SPARK Magazine Issue No. 16: Fantasia

Page 1


MAY 2021



maya halabi editor-in-chief design director adriana torres layout director jennifer jimenez assistant layout director juleanna culilap assistant layout director xandria hernandez digital director lily wickstrom creative director nikita kalyana associate creative director sarah stiles assistant creative director caleb zhang director of hair and makeup anna strother assistant director of hair and makeup jane lee modeling director maggie deaver assistant modeling director rodrigo colunga pastrana assistant modeling director diana perez photography director paige miller assistant photography director alyssa olvera co-director of styling alex cao co-director of styling zaha khawaja assistant director of styling noelle campos senior print editor laura nguyen associate print editor divina ceniceros dominguez associate print editor kelly wei assistant print editor eliza pillsbury senior web editor ty marsh associate web editor patricia valederrama assistant web editor eunice bao social media editor farah merchant business director malaika jhaveri finance director melanie che co-director of events meghan mollicone co-director of events kendall casinger marketing director christina lowe assistant marketing director bette josephine diehl

staff aaron lurin, abby lodge, abby burgy, abby harwood, adriana (nani) villalvazo, adrianne garza, adrienne hunter, aiva chapa, ajà miller, alec martinez, alisha collaco, amber weir, amelia kushner, ana brown, ana chavero, anastasia brown, andrea mauri, angeline de guia, ani caballero, annie brawner, ashley muthami, audrey ly, bella devega, biyun yuan, brandon muniz, brooke borglum, callie kurpiewski, carmen larkin, caroline blanton, cat cardenas, cat hermansen, chandana madaka, charlotte rovelli, chiara boye, chloe bogen, chloe luna, chloe landau, christina lowe, claire philpot, clarissa rodriguez abrego, danae rivers, daniel lopez, darnell forbes, david garcia, david zulli, deisy velazquez, eileen wang, elain yao, ella hernandez, ellie sanchez, elyssa sefiane, emely romo, emilea mccutchan, emma weeden, eric qiu, erica xu, erin dorney, erin walts, esther dashevsky, ethan tran, eunjae kim, flora yiakras, gabi vergara, gabrielle duhon, garrett smith, gigi feingold, gillian navarro, grace davila, grace alexander, gracie gilchriest, hayle chen, hayley fitzsimmons, ife kehinde, iszy coco, izellah wang, izzy nuzzo, jackie fowler, jacqueline magno, jane liu, jayashree ganesan, jaycee jamison, jaylin young, jazzy umrysh, jennifer rodriguez, jessie curneal, jessie yin, jillian schwartz, jiwon lee, jordan teliha, joseane tejada, julia holstein, kalee sue gore, kamaka hepa, karen xie, kat huang, kat tyll, kate truman, katelynn mansberger, kathleen segovia, katie pangborn, katie lichter, kaushik kalidindi, kelly kim, kelsey crawford, kim pagtama, kristen guillen, kyra burke, lane rice, lauren tran, leah blom, legacy miller, leni steinhardt, leslye ruiz, lily cartagena, lucy hwang, madee feltner, manalie barot, mariam ali, maya nyugen, mckenzie fisher, megan shen, mia macallister, michelle collins, michelle adebisi, michelle enciso, miguel anderson, mikaela medina, nereida jimenez, nicole grayson, nicole rudakova, nina su, olivia du, pamela de marion silva diaz, pârís eskew, presley simmons, priscilla takyi, rachel aquino, rebekah verghese, roman calderon, samantha paradiso, samantha maggart, sara tin-u, shania wagner, shreejwal dhakal, shreya rajhans, shuer zhuo, sonali menon, sophie wysocki, sumu prasad, tehreem siddiqui, tessa garcia, thao nguyen, tony vega, tosin anjorin, ulises martinez, vio dorantes, vivian yu, yeonsoo jung, zayana (zy) uddin, zimei chen, zuena karim


experience at Spark. But God, it’s just about impossible to focus on the looming death of my three years at Spark when I’m taking the numinous energy from each Zoom party, meeting, and even the in-passing interactions this publication has brought me. With every piece of my soul and the parts of my identity found here, I hope to use this heart-rending energy to take my pieces with me wherever I make my way. In my tenure as Editor-in-Chief, I wanted to urge creatives to look to fluidity in visual and written concepts that initially seem concrete. I stepped into my role after two hefty and much-needed seasons of rebranding. My goal was to maintain the progress Spark has made while emphasizing that we’re much more than a fashion magazine. In Issue No. 16: Fantasia, we ushered in thought-provoking, artistic, and abstract ideas that went beyond the words of what mainstream fashion could mean.

from the editor

Writing about the things we love is, um, really difficult. When I joined Spark my sophomore year, I had a big ass head. As an incoming stylist and online writer, I was eager to learn further about my passions and already-blooming love for fashion and design; In juvenile ways, I felt I’d reached my peak given my “exuding” knowledge on fashion and prior writing experience. Three years and 30 photoshoots later, I’m humbled to say I knew little to nothing about my true passions to the capacity I do now … and it’s really by dint of Spark. I’ve learned lessons from every story I’ve read by Spark writers who come from many different walks of life. I found new parts of my identity that are ever-changing and cannot be defined by one word, aesthetic, or style. The people in Spark’s creativity unceasingly inspire my fervor for aesthetics and fashion. The music I revel in, parts of my Middle Eastern culture, and the designers and artists I find copious inspiration in further brought out who I was through amusing shapes and clunky silhouettes. Learning I could be defined by anything I wanted to be is the greatest lesson I could have ever learned. There’s so much I could write about loss and grief after spending nearly all of my college


I bawled my eyes out after reading a piece one of our writers had written about the death of SOPHIE, a trans artist who paved the way for artists in the queer community and the hyper-pop music genre. The story centered around the question: What does it mean for someone to be ahead of their time? This was an inspiring point of reference that raised ideas about creating visuals and written concepts that have never been executed before. In Issue No. 16: Fantasia, the stories brought to light compelling questions and ideas that challenged the narratives humankind has ingrained into our understandings of life. Beyond Fantasia, I see Spark further dilating upon our creative successes by addressing and bringing to life themes that we have yet to reach in the crooks and crannies of our brains. I see Spark continuing to create a safe and collaborative space for creatives and business-minded individuals to grow and learn more about who they are and where their true passions lie. Leaving behind such a stellar, unflagging staff and leadership team, the future of Spark is gleaming, and I can’t wait to watch it radiate from afar.

Maya Halabi Editor-In-Chief


contents 144

24 32 40 44 50 58 70 102 130 162 178 208

feature malik julien wants you to live your truth afterthoughts ayn rand and other romances isle of the blessed robinhood and the bears of wall street my love song to debra dejean everybody loves the sunshine the movies that taught me all about love, like what it is and who can have it can they beat goku? saving a tempest virgin mary magdalene telfar: the new industry standard to all the girls i’ve been before immaterial







spark magazine issue no. 16 fantasia


224 16 110 216 224

editorials delimiting liminally rayuela silence from screaming concerto in fantasia

8 62 78 86 90 98 118 122 138 154 170 184 192 200

perspectives where angels sleep and spirits sing ornamental beauty a scholar’s sanctuary jenny’s world i love me, i love me not dearly departed ashes, ashes, we all fall in love the strange game we play how to disappear completely one plus one, two by two behind white walls, beneath red bricks to mend a broken tongue the moon lady must feel so alone. rabbits and other broken things


154 fantasia


Where Angels Sleep and Spirits Sing BY EUNJAE KIM

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y grandpa sleeps in the 고기리 mountain where the breaths of still-living creatures fog the sky. Here, you can hear the old frog’s final, heavy croak, and maybe, if you listen closely enough, the bubbles in the stream where tadpoles break the surface of the water for their very first gulp of air. Here, laughter bubbles up in children’s throats and floats into the heavens as they chase butterflies across hills with their nets.

Not the white ones, though. The children know that the white butterflies are reincarnations of their loved ones who have already crossed into the afterlife. They see them fluttering from house to house and know that they do so in hopes of catching a glimpse of the people they’ve left behind. My grandpa sleeps forever in the mountain, but sometimes, I see white wings delicately perched on my windowsill and wonder if he has come to visit me. An unopened pack of pretty stationery. A crumpled book on traditional Korean rituals that I pored throughout the years in my late attempt to connect with him. Those are all the things that I have left of him. I wish I could say that he lives forever in my memories and heart, but I never had much of him to keep. He was hard of hearing; our attempts at conversation often ended with me screaming in his ear in frustration. Even then, he just smiled and nodded at me with a blank smile, and I knew that he had not heard me after all. We spoke in different tongues — he pronounced


“earthquake” like “earthcake,” and I made fun of him for it. He saw the name of an author stamped onto the book cover, written in fancy cursive script, and read it as “Jail.” Perhaps it was his attempt at relating to his granddaughter, but I screamed that it was “Gail.” Every time I tried to get to know him, to close the gap between us that was as wide as the Pacific itself, I made it worse. Every word that escaped my mouth was accompanied by frustrated stomps and irritated huffs. Our conversations, which were scarce to begin with, eventually ceased to exist. There was a time in my life when I was unfamiliar with the concept of death. The shape of the word in my mouth felt familiar — I knew of it, had heard about it in the news, saw it in movies, passed by hushed whispers that so-and-so had passed. But I had not truly known It. I did not know of the regret of not doing more. The guilt plagues you in the aftermath and shoves your head underwater until you’re choking and drowning in it, and it feels as if it’s everywhere, that guilt-water. The emptiness of knowing that you will never see them, hear them, grow with them again. The dread and fear that came with wondering, what is waiting for me after this life, if at all? I’d seen it coming for years. He had been sick for as long as I could remember. His hair turned white and fell out too quickly, like dandelion seeds carried away by a gust of wind before you were ready to blow. I’d seen how he carried around his insulin shots in a small pouch around his stomach like it


was his own flesh. I used to cringe whenever he plunged the needle into his stomach every time the timer went off, alerting him that it was time to take the shots. The alarms seemed like ticking time bombs. Tick. Tick. Tick. Boom.

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I missed the one plane ride that I should not have missed. I had been on many before and many after, and I never missed any of them. But I missed the one that mattered most. I missed my only chance to turn our doomed relationship around — to give him the first and last hug we’d ever shared, to be there with him, for him, hands wound tightly together when he crossed into the unknown. It was an honest mistake; I had not yet known death and how quickly it could strike. I gambled with death, bet against my grandpa’s death day, doubted that it would be so soon … and I lost. And then, fear was all I knew about death. I saw the way human skin breaks so easily, like how the flesh of a ripe persimmon tears at the gentlest touch. The ground that children were standing on, laughing on, chasing butterflies on could be the very site where, centuries ago, a family laid their loved one to rest. Now they were forgotten, their gravesite choking on cement buildings and smothered by the heavy footsteps of kids who simply didn’t care. Regret ate me up whole. From then on, I spent every night ruminating about everything I’d done that day that I could have done differently. I remember we got on the next available flight as soon as we heard of his passing. I held his cold hands at his funeral and told him how much we loved him. I searched his face for





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something — a sign that would give away where he was, now that he was no longer with us. He seemed … gone. Not in pain, but not necessarily in peace. As if his spirit had simply gotten up and left his body. Yes, I’d like to believe in Heaven. But how will I know until my feet have floated above Heaven’s clouds, until my ears have been blessed with angels’ songs and my eyes have been blinded by gleaming, golden gates? How do I know that the Great Promise will be fulfilled and I will be able to see my grandpa once again? Perhaps we hide under the guise of stories of nirvana and holy promises, wearing them like talismans to ward off the fear that comes with encountering the unknown. Or maybe Heaven is real after all, and that’s where my grandpa’s spirit has gone. I plead to the sky for confirmation, but the sky remains silent. My questions will remain unanswered — at least while I am living. Nothing is for certain except one truth: At the end of my life, there will be a plane ride waiting for me. I do not know where it will take me. But isn’t the fun of the journey the plane ride itself, as well? Before you reach the end, chase your dreams, collect them

into your jar like fireflies so that, if this is all we’re granted, you know you’ve lived. Throw all caution to the wind, live in the chaos without being trapped by your fears, feel alive in the fury of the most destructive of storms, then find peace in its eye. The unknown doesn’t have to be fearful — it can be an incentive to find meaning and joy in what we are given. My grandpa sleeps forever where the sun shines and the moon sings; where grandmothers gently press the petals of touch-me-nots onto their granddaughters’ fingernails until they are the color of sticky persimmons that, come autumn, droop low from their backyard trees. Or maybe he’s watching from above in an eternal Heaven, where he is no longer constrained by the physical limitations of his body, smiling at my needless worries. Whatever the answer may be, it brings me peace to believe that there will be a place with clouds and angels’ songs and golden gates, where all the people that I love and have loved will be waiting for me with open arms. My grandpa, telling me, We’ve missed you. Welcome home. Me, saying the words I have held close to my heart, waiting my whole life for the day I can finally set them free like butterflies into the heavens: I’ve missed you so much, 할아버지. I love you. ■

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“Our freedoms are individual ones; our philosophers stand as singular minds; our writers want for nothing but a room of one’s own.”

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t the dawn of the Northern Renaissance, Erasmus argued that the human is what’s important. On the rolling hills of Rotterdam, he, a humble Catholic priest, wrote his ponderings on the nature of God, transforming himself into the Prince of the Humanists with the staunch belief that life began with each person, and thus, so does God. When Erasmus wrote In the Praise of Folly, he helped launch our long, intellectual quest towards rampant individualism. Gone were the anonymous painters of medieval altars, the collective creation of artisan workshops. No, we had real masters now — Great Masters. Michelangelo’s marble men and Raphael’s tricks of light were recognized for their genius and their genius alone.

Western canon has built itself upon the concrete blocks of individualism. Our freedoms are our individual ones; our philosophers stand as singular minds; our writers want for nothing but a room of one’s own. I ask, what does all this courageous individualism mean for love, which is an inherently collaborative process? Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve scoured all the books I’ve ever read for my conclusions. Dante wrote reams of poetry about Beatrice, a woman he met in passing when he was nothing more than a boy, before the dawn of Inferno was even a sparkle in his eye. These poems of pure love had less to do with Beatrice than Dante’s invention of her, than his own flexing of his poetic capabilities. I cannot claim to know his heart or the veracity of his love, but I do think that it is fair to say that it paints a certain picture of love. To him, love

is beating our desires on another person’s heart, and falling in love is more about us than it is about them. One far-gone summer, I spent a blistering day trying to learn love from Neruda’s sonnets. With the sand in my hair and the gulf roaring at the shore, I whispered to myself, “I love you like this because I don’t know any other way to love/except in this form in which I am not nor are you/so close that your hand upon my chest is mine/so close that your eyes close with my dreams.” In the descriptions of a whirlwind, burning-alive kind of loving, I found a type of answer.Maybe romance is about recognizing a piece of ourselves in another person, wanting to become them, and ceasing to exist ourselves. In Ayn Rand’s world, where our Earth rests on the shoulders of capitalist Atlases, Dagny Taggart falls in love with three men and their copper mines, their metal alloys, their motor engines. Each man is the father of his invention, master of his riches, a stalwart entrepreneur battling against the useless looters. Yet, at the end of the novel, Dagny rides off into the sunset with John Galt, a brilliant inventor who has convinced all the other industrialists to strike against the world that would seek to ‘freeload’ off of their hard work. Dagny’s love becomes a symbolic gift, the crowning of the ideal capitalist in Rand’s eyes. We are trained to understand romance as a natural part of life and who we fall in love with as a personal matter, but Rand plays into the decades of work before her that have rendered love into a

“To him, love is beating our desires on another person’s heart, and falling in love is more about us than it is about them.” fantasia


“I like the word crucible. It brings to mind a kind of trial by fire, in which we burn alive and remake ourselves in gold. We want to see and to be seen in truth.” singular experience. Romantic love has been crafted into the highest form of recognition that we can give or receive as a person, so Rand appropriates romance to make grandiose statements about human nature and the societies we build around ourselves. Through her love, Dagny is deciding which qualities of a human are worthy. A Randian romance is a literary shrine built to objectivism and individual reason. I read somewhere that romantic relationships are the crucibles for our inwardly generated identities. I like the word crucible. It brings to mind a kind of trial by fire, in which we burn alive and remake ourselves in gold. We want to see and to be seen in truth. We seek affirmation of our own consciousness through our relations with others. We search all our lives for someone who wishes to listen to our most private thoughts, to care about our most mundane moments, but our pool of suspects is painfully limited. It is no fault of our own that we’re leading increasingly isolating lives. The naively unbreakable ties that we believe ourselves to form in youth fall away for the clinical speech and touch of co-workers or mere acquaintances. We’re expected to give up our childish fantasies of living together with all our friends, which we get a brief taste of in college, and grow up into the stifling stability of a nine to five. Our senses of community support and care are slowly whittled away by the relentless drive for competition, where everything is a zero-sum game. The writers and the histories have raised and fed us upon the notion

“So you’re not crazy for feeling like you need to get married to be happy. It’s a matter of survival, love.”



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of romantic love as the only antidote to loneliness, the nuclear family as the only form of survival. We have a desire to be known lest we go insane, but the only people who we can expect to dedicate that level of time and effort into the process are our romantic partners. So you’re not crazy for feeling like you need to get married to be happy. It’s a matter of survival, love. These are the kinds of stories that we tell about love. I wonder why they all sound so sad. When I say that I don’t want to die alone, I mean I don’t want to die unknown. I don’t want my only solution to be marriage. Perhaps it is endlessly naive to say this, but I wish there were more respect for platonic love, for communal love. Maybe in a network of people willing to truly learn each other, we wouldn’t be so hungry for love that we would willingly follow our poets into gentle self-destruction. If love is knowing someone and helping us to construct our self-identities, then maybe every person we love can be a tie to a kind of recognition. Through these short reflections of our many multitudes, we can transform caring communally into a radical act of love. On the mossy banks of a pond, a beautiful boy stretches so far into the mirage of the water that he falls and drowns. He falls in love, and he drowns, and the moral of that story is about vanity, about some divine punishment for his egotism. Narcissus fell for his own reflection, and we shake our heads, shaming him for his fallacy, but are any of us truly any better? Narcissus drowned in pursuit of some kind of unadulterated self-recognition, and on some days, I think I would do the same. ■

“Through these short reflections of our many multitudes, we can transform caring communally into a radical act of love.”



Isle of the

Blessed by KAREN XIE

Where the greatest of souls, virtuous three times on either side of death, resist the urge to die again. layout CHIARA BOYE photographer KIM PAGTAMA stylists KATHERINE HUANG & VIVIAN YU hmua MICHELLE ADEBISI models RODRIGO COLUNGA & DANIEL LOPEZ

I uncovered a diary entry the other day. Pressed between middle school woes, yellowing canvas, and burning crushes, this lavender ink read — “I wish I was more outgoing. I wish I knew what to say and when to say it. And then, I wish I would just say it.” — August, 2012 I laughed a bit when I read this, as we all do when confronted with our most frivolous of demons. But then we stop laughing. For they are the sharpened ones that etch lifetimes into our souls. Careful what you wish for, Karen. First, there was Life. We are all born with a name on our lips. Salty sound imitates letter shapes, and we sing of power, kindness, bravery, and fear. The cord is snipped — doctor plays Apotros, and Fate as a triad weave the final chord. I was born red and colic-ridden, with a permanent wail in place of song. On nostalgic summer evenings, my mother likes to draw up her brows and

regale us with the Herculean tales of my impossibly tearful infancy. “Some nights, Baba would drive for hours, your carrier in the back seat, until you were finally hushed by radio static. That’s why he has insomnia now.” Sorry, Baba. “Some nights, we’d just put you on the rumbling laundry machine and pray for a miracle.” On my 20th birthday, we sat at the dinner table and listened as she repainted these stories, washing the room golden with the motherly sentiment that accompanies impending change. “You would cry if others tried to talk to you, even look at you. You’d scream at daycare doorsteps, in dance class corners, begging us not to leave. Then, you’d cry until we returned.” She surveyed me with a wistful sigh, as if seeing a different person altogether. I just grinned toothily. “And look at me now, Mama.” I thought of a year prior, when I had sauntered into dance class,

“In the calm winds of Elysium, I crave metallic adrenaline again.” jabbering about my day’s nothingness to anyone nearby, and a friend looked at me and said, “Karen, you’re an extrovert, aren’t you?” Look at me now. An extrovert! Welcome to my Elysium, Mama. Let me tell you how I made it. Next, the Hero’s Journey. The seventh-grade gymnasium reeks of Axe and anxiety (as do all heroes at the prelude of their quest.) My volleyball team took over one fall afternoon, warming up while Van Morrison tinted the windows with island escape. I set the ball to myself and fancied I was that Brown-Eyed Girl — bold enough to be seen, remembered, and immortalized. That same afternoon, a teammate pulled back her eyes in imitation of me, forgetting I stood right next to her. A couple of gasps upon realization. “OMG, sorry Karen … you know I love you!” A tilt of the head. “What?” I pretended like I didn’t see. Like my entire body hadn’t seared red-hot, like I hadn’t just been airily mocked by someone I was supposed to trust. Middle school hierarchy is but a mirage, yet I played my part dutifully. Later that day, I scratched lavender lament into that diary, stood in my kitchen, and screamed. The mirage shattered to smoke, and in the distance, Charon’s ferry — arriving to usher my past across the River Styx. Do you remember when we used to sing? No, Van Morrison, I used to cry. But not anymore. Then, there was Death. Well, parts of me died. I took a chisel to my shell over the course of many moons and help rolled in, sure as spring tides. I found Chirons, Athenas to my Telemachus — 36

those who were loud as a matter of principle and valued love, friendship, identity over the chimerical status quo. They listened as I found written word’s power, wrote my first concertos, and paved amphitheaters for their stories and sounds. In time, my silence cracked open like a bad habit and washed out to sea. Then, I dove into stormy waters to chase it all away. I jet off to camps and callings around the world, alone, but always returned a few friends richer and a couple inches braver. I fully saturated the spaces and courts I once tiptoed around — and that girl who’d committed the base offense in that Axe-soaked gymnasium? She would call me team captain in two years’ time. But reinvention comes at a cost. Myths have it that Charon requires all passengers to deliver a golden drachma, placed under-tongue. So I slipped this coin where fear once hid, and it tasted of adrenaline — acidic, impulsive, exhilarating. I could say anything, anytime. But what I gained in voice, I sacrificed in unconditional kindness, trademarked caution —


“Every reinvention marks the death of an old self, old skin. And in this death, I was a hero.”

the flipside of the coin, pieces lost in the and prepared for eternal happiness. But on changing of tides. I now spoke without the way, we’d passed the Isle of the Blessed thought, lashed out for little reason. My — a brilliant white flash, home to heroes words gained an edge and cut unintention- who forgo easy paradise and choose to be ally. Sorry, Baba. Sorry, Mama. But what reborn. Myths have it that should they do it could they do? I had things to say, and for right thrice, they achieve ultimate paradise. once, I needed people to listen. Maybe if I’d read further, I’d have realEvery reinvention marks the death of an ized one death wouldn’t be enough. I was old self, old skin. And in this death, I was searching for something much more hopea hero. less than happiness — fulfillment. In the calm winds of Elysium, I crave metallic All aboard. adrenaline again. Finally, there is Paradise.

