Read the nominated pieces below:
Melanie Unruh, “Triage”
BODIES LIKE PAN DULCE
black & beige chairs
hugged our black & brown
skins, smiles galore
limp cocks full grown
& you were mine
& I was yours
& heat rose like dough
Luis Lopez-Maldonado is a Xicanx poeta, choreographer and educator, born and raised in Southern California. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California Riverside, majoring in Creative Writing and Dance. His poetry has been seen in The American Poetry Review, Cloudbank, The Packinghouse Review, Public Pool, and Spillway, among many others. He earned a Master of Arts degree in Dance from Florida State University and also a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from the University of Notre Dame, where he was a poetry editorial assistant for the Notre Dame Review, and founder of the men’s writing workshop in the St. Joseph County Juvenile Justice Center; He is currently co-founder and editor at The Brillantina Project. www.luislopez-maldonado.com
LAST FULL MOON IN IOWA
Sirens in the east, moving towards some tragedy, and
who would commit a murder under a moon like this?
Who would break anything, a window, a skull, knowing
she was watching from above? I have bronchitis
again—too many smokes and nights not knowing
what color socks you’re wearing, whether
you remember my smell. Hours wheezing, wondering
what bad jokes I’ve been mumbling in my sleep.
Do dogs howl at the moon or to each other?
Did you know how much I love you is why
I wash my hands? Someday when I’m better
I’ll read you a list of things you became to me:
runway, poltergeist, mourning dove, splint, in hopes
you’ll kiss my sternum, crack the same ribs as before.
Jackson Burgess is the author of Atrophy (forthcoming, Write Bloody Publishing) and Pocket Full of Glass (2017, Tebot Bach), winner of the Clockwise Chapbook Competition. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has placed work in The Cincinnati Review, The Cimarron Review, Rattle, Colorado Review, and elsewhere (jacksonburgess.com).
PORTRAIT OF EL JEFE
after Robin Coste Lewis
You were supposed to be only a photograph
on a wall. You were supposed to stay
in the frame until someone called your name, El Jefe,
until someone wrote the date
en La Era de Trujillo, summoned you
from a textbook or grave, chiseled out the bullets in your chest.
You are not art.
You reigned for 31 years, your face
in every living room above the mantle,
or watching families eat dinner, their faces
in bowls of rice. They didn’t meet your eyes
as they chewed, throats
already bruised from the inside out.
To say history is to name the flavor
of rust, the sound of perejil
on a Haitian tongue, the border
between teeth and tip.
I wasn’t born.
I was somewhere in my mother,
her 7-year-old body, my egg-face
hidden in the inner folds of skin. I was somewhere
in her hand, when she stitched together
a hole in the white tablecloth,
my grandmother’s back turned to your face.
I was somewhere in a finger prick,
when my mother rested the needle
on your wooden frame, thread
landing in air. I was her mouth, when she sucked
the blood, a tang of oatmeal and iron.
History was that she liked the taste, savor of a fat
hand. History was my grandmother,
when she saw the needle left behind. History
was the slap on my mother’s thigh. I was not
her tears when she heard you were killed.
I was not the bandaged
finger she used to wipe her eyes. I was not
the ground that refused your blood,
soil swallowing ipecac to vomit you out.
Diannely Antigua is a Dominican American poet and educator, born and raised in Massachusetts. She is currently an MFA candidate at New York University, a Squaw Valley Community of Writers fellow, and Associate Poetry Editor for BOAAT. Her book Ugly Music, forthcoming from YesYes Books, was chosen for the 2017 Pamet River Prize. Winner of the Bodega Poetry Contest, her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her poems can be found in Day One, Vinyl, Split Lip Magazine, Cosmonauts Avenue, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. Her heart is in Brooklyn.
SELECTIONS FROM INSTEAD OF DYING
Instead of dying, we take you in — sick, alone, confused — and
start a series of healing regimens. For the first week you drink
only water infused with lavender and vinegar. After the new
moon, we begin to feed you base elements: cream of tartar,
kombucha, filmjölk, carrots. When the visions subside, we start
the physical routine. The air is still cold as we start your lake
swimming cycles — twice across & back the length. You hear
robins like ticker tape through the branches of April. Your
mood improves. We cut out bread, cereals, muffins, milk. We
cut out gumdrops, taffy, milkshakes, wheat. Your hair calms
down, your fingernails are trimmed. Instead of dying, you start
jogging, in a zip-up track-suit, early in the morning, sunlight a
disco ball across your face, lawn-sprinklers starting up all over the
Instead of dying, you build an elaborate village out of
plumbing. Even the plumbing has plumbing. You tell the
community that this construct of vital passageways is indicative
of microcosms within the geodesic loop. You tell them that
space isn’t space without unfilled vessels. You explain how the
pipes are not the actual substance of the village’s construction
— it’s the air that the tubes go through. Ignore the pipes, you
say. The real plumbing is the space in-between. This is the true
disposal system. This was the way the universe is flushed & refilled.
