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Helicon SPRING 2010 NOrthwestern’s premier literary magazine


Letter from the editor Gentle readers, Bringing a literary magazine into this cruel world is a difficult endeavor, but I am pleased to report that my dedicated compatriots and fellow travelers here at HELICON have prevailed: you hold in your variously grubby or recently scrubbed paws the zenith of Northwestern’s creative work, insofar as we have been able to contain it in print. Additional bounties await at in the form of an online supplement.


But if I might delay you for a moment, if you can temper your anticipation, I would like to give thanks to everyone who made this issue possible: Nancy Anderson, Director of the Residential College program, who has long been an invaluable sponsor and support; Garth Fowler, the Associate Master of Chapin, who has admirably acquitted himself in his first year as our faculty sponsor; and all the staff members on HELICON who have put in the work to make this issue. As a staff, we learned that a few hearts must be broken to select the pieces that go into an issue, but we came through in the end. Similarly bittersweet, HELICON bids farewell to its cohort of graduating seniors. Best wishes to Meriwether, Declan, Jennifer, and Christine in their freshman year of life. Finally, a special thanks goes out to our tenacious Chief Designer, Sisi, for soldiering on from our nation’s capital to make this issue happen and Jenn for keeping a steady hand at the wheel despite rib-cracking coughs. As it happens, this is my final issue with HELICON. I’ve been a part of the staff since freshman year and in that time I’ve managed to learn a lot and have a bunch of fun, at least when I wasn’t ruthlessly clawing my way to the top. It’s been a pleasure to carry on the tradition and in return for my service I have a few simple requests: keep an eye out for future issues, stow away a few choice morsels for submissions, and, if you have what it takes, apply for staff in the Fall. I promise you won’t regret it. Yours in words, Tommy Rousse

About Helicon HELICON was the brainchild of three students in Mary Kinzie's 1979 poetry sequence. Lisa Getter, Christina Calvit, and Michael Steele wanted to provide Northwestern with a regularly published literary magazine that could showcase the artistic work of the student body. Helicon began and still resides in Chapin, the Humanities Residential College, and is funded by the Residential College Program through the Office of the Provost. The first issue appeared in the Spring of 1980, and included contributions from Northwestern faculty including Joseph Epstein and Mary Kinzie. The works published herein are the sole property of the writers and artists who created them. No work may be used without the explicit permission of the author or artist.

Staff 2009-2010 Executive Board: Editor-in-Chief: Tommy Rousse Managing Editor: Jennifer Sale Operations Manager: Christine Byrne Editorial Board: Prose Editor: Declan Taintor Poetry Editor: Meriwether Clarke Art Editor: Alisha Varma Chief Designer: Sisi Wei Prose Staff: Francis D’hondt Simon Han MJ Scheer

Poetry Staff: Torey Akers Alina Dunbar Brittany Jaekel Kristine Lu Art Staff: Natalie Alexander Mackenzie McCluer Catherine Mounger Sean Yu Minna Zhou Faculty Advisor: Garth Fowler


Inside Poetry Taming by Chloe Cole


Untitled by Emily Anderson


A Song for Spring by Madeline Weinstein


Ginkgo Trees by Elisa Sutherland


Staircases by Elisa Sutherland


An Ode To Teeth by Tiffany Wong


noli me tangere by Akhila Kolisetty


The Hand’s Self-Portrait by Madeline Weinstein



Prose Trust by Brittany Bookbinder


Images from an Abyss by Andrew Greenberg


What It Means to be Alive by Tiffany Wong


The Working Man by Andrew Jarrett


Writing Fiction for Scientific Journals by Nick Merrill


Art nuwaterfall by Cathy Gao


a quiet interruption by Emily Somach


second sight by Angela Wang


Life in Favella by Emerson Gordon-Marvin


Quintessential by Emerson Gordon-Marvin


Palace, Udaipur by Emerson Gordon-Marvin


First Dance by Emerson Gordon-Marvin


Untitled by Matthew Kluk


Untitled by Matthew Kluk


Go to to see these pieces in our online supplement. PHOTOGRAPHY: Untitled Shadows by Emerson Gordon-Marvin PHOTOGRAPHY: Untitled by Emerson Gordon-Marvin MUSIC: All I Need by Ken Ross MUSIC: Snapshot for Two Cellos by Patrick O’Malley MUSIC: In the Forest by Alex Zisis INTERVIEW: Alex Kotlowitz on Storytelling and the Writing Life




Taming – Chloe Cole The man who teaches me to write tells me relationships are about power. Chest bone cracked, sunken, I pretend to be surprised. I know there is no time to tell my man I love him, no century where these syllables aren’t my knees aching against the floor. I need the bruise. The words aren’t pretty. What else is there but the recognition some one has bested me. I hope it doesn’t hurt you, too. I loved you before the plucked leaves fainted, now the trees shivery, our breath visible, it might be easier to see. I am tied, silvery, nude, to this feeling, blue expectant lips on a winter morning.

Untitled – Emily Anderson I am afraid to lose this moment on the couch cushion, the sun basting my shaved legs gold, making of the wrinkles in my shirt ridges on windy water, edges blurred in a flickering frame of eyelashes— Breath held, I watch the scene: a sparrow, up close for a moment sure to fly away if I dare move. And in the corner of my eye there is a flutter where my finger, poised to turn the page, pulses its heartbeat through the paper.


Ab la dolchor del temps novel By Guillaume IX de Poitiers Ab la douzor del temps novel Fueillon li bosc, e li auzel Chanton chascus en lor lati, Segon lo vers del novel chan: Adonc esta ben q’on s’aizi De zo dont hom a plus talan.


De lai don plus m’es bon e bel No-m ve messatger ni sagel, Don mon cors non dorm ni non ri Ni no m’en auz traire enan, Tro que eu sapcha ben de la fi, S’el es aissi com eu deman. La nostr’amor va enaissi Com la brancha de l’albespi Qu’estai sobre l’arbre tremblan, La noig, ab la ploi’ e al gel, Tro l’endeman, qe-l sols s’espan Per la fueilla vert el ramel. Anquar me membra d’un mati Que nos fezem de guerra fi E que-m donet un don tan gran, Sa drudari’e son anel: Anquar me lais Dieus viure tan Qu’aia mas manz sotz son mantel! Qu’ieu non ai soing d’estraing lati Qe-m parta de mon Bon Vezi, Q’ieu sai de paraulas com van, Ab un breu sermon qi s’espel: Que tal se van d’amor gaban; Nos n’avem la pess’e-l coutel.

A Song for Spring – Madeline Weinstein Translated from the Occitan I. With the sweetness of the season, new leaves leaf out the woods. Each bird sings in his vernacular, his speech in keeping with the music’s measure. It is fitting that we now take pleasure in desires winter has deferred. II. From the place where I see true grace and goodness, no envoi bears word of her. My lovesick heart holds, ‘til I hold her, not sleep nor joy. Nor, until the nature of our pact is clear to me, and pleasing, will I act. III. Our love is thus: the hawthorn branch, resists the tree and—trembling—cleaves to life on nights when cold descends and hailstones rail against the earth. Then morning comes; the sun extends its warmth. Soft light gets caught between the leaves. IV. The morning I remember, when we made concessions, and declared an end to war, she offered me her love and ring and spoke in tender whispers of our loving. God may part me from this life, but not before I touch once more the heat beneath her cloak! V. I pay no heed to those who speak with scorn, endeavoring to part me from my neighbor. Oh, I know about words—how they work, how they spell themselves out, how they fly from the mouth. Let them boast of love in language who lack love in life! We have all we need: the bread, the knife.