Do you remember when we used to sing?

Here’s the thing — when that dance friend cast me into paradise with the mere word “extrovert,” finally crossing off that godforsaken diary wish, I felt no satisfaction. Sitting in Elysium, where first-time heroes are free from toil, I could’ve donned a flowered crown, buried my diary in the sand,

Trade my crown for a coin; I want back in. But what is Paradise? Three lives later, and I’ve done it — rewritten concertos into symphonies, conquered demons, frivolous and grave. Welcome to the Isle of the Blessed.

“What is Paradise but Purgatory for the insatiable?” 38


Here I sit, among the brilliance I once passed with terrible yearning, and suddenly, my soul itches from disuse. Maybe if I’d read further, I’d have realized no amount of deaths would ever be enough. We are all reborn with a name on our lips, and mine looks like Sisyphus. When I turned 20, I saw the decade as an uphill climb. Roll my flaws into a boulder, and I’ll push towards whatever illusion glimmers above. I’ll shove introversion to the peak and think, “This is it. This is the one.” But gravity is simple science: the boulder thunders back down, and only as I stand at the top do I realize I’ll never be enough to keep it there.

new roommates. Forget that ice-breaking takes time, that being here is a miracle, in and of itself — tomorrow, get the boulder to stay. The heroes on the isle are restless — can’t you feel it? It’s simple science: those who make it here are the ones who will never be satisfied with it in the end. Me, Sisyphus, the blessed, and the damned — we’re all the same. What is Paradise but Purgatory for the insatiable? Here I sit, among sands white as virtue, caged by yet another mirage, and I watch as that boulder comes rolling to a stop. I won’t do it. I won’t.

I’m writing this in a room in England — another destination I’ve jetset to alone, another snipped chord to weave into triumph — and just last night, scolded myself over an awkward conversation with

The ghost of a melody floats by — Do you remember when…? Well, maybe one more time. ■




i st future.

Trading i s a t tr


n a week of madness foretold by folklore of yore, plebs went to the moon. The GameStop stock rocket took these bands of merry men to a once-in-a-lifetime share price and a happily-ever-after payout. Hedge funds loomed ever closer to bankruptcy as ecstasy spread to every stock and stable of the internet. To not invest quickly became the most idiotic position to hold. For a blissful moment in the online kingdom, all internet infighting subsided, traded in for a collective effervescence known only to those who maintained “diamond hands,” or the bold refusal to sell. ‘‘Screw you, hedgies,’’ pledged the unyielding users of the now nine million-strong /r/WallStreetBets. In an increasingly online marketplace, GameStop had become the de facto sick man of the stock exchange, absolutely obsolete. Worth just four dollars a share, the stock was even given away for free as late as last year by investing apps to encourage new users. So how was their eventual victory possible? For Reddit — a site that has users who reminisce about their childhood “chicken tendies” and is self-aware of its external perception as a community for nerds and geeks alike — discovered the sacred, adolescent portal of escapism GameStop to be one of the most heavily shorted stocks, meaning big money traders were making big reliable money betting against the price of this stock. In a collective show of solidar-



in an e v i a ct

ity and utter boredom, Redditors plotted to squeeze these short positions, instead betting in favor of a rise in the market price. Enough rabble-rousers joined in on the front lines that the price rose to unforeseeable heights while those bearish enough to fight back began to bleed gold from every orifice. Very shortly after the stock hit $500, the trading platform Robinhood — along with many other platforms — banned the buying of GameStop shares. Until that moment, Robinhood had been the retail investor’s casual trading platform of choice due to its simple, commission-free trading. This monumental move predictably tanked the price of the stock. Family jewels were purged: Legacy financial institutions seized the opportunity to buy back the stock they had shorted and cover their losses, while retail investors sold their shares in fear of bankruptcy. The stock, considered to be dead, continued to have weak heart palpitations, but the mood was incurable. Stories of suicide and the losses of entire life savings slowly surfaced in the rubble of this broken dream. The bubble of hope had fully popped and been replaced by the constant, dull cynicism of our era. What people found so enchanting about this tale could only be explained by the quite ironic comparison to the story of the fictional Robin Hood, who

stole from the rich to give to the poor. In fact, this as popular finance news channels have now started narrative alone was able to do a 180 on public opin- to report on the subreddit. But while communities ion of the stock market and frame what happened play an important role in creating class solidarity, with GameStop as a form of retributive justice they don’t necessarily awaken class consciousness. against the one percent. Leftists on Twitter framed the people on Reddit chanting about free money Author Mark Fisher of Capitalist Realism fame dismachines as activists fighting for a cause. For the cusses the dissemination of anti-capitalism in a caprecord, it is rather a stretch to liken self-proclaimed italist world. He argues that critics of capitalism ofJordan Belfort wannabes to any sort of Occupy Wall ten justify their own participation in the exchange Street nostalgia. After all, even if some invested to by assuming an ironic stance towards engaging in get one over on the hedge funds, it is no great com- capitalism. According to philosopher Slavoj Žižek, promise to admit their innate soul stirring at the this is because ideological truths are no longer beprospect of getting rich quickly. lieved in to their ends, replaced instead by the prevailing ideology of our generation: cynicism. CapiTo be sure, major expositions of corruption on Wall talism is so successful because there is no ideology Street, as well as the complete disdain big money to it, only capital. Participating in the stock market traders have for retail investors, were certainly un- to kill the stock market only shows a populace coopcovered. And as these truths unraveled, the com- erating with a capitalist system, not a protest. Take munity of /r/WallStreetBets grew and grew. Most note that it did not take a second thought on the surprisingly, these retail investors have almost cre- part of many trading platforms to end the buying ated a hedge fund amongst themselves, using their of a stock that would cost them money they didn’t trust in each other, shared hatred for a system that have. won’t believe in them, and their individual financing to revive a stock from the dead and breathe into Wealth at this point in time has become entirely anit life anew. This has not gone unrecognized either, cestral. A friend of mine who lives in the U.K. once

“Capitalism is precisely so successful because there is no ideology to it, only capital.” 42


“So why do we think we can proverbially dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools when monetary alliances have already been cemented in blood?”

shared with me a story about his own family’s wealth. After all, even Marx traded. (That’s true!) Other In the 18th century, his bloodline belonged to that male friends and family members of mine shared of a wealthy cousin of Richard the Lionheart, even toothy grins at the news of my trading venture, having a place in line for the throne. In one genera- followed by half an hour of an unprompted advisory tion, he gambled the entire family’s net worth and monologue. lost everything. My friend lamented at the fact that his ancestor had encountered such great loss, for if The sad truth is that the future for many young he hadn’t, that monetary prowess would have snow- people has become such that retreating into doomer balled into his lap with no labor required. This is (read: cynical Zoomer) helplessness feels ineviunderstood as being the way the world works, un- table. Climate change, new wave fascism, and an imaginable any other way, as if money itself had be- increasingly competitive job market where degrees come an epigenetic trait. So why do we think we can seem to be of little consequence have fostered a genproverbially dismantle the master’s house with the eration completely unsure of what the adult world will master’s tools when monetary alliances have already actually look like. Moreover, America has been a been cemented in blood? loveless parent to the avant-garde, as art and the humanities sink from the realm of the respectable to As I signed up for TD Ameritrade’s trading plat- that of the unworthy. Life goals beyond making as form, ThinkorSwim, I couldn’t help but feel gnaw- much money as inhumanely possible and going viral ing pangs of guilt. Upon voicing my concerns to a are unthinkable and rare. This is what makes tradfriend who had been mentoring me in how to use ing so attractive in an absurdist future: the notion of the platform, I was met with a simple, dry reply: “It’s insane untapped wealth followed by the unfathomfree money, suit yourself.” As for myself, I’d simply able life of youth, leisure, and love. “What do you do be lying if I described any sort of reluctance in raking after the closing bell?” I asked my mentor. “I make in cash by pressing a few buttons on my computer in music, I paint, I read,” he responded. All at once, I the middle of a class at Zoom University. I coped — understood why Marx traded. ■



My Love Song to

Debra Dejean





The story of how a young, trans woman befriended a dead disco queen from Memphis, Tennessee.


met Debra Dejean on a drunken spring afternoon. After three months of lockdown, my skin’s tolerance for Texan heat was low. My pores eagerly dilated to allow warmth to enter, and I immediately felt a buzz. We bumped into each other in a Half Price Books. Her smokey eye and slight face tilt constructed a magnetic pull between her record and me. In a sunny haze, the record store had become a dance floor, and I chose to dance with Debra. I handed the cashier my crinkled bills and drove home with my friend Ale and my newfound muse.

For a dollar and two cents, I was passed down Debra’s voice — and with the hit of a needle, she animated into a spunk of persistence. “Goosebumps,” the first track off her self-titled album, radiated zigzag lines in every direction of my room. Fuzz-like electricity stimulated my eardrums in ways I had never felt before. So, of course, I danced. I closed my eyes and visualized Debra in all her glory. The same day I met Debra, I lost her. A Google search turned up a singular obituary and a thread detailing the reign of the “Memphis Madonna.” DJs of the ’80s left reviews on listings of her first and last album, citing its capability of “fill[ing] the dance floor.” And after a deep search, I found a striking image of Dejean on an issue of This Week In Texas, known as “the publication with regard to the gay community in Texas.” Maybe my affinity to Dejean wasn’t purely irrational or by chance. Yet, my connection to Debra wasn’t due to my love for disco. Neither was it her involvement in the gay club scene. I felt



the most connected to her intangible passion. I was mesmerized by the way her fervor leaped from the record onto the four walls of my room and demanded such attention. It’s unnerving to think of her in a state of such passion. Her passion troubled me at the time; it was the kind I’d never given myself the permission to have. And the crazy thing is, I didn’t even know her. I never will know her. Dejean is not a distant grandmother or a long-lost aunt. She’s a pop singer turned disco Rockette from the ’80s. She’s a woman born half a century before me, yet I feel like our paths converged at some point. As a trans woman, I know the desire to want something so bad. I want soft skin. I want love. I want to dance in a dress. For Debra, her wants were a career, autonomy, and a pulsing dance floor. That night, my friend Ale flew back to her dormitory in Boston, and I was left alone with Debra’s brooding face pictured on the vinyl cover. Atop layers of foil paper, she stared back at me, and I thought of her shivering outside a studio in Memphis, waiting to shoot the album art for her very first record. The record machine now felt like an intermediary between the living and the dead. Before the shoot, I imagine a friend of Debra’s styling her hair before the shoot. Her friend had

promised she’d do her best before her evening class at the local cosmetology school. They laugh about boys and giggle at the thought of Dejean’s music career. At that moment, creating a record is still just a dream. Emotions and images dart toward me every time I reset the record on my dingy turntable, to the point where her voice becomes deafening. Alone in my room, with every lyric, she utters a story of hunger I know all too well. The hunger to be somebody for someone, even if that someone is yourself. Like Dejean’s sound, disco was defiant. Its roots weren’t tied to one cause, movement, or city. The sternum-bumping genre commanded movements of its own. The late ’70s were adorned with glamour and tarnished with the antithesis of disco. Hate plagued every corner. Nicky Siano, DJ and producer, labeled early disco in Brooklyn as a movement of love and any force against it as “anti-gay, but also anti-women and anti-color.” Dejean didn’t just write songs about love. She created havens for people who’d never gotten the chance to love. Not because they were afraid, but because they were told their love was different. So, no, disco isn’t just some love-ridden beat. There’s power in singing a song about a boy

“As a trans woman, I know the desire to want something so bad. I want soft skin. I want love. I want to dance in a dress. For Debra, her wants were a career, autonomy, and a pulsing dance foor.”






who won’t listen to you. Whether that boy is the head of a record label controlling your path to stardom or a lover who doesn’t quite understand you, there’s power in singing at the top of your lungs right back at him. Maybe Debra wasn’t explicitly tied to queer movements, but there’s something so queer in her emotion. Of course, our paths diverge. But that’s the thing about disco. It’s universal. Journalist Arwa Haider noted that disco enabled “female, gay, Black, and Latin artists to define their identities” fluidly when their rights were threatened. Disco travels through time, echoes in your lungs, and creates such tension that all you can think of doing is moving your limbs. In an article interview, Debra said, “there are three things a woman needs today: positive thinking, persistence, patience.” Some things never change. Women in music still face some of the same barriers Dejean faced in the late ’70s. But for Dejean, the uphill battle was much longer. She couldn’t self-publish her record on Distrokid, nor did she have the opportunity to



livestream a set with her band. She ran from set to set and could only hope her first record would be played somewhere, anywhere. Luckily, it did. Dejean’s music reached dancefloors, movements, and from the looks of a single Google search, the hearts of many communities. Her record even reached me four decades after its release. When I met Debra, I was a young, trans woman at the beginning of my transition. I still don’t quite understand how I made friends with a late disco queen, but her voice has instilled a fervor in me I didn’t know was attainable. Positive thinking, persistence, and patience have followed me everywhere I go, and with them, I keep Dejean’s demanding voice in my back pocket. Disco’s revolutionary sound could teach each of us a thing or two about love in its many forms. It transcends dance and heartbreak and produces passion. Today, I no longer fret at the thought of Dejean’s passion. I embrace it with a full heart and begin my own journey toward being someone for myself. ■

“Disco travels through time, echoes in your lungs,

SKIRT | Never Knew HEELS | Revival Vintage

and creates such tension that all you can think of doing is moving your limbs”



Everybody Loves The Sunshine by AMBER WEIR

Something is comforting about how music lives before us, with us now, and beyond our lifetime, carrying universal emotions and personal narratives about the human experience.


PURPLE BUTTON UP TOP | Revival Vintage BLUE TROUSERS | Revival Vintage ORANGE BERET | Revival Vintage



YELLOW DRESS | Cosmic Girl Vintage ORANGE JUMPSUIT | Cosmic Girl Vintage


usic carries a spiritual force that detaches the brain from thought. When you find the rhythm of a tune, the sound waves transmit through the body, and it feels as if the energy of the music and your own energy collide; suddenly, you are the soundwave. You become hypnotized as your hips swing from left to right, usually to the familiar meter of a 4/4 time signature. Then, your eyes close. Nothing else matters; you have entered your own world.

Let’s travel back to October 1971. Soul Train has just made its national debut in LA: a 60-minute program dedicated to feeding and filling the collective soul of America through music. Host and 52


producer Don Cornelius arrives on stage, looking dapper as always in a tailored, double-breasted suit, and introduces “four beautiful people who represent a mighty mountain of soul.” The spotlight turns to Gladys Knight and the Pips, who are ready to perform their classic song, “Friendship Train,” live on television. Cornelius knew the first act on the show had to be spectacular — and that it was. Cornelius could never have expected the height of national success the show reached. At first, Soul Train was a small radio show in Chicago only featuring local artists, but by the late ’70s, it was the hottest show to be on — Al Green, Aretha Franklin, and Stevie Wonder were all performing

at the peak of their careers. Wonder had a memorable performance on Soul Train where he sang “Superstitious” and improvised an “Ode to Soul Train” live on air. In Wonder’s ode, he sang about “brothers and sisters getting together,” as dancers stood clapping and grooving next to him and his keyboard. As the crowd of dancers gently swayed, some chose to harmonize with Wonder, capturing the bond between creatives: they knew what to do without practicing because they all felt the music so naturally. Soul Train was funky, fun, and fresh, becoming an instant hit. It wasn’t just a regular music show; it would become a revolutionary moment for the Black community. For the first time, they could

“Soul Train was funky, fun, and fresh, becoming an instant hit. It wasn’t just a regular music show” fantasia


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call a music show their own: performers looked like them, advertisements were tailored towards Black hair and beauty, and the show was owned by Black producers. After the civil rights movements in the ’60s, the white media had villainized the Black community. Soul Train became a space for Black artists to tell their story. Music — like our souls — travels through time embedded with lessons and ideas. Lyrics are inherently political, and rewatching Soul Train allows us to travel back through time and hear about the Black experience from those who had lived through it. Connection requires collaboration. The most powerful songs can become a projection of the listener, capturing universal themes about what it means to be human. Much of Soul Train’s success was due to viewers who felt the weight of emotion being expressed. Beats and instruments alone can act as an emotion filling up space within the body that the listener didn’t know was missing. Soul Train captures how Black music changed from soul in the early ’70s to disco in the late ’70s, then fi-

nally to the rise of hip-hop in the ’80s. Hip-hop was a new sound and controversial to the older generations like Cornelius, who, after Kurtis Blow’s performance, said how, “it doesn’t make sense to old guys like me.” These remarks are a shame because hip-hop was, and still is, a powerful art form that echoes a harsher and more reflective narrative of the Black experience. Despite his preference, Cornelius still allowed hip-hop performers on the show. Cornelius also hosted a few white performers on stage in the later years, such as David Bowie and Elton John. Adaptation was key to keeping the show on-trend and accounts for the show surviving 35 years. Let’s be honest. Without the dancers, Soul Train would not have been a success. Cornelius recruited local high school students to appear on the show, who at times looked like they had lost complete control of their bodies and personified the music they felt. Their moves on TV were imitated on the playgrounds at schools, in living rooms, and on the nightclub floor. The Funky Penguin, the Robot, and the Backslide — later renamed the Moonwalk by Michael Jackson — were first seen on Soul Train.

“Music — like our souls — travels through time embedded with lessons and ideas.” fantasia


Cornelius realized the importance of dancing, which led to the introduction of the iconic Soul Train Line. Dancers would groove in two lines, and the space in between became the path where other dancers would showcase their moves. This space became a hub of innovation where dancers could flaunt their wild and outrageous skills, which were borderline gymnastics. One of the famous dancers, Jeffery Dani, did a handstand on a skateboard while traveling through the Soul Train Line. Like dance, fashion also became an avenue for experimentation and expression. The Soul Train Line brought fashion to the center of the show, with dancers dressed to the max. While they were a collective, their style allowed them to also be individuals, as they played with fun, chaotic prints. Bright colors were ubiquitous: particularly yellows, greens, pinks, purples, and oranges. Bell bottom jeans, flares, jumpsuits, and platform shoes were in. Clothing constructs how the world sees you, and dancers used fashion to reflect some aspects of their personality through their style. This fashion influenced viewers at home and still influences celebrities today: Steve Lacy and Tyler, the Creator often channel ’70s fashion with a modern twist. Music, like the ocean, is boundless, with infinite waves rippling throughout space and time. When the waves of the ocean roll in, they vary in size – some



tides big, some tides small. This is the same for soul music. There was a big wave of neo-soul, with artists like Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, and Jill Scott in the late ‘90s. Erykah Badu — The Godmother of Soul — was inspired by ’70s music. Her 1997 album, Baduizm, focused on empowering Black women through intellectualism, spirituality, and knowledge. Badu describes how the record was “an expression of me and the way I feel.” Today, with artists like Solange and The Internet, it’s clear that soul-inspired music is continuing to flourish and evolve. Solange has thanked Badu for her contribution to the music industry, describing Baduizm as a game changer. Focusing on genres alone can confine artists to one type of sound. Soul music shouldn’t be limited to just a sound. It is also a feeling meant to reach the human soul, acting as a reminder that some of the best experiences are felt. Soul Train provided a philosophy on how to live through expression. Its emphasis on lyrics, instruments, style, and movement is still important to us now. Artists inspired by the ’70s have the same values and innate feel for the music, just like the Soul Train performers did. Sometimes there’s too much focus on logic and reason. To appreciate soul music is to appreciate the intangible parts of the human experience. ■



, i l u e y s n would sa r o C s e, Love, S o ” u . l c ea





How could I imagine gay love in my future with all the straight love on my screen?


