VOLUME 47 | ISSUE No. 1 | FALL 2017
Phoebe (Vol. 47, Issue No. 1, ISBN 978-0-9843867-3-4) is a nonprofit literary journal edited and produced by students of the MFA program at George Mason University. We are open for submissions in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction twice a year. Our print edition is available for $7. Back issues are available for $5. For complete submission guidelines, please visit www.phoebejournal.com.
ANNUAL WRITING CONTEST Each year Phoebe hosts annual writing contests in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. For contest guidelines, please visit www.phoebejournal.com. Greg Grummer Poetry Award Prize: $500 and publication in Phoebe 47.2 (online issue). Fiction Contest Prize: $500 and publication in Phoebe 47.2 (online issue). Creative Nonfiction Prize Prize: $500 and publication in Phoebe 47.2 (online issue).
Cover art: Kat McDonald. Design and composition: appliedtype. Phoebe is indexed in Humanities International Complete. Distributed by Ubiquity Distributors, INC. ÂŠ 2017 Phoebe firstname.lastname@example.org www.phoebejournal.com
phoebe Editor-in-Chief John Guthrie
Assistant Editor Katie Branca Fiction Editor Josef Kuhn
Assistant Fiction Editor Michelle Orabona
Poetry Editor Janice Majewski
Assistant Poetry Editor Andrew Art
Nonfiction Editor Andrew Cartwright Web Editor Ryan McDonald Webmaster Jenna Khan
Brad Radovich Jeff Lipack Lily Wright Sarah Wheeler Ben Rader Grace Brenner Lindley Estes Tara Fritz Sophia Rutti Carol Mitchell Sean van der Heijden Mary Winsor Heather Osial Chris Boss Aryelle Young Jarrod Clark
Assistant Nonfiction Editor Kyle Franรงois Social Media Manager Sarah Batcheller Faculty Advisor Eric Pankey
Madison Gaines Joseph Massa Su-Ah Lee Devon Nelson Laura Handley Alex Christopher Rose Chrisman Sanjana Raghavan Mansoor Faqiri Tim Barzditis Edward Jesse Capobianco Phebe Ciemny Shaun Holloway Jordan Keller Sarah Laing Caely McHale
Alayna Nagurny Katie Richards Joshua Sackett Blake Wallin Caroline Weinroth Elizabeth Board Beth Dalbec Craig Evans Darcy Gagnon Kristen Greiner Jenna Kahn Brittney Knight Abi Newhouse Rachel Purdy Dave Stroup Alexandra Tecco
Special Thanks To Jason Hartsel, David S. Carroll, Kathryn Mangus and the George Mason University Office of Student Media, Eric Pankey and the George Mason University Creative Writing Program. VOLUME 47 | ISSUE No. 1 | FALL 2017
FICTION EDIE MEIDAV Mount Olympus: The Bar3 HUGH BEHM-STEINBERG Death8 Nature9 Death #211 JULIUS TARANTO Double Effect12 CHRISTINE OTTONI Throaty21 SHO ARAIBA The Shrine Divorce34 JENNIFER LEE Shrew’s Bridle44
NONFICTION LESLEY jenike The Story of Our Assemblages49 The Story of Our Bed52 The Ruckus55 JANE HUFFMAN The Four Riders59 ALYSHA HOFFA An Exercise in Exposure62
ART SEAN PATRICK HILL Portrait of a Man73 JUSTIN NOAH WELLS Book Burn74 A Writer Shipwrecked75 SAMANTHA MALAY Night Bloom #3776
POETRY NADIA FROESE Yellow79 DARYL SZNYTER First Time in a Bikini Since 1680 TONY MANCUS from “Apologies”82
MICHAEL FULOP The Summer of Violins84 SANDra MARCHETTI County Donuts85 MATTHEW J. SPIRENG Haven86 Davidâ€™s Place87 KAILEY TEDESCO Lizzie Romantic / Lizzie Rheumatic88 MaG GABBERT Trouble Sleeping90 Nightmare91 RICKY GARNI The Ending92 The Passive Voice93 JULY WESTHALE [poem]94 HEATHER SWAN Untitled VII95 JAMES SHEA Unreasonable DJ96 Origin Story97 HELEN HOFLING Things the Parents Saw on Their Nanny Cam98 Glances100 ELIZABETH SAVAGE Black Snake101 Of May102 HOLLIE DUGAS Acts of Blasphemy103 ELIZABETH FOGLE Considering Motherhood at Age Forty104 J.M. BAKER Notes for a Narrative105 S.D. Lishan More Stories from Her Sky106 LAUREN w. WESTERFIELD Tumbleweed109 Hannah Gamble A Mind that Climbs the Air110
Mount Olympus: The Bar 8:20-8:50
At the barside table the woman was name-dropping with her child, the kid warbling and chirping back to the motherâ€™s wheedling about whether they were going to see [fancy literary personage] today or should they see [fancy other literary personage] and though she may have misheard and had an aural hallucination, the barista having waylaid dreams of being a journalist in order to care for the baby who came no sooner than she should have, though it would have been nice to have at home a Leonard Woolf taking care of her Virginianess, when her shift ended, in an hour and a half, she would end up doing more shifting in place along with the moms and grizzled sheepish fathers in neat collars outside the daycare, all shorter than revenge, on a day when unfortunately she felt more like Sylvia, not with the anguish of someone who would end life by sticking head into oven but rather possessed by the need to escape through a magic portal in the immediate firmament, and then flinched at the thought: Sylvia as the ultimate interior decorator, the only one heeding the silent message of the oven as it sat pulsing in its corner in a dark London flat. Ready implements, in other words, and here at the bar these would be the bottles of barrel whiskey or rum, ellipses of light reflecting off such amber entities pulsing their own pagan message. Bottles could slice once broken; contents could slay in combination with the combustible innards of other bottles. For more than a second the barista understood the sorority of suicidal sisters in the unmothered game, only to be interrupted by the sight of the important [famous literary personage] who came in every day for coffee served black, a man with the habit of biting leather gloves off before throwing them onto the counter as if announcing a disdain for the tame. Once, he had intoned to her that the
FICTION | 3
secret to writing was to lead with weakness, not just writing the wound but displaying it, proudly, and had been taken aback when she asked [famous literary personage] whether his act was less performative bravery and more secret cowardice, a way to preempt critique of his own writing, the creation of a sanctum for the self defended from othersâ€™ incursions. Up and down he had looked her over, taking in the fact of another breasted barista pouring his coffee, and for more than two seconds she wondered if he knew her byline, how she had taken on the jill-of-all-trades habit of writing even for publications which splayed their women open with just a bit of redemptive male literature surrounding, an act undertaken just to see if she could nudge herself up the greased pole of career a bit. Even in this late century she found it hard to know how to place selfishness and whether it lay on any particular chromosome. [Another famous literary personage] she knew had been blessed with divine egoism, his a vessel for divine consciousness, the pressures of culture working through him as he worked through the intricacies of [un/entitled] selfhood, but was she a girl born to be an empathetic eye, designed to gaze, gawk, and pander while never getting to create regimented subsets of self? Into every subject she conjured, a cast of thousands could tromp, wearing ill-fitting Roman wigs and togas clasped with golden lockets of prestige. Did she respect the mountain and wish to be atop it? Or instead to live far from the hordes, wandering lonely goatpaths with only the occasional phantasms of equally lonely and celebrated gods? She foamed cream, poured coffee, ground nutmeg, forgot to trace hearts in foam. It happened that [famous literary personage] hunched over his newspaper, hunting cap askew, near an older couple enjoying a card game with attendant tokens of culture splayed out, books and a journal, and in them she got a little lost, wondering how they managed, sharing news of their digestion at pauses in a lifelong card game. Her coworker, a boy born temperamentally happy, saw her regarding them and with his all-purpose whassup told her to step lively just as [famous literary personage] beckoned her over. Just because he sat at the bar every morning he assumed rights over her personage. Iâ€™m sorry, 4 | PHOEBE 47.1
she said, backing away, and if she had continued, she would have said canâ€™t be your lamp and mirror, your anything. She had nothing to give. Did women still have to ask themselves how much self they got to leave behind for themselves, the stray crumbs? Why is it, her child had asked only the night before, you are always willing to leap up to get me a pencil or glass of water or anything but always want to use my napkin? Because, she answered, humbled by the realization, it is easier for me to do things for others than for myself. But you write! her child said, writing which seemed to be an expression of the kind of divine egoism the barista had to believe was not carried solely on that pesky and alluring Y chromosome. She could just give up on everything, that being her mantra, she could, a rhythmic trap set she could not help hearing over the soft jazz, an internal mantra, turning away from the bar, to give up, to stop giving, everyone around her starting to seem like open orifices craving not just her attention but the coddling of wounds. No one seen properly as a child, no one mothered enough. Somewhere the bartender had signed on to tend and in so doing had stretched her own wound immeasurably wider and would there ever be escape? Hey, someone said down the bar, her favorite, the retired guy. Older men had a thing for her, part of her karma, they saw in her quashed ambition or professionalist energy some part of themselves or just liked the time-swallowing avatar of a young girl mother. Who knows exactly but, fighting hard that day, she ignored the wiping down of the counter and instead acceded, went over to talk. This one liked razzing her about moving slowly. On good days she laughed because sometimes it was true, sometimes she compensated for the present by lifting above into the dream, being anywhere but here, but she appreciated being teased and he appreciated, after what she guessed was his string of neurotics, that she still held onto that strand of civilization: being able to laugh. Between them strung some intimacy. He was perhaps playing a long game with her, a pass prior to an imagined plunge. He asked: what was yesterday like? She could have cried at the kindness but bit it down. Iâ€‹ drove around [famous literary personage],
FICTION | 5
she began. Later I also was the one conducting the radio interview with [famous literary personage], just because one of her many moonlighting jobs involved playing literary sunshine in this town made up of many books and fewer readers. How interesting, the man said, how fascinating, are you ever able to see yourself when you’re around these people? Do you see your own greatness? Sometimes people don’t see themselves, he said. I grew up with my grandparents and I knew what it is to be [maligned identity] in America. You are a woman in America. From my grandparents, who had a rooming house, I learned what it was to engage with people but to be cautious, to watch people before you speak, to watch and act. My grandmother could make a dollar sing and dance. My father used to come around on weekends and get me to go simonize cars with him and for that he gave me five dollars. I decided from watching movies that I wanted money and made a decision to get out of where I was. I was good in school, I went ahead. I got to the top, I did all I wanted to do, I learned to manage people by listening to them, most people don’t know how to really listen. And I’ve been watching you. You are all approach and avoidance. Probably early attachment style. Early, late, disorganized, it’s still yours, he said. But you got to see your greatness, I’m still saying. You don’t see it enough. She closed up early at the bar and failed to heed the message of her friendly oracle, failed to see her greatness as she walked a few blocks to go wait with the kindly mothers and sheepish fathers. They were an odd confederacy, huddled in the wind. When she first came to this town, when she first began waiting at the gate, she used to try to meet the kindness but recently just let the overwhelm of life enclose her in its sacred shield. A sanctity lived in busyness, the hive granting so much busyness to all its members, and even when she wasn’t pretending to be lost in the invisibility of her phone, she was happy to be as translucent to the possibility of discourse as the leaves on the tree nearby. In her ears still hummed the coffeeshop’s jazz and traps, the beating of drinks and grinding of beans a music she could not escape for hours after leaving her 6 | PHOEBE 47.1
job with its own particular and temporary stations of the cross. If tragedy lived in anything it had to do with some strategy of blindness she seemed to have adopted. And there came that face running toward her, a hand holding aloft yet another bit of crayoned paper woven with rainbow yarn which with a little too much glee she would soon throw in the garbage. If it was true that in that face shone the reflected light of a thousand plane trees, this too she could not help, the reminder always hitting: the soft vulnerability of the first time she had known she could love another, the helpless creature held in the nakedness of early days only partly masked under this shiny being. Into motherâ€™s arms her child leapt and if there was no help for any of them except for whatever shimmered down, so be it, too wrapped up in each other to notice the only moment of greatness was the one spun by the moment and no one elseâ€™s story.
FICTION | 7
Death In the beginning there was Death; Death was really into videogames. Because Death had all the time in the world, Death got really, really good at videogames. Death would say to God, “I’m bored,” and God would say, “Well, have you played Frogger yet?” Death would say, “Ages ago! I know all the cheat codes!” “Well, what about Fallout,” God would say, and Death would say, “Yep, all versions too.” Death kept saying, “I’m so bored,” and God kept saying, “I’m busy; why don’t you play more videogames?” So Death says, “I’ve played them all; maybe I’ll just go and make trouble.” That’s when God says, “Wait a minute,” and God shows Death the universe. It takes forever to play. It keeps Death busy.
8 | PHOEBE 47.1
Nature You break up with Death and start dating Nature. Nature is great. Nature knows all about long walks in the woods, and because Nature really likes you, all the rarest birds and animals come out to see you. They say the Mangarevan Whistler is extinct but you’ve met three of them, heard their lovely whistles and that was just the second date! On your third date Nature teaches all the coyotes how to howl one of your poems. Under the stars in the arms of Nature you hear the breath of the world. And no kidding but Nature really, really, really loves sex. Nature has a problem with birth control, but what nature doesn’t know won’t hurt it. Nature pulls you from your car and gets you walking everywhere. When you’re tired Nature summons elephants to carry you wherever you wish to go. You look at your house and wonder why you need one. You’re thinking of taking a sledgehammer to all the concrete around you. You see insects everywhere, all of them are chirping “Go for it! Let Nature take care of everything!” All the pigeons say the same thing, and the fennel too. There are problems. You tell Nature you need some space, and rather than being hurt Nature brings you to the wilderness. You say no, that’s not the space I mean, and Nature reluctantly brings you home to the city. You want to fight it out, clear the air, but Nature just agrees to everything, and when you back Nature into a corner all you get are mice, roaches, and feral makeup sex. “Why aren’t you pregnant yet?” Nature keeps asking; you keep making excuses.
FICTION | 9
Finally you say “I think we should see other people,” wondering if Nature will sulk like all your other exes. Nature says, “I’m way ahead of you.” “What do you mean?” you say. “I’m seeing everybody already,” Nature says. “I just want you to be who you already are. Call me when you want to hook up again,” says Nature, that bringer of all gifts.
10 | PHOEBE 47.1
Death #2 It stinks; every day you have to walk by the house where Death lives. Death sleeps in, smokes too much; everyone knows it’s the party house, you exhale when you walk by. Death opens the curtains, looks out, sees you. Death keeps wanting to date again, but instead of working on his OkCupid profile, he keeps calling you. “I miss you,” he yells as you walk by. You put Death off. “I’m too busy for this,” you tell him. “I’m seeing someone else.” “Who?” Death demands. “I’m not going to tell you, and you know why.” It stinks that every house you walk by smells like Death. You think maybe you should cut back on your own smoking. “Quit calling me,” you say. Death says, “Fine, I hope both of you live forever!” He doesn’t mean it, you know he doesn’t mean it, but you wonder how long it will take for him to figure that out.
