The Grotonian, Spring 2021 Expo Edition

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the grotonian





groton school 2020 [3 ]

the grotonian

est. 1885 … editors sixth form fifth form Beatrice Agbi Sam Quigley Angela Wei

Jared Gura Amelia Lee Allison Jiang

copyright © 2021 groton school [4 ]

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” F. Scott Fitzgerald Our form is unprecedented in many ways: it’s one of the largest in Groton history, and it has endured one of the most wild and tumultuous years in world history. It is remarkable that, in the middle of a global pandemic, we were still able to come together in the fall to share our stories and experiences with one another. Especially now, though we may not be able to physically gather, we must stay together — if not in person, then through literature. As editors, we cherish the privilege of hearing your voices through your stories, stories, and we hope that, after reading this handful of essays, you feel closer to one another, wherever you may be.

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Wishing Star Claire Holding

9 … A Guide to Happiness Elbereth Chen

19 … Paradise Lost Aisling O’Connell

31 … The Girl with the Bullfrog Kate Clark

41 … Farmer, Rooster, and Insect Nathan Zhang

55 … A Note on “Family” and Food Edwina Polynice

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Wishing Star Claire Holding


he call came around 3:00 pm. That regretful voice delivering the inevitable message. “Ms. Holding? Yes. Yes, I’m afraid so. I’m so sorry for your loss.” It was expected — so expected, in fact, that my parents were already on their way down when he passed; had it not been for my surgery, I would have been with them. But he was gone and I was bedbound, so I remained parked on my pillow, focusing my flooding eyes on the clouds traveling through the window above my bed. Tears were silly, after all. It was expected. The next call came around 3:30. My parents had arrived in Connecticut. Dad had ordered a pizza and Mom was waiting at the curb with the tip. Through the receiver I heard the familiar rhythm of her pensive pacing crushing the shell driveway beneath her heels. She told me Nana was okay, and that Bill and

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Pam were on their way. They were meeting with the funeral home tomorrow, and, though the shells said otherwise, she said she was honored to be performing the ceremony. She told me to remind my sister Katherine to feed the dog, and to not try going upstairs until she returned home. She told me to take my meds. At 5:00, Nana took her turn. She swiped the phone from Dad’s hands, and through cracking optimism, she asked how my hip was feeling. I leaned down to quiet the creaking contraption moving my joint eight hours a day, causing the four screws holding my freshly-constructed pelvis together to scream in pain. Knowing my agony was nothing compared to hers, I gritted my teeth and told her that things were healing remarkably well. The pain was practically gone and I would for sure be in attendance at the service. “Good, good.” She continued on for a moment, spewing disjointed phrases about wedding days and eternal bliss — all the things he had experienced, all the things he was going to miss — then concluded: “You know, Clairebear, we should really be grateful. God has taken him to a better place. God does such good.”

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I restarted the machine. *** Growing up, we said Grace every night at the dinner table. Sitting in a circle, the four of us would clasp our hands together and recite a prayer, thanking God for our food. But Dad was the one who cooked dinner. Before bed, my mom traced a cross onto my forehead, and each Sunday I dutifully marched acolyte candles to and from the altar. Isn’t it a fire hazard to dress children in oversized robes and give them 3-foot torches? When my grandfather got sick, Mom would fall to her knees and beg God to ease his pain. Don’t be foolish. Modern science is far more effective than any well wishes. To me, the “Our Father” was not a benediction but rather 15 lines of text I could memorize to make a service go faster. Thanking God was not an act of appreciation but rather a sigh of relief when the teacher didn’t put any trick questions on the test. Hoping to avoid a civil war in my family, I kept quiet. I recited empty prayers at the dinner table and let my mother draw that “t” below my hairline each night, waiting for the day when I could replace these customs with truth.

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*** A few minutes after I hung up with my grandmother, my sister knocked on my door. She stepped into the room as my dog trailed close behind, ever-hopeful that the contents of the rattling bottles were for him. Six hours had passed and I could take another dose. Did I want Oxy or Valium? Oxy. The pain had gotten worse. I sent Katherine to the kitchen to refill my water, twiddling the extra-long straw from my drink between my thumb and middle finger. When you leave the hospital, they let you bring the drinking-aide with you to avoid any excess pain that comes with sitting up to swallow. Upon my sister’s return, I slid the contraption back into my glass and gulped down my little white treat, waiting for the blissful dreamlessness of narcotic-induced sleep. Around 6:30, the buzz of yet another call woke me from my nap. Things had gotten out of hand at Nana’s house, and my dad and his siblings were fighting. Their schedules didn’t line up, so the funeral was going to have to be this week. I wouldn’t be cleared for attendance. Was I okay with that? Just as well. He was already gone, anyways.

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Before heading back into the chaos of the house my mom shared some “good news.” “Oh, honey?” “Mmhmm.” “I asked the lectern to put you in the Prayers of the People this week. The whole congregation is praying for a swift recovery.” “Great.” I fell back asleep. It was around 9:00 when I finally surfaced from my slumber. The room had grown dark, and Katherine had put an episode of Modern Family on the TV. My dog sat at the edge of the bed, methodically licking his way up my leg. In an attempt to shove him off, I flexed my foot — OW — then I resigned to his insistent adoration. It was the closest semblance of a shower I had seen in weeks. I turned my attention to the screen. I knew this episode. Phil’s mom dies, and the whole family hops on a plane to be together at the funeral. Considerate, Katherine. In this scene, one of the granddaughters is upset. In her will, the grandma had left each grandchild a gift: her brother received an old watch; her sister, an ornate broach. Alex, the youngest