Lauren Haldeman is the author of the poetry collections Instead of Dying (winner of the 2017 Colorado Prize for Poetry, forthcoming from Center for Literary Publishing 2017), Calenday (Rescue Press 2014) and the artist book The Eccentricity is Zero (Digraph Press 2014). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, The Colorado Review, Fence, jubilat, The Iowa Review, and The Rumpus. A comic book artist and poet, she has been a recipient of a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award and fellowships from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. You can find her online at http://laurenhaldeman.com
VIEW. MAGIC MOUNTAIN, VALENCIA, CALIFORNIA
Joe Deal, 1977
what you can’t readily see:
a man in a white shirt on the right
underneath the roller coaster’s main drop
facing away from the camera
fucking someone wearing
a barbie head ball gag
WE’RE REALLY HAPPY. OUR KIDS ARE HEALTHY, WE EAT GOOD FOOD AND WE HAVE A REALLY NICE HOME.
Bill Owens, 1972
i meant to say cats not kids
we only have the one
kid i mean we have twenty
cats & they’re all in great shape
i worry about the kid though
he always makes this fist
& only eats creamed corn
he’s quiet never cries or blinks
it’s honestly unsettling but
look at those eyes it’s not so bad
i guess would you like a grape
i’m just kidding these are fake
but don’t they look so real
don’t you want to feel them
in your mouth don’t you want to
taste the dust sometimes i stand
at that window facing the field
of electric pylons & pretend
i’m in some kind of sci-fi movie
i hear ice clinking
feel the sweat from jim’s
old fashioned glass soaking
skin through my sweater
i hold my breath & brace myself
& one of the cats starts hacking
& he tells me clean the puke
before it stains the carpet & i do
the kid watches from the counter
never cries did i tell you that already
we’re so lucky
Sally Burnette was born in North Carolina but now lives in Boston. Their poetry has appeared/is forthcoming in Reality Beach, BOAAT, Winter Tangerine, Nat. Brut, and others.
CRACKING THE EGG
I scramble the egg
until it does not resemble
egg—no longer the globe
a body bore into
the world for a purpose
entirely other. First I scraped
from the albumen—trace
of its potential, of what
reminds me of me,
life force hidden
in the viscous clot.
When the speckled hen
grew listless and drew her head
to her puffed chest,
I quarantined her
in a crate lined with soft
where she could suffer alone.
Two days later, when I entered
the dark garage,
her carcass, as she stiffened,
had pushed through the crate’s
as though she’d tried for escape.
Her eyelids made a final
It was like
scooping a dead wasp
from a windowsill, or
freeing a bloodied mouse
from a sprung trap
as I lifted her body
into a plastic garbage sack
and placed it
in the trash: So much
for that one. Not loss
exactly, but more notice
than I give the ova that slip
my body when the moon
shifts from sliver
to smudge, simply
with what there’s nothing
to be done with. I
have seen the self’s
wriggling with need
a misplaced parcel,
wrapped and left
in a bureau drawer.
I wake, it’s with
such relief to be
alone with morning, which
the way it
repeats itself, its hunger.
And the Lord said let ants be fed
from the egg-caps of walking stick
insects that hatch disguised as ants.
Let impostors pass undetected
from a subterranean nest. Let fur-bound
beasts carry exoskeletal beasts from one
hinged continent to another, and let land-
bridges break. Let humans break land
and build bridges from elements dug
from the land. Let rats unhinge ribs
from spines and climb through pipes
invented by humans to keep our
shit and nakedness away from
the shit and nakedness of rats.
Let humans set poisoned traps.
And thus I tell you: an erroneous vision
of heaven and hell shall come to you
in books, and this will divide you.
Some will say it’s possible
for a child to die and come back
from death having seen the realm
of God. But some will say what
does it matter when earth is a lonely
chasm where children die unnoticed as
we sharpen our knives and whiten
our teeth and tighten our skin and
implore our screens to refresh.
