more, so the place she was in was one of the best. I know that now because I Googled it. He took us to see her, regularly at first, then less. After each visit Abby and I would lie in our beds, the lights off from when Dad tucked us in, and imagine where she was. I started, usually. “Mom’s in Paris; she didn’t take us because she had to leave quickly but she’ll bring us over soon.” “She’s in Hawaii,” Abby rolled over and faced me, “surfing. And she’s all brown and happy.”
“Or at the blue house,” I said. We kept going until one of us fell asleep. When I was the one who stayed awake, I lay there, staring at the crack in the ceiling, and imagined her. Sometimes I think we were right. Mom had to be somewhere; it may as well have been Paris or Hawaii. It wasn’t in that hospital, where the nurses sharpened their words before speaking. The woman we saw during visiting hours, the one who towards the end only peered at us through the foliage of her hair, didn’t really have our mom inside of her. Mom died five years into her stay at the Greenbrook Rehabilitation Facility. It was no one’s fault. She had stashed two years of antidepressants, they wouldn’t tell us where or how, and took them in one night. I figured a nurse helped. Maybe one of the new ones whose words were still soft. Dad had her buried with her parents. Philip was there with his parents, wearing the same suit he wore at his brother’s bar mitzvah. There were lilies and they put up a picture of her in front of the blue house; her eyes matched it. After the funeral, after Dad tucked us in and turned the lights off, I tried to start it, tried to imagine her like we used to. Abby lay on her back, her arms crossed over her stomach. “Come on Abby. Maybe she’s in New York. Or London? Maybe looking at Big Ben? Or Rome?” Silence. I looked at her again, she was still on her back, her hands motionless. “Abby?”
She turned to face me then. I could see her teeth in the dark. “She’s gone, Lucy. She’s just gone.” The day after the funeral, Abby went into the bathroom at school and cut off her dark braid. When Dad saw her, he drove her straight to First Choice to get it fixed. They evened out the sides and made the top shorter, but what could they do? The man who did it, balding himself, asked if she’d just needed a change and Abby nodded but didn’t speak. After that, she was off. Threw all her clothes out and bought new ones. Then threw those ones out. What she kept she’d change somehow, cut the sleeves off or make into shorts. Dyed her hair when it started to grow out. Grew it long. Chopped it off again. Stopped hanging out with the girls she’d liked before, the ones who knew anything about Mom. Stopped going to the restaurants we’d gone to before when it was all four of us. And boys? I’ll let you imagine. For me, the real change came the summer I worked at Dad’s firm. Abby was on one of her music festival kicks so I was home alone most of the time. Dad said I needed direction. For all of June and most of July we both got up at seven-fifteen, showered in our respective bathrooms in our respective homes, ate our cereals and got dressed. At seven-fifty Dad picked me up from the apartment Abby and I shared and drove us to his office on Yonge and Sheppard. I don’t know what he spent most of the day doing. Lawyering, I guess. I spent it shredding paperwork, stapling paperwork and calling the printer repairman to come repair the printer. At twelve-thirty I went into Dad’s office and we went out for lunch. We came back half an hour later and he went back into his office and I went back to the printer.
Dad was stressed at work. At first, I thought he was just getting old, but I came to realize the absent-mindedness came from worrying about other things. The way he overfilled his cup at the water cooler because he was staring at something above it should have been an indication of the state he was in. As it happened, I noticed nothing. About halfway through July, Abby came home. She had spent the month in Nevada and a week in Mexico where she had gotten her hair put in cornrows. By this point, they were considered cultural appropriation which I pointed out and she ignored. The morning she was back she got into the car when Dad came to pick me up. I thought he was going to have a stroke. He kept staring at Abby. I can’t blame him; with the cornrows and the tan making her blue eyes brighter she looked sickeningly like Mom. Dad asked Abby if she was pregnant several times that car ride and even though she said no each time I don’t think he believed her, considering what happened after. When we got to work, Abby went off to wander the streets, Dad went into his office and I went to the stapler. It was an uneventful morning. I found him when I came to get him for lunch. His tie was offcentre and I could see the buttons on his shirt. I kept thinking about the buttons but I knew I had to do something. React. I started screaming. I screamed until people from the office gathered. I stopped by the time the ambulance got there. They said his heart stopped. It happens to a lot of lawyers. I had my own theories on the matter. I knew his heart hadn’t stopped so much as given up, unable to contain the image of both my mother and
Abby inside it. Unable to live with the fact that there could be another little girl pointing proudly at Abby someday. Knowing what came after. Abby and I got driven home by somebody. Philip was there when we came in. He said he’d stay with us and help. Around three in the morning, Philip started to cry. His girlfriend Jen had left him a few weeks ago. Two weeks after they’d moved in together he came home to find her things gone. Abby and I had never met her. Abby was on the road and I wasn’t up to go to his housewarming. She sounded like a real bitch. Philip cried and blubbered something about rice cookers and how he had wanted to ask Dad about getting shared custody of the ficus. I lay on my back on the floor. He’d been going over the breakup again when Abby said, “Fuck this. Let’s go.” We followed her into the car downstairs. I had to drive since Philip and Abby had been drinking steadily since the afternoon. Abby gave me directions for a little while but then, as I caught on to where we were going, she stopped. We got to the blue house just before dawn. The nearest neighbours were a kilometre of wood each way so no one saw us do it. Abby had bought two canisters of gas on the way up. We went from room to room pouring. Starting in the kitchen where Mom cooked us breakfasts and ending in the bedroom where they slept. It was all very solemn and noble. When we were done, we came outside to watch it burn. “Go ahead,” I said to Abby. She reached into her pocket. Then her other pocket. Then those
on her jacket. “Luce? Do you have a…? She mimed flicking a lighter. “What?” “A lighter, Luce. Do you have one?” I said nothing. “Lucy?” “You mean to tell me that at no point during the drive, or the buying of two canisters of gasoline, or the pouring of it all over our childhood cottage, you never, not once, thought to check you had a bloody lighter?” Abby looked down. “Philip?” He shook his head slowly then kicked a boulder. It didn’t move. “This is all Jen’s fault. She was always going on about how smoking kills. We’d been together since the ninth grade so I never even tried it. You know, most smokers start before they’re eighteen. So now my chances of picking up smoking are like half what they were when I met her.” “Shit,” said Abby. “I know. If I hadn’t been with her I could have been a smoker and then I’d have a lighter right now.” “I mean shit, I didn’t know you guys were together that long.” “If you hadn’t been with her then, she wouldn’t have dumped you, and you wouldn’t have ended up trying to burn down a cottage at four o’clock in the morning,” I said. “Shit.”