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granddaughter, got a two-dollar lighter. Thinking their relationship had been insignificant to her grandmother, Alex flees the house in an attempt to prove it hadn’t mattered to her either. It is not until later in the episode that she discovers a note left with the lighter, revealing the true value of the possession. My grandfather and I hadn’t been particularly close. He had his first stroke when I was in grade school, and each year after, he grew less and less capable of holding a conversation. In the moments he lost his words entirely, he would switch languages to communicate with those he loved. When he saw Nana, he would improvise a melody based off of “Moon River,” bringing them back to the first dance at their wedding. When he saw my aunt, he would brush her hair behind her ear like he did when she was a girl. When he saw my sister, he would grin devilishly and point to the tin of domino bricks stashed in the corner from their last game. When he saw me, he would smile. There wasn’t any malice behind this action; smiles are perfectly nice greetings. But I was excluded from those moments of intimacy he shared with the rest of my family. I told myself this was because I was

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the youngest grandchild, and I had never gotten the chance to know him in his prime. But really, I feared we just didn’t connect. Now, we never could. In an attempt to shrug this thought from my mind I switched off the TV and picked up my phone. Instinctively, I swiped through screens until my thumb hovered above the social media folder. Just before I clicked into the world of false reality, another app caught my eye. Sky Guide: a 360 degree live map of the constellations swirling around our planet. My grandfather had downloaded it for me the previous summer. I clicked on the icon and watched the sky glitter to life. Turning my screen back and forth, I reacquainted myself with the software. To the West, I found Sagittarius. To the North was Ursa Major, and Ursa Minor wasn’t far away. Directly above my head, Alquila. Altair. *** When my oldest cousin was born, my grandfather took a year to decide what he wanted his nickname to be. Generic names such as Grandpa or Pops bored him (this is the one chance you got to name yourself, after all). He wanted to ensure the name would be personal, something just between him and

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his grandkids. One morning he walked downstairs and declared himself Altair, the leading star of his favorite constellation. When I was little we used to climb onto the roof and search for his presence in the sky. I was lousy at astronomy, though, and never managed to locate his star. *** I refreshed the app, frozen in disbelief. Altair remained above my bed. I don’t believe in signs from God, or any act of divine intervention. But there are some coincidences too great to attribute to chance. Altair is not supposed to be over New England at night during the summer months. I know, I’ve checked. Ten-year-old Claire would say there is probably some simple explanation for this change in course. A Google search could solve my query in seconds. But I never looked it up. Though it may seem silly, I choose to believe Altair was shining over our house for me that night. Whether this is truth or chance, I don’t know — nor do I particularly care — but something inside

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me shifted. For a moment, I was part of something greater than myself. For a moment, I believed. I do not consider myself a Christian, nor do I consider myself an Atheist. More often than not I am still that scientist who focuses her faith on that which is seen. But every so often I sit outside at night and search for my grandfather between the clouds. When I find him, I chuckle to myself and send him a smile, wondering if this is what he had been grinning about all along.

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A Guide to Happiness Elbereth Chen


ear erbao, By the time you have learned enough to understand this letter, our parents may already be divorced. More likely, they will still be together and will be going through life exactly how they do now: constantly bickering, yelling, and generally treating each other with no respect or decency. I myself have begun to wonder a long time ago why our parents could insult each other’s families and smash chairs during a fight and still act like nothing happened the next day. Admittedly they became less violent after one of them hit our Aunt Xia two years ago, but you probably still witness them fighting and often get caught up in their quarrels like I did. In fact, it seemed impossible not to get involved in their fights. Our father was always unsatisfied about some aspect of how I was being raised,

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claiming I was not learning any instrument or I was not spending enough time outdoors. Our mother would shut him down by calling him a jackass before he could express his ideas. She did not think our father deserved to complain because he had shown consistent irritation with child-rearing ever since my crying woke them up in the middle of the night eighteen years ago. Provoked and frustrated by our mother’s acidic insults, our father would shout with his nostrils flared and knuckles turned white. His outward appearance of a gentle and scholarly man would melt away and make space for a stranger who would smash his chopsticks hard against the table and kick over chairs in a fit of rage. The echo of furniture crashing would shake and fill my core until it poured out in the form of crying or screaming. I thought my outbursts would stop their fighting, yet our mother would simply roll her eyes and ignore us altogether. She would leave the room or start doing something else; all the while, our father would start shouting, “Look at how insubordinate and disrespectful Chen Yiwei is now! What will we do with her later on!” And therein lies the thing I hate most: our parents

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addressing us in third-person, despite us sitting right next to them as we try everything to stop their fighting. In that moment in time, our father did not see me as his daughter but rather ammo with which he could fire to attack our unresponsive mother. When all the loaded phrases had been discharged, our parents just swept them under the rug, woke up the next morning as a pristinely happy family, and picked those words up during their next altercation. After a few years, I started avoiding their fights by hiding under my comforter or locking myself in my room. It was a constant state of war. Any small spark could light a fuse and explode. The most frustrating part was that no matter how careful I was around the landmines, I could not call a truce. It took me ten years to realize that it is not my responsibility, nor will it be yours, to make the situation better. I understand that you want our parents to be affectionate, that you don’t want our parents fighting. I did too. However, a relationship cannot be fixed if the two people in said relationship are unwilling to compromise. I am sure you have already formed some opinions about our parents when you read this letter, but trust me when I say they are not

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likely to change for each other. Our parents’ arguments sound exactly the same as they did ten years ago, only now the name being tossed around as ammunition is yours. It is you who will feel shaken and helpless as you sit next to them and listen to them hate each other and hate you. It is you who will watch their transformation from being our parents to being two exceedingly flawed humans. It is you who will wish for someone to take you far away from the chaos when no one seems to be there for you. Even I will fail you, since I will be oceans away and twelve hours behind more often than not. I am sorry for constantly leaving, erbao, I am sorry. Please, please remember that though you may feel dejected, you are not rejected. I so want to be at your side and shield you from our parents’ overwhelming negativity, yet all I can offer is my presence through digital screens and this: you are not the reason for our parents’ unhappiness, and you are not the person whom their toxic words describe. When we are little we put ourselves in the full control of our parents, and as a result we are unable to separate their mean spirits from their