Kathryn Smith’s first poetry collection is BOOK OF EXODUS. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, The Collagist, Bellingham Review, Redivider, Carve Magazine, and elsewhere.
When, in a flush of sweat, the neighbor boy began the task of dying, the whole neighborhood turned up—a congregation of down-turned, worried faces. I only recognized him by the port wine birthmark stretching from his brow to his collarbone. On his warm body it was now dull, muted. He was the only altar boy at Mass that I could pick out each Sunday. He usually delivered the chalice to the Priest. I used to do the same when I was an altar boy many decades ago, long before brick laying ravaged my knees. Though we’d only exchanged polite nods after Mass, I felt compelled to visit his mother as he declined. She smiled when I turned up, though she didn’t pretend to know my name.
The current had arrived for the child a few days earlier accompanying the storm that pulsed at our homes’ gutters. At the time I hadn’t known it was the current; the two of us were strangers then. Still I saw her coursing through him, felt her percolating below his bloomed skin and sensed her briny breath upon me whenever I sat near the child. Perhaps she’d found him through a spark of static buzzing in a doorknob, or perhaps he’d ridden his bike home in the rain, absorbing her then. She didn’t seem happy to be there, a bit bored if I’m being honest, but she clutched to his small body without flinching. The boy’s bed had been moved to the living room: a tiny brass frame tarnished with pocks of age. We layered wet terry cloth on his forehead and the mother rubbed the arches of his feet.
“To draw the fever down from his head,” his mother nodded, animating the chubby foot until it looked like it was pumping a pedal. Though the foot flapped, his little body was still, consumed by the vapors inside his caged lungs, the bubbles where the current thrummed in his veins. The mother prayed aloud, asking God why, but the current was unmoved. The whole ordeal felt a bit routine. The current surged on, oblivious to our attempts. She would take him soon, as she’d undoubtedly taken many before. I’d seen death before, on the blood-tinged axe at the chicken’s throat, the spider-webbed crack of a windshield, but the current had not been there in either case.
I lit candles for him at Mass, and prayed three days for his little life, but when I saw him on the mattress, dampening his sheets with that dumb look on his face, I knew he was very nearly gone. The current wouldn’t be dammed by our trifling efforts, and so with the moon lodged between her teeth and cheek she lapped him up.
Sometime in the night his mother’s wails confirmed the child’s turn. Kitchen lights flipped on, and lit boxes of helpless worry illuminated our block. The storm had passed, as well as the current with the child in her keep.
When I saw the current again it was many years later, just after my diagnosis. I found myself wanting for everything and nothing. I’d taken out the sailboat with no intention to return, because if I was going to die it would be at my own hand, not while waiting around to be snuffed out. The boat’s engine sputtered, gave a cough and whined like a bumblebee turned inside-out. I set out without destination, and steered my vessel toward the dark until the shore was a faint fissure of light. Lying down with my back on the boat’s deck I searched for stars between the clouds to little success.
The barefaced current approached in silence. I felt her draw the boat to the south. Tugging with such force I suspected a whale was spinning me. I sat up. When I squinted toward her crest at the stern, attempting to discern her curves, it was as if I were moving in to kiss her, or look up her skirt—and with a small splash she bit me. It wasn’t so much that she was mad, but however benign the violence was, it made her eyes flicker.
Had she wanted to level me, to tip my vessel or submerge me she could have, but instead she came aboard, slipping from water to mist before finally becoming air. She raked her metallic fingernails through my hair, and her breath was cool on my skin. She told me she’d migrated great distances, skirted entire continents, plotted with the moon and the sun. Water was her medium of choice; she could manipulate it—the tides, waves, direction, force—it had all been her. She puffed when mentioning how she’d known malleable liquid morphed from crystallized flakes at the North Pole, and sighed over some drops she’d known who were mere degrees from a gaseous dissolution. She placed her head in my lap. She said other days she preferred to waft along as a breeze, sometimes she sought out diodes and other semi-conductors so that she might flow to predetermined destinations. She was electric when she didn’t want to think. For her it was boarding a train which traced the same path again and again; these were the days when she only went through the motions. Even then, depressed myself, she seemed quite sad.
She whispered that many looked to her for absolution, to trickle on the foreheads of infants in baptismal gowns. I realized she was flirting. She slithered over me, into my ears, along my brow and her silky tongue probed the gaps between toes. Parting my lips she teased and sucked my breath from me, but never the whole lot. She was careful to leave just enough.