I was born on National Coming Out Day nearly 20 years ago: Oct. 11, 2001. Every pigtailed, dressed up birthday of mine, every totally-worth-it vanilla sheet cake stomachache, coincided with a swell of joy in a community I now call my own. Yet I never saw them. They were phantoms, living in radical, hippie pockets of Portland or somewhere West Coast, rustic chic like that, shelved away from little-kid me in my quaint nuclear family neighborhood. The rest of the world came to my egregiously homogeneous, white, uppermiddle-class corner of it through the television. DVDs were stacked high in the TV room closet: 80’s classics my parents couldn’t live without, early-aughts kid fare my sister and I begged for on family trips to Target. Except it wasn’t the real world that I saw. It was every emotion, every nuance of the human experience, shoved into skinny, white, straight bodies over and over again. The only characters with any shred of personhood looked and loved the same. So I believed that to be in love was to be straight, was for a man to find you beautiful. To be in love was to be in love with a man. It’s not like there weren’t gay characters. There was a decent amount, especially as the early 2000s rolled into the 2010s. And those characters were precisely why, when I realized why the girls locker room made me so uncomfortable, I cried

and prayed and desperately willed my feelings away. Because there has to be a foil for Main Character. If everyone was a shy, nerdy model-turned-actress plucked off the streets of New York City at 15 and shipped off to LA to audition for big-budget teen movies at 17, how would Male Love Interest know who to pick? Sure, we get an obvious foil with Mean Girl in all her arched eyebrow, bedazzled denim mini skirt glory, but Main Character has to have friends, right? That’s where Queer Coded Sideshow comes in. She’s not as pretty as Main Character — pretty enough, but it’s hidden under thick, unflattering eyeliner, a cut-up screamo band T-shirt, and an irredeemably horrible attitude. All three traits connote gayness; queer coding relies on recognizable stereotypes of gay people to portray characters as such without explicitly saying it. An alternative look and a boisterous “mannish” demeanor are accessible tropes that can both imply sexuality and damage public perception of said sexuality. Queer Coded Sideshow has few friends, and her presence shows just how properly demure Main Character is (not to mention how charitable she is for allowing someone so insufferable to be her friend.) Often, plot developments expose Sideshow to be just as bad as Mean Girl, if not worse. Janis Ian from Mean Girls and Lilly Moscovitz from The Princess Diaries were two Queer Coded Sideshows I grew up watching and deeply hating.




Even worse was when gayness served as a punchline. I grew up on dearly beloved network sitcoms: Friends, How I Met Your Mother, the like. The funniest thing in the world to these writers was two men in a “gay” situation — sharing a bed, appearing as a couple in public, picking the wrong words to speak in unintentional double entendre. Being perceived as gay was a humiliating misunderstanding that passed for comedy. Most damaging to me was when film and TV maintained that gay people were sexless and loveless. Big, bullish, butch women were comic relief; effeminate gay men served only to pick out Main Character’s shoes and squeal about her boyfriend with her. No intimacy, no romance; they existed only as one-dimensional conventions of comedy. So where did that leave me, 14 years old, scrolling through pictures of Sandra Bullock on Google Images and finally putting the pieces together? Devastated, truthfully. I was gutted. Being gay contradicted every positive facet of my being. Only Main Character was smart, funny, kind, and pretty. Only Main Character ever got to experience love. I remember turning on my shower to cover the sound as I wept when I realized that I would never be complex heroine Cady Heron or even beautiful bad-girl Regina George — I was

doomed to live and die as Janis Ian. Rude, ungrateful, friendless, undesirable Janis Ian. So I repressed. I kissed boys. I didn’t think about what I wanted or liked. I wanted to be Main Character, so I lived like her. I agonized over how I looked in the morning just to brag that I’d woken up late and thrown something on last minute, no makeup — aka mascara and lip tint — hoping to be scooped up by my very own Male Love Interest. As the years went by, it got harder and harder to pretend I didn’t keep that tab of Sandra Bullock up on my phone to stare at when I was alone. Even more so, it got harder and harder to ignore what that meant. But some glimmers of positive representation finally began to shine through tiny cracks in the Hollywood standard. Glee’s Santana Lopez changed my entire view of myself. She existed in the real world — as real as a musical satire about high school show choir can be — and she was a whole person. Santana was gay, and she was also talented and flawed. She dated and broke up and dated again and even got married. Santana got to be in love. She didn’t have to be picked by Male Love Interest to get there. And it’s not just her anymore. Granted, mainstream shows that feature positive sapphic repre-

sentation, such as I Am Not Okay With This and Atypical, keep getting canceled. Still, the fact that those shows came into existence, that they were greenlit, or that Netflix even took the pitch meetings, is nothing short of revolutionary. With access to today’s Netflix library, very confused 12-year-old me would have so many more chances to stumble upon something that would have made it all click. Representation isn’t just important for young queer kids, either: On-screen queer love has the power to soften those who grew up in generations and environments that were hostile towards gay people. Modern Family’s gay married couple Mitch and Cam marked a massive step towards widespread acceptance of gayness beyond the space of entertainment. People who had only experienced gay people from a distance, from 90’s sitcom jokes, or from hushed warnings about “The Gay Agenda,” could now attach gayness to characters they cared about. They invited Mitch and Cam into their homes for half an hour on Wednesday nights, and in turn, slowly relinquished the ignorance, misogyny, stereotypes, and religious admonition that led to their homophobia in the first place. Movies and TV also provide a unique opportunity for kids who might not turn out to be queer. Rep-

resentation in kids’ shows builds awareness and empathy for gay people in a formative stage, so the dismantling of prejudice never even needs to occur. If you see a gay boy on a Disney Channel show at six years old (thank you, Andi Mack), acceptance ingrains itself in your psyche before you have time to know any different. Now, we’ve bridged the gap before the crack has even formed; rather than building a bridge, we’ve prevented the chasm. And so people can be who they are without feeling different — not good different, like, why don’t other girls listen to My Chemical Romance, what a bunch of normies different — I’m talking about the bad different, the not good enough different, the doomed to be laughed at forever different. LGBTQ+ representation has a long way to go. Dismantling the comedic conventions of gayness that plagued film and TV for decades will take a long time, but it’s better than it ever has been, and it’s trending up. I want kids who come after me to know that gay love exists: It’s real, it’s attainable, and it’s every bit as magical as early 2000s rom-coms promised love would be. ■


Ornamental Beauty by KYRA BURKE

My mother was God’s muse, and through her, I yearned to bury my insecurities beneath opulence.


“The temptation of being fearless like my mother drew me in, left me breathless and greedy — chasing after pieces of jewelry as if they were shards of my soul.”


t 13 years old, earrings were my sanctuary.

Palms pressed against glass display cases, I was always mesmerized by the glitter and gold — pearls like drops of moonlight, glistening gemstones on beds of velvet. Their beauty was simple, painless, and I hungered for that kind of superficial security as a young girl. If I couldn’t scrub away my sandpaper skin and angled features, I could adorn my ears with items more valuable than the way I viewed myself.

To me, womanhood felt less like a rite of passage and more like a pipe dream. My parents outlawed earrings until I was older, and the ever-present mantra of look, don’t touch trailed my every glance. I was promised that at 15, I would be allowed my first pair. In my adolescent eyes, these jewels were my only gateway to womanhood. My appearance was dreams away from the models I worshipped in magazines, with their satin complexions and picture-perfect smiles, their impossibly soft, rosebud lips, and voluminous eyes. I was the graceless girl in the mirror. The girl who, under the guise of demureness, was drowning — drowning in her own self-loathing, her lack of confidence in her unadorned, natural self. The girl who craved any semblance of self-worth, frantically grasping for


material accessories to compensate for her instability. The girl whose pursuit of beauty was a dizzying delusion. Jewelry was my means to cope and seek comfort in the assurance that, when I was old enough, I could bury my insecurities beneath opulence. Meanwhile, on my mother’s ears, it was something else entirely. Unlike the models in the magazines, the earrings didn’t transform her; she transformed them. She awakened ornamental pieces with her touch and morphed diamonds and gilded hoops into halos of promise against her skin. Their daintiness echoed the dignity with which she carried herself, expertly disguising her fiery persona beneath a composed countenance. She was God’s muse — each piece was handcrafted just for her, perfectly accentuating her olive complexion. My mother was elegant in a subtle, refined way. As a woman in the business world, she dressed for perfection: finely tailored blazers, button-up shirts, polished heels. The gold and silver were impressive on their own, but when she wore them, they granted her a status of her own creation. With jewelry, she stood taller, spoke more eloquently, sauntered through life as if heaven’s grace was beneath her feet.




“The staccato beat of my heart was in my ears, in my chest, in my skull, a deafening roar of bottled-up anxiety I had spent my entire childhood running away from.” On my mother’s ears, jewels weren’t merely tokens of her journey as a woman; they were extensions of her identity. Earrings were the answer to my doubts, if it was even possible for me to look past my insecurities and be comfortable in my own skin. There was nothing I wanted more than to be like my mother, and soon, my shallow desires began to devour me whole. The temptation of being fearless like my mother drew me in, left me breathless, greedy — chasing after pieces of jewelry as if they were shards of my soul. And, with the blessing of time, my prayers were answered. When I was gifted my first pair of gold earrings on my 15th birthday, I felt all my struggles, all my harrowing ruminations and convictions, coalesce into this single moment in the symphony of time. In a breath, my surroundings dissolved into the background, and it was just me and the jewelry box in my hands. The promise my parents had made to me years ago had finally been fulfilled.

childhood running away from. This was it: This was the moment my adolescent dreams would be fulfilled — when I would finally unearth my true self. This was it. Upon opening the box, my eyes landed on the gold studs nestled inside, and in an instant, my expectations shattered. I regarded them in silence, scrutinizing them in search of a single spark, an answer, something. Despite the familiar golden sheen, the studs were starkly absent of the magic I chased. In denial, my fingers journeyed to their surface, and as they collided with my touch, I felt the beginning ripples of disbelief under my skin. Earrings in grasp, I turned towards my bedroom mirror, hands steadily rising towards my ears. Time rushed to a halt. The earrings were on, and yet, nothing had changed. I was left staring into the crude face of my mirror image: the same tarnished, pitiful, fractured girl from my past.

“Whenever you’re ready.”

All my foolish hopes came crashing down on me as I registered the studs as nothing more than lifeless pieces of metal. They left me untouched, unperfected, utterly unlike the earrings on my mother’s ears. My heart, an anchor in my chest, plunged with the realization that my pursuit of earrings was embedded in lies. This was no celebration of growth, no miraculous revelation of selfidentity, no grand epiphany. These earrings meant nothing to me.

I nodded wordlessly, drunk on expectation. The staccato beat of my heart was in my ears, in my chest, in my skull, a deafening roar of bottled-up anxiety I had spent my entire

Feeling hopeless, I looked towards my mother, only to watch her collapse into a hearty laugh. She asked me amusedly if this was what I was expecting, to which I replied a quiet no.

“Cherish them,” my mother warned me, penetrating my trance. I lifted my gaze, and my eyes instantly fixed on her signature diamonds, twinkling sharply in the light. Suddenly, her face softened, and the diamonds dimmed as she smiled.



She laughed again and shook her head slowly, standing up to leave the room. As she passed through the doorway, I heard her remark over her shoulder, “They’re just earrings.” I reflected on the times I was younger, on the rare moments that her ears were barren and stripped of gold. The times when I was little and curled up in her lap, curiously inspecting her features for brilliance. I felt the silken murmur of her voice above me, her feather touch on my shoulder, the warmth of her intelligence that made me feel at peace, at home. Even without the glamour, my mother was still remarkably herself. Her grace and confidence went beyond the surface, and it didn’t matter what she wore on her ears. Her persona was rooted within her, anchored in her soul. Unadorned, she was the same mother I’ve always known and admired. It was true: They were just earrings. These mere scraps of metal without substance, prepared to wither away with the Earth, that I had so desperately sought after them throughout my childhood with hopes to be attractive, to be remembered, to be womanly. Under my youthful gaze, the jewels on my mother’s ears seemed to grant her these ideals effortlessly. But perhaps, this in itself was fictitious. The earrings didn’t define my mother. No, she defined herself.


Gradually, the tension within me released, and the box in my hands suddenly felt lighter, more liberating. I could no longer rely on jewelry for comfort; I had to let go of my past perceptions and conquer my selfdoubts alone. I took a breath and turned towards the mirror again. Gazing resolutely at the imperfect, unembellished girl in the reflection, I slowly exhaled the notions holding me back. With maturity, my thoughts shifted from jewels to my imminent reality. College offered me new goals, and staying busy helped curtail my insecurities. As the glitter faded and my vision cleared, my all-encompassing purpose on Earth grew increasingly lucid. My self-image was just one step; there was more to life that I had yet to explore. At last, ambitions secured in my hands, I accepted the great task ahead of me. Tentatively, I peered into the boundless future, at the spiraling stairways and pitfalls of womanhood awaiting my arrival. The uncertainty of the unknown terrified me, but I was also exhilarated, ravenous for the next stage of my life. I took a step forward, away from my youth, and for a split second, I looked back. I saw glittering encapsulations of my past self: the earrings on magazines, beneath glass displays, on my mother’s ears, and now, on my own. ■








16 VOL.


I was so publicly opposed to it because I didn’t like how girls were represented in anime. I thought it was made for teenage boys and teenage boys only — especially after only being exposed to anime series where peeping up girls’ skirts was a part of everyday life. That is, until my first college roommate told me she liked anime. I wanted to fit in, so down I went into the rabbit hole. I ended up watching everything and anything I could before the semester started; to my delighted surprise, I fell in love with its art, plot, and messages. In the midst of this wonderland, I noticed that the sexism in anime was more ingrained and complex than my middle school brain had understood it to be.

eventh-grade me would’ve been very embarrassed. She’d think I was cooler than this. “I’ll never watch anime!” I’d proclaimed. In my defense, I had perceptions of shame thrown at me for years in the form of a guided hand on my shoulder, pushing me away from that section in Hot Topic — to which I always weaseled my way back to in glorious, adolescent rebellion.

Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Studio Ghibli VCR tapes shown in my after-school daycare filled me with curiosity, magic, and adventure. Yet I resisted watching anything on my own because I’d seen how “skimpily” the 12-year-old girls in anime were dressed or how they “sucked up” to boys around them. At least, that’s what my middle school brain thought of anime. I also knew what happened when people found out that you liked “that weird anime stuff.” Imagine my horror when a friend’s phone went off in class to the LoveLive theme. I just about died, as did our reputations when we were branded as “weebs.” We were victims to that unique prepubescent stage of life where we strongly desired to fit in. From then on, I immediately shunned any exposure to anime, feeling superior in my decision and succumbing to peer pressure.

To get an idea of how gendered anime is, look at the names of its genres. The most popular category is shōnen (少年), which translates to “young boy,” and is accordingly aimed at eight to 14-year-old boys. Shōnen follows formulas that would rather give more screen time to male side characters than female leads — I’m looking at you, Fairy Tail — and often oversexualizes women with gratuitous panty shots and “accidental” boob grabs. While many shōnen anime don’t oversexualize their female characters at first, if and when viewership falls, they change female characters’ appearances for so-called “fan service.” By “changing appearances,” I mean newfound triple-D boobs and a size zero waist to match. This is not to say all women in shōnen are inherently weak; rather, they aren’t allowed to be strong in the same way the men around them are. As always, anime has a trope for that: Here comes the asexual female warrior. Men aren’t attracted to her. She isn’t attracted to men. She serves no other purpose except to occasionally kick ass with a stonefaced expression; however, in final battles, she’s never the one to finish off the antagonist. Alongside her is the







tsundere: the spit-fire pretty girl who only seems to care about herself, at the expense of others. Her fatal flaw is that she cannot regard herself as any less than perfect, lest she loses her identity. She eventually becomes friendlier at the request of the soft-spoken love interest, who she realizes cannot handle her. She’s too independent, too bossy, and too opinionated for him, so she changes herself for his sake. This is, many times, her only form of character development. While anime does have women represented as leads, these characters lack the dimension and leeway their male counterparts are fed in heaping spoonfuls. Women in anime simply cannot win. If they make a mistake, they are weak. If they desire, they are lustful. If they are strong-willed, they are annoying. Meanwhile, male characters are put on a pedestal and seen as growing, boyish, and full of integrity no matter what they do. Think of every time in Fairy Tail when the protagonist, Lucy, makes a mistake versus when her male counterpart, Natsu, does the same. The two have similar motivations and goals, but Lucy is characterized as overly emotional — Natsu is just seen as a little reckless. Representation doesn’t always mean fair representation. We’ve settled for crumbs of realistic depictions since the boom of television anime in the ’70s. These tropes have been canon for a long time, and it’s the industry’s easy way of giving us characters we can choke down. It’s something you swallow down the wrong pipe and have to force into complacency with water because … at least there’s a girl in the show! I’m happy to say that there is a shift beginning to happen. The shōnen publications have found that their target audience is no longer who they think it is. This doesn’t mean everything has changed. Rather, women have started to speak out against tropes and voice their opinions whenever they see misogyny in their favorite animes. Unfortunately, per patriarchal tradition, when women become part of a male-dominated community, the chauvinists appear and attempt to shut them out. There’s a lot of irony in the insults that males throw to discredit any social progress in the anime community. Women “ruin anime” if they simp for characters, as if men haven’t always done the same in more degrading ways. When women positively impact the industry by way of content creation or even interaction within fandoms, they still face constant backlash — from the 12-year-old Naruto runner to the 30 year old who claims no one will ever beat “his” Goku. Many men don’t want women to watch what they consider “their” shows. This doesn’t mean

women in the community are going to back down. The time has come to reclaim “their” anime and beat the misogyny that has manifested itself in Dragon Ball Z hero Goku. Some creators have discovered this change and are catering to their new consumers, such as Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, written by Hiromu Arakawa. The show — written by a badass woman about badass women — has female characters who can hold their own, without being sex objects or damsels in distress. The most essential female character to the storyline is Winry, who uses her mechanic expertise to aid the protagonists and is often the show’s voice of reason. Their teacher, Izumi Curtis, has a dual identity as both a housewife and a warrior, and she makes a point to let everyone know. When I watched the show, she was one of my favorite characters because she kept her femininity close instead of rejecting it — kicking ass and gender roles at the same time. Female mangakas, people who write and illustrate manga, amaze me. They’ve been fighting in a male-dominated industry since the 1990s without backing down as their series progress. Sailor Moon, written by Naoko Takeuchi, is known for girls saving the world through “the power of love and friendship.” They weaponize their femininity when people need saving, transforming into skirts and magically powered makeup before fights. One lyric from the theme sums up the message Takeuchi has sent for years: “We are not helpless girls who need men’s protection!” A newer anime rocketing to fame in America is Attack on Titan, which aggressively challenges these gender stereotypes. Every female character in this series has her own purpose, and none exist for any man’s benefit. The fanbase has its own share of gatekeeping men whose goal is to change the women to their liking, something the creator, Hajime Isayama, has refused to do. In the anime, there’s a character with an ambiguous gender identity who Isayama publicly defended when fans protested. His depiction of a nonbinary character gives a platform to nonbinary consumers who feel like they are finally seen in a nonfetishized way. With all these creators changing the scene, consumers like me can crowd around their phones at lunch and say, “They’re/ she’s so cool!” without feeling ashamed of how they’re being represented. When you’re younger and all you want to do is fit in, staring at girls your age in skimpy outfits doesn’t help your odds. When characters break free of the mold and are powerful for their own purposes, women and nonbinary consumers are drawn to the freedom they see illustrated before them. Whether it’s a pimply middle schooler or an equally insecure college student, anime should make you feel cool.