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love. Understandably we have to trust their judgements and follow their directions because we are little. We are told by everyone that obeying our parents makes us good, so we absorb all they say or do in a desperate attempt to be good and approved and worthy of love. You may think I exaggerate, erbao, that I am just a goody two-shoes and a people-pleaser. Yet I see the same pressure on you now as all of us are stuck at home together. I see you slowing down the pace of your spoon when our parents compare us, “Why are you a picky eater when your sister wasn’t one,” or silencing your laughter when our parents berate you, “Stop laughing so loudly, it’s noisy.” I see our parents giving you these frivolous commands, and you dimming yourself down to cater to their preferences. It reminds me of my elementary and middle school years, during which our parents labelled me with their hurtful criticism and dissatisfaction despite my continuous attempts to meet their expectations of being a good child. There was one time in fourth grade; I finished my Saturday lesson at the supposedly best Olympic math training center in Nanjing, but no one came to pick me up. I stood in

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the piercing wind of a late December afternoon—no food, no money, a dying flip phone, and thirty minutes away from home. Our father was habitually late, and I could only hear the dragged-out busy tone when I called him. After an hour I got anxious and called our mother. She said she would try to contact our father, who finally showed up another fifty minutes later. The first thing that greeted me as I climbed into his car was a water bottle flung to my face and his furious voice: “You useless thing! Who taught you to be so impatient huh?! You idiotic, lazy pig!” I barely evaded the flying bottle that day. I did not evade the words, venomous and amplified by the small space, that our father yelled to me for the rest of the ride. I have forgotten how I reacted, but I do remember our father throwing a tissue box at me and warning, “You better not tell your mom or cry in front of her,” when he was parking the car. So I kept my mouth shut and went back home with our father. If our mother saw the tear stains on my cheeks or the redness in my eyes, she did not say anything. I was too vulnerable and afraid that I ended up agreeing with our father in my mind: somehow it became my

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fault and my fault only for him being late. It is tiring to recount this to you, erbao, because my childhood is full of instances similar to this one, and it’s hard to choose just one. Our father marked me “clueless,” “careless,” “defiant” with verbiage and whips of his belt, while our mother marked me “ugly,” “immature,” and “apathetic” with passive-aggressive tones. As a child I had trusted our parents and, by extension, everything they had to say about me. Although they did offer helpful criticisms, I also incorporated the invalid ones into my being. In truth, I built my entire self-worth on the approval and disapproval of our parents: I was afraid to disappoint, afraid to fail, and afraid to grow up to be someone whom our parents did not wish to see. I would be crushed by the burden of guilt and the feeling of worthlessness whenever I disobeyed them even slightly, which only made me more reliant on obsessing about their expectations. Erbao, if simply telling you this is tiring, it was even more tiring to live this way. My dear little brother, I tell you these stories not because I want to turn you against our parents or make you feel dissatisfied with our family. I write

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about my past because I want you to realize that you are so much more valuable than what our parents will let you believe. Do not compromise how you feel about yourself or who you’d like to in order to meet the arbitrary familial or societal expectations. It is okay to have a few foods that you don’t like to eat. It is okay to get a grade below 90. It is okay not to get into so-called “best” schools. It is okay to like a girl or a boy or both or neither or more. It is okay to say “no” to our parents’ orders, opinions, and lifestyles. In the grand scope of things you are the person who lives your life, and on your deathbed, you will not remember the one time when you refused to go to that Daoist retreat with our parents. Appreciating all our parents have done for us does not mean letting them dictate us. You can be so much more than what our parents have envisioned for you if you have the courage which I lacked to break away from the shackles of physical and mental manipulations. It can be daunting since, up to this point in your life, you’ve been directed onto a narrow road that allegedly leads to success, and now I have asked you to steer away. Success matters, but what matters more is you being

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comfortable in your own skin and having confidence in who you are without believing that you are always less than others. Then you will enjoy your achievements more and carry on in life even when you fail. Please recognize your own worth, so you can brush off all the hateful judgements because you know from the bottom of your heart that they are not true. If you are already hurt, you are still loved, and you are always worthy. You do not deserve the horrible ways with which your most trusted people treated you. You will soon find out that many of your peers and even mentors go through the same degradation of humanity to various extents. Thus, you are not alone. Their parents and their parents’ parents were also tied to similar trees on which they were lashed repeatedly with willow branches of conformity until their rebellious spirits were beaten out of them. All the scars of those lashes have culminated into a society where abuse is normalized as familial affection. The silences after each offense have transformed the validity of emotion and communication to weigh less than the paper on which outdated moral codes were written. Yet we do not have to wear this common façade of gentle apathy. Love yourself and those

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around you. Take care of yourself and get help when you feel unsafe. Find people who are willing to support you no matter the situation. You are loved, you are valued, and our parents cannot tear you down. I love you, Jiejie

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Paradise Lost Aisling O’Connell


few months ago, I was making out with my boyfriend in the Women’s Referee Locker Room, when suddenly I began to sob so hard that snot started to run down my chin. He recoiled from my wet and swollen face, and attempted to console me. It was far from my finest moment. When my boyfriend later asked me if I was okay, I told him that it was probably the stress of Fifth Form. Of course, this wasn’t the truth. To really explain why I did something so horrifically embarrassing, you have to go back eleven years to when I first started going to summer camp. I have been going to nature camp for as long as I can remember, which I think says a lot about the person I am today. I grew up across the street from Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary, and every night my mom, brother and I would walk our black lab

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through the trails. As a kindergartener, I was shy and didn’t have many friends, which led to me staying inside during recess to draw instead of going out to the playground. The only thing that really got me talking was sharks and the ocean. When my Mom realized that Habitat offered a summer camp specifically centered on the natural world, she immediately signed me up, hoping that it would get me to open up a bit. I bloomed. The Animal Room It is filled with files and glass tanks. The back is a wall of boxes, meticulously labeled by topic and stuffed with the corresponding games, costumes, scripts, and art materials. The bird one, the box I visit the most, has a migration game, nest building materials, and outlines of common New England species that the kids fill out in exactly the wrong colors. In the glass tanks, there are two Axolotls, Hissing Cockroaches, a Corn Snake, a Wood Turtle, and frogs, all of which are unnamed so we do not get too attached to any of them. The Corn Snake (which I’ll admit, I do secretly call Corny) is the only one that has been here since I was five. The counselor would