Ginkgo Trees – Elisa Sutherland A tree was stolen last night. I saw it in the paper While I ate my pizza, Fluffy with shook-on parmesan. The plastic pew forced me too far forward, And a ball of grease rolled off the tip Of the slice and onto the line: “Tree stolen outside Sherman Ave. building”


A ginkgo, it said, And I remembered One of those fan fared leaves That during autumn yellows late And when they fall, They make the ground a yellow pool, A too-soft wading pond, Only to be walked away, Forgotten, within the week. If I ever decided to steal a tree, It would be a ginkgo. My pizza finished, I left the cafeteria I ripped out the article And left the newspaper On an armchair. Where do you put a tree After you’ve stolen it? In your attic? A ginkgo, From a time before memory Who survived sulfide oceans, noxious methane reservoirs, And a supernova from a not too distant star Whose glow illuminated the gingko fans For the briefest Of moments

As pricks of radiation rained on Earth. (Do living fossils fossilize? When I bury my pilfered ginkgo Underneath the patio Will the trunk petrify, Will the xylem suck quartz, Will the folioles freeze in eternal arabesque?) I’m past the library, Almost to that grove of What seem now like woefully inadequate Birches. The only other creature To survive this long Is the nautilus pompilius, Who buries himself in endless chambers of divine proportions In order to forget. The ginkgo, On the other hand, Lives peacefully among the other trees, In parks and ornamental gardens, Tended by Chinese monks in temple yards, Watching every spring as the angiosperms flower, And wishing only slightly That it remembered how.


Staircases – Elisa Sutherland


In the alley where the side street ends and curls upon itself I walk hesitant, cold, into the darkness of the brick walls and the rising staircases and gutters shoot off roofs like frozen waterfalls in shadow and there are dumpsters lining the walls and bikes in racks and dim bits of sun on the brick walls that catch the brick’s red and blow weak embers. Staircases touch asphalt with delicate wooden feet. Red flowers spring from their posts. The stairs twist around themselves like smoke, cutting shadows on the walls until the final floor where the roofs open and the unfettered sun bathes the burning paint with such violent golden light I can almost feel the warmth of it.

An Ode To Teeth – Tiffany Wong I. Signs of ancient dentistry have been found in Neolithic graveyards, dating back to 7000 BCE. They show proof of dental tools and drilled out “tooth worms.” When my mother pushed me slimy through those pink cavity walls, clenching so hard she cracked a tooth in half, she wondered how those past lives dealt in pain. II. A song about mice she coos to me as I cry-pout, age four, tooth knocked out on the coffee shop floor. She puts it in a sweet’n low bag for me to hold as she buys my father’s breakfast— he whose war efforts were rewarded by a different type of plaque. 13 III. They say the ancient Egyptians were superstitious about toothaches. Field mice, of the Sun God Ra, cut in half and shoved in mouths with their twitching bodies still warm. And still now, the foreign taste of gauzy blood sits stale on my tongue as I rinse out bits of wisdom teeth. A month left before I can chew meat. IV. Let me tell you the story of your body, mother says wiping the soap from my eyes in a lukewarm bath. I look up at her canines curled yellow in the light and want to tell her about my fear that my teeth will fall from their gums like pages from a book whose spine like mine comes undone as they curl back up in a ball like a fetus wet and naked.

noli me tangere – Akhila Kolisetty tomorrow, I will eat the peels of blood oranges and stammer to myself in the mirror

night, moth-like will smother me in its gray blossoms while I, alone, will read your last letter


“do you know what it means to wait beneath the goldenrod sky and find not you, only illusion?”

come any closer. I can’t bear to be cross examined like a witness under harshdark candle light with your teeth touching the cold, dim wisdom of my bones.


* sometimes I am afraid of words, questions, and sometimes I lose hours to ellipses and minutes to your voice and sometimes I forget who I am and words stick like frozen molasses to my damp, ragged throat * today, the evening will set and I’ll be lost in my reflection, my every sad, old pore dusty and death-like.

The Hand’s Self-Portrait – Madeline Weinstein If I could paint, I would paint myself: a wrestler hunched above another one pinned on his back—paint the gasp, paint the slap of the flesh on the mat— paint the taste of winning in his sour mouth (the blood from his bit lip)— paint the small, secret hairs at the base of the other one’s throat and the bones beneath both and the pain; an old woman sitting in an armchair in the dark— crying the afternoon into its aftermath, eating mixed nuts from a tin— paint the salt on her fingers, the salt on her cheeks; a girl I saw once at the Star Market, standing in front of the cold bins of melons, scowling past the canteloupes— she had no plastic basket and no arms; a boy, from the back, at a gas station, ageless, flat against the gray of some small hour, under neon letters (two burnt out, a third flickering dim) and him, with a hole in the knee of his jeans, maybe waiting for someone or nothing, and trying to whistle— but you wouldn’t know; I’d paint it so you couldn’t see his face




Trust – Brittany Bookbinder An apartment. A door. A large window. Lamp light. You can hear the wind outside. It’s winter. A girl sits in a chair. She has a note pad and a bottle of Advil. LILA There’s an eighty percent chance you’ll die in the next ten minutes. I heard that somewhere. But I think it’s only true of people who are mountain climbing, so you’re probably safe. An ambulance goes by. She goes to the window. Last week, on the street corner, I saw a man walking with a woman. They looked like they were together. By that, I mean in a relationship. They were talking about money, so. Actually they were yelling about it. He was yelling. It was late, there weren’t a lot of cars out. They started to cross the street. He seemed angry. I couldn’t tell why. He took her by the roots of her hair and threw her onto the street. She lay there for a minute. She takes out her phone. I had my hand on my phone. I wanted to call 911, but I couldn’t move. She couldn’t move. She started screaming “Help me” but there was no one there. Then a car drove by, and another car. She got up and yelled to them for help, but they didn’t stop. Then a police car drove by, and the man walked away. Didn’t even run, just walked away. And then she walked after him. I did want to help her. I wanted to run into the street and take her inside with me. I feel bad that I didn’t. I feel bad for all the people I’ve seen out there that needed somebody, that needed me, but… It’s good to be inside. Everything is dark and fast out there. It wasn’t worth it to leave. She looks at her phone. It’s been a minute. If we all make it for nine more minutes, guess the joke’s on me.


Wind. She sits at the table with her notepad. The room seems to get a little smaller. I love this apartment. It’s good for me. One good thing. She makes a tick mark on her notepad. My therapist told me to keep track of these things. She says to talk about my fears out loud. So that’s what I do. Thank you, by the way, for listening. It’s great. It really helps. She realizes: You’re another good thing. She makes another tick mark. I so love this apartment. I’ve always lived in an apartment, but this one’s the best. It’s clearly better than living in a house. All the scary things happen in houses. Ghosts, for instance, never live in apartments. And just because the hallway looks like the one in The Shining, it can’t fool me! 18

She laughs. I’m not afraid of ghosts. They can’t hurt you. They can’t even touch you. They can only spook you. And I don’t get spooked. Loud radiator bang. She’s spooked. That’s just the radiator. It has great timing. I keep telling myself, if it wasn’t dark out and if it wasn’t so silent, these noises wouldn’t seem so spooky. But the good thing is that every noise can be explained. There’s an explanation for everything in an apartment. For instance, you hear a door opening, you know it’s not someone creeping into your house. Footsteps. A door creaks. Someone down the hall is probably just coming home. And if you’ve ever heard knives being sharpened, it’s definitely coming from the restaurant downstairs. Knife scraping sounds.

