LETTERS + STROKES
NIA BOULWARE - ELLIE COHEN - BRIDGET DEASE \] - LUCIE DELOBEL - VICTORIA GAETAN ZOË GATTI - ENANU GERIMA - QUADAJA HERRIOTT - GENEVIEVE KULES KHAT PATRONG - NANCY SCOFIELD - MONA SHARAF - BARRETT SMITH
ROOM EIGHTEEN - ISSUE IX
CONTENTS ZOË GATTI - 2 BRIDGET DEASE - 4 ENANU GERIMA - 6 VICTORIA GAETAN - 8 NIA BOULWARE - 10 NANCY SCOFIELD - 11 GENEVIEVE KULES - 12 QUADAJA HERRIOTT - 13 GENEVIEVE KULES - 14 LUCIE DELOBEL - 16 ELLIE COHEN - 19 KHAT PATRONG - 20 MONA SHARAF - 22 BARRETT SMITH - 24 ELLIE COHEN - 26
“In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.” -ALBERT CAMUS
JOKES THAT SLOWLY KILL Dad and his young friend were never going to acknowledge the discomfort I felt around them, or the consequences that came with them being together. I sat behind them in the car, as usual, drowning everything out with Coldplay’s “Fix You” fading to its end and carelessly holding the ten bucks Dad gave me for “being a good sport.” His young friend had changed her perfume to something that smelled like the kind mom was wearing on Mother’s day. She was rocking back and forth at something funny dad had said which, I thought, was not very funny at all. I had heard all of his self-proclaimed “genius” jokes and I still laughed, not knowing whether or not I was laughing because I wanted to or because I had to. I leaned forward and rested my head on the back of the passenger's seat, as I was desperately seeking new sources of refuge since my mother clearly had other things on her mind. Mom, Dad and I used to always laugh at jokes that seemed to have no trace of humor behind them. After a while, it became a family ritual. They would take turns telling these quips at the dinner table, as if an unforeseen force pushed them out of their comfort zones and they had become completely different people. Not the kind I knew anyhow. I laughed along with the awkwardness, afraid to try anything else for the sake of our relationship, or what was left of it. Once dad stopped coming home for dinner, the jokes were replaced by my mother’s blood-curdling screams. They arrived so loud and so piercing that they would wake me from my sleep, leaving me cringing in bed, my halfdeveloped thoughts racing in and out of my head; something would press me to go check on her and tell her we would be okay; but I was paralyzed each time it happened.
Photo by Zoë Gatti
My mother would get better with each lie she no longer had to listen to. There were no more excuses, Dad was no longer working late or at some friend’s house, too tired to drive all the way home. I met his young friend the first time he came to collect me. Mom would not come to the front door. As I walked to the car, I didn’t see her face, but I saw the shape of her body and her red heels. Something about her wasn’t maternal, the way she held herself up with confidence, and how I found that confidence attractive, almost lustful. I had never seen my mother that way. This is why, since that first time, I have always sat behind her; to avoid eye contact, afraid of what I might see, and that I might like it. Her perfume lands on my clothes and the safety I felt whenever my mother held me as tight as she could is gone. But I still laugh. I laugh because I am supposed to.
