WALLACE PRIZE 2018
VOL. XLV ISSUE 6 THE WALLACE ISSUE
Note The Yale Daily News Magazine is proud to announce the results of the 2018 Wallace Prize. The Wallace Prize recognizes completed, previously unpublished works of fiction and nonfiction produced by Yale undergraduates. All submissions are judged anonymously by two juries of experts in nonfiction and fiction, respectively. NONFICTION: 1st place: “Hidden Neighbors” by Lily Moore-Eissenberg ’20 2nd place: “My Vagina and Me: A Brief Herstory” by Tessa PalterPoston ’19 3rd place: “Finding Femme” by Lily Moore-Eissenberg ’20 Honorable mention: “Glory Be to the Lamb” by Jacob Stern ’19 Honorable mention: “Hogties and Hip Replacements: The Bondage Fantasies of the Suburban Elderly, Both Realized and Not” by Amelia Nierenberg ’18 Honorable mention: “Helping Women Choose: In Rural Pennsylvania, One Family Pilots an Alternative” by Stephan Sveshnikov ’18 FICTION: 1st place: “Caves” by Rosa Nguyen ’18 2nd place: “Family-less Heirlooms” by Sara McCartney ’19 3rd place: “For M.” by Sam Berry ’19 Honorable mention: “Lady Stuff ” by Mariah Kreutter ’20 Honorable mention: “The Printers” by Julia Rosenheim ’18 The Magazine would like to thank the many undergraduates who submitted their work, the judges who pored over the pieces and the Yale English Department, which sponsored this special issue!
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table of contents
First-Place Nonfiction by Lily Moore-Eissenberg
12 MY VAGINA AND ME: A BRIEF HERSTORY Second-Place Nonfiction by Tessa Palter-Poston
First-Place Fiction by Rosa Nguyen
29 FAMILY-LESS HEIRLOOMS
Second-Place Fiction by Sara McCartney
MAGAZINE Magazine Editors in Chief Flora Lipsky Frani O’Toole Managing Editors Kate Cray Nicole Blackwood
BUSINESS LIAISON: Alexa Tsay
Associate Editors Liana Van Nostrand Lucy Silbaugh Jordan Cutler-Tietjen Elaine Wang Magazine Design Editors Mari Melin-Corcoran Valeria Villanueva
Photography Editors Schirin Rangnick Vivek Suri Illustrations Editors Michael Holmes Sonia Ruiz
Copy Editor Brett Greene Editor in Chief & President Rachel Treisman Publisher Elizabeth Liu
Cover photo by Schirin Rangnick
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Hidden Neighbors For trafficked domestic workers, exploitation can be a family affair // By Lily Moore-Eissenberg // Photos by Lily Moore-Eissenberg
n May 5, 2011, just before 10 a.m., a state police officer and a special agent from Homeland Security Investigations showed up on the doorstep of Unit 12B, in Harvard, Massachusetts, for an old-fashioned “knock and talk.” The officers wanted to speak to the residents, but they lacked a search warrant: Video surveillance and background checks they had conducted over the previous month had revealed little about the owners of the condominium, Martha and Richard Smalanskas, aside from a preference for Hondas — they had two — and Martha’s Bolivian origins. After weeks of unfruitful investigation, the officers were acting on an anonymous tip they had received at the beginning of April. Over the phone, an unnamed caller had told the police officer, Pi Heseltine, that there was a woman living in Unit 12B who spoke no English, had no friends and got no days off work — “a slave,” the source said. It was Martha who opened the door, according to an affidavit detailing the officers’ visit. The 45-year-old Bolivian had gained U.S. citizenship in 2006; she had three school-age boys, who attended the local public school, and she ran a small interior decorating service. Richard, a stocky 46-year-old real estate agent, stood in the hallway behind her. The officers needed to speak to the housekeeper, Special Agent Sean Rafferty said. She wasn’t in any trouble, he assured the Smalanskases, but he wanted to talk to her in private. Martha went to the back door and returned with her employee, who accompanied Rafferty and Heseltine to the police cruiser parked outside. In her limited English, “Eva” — who will remain anonymous, as she was in court documents and still is to me — described her arrival in the U.S. and aspects of her life with the Smalanskases. She had started working for them in Bolivia at the age of 16. When the family relocated to Massachusetts, she had joined them, entering the U.S. on a temporary visa in 1997. Now she was 35, and the Smalanskases had never let her go home. She could not escape, she
told the officers, and started to cry. She agreed to continue the conversation at the state police barracks in Concord, 13 miles away. Eva stayed in the car as Heseltine went back to tell the Smalanskases what was happening. As the officers pulled away, Martha came outside to speak to her former employee. Do not say anything to them, she warned Eva. Ask for an attorney. Within minutes, Martha, the gabled roof and the green door of Unit 12B had disappeared behind Eva and the officers. For the second time in her life, Eva was being transported away from an ambivalent home on another’s initiative, not knowing when or if she would return or where, exactly, she was headed.
o get to Unit 12B from my childhood home in Harvard, I take a left at the end of my road, drive straight for about 10 minutes, turn left onto Gebo Lane a mile or so past the local police station and take the left that brings me to McCurdy Track. I pull up next to the picturesque neighborhood called Harvard Green Condominiums, where colonial look-alikes ring a large center lawn. When I visited last fall, the neighborhood exuded mom and pop whimsy: door hangings instructed, “Give thanks”; a doormat punned, “I am Mat.” Residents clad in cardigans walked their dogs and waved to their neighbors. There was a high school soccer game going on across the street, and a small crowd had congregated on the road to watch. About 10 yards from the outermost spectators stood the brown colonial with white trim where Eva had lived and worked in secret for over 13 years. In the U.S., a large, underpublicized population of migrant domestic workers labors behind closed doors. Many have been trafficked, meaning they have been transported or harbored through coercion, force or fraud for the purpose of exploitation. In 2015, The Boston Globe reported several cases of domestic worker trafficking in the Boston area, including Eva’s. (In the Globe, she is called “CB,” which is the pseudonym used in court
documents.) In Newton, a wealthy suburb, a Filipina migrant named Catherine Piedad called 911 after her employers confiscated her passport and prohibited her from leaving the house. Also in Newton, Elvia Morales Cruz, a Guatemalan nanny, went underpaid and underfed while she cared for a medical malpractice lawyer’s six children. In Chestnut Hill, Noiva Ferreira de Resende, a Brazilian housekeeper, sought help after her employer, an executive vice president of Santander Bank, did not let her leave the house for 15 days straight. A diplomat left Edilene Moraes Almeida, who was ill with a brain tumor, in Boston when she decided not to accompany his family to Brazil, where he had been reassigned; according to Almeida’s lawyer, the diplomat owed Almeida tens of thousands of dollars in overtime. Such lists, experts and activists say, are far from exhaustive. In a statement emailed to me, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey noted, “Labor trafficking is happening right here in our own communities.” In 2017, domestic work was the sector with the highest number of nonsexual labor trafficking cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline. Yet there are no official statistics on the human trafficking of domestic workers. The nature of the crime might help explain the blind spot: Its character is local, but its scale is global. The International Labour Organization estimates that the nearly 21 million people in forced labor situations worldwide generate $150 billion in illegal profits per year; of that number, $8 million come from trafficking. (The organization does not provide a breakdown of the $8 million into types of labor, but experts say domestic worker trafficking accounts for a significant portion of private-sector illegal profits.) Given the magnitude of financial gain, it is striking that most cases of domestic worker trafficking do not involve professional recruiters or large-scale trafficking schemes. Instead, they often involve close relationships and personal connections. Sometimes, they involve family. Yale Daily News Magazine | 5
n December 2014, Letícia Souza, a migrant worker from the city of Serra in Espírito Santo, Brazil, was trafficked by her in-laws to New Bedford, a suburb of Boston, along with her husband and son. I learned about her case, which has yet to appear in a newspaper, through the Brazilian Women’s Group, a community and advocacy organization based in Brighton, Massachusetts. The winter of her arrival, Letícia toiled through nights on orders from her brother-in-law, who restricted the Souzas’ food to leftovers, their sleep to two hours some days and their bathroom usage to once per day. Letícia and her husband, Herickson, cleaned auto dealerships and restaurants for 18 hours on end, seven days per week, for three months before they had both the resolve and the resources to leave. When we spoke in her apartment, Letícia wore a sequined T-shirt that read “ABSOLUTELY AWESOME” and offered me coffee until I accepted. The 28-year-old stands just over 5 feet tall, with a compact build and a slow, warm smile. She has a resonant voice and a steadiness that undergirds her strong
sense of justice. Herickson was not home when I visited, but Letícia’s son, Erick, who is 11 years old, crept into the kitchen during our conversation. Riding in on a hoverboard, his big brown eyes shone — Erick smiles with his whole face — but he could not be persuaded to say a word. Unlike Eva, when Letícia met her employers, she had the advantages of a college education, a nuclear family of her own and adulthood. But when family members become traffickers — or when traffickers come to feel like family — it can be hard for anyone to “see what’s happening,” as Letícia says, and harder yet to act. “When you say human trafficking, people picture someone being tied up, but sometimes it’s not like that,” Letícia explained. “It happens to people who know things,” she said. “It happens with family.”
n recent years, the term “modern slavery” has gained popularity in public discourse. It refers to human trafficking, and it is meant to encompass the wide range of abuses that can accom-
pany trafficking crimes, including sexual and economic exploitation. Insofar as it has raised awareness about human trafficking, the term has been successful. But some scholars say its success is undermined by the misconceptions and false associations that the term has propagated. Janie Chuang, a law professor at American University and an expert in human trafficking, told me that modern-slavery rhetoric often focuses on sex trafficking, perpetuating a “continuing sense that trafficking is about sex and not labor.” “People want to be modern-day abolitionists,” Chuang told me. But for trafficked workers, the decision to migrate, Chuang said, is often an “exercise in agency,” and the decision to stay can be complicated. Further, the imagery associated with American slavery — chains, agricultural labor, confinement, outright violence, rape — does not always capture the reality of the crime. Nonsexual labor trafficking can be mundane and uncinematic, involving minor deceptions, breached contracts and excessive overtime. Within a week of her arrival, for example, Eva lost possession
of her passport. Martha’s brother, who had flown with Eva to the U.S., came to retrieve it, according to an affidavit. The passport needed stamping, he said, and the stamping had to happen in Bolivia — a justification which may or may not have been true. Over the next decade, Eva never learned to drive, which, in rural Harvard, would have effectively limited her to the short list of attractions in the center of town — the general store, the town library, a Catholic church, a Congregational church, a Unitarian church and the local elementary and high schools. Her paperwork had expired, her employers told her, so she would not be able to get a license. She biked or walked when she was granted permission to leave the house. Martha warned her not to talk to strangers, reasoning that Eva could get herself and the family in trouble if someone found out that her documents had expired. Once or twice a month, Eva told federal prosecutors, Martha would get angry. She would pull Eva’s hair, berate her, scratch her and slap her, Eva said. For over a decade, Eva cooked, cleaned and cared for the Smalanskas children from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday, plus Saturday hours, at a rate that rose from $100 to $150 per month. The Smalanskases handled Eva’s finances as many parents would a teenager’s. They paid for her
food, but she bought some of her clothing and toiletries. When Eva could not afford her own computer, Martha gifted her $100 to buy one. Eva’s status floated ambiguously between adolescent, adult and child: Her expenditures reflected those of a college freshman half-relying on parental funds for basic necessities; her hours added up to two full-time jobs. Her pay amounted to an oftforgotten allowance. Martha kept track of expenses accrued by and debts owed to Eva in a red logbook, tucked in a brown binder. (In a search of the condominium, police found it wedged underneath a couch cushion in the living room.) When Eva’s employers withheld her pay, the logbook — a convenient but valueless stand-in for the wages it recorded — would have kept up the appearance of employer accountability. On the day of her departure, Eva had received only $2,500 for over 13 years of work — less than five cents per hour.
round noon on Dec. 14, 2014, Letícia arrived in Boston feeling hopeful. It was a Sunday and uncharacteristically warm; the temperature outside hovered in the low 40s. Letícia was disoriented — 16 hours ago, she had been breathing tropical air — but she had reason to feel secure. Her husband, Herickson, and her son, Erick, were by
her side; her in-laws, Donny and Milene Sousa, were waiting for them in the airport. (“Sousa” and Letícia’s last name, “Souza,” are, in this case, unrelated variations on a common Brazilian surname.) Letícia and Herickson had jobs lined up and, along with their son, a place to live. Donny and Milene, Herickson’s sister, would be their employers and their landlords. The Sousas ran a cleaning business. When Letícia met them in the airport, though, Donny’s shabby clothes and Milene’s sickly complexion made her feel uneasy. Her worry grew as Donny sped home to New Bedford. Inside the car, Coca-Cola products, fast-food wrappers, and old clothes littered the floor and seats. This isn’t right, Letícia thought. The Sousas were supposed to be wealthy. Four hours later, Donny put Letícia and Herickson to work. From then on, every day from 6 p.m. to 12 p.m., they did heavyduty cleaning — not the light spraying and dusting they had been told to expect. At first, Letícia told me, she and her husband fought. She believed that his relationship with his sister was making it difficult for him to understand the reality of the situation. She felt that he was “going through an illusion.” “This is normal here,” Herickson would say. “You are not seeing what’s happening,” Letícia would reply.
