2020 Essays

Kat Moore


Taylor’s cute and kind. He’s seventeen, I’m sixteen. He’s the valedictorian, I’m the weird girl with the dead brother, dead from AIDS, back when so many gay men were dying. One night, we sneak out and meet each other at a park. We walk through the tall grass next to a golf course. A policeman pulls into the nearby parking lot, and shines his lights across the field. We collapse into the weeds, among the tiny bugs that have been nipping our ankles. We flatten ourselves, our backs in the earth, as the bright white light sweeps over us, barely missing our bodies. The cop eventually drives off. Probably doesn’t want to bother with two kids or the overgrown grass. When we raise up, my hair has dirt in it, tangled flecks of green, and I worry about how I look. How Taylor sees me. The day before, he said that he preferred girls who didn’t wear make-up, and so, on this night, my face is clear, no eyeshadow, no lipstick, no coverup, nothing at all. In the night, under the distant streetlamps, I wonder if he notices. If he thinks I look pretty, if he understands this transformation is for him.


Metamorphosis is the action or process of a person (the meta, the self) changing forms, usually by supernatural means. No wonder men think they are little gods.


Perhaps, I’m Daphne, daughter of a river god, friend to animals, adoring of the leaves on the trees, and the babbling water of creeks, chaste, like the goddess Diana. It is my body after all. But then there’s Apollo, thick muscles, all brawn and brute, and his gaze lands on me. I feel it, the weight in his look, the intention, the violence, and I run. My legs pump, my calves ache, Apollo, so close to seizing me, his fingers close to grabbing my flesh, and I open my mouth and cry out to my father, the river god, and plead that he change my body, transform me into something other than girl. I stiffen into a tree.


My senior year in high school, unpopular, Taylor, the cute boy, now off at college in another town, and it’s common knowledge around my school that my father is a drunk. The jock boys and my history teacher constantly pick on me, call me names, point at me in the hallway, whisper slurs about my brother who died. I fall in love with the riot grrrl movement. In an edgy teen magazine, I read about the riot grrrl band Bikini Kill. The pic is of them on a beach, but they aren’t sun-kissed with blonde hair and perfect bodies. One of the grrrls, Kathleen, has jet black hair with bright red fringe bangs. Tobi has a short red punky bob. Kathi’s blonde but pale and wears her hair short. Kathleen, in a bra and black skirt, tattoos on her arm and stomach, leans against Tobi. I buy all their records from a local shop, and listen to each and every song, and read each and every word in the liner notes. I learn about riot grrrl.

On a fall night, mere months after discovering them, Bikini Kill performs at small punk dive bar in my town. I dance around and sing along. Kathleen, the lead singer, wears a short dress with an image of a beefcake man on it. She’s notorious for her clothing. Sometimes she performs in a sequined top and black panties, and when her midriff shows, the word “slut” appears on her belly in black magic marker. Sometimes she wears her hair in pigtails like a little girl and howls their song, “Suck My Left One.” Their music makes me feel visible, makes me feel heard. Kathleen distorts what it means to be a girl. She has become something other than girl, other than the social construction of what a girl is. A rebellion of semiotics, she alters the symbol, and controls the signification. I stop shaving my legs and armpits, though, I start to wear make up again, black eyeliner, and bright red lipstick. At the same time, I cut off my long brown hair with a pair of dull scissors which mangle any consistent length, and I dye it black as coal. A dissonance between girl and me—a becoming—now, grrrl.


Older, in a college level lit class studying Metamorphosis, I realize that most women are changed into animal or tree in order to either escape violence from a man, or as a punishment for being the victim of violence from a man. I google the word morph and my browser suddenly takes me to which features a colorful palate of eyeshadows on its home page. How appropriate, another way that women morph. Remember the you tube make-up tutorial, the one showing women how to shade their cheekbones, and the woman cackles, “wait until they find out we can shape-shift” but they, this masculine they, a patriarchal they, have always known. I mean, women have always burned for being witches.


At twenty-eight, I pile into Becca’s old Toyota, the small boxy kind from the eighties, the kind that doesn’t dent so easily, or fold in like plastic. Becca’s newly sober, like me. Both of us loud. Both of us lost with longing, unable to yet know what sobriety will transform us into. Both of us so delighted to not be in the twenty-seven club with Jimi, Janis, and Kurt. We are on our way to stalk, something Becca has talked me into. We think one of our friends, Kim, the nurse, the one who loves to dance and stick her tongue out, has snuck off with the guy I’m dating. We drive past Kim’s house first, and it’s dark on top of the little hill where her house, the one she’s renting in an attempt to offer her daughter some stability, quietly sits surrounded by freshly mowed grass. Kim hated mowing the yard, the way it slanted, and she always cursed over and over as she pulled the mower along the incline. Her house is dark and lonely up on that hill in the glow of Becca’s headlights.

Becca and I head to Rod’s apartments. We smoke cigarettes and blast music like we’re teenagers, and not women. We circle the parking lot of his apartments, and don’t see Kim’s car. I feel relieved, and silly, and a little embarrassed. Becca and I laugh at ourselves, and then let the guilt of doubting a friend sink into us. Becca turns onto a side street, and suddenly I see Kim’s black car, the one with the yellow paint on the bumper from where she backed into a pole.

“Stop!” I yell. Becca hits the brakes and stops parallel to Kim’s car. A fire surges through me. I don’t even care about hot Rod. I can’t believe Kim would do this to me. I want to find a brick and smash Kim’s windshield. I want to kick her car doors until they dent. I want to key “traitor” into the paint. I want to unleash curses on her. Sadly, I still want Rod to want me.

Becca asks, “What do you want to do?”

“Go,” I yell, and Becca’s tires screech as we pull out of there.


Or could I be Circe, born ugly in a family of beauty, but with a knack for magic spells, and I use my power against Kim as Scylla, causing dogs to bark where her legs once opened. All because of jealousy over a man. The gods banish me to an island, my own paradise over-run with animals, seafaring men who I transform into beasts, into lower creatures. On my island, I hold the top position of the hierarchy. I was forced out of society, yet, men still find their way to me, and one, Odysseus, tames me to his desires. My might no match for him. My sting gone.


When I’m twenty-two, a man rapes me. I transform into even more of a drug addict. I dive deeper into addiction, and pulsate with a need to obliterate. I don’t want to be more of an addict, I want to be gone. I feel gone. No longer grrrl, not woman, an absence where there was once meaning. The ultimate abjection of the self from the body. I steal my mother’s credit cards, and I rock shut, like Sylvia, until someone has to pick the bugs off me, so close to death, like all women who can’t be who they are and have to change. Is this our only means of survival? Like a caterpillar to a butterfly but more violent, a gross leaky woman into a junky with bruises on her arm.


Now, I’m Medusa, the one the goddess Athena turns into a monster with snakes for hair. My hair hisses and writhes, and my face turns men into stone. A woman turned monster as punishment for being raped. Yet, instead of a snake biting me, or tricking me to eat an apple, I am now the snake. Now, men can’t look at me. If they do, they will turn into stone. What wonderful powers! What if Apollo had been turned to stone? What if the man who raped me had stiffened in this way, limbs turned to rock, unable to move, when he first saw me? But if men can’t look, if men can’t control you, then you become monster.


When I’m twenty-five years old, I check myself into a long term rehab facility. When I arrive, I look sick, yellow skin, and dull eyes. After a month, my skin tone blooms back, my eyes bright and alive, healthy. My mother brings me new clothes to wear. Tops and jeans that fit me and aren’t falling apart like the clothes I had brought with me. The rehab is coed. The men on one side, the women on the other. We all share common spaces, but aren’t allowed to speak to the opposite sex. I’m young, thin but curvy, and the men stare at me in the dining room, in the day room when I play ping pong with another woman, and during group time.

One day, the director, Ms. Nola, takes the women for a walk around the neighborhood. She’s an older woman, and has been sober for twenty years. Her voice reminds me of my grandmother’s. We walk on the sidewalk, past the run down bungalow houses with shutters that hang lopsided around windows, porches held together by splintered wood. Ms. Nola tells us young women, “You know the men will look.” And I look at the leaves on the trees whose branches we pass under. “They will look, and it is your job to keep them from looking.” I only half pay attention to what she says. I am more enchanted by the way the wind rattles through the trees. One of the trees has white buds blooming, and I wonder if I’m really done with drugs, done with the life I had been living, done with being the addict I had become. Ms. Nola suddenly grabs my hand, and says, “Your momma has to bring you some oversized t-shirts, until then, you can’t be in the common areas with those men.”


