Creative Nonfiction Exclusive: “Why I’m Like This: Tales of a Neurotic Wife” by Hali Morell

It was late at night and I walked into the kitchen to search the cabinet for some item I shouldn’t be eating, usually some kind of chocolate or pastry, and there it was: the silhouette of something scurrying across the countertop next to the sink. Okay, don’t panic. Maybe it’s not what you think it is. Maybe it’s just a lost little moth searching for the nearest lightbulb.

I knew in my heart, though, that I was wrong. And as I propelled my feet to take the steps over to the light switch on the kitchen wall and flip it up, that’s when I had official confirmation that my evening was about to take a horrifying turn. A roach. A word I can barely form my mouth to say…that’s how repulsive these brown antenna-headed speed-racers are. With my finger still on the light switch, it had already run behind a clear vase holding bamboo in water, a yellow etched, tinted wineglass passed down to me from my grandmother, and lastly, the Roasted Garlic Express: a giant plastic garlic that roasts the scented bulbs to perfection…according to my husband.

Not having taken a good, healthy breath in about ninety seconds, in one swift movement I exhaled deeply and stepped across the kitchen on my tiptoes to snag the blue flyswatter I had purchased at the 99 Cent Store that lived in the pantry next to the refrigerator. Gripping the swatter in my right hand, I raised my arm and prepared myself for war. Literally frozen in space, it took me another minute and a half to even contemplate trying to find this little fucker. It was hiding behind the garlic roaster, which I attempted to slide with the flyswatter, but given the garlic weighs about six pounds and the swatter weighs pretty much nothing, it soon became clear that this wasn’t going to work. I was going to have to physically move the garlic with the power of my hand. And with another huge exhale and a little bit of a whimper, I jostled the garlic just to say, “Hey! I know you’re back there and I’m gonna kill you with this flyswatter.” Before I could even finish that thought, there it went sprinting to its next hiding place…a place so hidden that I couldn’t follow. Somewhere between the countertop and the drawer it disappeared. And that’s when I got pissed.

Terrified and pissed is not a good combination. Especially for my husband, who was fast asleep in the bedroom and was about to be woken up by a completely freaked-out wife. Think Woody Allen as a woman, only hopefully slightly better looking, and then you’ve got a sense of what I’m talking about. I stood there, staring at him, hoping he’d sense my presence. After about a minute of him not sensing my presence, I sighed…loudly.

“What’s up?” he said.

Normally, I have the ability to ease into things in a calm manner. Usually there are medium-sized prefaces or intros leading into what I’m about to say. This wasn’t one of those times:

“Babe, I think we have roaches,” I said, grabbing my head in my hands and stomping and swaying like an elephant about to charge. “I don’t know how I’m going to sleep here tonight.”

“Oh, sweetie. You’ll be okay.”

I paced in the darkened bedroom. “No, no, I’m not going to be okay. This is bad. This is really bad.”

“I’m sorry,” he said and rolled over on his left side. He clearly wasn’t getting it. This was serious. And, I’ll admit that I was acting a tad passive aggressive. What I really wanted to say was, Can you please go in the kitchen and spray the shit out of all of our cabinets…like, now? I tried to pull myself together and get into a more rational place. I rolled onto my side of the bed and covered my face with my hands.

“I’ll call the landlord tomorrow and see if he can send someone over,” I said, taking on the role of a sane and together person. Okay, this is going to be okay. I can do this.

Thirty seconds later, I could no longer ignore the sensation of hundreds of roaches running all over my skin. I began slapping myself every two seconds. It was clear that I wasn’t going to sleep that night without some help. I remembered that someone had once given me an Ambien, which I had never taken. Where the hell did I put that pill? I rolled over to my husband.

“Either someone needs to knock me out or I have to get up and find a sleeping pill.”

And as he made a quick grunting sound, I knew that I was officially becoming annoying and needed to deal with this issue by myself. I was pleasantly surprised to quickly locate the donated Ambien, which I popped into my mouth followed by a chug of bathroom sink water. Okay, this was good. I was drugged up and looking forward to being blissfully unaware of whatever demonic works were occurring in my kitchen.

*

You should probably know that I had an experience in college. Well, I had a lot of experiences in college, but I’m referring to the one that directly has to do with this current situation and why my behavior may appear to be a bit extreme.

In brief, a roach-infested apartment in Boston. It was my senior year in college, and my friend, Heather, and I decided to become roommates. We found a place close to Fenway Park. It was sort of like another version of a dorm only there was no RA and you couldn’t just pop into anyone’s room to smoke a bowl or drop a tab of acid.

I entered the apartment with my ridiculously large suitcases that could’ve fit a family of giraffes standing upright. That night we shut out the lights and curled up in her room to talk and get more comfortable in our new place. After a little while, I decided to get up for some water. I turned on the kitchen light and that’s when I saw an image that, on my deathbed, I will remember vividly. What looked like hundreds of roaches scurried around not just the kitchen countertops, walls, and floors, but throughout every room of the apartment.

“Get up! Get up!” I yelled to Heather.

“What?” she yelled.

“Oh my god! Oh my god!” I flipped on every light switch in the place and then ran into Heather’s bedroom and jumped on her mattress lying on the floor.

“There’s roaches everywhere!”

“Oh, that’s so sick,” she said.

“What are we gonna do? How are we gonna sleep?”

And in the middle of a huge yawn, Heather replied, “Let’s not worry about it tonight. I’m so tired. We’ll call the landlord tomorrow.”

Apparently, she and I were not living on the same planet. I mean, was she insane? Sleeping? I felt completely alone and totally freaked out. Needless to say, I was awake and shaking the entire night. I strapped my Walkman to my head and tried to think happy thoughts, but they quickly vanished as soon as I opened my eyes to witness the community of roaches that had made this place their home. I imagined them gathering in groups, creating buffets, playgrounds for the little ones, drum circles. And while Heather lay fast asleep, I paced in the living room in my nightgown and Doc Martins ready to stomp the living crap out of them. By 4:15 a.m., I had finally managed to doze off on the oddly stained gray sofa that Heather had brought from home. My eyes popped open at 8:05 a.m. when Heather’s alarm went off. Oh yeah, I had to go to school. Well, this should be a productive day.

“Is it too early to call the landlord?” I asked.

“I’ll get his number,” she said.

Six hours later, Anwar, the landlord, was in our apartment. He was a large man in every way. Tall and round, his belly protruded over his waist like he had swallowed three basketballs. Anwar was not a happy guy, and as he sprayed the toxic chemicals under our kitchen sink, he spoke.

“You know, these are hard to get rid of. The last tenants had the same problem, but you can blame them. All the walls in here were covered with beer cans.”

“What?” I asked.

“Beer can walls. That’s why there’s roaches. This place will always be infested, I think. But I’ll keep coming to spray if you need me to.”

At that moment, I experienced a variety of emotions. Terror, rage, hopelessness. I wanted to take a shotgun and shoot the shit out of the former tenants; then I wanted to aim it at Anwar, who didn’t seem to care that his apartment was riddled with the lowest form of life; then I wanted a plane ticket back home to LA…in that order.

*

The weeks that followed were devastating. Roaches falling out of my clothes hanging in the closet, running rampant across my bed, spending quality time with me in the shower. You couldn’t sit, stand, sleep, bathe, or take a crap without being accompanied by roaches. Getting dressed in the morning was truly horrifying. First, I’d reach for my Docs that sat by my bed. I’d turn each shoe over and shake it. It was a good day when nothing fell out. Then, I’d put them on and walk to the closet, where I’d open the creaking door and proceed to shake every item of clothing. I’d select an outfit, pull it out with my fingertips, and then continue to shake it until every roach had vacated the premises. If it was a shower day, I’d find my flip-flops, open and shake the shower curtain at the same time, step on any roaches that had fallen on the floor, then check the ceiling for anything crawling, get into the shower, turn on the water, and watch the remaining roaches slide toward the drain and spiral down to the sewer. I’d reach for my shampoo, but not before checking every angle of it, and as I’d suds up, I’d swivel my head up, down, and all around. Those few seconds while rinsing my hair when I had to shut my eyes were some of the scariest moments of my life. I thought our cat Elijah would be helpful in terms of killing the suckers, but all she’d do was eat them, throw them back up, and eat them again.

At this point, Anwar was making weekly visits to our place. I finally lost my shit.

“I can’t live like this anymore! Do you have any idea what it’s like to be here? I haven’t relaxed in three and a half weeks! And I’m in college! And every time I open a book to study something, I have to kill these things. It’s hard enough to retain Great American Playwrights on its own! What the hell is the problem? Can’t you spray anything more toxic? How about just pure poison? Do you have any of that? Or, how about we move apartments? Maybe one on the top floor. I’m sure it’ll take them longer to find their way up there. I need help, Anwar! You’ve gotta help me, man!”

By now I was sobbing uncontrollably, and Anwar was staring at me with great concern. I was hoping he wouldn’t call the asylum and send two men with a straitjacket to drag me away. Actually, that sounded like a much better deal than my current living situation.

“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it. Don’t get upset.” It was the first time he sort of smiled. It made me feel better…like I wasn’t so alone.

Over the next few days, Anwar had practically moved in with us. He’d work in the kitchen all day, gutting the cabinets, pulling out drawers. I’d pop home between classes, say hello to his legs as the rest of his body worked under the rubble, and after about a week, things were much better. Anwar had done it and now I could sleep without clutching a flashlight, shower without wearing shoes, and open a textbook without slamming it to the floor and stomping on it.

*

So, yes, I had an experience that was truly scarring. But now, with the Ambien surging its way through my brain waves, and my body gently sandwiched between my softly snoring husband and my purring cat, I could feel myself being carried away to a dreamlike state. And I whispered to the cat, “Let’s not worry about it tonight. I’ll call the landlord tomorrow.” Then he touched my nose with his paw. I wanted to tell him not to eat any of the roaches…that they weren’t good for his tummy, but I could sense that he was already falling asleep, and I didn’t want to disturb him.

 

Hali Morell is an actress, writer, teacher, and co-founder of The Missing Peace. Her work has appeared in Borfski Press, Evening Street Press, Avalon Literary Review, Broad River Review, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Forge Journal, The Paragon Journal, Pendora Magazine, The Penmen Reviewand Tower Journal

Nonfiction Feature: “Orbs of Feelings” by Kelly Flanagan

I abandoned orange bottles of pills on my dresser.  My desk lamp shone through them as they became orange orbs of feelings.  Prescription feelings.  This one calmness; this one love; this one eternal happiness.

I laughed very deeply and inaudibly. Though my countenance did not change even slightly.  I sat in bed breathing shallowly and removing each feeling from its bottle.  Kindness is a mango and white capsule.  Tenderness in the left color and a peaceful heart in the right.  

You should know that for happiness, you have to combine a few types.  Six light, sky blue tablets will remove your inner turmoil and any questions about mortality and the meaning of life.  Remember to add 600mg of equanimity in the morning and regularly throughout the day so as to maintain a consistent saturation.  

The red capsule in the mornings along with the two white “horse pills” as my aunt used to say.  There are the tiny white ones.  Take exactly seven as they’re low dose.  

My doctor, a gifted mixologist.  Hints of apple in my basil gimlet cocktail of drugs.  

Donning authority and bleached robes, he assures me I need these colors to become ok.  I thank him.

With the dissolvable tablets, I know the sugar and anxiety will dissolve sweetly under my tongue.

It may even be funny to some heavenly observer when the 1.5mg of mood-swinging-withdrawal changes my entire body and thrusts me into a pool of clouds I try desperately to climb out of into that clearer air, all light sky blue.  

But I can’t get a grip on that vapor.  I can’t climb out of what doesn’t exist.  

I wonder, sort of intently, if I really exist either.  It feels like it’s possible I’m just a mango-colored orb that swallows its feelings.

I’ve asked around, but no one’s sure.

 

Kelly Flanagan is a memoirist and blogger in Washington, DC.  Her writing focuses on resilience, personal agency, and life’s evolutions. International immersion and philosophy flavor her perspective.  Kelly has an MA in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University and is completing an MFA in Creative Writing at University of Baltimore.

Creative Nonfiction Feature: Bullets and Books: “The Gun is the Motive” by Michael James Rizza

I

On the train ride back to New Jersey, my wife Robin sits beside the window, looking into the screen of her phone, searching for information. Even though it is past midnight, she is not only stirred up by Don DeLillo’s appearance that night at the annual New Yorker festival but also trying to make sense of the mass shooting that occurred the day before at a community college in Oregon. The news and social media are buzzing with horror. It is all available on her phone, completely familiar and well-nigh routine by now—just another shooting—yet still unfathomable.

Robin and I are on our way back from a theatre on West 57th Street in New York City, where DeLillo gave a reading and answered questions from Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of The New Yorker, and from the audience. DeLillo is a writer who has imagined the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in Libra and created a serial killer, the Texas Highway Killer, in Underworld. In short, he has written convincingly about desperate men who seek self-definition through violence. Thus, he was asked an obvious question: how do we make sense of Oregon?