I told her to stop, pushed her from my waist, but she whistled and only pressed further. She clung to me, wrapped my wrists with a grip so tight I thought she had rope. Then she told me of the men she’d swallowed, the suicidal jumpers thudding in her straits. She had a taste for the ones who fought it, who thrashed and clawed at her swells. She became excited. The current said there was water water everywhere, in every fiber of tissue, in the lazy eye of the tarot card reader, the damp cries of the sirens luring sailors beyond the stern. Once she conspired with the moon and snatched a whole village in one swig. Though when I asked her where these villages go all she could say was that they’re sent to the belly of the earth, somewhere beneath the mantle, near to the core.
I was weeping by then. After a string of wet hiccups clicked in my throat I asked her to swallow me up and stuff me toward the core. I stood and moved toward the bow of the boat, preparing to jump. But she rolled her eyes, slipped into the water, and shoved my boat back toward the marina. I suppose she realized that like the others I sought an end, and not her. The who of it mattered very little to me.
Tonight, my lungs fill with fluid, and my breath is labored, punctuated with a sporadic gurgle. It’s peculiar how a man can drown within his own body, miles from the sea.
The current has returned, but she’s now at the foot of my bed. With a flick of her hair in my periphery she ignores me, avoiding my gaze and pretending we’ve never met. A spurned woman is the least of my worries tonight. I want to tell her that many times I looked for her whorls along the sandbars, squinted, hoping I might find her tapping a weather vane, and one time I thought I recognized her murmur in the humming telephone lines. Apologizing for my rebuff would be useless now. I cannot abate her loneliness with false apologies. It won’t change the isolation of her duty.
The boy with the port wine birthmark sits beside her thumbing through old magazines. He wears his altar boy robes from Sunday mass. My eyes struggle to focus while battling the morphine. In lucid moments, I can see her squared metallic fingernails, her swirling hair so thick—I remember its coolness slinking across my shoulders in the boat. Tonight her bare feet are tucked beneath her in the chair.
When I focus too hard, straining, the nurse asks me about these hallucinations. I tell her nothing. Now I am swimming upwards. There’s a deafening compression on my lungs, and I can feel the current palpitating within me. While my eyes throb, and my nostrils burn with bubbles, she is my bedside companion. She spared me once, but again she is indifferent to my state and files her nails. I suppose even drowning can be tedious.
Jennifer Popa recently relocated from the interior of Alaska to the South Plains of West Texas where she is in her second year as a PhD student of English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. She’s currently working on a collection of short stories, some of which can be found at Grist, Watershed Review, Monkeybicycle and Fiction Southeast.
Two days into backpacking across Southeast Asia, Boyfriend Unit was clubbed over the head by a thief on a motorbike. When he came to, his wallet was gone. Two days after that, we registered for a tour package called Pearls of the East: Cambodia by Bus.
“It’s for your protection,” Boyfriend Unit said, rubbing the welt on his head as evidence. I nodded. We both knew this wasn’t the real reason. But if I kept my eyes on the glossy itinerary brochure in my hand, I wouldn’t have to make eye contact and acknowledge that we both knew this.
“It’s safer this way,” I agreed.
“It’ll take all the stress out of planning,” Boyfriend Unit continued. “It’s not exactly what we imagined, but now we’ll have more time to focus on each other. That’s what this trip is all about, right?”
“Exactly,” I affirmed again. Maybe that’s what love was–finding someone equally willing to go along with the lies you tell yourself.
The irony was that our families had offered to buy us one of those all-inclusive deals as a wedding present. We had politely said no, that it wasn’t quite what we had in mind. “Something a little more off the beaten track,” we had told them. As our tour guide herded us back onto our bus, neither of us were willing admit the disappointment and–dare I say–relief at how orderly things had ended up.
“Bye-bye! See you when I’m looking at your face!” called out the souvenir shop owner as we pulled out of the parking lot.
Our tour bus was by far the sleekest, most modern vehicle on the road. One of those noiseless oversized affairs. “Hybrid bus,” observed Boyfriend Unit with a nod. This put him in a good mood since he liked saving the environment. I stared out the window, watching the dilapidated local buses and tuk-tuks painted a motley palette of vibrants. They were altogether less concerned with driving at the slow and sensible speed of our driver, swerving around us along the potholed dirt roads in ecstatic clatter until they were no more than dust smudging at the horizon.