We kicked around the idea of trying the kitchen and seeing if we could do something with the stove or the boiler, but our hearts weren’t in it anymore. The whole lot smelled like gasoline. We walked away from it for a while and sat by the creek. “Are you going to work tomorrow?” Philip asked me. “I guess so.” “I think I’m going to go see Jen,” he said, “tell her about the lighter and how this was her fault.” “You can’t tell her, Phil. She’d think you were crazy.” “I don’t know about Phil. But aren’t we?” Abby said. “Genetically speaking at least?” “I guess so.” We sat for a while and watched the creek. “You still shouldn’t tell her,” Abby said, “we should keep it a secret. I’ve been thinking, Mom and Dad had their secrets, but we never did.” “You’ll have this one,” Phil said, “although don’t the dead know everything?” “Maybe I won’t go to work tomorrow,” I said. “The person who hired me won’t be there.” Then I started to cry. I cried more that night than I had at her funeral or would at his. I cried and cried and then I looked at Abby with her hair and her blue eyes and I cried some more. Abby cried too I think, and Phil, but I can’t be sure if I was seeing their tears or my own when I looked at them. When we stopped, and the night got quiet again, we lay down
on our backs. I could still smell the gasoline. “I think I’m going to go to her grave tomorrow,” Abby said. “I’m going to bring her picture and a mirror and sit there and look until I know for sure where she ends and I begin.” “Maybe I’ll cut all my hair off and move to Seattle,” I said. “That’s where Kurt Cobain is from,” said Phil. Abby rolled over onto her stomach and faced me. “I’ll give you the scissors and drive you to the airport. But it won’t work.” “What won’t?” “Changing like that. It won’t work. Not really.” “So, what are we supposed to do? Just pour gasoline over everything and let it sit there?” “Maybe sitting there is what we need. Maybe you move on once you’re okay with where you are. When you don’t have to imagine places or pour gasoline over them.” “Shit, that’s corny,” Phil said. He stood up and shook the grass off his pants. Abby laughed and followed him to the car. The sun was up by the time we got to our building. Philip and Abby were asleep in the back seat. For a moment, before I pulled the keys out, I looked at them in the rear-view mirror and thought that we were going to be okay. Accidents aren’t tragedies, they aren’t mishaps or mischances. They’re just…chances. I looked at them again, heads pressing into their seats, then pulled the keys out and poked them until they woke up.
Photograph by Julia Balm 14
Milk I I was born into an incubator. Shot right in like a winning goal. As soon as I was in, I wanted out. I would look towards the other babies and say, “This is a false imprisonment!” The ladies with the hats like paper boats would interject “We’re helping you get better.” likely story. Exasperated, I sighed out their purified air. I waited until the overlords left, looked to the other babies, and said: “Kids are most susceptible to allergies and asthma when raised in sterile environments; they’re making you dependent.” No one listened to me. Idiots. So I bounced on out of my incubator and asked my old folks to give me a rural rearing. They told me that I was the boss and gave me my freedom on a farm of cattle. I played on the hay in the day. I tipped the cows in the dark hours. I went to school for a little while, where the grown-ups tried to groom me but quickly gave up. When I got a wee bit older, I felt it wasn’t enough.
I began selling milk at the age of seven. That’s when I had the
sneaking suspicion that my rural upbringing was actually less primordial than I had presumed. You see, one feels much more like a human when surrounded by animals. And so I thought, I will move away from the beasts and go to where humans behave as such. In search of myself, I glued the face of city dwellers onto cartons of milk that we made on my farm. I pasted pictures found on Facebook of people I’d like to move closer to. The cartons read: ‘Have you seen this person? I haven’t. I’d like to.’ I stood on the side of the road with my calf juice. “Gabh mo leithscéal, would you like to buy my milk?” This one thinks it’s a bartering system. “No,” says I, “I cannot trade my milk for turf. I need the monetary compensation so that I can go to the dirtiest place,
in an attempt to purify my soul.” “Sure, feck it,” says my customer. “Better donate to you than to the Trócaire box, I suppose.” He buys my milk. “Sure, sir, go raibh míle maith agat.” And so it goes.
There was a cow on the farm named Bó. She was born on the
same eve as me. She was the first beast we bought. There was a time when she was both my soulmate and my supplier. The year that we had finally pumped enough cash out of my beloved, her heart pumped its last also. Bó passed on Good Friday. I waited all weekend, but she gave no sign of rising. On Sunday evening, to prevent falling into a deep depression, I used her milk to bake a cake and watched that rise instead.
In the evening, after I said goodbye to my Bó, I bid farewell
to my old folks. People who’d waited in life to bear a baby; they’d been alone before, they’d be just fine. I crossed the threshold, I crossed the ocean, I crossed my heart and hoped to die.
I arrived at the urban centre and immediately caught a case of
veganism. The city dwellers don’t need to know how I got here on the back of Bó. II Cities are filled with incubators. They have to be, what with the smog and the hostile social environment. Loosely defined, a city incubator is a room in which the passionate gather, whatever the cause. I’ve made my way through a few places of passion.
My introduction to the passionate was made by a woman with
the wildest mane, who had a talent for curating well-suited people. The trick was with her hair, which became huge in the presence of the like-minded. This being a big city, she was often in very crowded rooms
and sometimes would not know for whom her hair was standing on end for. Once, while still anonymous to me, I watched her tender way while on tenterhooks. I watched her move around a room, getting close to a person, but moving away, always moving closer to me. When she reached me, her hair stood with static. “May I?” says she. She touched my upper arm, and there was a little shock. Her hair relaxed and so did I.
She gave me a map of the passionate people’s inner city incu-
bators. The map was a maze of mostly dark spaces: black boxes, bars, basements. People are forever deteriorating, but like most things, the people of passion do this too with harsher vigor than the more regular man. I once saw a somebody of great esteem clutch a record close to her chest, as if attempting to revitalize it by means of her breast. She exclaimed, “This record reminds me of when I was younger!” It was the song of the world’s smallest violin.
I found my place of most comfort with two young Stickmen.
They were in a different type of love then. They were nudists who, in their study of vulnerability, decided to leave their door unlocked to the outside world. On our first meeting, I walked in on them touching. I observed that humans too need milking. I wondered if I’d ever be milked. I’d wanted to be from an early age, my body presenting younger than my perversions. I told the couple that I had experience; it wasn’t a lie. One of them explained they were exclusive.
Their place was just a home, with no other function than to
let people be. Their home reminded me of a nurturing that I have felt before but cannot place. I often inhaled my surroundings and thought,
“I’ll never be so happy again.” I grew quickly inside the open house. The house was so full I had to grow around others. This has made me the most peculiar Picasso-like shape.
Once I got a Stickman alone and drunk, and I asked them
about their feelings. “My other half is nothing but an armchair intellectual and a pillow princess!” they said. “Did you know I’m a vegan?” I asked as I inched my hand closer to their crotch. They stopped my hand with theirs mid-thigh. They looked into me and sighed, “You’re too young, and I’m not that type of guy.” Indignant and pretty ignorant, I moved away from this one in search of their other half. I found them alone in the centre of the living room, and I sat on their lap. I ran my hands through their wavy hair and moved my face towards theirs. “I’d love to,” they said, “but they’d leave me. I’d be nothing.” I have embarrassed myself. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “I’ve just been feeling pretty bent out of shape lately.” They said it was ok and that they’d teach me to get better.
It was from the Stickmen that I learnt how to be a loving part-
ner. “Tell me something about love that I don’t know. I’ve tried making a friend a lover but neither of you will take me.” They said, “A partner must be a lover and a friend, but they must also be a parent.”