As I try to sleep on the train, I’m grateful that no one too obnoxious is aboard. A group of people are returning from seeing a show, perhaps an opera. With arcane knowledge and appreciation, they talk about the voices, sounds, and music. They make comparisons to other performances, prior productions of the same show that they had seen in different cities. They are not a family, but a group of fans. They share an interest that is alien to me, and it is likely that none of them cares about the old man who brought Robin and me to the city. They are not loud or drunk, which is good. Robin and I are also quiet. We are not drunk, only feeling the mild, lazy hush that comes with fatigue and a few after-dinner drinks.

A recorded, metallic voice announces: “Next stop: Cranford.”

I look at Robin. She is a beautiful woman with dark hair and dark eyes. Taking little for granted, she questions the daily workings of society, the general hustle and flow, the accepted practices, and she asks herself, is this responsible, is this healthy, is this good? It is little wonder that she is a DeLillo fan. She pays attention to reports of gun violence in the news.

She asks, “What are you thinking about?”

“Nothing.”

“I feel tired. Don’t look at me.”

“You’re beautiful.”

“I’m tired. Go to sleep.”

I turn in my seat. I settle into a cozy idea about how loving someone and looking at that person can be joined in a single gesture, and how that gesture connects two people, molds them into ways of living and being. I’m thinking about DeLillo’s answer to the Oregon shooting: “The gun is the motive,” he says, and I’m thinking about love, not in a dreamy way, but more particularly, how it operates in the formation of the self. Our identities take shape within the gaze of someone else’s eyes.

I wonder about the audience for the desperate, lone gunman, giving shape to himself through violence.

It’s always a man.

“I hope someone posts a transcript of DeLillo’s talk. Or a video,” Robin says. “I keep thinking about what he said: ‘The gun is the motive.’”

“Me, too. It’s suggestive,” I say. “I’m not certain what he means.”

 

II

Not until several years before his death did I ever see my father cry. He would get weepy over trivial things, such as a memory of some family vacation, a compliment a colleague paid him decades earlier, a birthday card from a grandchild. One of his pills—or maybe the full cocktail of medications for his cancer, diabetes, cholesterol, and whatever else—caused him to become over sentimental at times. Ordinarily, he was tough and reserved. He was born during the Depression and raised in rural Appalachia. He found his way out of poverty by joining the army and going to Korea.

My father’s hunting shotgun was a Remington 1100. It seemed more special than the other guns in the house. The stock was decorated with fine engravings. The rubber buffer that absorbed the recoil looked painfully thin, which to me intimated the strength of his generation of men. His spare shotguns—Mossberg pump-actions, which my older brothers used—had an inch of rubber to protect your shoulder.

When I was very young, he sat on the couch while my brothers and I watched television. He opened an old, brown tin case that contained cotton pads, lubricant, and other items for caring for his gun. It was a very delicate procedure, he said, because the oils on your fingers could damage the metal. After a section was swabbed, it couldn’t be touched until the next time the gun was taken out. Whenever he rubbed the cotton along the barrel, it would come away greasy, blackened, and redolent with an odor that was uniquely its own: the smell of an oiled gun.

Behind our suburban home, my brothers set up a makeshift shooting range for our shared BB gun, an air-pump Daisy. From a picnic table on our back patio, we took aim at empty soda cans lined up along the redwood fence that bordered our garden. My father would coach, ensuring our constant attention to safety. He trained us to be watchful, careful, and smart in the presence of guns.

Yet safety is a euphemism: there is a singular object out there at the tiny tip of your sights, and everything else around it, not just you, teems with life.

Death is concentrated in the letter on the Coke can atop the redwood fence.

 

III

Kids would take to the street, running at large from the close of the school day to nightfall. Moms would lean through doorways and ring bells to call their children home. Each bell produced a different sound. Our bell had a handle like a hammer’s, and you swung it up and down like a hammer. The clapper was a metal ball attached by a wire. Ten houses away, I could recognize the heavy sound of that ringing.

Nine years separated me from my eldest brother. I existed on the margins of understanding. I was silent and naïve as high school boys sat on the hoods of cars or clustered on back porches. They seemed loud and jagged around the edges, their ballistic energy barely contained, ready to erupt into shoves, insults, crudeness, or biting humor. I was rarely the target of any of it, just a small observer. I didn’t know how to process my perceptions, and even now, over thirty years removed, I wonder if the attitudes of these boys were endemic to my little plot of suburbia or to the whole culture. They came into manhood during a formless moment, not long after Vietnam and just prior to Reagan. They seemed disrespectful toward authority, but not in the easy, loving, flowing manner of a hippy. These boys were disaffected. They were gritty and untamed, flicking cigarette butts to the curb, telling stories of sexual exploits. They would drink beer all afternoon and then jointly piss in a neighbor’s pool. They would wait until the middle of the night, pile into a car, and cut donuts in somebody’s yard. They would wreck mailboxes on a regular basis. All boyish fun, perhaps, tinged with violence and hopelessness.

Strangely, there is something I miss about it, the Led Zeppelin erupting from the speakers of a parked car, the pocket-tees and denim, the fat handles of combs sticking out of back pockets. I had a sense that their grittiness intimated a reality from which I was detached. My home insulated me. The familiar things that gave me comfort didn’t seem to exist outside my home: Saturday morning cartoons, regular family dinners, my father’s stereo cabinet sitting squat beneath the bay window in the living room, the smell of popcorn and hot chocolate.

Moreover, I knew the high school boys were not even the real thing. They were merely a suggestion of a broader, grittier reality, perhaps its threshold, because they seemed innocent compared to the images of the city I had seen on TV. Or, if not innocent, then contrived. An awkwardly conspicuous manhood.

The first time I heard of vigilantism, my dad was discussing it at the kitchen table with my aunt. Once I discovered what a vigilante was, I saw him all over the place, in the news and in the movies and on television. Looking back now, I can see that he had a tight, decade-long hold on the public’s attention, beginning with the films Dirty Harry and Death Wish and culminating with the real life of Bernhard Goetz. Some breakdown or flaw in society made the vigilante necessary. He was a response to the lawlessness in the streets, and without a frame of reference, I took him as normal. A complicated figure, the vigilante was a questionable hero, one that could haunt and trouble a young boy’s imagination.

One time my brother and I rode in my uncle’s mud-yellow van to either Elizabeth or Newark or Jersey City, some place to pick up a part that my uncle needed for a job he was working on. It might have been my first time in a city. The street wasn’t safely packaged on a television screen, but framed in a van’s window: the smudged, tattered people slumped in doorways, the odor of heat and car exhaust, the tipped-over garbage cans, the graffiti scrawled across every wall and street sign, the barbed wire corkscrewing atop a chain-link fence. An air conditioner unit, propped up by bricks, leaned out of a window and dripped onto the sidewalk. A parked car with a rusty hole bore into its door, displayed in its back window an array of decals of the Virgin Mother, medieval images with gold plated halos. Another car sat with broad strips of its vinyl roof hanging over its sides. My uncle rolled down his window and yelled out into the street. Someone wanted to spit on his windshield and clean it with a wad of newspaper. Here was our original condition, the brute reality that threatened to rend the image of my home.

From a broader, cultural view, I suspect that the 1970s have become a touchstone by which we judge the successive decade as fake. The decade of façades. The clean, sanitized images of Reagan’s “Morning in America.” The homogenization of consumer desire. The gentrification. Flags and sunshine.

But why is one world more real than the other? It takes a little effort, but I have to remind myself that to be wholesome, to desire security, to sit on the carpet with your back against the couch, eating popcorn and watching The Carol Burnett Show with your family, is no less authentic than to live with angst, desperation, or hunger.

A group of boys gathered around my brother’s Dodge Dart. On the fender, a little plastic logo read “Swinger” in cursive script. There was a joke somewhere in this, but also something serious, an intimation of masculinity. Someone told a story about a girl being fucked on the diving board of a pool. She was the girlfriend of somebody named Willy, and she had fucked somebody else. Willy was a great guy, a good-looking guy. The audacity of the bitch. How dare she do that to Willy? The group of boys speculated that she was heading off to college or coming back from college, as if on furlough. She was just getting in some random fucks before she went away. Who could blame her? It was nothing personal against Willy, but still, she shouldn’t have embarrassed him like that. She was acting like a guy, someone said.

They were drinking cans of beer. A lanky boy handed my brother a piece of plastic that read “Swinger.” The boy had pried it off another car in a movie theatre parking lot, and he was now presenting it as a gift, a mindless repetition of the logo already on the fender.

“I got this for you,” the boy told my brother.

Everyone laughed, as if the gesture of pointing at something was funny in itself.

How old was I at the time, eight years old, maybe nine, when I tried to shoot one of these boys?

 

IV

Treisman precedes DeLillo onto the stage or, at least, I see her first, remember her first. When he sits down in the chair, he unscrews the cap of a bottle of water. He leaves the bottle on the little table yet keeps his hold on it. His dress is casual, his eyes alert. He faces the audience, his knees pointing straight at me.

Treisman sits facing DeLillo. She is almost reclined in the chair, the full curvature of her slender body appears at once posed and at ease. A side view in a black dress. Her bare knees elevated higher than her hips.

She settles into her questioning.

DeLillo relates that he writes with a typewriter and that he devotes one paragraph per page and that he works at the level of the sentence and the word. While fascinating, this account of his writing practice is familiar lore. DeLillo pauses sometimes and seems to search his memory, as if he forgets the name of Murray Jay Siskind, the guru of postmodernism in White Noise, yet in the next instant, all the particulars are there, so nobody believes he was actually searching. He skirts a couple of questions, such as one about his disowned novel Amazons, co-authored under a pseudonym. He is at times elliptical. He is at turns serious and funny. He dismisses White Noise as an accidental novel, something that just popped up one day, unremarkable and unworthy of attention. Nobody believes this, either.

Treisman asks a follow-up question about his devotion to the sentence.

After all, his novels conform to larger patterns: White Noise’s triadic structure; Libra’s spiraling inward of time and place, determinism and chance; Underworld’s intricate,tapestry-like weaving of connections. The overall designs are mesmerizing. Yet DeLillo dismisses the formal complexities, as if the larger patterns emerge spontaneously through his attention to the details.

Then someone in the audience asks about the shooting at a community college in Oregon.

 

V

We take little peeks around the edges, cautious doses of horror, because some details have filtered into the cultural imagination: the unanswered cell phones, ringing and ringing, somewhere in the folds of the crumpled bodies.

 

VI

My son is almost five, my daughter almost one. They attend the same preschool, but this day they arrive late, because my daughter had a doctor’s appointment. When Robin turns her Jeep into the entrance, she hears the alarm. The children are filing out of the building. Some of them come out the main door, which is always locked; you need to ring a bell for admittance, but it is mostly just a formality. You ring the bell, anyone rings the bell, and promptly enough, you hear a click as the latch slides clean. Children are also filing out a side door, heading down a long wheelchair ramp toward the parking lot. Many of them are holding their ears. Teachers marshal them in groups to a safe location, to the picnic tables at the far side of the blacktop. Robin watches through her windshield. Her initial fear has abated; it is merely a routine fire drill. Even so, the manner of the children is different. Their normal buoyancy—the possibility that any moment might erupt into exuberance, wonder, or laughter—seems subdued. They are not on the brink of play; they are following directions, looking around for guidance, and holding their ears. The infants are rolled across the parking lot in cribs. Some of the toddlers are crying. It is just an ordinary evacuation.

“It was heartbreaking to watch,” Robin later tells me.

And neither of us says, “What if it wasn’t just a drill?”

Nor, “What if it wasn’t a fire, a thing without volition, but a monster with twisted intentions, walking down the hall?”

It has happened before. It could happen again. What’s there to protect us?

 

VII

When my father’s family butchered a pig, they turned its blood into blood pudding, its fat into lard, and its severed head—boiled in a pot, the jowl meat and all the noisome, gelatinous gunk—into head cheese, a poor man’s deli meat. And a gun was there, a .22 short, to stun and knock down the animal, if not actually kill it. There was also the knife to bleed it out. There were ropes to string it up, and pots of boiling water and metal bells to shave it.

There was an outhouse in the yard. My grandmother used a pot that my father was in charge of emptying. No matter the time of day, no matter the weather, the young boy had to walk across the yard, sometimes carrying his mother’s pot. And the gun was there, too. Rats infested the outhouse, so the natural thing for a young boy was to kill them, for sport in the daylight but with a flashlight and a .22 at night, crouching beside a rickety wall.