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carry her around and we would gently stroke her back with one finger. Now, I’m the one who giggles as she tries to sneak up my t-shirt sleeves and hushes the group of seven year olds so she doesn’t become aggressive. The kids file out as I gently lift her back into the cage and she slithers under her log. Ben places his hand on my shoulder and tells me I did a great job. I don’t want to be there anymore. The Library Before the mansion was donated to be used as an education center, this place used to contain priceless first editions and an always lit fireplace around which secret conversations occurred. Now, a teenager stands at the entrance way and high fives each of the sixty kids who run down the wheelchair accessible ramp and directs them to choose between coloring aquatic ecosystems, the puzzle with turtles, Metamorphosis Twister or Bug Bingo. In the top right corner of the room, there is a drawing of a shark. It is anatomically correct, extremely disproportionate, and has my name on the bottom. It is one of my proudest accomplishments, not because of the anatomical correctness, but because it has

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stayed up there for the past seven years. I used to stare at my picture every night before I left the library to go home, reminding me of the camper I used to be. Now, I hurry out so he doesn’t try to talk to me. The Brownie I led my first option outside The Brownie, a tiny mud colored shed by a small meadow. A rite of passage in Habitat camp counselorship, you, and you alone, control the afternoon of ten first to fourth graders. Mine is on sharks, because what else would it be about? My favorite thing to do is read books aloud, so this takes up the first half of my option. I am an expert at upside down reading, the funny voices, and making sure everyone sees the pictures. And as I sit there, telling these kids about the Thresher Shark’s long tail, the Greenland Shark’s unusual body composition, and how you’re more likely to die driving to the beach than while swimming, I think this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I’m not worried about the fact that there is a hornet’s nest dangerously close to where we are sitting, that there is a chance of thunder later, or that

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Ben is my co-leader. My mind is filled with sharks and keeping these kids, whom I have come to care about so much, happy. The Woodchip Field Because this is nature camp, our lunchroom tables are replaced by tarps on wood chips used for trail maintenance. Each day, I unwrap my vegetarian sandwich out of a reusable cloth and sit amongst kids who tug at my hands, try to braid my hair, and talk to me about the Discovery Channel Show “River Monsters.” On the last day of each session, we get popsicles made of organic juice with no GMOs. We eat them around the Woodchip Field, the kids happy for the sugar, the counselors relieved that our two week marathon is done. A child wraps himself around my right leg telling me that he’s a koala and I slowly stomp over to the cooler. The slushy bottom is filled with yellow sticks and I resign myself to sucking on the reduced-sugar lemon water. Ben tells me later that I looked really good doing that. I don’t eat another popsicle for the rest of the summer.

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Jane’s Office I have never been in this room before because this is the place bad kids go. As a camper, I was always a pleasure to have in the group even though (and maybe because) I would cry when the counselors yelled at me. I have always been a little afraid of Jane with her long gray hair and fierce personality. I am especially afraid now. Jane tells me that she’s heard concerning things about me and Ben. She tells me that people have overheard our conversations. She tells me that he has accused me of bullying him. She asks me what I have to say about this. I want to say that I am sixteen and that he is twenty-two. That he is studying chemical engineering at UMass and I have just finished my sophomore year of high school and have no idea what I want to do with my life. That I am a little over five feet and he is a little under six. That he has not stopped brushing against me or touching my shoulder all week. I want to say that yesterday, he told me he liked me and asked me on a date, and that I know this is a direct consequence of me saying no. But I don’t say any of these things. Instead, I notice the picture Jane has up on her wall. It is a

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drawing her daughter must have done. A stick figure family. I stare at it so hard that I could probably recreate it perfectly if you asked me to today. I wasn’t going to cry. Ben was doing my evaluation, and if I couldn’t come back to this place next summer, I wasn’t quite sure who I would be at all. Instead, I apologize. I say that I’m very sorry and that it was never my intention to make fun of him. That I hoped he would forgive and that I would try and do better. That I wouldn’t want this to get in the way of our professional relationship. The Downstairs Bathroom With dual flush toilets and disgusting (but animal friendly) almond soap, the bathroom fits right into the nature camp aesthetic. This is the bathroom I avoided for three days after I saw a Garter Snake in the corner. This is the bathroom where I wash the mud off my legs after we go ponding or meadowing. This is the bathroom where I reapply sunscreen every two hours because otherwise my face will turn red and peel the same way Corny sheds. This is the bathroom where I briefly cry about what has happened, before slapping on a smile and returning to

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my kids. The Women’s Referee Locker Room Sitting on that disgusting carpet and pressed up against cold metal lockers, Habitat came back to me. I’m not quite sure what triggered it, but I know it has something to do with him jokingly not listening to me saying no. I hadn’t thought about Ben since that last day of camp. I hadn’t processed what had happened. I didn’t realize that I had been sexually harassed. It hurt. It was the worst thing that has ever happened to me, and I had to deal with it alone. It doesn’t sound that bad, the excessive flirting and constant touching, but until it happens to you, I’m not sure you’ll ever fully understand. Nobody was on my side and I couldn’t explain myself. I don’t even know what I would have said. I haven’t been back to Habitat since the summer before Fifth Form. Camp was cancelled due to Covid last year, which is the excuse I have been using. Applications will open soon, and I’m not quite sure what I will do. Maybe things will be different, or

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maybe they won’t. Maybe I’ll work with Ben again, or he’ll have quit. All I know is that the place that helped me grow up is not what it used to be. And neither am I.

