Stuck in the Middle December 2020 || Vol 1, Issue 3 || The Unexpected ÂŠ2020 Jennifer Walter and Ryan Gonzalez Font: Old Standard TT by Alexey Kryukov. Recycling icon on back cover by Oliver Kittler from the Noun Project. All used under Creative Commons. Cover art & doodles throughout this issue by JW unless otherwise noted.
As the saying goes, sometimes life throws you curveballs. The COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly one of the biggest curveballs we’ve gotten this year, likely this decade, and maybe even this century (though the jury will be out on that for a while). But we want to hear about those other times in your life when things went off-script, too. New jobs, surprise visitors, finding an extra $20 in your pocket; unexpected changes, both big and small. What surprises have landed on your doorstep that stand out vividly, even years later? What twists and turns has life taken you on that altered the way you think, act and perceive the world? They can be positive and negative, long-lasting or short-lived — but the stranger, the better. Tell us, or show us, through writing and art, the spontaneous changes that have left a lasting impression.
Letters from the editors
J.W. & R.G.
Just My Luck
My Name was Called
A Gun Took My Wallet
15 Bad Thoughts
17 Breaking up in a Pandemic
Hailey Rose McLaughlin
20 Beneath the Sidewalk
21 Breaking Point
24 Beyond the Curtains
29 Small Hero
SITM Vol. 1, issue 3
The Unexpected in 10 songs 1. We're All Gonna Die!!! - Baby FuzZ 2. Fantasy Baseball at the End of the World John K. Samson 3. El Corrido de David y Goliat - Flor de Toloache 4. We Found Each Other in the Dark - City and Colour 5. Manuel's Story - Chicano Batman 6. Lockdown - Anderson .Paak 7. Back 2 Basics - SLik d 8. Quarantine and Chill - Netherfriends 9. Walking The Cow - Daniel Johnston 10. Inoportuna - Jorge Drexler
At the risk of sounding like a piece of tacky wall art: life is full of surprises! And 2020 was far from an exception. This year dumped layer after layer of hot garbage fires on the world, doubling down in the past few months (at least in the U.S.), with seemingly no end in sight. So, why pay homage to the worst part of it all, that element of surprise? It seemed so omnipresent that we had a hard time thinking up a theme that didn’t have something to do with 2020’s unique unpredictability. The unexpected was something we naturally found ourselves reflecting on and talking about, even if not everything in this issue explicitly ties into something that happened this year. I hope this zine gives you a chance to reflect on the big and small unexpected events in your own life. I also hope this collection serves as a tribute to one of the wackiest years in our lifetimes. Maybe even in a few decades, you’ll stumble across this issue again and see it as a sort of time capsule. Though reaching the end of 2020 was a milestone in itself, we have another to share: we’ve officially been doing SITM for a year now! What a year it was to start. And what a strange opportunity it is to be able to document some of our thoughts and feelings as the world keeps spinning into 2021. Keep your heads on your shoulders friends, we survived. Thank you for doing everything you could to support us and in 2020. We appreciate your writing, drawing, photos, enthusiasm, donations and overall hype. You keep our lives bright, despite the chaos around us. I hope 2021 is a better year for us all.
-Jennifer Walter 1
So, here we are â€” the end of 2020. From learning to work safely at home or in person to remembering to take a mask with us every day, it's been a year full of all sorts of unexpected challenges. It's also been a year full of unexpected tragedies. Small mom and pop shops built up over decades have been decimated in a matter of days or months while big corporations only get bigger. Hundreds of thousands of people have been left to isolate in their homes, unable to keep up with rent, failed by a government that's spent the end of this year arguing over whether we deserve $600. And, worst of all, well over a million lives have been lost to COVID-19. To sum it up, 2020 has not held any punches. But, somehow, amidst all of this, we've had some blips of hope along the way. To me, the best news of this year was the announcement of not one, but two vaccines, one of the last things we expected. While none of these things will bring back the many loved ones lost, it does give many of us hope. Hope that we can stop all the deaths from a virus that doesn't care whether or not you believe in it. Hope that we can hug the loved ones still here once again. Hope that we can try to begin to rebuild from all this heartache. Like this past year, this issue of our zine is filled with tales of unexpected hardships of all sorts. But, sprinkled in there, if you look just hard enough, you'll also find those same glimmers of hope that 2020 has given us here and there. I know reading this zine won't make all your problems go away, but I do hope that it will give you at least a good distraction to take your mind off of it all for a little bit. Maybe it will even give you hope that 2021 will be better for us all. Either way, we'll see you on the other side of what has been an overly crappy year.