 

VIII

In the summer, the neighborhood kids ran loose. They often played stickball in the street in front of our house. The game ended, and people seemed hesitant to get another one going. With several other boys, my two eldest brothers stood by home plate, an chalked on the center of the road. Their gestures seemed emphatic, as if they were players in a comic skit that needed to be kept running at all times. Anyone and his mother could be sacrificed to the joke, but whosoever cracked, expressing either anger or offense, might as well have confessed that he was as weak and sensitive as a little girl. Every boy pretended to be born full-blown, without parents, clapped down upon the earth, continually offering up his manhood to be tested and testing everyone else in turn.

The stickball bat was a wooden closet rod.

The batting lineup for the winning team still sat on the curb. A senior named Burke rested his forearms on his knees and slowly twirled a red BIC lighter between his fingers. A boy to his right watched Burke’s hands.

The tall, lanky boy, the one who had given my brother the “Swinger” logo, stood hunch-shouldered in the road, shuffling slightly, stupidly.

“You’re a fat pussy,” Burke said to him, not looking up.

Burke had a stocky, compact body, like a wrestler’s, and a hard, round, blunt head, like something best used for knocking holes in walls. Except for another of my brother’s friends who had been kicked out of the army, Burke was the only one with cropped hair. His jaw was thick with muscle. When he talked, ligaments moved visibly beneath his skin.

“Fuck you,” the lanky boy said. His dark hair hung along the sides of his face like two curtain panels.

“A fat, rank pussy.” Burke rolled the lighter between his fingers. From the breast pocket of his gray t-shirt he retrieved a second lighter, which was metal and square. He flicked the top with his thumb, and a blue flame hissed out. Burke added the word “gooey.” The boy seated beside him began to laugh.

“You’re a fat, rank, gooey pussy,” Burke said, but he didn’t seem to be making a joke.

He held the BIC lighter in the slender, blue flame, as if he were trying to melt it, catch it on fire, or make it explode, but nothing happened.

“See. I’m holding it between my bare fingers.” He leaned his face closer. “You think I’d risk my eyes like this?” He turned a dial with his thumb. The blue flame rose higher, wrapping around the BIC lighter. He peered into the bright spectacle.

I wasn’t certain if he’d risk his eyes. After all, he was one of the boys who had once thrown darts at each other in my basement. He had stood willingly in front of the dart board with his hands over his face. Afterwards, as if nothing had happened, he sat on the pool table and drank beer, as little circular patches of blood blossomed on the front of his tee-shirt: three dart wounds, one on his shoulder and two on his left breast. For sport, the boys had been aiming for each other’s hearts.

He glanced up and saw me watching.

“Do you like science, Mike? It’s not magic. It’s industrial plastic.” He turned theBIClighter, as if to burn all sides evenly, but nothing was happening. “It’s space-age plastic. It doesn’t get hot; it doesn’t melt.” He looked at the lanky boy. “Mike’s not a gooey pussy like you.”

The lanky boy chortled once, a solitary, guttural noise.

“I can hold this little red lighter all day long,” Burke said, “but this big, dumb galoot won’t even sit next to me.” He took a cigarette from behind his ear and put it in his mouth.

“I told you to fuck off,” the boy said.

“You’re a bigger faggot than this little kid here,” Burke said. “Come here, Mike.”

I stepped closer, and he told me to sit down next to him and marvel at modern science.

Then, there were three of us sitting on the curb, with Burke in the middle and tall boy standing in the street. The blue flame hissed and rolled around the lighter.

“It’s not hot. NASA invents shit for outer space, like Teflon, and we reap the rewards,” Burke said, pinching the red body of the lighter between his fingers. “It won’t get hot.” He spoke with the unlit cigarette in his mouth.

I watched. My bare legs extended into the road, crossed at the ankle.

“Let me see your arm,” Burke said. He snapped the metal lighter closed and slipped it back into his breast pocket.

A couple of boys standing by first base came over to watch.

I held my arm across his knee, with my palm up.

The tall boy repeated the guttural noise, which seemed to be emitted as much from his nose as from his mouth.

“See,” Burke said, taking hold of my wrist.

I watched, not realizing that Burke never touched the tiny metal wheel at the top of the BIC lighter nor the metal plug at its base.

“I’ve always liked magic more than science,” he said.

He squeezed my wrist and planted the bottom of the lighter onto my forearm, the metal plug singeing into my skin.

I don’t remember screaming, but everyone promptly disbanded, walking singly and in groups in both directions of the street. The stickball game was over. Nobody investigated why I was screaming. They simply left. I was alone on the curb, cradling my arm, as if holding a small, wounded animal.

Two of my brothers stopped me at the base of our driveway. They didn’t want me to go into the house and disturb my mother with my whimpering. They looked at my arm and assured me that I would be fine, deciding immediately, perhaps even beforehand, that I would be fine.

They were right. Rather than show my parents my arm, I hid the wound and tended to it alone. The burn gradually faded. For a couple of decades, it looked like a birthmark, though slightly indented and shaped like a tiny triangle. Now, it is barely noticeable, like nothing at all.

 

IX

DeLillo stands behind a podium and reads a section from Underworld. He explains that he has been re-reading the novel in order to publish an annotated edition. He selects a quiet passage about one of the side characters.

One summer in the 1950s, the main character, Nick, shoots a lonely man, George the waiter, in the head with a sawed-off shotgun.

The trajectory of the massive novel takes us back forty years to this moment of violence.

We experience it backwards. We feel its reverberations long before the event is even suggested. We discern the traces of its aftershock, the concatenations that ripple throughout a life. Nick has grown up into a “demon husband,” noncommunicative, unfaithful, and cruel. The shotgun blast is a point of origin or initiation, more formative than any primal scene.

We want to know why Nick shot George the waiter, but all along DeLillo, or perhaps Nick, has been telling us that even if we witness the bloody act, even if it is surrounded by rich details, fleshed out, and displayed in slow motion, we will not know why.

In the end, Nick cannot explain his own motives.

 

X

Not quite a cautious dose of horror, but a suggestive detail: a wounded woman survived by playing dead; she’s in stable condition. Various news outlets repeat the information, perhaps feed it back and forth to each other. Yet they provide no images of the scene; their language is matter-of-fact and bland. Perhaps the bullet passed through the side of her neck, allowing her to be camouflaged in her own blood, as it pooled around her head. She stared with open eyes at the dusty fins of the baseboard radiator, afraid that she might blink, afraid that she might breathe. Nothing was still, and nothing was quiet, but she isolated a sound somewhere above her: the rustling, fumbling of a man gathering his things, and his footfalls, the rubber heels of his boots on the linoleum floor, taking him to the next room.

 

XI

As we drive to my son’s soccer game, he sings the national anthem in the backseat. The soccer game is more play than sport; the song is more play than patriotism. He is trying out sounds, experimenting with voices, changing his tone. When he starts substituting words, delighting in the silliness of his own ingenuity, I tell him to treat the song more respectfully. He is not quite five, so I have to explain what I mean. Even though he listens and understands, I regret correcting him. After all, he was reveling in word play, finding possibilities in his voice. Such exploration would sharpen his mind and expand his creativity more than rote patriotism.

I find myself saying, “You don’t want to sound like you’re mocking that song.” Then, I have to explain mockery.

Robin explains the idea of loving your country even though it, like all countries, has flaws.

I mention a flaw: America’s drug epidemic.

Robin mentions another flaw: gun violence.

She tries out a Republican idea, with modifications. Republicans want to focus on the troubled individual, not the gun. Some argue for the involuntary committal of people to wards. It’s the humane thing, they say. Potential shooters would be locked away.

“I don’t know about any of that,” Robin says. “I’m thinking more of a safety net for troubled kids, probably at schools. More proactive and more vigilant.”

Our son is not paying attention anymore, and we have started ignoring him. His sister sleeps in the car seat beside him.

“It would be impossible to rid America of all guns, even if we wanted to,” I say. “People die. Guns don’t die. They accumulate and get passed down. And manufacturers keep making more. There needs to be limits. A person shouldn’t be able to own an arsenal just as a person shouldn’t be able to own a grenade launcher.”

“A kid finds a gun in his parents’ bedside table,” Robin says. “Shooters use legal, family guns.”

“More gun control,” I say, quietly remembering the boy I tried to shoot.

“More regulation,” Robin says. “‘Control’ has a bad connotation. You need an all-of-the-above approach, focusing on the gun, the individual, and also language.”

“‘Control’ is bad PR,” I say.

I gesture to the sticker on our windshield and try out a Democrat idea: “You have to take your car in every year or two to get registered, and you take a test to get a driver’s license. To own a gun, people could take a class, take a test, get a license, and periodically check back in.”

Robin tries out another idea. Then I try one.

Our son feels left out, so he makes noise, some sort of loud plea, begging us to stop talking. He has something urgent to tell us. He demands our attention, even as he is searching for whatever it is he needs to say. He finds what he’s looking for: our daughter’s hat has slipped to the floorboard of the car.

 

XII

When I was working on my doctorate in American literature at the University of South Carolina, I returned to New Jersey because my mother was having her heart valve replaced by a metal flap. When she had been a young girl in Italy, she needed a simple dose of penicillin. Yet, either because the family was poor, or because they lived in the country, or because my mother was a girl, she was denied medicine. A treatable ailment went untreated, scarring her heart.

I stayed in my old bedroom. My father and I drove to the hospital together, waited together, and ate every meal together. One afternoon, we talked about his time in the military. He never saw combat, but he would regularly fire massive artillery that for several days afterwards left him unable to hear and muffled his brain.

The military had its own garbage dump. Children scavenged upon the heaps.

When the war ended, my father was shipped to the center of America, to a flat, barren territory, where the state tree, my father said, was the telephone pole. I doubt he invented the joke himself, but he’d repeated it enough times in his life that it became his.

He told me a story about himself that I’d never heard before. He worked as a prison guard. He carried a rifle as men labored in the heat, doing what exactly, my father didn’t say. In my imagination, they were on a long road bordered by open fields.

One of the men told my father, “I don’t think you’d shoot me.”

“Think what you want,” my father said.

“If I ran into that field, you wouldn’t shoot me in the back.”

The prisoner was edging backward, as if he intended to leave.

“I could probably walk off,” the man said. “I don’t even need to run.”

“You want to try me.”

“You wouldn’t shoot me.”

“You don’t know that,” my father said, “but I know what I’d do.”

The two men watched and measured one another. My father made no dramatic gestures: no hard click of the safety being turned off, no sound of the bolt action sliding a bullet into the chamber.

“I don’t think you’d shoot me,” the man repeated.

“You can try if you want, and see what happens.”

“I can probably walk off.”

“But I’d shoot you,” my father said. “I would shoot you in the back.”

The two men were strangers, measuring one another, placed in a situation that produced artificial relations between them. Left on their own, there would have been no gun between them, no specter of bravado, violence, or death.

My father didn’t shoot the man.

Occasionally on the weekend or after work, my father would go to a local bar. He was stationed in a desolate area, waiting for his period of service to end. He had little else to do but plan his next move, figure out how to get a job and turn it into a career.

One evening, the prisoner happened to be sitting at the bar.

“Holy shit,” my father said. “What the hell are you doing here?”

They were thrilled to see one another, as if they were long lost brothers reunited at last.

“They let me out,” the man said. “I don’t know. They just let me out.”

It was fantastic.

To celebrate, my father bought him a beer. They took turns buying rounds. They stayed until closing time, telling stories about the war and their home life prior to the war and what they intended to do now that the war was over.

“He was a good guy,” my father told me. “A real good guy.”

 

XIII

This is what I remember:

My father and I were standing in front of the television cabinet, as big as a chest of drawers, as heavy as the boiler in our basement. He had built the bulky thing himself, which was fine and delicate on the inside. He had uncoiled metal wire from a spool and touched the stiff strand to the black tip of his soldering gun. The melted metal formed tiny beads on the circuit board. I took for granted that fathers built their own TVs.

My mother and brothers were on the couch behind us, but we were standing.

A man, perhaps some low-level state official, had called a news conference. Dressed in a tie-less, brown suit, he was tight about the face, fidgeting. A table was centered on the screen, but the man was slightly off center. We were watching this man. This was live television. He was saying something that put him off-center, made him bristle.

It was a confession, an explanation, a public resignation.

People on the wings of the screen moved, just torsos and arms. They understood something that I didn’t understand.

The man haltingly rose up and then sat back down, going partially off screen.

We were watching this live, my father and me standing, my brothers and mother seated behind us.

Somebody on the television, off camera, said, “Ohhh” or maybe “Nooo.”

I didn’t see what happened, the jostling of the camera, the dead screen.

The man in the suit had called a press conference in order to shoot himself in the head on live television.

But there was no sound of the gunshot, no image, just a jostled camera and a scared voice and then a dead screen.

Only now can I piece together a bit of incongruity. My father and I were standing in front of the television. Everyone else was seated. Yet, he was ushering me out of the room. That’s why we were on our feet. I was a child, and he didn’t want me to see the unfolding horror.