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Erick, who was 8 at the time, stayed home while his parents worked. Milene, despite Letícia’s entreaties, had refused to enroll him in school, citing his lack of documentation. Erick was hungry during the day and lonely, Letícia told me. In the evening, he often begged his mother to take him with her to work. “A lot of people say, ‘But he was part of your family,’” Letícia said, speaking about Donny. “What he has done, if it was just with me, I think I could let it go. But what he has done — the things that he made my son go through — it’s something that I can’t forgive.” In the beginning, conflicts took the form of small arguments, honesties and deceits. They built up over time. One day, Herickson got his sister in the car by herself. She was too submissive toward her husband, he worried, and he wondered if she was all right. He told her, “I’m afraid he’s going to hurt you,” according to Letícia. They talked and cried together, but that evening, Milene reported the conversation to Donny, who berated Herickson for insinuating that he was “the type of man
that hits a woman.” Feeling betrayed, Herickson began to believe what Letícia says she knew the whole time — that this life was not normal, even in America.
hy do some domestic workers stay with abusive employers? In my interviews with experts and activists, the most frequently cited barriers to escape were logistical ones and coercion. Michael Paarlberg, who co-authored a 2017 report by the Institute of Policy Studies and the National Domestic Workers Alliance on the human trafficking of domestic workers, cited withholding of documents and deportation threats. “It’s an exploitable relationship, and employers know that,” Paarlberg said. Marzena Zukowska, a community organizer at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said that entanglement of police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement has “eroded a lot of trust,” to the point where migrant workers are too “paranoid” to report abuse. Most migrant domestic workers enter the country lawfully,
but their legal status is fragile. Under U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the administrative arm of the Department of Homeland Security that handles visas, domestic workers following their employers to the U.S. are eligible to apply for B-1 visas. These visas afford workers temporary legal status as long as they remain with their original employers, whose names are listed on the employment authorization document — a supplemental form that domestic workers are required to submit as part of their visa applications. As a result of the policy, in cases of exploitation, workers may choose not to report abuse for fear of losing their legal status. The Smalanskases, through their lawyers, maintain that theirs was “far from being a typical employer-employee relationship,” as reported by The Boston Globe. When I called Martha last October and asked her about the court case, she said, “I don’t know what story you’re talking about,” and hung up. One of her sons was less abrupt. Over Facebook Messenger, he thanked me for my interest in his side of the story but said the topic was too sensitive to discuss. In the Smalanskas household, exploitation took many typical forms — among them, the withholding of already-low wages (an abuse reported by 85 percent of domestic workers surveyed for a 2017 National Domestic
Workers Alliance report), the withholding of documents (62 percent), overlong hours (73 percent) and isolation (75 percent). Language barriers, intimidation and financial dependence can build shadow walls behind a home’s material ones. Indeed, factors like these shape the experiences of many migrant domestic workers and have come to define prevailing narratives about labor trafficking and forced labor. Yet certain cases still defy reason.
ive months had passed since the day the police knocked on the door of Unit 12B, and Eva was, by all objective accounts, free. It was October 2011; she was staying in a shelter, and a federal court case was underway against Martha and Richard Smalanskas. The last time Eva had seen Martha had been in May, through the window of the police cruiser as it pulled away from the condo complex. The Smalanskases’ three boys were on Eva’s mind. One of the children, middle school–age, had a birthday coming up. Eva called Martha, hoping to wish the youngest child a happy birthday. Over the phone, Eva could hear Martha crying, according to the affidavit detailing the call. How was Eva doing, Martha wanted to know, and when would they see each other again? Eva, surprised that Martha was not angry with her, agreed to visit the fam-
ily. She would take the train and meet the Smalanskases at the station; Martha would keep the plan secret from the boys to sweeten the surprise. The next week, Martha and the birthday boy set off for the train station. Martha had told her son that they would be picking up a puppy, but, when they arrived, she admitted that there was no puppy. They had come to pick up someone better. After the birthday visit, Eva would see the family three more times in three months: once on New Year’s Eve and twice to watch the boys play in basketball games. At first, Eva hid her return visits from the court. Her omission constituted perjury and complicated her case. Federal prosecutor Thomas Kanwit, in an interview, tried to elucidate Eva’s feelings toward the Smalanskases. Did she want to return to them? Yes, Eva began — she would “love to go back to them.” “This has been a nightmare,” she said, according to a summary of the interview in an affidavit. Then she clarified: The nightmare was living in a shelter full of drug addicts, and it was not that she wanted to go back for good — she just worried about the children. She did not want them to lose their parents to prison. Eva told Kanwit that she had faced repeated physical abuse (hitting, scratching, pulling hair) by Martha and
emotional intimidation (yelling, taunting) by both husband and wife. (The defense denied all charges of abuse.) Kanwit asked Eva about the time Richard punched a hole in the wall and the time she fell down the stairs and hurt her back. Martha had grabbed her, he offered, and then had released her suddenly after an argument. Eva confirmed. “You did not have any friends of your own in the United States, did you?” Kanwit asked Eva in an investigative interview. “No,” she replied. “Your life was really all about the children, wasn’t it?” “Yes.”
eloisa Galvão, the executive director of the Brazilian Women’s Group in Brighton, Massachusetts, was the one who picked up the phone when Herickson called for help in March 2014. Galvão, a middle-aged Brazilian-American with a curly orange bob and a fast way of talking, told me that when she got the call, the Souzas did not have a name for the crimes that had been
committed against them. Though Letícia may not have known the term “human trafficking,” Galvão said, she knew “the rights she has as a human.” The situation in the Sousa household had recently escalated. In late February, at the kitchen table, Herickson confronted Donny about his and Letícia’s missing wages. Donny got up and left, Letícia recalled, and returned with two guns. He placed them on the table, and said, “Here in this land, nobody owns me, and I don’t own anybody.” He paid them $800 — a fraction of the $6,000 he owed them. Within a month, despite continued wage theft, Letícia and Herickson managed to find an apartment with a security deposit they could afford. One night, in secret, they left. “We got our stuff together. We put it in a plastic bag, and we left,” Letícia told me. “The first night, I was in front of the heater. I got my winter jackets, and I got my son and my husband. We hugged each other, and we slept there with no fear. We could use the bathroom at night. I felt free in that time.” The next few weeks saw a flurry of change. After Herickson and Letícia
quit their jobs, Donny started harassing them with phone calls, demanding that they pay him back for the plane tickets and visas he had bought for them. As Herickson and Letícia drove home from their last day of work, Donny called Herickson and told him, “You are not a man,” according to Letícia. “If you don’t pay me, I’m going to chase you,” Donny said. “I will go to where you are.” On the way to the police station to report Donny, Letícia prayed that one of the officers on duty spoke Portuguese — and one did. (It was a stroke of luck but not a miracle: New Bedford has a large Brazilian population.) Herickson called the Brazilian Women’s Group and spoke to Galvão, who set the Souzas up with another volunteer and the lawyer that helped them obtain a restraining order against Donny. On Oct. 4, 2016, Donny Sousa was indicted for human trafficking, larceny, assault and wage theft, according to a press release from Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s office. For three months of work, Herickson and Letícia had gotten $3,600
and three days off. Though the case is ongoing, they have built new lives for themselves in the U.S. They have successfully applied for U visas — a special type for victims of trafficking who have “suffered substantial mental or physical abuse as a result of the crime” — which means they will not be deported and can work in the U.S. legally. They work long hours, but they are treated fairly. Letícia told me, “I am living my dream.”
hen asked, in an investigative interview in June 2012, whether what the Smalanskases did was wrong, Eva said she would not want it to happen to someone else. But testifying against the Smalanskases was difficult. The legal process was “putting me between a rock and a hard place,” she said. She worried, still, about what her employers thought of her: Eva believed that the Smalanskases would hate her for telling the truth, according to a summary of her testimony in an affidavit. Why did Martha hit her and yell at her? Maybe sometimes Eva did not do what Martha wanted, Eva suggested
to federal prosecutors. Still, she said, “I can’t explain why Martha did things to me.” In the indictment filed in September 2012, a grand jury charged Martha and Richard Smalanskas with counts of conspiracy, harboring an illegal alien and harboring an illegal alien for financial gain. The case was settled in a plea bargain. If it had gone to trial and they had been convicted, the Smalanskases would have faced 10-year prison sentences, a fine of $250,000 and three years of supervised release. Instead, they ended up with one year of probation and an order to pay $150,000 in restitution, after showing sufficient evidence that they did not have the financial resources to pay Eva all that she was owed. Galvão, the director of the Brazilian Women’s Group, wonders how many cases of labor trafficking slip under the radar. The reason she does not hear about more cases like Letícia’s, she suspects, is that victims are too afraid to seek help or unable, for whatever reason, to recognize their situations as trafficking and their employers’ actions as illegal. Letícia’s “natural instinct” for
right and wrong, Galvão said, is exceptional. When we spoke, Letícia told me, “It’s very hard for me to say this, but this is what I need to do. … This is my duty.” “Things cannot stay hidden debaixo do tapete,” Letícia concluded, using a Portuguese idiom akin to the English “swept under the rug.” In the 19 years that Eva worked for the Smalanskases, including time in Bolivia, two homes were bought and two babies were born. When Eva gave testimony for the first time, in 2012, she still had no idea how law enforcement found her. Her bewilderment suggests that she did nothing to prompt the search or to facilitate the discovery. In May 2011, the officers who found the woman in Unit 12B and the logbook under the couch cushion only did so because someone had noticed, after 13 years, that something troubling was happening in the house on the green. “Things cannot stay hidden under the carpet.” Portuguese translation by Estefani Oliveira.
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My Vagina and Me: A Brief Herstory // By Tessa Palter-Poston // // Photos by Schirin Rangnick
I. “THERE’S A WORD FOR THAT,” SAID THE CAT IN THE HAT “Are they both girls?” asked the vegan private school yogi mom. “He’s a boy, and she’s a girl,” my mother replied, gesturing between her drool-covered twins. She dressed us exactly the same, usually in homemade striped get-ups that resembled old-school prison uniforms. “And they’re identical?” My mother sighed. She had gotten this question before. “Yeah, he has a penis and she has a vagina, but besides that they’re totally the same.” As a fraternal twin, I was aware of being vagina’d ([vuh-jahy-nuhd] adjective; the state of having a vagina) from an early age. My Vaginal Awakening™ occurred one fateful bath time when my grandfather was cleaning my brother and me after a productive session in the sandbox. Apparently, I made a pass at my brother’s package (I am sure this was
Illustration by Valerie Navarrete
motivated by my charming and completely scientific hunger for knowledge). My grandfather quickly put an end to my research before summoning my mother to give me a little talk. Let me just say here that, if anyone tries to spin this into an incest or sexual abuse thing like what happened with Lena Dunham, I swear to God I will write a strongly worded op-ed about you for a campus publication, and we all know NOBODY likes reading those. Little kids do weird shit, OK?! My mother wrapped 2-year-old me in my favorite Powerpuff Girl towel and pulled me to the other side of the bathroom. “You’re not in trouble, but it’s not appropriate for you to touch your brother there,” she explained. I stared up at her blankly with big bug eyes (they’re literally so big that multiple bugs have gotten stuck in them). “Why?” I asked. She proceeded to explain clumsily the concept of private “no-touch”
areas that differ between boys and girls. She recruited to her aid the nauseating euphemisms “lulu” and “hoohoo” to refer to penis and vagina, a practice so cringeworthy I resent having to indulge it here. (Parents, for the love of positive body image, please teach your children the correct terminology for their genitals.) “Why Sam gets lulu?” I asked, a crusader for gender equality from an early age. “Because boys are born with lulus and girls are born with hoohoos,” she replied, in Dr. Seuss fashion. “You have hoohoo?” “Yes.” “I have hoohoo?” “Yes.” I paused in narrow-eyed contemplation, determining whether to believe her. “Hmph,” I finally huffed, with the stolid resignation of a nearretired cop who is “getting too old for this shit.” And with this begrudging acquiescence, so began my relationship with my vagina.