-Ryan Gonzalez 2
Just My Luck Audrianna Wichman
I should have listened to the snake stretched flat across the train tracks that snow was coming early this year the ironic Great Midwestern Surprise I thought I had a few more days to pluck mullein leaves and kick pinecones across the trails but as always, that was just another thing I procrastinated My mother hates spiders but she unflinchingly kills them I thought I would die if I was in her shoesÂ when the quarter-sized brown spider scurried across her bathroom sink and she swatted it before it could get away I am not like her in the ways I want to be and Iâ€™ve already practiced apologies to my future children A few days ago the little voice in my head told me to look down and I saw a monstrous spider dashing across my chest I crushed it and flicked the body off of me I thought I would feel proud of myself but each time I drifted to sleep nightmares woke me up to check my bed for bugs I usually save these lonely thoughts to share with the birds and the occasional striped gopher along the trails but now nothing rustles in the snow-packed thickets and the mullein is wilted with ice 3
The Housefire Clare McCullough
My Name was Called James Lieven
My alarm went off. I woke up. Checked my phone. Meandered to the bathroom. Showered. Brushed my teeth. Quickly threw on some clothes. Walked downstairs. Made a pot of coffee. Poured some cereal. Chatted with Mom. Exited through the front door. Climbed in my car. Drove. Arrived at the clinic. Parked my car. Strode inside the building. Took the elevator to the second floor. Approached the receptionist. Checked in. Took a seat. Waited. Waited. My name was called. Followed the nurse. Answered her questions. Waited. 5
The doctor walked in. We talked. No need for concern. Just some tests. Took the tests. Waited. Waited. Waited. Reproachful nurse appears. My name was called. Doctor was waiting. Waiting. Cancer. Scan. Scan. Blood test. Ultrasound. Oncologist. Urologist. Cardiologist. Dermatologist. Called my Dad. Parents arrived. Talked with physician. Mom cried. Dad brooded. I watched. Talked with Urologist. Set appointment. Pulmonary functions test. Wait. Wait. Why me? Blood test. Fasted. Surgery. Orchiectomy. Bandaged. Sleep. Pain. Waiting. Waiting. Decisions. Test Results. Stage IV. Spread to lungs. Chemotherapy. Back to school. New doctor. New Oncologist. More blood tests. More scans. Chemo. Chemo. Chemo. Shaved head. Chemo. Chemo. Chemo. Class. Chemo. Chemo. Chemo. No food. Canâ€™t sleep. Felt itchy. Felt sick. Felt tired. Couldnâ€™t escape. Tired. Trapped. Done. 6
A Gun Took My Wallet Ryan Gonzalez
A gun took my wallet but that was only the beginning A gun took my money spent now on health care and therapist bills to fix the things that became broken inside and out A gun took my dignity the loss of it heard in the people who’d say they’d have done something different if they were me A gun took my peaceful meals plaguing them with shakes and tremors as I tried to feed myself A gun took my nights of restful sleep replaced by nights of sleeping in fits and starts ultimately waking up screaming A gun took my trust in human compassion every time I had to pay to replace the things that were taken — the driver’s license, the student ID, even though it wasn't my fault
A gun took my sense of security a jogger running behind or even a skittering leaf making me jump with fear A gun took my sense of invincibility making me realize Iâ€™d die one day, maybe even sooner than Iâ€™d expected A gun took my best friend leaving an injured body with a broken mindÍž a home where the lights just won't turn on A gun took my wallet, but that was only the beginning
During quarantine, I rekindled my online shopping habit.
imal Crossing for I started by buying An new Nintendo Switch.
before. I mainly I had never played Animal Crossing you could breed wanted to try it out because I heard flowers based on Mendelian genetics.