Or let’s say you hear strange shuffling sounds from upstairs. It’s probably not your neighbor killing people, stuffing them in boxing and dragging them across the floor. I’m sure they just got a treadmill. She laughs and shakes her head. A shriek. Pause. Everything can be explained. There’s even a schedule for most of the sounds you hear. I keep track. She flips back in her notepad. For instance, the garbage trucks come to empty the dumpsters outside every morning – except Sundays – at 7:47am. This lasts for 4 minutes 28 seconds. Some things are more unpredictable, like Mr. Radiator over there. She looks at the radiator. No sound. 19

Apparently— Loud radiator bang. She’s startled. Then, That’s the only downside to living here. The noises. There are a lot them. They’re unpredictable. But there is one sound that I can control. She takes out a small humidifier. She turns it on. It makes a soft whirring noise. Isn’t that nice? It’s peaceful. It keeps me sane. And I need it to fall asleep. Although I’m an insomniac. But it’s great, because when I wake up at three in the morning – the witching hour – I hear it and I know it’s ok to stay in bed. If it was off, I might think someone had crept in, turned it off and was waiting for me to get up and turn it back on so they could— She makes a “killing” motion. She sits down. Luckily, that hasn’t happened yet. And I thank the apartment for that. It’s

perfect. It’s got hardwood floors. Great for hearing footsteps. I would definitely know if someone was breaking in. It’s got a shower door. I refuse to have a shower curtain. I saw Psycho when I was eight. I will not be that girl. My bedroom has windows on two walls so I can see if someone is looking in from almost any angle. There are no closets so I don’t have to worry about anyone hiding in one, waiting to pounce. The living room is small enough that I can put the couches right up against the walls. It’s impossible for someone to sneak up behind me. She snaps her head around. No one there. Safe. For now. She looks at the window. I know what you’re thinking. If it’s so great in here, why would I leave? My thoughts exactly. I do go out of course. When I have to. But only when it’s light out. Luckily, I only work during daylight hours. I collect tolls going into the city. It’s great. I don’t have to talk to strangers really. I’m in my safe house; they’re in a car. I’m higher up, so I can see if they have any weapons. Pretty much an ideal set up. 20

When I moved here… well it was summer then, so it was different. But I didn’t always used to be so… afraid of leaving. You probably think I’m strange. I’m not turning into Emily Dickinson. Not yet anyway. I just try not to leave if I can avoid it. Especially in the winter. Especially at night. You see, they’re doing construction on the front entrance, so the only way out is the back door. And the back door goes to the alley. Wind. The alley. I never saw anything like it before moving here. I grew up in Wisconsin with open fields. Dark enclosed alleyways are new to me. It’s like in a movie. Or a bad dream where you get chased and you can’t run fast enough. That’s what it feels like when I come home. I always look back and forth a lot to make sure I’m not being followed. But there are all these dumpsters. Because of the restaurants. So someone could be hiding behind one of them. It’s not an ideal situation. But the construction should be over soon. By next year they tell us. I can deal with the alley for another year. Heat creaks through the pipes. She picks up a Swiffer and begins to sweep. One time I was sitting here reorganizing my books, by genre instead

of author – I like to mix things up occasionally. Also cleaning and the like help to take my mind off of the dangers of the city. Anyway, I was here and I heard people outside, in the alley. That’s normal. The people who own the Chinese restaurant next door are usually outside talking or smoking. And then I heard banging. I guess the dumpster lids. Again, nothing out of the ordinary. The people who work there throw things out periodically. Then I heard a car speeding away. It could’ve been a van. A few seconds later, there was…moaning. And knocking, as though someone was knocking on a door, but it wasn’t the back door of my building. I don’t really know what happened. There was caution tape up in the alley for a while after that. It was probably nothing. The caution tape was probably just a precaution. Right? A stifled shriek. She swiffers faster. And just in case the alley wasn’t bad enough—the darkness, the wind tunnel, the hiding spots, the potholes—there is also the potential for drive-by shootings. It’s illegal, right? I’m sure it’s illegal to drive through an alley. And yet, cars zoom by all the time. I nearly get hit twice a week. And the worst part is you can’t get upset with those people—people who think there’s nothing wrong with driving twelve inches from your front door. You can’t say anything, because you don’t know who has a gun. It could be just some guy who’s trying to save a few seconds on his way home, or it could be a serial killer who woke up and said, Is today the day? I’m not sure, let’s see what happens. A door opens somewhere. Footsteps. Louder. Her head snaps toward the door. A moment. She breathes again. So you see, there are lots of noises around here. But they’re only noises. I’d rather deal with listening to a lot of inexplicably loud and scary noises than go out there. No, they are explicable. There’s an explanation for everything here. That’s what my therapist said. I believe her. She always asks why I don’t live with someone if I get this way. She says, “Wouldn’t you like to have someone to come home to?” She doesn’t get


it. If I lived with someone, and they weren’t here when I got home, the door could… open at any moment. By that, I mean that I would have to get used to someone opening the door from time to time. You see, now, if someone opens the door, I KNOW I should panic. My response to fear is to scream as loud as I can. So hopefully someone would hear and come to the rescue. Because there’s no fire escape. Just the front door. No way out. Unless there’s enough time to distract the intruder, in which case, I’d break through the window—I’m told adrenaline kicks in in this kind of situation—and I’d jump out. I keep an extra mattress under the couch. So I’d throw that out, pray that it lands in close proximity and jump. It’s only one storey. I’m sure it would be fine. In fact, I’ve sort of rehearsed the whole thing. So yes, it works. My therapist said that I should turn my fears into a plan of action – an escape route. Now I have a plan. Of course, if there isn’t time to get all that ready. By that, I mean if the intruder just comes in with a gun pointed at me…It’s over. I sincerely hope my neighbors are skilled marksmen. I don’t own a gun. If someone were to come in, against my will, as it were, they would for sure find any weaponry that I had lying around and use it on me before I could get to it. 22

A door slams shut. That’s why I keep my hair short. See that woman— She gestures to a woman in the audience. With the long dark hair? That’s terrible. To the woman: I’m sorry to point you out, but someone should tell you. Your hair is a major threat to your safety. It’s common knowledge that rapists target girls with long hair so they can grab your hair when they’re chasing after you. You should do something about that. She checks her key ring. Another reason I couldn’t have a roommate is that I could never give someone a copy of my key. A roommate might make a copy of her key for someone else. Maybe she’d have a boyfriend. He’d come in, and I wouldn’t know what to do. Do I jump out the window or fashion a bludgeon out of my towel rack? There wouldn’t be enough time to ask

my roommate if that strange man barreling through the door is her boyfriend. Eighty-seven percent of deaths due to break-ins occur within the first twenty seconds of entry. So then she asks, my therapist I mean, she says what about a live-in boyfriend? Had I ever considered that? Obviously I had. Obviously I had decided against it. Nothing can go right with a live-in boyfriend. At best, you get on each other’s nerves. At worst, he kills you in your sleep. I get it. It’s about trust. You’re supposed to trust your partner to not suffocate you under a pillow when you have sex, or precariously place a plugged-in toaster near your shower, or leave the gas stove running and barricade you inside the kitchen. I get that. But considering that more than three women are murdered by their boyfriends every day in this country, it’s just not for me. Loud radiator bang. I have a boyfriend. Jim. But he can’t live here. He lives down the block. He actually doesn’t know that. He’s never been here. But he invites me to his place all the time. We get along well. He works at night, so it never comes up why we don’t go out after dark. He’s very understanding. We’re good for each other. And I do trust him. I trust him to make dinner reservations. I trust him to keep my grandmother’s chicken soup recipe a secret. I trust him with plenty of things. But people snap. If we lived together, there’s no way of knowing what he’s thinking. We’d see each other too much, so we’d know certain things about each other really well, but the things we tell each other now, we probably wouldn’t talk about anymore. Because… for whatever reason, you’d stop talking about your feelings about certain things….roommate things, you know? You let it simmer until it boils. And you can’t know when the cover will fly off until he’s got his hands around your throat. She comes up for air. I like things just the way they are. With Jim. With my beautiful studio apartment. With the— Loud knocking. She’s still. She crawls to the door. She slowly gets up to look through the hole. It’s someone down the hall.