HOME FROM SCHOOL Fiddling with the short thread of hair she finds in the crevices of her pocket, she lays her head down between her knees and tries not think about anything. But her mind retaliates by once again returning to the man from the H4 bus. She loses the thread of hair somewhere between her index and middle finger. Now her hands lay idle. Too idle, so she begins to pick at the scab on her left knee. She has such knobby knees, she thinks. Just like that man, he was skinny... for a man. She remembers having to look up from her shoes after feeling the bus vibrate. There was a grown man curled into a ball in the center of the bus. He was crying. He reminded her of the childhood tantrums she’d throw when her dad would leave for work at night. She hated being able to only see him in the mornings before she left for school. She doesn't really remember his voice anymore. But when she heard the crier’s voice as, between his sobs, he murmured Bob Marley quotes to himself, she thought of her dad. No matter how many thoughts she’s donates to the incident she can’t figure out what could make a grown man cry like that. Picking the last square of the scab, the only part that hurts a little, that light brown rootlooking part, her knee begins to bleed. She can’t quite remember what her mom warned her about scabs, but she’s certain she’s supposed to pick them. It’s as if she’s forcing it to heal, by wrecking its slow process. One of the few times she’s had an actual conversation with her dad was the night before he left. He told her that he’d always remember her, even if her mother didn't want him to. He promised that one day he would make it back into her life, which she thought funny, considering the fact that he wasn't really in her life to begin with. And maybe that’s the type of thing that brought the man to tears? She thinks about her mom now. She remembers always stumbling into random parts of the house only to find her mother sobbing in the dark. Her mom doesn't cry anymore...or at least she hasn't been slipping lately. She has yet to ask her mother what happened between her and her husband. She doesn't like asking questions about him. 6
His name looms over the household, morbid clouds hang in her mother’s eyes, but now that she thinks about it...there was never, not even a streak, of lightning to begin with. She bends her knee to her chest, and licks the scarlet pulp off of her leg. Streaks of the man’s mumblings trails about her mind, replaying over and over, as a soundtrack to her thoughts. ‘Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our mind.’
Photo by Zoë Gatti
GAETAN Gaetan; Man of Gaeta, Town watching over the Mediterranean Sea. Men and Women with dark brows and dark eyes. Short legs and arms, picking olives from branches made for them to reach. Their tongues stained with the taste of sweet tomatoes. Gaetan; Man of Gaeta who fled his home. Crossing borders, olive trees fading, along with the smell of sand and simplicity. Traveling further north for wealth and business. To dig oil from underneath the grounds. Gaetan; Man no longer of Gaeta, disappearing to an unknown land. With high buildings to reside in, and higher hopes to fulfill. Across an ocean to a place that will not give most of those who go there, what they really want. Gaetan; A daughter with Gaeta in her blood, With other things in mind than to keep something familiar. Other things in mind than to stay where she is born. Gaetan; Man who flees his home.
Self Portrait by Ellie Cohen
Removing the glasses and funeral garments. Life was always hard. She couldn't seem to explain loneliness to parents who "were always there", so she wore it. Ripping through the yin and yang hair that mixes at times, reminding her of the old friend that taught her how to write and cut. Ignoring her motherâ€™s gaze, she will always be good enough. Peeling back the pale skin and invisible scars. Choking out the Zoloft she swallowed whole that morning. Breaking apart the bones, femur, metatarsal, phalanges. Removing her name, erasing her record. Until finally resting as debris.
GIRL. Age 14, has calculated just how much time until her 15th birthday. She stands in front of the mirror, examining the reflection that she sees every day, the reflection that she can't seem to change, no matter how hard she tries. Stringy brown hair forever tangled, no matter how much she attacks it with the worn out brush. Dull eyes, blue without color. They don't shine and no one meets them. Flat, unwanted lips. The color of the leftover milk in her bowl every morning. Whitish cream the color of regular people's skin that's not quite rubbed in does nothing to cover the red spots. She never notices. Her clothes have frayed ends, nothing new. The stitches uneven, horribly homemade. The tongues of her mud colored tennis shoes have long since gone, much like her confidence. Flat chest, something she hates to look at. She refuses to care, because if she does that means that the one thing that makes her a real girl isn't there, and will never be. The holed, turtle-necked and long sleeve shirt doesn't quite cover the spots on her arms. Blue has long disappeared from her sky, green gone from her grass, the golden of her sun faded. It's as if her near-white eyes can't see any color, except for the silver of her knife.