Only now do I wonder if it was a recorded video, being replayed during primetime news. How else can I explain my father pulling me away from a sudden, unexpected act of violence? He was moving me away before anyone on the screen realized what was happening. Either it was a replayed event he knew about beforehand, or it was a live suicide. And if it were live, then he saw and intuited before anyone else, before the cameraman and the people off in the wings. But intuition is shorthand—just as instinct may be shorthand— to explain away a lifetime of experience: the boy who shot rats in the dark, the farmer, the hunter, the prison guard, the war veteran. Some imperceptible connection between a lifetime of accumulated impressions and the face of a fidgeting man prompted my father to pull me out of the room. But I glanced back, freezing the scene in my memory.

Yet, it is a memory that requires an addendum. I have since discovered that on January 22, 1987, Budd Dwyer, the treasurer of Pennsylvania shot himself in the head on live television. This event occurred ten years too late to cohere with my childhood memory. Somehow, Dwyer’s suicide has not only become mixed up with but also effectively replaced some earlier image that held me captive. The first memory is lost, and the false one feels true.

 

XIV

The two main explanatory models for rampage shootings correspond to a spatial notion of motive.

The expressive model invokes interiority and depth, such as Pearl Jam’s 1991 song “Jeremy,” modeled after the real life of Jeremy Wade Delle. The boy shoots himself in the head in front of his classmates. The song’s chilling refrain is that “Jeremy spoke in class today.” What allows for the metonymic slippage between shooting and speaking is that both gestures express something sad and mangled inside the boy.

The simulacral model invokes image and surface.

The simplest version is the copycat.

In White Noise, when Jack observes how his stepdaughter Denise “came in and sprawled across the foot of the bed, her head resting on her folded arms, facing away from me,” he wonders, “How many codes, countercodes, social histories were contained in this simple posture?” One implication is that her gesture is not natural to her body. Some part of it, if not all of it, has been acquired from a cultural repertoire of sprawling on beds, most likely gleaned from images on screens and colorful pages, as if there is a particular way of sprawling indicative of a suburban, middle class, white girl in the early 1980s.

Jack’s son plays chess with a prisoner convicted of a mass shooting. Jack asks his son a series of generic questions that rely on a ready-made profile, such as, “Did he care for his weapons obsessively?” “Did he have an arsenal stashed in his shabby little room?” “Did he walk into a bar, a washette, his former place of employment and start shooting indiscriminately?” “Did he write in his diary?” “Did he make tapes of his voice?” “Had he been hearing voices?”

For Jack, if not DeLillo, simulacra seem to garner their own agency, to circulate, to invest themselves in the simplest movement of the body and the deepest currents of the mind, so that a young girl does not simply sprawl on a bed; rather, she performs the act of sprawling, and a man who fires at strangers from a rooftop adheres to the conventions of the genre of mass murderers, sending tapes “to the people he loved, asking for forgiveness.”

 

XV

The interior of our house was laid out in a loop. From the front foyer, up three steps, into the living room, turn left into the kitchen, past the table and the center aisle, down three steps, into a short hallway, then the family room, past television and couch, back into the foyer and up three steps again. I discovered intimacy in the loop, in the connection between all the rooms. In an instant, any one of my brothers or my parents could be found. We acquiesced, without even knowing that we acquiesced, to forego privacy in the name of family.

One evening when I was eight years old, maybe nine, my parents booked a hotel room in Atlantic City so they could spend the weekend dabbling in a casino and seeing a show. It was a compromise: my dad liked Crystal Gayle and my mom liked slot machines.

I’d ordinarily run the gamut of the loop, ready to pounce or play. Yet now, people came in from the back patio and clustered in the hallway. Pressed against the handrail, I slipped up the steps. More people stood in front of the open door of the refrigerator, as if their conversation, loud and freewheeling, made them forget what food or drink they’d been looking for.

A girl sat on the counter with a beer can between her knees. She didn’t so much exhale cigarette smoke as let it seep out of her mouth, as she spoke. She tapped ashes into the sink. Two boys flanked her, standing between the center isle and the counter, too enwrapped to notice me. I had to back out and find another route through the bodies. People sat around the kitchen table, cluttered with beer cans and bags of chips.

The living room was empty. Stereo speakers sat perched on the second-floor landing. I had earlier watched my brother take them out of his bedroom and stretch the speaker wires along the hallway floor. The record was set to repeat. The front panel of one of the speakers had tumbled halfway down the stairs, snagged by a bracket of the handrail. The woofer throbbed to the sound of “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd. I’d heard the album enough times to know it was the last track. The needle would slide across dead space, before bouncing up, with a crackle, to restart the album side.

My brother came up from the basement and talked to someone in the doorway between the foyer and the family room.

Even though it was winter, the interior of the house was hot, loud, and choked with cigarette smoke.

The door to the basement was propped open with a red jug of laundry detergent. Most of the party seemed to be happening beneath the house, but I didn’t want to go down there. Maybe they were throwing darts at each other again.

As I descended into the foyer, I could hear my brother laughing, but he stopped all at once when I walked past him into the family room.

“Why don’t you go upstairs, Mike, to your bedroom?” he said.

“Okay,” I responded automatically.

The only other person in the room was the tall, lanky boy. He sat in the center of the couch, with the darkened window behind him and his knees resting against the coffee table.

“Richie, are you coming downstairs?” my brother asked. “Come on.”

“I’ll be right there.” His voice sounded deep-bellied and gruff, as if something inside him were constricted.

When he started to lean forward over the coffee table, my brother checked him.

“Hey,” my brother said. “Not in front of Mike.”

“Oh,” Richie said and looked over at me. He sat back and crossed his arms behind his head.

“Mike,” my brother said, “go play in your room. Come on, Richie.”

“Alright,” the boy said, but he continued to sit, with his knees splayed and his shins pushing against the edge of the coffee table.

In the kitchen, the girl had turned our sink into an ashtray, dropping not only ashes but also spent butts. She was standing now with her hip against the counter. The two boys appeared to be boxing her in, the three of them huddled together, taking turns leaning forward as they spoke, cocking their heads to listen.

The music stopped. The needle slid across the dead space, seeming to throw the entire clutter of voices into relief, like the lights coming on at the end of a school dance. Yet everyone went on talking and laughing.

I had once seen a nature program of several hyenas burrowing their snouts into a carcass. They didn’t know they were being filmed. In shades of green and black, the animals looked almost secretive, making soft, wet noises in the dark. The person behind the night-vision camera, crouching quietly in the brush, somehow seemed complicit in the carnage, as if an ancient blood rite were being enacted or some unholy prayer. Yet the spell was broken when one of the hyenas raised its head, stared at the camera with glazed black eyes, and, finding nothing, lowered its glistening mouth back into the carcass. Maybe this is what happened when the music stopped, not the end of a dance, but glinting eyes momentarily suspended and alert.

Then the Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits came on. It was one of the albums my brother liked so much that its slipcase remained atop the plastic lid of his turntable for months.

A gap enters my memory, roughly twelve minutes, in which my first round through the party melds into my second. I see the red jug of laundry detergent and the front panel of the speaker snagged on the railing. Two people, both long-haired, both in jeans, go into the hallway bathroom together. Years later, I would sit on the edge of my bed and realize that “Serenade” is the fifth track on Steve Miller’s album, and I would use the playlist to measure time: the twelve lost minutes between hearing the paused music in the kitchen and reentering the family room, where Richie still sat on the couch. Four other songs played in a blur. The glass lid of my mother’s cake dish sat on the dining room table, detached from its base. I felt an urgency to reassemble the parts. Some girl rubbed the top of my head, and two people went into the bathroom together, and Miller was singing his serenade, saying “Wake up, wake up” and “We’re lost in space,” the words vibrating and rolling into one another. And then Richie bent over the coffee table, touching his nose to the wooden top. Maybe he is the hyena of my memory, lifting up his head and captured for an instant, the glinting dead eyes, peering but vacant, the glistening mouth, all framed by the darkened window.

“Fuck,” he said, tossing back his hair.

I was screaming at him. Hot and frenzied, I repeated, “Don’t do that here. Don’t do that here. My brother told you. Not in our house.”

“Fuck.” He rubbed his palms up and down his thighs. He seemed bland and detached, uncertain if my fury was directed at him.

I continued screaming, released from myself. Something white, crystalline, and hot bloomed inside my skull, blossoming shards.

“Get out,” I screamed, but he seemed unmoved, as if I were acting out some strange pantomime.

I lowered my voice a little, so he could hear me. “My dad has guns,” I said. “Get out now or I’ll shoot you.”

All at once, he bounded over the coffee table, and I don’t know what happened first: whether he was bounding because I was running to get the gun or whether I was running because he was bounding.

Steve Miller’s words were rolling into one another: “Wake up, wake up,” and I was running to get the gun, the Daisy air rifle. The other guns were foreign to me, locked up and stored away. I’d never held a serious gun, but the Daisy was something real; it could lodge a pellet deep into your flesh. I could point it at his face and drive him away.

I made it through the foyer, but he caught me on the steps. He held me by the neck and pressed my face into the lip of the top stair. He planted his left knee in the small of my back and hissed into my ear: “What the fuck, what the fuck.”

He still wasn’t in the scene yet, all jacked up, his body reacting quicker than his mind. He pinioned my body across the three stairs. I moved up a little, so my neck craned over the step, and he pressed my cheek into the carpet. I still wanted the gun, but I couldn’t move. Then, his brain caught up with his body. He lifted his right leg and set his foot down beside my face.

“See that,” he said. “That’s a boot, you little fucker. That’s a steel-tipped boot. I’ll kick you with it. Calm the fuck down, or I’ll kick you with it.”

I didn’t know if I was making any noise at all, other than panting into the carpet, as I stared at the brown sole of his boot. Something inside me tried to convulse, but I was trapped beneath him.

He held me down for a long time, telling me to look at his boot. He seemed to be slower now, talking without haste or anger, waiting for me to collect myself.

He was no longer telling me to calm down; he was telling me that he would kick me, that he would hurt me in a serious way. Fuck the silly little burn on my arm. He would hurt me for real. Yet there was no anger in his voice.

My face mashed against the carpet, I wondered if anyone was watching us, and if they were, how could I explain what was happening? What if they told my parents? After all, Richie was right. I was a little fucker. My face burned, and my body tried to contract, to buckle inward, but I remained stretched flat across the steps. I started to gasp, the word “sorry” escaping from my throat in violent hiccups. He was right to make me stare at his boot.

Eventually, he got off me, saying, “Let’s not tell anyone about this.”

I slipped to the bottom of the steps and sat on the slate floor in the foyer. I continued to say that I was sorry.

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s forget about it.”

My gasping began to subside.

“I’m sorry,” I said again, more clearly.

“Okay.”

Then I said it again, because this was not the boy I was supposed to be.

“Okay. Forget it.”

He was a good guy, a real good guy, a long-time friend of my brother.

But I said it again, catching my breath, not ready to get up yet. He left me on the floor, to retrieve his stuff from the coffee table and head downstairs. I said it again in the empty foyer, because I was no longer just saying it to Richie; I was also saying it to my father.

 

XVI

The recorded, metallic voice announces: “Next stop: Bound Brook.” By now, Robin and I have the train car to ourselves. My feet are stretched out into the aisle. My compact umbrella hangs by its strap from a small hook on the seatback in front of me. I have been trying to take a brief nap, but my legs feel restless. Our children are at my mother’s house, which is a thirty-minute car ride from the train station. They will be asleep when we arrive, and Robin and I will quietly slip into the spare bedroom.

I slip down further in the seat, unable to get comfortable.

Robin settles beside me. Her hand finds mine as she rests her head against my shoulder.

When we get to my mother’s house, we will check on our sleeping children. For a moment,we will stand above them in the dark and listen to their breathing. We will feel drowsy and tender. Our longing to see them will ease itself out into the hushed corners of the room. We will want to make some minor adjustment to a blanket or gently brush aside a strand of hair, but to avoid waking them, we will simply watch until one of us whispers, “Come on.”

We will mildly regret missing some aspect of our nightly routine: reading a story, kissing a forehead, saying, “I love you.”

I wonder how Robin has fallen asleep so easily on the train seat beside me, but then she gently squeezes my hand, just once, to convey some private message between us that I already know.

 

Michael James Rizza, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of English at Eastern New Mexico University. He is the author of the novel Cartilage and Skin (2013) and the monograph The Topographical Imagination of Jameson, Baudrillard, and Foucault (2015). He has published articles on Don DeLillo, Milan Kundera, Adrienne Rich, and others, as well as short fiction. He has won various awards, including a fellowship from the New Jersey Council on the Arts and the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction. He is currently at work on a novel called The Purged Father.