She breathes. She turns to the audience. Loud knocking. It seems to come from the audience. She knows that can’t be. She takes an Advil and sits down. She talks directly to the audience. What do you think of all that, huh? She waits for a response. No response. I think I have a right to ask. You’ve been listening to me go on for like ten minutes. And you haven’t died, right? So let’s talk. You know a lot about me. I don’t generally tell people this stuff. Even Jim. You’re the only ones. And I don’t know anything about you. The humidifier turns off. That’s odd. That’s never happened before. 24

She looks at it. It’s quiet. Without that nice white noise. You’re quiet. You’re a quiet bunch. I got to tell you, I don’t like quiet. She goes up to one person. You know what I’m afraid of. What are you afraid of ? No response. She backs up. She holds her notepad. I need to know what you’re thinking. Because you know what I’m thinking? I’m thinking that you’re thinking how much you’d like to kill me. You’re plotting, aren’t you? You know how. I’ve given you plenty of scenarios. You know how I would try to escape and you’ve already figured out a way to circumvent that. You could be carrying a gun in your handbag. I bet that clutch you’re holding could fit a pistol. You want me dead. You seriously want to kill me. I can’t do this. I can’t be here. I won’t let you attack me. You want to know how this feels? This feeling that I live with every second of every day? This feeling that there are eyes everywhere, looking for me, waiting

for me? That there are hands itching to grab me, to strangle me, to leave me in a puddle of my own blood? She takes her jacket. I’ll leave you here. I will lock you in. I’ll take my chances outside. Maybe there’s no reason to think…what could possibly happen out there? Maybe this is exactly what I needed. See what it feels like in here. Alone. In the dark. She leaves and slams the door behind her. Dark. Radiator bang. Scratching in the walls. Footsteps. Doors opening and creaking and closing. Knives sharpening. Running. Panting. Grunting. Suffocating. Gun shots. Lila’s voice, stifled: No! A shriek.



Images from an Abyss – Andrew Greenberg


The border between Lebanon and Syria sits up in the mountains, but I don’t know which country owns the land. There is a one-storey mall that sells video cameras, toothbrushes, toys, liquor, chocolate, and other snacks. Everything is duty-free. The bathrooms are clean, and like everywhere else in the world, the line for the women’s is often out the door. Attached to the mall are a 24-hour café that sells shiisha and Turkish coffee, and a Dunkin Donuts that is either under construction or out of business. It feels like the West, like a new terminal at an international airport, like Beirut. But the building next door has tile floors that trap the cold mountain air inside. A photograph of a stoic Bashar al-Assad hangs next to a sign with a phone number not for the Minister of the Interior but for Mr. Minister of the Interior. It is a building most people pass through, standing in line to receive their Syrian visas. This is where we met Yuseph. He was the first person I saw come in with an American passport. It was nearing 4 p.m. and my Canadian friend had been waiting with me for two hours. I heard the friendly man behind the counter tell Yuseph the same thing he told me: “We will fax your documents to Damascus. And then you will wait. Maybe five minutes, maybe 24 hours, maybe two days.” They do this to Americans, make us wait for approval. Yuseph sat down. He was from Texas but had been teaching English in Syria for some time. He was my age. He had dropped out of school and run away to Dubai. He had traveled from the Middle East to England by catching rides with people he hardly knew. He had been in Cairo for three weeks but did not visit the Pyramids. “I’ll go back,” he said. He rarely stayed in hostels but preferred strangers’ couches and public parks. One time he had slept in an in an abandoned boat near Tel Aviv and saw the very same boat in a painting at a museum a few days later. He called Israel “Disneyland” and his boyfriend his “homeboy,” afraid that Syria’s secret police, the mukhabarat, might be listening. I asked him how long he planned to stay in Syria and he said “Indefinitely.” He would save up money for a few years and then go somewhere else. Every sentence started with “When I was in” and then he would fill in the blank with Bulgaria or Dubrovnik or Disneyland. He talked as if he had never told this to anyone, as if we were supposed to be amazed that someone so young had traveled so far, had been crossing borders and re-crossing them, had been drunk careening down Egyptian roads, had spent the night with a famous Israeli film critic who was born before

Israel became a state.


Two days before I met Yuseph, I met an old man in an empty park. He was standing outside a tent collaged with dated, faded photographs of faces. He pulled out three white plastic chairs and poured us Turkish coffee made from Nescafe. I spoke some Arabic and my friend spoke some French. The man was fluent in both. This is what we understood: —The tent was a protest against UNESCO, located in the building just over the barbed wire. — The man runs the protest with a woman—they alternate spending days there. That day she was at a party for eid. —They were protesting in honor of people missing since the civil war, which ended in 1989. —Syrian troops took his son in 2001. —He has been waiting eight years for his son to return. We left and looked again at the pictures of the people on the tent, this time understanding who they were, that most were probably dead. Not long before we had been walking past Beirut’s bullet-ridden buildings, had seen a church with a steeple whose bottom half was old brick but whose top was brand new. This was a city recovering from gunfire, acclimating to peace, where parents spend years between grief and acceptance, caught in a permanent transition.

y I complained about the cold, and when Yuseph went to use the bathroom in the mall, he returned with Turkish coffee in three Styrofoam cups. He asked me if I had ever thought about what he called the gay abyss. “We have an abyss?” I asked. He was talking about the mystery of the old gay man. For Yuseph, this meant gay men over forty, the aging bachelor with married friends. He fears the consequences of being single in a world where married couples get dinner with married couples, where former faghags arrange play-dates for the children and move into new houses on cul-de-sacs because the schools are better out there. There is not yet a stereotype of the older gay man, and this worries Yuseph. There is no mold to aspire to or veer away from. There are plenty of old gay men, but many are probably grandparents with wives, and there would have been more if HIV had never come around. The image of the gay man,


both young and old, has changed in the past decade as a community once known for its promiscuity now fights for marriage. The effect of all this is not yet certain, and for Yuseph it leads to the abyss.



In a coastal town in Egypt two months before, I met a group of Britons in a bar. They were playing pool and drinking, and someone was dating the loud Japanese girl who smashed her glass on the ground when she fell into the pool. One of the men had overstayed his visa and was not sure what he was going to do; another didn’t seem to know how long he had been there or how long he would stay—he was drunk and only talked about being forty and single, imparting upon me the kind of wisdom that comes with age: “Don’t be bloody intellectual—all women just want a good shag.” He lamented the small number of women he had slept with, and I wondered why, if that was his biggest concern, he had come to this part of the world. Maybe he was attracted to the climate, but too much time alone in the sun and your skin becomes leather, the heat slows you down. He was having trouble adapting to middle-age, to the steady realization that he is no longer as desirable as he once was, that his friends had partnered off and that time began running out long ago. And I was having trouble adapting, too—not to age, but to Cairo, to a new city with new people and a culture I kept resisting. We were looking for something: he wanted women, I wanted friends. But the more we refused to settle in, the further we strayed from our goal. We should have connected because of this, but you can’t reach out when you’re that far gone.

y A man behind the counter called us over—we had been approved. He stamped our passports, and the three of us picked up our bags, zipped up our jackets and headed out into the cold on a vacant road toward a checkpoint not far away. It was nearing 10 p.m., but Yuseph found us a hotel and led us into the Old City, a massive network of alleyways and narrow streets encircled by a tall stone wall. He met us each night. Three nights in a row and he had nowhere else to be. We drank tea and ate lamb. He told us about life in Damascus, about how Facebook and Google Translate were blocked but how you could access them if you had a proxy. I did not quite know what a proxy was, but Yuseph did—he seemed to know everything about anything you asked, the trivia and the politics he had acquired from his travels. He said he was going to get in trouble for inciting a discussion about Palestine at the university where he taught

English. The best croissants he had ever had were in Damascus, and even though he knew his way around the maze of the Old City, he still sometimes got lost. He spoke about a trip to Aleppo in the North and how one day he would make the trek out to the Iraqi border. But he never said who would go with him, and he rarely spoke of his friends.

y Back in Cairo not long before, I met a man on a bus, an American journalist in his forties. He had just signed a two-year contract at an Egyptian publication and already the city was letting him down. “Living in Cairo is like being in a bad relationship,” he told me. “You keep putting in so much energy, and you get nothing back.” I looked at his left hand to see if he was married, and there was no ring. I went to his office to talk with him, and I said “I’m gay, too.” He scolded me: how dare I accuse him of that in this part of the world. And I listened to his tirade like I had listened to Yuseph, with a steady, focused nod that suggested I understood. This was the kind of man Yuseph feared he would become: He was past that Rubicon of turning 40, and although he had found success with his career in the nineties, life had since sequestered him elsewhere. I imagined him in his downtown apartment and wondered how he passed the time transitioning into Cairo, if he tried teaching himself Arabic with computer programs or books, if he spent his evenings watching satellite television. There are 18 million people to meet in Cairo, but how do you make friends? I still had the same problem as I wandered new streets or sat in my room, wasting time until the sun went down and I could go to sleep. The Americans I met made me tired, and the cultural differences between Egyptians and myself were too much for me to overcome. I was learning the vitality of patience and of trying not to expect so much, but I internalized this all too late. Unlike Yuseph and the journalist, I had not run away. But I was ready to set off somewhere, and it was a good season for hiking in my hometown of San Diego. And I could make it—I had less than two months left in Egypt. But this man had nearly two years.

y Yuseph seemed to have forgotten that we were tourists passing through, that my friend would be flying out to Dubai and that I would be trying to get back to Egypt by land. Our third and last night in Damascus we sat in a café and the three of us were running out of things to say. Yuseph took out sweets he had smuggled from a restaurant.