FICTION | 11
Double Effect If you were lucky, you learned early that there is no such thing as neutrality. In the face of controversial issues, lack of interest or personal concern was inherently conservative, and uncertain or apathetic people were the silent legions of the status quo. That didn’t feel like me, though; I owned lots of thoughtful opinions. But no one was asking about television or music. In college it was all we argued about, and I wrote ardent essays on The Simpsons and Aretha Franklin for academic credit. In law school I had written only papers I didn’t believe in. My ideas were trivial or tentative or wrong or all three. So at twenty-five I resolved to develop considered positions on issues directly relevant to the law. At twenty-six I had made no meaningful progress, aside from missing several movies I would have liked to see in theaters. I was in a shipping container, in an art gallery, talking to a Tibetan painter over Skype. I wanted to talk about censorship, but the painter was telling me about his series on eroticism in architecture. I made the obvious joke about skyscrapers and the Washington Monument, and the feed cut out in rebellion. The painter and I had never met and would never talk again; the shipping container was part of a high-tech art installation that connected the Bowery to Lhasa by video, and my time in the booth expired before our technical difficulties resolved. At dinner, when I told this to a friend who studied foreign policy, he found it profound. “Do you think they cut the feed on purpose?” I laughed. But later, on the train to Harlem, I remembered the gallery owner’s face—sanguine and impenitent when I reported the malfunction. Yes, they were addressing the issue. 12 | PHOEBE 47.1
The philosophy student in Harlem wanted to talk about whether all suffering is alike. “Let’s say you get bullied in high school, and I get raped by a trusted teacher. For both of us, it’s the worst suffering we’ve ever experienced, and we both learn from it, want vengeance, develop neuroses, et cetera. Then we meet, and I tell you my pain and you tell me yours. Am I wrong to think yours is trivial? Can we even sensibly compare?” With her, you picked a side just to end the argument. “I think yes. Different in scale, but similar in kind.” She nodded, had expected that thoughtless position, explained why I was wrong, then let me undress her. Of course, it is always easier to lose an argument. Later, very late, I woke up starving. Her floor was littered with books, clothes, a hair straightener I’d never seen her use. I stood naked in her dark kitchen and made myself four eggs, wincing as they cracked on the pan. I was prepared, if she woke, to defend myself on the grounds that eggs were the only food in her apartment and that she had worn my boxers to bed. One thing I liked about her was that she respected logic. The rows of blue lockers were just the most tangible way that the law school was like high school. But it’s not just that the place was like high school; it’s that it made me like I had been in high school. Suddenly I was aware of social status again, and sometimes I cared about it. Same with resumé lines. Ninety percent of the work felt merely obligatory. I was both lazy and ambitious, confident and fraudulent. I missed the time when it had been good enough in life to be precocious. People told me I was in love with a classmate, let’s call her Mary. When he was drunk, Brendan would corner me and whisper that he was rooting for us to work out. It was too well known that I tried to date Mary once. We were still friends and I was protective of her, harboring the paranoid certainty that everyone else adored her the way I did. She was charismatic and mean, but always apologetic about it; not chaste,
FICTION | 13
but non-trivially Catholic in a way you could respect. I had gravitated toward her. Soon we were speaking every day. More telling, maybe, was that neither of us noticed this for a while, it was that natural. Then I wanted her; started missing her when one of us traveled; mustered courage; etc. She rebuffed me with such grace that I wasn’t even angry until the next morning. She removed my hand from hers with a warm laugh and said, “Let’s not go there, you idiot.” But then in the morning I worried that she’d missed the point. I had not been sending up a trial balloon. At this party, Brendan insisted I still wanted her. He looked at me looking at her. For a moment she was just that blonde across the room in sequins. A ping-pong ball grazed Brendan’s forehead, leaving a smudge of pilsner foam but not breaking his attention. He wanted a confession, a commitment. He was insistent. I couldn’t figure out why he cared. My position was neutral: I denied I was in love with her, because I believed I wasn’t. But nor did I say I had lost interest. I did not like lying to my friends, and more importantly I was bad at it. So—neutral. But if you were lucky you learned early there is no such thing as neutrality. There is a lot to like about universities. But maybe the thing I like best is that they afford the people who become professors the opportunity to be cool, desired, most of them for the first time. At a university, you can earn what you secretly want. One difference between law school and high school was that the future had narrowed. People labeled themselves in ways that seemed more durable, more trustworthy than our labels when we were fifteen, but there was still a lot of pretense and self-righteousness. I admired the people who wanted only money. In our school, wanting only money, not fame or power, was a form of modesty. Many others were highly confirmable. All their judgments, all public writings or statements or actions, were first vetted by an internal Committee for Future Election 14 | PHOEBE 47.1
or Senate Confirmation. The people who bothered me were the especially cautious ones, whose respective Committees had jurisdiction even behind closed doors. I could never decide if it was the aloofness— the dishonesty of it—that irked me, or whether it was the possibility that these classmates genuinely lacked the urge or imagination to do anything that risked the disapproval of some imagined future public. Either way, they could be hard to talk to. Suppose that we intend the natural and foreseeable consequences of our actions. Commonsense enough, right? But my professor proclaimed that criminal law has rejected it. A little agitated, perhaps still under the Harlem philosopher’s influence, I approached sharklike after class and demanded an explanation. Why would the law decline such an intuitive axiom? The professor claimed the principle was hardly obvious. Foreseeable was different from actually foreseen, he said, and even if foreseen we do not necessarily intend every byproduct of our actions. For example, if we decide to drop a bomb on terrorists but we know it will damage a nearby school, we don’t say we dropped the bomb intending to damage the school. My view, as far as my professor understood it, was in fact not widely shared. I thought about calling the philosopher just to argue the issue out. I could impress her by using the proper term for the idea, which I had just learned: the Doctrine of Double Effect. But we’d never had the kind of relationship where we called each other. Instead I wrote in my notebook, outlining “my view.” This was perhaps my first fervent moment in the law. Surely it was obvious! That we intend the foreseen consequences of our actions; that intent and desire are different; that intents but not desires should be the root of culpability, because we do not control what we desire, and desires often conflict with what we intend. Here is the least believable sentence in the English language: “You have to believe I am a very honest person.” The philosopher said it during a
FICTION | 15
reconciliation—a real fight; she’d won; I’d apologized—and I grimaced visibly. Sometimes she couldn’t hear herself. Suppose that the phrase “rebuttable presumption” deserves to trickle into non-legal parlance. Use it to think about intuitions, generalizations, stereotypes. Based on your gender, race, hometown, friends, sexual orientation, age, and etc., there is an array of rebuttable presumptions that you hold certain views. We faced such presumptions even here in the lefty bourgeois heart of things, where many thought we should have known better. Certain people seemed to have shaped themselves primarily by contrarian instinct: to rebut every presumption one was likely to presume. The most outspoken feminists were straight men, one of whom talked in crit-theory gibberish, knowing you didn’t understand, so that he could then explain his casual deployment of the most progressive concepts in the scholarly arsenal. In contrast, many female feminists were unpretentious, speaking in the pragmatic, conservative language of economics and liberty, not a peep about Foucault. Because pretty and extroverted, Mary faced the presumption that she was unserious. I faced the presumption that I still loved Mary. To rebut, I dated mercilessly and escalated my flirtations with her friends, unable to make up my mind which one to try to sleep with first. I tore through months of dating, seducing, rejecting and getting rejected, brooding, drinking. She was conspicuously cool about it. My guess? She sensed that I was still hers if she wanted me. She liked having that power, that potentiality. Anyone would. Probably, I thought in cynical moods, this was the foundation of our friendship. We could both be happy, more or less, could both sleep with whom we pleased and report back. As long as we ended on a laugh, like on a sitcom, neither of us was going to pull away. So we protected the status quo. In fact it felt like we were still growing closer. Sometimes we watched movies and she slept on my couch, and I was always a gentleman. The next morning, Brendan, 16 | PHOEBE 47.1
who lived down the block, would make eyes as we all walked into school together. It was a precarious equilibrium. One question was whether she saw the same imbalance in our relationship that I saw. But I didn’t want an answer to that. I planned to tell my professor that my view was about battling selfdeception. We intend the foreseen consequences of our actions, even the results we find distasteful. We think about acting in terms of costs and benefits; we take the bitter with the better. Of course, we should be responsible for even the foreseen results we don’t desire. To suppose otherwise absolves self-deceivers and oversimplifies the algorithm of human judgment. That’s not to say we can’t still lie to ourselves. As a teenager, I used to pretend that I had foreseen certain consequences that were, in fact, unimagined. E.g., Going to a party, I once parked on the street by the woods behind the house, not in the driveway. I did this thoughtlessly. When the police broke up the party and we ran out the back, driving off untouched, my friends hollered at the luck that we’d parked out of sight. I claimed that I had done it on purpose, had seen this coming, had sensed that maybe a kegger in this neighborhood would get busted. Everyone seemed to believe me. This kind of lie became a habit: I had always seen it coming, had always known the risks. I felt clear-eyed and strategic when things turned out well. And when things turned out badly, at least I had not been careless, which was far worse in my mind than being wrong. Naturally I mostly believed myself too. I do not know if this is a common form of self-deception. Maybe that’s what the gallery owner was doing when we lost the feed to Tibet—a nice bluff. According to St. Augustine, everyone in Catholic heaven is thirty-three years old, the perfect age. That includes even the (baptized) people who died as infants. It is not clear what is supposed to have happened to a baby in those thirty-three years that vanish in its instant of death.
FICTION | 17
It is not clear how it would know itself, who it was when it was alive. I’ve heard reliable hearsay that some teachers of the dogma still give Augustine’s answer when asked what version of oneself will occupy paradise. Catholics will be thirty-three forever. Another question is how heaven can truly be paradise if some of the people you love most, relationships central to your identity, are not in heaven with you but somewhere hotter. One answer is that you forget them. “So you will forget me,” I asserted, wanting Mary to admit where I’d end up. In violation of a tacit agreement, today I steered into religion, our single prohibited topic, looking for a fight. It was not the topic but my aggression that really infuriated her. She accused me of “typical liberal smugness.” “But what liberal smugness could compare,” I said, “to the bonedeep Christian certainty that the people who disagree with you are going to hell?” Refusing to make a scene, she did not cry or yell. She hailed the waitress mid-entrée and asked for the check, very quiet, loathing me. She would not talk to me for a week. In fact I admired Augustine, and sympathized. The one consistent meta-lesson of every law school hypothetical is that categorical principles inevitably conflict with one another. I’m sure it can be hard for lawmakers like him to make sense of things. Identify those people who have been really close to death. The ones who have seen combat; who have had surgeries go wrong, sudden blood clots; who have flipped cars; who have poured the entire bottle of oxycodone into a palm and counted pills, but there weren’t enough. I am not like these people, but I like to think that I know them when we meet. Probably they have seen deeper into life than the rest of us and should have some kind of perceptible trauma. A scar. A thousandyard stare. A propensity for poetry. Their suffering must have some public value. That’s the kind of thing I decide when I stay too late in the library. 18 | PHOEBE 47.1
Fact pattern: finally she relented, to let me say sorry in person. We met at the hotel restaurant. Because of the high ceilings and a low chance of encountering classmates, it was the best public place to have our conversation. I gave her an unconditional apology, sensitive to what had really hurt her, and I meant it. It took me the better part of the afternoon to write. She didn’t interrupt. As I spoke I watched her soften, look relieved, even a little joyful. She had been searching for an excuse to forgive me and talk to me again, she admitted. I said the obvious: that I had missed her too. Outside her apartment, we hugged, closer now for having reconciled, and then I kissed her. For a moment she did not pull back. But then I felt her slip away, a wave receding back into itself. “God, do we really have to do this again?” “Do you understand that I’m in love with you?” She did not reply. Either answer would be horrible. Recall that Thomas Aquinas, departing controversially from Augustine, first articulated what’s called the Doctrine of Double Effect. That’s where: 1. I take action X. 2. X foreseeably produces results A and B. 3. A is good, and B is bad. The Doctrine holds that, provided that you intend only A, sometimes causing B is permissible. So what result did I intend when I kissed her and professed love? Result A: By kissing her I had left some kind of sensuous memory, an echo, an afterimage on her lips. I knew she would think about it. And by saying I loved her, I had forced a crisis. We would have to be honest with each other. Result B: I had forced a crisis. We would have to be honest with each other—if we spoke. She was too kind to be honest. So that was it for us. So that was it.
FICTION | 19
Turns out there was a real cost to that lie that I’d mastered, the one about double effect, the lie where you always claim you knew the risks going in. I surely could have foreseen the consequences that came— the end of a cherished friendship; public heartbreak; a year of tense pleasantries and averted eyes—but I still have no clue if I actually did see it coming. Eventually, I tell a friend from home about Mary. I can tell that he cannot picture her, does not see her as more than a trope. But I try my best to describe what happened that night. Not with regret, just a statement of fact, I say: “I do not know what I was thinking.” One truth, often overlooked, is that neutrality is not lazy. It takes effort to appear indifferent, clinging to the agnostic rock against the torrents of zealous certainty. So I was relieved, a marathon’s way through life, 26.2, to finally let go, to flow and bob in the current, rebutting no presumptions, openly heartbroken, down not just one friend but two. (Mary and Brendan were together now, had been kindling things even while he encouraged me to try again. In retrospect I think I can see malice in him, a flash of superiority.) I do not think I was self-pitying, because—a midwestern tactic—I told people I’d rather not talk about it, that there wasn’t much to say. My Committee approved that message. There was no need to talk anyway. Law school was like high school, and everybody knew what was up.
20 | PHOEBE 47.1
Throaty Throaty found a margie in the back alley. She said he’d been living out in the rain for weeks. Can I keep him? she asked. We don’t have room, I said. And what if he sets fires? He doesn’t, she said. Can I keep him? The margie had a bad case of rain rot. He was behind the shop, curled up beside a stack of mattresses. He’d hollowed a nest out of damp blankets and he was wearing the corroded shreds of a neighbourhood house jumpsuit with the hood pulled over his head. I knelt down in front of the margie. He was teeny tiny and had wide blue eyes. His face was blistered and scabbed. Fresh sores split on the tip of his nose and along his cheeks. He blinked up at me like a little bug. Why aren’t you in the neighourbood house? Oh, don’t send him back there, Throaty cried and jumped up and down behind me. No one is there anymore, the margie said. I live outside. See, Throaty said. He can talk and everything. Margies typically spoke in plain monosyllables like their lips and tongues were swollen. But Throaty’s had full-blown sentence structure. Clean enunciation, too. Throaty commanded the margie to show me his ear. He turned with a degree of caginess to the side and pulled back his hood. His head was shaved bald, like all margies, and the top of his left ear was missing, the cartilage kind of chewed up and crusted with blood, where he’d cut out his tracker. He’s free, Throaty said. See, he’s like us.
