CIRCUITRY VOLUME 1
Senior Editors Caitlyn Winkler Hannah Gellman
Executive Editor Rocio Zarala
Art Director Macy Scully
Designers Rebecca Cammenga
Editor-at-Large Grace Metzger
Contributing Editors Gemma Kerr
Associate Editors Katie Campbell
Assistant Editors Shelby Fisher Clare Gullekson Cheyenne Puetz Elizabeth Sheridan Jillian Smith
Editor’s Note cir·cuit·ry noun: circuitry 1. a circuit or system of circuits performing a particular function.
Welcome to the inaugural issue of Circuitry! We are a literary magazine dedicated to exploring the unifying power of literature. Recent events have led many to feel that the world today is more divided than ever before, but, as University of Iowa professor Phil Round said, “We have language so that we can navigate our way through a world that is sometimes not our friend.” We here at Circuitry hope to illustrate the fundamental need for community, conversation, and, above all, connection that we all share. We are undoubtedly fulfilled by the connections we make and maintain with the people around us, but perhaps even more compelling than successful connections are the connections that have withered or those that could have been. We all wish. We all wonder. We all regret. Lack is cold and painful, but, not unlike a gallon of breakup ice cream, it gets a little warmer, a little less searing when shared. Severed wires can be just as binding as the proverbial ties. In this issue of Circuitry we invite you to explore, mourn, and find solace in the missed connections in our lives and the lives of our contributors. We hope that our time together will show you that we aren’t so different after all.
Senior Editors Caitlyn Winkler Hannah Gellman
CONTENTS Eidolon Yellow........................................................Harrison Cook
Youâ€™re Too Weak to Drown(...) .............................Dorothy Mikos p. 17 Poetry
Lipstick ....................................................................Caitlin Plathe p. 18 Poetry
Cigarettes ...........................................................Delany Breitbach p. 19 Fiction
Tweets From the Iowa City Police Log....................Caitlin Plathe p. 23 Poetry
Midnight Snacking ................................................Dorothy Mikos p. 26 Poetry
Untitled...............................................................Emmalyn Brown p. 27 Poetry
From This Day Forward .......................................Jessie Bowman p. 28 Non-Fiction
Eidolon Yellow Harrison Cook
Passing the hues and objects of the world/ever the dim beginning, ever materials/changing, Americaâ€™s busy, teeming intricate whirl/Far-born, far-dying, living long, to leave/ of orbic tendencies to shape and shape and shape/Thy body permanent, the real I myself, An image, an eidolon. -Walt Whitman, Eidolon, 1881 When troops were being selected for active duty during Operation Enduring Freedom, it wasnâ€™t a matter of if my father was going to be deployed, but a matter of when. He first enlisted a month after graduating high school with a get-in, get-out mentality. But after he graduated officer candidate school, propelling him in rank from Lieutenant to Captain, he became an investment to the National Guard. Likewise, the National Guard became a lifestyle. Today my father has served twenty-four years, two months, and ten days in the military. He is since retired but the value he places on the moments spent serving the country he loves is unwavering, and if the military instills one value among their soldiers it is repression. The halcyon denial of their actions, their circumstances that haunts any soldier is as timeless and formless as sand. I feel my father was told to regard his time in Afghanistan as impressions: to fill the shells. To be filled round after round. Blurred by
the crippling sun. Air waves reverbed and outlined edges in static hums. The officers, the civilians, the Taliban were nothing more than a colony of mirages. These memories that held my father hostage, when he first came back, were omitted from the journal we had purchased for him. I saw these impressions in my father’s eyes when he first came home. How they were allowed to solidify, wholeheartedly to spoil the mold of the solider to shape and shape and shape as a memory that would work itself out. I remember my father and mother calling me from the kitchen. This talk had been coming for some time, but it seems so far off, distant when our family first began to dissolve. My little sister bounces on my mother’s knee. My father holds my mother’s hand: the first time my parents have touched since she was born a little over a year ago. My father says, I’ve been selected for deployment. Phrasing this as if it were a lottery— as if leaving your family is something truly unexpected—something that can’t be accounted for. Son, he says, you’ll be the man of the house now. I ask him, How long? My father says, Fifteen months. I’m eight and I’ll be the man of the house now. A house full of impressions. Missed Connection: Burger King
Isn’t “are chicken fries back?” a universal code? I thought we had a real connection when you took my order—have we already met? I was the woman in blue who asked for chicken fries and settled for onion rings but should have asked for your number.