“I told you these would be good with tea,” he said. After we finished our drinks, Yuseph walked us through the alleys and narrow streets to a lot full of taxis. I imagine he told us another sketch of a person he had met on all those countries he was just passing through, someone who had likely forgotten him by now. All his endless anecdotes and descriptions of places I would never go, the places he said he would return to—these stories were not for us. They were for Yuseph, a sort of reassurance that everything was okay, that he had once traveled the world, had seen more than most people his age, that a lifestyle like that was more rewarding than that of his friends who spent four years between the walls of college classrooms just to find themselves enclosed in cubicles. He told it to us so he could tell it to himself. Yuseph had brought up the idea of the abyss not because he was afraid of ending up inside it, but because he was afraid that once it found you, you could not escape. We hugged Yuseph and told him goodbye, falsely promising that we would keep in touch. Our taxi took us away, and we left him alone inside the walled city.

y 30

The next morning I set off for Cairo. I traveled south by bus until there were no more buses to take, so I took a taxi the rest of the way. The driver asked me if I liked Bob Marley and I lied and said “Of course.” The reggae played on as we sped down The King’s Highway past flat sand and mountains, and the landscaped looked familiar. San Diego could have been just over those hills. Traveling alone wasn’t any better than traveling with a partner or five people or ten people had been. There should have been something profound in it, in a journey that was mine and no one else’s. It was only two days but I thought it might be the kind of self-affirming experience that would draw out a refulgence in me that had been missing for some time. But the world changes when you’re alone. I made small-talk with strangers and realized this is how I had been getting by during my past three months in Cairo—all those men serving kushary and fruit juice were more than just people with whom I could practice Arabic. They were my connections, because whether it is to yourself or a store-owner you just met, you have to speak. I bought a ticket for a ferry and watched as men prayed toward Mecca, directly facing the rugged coast of Saudi Arabia, but I stared west. I waited three hours to board with pilgrims returning from the Hajj. Many of the men asked where I was from, and as we left the port and sailed across the Gulf of Aqaba, one man told me in Arabic that “nothing but Islam can gather 5 million people in one place.” I

remembered my third day in Cairo, the day I had tried fasting. An old woman carrying a wicker basket on her head, she was fasting too. The man upholstering the couch, no water for him either. And the teenage boy with the Amr Diab ringtone on his cell phone, and the man who put our shoes in a cubby at a white-marble mosque, and the boy who led us through alleys of rubble toward his home, and the man with the cane whose face was sagging with cysts. Five million, ten million, 18 million people, strangers in unison, far from any kind of abyss.

y Sailing somewhere between Jordan and Egypt, with Israel to our north and Saudi Arabia nearby, I waited. Eventually I reached Sinai and knew just where I was—the name of the town, where to find it on a map. The sun had set some time ago, and the friends I had made on the boat set off in packed minivans and pre-arranged rides. I bought a bus ticket and waited, tired, until someone told me the next bus to Cairo did not leave until 10 a.m. My contact lenses had fallen out at some point on the ferry, so I strayed from the port blindly toward the scarce blur of streetlamps. I was on my own again, and I had no place to sleep. With my two bags slung over my shoulders I headed toward a cafÊ and asked strangers to point me toward the nearest hotel. I was alone on the fringe of a desert that separates Africa and the Middle East, and all I could think was that Yuseph had been here before.


What It Means to be Alive – Tiffany Wong Since I started working for her, Arlene’s husband has been dying. “Now that you’ve been working here a while, you should know that my husband has been diagnosed with lung cancer,” she said offhandedly one day, three months after my first day at the office. Three months into my sophomore year of college, I realized that the only way that I might personally achieve immortality is to write the next great American novel. I decided to entitle it “Everything Will Give You Cancer.”



Arlene’s husband, Ben, had not been a smoker. In fact, if there was anything that he indulged in, it was food rather than cigarettes. “We had to stop the chemo because of his heart condition and diabetes,” she sighed. In the second grade, I became good friends with a girl named Rena. When she stopped coming to class in the middle of the school year, the teacher told us that Rena’s brain was sick and that she was undergoing “radiation therapy.” Not understanding, I couldn’t grasp how tanning at the beach and eating popsicles in sun would make Rena’s head feel better. More so, I felt angry that she didn’t invite me to go along with her.

y After having a bad morning at home, Arlene asked me to go buy her a Diet Coke. “Diet soda gives you brain tumors,” I wanted to say, but thought better of it. It is said that aspartame, the artificial sweetener in Diet Coke, can cause epileptic seizures, insomnia, various phobias and death. The 2009 slogan for Diet Coke is “Live Positively.”

y In Greek mythology, the god of death, Thanatos, is the son Nyx, the goddess of the night, and the brother of Hypnos, the god of sleep. Around the same time as the Rena incident, I started having a strange recurring dream about my mother. We’re all sitting in the dining room having dinner when she and my father begin to fight. All of a

sudden, she gets up from the table and walks over to the bathroom, locking the door behind her. She is in there for a long time and we can hear the running water. When I force myself in to check on her, she is sitting on the toilet seat with a pair of bloody scissors in her hands, weeping. She has cut off both her legs.

y Exsanguination- the process of bleeding to death from sanguine- cheerful, optimistic blood = happiness?

y There is a line in Revolutionary Road where Frank Wheeler talks about being a soldier on the front line: “I mean I was scared, of course, but that’s not the point. What I really felt didn’t have anything to do with being scared or not scared. I just felt this terrific sense of life. I felt full of blood.” Whenever I bruise myself, cut myself, or feel pain, I am reminded of the fact that I am an organism. As my pulse rushes to the wound, I can feel my body’s biological processes functioning without my intellectual command, repairing itself with the inherent physiological wisdom of my DNA. I remember that I am made up of trillions of cells that form living tissue and vital organs. I remember that each individual cell works to maintain the basic metabolism that keeps me alive. I remember that I am full of blood.

y My family has a history of thanatophobia. thanato- from the Greek mythological figure Thanatos “Your uncle used to cry about it, too,” Mother says, petting my adolescent brother’s wet and troubled brow. This is the fourth night in a row he has woken us up, screaming we’re all going die someday we’re all gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die i’m going to die


They say teenagers think they are immortal.

y Some nights, I lie awake in bed, unable to sleep. I mull over all the tasks that I have to complete before the week is over, think about my plans for the next year, and eventually contemplate all the things I’d like to do before I die: • • • •

Learn karate Have child(ren) Make my parents proud Attain immortality through literary fame

My father, who is convinced he will die before his 60th birthday, does not set such goals for himself. Having endured the Vietnam War, concentration camp, and 9/11, he believes it is only a matter of time that death will catch up to him. “God is against me,” he says, nudging my mother in the dead of the night. “He’s trying to make it happen.”