FICTION | 21
I was bad at teaching her lessons like this. About how things were unfair and we got things that other people didn’t for no reason. Throaty, I said. With such good talking — We can give him some scraps. But that’s it. She pouted and her lip started to quiver. City is emptying, I reminded her. I know I know I know I know. Evacuation is coming. Okay okay okay okay. At night we lost power. I cracked a can of potatoes and carrots for dinner and we ate them with the last of our hot sauce. Throaty brought half her plate down to the back alley and I watched out the window while the margie gobbled it up. Throaty patted him on the top of his head. The truth was, like Throaty, I had a natural affection for strays. When I was a kid I was always bringing wormy street dogs into the shop. Usually the pup would expire in the night, already too sick from dehydration, its pink belly swollen like a balloon full of eggs. My Mom, Throaty’s Gran, always helped me bury them down at the lake. She’d sing this old rhyme about raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. Then she’d put her arm around me and whisper: Time to be brave, kiddo. It started to rain. Deep puddles formed in the alley and issued steam. Throaty sat at the back window, whimpering and watching the margie. I paced and the streets hissed and Throaty cried. I caved. I always caved. I was better at being a kid. We put on our plastic shells and brought the margie upstairs. I scrubbed him clean with water rations and antiseptic. Throaty sat on the toilet swinging her legs. It’s okay, she said to him. It will be over soon. The margie didn’t make a peep. He had rot in lots of places, on his face, hands and feet. The skin cracked and bled when I dried him off and dabbed the greyish sores with a cotton ball. He was lucky, left like that for much longer and he’d have festered, the infection would’ve chewed through every last bit of dermis and muscle. We threw away his jumpsuit. 22 | PHOEBE 47.1
I put him in some of Throaty’s old, smaller clothes, cuffing the sleeves and pant legs. We made him a bed downstairs in the old shop. It was my Mom’s shop, back from when City was thriving and people still bought flowers. Business dried up when they built the neighbourhood house across the street. Patrol rounded up and rehomed marginal types of people from all over City, anybody who couldn’t labour traditionally: the criminally, psychologically, and financially deranged. I’d heard that babies could be born in the neighbourhood house but kids wouldn’t be considered marginal. They were qualified for high-energy, low-skill work output. Our margie shouldn’t have been in a jumpsuit. Throaty took a long time plumping the margie’s blankets and pillows and setting everything up real cozy, sort of imitating his alley nest. She made sure it was pushed up into a corner, behind the front counter at the bottom of the stairs. Do you have a name? Throaty asked the margie. He shook his head. Hamlet, Throaty gasped. She’d always had an affinity for the dramatic. Took after her Gran. Try again, I said. Peter Rabbit? Peter, I said. Do you want to be Peter? The margie nodded. Yes please, he whispered. Now I can have a brother, Throaty said. She galloped up the stairs and came back down with her Peter Rabbit book. Later, when I went down to check on them, they were curled up and asleep in the pile of blankets. The book was open in Throaty’s lap to the page where Peter Rabbit was wiggling under a fence out of Mr. McGregor’s garden. I carried Throaty up to her bed and then went back down for the margie. I put him in the bed beside her. He sighed and yawned. He was missing his two front teeth. He was six or seven, maybe. He was scrawny but pink and fresh, like a pup that hadn’t gone wild yet. His skin was already starting to look better.
FICTION | 23
I perched at the front window and watched the rainy street down below. The fires came like they did most nights. Abandoned cars lit up in the distance. Glass shattered and a dog howled. Security around the neighbourhood house had grown lax as Patrol staff and security were evacuated and more and more margies started breaking out and turning up on the streets. Mostly they just looked underfed, their skin turning rotten, way worse than Peter’s. Some of them were missing noses or fingers. There was no relocation for margies, no evacuation for them. They weren’t citizens. All the streets around us had already been evacuated; ours happened to be one of the last. We were waiting for our notice to ship north. Our bus tickets were old-fashioned, made of plastic without key identifiers, no names or numbers, just labeled Shipment Class Z. The lights flickered overhead and the power came back on. I made sure the lights were out in Throaty’s room. I plugged in my laptop and started looking for a third ticket. I still had web access via my administrator credentials from working Inventory Forms at the Food Terminal. I’d been bookish in school, too gentle to get slotted for labour. Most sites and threads had gone down as sectors of the city were evacuated and turned dark, but you could still get through on platforms that were hosted up north. I found a few pages on how to smuggle people. Put them in suitcases with water bottles and straws for sucking air. Risk sneaking past City Patrol into the undercarriage when the buses arrived. But there was nothing on new tickets.There seemed to be consensus on that: the numbers were already in, all the citizens tallied up. There were some horror stories, too, of smuggling gone wrong. Old people had been pulled out of boxes and abandoned on the side of remote roads. No resources in sight. I logged off and fell asleep on the old couch by the front window. I didn’t dream. When I woke up the power was still on and I boiled a water ration for instant oatmeal with soy powder. Peter ate with his face in the bowl. Throaty copied him. Then she dragged him down into the shop to play. 24 | PHOEBE 47.1
Let’s play wolves, she said. What is wolves? Peter asked. Like dogs but more wild. I’m the mommy and you’re the baby, she said. Now howl. Arooo, Peter said softly. I got back on the computer. I didn’t want to give up on the margie. I got in touch with a policy insider I’d come across a couple times on this deep northern thread. I’d used her as a source before. I think she was a bureaucrat, a bit rogue; she had that way of talking. She’d told me how to get rid of my Mom’s body without alerting City authorities that there’d been a death. My Mom wanted it that way. Private. Don’t let them take me, she’d coughed from the couch, looking up, out the window at the grey sky. Fuck their paperwork, their mandatory cremation. I want a grave. She coughed again, spitting up black and red. tearose found a margie without a tracker in south City quadrant just a kid advise for transport? Aurora non-citizens are unlikely candidates at this stage tearose smuggling? Aurora authorities are no longer permitting transfer of personal effects no suitcases or bags no boxes tearose tickets?
FICTION | 25
Aurora all northern resources have been allocated very strictly according to citizen population data There was a crash from downstairs. Throaty was showing Peter how to jump off the low landing into the shop. You can’t be afraid, she said. You have to just go for it and then it’s like flying. Arooo, Peter cried. tearose hopeless? Aurora there is no hope in City
I thanked Aurora and logged off. I opened the cabinet in the kitchen. I had to sort our remaining rations, stretch our meals out for three instead of two. I could go without if I needed to; kids always needed more food than grown-ups. I wondered if we could walk north. We’d need to recheck our synthetic shells. We had the City issued stuff, yellow and thin, not the high-grade blacks Patrol wore: non-reacting polymers that could withstand weeks in high rain contact before showing signs of deterioration. What’s that! Throaty yelled from downstairs. Two sets of feet pounded up the stairs and skittered behind me to the front window. Throaty pressed her face up to the glass and craned her neck back. Peter mimicked her. Their little noses squished flat and their breath fogged up the glass. What is it? I closed the kitchen cabinets and peered over their heads out the window. A hundred blinking blue boxes floated down from the sky. Each one was attached to a little white parachute. The boxes were eggshell 26 | PHOEBE 47.1
smooth and blue like the way the sky used to be. They were so clean, popping with clarity against the grey of the sky and the windowless cliffside of the neighbourhood house. The boxes drifted down and covered our front street in a line, one landing after the other, every two or three meters. What are they? Throaty asked. I’ll go see, I said. You stay here. Okay, Throaty said. She tossed a protective arm around Peter, their noses still glued to the glass. I went down into the empty shop and peeked between the boardedup windows. The street was quiet and the boxes rested on the pavement. It wasn’t raining, so I unlatched the door and crept forward, unshelled, into the street. The sky was grey, no signs of aircraft overhead. There was a blue box just in front of our door, maybe two or three long strides. I started for it and a metallic crash echoed down the street. Two hooded margies emerged from a shelter they’d built into the front stoop of an old apartment building. They’d knocked over a small bin in their hurry. They shuffled forward into the street, towards the long line of boxes, and I stayed still. One of them reached out for a box and then snapped its head in my direction. Its nose was missing and there was a black gaping hole over its mouth, tinged grey with blistered skin. I raised my hands. Non-threat, I whispered. The margie hunkered back down with its partner, each grabbing four or five boxes before scurrying away, back onto the stoop. I approached the line of boxes. Each had a little blue light on top, blinking softly on and off, on and off, in kind of a soothing rhythmic way. I stepped towards a box and squatted in front of the light. The white parachute draped artfully on the ground, like someone had placed it there on purpose, and I could smell fresh, dry laundry, something I hadn’t smelled in years, not since the sun disappeared behind a wall of thick grey clouds and rainwater started melting and infecting the earth.
FICTION | 27
I reached for the box, and as my fingers brushed the side, the light went bright blue and solid, no longer blinking but shifting to a kind of lulling pulse, right in time with my heartbeat. I picked the box up with two hands. The little parachute detached and floated to the ground and holes started to appear in it like lace. The parachute grew finer and finer until it dissolved into white smoke. I went back inside with the box. What is it, Throaty yelled from upstairs. I’m not sure, I yelled back. The kids came down, Throaty first and Peter behind her. What is it, what is it. Throaty reached out to touch it. Wait, I said, swinging it above her head. The light pulsed faster. We crowded around the box and I set it on the floor. I popped open the side and a grey panel slid out. There was a whirring noise like a little fan, and I held my hand out and felt warmth course out of the box. More fresh laundry smell. Throaty held her hand up to the air too, and Peter copied her. Mmmm, Throaty hummed, nodding at Peter. Mmmm, he hummed back. The lettering appeared on the little panel, as if drawn by an invisible hand. The Long Sleep, in curling letters. A disc on the panel slid back to reveal two clear pill capsules on a tiny gold cushion. Inside the capsules was a dark black and red powder. Of course, I said. What is it, Throaty reached for the pills. Don’t! I lunged for the box and slammed the panel back. I held it down and the warm airflow cut off. The curling letters disappeared. The bright blue light pulsed in time with my heartbeat. It’s pretty, Throaty said. I don’t want you touching any of these in the street. What is it? Throaty said again. She scrambled to her feet and put her hands on her hips. I pulled the box close to my chest and smelled the laundry smell. The light 28 | PHOEBE 47.1
pulsed faster and faster and I couldn’t hear anything except the blood in my ears. Peter stepped behind Throaty, watching the box darkly. I had to get them out of City. If the rain didn’t rot our skin and finish us off, then the blue boxes would. All my body wanted was to be warm. My Mom got like that in the end. I put every blanket in the house on her, boiled water and turned the heat up. But still she shivered and shivered, her teeth chattering, while Throaty slept in her crib in the back room. Then finally she held my hand tight, her nails and lips blue, and she said, I’m going to give up now, okay? Those pills, I said to Throaty. Those boxes are for people to kill themselves. Suicide. You got me? Peter shrunk farther behind Throaty’s legs. Why are they in the street? Throaty demanded. Why are they so pretty? I don’t know. That’s not safe. Margies could eat them up by accident. I tucked the box under my arm. I’m going to keep this inside so no one can eat it. But why did they drop them? I don’t know. I started for the back stairs. Don’t go outside, I said back over my shoulder. Peter whimpered and Throaty got down on her knees to soothe him. Don’t worry don’t worry. We won’t let you die. At night when the kids were asleep, I sat up with the box. The little light blinked gently, and a part of me liked having it near, seeing a blue like that. I hadn’t in so long. I thought of my mother, when the shop was open and busy and there were still sunny breaks in the overcast sky. On my Mom’s last night, I woke Throaty up and told her to say goodbye to Gran. Throaty didn’t really understand what was going on; she was too little. It was raining and when she kissed Mom’s forehead the sky thundered. I put Throaty back in her crib and hushed her to bed. On the couch I sat with my Mom until she coughed one last time,
FICTION | 29
her chest rattled and breath expired. I wrapped her body in a sheet and put on one of our yellow shells. I brought her down to the lakefront in a wagon, under the thick cover of rain. She was tiny, just dermis and ribs by then, and it was easy work. I cleared a hole in the grey rocky shore and placed her in the ground. Then I covered her with rocks. When I got home I stayed up for days, lying in the place where she died. It rained and rained and I tried not to think about the water dripping through the rocks, leaching into the ground and eating my mother’s bones. It was weeks before I could take care of Throaty properly again. And when I got up, it was for Throaty. I logged back on to the deep thread and found Aurora. tearose they dropped kill kits today Aurora that would be their non-citizen solution tearose up north you said there’s hope? Aurora yes tearose you’re sure Aurora the majority of the evacuated population are kids we are establishing a real school tearose what colour is the sky? 30 | PHOEBE 47.1
In the morning, our evacuation notice came. We were due on the bus at midnight. I told Throaty and Peter at breakfast. We only have two tickets, Throaty said. I got us another ticket, I lied. Really? She was nervous, chewing her bottom lip. Really, I said. Good, she nodded. I piled layers and layers of clothing on Throaty and Peter and stuffed their pockets with supplies: the last of our cash and freeze-dried food. The plan came to me quickly. It was easy to make, especially because I didn’t have to run it by anyone. I knew what was right. I made a big show of letting Throaty hold onto her and Peter’s tickets. It’s possible we won’t get on the same bus, I explained. So I want you to look after Peter. Like a big sister. She nodded bravely. I’ll take care of Peter, she said. And I’ll be right behind you. Okay, she said. After that I quizzed Throaty five times on where everything was packed. Tickets? Here. She pointed to her left breast pocket. Snacks? Here. She pointed to the cargo pocket on her right leg. Cash? Here. She kicked up her left boot. We walked over to the terminal, all three of us in a line. There were maybe a thousand or so citizens at the terminal. Some of them had bags and boxes. Some of them were skinny and scabbed with baldish heads. No one was brandishing their tickets; everyone had
FICTION | 31
their hands in their pockets, eyes darting, mistrustful at their rescue. It was dark and there were floodlights with a hundred armored City Patrol guarding the line of black evac buses behind fences. The citizens shuffled forward between high chain link barriers, trudging heavily under their layers. It started to rain, and I pulled Throaty and Peter’s hoods up over their heads, propelling them toward the fences. You have your tickets, Throaty? I said. Yes, Throaty said, very serious, her chin forward. I steered them towards the fifth bus, where there was already a line. I did a quick count. They’d be close to the last ones on. Now, I might not get on this one, I said. Throaty looked back, a bit startled. But— Remember what I said, I’ll be on the next one. Right behind you. Okay, she said. I want you to take care of Peter, I said. Yes, Throaty said. She reached up for my sleeve and I leaned over close and held them both against me. I smelled the top of Throaty’s head one last time. It was still the same as when she was a baby. Like rose water. Her hair ticked my chin. Two more, the Patrol called in front of us. I ushered Throaty and Peter forward. I’ll be on the next one, I said again. She nodded and took Peter’s hand in hers. Be tough, I whispered to her. My last words to her hung between us in the wet air, barely audible over the hum of the crowd, the idling bus and the hiss of the rain against the concrete. She kept walking forward, without looking back, nodding like I was right behind her. And that kind of felt good. I wanted her to believe that I’d always be right behind her. I stumbled back and back and watched for Throaty’s hood. She held up two tickets. The Patrol took them, studied the tickets and then nodded. I pulled away, out of the line and back from the fences, moving 32 | PHOEBE 47.1
through the crowd as they swarmed for a spot. Throaty looked back for me. Her mouth opened, but I was gone. It happened in an instant. City Patrol swept them up the steps, one at a time, first Throaty, then Peter. Her mouth formed my name, calling over the crowd. I couldn’t hear her and she couldn’t see me. I was relieved. It was the right thing. The door sealed up after them and the buses started to pull away. There were two little hands pressed against the last window. They could have been hers, but I wasn’t sure. I held my hand up too, just in case. The sky cracked with lightening and I felt it down to my teeth. The rest of the buses filled up and pulled away. The terminal was empty. The remaining Patrol packed up their gear and got into cars. City was ending. The power was out at the apartment. I sat in the front window with the blue box on the windowsill. I touched it now and then with one fingertip, letting the light join with my heartbeat. The fires raged on in the street. I could hear the hurried splash of footsteps down below. Someone yelled and then there was the boom of a great explosion. I closed my eyes and the blue light played on my eyelids, blinking pink and gold. I thought of my Mom and how glad I was that she was peaceful. Soon I would be too. And because Throaty was safe, we’d always be with her. Not in a fake way, but in the turn of her head, in her laugh, while she read a story at her new school. When I took the pills, I could see Throaty’s heartbeat, thumping along in time with mine, a piece of me still rooted to the earth. When I floated away, up, up over the grey sky into the purest blue, I saw the sun and said, Oh Throaty. And I knew she could feel how warm it was too.