In 2007, Wafaa Bilal, an Iraqi American artist, locks himself in a gallery space for the month of May. Bilal’s project is called Domestic Tension, because the original title of the piece, Shoot an Iraqi, was deemed too controversial for the American gallery hashing out the exhibition space, even though Bilal’s performative art piece was created to combat the very controversy that resulted in him renaming his piece: xenophobia. At first, Domestic Tension commented on the systematic decimation of Iraq and Iraqi citizens. This sense of cultural awareness, preservation, transmuted into a coping mechanism for Bilal to process the death of his brother gunned down by a U.S. predator drone during Saddam Hussain’s dictatorship over Iraq. His only companion in this gallery space was a .45 caliber semiautomatic machine gun modified to spit out paintball after paintball packed with a pungent fish oil aroma from the
yellow pigment. If the gun were to run out of bullets, Bilal would replenish them. In the height of the project he would go through four thousand bullets in one day. I can’t imagine the animosity of feeding the gun that hunts you down the moment its belly is full. That mouth so hungry to Shoot an Iraqi. Domestic Tension connects to a webpage where anyone can log on, anonymously, and is given control over the gun to shoot Bilal for five seconds. No more, no less. In the time of the exhibition, this page receives over eighty million hits, generates three thousand additional comment pages, forged by users spanning from one hundred and twenty-eight countries. In total the paintball gun fires 60,000 bullets, painting this ‘living space’ a miscible yellow. As Domestic Tension drew on, it became evident that innocent Iraqi lives feed America’s killstreak due to U.S. drones not being able to ‘tell’ the difference between Taliban and Iraqi citizen. It also illustrated the lack of cultural competence the American media perpetuates and instills within American society. By the end of project, Bilal develops PTSD as if returning from active duty. Proving gunfire, even when replaced with paintballs, is still gunfire. During eighth grade recess a kid tells me, I hope your father dies. I go to the teacher. At first the teacher doesn’t believe me. He says, No one would say such a thing. I tell him again and again that I am not lying. Finally, when I’m at the point of tears, he asks, Who? That night the kid comes to our house to ‘apologize’. He only apologizes because his parents dragged him to our front step. His parents say, We’re so sorry for our son’s actions. This is directed toward my mother. The kid stands in front of me and doesn’t dare make eye contact. He knows once his hazel eyes meet my harsh green I won’t break. The kid’s father reiterates how much it means that my father fights for his family and such. The kid’s mother says, I hope you like apple pie, and places the lukewarm tin in my hands. I made it myself. Oh we do, my mother says to fill the genuine silence and half-baked ass kissing. His family doesn’t even address me. The kid doesn’t even speak. Once again, they say, We’re sorry for our son’s actions, and leave. I remember tracing the popcorn constellations of my ceiling that night in an attempt to fall asleep. Point A: Does it mean anything? Point B: What’s the point of being the man of the house if no one recognizes it? Closing the triangle: an image, an eidolon lost within the hypothetical where my father doesn’t come home. For hours, my eyes form this imaginary shape, an arrowhead spinning its beak, till morning sun breaks through leaves and casts a 8
hive of amber across my walls. It’s hard to forget. It’s hard to forgive the fucker I’m forced to stand in the lunch line with. The kid: our last names, alphabetically linked, so this wouldn’t be a one-time scenario. He has bags under his eyes that mirror my own, and crushed, pulpy stains on his jeans. He turns to me and says, You ruined my life. Because you told on me, my father broke his belt on my ass (which explains why he wouldn’t sit down in class, because he couldn’t). The kid continues, I have to get up at three in the morning to scoop up mountains of horseshit! I can’t go to football practice anymore and I’m grounded from all the birthday parties for the rest of the year. It is October. I have a house to take care of. I’m eight and I say, I hated the apple pie. Missed Connection: Hu Hot (Coralville)
You spilt your drink down your gray shirt. You had me from that moment on. I asked if you were trying to swim in pop. You laughed and blushed. Are we meant to find each other?
Yellow splotches cover the craters in the surrounding walls. Yellow punches a constellation of holes through the couch. Yellow seeps into the electrical outlets and Bilal’s computer modem, almost causing a fire—twice. “The scene is like some natural disaster except it’s not natural. It’s entirely man made. That is what war is,” Wafaa Bilal says to himself, looking around the room. The fish oil aroma pervades the corners, creating a hot box ecosystem within the gallery space. You can wrap yourself in the weather and the fumes hug your lungs, making it impossible to breathe unless you unzip your chest. Bilal swings the Plexiglas shield in a half-moon motion to protect himself while he checks the comment section of Domestic Tension. Bang—ping: a paintball flies off the shield. Bang—ping: in seconds someone else will become the gun. Bang—ping—bang— ping—bang—thwack: a paintball breaks through the Plexiglas and hits Bilal in the ribs. An anonymous user posts in the comment section. “Look I shot the Iraqi.” This user hacked the paintball gun, rewriting the code that limited users to five seconds of control over the gun. Now any user can shoot at Bilal until the gun runs out of ammo. Again, he posts in the comment section.
“Let’s kill the Iraqi.” I am proud of my family’s sacrifices during times of war and the veterans that have served in response. However, I am not proud that they had to go to war in the first place, under a banner depicting a bald eagle with the American flag in one claw and a rifle in the other, mimicking thunder bolts and olive branches as if attacking Afghanistan from the sky. Orbiting the bald eagle is a gilded ouroboros reading Operation Enduring Freedom. By titling this unnecessary assertion of America’s presence in hope, in fear, in perseverance, it paints our dealings overseas as rational. My father was stationed for fifteen months in Afghanistan as a logistics officer. He helped coordinate the hospital on base. He was in charge of any wounded soldier that would enter through its doors. He prides himself on never having to write a letter to any of their families informing them of their veteran’s passing. In late November my father enters a room to see a man not bleeding, but blood is blooming into the white sheets wrapped around the bed. The man’s left leg and arm blown off, leaving behind flexing ribbons. Air and amputations bridge the skin—the time it takes to lose your limbs. My father stands there and watches the whole procedure. The man’s nut sack, where the Impromptu Explosive Device first caught fire and ate flesh: the size of an elephant’s—the color beet purple. As a human, my father feels for the man, now only a torso. But as a solider, my father thinks the man got more than what he deserved for planting the Taliban I.E.D. right outside the hospital filled with Afghani citizens and officers. He could have written many letters that day or someone could have written my father’s letter to us. Missed Connection: re: To my Husband
Loved your posting about your husband, it’d sure be nice if this was my wife leaving this message to me, but then again she wouldn’t do that. She too is someplace around the Easter Lake Park. Good luck to you with your situation, may the sun shine on both of us again. And if for some reason you are my wife, please come home.