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The Girl with the Bullfrog Kate Clark


hen we first moved from the woods of central Massachusetts to Manchester-by-the-Sea, my parents allowed my siblings to decorate their own rooms. John and Kevin covered their walls with posters and jerseys of their hockey idols. Kevin pinned up Tim Thomas jerseys, and John picked out signed photos of Wayne Gretzky. Both completed their rooms with soft blue sheets covered in NHL logos, complete with matching pillows. My little sister Lauren, who was only six at the time, decided on bright pink barbie sheets, which were perpetually flowing over the side of her bed frame because she refused to tuck them in like my mother asked. She draped fairy lights and sashes across her canopied bed frame, a sight that would make any aspiring princess jealous. John and Kevin’s windows overlooked the driveway,

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forethought to when they grew old enough to possibly fend off intruders, while Lauren’s room included a door to the balcony overlooking the beach. Maybe my parents imagined her as Juliet, putting on live performances in the backyard for relatives at future family gatherings. I do not know how exactly it happened, but my parents never asked me what I wanted up on my walls. There is a large chance that I was away at soccer practice or a music rehearsal while my family discussed the plans for the new house or maybe I was simply not paying attention when they asked. I was never the most focused child, and my parents would oftentimes find me tapping away with pencils or my hands, caught up in the depths of my own imagination. Either way, I did not put up a fight when I learned that my parents had decorated my room for me. They painted the walls and ceiling a rich cream color. The slats of dark walnut hardwood were slick compared to the worn beige carpet I was used to, and I was excited to slide around in my socks. A round stone light hung from the ceiling. The walls were entirely bare aside from the decorative wooden

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mirror above my dresser, too high for me to see myself without standing on my bed. It was more meant for looking at than looking into. The bed was much too large for me, so I would stack the white lacy pillows and my two pillow pets beside me in the empty space while I slept. I was watched as I made my bed each morning, corners sharp, with a spotted yellow quilt laid over top and my blanket, carefully creased, placed at the end. Supporting the mattress was a frame made of thin, white metal rods that always felt cold to the touch. When we first moved I used to imagine myself laying in an old hospital, enclosed in a quiet white room, with the paint on the cold white bars stretching out behind my head chipped and peeling—like what I had seen in the old movies my parents liked. My parents topped off the room with an oil painting of a stallion on my back wall. I had just started horseback riding and my dad was already planning on enrolling me for lessons at the local barns. I was my father’s first daughter. I looked the most like him, shared his stubbornness, and always played into his ill-timed dad jokes. So he naturally took a liking to me. He was always short with my brothers,

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and Lauren was only a toddler, but as the clear favorite, he found room to forgive me. He always came to my defense in petty arguments and insisted on calling me his “King Boss,” despite John and Kevin’s vocal disapproval. After he enrolled me in club soccer, our Sunday morning drives out to the field were coveted father-daughter time. Drivers would turn to stare at the sleek black Audi weaving through traffic as we put on full renditions of songs by Bob Seger and Sugarland. Our favorite was “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen. As an eight year old, I could imagine speeding down the open road in my dad’s car, Springsteen serenading us, and me hanging out the passenger window while my dad manned the wheel. During the games, he cheered for me on the sidelines and broke down plays with me afterwards, oftentimes blaming my mistakes on the coach or other players to help cheer me up after losses. Only occasionally did he leave the field for his car, leaving me to find him in the packed parking lot, and only occasionally did he yell at me on the drive home, insisting that I had not tried hard enough. But it was all a product of getting older, of higher expectations

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for his perfect daughter. My father made the decision to send me away to boarding school after both my older brothers found their way at their small New England prep schools. On my first move-in day, my father and I left just after sunrise. Instead of his elegant Audi, we were weaving through traffic in a boxy Chevy Suburban, packed full of snacks, school supplies, and dorm decorations. I was fourteen and soon about to be autonomous from my parents. “King Boss” was embarrassing and I could not stand to listen to my dad’s out of date playlist. We found a radio station we could both bear and made small talk, my nervousness choking my words. After he helped move me in he hugged me tightly and slipped a small yellow envelope into my hand. “Read this after I leave.” The letter read: Kate, I know this year is going to be hard, but you are a driven, smart, and beautiful young woman. This is an amazing opportunity and I know you will do great things. I am always here for you and will be behind you to catch you when you fall. Best, Dad

[4 4 ]

He sold his Audi the year I left for school and has been driving the Suburban to pick me up ever since. The worn Chevy had scratches in each window from dogs and children, the seats perpetually covered in food from the Wendy’s trips he used as excuses to visit. I know he hated the car. He still does. He kept the music down low and let me sleep as he sped through lines of cars, silently finding ways to speed up the ETA. It was a game to him. Maybe he hoped that his “skill” would inspire the adoration I used to have for him as a kid. In reality, I just liked getting back to school sooner. I came out to him in the middle of my sophomore winter. I was at school, on the phone with my mother, and it slipped out. She told him before I could even process what I had done. I had only a singular phone call with my father that winter. Even through the phone the grip of his words was still able to reach into the air around my head, suffocating me and drawing tears from my eyes. “Liar,” “ungrateful,” and “disappointment” are still words that float around my brain, occasionally sinking their sharp edges into passing thoughts. I did not speak to him for the rest

[4 5 ]

of that year, even while home on break. Summer was different. We had already planned a family vacation with our family friend, so he was forced to act normal to keep up appearances. At some point I think his faking turned into genuine conversation and his solution to my sexuality became—and still is—life advice. Maybe because he believes my sexuality to be the product of my unhappiness or a mental crisis I had in the depths of a dark winter. More likely is that he wanted to fix the problem after my transcript came out three days into the trip and he saw that my average had dropped five percent. The first time we held a full conversation was later that summer. It was a Sunday morning and we were alone in the house. I was in my room and he was watching TV in the living room. The silence was a nice contrast to the chaotic screaming that I had grown accustomed to while at home with my four siblings and two dogs. I could hear the rhythmic cycle of waves on the beach and birds chirping through my open windows. I was still tired after I opted to spend the night in my room, ignoring my father’s texts, asking me to watch a movie with him