FICTION | 33
The Shrine Divorce Another letter of invitation came for my ex-wife. This time, it was asking her to get a new credit card. I have been collecting these letters ever since she left, but not for sentimental reasons. I just couldnâ€™t throw them away since they contained her personal information or send them to her since I didnâ€™t know her address in Japan. So I kept them in the box in my closet. The box also contained other items she left behind, and every time I opened the box, they brought me back to our happy and unhappy past. I wondered if she had ever gone back into the past and found me there. Maybe not. In her Japanese way of saying, each item carried our memory into the present. If she were to think about us, she would stay in the present. We might have never been on the same dimension in our marriage. One of the things in the box was a booklet of a Japanese shrine. She gave me this booklet when we were planning our wedding. I was entertaining the idea of a Shinto-style wedding, and she jokingly challenged whether I could follow the long and detailed ritual of a shrine wedding. We laughed because I gave up the idea as soon as I opened the first chapter of the booklet. The first chapter was not even about the wedding ritual. It was only about how to visit a shrine. Chapter 1: How to Visit a Shinto Shrine 1. Preparation before visiting a shrine: Take a bath and cleanse your body when you leave your home. Kami-sama would not see you if you are not clean. I met my ex-wife at a Nabe hotpot party that my friend Shinta threw at his apartment in Astoria on a cold winter day. When I arrived, 34 | PHOEBE 47.1
she was there, preparing a Nabe in the kitchen. She tied her long, black, straight hair at the back of her head and wore a loose and smooth shirt that curved her body so gently. Looking back, it was embarrassing how I approached her. Shinta told me that she was a fan of Kawabata’s novels, so I gave a long speech about the author in front of her. For a while she was nodding as I spoke, but eventually she turned her eyes away from me and to the window. It was her polite way of expressing boredom, which I didn’t notice until Shinta poked me with his elbow. I came back to sanity and noticed it was snowing outside. I asked her if she liked snow. “It elicits my memory of Japan,” she said. I liked how she phrased it in her Japanese English. I asked her if she liked the city. She said it was easy to live. “How about you? Do you miss Japan?” It was the first time she asked about me. I told her my family moved to New York when I was young, my parents lived upstate, and New York was my hometown. She said she wished she had come to the States when she was young so her English could have been a lot better. “Don’t change the way you speak,” I said to her. “It makes you special.” I texted her the next day and asked her out for a drink, but she said she was busy. I tried a few more times afterward, but she was always busy. In the end, I told myself she was out of my league, she had a boyfriend, or she had fallen in love with a guy she had met right after the party. “You didn’t approach her the right way,” Shinta told me when I shared about her later. “What right way?” I asked him. He said there were proper steps to take if I wanted to date her. According to him, the first step was a group date. I laughed at his suggestion and thought he was joking. But when he arranged a gettogether at Central Park, she showed up in front of me. She was friendly with me the whole time, even when Shinta and his girlfriend left us in
FICTION | 35
two on the ice-skating rink. She did not mind when I held her hands, and she even told me she enjoyed being with me. I was more puzzled than excited. I asked her why she hadn’t responded to my texts. “I don’t want you to think I’m cheap,” was her response. I was rather offended. She said she would look too eager if she was out of the steps. The next day she responded to my message, saying she was happy to go out with me. 2. Entering the shrine: Bow at a Torii gate before walking into the territory of the shrine. Proper bowing is from the waist at the 90-degree angle. When you enter, walk on the left side of the alley. Do not walk in the center. The center of the alley is reserved for Kami-sama. The relationship with her did not deepen gradually. It shifted from one phase to the next rather abruptly. We dwelled in one level of intimacy for a while and then jumped to the next level, which always came as a surprise. After a period of platonic dating, I became frustrated about her not wanting to be more intimate. She avoided sexual contact shyly and jokingly whenever occasions arose, which made her look more immature than conservative. “Is she a virgin?” I asked Shinta one day. He again told me that I was not following the steps in the right order. “Ask her to be your girlfriend first,” he said. I protested to him that I didn’t like the whole idea of labeling our relationship, but I followed his advice anyway. I took her out to dinner at a nice little sushi restaurant in the East Village and asked her to be my girlfriend. Sure enough, when we came back to our apartment, she was a different person. She French-kissed me, which she had never liked to do before, said she was going to take a shower, and asked me to wait in bed. “What’s wrong?” she asked me when I didn’t move from the entrance. “We are official, aren’t we?” she said. “Don’t ruin the moment.”
36 | PHOEBE 47.1
3. Purifying yourself. There is a water basin on the way to the Honden, the main building where Kami-sama resides. Wash your hands and mouth at the water basin. Hold the wooden dipper with your right hand and wash your left hand. Switch hands and wash your right hand. Switch hands again and rinse your mouth with water from your left hand. Cover your mouth and spit water out silently underneath the basin. Hold your dipper straight up and wash the handle. Return the dipper to the basin. There was a proper way to romance with her, which seemed to go against the very notion of romance. And for that reason I sometimes misread her signs. I still remembered the night we were on the train back from my parents’ place upstate. After a train conductor checked our tickets, we were left alone in the car. The train was running on the surface of the Hudson River. She was looking out the window. The prolonged summer sunset over the hills reflected on the side of her face. A perfect Kawabata moment. I held her hand and said, “What do you think about us getting married?” She turned to me and asked, “Are you proposing to me?” I said yes and smiled. She slapped me on my cheek and said that I was stupid and insensitive. “I can’t believe you could say something like that to me right now,” she cried out. She accused me of lying about a gathering at my parents’ house (I had thought there would be other guests), about telling her my father’s favorite was chocolate (I wasn’t aware he was on diet), about her dress looking slutty and fat (which was her paranoiac thought), and about how I had left her with my parents alone (I had things to do in my room). After she splashed all her emotions at me, she began sobbing. I held her in my arms until the sun disappeared behind the mountains. There was nothing but our own reflections in the darkness on the window. Eventually she raised her head and looked at me. “You thought this was romantic?” When I said yes, she pointed out that there was a difference between an impulsive act and a romantic
FICTION | 37
act. “You don’t even have a ring,” she said, and concluded with the familiar phrase, “Do it the right way.” A month later, I proposed to her for the second time. This time I had a ring from Tiffany in my pocket. I took her around the city on a horse-drawn carriage, had a dinner at a French restaurant, climbed up to the rooftop bar in Times Square, and I bent down on one knee. This time she cried in happiness. “This is so romantic,” she said again and again. I kissed her and we looked at the bright lights of New York City. 4. Praying to Kami-sama: Walk up to the Honden from the side of the alley. Stand in front of Saisen Bako, an offertory box. Bow once. Drop Saisen, a monetary offering, into the box. Ring the bell above Saisen Bako. Look at the Kagami, the mirror, at the center of the Honden and bow twice deeply. Clap hands twice. Pray silently by saying your name, your home address, and your wishes. Bow once again in the end. After the chapel wedding, which was her childhood dream, we visited a shrine. It was a local shrine in her hometown, a suburb of Tokyo. There was a little hill behind her high school, and the shrine was nestled on top. We stood in front of a red wooden Torii gate at the bottom of the hill. Small, steep stone stairs stretched up into the woods. We bowed in front of the gate and began climbing the stairs. When we reached the top, we could see the whole town under us. Clay rooftops of flat houses spread out toward the horizon, and a railroad cut the town in half. Supermarkets and restaurants gathered around the train station. A river was running away from the crowded area toward the hill, and a few rice farms from an ancient time were dotted along. It was a scene of a typical Japanese suburb that had long been gone in my memory. We found the shrine standing silently behind the trees. It was a small, withered wooden building covered with leaves. Patches of red and orange on the surface told that its vibrant era had long passed. Only 38 | PHOEBE 47.1
a tall ancient tree with a thick white paper belt had been the shrine’s companion. “What kind of god is this Kami-sama?” I asked her. “This Kami-sama is a god of the local river,” she said. “So what should I pray for?” “Pray for our marriage.” “But this Kami-sama is not a god of marriage, right?” “So what?” “I don’t want to waste my prayer.” “Don’t think too much,” she smiled. “Just be in the moment.” Then she dropped her smile and tuned into the serenity of the shrine. She walked up in front of the Kagami mirror and closed her eyes. She put her palms together at her chest and made a wish. I followed her and did the same. When I finished praying and looked at her, her eyes were still closed and she kept praying for some time. In my eyes, she was more precious at the shrine than she was in a white wedding gown in the chapel. When we descended the stairs back to the Torii gate, she stretched her back and said she felt refreshed. I held her in my arms and told her she was adorable. She giggled and knocked my chest with her fist. I told her that I was not kidding, that I was being too rational about Kami-sama. “Don’t you feel refreshed?” she asked me. “I wish I did.” “Did you do it right?” “What?” “The worship. Did you do all the steps properly?” “I did everything you did.” “That’s strange. You should feel good then.” Why didn’t I feel good? At the time, I assumed she was more religious than I was. But she never visited a shrine again or worshiped at home during our marriage in New York. She did not give any thoughts on the topic or suffer from the lack of it. What was it, then, that differentiated us at the shrine? I still didn’t have an answer.
FICTION | 39
5. Exiting the shrine. When you walk out of the territory of the shrine through the Torii gate, turn around toward the direction of the Honden. Bow once to the Honden before you leave. Where did I take a wrong step? No, it was not that I took a wrong step. I just stopped taking steps at one point. Taking the steps no longer felt sincere, honest, or romantic to me. One day she asked me to join a dinner with her coworkers from her new company. She insisted that I dress properly, which meant to cut my hair short and shave my beard. I objected. That was what she asked me to do every time we visited Tokyo. I cut off my ponytail and shaved my beard every day out of courtesy to her parents and friends, because short hair and a clean face were a gesture of respect in Japanese culture. “But I’m introducing you to my new co-workers,” she said. I was getting sick of it. We did this with all her friends in Japan. Like a local rock band singing the same songs at every small bar in a city, we met her friends one by one and told the same story again and again: how we met (at the Nabe party), how we were attracted to each other (on the ice-skating rink), how I asked her out (after the group date), how I proposed to her (the second time), and how we lived and worked in New York City. Her friends all responded the same way, as if their conversation had been scripted. Upon hearing the story, they cried out, “That’s so romantic!” She said, “I can’t believe it myself,” and they replied, “You are so successful.” Then she took a turn: “No, we were just lucky.” Then they responded, “No, it’s not a matter of luck. We know you worked so hard.” It was cute to watch them act for a while, but when curiosity died out, anxiety kicked in. Our story sounded like a mass-produced romance. I began doubting whether there was anything unique to us. I had been taking “the right steps” all the way up until that point. It was romantic for me to make her wishes come true. But hearing our story over and over and watching the formulaic reactions of her friends, I could only worry about the essence of our relationship. 40 | PHOEBE 47.1
So when she asked me to clean myself again, I was not too excited. “Why can’t you introduce me as who I am?” I said. Her response was, “You don’t have to show everyone how you look in pajamas.” In the end, I showed up at the restaurant with my beard and a ponytail. She glanced at me but did not say anything at the dinner. I entertained her co-workers and I was sure they liked me. “The dinner went well,” I said when we reached our apartment. She did not respond and walked straight to the bedroom. When I followed her, she asked me why I couldn’t just act normal. “They liked me. I was the funniest guy there,” I said. “Who asked you to be funny?” “Who cares what they think of me?” “I see them every day. They think I’m married to an idiot. Have you thought about that?” She threw the pillow at me. “How many times do I have to tell you this?” She closed the bedroom door. I told her through the door that her American co-workers would not judge her the way she believed they would. But she did not respond. The scripted conversation between her and her friends haunted me. I was even having a recurring dream about it. “What’s next?” her friends all asked her. She responded, “Get a better job.” “Then what?” her friends asked again. “Have a baby. Buy a car. Buy a house. Get a second baby.” “Then what?” I asked. The shrine was empty. No Kamisama was inside. I woke up in sweat. I tried different things to make our relationship special: picnics, travel, nights out, and she loved them all. But every time she told me it was romantic and took a picture of us, I felt our romance was framed in her photograph and stored somewhere else. It was something to talk about in the future, but not something to live with. And she didn’t like other, more life-changing ideas: going to graduate schools, changing jobs, or moving out of New York. Every time I tried to go beyond her frame of life, she resisted, and we went back to where we were. For her, my actions only seemed immature, selfish, or destructive to our marriage. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “Stop dreaming. Grow up. Be responsible. Be realistic.”
FICTION | 41
The fact was that she was happy with the way our life was going. She had a plan, and we were on the right track. But I was not. Over time, I developed a habit of coming home late. I started hanging out with my friends after work. I started taking professional photographs on the weekends, an art that I had learned at college. We made love less and less. We rarely did things together. She asked me if there was anything wrong with me, but I didn’t know how to explain to her what I was feeling. She said that my parents were looking forward to being grandparents. I told her we were too busy to have a child now. “I want you to be like who you used to be,” she said. I knew what I was supposed to do as a perfect husband to make her happy. Her expectations were clear. But I didn’t feel like doing it as before. “Let’s give us three months,” she said eventually. If we couldn’t fix our relationship by then, she would go back to Japan. I didn’t object, but I was not sure why she needed three months. We had been in this situation for a long time already. I didn’t see how any change would come in the next three months. Later, I learned that she told her parents and friends that she tried her best for three months but it did not work. She needed time. Time to represent her effort. Time was the step. Three months later, we filed the divorce. “Are you sad?” I asked her when we filed the document. “Of course I am. This is a divorce. You are supposed to be sad,” she said and wiped her tears off the paper. Then she looked at me and asked, “Are you not sad?” “I’m sad. But not because of the divorce. I’m sad because we could not keep our relationship,” I said. “That’s what I just said,” she said. “No. That’s not what you said. I’m talking about my feelings. But you, you are sad because…” I didn’t know what to say. In the end, I could not understand how she was experiencing her life with me. “I was happy with you,” she said and smiled. She handed me the pen. I took the pen from her with a tremendous amount of guilt. The one thing I knew was that I had destroyed her happiness. 42 | PHOEBE 47.1
I signed the document, which marked the last step of our relationship. I closed the booklet. I looked at its cover and repeated the question, “Why didn’t I feel refreshed?” There was no answer. The booklet only contained the instructions on how to do the rituals. No deeper insights. No preaching. No helpful tips to understand the heart of a Japanese girl. But now it possessed the memory of our time. Each step of the instructions evoked a certain feeling in me. I returned the booklet to the box and closed it. I carried the box to the bedroom and hid it deep in the closet. I would visit it again when the next letter of invitation came.