And yes, I believe we can — and will — beat Goku. ■ 75

A Scholar’s Sanctuary by HAYLE CHEN

romanticize at your own risk.




“In my adolescent mind, higher education was, quite literally, the pinnacle of the human experience.”


used to dream of a world in which my parents were university professors. There was something tantalizing about being directly associated with tweed-jacket-wearing, fountain-pen-using, elbow-patch-sporting educators whose witty jokes made in lecture contrasted the stern tone they took when tardy students caused a commotion. I was a bibliophile child, notorious for backdoor deals with the school librarian to work around the strict “check out one book at a time” policy. Naturally, I fantasized about university life and the sophisticated professors associated with it.

In my adolescent mind, higher education was, quite literally, the pinnacle of the human experience. So it’s no surprise that on my first day of kindergarten, I rejoiced to learn that this is what life could be like. Sitting in a classroom, dutifully listening to lessons, and completing my assignments amidst the logically scheduled backdrop of lunchtime, recess, and holiday parties. Picture days and field trips, reading time and history lessons — it all seemed exquisite. Though the memories are hazy, life before school felt like one long, aimless summer. Still too young, I used to impatiently race to the bus stop to collect my older brother and bombard him with questions about his school day. Now, I could experience the wonders of academia myself, and from the outset, I found it delightful. I’d always been ravenous for knowledge, consuming the words on the pages of children’s books at warp speed, and now I could be praised for doing so. Each grade level brought diverse experiences and friends, but most importantly, it brought thrilling opportunities for learning. In academia, I found my great loves: reading, writing, and note-taking. I devoured scientific theories, historical facts, and new perspectives as if my very existence depended upon the knowledge I reaped. Within the walls of a kindergarten classroom, my lifelong sanctuary was born. Learning enthralled me then, with its grammar lessons and lab experiments, and it still does to-

day. Nothing brings me greater joy than listening to enigmatic lectures on the First Amendment or Shakespearean plays read aloud. When all else fails, there’s always another day of class to attend and a fresh concept to master. It’s comforting that I am a student first and an individual second. But this role I embrace is no coincidence: Academia is deeply entrenched in 21st-century culture. The soaring university enrollment rates and viral videos of high school seniors getting accepted into Ivy Leagues say it all. We push the narrative that children must excel when they’re young: develop robust study habits, take the most difficult courses in high school, and maintain the highest GPA possible — all while involving themselves in arduous extracurriculars to be a competitive applicant for universities. Though social media frames higher education through the alluring aesthetics of Gothic libraries, quaint cafés, and chic notes, the reality of school is often more harrowing. As I’ve climbed the rungs of academia, I’ve reveled in the new knowledge and skills it’s provided me, but I’m also hyperaware that school doesn’t look like a beautifully curated Pinterest board. Save for the few weeks at the start of a semester, I’m caught in a precarious cycle of burnout and perpetually looming panic about an upcoming exam or a difficult assignment. Eternally exhausted, I’m consumed by the feeling that I could always be getting ahead instead of wasting time — I could always be doing something. The romanticized version of academia is bewitching because it does exist if I have the time to contrive it. But, the reality of a typical semester is more disheartening. Draining. Soul-crushing. For every afternoon I coffee-shop hop and daydream about feeling the weight of my future degree between my fingers, there are twice as many sleepless nights that end in hot tears and tight chests from anxiety. Still, I love school because too often, my mentally debilitating sleep schedule and over-the-top efforts are rewarded. Each year, I navigated adolescence with the goal of academic excellence. I loved learning just as much as I thrived off a perfect score on an AP World History project. I was be-



“The romanticized version of academia is bewitching because it does exist if you have the time to contrive it.” 82




witched, which made the opposite results even more damaging. I was emboldened by my natural thirst for knowledge, but at some point along the way, the praise or high score I received became synonymous with my self-worth. In my sophomore year of high school, I felt genuine self-loathing when I nearly failed a physics midterm. I had spent countless nights poring over handwritten study guides filled with practice problems and illegible equations. The memory of embittered tears streaming down my face on the car ride home that afternoon as I blubbered about the potential detriment to my GPA is seared into my consciousness. Even freshman year of college, with its diverse environment and endless social possibilities, couldn’t quell my merciless attachment to my studies. My second year of college has proved to be no different; I preach the need for my peers to stop glorifying our lack of sleep but never heed my own advice. I’ve always been a broken record: School above all. Academics before frivolous parties and weekend plans. That’s not to say I don’t socialize or have friends. But, there’s an inevitable loneliness that pervades me when I notice that the majority of my conversations lament school-induced exhaustion or an upcoming exam. I haven’t merely associated myself with academia; I’ve fused my very identity to it. My interests, my passions, my life purpose — they’ve all existed to propel my acceptance into another academic institution. Mental health and personal isolation be damned. There’s an intense dichotomy that I’ve learned to accept. Academia is my savior, but it’s also a villain. My sanctuary was born that first day of kindergarten, but it also ushered in an obsession — a codependency of sorts. Somehow, I’ve allowed the shiny golden star at the top of my returned assignments to justify my toxicity.

stage, the muted pain of standing in high heels for hours on end, the momentarily blinding effect of the camera’s flash as my family erupts in applause. Not because I want it to come faster — to free me from the drudgery of papers and exams — rather, because I dread it. I dread the limbo. The momentary stasis that accompanies not being pushed in the direction of a new school or another lofty academic endeavor. I fear leaving the world I’ve always known, the one I’ve integrated into my identity so deeply that I’ve become one with it. I know that craving more time in the very institutions that propel my descent into madness is insanity. But finding solace in a classroom is a different type of agony because when the pens and papers and essays and assignments fall away … who am I? My mind screams at me that academia can’t always be my savior, but I can’t seem to accept it as my villain, either. Though I fear a world without academia as my anchor, maybe the rainy nights where I can simply light a candle, take a long bath, and crack open a book without thinking about the weeks’ worth of assignments will feel a lot sweeter. A languid walk through a bustling city might not make me think about how I’m wasting precious time. Maybe I’ll decide to stay out longer on those weeknights and pick up coffee, stop by a cramped bookstore, and inhale the scent of old pages. Maybe I’ll still grasp tightly to academia, but it won’t be everything. Maybe. Last summer, as I cleaned out my childhood bedroom and found stacks of old manila envelopes bursting with grade school report cards and end of the year certificates, I came to a conclusion: Pain is temporary, but academia is eternal.

So I think about my graduation day constantly: the sound of my name being called as I walk the



Or maybe it’s the other way around. ■

“But finding solace in a classroom is a different type of agony because when the pens and papers and essays and assignments fall away … who am I?”


And I was just living in it. layout ISZY COCO & ADRIANA TORRES


enny was a good dancer. That was my first impression.

In 2012, and for a few years after that, I attended a summer leadership camp. On top of the usual speaker seminars and group building activities, they would make each class learn a dance, because nothing says leadership like preteens performing a dance they learned in a week. This is where I first saw Jenny. I would say this was where I met her, but that implies that she was aware of my presence at the time. I don’t think she was. Our class was dancing to Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration” and equipped with thick socks and cheesy pom poms. There were about 30 of us, but Jenny stood out. She made the moves look easy and natural. Her smile was wide but not forced, and she knew exactly when to step and on what count. “Girls, we’re going to do a V formation.” The dance teacher was deciding placements now. I was placed in the back of the formation, which, given my sloppy footwork, was expected. I thought about how I must’ve looked on stage. Knee-length shorts, just starting puberty, still recovering from a bad haircut. Unsurprisingly, I was a very insecure preteen.

never spiteful jealousy that I felt towards her. It was more like covetous awe, the way you would admire a celebrity or a model. Kind of like a crush, only creepy and sad. The shame I felt in monitoring her every move only exacerbated my melancholy. I was unsettlingly observant, and even if no one else saw me staring, my own awareness of it was enough to humiliate me. She had straight black hair, which she usually wore down or sometimes in a high ponytail. She was slender, fashionable, and trendy, but not in a tacky or overzealous way. She had freckles, which are the most perfect of imperfections and rare for Asians. This somehow made her even more charming. Some alumni hosted a camp reunion in my junior year of high school. Jenny was talking about her spring break trip to Cancún, where one night, she and her friends had to help an extremely drunk stranger return to her hotel room. I listened intently, reminded of the fact that I had never drunk alcohol with friends before. Jenny’s closest friend from the camp then teasingly asked her about an older counselor who had harbored a not-so-subtle crush on her. He was good-natured and funny, and his dance skills made him a favorite among the teachers. They had apparently been snapchatting nonstop this summer.

“Jenny will be at the tip of the V.” I wasn’t surprised. Jenny smiled in a bashful yet knowing way as she walked to the front of the stage. Her friends cheered her on, but I knew they were secretly jealous. What I would’ve given to look like that, to be admired like that.

*** When I graduated high school and no longer saw Jenny at extracurricular events, I satiated my stalkerish tendencies through social media.

This was the first time I wished I was Jenny. *** I eventually outgrew my awkward pubescent stage and became an aggressively normal teen. Meanwhile, Jenny blossomed.

She attended university in New York City and was, of course, living her glamorous Ivy League life to the fullest. She was studious, as was evident from her late-night library posts and her position as editor of a student-run news website. But she also knew how to have a good time, surrounded by her beautiful posse of sorority sisters.

Over the years, she somehow became even prettier and even more accomplished. For This was Jenny’s world. And as a foolish spectator, every step I took towards becoming a “better” pathetically tracking her every move, I was just me, Jenny seemed to take two more. But it was living in it. fantasia


"Even Jenny would want to be the Jenny in my mind."

I’m reminded of an instance in my freshman year of college. I was at a meet and greet for an all-girls social club, and I was doing my best to connect with one of the senior members. We were discussing the latest Ted Bundy docuseries, and I expressed how, while I hadn’t watched the show, the whole situation was still very chilling to me. A beat.

dwindle. When you develop a personality, you’re less insecure about not having one. Jenny’s eminence was fading.

“Don’t worry,” the girl I was speaking with said cheerily. “He didn’t really go for girls like you. He was more into girls like … ” She looked around the small circle that had formed.

But about a year ago, on a night where I was feeling especially vulnerable, Instagram gifted me with a story update. I couldn’t help but indulge. Smiling from some New York City rooftop, dancing to a trendy song I was unfamiliar with, was Jenny. There was this aura that surrounded her, a sparkle so alluring I couldn’t help but stare, but so bright that it hurt.

“Like her!” She pointed to a white girl with pretty eyes and wavy brown hair. I was suddenly very aware of my appearance. Was I too Asian for a handsome, white serial killer from the ‘70s? The girl with pretty eyes smiled demurely.

I thought about how sad I must look, lying in bed watching this girl’s story on repeat, my face illuminated only by the bluish light of the phone screen. Instantly, I was back at that summer camp, slouching in my green shorts and ugly haircut.

“I’m not sure if I should be glad or not,” she said, giggling. The whole circle laughed along.

It would be nice to end the saga with some sort of confrontation with Jenny, resolving this creepy complex. I’d confess to her how much I looked up to her growing up, and she’d laugh, saying that she was honored. I’d leave the meeting feeling relieved and emboldened because I was confident enough to confess how much I idolized her, and that somehow meant that I was a better person than before.

I wonder if Ted Bundy would go for a girl like Jenny. ***

What I admired most about Jenny was her ability to somehow transcend stereotypes. She was But I haven’t talked to Jenny in years. And if I’m clever and well-read, but she could also rap the honest, we were acquaintances at best, never close entirety of Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble.” She was enough for a casual meet-up. fashionable and clearly well-off, but still down-toearth and funny. I don’t think there needs to be that kind of “happily ever after” meeting, though. Somewhere along the Effortless. Maybe that was the best way to describe line, the image in my head had deviated from the it. The way she carried herself, the way she real person. At this point, it wasn’t even Jenny interacted with others, the way she went about whom I was idolizing — it was an aggrandized life — it was all effortless. She wasn’t “that Asian idea of her. Even Jenny would want to be the Jenny girl,” but she was also never “not Asian enough.” in my mind. Recognizing that in itself was healing. She was just Jenny. Pretty, smart, perfect Jenny. There will still be times when I struggle with Over the years, my fixation on her lessened. I the internalized white gaze and my inferiority started college, took interesting classes, joined complex. I’ll wonder how my peers perceive me, different clubs, and attended dodgy frat parties and I’ll lose sleep dwelling on my insecurities. I’ll with even dodgier drinks. For the first time since probably be visiting Jenny’s Instagram profile on childhood, I began to understand myself and the those days. But I don’t need her approval to move things that motivated me. I think my admiration on with my life and become the person I’m meant for Jenny stemmed from how much I despised to be. I know that I’m more than “that boring myself. She was a gorgeous, fashionable, intelligent Asian girl,” and those who genuinely care for me person, and I was just “some Asian girl.” But as I know that too. slowly became more comfortable with myself, the insecurities that incited my obsession began to Besides, Ted Bundy wasn’t my type anyway. ■ fantasia


I love me, I love me not


When the last petal falls, I run to the garden.




“I wandered the earth as an ungrown seed

with cynical whispers that showered my head. ” I. Sprout - intransitive verb. 1: To grow, spring up. internalize others’ judgments. In her realm of nature, she departed from the noise and y mother always had the greenest movement of daily life, finding consolation in thumb. Her tenacity for gardening the breathing leaves. She channeled the woman consumed our house with a myriad who grew where she planted herself rather than of greens. One step into her garden allowing herself to be replanted in an arid place. turned into a venture for picking fresh produce like The same murmurs around my mother wedged plump tomatoes, squash, and aromatic herbs to their way into my internal monologue. They prepare homey meals. While the vegetables found formed a problem rooted in my desire to be an a comfortable home in our soil, we cultivated our independent woman in a culture that rejected this own home arboretum, nurturing flower seeds idea. At times of defeat, they sounded convincing, next to the frenzy of overgrown plants. When and I buried myself in the barren soil. The summer came around, we placed the seeds in contaminated stream of thoughts cast me into spots with adequate sunlight, nutrients, and water. a defeatist and unwelcoming territory that felt Soon enough, they began to peer out of their coats, inescapable. elongating towards the sun. However, my mother escaped to the garden. The However, germination is a fallible process. Unlike murmurs dissipated as she spoke to her green my mother, I had a weaker aptitude for plant companions, finding the comfort that she never care. I was prone to either under or overwatering received from an overbearing culture. From the seeds, unable to tune into their needs. I healing with the plants, she provided me with the felt a particular draw towards the premature warm, tender encouragement that I struggled to flowers all the same. To thrive, they must be in find within myself. It was her voice that watered an environment that’s optimal for their unique me on my journey to discover the spot where I demands — mirroring the way I sought a place would sprout. that I could sprout. They needed just the right amount of water, sunlight, and compost — just II. Grow - intransitive verb. 1: (of a living thing) like how I sought reassurance, support, and a niche To undergo natural development, to progress to where I could grow. Yet I would continuously let maturity. the wrong hands determine where to plant me, and I struggled to lay down my roots. My shyness Under the August sun, before I journeyed into and lack of self-esteem left me wandering from college, my mother and I made our way to water one perspective to another, metamorphosing the sprouting buds, which gradually inched my thoughts with each negative encounter. I taller toward the sunbeams. Roots marked their wandered the earth as an ungrown seed with territory, rosettes matured into leaves, and cynical whispers that showered my head. petals rose through inflorescence. A myriad of flowers thrived in our flower bed, revealing their I grew in a place where my inner voice intertwined true colors. We sat under the shade of our patio, with unhelpful opinions from an unsupportive admiring the sunshine glimmering off the petals culture. I felt the looming pressure to fit into and plants dancing with the gusts of wind. The traditional South Asian criteria. I latched onto the quiet of the suburbs made the moment serene. words of boastful strangers who intended to put My mother wrapped her arm around my shoulder, me in a constructed place. I saw the women in my gently unwinding the malevolent whispers in my family face an ultimatum between motherhood head. She would remind me that I am deserving and a career. of love and kindness despite any shortcomings, as neither the words of others nor my failures define My mother spent hours in the garden every my self-worth. day, reconnecting with her past self that didn’t






“Roots marked their territory,

rosettes matured into leaves, and petals rose through

inflorescence. ”

“... I am in control of deciding my ultimatums. ”

“My petals were in full bloom,

and I found warmth inside my head. “

When I entered college, I desired to free myself from my restraining mindset. Echoing my mother’s words, I searched for a niche where I could anchor my roots and shoot towards the sun. I didn’t expect my exploration to succeed overnight, but I hoped to grasp onto hidden confidence to mingle with others. Yet on my first day, I found myself suffocating. While eager students made their way outside to enjoy the start of school festivities, I slipped through the crowd, tuning out the chatter around me as I looked for a place to breathe. Although I sought to break away from the norm of weakness, my timid nature confined me to the walls of my dorm room. I felt as though I failed my quest even before it began. The voices slithered back into my mind, clouding my perception to believe in my capabilities. I briefly detached myself from the fear of falling, but it was only a matter of time until I surrendered my confidence to my spiraling thoughts. I believed material success was the golden ticket towards severing the reins of cultural restraints. However, subconsciously associating accomplishments with affection and support often left me in the dark, as I treated every failure as a barrier to kindness. A speech replayed in my head as I lived through iterations of the same narrative time and time again: It was wrong to be ambitious and selfsufficient. It was even more preposterous to think I could reach toward the sun with my feeble demeanor. Perhaps I needed to forgo pursuing my passions because there was never a place for me in the first place. I found myself in an environment where I couldn’t grow, let alone see a distant light. When I paused this speech, however, I had to wonder: Were these words truly my own or a product of discouraging interactions of the past? III. Blossom - verb. 2: To come into one’s own. The moment I returned home, I ran with my mother into the garden.


When we visited our arboretum, I found that my mother propagated parts of her past self to bloom in the fertile earth. Despite the unkind whispers, my mother chose to pursue her career along with motherhood. As I needed not choose one over the other, she reminded me that I am in control of deciding my ultimatums. My niche was not beneath the blanket covers in my dorm room, nor the mindset that withheld me from blooming. As I navigated towards fulfilling my aspirations, I found myself surrounded by people whose words overwrote the bleak script in my mind. I came across a newfound niche and decided to plant myself in a place that filled me with warmth. The encouragement of my peers, whom I grew alongside, and the wise guidance of my mentors flowed inside my ears. Their constant affirmations removed the painful thorns residing within me. Soon, their voices began to feel like my own inner thoughts. The voice inside my head bloomed into one that loves me for who I am, my true essence — not my accolades. It renounced worldly success as the ticket to receiving kindness and acceptance, giving me instead the courage to break away from cultural barriers. My mother watered me, but their support was the sunshine that helped me flourish. My petals were in full bloom, and I found warmth inside my head. But flowers are fragile beings. After the flowering phase commences, they can quickly wither without the proper amount of moisture. In the moments I faltered, the voices of my mother and friends muted my prevailing worries, resurrecting the latent power within myself. As my environment nourished me to flower, I realized the supportive environment I sought was never miles away. I discovered the self-love that always resided within me and realized I could flourish anywhere with the strength of my roots. Though I sometimes wilted, I had scattered seeds of myself along the way. When they found a nurturing environment — one where the water of the kind voices defeated the contemptuous whispers — I began to sprout once again. ■





pon entering my home today, I was faced with an elephant present in my living room. I shook his hand, exchanged the usual pleasantries, chatted to my heart’s content. But when the time came to address one another, I was at a loss for words. How do you begin to address the elephant in the room when you have no name with which to address him? I stare into the face of this massive giant, tracing each wrinkle for a recollection of his name. Inch after inch, I search to no avail. A being whose presence is so painfully obvious but represents the lack thereof — your absence, my Loss. Loss, a noun, meaning perdition, ruin, destruction, being deprived of, or the failure to keep. The word’s origins date back to ca. 897. Its presence we felt far before our ability to articulate it; its meaning I learned in your absence. Performing the role of griever and emotional etymologist, I’m left to decipher what it means to be your daughter in the wake of your death. I am forever wading in my own sentimentality, consciously bobbing my head above water so as not to drown in melancholy. Floating through boundless seas, all-consuming nostalgia. Constantly teetering the line between dreaming and drowning. I peer down at the water and see your colorless reflection, a cruel illusion reminding me of my solitude in this flowing expanse. Your spatial absence. Your mental absence. Your emotional absence. The absence of your absence. Why do I cry so deeply for someone I can hardly see in my mind’s eye? On her deathbed, my mother shared a dream she had. A dream of you. I often dream of her. Never of you.