y 34

Thanatogeography- the study of the distributions of dead organisms When my grandmother died at age 93 in San Francisco, we dug up my grandfather’s grave in Ho Chi Minh City, shipping his remains to California so that the two could be buried together. For the past two years, the ashes of my grandmother have been sitting still in an urn next to the skeleton of a man she hadn’t spoken to for nearly two decades. I wonder which poses the greater challenge to their communication, their estrangement or difference in physical structure.

y Favorite books as a child: • • • •

Tuck Everlasting Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone The Myth of Hercules The Picture of Dorian Gray


Arlene’s husband is buried next to her parents at All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines, Illinois. There are four plots on the monument; three of them have been filled. “I offered to buy Ben’s spot from my brother,” Arlene said. “But he said to go ahead, since he’s donating this body to medical science anyway.” “Well, that’s nice,” I replied.

y “He thought we’d have more time in retirement together,” she paused, looking up from a pile of cash receipts.

y We used to go to church when I was younger. We were never that serious about it, and stopped going once we moved to New York. Out of habit, though, I continued to pray in times of desperation, whether hoping for a boy to notice me or wishing for a higher SAT score. Every Chinese New Year, we attend Buddhist services to pay respect to our ancestors. My brother and I bow our heads and shake fortune sticks out of a bamboo cylinder as we pray to our grandparents, calling for their blessings. One year, as my fortune stick slid forward, I wrapped up my prayer to my grandfather. I promised to be good, to do well in school and to take care of my parents. The fortune stick hit the floor. “Amen,” I said, mistakenly.

y Rather than attend my grandmother’s funeral in California, I used the excuse of having a calculus final to stay home. With my family gone, I had my boyfriend over one night, friends over the next, and threw a big party at my house the day after finals were over. I am not sure which I fear more, death itself or the thought of being alone. I want to ask Arlene what it’s like living by herself now, in the absence of her husband of 40 years. I want to know if she feels the pain of loss, if she feels lonely, if she ever forgets that he’s not there. I want to know if she thinks he really is dead, because they are both Catholics and believe in eternal life through Jesus Christ. I want to know if she still sets the table for two, if she still talks to him, if she spoons a pillow at night, if she cries, if she sits in that chair he died in and pretends that he’s


holding her. Instead, I ask her where she wants the payments to be filed.

y Euthanasia- the intentional putting to death of a person with an incurable or painful disease intended as an act of mercy From Greek eu- good thanatos- death Mother reads me a story from the Chinese newspaper about a boy who tried to commit suicide but failed, and is now brain dead at New York Presbyterian. “If I ever become brain dead, I want you to pull the plug,” she says off-handedly, not looking up from the page. “There’s no point in life without feeling.” I can’t sleep that night. I lay in bed wondering how I will respond when my mother dies, when my father dies, when my brother dies. I am up all night. At dawn, my mother wakes up to find me sitting in the bathroom with my knees drawn up to my chest. I am pinching myself, muttering 36

I am alive I am alive I am alive I am alive I am alive I am alive I am alive I’m alive

y British researcher Aubrey de Grey claims he has drawn a roadmap to defeat biological aging. He believes that the first human beings who will live to 1,000 years old have already been born. Listening to him explain engineered negligible senescence, I wonder whether or not Aubrey de Grey believes in God, and when he himself will die.

The Working Man – Andrew Jarrett The world, to Todd, consisted solely of his world, of the twelve blocks separating him from work and home. The city bent over him and he leaned under its weight. It was night and it was cold. “This isn’t a chill, this is a death sentence for anything outdoors,” he thought blackly, and a sudden gust encouraged him to walk faster. As he passed what was once a used-video store, he noticed two figures sitting on the ice that lined the ground of the entryway. He stopped, leaned in but kept his feet planted. What surprised him was that they didn’t brace themselves from the cold but, in fact, seemed to wallow in it. This struck him as unusual, so he lingered in order to observe the two women more closely. The one nearer the street, an invalid known simply as Maddy, was staring intently at the only blue brick on the eastern wall of the establishment sitting catty corner. The other, Gretchen, was holding the fingers of her right hand to her lips, “Gingerly, as if her arm was a candle and her mouth was a match,” Todd noted. Three of her fingers were broken and covered by a filthy cast. Both wore coats that looked like they had been ripped apart and stitched back together again several times over. Todd turned to leave out of social grace, but quickly realized that both women were preoccupied with their respective tasks and were indifferent to him—in fact, though they were sitting shoulder to shoulder, they seemed quite indifferent to each other, too. He considered saying something to give them a start, but before he could open his mouth Gretchen began licking the exposed tips of her three fingers and blowing on them. This seemed to satisfy her greatly, because when she pressed her sticky fingers against her nostrils to smell them, her eyes narrowed and the corner of her mouth raised in a conniving smirk as if she were practicing a secret witchcraft. “If these street blocks are the world, then these are its inhabitants,” Todd scowled, turning to leave. This scene had visibly darkened his mood and he kicked his soles against the pavement in childish frustration, as if kicking at an imaginary rock. He felt tired, defeated by the filth, by the subtle but pervasive stench that hurt his head and justified his self-pity. Rather than submit, however, he tried his best to make piercing eye contact with every person he passed on the street. “If looks could kill,” he whispered to himself just to hear the words aloud, then lowered his eyes, hoping no one had heard. No one had. A man swaggered aimlessly toward Todd. He appeared to be a salesman. He was clutching the sides of his threadbare sportscoat, as if worried that the jacket was too short for his wiry frame. Rather than supervise his nervous fiddling, however, his eyes were turned up to the looming sky, as if expecting precipation. “He’s not even paying



attention,” Todd fumed. “He’s going to run into me. I could be holding a knife to mug him and he would step right into it.” Todd exhaled through his nose sharply, then grunted. The salesman failed to notice. Todd bumped into his shoulder on purpose and the salesman turned around as if he had been woken from a dream. Upon meeting Todd’s forced grimace, he opened his mouth in silent laughter for a moment, then continued along his way. Todd had not expected to be laughed at. He had to remind himself to temper his expression with subtlety so as to make it more believable. He was, by this point, aware that he didn’t have an intimidating face. It was an unfortunate reality that his facial features were indistinct and his whole face appeared perpetually swollen, as if by chronic allergies. His nose was slightly upturned and his facial hair grew in clusters. His dark brown eyes were small and seemed to hide behind his thick eyebrows. His hair was beginning to thin but he hadn’t noticed yet, and his face seemed to change shape from day to day depending on his hairdo or what color shirt he wore. Pat, his older sister, had once inadvertantly and forever hurt his feelings (as only older siblings can) by telling him that his face, “Looks like warm gravy on a pile of mashed potatoes.” He glanced at his watch and sighed irritably, half-hoping someone would notice his stress. He was several hours late. “Kim’s gonna be pissed, I’ve been putting off this conversation for a long time.” He tried to clear his mind of the threat she had leveled a week prior. Years of slipshod decision making had resulted in a significant accumulation of debt, and they shared the blame equally. Todd’s standing policy was to avoid any mention of their finances. Naturally, Kim disagreed with his approach and routinely scheduled spousal meetings on the subject. Todd had yet to attend. This difference had gradually become the epicenter of every quake in their marriage. Todd checked his watch again. Nervousness seized him and he forgot all about trying to leer at every passerby.