FICTION | 43
Shrew’s Bridle Dick says he shouldn’t have to put something like that in writing, that putting on the bridle is plenty grounds for firing me. I should keep my mouth shut, but since I started wearing the shrew’s bridle—for weeks I’ve been putting it on for an hour after lunch, a time when no one ever comes in—I’ve got so much to say. “No one ever comes to this podunk museum anyway,” I tell Dick. “You should thank me. That kid is going to tell all his friends, and tomorrow people will be lined up out the door.” I let that sink in. The possibility of attention, even the notorious sort, is hard for Dick to pass up. “I would have explained what it was,” I tell him, “but he ran away before I could get it off.” “He thought you were Freddie Kruger.” “Then he’s an idiot. That’s Hannibal Lecter. Freddie Kruger doesn’t even wear a mask.” Dick is tired of hearing what I have to say. I bet he wishes he could put the bridle back on me, but then I’d have a case for getting my job back. It bothers me that he doesn’t even ask why I did it. Does he think I am a masochist, that I have a closet full of naughty games at home? The shrew’s bridle isn’t a toy. Metal straps encase the head and a two inch bit presses down the tongue. It has leather lining on the face bands and these are worn and oily, making me think this bridle was used a lot. I studied the bridle for days before I opened the case and tried it on. What I wanted was to feel their skin against mine, the skin of the women who wore this, the women who wouldn’t submit. The first time I tried it on I had to hold the bindings behind my head so my jaw stayed shut. The curb plate tasted like blood. I caressed it with my tongue and swallowed metal-flavored spit. I couldn’t hold 44 | PHOEBE 47.1
it on for long. My arms got tired, so I bought a pair of shoelaces and rigged a couple of ties. After that I could wear the bridle as long as I liked, the straps cinched tight as a corset while I went about my business. I was checking email with the bridle on when the boy came in. Probably he needed to use the bathroom. He took one look at me and screamed and forgot about having to pee. The truth is, I’ve always fantasized about bridles. Not a shrew’s bridle; before my job in the museum, I had no idea such a thing even existed. But the idea of a bit attracts me. Horses have a gap between their teeth where the bit fits, almost like God intended we ride them. Humans’ mouths aren’t made like that. My fantasy bridle would need a special bit, maybe a little gold plate piercing my tongue. There would be reins too, thin as ribbons and tied to rings in my mouth. With bit and reins, I would be both master and mount: on one hand a wise homunculus, pressing her hot belly to my skull and telling me where to go; on the other, a wild beast with the bit between her teeth, tearing apart the world.
FICTION | 45
The Story of Our Assemblages begins with my china cabinet. In it, there are Spode plates, flutes, a Peter Rabbit tea set, china from Grandma, china from GreatGrandma who came from Armenia, who almost died in Armenia, fleur-di-lis around rims brought out and washed for luncheons, showers, Thanksgivings, along with gravy boats, cordial glasses, salt shakers, pepper shakers, silver spoons, casserole dishes, a cake stand, a plate shaped like a pansy my mother, the Tri Delta, gave me because that flower, she says, symbolizes “lifetime development.” In my motherin-law’s house, there’s a case filled with porcelain statues of redheaded boys that look like her son—fishing, bowling, graduating, cooking, golfing, running away, coming back again—and there are artisan baskets filled with linens, and in the kitchen are copper-bottomed pans, serving spoons, granulated sugar grains deep in the gaps between floorboards from my daughter who, laughing, accidently spilled them there. For my daughter, we collected owls—plush owls, glass owls, owls in pictures and broadsides to hang and show and stack and stuff into plastic tubs. But I prefer foxes, stories about them collected and collated electronically. On my bookshelf, for example, is the complete translated Reynard tales, and in my mind, there’s the image of a fox’s smashed and jumbled body on the side of the road, and on my computer is the image of a fox escaping from an upstairs window, and there’s an essay I wrote about my dead grandmother whom I consider to be a fox. My friend collects little things—itsybitsy nigiri sushi, little chopsticks, an infinitesimal Twinkie. She told me that some people collect dolls even though they are no longer children or have no children at all, because, here, look: on the web, you can buy premature baby dolls—babies who hadn’t been gestated
NONFICTION | 49
for the optimum nine months—and along with these models, you can collect tiny diapers and delicately wrap and unwrap their bottoms the size of acorns and oh my god seeing them must have evoked those hours she spent in the NICU, how she sat beside the buzzing machines, her son a little pink jewel trapped behind glass. I keep so many books I’ll never read or only partly read, but I keep them just-in-case: a biography of Tennessee Williams, a biography of Nick Drake, added to a biography of Marianne Moore, and a biography I mean to buy about Joni Mitchell, so I put it in my fleeting “wish list,” along with no-spill cups for my toddler, contact lens solution, a book on potty training, added to my growing list of more ephemeral wishes like God, and trips to Ireland, and a voyage back in time to the time before, when, my mother says, things were better, though she drinks to forget and collects a cache of cats who sleep among her gathered and forgotten racks of clothing—leather pants from the 80s, flowered dresses from the 90s, costume jewelry—the cocktail rings and silverplated bracelets kids and grandkids have given her—and real jewelry like the ruby her grandmother from Armenia left her, along with the story about how she would wash her hair in the river and how her wet hair would freeze by the time she got back home again—and the sapphire from a second-hand shop in Florida, popular because it was like Diana’s sapphire—Princess Diana who was killed in a car, though it’s not the gun, or the car, or the knife that kills people, it’s people who kill people, as in, “People. People who need people are the luckiest people in the world!” I collect songs from movies, so there are so many songs and so many movies, I have nowhere to file them except in my head, which is reaching capacity because of the stuffed animals, the Legos, the matchbox cars, the strollers and blocks, the stickers, the crayons, so I’m forced to blurt them out and I sing joyfully to purge all these songs. I sing to my children in the bath, before bed, on walks to the playground. I keep words like logos, and incarnadine, and courage until they loll together in my step-father’s garage with his antique, out-of-tune piano, lawn tools, yard signs, a cabinet of guns, 50 | PHOEBE 47.1
where there’s no point of easy egress, and every point of easy regret, though, in my closet, there are egrets stitched on a skirt, a pair of heels I can’t walk in, and all my passwords to get onto this site or into that locked cabinet, alternately Love or Tori or 7777. For my father—that collector of women and memories—there’s a nurse he keeps called “The Frog,” conjugal visits with my mother who flew to Hawaii from Ohio while he flew to Hawaii from Vietnam so they might meet in the middle on black sand for a moment, and there’s a doctor in the war he remembers as Fred Who Went Crazy. I keep those dinners with him when he got a little drunk and tried to make the war sound survivable, along with photographs in the basement stacked on $50 plastic shelving next to a little sled forsaken for lack of snow, a baby bathtub, an astrological chart combining my stars with my neighbor’s whom at this moment I love like a son, coupled with the sounds of children who aren’t mine but for whom I am responsible, as our front step cradles October’s hopeful pumpkin. On our TV: commentary about a man who shot from so high up there was little anyone could do. He’d cut a hole in the window for the muzzle to poke through. They found reams of ammunition. They found even more guns and bombs at his house—a regular assemblage—so if it’s human nature to shore up against our ruin such throngs, curated compendiums, then when he shot his bullets and they hit their marks, he exploded a museum every time, again and again. Another museum down. And another. And another.
NONFICTION | 51
The Story of Our Bed “But, if we are honest, we can admit that some of our heaviest and least simple belongings are reminders of the reason we are here, and they are precious.”—Galactic Rabbit Horoscopes
begins with the sledge on which Anna Karenina, covered in dead foxes, hurtles between snowflakes toward her doom. It begins when Empress Josephine whispered Not tonight in a show of soft resistance to Napoleon who thought it made him seem noble—in a Classical sense—to have sex on a bed shaped like a sleigh. My husband entered our marriage with a squeaky iron bed. No, I said. We must use my wooden sleigh bed! My only piece of real furniture, my dowry. In such a bed, Madame Olenska winters away from Newland Archer in the Hudson Valley—how she must ride in furs among the firs on a sledge across the drifts away from love! Think: C.S. Lewis’ White Witch, Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen—both riders of wicked sleighs, because this bed has the shape of the discrepancy between my desire and my body. That I came to my husband with a sleigh bed—dense and deepening like the stand of trees it was made from—made me so dense, so deep. I came bearing gifts of the heirloom-kind. I came with soul, and it is heavy. It curves at the feet and rises at the head. In an Age, they say, of the Throwaway, I start to wonder about The Eternal instead. The water we drink passed through the kidneys of
52 | PHOEBE 47.1
dinosaurs, became the rain, in turn the Yellow, Yangtze, the Amazon, Mississippi, which in turn became the Ohio, became the sweat on the bridge of a carpenter’s nose, the menstrual blood belonging to Empress Josephine, the Snow Queen’s saliva that freezes upon entering the atmosphere of that northernmost castle my three-year-old daughter dreams about at night in her toddler’s bed. We only have so much of this, only so much of that. The tree from which my sleigh bed was made is the oak tree Orlando rested under in Virginia Woolf ’s book about the flagrant, party-hopping fluidity of time. In that book, Orlando laid down a man in his bed and woke up a woman. We considered a change. As I progressed like an ancient queen among Ikea’s model beds, I shook my head: None of these. I said, None of these. My bed is made from an oak related to live oaks and red oaks and oak oaks, related to the oak at Spring Grove Cemetery where my father will be buried, related to the oak that’s related to the oak under which I’ll be planted when I’m dead like a great big acorn meant to sprout new oaks for new sleigh beds you’ll maybe someday make love in. Yes, even you. I mean you. Therefore, I’ll call it our bed now. In a factory somewhere, people walked around and around that oak tree the way Michelangelo walked around and around his hunk of marble and let it speak to them about the times they called the doctor for an appointment and listened to classical music while on-hold and became— momentarily—Mozart, or dropped an earring and watched it
NONFICTION | 53
roll away, then got down on their hands and knees—not from any oppression, no! but to measure a space—and do you know what for? Why, for their wedding bed! (with gratitude, Peter Shaffer), about the times they stuck their fist into the pocket of a seldomworn jacket and felt a strip of paper there and wondered what movie, play, ride, drink-ticket, receipt, grocery list they’d find if they pulled out their fist, opened the fist, and looked, and what dream in consequence would arise later as the resurrected body in its bed of wood. Lucky, they think, they didn’t throw it out. Lucky, they think, they are a they and abandoned, somewhere on I71N, the dysfunctional binary. The people who made our bed may be proscribed. They may have children who are far away. They may have grandchildren killed in an earthquake or a hurricane named for a lady and her resulting flood. Or maybe they sleep safely at night in the bed they lugged from one life to another, laying down a woman, waking up a man, waking up a woman, laying down a man. My love, we hitched our horses of love to this sleigh bed and made our daughter, our son there while the winter scrolled past us like a backdrop on pulleys, Josephine in the wings, her hands around the ropes, pulling as fast and as hard as she can. Not tonight, Napoleon. Ok, fine. Tonight.
54 | PHOEBE 47.1
The Ruckus Today in the Spanish Cloister of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, my friend Alisa’s three-year-old daughter dances in front of El Jaleo. Today you can get into the museum for free if your name is Isabella, but the little girl’s name isn’t Isabella. It’s Virginia, and she is the primary subject of this moment—her small, jumpy body in t-shirt, fluffy skirt, and sandals, her pageboy haircut, her huge, liquid eyes. Alisa tries to grab her by the arm, but Virginia wiggles free. Again and again, Virginia wiggles free. * Isabella Stewart Gardner primed T.J. Coolidge to abandon his claim on El Jaleo by setting the stage, as it were, for his generosity. This was Gardner’s unique skill: stealing without appearing to steal. To lure Coolidge into lending her the painting, she built a room in her house specifically for it, having dreamt of the painting every night before she was actually able to wrest it away from him. In her dreams, sometimes Isabella was the dancer in the painting and sometimes she was one of the male musicians. Sometimes she was the guitar itself, and this dream was the sweetest. To be played, manipulated, to be grazed by a man’s knuckles as he strummed! It wasn’t the Spanish dancer that reminded her daily of what she really was; it was the guitar—the imagined sound of it, the imagined feel of a calloused hand around her neck, wringing it, the other hand thrumming in
NONFICTION | 55
a fulcrum of pain and pleasure, of pressure and release, as a tree is transformed—after chopping, sanding and shaping—by genius into joy. Isabella recognized herself in both the maker and the player, but it took a real act of imagination on her part to see herself as the guitar. * Our friend Beth doesn’t have children. She asks me pointedly, “What’s so great about it?” I mumble something about chaos. Later, in the new wing of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Virginia puts on a pair of bulky headphones and pushes a button. She hears the purring of four cats whose portraits hang on the opposite wall. They say a cat’s purr lowers the blood pressure, that running your hand along a cat’s fur releases the same hormones breastfeeding releases: happiness, sleepiness, love. These things, they say, are controlled by certain chemical reactions in the brain. A woman I know only tangentially shared via Facebook that her brain went haywire when she was breastfeeding and instead of feelings of contentment, she felt feelings of melancholy. Her brain misread the signals her body was giving and produced the wrong reaction. Isabella Stewart Gardner’s son died of pneumonia at almost two years old. A year later, she suffered a miscarriage and was told she’d have no more children, so she was directed by a doctor to go abroad. She was so ill she was carried aboard the ship on a mattress. Later, her brain misread her body’s signals, and directed her to collect art. Misreadings are my favorite kinds of readings. 56 | PHOEBE 47.1
For example, There’s a bus route that runs through Don Quixote. I’m getting off here. Mrs. Dalloway is my mother. I’m a blood orange in a blue dish on her breakfast table and she chooses me at random from the rest. The greatest whaling tragedy of the nineteenth century involved The Great Gatsby whose stern snapped in half when, angered by harpoons, The Great Gatsby hurled its body into its own body. * Gardner’s first encounter with El Jaleo, she said, smacked of the divine. She was overwhelmed by the picture plane itself, devoured by it, as if she’d stepped into a cantina in Andalucía, its walls the color of an overripe, near-to-rotting lemon. There are grease lamps underfoot to brighten the dancer’s mobile mouth and chin, but her eyes are in darkness. Along the back wall, a line of men strum, at once drowsy and frenetic, taut and slack, the room’s shadows having dressed them in black. Who are the women belonging to such men? Who are the children belonging to such women? * The goldfinch is a common enough bird, but when I see one, I say it’s good luck. They have a strange, darting movement through the air. Sometimes they burst away from a stand of sunflowers and I tell myself, There goes some luck for you! But luck never comes.