I sit on the floor of Becca’s living room. We sit on the dull blue throw rug, an ashtray for cigarettes in between us. Becca flips tarot cards to tell me my future. “Oh, Miss Kitty,” she says, using the nickname my mother called me, and intentionally adding the Miss as an allusion to the prostitute on Gunsmoke. We love fallen women.

“I see hope,” she says as she points to the Empress card, “This is you.”

We stay on the floor. Read more cards until we get the answers we want. The ones that make us happy. Make us forget we are both newly sober. Barely hanging on. Her card, the Queen of Cups, the blonde ruler, full of intense emotions. Loud. Outspoken. A Katharina, still a shrew, still at the beginning of the play. That night, we both have futures.


Katharina exclaims, “If I be waspish, best beware my sting.”

Married to the man who responds, “My remedy be to pluck it out.”

Katharina goes from a woman with a fierce spirit to a woman beneath her husband’s heel. Her final speech at the end of Taming of the Shrew places me on the edge of tears, a knot in my stomach, as Katharina renounces her former strength, and calls for all women to stay in their lower places because their minds are as weak and soft as their bodies. Total obedience and submission to her husband, “thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,/ thy head, thy sovereign…” But why does a play, a fiction, one often labeled as comedy, cause me to cry? Because the beliefs contained inside Kate’s speech are still present today, still firmly planted in the mainstream. Because my name is Katherine and I’m always being told to simmer down. When I was little, I heard of Kate the shrew, and I couldn’t wait to read the play, to see this fierce young woman raise a ruckus. Then I read the play. Katharina is abused. How comedic. How funny. We all know the common joke:

What do you tell a woman with two black eyes?

Nothing. She’s already been told twice.


Years later, just before Thanksgiving in 2018, Becca’s husband shoots her, and then shoots himself. They both die. No one knows what happened. But many speculate. Almost everyone believes that Becca ran her mouth, snapped at her husband, possibly hit him in the head. A woman, a mutual friend says, “You know how Becca could be.”


Perhaps, Becca is Eurydice dancing with nymphs. Imagine them all beautiful among the flowers, the sun in their hair, arms reaching out and up to the sky, not a care in the world, that feeling of freedom as wind blows through them, the pollen kicks up dust like swirls of confetti. In another version, a man sees her beauty and chases her, a woman running through fields, fleeing from a man, her feet tapping earth as she runs. In both, a snake bites her, and she dies. Her husband Orpheus descends into hell for her, and woos Hades with his lyre playing. Hades allows Eurydice to follow her husband out of the underworld. Hades warns that Orpheus mustn’t look at her. Almost out of the underworld, the light from the world filtering in up ahead, unable to hear her footsteps, Orpheus worries she is no longer behind him. He turns to look at her, and as his eyes see her, she disappears. Did Hades suck her back in as mere punishment for not following his directions? Or did Hades know that while Eurydice was still a shade, not a fully corporeal form, she wouldn’t be able to withstand his gaze? Perhaps the point is that the male gaze causes women to cease to exist.

Becca is no longer here because of her husband.


Or maybe Becca is Medea, full flight in a chariot, the sun god chasing her across the sky.


I’m five years old, and I run with a whole pack of kindergarten girls, Medusa, Eurydice, Katharina, Circe, Becca, Kim, girls with ponytails and pigtails, and Velcro tennis shoes, rays of sun hit our faces, small beads of sweat form on our temples, and all of us girls, little goddesses, panting in pursuit of a fifth grade boy. The boys do it to us. The kindergarten boys. They chase me almost daily, and when I cry, I’m told that the boys just like me. So none of us girls understand what’s wrong with our lungs pumping, legs running, little arms reaching out to the older boy.

We’re scolded. We sit in punishment atop the hot asphalt, the heat stings through my jeans. Circe complains, tells them that they will all be sorry. Medusa and Kim hiss at the teachers. Becca and Eurydice ignore everyone and braid each other’s hair. Katharina kicks one of the boys in the shin. Teachers, red-faced, shout, point, and condemn us girls as un-ladylike.

The next day, Timmy chases me, reaches out his leg and trips me, and as I fall, I see the clouds in the sky, hear the babble of the creek behind the playground, almost touch the edges of the stiff tree so close to where I land. No one comes to yell at Timmy, no one comes to tell him not to chase me, not to trip me, not to make me fall face first in dirt and split my lip. After all, boys will be boys.

Kat Moore has essays in Brevity, Passages North, Diagram, The Rumpus, Entropy, Hippocampus, Whiskey Island, Salt Hill, New South, Split Lip, and others, as well as forthcoming in Image Journal, and Hotel Amerika. Her fiction can be found in Cheap Pop Lit, Hobart, and Craft, An essay of hers appears in the anthology Bodies of Truth: Personal Narratives on Illness, Disability, and Medicine.


Zackary Medlin


alone like a cabin gutted by fire
until naught but black bones
stand scorched. Ribs of a roof
that used to shelter shed soot
like the antithesis of snow
when the wind blows through.
The kudzu that consumes so much
of the state wraps itself around
the rafters, crawls through
the empty sockets left in the wake
of windows broken by the kids
that explore sites like this as
a sort of rite. But this is not
a haunted place; rather, what’s left
after the ghosts go home. Imagine it
in an auburn hour in late autumn,
when the groundcover crackles
with each step through a litter
of rusted leaves and the air’s gone
dry as a husk. It’s a form of grief,
to stay upright in a state like this.
The want is for those invasive vines
to strangle you back into the earth,
to become corpse covered, in time,
by a small copse of black tupelo
surrounded by red oak. The want is
for all the leaves that died bright
but brittle in their burning to be
rattled loose by the fall winds.

Zackary Medlin is the winner of the Nancy D. Hargrove Editor’s Choice Prize, the Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry, and a recipient of an AWP Intro Journals Award. He holds an MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and is currently a doctoral student at the University of Utah. His recent work can be found in The Cincinnati Review, Jabberwock Review, Cutbank, and Colorado Review.

2020 Poetry

Kevin Madrigal


after Terrance Hayes

I come from a long line of code-switching enunciations
Gualmar, Cosco, Estánfor, & Piksa Hoot all in my neighborhood
& matter of fact everyone I know works there. I was once asked
to report anything “suspicious” as I drove by a kids toy motorcycle
straddling highway dividers that made me question illicit definitions.
I’m from “hijos de su chingada madre” straight out the
hocico of mi chingada madre. Phrases as sacred, aftermath not
calculated till A+’s in algebra & English teacher scolded parents
nuisance & unfocused & illiterate & diction deficient
“hijo qué dijo tu maestra” y “nada, no te preocupes” translating signs
from English to Spanish soon as I learned to breathe. CA my home
they say it’s empathy’s fault that causes these quakes. I took cover
when the 4.3 hit, sister shouting to stop shaking her bed. My ancestors
whispered in my ear to unfinish degrees advised otherwise, true to
blood that circulates through these frijolero veins. I’ve been asked:
What the 5 fingers say to the face? What the fajo say to the nalgas?
What the chubby boy say to esteem? Self-doubt express the only way
I know home. I’m from a technicality, youngest in my family
miscarried unmet sister would have beared a beautiful
first communion dress, instead it was me. My search history reeks
of fermented agave & missing employee names + obituary. South City
& Zapopan raised me. Dutch crunch sandwiches & tortas ahogadas
would test positive in my curly hair, if my culture was considered
a drug; a threat. Which it is. I come blessed like the
15 Virgen de Guadalupes found in my home. They say I never stay
put & yet laid me in a crib. When the morning came I was out
the door crawling, walking, running
& I haven’t stopped since.

Kevin Madrigal is a decolonizer of food, art, and health. He is a Chicano first-generation child of inmigrantes Mexicanos from Sur San Francisco. In 2016, he founded Farming Hope in San Francisco to provide employment opportunities in food for folks experiencing homelessness. Through his writing he hopes to honor his ancestors and work towards a better future within his community. He is working on a collection of poems about anxiety and promoting positive mental behaviors through acknowledging, identifying, and countering disruptive thoughts. In his free time, you can find him listening to hip-hop / rap and on the dance floor with friends.