y Kim heard Todd ascending the stairs to the back door of their apartment and realized, contrary to his boisterous routine of stomping on each step with all of his weight, that he was doing his best to muffle the sound. She delighted in his sheepishness and decided that she was no longer mad. “After all,” she reasoned, “it’s clear he’s been tormenting himself about being late. What better time to forgive him and make him indebted to me than when he is so terribly in the wrong?” She made a lunge for the bathroom to check her hair and apply powder. Her eyes were the color of ash with a twinge of violet that

only showed in a flicker when she wore blue. Right now, however, she wore white, a tank top that she was also planning on wearing to bed. She was tall and thin, but her skin hung on her torso like a baggy shirt. “Ugh. I am turning into a slob.” Though Kim had always been proud of her appearance, the weight of the past several years had taken its toll. “No matter, I have a dignified face,” she would often say, convincing herself she didn’t care. To an extent, it worked; in fact, were it not for her practiced ignorance, she would have noticed that her wrinkles had deepened and spread, especially around the eyes, and that under the harsh lighting of the bathroom bulbs, her cheekbones cast shadows long enough to hide her dimples. Her eyes, to her, always seemed to bulge with a secret knowledge that she could never figure out how to articulate, which she believed afforded her an air of mysteriousness. She had resolved to indulge the charade of fury with Todd to intimidate him into obedience, only to then surprise him with her sudden friskiness. As she was applying rouge, she heard the back door close behind Todd. She leaned her back against the door, one that, when closed--as it was now--faced the mirror. The mirror wore toothpaste and the residue of sneezes. Looking through the grime, she knit her brow and folded her arms. “Be serious!” she scolded herself, and impulsively turned the lock on the door: “Clever girl.” She tilted back her head so that she was squinting over her nose. She watched herself caress the freckled skin above her breast, made her lips pout slightly as she did.

y Todd opened the backdoor slowly. As he did, a squeak resounded into the depths of the apartment reminding him that he needed to oil the hinge. He cringed. “There’s another thing Kim will mention over dinner. She’s been nagging me for weeks.” Todd was anxious to eat, not out of hunger but to relieve himself of the uneasy feeling in his stomach. He couldn’t determine the precise cause of his anxiety. He clutched his stomach with both hands, trying to alleviate the nervousness with pressure. “Kim?” he called weakly, closing the door behind him. His eyes hadn’t adjusted to the kitchen light yet. As he opened his mouth to call her again, he noticed a sliver of light from beneath the door at the far end of the hall. He caught a whiff of her perfume and the knots in his stomach eased their grip--he guessed her game: “She’s just pretend-angry; really, she wants me to notice how nice she looks.” This wasn’t a leap in logic on his part; she had played this game often—in fact, this was her usual way of initiating sex. He resigned to play his role dutifully, but was having some difficulty suppressing an ironic smile. He crept down the hall, no stranger to the art of domestic role-playing. Masterfully, he lept



over the sections of the floor that creaked, never once losing his balance. With surprise on his side, he faced the bathroom door and collected himself, deciding his strategy. Todd tried the knob but it was locked. He instinctively cocked his head to one side in curiosity, not able to remember the last time she had locked any door in their apartment. He smiled so big that the gravy seemed to spill from the corners of his lips. “She is taking this one pretty far, locking herself in the bathroom like this. This is gonna be a night to remember,” he gushed. He removed the key from above the frame and began unlocking the door delicately, having decided now to startle her and call attention to his resourcefulness at having set aside a spare. “This foils her whole plan.” The door was unlocked but he wavered, staring at the faded wood before him. Anxiety crawled up his spine and seeped as bile in his belly. “This is silly. She isn’t actually mad, so why am I still upset? Seeing those two women probably didn’t help my mood. No, witches. Seeing those two witches. But it’s not their fault, Toddie--they are just poor. It feels strange to admit, but I can’t stand the poor. I hate them. Their depravity just makes me uncomfortable. Is that wrong to admit? We can’t all be Mother Teresa, Toddie. Most people have other stuff to worry about besides taking care of poor folks--like this debt, for example. Plus, I’m not convinced that it’s my fault. Kim always forgets that her student loans have been in default for months. So I have credit card debt, so what? It’s way less, for starters, and besides, I spent that money on necessities. I’m trying to get her creditors off my ass. She’s the one who went to school-why is it my responsibility to work? Why can’t I stay home? I could cook better, that’s for sure. “We’re screwed--utterly screwed. We’re gonna end up on the street staring off into space like those disgusting witches. Even the idea is exhausting. Kim never has to deal with the people I see when I walk home—and she doesn’t even realize that it’s something I deal with. Here she is, ‘mad’ at me for being late, when I’m the one braving the walk among the depraved. Her world is simple compared to mine. She only has to worry about aging--and boy, she has aged terribly. Why am I supposed to be sorry, exactly? Why is she allowed to play this game with me? I wear myself out to pay off her loans, then she gets to yell at me for working too much? Then she initiates sex because she’s in the mood tonight? Manipulation is what it is, it’s just plain manipulative.” Todd fancied that the lighting had subtly changed for the darker, and he watched his hand grab the handle and whip open the door.


Kim felt the door give way behind her while she was still making

faces at herself. She felt for something to catch herself as she fell through the frame, but before she had a chance to catch anything she bumped into the mass that was standing behind her. She let out a shrill scream, then laughed in embarrassment as she wondered whether Todd had seen the faces she had been making. No sooner had she laughed than she remembered her plan to scare him into husbandly submissiveness for disregarding her ultimatum to talk about their finances tonight or else check into a motel until he, “Fixes this mess, for good.” She straightened her expression and spun around to confront him. Instead of poor posture and slurred speech, stiffened shoulders and a stolid stare confronted her. A pair of eyes looked through hers, scoffing at her, probing her long-forgotten wounds and unearthing her shames. She felt his fingers searching for the hem of her sweatpants. Her body felt like ice.

y Todd, from the adjacent room, could hear Kim’s skin brushing across the bathroom floor. Dinner was in the microwave, he discovered. He didn’t bother to reheat it. Fork in hand, he was distracted by the only magnet on the refrigerator, a coy smurf who implored, “Don’t be blue!” in rainbow lettering. “I didn’t do anything wrong back there. If I don’t feel guilty, I didn’t do anything wrong.” The wad of meat in his mouth was tough, and as he smacked his lips, he ran his coarse palms along his jeans, hoping to assuage himself. The smurf winked, mocking the attempt. He stared back, eyes burning, too afraid to check on Kim because he had intentionally not looked at her after he had finished up. His actions played back in his memory in a haze, and he was trying to remember the order of events. Had he hit her? Yes, he had, but she had been pinching his arms, had even drawn blood, so she must have known it was coming, and besides, “It wasn’t all that hard. It couldn’t have hurt more than the pinching.” He pushed it out of his mind and took a bite of mashed potatoes that tasted like soap but with the texture of apple sauce. The moon watched him through the blinds, looming, waiting for his next move. Kim groaned feebly and he winced, gathering from the tone that she could only lie on the floor and wait for the pain to dull. She coughed and his heart felt squeezed, but he was still too scared to see the damage. Todd bore his eyes into his potatoes and watched the lukewarm gravy ooze into his sweet corn. He was beside himself with frustration. He noticed his fist; the knuckle was bleeding. “From...her tooth?” The thought proved too much for him, and he searched the room in exasperation, hoping something would give him an answer. Again, his eyes found his closed fist. He nodded involuntarily. Clearing his mind



of everything but the image of Kim, he struck himself. First in the chin. Then in the forehead. Then the eye. Then he hit himself in the nose, and the sharpness of the pain caused his eyes to tear. His elbows found the table and his forehead found his palms, and he wept heartily. He wept until the tears ran off the tip of his nose into the pool of gravy. He gradually fell into a frenzy of emotional repentance and began yammering neologisms, rocking forward and backward, unable and unwilling to calm himself. He stood abruptly, quivering, needing to take action but unsure what he planned to do. The world blurred and spun devilishly around him. He rushed to the bathroom door to greet Kim, “With kisses! kisses from my bleeding lips, and tears! tears from my bruised eyes!� He paused at the door, the fat tears dripping off his cheeks and landing where he had stood fifteen minutes earlier as an entirely different person. Still trembling, he pushed the door open an inch. Through the crack, he witnessed Kim clutching her legs to her chest with one hand and cupping her forehead with the other. Blood lined the insides of her fingers. She had wiped her palms across the front of her tanktop, leaving the fabric smeared with an accusing red. Her sweatpants were twisted violently around her ankles. Upon seeing him, she shot up immediately, jumped into in the bathtub. There she sat, crouching, staring wrathfully at him through clumps of hair, baring her teeth. Todd gaped his mouth in horror and jerked the door shut. With that, he darted out the backdoor and nearly tripped over himself descending the steps. Without losing any momentum, he threw himself into flight and fled recklessly into the bosom of the city he despised. Somewhere in the distance, Gretchen crowed.