NONFICTION | 57
There’s a famous Dutch painting called The Goldfinch, painted about a hundred years after Virgin and Child with a Goldfinch, which hangs in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In regard to The Goldfinch, you may have seen it: a goldfinch is chained to its perch, alert and waiting, but we know any attempt at freedom is useless. In fact, entrapment is the painting’s central question and concern; there’s no supreme narrative to allay the tension. In Virgin and Child with a Goldfinch, the Madonna is all. Her motherly expression is one of patience as she idly fingers her baby’s bare feet. The child grips a goldfinch in his left hand as if it’s nothing more than a plaything, a rattle. In other words, our future deaths are our playthings, our rattles. Or I’ve misread again. I tell Beth having children is like bursting from a stand of sunflowers, like a petal torn off and set loose, like a bird that flies as though it’s swimming. I tell her it’s as if a bird is chained to me—its perch—and time is the chain. No. I mumble something about chaos. It’s like a dance, and my children are coming up with moves faster than I can follow them. As the dance assumes its climax, hands clap to urge the pleasure on, and the dancer’s ego is bolstered until she believes she’s the most desirable woman on earth, and there are shouts of “Olé! Olé!” Though humanity has deposed any real need for a higher power, Higher Power retreats to a honey-dark corner where it watches, on tense haunches, its creation rejoice.
58 | PHOEBE 47.1
The Four Riders Thank God for television, Jerry Seinfeld in his ankle socks and white sneakers, bemoaning everyone’s terribleness. He, Elaine, Kramer, and George are the last pure forces in the universe—four modern quadrants of asshole. In 1994, psychologist Ken Wilbur proposed his “theory of everything,” which postulated that human knowledge can be classified into four categories—the individual (K: “You’re becoming one of the glitterati.” G: “What’s that?” K: “People who glitter.”), the exterior (E: “Is it possible that I’m not as attractive as I think I am?”), the collective (J: “People on dates shouldn’t even be allowed out in public.”), and the interior (G: “It’s not a lie if you believe it!”). They are mind and body, head and heart. The four horsemen gallivanting out of Hell: pestilence, war, famine, and death. The humors. Odysseus, growing bored with his island of women. Joseph Campbell if Joseph Campbell had skirted the Great Depression. Jung’s archetypes if Jung could fathom answering machines. Winding and winding around the parking garage, these are people not burdened by happiness. Escape a burning building and shrug it off as a bad day. Push a kid out of the way. Lose your job. Hijack a fire truck. Make out during Schindler’s List. Give a bra as a gift. These are people who wake up the next day and move on, never mind the pile of upending sadness. No grief at the loss of a former self, just sex or no sex. It’s not that there aren’t consequences. Women come and go. Blondes with feathered hair and shoulder pads and brunettes with permed curls and wooden earrings. Girlfriends slam the door. Parents buffoon into caricatures of worry. The tickets are fake. The car is gone. The rent is due. The bakery is out of black-and-white cookies. The parades are innumerable. Misery lurks just offstage. But these are people who don’t luxuriate in punishment. I wait for the shrug and the laugh
NONFICTION | 59
track. The shrug is a meditation. The laugh track breaks something open in me. Can you hear it? (G: “Yesterday for lunch, I had a soft-boiled egg and a quickie. Now, if I could add TV to the equation, that would really be the ultimate.” J: “George, we’re trying to have a civilization here.”) There’s nothing rugged about these people. Nothing desperate. It’s easy for them. Like gods, they don’t care if they are hated. They don’t care if they are loved. They seek romance begrudgingly, exhaustedly, as if fulfilling a prophecy, as if without it, they would evaporate. But these are people who are predetermined. Just beyond the frame, the costume girl waits with a lint roller. Can we call them despicable? If they are extreme, there is nothing extreme about their desires. If they are carnal, there is nothing carnal about their disappointment. These people are unhindered by the cloy of emotions. When they are upset, they stamp their feet, shove each other. When they are happy, they jump up and down. For decades, critics have argued that these people have the emotional maturity of coffee cake. To us mortals, bound to the boulder of shame, their actions might seem unreasonable, callous, redundant. Impossibly base and present-minded. But Elaine is ten million years old. She has seen it all, twice, and is tired of being flabbergasted. Kramer is dimensionless, all doorway and no frame. As a child, George was never told “no” nor was he told “yes.” Jerry is vacuous. A career narrator. He might be omniscient if he was willing to do the work. They are codependent narcissists. Unfathomable loss simply moves through them. They don’t even like each other. Recently, I read an article about how everyone on sitcom laugh track recordings is dead, statistically speaking. Clearly, it was the author’s intent to shock me—to purvey a kind of paradigm shift that allowed me to calibrate my experience of sitcom-watching differently. I was made to reevaluate my impression of something decidedly innocent in order to see its darker underbelly—a tendency that is characteristic of my click-bait generation. We are obsessed with the man behind the curtain, and for good reason. It made me wonder about shock. I am not shocked easily. Not as Kramer rubs a stick of butter all over his face in Jerry’s 60 | PHOEBE 47.1
kitchen. Not when Elaine eats a slice of sixty-year-old cake. Not when Jerry receives a pint of Kramer’s blood in an emergency transfusion. These are people who are clandestine in their cynicism—not resigned, not resentful, not sensing, feeling, judging, or intuiting. They cannot fathom irony. They stand at the fiery gates of Hell and yawn, not as a performance but as an actualization (J: “Are you sure you want to get married? I mean, it’s a big change of life.” E: “Jerry, it’s 3 a.m., and I’m at a cock fight. What am I clinging to?”) When I come home after a long day of sense-making, pants-wearing; after teaching undergraduate students how to write theses that extend beyond observational wisdom and into original thought; when I cannot reconcile the terrain between sanctimony and testimony; when performance begins to feel as dangerous as ignorance, and implication as important as revelation; I put on Seinfeld. George is eating a Snickers bar with a fork, waving it wildly around in front of him. It’s not escapism in the typical sense of the word but a sidestepping of a sense- and happiness-obsessed present. These are not people who engage in high drama; sonnet-worthy trains of thought; lovesick world-building; sensibility with its turned-down bed sheets; catalogs of disappointment; a rise, a fall, a climax. These are not people who sacrifice, who take hard looks, who come to terms. Instead, they offer us a theme that goes largely untouched by lovable characters in linear stories—that human beings are characteristically selfish, and that selfishness can be a means of resilience. If they’re despicable, then I’m despicable. If your fiancé drops dead, she drops dead.
NONFICTION | 61
An Exercise in Exposure Metaphors for photography, or perhaps the eye, permeate our language. We focus. See the big picture. Look to the horizon. Our ideas are crystal clear, opaque, or glaring. We frame arguments, commit scenes to memory, analyze angles, and magnify problems, viewing the world through lenses, rose-colored glasses, or just a glass, darkly. More than all that, we expose, and with exposure always there is light. The metaphorical act of bringing to light or, as in photography, the more literal act of exposing a photosensitive surface. To overexpose a photo is to steep it in brightness the image has not earned, was never there to begin with. To underexpose, then, a sort of pessimism, so even what was once light takes on a shade of gray. The thing to remember is neither variant quite looks real. An example. You spot a gas station along the road you have been driving, marked on your map in a circle of ink next to MapQuest directions, printed and placed beside you on the white leather passenger seat. You have sped past knee-high cornfields and dusty country roads to the tiny town of Wheatfield, Indiana, to see your cousin. You meet here instead of at the house he shares with his father and stepmother because he lives in front of one of these cornfields, down a dusty road, and he is sure you will get lost. You are about to get lost. Exiting your car when you spot his Crown Vicâ€”an old police car he bought at auction, stripped of logos and paintâ€”you take a breath. Immediately he hugs you. This is it. The picture where you pause. It is easy, or maybe more comforting, now to overexpose. To keep the aperture wide and the shutter open so long the sun leaks into the lens, conceals the shadows underneath your eyes. He is happy you have 62 | PHOEBE 47.1
come willingly to see him, perhaps for the first time, instead of making him come to you. Years of refusing him and now you have lost what little ground you had, given him all the power, after agreeing to spend the weekend with him the summer before college. In this light, his pale skin is the exact same pale as yours. And in this light, at this gas station just outside of town, maybe you aren’t related at all. You sink into his arms as if your body belonged there. *** Exposure refers to three things on a camera: the aperture, the shutter speed, and the ISO. The shutter speed is the simplest and most selfexplanatory. The longer the shutter takes to close, the longer the lens and, thus, the film is exposed to light. Too slow a shutter speed would overexpose, too fast would under. If the shutter itself is the series of interconnected disks that click together over the lens, the aperture is the hole left open in the middle. It is either small, for less light, or so large that nearly the whole lens is exposed. Which size depends on the level of light your photo needs. Not so different from the pupil, it changes size to fit the situation. Before photography went digital, ISO was the most difficult aspect of exposure to account for—the acronym standing for International Standards Organization. The ISO speed controls the film’s light sensitivity—the ease of exposure. When actual film was used, ISO was predetermined and printed on the package. You would have to shoot the whole roll with the same setting or switch out film rolls for different sensitivities. ISO 100 (the lowest) would be for very bright scenes, ISO 1600 for very dark. Digital cameras now adjust the sensor’s sensitivity based on what you tell it you need, making the process much faster. The human eye has no definite measurements for light sensitivity, but it can adjust itself nonetheless. The longer you are in a lightless room, the more your eyes adjust to see amongst the darkness. This is why sudden light after darkness is painful—the adjustment takes time.
NONFICTION | 63
*** Underexpose the photo, the hug, and you cut the image off from outside light. The shadows out along your cars fall wide. His hair is pitch black, no longer strung through with the gray he is too young to have but, at twenty, has anyway. The shadows beneath your eyes are back, but worse. As if you haven’t slept in years, might never again. If overexposure looks like a happy ending, this looks closer to the scene where you saw him for the first time in years this past October. More overcast clouds in the cold just days before your grandmother’s funeral than a sunny day in mid-July. *** The photographer Francesca Woodman is known for her long exposures. Playing the part of her own model, Woodman would sometimes keep her shutter open, leaving the background silent and still while she herself moved about, waiting on the self-timer. The effect a kind of fog, an unclear movement of the body. She called her series of long exposures her ghost pictures. They are not photographs of the real, but the surreal, as Woodman becomes a type of myth impossible to pin down. Woodman received her first camera in 1972—a Yashica Mat 2 ¼ x 2 ¼ format. With two lenses in front, one on top of the other, the camera is tall and black. Thick round dials that control aperture and shutter speed stick out on one side. On its other side, a film winding crank. Unlike most modern cameras which work with just one lens, the older Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) camera is mechanically simple with fewer moving parts. Mostly working in black and white, Woodman could only set up the scene to be captured, manually adjusting all the controls that can now adjust themselves. While the bottom lens of the TLR camera exposes the film and takes the photo, the top acts as a kind of viewfinder, with a mirror 64 | PHOEBE 47.1
reflecting the image from the bottom lens up for you to see. Rather than seeing the dark click of the shutter when a photograph was taken, Woodman saw no blackout after film exposure. The image remained visible until she looked away. If, that is, she was looking at all. *** For most of the population, the eye projects two images—a left and a right. Combined, they meet in the middle to form a single scene, with peripheral images on either side creating depth. This I cannot explain from experience. In a photo, perfectly exposed, from the night of my birth, there is a bruise under my right eye from metal forceps (rarely used now, due to chance of fetal injury). I have been told, thanks to the type of damage, that no surgery or innovation can fix what lingers. It is an absence of protection I can never account for—a damaged nerve that left a black cloud over my vision, causing a lack of depth perception and the inability to see what would hit me straight. The lens on my right side projects the image, but it is always underexposed, blotting out the details. So I learned to see on my left, to ignore the darkness always drifting at the edge of sight. With the body still developing, a child’s eyes will begin to adjust to the damage and strengthen one while learning how to see without the other. In nearly every picture of me from one to three, I have my right eye closed, the frequency turning it from a cute gesture into an eye doctor visit and glasses that could never help. For a while, in an attempt to correct what wouldn’t ever be corrected, I even wore a pirate patch. If my left eye gets tired, goes blurry from being the only one working, I still close my right in an attempt to focus. Watch my vision sharpen, get brighter without all that dead weight.