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and my mother. Instead, I stayed up past 3:00 am. FaceTiming my friends from school. The ping of the notification traveled from my pocket, through my legs, and into my chest. “Hey can we sit down and talk later today.” After typing and deleting and rethinking, I found a passable response, hesitating for a moment before I hit the blue arrow. “Yeah, sure. Just let me know when.” We sat in the TV room. The muted applause of golf spectators filled the room. There were no waves or birds, and the windows were closed along with the shades. The only light was coming from the dirty yellow lamp where my father was reading. He didn’t seem to notice when I walked through the door and sat down on the couch facing his chair. I watched his eyes move from word to word, licking each finger as he flicked to the next page and smoothed over the crease in the packet. I was worried he would repeat his words from the winter and that his crooked, misleading smile would soon fall flat and cold when he looked up from his thick stack of briefings. I sat there for a few minutes waiting for him to finish, shifting my focus to the photos of me and my sib-

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lings up on the bookshelf on the far wall. Eventually he looked up and folded his glasses. He sighed and his slightly amused smile slowly shifted. “You don’t look very happy.” The muted applause of the spectators playing in the background chimed in. I felt like I was in a 90’s sitcom, like someone was making a bad joke and the applause light had just gone on. “What do you mean?” I knew what he meant. I had rarely left my room all summer, swapping TV with my family for Netflix showings in my room. Dinners, which have always been a family event, were uncomfortable. I stopped fighting my sister for the coveted spot next to my father because each time we locked eyes, his soft expression reeked of judgement and his forgiving eyes glittered with hardness. I sat the farthest from him and across from no one. I timed out my trips downstairs to the kitchen for meals to avoid sitting next to him at the island. His loud chewing and the way he grunted as he ran through conversations in his head made me want to scream. Anger came quickly to me, and my impatience towards my family overwhelmed me. I grew as bitter towards him as he

[4 8 ]

was to me. A word had not been spoken about my sexuality since arriving home after that winter. There were whispers from my oldest brother, gossiping with his girlfriend and my sister about what he saw when he read through my texts. When the topic of conversion therapy came up at dinner, I was forced to remain silent. My father’s cold eyes passed mine as his words kept flowing, but I could not stop glancing at the tears perched on the crest of my mother’s eyelids, while he spoke of his version of God and freedom. His voice snarled as his gaze became fixed on me, defending the practice and the lost parents who choose to use it. I was left voiceless, unable to fight for those kids whose parents unfortunately believe the same, afraid that he might put his values into practice. I am a senior now, and we have been dancing around our little problem for two years. Each year he sends me to school with the same small, yellow envelope. Every letter reads the same aside from one or two words, as if he were a student trying to pass off a paper from last year as fresh work. This year he included some of his favorite photos of me from up

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on the book shelf. He particularly likes one of me crouching over the grass, holding a massive bullfrog up to the camera. I like the bullfrog. Its eyes are wide and fearful of the pre-kindergarten student with slimy, mud covered fingers, that snatched it from its place in the cool grass, only to dangle it in front of a flashing camera. I like me less than the bullfrog. I am wearing the plastic princess slippers, a bright pink t-shirt, and my hair was still short after my mother decided to give me a bob rather than the buzz cut I had asked for that year. As I stared at the photo, standing in my mens boxers, covered in pickles, my oversized hoodie, and rainbow themed hat, I couldn’t help but laugh. I guess I didn’t turn out the way he expected. That little girl did not seem to understand the monotony of it all. Her wide blue eyes, the ones my parents still bring up to relatives, could not imagine anything more than her bullfrog. The slimy, wriggling creature in her hands was all that she needed to produce a genuine smile, crooked and exaggerated, just like the one her father was showing off behind the camera. She was naive and innocent and did not understand that the speckles in her father’s bright

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eyes were hard and unforgiving. How could she be so stupid? How could I be so stupid? I used to laugh when my dad asked “Isn’t your dad just the coolest and most amazing dad in the world?” He doesn’t ask anymore. Maybe because he genuinely believes he knows me better than myself, or maybe because he cannot bear to see his stubborn little girl to triumphantly stomp on all his assumptions of womanhood. It was a weird feeling when I finally understood that my father is just a normal, flawed person trying his best to raise children. I wonder if he affords me the same respect. Most of the room on my dresser at home is now taken up by the empty picture frames that I receive every year for Christmas. I do not like putting them away. I enjoy thinking about how anyone could move in and place their own pictures in the frame, put their own stuffed animals amongst the pillows and put up their own posters around the mirror. They could crease the yellow quilt and fold the blanket and stay quiet. My parents would be happy. I am glad my room is empty. If my room was full of my own pictures and posters, if he looked at me

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with soft eyes, and if he stopped imagining me as the little girl with her bullfrog, so far away from who I want to be and who I am, I would have a much harder time fantasizing about when I am finally able to leave.

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[5 3 ]

Farmer, Rooster, and Insect Nathan Zhang


s a chemist, my wai po, or maternal grandmother, always reminded me of the importance of balance. She explained to me that our universe — constant in total energy and atoms — is least chaotic when everything remains at equilibrium. Every two or three years, wai po came to visit from Shanghai. While my parents were hard at work during school day afternoons, I raced down my neighborhood street from the bus stop against my shadow. Swinging open the door, I found wai po on the living room sofa watching television. “Yuan yuan, how was school?” I shrugged half-heartedly, still completely out of breath. Salivating in anticipation, I waited a few seconds before revealing why I bolted home: “I’m hungry.”