My mother and I climb into her car. I set the plastic sack on my lap, making sure not to drop any of the Tupperware containers with tonight’s supper. My mother and father have been teaching in the same school district for three years now. With word of my father’s deployment, the school district came together and supplied us with pre-made meals a couple times a week. Usually a casserole of some sort with a salad and a dessert: all homemade—genuine—which would last another two days after their drop off. We would also
receive large monthly checks and full medical coverage provided by the National Guard. I remember telling another kid this and they asked me, Is that why your father is over in Afghanistan? Because your family needs the money? I said, No, I don’t think so. The kid asked, Then why go? I don’t know what drives a solider to war. A force known by another name: Patriotism— America’s busy, teeming intricate whirl—fills the soldiers’ shells and keeps the pocket’s brim full. I look over at my mother. The car is still. The key is locked in the ignition, craving a turn. She stares into the windshield, longing to find the answer to the question cast by her eyes, and hunches over, gripping the steering wheel in welling sobs. I place my hand on her shoulder. She places her hand over mine. I say, It’s okay, I miss him too. My mother says, I don’t love your father anymore. I ask, For how long? My mother says, Since you were born. Ever the dim beginning. I’m eight. She says, Some days I hope he doesn’t make it back; it would make things less difficult. It would make things easier. I decide to spend the night at my grandmother’s. After she picks me up, we make many stops, gathering all the goodies to send my father’s way. Arranging them so certain surfaces can withstand the weight of others. For instance, when my father receives his care package in Afghanistan the Folgers flattens the Reese’s Cups and since the cardboard box kisses the hot sand waiting to be open, they fuse into one flat brick of peanut butter and chocolate. He eats them regardless of what shape they take. We place our handmade cards on top of the items. My grandmother runs into the living room. I start folding over the flaps. Sealing away the thoughts that will give my father his strength. That is my job: picking up—piecing together the memories generated in my father’s absence. If they don’t fit flush I have to force them, everyone, together. I grab the tape. My grandmother stops me with one flap to go and places a bundle of ripped pages in the corner. What’s that? I ask. Don’t forget you’re related to Walt Whitman, my grandmother says. Who’s Walt Whitman? He was a poet who served as a nurse in the Civil War, she says. Why are you telling me this? Because you, your sister, your mother and I, we need a little something extra to believe
in right now. Walt Whitman made it home in this poem, and so will your dad. She hunts for a tissue, leaving me with the box. Leaving me with what it means to be an Eidolon: an ideal, an action, a soul riddling a battlefield, a power invoked by brothers, by comrades, a flickering memory; for Bilal an action, for my father a value, a power to be invoked, and for my grandmother a functioning prayer. I peek at the pages tucked into the corner. My eyes fixate on my grandmother’s marginalia: bible notations, columns of chapters, names and numbers and God and Eidolons. The anonymity generated by Wafaa Bilal’s website and user sign-in evolved during Domestic Tension. During the war in Iraq, robotic drones became popular, because they save the lives of our soldiers, but equate the lives of anyone with Middle Eastern descent to another tally on America’s chalkboard titled ‘kill streak.’ My father says, As a soldier you are trained to act first and erase the moments that follow. How easy is it to act when faced with a keyboard? With a screen? Right click. Forget about it. Soldiers on the ground carry a firearm for the flash snapping moments when the autonomic nervous system takes the body hostage at the ripple of gunfire. My father only had to use his gun once. He says, Shots were fired by a bundle of Taliban chicken shit bullies trying to make themselves feel important. If a drone were to see these Taliban chicken shits, right click, decimation. The drone pilot will get off work and return home to their family. Their kids, their pet will greet them the moment they open their car door. The family will sit down and enjoy a hot meal together. They will go to bed early and the drone pilot will wake up the next morning to kill again. Yet air drone pilots also suffer from PTSD without stepping one foot in an active war zone. Anonymity acts as a catalyst for violence. The weapons are built into the drone acting as their eyes, acting through someone else, a screen, a buffer. They are built without the ability to reconcile for their actions. Wafaa Bilal says, “I hate the idea of martyrdom in general; I believe in surviving.” The hacked gun wants Bilal to be a martyr, to sacrifice himself for his point: “This isn’t a time for art. This is a time of war. It is never a time for war, but it is always a time for art.” It follows him. Ping—headshot: gold splotches across his goggles, dripping into his beard, across and down the roof of his mouth. The comment section roars with thunderous praise for the shooter who ‘shot the towel head.’ As a child, I remember Channel Eight convincing me that both Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein would break into my family’s house in the middle of central Iowa. The TV would say the war on terrorism. Now I think: where is that, exactly? The TV says terrorism. Which is where? Terrorism is not a geographical location. Soldiers are human beings! They weigh more than pawns. Thy body permanent—stop writing them off as dispensable.