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II. NO, IT’S NOT A SECOND BUTT My beginning years as a vagina bearer, a clam wearer, a vulva-possessing penis ensnarer, were smooth sailing. In a household with two sisters, things were thornier for my vagless brother. Vaginal privilege was undeniable. When Sam and I accompanied Mom to make Nordstrom returns and one of us needed to pee, to the ladies’ room we’d march. In that special room for dress wearers, my scandalized brother turned menstrual red while women reapplied makeup and adjusted their cleavage and shouted, “Does anyone have a t*mpon?” During my early schooling, I felt insecure about my vagina for the same reason I felt insecure about most things: A boy said something stupid. One sunny afternoon at Little Village Nursery School, Bobby with the widow’s peak bragged to a group of male snotblasters that he knew what “girl parts” looked like. “It’s like a second smaller butt,” he proclaimed, and I swear his widow’s peak got a little pointier as he said it. “Is not!” I whined from the tin-roofed play structure above. Feces came out of butts, so to suggest that I had not one but two poop chutes was unacceptable, defamatory, slanderous! Of course, when asked to “prove it,” I refused to “drop trou,” so who knows for how long those boys thought women were doubled-assed. Even more upsetting was in first grade, when Davey Mernick teased me for having to pee sitting down. Although well aware of this reality, hearing it spelled out, I couldn’t understand why God in Her infinite wisdom would curse women with such anatomical inefficiency. I practiced my stream in the shower, impressed with my arc and aim. However, my aquatic testing didn’t translate well to terra firma, and after the third round of de-urining the bathroom with half a roll of scrunched up toilet paper, I accepted that vaginas weren’t made for vertical peeing — but they weren’t made for pooping either, Bobby!
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second-place nonfiction III. STOP AND SMELL THE ROSES I was 7 when I learned vaginas have their own aroma. The afternoon was hot and sweaty. Sam and I were building a Star Wars Landspeeder with the AC on full blast (in the name of equality, my parents gifted us the same toys — I was stuck with many a Lego, but not once did Sam receive a Barbie). I was wearing only an oversized T-shirt. Whenever I straddled the air vent to reach the Lego pile, I noticed a distinct acidic smell (I’ve scoured the web to aid me in this description, but apparently vaginal scent is the most elusive in all the land. The similes are either fetishistic — “like heaven” — or derogatory — “like fish”). It took me a moment to realize the odor came from me, and not from all of me but from one small part. I gave my vag an iPhone-unlocking swipe and scratched my nose to covertly smell the sample. Sure enough, I had located the source. Was this new? Did it happen to all girls? Was it noticeable? Huh? As Sam continued building, seemingly unbothered, I decided not to worry. The smell wasn’t half bad. IV. VULVA, URETHRA AND ANUS, OH MY! By middle school, Menstruation Nation had begun recruitment. Owing to my family history and pipsqueak frame, I was destined to be a late bloomer. This reality caused me no qualms. Periods meant monthly blood, cramps, acne, nausea, mood swings, weight gain. I couldn’t understand why anyone would romanticize this great injustice as a womanly milestone. That this blood-fest signaled one’s readiness to mother a diaper-monster was even more reason to riot in the streets. Still, at the sixth-grade pool party when Audrey Quinn recruited help inserting a tampon in a very loud and very naked spectacle that involved two girls forcefully shoving the cotton plug inside of her while I shrieked in horror from my perch on the sink counter, I felt a strange hope that one day, I would get to learn from my friends too. Menstruating or not, eighth-grade Tessa thought she had anatomy all figured out — I was practically the Doogie
Howser of vaginas. After all, I attended an L.A. private school where parents and teachers preached about the value of safe sex, birth control and pro-choice policy from the bumpers of their cars. You can bet your butt we had mandatory sex-education. And you can bet your second butt it involved an STI-themed musical featuring a dancing condom named Ron. Abstinence could take a hike (unless that was your thing, in which case, we’d totally support you, we’re tolerant!). So what if we dressed for school like harlots, strumpets, filles de joie? Nothing says “body positive” like your teacher seeing your camel toe and not being able to say diddly squat. Despite my pretensions to genital literacy, I remained largely inexperienced, ignorant and incapable of saying “vulva” without giggling. My own naivete became clear one PE class when I was walking laps with the Midget Brigade, a self-named gang of tiny-statured rich girls who, when not discussing hair or SoulCycle, agonized over their lady plumbing. Ringleader Vivian Weisman proposed the topic for our stroll: “Did you know we have three holes?” she asked. We laughed, assuming she spoke in jest. Girls didn’t have three holes … right? “No seriously,” she insisted, before differentiating the vagina (for blood, penises and babies), the urethra (for pee), and the anus (for poop and farts). “The urethra’s really tiny, so you can’t see it,” she explained. I was inclined to believe her. She had vocabulary on her side, plus an in-home dance studio, which for some reason bolstered her credibility. Still, how could a portion of my body that I used every day remain uncartographed for this long? Vivian confirmed her assertion via a Yahoo Answers thread (a source that, as we knew from various chemistry problem sets, never lied). I was outraged. Why was I just finding this out? Why hadn’t that dancing condom warned us we were threehole punched? Most important, what else didn’t I know? V. IT’S C(LIT)! Although wanking discourse was popular among boys, I never heard girls talk self-pleasure until high school. Not that
my masturbation practice began with AP classes. I suspect I was a young experimenter, since I can recall various hipgrinding sessions near my collection of My Little Ponies (on theme for the riding motion I engaged). I employed good old-fashioned pillow humping, the PB&J of masturbation techniques — it’s not fancy but it gets the job done! I’d ball up a pillow beneath me and wiggle my hips in a display that was more epileptic than sensual. Scrunched blankets, couch arms and the corner of my sister’s butterfly chair also deserve special thanks. Stuffed animals were spared (call me a softy, but I felt mercy for the googly-eyed inanimate). Like a fizzy soda that bubbles without spilling, I never reached climax. But boy, oh boy, how I enjoyed the fizz. My first masturbation roundtable occurred in the ninth grade. I had just survived a party with a lady squad I desperately hoped to join (the occasion also marked the first time I smoked weed, from an apple pipe no less!). The eight of us gathered post-party in Rachel Adler’s bedroom to discuss her recent fingering at the hands of some guy in a Hawaiian T-shirt, an experience she deemed inferior to selfservice. Before long, everyone was comparing fap strategy, gushing about shower heads, electric toothbrushes and DIY dildos. I was overwhelmed. Not only did these girls masturbate but they were also so artful in their craft. Despite my longtime status as an oversharer (and the only girl who knew how to pronounce clitoris), I declined to identify myself as a nubrubber. I thought my vulva and I had a good thing going. I knew other masturbation strategies existed, but like a stubborn 60-year-old who manages technology sans keyboard shortcuts, I never cared to learn alternative approaches. However, in front of these professional vagina charmers, my bunny humping seemed crude and undignified. So I pretended not to listen, feigning apathy (“Sorry guys, I’m like soooo high”) and resolved to update my strategy ASAP. The next time I was home alone, I locked myself in the bathroom, bringing my phone with me for research — I literally Googled Yale Daily News Magazine | 15
“how to masturbate.” Per internet recommendation, I began with self-examination, as one must comprehend thy groin to gladden thy groin. I sat open-legged in front of the mirror and used two fingers to poke around with the clinical curiosity and immature disgust of elementary schoolers dissecting frogs in science class. Was this how it’s supposed to look? All those flaps and skin? How would anything fit in there? And what were my labia doing (also, why does “labia” sound like the name of a middle-aged mom who heads a Knitting4Peace club)? I had already noticed when urinating that my labia minora peeked out some, but chose to ignore this reality as I do anything that’s potentially upsetting, like my final grades or how McDonald’s chicken nuggets are made. But my reflected image displayed the truth like never before. My labia weren’t just long but wildly uneven. Was this normal? The sinner’s mark for masturbating too often? Sure, vaginas are unique like snowflakes, but is my snowflake uniquely ugly? I scoured the internet for solace, but struggled to find images of vaginas that weren’t animated or porn. (Porn stars have distressingly perfect vaginas — flapless, hairless, sym-
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metrical, the genital analogue to fashion models. Did they turn in vag headshots to get the job?) I wanted to know what the average vagina looked like and why it was kept a secret. By some miracle, I eventually stumbled upon orgasmictipsforgirls.tumblr.com, a body-positive blog with advice, images and X-rated entertainment for regular gals (this essay is actually a giant ruse to plug the site). Scrolling through photos, I came to the comforting realization that like eyebrows, labia aren’t twins. They’re sisters. But I was getting distracted! There was plenty of time to hate my body — what I needed to do now was pleasure it. I assumed the proper position (back down, knees up) and began using my hands. I tried various strokes with an ignorance similar to novice French kissers who spell out the alphabet with their tongue. However, this proved too arduous for a girl who considered ascending her bedroom stairs sufficient exercise for the day. To give my arms a break, I downloaded the vibrator app HappyPlayTime, but was turned off by its cartoon vagina narrator (if my vagina had eyelashes and a bowtie, I’d never touch it again) and anxious about accidentally calling some-
one (you thought buttdials were bad). A quick plea to the new Steve Jobs: Instead of removing the iPhone’s audio jack, do us gals a favor and enhance its buzzing power, would ya? At least the shower nozzle wouldn’t let me down. But as I sat beneath the stream, distinctly unaroused, I started to fear my vagina was faulty, not sensitive enough for the refined tactics of my peers. Life as a pillow-humper was all I’d know and perhaps all I’d ever know. Just as I was about to give up, the fizz rose and the bubbles spilled over and oh, oh, oh! Name a more iconic duo than clitoris and removable shower head. VI. ZEN AND THE ART OF PUBIC HAIR MAINTENANCE I began dabbling in pubic hair care at age 16, after my preschool bestie invited me to a pool resort over MLK Day weekend. Previously, my lady garden had grown unchecked. I was lazy and without sexual partners to appease. However, pools required bathing suits, and I didn’t want to spend the entire trip adjusting my bush to stay within bikini borders. Plus, I figured whacking my pubic weeds might alter my romantic karma. (Can’t let a smooth pubis go to waste!) So the afternoon before our
outing, I headed to the bathroom with my trusty iPhone assistant by my side. I opted to shave instead of wax since I wasn’t crazy about paying $50+ for a stranger to rip hair out of my genitals. Some tips I’ve compiled over the years: You first need to soak to soften the follicles. Take this as a chance to exercise your creativity — I like to imagine I’m a hunk of meat steeping in a nice vinegar-lemon tenderizer and go from there. You may also need to trim. Develop a hairstylist persona (Pirro is my go-to) and spout cliches as you cut — your ends are more dead than Katy Perry’s career. When you’re ready to shave, there are many ridiculously named shapes to choose from. If like me, you are unable to manage winged eyeliner, let alone artful pube carving, feel free to invent your own styles, such as the haphazard zigzag, the crash landing
strip or the inverted cross. No matter what you do, somebody on the internet will have a problem with it. (You’re a poor feminist for catering to male-centric porn standards, you’re undesirable for looking like a prepubescent girl, etc.) On the flip side, every style has its fans (my favorite Reddit comment reads: “I like my women like I like my Oval Office … no sign of Bush”). If (when) your plans cancel, you’ll be left with the emotional scars of wasted time in addition to painful razor bumps — mark my words, every time a woman shaves for nothing, a koala somewhere contracts chlamydia. VII. WELL, THAT TOOK A TURN I first noticed crimson in my urine in the 11th grade. It was Christmas. I had long expected this gift, though from Mother Nature, not Santa Claus. The bleeding was
minimal, so I did the only rational thing there was to do: stuff toilet paper in my undies and pretend nothing had changed. This strategy worked for a while when my periods were light, short and infrequent. However, I was doomed once the Ruby Wave arrived at high tide. I tried to contain my flow with sanitary napkins, though never changed them enough and always used them too late. (I’d ignore Aunt Flo’s arrival until I was leaking so much, I couldn’t sit without dyeing the furniture beneath me.) Copper aroma, sticky thighs and dried stains were usual suspects at my monthly crime scene. In my defense, while I was a despicable slob at all times of the month, heavy menstruators are doomed without tampons, and I had ruled against these synthetic plugs after reading on Vice that model Lauren Wasser fell asleep in