The home for the displaced and dissatisfied was closed after the
Stickmen broke apart. I didn’t know why they split—they hadn’t said. They lived in the house as friends for a while, but they would no longer help with household chores because they no longer wanted to maintain what had previously been. That made the whole house hostile. “Messy house, messy mind,” a passive aggressive permanent resident would
The last time I went to the house I found that the door had
been locked. The Stickman had gone in the night. I sat outside their door. Other open house regulars came unknowing and sat at my side. On that day, we shared no words of weight but we sat together with heavy hearts.
I’ve found the passionate to be of a nomadic tendency. I think
I am as well, but I have no means to move. The passionate keep moving, my map is outdated, and I do not know where they have all gone. I close my eyes, and I cannot care all by myself. III For a time now, an incubator of mine has been the room of my beaux. After the Stickmen debacle, I wandered the streets for what felt like forever until finally I met a miracle of a man who identified as a Martian. He is quite thin and quite long. He reaches things for me. He often touches my bent out of shape body. “I love your corners,” he says.
I’ve spent all of my time in his room. This man-Martian from
outer space doesn’t have much in this world. One chalice of water. Dehydrated noodles. A single bed. We share.
We’ve been in his room for a while now. He turns his back to
play his tarnished instrument, and I clean the wax from my ears to listen. I bring his sheets up over my head and wait for the air to grow staler still. I ask him to turn off the lights, and I watch his music making shapes in the dark. Dancing greens greet me like my Martian’s long, longing limbs.
My lips are burning. At first I think it is an urge to kiss, but it
is not. I feel sick today. It is the night before a blister forms. “What if the blister forms and bursts in my sleep?” I think. The sticky sop would spread over my body, running off, ruining his bed sheets. I can feel the yellow gew as it runs down my neck. It crawls onto my chest- sinks, anchors. Spreads to my heart. Blisters begin to boil there, heating the heart. The blisters begin to burst; my heart is going to explode. It does, and I’m dead. I’ve died of a cold sore. I won’t be able to feel love anymore. I’m just a cold, sore, corpse. He lifts his blanket up off of my head and less stale air pours over. He leans down to give me a kiss on my lips. “Don’t—” I say. “I’ve got a dreadful virus.”
As we cannot kiss, we take refuge in a box of wine. We take
turns drinking from the chalice. He tells me about his world, and I tell him about my far away farm. I haven’t been back since I’ve left. I repeat the same stories often. He mostly lets me tell them over and over—I wish he didn’t. I notice the shape of his nose for the first time. It’s me or it’s the nose—one of us is crooked. He’s funny. I’m laughing. I have my head over a bucket. Everything is coming out of me tonight. He asks me if I’ve ever half doubted him, and I start to cry. He rubs my back and kisses around my virus. He puts a blanket over us. I get close to the skin on his chest and inhale the smell of my friend. Go bhfóire Dia orm, I am dependent.
We mean to both fall asleep on the single bed, but only he suc-
ceeds. I think about how in the morning I need to tell him to wash his pillow case. I think about how I haven’t moved much at all since I’ve been in this room. I think of the place where I was told my only job was to “just let be.” I have a headache. I lift the chalice to my mouth,
but it is empty. I sit up beside him, and kiss the skin over his heart with my infected mouth. Empty chalice in hand, I stand. I walk the three steps from the bed to the window and look out. The unfolding city. The only thing I yearn for out there is the cool air. I could be anywhere. I’ve been in this place long enough now that it is time to go away, but I don’t have Bó as a means to leave, and I have my beaux as a good reason to stay.
I decide to go for a walk, to leave this room for just a little
while and be back before he feels it. Down the stairs, exiting through the entrance. It’s just a little too windy out to be pleasant. Steps echo. It’s disgusting to watch other people’s feet leave wet ground. I wonder where my mother is. Did she visit these low places before me? Rain water begins to collect in the chalice. I want to be devoured by a manhole. Oh, I want to go home. My parents were too old to conceive. The rain water is overflowing. What age are my parents? Too old to run a farm. They’re probably starving. I’ve probably killed them.
I arrive at my halfway house. I do not know of anywhere
else. The windows are dark, like pupils. I throw his chalice through the glass pane in the front door. A bend in my lower arm makes getting it through the hole hard but makes it easy to rattle the door handle from the inside. The inside is damp and cold. There’s mold growing in all of the corners. The front door opens into the living room and-
One of the Stickmen is still here. In the middle of the room,
they sit in their chair. There isn’t any light. But there is a smell and a feeling. I get closer, and I can see into them. Their stewing thoughts have melted them, skin over bones. The drapes of skin around the eyes
reveal empty sockets. A bedsore has so rotted the back of their head that I can see the person’s brain. They were left here. Turned off the lights and locked the door so that we’d think they’d both gone far. They were left here, and they didn’t move.
I get down on two knees before them. I put a hand of mine on
each of their cheeks, and I move them. I move their face towards my face. I kiss their mouth with mine because I love them and because it doesn’t matter now anyways. And then, I let go. I let go of their lips and of their head in my hands, and they fall. Their head moves towards my head with no consent of mine, and their body, weighed forward with this anchor of a head, follows suit. They crush me. My legs are bent under myself. The Stickman is twice as heavy as I had expected. The pressure in my skull and rib cage mounts as their heavy head and heart kill me.
… Eventually a little time passes and so does some of the ach-
Illustration by Nikta Sadati
Soap and Water
My dad dies because a wasp stings him in the armpit. He
bloats up like a river corpse, but he doesn’t float—he just falls, facedown, in a No Frills parking lot. My sister Carey-Anne drives me home from school, the cords in her throat taut like cello strings. When we get home I lock myself in the bathroom, fill the tub, and get in with all my clothes still on. I just kinda sit there crying until these ice-cold beads of snot get into my mouth and my sister kicks the door open with her bare foot because she has soccer player legs, dad always said so. She’s yelling something about me not saying anything back when she called for me—when she screamed Wilson over and over—and why do I do this to her? Then she sits down on the side of the tub so that I can see the sad-looking knobs of her spine through her t-shirt. My sister doesn’t say anything, doesn’t even look at me again, because we both know: nobody’s out there.
On my first day of high school I can’t get my locker to open so I go outside, lie down, and fall asleep in the back of the field, sinking into a featherbed of uncut grass. When I wake up, it looks like everybody’s gone home already. I feel weird, like I’m thinner, like the sun had bleached right through me while I was asleep. I push my knuckles into my eyelids and think about my locker all welded shut with rust and the pointy ends of wasps and where my dad went when he fell over. I don’t want to go back to my aunt Karen’s house—which is where I live now—because her boyfriend Greg will stare at me. Greg’s like that. He’s stuck.
I go down to the wasteland behind the hospital, the one that’s
shut down, to kick rocks and pop cans into the ravine. The water in the ravine never moves and kinda stinks—but in an overripe, earthy-sweet sort of way, even with all that trash in it.