Please. My father is not dispensable. I hear screams echo against the ceiling. The popcorn constellations hide. I run upstairs, leaving my pissing match with Katie Couric. Beating my mother to the scene, I see the blood spouting down my sister’s chin. My little sister’s knees on the sink, the razor in her hand, her tiara and tap shoes, and my mother is just standing there asking, Why? My little sister says, I don’t know. Hot tears welling up in her eyes. I ask her, Why are you wearing your tap shoes and tiara? My little sister says, I don’t know. My mother asks, again, Why did you try to shave? Because I miss Daddy. My mother yanks the razor from her hands. She places a paper towel on the spot of freshly grazed flesh to snuff out the possibility of stitches. My mother says to the both of us, Don’t miss your father. We’ve made it this far without him. We have six months to go. I’m nine and my sister shaved before I did. In the last week of Domestic Tension, an online support group calling themselves The Virtual Human Shield took over the hacked machine gun. Taking turns to log in and occupy the gun just so Wafaa Bilal can sleep for an hour or two. He finds himself missing the gunfire he came to know as normal—expected—the only consistency Bilal had during the span of the project. The clock ticks five; the project is over. His hands are shaking as he disconnects the machine gun. Passing the hues and objects of the world—his head is dizzy from the fumes and the lack of noise and the crowds forming outside. Bilal says, “We silenced one gun today and hope we will silence all the guns in the future.” He leaves the gallery space before the horde of reporters pile in, hungry for commentary, and rejoins the public of his shooters. No longer as an art object, but more than twice as vulnerable. My father comes home in the summer of 2005 and sits in our unfinished basement shivering in acclimation to the Iowan summer. He stays in front of the TV for three days. My mother approaches him several times. He tells her stories. All she remembers is the description of the blood. My mother suggests he gets counseling. She says, I don’t know how to help you; I simply can’t anymore. And goes upstairs. I wait. I remember sneaking down steps, numb at the thought of approaching my father, and all at once I’m at the bottom of the stairs. I go through his bag to find his journal to know what he went through without actually having to ask him. I figure it is still tender—pulsing. I keep his journal pinned behind my back. He is still wearing his camouflage, even though his first request was to take a shower when he got home. It’s hard to find the man who, only
two years ago, sat with his family at the kitchen table. His eyes are hollow, then attentive as if the walls were watching him. This is the shell, the impression, the eidolon, the parts of himself that he has lost and didn’t want to be found. I wonder when my father stares at the TV if he sees the humming leftovers of xenophobia. What my father has missed. How we know the war versus the actuality. I ask, What are you watching? My father says, I’m watching my brothers on fire from the child that bit down on a blasting cap. I’m ten. Why are you telling me this? The journal slips out of my hands and claps on concrete. He looks over and says, I left my journal blank. So my deployment dies with me. To erase the impressions. I say, You need some fresh air. My father says, You find out really quick the world you left behind does not wait for you. Again I say, You need some fresh air. My father says, There was a reason we went from point A to point B going ninety miles an hour. Our gunman was shot right through the head. He went limp and fell back into the pit of the jeep. He wasn’t one of my men. I didn’t have to write to his family—he had two twin girls— I’m the man of the house and I say, Let’s go outside! We do and toss around the ol’ pigskin, somewhat the same as before. I didn’t say anything, about how these memories will also die with me. How I want to know everything, but am afraid of knowing the truth, the kill count, the bodies. My mother and grandmother knew the truth. It was never my job to know the truth, how you wouldn’t be the same. How the world wasn’t on pause when you were overseas. How you are absent from a patch of our memories. How I’m the man of the house who grew up to fill your shoes. How I couldn’t even do that right. How you never told me how draining it would be, taping everyone together until you got back. How I’d still be taping everyone together when you got back. How I’m the man of the house in impression only, not in function or practice. I wonder if the football were to drop, would you duck and cover and think it a grenade? I promise it will not drop on my end—even if my arms are numb from folding over the flaps. I remember sitting at our kitchen table that morning: where everything started. Staring
into the green eyes of the Saddam Hussein dinar my father gave me. He also brought back a set of wooden camels, along with a dark wood chest. The chest swirled with hand-carved tendrils and jetties. A perfect home for the keepsakes—except the dinar. I wouldn’t let the man—or, more so, the face of the man who took my father from us near the rest of them. My mother comes down the stairs and places the kettle on the stove. My mother says, It’s five a.m. Why are you up so early? I say, I couldn’t sleep. She says, Same here. She looks over to the dinar wavering in and between my fingers. The paper tongue makes a crisp sweep as it’s pulled between two fingers. She says, Take good care of that. It might be worth something someday. She turns her back to the screaming teapot. Today a Saddam Hussein dinar is worth two dollars and eighty cents. This is up for speculation among chat rooms debating the purchasing possibilities of currency collectors. But the Saddam Hussein dinar—a dictator’s currency—is no longer in circulation and any value would only come from collectors. I remember balling up the bill and feeling the satisfaction of blinding the eyes that cost so much sleep. I didn’t tell my mother that I had been there for most of the night, sitting down at the kitchen table. I buried the bill deep within my chest. Like my father sleeping in the basement. Like my mother breaking down in the car. Like my grandmother hungry for prayers. I became a bank of secrets during my father’s deployment. By defacing the Saddam Hussein dinar, this radiant talisman, those cruel eyes the media somehow capture correctly, the dictator who killed Bilal’s brother, ever materials/changing—I had made the first secret for myself in a year. Missed Connection: (Second chance?)
If I had the chance to talk to you again I wouldn’t say a word. I would be speechless in your presence.