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one and lost her leg to toxic shock syndrome. You mean, vaginas bleed AND poison competitor body parts? I’ll take the scarlet trail over the cotton limb-destroyer, thank you very much. A quick list of things I think whenever red-water rafting: 1. Adorable! I’m sitting in a puddle of my own blood! 2. Jesus turned water to wine, but I turn toilet water to Kool-Aid. 3. Why aren’t I a boy? Better question: Why aren’t I dead? 4. If I bleed, men should bleed too … by any means necessary. 5. This is why I can’t have nice underwear. 6. Why wasn’t I warned about period sneezes (aka Hawaiian Punch Floods)? I did eventually surrender to the hegemony of penetrative absorbents after encountering the same swimming-while-menstruating dilemma as Audrey Quinn. I was also sick of the diaper-bulge associated with pads. A few weeks before graduation, I accompanied friends to hike to the lake and smoke. Before we left, I put in a tampon with the help of Internet parent, WikiHow. I’m sure my mom would have helped me, but I was shy when the feminist issues I advocated applied to myself. I first struggled to insert the applicator against what felt like a wall, though with persistence and a distinct popping sensation, I succeeded. I walked, swam and puffed as if my insides weren’t shedding. Finally, it was to time to evict my cellulose accomplice behind a tree. However, each yank on the green string elicited a painful burning and no tampon. When I bent over to examine, I saw white imprisoned behind a band of skin, flesh hugging the tampon bottom. I began to panic. There’s a tampon stuck inside of me! Who knows by what sorcery, but
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it’s happening! Where’s the nearest hospital? Who am I kidding, I can’t tell my friends, not in front of Carter with the scooped nose! I’ll have to wait until I get home. But what about toxic shock? I’m going to have my leg amputated because I’m crushing on an elf boy. I’m not like Lauren Wasser, I’m not pretty enough to lose a limb! I continued to spiral like this until the skin finally moved aside and freed the bloody cylinder from my vagina. That evening, I frantically scoured Google to diagnose myself. What your sex-ed teacher doesn’t want you to know is besides the standard hymen, hymens can be cribriform (many small holes), imperforate (no hole), microperforate (one tiny hole) or septate (two holes bifurcated by extra tissue). I’m among a 0.7 percent of women with a septum (I always knew I wasn’t like other girls). Apparently, it wasn’t enough for my hymen to be virginally intact; it had to be deformed too. Why couldn’t this have happened to my sister? I was already the child cursed with snoring, stubby thumbs and a weird dental affliction that causes my teeth to recede into my face. Now a Gemini vagina? Surgery was advised to enable painless penetration, though I couldn’t bear discussing my quirky membrane with my parents. As I had already survived without tampons and had no reason to expect sex any time soon, I resorted to the Tessa Tactic (delaying action until the problem blows up in my face). VIII. OUT OF SERVICE The trouble was, sex didn’t matter until it did. In high school, I was so devoted to academics that intimacy felt unimportant. I crushed and kissed here and there but always prioritized homework over humans. However, a college English major had no reason
to optimize her GPA. I’d be jobless post-graduation whether I had a 4.0 or 2.0. It was hard to ignore sex in a place where everyone boned right in front of your face (sometimes literally, but not always). Condom boxes sat half-empty in the stairwells. Couples littered campus, holding hands during the day and groping tail at night. My gymnast suitemate had half the soccer team on rotation. I began to worry that my lack of experience was more pitiful than innocent. To make matters worse, I didn’t come off as a delicate flower. I indulged a bad girl affect, the natural product of hormonal angst, separated parents and an early fixation with blink-182. I started dying my hair in sixth grade. I wore fishnets more regularly than underwear. Alcohol and I weren’t exactly strangers. My life’s work lay in determining how short shorts could be before they were considered underwear. Perhaps it was counterintuitive that I retained this innocence, a girl who once wrote about snorting coke off a rented copy of “Hamlet” for a creative writing prompt about joy. Never did my friends question my virginity, wonder what I meant by “hookup.” Never did I correct them. I felt doubly shameful — to be a novice was one thing, but a fraud? We know what Holden Caulfield thought about phonies. So my top priority became swiping my v-card, validating my parking ticket, Venmoing the cherry fairy. IX. THE DOCTOR IS IN, BUT WHAT ABOUT THE PENIS? Unfortunately, sex required surgery, and surgery required talking to Mom. I confessed my dilemma over winter break of freshman year, and she took me to her gynecologist, a wide-eyed, chinless man who resembled the lizard chimney sweep from
“Alice in Wonderland.” He seemed to consider my hypothesis seriously until I revealed my virgin status, which elicited a soft gaze and warm smile. He examined little ol’ me with his pointer finger instead of a speculum to minimize pain and preserve my hymen. After 30 seconds, he concluded my opening was small but normal and would stretch with time. I preferred this diagnosis to mine, so I left without asking questions and returned to college, ready to get jiggy. I wasn’t big on traditional mating arenas. Instead of gyrating on a rower at a frat, I’d chat up an employee at the Apple Store (there’s nothing sexier than a guy who can troubleshoot your laptop). But before I was able to trap a Genius, Mother Nature came a knockin’. I took Lizard Bill’s go-ahead to reattempt the tampon, though it proved no easier the second time. Lordy Lordy, Rick and Morty, why must everything be difficult? I investigated using a skinny pen, which I was able to hook beneath a band of skin that seemed an awful lot like the septum I wasn’t supposed to have. Face burning, I called Mom and begged that she pay for an appointment with a different, hopefully nonreptilian gyno. She agreed so long as she could accompany me, which meant waiting until I was home for the summer. I spent the rest of freshman year a pending lover. Call me cynical, but I had little faith in the patience or empathy of college boys. My desire for flesh became less and less about social pressure or a writer’s curiosity for content. A great power emanates from a heroine’s genitals. Without it, I couldn’t make love, satisfy lust or misguidedly seek validation. I couldn’t even ruin a friendship via a drunken one-night stand. I felt shallow for being so affected — Your Dad has cancer? I’m sorry, that’s terri-
ble. I can’t have sex, so my life is pretty tough too. But to me, sexuality was exploration, femininity, connection, power, fun. Not virtuous or selfless, I’ll admit, but big. I began avoiding anything that resembled a sexual advance as I knew there’d come a point when I couldn’t give what was wanted. While there were alternatives to PIV intercourse (a finger fit just fine), I resented the attitude that intimacy was only meaningful if penetrative. I didn’t want to explain: Well no, we didn’t technically bang, but I swear we would have, I just happen to be born with my own chastity belt, but seriously though, we like each other. More than that, I didn’t want someone touching my doctor-outsmarting, Airhead-mystery-flavored vagina. What if they could tell I was different, wrong? So I kept to myself. The few times I did get frisky, I’d serve without being serviced, only to return to my room to sleep alone and pity myself and curse my weirdly hymenated hoohoo. X. TO THE BOY WITH THE BUSHY EYEBROWS WHO FINGERED ME the way your nails, those talons hurt me, makes me wonder if you are part bird and only half boy. you jab as though my vagina were a button to an elevator you want to come faster. no need to ask if i’ve finished. i don’t think i will, on account of the torture (lol). maybe fingers are better off in noses. oh god. i should have made you
wash your hands. *frowning face emoji* XI. LIKE A (HALF) VIRGIN, TOUCHED FOR THE VERY FIRST TIME “The problem will go away when you lose your virginity,” the second gynecologist told me. Although she denied my septate theory, she agreed I had extra tissue. My alternative was stretching the vaginal opening daily with estrogen cream, an ill-fitting solution for someone who couldn’t handle regular showering. While I wanted to end the matter once and for all, sex required another person. I felt no sentimental need to lose it to a special someone, though at this point I lacked a nonspecial anyone. Not to mention, virgins were stigmatized as breakable, clingy, inexperienced — the man I deputized as hymen-destroyer might desert. I decided to kick off summer by popping my own cherry in the ultimate act of self-sufficiency (a hairbrush, towel and steady motivation are all you need). I worked until provoking stinging and blood, which I interpreted as a properly gory end to my demonic hymen. Liberated by hairbrush, I was eager for summer lovin’. Unfortunately, my first offer came from a 30-year-old YouTube comedian with a big ego and a bigger forehead. “Want to grab a drink?” he texted. “I don’t drink.” In public because I’m underage. “Ice cream tonight?” “I’m intolerant.” Of anything that resembles a father-daughter activity, Mr. 11 Years My Senior. It was simplest to meet at his house. Spoiler alert: Hairbrushes are not foolproof hymen-breakers. He struggled to enter me — I felt plugged, corked like wine. He eventually
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made it inside, though neither broke nor sufficiently stretched the tissue that doctors refused to call a septum. Instead, his penis entered to one side of the band, causing tightness, pain, and an eventual tear at the bottom of my opening which healed into a rad little skin tag. After a few excruciating minutes, I made him stop. I tried to save face by attributing the pain to his enormous manhood and the blood to a surprise period. Satisfied,
he reminded me, “There are other ways to have fun.” Goody. I waited for him to finish so I could flee to the bathroom and clean myself and cry. How was this still happening? Losing my virginity (can I say I lost it, when I was penetrated but not “popped”?) was clearly not the solution. What was left to do? Explain my unsavory sex attempt to Mom, convince her to trust me over a professional, visit another doctor who would dismiss me? No. I should stop trying, stop caring, stop. So I washed my face and gave up hope and returned to bed with a man I hardly knew in an apartment far from home. XII. YOU CAN’T SPELL HYMEN WITHOUT I’M GOING TO DIE ALONE But then I fell in love. In stupid, nauseating love. The kind of goopy, mushy, apple-sauce love where we called each other little bug and kissed on library tables and stayed up trading raps instead of writing papers. The kind of love where I knew his favorite episode of “Samurai Jack” and kept fruit in my bag for when he got hungry and gifted him a glass rose I found at Goodwill because it reminded me of “Beauty and the Beast” (a movie we saw and loved together — although my middle name is Belle and I am 5-foot-4 to his 6-foot-3, he insists that he’s the dainty bibliophile of our duo). The kind of love that made me willing to look crazy and waste more money on another gyno for the small chance that someone might finally solve the great enigma that had become Tessa Palter-Poston’s vagina. Despite my distrust for the notoriously slow University hospital and my immature dependency on Mom to make appointments for me, I hadn’t the luxury
to return home. Fortunately, Yale Health had a cancellation so I was able come the day I called, Valentine’s Day of all holidays. I nearly bolted when I saw a medical student enter the room — just my luck to get a rookie. Fortunately, I stayed as the boy angel confirmed I had a septate hymen that could be removed along with my skin tag during a 20-minute inoffice procedure using local anesthesia. The catch? There were no appointments for three months. My relief was soon replaced by distress. I begged through tears that he expedite the process. But there was nothing he could do — it wasn’t a matter of life or death, even if it felt that way to me. On my way out, he handed me a pink appointment slip with a crude sketch of my misshapen hymen, the closest thing I received to a valentine. XIII. LET HER FINISH PRO: The doctors were wrong and I was right! I’m not crazy after all! In fact, I’m smarter than the professional elite! CON: I was right. I need surgery. PRO: I was finally diagnosed and by a handsome student, no less, who is destined for medical glory! CON: Two veteran doctors failed me. Health care is flawed. My wunderkind savior is probably drowning in student debt. PRO: My problem can be fixed through the power of science. CON: I have to wait three months (after waiting a year to be correctly diagnosed). PRO: The surgery is simple. Half an hour, max, in office. I’ll be on my feet immediately and shagging within four days. CON: The surgery is not simple. Mom’s Beverly Hills doctor recommends general anesthesia. Recovery is intensive. Sex could be painful forever after. I should wait until I’m home for the summer. CON: Doctors contradict