2020 Poetry

Alexa Doran


Maybe we only get to be a mother once
and the rest is repetition I keep thinking
I’ll get another chance at the garden
to glow slick with some stamen to honey
and honey this womb Have you seen the
conifer twirled in winter this is the gentle
with which I would shimmer if I could
double and brew but puff puff pass out
is hardly a bedtime story even if the dragon
is delicate not gory even if the sirens
shed their sex dredged sweat and invite
you to tarry who is to say I deserve two
I never thought of semen as another kind
of dreaming but lately it has the same
oracle bright shade crystal balls emanate
and if I could just gather in its gloss
muck my ovaries and toss in its wake then
what then I could fan out: so many blades

Alexa Doran is the author of the chapbook Nightsink, Faucet Me a Lullaby (Bottlecap Press 2019), and is currently a PhD candidate at Florida State University. Her series of poems about the women of Dada, “The Octopus Breath on Her Neck,” was recently released as part of Oxidant/Engine’s BoxSet Series Vol 2. You can also look for work from Doran in recent or upcoming issues of Passages North, Salamander, Pithead Chapel and Harvard Review, among others.

2020 Poetry

Dujie Tahat


Sorry I made you cry. I was crying, too, at
your door in your crying father’s arms. I
didn’t know you’d be there. I was yelling
when I hung up on pops last. A weaker conn-
ection. A crack in a golden Beamer’s wind-
shield. A hairline. Then all at once black &
yellow static slid into the astonished gap
between his lips. Not a word since. What else
have I been silent about? To whom? I have to
say: I love you. It’s almost impossible to be-
lieve. My son is your age; my youngest, your
sister’s. In my bed they still sleep, so some
nights when I rise, it’s from your dreams.

Dujie Tahat is a Filipino-Jordanian immigrant living in Washington state. He is the author of Here I Am O My God, selected by Fady Joudah for a Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship, and SALAT, selected by Cornelius Eady as winner of the Tupelo Press Sunken Garden Chapbook Award. Their poems have been published or are forthcoming in POETRY, Sugar House Review, ZYZZVA, Southern Indiana Review, and elsewhere. Dujie has earned fellowships from Hugo House, Jack Straw Writing Program, and the Poetry Foundation, as well as a work-study scholarship from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. They cohost The Poet Salon podcast.

2020 Poetry

Caroline Chavatel


When we cannot sleep
it is as if the sky chokes
the room. Outside shifts.

The only place soft enough
to palm is a bombless field.

In the after, no after, no—

On the radio, static. Outside,
a photographer learning

what her hands might make.
Night tears itself like a cloud.

Outside shifts.

Daybreak: soft, forgettable,
the only hiding spot they’ll

never find, a room for
undress. Tragic, really:
the rehearsed pageant of day

in the city street, the hands,
what they forage. I get lost
in the squall. A bombless

field. The photographer
learning to form, to function:
the lie of a photograph

heavy in what it holds outside
its frame. When we cannot

sleep it is as if our

nightmouths shut, refusing
to open until light.


In this it resembles the old money:
America, some expired red
bank card, empty in its gold hoard.
I never signed the back. All the new
thinking is about money and how
to reach it and I read a study called
about successful artists who come
from wealth. To come from wealth:
like we are hatched from the dollar’s
crisp breast as children of this dark
machine. This argument is elegy
to what it signifies. I fight
with my friends over beers about
stipends and waivers so we can
survive in graduate school, in the
heat of professional development
and expert exploitation. We want
to be rich because plane rides
cost money. We are love animals
and distance is the unit that feeds us.
We talk like we know what’s coming
next, we recite blackberry blackberry—
On a Sunday in New Mexico,
I retrieve some old money
from a drawer to do laundry.
It is hot and dry. While I wait
for vacancy, I talk to J
on the phone about ethical
consumption and its impossibility
in this delirious state of buy.
We get naked like it’s our job.
I say to the street-side lamp, expose
me, like I would to a lover.
The washer is in use, cycles.
I keep an eye on my clothes
because my new neighbors have
a tendency to browse like magpies.
I tell J all relationships are
about loss and in this they resemble
the departing flight, the long goodbye.
It is always about loss prevention
while the machine hums like
a woodpecker in its rhythms.

Caroline Chavatel is the author of White Noises (GreenTower Press, 2019), which won The Laurel Review’s 2018 Midwest Chapbook Contest. Her work has appeared in Sixth Finch, AGNI, Poetry Northwest, Gulf Coast, Poetry Northwest, Prairie Schooner, and The Journal, among others. She is editor and co-founder of both Madhouse Press and The Shore and is currently a PhD student at Georgia State University.

2020 Fiction

Anne Carney


Sometimes Joan thinks she sees her daughter Shannon–just a flash of her as the light shifts through the sheer curtains. Sometimes the feeling almost seems to solidify beside her on the couch or behind her elbow, as she butters toast in the kitchen–just waiting to snatch one of the pieces from Joan’s plate. “Get your own!” Joan had snapped last week, and when she realized she was talking to the shadows from the clouds drifting over the skylight, she felt it all over again. It was a little like banging a toe into a sharp corner. She can’t get into the habit of being alone. Her body isn’t attuned to it yet.

Joan writes the addresses of promising sales in a neat column. Because she is left-handed, she crabs her fingers around her sentences, as if protecting her words. Sheltering them. She rinses her coffee mug and leaves it in the sink. Laces up Shannon’s Converse All Stars. They are white, and covered with lettering in blue inkpen. Also, there is a phone number scrawled across the tongue. “Buy tampons!” is written on the rubber strip by the toe. Joan wonders if Shannon really needed the tampons, or if it was a line of subversive feminist poetry.

She takes an empty storage tote from the stack in the garage, and puts it into the back of the minivan. One tote-full of Barbie dolls, packed well. Then her weekend mission will be complete. Barbies in any condition are fine. Any iteration of Barbie in any state of dress or undress. Bald or braided or stippled with the tiny pockmarks of cat teeth–it doesn’t matter. Sometimes, it takes her a day. Sometimes, all weekend and into the next week, making it necessary to scour eBay and place ads on the internet. Joan likes to get clever with the ads. “Desperately seeking Barbie . . .”

Barbie should be stacked like wood–face pressed against tiny pointed feet. Layer one–bosoms up. Layer two–bosoms down. And so on. It’s slow going. Spring cleaning is over. Summer vacation cash grab, over. Now, it’s people with pill habits. They’ve already picked the attics and basements clean of anything worthwhile. Then, the tool sheds and garages. Now, they’re desperate: Frayed sweaters, mismatched dishes, formula-stained baby clothes, Christian devotionals with handwritten supplications and dogged underlinings. By four o’clock, Joan has only two full rows, and barely more than half of the third.

She’s tired. A sad day without the gleeful texts from Shannon with pictures of her newly captured plunder. A sad day, with the cagey eyes of old women following her movements as she picks up vases and melamine bowls, and sets them back down. “I’m looking for Barbie,” she phrases her statement as a question, to which all but a few shake their heads. “No. No Barbie.” They’d had boys, or their girls had grown up years ago, or they didn’t believe in Barbie, as one woman told her. Didn’t believe in Barbie?

Back at home, Joan pulls the staircase down to Shannon’s workroom over the garage. It’s getting colder out. This is the time of year when the electric goes way up because of the space heater Shannon lavishly employs. Employed. The quick, sharp realization stabs at Joan, but she moves through it. Breathes through it. She hasn’t been up here since before. Her studio, she’d called it.

Joan sets the tote of Barbies at the top of the stairs and turns the worklight on. The old dining room table is pushed against the wall. There are apothecary jars full of barbie parts for easy access. One has hands. One has heads. Another is filled with tiny plastic high-heeled shoes. So delicate, Barbie’s forced arch. Joan dips her fingers into the jar of hands. They move around choppily, stabbing into her skin. “Deceptively strong,” Joan says to herself. She feels like Shannon is watching her. Approving of her comment.

She walks around the space in a slow circle. Shannon had been an art teacher at a small private school. She had an MFA from an expensive college. Her father had refused to pay for it, but she’d been able to get some sort of funding. Joan didn’t understand it. For her final project, she’d made a large, puffy chaise lounge in the shape of a vagina. She’d said it was her “shesis.” This same chaise lounge was set under the dormers and backlit by pink fairy lights. Joan switches them on. The chaise beckons to her.

She toes off Shannon’s Converse and sits on the chaise. She jumps a little as the soft flaps form themselves around her like a warm hug. There’s some kind of gel-like foam in it. It conforms to Joan. She settles her head back, but jerks it away as she realizes that the pillow is a plump, pink clitoris. Laughing, she snuggles down deep. The lights sparkle around her.

When she wakes, full dark has fallen. Joan thrashes about to escape the vagina and sets her feet against the cold floorboards. Rubbing her face, she slips the shoes back on. She delays the trip downstairs to eat her solitary supper. Walking around the room, she tries to see Shannon’s projects with a new perspective. Art. She had avoided calling it art before. It seemed like an insult to the paintings in museums–lifeless and static–placed against white walls, needing the silent breath and echoing footsteps of false reverence. Shannon’s art is quite different.