I first come across Wafaa Bilal and his project Domestic Tension while in college. We watch most of his video entries during the scope of the project. He is mid-sentence when the gun goes off and grazes his cheek. Bilal let his guard down—or, at this point, the shell of a man left over let his guard down. The comments roared: “Kill the Iraqi.” “Get the fucking towel head.” In response to this clip one girl, from our class, interrupts the professor. She says, I have family all throughout the Middle East and Africa. When I see Bilal my heart goes out
to him because my family faces the same prosecution. She says, For every one of my relatives that are shot and killed I pray the same amount of American soldiers don’t make it home to their families, because all veteran families are trigger-happy racists. My chest is unzipped—all the air escapes—let the throbbing out—a vacuum flooding my lungs—my words bubble at the back of my throat—they turn—the sun—I can’t breathe. In these hot flash moments, I’m snapped back to when I was a child. When everything was out of my control: my family was reduced to a pack of people just trying to get through the next day—always the next day. I remember looking over at the girl: sympathizing with her, because I can never understand her pain. I swallowed the sun—my words—everything I wanted to say. Our two emotional hemispheres grow and grow, gobbling up the room until everyone caught in between feels this transference. I do not empathize with her or understand her generalization of all veteran families as “trigger-happy racists.” My father only fired a gun once. I asked him. He told me of the memories that got lost in the sand. He told me he did nothing he couldn’t look his own two kids in the eyes over. The things he saw, though. I asked him. He told me of the hospital he was in charge of, a hospital filled with soldiers and Afghani citizens. How he prided himself on never having to write a letter home to any of their families. If I were to speak out and defend my father, I would just be America itself—the aggressor standing up for the values of patriotism—unnecessary. I am proud for my family’s sacrifices. I’m not proud that we had to make them in the first place. She was wrong for generalizing all veteran families because they did not initiate this war—just ended up supplying it. The teacher asks, How many have had a family that has served or is serving in the military? Seven out of sixteen raise their hands. Four veterans out of that seven have since committed suicide. Far-born, far-dying, living long, to leave. This is where Bilal and my father meet in memory: this mechanism resonates contradictions. A circuit of solasta buckshot, my father is weaved around Bilal and Bilal around my father. Forever a pair painted yellow. Knee deep in fish oil. Boots crunching on gravel. Impressions flux between fabricated impressions and reality of states. Split between two planes but dodging the same spitting gun, while the world waits and watches and writes their own versions of the war, two men are fighting for their houses—and the real I myself—am not one of them.
you’re too weak to drown so you ride the tamest dolphin (on the death of poetry, in case this is about you) Dorothy Mikos
too scared to try this drug that makes things complicated life and death and in-betweens in between sedated instead you take mystery, myth, and magic and turn a bottlenose into something tragic open up your glass eyes so I can see the nothing within everything without is just a zombie with a pen take a lesson from a poet master slip the needle slowly, faster I know a cat so genius it’s creepy delivers tiny deaths in every sultry simile she’ll slam your sham of a verse running rampant with end rhyme backhand it and slap it ’til it’s shredded, tattered, and dying he’s a poet who doesn’t write poetry except when he’s inspired a man behind a sign that reads, “your lyrics are so tired” I don’t blame you, shame you, or mean to maim you but this travesty of balladry just honestly won’t do when the calm, cool face of the river asked Hughes for a kiss he didn’t drag it out to sea in case there’s something we might miss to you, who write in platitudes that profoundly devastate giving birth to words is different from shitting what you ate
i drink hot chocolate and my lipstick sticks to the mug and to the part of you i can’t remember anymore. my hand is burning against the handle as i imagine your stubble in the pool of liquid, while the dark red sits screaming at me, “YOU SHOULD HAVE STAYED” but what the fuck kind of choice did i have in the first place— i keep kissing unpainted lips and remembering, no, forgetting— no, wishing— the lipstick is still screaming, and asking me questions i can’t answer like “who the hell are you to be unhappy” or “wake up” which isn’t a question, but sometimes it feels like one
I run my thumb over the wheel of the lighter, catching the nearly unnoticeable notches of my fingerprint in the silver ridges. The cigarette dangles from between my dry lips. Unlit menthol toxins flirt with my olfactory bulb, flipping the switch like a light. I can feel the tip of the cigarette becoming soggy. Light me, it dares. So I do. Cliâ€” click, whoosh. The orange cherry bursts to life. I inhale deeply, letting the familiar chemicals fill the empty spaces inside of me. A gentle burn trails down my throat. I imagine the smoke swirling within my corrupted lungs, adding to the thick charcoal wall that cases them. I lean my head back, shut my eyes to the sky that I envision above me. Darkness. Soft glow of the city not so far away. Sirens. Car horns. Voices. A group of girls drunkenly giggle. The sound resonates from the streets. Three out of
the five of them let their bare feet slap the cement, high heels clutched in their hands. They walk with their arms linked like the monkeys in a barrel that I used to play with as a child. Exhale. I remember my days as a young girl in the outskirts of my small Iowa town. A night like this would be captured in a different light. No light. Just the stars that shine from a million miles away and a single street lamp. The rattle of unknown creatures scampering in the brush. Cicadas humming a tune to the heavy summer air. Crickets and frogs chirping back and forth, communicating in a language that humans have assumed onto them. Fireflies dancing in the distance. Dew accumulating in the soft, lush grass. A light breeze awakening a tired soul. I lift the cigarette to my cracked lips. Inhale. Something brushes up against me. I snap my head to the left in a panic. The gasp that comes out of my mouth is unworldly; the smoke I had been holding in disperses in a fit. Itâ€™s a young man hurrying down the fire escape. Relief floods over me like the breaking of a fever. I nervously look around, slowing my breath. The metal of the stairs digs into my thin, tender skin. I quickly wonder why a cigarette is worth crawling out of my window into five minutes of vulnerability. Flick. The ash tumbles down half of a flight, falling through the holes in the stairs, barely catching the stranger I just encountered. My body shudders at the thought of him. Silent, fleeting. A tear stripes my cheek with wetness. I wipe it away with my tattered sleeve. Inhale. The almighty nicotine buzz creeps to my head now, numbing my brain. Donâ€™t think so hard, the smoke echoes in my mind. The tears continue. I glance downward and see the man from the stairs reach the pavement. A girl runs up to his side, a graceful collision, and he holds her almost as if he thought that he might never get to do so again. It must be nice to live in a relationship without fear. To not have a constant shadow of
the past lurking around every corner, waiting to jump out at you with teeth bared, snarling. Look at me, it demands. Missed Connection: Redheaded goddess
I saw you last week at the UI hospital ER. I thought you were the most beautiful creature to ever grace a neck brace. I wondered what brought you there. I must’ve stared, but I could never seem to catch your eye. You were by yourself and seemed sad. But you may have just been in pain. If you were in pain you took it like a champ. You have wavy red hair and were all in black with a ring that did not look like a wedding ring. My situation is complicated. I can’t get you out of my head. Take a chance? I was wearing a bright color in the ER. I was driving the same color car. If you noticed either of them put it in the subject line. Or if you are just her and remember nothing, I don’t care.