each other. Health care is flawed. CON: If I have surgery at home, I’ll first need a pre-op appointment before I can schedule the operation. With busy schedules, it could be another half year until I am fixed. CON: Painful sex forever. CON: Painful sex forever. CON: Painful sex forever. AHHHH! The more I analyzed the situation, the more I wanted to stab myself with a fork (which apparently, was how sex was going to feel for the rest of my life). But in the end, the only thing that mattered was being a college sophomore in love for the first time. Waiting three months was devastating. Waiting until summer was inconceivable. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t need sex to secure a man’s affection. But this isn’t a perfect world. It’s Trump America. It’s the apocalypse. I would have risked anything to keep this boy’s interest (foremothers, please forgive me). I was tired of feeling broken. Tired of living on pause. I wanted to open my world, and that first meant opening my vagina. XIV. IF A VAGINA OPENS AND NOBODY IS THERE TO ENTER, WHERE’S THE FOREST? I had surgery Friday, May 5, at 11:30 a.m. It’s funny how something that seems so life-altering can feel irrelevant by the time it comes. My romance moved at a pre-global-warming glacial pace. Guinness World Records kept tabs on our unprecedented inertia. The first two months of our courtship, every interaction ended with a handshake. By month three, I was actually grateful to be kissed on the forehead. Although I had expected the sex issue to come up fairly quickly, my man met physical unavailability with
emotional unavailability. He skirted feeling, I skirted sexing, everybody was happy! The first time I slept at his apartment was two weeks before the operation. I was on my period. (Score! Amazing excuse, no lying required.) It was looking like I would make it to surgery without having to confront the whole “if-you-triedto-penetrate-me-you’d-split-me-like-apair-of-too-tight-trousers” dilemma. Yet the night before my appointment, I considered not going at all. Deep in finals hell, I felt numb from the Ivy League diet (no food + no sleep + Adderall). I felt more numb from my boy aborting our fling conveniently before summer vacation. Although I had cared about the surgery pre-amour, I had so long conflated the benefits with our relationship that his rejection killed my sense of urgency. Why was I rushing toward pain and botched genitals? I just wanted to finish my English essay for the class “Writing About Oneself ” so I could Cry About Oneself. However, I knew if I missed my chance, I might be extending my gated-vagina sentence another half year. So, like a true Green Day teen-angster, I decided to go for it, since at least the physical pain would make my emotionally hollow self feel something. In some ways, the surgery was not unlike a typical first time. I lay on my back, unsure of what to expect, bottomless with my shirt still on, staring at the ceiling. I was periodically asked, “Are you okay?” I hurt and bled. I didn’t come. Of course, it differed from a traditional experience considering I was “penetrated” by a knife at the hands of a female surgeon who looked like Rachel
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Dratch (a very funny lady, but not someone I want cutting my genitals), and who, mid-hymenectomy, recruited the help of another doctor to reduce a radiating, toe-clenching burning using tiny, sharp needles. Oh God. Mom was right. I should have waited. I should be knocked out under general right now, having a loopy anesthesia trip while some Beverly Hills doctor makes sure my vagina stays pretty, instead of staring at the mousy brown cranium of Rachel Dratch’s doppelganger. When it was over, she offered to show me the excised tissue. “I guess I’m confused why anyone would want to see that,” I responded. She then asked if I wanted something for the pain. Duh. “Tylenol or Advil?” “Oh, that’s the strongest … no, no, I’m good, actually.” With that, I gathered my things and walked outside, where the rain ominously marked my new freedom. XV. A DONE DEED
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It happened one Friday. Sex. September of my junior year. A few months had passed since the surgery. I needed time to heal (vagina, heart). I was sewn up with white stiches that looked like dental floss. The doctor said they would dissolve within a few days. It took weeks. Figures. I didn’t plan it. I had wanted to spend the day cramming for my reproductive biology exam but ended up procrastinating with my crush (some would call this hands-on learning). It was the same guy — the fruit-loving 6-foot-3 Beauty to my Beast. Who knew the trick to getting him to commit was asking him directly? We had one of those wandering visual dates, perfect for an indie rom-com. We shared smoothies, took a walk past the graveyard, tried on hats at a thrift store. He found a gold watch he liked. I felt sexy in my overalls. We went to his dorm room, and I was ready. Not afraid of pain or worried about being good. Calm. We did it in his twin bed with our socks still on. I kept bumping into the wall so he cushioned my head with a cupped hand.
He was tender. When it was over, he kissed me on the forehead. I went to the bathroom and admired myself in the mirror. I loved the way my cheeks looked flushed and my lips swollen. It was one of the few times I believed I was pretty. I felt, not triumphant exactly, that would be too dramatic, but relieved. There was no bleeding, no surprise second septum, no vagina dentata. Everything had gone smoothly. I knew my problems wouldn’t disappear just because I had successful sex. I’d find new things to stress about, like whether I was orgasming enough or dependent on sexual validation or accidentally pregnant or, worst of all evils, predictable! But I could worry later. For now, I felt lucky and comfortable. Afterward, we listened to jazz and ate dinner at the dining hall and made each other laugh. He walked me to the train station (I had to make a show with my improv group in Rhode Island). I climbed the stairs, just me, my vagina the rest of my body, us, and boarded the eastbound train.
CA V E S c
// BY ROSA NGUYEN
// ILLUSTRATIONS BY KEYI CUI AND JIYOON PARK Wallace Prize 2018 | 23
he Neanderthal brain is 1.3 times that of CroMagnon man. And yet, there are commercials like this one: “So easy, a caveman could do it.” Really, Geico? Really? A talking gecko is smarter than him? He clicks the remote. A beautiful Cro-Magnon woman stares back, her smooth, ridgeless brow concealed under a swath of straight blond bangs. “Easy. Breezy. Beautiful. CoverGirl,” she says, batting long, long lashes, gold mascara tube in hand. Click. A heartthrob movie star. Click. The star’s sex scandal. Click. A smooth detective, suave in a sleek Armani suit. “I think,” he lowers his sunglasses, “the murderer is his wife’s twin brother.” His female partner grumbles, knows he’s right but won’t admit it. “Whatever, James,” she says, clearly annoyed, clearly aroused. Click. A couple on a beach. “Will you marry me?” The man is smooth-browed, tall, blond, gorgeous. Click. He knows the answer. The screen is black. The remote control drops softly on the carpet. He slumps back on a couch half-empty, one cushion pristine, the other crushed under the weight of his short, stocky frame. He weighs 250 pounds. He isn’t fat, just husky. It’s mostly muscle anyway, pushups and cardio. It’s not his body that’s the problem. It’s his fucked-up face. His bulbous nose, so impossibly large it looks almost prosthetic, like what the actors playing 24 | Wallace Prize 2018
dwarves wore in “The Lord of the Rings.” But that’s an insult to the dwarves — he’s more of a glorified ape. Hair sprouts from his scalp and brows and ears in wires. Coarse. Shit brown. This is a problem he can fix. Pluck his brows. Trim his ears. Get a haircut. He’s recently discovered the waxless wonders of eyebrow-threading — it’s sharp, it’s fast, it hurts, VOILA! Two eyebrows, parted, smooth. He is well-groomed, handsome even, for a Neanderthal. On some nights, foggy ones, under the haze of sodium lamps, he might get mistaken for an Italian man, if not for the cliff ledge jutting past his eyes. He tries not to look at the TV screen. He does it anyway. Reality is reflected in the blank black box, his nose hoarding most of the frame, protruding as if through a fisheye lens or a funhouse mirror. Maybe, in an alternate world, his nose would be straight and slim, his eyes free from the shade of an oppressive eyebrow ridge. Maybe, in an alternate world, the Neanderthal was dead.
e teaches anthropology at Pinkerton College, a small liberal arts school in middle-of-nowhere Vermont. His specialty is medieval Europe, but people inevitably ask about the Stone Age, thinking that he, of all people, must know all there is to know about his kind. “What does mammoth taste like?” (He gets this one a lot.) “Does your family make wheels?” “Do you, like, worship Stonehenge?” He’s learned to shake his head politely, to mention the new course he’s teaching.
“Vikings?” they marvel. “Good for you!” The topic shifts to the Black Plague. At the department meeting, Jonathan Dunbar proposes a new class: “Neanderthals in Pop Culture.” Flintstones. Geico commercials. The Croods. “They’re very smart,” Dunbar says, “Though not quite in the league of Homo sapiens.” Please. If he wanted, he could squeeze the brains from Dunbar’s Homo sapiens head. But he doesn’t. That would be murder. That would be a lifetime spent in jail. And people like them thought people like him were violent brutes, so he couldn’t. Instead, he sits. He looks out the window. A squirrel is humping a tree. He peeks past his face framed in the dingy glass and sees the Cro-Magnon behind him. She’s female. And pretty. And smirking at him. Embarrassed, he glances away. When he glances back, she rolls huge eyes at Dunbar, as if to say, “Look at this asswipe.” “I want to avoid using stereotypes, sure, and Neanderthals have been underrepresented. But where are the Neanderthal CEOs?” Dunbar drawls. “When was the last time a Neanderthal was president?” The female raises a fineboned hand. “You have a professor right here.” She points, and all the room’s dark eyes pin professor Neanderthal against the window. “Adjunct professor,” he says. He stares at his shoelaces. Wow. They look so white. His hand hides his face, black tie tightening noose-like around his starched white collar. “Oh,” Dunbar squints. “You must be an exception.”
“An exception?” The woman’s rage spoke for him. “Neanderthals are artists. Have you seen their cave paintings? They invented glue. They invented fire.” “We invented planes and cars. Has a Neanderthal ever been to space?” “No. But a monkey has,” the woman grins. Someone snorts. Dunbar’s face boils bright crimson. After the meeting, a finger — her finger — taps him on the shoulder. Soft electric pulses flood the hairs on his husky arm. “What an asshole,” the woman grumbles. Her blue eyes roll like globes in their sockets. “Are you new?” She shakes his hand, squeezes it, smiles. Her voice sounds like harp strings. “I’m Linda.”
is name is Ugg, a stereotypical name for a Neanderthal boy. (His parents were accountants — not the most terribly creative of people.) If his last name were Lee, he would be the target of much schoolyard bullying. But it was Flores. The Flores Man. His granddad had been Indonesian. UGG FLORES in all caps, under his freshman yearbook picture. He had glasses then, and braces, and hadn’t bothered to use a comb, hair heaping wild across his shoulders and tumbling down his pimpled face. He was the school’s only Neanderthal boy, a jumble of squat hulking limbs, lumbering
past 6-foot Cro-Magnon jocks and scantily clad Cro-Magnon cheerleaders. He felt as if the eyes of the world were permanently on him. They usually weren’t. But he felt like they were, as if he were always being watched, as if he were a gorilla at the zoo, a prisoner under surveillance. He learned to keep to himself, to keep quiet, silence rendering him invisible. And if someone saw him, eyebrow ridge and all, his eyes whipped away to the floor. If he didn’t notice them noticing him, it would make things feel much better. Right? Ugg had friends, a few. He was chosen for sports, whether he tried out or not. His friend group, then, was surprisingly popular, made up mostly of football players, muscled Cro-Magnons who bragged about stats and how far they could go with a girl. He’d listen to their conquests, of Trina Harper’s lopsided boobs, of Kelly-Ann, who was so good in bed, though by now, she had a loose vagina. “Why don’t you get a girl?” they’d elbow him. “I can’t.” “Sure you can,” they’d say. “What about Marg?” Ugh. Marg. The school’s resident Neanderthal girl. Of course they would pair him up with her. What sane Homo sapiens would want him? He could see their logic. You’re
a caveman! She’s a caveman! Now kiss! It was what society expected, two brutes breeding with their own kind, murky waters mixing, never to rise from the depths of the sea. He couldn’t let society win. He was equal to any Cro-Magnon. Dating Marg would have been the same as admitting defeat. Besides — he was totally out of her league. By senior year, he’d learned grooming methods, taking after his football friends, working out, taming his wild brown hair. He looked good. Well, as good as he could — that brow ridge was a permanent zit. His eyes, like Marg’s, buried under thick brows, barely visible, sunken in caves. In college, he had better success with girls. To them, he was a novelty. “I’ve never been with a caveman before,” they’d say, downing shots of hard whiskey, acting as if, instead of a penis, his boxers hid octopus tentacles. He was handsome, they’d say. Handsome — for a caveman. These words were flattering at first. Maybe his brow ridge looked less prominent than that of lesser Neanderthals; his nose, while large, was finely formed, distinctive, aquiline. He was a good-looking Neanderthal. But was he a good-looking man? How did he hold up to those Cro-Magnon hunks, their swagger, their smooth, browless stare? He tried not to look in the mirror,
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first-place fiction but his stubborn eyes would wander on their own. It was masochistic, like picking a scab or checking a failed test score, but he did this — does this — obsessively, several times in an hour, a day. Fleshy cheekbones jut out prominently. An acne scar won’t go away. His face has become an unwanted friend, because in the end, who else would be?