Joan is surprised at the religiosity of the pieces. Each one, made entirely from Barbie dolls. Joan sees a large crucifix, maybe six feet tall, made of tiny Barbie hands, as if supporting the tortured form of Christ. He is affixed to the apparatus with Barbie’s earrings, bright drops of nail polish blood spiral down his tortured form. His arms are made from Barbie arms, corded muscles are suggested by the mass of glued appendages. Some darker. Some lighter. Joan reaches out to touch him. His legs are made of legs. His feet are made of feet, overlapping like fish scales. He’s a stocky Jesus, not serpentine or elongated. He looks more peasantlike, this thick Jesus. He has a low center of gravity. His face, a distorted cubist sculpture. The smooth, plastic Barbie flesh is removed of its overt sexualization, and become something else. Joan doesn’t understand.

There is something blue in the corner. Joan snorts a little because she knows what it is. Last Christmas, someone had stolen the Mary figure from the light-up nativity set at the Nazarene church. Mary is big. Four and a half feet tall. Joan wonders how she missed her. There had been quite a scandal, and Joan can’t believe that she’s even surprised that it was Shannon who had taken her. Who else? Kids, the police had speculated, in the pages of the small weekly newspaper. Joan sighs. “I should have known,” she says softly. She thinks for a second that she can hear Shannon laughing.

Now Joan must go downstairs and illuminate the darkened, empty house. She has a freezer-full of casseroles from the funeral, but she is tired of starchy, heavy food. There is a broccoli salad in the fridge that she made this morning. She wants to watch the news while she eats it. The voices make her feel less alone.

Dragging Mary out of the corner, Joan notices a stack of her best Tupperware stacked under the eaves. She’d asked Shannon if she knew what had happened to that Tupperware, and Shannon had looked her right, straight in her face and told her she didn’t know. Everything with Shannon had to be a fight. She’d taken up so much energy, not caring that Joan worried relentlessly about her.

When Murphy came to the door that night, what was it? Two months ago? Already? He’d taken off his police hat, and was holding it in his large hands. She’d known it was Shannon.

“What is it, Murph,” she’d asked him.

He did not answer immediately, and she did not invite him inside although he was her friend and had been there many times. Instead of pressing him–instead of letting the urgency within her swarm around the both of them–she leaned against the doorframe and cherished that small sweet space between knowing and not knowing.

Meghan had promised Joan that she wasn’t going out to work on her guerrilla art installments, as she called them. She said she was only going out with friends that evening, but she’d fallen off the old stone railway bridge just south of town where she’d been suspending a creation made entirely of Barbie heads. They’d been attached to lengths of fishing line, an undulation of Barbie heads meant to sway in the wake of cars driving through the tunnel.

The installation had been successfully affixed to one end of the tunnel and fed through to be attached at the other end. Twelve feet by four. Joan had done the math. There were twelve hundred Barbie heads in the installation, their hair braided together in a tattered net. Shannon’s head had broken against the road when she fell, the blacktop perhaps still releasing exhausted waves of late August heat. All but one corner of the Barbie net was attached. A pertly macabre carpet of upturned Barbie faces witnessing the death of her only child.

Shannon would see it as romantic, dying for her art. Dying, perhaps, in a silly way. Yes, Shannon would have put her hands on her knees and dissolved into peals of giggles. She looked like an elf–lithe and little, her features often contorted with the dime-flash contrast of mirth and anger.

Joan goes downstairs, dragging Mary with her, the plastic from thunking emptily on each step. The Nazarenes had been so righteously outraged over the theft, but there wasn’t much to her anyway. A plastic, light-up Mary? Cheap and tacky. Joan’s fingers follow the placid, plastic contours of Mary’s face. She wishes Shannon had stolen a more substantial product, like maybe from the Catholics. They had a lovely nativity, hand-carved and painted in Italy.

Joan puts Mary in the corner of her bedroom, then she gets the broccoli salad from the fridge. The directions say to leave it overnight, to allow the bacon and onion flavors to meld together, but Joan will eat it now. She turns the news on. Someone has set fire to the odd concrete house on the outskirts of town. A giant fantastical concrete orb, constructed in the 70s and meant to withstand any number of natural disasters, yet it had succumbed to fire. The rubbish inside had collapsed and had likely fueled the fire until it fissured the concrete, causing it to crumble.

Nobody had ever lived in the house. It had sat there for generations; bait for horny teenagers and You-Tubers until one group or the other had likely tossed a still glowing cigarette into the sphere. There is footage before the collapse, flames leaping out of the windows. It was a gorgeous image. Shannon would have been delighted.

The orb had stood by the side of the highway for most of Joan’s life. She remembers when it was clean and new, and people expected that it would one day be finished. By the time Shannon was born, hopes of its completion had been long since given up. The owners had tried and failed to sell it many times. The windows had been broken, the doors smashed. Brush grew up around it, prickled and scraggly. Now Shannon is gone, and so is that damn house. It seems wrong to Joan, maybe because each–in their own unlikely way–should have been indestructible.

Joan turns off the television. She doesn’t mind as much, watching the current events that take place elsewhere. She feels insulated, if not by privilege, at least by geographic removal. But this, this house. This landmark. She can’t. So she takes the broccoli salad and goes back up to Shannon’s studio. She sits at the work table and forks the broccoli into her mouth while she turns the pages of Shannon’s sketchbook.

She sees the plans for the Barbie crucifix. Sees that it is meant to be suspended somewhere. But where? She sees a plan for a Last Supper diorama, made all of barbie parts. Blasphemous. Joan shakes her head. The crucifix doesn’t bother her like this does. Maybe it’s because she’s seen the crucifix. It’s real to her. She catches her breath. Here is the drawing of the heads attached to the fishing line.

Joan turns the page quickly. Takes another bite, and tries to swallow the bloom of grief rising up her neck. There is a drawing of a rounded scaffold of barbie limbs, interlocking in a chain design. It rises up and up like a spiral with appendages randomly jutting off of it. This one is in color. Shannon’s notes specify that melted crayons are to be dribbled over the structure. It is quite lovely. It reminds Joan of birds, drifting on air currents. Shannon’s attention to detail really was superb. She had talent, Joan acknowledges. She’d often wished Shannon would use it for something less creepy and weird. There are no heads in this design. Joan supposes that the heads had been used already in the installation that had killed Shannon. These were the leftover parts.

Joan opens one of the large totes under the table. Legs. In another one, she finds arms. Taking a generous handful of each, she begins to wire them together bending them into a gentle coil as the chain grows. She feels sloppy and awkward. The whole thing slips apart. She needs glue. She begins again. By the time she is done, she has one loop of Barbie limbs the size of a hula hoop. She imagines Shannon surveying her progress, hands on slim hips.

“You never even cared about my work before,” she says.

“I spent every weekend looking for these damn things for you,” answers Joan. “I still do.”

But Joan knows that invisible Shannon is right. She only went Barbie hunting to humor Shannon, and because it was a way to spend the weekend connected to her daughter, however tenuously.

“What’s with all the Catholic stuff?” Joan asks.

“Catholicism is like herpes,” Shannon grins. “You can’t get rid of it, and sometimes, it festers.”

Joan rolls her eyes. Even in her imagination, Shannon is a blasphemous smartass. But she does wonder about the religious nature of the work. She’d given her a biography of Dorothy Day shortly before she died, hoping that Day’s subversive, radical brand of Catholicism might bring Shannon back around. She remembers being flattered that Shannon had taken Joan as her confirmation name, but she’d told her mother that it was because Joan of Arc was a cross-dresser, and obviously gay.

Joan is somehow transformed by the work in Shannon’s studio. She stays in, day after day, gluing and wiring and bending. Talking to Shannon. She eats all the food in the house. The broccoli salad. The rest of the frozen funeral casseroles, starting to get frostbitten, but still hearty. She runs out of toilet paper and uses Kleenex. Runs out of Kleenex and uses paper napkins. She runs out of food and eats the rest of the Halloween candy from last year.

The project has begun to resemble the sketch in Shannon’s book.

“Not bad,” says Shannon. “Did you eat my candy?”