When I get back to my aunt’s house, she tells me off for get-
ting the cuffs of my jeans all split-open and muddy. Then she asks me about school. I’m feeling good about myself so I tell her I made fifteen new friends who all wear turtlenecks and have very straight, white teeth. She shakes her head and tells me to quit mumbling that fluff, that nobody can hear a gosh darn word I say.
Fluff is the word my aunt uses instead of shit. My dad wasn’t
like that. Every time he got drunk he’d tell me and Carey-Anne to do what makes us happiest, what was good for us, and that anybody who didn’t like it could fuck off. Then he’d fall asleep on the couch, and Carey-Anne would throw a blanket over him while I wrenched his work shoes off.
We sit down for dinner, and Greg and I each hold one of my
aunt’s hands while she thanks the Lord for her pot roast and Greg’s promotion to foreman, and would He please watch over Carey-Anne, who’s in Calgary cutting open dead, frozen horses in order to be a vet. While she’s praying I open my eyes just a bit, for no reason at all, and see Greg staring at me from across the dinner table.
Around the second week of school I meet a girl named Eugene. Her hair’s short, just past her chin, bleach-ravaged and tinted apricot. We meet like this: I drop a paintbrush down the sink in first period visual
arts, just to see if it’ll make a noise when it bounces off a curve in the pipes. But I don’t find out, because Eugene comes up beside me and says that she knows me, that she sees me sometimes in her neighbourhood, which is my aunt’s neighbourhood, and that her uncle works in the same cable-making factory as Greg. I tell her maybe she’s right, and we don’t talk again until around two months later, on Halloween.
October thirty-first is on a Saturday this year, so the school has
a Halloween party on the Friday. During lunch I sit upstairs in the art hallway, which is even emptier because everybody is downstairs in the caf or the gym, or wherever all the orange and black streamers are. I have headphones in, so I don’t hear the stairwell door open and close—I only see a flash of orange as she sits down next to me.
She has bright blue contact lenses in and black face paint
in the centre of her face, smudging outwards, the same black paint smeared all over her forearms and the backs of her hands. The white brush-stroke whiskers and the fluffy ears on her headband tell me she’s supposed to be a Siamese cat.
I tell her I like her costume. She says thanks. She’s smiling at
me, and she smells like Halloween candy—like Twizzlers, or strawberry Starbursts—although something in the set of her jaw looks like a challenge. Or maybe she’s just bored of it all.
When I tell her how my dad died, Eugene says she’s sorry that happened to me, that what I told her was the worst thing she’d ever heard, and then she asks me if I have the same allergy he did, which I don’t. I tell her I’ve been stung by a wasp before, in third grade, that it hap-
pened while I was eating fruit salad out of a can in my backyard. Eugene tells me she’s only been stung by bees, but it was three at the same time, working together like bees do—one on her forearm, the other two behind her knees. She says her grandma scooped out the stingers with her Shoppers Optimum card.
We’re in Eugene’s basement watching The Thing, the 1982
version, her favourite of the two. I don’t think the 2011 one is so bad, and I say so, but she says it lacks dread. She didn’t feel like the people in it were actually hopeless.
Eugene lives with her mom and her grandmother in a thin, but
tall house that shakes a little every time a train goes over the nearby bridge. At night, from the outside, it kinda looks like all the houses on her street are leaning towards each other like tired old ladies. She tells me her dad’s in jail for tax fraud, but that he’ll be out in six months, that I can meet him then. I reply that my sister is a copyright lawyer, which isn’t true at all. I don’t know why I said it.
Her head is in my lap when she asks if I believe in ghosts. I
don’t answer. Instead I kiss her, and her tongue tastes like cough syrup. She sits up and takes her shirt off. Then she tries to take my shirt off but stops halfway because she sees what’s on my stomach, which is pale, slightly-raised scars in constellations, and so she lets go of me and looks away, her face closing up, and then a train whistle slices us both into ribbons. The house shakes, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
Greg is on the couch in the living room watching something. He has his rimless eyeglasses on and the house smells like burnt sugar. I say hello
when I walk in, and he nods at me. Then he asks if I’d like to stay and watch Gone with the Wind with him, which I do, even though it’s four hours long. Greg had already been thirty-five minutes in when I came home, but he restarted it anyways.
Aunt Karen is on a tour bus with her church choir because
they’d been invited to sing at a cathedral in Montreal, so it’s just me and him. Greg had baked sugar cookies, but he’d burnt them really bad.
In the dream I’m walking along the ravine, mud suckling at my bare feet, and the leaves on the trees look like open palms. They press closer and closer until they’ve pressed all the feeling out of my body; all that’s left is flat soda. Then I step on dry ground and there’s a yielding—the world’s hard, bright exterior cracks open, spitting out millions of yellow and black bullets. The air is green milk shot through with sunlight and shivering with wasps, and at first I run—they sting me in the soft parts of my face. Then I realize I’m laughing, and that I feel kinda fucking amazing, so I stop running and stand very still with my arms spread, and I let them poke little holes in me until, eventually, I’m no longer there.
Photograph by Julia Balm
I was nothing except bald, a yeller, a small skinny thing, rabid
dogsâ€™ eyes squinting at the light. I was not trusting; I had been dropped from my hole. I was happy in the dark, and used to being carried I was born a weak thing. Months later I would drop myself on my head, over and over, until my mother put me back in dark rooms; until she hung me.
They said, donâ€™t be a pilot, or youâ€™ll drop yourself; the other
mother called me damaged, a compliment to her only child. But finally I learned to squint, as people do; to fall, only by accident. I learned to hate the dark, just like the rest of you.
Photograph by Julia Balm
Fay “Bedtime, Missy.” “No!” “Bedtime, come on.” “No!!” “Come on, sweetheart, it's late.” “I'm not going to bed, I'm not tired!” “Please come to bed, come on.” “No, you can't make me.” “But it's time now, sweetheart.” “I won't!” “I can't take much more of this...” “Oh, calm down. She's just overexcited.” “No! I'm not over... ober... I'm not tired!” “She'll calm down.” “I won't!” “Not before I have a coronary.” “Christ, Michael, just...” “Fine, fine. I'm just tired.” “So you should go to bed!” “I wish.” “Lighten up, Michael, come on. We just have to wait her out.” “I'm never going to bed!” It's bedtime, little one. “Look, see? Now she's all quiet.” Aren't you tired? “Yeah...” “Yeah what, Missy?” “Yeah, you're ready for bed? Yeah you're tired?” “I'm not talking to you.” “Not quite done then, after all.” “Michael, you're not helping.” Be nice, little one. “No...” Yes. “Okay.” “Who are you talking to, then?” “She's talking to Damian, are you talking to Damian, sweetheart?” “Who the hell – ?” “Michael!” “Sorry, who the heck is Damian?” Come along, then. Let's go. “Damian is... where are you going, sweetheart? Are you going
to bed?” “Damian is who?” “Hold on, I'll... Do you want to go brush your teeth, now?” You want to brush your teeth, don't you? “Okay.” “Okay, you'll brush your teeth?” “Yeah.” “Rachel, who is Damian?” “Damian is Missy's imaginary friend.” “He's not imaginrey, he's real.” “She has an imaginary friend? Since when?” “He's real!” It's alright, little one. Calm. “Okay sweetheart, he's real. Now, can we go brush your teeth?” “Okay.” “Okay we can brush your teeth? Good.” Good girl. “Does her dad know about Damian?” “God knows.” “Have you asked?” “Uh, no. We don't talk about him.” Are you ready for your dreams, little one? “Yeah.” “What?” “Not talking to you.” “You should ask her.” “Now?” “Why not?” “Because I'm trying to get her into bed!” What would you like to dream about tonight? “Puppies and kitties.” “That's creepy. It's like half a conversation.” “Shush, Michael, please.” Puppies and kitties again, little one? “I like puppies and kitties.” That's alright. We can dream about puppies and kitties, then. “What is she saying about puppies?” “I don't know.” “This doesn't bother you?” “Please, just leave it. I'll be right back down. Come on, Missy.” “And unicorns.” Unicorns? “What about unicorns, sweetheart? Do you like unicorns?”