BUT NOW THEY ARE DISGUSTED He is folded in half at the waist, seemingly dead. He sits with his head hidden, only his white sneakers, wooden cane and black vest are visible. He moves only to the rhythm of the train. Morning commuters give him only a glance, a glance that might linger too long but never return. The train stops and he moves. His body straightens, his head appears - he is wearing a hat. He gurgles. Quietly at first. It grows louder. Those that glanced are relieved heâ€™s not dead, but now they are disgusted. The train stops in a tunnel and the gurgling grows. The sound of music travels from a series of headphones as commuters attempt to drown out the noise he is making. His cane falls to the ground, he picks it up and it falls again. His head leans against the chair in front of him. He cannot sit up straight. Everyone stares without looking. They put on an air of politeness but their thoughts are just the opposite. He drools. A long string of mucus escaping his mouth. They wish he was still folded in half.
LOST NOTE I’ve written about her a hundred times, both purposefully and subconsciously; always the most damaged thing I could find. She has had her being torn from her, her body left exposed to everything unstable. She has wanted dearly to take her own life. I stand over the stove watching water boil for Ramen Noodles. I see a hand reach out and grab me by the face and become a part of, pull her in; I watch the steam tear her apart and see her dissolve ...vapor intertwined with hair like the umbilical cord of a child in mother’s womb. She has been offered love many a time and all I can ever think about is the voice of death. The theory of time has been forced upon as blood on pavement…we aren’t allowed to give it back but only to shorten the span we endure it. She has decided to go, I refuse to leave a suicide note. Emotion is shed for her mother who will lose her child. I don’t believe in prayer. The majority never find their savior.
INVICTUS Amanda is on the train, looking out the window, traces of tears line her cheeks. She wants to take her mind away from the hours that lay ahead. She tells herself that she shouldn’t think about the past but what is coming. All the joy and fun she will have. How the people back home will envy the experience. Out of the night that covers me, Black as the Pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul. “Think positive,” Amanda begs herself. However, out the window she doesn’t see the countryside that flashes in front of her eyes. Instead, she sees her home, her family, her friends, her school, her chestnut horse Indiana... She feels as if she is torn away from it. The life she loves. The life she is leaving behind. She starts crying again. Her mother sitting next to her doesn’t move or talk. She doesn’t try to console her. Her daughter has to go through this alone. In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance My head is bloody, but unbowed. They arrive at bustling Gard Du Nord in Paris; Amanda walks out of the train station, her mother by her side. They check in at the Marriott hotel and put down their baggage, most of it is hers. Dinner that evening is at the best “American” restaurant in Paris, Breakfast In America. It is their last dinner together for a while. They don’t talk much. There isn’t much to say. Except maybe this: “I bet you will never have a healthier burger in the States than this one” says her mother. Amanda laughs. Her mother has always been able to a find a way to cheer her up. She thought of the times her mother pretended that Lea, their dog, could talk or the number of times her mother joked that she will go to “the store” and buy a new 16
“husband” that actually “listens to her.” How she always referred to Amanda’s 10th grade math teacher as a “psychopath” and then generalizing it to all math teachers. Amanda’s eyes burn. She already misses her mother despite her being there, right in front of her, eating a burger. Beyond this place of wrath and tears Looms but the Horror of the shade, And yet the menace of the years Finds and shall find me unafraid. Back at the hotel, they watch some track and field on TV; athletes stride around the track in London’s Olympic Stadium. They cheer for the U.S. but without real purpose, not knowing what else to do. All of the preparations were done weeks ago. They go to bed early. Amanda has a hard time falling sleep. She turns in her bed again and again, as if careful not to wake her mother, yet she knows her mother is not asleep. Both of them are anxious. Her mother worries about the distance that is going to be between them. Amanda can’t believe what she’s doing but at the same time is impatient for it to happen. It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, They are at the airport now. They have checked her bags and are waiting for the plane. Amanda’s feet are tapping the floor. Her mother looks around. The plane arrives. It is time to leave. Amanda says goodbye, hugs her mother one last time. There are no tears in her eyes. She has cried enough. Mother and daughter observe each other for a while, thinking of the life they have shared. Then, without looking back, Amanda walks to the gate, a smile on her face. Her new life has started. And she welcomes it. The next day, sitting on the floor, Amanda cries over the note her mother had hidden in her bag. It was the poem, Invictus, by William Ernest Henley. Through the last two lines, Amanda has found her mother. In herself. I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.