Praying Before Idols by Wendy Swift

On our first night living on Tuller Circle, my sixteen-year-old daughter and I assemble what will become our kitchen table for the next fourteen years. The surface is constructed of pine-green tiles set in oak, and—because it is higher than average table height—I buy four stools upon which my three daughters and I will crowd together each night while we eat cheap food. I am like the single mom Cher plays in the movie Mermaids—with dinners that more closely resemble hors d’oeuvres, made festive with party toothpicks, rather than nutritious food generally recommended for teen growth spurts. I follow the table’s assembly instructions, using a special screwdriver included in the kit to fit the bolts in place. I align the legs with the supporting beam, creating a structure that can stand upright without toppling under the weight of dinner dishes. We laugh over the incoherent directions and the bizarre illustrations while I am reminded of the absurdity of attempting to fit together a new life for which we have no blueprint. The two oldest girls get the master bedroom to help ease their transition. I want them to feel positive about this new arrangement and somehow believe a room with a bathroom and a TV will ameliorate the loss of their father, their home, their honor. When one family member goes to jail, the entire family joins him.

Earlier in the day, friends and my brother loaded vans and cars to make multiple trips across town from our old home to our new apartment. I was grateful for the help, but at the same time embarrassed by the obvious mess in which we had been living, now laid bare to witnesses. There were stacks of Penthouses(another of Danny’s addictions) and dense dust that has accumulated behind our bed because it never occurred to me that I might vacuum that wayward space. Random objects are hastily thrown into garbage bags, including wedding gifts from a marriage that had taken place twenty years earlier. Most of our belongings were sold in the weeks leading up to this day, and what remained I was giving to friends or leaving on the street. These were needless objects that represented years of pointless material accumulation with no place in my new life. I was happy to purge.

The next morning, I leave for my first day of work at the Traveler’s Insurance Company. My education prepared me to be a teacher, not an insurance executive, or even someone with a smattering of knowledge or interest in death benefits or annuities. A friend has helped me get this job―it’s temporary without benefits but I needed something quick since I had been home for many years raising my daughters. My job is in the Communications Department responding to emails. The Internet is a new technology in 1996 and very few customers know how to use it. I will end up spending a good deal of my days emailing friends with subject lines like: “Lost in Space” or “A Long, Strange Trip.” When I arrive at the office on that first day, I call a friend and ask him to drive across town to check on my kids. We don’t have a phone line installed and I’m pretty sure there is nothing in the apartment for my kids to eat because I didn’t  have time to grocery shop after moving, unpacking and assembling the table the night before. Can he see what they need? Maybe bring them some food? And please tell them when a man arrives and says he’s from the phone company, they can let him in. My friend acts like a courier, brings food and gives the kids a few bucks in case there’s an emergency. I’m not sure what emergency he imagines. The only emergency I know of is the loneliness and despair that is setting in as the reality that our family will never be the same begins to take form. I don’t think a few extra bucks will help since money was what brought us to this place to begin with.

Our new routine includes expensive collect calls from prison. I tell my husband to call less. We can’t afford it.  He says he’ll get his sister to give me money for the calls because the calls are his lifeline and I cannot take that from him. He says I’m cold and insensitive because I don’t seem to care about my husband in prison. I want to say that’s what happens when you embezzle over a million dollars. We were married for twenty years and I am just now beginning to listen to myself. 

I was a “good” girl once―raised in a family that valued integrity and moral conduct.  I was pious. I went to Catholic church with my father and brothers. I kneeled and prayed. I sat demurely with legs politely crossed at the ankles. I went to confession to admit childish sins. I was good at being a Catholic, so good that I won a Catechism contest and was awarded a plastic replica of La Pieta.I took it to my bedroom and plugged it in and sat on the edge of my bed, staring at the glowing image of Jesus held in his mother’s arms after dying on the cross. I stayed that way most of the afternoon until my mother came home from work.  She told me I had to bring it back. I didn’t understand it at the time, but my mother was Jewish and praying before idols was not permitted in our home. I felt Mary’s grief as I trudged back to Catechism class to return my prize.

Our yellow Lab, Jake, struggles to adjust to his new surroundings. He is accustomed to hanging out in the yard, untethered by any leash. That is strictly forbidden in our new neighborhood of affordable units. To help ease Jake’s anxiety, I take him home to our old house on Hoplea Road. Alone, he languishes in the yard. For the time being, the house is vacant and Jake doesn’t realize we no longer live there. While I am at work and the kids are at school, he spends those first few weeks pretending nothing has changed. I envy his wanton disregard for our circumstances. It won’t be long before Jake will need to confront the limitations of living in a multiple housing unit where his comings and goings are carefully monitored by neighbors who hate dogs. 

On Saturdays, we drive to Enfield. This is a medium security prison, not like the maximum detention center where Danny first began his internment three months earlier. Here, we can sit around a table rather than speaking to him through glass with the aid of a phone. In this prison, the walls are weirdly decorated with life-size images of Road Runner, Sylvester Cat and Tweety Bird, painted by the prisoners themselves. I like to imagine the conversations they might have had while painting Looney Tunescharacters, wondering how long they will stay in hell. We wait in a room with the other families while the prisoners are paraded out of a door, one at a time, each wearing an orange jumpsuit. Danny swoops the girls into his arms and lightly kisses me. He looks unfettered, if not a bit thinner, but that’s to be expected. After about an hour, the kids are restless. I have been crying. It is time to leave. Later, Dan tells me that if I can’t stop crying, I should have someone else bring the kids to visit. The next time we visit I sit silently while he chats about the classes he is taking and the basketball games he plays during rec time.  

I think about trading places with him and wonder who got the better end of the deal. 

Wendy Swift is a graduate of Syracuse University. She teaches creative writing and is the Director of theCenter for Writing at Cheshire Academy, an international day and boarding school located in Connecticut. In addition, she is the In-Briefs editor for the Bulletin, a publication of the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering. Her work has been published in the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, Adirondack Explorer, Litchfield County Times and Long Island Woman.

Bread of Life by Laura Bass

From December of last year onward, I have thought about bread every day, without exception. It started about six months after I got married. I cried a lot those first few months, and though I would always tell my husband that I didn’t know why I was so upset, I can tell you now that I was afraid that I’d gotten married too young, before I’d gotten to know myself. I couldn’t list things that I liked to do on my own, anything that wasn’t secretly something I’d borrowed from my husband, something he’d introduced to me while we were dating or engaged. 

I have it written down in my journal, where it all began. On the left page:  “I am still trying to figure out who I am and what my passions are, but I am struggling to explore… I don’t know what I like. I don’t know how to express what I don’t know.” On the right page: “Remember that poem about Jesus being a vampire, due to his association with blood? Do the Eucharistic mirror: Bread”

And so, about six months after I got married, I stalked a girl on Twitter so I could ask her about a poem.  Over a year ago I’d heard her read it at some poetry award ceremony, and though the poem stuck with me, all I could remember about her was that during a question and answer session afterwards, one of her friends had said that she often talks about a soda parlor on Twitter. So last Christmas I sought her out. Apparently, Twitter doesn’t approve of someone making an account (not even bothering to add a profile picture or bio), scrolling through the followers of a soda parlor and direct messaging an individual. I got flagged for suspicious activity, but after I messaged her, she sent me the poem. She had compared Jesus to a vampire, made Him a run-away obsessed with the drinking of His blood like wine. And I wanted to write about bread. That’s where it all started. I wanted to write a poem like she did, but about bread instead of wine. More tame, I thought. Less sacrilegious. Jesus is bread just as much as He is wine. 

            By some miracle, then, my mind began a diet of bread. After the sacrament had been passed around at church, I immediately closed my ears, ignoring sermons to focus on googling bread things on my phone, letting my mind drift between the etymologies behind “crust” and “loaf” and “crumb.” I read about transubstantiation and cannibalism. I read recipes and tried to find art. I wrote some poetic lines, and thought about writing more. I watched the episodes from the Great British Bake Offwhere they only made bread. I made bread. I tried the religious ones like challah and matzoh, but also baked soft pretzels and naan. In an art class I painted a loaf of bread and it was really challenging, but I learned that the smell of oil paint and the smell of yeast are equally pungent.

I fell in love with yeast. It’s a gross word and kind of a gross thing, but it is inherently creative. Those tiny tan pellets I had always used and watched my mom use are yeast, but delivered in a form that is comparatively new, in the history of humans making the oldest form of crafted food. Yeast is bacteria– little live organisms we invite into the loaf, either by measured tablespoons of baker’s yeast, or by just letting them settle in from the air. They eat the flour and sugar and burp out the bubbles that, when baked, make that fluffy pattern, called the crumb. But before we as a culture started demonizing gluten, we demonized the yeast within bread. Around the time of the industrial revolution, Louis Pasteur discovered germs, and panic broke out surrounding bread. Since nobody wanted these germs in their food, bakers and mothers turned to baking soda and baking powder to chemically produce those bubbles needed, and bread was leavened by chemicals instead of by life itself. 

Bakers now are turning back to naturally leavened dough, using the bacteria in the air as humans have done from the beginning of humanity. And I tried it too. I built a sourdough starter, based more off of my own feel for something I knew nothing about than on any recipe or instructions that I had read. In a glass jar I mixed flour and water (and just a tiny bit of yeast to kick start it), and each day would continue to add the two. A sourdough starter is very much like a pet– you feed it daily, you build a relationship based mostly on you just staring at it, and you name it something so that it hurts when it dies. My husband named it “Scoob,” and it lasted one week, after making two very small loaves. I can only guess which of my blind experiments killed it, but I am a little relieved I don’t have to worry about taking care of it every day. Scoob was time-consuming, and it’s easier to just use yeast pellets anyway.

I daydreamed about the first loaf of bread, that first leavening. Adam built an altar, and then next to it he built an oven. While perhaps God boomed instructions down from on high, and maybe He sent down Martha Stewart as an angel to show them how, I prefer to think of the first loaf as a beautiful accident. Adam and Eve let their children try to grind the flour with their weak arms, and then pushed and pulled the dough between them. At first they made pancake-flat bread that had no salt and one had to growl a little as they tore at it. But someone, and I hope it was Eve, left dough out on a warm rock one day and forgot about it, perhaps caught up in this new experience where she cried whenever she saw her babies and their fat cheeks. And the air did something different to the dough. Given the time, the life that had been on Eve’s skin and in her fingers as she had kneaded the dough began to grow and multiply. What a godlike power, to make something grow through touch. Did Eve feel that guilt again, for trying to be like God?

I think about Cain and Abel, staring in wonder as the dough rose, eyes wide as they tried to see the imperceptible, like trying to see the life within grass that makes it grow. Yeast is like the Holy Spirit: invisible, inflicting growth. So maybe Abel was the only one who was watching?

I made so much bread. I fought inside myself between the homemaking scent of dough in the oven, the pride I felt over a swirling, beautiful crumb, and the hate I had for my body, knowing bread was the enemy. Bread has the potential to be so nutritious, as the books I read told me, but I knew I wasn’t doing the right things to make a good loaf, a complicated and nutritious loaf. I used cheap flour and it takes less time to use yeast pellets and just call it good. But I knew I could get so much deeper, if I wanted.

I follow a couple of sourdough breadmakers on Instagram, and they all describe their work in these mathematical terms: “100% whole grain freshly milled blend of hard white spring/warthog/ spelt mixed at 72% and bassinaged up to 90% during autolyse/ fermentolyse… then completely ignored for a 6.5 hour RT bulk. Bench rest was rushed and shaping was punctuated by aberrations in the kids’ bedtime routine (including being headbutted by a six year old who is closer to my size than any other six year old you’ve ever seen, completely deflating one of the other loaves).” Look at that jargon, kneaded right into this mother’s life.

I love the auditory qualities of jargon, though I’m always hesitant to use jargon myself. One time, I helped collect sound as my husband filmed a short documentary of a Magic the Gathering event. I pointed a gun-shaped microphone at some men who kneaded their cards like they were casting spells (which I guess is the point), sliding and slipping their deck around like an animal puffing out his chest to intimidate his opponent. I’ve never played Magic, and so the way they talked was so interesting because it made no sense to me. It obviously had the  potential to be understood, but I just let words slide across my ears, and made sure I was capturing all their sounds. I guess I bring this up because the biggest part of this whole bread thing is what it means to me from a religious perspective, and there is nothing I know that is more full of jargon or acronyms or recycled terminology than my church, my faith. I could make you, reader, play a guessing game at what I do believe, and avoid vernacular. I try my best to translate, though. I sometimes wish I were Catholic, or the etymology of “Catholic.” That I were universal, and universally understood.

Bread is almost universally associated with the hearth, the home, the mother. I think about my mom every time I think about bread. She used to bake all the time. She made loaves of whole wheat bread, and sometimes I helped. And by help, I mean that I would sink my hands deep in the bucket under the end of the counter that was full of kernels of wheat, and let them slip slowly from my fingers. After a few minutes of this, my hands would be soft from the chaff and tingling from touching hundreds or grains. The wheat then went into my mother’s grinder, which was a wooden box that made the lights in the whole house flicker when it roared to life. I would lift the lid and my mom would pour them into the broad funnel, where each kernel would jump about and then drop into the dark and dangerous hole in the center. My mom always warned me not to put my finger in there because, “The grinder doesn’t know the difference between a finger and some wheat.”