“Yes.” Alright. Puppies and kitties and unicorns. “You do? Do you want a unicorn backpack for school next year?” “Yes.” Alright, little one. “You do? You want a unicorn backpack? Come on, open up.” “No.” “Don't talk while I'm brushing, sweetie. You don't want a unicorn backpack?” “I was talking to Damian.” “When you said no?” You're confusing your poor mother, little one. “What are you giggling about?” “Nothing.” “What is it? Come on, tell me.” Be nice. “Okay.” “Okay what?” “I love you, Mommy.” “Oh... I love you too, sweetheart.” Better. “Goodnight, Mommy.” “Hold your horses, I'll come tuck you in. Get your PJ’s on.” “Okay.” “Do you want me to read to you, before you sleep?” “No.” “Are you sure, no story?” “Damian can tell me a story, can't you?” I suppose. “What if I read to both of you?” “Damian doesn't like it when you read.” Be nice. “He just... he thinks your voice is too soft and pretty.” “Too soft and pretty?” Better. “Yes.” “How can something be too soft, or too pretty?” “Damian doesn't like it.” “Well, can Damian read to both of us, then?” “You can hear Damian?” No. “Yes, of course.”
“No, you can't.” “Yes, I can.” No, she can't. “What is he saying right now?” “He's saying how he wants to read to both of us.” “No, he isn't.” “What is he saying, then?” “He isn't saying anything, right now.” “Well, alright. Maybe I can't hear him. But what if he reads to you, and you tell me what he says?” “No, his stories are just for me.” Be nice. “We can't share them?” “No.” Be nice. “No!” Little one... “I don't want to share the stories.” “Alright then. What does Damian tell you stories about?” “Things. Far away. A long time ago.” “What sorts of things?” “People. Pretty queens, and knights, and kings.” “Fairy tales? “Real stories.” “I see.” What would you like to hear about tonight? “Anne Boleyn again.” That story doesn't have a happy ending, little one... “Sweetheart, did you say Anne Boleyn?” “I don't care.” Something else. “Did you say Anne Boleyn? Where did you hear about Anne Boleyn?” “Damian.” “Where else, though? Did your father say something about Anne Boleyn?” “No...” How about Arthur, and Guinevere, and Lancelot. “Okay, I like Merlin.” Of course you do. “Do you know who Merlin is, sweetie?” “I... I forget. He's funny, and he has a beard.” Well, true.
“Do you and Damian talk about Merlin?” “Yes. Damian, who is Merlin?” King Arthur's mentor, and a powerful mage. “I remember now, Mommy.” “Did Damian tell you?” “Yes.” “So, who was Merlin? Come on, I'll tuck you into your blankets. Who was Merlin?” “King Arthur's mender, and a powerful... a powerful...” Mage “A powerful mage.” “A powerful mage? King Arthur's mentor?” “Yes. Did you know that Mommy? Does Damian know more than you?” Be nice, little one. It's not important. “I don't think he knows more than me.” “Test him, Mommy, test if he knows more than you.” No, little one. “Why don't you see if Damian knows... if Damian knows who the President of Cuba is.” “Where's Cuba?” “It's an island.” “Who's the President, Damian?” It doesn't matter, little one. “Doesn't he know?” “Do you know?” ...Yes. “So tell me!” It doesn’t matter, little one. Let your mother say goodnight. “Tell me!” “Sweetheart, don't cry! It's alright, I'm sure Damian knows who the President of Cuba is.” “He does, he won't tell me.” “Why not?” Don't cry, little one. “So tell me!” Fine. “It's alright, sweetheart. There, better?” “He's going to tell me.” “He is?” The President of Cuba is Raul Castro. “He says it's Rawool Castroh.” “He said that?”
“Yes. Is it right?” “Um... Yes.” “See? He knows so much.” “Yes, he's very smart.” “Are you okay, Mommy?” Just say goodnight, now, little one. “Yes, sweetheart. Um, can you tell me, what does Damian look like?” “He's tall, and he's old.” “He's a person? He's not... he's not a puppy, or a bunny rabbit or something?” “No!” No need to laugh, I could be a bunny rabbit. “You could?” If I wanted to. “Why don't you want to?” “What is he saying, sweetheart?” “That he could be a bunny rabbit, if he wanted to.” “Oh, really?” “Yeah.” Say goodnight now. “Show me! Be a bunny rabbit.” If you say goodnight, I'll show you. “Goodnight, Mummy.” “Goodnight, sweetheart. Sweet dreams, I'll see you in the morning.” “See you in the morning.” “Do you want me to leave the light on in the hall?” “Yes.” “Okay. Goodnight.” “Goodnight.” What story about Arthur and Merlin would you like to hear? “Be a bunny rabbit first!” Alright, little one. “Wow. How do you do that?” I'm not really a bunny rabbit. I just look like one. “Is it magic?” Yes. “I want to hear a story about Merlin doing magic. Like you.” Alright. Lie down comfortably. “Raul Castro?” “ Her father must have been talking about Cuba.” “Or...”
“Or what, Michael? Or what? She's hearing voices, that tell her things she couldn't possibly know?” “Can you hear them too?” Yes. “You should get her checked out.” “Oh come on, so she knows who the President of Cuba is, doesn't mean there's anything wrong.” “Ask her something else, Rachel something she couldn't possibly know. Ask her what the fifteenth prime number is, or something.” “I'm not going to experiment with this, Michael.” “Is something wrong with me?” No, little one. “What's the fifteenth prime number?” 47 “What's a prime number?” A number that can't be broken into even groups of any other number. “Oh.” “Have you ever spoken to her about her friend? Is it a person, a man?” “She says it’s a tall old man. She also said he can turn into a rabbit, though.” “That's comforting, isn't it?” “A little.” They're being very loud, aren't they? “Yeah.” Do you want me to start the story? “Yes.” Merlin lived in a cabin in the woods outside Camelot, the castle where King Arthur and his Knights lived. “Does her father know about Damian?” “How the hell would I know?” He was wise and powerful, and Arthur came to him for advice whenever there was a problem in his kingdom. “Do you think you should ask him?” “And say what, exactly?” One day, a young woman came to Arthur, asking for his help. Her baby sons had been stolen by a wicked witch, named Morgan Le Fay. “This doesn't worry you, though? She's a little monster all the time, fights you over everything, all the while carrying on this inner dialogue with some disturbing figment of her imagination?” ... One day, a young woman...