Joan’s hair is auburn, once vivid as autumn but now faded into pink, like milk stirred into tomato soup. It clumps against her head, unwashed. The seat of her sweatpants is saggy. She vacates the studio space only for her bed with the sheets gone sour, and the protection of her Mother Mary with her forty-watt circle of yellow light. After a month of this–or maybe longer–Murphy starts to knock on the door. Joan doesn’t answer. He leaves a bucket of chicken one day. She kneels on the tiled floor of the entry and eats it in large bites, pulling clean bones from her mouth with greasy fingers.

The third time Murphy comes, he doesn’t leave. He sits in the bentwood rocker on the covered front porch. Joan sees him through the sidelights of the front door. The rocker–which was intended to be ornamental–sags under his weight. His plaid shirt is fastened over the curve of his belly, the buttons almost straining apart, but not quite. Joan ignores him. He reaches into a shopping bag and pulls out a covered dish. Joan is hungry. The chicken was how long ago? Two days? A week?

Joan opens the door. Murphy sets the casserole on the entry table and takes Joan by the hand. He leads her into the master bathroom and kneels by the tub. Opens the taps and stirs the water with his arm. Then he takes one of the good towels off the bar. It is only for decoration. It is stiff with sizing and embroidered with glossy thread. He places the towel gently in Joan’s hands. He closes the door behind him, but Joan opens it. Now that he is here, she can’t be alone. He turns his back while she removes her clothes and steps into the tub. She tucks her knees under her chin and rests her head on them. Murphy washes her back. She cries.

After dressing, Joan eats. Murphy has brought shepherd’s pie, his own recipe in which every usual ingredient of shepherd’s pie has been replaced with something Murphy likes better. Instead of peas and carrots, there is buttered corn. Instead of mashed potatoes there is a layer of cheese-infused tater tots. He also has brought Miller Lite and after one, Joan’s head is buzzing. She hasn’t drank since the glass of wine she had that night, right before Murphy came to the door to tell her about Shannon. They don’t speak much.

“So, did Shannon take that Mary from the Nazarenes?”

“I like her. She helps me sleep,” says Joan. “I’m finishing her work.”

Murphy follows her up to the studio. He laughs when he sees the vagina couch. Joan tells him it’s comfortable and invites him to try it out.

“Did you see about the round house?” he asks her. “I always loved that thing.”

“Murphy,” Joan says. “Will you help me?”

Murphy has been a cop for twenty years, and still works the second shift. In the morning, he comes to Joan’s house and helps her. He brings donuts and bottles of Bailey’s and 64-ct. boxes of Crayola crayons, the kind with the sharpener built in.

“They have boxes now with 152 crayons,” says Murphy. “It’s excessive. I think that’s the problem with the millenials.”

“Their problem is they have too many crayons?” Joan says.

“No. It’s more that they have too many choices, but they don’t lead anywhere, maybe. I think it stresses them out. They worry too much if they’ll make the right one,” says Murphy. “I’d tell them not to worry so much, you know? If I had kids, I wouldn’t let them worry. It’s all so arbirtrary.”

“Yeah,” says Joan. “Hold this.” She hands him a butane culinary torch, and rips open a fresh pack of Crayolas.

“As far as I’m concerned, anything more than the 64-pack is just vulgar. How many colors can our eyes even see? This isn’t Heaven,” she says. “It’s like the grocery store. The last time I went, I tried to buy toothpaste but there were too many kinds. I couldn’t get any. Maybe it’s because it was the first new tube since Shannon.”

“Or shampoo,” said Murphy. “Why so many kinds?”

The floor of the studio is covered with wax dribbles in 64 colors.

“They brought in new colors and took some away,” Murphy says. “Why did they take out lemon yellow?

“That was so light, you couldn’t see it,” says Joan. “It was too thin as a color.” She surveys their progress. “It kind of reminds me of those wine bottle candles that hippies used to have. Remember? My mother had one. Wax dribbled all down it.”

“We can’t do the rest of it up here,” says Murphy. “We won’t be able to get it out.”

So they load up Joan’s van on Wednesday afternoon, because Wednesday is Murphy’s Saturday. They’d cleared out the totes with the arms and legs. They’d used the contents of the apothecary jars, and Joan’s good Tupperware. They’d melted thousands of crayons, making vivid confetti of the paper coverings. Murphy gets a ladder from the rafters and puts it in the van. Before they drive off, he gets a piece of paper from his truck.

“What’s that?” asks Joan.

“Temporary permit,” he says. “For a memorial service on city property.”

They drive to the round house grounds, the place where the concrete orb had burned. Heaps of rubble still remain, but there is nothing left that resembles the former structure. They lay the base of the installation, but the ladder isn’t tall enough for the rest of it, so Murphy calls in the city tree people, and from the plastic bucket of their truck, they finish it.

“Is this legal?” asks Joan.

“No,” says Murphy. “But I play poker with these guys.” Joan doesn’t question. Murphy is a simple man of few words, but a good one. Something about him just feels right. Comfortable.

The men in the truck turns the headlights on, and they stand and look at the thing. Joan doesn’t know what to call it. The installation? The art? She supposes it doesn’t matter.

“It looks like a mangled Death Star,” says Joan.

“I’d tell you not to quit your day job if you had one,” says Murphy. “We could put that giant Jesus cross in the middle if you want to.”

“No. I want that.” she says. “I feel like it needs something else. Do you think it needs something?”

“I don’t know. If you mess with it too much, you’ll ruin it. Just let it be done.”

Joan leans against Murphy. They wave to the tree men as they drive off, taking their light. The wax surface of the installation glimmers in the partial light of the moon. Joan feels Shannon beside her.

“It’s lopsided,” she says to her. “I’m sorry I fudged your last project.”

“No,” says Shannon. “It’s perfect.”

Anne Carney holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University. This is her first published story.

2020 Fiction

K-Ming Chang


We brought the woman our hands to swallow. She stood at the intersection where ghosts were known to knit themselves into gloves, sheathing the hands of drivers and misdirecting them into telephone poles and duplexes and each other. The woman called us her daughters and claimed she could swallow anything if we paid her. In her hands, a baseball cap purpled with sweat and jingling half-full of nickels. One time she was featured in the World Journal, the only street performer to ever make the bottom-right-hand corner of the front page, and tourists drove in from all over the city with dollar bills in their fists and backseats full of things they dared her to swallow. She was tall and so thin her fingers had more knuckles than ours and her veins surfaced like snakes when she swallowed, her mouth unhinging wide enough to cleave open the sun and suck out the squirm of its seed. When she walked, her shadow preceded her into any room, a dark that rotted our teeth to seeds and repainted the walls wherever she went. She spoke in an accent none of us could name, each of her vowels spat to the sidewalk and split like scabs.

One time, one of us brought her a sparrow to swallow, a sparrow that had been living in the wall of our duplex for weeks, along with the rotting carcass of a raccoon and an assembly of squirrels. It was only after we hammered holes in the walls, the way we saw men in nature shows tapping trees for sap, that we freed the sparrows fortressed inside. The woman plucked the sparrow by one wing from our palms, tipped her head back, and balled the bird into her mouth as if it were a document she needed to smuggle through her bowels, and there were rumors of that too, that she was a former spy, that her one and only skill was to swallow evidence of what was stolen.

Her throat was translucent as the core of a pear, incandescent, and we saw the sparrow dive into her belly beak-first, its black wings bound by sound. For months, we heard the bird flying around inside her, carving a sky inside her belly, and when she opened her mouth it was to chirp. We thought maybe the sparrow had mated with whatever else she had eaten, and now there was a family perched inside her. We threw handfuls of birdseed onto the sidewalk and watched her kneel to lick them up, her tongue studded with shells. We took turns being in love with her. First we were in love with the butcher at Ranch 99, the one who could slice a lung thin enough to drape over a lamp. There were rumors that his wife was a knife and that is how he learned to be precise. Even in the way he spoke: he could sharpen any sound narrow-tipped enough to enter any part of your body. Our love for him was a like a tendon, elastic, easily snipped, and sometimes we didn’t love him at all and sometimes we were willing to hang from hooks if it meant he would touch us, treat us with the tenderness of a stampede.