Ever since my dad stopped eating carbs and sugar (due to a totally serious fear of contracting a fungus that will take over his body and control his actions, like a zombie virus) my mom has stopped baking bread. It goes bad before she alone can finish it. I remember as a child I would only eat her earthy, brown wheat bread if it had just come out of the oven and was drowning in butter, only then. I hated bringing her crumbly sandwiches in my lunch, and I know it hurt her feelings. I know what it’s like to bake a pie and bring it to a hangout with your friends, and you’re the only one who has a slice. But baking is a sacrifice, which makes it a great metaphor for Christ. 

I learned about things that I wanted to write but couldn’t find the best way to do so. Like how at Easter, we talk about how Jesus, the Bread of Life, is Risen, and I wanted to laugh at the pun. Or how when I was looking into the etymology (I know I’ve mentioned this a lot; it’s the history and origin of words, and is like a second religion to me) of bread words, I found that the word “Lord” comes from an old English “hlaford,” or loaf-guard. And though the term wasn’t applied to Jesus until the King James translation of the Bible, it’s a beautiful translation of the name of God, since He has said that He is the bread of life, and will feed us. The old English word for servant comes from this same relationship to bread, and means loaf-eater.

These more recent months I have been attracted to the concept of communities. It bled over from bread very easily, because bread is a community food. It’s designed to be broken and shared, and it brings those who eat it closer together. Makes sense why it’s used for the Eucharist, for communion.

The time I felt most alone in my whole life was during the first few months of this year, during church, sitting in a congregation of at least 250. We had tried, my husband and I. We’d brought cookies to neighbors, we sat next to couples and introduced ourselves. I’d even taken a page out of some psychology-based hacks off the internet, and literally asked my neighbor if I could borrow a cup of sugar, but she just texted, “Sorry, I’m not home right now.” 

One Sunday someone got up and spoke about how they had just moved into the area (months after we had) and they were making so many friends and had gotten assignments in the church and were loving it. I stood up and left then, crying my way up the aisle. In middle school, when a girl cries, she is swarmed by half-friends, and one mom-friend will rub her back and whisper “give her space” to the other girls. What I mean is that crying in middle school at least gets you attention, but in this bizarre place, nothing happened. After that day I stopped going to that congregation. Nobody ever checked up on me or my husband. We disappeared and nobody noticed. I was a tree falling in a forest, trying to make as much noise as I could, because I did not want to fall. 

I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I Googled what makes a community, and I read the definitions from social scientist to psychologist. I took notes. I thought about things like initiation, trying to guess what might be initiation for a church community. Looking back, I realize that I was already initiated, at least by the books. I had gotten baptized, hadn’t I? What more was I supposed to have completed? I’m still bitter. In my journal, right next to my list of the factors of a community, I have a quote from Montaigne: “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” I think I was entertaining the idea of an internal community. I have these separate elements within myself–body, mind, spirit, conscious and subconscious. Could I be my own friend? Or maybe I was thinking about bread again, and how Jesus, the perfect example, is symbolized in the communion, which I watched each person in that room eat every week I was there. I watched them partake, and then Jesus was in them. Each of those people were visibly and literally integrating Jesus into their lives and yet I was being lost, left out, despite doing the same. Shouldn’t we all have been gathered as one, as the Body of Christ?

I read a medieval riddle about bread, but it was basically an overt metaphor for male genitalia. It turns out bread is sexy. As a wedding present I received a great big red kitchen mixer but it sits in its box in my closet, never opened, because my kitchen is too small almost for the toaster we have. I can’t complain too much though, because I have come to develop a relationship with kneading. I could recommend yoga to any stranger, but I would recommend kneading dough to my friends. It’s a sensory and sensual experience. I take my rings off to keep them clean, and I scoop the dough from the bowl, trying to catch all the flour at the bottom. I drop the mass on my counter, careful to keep it within the either oiled or floured area. I think about how taffy is made. It’s pulling taffy, and it’s pushing bread. I sink my hands in and push the dough over and over, the scent of the yeast in the dough, and I think about how I don’t have enough patience for sourdough. I think about things like saturation and hydration–things I’ve learned are important for a good loaf, things that I have chosen to ignore. I drop my lump of dough into a greased pan and slip it into the heat of the oven. Baguettes, when they come out of the oven, start to sing. They pop and crackle as they start to cool and contract, and I like that.

Adam Gopnik says, “Stovetop cooking is, at first approximation, peeling and chopping onions and then crying; baking is mixing yeast and water with flour and then waiting. The difference between being a baker and being a cook is whether you find waiting or crying more objectionable.” I waited, and let time bring levity to my pain. I’ve found a new congregation, one that has older ladies with European accents and babies who stumble around sucking on their own fingers. There are girls my age who don’t terrify me. We get together on Sundays and have tea together. Someone came over and gave me a loaf of bread, just to be nice, and I almost cried after the door shut.If someone asked me what I like to do, I could say a few things that are all for myself. I like reading, doing yoga, writing, and making new food in my crevice of a kitchen. I like watching black and white movies, and being a socialite at work and at church. 

We’ve hit our first anniversary together, and I talk to my husband about the difference between transubstantiation and transelimination. I feel more at home in my body. But the biggest aspect of my life that changed as a result of this obsession is how I feel about God. My feelings started out as ambivalent and, I’ll admit, apathetic. But as I read about bread and its role as the staff of life, a chaotic fear settled into my mind as I realized that God is so distant, and so unlike me. I felt a desperate need to understand God, and a terrifying knowledge that it is impossible.  When I was a child, I imagined God was a giant so large that I could curl up in his hand, like a mouse-sized cat. Now I just imagine a sort of amorphous entity who exists somewhere above my ceiling. A watch-clock god, a fly-on-the-wall god. He hovers above my headboard, He hides behind the chapel rafters. 

Jesus, though. Jesus is the man. He’s the superhero, the best friend. He’s the holiest of holies and also the most accessible. But Jesus told us to pray to the Father and prayer is hard because it doesn’t do any good unless you say it out loud, and it’s really never any real good unless it’s in a group, where you know someone can hear you. Why can’t I just whisper to Jesus, instead of trying to form a telepathic link with the God of the Universe?

I thought about bread being re-formed. A loaf is made to be torn apart, to be split between people. Jesus was the same way. The Catholics believe that one piece of the eucharist is Christ wholly, and so I thought about how many pieces of bread, or wafers or crumbs are set apart as the body of Christ, and what would happen if each person, each member of the body of Christ, brought their pieces together and re-built His body, like building that temple in Babylon. So many people claim to have a splinter of the cross that Jesus was crucified on, that was found by Saint Helen and later divied up as gifts to bishops and cardinals who had pleased the Pope. If those were all brought together too, would the giant Jesus-golem fit on the giant recreated cross? Maybe that sounds more science-fiction than anything else, and maybe it doesn’t make any sense at all, but it does go to show how confused I was about God. I wrote and wrote trying to figure it out.

I had never allowed myself to explore my faith so freely before. I wrote things like: 

Blood. A name. Bread like a stone

Blood has a tang like iron

Bread made from the dust of the earth, like us.

Dust to dust, unholy to holy to unholy

And

Mary was barren, and God said, “Well, I DID already say she was chosen.”

And Mary made bread and the bread saved souls.

And

I don’t talk to the Baker anymore.

It’s not easy to get bread without talking to the Baker, but he’s not what I’m here for.

I’m here for bread

I read that last bit out loud to a few people, testing the weight of the words as potential lines for this vision of a poem, my end goal. My brother and his wife shook their heads and said, “I don’t get it. We love the baker. We want to be close to Him. I don’t think your metaphor works.”

Let me spell it out then: I believe in Jesus much much more than I believe in God. I can at least imagine a face for Christ. I can understand that He lived and can imagine Him as a child or as a teenager. But God is so weird and so perfect. Perfect isn’t a personality trait. And I don’t even know what God likes to eat. But Jesus? He talked about bread.


Bread of Life

1 Mary, human, the dust of life, or pure flour

1 God the Father, deity, living water. If you can’t get living water, regular is fine

1 bitter cup Yeast, or all the sins of the world 

A bit of olive oil, to remind us that God loves gardens

A bit of salt, untrodden

Knead ingredients together, until the whole is leavened. Abuse the dough as you see fit. Bake for 3 days in an oven, or in a cave. Partake by sharing with friends and family. Don’t leave it in the breadbox, or you will have defeated the purpose. This bread is designed to be torn and broken apart. Do not slice.

A Desperate Georgia O’Keeffe by Christy Kato

I have a gynecologist appointment today. I’m scared, strangely. And I’m just now realizing that I’m not scared of my doctor per say, or the sterile smell, or the plethora of expired magazines, or the bubbled-bellies of the women sitting next to me, or the crinkle of the paper under my naked lower half, or the way my youthful blue toenails look next to a graying head, or the way I feel I’m being pulled open and explored like a crime scene often disrupted. But I’m just now realizing that I’m scared of what lives between my legs. We share a heartbeat.

I remember all of my friends getting their periods. I remember girls whispering about how Sarah uses tampons, not pads like the rest of us – of them. I remember girls shuffling off to the bathroom with their little purses wrapped around their bodies, like sashes of womanhood draped across their chests. How desperately I wanted to wear the same, display the same.

It’s almost comedic, how many times I’ve told men I believe I’m infertile. It’s just a feeling, I say – to myself or to them. It’s because I don’t understand what shares a heartbeat with me. And if I can’t understand that, how would I ever understand a child inside of me?

I thought getting my period would make me feel in sync with my body. It might help me understand. Why do my elbows ache when I put my weight on them? Why do my thumbs swell up in the morning? Why do my teeth feel scratchy when I chew on ice? Why did my body tremble when I climbed the rope in gym class? I quake at the thought of anyone else exploring the part of me I share a heartbeat with. You don’t have to do that, I always offer. Maybe it’s more so Please let me understand that part of me before you do; let me explore this uncharted territory on my own.

My aunt and uncle have a big house on the outskirts of the city. Old and beautiful and complete with additions. They’ve owned it my whole life, and yet I still have dreams where I’m exploring dark corners of the house. I never manage to construct a complete correlation between corridors. I think I idolize its enigmatic appeal. But if given the opportunity to pass through each doorway, I’m unsure if I would.

My period has never been normal. “You’re lucky,” I recall my friends telling me. “It’s always once a month for me, and like floodgates.” They wanted the way my body rarely decided to mourn its loss of possibility. And somehow I found myself sobbing in back bathroom stalls because my body refused to evolve. I don’t understand why I still find myself crying, though I’ve achieved this sense of womanhood I so desperately cried out for. Why do I suddenly stumble upon myself sitting in the shower like that? Or why am I standing at the gas pump like that? People can see you, I have to tell myself. And still, I’m crying. I’m happy, there’s nothing for me to be stressed about. And still, I’m crying in the grocery store. Maybe I need to talk to somebody.

“I had my period every other week when I was living in Florida,” I told my gynecologist once while staring at the porous ceiling tiles, looking for a pattern when there was only chaos.  She didn’t have an answer. “No real reason to be concerned,” I recall her saying as she closed my legs like she was done with her afternoon reading.

Perhaps my fear of that part of my body could be attributed to a violation. Or violations. I wonder if there’s a place they’re piling up, like parking tickets on a dusty dashboard. Like a dusty dashboard left abandoned in an otherwise empty lot on the edge of a dense wood. Like a dense wood that holds a needle in the haystack, abandoned and waiting to be sorrowfully discovered. A body once kissed and touched and held and loved, now swinging like drying meat on display.

I keep desperately trying to pay these violations off in whatever ways I can. Three glasses of Hendricks and a desperately generous tip. A desperately warm smile at the stringy girl waiting in my therapist’s office. A collected face and back turned to the funeral, desperate handkerchiefs stashed up my sleeves. The desperate clown. Desperate to understand and possibly distract.

I think I’ve digressed. I’m terrified of the creature that lives between my legs, the thing I share a heartbeat with. The monster and victim all in one. I want to love it, to proudly march down a crowded D.C. street for it. But here I am, telling myself I’m scared of the sterile smell that tugs to attention the hairs on my arms, of the magazines haphazardly stacked waiting for someone to make a move, of the tiny babies struggling to win their little wars in the womb, of the vulnerability of my station on that damn paper, of the practically faceless who’s searching for the details of my personal fortress, of the tool being prepared to pull me apart, of the way I’m being held open and explored like the crime scene I am. All instead of admitting I don’t understand the thing that supposedly defines me. We share a heartbeat.