I know, I know. It's a nerdy excuse to drop $60.
Comic by Jennifer Walter
After I made my purchase, I tracked my order excessively.
Then, one day...
... I got a notification that my package arrived.
...And there was the box!
I opened the door...
"Hmmmm," I thought.
I knew Switch games we re pretty light, but this bo x weighed nothing.
So I opened it...
There was no way they could've messed this up, I thought.
But then again, maybe it wasn't so odd. There was probably an influx of people, like me, turning to online shopping thanks to the pandemic.
More orders likely meant more room for honest mistakes. So I went online to report it...
...and hopefully have a replacement shipped.
Well... there was literally nothing in the box... sooooooo....
But sure enough, a few weeks later...
...I finally got my game.
Bad Thoughts Audrianna Wichman
When I was seven years old a spiny hand knocked on my brain and entered, crawling like a spider and suddenly I was not the Nicest Little Girl In Class anymore, but the Girl Who Thought Bad Thoughts. A mean observation about a dear friend or a harsh and unasked for opinion always kept to myself but repeated over and over and over. Not easily warded off by mantras, whether it was the series of made up words I whispered that contained a checklist of acceptable syllables or the comfort-phrase the elementary school counselor taught me to chant. Bad thoughts turned to paranoia after my fatherâ€™s final cocktail of alcohol and pills, a plot twist finale in a saga with methamphetamines. The hand would unfold, each finger like a needle plunging into my brain, petrifying me with the thought that everyone I know will die in front of my eyes. I used to crawl from my lofted college bed in the middle of the night and check to make sure my roommate was still breathing, praying she wouldnâ€™t wake up to see me standing beside her in the glow of our night light, desperately searching for the rise and fall of the comforter wrapped around her. 15
Paranoia turned to twitches as I learned to write stories and explore the vividness of my imagination. The barbed hand cupped around my ear and whispered Empathize with this. My eyes would clench hard enough to smear my mascara at the thought of a papercut across one of them or my tongue would press hard against my teeth as I attempted to alleviate the imagined pain of knives wedged between each one, interrupting my train of thought like static cutting through the radio for a split second before resuming the song. I exist in a constant state of waiting wondering what the next caress of the hand will be until I feel it glow in my gut and crawl its spindly fingers up my throat and pry my jaw apart and slide through my teeth. The fingers will gouge through my eyes and crack my skull and wrap around my brain precious meat and grip and pulse with the beat of my heart.
Breaking Up in a Pandemic Hailey Rose McLaughlin
We talked in the front seat of your car. Your roommate was worried about having people over, and you just didn’t want to come into my apartment to talk about your feelings with my roommate there. So, we talked in the front seat of your car about the first big fight we’ve ever had. The one that started that morning and had resulted in me driving two hours in the middle of a global pandemic, tears pooling in my eyes the entire ride because I could only think of the worst-case scenario. When I woke up that day, I was excited to venture those two hours to see you. We had it planned for weeks - I would come down and we’d take your dog for a nice long walk and talk about all the things that had fallen through the cracks since we last saw each other a month ago. But out of nowhere, you told me not to come. My mom found me crying in my room. Later that night, I was crying in your front seat. In five months of dating, this was our first real fight. I was genuinely mad at you. I could tell you didn’t really care. The small fights we’d been having were piling up. There was the time you bailed on me to go skate with your friends and the time when you ignored me the entire night, dedicating all of your focus on your camera. Nothing major, but small moments that stung, eventually fading. For me, this was just a blip in what was 17
a happy relationship going through a strain. For you, this was the final straw. I said, “I love you. Do you love me?” You said something like, “Yes. I love you, but I’m tired of always feeling like such an asshole.” And I said something like, “I don’t want to lose you.” And then you said something like, “I just really don’t think I’m cut out to be in a relationship.” The sentiment stung on its own, but I remember you said it with a smile, like it was a key to your freedom. If you muttered that magic line, I would send you on your way. You’d be done with having to hang out with my family and my friends. You wouldn’t have to sacrifice skateboarding when I asked to spend time with you. You could set your own agenda as long as you said the words. “I just really don’t think I’m cut out to be in a relationship.” I thought I could get you to stay by whispering, “But we love each other, we love each other, we love each other,” over and over. I think about this night a lot now. Did you go home to your dog, the one I never got to say goodbye to, and tell him what happened? Did you cry when you were finally alone, or did you keep the smile on your face? What about the months that followed — did it still feel like freedom? Did you ever regret it? How often was I on your mind? 18
You begged for your liberation. But looking back, I think I was hoping for it too. With you, I was okay with what our future was going to be. With you, it was a lifetime in Wisconsin, with our dogs and our eventual blonde-haired children. It would have been comfortable. But if you didn’t break my heart as we sat in the front seat of your car, I wouldn’t have made plans to move to Europe. I wouldn’t have started skateboarding. I wouldn’t be confident in being alone. You would have given me a life I didn’t want. So, thank you for giving me a future I want. Thank you for giving me happy moments I can look back on. Thank you for breaking up with me in a pandemic.