“Mourning your loss is like waiting for a set of teeth that never came in.” When will you come see me? Absent in life and my dream state, too. A mother’s favorite china. A father’s cherished record collection. Family heirlooms that brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins, and grandchildren fight over, combing over those earthly belongings that no longer hold human ties. What do I have to remember you by? Decade-old memories tinged with forget and childish ignorance. Mourning your loss is like waiting for a set of teeth that never came in. Constantly rubbing my tongue along pink gums, knowing a wall of ivory is meant to stand erect in place of its absence. Never quite finding the words to express myself, rendered speechless. Is it a loss if it was never mine to begin with? A phantom ache for the immaterial “what should have been.” I resent what



I don’t know my father, but I do know myself. little time we had together. And I resent that the time we did have will forever live in the ambiguity of a childhood I’m too young to remember. There is so little about you that I know. As a child, what did you muster the courage to say? Manipulating your foreign tongue to meet your lips and teeth, a triumphant trio in producing a most precious sound. A most precious memory. Baby’s first word. I wonder what yours was. Mine was “water,” but you already know that. Like water, a necessity, I needed you to live. Finding my breath in yours, consciously mimicking the rhythm at which your chest rose and fell, I wanted to make myself an extension of you. It’s an unspoken desire for most to have their child utter their name. A silent race to the finish line, where tongue and teeth collide. Who will it be? A child’s unbridled preference for one parent or the other.

tion. I know this was a point of contention for my mother. Scorned by her lover, reliant on her daughter, only for the word to come out of my mouth to be “papá.” It pains me to know this declaration stung her. I only hope you didn’t make your satisfaction too apparent. But what did you like to do as a child? What was your favorite color? Favorite pastime? When you hurt yourself, did you like to be rocked by your mother? In times of sadness, who did you cry out for? Who did you cry for? Did you cry? Or did you have the best childhood, full of white picket fences and tire swings? Juice boxes and scuffed knees. A wide-grinned smile with a missing front tooth. Baseball games and charbroiled hotdogs. Sunday strolls and drippy ice cream. Matching overalls and sticky fingers. But I know you didn’t. How I wish you would have had a hand to hold. A friend to confide in. A shoulder to lean on.

Who will it be? It was you.

Did you cry? What deep satisfaction you must have felt to have your baby girl choose you. To know it was you whose head she filled her thoughts with, her affection on full display alongside the memorabilia of your fatherhood. How two syllables, hardly a word, could provide you such profound valida-



I know you did. I do, too. For months, I have considered what your

thoughts were at that last moment. Did you know? I often reflect on the last time I saw you; only then I didn’t know you’d pass away shortly thereafter. How lying in your hospital bed, you chose to show me a magic trick. Inhaling deeply and pressing your lips together, you held your breath. Your pink lips turning blue. A round of applause for my magician. My uncontrollable giggles, your pleasant amusement, my mother’s hissing disapproval. She knew this was no laughing matter, and neither did you. I wonder if, in your last moments, all you hoped for was a hand to hold, someone to embrace, a voice to comfort you. The reassurance that it would all be okay. Did you kick and scream and fight your way through the bitter end? Or was it quiet, unprotesting, hopeless resignation? Who did you last think of when you took that final breath? They say you see your loved ones before you pass to the other side. I wonder if anyone was there to help you cross the finish line or if

you had to do it alone. No one deserves to die alone. I’m afraid that in my last moments, when I’m reviewing the story of my life, I’ll be forced to leave my paternal link unfilled: “Father Unknown.” So when it’s my time to go, I only ask that you come to me in a dream. Two people separated by a stream, you’ll tell me it’s time, and I’ll wade my way through the water to your embankment. Finally reunited — if not in life, then in death. Come to me as I take my last breath, a magician’s final trick. Until then, I’m left to pick up the fragments of my existence, which is so inextricably tied with yours. How do you begin to mourn the loss of someone you never knew? In writing this letter to you, which is more for me than you. ■

“I’m afraid that in my last moments, when I’m reviewing the story of my life, I’ll be forced to leave my paternal link unfilled: ‘Father Unknown.’”



Saving a Tempest by SHREYA RAJHANS

Summer tempest takes flight, cool waters blur my sight, love blooms to a new height.



ll around me, the city groans low in agony, a mighty but weary beast. Its concrete forests bear heavily on its slippery pavements. I feel the warmth sweltering throughout, pushing down around myself as I breathe in the fumes of desperation and frustration. The city yearns for rejuvenation, its people for purpose, and I for life.

The thicket of heat hunts down and under. In and around. Over and out. The roads are studded with cars that glisten in the sun, their agitated owners fretting inside. The crosswalk hums and buzzes with the flitting of busy pedestrians hurrying to cool off from the suffocating air. Apartment buildings shut out the invasive, humid air, shielding its residents from the stifling weather of this summer day.


I stand on the pavement lazily, observing the haste of life towards some abstract end that looms just over the horizon. The city is colored in an ochre-gray scheme, the dust blanketing the barren city in a dry cover. Time seems to run away from me, standing under one of the rare trees in the stretch of pavement. It ebbs and flows from my being into a sky that seems too blue, too bright, too perfect. Laughing at me. Mocking me. As the fast-paced world continues on its undefined journey, the clouds suddenly darken and roar, gathering to signal the arrival of a tempest. This is what I’ve been waiting for — a moment of peace in a parched paradise.

than watch, the downpour begin, surrounding the city and me in a curtain of motion. It’s as if I’m caged in the most beautiful painting; muted tones of blue and green color the city. Wherever the rain hits, there’s a burst of light. An attractive shot of color. Drip. I smell the earthy, robust dirt that flattens beneath my feet, hear the patter of the shower, and taste the rejuvenating water falling without worry on my upturned face. I sense the buildings surrounding me heave a sigh of relief as their inhabitants race outside to join me in savoring the monsoon. Drop.



I abandon the safety of shade from the sun, which has all but disappeared now behind the playful clouds. As the cool water hits my skin, there’s a brief sensation of goosebumps before all my senses surrender to the summer tempest. It’s like a movie in slow motion, where nothing matters but the object of my affection: the rain.

Falling drizzle. Floating sense. I feel, more


The first drops of rain tentatively hit the ground. The city sizzles as the cool water hits its urgent inhabitants. My palm automatically reaches out to catch a runaway drop, to feel moisture — life — return to me.



e most beautiful p h t n i aint aged ing c m n s e ’ e c r o lor t ’ . if I nd g


as e s u ’ l t “I db

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he c ity. ”

“T h

love feels like.” what ctly exa is is

Around me, Everything

rust forming on the worn-down buildings. I will become the rain. This piece of myself that I cherish will be the only thing left of me. The rain will be the only reminder that I was once blessed with being able to love something, anything.


until all that’s left is the vast feeling

And I chose to love the rain. Drop.



I am euphoric, I can fly, and I will let go of all my tethers to succumb to the butterflies in my stomach that promise me I have wings. I want to burst into song, like a little bird that travels the world and whispers its wonders to the flowers and trees. I am just a wisp of air, fainting and falling, tumbling in the rain, the Earth, my Mistress, my life too short. Will this time never end? Please, will this time never end. This time will never end. This is exactly what love feels like. I will take this moment with me to the ends of the Earth, and there, I will answer to whoever gave me my soul. I won’t lose this moment even when I can no longer taste the monsoon or smell the

The tempest soon starts to fade, preparing to move elsewhere. The spell starts to break as well, the sun peeking naughtily from the storm clouds. I start to hear the honks of cars instead of the steady drums of falling raindrops, taste the bitterness of longing instead of the tang of excitement. It all starts to feel like a dream. I wished upon it, and now it’s gone. The tempo of the city resumes its fervent speed. I am planted on the ground, held firmly in place by my expectations. No matter how far I go, I will always look over my shoulder for those storm clouds to rumble and yawn. Share a small smile in secret with the monsoon’s calling. Bask in the ecstasy of the tempest as it brings me the greatest peace I will ever attain. I am enduring. I am proof of life. Just like the rain. ■



“The rain will be the only reminder that I was once blessed with being able to love something, anything.”



sm all

“ Sha re a

the monsoon h t i w t ’s ca e r c e llin s n i g.” e li sm




































AT ’































I looked at him through the warm, orange flames of my 22 birthday candles. I closed my eyes to make a wish, and when I opened them, I feared he knew exactly what I wished for.


f you were to ask me a year ago what love is, I’d reply with something along the lines of, “feeling strong emotions about someone you care about.” So romantic. But when Patrick Stump wrote, “You could’ve knocked me out with a feather,” it wasn’t because he thought he was in love. You can’t, with a fully loaded gun, ask someone who has never experienced love to solve life’s biggest riddle.

Everyone tells you about the fairytale endings, the glitz, and the glam. The picnics at the local park with a persimmon sunset in your eyes and the gentle gust of wind of a lover’s spring. No one tells you that those warm hands that hold you so softly can also take and take until there’s nothing more of you to give. A hot knife can strike through butter with swift vengeance, and like butter, I melted at the touch one too many times. But we grow and learn to live another spring. ~*~ We first met on a socially distanced day in April. I didn’t love him then, but someone, something, had to have known what was coming.

Within a day, he put a toothbrush for me in his bathroom sink. Now, a year later, I can recall with meticulous detail the time I looked at him and thought, “Holy shit, I love him.” He could’ve knocked me out with a feather. Falling in love is a lot more about what happens in the unspoken moments; it’s the ache in your bones right before it rains, or a word at the tip of your tongue that you just can’t remember. Take me back to that drunken August evening somewhere downtown. You pointed at the billboard that read, “It took a pandemic to meet you.” You don’t believe in coincidences, but you chose to forget about it that time. I can’t give you an exact definition, but if you were to ask me now what love is, I would say it’s the feeling I get when he wakes me up to coffee with a splash of milk and an apple cut into cubes sprinkled with cinnamon. It’s the hand-holding and the kisses that taste like sunscreen on our daily Pokemon Go walks. Love is the feeling in my soul that everything is



“My mother, a firm believer in coincidences, ghosts, and superstition, has told me that a child’s name often seals their fate.”

going to be okay. Because underneath Ruby embed our lives is undeniable. This bond was Woo lipstick and expensive acrylics, I’m still a marked by our surname: Ceniceros Dominglossy feather plucked away by life’s hunger. guez. Ceniceros, holder of ashes, and Dominguez, from domingo, Sunday. My mother, a firm I feel a sense of responsibility to be more than believer in coincidences, ghosts, and superstihuman, but I could never relate to a superhero. tion, has told me that a child’s name often seals For a long time, I found my cape through hoop their fate. earrings and a promise to never fall in love. I felt undeserving of nice things and guilty when When I was born, I weighed only three pounds. I had them, because I’m not yet where I want My veins tattooed my paper skin, and for the to be. Until I’ve landed in this promised land of two months I spent in my incubator, I was just American Dreams, I’ll battle with this guilt the one wrong breath away from death. way Batman goes off and fights crime, or whatever. Bruce Wayne doesn’t know what poverty I wonder if I felt loved in those fragile moments is. Bruce Wayne isn’t an immigrant with a — loved with the passion of a mother’s faith, of string of generational curses to break. a mother who is one Ave Maria away from losing the baby girl she held and cared for all these ~*~ months. I wonder if she knew I loved her and that I was holding on so I could one day hold They say we’re born alone and die alone, ex- her hands and say that I love her, too. cept I was born alongside a baby boy. Together, we coexisted in a dark nothingness for eight My family didn’t miss a single day of visiting. months and then braved life’s first challenge When my mom couldn’t be there, my grandside by side. parents would take turns caring for me. They’d bring their Bible, pray, and when it was time I wonder if I loved my brother while in the for them to go, they’d leave the open Bible womb. I didn’t know or need to know who he on top of my incubator to pick up where they was, but the unbreakable link that will forever left off the next day. Simultaneously, as I was



“I wonder if I felt loved in those fragile moments — loved with the passion of a mother’s faith, of a mother who is one Ave Maria away from losing the baby girl she held and cared for all these months.”

fighting for my life, a bacteria entered the neonatal room and took the lives of several babies in the room. Soon after, I lost another half a pound of weight, had a blood transfusion, and my skin was just a sheer illusion of a mother and her healthy baby girl. Looking back, I wonder how they felt every time they left the hospital. Did they fear coming back to a lifeless vessel and a cursed Bible? Or was this a daily pilgrimage to their conviction, their love, their unyielding refusal to give up on me?

ing. When I’m really sad, I think of a big ticking clock with hands like lines of rope languidly burning towards all the people to whom I have ever said “I love you,” until one day, there won’t be any more rope to burn. The clock will cease to tick and, one by one, flames will engulf every single person that has ever cared for me. In those final hours, I hope I have enough time to tell them that I care for them, too.

I used to think that to love is to be another’s passionate elixir; to fall in love is to heal, cherish, and be one’s peace every day til death do And so, I braved life’s second challenge. My us part. mother named me Divina, meaning of or from God; divine. But what if we’re not meant to be someone else’s flame or the spark they need to live an~*~ other day? Perhaps, like my namesake, I’m destined to hold their ashes close to my chest once I wish I could think of pretty things when I they stop burning. Perhaps falling in love is less think of love. Instead, I’m paralyzed by the fear about action and more about stillness. It’s the of one day having my own pilgrimage to an in- lifelong journey of letting go and understandcubator, except this time, the little hand that ing that everyone you love will eventually leave grips my finger will slowly, permanently loosen you. its grip. I can’t shake the feeling of guilt and fear that through my happiness, I’ll lose focus of This secret, this grief, is the heavy price we pay the pain my family endured to keep me breath- for love. But it’s one worth paying. ■





strange games we play by EUNICE BAO

When you’re young, how can you tell the difference between genius and madness?



opening develop your pieces


t was a world of absolute wins and absolute losses. My father told me I must think four, five — eight, if I could — steps ahead before every move. Think to win. I wired my brain to devour the chessboard, square by square, piece by piece. The mechanical clock ticked, always a few inches away.

compulsively built would fall, and the gold-plated, five-foot-tall trophy would go to a nerdy, curly-haired boy who spent more hours poring over chess tactics than I did and who was smarter than I could ever be. Other girls moved on to tennis, ballet, volleyball, anything to avoid staring at 64 squares for days and nights on end. You could say that I chose to stay in the game, but perhaps I was already too far gone, entranced by the promised high I was certain would come with each win.

At age six, I gripped the sleek, white bishop for the first time in a greasy school cafeteria. It was magic at first touch. The dolls I played with in the comforts of my room came alive on this bloodless battlefield. Here, like medieval soldiers, they turned cruel When we moved to China, my father and fierce, clawing castles for power, took me to learn from the greatest battalions for the king’s head. I was grandmasters of my time. On the first the vicarious mastermind behind it day of the chess club, I walked into all, consuming game after game as if a room of wide-eyed, nine-year-old each was just another dollhouse fan- boys. The same feeling of thrill from tasy fashioned by my silly little mind. the school cafeteria lingered in the Because when you’re that young, how air. I still remember reciting the four can you tell the difference between opening rules and choosing my own fantasy and war? Genius and mad- battle plan — true to my personality, I ness? grew fond of the Caro-Kann, an opening that didn’t play to gamble. Though But no matter how hard I’d grind I was jarringly aware of my girlhood, I my teeth through every move, I walked out into the Beijing snow that would lose the game, the world I so night, gleaming with belonging.

“I was the vicarious mastermind behind it all, consuming game after game as if each was just another dollhouse fantasy fashioned by my silly little mind." 124


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midgame seize advantage

I rarely attacked first. Defend, defend, defend, I would tell myself. Knights aligned my castle; pawns positioned to protect every targeted square. My opponent’s underestimation was my power. I hunted for weakness — eyes ferocious, nails out to spin a spidery web. Each move slow and delicate, I awaited the moment of blunder. Soon, people knew my name. 包瑜 亮。The girl with the boyish name won nine out of nine games at a local tournament, almost unheard of in the Beijing chess world. They would whisper, of course, she’s named after 周瑜 and 诸葛亮, the two military generals from the golden age known for their brilliant strategy and war tactics. I wonder if my dad knew when he wrote my name down on the birth certificate all those years ago that chess would be carved into my fate. The more I won, and the more I relished winning, the closer I felt to my name and destiny. I refused to let it be an abstract reference to two dead warlords from generations past. I longed for something real. With the highest of highs came the lowest of lows. When I lost, it wasn’t just a defeat; it was a collapsing of worlds, destroying layers of intellect and striving until I, stripped bare of my identity, could no longer recognize my

name. I’d become a girl eclipsed by her fate, one who obsessively replayed her losses to find her way back and rewind time. And who could blame her? No one told her not to look for cure in her battle scars. No one told her that human minds weren’t engines, that perfection wasn’t real. There was a tipping point in almost every midgame: a miscalculated sacrifice, a battalion dismantled, or a pawn turned queen. Then and only then, my mind could feel alive again, released from the tethers of a stalemate. At age 12, I won the title of Chinese Amateur Master — the highest amateur chess rank one can have. The games we played at that tournament have long dissipated in my memory, but I still remember how I tiptoed above the crowd to see the results, my name on top of the list. There’s a certain kind of solitude that accompanies power, and 12-year-old me basked in it. I didn’t know at the time, but I’d become one with my pieces in this haunted arena. I welcomed my climax when it arrived in the shape of an accolade. But a victorious endgame in life isn’t promised. What rises will fall. Those who gain will lose. What else can we be certain of but this?

“I’d become a girl eclipsed by her fate, one who obsessively replayed her losses to find her way back and rewind time." fantasia


endgame don’t time out

How tragic it is that a chess prodigy of a chess clock. But reality wasn’t a with a rare gift was a slave to her pas- game to conquer, and I dreamed of sion. Always the last one to leave the experiencing it slowly, softly, the same tournament room, to consume every way we would admire the snowfall millisecond of her clock. Even with that sprinkled over Chicago after nathe night sky signaling the game’s tionals. I stopped craving euphoria in seventh hour and the referee waiting the likeness of victory, but what was impatiently nearby, she never felt any left of me? There were no more kings less alone than she did in a room of to protect, no more castles to destroy. hundreds. It was as much terrifying as it was liberating to watch the only world you The girl in this room knew that if she ever knew crumble forever. I stood on chose to walk away from chess one the cusp of adulthood, glazing memoday, she would leave for good. Like the ries and sunsets while the mastermind game she grew up with, her life was in me rusted away. The price of peace, lived in extremes. To think and ex- I suppose, came with the weight of all ist any other way was something she the could-have-beens, trophies, and could only learn elsewhere. recognition had I stayed in the arena. Perhaps Lao Tzu was right — the brighter the flame, the quicker the burn. I’d clung to Time with all my heart, but Time left, and I followed. Or so I told myself. I didn’t want to face the harrowing truth that the neurotic focus I once had, the type that demanded all my energy and more, had faded. I left this world at age 17. For nearly a decade, I lived under the intense gaze


Still, this strange game taught me everything real that life didn’t, couldn’t. I was better for it — gone before I sunk deeper into oblivion. How many world chess champions couldn’t say the same, having been driven to insanity by their endless quest to win? How many of them have lost their minds, never recovered, disappeared completely? Their evanescence, en passant, lights our way to greatness and madness. ■



virgin mary magdalene layout CAROLINE BLANTON photographer ERIN DORNEY videographer ULISES MARTINEZ stylist NOELLE CAMPOS hmua GRACIE GILCHRIEST model KRISTEN GUILLEN



be a great nun.



The las t thin g a 1 6 yea r-


t s n a to he w l r i ar g d is l o

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gown that crushed my a n i ribs ssed e r and “D a he add r

with pearls, I d e n r loo o d ked a s es

on nged belo ut grandmother’ s c o f f e my devo e ta b l e . ”


he dizzy excitement that occupied my chest as I stood between the aisles of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church was the closest thing to holiness I’d ever felt.

cause I wanted to and walked a little too prudently past the contraceptive aisle of Target. To adults, I was immaculate. But in my mind, I was nothing short of pitiful.