“You said that already.” Right. “Why are they angry?” They don't understand. “Of course, but what am I supposed to do? Ever since the split, she's been totally distant with me. Just now in the bedroom? She said she loved me for the first time in months. If she needs this Damian thing, as some kind of projection or whatever...” “What's a projection?” When people are upset, sometimes they pretend things to make themselves feel better. “I'm not pretending.” No. “Look, talk to someone at least.” “Okay, thanks, Michael. I appreciate your concern, but I can handle it.” “Oh come on, Rachel! I’m just trying to help.” “If my daughter is so fucking screwed up by this whole divorce that she’s hearing voices in her head, what exactly are you going to do, Michael?” “What does fucking screwed up mean?” Your mother is worried that you're upset, because she doesn't live with your father anymore. “Oh.” “Look, I'm just – I care about you two.” “Oh just give it a rest, Michael.” “Why are they yelling?” They're confused. “Why are they yelling, though?” Being confused makes them scared. “What are they scared of?” Grown-ups are scared of everything, little one. “I'm not scared of anything, anymore.” Good. “I'm not scared, because you're here to take care of me now.” Yes. “Can you make them stop yelling?” No. I'm sorry. “I don't like it.” “And another thing! Can you not talk about Mark in front of Missy?” “I never say anything about Mark around her, Rachel! I wouldn't do that.”
“You did it this evening, you asked if Mark knew about Damian.” “Does daddy know about you?” Have you told him? “I think so.” Then, yes. “Can daddy see you?” Only you can see me, little one. “I can't always see you.” But you know I'm always there. “Yeah.” “I just brought it up in passing! I didn't say anything negative in front of Missy.” “It doesn't matter, the point is, you brought him up!” “You don't want anyone even mentioning her father in front of her? Doesn't she see him every weekend anyway?” “What, I can't ask that my daughter not be reminded of her father every five minutes while she's with me?” “Why not, what's the point? Do you think she's that sensitive that you...” “Would you stop telling me how to parent my own fucking kid?” “I don't like the yelling.” I know. “They're being mean.” Yes. “Why?” Grown-ups sometimes are. “Mommies too?” Mothers are grown-ups, too. “Can you make them stop?” No. But you can. “How?” “For the love of God, Rachel. You have to decide where the lines are in this relationship. I'm living with you, and your daughter, but you don't want me to do anything to help raise her?” “Don't make me laugh, Michael, you don't want to help raise her.” “How can I make them stop?” “How would you know? You never let me close to her.” “You never try!” “How can I try, when you hover around her every time she and I are together, like you're afraid I'm going to hurt her or something.”
“I don't.” “You do! Wake up, Rachel! Do you trust me, or don't you?” Call your mother. “Mommy!” “I do, of course, I do.” “Shh..” “Mommy!” “Don't shh me, Michael!” “No, shh. Listen. Missy.” “MOMMY!” “Oh, fuck.” “What does that mean?” It's a bad word. “Like hell? Michael said hell earlier.” Like hell. “Hey, sweetie. Are you having trouble falling asleep?” Tell her you can hear them talking. “I can hear you and Michael talking.” “You can? Can you hear what we're saying?” Say no. “No.” “Oh, good. I mean, okay. I'm sorry sweetheart, we'll be quieter.” “Okay.” “Goodnight, sweetie.” “Goodnight.” “What was that?” “She could hear us.” “Shit.” “Yeah.” “I should go...” “You don't have to.” “You sure?” “Yeah, stay. We'll... we can talk about this some other time. Let's watch the movie.” “Are you sure?” “Yeah.” “Is shit a bad word too?” Yes. “Can I say shit?” If you want. “Would I get in trouble?” Probably.
` “Can you still hear them?” No. Can you? “No.” Good. “Can you finish the story?” Of course, little one. “Okay.” Arthur told the woman that he would help her get her sons back, and he went to Merlin. When Arthur told Merlin about the woman's problem, Merlin told Arthur that he would take care of it. Merlin and the witch, Morgan Le Fay, had known one another a long time, and she often tried to steal children and raise them to become witches, like her. “Were they friends, Merlin and Morgan?” Not exactly. “Oh.” Merlin knew that Morgan Le Fay lived in a cave in a mountain overlooking a crystal clear lake. He turned himself into an owl… “He could do that?” Yes. “Can you do that?” Yes. “Can I see?” Yes. “Wow...” Anyhow, Merlin flew to the cave where Morgan Le Fay lived, and he landed at the entrance, turning back into a man. Inside the cave, he found the two baby boys, lying in a nest of straw and fur. He looked around for the witch, but she was nowhere to be seen. As he carried the children out of the cave, however, Morgan Le Fay landed beside him, in the form of a black raven. “What? Why did you stop?” You don't have some question, or comment? “No...” My. You’re sleepy, aren't you. “Yeah.” Would you like to sleep? “Finish the story first.” Alright. Morgan turned back into a woman, and lunged at Merlin, trying to wrestle the babies out of his arms, but Merlin was quicker. He transformed the children into little fish, and dropped them into the water. Morgan tried to catch them, but they fell into the lake before she could reach them. Cursing Merlin, she turned back into a
raven and flew away to the edge of the lake, because water is dangerous to witches, and she didn't dare follow the little fish into the depths of the lake. Merlin turned himself into a pelican, and “What's a pelican?” A pelican is a sea-bird, with a great big beak which can hold a lot of water. Merlin used the beak to scoop the little children into his mouth, along with water so they could breath. Morgan followed, still trying to get the children back, but every time she got close, Merlin opened his beak, and she was frightened away by the water the fish were swimming in. Eventually, she gave up and flew back to her cave. Merlin brought the fish back to Camelot, and turned them back into babies, and gave them to Arthur, who returned the children to their mother. “Is that the end?” Yes. The end. “What happened to the little boys when they grew up?” Merlin watched over them, like he had Arthur, like he would other children, watched them and guided them as they grew, and one day, when they were older, he taught them how magic and they became mages, like him. “Did they live with Merlin?” No little one, they went out into the world on their own, and lived their own lives, until one day they, too, found a child to watch over, and love, and raise as a mage. “Are you a mage, Damian?” Something like that. “Can I be a mage when I grow up, too?” Perhaps, little one. Perhaps. “I like that story. Can you tell me another one? About Merlin and Arthur?” Tomorrow, little one. “Okay.” Goodnight. Enjoy your dream of puppies and kitties and unicorns. “Why are you never in my dreams, Damian?” When you sleep, I sleep. Otherwise, I would get too tired to take care of you during the day. “Oh.” I'll see you tomorrow, little one. “Goodnight. I love you.” I love you, too. Sweet dreams. Benjamin MacLean-Max
Illustrated by Isaac Khouzam