Beneath the Sidewalk James Lieven
Breaking Point Ryan Gonzalez
Up in the attic of your room that night, you were carving an elephant out of wood while a Keaton Henson song played on your phone. Laying there, I was falling in love with you, ignorant of how you were cutting away at me, much like that wood elephant. It was the small things that added up. You’d say I should watch my waist when I ate sweets. You’d pick out my outfits. You’d slowly sow doubt between me and my family. But the one thing you’d never do is sincerely apologize, saying things like: “Sorry I’m always late, but that’s just me.” “Sorry I yelled at you, but it’s your fault you made me mad.” “Sorry I cheated on you, but it’s because you didn’t love me enough.” *
Months passed and I lost 30 pounds, my wardrobe changed, and I didn’t talk to my family much anymore. It was a Friday night in the midst of our on-again-off-again relationship when I found myself on the bathroom floor of your college dorm after falling, drunk and unable to get up. My first-semester freshman year grades were falling even faster than my weight. I laid on that cold tile, staring at all its little squares of different shades of beige as tears streamed through my eyes. When you found me like this, you told me before we returned to the party to wipe my eyes off and be a good little trophy. And I 21
tried, but here I was, a whole five minutes later in your room, my head on your lap crying in front of a small dorm room of other college kids. You pretended like you didn’t see, choosing to keep playing that one Vampire Weekend song on your ukulele. I could disregard all the other times you had ignored me like this, you blaming my sadness for something I did and never apologizing like always, but this time I finally saw how little you cared about me. And when I could see that, something snapped in me, breaking loudly like a femur. I screamed, pounding the walls before wailing in a fetal position. All that I’d held back came forth that night. All the times you said you knew better than me. All the times you said I wasn’t going to amount to anything. All the times you hurt me and all the everything you had done to break me. Everyone trickled out after that as they collectively remembered that one homework assignment they had to do on a Friday night. And then it was just the two of us. You saw how broken I was, so you kicked me out, realizing you got everything out of me. And that was the beginning of the end. *
More time passed and I was sitting in my second-semester math class, struggling to find myself on an attendance sheet. Not because I wasn’t on it, but because I didn’t recognize who Ryan Gonzalez 22
was anymore. I couldn’t believe I was the same Ryan who had been through months of abuse. The same who started skipping more and more of his classes. Who had been living in a dorm room littered with crumpled papers and other shit on the ground. Who had once considered driving himself into a brick wall or jumping out of the window of his dorm but didn’t only because he knew all that would do was break his legs. I had found a new Ryan Gonzalez and, as each semester passed, came to learn more about him. He was scared at first, flinching whenever people moved too quickly and guilty of taking things too personally, but we got along better with time, especially once we started seeing a therapist. I learned the new Ryan liked playing guitar just for the hell of it, especially when no one was listening. The new Ryan liked photography and seeing the world from a different perspective. That new me is a way better listener and person than you ever said I was. You may have broken me back then when we were only teenagers, but I know if I saw you again I could confidently say this: I’m not broken anymore, and you’ll never break me again.