It was the morning of the Santo Niño Festival at my local parish, where I was to lead the congregation in a lively prayer dance honoring Baby Jesus and the Philippines’ acceptance of Christianity. Dressed in a gown that crushed my ribs and a headdress adorned with pearls, I looked like I belonged on my devout grandmother’s coffee table. I was shiny. Put together. A prime example of a pious Catholic girl. I understood why my Tita Lisa chose me as the Sinulog Queen that year. I sang in the choir every Sunday, and I volunteered at parish events. I attended women’s retreats be-

Catholicism has always been an integral part of my identity, but with it came this virtuous Virgin Mary persona I felt obligated to fulfill all throughout high school. I was the friend whose ears were covered whenever anyone joked about sex, the GPA-obsessed student devoid of any and all romantic experience. When a parish nun told me I’d be a great fit for the Catholic sisterhood, I nearly choked. “I don’t want to wear a habit and wake up at five o’clock every morning to pray!” I wanted to tell her. I wanted an invitation to a house party, where I could show some skin and get respectably tipsy. I wanted to date without my virginal sub-



conscious reminding me of Mary Magdalene and her rumored promiscuity — a Catholic misconception that I believed for a majority of my life. Once I entered college, I became desperate to shake my goody-two-shoes personality and be socially acceptable for a change. I sat in the back of the University Catholic Center on Sundays but made no effort to pay attention. I dove headfirst into a relationship, navigating the gray area between being a virgin but not a total prude. By the end of my freshman year, I was the textbook definition of a Catholic with a few footnotes. Catholic, who hasn’t prayed in months. Virgin, who has questionable boundaries. Churchgoer, who seriously needs to go to confession. I returned to the Sinulog Festival the following year, convinced that I didn’t deserve to be there. And when I experienced my first breakup several months later, I went to mass the next day and burst into tears. I’d escaped my Virgin Mary persona, all right. And I was emptier because of it. I realized then the kind of person I was — or at least, the kind of person I wanted to be. I wanted to be the Sinulog Queen who dances proudly with her Church. The hopeless romantic who saves herself for marriage because she wants to. The radical Catholic who uses her faith to empower others. I didn’t feel confident living any other way. Secularism sometimes portrays women who choose to live a religious lifestyle as outdated and intolerant. Submissive, even. It took me 19 years and several missteps to realize that many Catholic women view their lives as none of those things. I understand that not everyone has the same beliefs as I do, nor do I think that everyone should. I understand that someone may read this and envision me typing away at my laptop, Bible in hand, and a dumpster fire of miniskirts and birth control ablaze in the background behind me. But I believe that my Catholic faith teaches me to find beauty in how others choose to live their lives, just as I find beauty in how I live mine.






But I would much rather stay true to myself than undermine what’s important to me.

“I realized then the kind of person I was — or at least, the kind of person I wanted to be.” For instance, it took me a long time to accept the fact that I feel most confident in modest clothing. I loved uniform shopping with my mother when I was little, prancing around in knee-high socks, crisscross ties, and pleated navy skirts. I loved strutting into high school speech competitions in a pinstripe suit, ready to obliterate my opponents. Now I love long-sleeved blouses, classic turtlenecks, collared shirts, and church dresses. They make me feel like I can take on the world. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t wear modest clothing because the nun at church told me to or because I feel the need to hide parts of my body. I wear it because it makes me feel confident in both myself and my faith. Another value I’ve come to appreciate is my decision to save sex for marriage. I’m not going to lie, I spent a majority of high school feeling like I’d been cheated out of some quintessential, life-altering experience (I was seriously convinced that the steamy scenes in my romance novels wouldn’t become a reality for me until I was, like, 35.) But after experiencing heartbreak for the first time, I realized that certain physical boundaries are a priority for me in relationships. Before taking that step with somebody I love, I want to ensure that our relationship is built upon shared interests and values. Abstaining from sex reassures me that my relationship does not require physical intimacy to be strong. Sure, this leads to some awkward conversations, and I wholeheartedly respect those who navigate their romantic lives differently. 136

Modesty, celibacy, and several other Catholic lifestyle choices are considered passé and oppressive. Misogyny in sheep’s clothing. I thought this way, too. I now know that women who practice these parts of their faith do so not because they’re subservient, but because they’re self-assured. After all, confidence looks different on everyone. Whether you show more skin, dress more conservatively, save sex for marriage, or have a healthy sex life — your lifestyle should reflect what makes you feel most like yourself. I’ve since made an active effort to reprioritize my Catholic faith. I sit a little closer to the front of the Catholic Center, listening to mass with an open mind and eager heart. I recognize my academic and creative work as an opportunity to live out God’s plan for me. Best of all, I remain inspired by two of the most influential women in scripture: Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. At face value, these two women have very different legacies. Virgin Mary is the mother of Jesus Christ, believed to have been conceived by the Holy Spirit of her own accord. An unexpected heroine who braved teenage pregnancy outside of marriage, it is somewhat ironic that she symbolizes purity within the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, Saint Mary Magdalene was the first person to see Jesus after His crucifixion and spread the good news of His resurrection. Early Western Church leaders tried to discredit her importance by portraying her as a prostitute, but modern Church leaders recognize her for her progressive advocacy for Christ in a time when women were discouraged from using their voices. Both women had something vital in common: their radical confidence to live out their faith. They were protofeminist icons who defied societal norms, inspiring young women to be unafraid to go against the grain. Abstinent by choice, vocal about my beliefs, and radically faithful, I strive to be a combination of these two women. A Virgin Mary Magdalene, if you will. And all the better for it. ■


HANDMADE CROWN | Gracie Gilchriest







y mother calls people like me wolves in girls’ clothing. When I was little, I used my hands like teeth — tiny things, palms as pale as moons, tearing away hungrily at the spine of a beloved paperback or through the roots of our garden purple-hearts. I spent hours on my knees and would, with candy-soft nails, scrape bumpers off the kitchen cabinets one by one, silently going over each panel to make sure no corner had been missed — eyes fervent, the motion mechanical and possessed. You can predict a child’s future by their early proclivities. A child who, for instance, delights in stacking blocks or building sandcastles might grow up to be enterprising. A child who enjoys drawing or music has the potential for elegance. My own mother, who foraged through girlhood with her pockets full of rocks and twigs and the occasional frog, went on to become an explorer — a young woman chasing after herself in the big western lights of Amsterdam and New York. What glinting edge of my future could be made out, then, from my father’s copy of Tolstoy with its pages wrenched out, Anna Karenina and her fate suspended forever in mid-air at the train station? What did it mean that I was cruel and strange, hungry for disorder, a dark-eyed creature who liked to work her feet into the shellspecked tower of another child’s sandcastle, then relished in the cold tide rushing in to sweep my mess away? Tickled dizzy by the vertigo of fast-moving water underneath me, all at once terrified and fascinated that I might fall and be swept away myself — You see? Things were bad from the start.



“ “ .



, “ .

Precariously, I came of age and into something wayward and half-erased — a wan-faced girl whose cheek was turned permanently over her shoulder and into who knows what dark realm of her own. I could never explain it properly, only that it was as though something was behind me at all times, gaining speed, watchful and omnipotent. I could stand at the edge of a cliff, and there it was, inches away from shoving me off the precipice. It was not paranoia, but premonition; not fear, but the absence of it. A certainty that I would someday leave all this behind, and my fate or future or whatever it was, that thing which had nipped at my heels all my life, would finally catch and swallow me.

I never could stand myself. The way I damaged anything I touched, my inability to be kind or connect with people, how a bout of rage could uproot everything good in my life — escapism is a good salve for all these wounds of inadequacy. Accepting things the way they are is harder than simply closing your eyes and wandering off. As for wanting to disappear, that is, in many ways, just a plea for absolution from yourself. How good it will feel, I thought, to pack my bags and leave myself at last. I could watch her shrink in the rearview mirror. Nothing but a blip of a girl, swallowed by the vast nothingness of her future. —

Admittedly, I knew very little at 15, but of two things I was absolutely confident: I was wired wrong for good, and someday, it wouldn’t matter because I’d be gone. So I’d go loiter empty-handed at train stations, drawn to the harsh glimmer of an approaching rail or the dry — to me, euphoric — screech of iron wheels. My elaborate schemes, road maps I kept in the glove compartment, the way I clipped names off missing persons files, stashed them in a binder under my bed, and reviewed them nightly before restless waves of sleep — these were rituals I performed in secret. Hoping to nudge some associative influence into my dreams, maybe, or goad those night visions into revealing a clue or two about my future. I wasn’t afraid. In fact, some broken part of me needed it, that gut-wrenching brace for impact. I couldn’t get through the day without picturing my name printed on the folder label of a cold case or men in suits at my door carrying briefcases full of terrible things. When I shuddered awake in the middle of the night, seized by dread or panic, it was the thought of unmarked cars and shattered glassware on the kitchen floor that let me claw my way back to sleep. I harbored no fantasies of a destination — only the exhilaration of the act itself, of being nowhere, of slipping through the trapdoor and completing the trick. After I’m gone, everyone will forget I ever existed. This was the incantation I spoke into the dark, over and over, for years on end. Gone, shattered out from the glass pane of my life; dendritic cracks mending themselves, pieces miraculously resealing everything I’d broken. All the grief I caused, the tears in my grandfather’s eyes when he found the ruined garden, friends I abandoned on the sides of roads, and thousands of other unbearable memories dissipating into the ether. Gone, as if I were never there to begin with.

My mother calls people like me broken compasses. No sense of right and wrong, no arrow pointing due north; changeful as tides and inclined, it seems, to follow only the moon. Either they run, she says, or they go mad. Oh, Ma. If we run in order to get to someplace faster, we dream to do the same. If we go, it is because we’ve convinced ourselves there is somewhere else we belong. In my dreams, I am always going. Just last night, I wrote on the back of a gas station receipt: Someday, I’ll wind up dead in the waters and be glad for it. This is a prophet’s shortcut to happiness. Around me sprawl miles of rickety quiet, for this place is a liminal graveyard; a victim of exodus laid to waste by oil busts and dust bowls, some speck of neon at night along I-80. I’m only passing through, the make of my car and the flat look in my eye while I punch in PLUS UNLEADED 89 indiscernible from those of any other coastbound traveler. In the trunk, I imagine I’ve got a bag full of freshly withdrawn money, a new passport, new credit cards, and two bottles of hair dye rolling around on the floorboard. Who knows what world I’ve built this time, which iteration of myself I’m playing tonight. I am watching the moon — full, tumultuous, pale as a starved saint — crest over the 7-Eleven sign and blow across the interstate, on some mystifying nightly errand of its own. The gas monitor beeps. The pump unlatches. For once, I am not thinking of the future, because I am standing in it right now. I am looking out into the spidering dark and drinking in the sightlessness of this first night. The machine spits out another roll of receipt paper, blank as a babe’s future. ■



Malik Julien

Wants You to Live Your Truth by TY MARSH


Are you gagging? Meet Malik Julien, UT student and director of the independent documentary And They Were Loved, as he explores the importance of embracing the intersections of identity in both life and art.


hen you meet Malik Julien, you can’t help but be yourself. Maybe it’s something he just knows how to bring out of people, or maybe it’s because being genuine is what he’s all about. After all, in the two years filming and producing his directorial debut And They Were Loved, the 20-year-old University of Texas student has dedicated himself to capturing on camera what it means to live one’s truth. The independent film, set to be submitted to the Austin Film Festival later this year, follows the journeys of three queer Black and Latinx people — Jacundo, Marcus, and Zion — as they navigate spaces of acceptance and their own identities within the American South. In exploring topics like ballroom culture, HIV destigmatization, and chosen family, the project is an unapologetic look into the lives lived by those in the modern queer South. By and for queer people, it is a film made with the care necessary to tell the often-underrepresented stories it follows – and that was the goal. Sitting down with Julien, you can tell And They Were Loved means much more to him than just a directorial debut. His bedroom bursts with Black, queer relics. Trophies from the 10’s of ballroom competitions past rest on the ground. He notes that his win count is higher than the relics he keeps, but he sometimes gives the symbolic prizes to competitors that he, in his own words, “really ate up bad on the stage.” Fittingly, on Julien’s record player rests a 12” of Madonna’s 1990 single “Vogue,” which was famously inspired by his ballroom category of choice. Next to that, a beaded cross with the letters “WWJD” down the center — a reflection of his Instagram bio — which plainly states, “God is my everything.” The walls are home to a myriad of movie and Black Lives Matter posters, the largest being 1992’s Candyman positioned at the head of his bed and 2016’s Moonlight set adjacent. He’s invested in creating the documentary because it’s a look into his world.





“When you believe, you’ll be exposed to what you’re capable of.” To start, what inspired you to create And They Were Loved? Seeing the effects of young LGBTQIA+ people not having a space where they could really be themselves. They’re often left alone with the trauma of rejection and suppression, without an outlet to be free and express themselves. I didn’t have that either growing up. Coming to college and meeting different queer people, I realized that was a kind of universal thing, and it was pretty heartbreaking to see. We need community, we need family, and we need sanctuary. Noticing all of that, I first wanted to see a film that really focused on young queer people being free and living past a homophobic society. So I started watching Pose, a docuseries called My House, and the documentary Kiki. Those were all about Black, brown, queer people in New York who were able to create a culture that was powerful, that was liberating. And I was thinking, “Well, what about us down here in the South?” Because, you know, an experience in the South is different. I felt I personally needed to see a film that accented how important it is to have a sanctuary like that here in the South. With this being your first time directing, how would you describe the experience? Nothing short of amazing. Doing this film was a crash course into film school. Yes, yes you can take film classes and stuff, but the real lessons and experiences that help you learn come from working on a set. Going forth with what you have in mind and having people support that [vision] makes you feel unstoppable. I couldn’t do any of this without the support of the cast, the crew members, my best friend, and my gay father, Tarik Daniels. They made so many of my dreams come true in And They Were Loved.

It’s a very revealing process and experience. When you come to UT, especially as a film student, you are exposed to people in classes who have been doing stuff on sets for years already. I didn’t have any of that coming in. Most people don’t. It’s hard to figure out where to go and how to start. That’s why I’m so proud that this is my debut because I just went for it. Everything around me was telling me that I didn’t have the skills or the knowledge to do this, but I knew that I believed in myself. When you believe in yourself, you’ll be exposed to what you’re capable of. As humans, we’re capable of so much, especially if you have God on your side. Speaking of God, how has your Christianity shaped you? That’s a really big question because I grew up in church and my grandfather is a minister. As much as I love the people of that church and my grandfather, when it comes to a lot of the common issues that we know about the Black church, baby, they were there. And, of course, that plays into the way I identified and saw myself in a queer sense. It was never my choice to go to church at first. But when I reached around the age of 13, I actually started to listen to the sermons, and I realized that I was being spiritually fed. That was the actual start of my developing a personal relationship with God. It’s a very big part of my life now, having my own intimate relationship with God. That’s the basis of my faith, getting to know God for me and not necessarily by the people of the church. In everything that I do, even though I know that I will face pushback from people who identify as Christian because of the subject matters at hand, I want to glorify God. I have prayed all over this film, and I know that if it wasn’t for Him, I would not be where I am right now. That plays such a huge role



“Blackness is default, it will present.” in the way I live my life, as well as how I behave as a director and was able to connect to my subjects. You can believe what you believe that ‘homosexuality’ means, but what about these people and their souls? Their livelihood? Their lives? I think there needs to be a reevaluation in that for many people. Shifting back to the film, one of the major parts of And They Were Loved, and your life is the ballroom scene. What about it is what draws you in? Definitely seeing people that look like me. These people are gathering for a night full of energy and celebration of self. They’re creating a culture that is for them outside of a heteronormative society that oppresses them. I don’t even know how to explain how it feels. And for that phenomenon to begin during the 80’s amidst the AIDS crisis amongst people who were Black, people who were trans, to be able to celebrate and create family — that’s what really drew me into ballroom. The flashy parts like voguing are what got me interested, but what truly drew me was how intricate the chosen family was. The idea of taking in queer people who were rejected because of homophobia, because of transphobia, because they were different, and coming together to show off talent and support each other was everything. It is everything. I feel like everybody has a place in ballroom, whatever they do. There’s a biblical scripture that says, “Your gift will make room for you.” For ballroom, your talent will make room for you. Who in filmmaking inspired you while making And They Were Loved? There’s a film called Hale County This Morning,


This Evening. After watching an interview the director, RaMell Ross, did with Trevor Noah, he inspired me to make sure that I’m telling stories from the Black perspective and portraying Blackness as default rather than as a spectacle. Who we are, how we speak, and how we exist should be the default. There shouldn’t be a sense of looking in when Blackness is captured on film. I think that’s where movies like Paris is Burning, as beloved that film is, fell short. It was very exploitive and othering to those people. Hearing Ross explain that and seeing him make sure that is the case within his own films truly set me forward in how I view filmmaking. Like, Blackness is default, it will present. Doing that calls for a new form of storytelling that hasn’t been seen before. Oh, and Barry Jenkins, the director of Moonlight. I love that man. One of the topics explored in And They Were Loved is identity. How have your identities helped shape you and your filmmaking? To be quite honest, while making this film, as these subjects were exploring all of these things regarding identity, I was doing the same thing behind the camera, so I wanted to centralize that. Centralize Blackness, centralize queerness. It took me awhile to get there, to decolonize my mind from the dominant white, cisgender, heterosexual characters and voices in the industry. Finding my identity as somebody that is Black and queer meant that I needed to detox so much of what I was conditioned to believe. It’s my responsibility to not reinforce those stereotypes and racist ideals. It requires me to be very careful, but it’s fun because you’re making sure that your community can watch a film that introduces something new and genuine. ■



One Two Plus by One, Two by OLIVIA DU

One … Two ...

How do I tell you I love you?



“Math was a gift she wrapped for me in flying chalkdust and golden afternoons in harmony.” Simple Fundamentals: 1+1, 2x2 My grandma was the first person to teach me math, so maybe that was why I only thought about numbers in Chinese. In sticky July, when Beijing’s heat waves scattered the city into threadlike mirages, she would teach me on the small, green chalkboard in her tiny apartment. The white dust in the valleys of her wrinkled hands would smudge on mine as she guided my fingers to find the answers. Scribbles, white smears, and my childish sighs of frustration would shortly ensue. Even now, I remember the crackly laughter of my grandma’s favorite show from her box television, beckoning me to sneak a peek. I remember the curious, hot air that snaked in from the mesh screen of her balcony, countered by the steadfast, circular trips of the electric fan on my other side. I remember the steady heartbeat of her grandfather clock and the soft creak of the wooden floors underneath my feet. I could feel myself shifting in the step stool as I scoured my brain for what could possibly be the answer to 256 minus 148. I remember every detail. I was never particularly good at math, but I loved it because it made me feel close to my grandma. Math was a gift she wrapped for me in flying chalkdust and golden afternoons in harmony. When the school semester started and I flew back to Austin, my pencil would fly hungrily over addition and multiplication tables, and I would remember her. My proud playground talent was fitting as many Chinese digits of pi as possible into my brain, hoping that the numbers would weave long enough to reach my grandma across the Pacific. I fell asleep murmuring numbers in Chinese so often, they burned like warm syrup on my tongue. One times one equals one … three times four equals 12 … six times eight equals 48 …





Plotting Adolescence: y=mx+b Once a summer, every couple of years, I visit China again. The city burns the same way, where life breathes in shuttered pants through engine sputters and floating waves of overlapping voices. When I go on walks with my grandma, I grip her small frame as mopeds and thundering buses speed by. I hold on to her extra tightly because she doesn’t feel real, as if my time here is just one long continuation of a childhood dream. Her apartment is still perfectly preserved, with the same, cream, crochet couch covers, blue porcelain bowls, and balcony with hanging plants and airing laundry. The only thing that’s changed is how I’ve become too big and clunky in her living room. When I’m there, I don’t know what to do with myself. The green chalkboard lined with elementary equations can no longer close the gap between these two people sitting side by side. I can’t pinpoint exactly how we have shifted, but I know we have. Growing up away from my grandma reminds me of the line graphs we made in middle school algebra. Here, I plot Thanksgiving without the big family reunions that my classmates gush about and all the Chinese New Years spent without bright firecrackers and red lanterns dotting the night sky. I plot the sadness that being “good at math” should come easily as an Asian student and the overwhelming silence of phone calls with my grandma as I struggle to reconcile my flying thoughts with the timidity of my broken Chinese. Before I even realized it, I had become a stranger to my grandma. We existed now as two different functions, linear and exponential, lying in two different planes.

“ ... and the overwhelming silence of phone calls with my grandma as I struggle to reconcile my flying thoughts with the timidity of my broken Chinese.” fantasia


Defining Derivatives: f’(x) The older I become, the more I think about the memories I share with her: I grapple with the lingering feelings of shame when I struggle to tell her how I feel, the strangeness of once driving for hours into the mountains to see the small village she grew up in, or the melancholy stillness when visiting my ancestors’ unmarked burials. It’s a feeling I can hardly trace the origins of. Guilt, remorse, sadness all mixed into one tight, sweltering knot of distance. These days, I learn calculus and derivatives and integrals, far removed from the comfort of my old multiplication tables. But no matter how complicated the equation is, with its variables and exponents and roots, taking the derivative enough times will eventually return the function to its most basic state of numbers. When I get stumped over math’s complexity and realize its childhood luster has now grown dull, I’m reminded of how far I’ve grown from my family. Maybe I, too, need to go back to something more fundamental. Do distance and unspoken words still matter if at our core we’re still the same?



Because when I play her favorite piano melodies over spotty video calls, I feel her listening on the other side. When I wish her a happy birthday or new year in rehearsed phrases with my sister, I feel her understanding. When I learned she was writing her life story on loose-leaf sheets of paper to pass the time, I felt a sharp pang of wonder and curiosity, followed by a softer hint of worry that I wouldn’t be able to understand her writing. My grandma has captured four decades of her life on paper so far, and she says it’ll be for her eyes only until she passes away. This time, it’s a gift she wraps not in white chalk dust and scratchy numbers, but dark ink and smooth characters. My relationship with my grandma is like math. It builds on each concept or memory before it, but can also subsequently be broken down into the purest of emotions. One plus one, me and her. Even though we write in different languages, I realize that we are two by two. Me and my words; her and hers. This is a love letter to my grandma, written in a language she doesn’t understand. In my own words, I tell her. Thank you. I love you. ■

“This time, it’s a gift she wraps not in white chalk dust and numbers, but dark ink and smooth characters.”