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In Chinese culture, the phrase “I love you” is rarely uttered. The reasoning for this, however, is not because Chinese people are all heartless and emotionless. Rather, we show love through action. As if she forgot she was nearing the age of eighty, wai po immediately sprung up from her seat and hurried into the kitchen. Following her lead, I heard a soft hiss coming from the stove’s flame. The water had already been boiling. The cramped kitchen featured a horrendous green countertop, a multi-colored backsplash, and a white tiled floor covered with mystery stains. Above the deep sink stood two small windows for ventilation. Right next to the countertops and stove was our dark, wooden dining table, worn with scratches and collaged with magazines and mail. Across the room sat the stainless-steel, two-door refrigerator. Wai po constantly complained about the clashing of modern and rustic disrupting equilibrium. She also hated the clutter, which she claims to cause chaos, disturbing the kitchen’s feng shui. As wai po began finely chopping green scallions on a thin cutting board for my favorite soup, the vibrations from the knife shook a photograph off

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the shiny refrigerator door. Crowded with vacation magnets, holiday cards, and school pictures, the photograph glided back and forth as it fell to the floor like a delicate feather. It featured a little boy and an old man fidgeting with their hands atop a narrow, wooden dock. *** In the summer, Lake Quinsigamond is always packed with locals. Today was no exception. On the West end, children scream with laughter, holding on for dear life as their tubes and jet skis are pulled by neon motor boats. The middle of the strip features a medley of two-person canoes, yellow paddle boats, and brown ducks soaking in the sun. Occasionally, a group of drunken teenagers blasts profane rap music as they speed down the restricted “no-boat” zone. As the water moves closer to shore, the deep blue fades into a green-brown. Although the obvious explanation is that the shallow end blends better with the chocolatey sand, I have a theory that it’s actually from the absurd amount of peeing that happens in the water. And yes, I am guilty as charged. The lake is a thirty second walk from the hospital where both of my parents work as researchers and

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teachers. The picnic area just off the water has been the destination of numerous dissertation celebrations, going away parties, and laboratory barbecues. On the opposite side of the lake, a line of houses are crowded with boats and grills. Connecting the two sides is the Burns Bridge, a structure I can recognize whenever I cross even when asleep in the car. Amid the harmonious chaos of the lake, I remained on the dock. I copied wai gong, my grandpa, as we whipped out our hands from our matching deep, cargo short pockets. Too tired to go canoeing, all I wanted was to continue the saga of nong ren, gong ji, chong zi with wai gong. gong. Tied at two a piece, this game would determine the winner of our best-out-of-five series. Common American hand games were never a prevalent part of my childhood. I found “pattycake” to be lame, “odds-and-evens” boring, and I hated “thumb wrestling” because my opponents always cheated. Believe it or not, I didn’t even like the game “chopsticks.” Rather, my wai gong and I competed tirelessly on his rendition of rock, paper, scissors, also known as nong ren, gong ji, chong zi, zi, or farmer, rooster, and insect. Instead of a fist as rock, a peace

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sign as scissors, and an open hand as paper, the game is played with the universal rock and roll hand sign. The thumb represents the farmer, the pointer finger is the rooster, and the pinky is the insect. The concept of the two-person game is simple — farmer beats rooster, rooster beats insect, and insect beats farmer. The player with a finger remaining at the end of the game wins. As the winner of our last game, wai gong started. Tapping my pinky with his pointer finger, he eliminated my chong zi. Firing back, I aggressively slashed his pointer finger with my thumb, eliminating his gong ji. He chuckled at the intensity presented on my competitive expression. He followed by brushing my pointer finger with his thumb, copying my last move to eliminate my gong ji. ji. Get a load of this guy! What kind of grandfather copies a little kid? Frazzled, I pondered in silence. While he still had a thumb and a pinky, I only had a thumb left. I froze. The nong ren can’t beat another nong ren, ren, nor can it beat a chong zi. zi. There it was — I was screwed. Pondering if life was even worth living anymore, I exhaled in defeat. And just like that, wai

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gong tapped my thumb with his pinky. Game over. Immediately, I found a way to complain, a defining talent of mine. “How can a little bug defeat a human?” I whined. “Something so small could never actually kill someone!” *** When I got the news years back, I spent the following week slashing the tip of my skinny left hand pinky against my stubby right hand thumb. Again and again, the chong zi attacked the nong ren, ren, however, my thumb stood tall. Something so small cannot kill something so large, I repeated to myself. It’s impossible. Wai gong lost his life to something far smaller than an insect. It’s not composed of body parts or even cells — it’s not even alive. The misdosage of a heart medication containing a few carbon chains, transition metals, and some benzene rings took him from me. In his eighties, his health was never a concern. Chinese watercolor, cooking, walking around the neighborhood — he was constantly full of energy. He gave me piggy back rides up the stairs to my bathroom to get me ready for bed, taught me how to ride a bicycle, and was always one step ahead in nong

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ren, gong ji, chong zi. As I placed the photograph back onto the refrigerator door, held by a colorful magnet from a trip to Cancun, my eyes became fogged and vision translucent. To this day, I still remember the way wai gong’ gong’s hand felt. With a deceiving exterior full of calluses and wrinkles, his fingers softened at my touch like memory foam. Returning to my seat, wai po placed the bowl of tomato egg-drop soup in front of me. Alongside thickly chopped red tomatoes, paper-thin steamed eggs float atop the clean, rich broth decorated with red oil, resembling a rubber duck in a sea of flower petals. It was perfect because there was balance between the tomato, egg, garlic, scallion, ginger, oil, and water. Each ingredient was at equilibrium, no one more dominant than another. As the umami aroma steamed into my nose and dissipated around the kitchen, the specks of oil reflected the photograph, catching wai gong’s face in the perfect obtuse angle. Over and over I repeated, “chong “chong zi beats nong ren,, chong zi beats nong ren, chong zi beats nong ren.” ren ren.”

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[6 1 ]

A Note on “Family” and Food Edwina Polynice


e don’t do family dinners. I don’t get called downstairs to help set the table. My father isn’t coming home from work at six with a briefcase. Nor is my mother standing in the kitchen in an apron with an apple pie in the oven. We don’t sit at a round table and eat meatloaf and mashed potatoes. I don’t ask my sister to pass the salt nor do I sneak vegetables off my plate and onto the floor for the dog to enjoy. I don’t have a dog, but that’s the way I imagined family dinners to happen. Before Groton, my sister and I would come home from school to dinner already made. The smell of rice and beans would waft through the air as we’d rush to switch our uniforms for more comfortable clothing. After getting our food, we’d each go our separate ways. My sister would sit on the living