Beyond the Curtains Ryan Gonzalez
Jennifer Walter The woods grow edible things. I didn’t know that until Nora showed me the day we snuck off the playground during recess. If you look closely, there are crisp, green shoots that pop out from the dirt. They’re called chives. You can eat them. They taste like onions and will spike the back of your throat with an unmistakable earthiness – one that makes me wince. But there’s some thrill in being able to pick a plant from the ground and eat it. Who cares if it doesn’t taste pleasant. Nora always had a handful of shoots in her pocket and her breath always smelled like onions. Even when the other kids looked at her funny on the playground, she kept snacking. I don’t know how much she even liked the taste of chives — I certainly could only take a bit. It was just her thing. I followed her into the woods that day because it was the first time I felt daring enough to go back there. The patrol ladies who bumbled around the playground with whistles slung around their necks would have yelled if they saw us leave. But we ran quickly when their backs were turned, hidden now behind the thick trees and overgrown weeds. Fall was settling in as young, yellowing leaves beginning to fall from the trees. But the chives still popped proudly from the ground. “Here, pick these!” Nora said, her long, dark hair nearly brushing the ground as she squatted. My heart was pounding. It felt like anything could happen here, in the woods. Alone. But I trusted Nora; she was at home. We would be back on the playground in no time. And the taste of the chives wouldn’t last forever. *
The fall festival happened every September in the school parking lot. They set up bouncy castles and carnival games and even the raffles to win huge baskets of prizes, like movie night sets or half a dozen stuffed animals. I always lost the raffles, but I loved the festival. My parents came with me every year, and so did my sisters. Nora was coming, too, with her parents and sisters. Most of the girls I hung out with in my class were there as well. So were the boys. Spencer and Cameron were in the same class as Nora and I. We saw them at the festival, and when we said we were going to the back of the playground to swing on the swings, they came with us. Nora talked about maybe sneaking off to the woods again. There was never a time she didn’t want to go. But Spencer looked at us with a mixture of horror and humor. “There’s a naked man chasing kids in the woods,” he proclaimed. We all giggled. “Well, then let’s go find him,” Nora retorted. I felt a knot in my stomach. Spencer might have been joking, but Cameron nodded along, too. There was no way this guy was real, right? No one at school had mentioned it before. And since Nora had gone in the woods so many times, surely she would have bumped into him, no? The boys had to be joking. I assumed Nora would go into the woods alone, confidently, like she always did, and prove them wrong. And if they were honest, she’d catch a quick glance of this gross old man and rush back to tell us all the nasty details. In the meantime, I’d stay back and wait. But Cameron insisted on going with Nora, just in case something happened and one of them needed to rush back for help. 26
“You never know what that guy might try to do!” Cameron argued. *
Ten minutes passed. Then twenty. My heart pounded in my ears. Thirty minutes went by. “Should we go get her parents?” I asked Spencer, who seemed antsy and ready to leave. The sun was starting to set; families were shuffling back to their cars. But we stayed — me pacing nervously and Spencer kicking rocks with the toe of his dirty tennis shoe. No one was supposed to know about this. If the naked man had gotten both of them, it was all our fault. It had to be a joke. Right? Nora and Cameron would be back any minute. They had to be. “I think I hear my mom calling,” Spencer announced suddenly. “I gotta go.” He pushed his hands into the pockets of his beige, grass-stained cargo shorts, and ran with his head down back toward the festival grounds. Now, it was just me, alone as the sky darkened, trying to breathe and frantically scanning the trees for my classmates. I’ll count to sixty, then I’ll go get help, I thought. One, two, three… But before I even made it to ten, a rustling noise crackled through the underbrush, several feet away from the entrance to the woods. Nora burst through a patch of trees, running full speed across the field. Her gaze looked blank as she was panting and her pace kept momentum until she was well into the clearing. It was as if she didn’t recognize she’d made it back to the playground, that she was near other people, out of the woods. I called out her name, but she kept looking off into the distance. Behind her, Cameron sauntered into the clearing, looking 27
relaxed and unbothered by the fact that he’d been missing for over half an hour. I jogged over to Nora. As I got closer, I saw my friend’s face; her eyes big, cheeks flushed. “Are you okay?” I asked. “What happened back there?” “Nothing,” she said. “I want to go home now.” *
The next day at recess, Nora was back to her vibrant self. We swung on the swings, made pictures in the dirt with sticks and our shoes. We pretended we were on an expedition, searching for hidden treasure near the edge of the woods. I didn’t ask about the incident, or the fearful look she had in her eyes. Whatever happened that night seemed to dissolve as quickly as the festival itself. But we stopped talking to the boys, and they faded into the background with all the other faces of our classmates. Weeks went by, and one day at recess we were scanning an area near the trees when we found ourselves at the mouth of the path that led into the woods. “Let’s go pick chives,” I suggested. Nora nodded silently and stepped ahead into the opening. She paused, looked around, and kept going. It was only a few seconds before we were back at our old spot, pulling fresh greens from the ground, stuffing our pockets. Here we were, once again ignoring the rules that were set for us.