NONFICTION | 65
*** Sometime in the 1950s, the psychiatrist Joseph Wolpe took the metaphor of exposure and turned it into therapy. A type of behavior modification meant to flood you with traumatic stimulus until the body’s tendency toward sensory deprivation kicks in, taking you from racing heart and panic to a more stable, rational response to your own memories. Called Prolonged Exposure when used with PTSD patients, it is still in use today. *** You are the one to suggest the treatment to your new therapist, a young grad student working at the Ball State University Counseling Center. The only place you can afford. “I know what it is, but I’ve never done it before. I’ll talk to my supervisor, do some research, and we’ll give it a try.” This is okay because you are both new at this. Your old therapist wanted to try this with you but left for a new job before he got the chance. This new one, Stephen, will leave too, after only a semester, to graduate. The second you find someone you like, they are always leaving, and you’re starting to take it personally. Two sessions later, you begin. “Breathe with me,” he says. And you do, but you are not thinking of your breath and are instead thinking of his resemblance to Jesse Spencer, that Australian actor from House. He waits. You sit cross-legged, stare into his eyes and, if you hadn’t been in separate chairs, feel so in sync you might have reached out just to hold his hand. You crave the textile, want to feel fabric weave along the edges of his pale blue button-down, strings of shoulder-length dirty blonde hair, the callouses on his palm from the tennis he says he plays. 66 | PHOEBE 47.1
You don’t know how to have intimacy without desire, and you need to learn, so you keep staring at those eyes, drooping and soft below his slightly cinching brow. He feels sorry for you, and that’s obvious in a way it shouldn’t be, wouldn’t be if he had more experience. “Close your eyes.” And you do because you trust him. Whether this is out of desperation or because he looks like a sexy TV doctor, you couldn’t say. As part of the exercise, his eyes close too. Think of the first painful memory that comes to mind, he instructs, although not in quite that way. Then asks, “Where are you?” What Stephen means to ask is “Where are we?” as he is supposed to be imagining what you describe. A sort of telepathy. “Heading to the basement. His basement.” You are in a time just an hour or two after you arrive in Wheatfield. You have already met your cousin at the gas station and are at his house. His father and stepmother tell you that they are so looking forward to your visit, but your cousin is a little too excited, wants too much to show you his room, and you are eighteen and pretty. Their eyes falter when they look at you, then at him. And they wonder. And maybe they know. But in small Indiana towns, you don’t say such things out loud, so your cousin leads you into the basement and away from the light. “You’re going too fast.” Stephen’s soft voice cuts through your reverie, but your eyes remain closed. So, you assume, do his. You have been saying this out loud, or some version of it—what you see, where you are. “You need to slow down, really take in your surroundings. Tell me what the steps looked like, describe the basement, that sort of thing.” Much of what happened in that basement is lost to you, but the layout remains. Or you think it remains, which is close enough. You focus. It is colder here as you descend, the way most basements tend to be, so you shiver stepping down. One hand shuddering along a wooden,
NONFICTION | 67
splintery railing, as the steps creak the creak of horror movie stock sounds. That drawn out sort of whine. He is behind you, letting you go first, a kind of pretense for politeness that feels more like a blocking of the door. So you focus on the steps and go the only way you can go—deeper and down. This is what you tell Stephen because this is how you imagine it, but in reality, the steps might have been just as concrete as the floors, or covered in carpet. You have learned not to rely on your memory for these details but use them anyway. The picture is what’s important here. It is the only construction of past reality you have, and without the story those pictures tell, you would have nothing. It felt like creaking wooden steps, so now it was. Once you reach the bottom, you notice the washer and dryer just ahead. This is when he steps ahead to lead. Turn to your left and there are three rooms—a bedroom, a bathroom, and his room at the end of the small hall. The first bedroom is supposed to be yours, was his brother Cacey’s but Cacey is away at war. There is barely anything in the room, and you don’t really sleep there. Not with him so close. Throw your bag on the bed and continue on the tour. In the bathroom, the small round mirror above the sink has been placed up high because your cousin and his brother are both over six feet tall. You are not even five feet. This means you will not be able to see your reflection all weekend—you will jump up after your shower to try, but it is just too high. This might be a blessing because you do not really want to see. And then his room. The walls, maybe even the comforter, were blue. It wasn’t what you thought it would look like—beige carpet, some bare walls, a small TV off to the corner, on top of the dresser. It feels anticlimactic to finally see a space that belongs solely to him. Stephen doesn’t say to slow down this time, even though you skip over too many details in this space. Your breathing is no longer aligned with his, but ragged. “I think I’m panicking,” you whisper. Your hands twitch, your voice sounds strained. 68 | PHOEBE 47.1
“You’re safe.” This is his mantra to remind you that you are not actually in that room, even when you feel like you might be there still today. “Ok, don’t picture the room. Just breathe.” You meditate like this together until he can hear your breathing slow. “Open your eyes.” And, again, you do. It takes a minute before either of you can speak, so you just stare until someone breaks the silence. Says, “That was intense.” Chuckles. The other laughs. Because by now you have gone over this connection so many times, you can’t remember which is which. Can picture it both ways—you as the speaker and as the one who starts the laughter you both end up sharing anyway. Either way, it’s all the same. *** In one of her ghost pictures, Woodman is once again the subject— her face and body blurred from the long exposure. In a corner of the same seemingly abandoned house in which she shot some of her most iconic photographs, she is on the floor. The house decays around her, wallpaper pieces and broken tiles spread out on rotting wooden planks, a brick fireplace just on the fringes of the visible, to the left, mostly out of frame. Because natural light is best to shoot in, Woodman is often under or around windows indoors. In this case, she is underneath the window closest to the center of her set-up shot. Wallpaper covers most of her body, with only her head, one bare leg, and black Mary Janes visible. Although whatever spare sheet of wallpaper she had must have been very different from the walls, covered in old wallpaper backing and broken plasterboard, she matched the pattern perfectly so that, in the blurred exposure and black-and-white, it could be an extension of the wall. The end result is that the image of the room deepens, and Woodman herself, moving some in the extra exposure, becomes the ghost. One leg sticking out, clearer than the rest. Her face almost completely gone, only the suggestion of a shadow around the nose remains. Perhaps this woman
NONFICTION | 69
manifesting with her clearly-focused leg is the real Woodman and the rest is the wraith—the thing we always fear lies on the other side. *** Think of going to the eye doctor, sitting down in the chair, placing that eyeglass contraption over your face (which, for the record, is called a phoropter) and hearing “Which is better: one or two?” One: This lens is clear and calm. The knowledge that looking up your cousin’s picture now shows more weight, divorce, and hair gone gray by 30. As depressingly, disturbingly average as the suburb where you imagine he resides. Through this lens, he is just a man—a man who hurt you, yes, but not an outlier in a sea of statistics about men who hurt women. This is how you go about your days—looking and convincing yourself that, if this is all he is, you must be free. Two: Here is the myth. The blur. The lens draped in fairy tales— dramas sold to girls through soap operas, Romeo and Juliet retellings, and romance novels with the man who is endlessly obsessed, taking all the power for himself until you are too weak to resist. This is the what had you driving toward him and not away—the belief in your inevitability. It is the lens you look through still, years after the end, when you are alone late at night and thinking that this distortion might just be your true self after all.
70 | PHOEBE 47.1
sean patrick hill â€œPortrait of a Manâ€? Photograph
art | 73
justin noah wells “Book Burn” 22 in. x 29 in., ink and watercolor on paper
74 | PHOEBE 47.1
â€œA Writer Shipwreckedâ€? 12in x 12in., pen and ink on paper
art | 75
samantha malay “Night Bloom #37” Salvaged fabric, photograph fragments, beeswax
76 | PHOEBE 47.1
Yellow I paint the living room yellow. In the morning Jax says there is mustard in your hair and later Jax says there is mustard on the carpet too and I say but did you notice the wall.
POETRY | 79
First Time in a Bikini Since 16 & baby i still got it my partner asks me not to speak while he lathers me with sunscreen canâ€™t concentrate on 2 things at the same time my skin outshines the rhinestones on my sunglasses my bones are a classic car too precious to drive til some rich chickâ€™s daddy buys me for her birthday the woman behind me is having a baby a photographer holds a camera to her smile the nylon of her skirted navy one-piece stretches so far i could hear it her husband steps in seagull shit trying not to touch me she follows me to the restroom slams the toilet seat down in the next stall to threaten me we wash our hands together the best & worst thing about beach bathrooms is the lack of mirrors 80 | PHOEBE 47.1
& the long walk back through hot heavy sand on my way i think of the last time i wore this bikini i was 16 & a virgin i was so small it fell right off me.
POETRY | 81
from “APOLOGIES” THERE’S THE FEAST OF THE PRONUNCIATE, THE FEAST OF DELINQUENCY AND TRUANT CHILDREN, AND THE FEAST OF THE HAND – ONE RAISED AND FELLED AMONG THE CLASHING ARMS OF MEN WHO BATTLED OVER LAND THAT WAS AND WAS NOT THEIRS, WHERE THEIR SOLID AND SORRY GHOSTS NOW SLING AND CLUTTER THEMSELVES IN HEAPS – TO KNOW THE MATH OF HILLS IN SOME SEASON IS TO BREAK THE LINKS BETWEEN LANGUAGE AND MEANING, A SORRY AND EVENTUAL AFFAIR – THERE’S THE FEAST OF THIS, TOO AND I’M SORRY WE’RE NOT THERE.
82 | PHOEBE 47.1
I’M SO SO SO SO SO SO SO SO SORRY ABOUT EACH EXTENSION OF THE SOUND BETWEEN THE “S” AND “O” OUR MOUTHS GROWING SOIL INTO EACH HOVER, EACH OTHER – THERE’S FURTHER DISBELIEF COURTING YOU AS YOU SIT THERE, NO MATTER HOW LOUD OR QUIET MY SAYING IT GOES, THE “SO” TAKES OVER THE SORRY, AND FOR THIS I SINCERELY APOLOGIZE.
POETRY | 83
The Summer of Violins Everything green. But everything a different shade of green. It is like an orchestra of violins, of violins only, of ten thousand violins, each of them tuned by a different violin tuner. The violins are in the blue air. In the blue air, they play a green cacophony. It is a green cacophony of a certain kind: one which is a green symphony.
84 | PHOEBE 47.1
County Donuts Schaumburg, Illinois
Sugar caked on my lips slips through the air like crystal ice, the way glitter might. Fried dough soft as a spell in my mouth agape at the tray sliding into the case. The cook plops the dough onto the conveyor belt of steam, to bathe it in grease, visible through his picture window. Our bodies stop and breathe after travelling a dozen miles to play nighthawks in his scene.
POETRY | 85
MATTHEW J. SPIRENG
Haven After “Leggett Road,” photograph by John Dugdale
Hay and corn and a tree on the rise the corn rows open to as if a path to shade offered there, shade deep even on a day like this— hazy bright light, big round bale from the field freshly cut. And the path between rows of corn leading straight to the tree. Who must be gathered there we cannot see. Only if we follow will we know.
86 | PHOEBE 47.1
David’s Place for Paul
Rent too cheap, and so: This was where Son of Sam lived before being caught and held. No ghosts, perhaps, but gawkers would show, the curious, and you would have no rest. And who’s to say there’d be no ghosts? You read the stories, knew something of the victims. They might come to you as memory, then reclaim their forms, no matter they were never there except in David’s mind. What else was in his mind was frightening too, from what was said. No, you’d pass on this. Rent too cheap. You’d find another dearer.
POETRY | 87
Lizzie Romantic / Lizzie Rheumatic there i go fainting down the marbled grand staircase one hand on my forehead, palmupwards somewhere a god wears a cameo of love lines somewhere closer, a storm brews my colicky gut i am all nerves in my nightgown of marrow dearest dental cavity wonâ€™t you balance this vase on your crown while i recite my alibi: 88 | PHOEBE 47.1
constable, constellate my pores & leave me salt-browed & quite beholden this jury swears so help me that seawater puppeteers my reproductive organs imagine the sirens pulling my ovaries by string donâ€™t mind me costuming this hysterectomy luxe in my thigh gap iâ€™ll get off even with cudgel-blood rouging my jowls.
POETRY | 89
Trouble Sleeping I canâ€™t help but think that every sheep finally yields a dying sheep.
90 | PHOEBE 47.1
Nightmare in the form of a Venn Diagram
I sometimes dream my teeth are loose hanging limbs clumped in a tangle after the storm slipping down my throat, flushed with thin rivers of blood coalescing at the mouth of the gutter out from a crescent of gums where nothing can be done with fat knots of feather and string with each socket now openly yawning itâ€™s just waste a small domestic carnage empty chances for fingers his wide, hazel eyes noticed on the short drive to work
POETRY | 91
The Ending Two young men walked by the lake. Every time they heard a sound, they shaped their lips into the shape of the sound. The frogs jumped, the wooden bridge squeaked, the dog barked, and they said the word silently, with the shape of their mouths. As I watched them I realized that every sound is a word shaped by a mouth. Some are defined as “the sound made by...” but no more than that: the sound made when a dog barks, when a frog jumps, when a tree falls down. These words have no synonyms but can be said without saying a thing, you just have to shape your mouth, to say the one word, for instance, that is the sound of falling down, no matter what falls down, even though when I fall down it is different than when a tree falls down, even though they have similar meanings, they have but one shape of the mouth: it’s almost like an o and then, the mouth relaxes: ahhh.
92 | PHOEBE 47.1
The Passive Voice I see a hole in the sky and I mention it and it is buttoned hastily without even so much as a thank you. Later I receive a card of gratitude that was on fire.
POETRY | 93
[poem] Such an awful lot of noise [oh my GOD]: such a pill. Trembling treble voice, an intermission in faking it, stuck faking it. Faking it forever. We’re neighbors, and we love you, and we’re caught on the tongue: emergency/irritation? Here’s a stark realization—emotion as object, artifice. Whether she is bluffing just tonight, or since she first unlocked pleasure: a wet, bounding main of frozen ice, a splintered stick. Summer on hold. You aren’t bound to gimmick, girl. If I was also subterfuge but aren’t I also subterfuge I lay myself down at the feet of the Fudgesicle: bated breath. Artless orgasm. Simple us. Would the window would break with the weight of it. Would the lover would take a pause and try something revelatory, an affidavit that women do not totally regret life. I am the least difficult of women: all I want is boundless whoopee. Oh my god I want
94 | PHOEBE 47.1
Untitled VII I needed a roof in the pouring rain and you were steel while one storm chased another, wind blowing whole buildings down. You were roof and railing, base note and holy ghost. You held my shaking shoulders as we walked over the wet ground to where, on my knees, I pushed bulbs into soil, not knowing the way mud holds the boot first before dragging the whole body down.
POETRY | 95
Things the Parents Saw on Their Nanny Cam The nanny sending a text message The nanny raiding the fridge The nanny itching her armpits The nanny using the toilet with the door open The nanny feeding the baby glutinous bread The nanny taking a nap on the hallway floor The nanny licking the plates clean instead of washing them properly The nanny examining her buttocks in the bedroom mirror The baby crying The nanny not comforting the baby with sufficient haste The baby juggling The nanny rolling her eyes at all the baby’s jokes The nanny shaking the baby The nanny blowing her nose The baby shaking the nanny The nanny performing satanic rituals The baby dancing on a hot stove The nanny adopting a rescue Pit The baby sharpening the knives The nanny laminating fake ID’s, using the family’s office equipment The baby swearing like a sea dog The nanny rummaging through the nightstand The baby defacing family photographs The nanny applying glitter to her décolleté The baby running with a screwdriver in its mouth The nanny drinking a brass monkey The baby wearing mismatched pajamas 98 | PHOEBE 47.1
The nanny trimming her pubes with the kitchen scissors The baby giving itself a stick n poke tattoo of a sad dolphin The nanny leaving the windows open during a heavy storm The baby flushing itself down the toilet The nanny entertaining strange men The baby convening with ghosts The nanny moonlighting as a call center operator The baby eating jam by the fistful
POETRY | 99
Glances A round of applause hands clapping from across the field sounds shoot and echo around the green clearing. She stands before me, aberrant, like a child with grass between her teeth. I want to leave. Later, a small bird flies within a hair of hitting the windshield. Late at night I change clothing again and again in my bright, curtainless room.
100 | PHOEBE 47.1
Black Snake Iâ€™m wrong for this skin the sun calls but takes too long
POETRY | 101
Of May await who gave away the scribbled stone & strands of plastic gems who takes them
102 | PHOEBE 47.1
Acts of Blasphemy I pray that something wild gets a hold of me because I know what itâ€™s like to be gotten a hold of by something wild. How I would love to wind up dead in the bow of your claws, to dangle from a tooth watching your jaw go up and down, your eyes blinking laterally, offering my bones from smallest to largest until there are none left and my heart sits inside of your belly asking for a story about the devil, how he was thrown back to earth, opened his furrowed wings and concealed himself inside sin. And then, I would ask for my remains back because faith can grow like a lizardâ€™s tail. I want to be foolish, to fish naked with you in the sun, burning, stretching out a hand as far as I can to let you eat the catch from my palm.
POETRY | 103
Considering Motherhood at Age Forty my body a fist afraid to open
104 | PHOEBE 47.1
Notes for a Narrative start with a sound. not yet music. the open door. a handful of leaves. say a version of horizons. words inscribed on weather. on fire escapes. this is a lantern. this a silhouette. a character as equation. equilibrium in the truth of no truth. form is optional but gestures in the dark. wasp drinks at disheveled palette. keyholes. pinned light. the problems of a memory. insert a comma. forms of harm. bad back. tooth decay. remember to water the fig tree. open blinds. time dilates, or small purple flowers. another word for eye. the protagonist stops counting to ten. everything here is equal and imperfect. â€œnot the only thing I miss,â€? she says. haze of pollen, game of hopscotch. shuttered house with seaswollen bones. what memory here that did not happen, the snows of you on some darkened pane. a second dream does not continue it. hears reason for resin.