e takes Linda to the Neanderthal restaurant that opened on Orange Street. It’s her idea. She loves Neanderthal food. Venison. Wild berries. Her favorite. She asks him about himself. “What was it like, growing up in a Neanderthal family?” Nothing out of the ordinary. His parents were normal. They lived in the suburbs. Oh. “No caves?” Linda looks disappointed. No caves in suburban Vermont. “Was there a big Neanderthal population there?” Nothing more than his parents and Marg’s. “Fascinating,” Linda says. Her capped white teeth tear at raw meat. “The Neanderthal diaspora is so unpredictable.” On their next date, Linda chooses the place: a limestone cave in the Green Mountains. She leads him through the underbrush, wolverine claws dangling from her ears, taking his hand as they step into the mountain’s shadowy maw. She strikes a match. The flame flashes yellow, brightening the calcified walls, deer and cows and stick figures dancing across the antique stone. “Do you paint?” she asks, turning to him. Her eyes glow turquoise in the firelight. No. He doesn’t. “Do you wanna start?” She hands him a horse-hair brush. They find a blank wall, and she draws a stick figure, a man with a
squiggly spear. He sketches her eyes, big as a Christmas elf ’s. He lingers on the curve of her lips. “I thought you didn’t paint,” Linda teases. He’d taken some pen and ink classes. “Wow,” Linda says. “It must be genetic. Your people are such great artists.” She tells him about her research, how Neanderthals have fascinated her for years, how she feels, in spite of her Cro-Magnon upbringing, that she is Neanderthal, inside. “I love your culture,” she says. He doesn’t. “What do you like about me?” She thinks for a moment. Her pixie nose wrinkles. She says, at last, “You are beautiful.”
he sex is wild. Fantastic. Linda likes it doggy style — she says it makes her feel primitive, she says that’s what real love should be. When it’s over, Linda on her side of the bed, Ugg’s clumsy weight crushing his, he wonders what their offspring would look like, if they ever planned to have children. Maybe they would have her giant blue eyes. Linda’s sandy blond hair, her thin frame. Maybe their brows, like Linda’s, would be smooth, their noses petite. Not like his. Maybe they wouldn’t be able to make any viable children at all. It’s basic genetics. When horses and donkeys have nothing better to do, no one better to bone, and mate, the mule they produce is sterile. CroMagnons, in their superiority complex, class cavemen as a different species, donkeys among the Homo sapien stallions of mankind. But Linda’s research says otherwise. Interbreeding has gone on for years: The average Homo sapiens is 4 percent Neanderthal. Shared physical traits have shown it. DNA tests have proven it to be true. So, are they really
that different? “No,” Linda says, kissing him. They are one. He’s a Cro-Magnon in a Neanderthal’s body. Linda insists that she’s the reverse. They complement each other, like yin and yang. They’re good for each other. They must be.
hen they leave Pinkerton for the weekend, the office gossip begins. “You know what I think,” says Jonathan Dunbar. “She should be with a Cro-Magnon man.” “Oh, let them be,” the registrar says. “It’s only a phase.” “A phase?” the department head laughs. “They’ve been going out for a year.” “Yeah, it’s pretty fucked up,” says Jared, who was fucking a student.
hat weekend, Linda takes him home. Her parents, she said, were dying to meet him. When the car pulls into the cobblestone drive, two white-haired CroMagnons rush out, one in a herringbone sweater vest, the other in a floral dress from the ’50s. “Oh! Hello,” the old woman smiles. “You must be our Linda’s new friend.” She steers him into the house, Linda’s Santa-faced father waddling behind them. They are friendly. Such smiles! Linda’s mother serves pot roast, carrots, mashed potatoes. Forks and knives rattle blue porcelain plates. A bright Tiffany lamp warms the table. “So,” Linda’s mother turns to him, beaming. “What do you do for a living?” “I teach anthropology,” he says. “Mostly Viking physiognomy.” “Vikings!” Linda’s father’s blue eyes crinkle. “They’re his favorite football team,” Linda’s mother says. She spears a hunk of braised beef on her fork, raises it to her lips, nibbles, mouselike. It is a good start. His mind is at Wallace Prize 2018 | 27
ease. His roiling stomach, much less so. “Excuse me,” Ugg says, politely. “Where is the restroom, Mrs. Hunter?” “Down the hall, to the left.” Linda’s mom mops her meat in watery pools of gravy. “Don’t worry,” Linda’s father calls after him. “You’re not the only one who can’t handle Vicky’s cooking.” “Albert!” Linda’s mother slaps her husband’s arm. Their laughter follows Ugg to the bathroom. What nice people, Ugg thinks, squatting over the toilet bowl. So in love. So different from his own mother and father, who, in all their normalcy, gave their company spreadsheets more love and attention. Ugg never saw his parents touch — not that he’d ever want to. Looking at Marg, he couldn’t blame his father. Why kiss a woman with a thicker mustache than yours? As a child, he thought his father’s neglect stemmed from the well-known fact that his mother — and all girls, everywhere — gave clean little boys the cooties. As a teen, his fear of cooties gave way to the fearful recognition that society was, in all likelihood, what pushed his parents together — two humans unable to do better, and forced to procreate. “Hey, Marg likes you,” his football bro winked. “Why don’t you go get that cave pussy?” Ugg shook his head. He shuddered. He thought of her naked and wanted to punch something. But he didn’t. He couldn’t. That would be a typical thing for a caveman to do. No, he was civilized — he was refined. “Nah bro,” he replied. “She’s a beast. Her chin’s so sharp, that thing could cut through mammoth meat.” Marg’s mammoth-slicing chin was shaved clean three weeks before prom. She stopped wearing glasses, a small improvement, and started grooming her bloated brow, bringing a pair of tweezers to class and plucking when the teacher wasn’t looking. She squeezed her beefy body into a tight pink dress, and one lunch period, as Cro-Magnon students filed into the crowded hallway, her mus28 | Wallace Prize 2018
cled hand, slathered in hot pink nail polish, grabbed Ugg’s arm and spun him to face her. “Will you go to prom with me?” Marg’s other hand covered her chin. Ugg had never been much of a talker, but in that millisecond, all the language faculties of his brain popped out of existence. He had never been approached by a girl, and up until that point, he had never talked to one, with the exception of his mother, who couldn’t understand her son’s obsessive primping in front of the mirror. “Jesus, Ugg,” she’d say in a low grunt. “You have functional eyes. Functional ears. Shouldn’t that be enough?” At 46, her beard had grown pricklier than her husband’s. Marg wasn’t that bad-looking, to be honest. She just wasn’t his type — a type that had been formed from a lifetime of exposure to Cro-Magnon girls on billboards, swimsuit magazines, movies, CoverGirl commercials. She was pretty — for a Neanderthal girl. Still, he couldn’t. He couldn’t say yes. Not with those Cro-Magnon eyes in the background, his football bros watching. Snickering. Marg ended up going to prom alone. Ugg didn’t show up at all. Twenty years later, and she’s a receptionist in some orthodontist’s office, married to a Neanderthal fitness trainer in Fort Lauderdale. Ugg knows this. He’s tried to add her on Facebook. Friend request denied. While Marg does whatever she does in Florida (she inexplicably blocked him from viewing her posts), basking in the sun and running from alligators or whatever, Ugg washes his hands in a New England sink, set in marble, the faucets faux-gold. He sprays the bathroom with a blend of air fresheners — pine peppermint, citrus blast — before padding back to the dining room, where Linda’s mother shrieks across the table in whispers. “This is the fifth caveman you’ve brought home,” she hisses. “Do you want our grandkids to be retarded?”
“They’re not ‘cavemen,’ Mom, that’s a racial slur.” “Race?” Her mother’s frail fist slams the table. “They’re not even the same species!” “That’s up for debate,” Linda says. “This fetish of yours has gone too far.” “Mom — ” “Listen to your mother, dear.” Linda’s father spoons out leftover pot roast, dumping chunks of charred meat in the trash can. “It’s not a fetish,” Linda says. “This one is different.” “How?” Ugg waits. He hides by the entrance, and waits. And waits. Linda doesn’t answer.
t costs $4,500 to get his brow ridge done. That’s three months’ rent. That’s one-fifth of his annual salary, well spent. He sits in the waiting room, reading a copy of National Geographic. “Mr. Flores?” a young nurse’s aide calls. He follows her down the sterile hallway. The next few moments of his life are hazy memories. A doctor in scrubs, pale flint-gray eyes goggled, blue latex gloves snapping in place. A gas mask lowering, a feeling of peace. A stark white light hovering above him.
inda didn’t like his new face. Of course she wouldn’t. She liked cavemen. Ugg was still Ugg, but she didn’t care. No more eyebrow ridge? No more Linda. He shrugs. Women like her will come and go. It’s his unwanted friend that remains: his face, his eyes, his nose, his mouth, all stuck to his head for eternity. There is work to be done. It isn’t what he expected, this new face of his. He’s not exactly a Neanderthal now, though not entirely Cro-Magnon. He peers at his flattened face. The flattened face stares back. His slightly skewed nose, his broad square cheeks, his ridgeless eyes, now foreign.
amily -less eirlooms
// By Sara McCartney // Illustration by Lauren Gatta Yale Daily News Magazine | 29
e had never given up being ashamed of his family name, which was common and dull, a blunt single syllable at the end of his birth certificate like a period. It was not a name that opened doors or contained possibilities or told him anything about himself. He had hoped his whole life that it would transform into something exotic, a name of the Old World with Cyrillic flourishes and too many consonants, heavy with excess syllables, a name like a burden of history to wear on the tailored shoulders of his suit jacket. I thought this was pathetic, like a little girl quietly hating her parents, hoping her lineage is all a lie and she is secretly the princess of an obscure nation. With a eugenicistâ€™s spirit of coveted superiority, he hoped to discover himself to be a secret Romanov, spirited from the hands of vengeful Bolsheviks by royalist sympathizers who were probably shot for their troubles. Freshly installed in the New World, his brave ancestor exchanged the cursed, ancient name for the direction he had traveled, West, and so the royal lineage was disguised and forgotten, except in the blood of this new, aspiring son. One day he would discover in his tongue the forgotten Russian language, in his pencil strokes the lost alphabet, and somewhere one of those gilded eggs would open to his touch alone to reveal the family crest and restore him to his proper place in infamy. He spoke of Europe like a corpse. I tried to explain to him that the Old World had become New thanks to merciless time, that in my experience most of Europe was America by another tongue and with older monuments. He wouldnâ€™t hear of it.