I think the beginning is my favourite part. First, there is silence. Neither person makes a sound. To me, it is the most intimate; the part before. In the beginning, there was the word. No, that isn’t right. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty… That fits. I revel in the formless, the empty, because I know what will take shape, I know what will be filled. The movies make it seem like the best is yet to come, but I don’t think so. I guess now I can say it with certainty: no, it’s the here and now, the initial. Build-up, release. But not the overplayed one. It’s this build-up, this little release. It’s like breaking the surface of water and air bursting out of you. He locks eyes with me. I hold my breath. *** “I don’t feel well.” It isn’t enough, not unless there is physical evidence of it. Can I make myself vomit? I clutch my stomach, hoping that I might not have to. “A little Tylenol and you’ll be fine,” she says as she dabs the stick of deep red onto her moving lips. “It’s my stomach.” No, it’s a little below that. I still have my hands there. My eyes look up under knitted brows at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. “A little Gravol and you’ll be fine.” She nods to the medicine cabinet on the right wall beside the mirror. My feet teeter on the edge of the hallway carpet where the bathroom tile begins. I don’t cross the threshold. I know medicine won’t take away this sickness. I hear my father’s voice from the kitchen downstairs. “You’re not getting out of this, Maria.” I wait in silence for him to continue; I know he isn’t done yet.“They’ve helped so much this year with the carpooling. The least we can do is accept their invitation to dinner. They’re our friends.” “I didn’t know there was so much obligation in friendship,” I mutter. Mom stops fiddling with the clasp on her cross necklace and perks up like a dog that heard an insidious, near supersonic sound. She looks at me in the mirror. “What?” she always hears what I say, but gives me this mercy to take it back. I shake my head and say, “nothing, nothing” and walk away. Normally the sting of my parents’ rebuke is enough to have me
seething in my bedroom for at least a few minutes, but tonight my mind is elsewhere. I can only focus on the potential thing. I rigidly put on my silver studs and pick up my purse. Before I leave my room, my eye catches the thin ring of pure gold, resting boldly on my dresser like a relic from another life. A former life, now. I remember the pride I felt on my sixteenth birthday when I first put it on. I move to pick it up and begin to slide it onto my left finger. Though I haven’t worn it in weeks, there’s still a tan-line. But it feels restrictive, heavy, out of place. I don’t need this extra torture. I place it back on my dresser and close my bedroom door behind me. I join my parents in the hall and watch them put their shoes on. I look at my bare finger. I feel naked. *** I like to stare at his body after. It wasn’t always like that; I used to avert my eyes while he dressed. Now, when he rises and stretches, I stare. It’s not greedy; it starts with curiosity. Don’t all things start with curiosity? It quickly gives way to reverence. No. Wrong word. Well, there isn’t a right one. If I tried to describe the beauty that I see before me, it would just be a sequence of letters, a slew of words that have lost their saltiness from years of overuse. He isn’t a word. He is just himself, unashamed, and I am staring at him. It is then I recall that man was originally meant to be naked. “Who told you that you were naked?” Naked wasn’t a concept before the fall. It was just a word. *** The Thompsons’ house isn’t usually quiet; the clamor of their boys fills the unnecessarily large rooms when they’re not away at soccer camp. It used to annoy me. Now I wonder how anything could be more annoying than the clattering of forks on Mrs. Thompson’s fine china, a gift from her missionary sister in Shenzhen. I look beyond Mr. Thompson at the head of the table to see the matching tea set that goes with it, still resting dustily in the china cabinet; three saucers on one side, two on the other (I broke one in the seventh grade. It was the only time I remember my dad yelling at me). Now I would almost welcome shattering glass. “As soon as I heard you were coming, Maria, I went straight to the store. I haven’t made my Cajun peas in ages!” I look to the opposite end of the table and smile at Mrs. Thompson while forcing a forkful into my mouth.
“I don’t know what it is about Maria. She always loved her greens…” I can’t help noticing how even dad’s voice sounds small in the vast house. “So you’ve decided on Duke then?” I barely notice Mrs. Thompson’s question before the appropriate amount of time to answer her elapses. “I still haven’t taken NCS off the table,” I say. I give the same smile from before, now stale and fading. The university name feels foreign in my mouth. Or maybe it’s the peas. Dad fills in what my response lacks with enthusiasm about Duke and my inevitable enrolment to his old school. Maybe if they put in more furniture, some end tables, a few flower pots or something, it would fill out the place. Or at least absorb the eerie echoes that the clanking cutlery makes. “I know that, but I know my daughter, and she doesn’t settle. It doesn’t get much better than Duke,” dad says. Mom must have made a comment about letting me make my own decisions again or something. Absentmindedly, I move to twirl the ring on my left finger and feel warm flesh instead. I put my hands under the table, afraid I drew attention to my finger’s bareness. It’s amazing how little college clogs my brain anymore. I wonder how dad can talk about the future like that, like it’s a sure thing. Like it’s not subject to change. Like I’m not subject to change. “The best advice I can give you,” Mrs. Thompson continues. She’s going to tell me to pray about it. “Is pray about it!” I feel like I’m shivering, but I’m not cold. *** In the midst of it, I don’t feel guilt. The millions of guilt-laden thoughts that torment me when I’m alone, like little seeds trying to germinate in my mind, vanish. …and they become one flesh. I feel, I don’t think. I am, for once, synced with my body. It is through him that I become myself. My mind and my body become me. His mind and his body become me. My mind and my body become him: seamless. In all this beauty, where is there room for guilt? They were both naked, and they felt no shame. *** Crying in the bathroom has become a regular activity for me, but this is the first time I’m doing it in another person’s house. I turned on the fan to muffle the sounds of my pathetic sobs after I gave up on keeping the tears in. I let them fall now, unconcerned about my makeup smudging, about having red eyes when I return to the table. I can no longer hold it
together because I know, without knowing. My own body feels foreign to me. I think of all the things that will change, of everything that I’ll lose. I think of the looks I’ll get from people, I think of their thoughts. She’s only a teenager, what a pity. A product of her environment, I’m sure. Probably doesn’t have a good home life. What a shame. As these thoughts fill my head, they anchor me, and I slowly slump against the door to the tiled floor and land in a heap. Fear cradles me in its arms. And then I see it. It’s sticking part way out of the trash can, unmistakable. The sobs slow. At her age? I wonder if she’s bought more. I open the cupboard under the sink and search for the white and purple stick. I find a box with the image of the tester with a shadow of a woman holding her belly in the background, and open it. I could have all my fears erased. Or confirmed. I hesitate for only a moment; anything is better than this liminal space I am currently occupying. I read the box and follow the instructions precisely. I set it down on the floor, sit down beside it after washing my hands, and wait. Wait. Wait. Build-up, release. Build-up, release. I hold my breath, and look. A single black line, unaccompanied, uncomplicated, alone. My life, what I had already started calling my former life, stops moving away from my vision and begins to return to me. Mom, dad, plans, the future. Another vision that I hadn’t acknowledged before now starts to recede into darkness to make room: it is me, lying down, with a mound protruding from my midsection, a beautiful mound of mysterious DNA, an ingenious intertwining of me and him. And him, with his hand resting lovingly on the crescent point of the mound. There might be more, but I can’t tell now, it’s already too far gone. I exhale, but there is no satisfaction. I release, and yet…
Now the earth was formless and empty…
Illustrated by Isaac Khouzam
The first time I ever fingered myself was to Otis Redding’s
1987 “Try a Little Tenderness.” I didn’t mean to. They kind of just slipped in there at the chorus. I can remember the video better than the things I’ve lived through. It’s MTV. Otis is standing on a tricolored stage. The lights are cool – blue on women dancing.