iam,ami?whoami? “Hi, I’m Lillian and I’m an alcoholic,” she says. “Hi Lillian,” the people sitting around her greet her in unison. Greeted in unison as she says goodbye to the only thing that made her feel sane. Goodbye Lillian. ♥♥♥ She dials her sponsor’s number with trembling fingers. He picks up after the fourth ring. “Hello?” he asks. She pauses before speaking, “Hi Gerald, I’m really gonna lose it this time,” she says and he tells her to take a deep breath, reminds her how close she is to recovery, so close she can taste it. “I’m parked outside a bar” she replies and for a moment she doesn't hear anything in the receiver. She wonders if Gerald has given up on her and listens to see if he has hung up. He hasn't. “Lillian, listen to me, you have to drive away. I know how tempting it is, but remember the guilt, and how you live in that guilt right now,” he said. Lillian covers her face with her free hand and starts to sob. She has been thinking about the accident all day. “How can I drive away from the only thing that takes away the guilt Gerald?” Gerald takes a breath and says “Lillian, listen. That’s not the kind of happiness you’re looking for.” She looks out the window and at the fluorescent blinking of the ‘Joe’s Pub’ sign and replies, “What is the right kind of happiness?” ♥♥♥ They want to know the stories, the moments when you realize that recovery is the only option. She feels like she’d been pushed into making this decision but she is willing to recover. So she is the only one to raise her hand. Her eyes are closed as she tells the story aloud.
She was driving to the babysitter’s flat after returning from the grocery store. Her mind was preoccupied with the marriage counseling session she had earlier that day. She remembers reaching for the wine bottle in a shopping bag, not wanting to think about it anymore, and so she drank. The babysitter was suspect but Lillian had told her she was fine, and the babysitter was even more confused when Lillian paid her more than the usual rate. Lillian tells the room of strangers that she had strapped her three-year-old (she was no longer willing to share his name) into the backseat and off they went. She recalls the songs they sang, and they were laughing. She paid no attention to the road or to how heavy her foot was on the petal. She pauses in her retelling, and then tells the group that she remembers her son screaming, it jerked her awake and she was about to tell him to quiet down when the car flew over the edge. Her stomach dropped. They plunged into water. Soberness felt like a slap across her face. She unbuckled her seat belt. She turned around to find her son crying and wet. She tried to take his seat belt off. She tells the group that she tried and tried and tried. Her lungs were burning and begging for air. She looked at her son’s face and would never forget the look of what she could only describe as panicked peace. She swam to the surface and started crying, screaming for her son. Screaming for herself. She opened her eyes and saw both pity and disgust staring back at her. She desperately wanted a drink. ♥♥♥ “Don’t do this Lillian,” Gerald’s voice was now stern, at least as stern as it got with him. She wanted to laugh. She thought of the water suffocating her, she thought of her need for air in that moment. She thought of laughing with her son. She smiled and hung up. She got out of the car, tasting her recovery.