Christy Kato is a 2018 Acting and Theatre BFA graduate from Towson University. She maintains a “very personal” blog that serves as a cathartic outlet for herself, but was created to encourage others to share their personal stories of struggle and growth. This is her first publication.

Check out her blog below!

https://www.christykato.com/?fbclid=IwAR3JyzPEjJoRY0HLbPYrAUgTUmXRYiAkiXdC-ROE5Tp5jxvFgYuh5aKAy-A

“Send Me Something Sexy” by Shayna Goodman

One morning he asked me to show him “the whole thing,” meaning all of the things I did to get ready in the morning: the makeup and blow-drying, how I stood and perfected a curved wing of eyeliner. This was during the short period of time when we were together. This was during the even shorter period of time when it was good and he left a rose on the toilet tank for me. “Do you ever leave the house without your makeup?” he asked. “Not really,” I said. “Try,” he suggested.

I was 23 when we met. He was 25 but seemed older and wiser than I could ever imagine being. It was hot for the entire duration of our relationship. That’s all it was: one summer. We were wet with sweat when we went to buy milk at the corner. “When I walk with you,” he said, “I notice that men look at me because we’re walking together.” I smiled, but his face told me that he hadn’t intended this as a compliment. “So is that what it’s like to be a girl?” he asked me. “To have everyone look at you so closely—is that why you spend so much time getting ready?”

So I showed him “the whole thing”. I was wet and in a towel when I began. I felt exposed, but that was nice and intimate. He sat on the edge of the bathtub and watched my face while I focused on the mirror. I felt his gaze. A literal “male gaze,” we joked. When I was clean and finished, I asked him what he thought and he looked at me. My hair had been blown out straight and then curled again with a phallus. My lashes were black and I had stained my cheeks pink. “Well, you look like a pretty girl,” he said. “And you looked like a pretty girl before all that too. So what is it for?” It was 10 am on a Saturday. I was hungover. I wasn’t prepared to answer such a philosophical question. Where should I begin?

Maybe it began in my pre-teen years. I was unpopular with boys and also just unpopular in general. I was a romantic; I read every Jane Austen novel and began to speak with an affected British accent. I used the words “fortnight” and “shan’t.” As I sat and read on the school bus, I imagined that I would inevitably blossom into a thoughtful beauty; this period of alienation would only make me more desirable to some future man.

On the weekends, I indulged in screen adaptations of Austen novels, standing an inch away from the television screen and fast-forwarding to the scenes when love was ever so chastely consummated with a proposal and a country stroll. Ever the Anglophile, I read George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. I understood the play as a tragic love story. I wished that Eliza would come back at the end.

My first grooming ritual came about at this time. I would put my hair into a low bun at the back of my head and curl the hair around my face into delicate tendrils a la Jennifer Ehle playing Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. I bought a straw bonnet. No surprise that boys did not care for this look. Nor did the girls. “You look like a Hasidic man with your side locks,” one classmate said. But at that point in my dreamy adolescence, I wasn’t dressing for boys or men. I was dressing in accordance with a fan-girl fantasy. Dressing for men—that came later.

When I told him about this time in my life, he seemed to understand how lonely I had felt. “Pain makes us more interesting,” he lied. Didn’t he know that I wouldn’t have been there, in his reassuring arms, if I hadn’t at some point conformed to a more conventional aesthetic? “Girls who are only pretty are not interesting,” he said.

One afternoon we sat on his living room floor, each of us wearing one of his button-down shirts (“I like you in a big shirt,” he had said), and he read to me from his favorite novel, Herzog:

Herzog came in and sat on the edge of the tub, watching…she (Ramona) did not look at him while making her preparations…she began to apply her cosmetics— the bottles and powders filled the shelves above the toilet. Whatever she did, it was with unhesitating speed and efficiency, headlong, but with the confidence of an expert.

I blushed while he read. I was so absorbed in the romance of him reading to me, I couldn’t focus on the words. But later I read them alone and was disappointed to find that I could not identify with Ramona, who was confident when it came to presentation and seduction. When Ramona washes and dresses in front of the mirror, she stares straight ahead with unhesitating speed. Meanwhile I had paused and looked back at him often. I needed to be admired.

*

We first met while I was in graduate school in Michigan, in the depths of Midwest winter, at a synagogue in downtown Detroit. Urban farmers and social justice activists resurrected a small congregation there. They were white kids from the suburbs of Detroit who moved back to the same city their grandparents fled in the 1960’s. My own grandparents immigrated to Detroit from the Displaced Persons camps in Germany after the war. I was raised in New York but I believed that my family had left some karmic footprint in Detroit. I was sure there was some cosmic reason I had returned. So when I met him I was feeling ripe for romance.

Outside the synagogue, the pavement was covered with shards of ice and glass. Inside, the heating system was broken and we shivered in our coats. Through the windows, I could make out the lights of a strip club across the street. But as I remember it now, the light inside was golden yellow. The color of his shirt was called “orchid smoke,” because, as he later told me, a poet writes the names of the colors for J.Crew.

We didn’t really speak that night but we held hands in a circle when the activists said the blessing over wine. Maybe we said hello but that was all until months later when I saw him again at a barbecue in Ann Arbor. He was standing by the vodka-soaked watermelon, wearing brown corduroy pants, a Garfield the Cat pin whimsically fastened to his tweed blazer. He had curly, wild hair. Another woman pointed to him and said, “Something about him, right?”

He was not my usual type. He was not dressed for Wall Street or a football game. But I blushed when he turned around and smiled. I mean there was something about him. Something soulful maybe? 

*

I was drunk when we went home together. So drunk that I fell in the backyard mud and forgot the name of the street where I lived. Still, I remember it clearly. I pulled my tampon out without him noticing and threw it down the side of my bed. This sex was not the fantasy of love I harbored as an adolescent girl but it was better. It was dark. The light from the street in my bedroom window outlined the shape of his head. I woke up the next morning with my eye makeup smudged and my wet, mud-caked jeans on the floor. “You’re cute in the sun,” he said. After he left, I vomited on the floor, next to the dry tampon.

Some people get deep under your skin. I still remember the thrill of returning to my room the following evening to find my phone, glowing and buzzing like a bird on my nightstand: “Fuck” He wrote, “I am still thinking about you.”

“Why ‘fuck’?” I asked.

He sent me stanzas from a poem by Etheridge Knight: “And I/must admit that the sea in you/ has sung/ to the sea/in me.”  It moved me. No one had ever sent me poetry before.

I was in awe of what I perceived as an adult lifestyle. At his apartment, he made me espresso, which I did not yet drink. “You’ll need it in the real world,” he said. He toasted sourdough bread and sliced cucumbers and cheddar. He handed me the latest issue of the New Yorker and we sat and read and ate like adults. Before this moment, I had thought I was in the real world. “Graduate school is not the real world,” he said as I marveled at the perfect, round, green slices of cucumbers lined up on a cutting board.

He knew that I lived with five other graduate students in their early twenties—all girls. Weekend nights, we played Top 40 garbage on iPod speakers and took shots of something cheap. Someone always cried when we went out. But now I was far away from that childish, philistine life. Alone with him in the morning, he would go searching through his record collection for the perfect song. When he found it, the song felt part of the soundtrack to our own Woody Allen movie, the ones with bookshelves on the Upper West Side and Mia Farrow in muted, sophisticated clothes.

We took a walk to feed his friend’s parrot. He said this friend was a semi-famous novelist named Jonathan something, I forget the last name. “They’re all named Jonathan,” I said and to my endless delight, he laughed. When the parrot had been fed, he asked if I wanted to go see a film about Gerhard Richter. I began to cry. I can’t say why, but it felt intensely intimate to me to experience culture with someone I had slept with. A therapist might say that I felt “validated.” I used to lie awake next to men while they slept, wondering how it was possible for them to be so close yet know so little about me. Nothing but Coors in their fridge and The Great Gatsby on their bookshelf. But when I was with him, I felt like a grown up woman for the first time.

*

One of our early conversations was about Berlin. He told me that he had studied abroad there. I told him about a trip I took to visit my friend and how much I liked drinking cheap beers on the street, and leaving bars with the smell of second-hand smoke encased in my winter coat.

“Yeah, yeah” he said, excited. “Everything is more relaxed there. Even the women.”

“Yeah,” I said, wanting to agree with him even when I didn’t know what he was talking about. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“They’re just more chill,” he said. “They’re not always dressing up.”

“None of them?” I asked.

“My ex didn’t,” He said. I felt this in my stomach. “Oh sorry,” he said, “I didn’t mean to talk about other women.”

We were in different cities one night and I got ready for bed. I took my makeup off with cotton pads and Vaseline and I waited for him to call. The lights were out by the time he did. “You should be sleeping,” he said. He told me he was walking home from a jazz performance, in a good mood and making lots of quick jokes, “I can’t wait to have you in my arms,” he said, “—I mean not literally inside of my arms.”

“Would you send me a picture?” he asked. “Just something small.” I didn’t want to get up but I said, “Ok.” I’m sure it would’ve been fine to say no but I went to the bathroom mirror and examined my face. I looked tired so I sent a shot of my body from just the lower lip down. “Very sexy,” He wrote back, “but can I see your face?”

I’m pretty sure I groaned out loud but another part of me just wanted to please. I took out my makeup bag and applied just enough concealer and blush to look fresh.

“You look beautiful,” He said. When I went to sleep I could not help but feel like we had both lied.

The next night, the issue of suitable photos resurfaced. We were both tipsy, walking home from our respective evenings at bars. “Can I see you?” he asked over the phone. “Can you send me something sexy?” I walked home quickly and went straight to my bedroom where I took off my shirt and posed. I had done this kind of posing before, twisting myself into the shape of a Maxim magazine girl of the month. My lips were just slightly open, my eyes narrowed and vacant. Other men I had dated had loved this kind of replica. They were much simpler men, I thought. But that night I sent the picture and got no response. “Too much?” I texted. He did not reply. “Hey—did you get my picture?” I wrote again. Still nothing. I waited up another hour, drinking water and trying to read but I couldn’t stop turning over my phone, which I had strategically placed face down. At 3 am, I went to bed and all throughout the night I dreamed he had returned my text. At 7, I finally heard the low buzz I had ached for. “Sorry!” he wrote. “I fell asleep.” “No problem!” I wrote back, though my head ached with fatigue.

Weeks later he told me that the picture had made him uncomfortable.  “You’re very sexy,” he said. “But….” he searched for words, “you don’t have to try so hard.” “Try so hard?” I repeated. I was hurt but I felt that he was right. I always thought that he knew better than I did.

“I’m not into that Victoria’s Secret look”, he explained. “You know, that boobs pushed-up artificiality. I just wanted to see you.”  He said he liked the “moles and wrinkles and scars.” Ok, I thought, I’ll just be natural. I’ll be “me.” All I had to do to be “me” was undo all the things I had learned about how to be sexy—arched-back poses and placating sex sounds—and then I would truly be sexy.

*

I first learned what “sexy” meant in the age of Kate Upton and Scarlett Johansson, the age of blonde twins in Super Bowl halftime commercials. I applied a peroxide spray to turn my hair blonder. I bought a lacy bra and underwear with birthday money. And I transformed myself into the kind of conventionally pretty white American woman with round boobs that I thought men wanted—I mean the men who weren’t him.

When I was fifteen, I once sat next to a boy who played on the basketball team and walked with a cocky swagger. “You’ve got potential,” he said, tracing his finger down my arm in English class. To be hotter, I think he meant.

I thought this was what it felt like to fit in. I loved how it felt to have boys look at me and find reason to touch me. I felt powerful.

But the power of beauty is conditional. In dying my hair and wearing a better bra I was not taking down the patriarchy but finding a way to survive it. The male attention set in motion a pervasive, perpetual fear that attractiveness would one day be taken away from me. If I slipped up—if I wore the wrong thing or got the wrong haircut, or if I god forbid gained weight, I would suddenly become ancillary and invisible again. I had been made visible by the grace of society and I wanted to stay visible.

*

The worse things got between us, the more I felt compelled to look perfect. My beauty ritual became more involved and finicky. I redid my eye makeup several times in one morning, looked in the mirror often, and changed outfits. I checked my reflection in store windows, which he hated. I second-guessed every choice I made, which he hated even more. I’d put on a feminine, floral dress and then worry that I looked too fussy and soft. I’d borrow one of his oversized shirts and then return it when I felt shapeless. “Stop changing,” he finally snapped. “You looked fine before.”

I began to pay attention to who texted or emailed him. Looking over his shoulder, I noticed emails from someone named “Pina” in his in-box. They said, “How are you? I don’t hear from you. Are you happy?” I knew that Pina must be the German woman he had dated, because it seemed to me that only a foreigner could pull off that line, “Are you happy?” The gravitas of the question highlighted my flightiness. “Are you happy?”