Exhale. I watch the smoke roll over itself in the glow of the street lamps until it is just another piece of the negative space. I notice that I’m shaking. I slam my sweaty palm to my forehead. I have always hated the term “fucking.” It sounds dirty, emotionless. Even when there is no love present there are still feelings—although I’ve only ever experienced displeasure— fumbling around, disconnected. It seems like a good idea at the time, then I’m begging for it to be over as quickly as it began. Even through the hatred and animosity I have towards the men that use me, I continue to make broken love to them. I feel like a blow-up doll, constantly deflating, day after day trying to make myself whole again. I see strangers on my way to the train and I wonder if they see me the same way. Knowing that I once was shiny plastic—glimmering, beautiful. That is how I was once. Inhale. Short exhale. Inhale. My first love was beautiful—and strange, very strange. I will admit now that I was the only one who was in love between the two of us. I was so fascinated by the idea of someone being infatuated with me that it scared me to think about it. Maybe that should have been
my sign, the universe telling me that the darkness he emanated wasn’t to be romanticized, but I let him inside of me anyway, swallowing me piece by piece with every kiss. Goosebumps became bruises, and kisses became curses, and I fell from the grace that I imagined us possessing together. Exhale. Flick. Inhale. Any shrink would categorize me within the first sentence. They would open to the “Managing Sexually Abused Patients” chapter of the diagnosis manual and spit out textbook explanations as to why I have these symptoms: feelings of self-loathing, intercourse with any man that shows interest, an inability to find security within myself. Then they would use their ballpoint pen to write me off a prescription just as slimy as their morals. Pills. Pills are the answer. Create the disease and sell the cure. Exhale. Inhale. I bounce my legs fast. I look down at my stained high top sneakers. A little piece of ash sits upon the rubber toe. I smash the fragile cigarette to the dull brick wall, kick the ash from my shoe, and clutch my sweater a little tighter. It’s getting cold. I hear a knock at the door through my open bedroom window. My skin suddenly feels like worn, plastic rubber, and despite all of my notions to not answer the door. I stand up to do just that. Exhale. Missed Connection:
Salesman, Pet Supply Store You sold my grandfather ten pounds of birdseed. Two things make my grandmother smile these days: Ray Charles and watching purple martins at the feeder in her backyard. Teach me how to bring the flown back to earth—I am standing outside, waiting. My hands overflow with seeds.
tweets from the iowa city police log Caitlin Plathe
male with dead bird in hand asking to call 911 because his bird is dying
5 intox males outside the airliner bar urinating everywhere
passed out fella
a thousand people in the roadway, jumping on cars -making it impassible
drunk people falling down the hill
approx 5-6 people launching beer bottles with some sort of contraption
large party people look to be wanting to fight no one is fighting
caught a raccon itâ€™s very angry sick raccon, in front of yard, stumbling dead raccoon, in street baby raccoon stuck in dumpster dead raccoon in roadway
son walked home from school without permission is trying to eat raw meat (acting crazy)
female yelling sexual things
smell of marijuana/ comin from 3rd floor somewhere
one male sitting on the bench nothing unusual
Midnight Snacking Dorothy Mikos
Feed me, I say more out of habit now than hunger, and he has to explain to me that Za’atar is like oregano and other herbs that brown people eat.
I should know these things, I think but in five years we’ve consumed everything except our mothers’ cooking. You don’t eat lamb, he says and swine is “the other white devil.”
Still, the Midwestern sun smacks of honey as I dream of Basbousa again, and I wonder if his mother’s dissolves like childhood on eager tongues like the lines of my neck on his until the faded face of my own mother appears, beating the wooden spoon in disapproval. Cilantro pungently blankets the room in citrusy comfort, little deaths consuming us in shallow breaths. You like Zupa Koperkowa, I end, And I love your hummus.
Untitled Emmalyn Brown
I. They offered to coat my lips with sugar but I said no I’ll stay better bittersweet and out of earshot where the words ring as loud as a story being told from a third mouth where blurry is blurriness and shapes are finite I can understand the shape of anger from 3 miles away. II. I think back to the time my stomach was rumbling on half baked compliments. He said I haven’t had meat in two days. His fingers were straining out words. Let nothing with as much substance pass as the hot dogs you can buy at the gas station mini mart for $2. I had said nothing. Inwardly was raging. Eyes had not swiveled from their place and stood watching the broken plate on the floor. The orange china was protesting in chips all over the laminate. It was then that I learned orange is the color of anger. He trotted over the rage with his hand on her chin and her eyes on that plate. I let it speak for me. I said nothing except for I wonder what they put in mystery meat anyways. The next time I cooked steak, I let it burn.
Missed Connection: You’re a Prof
Did you feel it too? I always sat in the front to your left so I could see the dimple on your cheek. You always seemed to notice me. Get in contact with me & tell me what class it was.
From This Day Forward Jessie Bowman
If I am careful, if I push down the ivory keys slowly—slowly—if I press my left ear against the music stand, I can hear the strings tensing in the bed. Straight, even rows of tightly coiled steel piano wire, whispering. I listen. For the quiet of the mutterings under the breath, the pointed exhale beneath rolling eyes, the almost-silence of the paper plate spinning through the air. For the loudness of slamming doors that knock pictures from walls, the fists thumped on tabletops, the throats so raw they shriek like senseless babies bawling for things they cannot articulate. For the twang when the keys, suffocating in their wood coffin, are released and the taut strings relax, settling like muscles beneath skin.