I had this reversible sign on my bedroom door as a kid. It was
covered in animated Wild West cartoons like smiley faced boots and rough-guy looking horseshoes. One side read, “C’mon in, Partner!” My mom made me keep it on that side. Unless I was in the shower, then I got to flip it to the side that said, “Going to the Watering Hole.” The only problem was, the paint was old and now the only legible letters on the sign were “Wa Ho.” After I discovered Otis Redding, I started flipping it to Wa Ho a lot more. Mother liked to remind me that God was always watching, even in the Watering Hole, but I think that hit my wiring wrong because I liked the idea of it. I started letting God watch me.
My mother didn’t like the stage or the blue. All my mother
ever talked about was how the vandals were spraying graffiti over the artwork. Murals mostly. Austin’s covered in them. She was elected to our city council back in ’05 and made it her mission to ban spray paint cans. It was the graffiti not the cans that got her but you have to blame something nowadays.
She would drive around in our Outback, windows down,
scouting for wreckage. She still says that vandalism decreased under her watch but she never crossed into the East side. That’s where most of the murals were anyway. There was a big one of Martin Luther King Jr.
on South Congress St. but you can’t drive with the windows down in the East side and she gets antsy if she goes too long without fresh air.
I don’t mind the graffiti. It’s hard to say what’s art anymore,
what’s collaboration, and what’s vandalism. Or maybe we’re not supposed to think about it at all. Otis says, “The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation,” but what happens when the war is between creators? And a kid can sign his name like God pissing the ten commandments on the forehead of MLK – drunk with a can of spray paint and a blue gatorade.
I don’t tell my mother this. I also don’t tell her that the Mont-
gomery’s taught me how to tag my name on a white canvas in their backyard. My mother doesn’t like me going over there because when I was little she found me chewing on a used band-aid in their pool. I think it was my own but she was still upset about it.
She liked to remind me about their uncleanliness. We’d stop in
the produce section, under colourless lights, and she would scrunch her face up and brush past the Montgomery peaches.
“Real hairy things.” She’d say.
The youngest Montgomery daughter was my best friend. She
was a skinny thing who smelled like artificial watermelon and the sea. She had psoriasis that liked to patch up around her knees so she always wore leggings – even in the hot Texan summer. Her name was Alexa, although I only ever called her Duds because she had these round chocolate Milk Dud eyes that were rare in Corpis Christie. I showed her Otis once but nothing ever came of it. She didn’t need music to get off.
She used to tell me that I needed to practice. That it wouldn’t
hurt if I practiced before. That the boys would like it more if I did. She found one of those bubble wands from the 90’s, wrapped it in a sock and put a condom over it and would practice every Sunday.
She had a whole bowl of condoms, in all shapes and colours.
Her older sister, Mandy, would pick them up for her when she stopped at the clinic. Mandy was the modern beacon of free sex. She volunteered at a Planned Parenthood downtown and kept trophies from her lovers. She had a big box of them. Sometimes she would let us into her room and we could reach in and pick something from the box. I kept everything she let me have in my bedside drawer. A postcard from Amsterdam, two metal clasps, a dried Baby Breath bundle, and a silver toe ring. I think I was a bit in love with her but nothing ever came of it.
Mandy liked Tommy James & the Shondells and Charles
Manson. You could hear her singing along to “Crystal Blue Persuasion” through Dud’s bedroom wall. I liked to imagine the way she moved when we weren’t around. More hips – all blue. When she wasn’t listening to music, she was re-watching the 1986 Charles Manson interview. She said she’s never seen darker brown in an eye. She liked him the way I liked Otis.
Charles made her a little punk, as far as punk could be while
still listening to 1960’s acoustic pop. She had a big sign on her door that read, “Only Use Guns To Kill Presidents.” I once tried to tell her that her sign was like my Wa Ho but I couldn’t get the point across.
In her later years, Alexa wasn’t anything exciting. She loved
John Mayer and kept up with Big Brother. When we reached high school, she would light vanilla candles as she studied. It helped her
remember. I stopped calling her Duds because she worried it made her sound dumb. She liked being smart more than she liked learning. But every once in awhile she would come across something that made her feel something other than smart. We didn’t have a word for it at the time.
She would run upstairs after school, into Mandy’s room, dump
her backpack and start remembering.
“Today we learned what happens to the brain when you die.”
Mandy would smile and nod to encourage her.
“There is a moment after you die when your brain is still func-
tioning. Supposedly, in those last seconds, you experience every emotion there is to be felt. One by one.”
She looked to Mandy, “Do you know which one is last?”
“There’s a lot to feel before the last.” Mandy said.
Alexa scratched her arm, “Well yeah, but the last one is cool.”
We both waited for Mandy to respond.
“Joy is last.” Alexa said, “Isn’t that cool?”
Mandy looked down at her hands and then said, “What if
my joy is different than yours? What if my joy is this happy stomach feeling and you see joy as the color yellow and maybe she sees it as the chorus of ‘Sweet Jane.’ They can’t all be the same.”
“Well, no. It’s the same chemical I think.”
“Yeah I guess.”
Things were quiet for awhile.
Eventually, Mandy turned to us and said, “I read this book
about a blind man who thought it was absolutely absurd that the sky
and ice could be the same color.”
I waited for her to continue but she didn’t. Alexa ripped open a
bag of gummy bears. I only ate the red ones and Mandy didn’t eat any. I don’t know how long we sat there like that – chewing, without saying anything. Alexa and I slunk away to her room after that. She didn’t like to think about blind people and I couldn’t figure out if ice was blue or white.
Four years after that, Mandy left for San Francisco. She was
nineteen and old enough to want things. She was only gone for a couple months because she didn’t like the way her hair frizzed up near the salt water but her absence was the slow end to my friendship with Alexa. I didn’t think much of it at the time.
Neither of us were enough for each other anymore. I could
never get her to sit through a song and it bothered me.
That was awhile ago and you shouldn’t think about things that
far away. But I like the smell of vanilla now because it reminds me that Alexa remembers. Maybe the love lies in the movement between not enoughs.
The last time I saw her was at our high school graduation. We
were standing under the hot sun in terrible green gowns, itching. We walked next to each other in the ceremony. It’s weird standing by someone like that. There’s a distance between you. You feel it in your throat but you like that because it means it’s not in your chest anymore. You make sure you don’t tell her you love her when she leaves and it doesn’t hurt.
After the ceremony, she gave me a hug. She was taller than I
remembered and I felt her arms on my shoulders for a little while as I walked away. There was something in the way she looked at me, more eyes than Milk Duds. It could have been the sun but I thought I could see something in her. Maybe it was just yellow.
Photograph by Julia Balm