The swallower we loved differently, more from a distance, her face like the surface of a planet, one of those planets with an atmosphere so toxic your skin dissolve on contact. That was until the day we brought her our hands to swallow. For tips, we’d seen her swallow a golf club, a lit candle, a flashlight, a drawerful of socks, a cell-phone, a pen knife, a whole fish, but we had never seen her swallow a fist. We believed our hands would finally defeat the gravity of her belly, and when we lifted them to her, the way we saw illustrated flames reach up to a woman tied to a stake, she gathered our hands as if plucking dandelion heads from the sidewalk and tugged the bouquet to her mouth. That was the day we touched the pit of her, our arms sleeved inside her dark, our fingers combing the carpet at the bottom of her belly, the place where all things return to before they’re reborn. She gagged our hands back up again, pulled us out glistening like roots, and we knew we would never know her. There was an art to swallowing, she said: consumption without destruction. It was an inherited skill, learned from her father who mastered swallowing an entire pistol. He smuggled ammunition past Japanese troops, swallowed gold bars and set off airport metal detectors, shoplifted a live hen in his stomach. When he died years later of pneumonia, she said, tears came out of his ears. He’d been in a coma for three weeks, and to smuggle water into his body, she drilled a straw into the base of his throat and sponged water down it. Hearing is the last thing to go, she said. The last thing the dead know is the sound of our voices, the chorus of hornets in our lungs, and the dead keep listening even after they’re buried. The ears take the longest to decompose, and sometimes they reincarnate into butterflies. This is why it is important to announce ourselves to the dead. To enter every room voice-first, asking our ghosts if we can wear them.

The day she swallowed and regurgitated our hands, the woman sat down on the curb and stretched out her legs, their shadows bright as sails. She said her father never taught her how to swallow because daughters do not inherit, but she learned in a dream how to mimic the sea’s plumbing, how to be a body of water wide enough to drown anything. We reached out our hands as she told this story, all of us hoping to remain in her like a thorn, to make of her skin something holy. Each of us planned to reconvene in our dreams that night, to see if we too might learn to swallow in our sleep, the only place where we did not have bodies, where our legs were the length of our lives. But the woman warned us against dreaming, said that it was possible to get lost inside one, to sever the tether back to your body and be set loose like a sparrow in a house of glass, everywhere a false sky to fly into.

There was a girl she knew once, a girl who got locked out of her body because she wandered off in a dream and did not return. For three weeks she was asleep in her mother’s bed, and each of her sisters had to take turns wiping her ass and flipping her over so that sores would not scuttle all over her body like roaches. It was only later, when we repeated this story to our mothers, that we learned the girl was not asleep for weeks because she wandered off in her dream but because her brother knocked her head against the side of a duplex. We often saw our mothers slapping a fish’s head against a flat stone, the best way to stun it bloodlessly before severing the head, and we wondered if the girl was like that, laid out on the bed so that her vacated head could be cut off cleanly and painlessly. There were ways to wake up, but the woman did not tell us, and she did not tell us how it was possible to maintain a mouth inside a dream, when we ourselves were mouthless in ours, always waking inside of cities didn’t know their own names.

We tried swallowing too, we practiced on doorknobs, our razor blades, on kitchen sponges, on spoons, we tried swallowing our own fists, clouds punctured by our tongues, CDs broken in half, we tried colors, swallowing our shadows, we tried wind, parts of cars, aquariums, live fish, a gerbil, roadkill, we tried knives, fish bones, a leash, a puddle, we swallowed our mothers’ necklaces, earrings that dangled in our throats and lit us from the inside like chandeliers, lightbulbs, a clothes-hanger, a struck match, a flame. But everything cancelled out in our mouths, unstitched into steam, and we always swallowed nothing.

We returned to her and asked how to drown things in our bodies. The way you do it, we said, and she said we had to be gifted the way she was, gifted by ghosts: if you feed a starving dog in this life, she said, the dog will reincarnate and come back to you and save you. She said: My dog lives curled in my belly like smoke. My dog is the dog that returned in this life to bite me – I was just six years old then – and my teeth turned to sweetcream and I vomited out my tongue but when the fever lifted like a flag in a fallen country I was cured and my mouth was the entrance to a freeway. After hearing this, we tried to find a dog in the neighborhood to feed, but none of them were starving. None of them were strays, all were tame, and we couldn’t find a single one to save. One of us finally stole a pitbull out of someone’s side-yard, gnawing the leash with her own teeth, and we starved it over many weeks, feeding it only leaves, nips of our sleeves. Then when the dog was so skinny its breath played its ribs like an accordion, when it was so starved it began to levitate, floating away from its feet, we fed it. Raw patty meat, stolen lung slices, bread-crusts: it ate so much we thought its stomach was a snake’s, the kind that can swallow its prey and digest it over a lifetime, the kind of creature with a hunger elongated across history. Then the dog lifted its head from our palms and rolled its eyes back and died and we cried because now the dog would not return to us in its next life and save us or teach us to swallow. The dog would return only for revenge and bite us and fill our mouths with clouds, and we might as well leash ourselves now, we might as well forfeit our mouths.

When we told the woman what we’d done, how we failed, she laughed and said we were haunted now, that the dog would return as our husbands and we would soon give birth to litters of six at a time. She knew a woman who once gave birth to sextuplets, naming each one after a different month, and halfway through the year she tore her voice and never spoke again. We wore scarves now, trying to protect the tender sides of our necks, until the woman said a ghost would snag the ends of our scarves and suffocate us. We were tired of the woman and her stories and her reincarnations, tired now that we knew we would never as full as her, symphonic with discarded objects, so we swallowed her. It was the Sunday before rain was invented. It was night and the woman looked up at the moon as if she might swallow that too, as if every light was located inside her, every light was another of her lives.

We took her the way we took the dog, by striking her between the eyes with a flashlight, and then we each held a limb and began to swallow and swallow until our mouths met in the middle of her and she was gone, divvied up between us, siphoned into us as smog. Inside us, she took root in our bellies, hinged us to our knees. She was submerged like a radish before it surfaces and is skinned bright as a knuckle, and we waddled now instead of walking, sharing the weight of her, building our breaths into rungs for her to climb out of us, heaving our pregnant bellies, hearing her beg every day to be born breech, the way we all should be, legs-first and running from our lives.

K-Ming Chang is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and the winner of a 2019 Pushcart Prize in poetry. Her debut novel is forthcoming from One World/Random House in September 2020.

2020 Essays

Andrea B.


While my body was still pulsing with private pain, you sent me purple flowers. In a translucent fuchsia vase, tinting the water the color of blood, hardly concealing the wounds of the twisted, severed stems. I turned them again and again, there on the edge of my desk, to face the pink daisies instead. But between every daisy and rose, blushing with plump rouged cheeks, hung the lilies, drooping their jowls, bruised with the permanent purple.


I have long loathed the murky fusion of red bleeding into blue. But it circulates through me now. Seeps into my stomach, my vessels, my nerves, dyed dark by the violet-blue pill that dissolves down my throat every night in the blackness just before sleep, and stains my fingers—stains the rest of my life—as if with an inky tattoo. A brand seared onto the body, marked as purple, impure.


What is the meaning of purple?


Someone asked when he saw your flowers. They signify death, he guessed, misinterpreting the purple scarf of royalty hung from the cross at Lent. Which also can symbolize mourning, I later learned. Penitence: an apology.


I’m Beyond Sorry, said your card with the bouquet. And I wondered how far it extended, what could be beyond. (I’m sorry a thousand times, you wrote a hundred days later. As if the enormity, the perpetuity of your contrition could not be contained in the thin black lines of the text.) A single letter—an initial in uppercase—opened and closed your note, as if you were too ashamed to sign, or to assign, either of even our first names to this circumstance, this word.


Herpes. I say the word now to semi-strangers on second dates, after pale rosés, or lime-green daiquiris, or old fashioneds as golden as the candles on the tables lighting up our smiles. And it suddenly sours the drinks, a drop of purple poison, and spreads to our paralyzed lips, falling as silent and blue as the middle of the night, which this man is now no longer hoping to spend with me.


On my last night in the blue sheets of your dark bed, when you tore off my dress and the invisible infection of your skin spread silently to mine, you took the garnishments out of your tumbler of rum in the bar afterward and tossed the tropical purple blossoms, the bendy magenta straw, and the pale paper pinwheel onto the table between us like funeral flowers strewn onto a grave. The way I had tossed away the purple squares of the condoms you always resisted, after you had shown me the tender skin, on the inside of your arm, where the red prick of the tests, you had said, resulted in clean white.


Your STD status doesn’t make you “clean” or “dirty,” a post by Planned Parenthood proclaimed, long afterward, bold black text in a blue-and-pink box on my phone. An orgy of opprobrium occurred in the blank white space below. Would rather be on the “clean” side of the spectrum, a woman said. Some other man snarled, as if directly at me, That herpes certainly didn’t come from somewhere clean.


I scrub my hands now after I touch the pink petals of my vulva so that I do not transfer the scarlet of its sores to my own lips, eyes, buttocks, thighs. A part of my body has been disconnected from the rest. A flower severed from its stem.