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room couch, scrolling through Instagram. I would either do the same or join my grandmother by the television to watch ABC 7 Eyewitness News. My sister and I never felt the urge to sit together and talk. What would we even say? We could hardly get along then because I harbored a tiny jealousy from no longer being the center of attention. Furthermore, I thought I was too cool to hang out with someone who had just learned to tie their shoes. Back then, the four year age difference felt far too wide, and I believe my fifth grade self would be surprised to know that the twelfth grade me actually thinks my sister is funny. In the third grade, my mother tried to have a family dinner. Though things began rather normally, it became a disaster. Since she was off from work that morning, she had the time to prepare diri ak sos pwa, rice and black bean sauce. She had claimed the kitchen as hers, so my sister and I didn’t step foot in it. Though it was one in the afternoon, my father was very much asleep. When told, it would be my job to wake him from his slumber. In the living room, my sister and I watched Austin & Ally with the volume high to drown out the blender in the kitchen

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and the snoring from the bedroom. At this point, we didn’t know that our mother’s plan was to seat us all at the table. I was expecting her to announce she was finished so I could get my plate and sit right where I was before. Instead, she began by ordering my sister to set the table. Moments after my sister set up four mismatched plates and utensils, I was sent to retrieve my father. I trudged down the hallway and into the room. Back then, the four of us shared a single bedroom so it annoyed me to find the place in such a disarray. I remember calling out into the darkness, “Papa. Pops. Daddy. Dad,” until I received a grunt to show he was awake. When we were all seated on the unused dining room chairs, my sister was called on to say Grace. She started well: “Thank you God for the food and for Mommy and for Daddy and for Edwina and…” then she began naming everyone in her Pre-K class. Sometime after Sade and Christopher were mentioned, my father snapped, and we ate in a thick silence. I believe it was then that I formed the habit of looking up whenever I am thinking, uncomfortable, or wanting to be somewhere else. Sitting at that

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table, I looked up and busied myself with the square tiles on the ceiling. I counted them over and over. I repeated mathematical rules in my head: a square can be a rectangle, but a rectangle cannot be a square. I began to imagine what I would draw on the ceiling tiles, and how tall I would have to be to reach them. I didn’t know who was calling, but my mother’s phone began to ring. She pretended to ignore it, and so I pretended to ignore it. Jennifer did not. “Somebody’s calling you, Mommy.” My mother hummed in response and waved my sister off. I’d later learn that it was her job calling to see if she could pick up an extra shift that day. My father was not so kind. “Pick up the phone, Murielle.” When she did not move, he picked up his plate and smashed it on the ground. Rice and sauce and glass littered the floor, and no one dared to breathe. Later that week, I’d end up with a shard of glass in my foot because it wasn’t swept up thoroughly. But then, I looked at the ceiling and started to count again. My father muttered a few fucks, picked up his coat, and left. He slammed the door on his way out, and no one moved from the table for a long time.

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*** Even at restaurants, I can’t stand to sit with my family at a table. I could be enjoying my meal or the conversation, but something inside is uneasy. It takes everything to not get up and leave. And I love my family. As a child, I used to love when my parents decided that we were going out — I loved taking an extra long time in the shower and putting on nice clothes. I loved the car ride there with the radio on and windows down. Something about traveling puts me in a good mood. But when we arrived, I would be reminded of how much I hated being in strange places with people I didn’t know. When I was really young, I’d ask to leave, and my mother would laugh as if I had said a joke. This was something I eventually got over. In time, I paid less attention to the lady at the table next to me and more attention to the crossword on the kids’ menu. One night, I was coloring the most beautiful picture on the Applebees’ menu, my sister was drooling on herself, and my father was drinking as if he did not have work the next day. Across the table, my mother sat with her arms crossed and a quiet look

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on her face. She had hardly touched her food, and my father began pestering her about how she was wasting our money. No one had raised their voices yet, but I had a sick feeling in my stomach. It bothered me enough that I asked if we could go home. My father snatched the keys that were sitting on the table, and I wished I hadn’t said anything. He was too drunk to stand without swaying, yet he sat behind the driving wheel and we all sat in the car with him. My mother was loud, yelling in the passenger seat as if her words could make a difference. He drove erratically, swerving lanes, honking, and swearing at the other drivers. When my mother gave up, crying to herself, my father began to drive faster. I felt like I was flying in my seat. He said he did not care. He did not care if she was fucking crying. He did not care if he crashed the fucking car with the fucking kids. Maybe next time she should eat her fucking food that we paid for. In the backseat, I closed my eyes. Unfortunately, sitting at a table with my family gives me the same feeling of something bad is about to happen. Some part of me is expecting a disaster to follow, some traumatic moment that I will not talk

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about until years later. I love my family, but I can’t sit at a table with them. *** My friends are a different story. I look forward to dinner not only because it is the one part of my day where I can relax, but because I am sharing a meal with people I choose to love. There is no blood tie that fastens me to these people. On any day, I can wake up and decide to remove them from my life. This isn’t to say that it would be painless or easy. I can’t imagine the hurt that would follow. However, there is no obligation tied to this love. I have always enjoyed meals with my friends. There is always something or someone to laugh at. So even when the dining hall serves haddock or some swampy concoction, I can stay at dinner for at least an hour, talking about nothing. I choose to stay in the dining hall the same way I choose the people to sit with. Sometime in the spring of fourth form, a group of friends and I went over to a day student’s house for lunch and a bit of Surprise Holiday fun. We had reached that point in the year when everyone is only counting down the days until Prize Day. The

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weather is only sunny, and the windows in my room stay up. The mosquitos are out to play, and I spend my evenings after dinner watching the sky turn orange, pink, and everything in between. Despite the beautiful weather, the year had been difficult and I was counting on the spring to save me from my sadness. We made lunch ourselves. Someone was on the grill, I fried plantains in the kitchen, and someone had mashed avocado to make guac. When we all sat at the table, laughing at some stupid joke, a feeling of gratitude washed over me. How crazy is it that I was enjoying a meal with a ragtag group of people from all over the country? How crazy is it that I hadn’t known them two years prior, yet loved them? How crazy is it that when I looked up at the sky to think, there was no other place I would rather be?

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an excerpt from the december 1906 issue of the grotonian

[7 0 ]









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