As it happened, I was the one who was not happy. When we were together, he seemed less affectionate than he had once been. He did not hold me in bed and I woke him and asked him to. I felt ashamed but I couldn’t help myself. “It’s too hot,” he said. “I’m claustrophobic.” Around this time, he stopped calling me to initiate plans, stopped grabbing my hand while we walked down the street. He was there but he wasn’t. I lost my grip on reality.

I longed for him in my whole body, in my stomach. I couldn’t eat. I’d make obsessive-compulsive bets with myself. While washing my hair with a yellow bottle of highlight amplifying shampoo, I’d think, OK, if I get out of the shower and it is 9:05 am, we will end up together. Whatever that meant. I dressed in the clothes I wore at the beginning of our relationship and returned to an earlier scent of deodorant. In this way, I thought I could summon him back.

One afternoon, to distract myself, I went to see a Woody Allen movie alone—something new, Europhilic, and badly reviewed. I watched Ellen Paige play a character who was supposed to exude sexuality without being conventionally hot. The women in Woody Allen’s movies were always accidentally hot—more beautiful for their undone hair and loose fitted linen clothes than if they had tried to be beautiful on purpose. So maybe this is it, I thought. This is what he wanted. Loose linen that somehow still accentuates the roundness of an ass. What if he wasn’t really liberating me from societal norms. What if his preference for a natural look was about him and his gaze and—I was suddenly angry.

I left the theater, it was pouring with rain and he still had not called. “I need to talk to you,” I texted. I walked around the city, soaking wet and thin from a week of eating little more than spoonfuls of peanut butter to keep myself alive. I was too distraught to enjoy my weight loss. Someone once told me that there is something especially beautiful about sad women but in that wet, hysterical moment the idea seemed ridiculous and cruel. “Call me, I am serious,” I texted, invigorated by anger and no longer self-conscious. “Of course,” he wrote back, “let’s talk when I get home.”  Then the anger once again dissipated. Sorrow returned.

We broke up a few days later to nostalgic, yearning piano music on the record player. Some 10 am Rachmaninoff to prove our devotion to meaning and art. I came out of the bathroom in yet another outfit and I saw him lying on the grey couch with his hands over his face like I was actively tormenting him with my floundering insecurity.

He looked at me, dejected. “What do you want to do?” I asked. “You mean today?” he replied. “I mean you hardly call me anymore,” I said, beginning to cry. “You hardly touch me.” The music was unbearable. He held his arms out for me and I came over to the couch. I climbed over him like a child and settled into his fleetingly open arms. “Sorry, Shay,” he said. He cried too, as I later liked to remember.

“When we met,” he said, “I felt so excited.”

“We can end this,” I offered. I thought this brief moment of bravado would make him change his mind or restore my sense of agency. I cried mascara tears and he wiped them away.

*

After our break up, my sanity was decidedly not restored. While out with friends, I would find myself staring into space, recalling the nights we had spent together. I reconstructed the crumbling brick walls of his bedroom. His old grey couch, and the pale blue sheets he never changed. I thought of a night early on when he told me, “I want to fuck you on the floor”; how he pulled me down and kissed my face. He cushioned my head with his hands, and remembering this maudlin detail, and still sitting at the bar, I realized I was wet. And I was crying. This was a pathetic time.

I continued to send him emails, attempting friendship but transparently hoping for more. I checked his Facebook page as I checked the weather and the news. I wanted to know where he went, what music he listened to, and most of all who he met.

Eventually he reached out to tell me that he was moving to Berlin. I asked him if we could speak over the phone one last time, as if one of us was dying. While we spoke I circled the block several times. I spoke about myself cheerfully and manically. I said, “Yeah, yeah things are good. So enough about me! What made you decide to move?!” He told me that he was moving to Berlin to live with a woman.

“I don’t know if I ever mentioned her to you,” he said, “her name is Pina.”

“Of course you did,” I replied with thinly veiled bitterness.

In the pictures I scoured for online, Pina is standing in a spacious Berlin living room: high ceilings, candlesticks and bikes mounted on her walls like pieces of incidental art. The room’s stripped-down beauty is fitting. Pina’s face is round and bare. Her hair looks naturally dried and cropped at the chin. She wears a man’s denim shirt. She isn’t thin. She isn’t beautiful. Not in any traditional sense. I mean she truly looks like she doesn’t give a shit about what you think.

When I told friends about her, I got mean: “She’s plain,” I said. They insisted that I was definitely cuter. But by then I knew that cuter meant nothing. “Cute” was bullshit. I didn’t want to be cute. I wanted to look casual and cool and a touch masculine like Pina. I wanted to look like I didn’t give a shit. But of course I did.

I remembered the little details about Pina that he had strewn throughout our conversations: she had dated women in the past and did something in the art world.

They had once gone to a club in Friedrichshain together, probably somewhere down a wide, wind-blown block where a line of tourists would be turned away for trying too hard. He tried to put his arms around her to dance. “Look around,” she said, annoyed. “Do you see any other men coming up behind women possessively like that?” When he first told me this story, I didn’t understand the lesson. Months later, I got it: the lesson was that she didn’t need him for validation. She didn’t want a man to keep her or change her. That’s why he was with her.

*

I knew that to be the kind of liberated woman he would love, I would have to stop wishing he would come back and love me. I loved him because he had shown me that I could reject society’s expectations for female beauty. But when he was gone, it was his expectations I needed to shake. Like a modern, leftist Henry Higgins, he had tried to groom me to be the un-groomed woman he wanted. But, I realized over time, he had failed. I was still wearing makeup and blow-drying my hair. I re-read Pygmalion and finally understood that it is not a love story; it’s the story of a woman who emancipates herself from a controlling man.

How should I emancipate myself? I wanted to feel good. So I bought my own bottles of wine and sliced my own cucumbers. I bought myself weed and stored it in a mason jar as I had seen him do. I took myself out to indie films and art exhibitions. It was a small revelation that culture existed without him showing it to me. I read poems. In those days I especially loved Marie Howe’s poem about grief: “…there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself / in the window glass, / say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a / cherishing so deep / for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless…” The familiarity of my own reflection began to comfort me.

There was something masculine and entitled about enjoying life alone. I drank whiskey alone as he did. I bought his favorite candle, “Leather Mahogany.” I made espresso. I took all the parts of him I loved and made them mine. Why try to be the woman he would love when I could become him? A man who loved himself.

*

A few years later, we met again in Berlin. At a bar across the street from the apartment he shared with Pina, we drank two rounds of beers. I knew even before I walked into the candle-lit bar that despite whatever internal growth I had experienced, I would still feel something for him.

We sat at a small, round table and he ordered our beers in German. His hands, resting on the table, were still the ones I remembered cradling my head. I was so sick of my own nostalgia.

He talked about Pina, filling in more details I had wondered about: her mother was a young hippie of the post-war generation. That night she was working at an anarchist wine bar where guests paid only what they felt was fair. We talked about work; we talked about what we were reading. I was so disappointed with how mundane the conversation was. “I’m actually thinking of buying more high-end sheets,” he said. We were on our third beers when he finally asked me if I was seeing anyone. And I was, but admitting it felt like a small defeat. “I still compare everyone I date to you,” I blurted out. He blinked. He gently touched my arm.  “We were never right for each other,” he said. “One day I think you’ll see it too.” His touch was something I had desired for so long. But in that moment it felt condescending. How disappointing, I thought. He still thinks he knows something better than I do.

He said he wanted a cigarette so we went to a convenience store and bought a pack. “You keep them,” he said after we had smoked one together. Then he hugged me too politely, and crossed the street to his apartment. I considered keeping the cigarettes as a memento and I did, but only for one more week. There was once a time when I had saved his chewed gum. After he had left I went back into the corner store, bought a beer, and drank it alone in the street.

 

Shayna Goodman‘s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Salon, Lilith Magazine, and Jewish Currents, among other places. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Hunter College, an MA in Judaic Studies, an MSW from the University of Michigan, and a BA from Sarah Lawrence College. Shayna received a fellowship in creative nonfiction from Tent: Creative Writing (2017). She teaches first-year writing at Hunter College. She was raised in Manhattan and currently lives in Brooklyn.

“Lapses” by Matt Lee

“The box is only temporary.”

– SYLVIA PLATH

Dear Laura,

The sun is finally out but it hasn’t made today any warmer.  Not that it matters much inside this house, your oldest sister’s house.  I’m surrounded by stacks of musty books.  They’ve been accumulating like casualties from the war inside my mind.  I’ve arranged them according to their size, a menagerie of soft cover cairns.  I should read them, but instead I’m sitting here trying to sound like someone else. Henry James is sandwiched arbitrarily but comfortably between Herman Melville and Yasunari Kawabata.  What is it that ties us together? James despairing at his failure as a playwright, Melville penniless and writing poems about the Holy Land, Kawabata committing suicide with his Nobel Prize, myself filling up another stack of index cards that I’ll never sort.  James wanted his letters posthumously burned but never got his wish.  The New York Times printed an egregious obituary for one Henry Melville.  Kawabata was haunted by reoccurring nightmares featuring his dead friend Yukio Mishima.  Lately I haven’t been dreaming at all.

I started making these collages; kitschy photographs and illustrations poached from the yellowed copies of Life that inhabit the attic.  I’ve taken to tearing out faces mostly.  In my latest piece, there’s a series of decapitated choirgirls, mouths agape in song (or perhaps silent screams).  Any one of them could’ve been you.  Any song could’ve been your favorite.

Your sisters, in their youth, adored James Taylor, longhaired and scowling past his acoustic guitar.  At his concerts, they would sip hidden gin from cavernous Big Gulp cups, dancing to all the hits.

“No one can tell me that I’m doing wrong today, whenever I see you smile at me.”

I’ll never see your smile, but I did see your grave marker. Your mother took me there, along with my sister.  She didn’t tell us where we were going when she loaded us into the old Honda and pulled onto the highway, delivering her grandchildren to a sprawling cemetery on the outskirts of DC, wordlessly marching us to the small stone tablet that rested flush with the neatly manicured ground.

Sometimes I think James Taylor is a pussy, until I remember his nasty dope habit.  The song “Rainy Day Man” recounts his early experiences with the drug. Coincidentally, Mark David Chapman accosted Taylor a mere 24 hours before he shot John Lennon.  Taylor was Lennon’s neighbor and heard the five shots from the .38 Special on the following night.  You would have been twenty-three-years-old.  I wouldn’t be born for another decade.

Why is it so hard to tell if any of this is really even happening?  The lapses are becoming more frequent.  I’m having trouble keeping track of where I’m at. My days twist and turn, like a Rubik’s Cube in the clumsy hands of a fool, unsolved for eternity.  Leaning on my desk, I close my eyes, but when I open them I’m suddenly sitting on the cold blue vinyl padding of an examine room table. A woman in Army fatigues asks me if I’ve been working outside.

“Digging wells in Laos,” I tell her.

She probes along my back and finds the infected mosquito bite nestled at the base of my spine like she’s supposed to.  The tech who applied my make-up earlier told me that I needed to gain some weight.  In the billowing white hospital gown, I did somewhat resemble a ghost, or maybe a walking corpse.  The Army nurse asks why I seem so distracted.  I blink.  I’m on a stage, looking out at the stoic audience, and I’m weeping as the lights go down.  I rub my eyes.  I’m standing in front of The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, staring at the tiger shark floating listlessly inside its formaldehyde home.  She’s by my side, totally absorbed by the nearly 17-foot long steel-framed glass tank.

“A British critic once called this a ‘cultural obscenity,’” I say to her.

She laughs, that intoxicating syrupy hiccup of hers.

“Fuck him,” she exclaims, skipping around the exhibit like it’s a Maypole, weaving in and out of the Japanese tourists.

After I take her picture by the yawning jaws, she asks me, “Did you know the shark is a female?”

I consider this a moment before asking her, “How can you tell?”

Why couldn’t I remember your name?  I texted your oldest sister to ask under the pretense that I was “just curious.” I didn’t mention to her anything about what I’ve been writing.

“Laura,” she sent back, white letters floating inside a little green balloon.

She’s a brilliant artist, your oldest sister. While I was busy huffing smoke out of a crumpled aluminum can and scribbling poems to no one, she was turning rooms into waterfalls with the swift stroke of a paintbrush.  Even all these years later, with my career as a petty delinquent well behind us, she earns her living in a gallery and I cop the occasional paycheck hustling words.  They say I take after her and I’m akin to agree, except I can’t draw to save my life. Neither could those black and white 1950’s doctors save yours.  Did you know that both your sisters caught it too?  Amazing how far medicine can advance in only a few years.  Amazing how I still haven’t found any that works for me. Maybe this letter is the cure I’ve been searching for.  Maybe it’s only a symptom of the disease.

Matt Lee is an actor, teacher, and writer from Maryland. His writing has appeared at Sleaze Mag, Tragickal, SOFT CARTEL, Philosophical Idiot, and fluland. He has also written and produced numerous original works for the stage. Visit mattleewrites.com for more info.