TELFAR has constructed a bag that is not temporary, but timeless.



n middle school, Hollister was my paradise. When I donned the iconic red bird, everyone wanted a piece of me. I felt cooler than I ever had before. Little did I know, I was falling victim to a trap set by the fashion industry, one that perpetuates exclusivity by playing the puppet master. By attaching its strings to price tags and scarcity, brands move higher and higher to control the market.

It goes like this: Once you buy the item, you feel ahead of the curve, different, and therefore superior. You have something no one else has. Limiting accessibility has become an industry standard, shutting out many while erecting walls of elitism and classism. This has created an unhealthy luxury culture wherein access is dependent on participating in the race against hundreds of thousands of consumers to get their hands on clothing first. By limiting the ways we purchase items and what we purchase, we usher in unethical practices of consumerism. We’re constantly rushing to buy the next big thing. To prepare for the marathon, we install bots to raid the store’s supply, call plugs with insider connections, or camp outside the store to claim first dibs. Having to resort to those options is unfair because the race requires commitment, connections, and money. More often than not, we’re unprepared, angry that the items in our cart vanished. Studies show that more than half of our country’s population can’t afford to spend their hard-earned income on bigticket items, as if it’s a free-for-all. For the average college student who spends their time studying or the cashier working to support themselves, standing in line for three hours for a pair of Jordans is not a viable option. The market doesn’t acknowledge the responsibilities of normal people as it stretches us past our limits. This begs the question: Is a market that perpetuates exclusivity ideal — or even ethical — in 2021? 2020 pushed the industry toward a breaking point, where the archaic pillars that held up its foundation crumbled, demanding a restructuring of the classic fashion model. Lockdowns transitioned fashion shows into online formats, with Gucci and Saint Laurent Paris stepping away from the traditional calendar of five shows a year. Racial tensions have made companies reimagine what it means to be inclusive, abandoning outdated models to make space for all kinds of people. Fashion in 2021 has been restructured to acknowledge the universal experience of fashion — how the clothes we wear play a significant role in expressing our feelings and identity. Everyone should have access to that experience. Em164

bracing inclusivity and accessibility is how you do it. TELFAR, the unisex fashion brand founded by designer Telfar Clemens, is one brand that has been at the forefront of expanding fashion’s boundaries through ethical means. Black queer creatives founded TELFAR because they didn’t feel represented by the Eurocentric, binary beauty standards entrenched in the luxury fashion industry. TELFAR refuses those standards, rebelling against being denied representation. Or, as TELFAR put it, “[We] try to make clothes that do not exist on the market — just as you don’t exist in the world. [We] try to make pure garments without the ornament of gender, race, class; high and low; male or female.” The team at TELFAR uses their perspectives as Black queer creatives as a guide to help them create an inclusive space that withstands a traditionally exclusive industry. Their unique insight puts them in the shoes of the customer to create a universal experience. TELFAR pushes a universal fashion experience, embracing an ethical philosophy that considers diverse experiences throughout the socioeconomic ladder and multicultural communities. That means making products accessible to everyday people, but also those who have never felt a part of fashion. The TELFAR Shopping Bag, the brand’s most sought-after item, is developed from this inclusive perspective. In the past years, the bag has garnered the same cult following as the Hermès Birkin, Balenciaga Motorcycle Bag, and Fendi Baguette. The difference between these infamous bags and TELFAR’s is that the Shopping Bag is remarkably affordable — and intentionally so. When deciding what to price the bag, Clemens looked to his past experiences as a New York City DJ, where he would rake in $150 to $350 per night for a gig. He wanted to ensure workers of all wages, from freelance creatives to waiters to strippers, could afford the bag after one day’s work. The price point has kept the Shopping Bag within the everyday person’s grasp, making the bag an enduring item amidst a market that’s constantly changing. While brands are vying for the status of “It Bag” by constantly producing more and more bags each season, TELFAR’s Shopping Bag has remained consistent. With a spacious, rectangular shape made from vegan leather, the bag boasts an embossed TELFAR monogram and comes equipped with handles and crossbody straps in various colors and sizes. The simplistic design is a blank canvas, allowing wearers to style it any way they like. spark

GREEN JACKET | Revival Vintage PINK BLOUSE | Revival Vintage

“Fashion in 2021 has been restructured to acknowledge the universal experience of fashion — how the clothes we wear play a significant role in expressing our feelings and identity.”

WOVEN SWEATER | Never Knew LAVENDER BLOUSE | Revival Vintage

“[The Shopping Bag] is a symbol of a product for the people, free from blockades rooted in elitism, classism, and racism.”

TELFAR constructed a bag that is not temporary, but timeless by freeing it from strict beauty standards that dictate a certain time of day to wear it. TELFAR has proven that it can outrun any competition in the race, not by being lightyears ahead of the competition, but by moving beyond the concept of time altogether. Since then, TELFAR has transformed into a household name, decorating the arms of just about anybody — fashion week wannabes, politicians, 20-somethings, and mothers. While its viral success attracted a surge in profits, it turned the brand into a target. Scalpers were quick to take advantage of the affordable and lucrative bag. The Shopping Bag, which used to sell out in hours, was now selling out in seconds. People weren’t getting the bags — bots were, jeopardizing the brand’s mission of creating a universal experience. TELFAR was quick to react, positioning itself to bring the bag to more people. Rather than creating a waitlist for the bag and embracing the scarcity model, TELFAR instituted the Bag Security Program, an initiative that guarantees all customers within a 24-hour window a made-to-order Shopping Bag. The Bag Security Program is TELFAR’s middle finger to the traditional fashion model. The program also presented TELFAR with a unique opportunity to control its market share. TELFAR has ownership over its output and can place its product directly in the hands of its customers. Slowly, TELFAR is chipping away at the luxury fashion industry’s deep-rooted traditions of exclusivity. In a landscape that has experienced sweeping changes in the past year, exclusivity is now passé. The TELFAR Shopping Bag refuses that; it’s a symbol of a product for the people, free from blockades rooted in elitism, classism, and racism. TELFAR is signaling that to succeed in this new era, we must consider more perspectives that surround the fashion experience. My experience with the bag is no different. Usually, Christmas time is hard for my family. We don’t have a lot of money, and all of the flashy holiday advertisements remind us of the money that we don’t have to spend. However, on Christmas morning, I woke my mom with a present neatly wrapped in blue. She cut the wrapping paper and opened the box with a smile forming on her face. “It looks nice,” my mom said as she pulled a medium cream TELFAR bag from the box. This year was different — I was included in the festive cheer with a gift that will grace my mother’s shoulder for years to come. ■ fantasia



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spaces, so I built my own d e r e . gend




y roommates had taken all of their belongings except for a collection of empty alcohol bottles and a print of dogs that were playing poker. There was nothing around me other than that whimsical print that hung on the otherwise empty and white living room wall. I didn’t even have a shower curtain: In the shower, I would shiver at the unwelcome, cold air, while the hot water that dropped onto my body ricocheted across the entire restroom floor. I kept meaning to buy one, I just never got to it. It had been a month since my dad died. I was becoming estranged from my mom and from the rest of my family, too. It was the middle of a global pandemic, and I was alone in this dreary Austin apartment.

Trapped, the space of my existence became overwhelmed with questions I spent so long hiding from, eroding over a decade of peaceful ignorance. As my thoughts had the room to exist, completely forgotten memories were finally allowed to be. For the first time in about 15 years, I began to remember the essential pieces of a person I forgot existed. I remembered running around during dress-up time at Lakewood Preschool and wearing oversized T-shirts, the closest I was allowed to wearing a dress. I remembered fantasizing about my mom’s high heels but being too scared to ever try them on. I remembered telling a friend whom called herself a tomboy that I wished there was such a thing as a tomgirl.

A small part of me wondered if I had revived these memories or just fabricated them out of desperation. But then, I didn’t really care as they allowed me the imagination I needed to see myself as my own person, no longer a reflection of the thoughts and behaviors of those around me. I was finally able to tear down the walls of that miserable echo chamber that separated me from knowing my space, my body, and myself. *** The red-bricked suburban home my family moved into when I was 11 was seemingly perfect. My mom was ready to have her large closet, my dad was keen to have a backyard lawn in which to exercise his green thumb with, and I was excited to have my own bedroom with a window looking out at the cul-de-sac that I would ride my bike in. This house was the foundation of who I was raised to become. This house was supposed to be my stability. After moving out years ago, I went back to take care of my grieving mom following my dad’s death, which would unknowingly be the last time I saw her in person. I found myself in front of the suburban house that was once the foundation for my mom’s attempt at the perfect, Christian, nuclear family she dreamed of. I was suddenly questioning the reality of so much that shaped me into the person I believed myself to be: In my mom’s large closet, I found a box overflowing with assignments from the kindergarten class that punished me for “disruptive behavior” — something I would later understand to be indicative of learning

herself a tomboy d e l l a ho c w ng as a tomgirl.” i nd h e t i fr ch a a u s g as lli n e t w d e “I remembere her t d he that I wis

SILVER RING | Revival Vintage



disabilities; I sat in the backyard surrounded by the dead grass my dad tried to keep alive, where I came out to him while he was smoking in the backyard, grateful that he said it was okay as long as I “don’t act like a fag”; I peered into my old bedroom that my brother had taken for himself, now littered with Fortnite paraphernalia, gazing at the bed that I used to lie in and pray for forgiveness to a god who this house had told me would send me to hell for being attracted to men. I realized that my mother’s perfect, red-bricked, suburban home with its large closet, backyard lawn, and a bedroom with a cul-de-sac view was a grand illusion that broke down into red-bricked rubble. *** I moved into a new apartment when the new school year started. I still didn’t have anything to hang on the walls, and since the apartment didn’t come with a bed frame, I slept on a mattress on the ground. At least this time, I shared a bathroom with my new roommate, who actually owned a shower curtain. In this new space, water would no longer spill out of the shower. But the process of becoming comfortable in the space around me was not linear. Distraught at the fact that I no longer felt the same in spaces that had once felt so welcoming, I continued to lie in bed, added to the piles of mess on my floor and dresser, and kept myself from learning about how to listen to my body. After giving myself the time and space to mourn this fact, I began a journey of finding places that allowed me to feel comfortable with my body and identity. I first joined an on-campus organization “for men and nonbinary people,” but felt out of place and dismissed to find that they were more concerned with appearing inclusive than being inclusive. At the same time, I joined another organization for women and nonbinary folks where I found confidence in my identity as a trans-feminine person through genuine relationships. Then, at The University of Texas’ University Health Services, my confidence was waning as I was hoping to start hormones; I met a doctor who was nice, but didn’t seem

to understand, or even consider, what I wanted. Around a month later, my concerns about gender care at UT were affirmed when I met with a queer doctor who centered my goals and concerns at a free LGBTQIA+ sexual health clinic. While trying to shop in a women’s section, I became overwhelmed with panic. I was clueless about what I wanted, hardly able to buy a skirt and pair of shoes without having an anxiety attack. A week later, I spontaneously drove to Utah and back in three days to escape my unending chaos, wearing my new skirt while sleeping next to wild cows in the middle of nowhere. In my bed, weeks ago, I struggled to get up, feeling completely different about my gender identity. The night before, I was running in the middle of Pease Park at 3 a.m., singing and dancing to “Welcome to New York” by Taylor Swift — feeling more confident than ever that I was a trans woman. In finding the spaces that enabled me to grow, I would eventually understand that the spaces themselves were not inherently good or bad, but could inform the blueprint of the world that I want to build for myself. *** Shortly before writing this, I received my first prescription of hormones. My walls were still empty, and I was surrounded by a daunting pile of laundry that I continued to ignore. I lay alone in my bed, pills in hand. Before I swallowed my first dose of estradiol and spironolactone on a mattress with no bed frame beneath it, I hesitated. I thought of the times I believed this moment to be impossible while sitting under the print of “Dogs Playing Poker”, wandering around my family’s red-bricked, suburban home, and singing in a shower that actually had a curtain. Then, I swallowed my pills, knowing that though I haven’t finished finding and creating space for myself, I’m closer than ever to constructing a space where I can continue to construct my own identity. ■



ricked, suburban b d e t, r c e f er n, and a w p a l d r’s yar e k c h t ba o , t se ym o l m c at e g “I realized th lar s t i home with

grand a s a ew w i v d rubble.” ac e k s c i de red-br l cu to a n h i t n wi w bedroom o ed k o r illusion that b






to all the girls i’ve been before by CLARISSA RODRIGUEZ ABREGO layout ADRIANA TORRES photographer AUDREY LY stylists LESLYE RUIZ & ELLIE SANCHEZ




een girls show us the depths only some of us are fortunate enough to get to and how undeniably capable a girl’s body is of ecstasy and rage in the same breath.

Some people can’t help but stare in awe at the dashes of pink blush, the white aura surrounding them, their effortless belief in the juxtaposition of prints while wearing their souls at the tips of their fingers. They look at the way these girls intertwine limbs with their best friends at the mall, their steps in unison, as if becoming everyone and one at once were a palpable possibility — and you might even start to believe it. Others simply want to rip them apart — mock the screams they let out when their crush texts back, dissect the ways they dedicate their whole, small beings to the very things they love. Or, they mock the way friendship bracelets are like heirlooms and plastering quotes on the back of their notebooks becomes a ritual. The names of those they thought would love forever somehow add up to a series of bright, bold hearts, jotted down with such devotion, the lines almost blur into a cardiogram. Their rooms, a shrine of what makes up the whole of them, are something more substantial than blood and tissue. How absolutely everything is big and important to them, how simple it is for them to go up, up, up — only to come crashing down all over again.



Then, somewhere in-between the lines, teen girl starts to fade. More accurately, she’s stripped away. Teen girl realizes her strength. Teen girl shrinks down. Teen girl feels or thinks — or is? — simply too much. Like the favorite top she can’t seem to get out of, her colors wash and stretch until there’s nothing but a piece of despaired fabric left. As if in a regressive rite of passage, teen girl shakes and brawls inside the sharp edges of concealment. A leaf falling softly on her shoulder could’ve been a blessing, a miracle, or a sign of a good day, but now, it’s just a decaying limb. Amidst all the push and pull that comes out of an almost ethereal existence, the blisters on the back of her heels can’t do anything else but roughen up. Her vocal chords, a souvenir of all she once said and all that will stay caught in the back of her throat for years to come. After teen girl listens of the inadequacies of her nuances, what a load her muffled tears and loud giggles are, teen girl suddenly has no escape. Teen girl learns that she was always supposed to be tone-deaf to all that is around and within her. The top is tucked away into the bottom drawer’s corner where all abandoned legacies must go to rest. And so, teen girl comes out as all the girls you’ve ever known. She’s a good girl, bad girl, dream girl. Girl — no one and all at once. Girl is almost untouchable; Girl trained herself to know better than to disclose her insides. All the sadness, bliss, and fear patch up under the need to make it easier for people to live by them. A little less intensity, for her own sake.

But in the midst of wanting to be loved and special and cared for, even if it means losing herself, teen girl tussles back to life. I’m not sure what motivates such an epiphany. Maybe she just got tired of the so-called cool numbness, the excruciating restraint. Perhaps she was just deep-cleaning her closet, and the dejected top whispered of a timeless, glistening glory. Or maybe she just got bored. Maybe, when enough time passes, she realizes there’s no point in locking herself up because teen girl will always find the trapdoor. My teen girl hurls back whenever my older sister changes her voice’s tone when talking to her girlfriend on the phone, never afraid of showing how softly she loves. She’s in the way my best friend inadvertently told a boy he liked him and how he braided forgiveness into his hair after the boy wasn’t sure he’d love him back. She’s there whenever my mom sends TikToks and tells me not to “ignore” her. Teen girl is all the nights I’ve spent watching rom coms with my girlfriend, and was there to see her have the daylight-drenched love we talked about for countless hours. At the end of the day, I go and try to bridge the gap between all the selves I’ve ever been. I’m 20 years old, but I realize that I’m still all of them. Or, at least, I’m still trying to make peace with them. In some ways, I’m more teen girl now than I was as a teen. By that I mean, I’m less afraid of showing I care. About everything. Even now, I fight the bittersweet battle between wanting to unabashedly show myself and the rough ease of being unperceived. In the meantime, I wholeheartedly embrace my love for Taylor Swift and make sure everyone I care about listens to her latest album. I share poems I like, I ask questions, and I laugh a little too loudly. I get used to crying over Zoom calls, and I say I’m not okay when I simply am not. I pour myself onto the people I love and say thank you for being here, for seeing me. For staying. In many ways, being a teen girl is a practice. It is showing up over and over again for yourself. It is being stubborn. It is loving and hurting and being okay with being it — the whole of it all. ■



“In many ways, being a teen girl is a practice. It is showing up over and over again for yourself.” fantasia



When life gives you civets, make perfume. layout XANDRIA HERNANDEZ & JENNIFER JIMENEZ photographer PAMELA SILVA DIAZ stylist ULISES MARTINEZ hmua CHLOE LUNA & KATARINA TYLL models CHLOE BOGEN & AIVA CHAPA



Broken Tongue



here was once a boy named Hamid. He lived in an orphanage in Morocco with a group of other boys who all raised pigeons.

They kept the pigeons in a pen, taught them tricks, and ladled seeds into troughs for their dinners. They cared about the birds more than anything in the world. One day, Hamid opened the pen to find it thrashed, with dead pigeons scattered across the floor. One bird even had a tooth sticking out of it, jagged and yellow like an old key. In the corner, a weaselly creature was licking its paws. That night, the boys gathered around a campfire next to a cluster of cedar trees. The squabbling of the macaques that lived in the cedars was typically quite loud as the sun went down, but tonight, nothing but the crackle of the fire could be heard. It was in that crepitating stillness that a plan was forged to catch the pigeon-slaughtering beast.

ⵜⵓⴷⵔⵜ Hours before my study abroad cohort had to evacuate Morocco, my host mom, Aicha, was stoking a pan full of eucalyptus leaves and lemon rinds in the hallway. “Ya Toudert, hed chi ḍid l’firus,” she explained in Darija. These things are for use against the virus. In our first few months together, Aicha and I got off to a rocky start. I spoke enough Standard Arabic to be understood by her husband and enough babytalk for her toddler. However, Aicha spoke only Darija, a dialect very different from the Arabic taught in schools. Even then, she mostly spoke in Tachelhit, her indigenous language. My family is indigenous Moroccan, too, which I eventually managed to tell Aicha. This is the thing that helped us to connect. We didn’t need words to do so. She would play folk music in Tachelhit, and we would both dance to it. One day, unprompted, she gave me the name Toudert — meaning “life” in Tachelhit. 186


"One day, unprompted, she gave me the name Toudert — meaning ‘life’ in Tachelhit."

RED DRESSES | Revival Vintage

"It doesn’t require fluency in any one language to be fluent in the things I intuitively know."

‫أتاي‬ For a while, mastery of the languages of my father’s culture felt like the only way I could scrounge up a connection with my heritage, which my father himself is unable to provide. So, I spent the year after high school on a critical language program in Morocco, trying to attain “fluency” in Arabic. Learning Arabic is like constantly having to be a funambulist of delicacies — teetering on the slacklines of every nuance, always inches away from face planting in the dirt. I once asked my teacher, “What do you thank for your drug snorting habit?” instead of, “What do you thank for your success?” Months into the program, I still got by on the streets in mostly pantomime, while peers with less of a personal connection to the language surpassed me in their speaking skills. On countless occasions, this broken tongue has humiliated me in front of elders, gotten me into trouble with cab drivers, and rambled without a lick of sense. One day, I went to a café with my friend Sanaa. We talked about our lives and the things we had in common. Despite the fruitfulness of our connection, I felt guilty that most of our conversation was in English and that I was not exclusively focused on my language acquisition goals. The waiter brought our drinks to the table. I ordered mint tea, which I prefer to be extra sweet. As I dumped in more sugar cubes than would be acceptable in an American setting, Sanaa laughed, grabbing my hand from across the table. “The way you flavor your tea, there is no doubt you are Moroccan!” From this interaction, I discovered that it’s not so much linguistic ability that I seek. It seemed that way at first, from the hours I spent agonizing over Arabic grammar and beating myself up over

test scores. But dancing to Chaabi songs with Aicha, drinking over-sweetened tea with Sanaa, dedicating my academic life to the pursuit of these languages, this culture — this is my way of vialling up these parts of myself, my father, my ancestors, and my homeland. It doesn’t require fluency in any one language to be fluent in the things I intuitively know.