Our piano is an upright grand. It fits perfectly the indent carved out for it in the living room wall when my parents designed our new home. A family relic on my mother’s side,
yellow, too-loose keys in a wood rectangle of lacquer-peeling brown. On its top: various family photographs. A black and white three-by-three of my father as a baby, resting in the arms of his sleeping father; a cousin I’ve never met; so many pictures of me and my siblings, faces aglow in saturated daylight. Snaps of us in our matching Easter Church outfits, us raking crisp fallen leaves, Christmas photos of us before the lit-up tree, or outside in a snowstorm Mom declared ‘picturesque.’ My parents are in few of them, and never together. We haven’t taken a family photo since my two front teeth began patching the holes in my smile. In his early twenties, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed his Twelve Variations on “Ah, Vous Dirai-Je Maman,” or, as most have come to know it, the buoyant theme for “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” His Variations are a masterpiece of rhythmic variety, of playing a core melody again and again and again in variations so unique no two sound the same. Tempo and dynamics and note variety and repeat after repeat, so many of those vertical lines and parallel dots like disinterested eyes, staring. “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” was the first song I learned at the age of three. Nine years later, I am assigned the Twelve Variations as a challenge piece. My piano teacher hands it to me with a smile. I think you’ll really like this, she says. At the time, I think so too.
I hear it in my sleep, hum it as I read, tap it out on my thighs as I wait for the x-ray. Puberty had punched a backwards bass clef into my spine. I had felt it as I rubbed my hands over and over and over my hips, up and down and up my spine, wanting the straightness of a staff, feeling the strangeness of the bend. My fingers had run across my uneven collarbone and I had run from the mirror to crouch in my closet, arms wrapped tightly around my ribcage. Squeezing. Tensing. I had trembled beneath my father’s calloused hand when he touched the curve for the first time, laughing: You’re right! You’ve got scoliosis. My little Quasi. My mother waits for me down a hallway in the room where I had pulled the pair of toobig purple shorts from the nurse up to the small buds of my breasts and danced around to make my mother laugh. She had, the wrinkles cinching at the corners of her blue-yellow eyes. Her hair grew gray before Dad’s, so she colors it a bronzy gold like a tarnished brass doorknob. It makes her hair thicker, more brittle above her high cheekbones and thin straight regal nose. The nose my sister and I wish we’d inherited. Instead, I inherited her twisted spine.
I knew a girl with scoliosis. They cut open her back and inserted two very straight very firm metal poles to keep her body from collapsing on itself. Then they sent her home with a brace to confine her new lines. She had smiled after the surgery, rounded rows of ivory, but I cannot as I wait. Tapping, tapping, tapping on my thighs.
Dad moves into the guest bedroom directly below mine. He tells little sister and me it’s so he doesn’t wake Mom up in the morning when he goes to work. Sister’s pink lips purse and she shakes her long blonde hair; I know she doesn’t believe him either. He buys memory foam to make the old mattress more comfortable. I want it to fix his sleep apnea. Mom chalks it up as a pity plea, but when I lie awake at night I hear it. The roaring snore cut short with a grinding sound, a non-breath of silence, and I listen as I hold my breath, too, and gasp. The air is swallowed and pushed out and he’s shifting on the squealing bedsprings. Above, I am counting sheep. Sleep. Sleep. Twinkle, twinkle, little star. Little sister wants to climb in bed with me but I send her down to Mom’s; there’s plenty of room there. How I wonder what you are. In the dark blue summer evenings at our old childhood home little sister, Mom, and I would curl in the brown hammock on the back porch like pupae content in their cocoon. Sister and I would lie facing each other, each with a peach-fuzz cheek against Mom’s chest. She would sing “Here Comes the Sun” as Dad strummed it out on his brown guitar. He would grin down at us, and little sister would stretch her arm, a slender, freckled wing breaking free, up toward him.
It is magnificent in its luxuriousness. A gift from Dad. Smooth wood painted black. Pedals yet untarnished by the soles of my feet. A lid that can be propped open by a thin stick. A Pearl River, five-foot grand. When I practice the Twelve Variations on it I forget I am a fixed person in a fixed space. I am a pianist. I rub my fingers up down up the keys because they are smooth, they are glossy, they are white—white as the walls of the now-empty recess. Mom’s piano is gone.
It was an evening in Tennessee; I was introducing her to my grandparents. Your mother and my grandmother were in the kitchen, pounding dough and sharing jokes and laughing. There was flour in the air and I thought, here were the two women in the world I cared most for.