Writing Fiction for Scientific Journals – Nick Merrill “Ah, come sit down, Carl.” Professor Carnegie spreads his arms out, places his left hand on my back, and guides me toward a chair across from him. The coffee shop bustles around us. People maneuvering drinks to their seats, couples chatting idly, a business man speaking excitedly to a more important businessman. Professor Carnegie and I sit underneath a world atlas of oceanic topography. (Because the coffee shop is called the “Java Trench.” Do you get it? Don’t worry, it’s not funny anyway.) Now Professor Carnegie crosses his hands on the table. Now he strokes his short-trimmed beard. Now he says, “Well, Mr. Fitz, I took a look over your paper.” He delivers his line matter-of-factly, perfectly emotionlessly. It could have been, “I took out the trash this morning,” it was that casual. Some people spend years in acting conservatories and can’t deliver a line like that. This is the part where my heart starts pounding, in case you’re keeping a biometric log here, my heart’s pulling maybe 120 bpm at this point. He looks at me for a second, like a bull facing off against a matador. I’m the matador here. I’m waving my flag around, but beneath my delicatelymustachioed smile, all I can think is, “please don’t gore my nutsack, please, please, please.” False citations happen all the time. Really. You wouldn’t believe how many people in the academic world do it, I swear (Clarke, 2006). So don’t even get started on that self-righteous shit about how academics have some kind of grand obligation to society. Lots of people take on an implicit societal obligation and subsequently fail to fulfill it (Madoff, 2007). Academics at least have good intentions [citation needed]. I didn’t really write any false citations, though. I just made it up. I made up the whole thing. I don’t know how IQ tests vary across generations in countries with little elementary schooling. I’ve never been to Mali. And the Malian Ministry of Education couldn’t get me records on IQ Testing, anyway, because those records don’t exist. So I invented then. Yes, as in the developed world, children without education are getting smarter than their parents every generation. With or without an elementary education. Kids are just getting smarter, it seems.


Don’t ask me why. I just compiled the IQ tests. I had a grant to fulfill. You can’t blame me. “Really, Mr. Fitz, I have to tell you.” My pupils are definitely dilated now, my scalp is oozing out sweat, my palms are more slippery than an oil spill on black ice, so mark all this down in your biometric log. “This is really excellent work. Very significant findings. We’ll have to put you on the fast track to publish!” He smiled and twisted his neck to crack it, then took a sip of his espresso. Bulls don’t check their facts. They just charge at brightly-colored objects. That’s how you win bullfights. The two businessmen shake hands and the more important one walks out of the coffee shop. I wipe the sweat off my forehead.




nuwaterfall – Cathy Gao


a quiet interruption – Emily Somach


second sight – Angela Wang


Life in Favella – Emerson Gordon-Marvin


Quintessential – Emerson Gordon-Marvin


Palace, Udaipur – Emerson Gordon-Marvin


First Dance – Emerson Gordon-Marvin


Untitled – Matthew Kluk


Untitled – Matthew Kluk


Biographies Brittany Bookbinder is a senior who’s keen on urban legends and cult movies. She’s pursuing a major in Theatre and a minor in Creative Writing, and she’s currently taking the Playwriting Sequence. Last quarter, she wrote an online column for the Daily Northwestern. Next year, she plans on living in Chicago and making it work as a young artist hell-bent on avoiding a nine-to-five job. Chloe Cole is probably the only poet who enjoys eating beef jerky. She knows the differences between a seal and a sea lion, a simile and a metaphor, and a boy and a girl. She hopes to be a Drama major and a Creative Writing minor to guarantee she will be unemployed in 2013. Catherine Aiyuan Gao is a Weinberg Junior studying Genetics and Molecular Biological Sciences and Creative Writing. Sometimes she takes pictures (and puts them on Hailing from the San Francisco Bay Area, Emerson GordonMarvin began learning photography as a child from his father. At Northwestern, he studies International Relations and American History, but spends most of his time procrastinating on photoblogs. In his spare time, he documents his travels with a pocket tripod and his beloved Nikon D80. Andrew Greenberg’s life began near San Francisco. He moved to

New Jersey and then San Diego, where he likes to pretend he was born. He is studying Arabic and the Middle East and this past fall spent a quarter in Cairo. He does not know when he will return. Andrew Jarrett was born in Aurora, CO, first of three. Father was in the Air Force, so we moved over twenty-five times. Currently studying psychology and economics in Weinberg. Dedicated to my brother Anthony, who taught me to slow down, breathe. Matthew Kluk is a sophomore majoring in Art History. He’s always had an interest in photography (among other mediums) and an eye for composition and, just this year, has had access to a dark room. He is perpetually drawn to solitude in urban space. Akhila Kolisetty is a senior majoring in Economics and Political Science. After graduation, she will be working with a civil rights law firm and hopes to ultimately become a public interest attorney. During college, she was involved with public interest student groups, studied abroad in London, and interned with various human rights organizations. Her poetry has previously been published in Lily Lit Review and The Muse, a literary magazine at the London School of Economics. Nick Merrill is a Linguistics and Journalism major. I study semantics, pragmatics, language extinc-



tion and various other ways to be unemployed. Outside of actual journalism, I write fiction and creative nonfiction, assuming there’s a difference. My favorite animals are all mythical; it has been suggested that this is a metaphor for my existence.

traditional soul. In this vein, Ken released his debut EP entitled “Zzzz” in February, 2010. The album features the talents of many other artists from all across the globe. To learn more or to download the EP visit

Patrick O’Malley is currently a sophomore studying music composition with composer Lee Hyla at the Bienen School of Music. He has written pieces on campus for various chamber ensembles, a cappella choir, orchestra, and film scores. He hopes to pursue a career as a composer in the modern classical medium, or in the film music industry. Upcoming projects include a performance of a 19 instrument work for the NU Contemporary Music Ensemble, music for the feature-length film NSTV 2010, and a piece for the East Coast Contemporary Ensemble which will be performed at the Etchings Music Festival in France.

Emily Somach is a WCAS Senior from Massachusetts. She is majoring in English literature, but also enjoys Linguistics. She loves to write, read, and take photographs of nature in her spare time.

Originally from Boston, Ken Ross now resides in the Greater Chicago area where he attends Northwestern University as a junior studying Political Science and Jazz Guitar. Born into a musical family, Ken was already performing in church choirs led by his mother and learning multiple instruments from his father at an early age. Throughout his teens he developed his love for jazz music and had the privilege of performing at such venues as Rose Hall in Lincoln Center, the Regatta Bar in Boston and the Monterey Jazz Festival. After departing for college Ken began to immerse himself in the creation of music ranging from jazz to hip-hop and

Elisa Sutherland is a Junior in the five-year program, majoring in Vocal Performance and Creative Writing. She comes from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She is currently working on trying to write a long poem, Alban Berg’s Seven Early songs, and finding her own “voice,” in every sense of the word. Angela M. Wang is a sophomore majoring in Art History and Art Theory & Practice. She appreciates adventuring, USING CAPSLOCK, and writing on walls. When she’s not stumbling around campus, you may find her wandering ghost towns. Madeline Weinstein is a senior creative writing major with a minor in Russian. She would encourage all interested parties to get involved in Helicon and NU’s incredible writing community. Next year she hopes to be sent to Siberia. Tiffany Wong is a junior creative writing and international studies double major. She hails from Brooklyn, NY.


Continue to our online supplement to see these pieces: PHOTOGRAPHY: Untitled by Emerson Gordon-Marvin PHOTOGRAPHY: Untitled by Emerson Gordon-Marvin MUSIC: All I Need by Ken Ross


MUSIC: Snapshot for Two Cellos by Patrick O’Malley MUSIC: In the Forest by Alex Zisis INTERVIEW: Alex Kotlowitz on Storytelling and the Writing Life


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Helicon Spring 2010  

Helicon's Spring 2010 issue.