Sometimes I fantasize the flower deliveries down at the front desk of my downtown Chicago office building are for me, from you. But you only sent that one delivery. And while the deliveries of the disease will continue repeatedly, unpredictably, like surprise red blooming bouquets, the purple vase remains your final gift—before your final trip, when you left me, despite the diagnosis, to find a new life, a new love, overseas. On your earlier international excursions, you had always brought gifts afterward: a patterned blue coin purse from a market in Israel, the herpes from a bed in Ukraine. And from Croatia, from Portugal and Spain, the gifts were—like our attachment, like your presence here with me—ephemeral: A round of creamy cheese. A pot of lavender-infused honey, the golden liquid tinged with the faintest imagined purple. A block of soap.


Now when I wait for the whirr of the automatic soap pump in the office bathroom, I do not meet my colleagues’ eyes in the mirror above the sink. Have I contaminated the faucets, the stalls, even the copy machines? I asked myself the first morning I returned to the cubicles after the initial uprising of the virus on my skin had subsided at home.


I don’t want to infect your house, so I won’t see you anymore, I texted my mother, who had throughout my childhood stretched her bladder until her kidneys crystallized rather than risk public restrooms, with their STDs, herpes. The very virus I would now transport into her upstairs powder room, which she would later have to sanitize with sharp blue powered bleach, eradicating the infection she would imagine was still living invisible on the white ceramic slabs.


How long can herpes live outside the body, off the skin, I asked the Internet. And in the conflicting statistics on my screen, as I searched for reassurance for my mother, my coworkers, myself, I decided to believe the briefest estimates of only seconds, flashing by like lightning white.


How quickly the blue blanket on your thick mattress pad was replaced by the antiseptic paper sheet on the gynecologist’s narrow bed. I see a herpatic lesion, the doctor stated. Clinical. Definitive. Irrevocable. Ending the life I had. Pleasure inevitably punished, per the preachings of puritanical politicians. Sex-positivity subtly negated, despite progressive society’s celebration of free love. It had a price after all: undesirability. I stumbled down from the table and staggered down the hall, behind a tall, muscular couple, likely finishing their first appointment on the way to a new life, its colorful promise outlined in black-and-white in the ultrasound room across from the lab. Where I fell to a bench to await the maroon tube, to test for other punishments—hepatitis, HIV—while they walked out into the city, into the rest of their lives.


One in six people, I chanted the mantra to myself, numbering off the pedestrians as I shuffled through the city’s sidewalk crowds. One, two, three, four, five, six: one of these people has genital herpes, I said, quoting the CDC statistics that had darkened my glowing phone on those first black nights afterward. Until I realized I was the one in every six.


I make this diagnosis 20 times a week, the gynecologist said gently, gesturing me to the tissues for my purple, swollen nose. But I could not see their faces among friends, acquaintances, fictional characters in film. Who were these secret other sufferers? Don’t tell anyone, my mother instructed, repeatedly, repeating the teachings of society. And so I was alone.


People don’t partner anymore anyways, you said, lying in your jeans and jacket in my bed for one final good-bye night after a hundred, a thousand of my begging messages brought you to my side. You had a ten percent chance of finding someone before this, you said. Now it is five. You think in math, in cruel computations. I think in color. And all I could calculate were the dark brown walls of my bedroom, blurry with my tears, and the black walls of my rage.


In the most violet, violent night, I reached again toward the white light of my phone, a bright beckoning portal to another world, the underworld, and asked it for the most peaceful of pills to transport me to black nothingness for eternity.


Five months afterward, the doctor told me, most patients have come to terms with the diagnosis. The herpes you left me with—a red lesion on my genitals—it will persist. Perhaps I will learn how to endure. And perhaps I will somehow understand how to erase from my psyche the scarlet stigma left on me by society. But your leaving me—it is a purple lesion on my heart. And six months afterward, it has been shown to be without a cure.


This is it. This is for life, my mother, when she finally saw me, said, her olive eyes sorrowing, apologizing, the way your flinty green ones never did, your tears like water on a stone. Mine mixed then with the coffee and the rum, as she stood beside me and layered them into a tiramisu as brown as the dying trees in her backyard, as creamy as her kitchen counters and her upstairs bathroom tiles.


The bathtub in my first apartment was periwinkle, beneath periwinkle tile. The fixture glued into the ground, unchangeable, necessitating a purple rug, purple curtain, purple towels. I started spurning purple, then, the color of compulsion. I cut it from my wardrobe, from my next home. But now, in my cabinet, lurks that lifetime supply of violet, that pill that gives me no choice but to drink of it, no choice but to think of you. Because it holds back the virus, deep in my nerves, from blooming like deformed flowers on my skin, or shedding like invisible poisoned pollen onto unsuspecting bees that would kiss my bud.


Men will still want to have sex with you, you said as you left. Because I was sexy, you said. And one of them did call me beautiful, once, twice, lying naked in the center of his blue-checkered bed. Until he began pulling the covers up, turning over, turning out the light. Too tired, he said. Or too high stress. Or too low testosterone. Leaving untouched each night whatever slinky skirt or lacy lingerie concealed my purple plague.


There is a bright blue site of promise, positivity, you texted me, too soon, in those first gray days overcast with pain. A bleak, shadowy corner of the Internet where the colony of companionless contaminated huddle together and keep their curse confined to drink and dinner dates among their own kind. But my commonalities with the men in profile on my screen extended not to interests, education, religion, politics, or even often the city where we lived—but only to our shared disease.


Sometimes I forget my disease, my deficiency. I dream of meeting that tall, healthy stranger strolling on the sidewalk, scrolling on the Internet, rolling past me on the train. And then I halt. Remembering he would never want herpes. Would never want me.


I smiled to hide the virus lurking in my nerves, to present all the kaleidoscopic colors of my expressions before I would have to reveal the darkness of my disease to the man with the purple pocket square and the gemstone cufflinks, as he reached across the white tablecloth, with its glamorous gathering of goblets and green Pellegrino bottles, and brushed my arm, posed, poised against the stiff leather corner booth in the lunchtime hush of a date at the Ralph Lauren Restaurant. But how could I blurt out such an inelegant word there? Or at high tea at The Peninsula? Where a dark-haired man rose to greet me with a kiss on my cheek, then seated me at another white tablecloth, stacked with three-tiered silver trays, delicate teacups, champagne, cocktails, which he gulped, in a frenzied fever, when he heard the word, then rushed me out to the elevator. And as we descended, he asked, Can I catch it from that kiss on your cheek? Then he left me in the cold to walk home on the black slippery streets, soaking my feet in their open-toed heels until they turned as wet as my cheeks. While in my ear, the wind howled, Leper, leper, leper.


It’s as simple as shingles, as chicken pox, one uninfected man reassured me. You’re making too much of it, another said, pleading for more than a kiss in my bed. I hesitated. Perhaps I was. But even with the purple condom foil tearing open, the purple pill foiling the replication of the virus DNA, one caress of skin to skin could still swell his lymph nodes, stab the muscles in his buttocks and his legs, puncture the center of his body—and of his future—with pain. The sensation like the sound of a long, piercing scream.


I yelled at you for hours on the phone. Shrieking, staccato shouts. Please relent, you begged. My decrescendo then, to blunt black texts, punctuated the months. Until at last you lamented, I think of you and mostly feel like the worst person ever.


He wants absolution, I told a friend. Don’t give it to him, he replied. And for the first time, I heard the word give in forgive. A gift I can send you, like a flower delivery, over the dark blue seas.


What color is forgiveness?


Perhaps it is the teal green framing the text box of the special messaging program I once would open to write only to you. And its purple alert light, flashing on my phone, would notify me of a responding rectangle, enveloping your texts. But now within that frame, I type no more words, no letters with their black stems, like rotted flowers, to accuse you, to remind you of me. The screen a blank—like a single white rose.


I buy myself flowers every so often these days. Pass the garish jumble of ready-made bouquets. The tulips. The fuchsia carnations. The dozen blood-red roses of love that I now may never receive as a delivery. And I select the potted succulent. The fragrant eucalyptus. The olive green of branching leaves.

Andrea B. lives in Chicago. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, Witness, Eastern Iowa Review, Entropy Magazine, Atticus Review, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency

2020 Essays

Miah Jeffra


(after Pink Narcissus)

A smooth twink with an enthusiastic butt crawls nude through a technicolor garden. The sky is dark but the world gleams with a glitter-light, the camera gliding over him, as if the lens has fingers. The twink ponders animatronic butterflies, his nipple with a blade of grass, his self. He stares, kisses his mirrored reflection in a Pepto Bismol boudoir. He tries on different uniforms, different personas: matador, biker, emperor, imp. They become his lovers, his neighbors, his mannequins, his art. And at once, they are all him. A world of delirious fantasy, desire, beauty seen through a kaleidoscope.