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second place fiction
On the fifth day, Joseph West came looking for his cuff links. Probably, he was just like me, the greatgreat-grandchild of a hungry Irishman on a boat. The disdain he had for this prospect made me bitter. What was so bad about being no one? No-ones could become whomever we wanted. I know all this not because of intuition, though Joseph “never Joe” West wasn’t a hard character to read but because he told me all this in the few weeks he lived with me in the apartment I had once and would soon again share with Freddy Emerson. I’d met him because he was one of Freddy’s boys, for longer than most. Freddy didn’t love him — Freddy had never been in love. Our joke was that between the pair of us we were one healthy individual; Freddy fucked but never loved, I loved but scarcely fucked. But Freddy didn’t even like Joseph in the docile way he liked the milquetoast boys who typically shared his bed, the ones who complimented his taste and offered vague opinions about this artist or that composer. Freddy and Joseph would stay up until the small, bleak hours fighting about philosophical treatises and the nature of God. How either of them knew shit about such heavy matters was beyond me; neither of them were so much as pen pals with the divine. I think they got off on it. Freddy denied it when I teased him over scrambled eggs in the morning, said it was exhausting, that it couldn’t go on. I’d never liked Joseph either. I’d been doing a lot of thinking and reading about normal-looking people who do awful things and wondering what the cause of such craziness could be. I concluded they were not quite human, but something sharp and predatory, some kind of landshark, born in man’s skin. I was increasingly suspicious of the men with elbowpatched blazers and nice shoes who stood 32 | Wallace Prize 2018
next to me on the subway. Joseph had this perpetual smirk, and when he met me on his way out of Freddy’s bedroom, while I waited for my coffee to brew, he made a condescending comment about the superiority of Earl Grey tea. He fit my profile. “If your boyfriend kills us in our sleep, I’ll make you sorry,” I’d told Freddy, but he didn’t know what I was on about. All the same, Joseph was soon discarded and replaced with another, prettier young man, an economics student at Columbia who read The Economist and had opinions on stocks. Not long after that, Freddy had what his mother politely termed a nervous breakdown. Andrea Emerson, who’d never liked me, not even once, arrived to scoop him from the apartment and deliver him to Florida, where the warmth would do him good. That, and the best therapist couches that money could buy. She chewed me out like I was the cause of it all, though where she’d been when her eldest, dearest son cried his nights away with only me to hold his hand was not a question she cared to answer. She left me with quiet walls, empty doorways, a spare bedroom and all of Freddy’s crap that hadn’t fit in the matching suitcase set. This left me with a full suite of problems. Firstly, my instincts as a friend meant I should be motoring down to see Freddy in Florida weekly, though that was unaffordable. We were left with our static-filled Skype dates and a few ironic postcards with coded obscenities written on the back in Sharpie, the way we used to cuss each other out on Post-it slips left on the kitchen counter we when didn’t do our dishes. Secondly, and worse, Freddy and his family allowance had been paying the rent. I was already plotting to seduce the landlord when I found that, before
Freddy made his futile escape attempt from this plane of existence, he’d visited the bank and withdrawn a modest sum of money. This had been left under the radiator of all places in an envelope labeled To Jess, stick around. It was enough to get me by. Third, and worst of all, I didn’t want to live alone. Our mutual fear of empty rooms was how I’d ended up living with Freddy in the first place. He’d always said I could be replaced with a dog, but me, I needed conversation or I ended up talking to the walls or my occasional nighttime hallucinations. I’d always slept poorly and imagined gun-toting house invaders or vengeful wraiths in every shadow. By the fourth Freddy-less day, I left my laptop on all night, playing old episodes of “Parks and Recreation” like a rain machine so I’d at least have voices to fall asleep to. On the fifth day, Joseph West came looking for his cuff links. He wanted to know how Freddy was doing too, but this didn’t come up until 10 minutes later, and I wrote off his concern as fraudulent, like a sociopath’s smile. He was the same old shark. When Joseph rang my doorbell, I was jumpy, and he seemed like an omen. I wondered if he wanted to break into my apartment and checked his hands for knives. Nothing so blatant, but I still didn’t trust him, with his tailored khakis and narrow hips. He’d grown a beard on his jawline the way lichen grows on a rock, which didn’t help with the murderous look. “What’s up?” I asked him and showed him in, because my mother raised me right. He turned down my offer of coffee. “I think I left something in your residence.” The cuff links had real pearls on them, about the size of a dust mote and
were monogrammed with initials that were not his. His brother had picked them up at an estate auction and delivered them to Joseph as a Christmas present. Turns out, Freddy had invited him to the opera one night, and Joseph had put on his best suit, cuff links included. Because opera is the great musical aphrodisiac, so Freddy claims, they ended up in Freddy’s bed after, minus the nice suits. Somewhere along the way, the cuff links had managed to roll under the bed or behind the radiator. They’d spent a morning hunting before one or the other of them had needed to get to work. Before long, the boys had split, and Joseph, out of chagrin, put off returning for his lost possession. He would have waited until Freddy returned from his, ahem, holiday, but he was driving to D.C. for a job as a law clerk, and the cuff links just couldn’t be left in New York. Had I perhaps seen them? “Pearls?” I asked. “Pearls,” Joseph confirmed, hopefully. “My mom had a thing about pearls,” I reminisced, stirring creamer into my coffee. “My dad gave her a beautiful necklace of pearls after I was born. She believed that only women, well, people who were assigned female at birth, should be allowed to wear them. Because the pearl, the way the pearl is made, reflects the suffering that people with what we think of as female anatomy endure.” These were the kind of chestnuts I used to tell Freddy all the time, but without him around, they clogged up my head. I was thinking about starting a journal. “I don’t know much about that,” Joseph smiled up at me. “I’m just looking for my cuff links.” He tried to give me a stupid look, like a cow, but I didn’t buy it. He had shark teeth. “Who did you say they belonged to originally?” He shrugged. “My brother never told me.” “I’ll ask Freddy if he ever found them.” That’s when Joseph asked how Fred was doing, with all the usual platitudes. “I wish I’d known he was in such a bad way. … I had no idea he would have
done something like that.” People had been singing that song to me ever since. Joseph’s version was: “I just don’t understand. Fred had everything.” “Logic doesn’t have much to do with it. Nobody who tries to kill themself sits down to make a pro-con list.” “I guess I wouldn’t know.” Joseph waited for me to say something, and, when I carried on staring at him, he glanced under the couch cushion as if his cuff links might be conveniently underneath. “Has he mentioned me at all?” he asked. “Or did I come up before he … ” “I promise it had nothing to do with you,” I said, to which Joseph looked disappointed, as I’d expected. How like a shark, to dream of killing by breaking hearts. “Fred wasn’t too hung up on you.” At that, Joseph got an honest-toGod child’s pout. I guess I could sympathize with that. Even real people want to make an impression, to be missed, and it’s a crummy thing to hear that a fling discarded you like an old iPhone. “It’s not you, Joe. He’s like that for everyone, really.” “Please don’t call me Joe.” My misnomer seemed to cheer him up. “I don’t mean to be petty, but … ” “Its fine,” I shrugged. “Just don’t call me Jessica.” “Well, when you ask Freddy about the cuff links, please tell him I’m thinking about him, I wish him the best and to please come and see me next time he’s around D.C. He helped me get this job, you know; the firm’s run by his father’s old partner.” Joseph said this with such unsharklike sincerity that I all at once began to doubt my conclusions. I smiled. “It wasn’t for you like it was for Fred, ending it I mean.” “He’s a great guy,” Joseph admitted. “I wish we could have made it work. I think it was my fault. I thought too much of him, put him on something of a pedestal. I bet that happens to Fred all the time.” I laughed, because once you’ve seen someone stagger to the kitchen in their underwear and try to stir their coffee with a knife every day of the week for more than a year, you understand their charisma
second-place fiction less and less. “I bet Freddy loved that, actually. He loves to be loved, little shithead.” Joseph looked appalled; I ignored him. “Look, I’d love to have a hunt for your cuff links, but this whole apartment is such a mess with all of Freddy’s crap, and Freddy’s room especially is furniture vomit, that I don’t know. It would take all day, and I have a deadline tonight. I’ll ask Fred. I’m sorry.” “Please,” said Joseph. Do tears sparkle like shark teeth? I was all mixed up. “I’m leaving in three days. I’ll help you look.” I started to feel sorry for the guy, which was the first sign of trouble. Against even my worst judgment, I opened the door to Freddy’s room. I hadn’t even bothered to try and clean it since first Freddy at his nadir and then his mother at her peak had trashed it, Freddy for the sake of it, his mother to find the sweater from his grandfather and all the other expensive crap she wanted to pack. There were tuxedo pants and unopened toothpaste and a single slipper stacked on top of the pillows like a modern art shrine. Books were scattered. Certain things — sunblock, ChapStick, a stapler — had been hurled across the room, landed, burst and were leaking. Freddy had told me which blazer, still hung in the closet unless it was sprawled by the dresser, had a baggie of weed in the breast pocket. A few loose pills rolled underfoot like a very sad game of marbles. I picked one up. “Is this a pearl, Joseph?” I joked. “I didn’t realize it was such a mess.” “Well,” I said, kneeling to sort through a pile of undershirts, “I tried to warn you.” And we began our hunt. I was happy to toss things back on the ground where
I’d found them, but Joseph meticulously folded clothes, hung up jackets and filled the trash can. I eventually acquiesced and joined the cleaning effort. I asked him whereabouts he would be living in D.C. and he told me a long story about a high school chum who was to be his new roommate, at least until he found his own place. Regrettably, the chum, a local, had a brother getting married the next week, and the apartment was about to fill up with visiting relatives who, family hospitality insisted, were not to waste money on hotels. Joseph would spend his first few weeks in the new city sleeping rough, by which he meant in a sleeping bag by the window. “Why the fuck are you going down now?” I asked. “My lease is up,” he explained. “The new tenants are moving in as soon as I leave. I didn’t hear about the wedding until I’d already talked to my landlord, and it was too late.” “Hell, why don’t you stay here with me,” I said, wanting to be good. “I’ve got a bed, or I will once we’ve finished cleaning. It’ll give you more time to look for the cuff links, anyway.” “Thank you, Jess, really, but I couldn’t. I can’t intrude and I have all my things, my car … ” I cut him off. “There’s parking around back of the building, indoor, very secure,” I said like a real estate agent. “Leave your stuff in your car. You’re not intruding, ’cause I’m offering. And when I Skype Fred on Tuesday, you can look over my shoulder and ask him about the cuff links yourself.” We talked it over a few more times, and finally, Joseph agreed. I gave him
the spare key and a parking pass and he helped me put new sheets on the bed. After he left, with plans to return for good the following morning, I texted Freddy to brag about my good deed. But I was sure I had a selfish motive somewhere. Maybe I wanted to observe a shark up close or maybe it had to do with wanting someone to tease, a kind of uber-Freddy. From what I could tell, Joseph had all of Fred’s pretensions without even a drop of the self-awareness that made Fred bearable. But motivation be damned, at least I was giving the poor kid a better place to crash than underfoot of a wedding party. Freddy didn’t think much of it. “Yr gonna hate him,” he texted back. It was true our commonalities were basically nil, aside from being theoretically the same species. But it takes all sorts in this life, and I was determined to be a more openminded and considerate person. Freddy would return to find me canonized. The first morning, Joseph parked his car in the lot and pronounced my coffee to be bitter. I made us a grilled cheese each for lunch, and he asked if I always ate like a 9-year-old, casting a critical eye on the state of my stovetop. I asked him if he wanted to make dinner, and he said he didn’t know how to use my stove. When I came home that evening, pots and bowls and pans were soaking in the sink amidst gray water and a heap of bubbles. This felt insulting, though it was technically a kindness. I ordered in and watched Netflix on my laptop while he read Tolstoy on the best armchair. “Joseph, let’s try to get to know each other better,” I proposed, passing him the aux cord. He’d never heard of Bikini Kill,
“I didn’t realize it was such a mess.” 34 | Wallace Prize 2018
and I couldn’t stand Brahms. We were back to square one. On the third night, he brought me pad thai and a bottle of white wine. Freddy must have texted him the cheat codes to my affection. The wine was an upgrade from my usual, though the pad thai was cold. After the bottle was drained, I found whiskey in the back cabinet, and we drank our hearts sick. I took a sojourn to bathroom to throw up, but he didn’t hold my hair. I guess that’s a lot to ask on the third night. “You were right,” the poor sop confessed to me, sitting on the edge of my bed in case I passed out lying on my back and died. “The breakup wasn’t easy for me. I think I loved him.” Presumably he figured I wouldn’t remember the conversation, but he was straight out of luck. “I’ve never been in love before this.” “Tough luck,” I said with a hiccup. “I didn’t think sharks could fall in love.” “What?” “Nothin’. Why Fred?” “Only foolish reasons,” Joseph continued, looking away. “He was a lot of things I wanted to be. Well-dressed, well-spoken … ” “But he wasn’t well,” I interrupted. It was the point in the night where enunciation is a challenge, but this was very important, so I tried my best. “Fred’s rich and likes his job and likes the opera, but he’s not very happy when you get down to it.” “I know,” Joseph snapped. “But I didn’t know that then. That was never the kind of thing we talked about.” “Maybe if you’d talked about it, you wouldn’t have fucked things up, and you’d still be together.” I knew this wasn’t true. Joseph would have to be a whole different kind of person, the kind who found the inner life of a lover more interesting than his metaphysical opinions. If Fred had met such a person five years ago, it might have
done him some good, but by the time he and Joseph started going out, he was too far into the tunnel of his own mind. The story I told Joseph was a piece of fiction involving two entirely different men, and why Joseph believed it from a poor drunk girl was beyond me. “Do you think it’s too late now?” “At least he’s still alive, Joe.” He left me on the bed, curled up on my side. I could have choked or gone into shock or something, but he left me, some friend. Some shark. I woke up with rocks crammed into my skull only to find him stuffing four pieces of notebook paper, filled with a sociopath’s meticulous cursive, in my face. “Read this please?” he asked me, putting a mug of black coffee in my other hand as payment. It was a sort of confessional love letter and a melodramatic apology worthy of an old Hollywood starlet and somehow fumigated with a bizarre stink of clinical distance. It ended with “best regards,” which should tell you everything. “Honey, dipshit, you’ve just got to tell him how you feel. All this can be cut down to six words: ‘I love you, and I’m sorry.’ Or: ‘I’m sorry that I love you.’ Either order works.” He took back the papers and moved to crumple them but couldn’t. “I put my whole heart into this. This is me.” A novel thing, a shark acting like a poet. I made note in my mental zoologist observations. “I’m just being honest.” “Look, I’m thinking I should head to D.C. soon so perhaps you can give it to him. Even if you think it’s bad, I ask that you don’t editorialize.” “Leaving!” I exclaimed. “But we were just getting to be friends.” He looked surprised at this news. “The wine, the pad thai.” “I was supposed to meet a friend,” he admitted, “but he stood me up.” “A date?”