‫حامض‬ My father doesn’t speak about his childhood or culture, so I grew up knowing little about what it means to be Moroccan. In fact, there is only one story he tells, which is the pigeon story. Typically, he tells it over dinner, and the ending goes something like this: “What happened was,” he will say in between spoonfuls of couscous, “We caught the thing — called a civet — skinned it as revenge and hung it outside the barn. One day, a traveler passed by and stopped when he saw the civet. ‘Shame,’ he told us. ‘If you had preserved its body, you could have used the musk of the glands to make a lovely perfume.’” My father is a different man now. His name used to be Hamid, which is close to the Arabic word for “sour,” or ḥamiḍ. When I first learned this word, I thought about how he changed his name to Jerry when he moved to the States. Maybe Hamid left a citric taste in his mouth, too much a reminder of his old life ridden with hardships. I always begrudged him for never teaching my sisters and me his native Darija. But the truth is, my father has buried his language deep. His tongue is a burial shroud, cast over the limp remains of any words and phrases that remind him of his childhood. I want to say to my father, My whole life, you have told me to make perfume out of all situations.



Why, then, are the empty skins of your culture, your language, your memories, strewn lifeless at your feet? But I have never been able to muster the words, even in English, to tell him.

ⴰⵣⵓⵍ The things that I know, in the words that I know, are the perfumes that make up this little vial of mine. It’s my American mother’s interpretation of Moroccan meals that I grew up eating, my father’s overused pigeon parable, the tattered sepia photograph I have of my Moroccan grandparents. It’s how in Morocco, the land named after the setting sun, the moon somehow means more; in symbols, but also in the way that night never ends and the streets are full way past 12. It’s within language, too, like how the word for “hello” in Tachelhit, azul, literally means “come into my heart.” Mostly, though, it’s the people I’ve met and come to love in ways I didn’t know possible; the ones who don’t judge me for the broken state of my tongue, the ones whose stories fill the pages of my heart.

‫لسان مكسور‬ My father has a secret that I am not sure even he is fully aware of. On some nights, the words and phrases he has tried so hard to suppress suddenly resurrect themselves. The shroud is lifted, his tongue temporarily disinterred. When he sleeptalks in Darija, what I think must be fragments of the stories I never got to hear spool forth into the air, like phantoms unvialled. ■



"Mostly, though, it’s the people I’ve met and come to love in ways I didn’t know possible; the ones who don’t judge me for the broken state of my tongue, the ones whose stories fill the pages of my heart." fantasia





RED EARRINGS | Revival Vintage RUFFLE PANTS | Noelle Campos

How does Hằng Nga , the goddess on the moon with her snow-footed friend, spend her eternity watching humans love one another so deeply?

80’S SILK DRESS | Charm School Vintage 1970’S BLACK PLATFORMS | Charm School Vintage LEATHER BELT | Charm School Vintage


think about the dark silhouette of my sister, framed by the incandescence of the kitchen lights in the night, and wonder if its wisps will exist long after I leave. Sepia-toned memories pitter-patter and flood through. I wonder how it feels to let go — to let fingers slip through the cracks of tightly held hands. To have your heart wrench so painfully at the greetings that echo back into an emptiness you’ve never known. Alone.

I am a duckling. My feet were to fit in the footsteps she printed on this earth. I would follow rigorously where they took me. Blindly. Faithfully. Having my sister is having a second pair of arms to embrace — I can fall fully, recklessly, knowing she’ll catch me in the end.

🌙 🐇 Mom told me you wished me into existence one night by the windowsill on your knees, your hands clasped together in prayer in front of the moon. I never asked to be born, but you were the reason I kept on living. We were named after the lady of the moon, Hằng Nga, the goddess who transcended to the moon with only her rabbit companion to keep her company forever. I had a feeling Mom knew I would follow after you one day, her name split into two — yours Hằng, mine Nga. But 238,900 miles, the distance from the Earth to the moon, is too far for me to be without you. Hằng and Nga. You and Me. I want to hold on to you the way the moon brought you to me. Forever. Lovingly. You were, and are, home to me. In the fifth grade, when you left for college, I stole your old, oversized purple shirt and slept beside it each night, hoping it would make me miss you less. In eighth grade during dinner, my mouth wobbled over the bowl of phở in front of me, my salty teardrops mixing into saffronseasoned bone broth as you hugged me goodbye for another month. In my tenth year, as I sat in the passenger seat of your car at the fresh age of 17 and told you that I didn’t like just boys, you stayed silent before carefully, tenderly telling me you loved me. The headlights weren’t the only thing that lit up the dark roads

that night — you did. You do. I only ever want to be as kind, as bright, as beautiful as you. Because when Mom is sick and Dad is angry, who else is there to look to? You have always been an anchor amongst raging tides. You’re stubborn, unwilling to budge — the last to ever sign up for a doctor’s appointment for yourself, but the first to overreact to another one of my clumsy paper cuts. I want to be the calm after your storm, when the water doesn’t ripple violently, where you can rest and be your own. You’ve taught me all you knew and all you’ve known. And with each step you take forward, with me behind, I grow stronger. Taller. Kinder. Not by my own will but by yours. Eventually, I understand you. Through the years and growing intuition, I come to pick up the way your breath shakes at the sight of Mom’s blood. I finally see the tears that well up in your eyes at the raise of a voice. How the area between your brows has Dad’s wrinkle lines. You were just as scared, if not more. Now, my steps cover your own and erase them. Suddenly, I’m too grown. Now, I want to say sorry, sorry, sorry, for all of the burdens I’ve placed on you, for adding on to the hardships and pain, for existing behind you. In our folktale, Hằng Nga floats up, up, up to the moon, taking her white rabbit, Thỏ Ngọc, with her. I never learned why she fled. Was she forced to part from her lover, Hậu Nghệ, or did she escape from him? Is she at peace, or does she long for him? All I know is that if you fled, I’d miss you. You were drowning, and I took your shoulders and pushed you down further, your neck below the water. Yes, you are my safety, but you are also their daughter. You were 10, 13, 17, once before. Without a path in front of you, all on your own. You must’ve felt so alone. When I was 20, I stood beside you once after a particularly nasty fight with Dad in the kitchen. Your shoulders trembled, and your cheeks became wet, tears dropping into the sink water from the dishes you aggressively scrubbed. I saw how young you truly were. Time reverted, and I saw little you. I wanted to comfort you, but the lake froze over — my feet stuck to the







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floor, my mouth mum. Slippery, I became stagnant, in fear of overstepping boundaries and falling onto fragile ice. In the poem “anyone lived in a pretty how town,” noone and anyone live side by side as the women sow and children grow. And noone loved him more by more. I’d laugh at your joy and cry with your grief, too. Though fearsome, ice will melt. Fear subdues, and new paths form. Nimble fingers reach your form, hesitant you’ll pull away. And you do. It hurts, but we fall, fall, fall again. We learn to walk, to fly, to swim through tries. Where side by side, we form our ties. Where your path is your own after giving it up for mine. To tread, carefully beside you, so you will never disappear with time. How does Hằng Nga, the goddess on the moon with her snow-footed friend, spend her eternity watching humans love one another so deeply? With clumsy, home-cooked meals I find off the internet, gently pushed onto your work desk as you continue with your 11th meeting of the day. With giving the other half of the cake to you because it’s the prettier one and you only deserve the prettiest things. With knowing I’ll never be able to love you like you do me. But I’ll tie my string to yours, and I’ll hold you. In the midst of the night, I go to the moon. I escape the world, life silences itself for just a little, and I write. I write of you, of the sun, moon, stars, rain, of how noone knew anyone. How this pretty how town, all by all and deep by deep, sun rain stars moon, brought life to me from you. How we are one but also the other. You are me, and I am you. Hằng, Nga — How lucky I am that we are two. You are the cushion that I fall upon. You are the twine that holds me together. You are. You. I’ve held so tightly, loved so deeply, that there was no void to fill. And I let go. Falling, I’ll never


so Alone. ■




GOLD NECKLACE | Revival Vintage



TAN HAT | Revival Vintage BRONZE BELT | Revival Vintage



hen we pulled into Balmorhea State Park in far West Texas, I knew it was a mistake. I had just turned 14, and this was the first family vacation that I was old enough to remember. Dad chose for us to stay in Balmorhea instead of Marfa, Texas. My father is frugal to a fault. Even now, I remember my fixation on the pronunciation of the name. It sounded too much like “diarrhea,” which I thought did not bode well. Bahlmuh-ree-yuh. Another bad omen, one that I only discovered many years later: To “go west” is an idiom meaning “to end in failure, to come to grief.” We dropped our bags in an adobe cabin and got back in the car to look for food, stopping at a gas station down the road that inexplicably doubled as a bar. My dad asked the bartender where to find the best restaurant in Balmorhea.

We drove together to a deserted Walmart for food to take back to Balmorhea, but we forgot plastic utensils. We would later spread peanut butter and jelly using an old Whataburger straw. My brother is allergic to peanuts, so he ate Frosted Flakes out of the bag with his hands. There were no rules in the wild, wild west, and we had no tools to prepare for what we couldn’t have known was coming. The darkening sky turned out to be from an approaching storm, a big, purple spot on the weather radar. My dad drove toward Balmorhea, hunched over the wheel of his Ford Fusion, which shook with the threat of lifting off of the asphalt. Ahead of us, the familiar structure of an oil pumpjack was silhouetted in flames. Lightning must have struck its adjacent tank, and the whole rig had caught fire. Dad yelled to take a picture for posterity, and I screamed back at him to keep his eyes on the road. We had to pull over when he could no longer see through the haze of rain and smoke.

“There are no restaurants in Balmorhea,” he laughed. We could either drive an hour to Marfa or 45 minutes to Pecos. We were starving, and it was getting The storm moved quickly, a gray beast that soon dark. loomed in our rearview mirror. We maneuvered onto the one-lane highway. Telephone poles lay ★ fractured across the road, some halves still standing with broken wood splintered at their sides. Pecos felt like the opening scene from a horror western, rolling past shuttered storefronts in the ★ shadow of a rusty water tower. The All American Bar & Grill was the only thing open. When we all West Texas was the first place I felt the cracks in an had our food, my mom excused herself from the otherwise solid façade. It was where I first thought table, then the restaurant. I found her standing about how easy it would be to put rocks in the down the street, crying in front of a display case pockets of my nightgown and slip into the natural of dismembered mannequins in ‘80s clothing, their springs while everyone slept. The first place I witfishnet sleeves and leg warmers stretched taut by nessed my family’s dysfunction on full display and their dangling limbs. my accompanying shock and shame. “You can’t see me like this,” she said. I’ve forgotten most of what we said throughout the trip, save for a few lines seared in my memory, but the subtext was deafening. I knew how Mom was feeling — helpless, foolish, betrayed by what was supposed to be good and trustworthy — just as deeply as I knew that I couldn’t do anything to help her. She gave me her blue eyes and stubbornness, but I had nothing now to give her in return.

My mom swears I knew before she did that we deserved better from my father, now her ex-husband. But I remember a privileged childhood, marked with outbursts of rage I thought were my fault. I never doubted my dad loved me nor that my mom loved him, until she told me when I was 15 that she had asked for a divorce. I couldn’t discern the storm’s strength from within the calm of its eye.



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When my brother and I were little, my dad would carry us outside before bed every night to look at the moon. He took me to storytime at the public library before I could talk. Maybe it was my dad’s traditions or his writer’s genes that gave me an overactive imagination, but I’d always had a fascination with the other worlds that might be waiting for us to discover them, or else hoping we didn’t. One of the first things they tell you at the McDonald Observatory outside of Marfa is that it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the absence of light pollution. I loved this idea: I could get closer to the universe with enough patience and self-discipline. An out-of-body feeling came over me that night as I scolded myself to be in the moment, already imbued with significance before it coalesced into memory. I remember craning my neck so far back that it ached. I was loath to leave. I made my family swear we were actually leaving for the night before I agreed to go to the bathroom, where the fluorescent lights of the visitor’s center would once again obscure my vision. I blew the stars a kiss goodbye. But when I went back to retrieve my family, they had changed their minds. We would stay a little longer, then drive back to Balmorhea. I couldn’t enjoy the extra time because I was once again blind to the night sky’s beauty. They had taken something meaningful from me on a mere whim, broken their promises, and lost my trust. My mom and brother still make fun of my extreme reaction, but I succeeded in getting everyone into the car and on the dark road down the mountain. ★ We must have taken a wrong turn coming off the mountain — left instead of right, west instead of east. It was pitch black, and cell service was spotty.

Soon, we had sped past any relevant road signs. I have a vivid memory of Dad white-knuckling the wheel and yelling, “We could be driving to Mexico for all I know!” Then, we heard a thud. Another. Suddenly, several in a row, and quick flickers of shadow in the road. Rabbits. Something must have rustled them up from their burrows and into the car’s cruel path. My brother and I started sobbing at the thought of the dead rabbits in our wake, while my dad swerved to avoid them. My mom just laughed, which made us cry harder. “You don’t understand,” she said. “For every five we hit, we’re missing two dozen more.” By the time we found our way back to Balmorhea, it was three in the morning. The blood on the bumper was the only proof of the night’s destruction. I looked up at the stars before going to bed, saying a prayer for the rabbits and the families they left behind. I didn’t think to pray for my own. ★ I love my dad for who he is, though he’s not who I needed him to be. My mom wanted him to go to therapy, wanted to go back to school, wanted my brother and me to know what love should look like. I would come to realize how much she covered for him — made ends meet when he lost another job, sacrificed her independence to keep things stable for her children. I don’t know how much my dad really knew her, through the falsehood of fundamentalist Christianity and the narcissism he inherited from his parents. It took my brother much longer to mourn the loss of a father figure, if not the man himself. I wonder when that process started for me — in the desert or under the stars? ■







“And no matter where I go, You’ll always be here in my heart, here in my heart, here in my heart.”




hat does it mean to be ahead of your time? To pioneer? To break ground?

discography through the rest of the week. I wasn’t sure why.

What does it mean to those who see you? To those who identify with your insurgence? To those who recognize themselves in your revolution?

Life as a queer person is confusing, especially when it comes to gender. It’s hard to escape a construct that is solidified in one’s life from birth. A set, inescapable truth within this world of pinks and blues, it puts a gag on queerness and leaves knots of shame and confusion around the limbs of people who feel othered.

Everything. It means everything. SOPHIE was a visionary from the start. She, before even showing herself, held an individuality within her music unlike any other. Her sound was hers, fully. Her faceless existence didn’t matter to listeners, but her introduction did.

Then, enter the visibility of SOPHIE. SOPHIE’s world is one without conventions. In her music and in life, she sees things differently than anyone I’d been exposed to before. Her sound is instantly recognizable, Strangely, I can remember that day in high school with its heavy snares and glistening, pitched vocals. with vivid detail. I was in a welding class surrounded Self-described as a pop star, SOPHIE takes the Top by masculinity and sweat. I, the clear (queer) outlier, 40 sound and pushes it toward the horizon alongside was abstracted by my two best friends in school: my her. She speaks in her tranquil British voice of a iPhone 7 and wired headphones. Scrolling through future without restriction, one without the confines Twitter, I saw it. A music video from a faceless artist of stereotypical gender. Her studio album is titled I’d held a minor interest in, showing herself in full for a reverse mondegreen of the phrase, “I love every the first time. person’s insides,” exemplifying this. She is the first to show me how beautiful queerness is, how immaculate “It’s okay to cry,” she sang, baring her breasts for the a body of unaltered self-expression can be. Her world with scenes of shifting skies in the background. interviews burst with thought-provoking sentiments As morning sunrises morphed into midnight storms on how freeing impenitent self expression can be. She on screen, tears began to develop in my eyes. This is sexy, she is visible, she is unabashed. She is inspiring. was something, no, someone different. Someone I saw myself in unlike anyone before. Someone who, She taught me that there were no rules. That in doing so little, did so much. My first exposure to traditionalism is not the standard, not “correct.” I’d the wholly new world of SOPHIE, I listened to her learn more about myself with each of the inter-



“She is the first to show me how beautiful queerness is, how immaculate a body of unaltered self-expression can be.”



“Understanding queerness is understanding difference. It’s recognizing it, accepting it, celebrating it.” views I’d read as her career and visibility progressed. I would find comfort in the unapologetic queerness of her music, turning Immaterial’s, “I could be anything I want,” into a mantra. As I dove into myself, SOPHIE was a consistent touchpoint of validation and understanding in a way only she could be, encouraging me to swim deeper and explore further. There comes a shift in mindset when you deconstruct the rules. You realize that all that you once knew was not the truth, that there’s no reason as to why the world isn’t a kaleidoscope of shades. Understanding queerness is understanding difference. It’s recognizing it, accepting it, celebrating it. This is why there’s such a profound connection between queer people. We see each other differently than those who haven’t yet made this revelation. We love each other differently than those who do not yet understand. We hold each other close, for we realize that, right now, what we know is sacred. What we know is the future. It makes it all that much harder when one of us goes. Strangely, I can remember that day in January with vivid detail. I woke up, glad that I managed to sleep in until 10 a.m. on a Saturday, and I laid in bed for a moment, opting out of the usual instant scouring of my phone. Eventually, my habits got the best of me. Scrolling through Twitter, I saw it. Sophie Xeon had passed in Athens the night before while climbing to see the year’s first full moon. The tears came before the realization, and they stayed for the day. I listened to her discography through the rest of the week. It’s hard to tell how needed someone’s presence is until they’re not there anymore. The loss of SOPHIE’s presence was felt by those who knew her around the world. She was more than just an artist, more than someone who simply understood. She lived it; she experienced it. She was one of us. Her presence was more than just celebrity for us – it was representation.





In a time when few truly understand us, SOPHIE was a beacon of hope. One of us, living in truth and sharing with the world what queerness is, what transness is. Her words inspired us. She encouraged us to remain unapologetic in who we are, to put our happiness above social conditioning. She explained how beautiful it is to have our experiences, to live our lives unapologetically. It’s things like this that people need to see. It’s groundbreakers like her who inspire change in the world. More importantly, it’s people like her who need to be there for the us who don’t know they’re one of us yet. It’s those ahead of their time who need to be recognizable for when the time comes. I still see mourning on my media timelines. I find myself thinking about SOPHIE when my mind wanders. I reflect on what a profound impact she had on me every single time a song she touched comes on. It’s a bittersweet feeling knowing how universal she was in so many of our lives, but I think the sweetness overpowers. She is inescapably linked to the queer experience. Her music plays in our clubs, at our house parties, in our cars. She is there on drunken nights when I stomp home in platform shoes to the beat of unreleased demos on SoundCloud. I remember her sounds in the memories I plan to hold on to until I cannot any longer. I think of her when I see the moon, its celestial beauty linked to hers forever. You can’t put into words how it feels to realize you’ve seen someone live ahead of their time. You can’t explain to others how it feels to be connected to a groundbreaker. What you can do is grab a shovel and help to finish the job they started. ■ For SOPHIE, 1986-2021



“She explained how beautiful it is to have our experiences, to live our lives unapologetically. It’s things like this that people need to see.” fantasia



In the old world, light and color ruled. Now, delicate outlines of silhouettes represent us as imperfect, forever shifting and evolving.

Welcome to the void — an abyss where silent screams pierce the ear. Empty,



Earth is a memory: Slowly Fading Fading Slowly (GONE).

The sun vanished, the stars disappeared. Expelled, Perished, Expired.

Now, beauty is determined by our shadows: Darkness marries Darkness.

The sky is purple filled with endless space. The ground is empty looking for conflict. Here, Dissonance brings Peace.

In a world evacuated of meaning, The Vacuum is delightful: Space Fills the 218





An overwhelming presence surrounding us reminding us our inexorable fate. Until then, We Live In The Unknown.

We appreciate the pauses, the commas of life recognizing nothing is definite: but the end. The End. Destination: Unknown. ■




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Fantasia What is reality if not a phantasmagoria of musical compositions? Symphonic strings stretching the fabric of time this way and that. The staves are first to rope me in and wind me so tightly that I, myself, become the key signature. They think me treble with the clef in my chin and vibrato in my voice. I am the “Rite of Spring.” I am E♭, F♭ polychords. In this arrangement, jade skies are not so foreign. Neither are twolipped tulips whose honeyed nectar sheens the petals. I pucker up and lean down to kiss them, but they bite back. C? ♯. I much prefer the company of others. I revel in the stories told by specters — stories of seafoam wishes and lost dreams. They sing sea shanties with perfect pitch, and I would join them if not for my amusia. I am the right note who exists in the wrong key. Still, we dance together under emerald rains and bask under the light of a holey, Swiss moon.

When the music stops, I am reminded of life far away from here. A grindstone life that urges me to face



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When the music stops, I am reminded of life far away from here. A grindstone life that urges me to face the music or die trying, dies irae. But I would much rather stay here — in the off key. I am at home in the inharmonic harmony of this world. And even in the coda, I thrive. ■

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