James Bidgood filmed almost all of Pink Narcissus in his small Chelsea studio over seven years in the sixties. He built the lavish sets himself—crinoline clouds, rivers of lame, paper flowers. He collected flotsam from costume shops, theatre sets and fabric stores, brought them to his flat like a bird to a nest, and fashioned a whole world for this lonely young hustler, played by Bobby Kendall—the soul of Bidgood.

The first network documentary on homosexuality in the United States, aptly titled “The Homosexuals” aired in March, 1967, on CBS Reports, during the middle year of Bidgood’s production. Mike Wallace anchored with his guillotine inflection. The episode featured testimony from psychiatrists, cultural critics, lawyers, woven with footage of a dark gay bar and a sex sting operation. Wallace reports to America, “The average homosexual, if there be such, is promiscuous. He is not interested or capable of a lasting relationship like that of a heterosexual marriage. His sex life, his love life, consists of a series of one-chance encounters at the clubs and bars he inhabits. And even on the streets of the city—the pick-up, the one-night stand, these are characteristics of the homosexual relationship.”

Because Bidgood’s public life consisted of spaces in the dark—bathhouses, porn theatres, silent encounters—perhaps he needed something to be celebrated in bold light. And so, he packed his room with fresnels and gels, mirrors and bulbs, to beam the brightness of his mind, a 300 square foot studio in New York City.

In an old college journal of mine, running up the margins, I scribbled art is the conduit between humanity and the sublime. I don’t remember why I wrote that, and wonder if I was stoned when I did. But it stays with me, and I think of that phrase a lot.

Stanley Siegel, in his book Uncharted Lives, claims, “Isolation presents a creative world. Sometimes in fantasy we deal with separation by becoming productive—drawing, writing, creating.” We express with fantasy in spite of an incomprehensible or hostile reality.

I was seven years-old when my mother left home to explore her stolen youth before it entirely disappeared. She was 15 years-old when she married my father, who was merely fresh out of high school, himself. They had to travel to South Carolina for the nuptials, the only state that allowed children to marry. Not long after she birthed my older brother, Chris, and my father enlisted in the Marine Corps, did my mother realize her unhappiness. How could she know my father, when he wasn’t even yet a man? And how could she know herself? Yet, my mother tried for years to make it work, like a child of a broken home would do. In all, she lasted 17. Imagine a woman of 32 who’s already lived a lifetime. She knew there was something more, and needed to find out what it was on her own. The Hawaiian sea breeze whispered this wisdom to her when we’d walk to the shore and stare out at the splice of two-tone blue. I overheard the mutterings myself, and somehow understood what the wind had said, without knowing the exact words.

However, my understanding did not come without pain. Not a sudden wall kind of pain, no. My mother was the center of the world, so when she left the whole middle of my body followed. And this is how you break a child, you know. Step one, take the mother away. I retreated, to more than merely my room, escaping however I could the anger, the fighting between Chris and my father, my hand on my stomach, watching it pass right through. I played records, read my Highlights, stared at the gaps in my bedroom door, and then created, within those eggshell walls, to fill the hole in my belly, a sister: Shenandoah, just like the mountains, the river valley, as sloping and bosomed as the land itself. She had auburn hair that shocked in all directions, a wild bright beauty who traced the cracks of the ceiling with a finger and squinted eye, built forts with bedlinens and books, who kept my secrets. Before sleep, she lying next to me, our foreheads almost touching, I would whisper my biggest secret, “I miss her,” and she would whisper back, “she misses you, too.”

Shenandoah never left my room, somehow content with the cloistered arrangement. And my loneliness, a self of its own, never questioned her presence. And then, when my father announced he was re-stationed to Quantico, Virginia, a night before we flew across the ocean, Shenandoah slipped through my window, turned back slightly, hair still shrouding her face, and ran out into the dark, never to return.

Art is the conduit between humanity and the sublime.

Wallace further reports, “The dilemma of the homosexual: told by the medical profession he is sick; by the law that he’s a criminal; shunned by employers; rejected by heterosexual society. Incapable of a fulfilling relationship with a woman, or for that matter a man. At the center of his life he remains anonymous. A displaced person. An outsider.”

In high school I told my classmates that I grew up in Tokyo. No, I didn’t just tell them I grew up in Tokyo, I lavished upon them an epic tale that could cross an ocean. Even though our Marine Corps family had moved all over the country, and I had traveled more than most my age, I fabricated an even more exuberant history. My classmates were perceptive enough to know I was different—which inspired in me a new isolation—and were too consumed with their own belonging to complicate matters by including me. I was not legible to them, so I made myself the most extraordinary thing to read, a flashy billboard. I could describe for them Tokyo’s skyline, the neon lights, onigiri vendors perched in front of my residential high-rise, a kaleidoscope of place, though I’d never stepped foot on Honshu. I decorated this history with layered backdrops, vivid stories, images and characters as tactile as fabric, a complete world of my own, and presented to them this cinema, of sorts. I saw it, then, as a gift, somehow, not a deception, and certainly not what it truly was.

I would perform often these fabrications—these deceptions—throughout my youth. Stories of exotic travel, of chance encounters with love, stories of my body, perhaps all desires made manifest, tinged with a rolling language that drew people near. Which desire held me most? Their proximity, or mine?

Art is the conduit between humanity and the sublime.

Towards the end of Pink Narcissus, after a street sequence outside of the twink hustler’s flat, where throngs of vendors hawk butt-plugs and blowjobs, there is a fourth wall crack in the camera lens, and a deep Russian swell in the score, that sobers the delirium. Bidgood suggests the twink’s fabricated world turns tawdry once it leaves the asylum of his room. This room, his mind. We realize how necessary that lens had been, now that it is broken. Man is born beautiful, but everywhere outside his mind is degraded. That is our hostile reality.

Once my yarns of Tokyo were discovered as lies, they lost all their intrinsic beauty, this lustrous imagery cracked. My schoolmates flipped from arms-length awe to anger with a torrent I never escaped. Why they seethed, of course, I shamefully understand. I never called what I was doing art. And without a lens that could be cracked, it is presumed by others to be truth, and truth of a different kind than it is—and was—for me.

Soon I was to fathom my imprudence, and upon so withdrew into art. I opened the room of my imagination wide—the doors, the windows, the closet—with a pen instead of my tongue, and endowed fantasies that could not be confused with lies. And yet, these fictions told only a kind of truth, certainly not what it truly was. You move a vase from one side of the room to the other, and there is a change, a sense, a new reality to the thing.

Shenandoah appears in my dreams often. Her hair spills over my shoulder as we read a book together, or we run along the walls of my room that are probably smaller than I remember. She is not a memory, more a truth than true, imagination made material. A fiction more real than most of my lived reality.

A couple of years ago I was visiting a friend in Chelsea. I discovered that she lived directly below James Bidgood, in the same building where it all happened. I imagined the flotsam floating in every crevice, in every corner of his imagination made material, that small studio above my head. The layered history in my mind’s eye made my elbows tingle. She asked me, “You want to meet him, see the apartment?” I did. I really did. I wanted to meet the man who remained anonymous until only 15 years ago, with this soufflé of a film. I wanted to hold one of the animatronic butterflies, run the lame along my forefinger, and breathe on the very mirror that Bobby Kendall pressed his lips to 50 years before. But even as my heart leapt, I shook my head, slowly, and said to her, “That’s OK.”

I wanted to tell her that some things need to remain one’s fantasy. I wanted to tell her that if I went into that room, the nameless twink and his imaginings might slip out the window and never return.

Miah Jeffra is author of The First Church of What’s Happening (Nomadic 2017), The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic! (Sibling Rivalry 2020), The Violence Almanac (Black Lawrence 2021), and co-editor, with Arisa White and Monique Mero, of the anthology Home is Where You Queer Your Heart (Foglifter 2020). Awards include the New Millennium Prize, the Sidney Lanier Fiction Prize, The Atticus Review Creative Nonfiction Prize, the Alice Judson Hayes Fellowship, Lambda Literary Fellowship, and 2019 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Outstanding Anthology. Most recent work can be seen in The North American Review, Fourteen Hills Review, The Los Angeles Press, Wasafiri, The Forge and Interim. Miah is founding editor of queer literary collaborative, Foglifter Press.