“An ex.” I belly-laughed, then hiccupped, then lay back down. “What about all this crybaby crap about Fred? Or do you cling to all your exes?” We fought for nearly an hour. He was like my hangover made flesh, only he never raised his voice but spoke in creepy measured tones. I was the shouter, which rattled the rocks in my head and made my whole body feel like a landslide. When he left, I went back to sleep. That afternoon, to make it up to him, I took him to an antiques fair in Manhattan. There were two Faberge eggs on display. I’ve seen priests stare at the cross with less devotion. This was when he told me about his Romanov dreams. Because I was trying to behave myself, I didn’t laugh until he was scampering away toward a display of fine china. On the ride home, I said to him, “One day I’m going to write a movie with a character like you in it,” for the sake of honesty. “That’s very flattering, Jess. Thank you. Please do change my name, though,” which was when he told me the business about his surname. The sight of the gilded eggs had made him more loquacious by orders of magnitude. All night he gave me tidbits like this. We watched a noir movie while he gawked over the set dressing, the men’s slacks, the wallpaper. Afterward, he switched to a home improvement show where couples with unspecified high-paying jobs buy summer homes in Europe. I rolled my eyes and texted Freddy, who ignored me. We poked around for the cuff links but without much hope of success. “My mom was always losing things and said they’d only turn up when we weren’t looking,” Joseph told me. “I’m thinking if they’re this lost that’s our best
bet.” I took that to mean I wouldn’t be rid of him any time soon. On the morning of my weekly Skype date with Freddy, he texted me, “I don’t want to talk to Joseph.” Just like that, with a period and everything, which made him seem curt. “Yr all he talks about,” I texted back. “Pls. Closure for his sake?” He didn’t respond for an hour, then replied that he couldn’t talk today actually because he was going out on the water with that mother of his. He was really sorry about it, if that was any condolence, but I didn’t believe it for a second. We rescheduled for the next day, but when the appointed hour came I logged into Skype, and he didn’t. I waited 20 long minutes, fearing the worst, and called him. He picked up on the third ring. “Are you okay.” “Shit, Jess, I’m sorry. I can’t talk. Family stuff.” In the background, I heard no chattering, no babbling kids, no music. I figured he was in his room with his feet up. “Fuck you. I’m lonely. Talk to me, Fred.” “Look, I have to go.” I announced to Joseph that that I’d be working through dinner. He peered at my laptop. “What do you even do?” “Freelance,” I explained to him, enunciating. “I’m a freelancer.” “What does that mean?” I rolled my eyes at him. “Just let me get working. I have a lot to do.” I shut my door; it took a whole 10 seconds for him to walk away. And he didn’t bring me any dinner, the shark, even though my stomach growled. I waited until 3 a.m., when I was sure he was asleep, and crept out to go digging in the fridge. Joseph had stocked
“Privacy is valuable.” the fridge with apples and protein shakes and snacking cheese; I had to stick my whole arm in to get the last yogurt cup in the very back, and as I blindly reached the back of hand touched something papery, wedged between the end of the shelf and the very back of the fridge. I snagged it; it was an envelope. In dull pencil, it said: “Joseph.” “Fuck all,” I said to the fridge. Why Freddie had stuck his memories of Joe in the refrigerator wasn’t mine to guess; maybe Freddie wanted to eat him. I mean that in the most salacious of senses; skinny Joseph would make rotten cannibal fodder. I took my time opening the envelope. I made myself comfy on my bed, door shut, legs crossed. This was the grand reveal, and I felt it deserved something. I was suspicious; the envelope was fatter than a cuff link should be. Sure enough, there was a letter stuffed inside, scribbled on the back of a spin class flyer in the same black ink as the note he’d left for me. The handwriting was tiny and spidery; the letter was too many lines to count. I was mad; live with a guy for nearly a year, and all I get is four words. Meanwhile, he leaves his rotten ex a soliloquy. I was tempted to rip the thing up and keep the pieces, just in case a ticker-tape parade came along, but I thought I’d rather wave it in Freddy’s face. As for the cuff links, I was torn. Giving them to Joseph would get him out of my hair and grant me the expanse of Freddy’s room for better houseguests or Freddy himself if he ran away from Florida and came back to me. Joseph around, I wouldn’t have to watch any home improvement shows but would have no one to watch anything with at all, so it evened out to neutral. What tipped the scale was how little he deserved the letter. It was proof that Freddy loved him after
all; maybe he’d even hid the cuff links from him in the first place to keep him coming back. The thought of his smug and sharky smile was more than I could take. And no, I didn’t read the letter. Well, only a few lines, but then I stopped myself. It’s not that it was mushy stuff, and anyway I have a strong stomach. But I do respect my people’s privacy. I don’t know how long it went on for, no more than a week. Fred became a virtuoso in excuses to keep from talking to me, but at least now I knew why. I couldn’t imagine how embarrassed I’d be to write such a smushy farewell letter to someone and then have to look that someone in the face again. Especially someone like Joseph, with his lichenous beard and Russian daydreams. I tried to understand his special charm. He had a lot of interesting things to say, about television and newspapers and paint colors. Sometimes he gave me summaries of the books he was reading. But whenever I got to talking, his mind and his eyes wandered to Timbuktu, returning only to tell me just how rotten and wrong I was. And yet he always seemed to appear, ready to review his daily criticisms of me. There was the time I emerged from the shower, feeling polished and clean, and walked dripping back to my bed with a detour through the living room for the towel I’d left on the couch. Joseph was in his favorite armchair with a teacup, reading one of those Russian books. He glanced up at me and then recoiled like I was a masked intruder. “Dear God, Jess.” He slammed his eyes shut. “What, are you going to go blind? I’m not that ugly.” I snatched the towel and draped it loosely over my shoulders, not too perturbed. Freddy and I had done this mock revulsion thing weekly. What was different with Joseph was the sigh he
released, a sigh with physical weight and form. “What?” I smacked him about the head with the towel, and he squinted up at me, careful to look only at my face. “It’s just,” he paused to shake his head. “Jess, where do you think you’re going to get in the world if you live this way?” “It’s my fucking apartment, that I out of my merciful heart am letting you stay at, as you know, Joe.” “Privacy is valuable,” he sermonized. “But I believe we place too much of a distinction between the public and private spheres in how to conduct ourselves. Duality is bad for man. Inevitably, our private behaviors will slip into our public worlds.” “You think I’m going to accidentally go to a job interview in my birthday suit, is that it?” “If you ever went to a job interview. The trouble with you, Jess, is you don’t believe in seriousness or any sort of standard of behavior. Maybe if you were more professional in all parts of your life, you’d have actual employment. I don’t blame you though; it’s a particularly postmodern problem.” “Fuck, you kissed Freddy with that mouth? No wonder he doesn’t want to talk to me anymore.” Joseph raised his eyebrows. “What does that one have to do with the other?” “I mean, he keeps avoiding calling me because he thinks he might have to talk to you.” “He told you that?” “It was easy enough to deduce.” By now, the floorboards under my feet were getting soggy; for the love of my security deposit, I wrapped myself in my towel and headed for my room. That afternoon, I smelled cooking. It was only 4 o’clock, so I poked my head out the door to see what had possessed Yale Daily News Magazine | 37
second-place fiction Joseph to make such a late lunch. Turns out, he was making his best attempt at a feast. Sweetly, it was on the common side. A pan of potatoes roasted to the edge of charcoal, slabs of unmarinated deboned salmon and underdone tricolor pasta. But I shouldn’t be so critical; it was something new for him even to try. Over dinner, we chewed in silence. Joseph looked in the newspaper, probably for something new to fight about. Finding nothing, he glanced up at me and announced, “The wedding’s over.” “You want a divorce?” I teased. “My friend’s brother’s wedding. I’m supposed to start my job in a week. I really should get to D.C.” “Been nice having you,” I said. “Could we have one more look for the cuff links? They really do mean a lot to me, Jess.” I had forgotten all about the cuff links, particularly about the fact that they were sequestered behind a dictionary on my bookcase. I racked my brain for the appropriate way to fake finding them. “All right,” I agreed. “Why don’t you go through Fred’s room again and I’ll look elsewhere.” “Aren’t they most likely to be in Fred’s room?” Joseph pointed out. “Sure but who knows. Fred was making such a mess.” He acquiesced, and, while he did the dishes, I made rummaging sounds in the living room. When he was shining a cell phone flashlight on the same nooks and crannies we’d searched a million times, I sat on my bed with the cuff links, waiting an appropriate amount
of time. Then I walked into Fred’s room and tapped Joseph on the shoulder. “They were behind the fridge,” I explained, smiling with all my enthusiasm. I’d expected a leap into the air “hurrah,” but that wasn’t Joseph’s style. He folded his hands around the cuff links and said “what a relief ” without so much as looking at me. Maybe he was onto me. He rolled them in his palm, and, as I side-eyed him, traced his thumb over the initials like they were his own, over the pearl as if it was the key to a world that glittered. I kept the letter, considering it Joseph’s contribution to the rent. The next morning I lay in bed listening to Joe pack up his bags, the quiet swish of folding shirts and the metallic zip of suitcases. I thought about putting in headphones, and I tried to read a book, but I kept finding myself listening. I knew the bedroom would be cleaner than a military barracks; I could rent it out for good money in the meantime. He knocked on my door and pushed it open a crack. “Should we say goodbye?” “Bye bye.” I waved at him without getting up. “Drive safe.” He held up the key, dull bronze, and wouldn’t put it in my hand except as a handshake, so I walked him to the door for courtesy. “Say hi to Fred for me,” he said and then left without a sound except the closing of the door and the thud of his feet on the stairs. I left my pajamas in the living room and showered until the bathroom dripped with steam. Then I wrapped myself in terry cloth and turned the TV on.
he moved like a wind-up doll — there was a limpness to her and on certain days she would wander through her apartment as if someone had pointed her in a direction and set her off. She would disappear for a few hours claiming she had work, though the nature of this work would never be made clear. Then she’d reappear looming over me; she could talk and talk. She said her name was Jess and never to call her Jessica. She was a woman without a history, without much thought, not the kind of person I ever would have befriended. But she happened to be the old roommate of an ex of mine, and when I was on my way out of town for good, through a peculiar series of events I lived with her for a short while. We got to know each other, though we never reached an understanding, and she remained as blank as porcelain.
38| Wallace Prize 2018
Christopher Buckley ’75. Marie Colvin ’78. Samantha Power ’92.
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