Small Hero James Lieven
A little green bug No bigger than a splinter Emerged nervously from the crevice In my steering wheel As I rocketed to Des Moines this morning He stretched his miniscule legs And circled the steering wheel While i greeted him uneasily Trying to peer at the road As soon as he was sure I wasnâ€™t going to squash him He flew up to the windowâ€™s edge Suddenly Which made my head jerk back Hard against the seat head Nearly sending me off the road Into my grave Collecting myself, i rolled down the window And watched expectantly As the bug stood for a time Staring into the vortex Of (relatively) impossibly fast wind
â€œBe brave, little bug. You will find a way.â€? I said out loud to him And i swear He turned around and looked at me With his atom eyes As if to nod his head Exactly the way the hero does Before facing great peril He flew up and out A graceful corkscrew his little green body Disappeared from sight In a blink of an eye
Contributors Audrianna Wichman knew she was a writer ever since her third-grade teacher told her she used too much voice in her book report. After cultivating an appreciation for language throughout school, Audrianna attended Winona State University, where she annually contributed to Satori, WSU's literary and arts journal, and won two creative writing prizes in 2019. While taking a class at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Audrianna truly began to embrace her identity as a writer and has been chasing that feeling ever since. She enjoys creating in all forms, from writing, to makeup artistry, to tea-making from her own garden. Clare McCullough is a midwest native and aspiring novelist who graduated from Marquette University with her bachelor's in political science. Her hobbies include watching movies, playing guitar, reading, and hanging out with friends. She runs her own blog called makingmellow.com where she showcases her music, art, and writing. Hailey Rose McLaughlin has always had an imagination on her. She’s been making up stories since she was little, and even in her 20’s she hasn’t stopped. Currently, she works for Astronomy and Discover magazines, but spends a majority of her time outside of work skateboarding, snowboarding, or thinking about traveling when it’s safe again.
James Lieven is an aspiring designer who has always had a great appreciation for the arts. Somehow between the chaos of getting his shit together, he finds solace in the form of scribbling poetry, plucking stringed instruments, painting, or almost anything else that caught his eye when the mood struck. Originally from Milwaukee, he's taken the Midwest with him at graduate school in Colorado, where, unlike his house plants, he intends to continue to learn and grow to the best of his ability.
Thank you for reading Stuck in the Middle! We're a Wisconsin-grown zine seeking to amplify the voices of young people, ages 18-35, living in the Midwest United States. We publish three issues per year: Spring, Summer and Winter. Full prompts and submission requirements are listed on our website. You don't have to be an experienced artist to join our community! We especially encourage unpublished writers and artists to submit their work during our open submission calls. We don't bite, and are always willing to offer constructive feedback, even if your work is not selected for publication. Visit our site and follow us on Twitter to stay up-to-date!
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The Earth is on fire. The least you can do is recycle this zine.
As the saying goes, sometimes life throws you curveballs. The COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly one of the biggest curveballs we’ve gotten th...
Published on Dec 31, 2020
As the saying goes, sometimes life throws you curveballs. The COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly one of the biggest curveballs we’ve gotten th...