POETRY | 105
â€œnot the only thing I am.â€? pornographic pages by the river and the chinese man making cranes underground. a destination left behind. tea garden. infestation. talking in his sleep. a chapter of textures. errant refrain. grain of wood. the chrysalis sheds dry powders in the attic. varieties of passage. nearer to something that never becomes and the bed already empty. in the throat any noise might be ballast, be loud. slow to conclude, sudden to disintegrate. faces on the train collage. arcs without endings. someone new argues the weather. used paperback, 65 cents. drinks to steady the landscape. anesthetics in a jar. a wing epistolary. mottled early greys fall from the roofbeams. before the bulbs open and the voice. give a thing a name. give name a thing. a peripheral character passes. being doesnâ€™t depend on language as much as unbeing does. he buys milk, bread, loses his place, asks how to console the dead. we bruised and listened. we built tunnels, buried remainders in snow. the mind itself is the plot, moving through howls of paper and asphalt. in the margins someone has written someone has written.
106 | PHOEBE 47.1
her hand is withered. bound in winter. â€œnot how I want to be remembered.â€? promises like parchment. all the air in abrasions. her penmanship in storms rubbed smooth by found stones. awning on cornelia street. shelter or eclipse. handful of leaves. not yet a sound. night grows brighter in the sleepwalk of things. a meaning run out of synonyms here, possible now as two strangers.
POETRY | 107
More Stories from Her Sky she never thought she could live like a gored matador because of the weeping of her earliest memories that scalded her where she lay once more dishonesty at her doorstep left its blurred scar her hands wept with the stillness of roses and the church bells their echoes evaporating and their scent of milk like wasps dying inside a gourde and the drizzled ashes falling out like a rain of her mother and father of undressed zeroes were caressed by the winds from the zones of her hips those flying carpets of stillness those long ago sighs collected in petri dishes experienced over and over again until their sparks disappeared into the vales of her dismembering
108 | PHOEBE 47.1
LAUREN w. WESTERFIELD
Tumbleweed Bone-gray branches bump and float against the road. Against my neck, your breath is bar soap and blue pine: stained, sanded into curves. Raindrops click the safety glass, smack beyond the wheel into last night. Cars quiver in the wind. Your weight is strange inside my hips. Dune-green hills will roll and never stop. Freed from root and stem, each tumbleweed will roll until it breaks.
POETRY | 109
A Mind that Climbs the Air And, finally, I ask that my bitterness be unparalleled by any alive on this earth because I would like to have none of it and, as far as I understand, most people alive on earth have some. Isn’t a bitter person like one of those talking trees who hurls apples at the nature guide who overlooks them but never says “thank you” when a squealing toddler points at its leaves? Some people can’t resolve a cat’s cool demeanor with its supple, spreadable body. They can’t see that a relaxed body makes for a mind that is thoroughly its own dandelion. A mind that climbs the air toward the sky, pausing maybe to look at you, but not to make unproductive conversation, will soon be mine, once this vertically small but horizontally medium-sized woman has cracked every inch of my spine with her toes. 110 | PHOEBE 47.1
Contributors Sho Araiba grew up in Tokyo and came to New York for college education. He holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the City University of New York. He just moved to Oahu and works as a behavior analyst. His work has appeared in The Rumpus and received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s August 2015 Short Story Award for New Writers. J.M. Baker received his MFA from UC San Diego in 2016. Since 2007, he has been organizing and running poetry workshops for kids in underserved communities, with projects to date in Soweto, South Africa; Brooklyn, New York; Mumbai, India; and South Central Los Angeles. His work has appeared in The Brooklyn Review, The Antioch Review, and Epiphany, among other places. He currently teaches in the Boston area. Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s prose can be found or is forthcoming in Gravel, Sand, Joyland, Vestal Review, Gigantic and PANK. His short story “Taylor Swift” won the 2015 Barthelme Prize from Gulf Coast. He is interim chair of the adjunct faculty union at California College of the Arts in San Francisco, where for ten years he edited the journal Eleven Eleven. Hollie Dugas lives and teaches in New Mexico. When she is not writing poetry, she critiques novels and poetry in small writing workshops. Hollie has a knack for making language delicate. Her work was most recently selected to be included in Barrow Street, The Common Ground Review, Fugue, Adrienne, Under the Gum Tree, Folio, Slipstream, Jelly Bucket, contributors | 111
Tulane Review, and CALYX. Hollie’s poem “As You Are Drying the Red Chili Peppers” was a finalist for the Peseroff Prize at Breakwater Review. She is currently a member on the editorial board for Off the Coast. Elizabeth Fogle is a poet with work appearing in Limestone, Nimrod International Journal, Harpur Palate, Roar, and the Tusculum Review. She is an associate teaching professor at Penn State Erie, the Behrend College, where she teaches in the English and Creative Writing programs. Nadia Froese is a writer of poetry and fiction. She is currently completing her BFA in Creative Writing at UBC in Vancouver, British Columbia. Michael Fulop lives a little north of Baltimore with his wife and two children, and he works as a psychiatrist. He has previously had poems published in Green Mountains Review, The Hopkins Review, LIT, Poet Lore and Prairie Schooner. Mag Gabbert is currently a PhD candidate in creative writing at Texas Tech University, and she previously received an MFA from The University of California at Riverside. Her essays and poems have been published or are forthcoming in journals including 32 Poems, The Rattling Wall, The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Cleaver Magazine, Sugar House Review, and Sonora Review, among other venues. Mag also serves as an associate editor for Iron Horse Literary Review. For more information, please visit maggabbert.com. Ricky Garni grew up in Miami and Maine. He works as a graphic designer by day and writes music by night. COO, a tiny collection of short prose printed on college lined paper with found materials such as coins, stamps, was recently released by Bitterzoet Press. Hannah Gamble is the author of Your Invitation to a Modest Breakfast, winner of the 2011 National Poetry Series and published by Fence 112 | PHOEBE 47.1
Books in 2012. She received a Lilly/Rosenberg fellowship from the Poetry Foundation in 2014, and is currently working on a web series about abortion and the precarious lives of old millennials. She lives in Chicago. Sean Patrick Hill is a writer and photographer in Louisville, Kentucky. He has published three books of poetry, and poems recently appeared or are forthcoming in Green Mountains Review and The Literary Review. He is currently at work on a book about Kentucky's Pine Mountain and a children's portrait project. Alysha Hoffa’s personal essays, poems, and reviews have appeared in Southern Indiana Review, Atticus Review, The Broken Plate, and Sliver of Stone, among others. Her essay, “Colorless Life: An Essay in Grayscale,” was named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2014. She is a recent graduate of Fresno State’s MFA program, where she was the President of the San Joaquin Literary Association and the Senior Associate Creative Nonfiction Editor for The Normal School. Helen Hofling is a Baltimore-based writer and artist. A graduate of The Writer’s Foundry, her work can be found or is forthcoming in PANK, Barrow Street, Posit Journal, So to Speak, TAMMY, Rabbit Catastrophe Review, Storm Cellar Quarterly, Infinity’s Kitchen, The Vassar Review, and elsewhere. Jane Huffman is a third-year fellow at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she completed her MFA in poetry in 2017. Recent work is featured or forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Third Coast, Hobart, Witness, Slice, and elsewhere. She will be a 2018 fellow at Willapa Bay AiR and is the co-founder/editor-in-chief of Guesthouse, a new literary journal. Lesley Jenike’s poems and essays have appeared or will appear soon in Waxwing, The Account, Poetry, The Southern Review, The Gettysburg contributors | 113
Review, Rattle, and many other journals. Her most recent collections are Punctum:, a chapbook published by Kent State University Press in 2017, and Holy Island, re-released by Gold Wake, also in 2017. She teaches writing and literature at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio where she lives with her husband and two small children. Jennifer Lee is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins MA Writing Program and an editor at The Baltimore Review. Her work has appeared in JMWW, New South, Bellevue Literary Review, The Greensboro Review, Monkeybicycle, and elsewhere. Her work has won the Maryland Writers’ Association short fiction prize and has been nominated for a Pushcart Award. She is currently hard at work on a looming science fiction project, among other things. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where she teaches middle school math and pursues her interests. S.D. Lishan teaches at The Ohio State University. His book of poetry, Body Tapestries (Dream Horse Press), was awarded the Orphic Prize in Poetry. His poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction have appeared in journals such as Measure, Arts & Letters, Kenyon Review, Brevity, Literati Quarterly, In Posse Review, New England Review, Boulevard, Bellingham Review, Barrow Street, and Creative Nonfiction. He lives in Delaware, Ohio, with his wife, Lynda, and their English Setter, Kracker Jack. samantha malay was born in Berlin, Germany and grew up in rural eastern Washington State. She is a theatrical wardrobe technician by trade, a writer and a mixed-media artist. Inspired by the plant kingdom and her collection of vintage textiles, she works with reclaimed fabric, travel ephemera and beeswax to create new textures and patterns. Her poem/collage “Rimrock Ranch” was exhibited at Core Gallery in Seattle in January 2017; her mixed-media images were published in the September 2017 issue of The Grief Diaries and are featured in the 114 | PHOEBE 47.1
“Solitude’s Spectrum” issue of Cahoodaloodaling. “Night Bloom #37” is one in a series of collages Samantha made with salvaged fabric, photo fragments and beeswax. Her artwork is available at Garden Essentia and Royal Mansion Gallery, both in Seattle. Tony Mancus is the author of a handful of chapbooks, including City Country (Seattle Review), Bye Sea (Tree Light Books), and Apologies (Reality Beach, forthcoming). He lives in Colorado with his wife Shannon and some yappy cats and serves as chapbook editor for Barrelhouse. Sandra Marchetti is the author of Confluence, a full-length collection of poetry from Sundress Publications (2015). She is also the author of four chapbooks of poetry and lyric essays, including Heart Radicals (Black Magic Media, 2018), Sight Lines (Speaking of Marvels Press, 2016), A Detail in the Landscape (Eating Dog Press, 2014), and The Canopy (MWC Press, 2012). Sandra’s poetry appears widely in Poet Lore, Blackbird, Subtropics, Ecotone, Southwest Review, River Styx, and elsewhere. Her essays can be found at The Rumpus, Words Without Borders, Mid-American Review, Barrelhouse, and other venues. Sandy earned an MFA in Creative Writing—Poetry from George Mason University and now serves as the Coordinator of Tutoring Services at the College of DuPage in the Chicagoland area. Kat McDonald is a multidisciplinary designer working in New York City who specializes in motion design, branding and identity design, and graphic design. She is a Senior Communications Design Major at Pratt Institute and has an interest in mixing medias, creating new systems of art and altering perspectives. Edie Meidav is the author of Kingdom of the Young, a collection of short fiction with a nonfiction coda, and the novels Lola, California; Crawl Space; and The Far Field: A Novel of Ceylon. She is a member of the faculty at UMass Amherst’s MFA program. instagram.com/meidav contributors | 115
Christine Ottoni is a writer based in Toronto. She studied at the University of Toronto and the Humber School for Writers. Christine was short-listed for PEN Canada’s nomination to the 2016 International New Voices Award. She lives in High Park with her partner and dog. Elizabeth Savage is the author of Idylliad and Grammar, both from Furniture Press, as well as Parallax, a chapbook from Dancing Girl Press, and the imminently forthcoming Woman Looking at a Vase of Flowers, also from Furniture. Recent poems and reviews appear in Colorado Review, VOLT, and Jacket. Since 2008, she has served as the poetry editor of Kestrel: A Journal of Literature & Art. James Shea is the author of two books of poetry, The Lost Novel and Star in the Eye. His poems have appeared in various literary magazines and anthologies, such as The New Census: An Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry. He is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Humanities and Creative Writing at Hong Kong Baptist University. Matthew J. Spireng’s book What Focus Is was published by WordTech Communications. His book Out of Body won the 2004 Bluestem Poetry Award and was published by Bluestem Press. He won the 2015 Common Ground Review poetry contest and is an eight-time Pushcart Prize nominee. Heather Swan’s poetry has appeared in Poet Lore, The Raleigh Review, Midwestern Gothic, About Place Journal, The Cream City Review, The Hopper, and Basalt among others. Her chapbook, The Edge of Damage, was published by Parallel Press. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in places such as Aeon, Edge Effects, ISLE, and Resilience Journal, and her nonfiction book, Where Honeybees Thrive, was published in 2017 by Penn State Press. 116 | PHOEBE 47.1
Daryl Sznyter received her MFA in poetry from The New School. Previous and forthcoming publications include The American Journal of Poetry, Poet Lore, Gravel, WomenArts Quarterly, The Flexible Persona, Best American Poetry blog, and others. She currently resides in Northeast Pennsylvania. Julius Taranto’s work has appeared in The Fiddleback, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Lawfare. He is a graduate of Pomona College and Yale Law School. Kailey Tedesco is the author of These Ghosts of Mine, Siamese (Dancing Girl Press) and a forthcoming collection, She Used to be on a Milk Carton (April Gloaming Publishing). She is the editor-in-chief of Rag Queen Periodical and a staff writer for Luna Luna Magazine. She also performs with the Poetry Brothel. Her work has been featured in Bellevue Literary Review, Prick of the Spindle, Prelude, Poetry Quarterly, and more. For more, please visit kaileytedesco.com. Justin Noah Wells is referred to by most as the “Dilettante of the Hinterlands.” He studied Fine Art and Environmental Science at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and eventually dropped out of the UCLA creative writing program to pursue a life of forestry in the Pacific Northwest. He has since returned to the Appalachians of North Carolina where he spends his time with the trees, his ink pens, and a surly canine named “Yeti.” His drawings and paintings are imbued with stygian humor, but tend to favor the beauty of the natural world rather than strictly providing social commentary. It must be noted that it is in fact he that is surly. Yeti is a loving marvel. Find out more at his website, www.whalesink.com. Lauren W. Westerfield is an essayist, poet, and editor from the Northern California coast. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in PANK, Permafrost, The Los Angeles Times, The Butter, Redivider, contributors | 117
and The Rumpus, where she has also served as an Assistant Essays Editor. Lauren is a Centrum Fellow and MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Idaho, where she recently received Honorable Mention for the Academy of American Poets Prize. She currently co-hosts the POP-UP PROSE reading series in Moscow, Idaho, and is the Nonfiction Editor of Fugue. July Westhale is the author of Trailer Trash (2016 Kore Press Book Award), The Cavalcade (Finishing Line Press), and Occasionally Accurate Science (Nomadic Press). Her most recent poetry can be found in The National Poetry Review, Tupelo Quarterly, RHINO, burntdistrict, Eleven Eleven, 580 Split, Lunch Ticket, and Quarterly West. Her essays have been nominated for Best American Essays, as well as the Pushcart prize. She moonlights as a journalist at The Establishment, and has appeared in The Huffington Post. www.julywesthale.com
118 | PHOEBE 47.1