The paper plate is a spinning, rotating blur, spitting its contents into the air, colliding with the wall, and sliding down. Dad is standing, fury in his red face, force in the words crashing from his mouth. Mom, still sitting, yells back, and their words rise above me and tangle in the air. I will try but never remember what they were. Dad opens the garage door, bangs it shut; framed postcards from family vacations clatter to the stone floor. He is gone into the night. I fold the paper plate in half, and in half again, and I crunch it within my fists as little sister runs upstairs to cry. Mom hasn’t left her chair. Her hands with their on-and-off tremor are shaking and I wonder from what. Dad never answers his phone and the next morning at school I excuse myself from German to cry in the same white bathroom stall I once ate lunch in and threw up in and the tears are in my head when I return home to find he has been back—showered, left for work—and they stay in my head, pushing against my eyes, when no one, not my sister not my mother not my father, will ever talk about it. Nights later they are yelling again, about shoes, about closets, about money, and I fold myself in the space between my bed and the wall, limbs pulled in like a spider’s. The image of the paper plate is spinning, spinning, spinning in my head with that hushed, whispering sound it made, that sound like fabric against skin when I pull my pants too high, or like a single piano string tensing when I push its key down, slowly—slowly—
I practice and practice and practice practice practice until the Twelve Variations begin to
blend. It is difficult to make each variation sound as distinct as they were written. With a green crayon my piano teacher circles notations I’ve missed or disregarded. The staccatos feel heavy and I’ve choked the chipper trills and the rests extend far too long. I either play them all too quickly or too slowly. I play everything too loudly. Mother, sister, and I go to see the pianist who was once our neighbor. Her hands dance along the keyboard, fingers bandaged, little roses of blood blooming at their tips. Mother nods at me and says: This is the mark of a real pianist. Whenever I am home alone I lift the lid of our piano and prop it open with its thin, straight stick, and I strike my fingers against the keys so hard the glass patio door shakes in its frame and the leaves of Mother’s Christmas cactus bob. I strike and strike out the melodies till my fingers are pink and sore but the skin won’t break. It never will.
Late on weekday nights I stuff my earbuds in and listen to the Twelve Variations as I run the iron over my father’s clothes. I don’t know when my mother stopped helping him, but I began after my father broke his right leg skiing and then his other foot on his guitar case left outside his door, a hate-crime he blames on my mother. After, his usual confident steps in his prescription sandals became limping shuffles and each of his inhales started sounding like someone had their hands wrapped tightly around his larynx. He thanks me as he hands me his clothes and I stare at the swollen pouches beneath his eyes. Years from now, my dad with his short bouncy black hair, his tri-focal glasses on his round nose, and the graying teeth he refuses to reveal in a smile, will tell me, in separate moments of weakness, that he is glad I am nothing like my mother. That it is hard loving someone who loves someone else, and that I never really knew my mother, that my mother today is not the woman he married, and I will not know what all of this means—what does this mean?
The arch in my spine is like a drawstring for the muscles in my back and neck. It tugs at them until they crisscross over each other, pulling at one leg until it’s shorter. My shoulders are as off-kilter as the scales of Lady Justice. I learn to sit differently at the piano to minimize how much it shows. I wear shirts that hang loosely from my shoulders, an exo-
skeleton that makes me forget that when I take it off, when it is just me in my taut, pale skin, I can’t hide the malformed curves and turns that are my body. I have escaped the metal bars and the brace but I keep my arms tightly to my sides whenever possible. My parents are always grabbing at my shoulders, trying to knead the distortion out with their hands, fingers pinching the muscles at the base of my skull like a cat with the scruff of its kitten. They each know how to fix me. They each know what’s best for me. They are hollering and I slip out into the night of no sound except my fists thudding against the stucco. My knuckles are purple swollen knobs. I punch it with the other hand. Then the other. Staccato beats of a strange pain. Until I am no longer punching, just tapping it with my sore knuckles, and my hands are stiff and inflamed with tiny scratches that barely bleed.
Little sister, Dad, and I leave for school and work one day and come home to our couch re-upholstered. How much did it cost? Dad yells. It needed to be done, Mother shouts. She sits defensively, shoulders slumped into the couch’s new muddy brown-ness. When I call the guest bedroom ‘Dad’s room,’ Mother huffs. She curls her upper lip and snarls: It’s not ‘Dad’s room.’ Don’t call it that. Her eyes roll, left eye cloudy from the overly thick contact she must wear ever since her Lasik surgeon slipped and sliced a trench into her cornea. Whenever she’s agitated or upset, the contact pops out. And she, bending forward, catches that small, clear convex lens in the wrinkled palm of her right hand. Late on a spring evening, one of her random fits of confusing anger sparks to life, and her yells echo around us in the darkness of our backyard, and she sheds her contact with her tears onto the pavement below us. I find it and hover my toes over that clear, convex lens, watching as she cries into her palms, eye vulnerable, exposed, till my face burns and my hands shake from the shame. With my forefinger and thumb I will pluck up the lens and drop it into her waiting, outstretched hands, and as I run away I ask her where Dad is. She chokes, In his room.
I perform Mozart’s “Ah, Vous Dirai-Je Maman” at a local nursing home because I don’t want to host a recital. I don’t want to play it at all. My piano teacher is disappointed, but
after beseeching Mom, they compromise. Before performing Mom reminds me to sit straight. As straight as she can, Dad jokes. As I play, a young boy fidgets at the edge of my sight, a fellow pianist, sighing and shaking his head incredulously at his father each time a variation repeats, only to be replaced by another. My fingers tremble and hit the first of many wrong keys.
Before we leave I sit at the piano and look outside at the trees and the pond and the big bushes topped with pale yellow flowers like yarrow. Like the yarrow little sister and I had ripped from the wet dirt of our childhood home to stuff into a glass vase. Beady ochre flowers clustered at the ends of tall green stems. Bitter smell, but beautiful. We set them on the upright grand, a gift for our mother. We watched the petals and fraying leaves bob as we hit the yellowing keys and we watched, in a silent horror, when earwigs, black as licorice, began dripping from the underside of the yarrow and onto the brown wood. In the car with Dad I ask him when he and Mom will separate. He looks at me like he doesnâ€™t understand. What do you mean, he says. Minutes pass, slowlyâ€”slowly. He asks, Do you want a keyboard for your dorm? Your piano skills are something you should never lose. I dig my heel into the three-centimeter wedge in my left shoe, meant to even me out: No.
Long blonde hair on Clinton I saw you walking your dog last week at midnight, the faint sparkle of your eyes caught my attention. I was hiding in the bushes and seemed to have startled you. I hope you see this.