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pedar joon I didn’t know this was going to be the last time that I saw him alive. I never knew how much I would miss the psychotic ways of a man who had lived enough for two people. I never thought that I would miss his tight grip on my arm when he said hello, or the way he called me cakoo, brother, each time asking if I knew what it meant, or the way he lit up when I said I understood, and he would slap me on the arm; it always used to bother me. I walked into the small pizza restaurant, having been warned that he probably wouldn’t remember me. For a man that was sick, his large, 6’5 stature and large, strong muscles always surprised me. I felt my hand stiffen as I watched him struggle to lift the spoon to his face, assisted by a man that looked twice as old and twice as frail. “Salaam agha joon” Hello sir. His head faced my direction, but his eyes swiveled around the room, searching for the source of the sound. “Hello young lady,” I stepped forward and put my hand in his. I smiled, happy he couldn’t see the tears forming. “I’m Mona, Mimi’s daughter.” “Nini? My daughter? She has a daughter?” I smiled at his pet name, Nini. “She has two, me and Layla.” He smiled and laughed, his voice shaking with joy, “I cannot believe it! And you are so old? Ach, cakoo, you are so beautiful,” he said. “Do you know what that means?” “Brother.” I smiled as his hand gripped my arm. “Inshallah, I am so proud of you.” I sat down next to him and studied him. In this small pizza shop in the middle of California, I would be the last of my small family of four to ever see him alive. For years his absurd actions, talking in German to strangers, or sitting with the wrong group, would drive the entire family insane. We would call him crazy, we would try to explain the right from wrong to him, but it was just who he was. “Mona, come here, feel my muscles.” I gripped his arm, my hands not able to reach around his large forearm. “Wow, you are so strong,” I said. My voice quivered as I saw his eyes were closed, unable to distinguish the difference between 22
open and closed. “I walk every day.” He patted his muscles, his hands shaking. “Ahga, sir, please eat.” Saeid, his caretaker, took another piece of the food. “Nah, Nah, no, no, I am not hungry.” As I sat with him, and listened to him talking, I thought of a year in the future, when I thought that he would be better, and he would come visit and we’d play tachte, a common Iranian game, while drinking chai tea and he told me stories of when he was a professor at UCLA. As we left the restaurant, I watched as he stood up, his knees unable to straighten, leaning on Saied who was struggling to stablize him. He walked over to me and put his arm on my shoulder. “When are you planning to get married? I expect many grandchildren.” My throat caught and the tears I’d tried so hard to keep in slowly trickled down my cheek. Making sure that my voice was stable I replied, “Soon, I promise, I promise.” “Good. I expect many,” his voice drifted off as his mind raced to another thing, his Alzheimer’s kicking in. I looked up at him, memorizing every detail, just in case. “Dooest Daram,” I love you. I smiled “I love you too pedar joon.” Grandfather. And, as he walked out, I smiled, taking a moment to commit the day to my memories. Photo by Zoë Gatti
UNICORN PAJAMAS The vacuum was loud in the background. She didn’t notice. The sound was rhythmic, daily, familiar, it guided her mindlessly through the routine, kicking dirty clothes into a pile and lifting useless porcelain as she dusted. She’d been cleaning Lauri’s cluttered room for eleven years, so when she came across magazines on the floor, she knew which box to put them in, which bucket on the desk for scissors and where to pile her textbooks, always impressed by how many of them there were and the amount of notes inside them. She moved circularly around the room, tidying and dusting, she sat on Lauri’s bed as she arranged the clutter in her nightstand, she picked up an unfamiliar book and tried to stand it upright, the cover fell open revealing a carved out hole, filled with a pipe, a lighter, a dime bag, and a handful of pills. She paused and stared at the box in her hand; she worked, quite literally, amongst people’s dirty laundry, so she wasn’t unused to knowing things she shouldn’t and she took it in stride, like a doctor, unaffected by her clients’ lives and stories, only things to tell at the dinner table. Eleven years ago, Lauri had been just five, she sat on the counter beside Nina’s own daughter, they were putting stickers on each other’s faces while she mopped the floor. Her child didn’t speak very good English but Lauri was patient with her, seeming to consider her exotic, like one of her other toys. She had imagined them, now, then. She had imagined that they wouldn’t drift apart, that Lauri would hold her daughter close and lift her out of the cycle of her own class. Nina picked up the unicorn shaped pipe, the glass was cold in her hands; she brought the tail to her lips and breathed in the familiar taste. Six years ago, when Lauri was ten, there had been a pair of unicorn pajamas that, every week, she shoved into the laundry
pile, and every week reappeared on opposite sides of her floor. She started to pick them up and fold them neatly on top of Lauri’s pillow, the white fleece turned ivory and then gray, she remembered thinking how active Lauri was, so full of energy, so carefree. Eventually she put them directly in the wash, taking them out before she left and returning them to the spot she had designated on the pillow. She carefully wedged the pipe back into the small puzzle of a box, replacing the purple lighter and fingering the assortment of pills. Expensive pills. It both consoled and saddened her that her own daughter wouldn’t be able to afford them. She closed the book. She put it on top of the nightstand, misplacing it, so Lauri would know she’d seen it, touched it; she hoped it would be a kind of silent call to earth, she thought about writing a note. She wondered if Lauri would see it, if she would care; she imagined her blue eyes rolling back in their sockets. Her cousin abruptly stopped vacuuming, calling her back to earth, she couldn’t even write in English. She returned to her routine, finishing the circle and then moving on to the guest bedroom. They were not family, they were simply part of the cycle. Lauri had strayed from the routine but she was a child who could afford to, who, perhaps, needed to. As much as she had imagined Lauri in a different routine, as much as she hadn’t expected this, it was still expected. She, and her family, they, could not stray from the routine.
Photo by Zoë Gatti 25
ELLIE COHEN AND NOBODY WAS THE WISER| RUN:// And he waited. Nobody looked the same anymore. They all looked so alien to him, so positively different, all scowling and angry and frothing at the mouths with jealousy of each other's sins committed, he recited the seven sins over and over to keep himself from forgetting what not to be. When you forget, you lose sight, and when you lose sight, you become one of them. He felt bad for them, the poor, blind fools. Was what happened to them part of God's plan? Or just a fluke? Was he being punished, or excluded from punishment? The Pale Man sat on the floor of his dinky little apartment when he was too tired to read anymore, or when he was too scared to be by the window. One could easily call him a recluse, but that wasnâ€™t quite it. He was a thesis, a philosophical argument proven. A man, once fully qualifying as 'normal', had found himself so completely disgusted with the temperament of human nature that he shut himself up inside his home, lest he become one of them, like some sort of horror film. He hated the creatures he saw passing by on the streets outside. All he allowed himself to do was read and remember, flash back to the way things used to be, but soon enough, even the people in his distorted, hopeful memories became as hateful as the others. 26
He held his arms close to his chest and waited, but he wasn't sure what for.| Wiser, every single day, he grew wiser. He'd read because he had nothing else to do, books went some way towards being adequate solutions to the huge, empty feeling that the lack of conversation had left him with. He read all the books in his house, every single page, the publishing dates to the author's biography, then read them all again, over and over and over until he could recite Nietzsche like some pretentious nursery rhyme. He studied the creatures outside sometimes, when he felt brave enough. He wondered if they all missed him. Sometimes he'd hear knocks at his door or his phone ringing, and though he never answered either, he knew, knew it must have been because they missed him. He shook the thought away before it could get to him. No, no, they didn't miss him. Why would they? He was nobody special. He remembered, suddenly, a science class decades ago, when his teacher said that if a butterflyâ€™s wings were touched, corrupted by the pads of human fingers, they'd be rejected by their kin. Maybe that was what had happened to him. Maybe he, too, had been touched, and now society had rejected him, forgotten, and moved on. How dare they? He couldn't look at them anymore. He knew that eventually, he too, would become like them, sinful and blind. This was God's plan, to make them blind. He didn't know why, but he must have had something up his sleeve, something glorious and horrible, and nobody was the wiser. He walked down the hallway, down the stairs, and flung the doors open.| 27
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ROOM 18 - ISSUE #9- JUNE 2013
PRODUCED BY THE LITERARY MEDIA & COMMUNICATIONS DEPARTMENT