The couple in front of us turned around to strike up a conversation. I forgot their names the moment I heard them, so Tamera America and Bland Mark were the names I assigned them in my mind. They both shouted out cries of elation upon discovering that Boyfriend Unit and I were on our honeymoon, as if we were all victors of an exceptionally rare and profound accomplishment. Tamera America asked to see my ring, which didn’t exist because I never wore jewelry. She gave me an odd look and I could tell I had let her down in some unspoken code of sisterhood. She quickly lost interest in talking to me.
“So what was up with that temple thing?” Bland Mark asked with a conspiratorial nudge to Boyfriend Unit, as if the two guys were in on a joke together. He wore dad sneakers and had a haircut that reminded me of bank tellers. “I mean, it’s supposed to be beer o’clock at the pool, not a friggin’ field trip.”
Boyfriend Unit squeezed my hand–our silent agreement to incorporate “beer o’clock” into as many conversations as possible for the rest of the trip.
They raved about our resort, Tamera America and Bland Mark did. A good place to make a baby or two, they cajoled with a wink. I turned my attention back to the window.
Cambodian roads were encoded with the same route-markers over and over again in varying sequence: rice paddy, lean-to hut, palm trees, palm trees, palm trees, lean-to hut. We drove through a village, indistinguishable from the last village save for a group of children playing in a pile of garbage along the roadside. The children were naked and happy. Everyone on that side of the bus reached for their phones and began snapping photos.
“That’s what this country is all about,” said one elderly woman wistfully, “the people.”
Boyfriend Unit screwed his mouth up into a little ball, which was what he did whenever he disagreed about something. I remember him doing that years ago, when we were just co-workers. I had told him that the colour of his eyes was dishwater gray, but not in a gross way. His mouth had made that little crumple of dissatisfaction. We became friends after that.
He had been dating Kimberly at the time, which always made me think of the Patti Smith song. The line about little sisters and falling skies. I would sing it in my head whenever she was brought up in conversation. Just that one line over and over. I never met Kimberly in person but had thought about her enough to make a meeting seem irrelevant. My version of Kimberly wore oversized men’s blazers and ran into a different best friend wherever she went. Her mouth was an insinuating mouth with lips that curled to smile at a secret for every occasion. She danced without reservation at house parties. She reverberated with a quiet, scrunched-up kind of wildness that made everyone around her broken with longing. I was convinced that’s who Kimberly was. I didn’t want to meet her. I wasn’t sure what scared me more–the prospect that she wouldn’t live up to my idea of her, or having her live up to it to a devastating degree.
When Boyfriend Unit announced to me at a coworker’s party that he and Kimberly had broken up, I didn’t know what to say.
And when he kissed me, as if the Kimberly Break-up Announcement was all an orchestrated preface leading up to that moment–I was dumbfounded.
It was the night Boyfriend Unit became Boyfriend Unit.
I dated Boyfriend Unit for a year and a half. Eight days ago I married him. I supposed that meant Boyfriend Unit wasn’t Boyfriend Unit anymore. But Husband Unit didn’t have nearly the same panache.
The bus excreted us out into another parking lot and, following our guide, we skirted a pathway through a patch of dull arid brush and entered a system of caves on the edge of a jungle. As we descended, there grew a cool mineral tang to the air. The narrow stone corridor opened into an immense yawning cavern–cliffs above us, and a turquoise pool below. The rock of the cave was golden and shafts of sunlight sieved downward in perfect parallel with misting falls and tumbled yellow vines. The formations were all backlit with spotlights in shades of green, amber, and cyan. Boyfriend Unit said it felt like being on a theme park ride. But to me, the ribbons of rock were more like cascading curtains at an opera house. Boyfriend Unit liked this.
Tamera America wanted a picture of the four of us standing at the precipice of the cliff. We put our arms around each other awkwardly.
“The trip of a lifetime,” Bland Mark said through the teeth of his smile.
The tour guide told us that if we were wearing our bathing suits, we could jump down into the pool. Except, he called it a water well. I immediately imagined the cave as a black gouged-out eye socket, the pool below as tears and crusting pus and infection. Welling up.
We jumped, one by one. Boyfriend Unit let out a whoop, wild-west style. Even Tamera America jumped, plugging her nose the whole way down. I went next, embarrassed to find my reflexes scrambling wildly in the air, pawing for something where there was nothing. I hit the pool. The water was unexpectedly warm.
At the bottom, Boyfriend Unit and I swam to a small pocket away from the others. For a moment, I could pretend it was just the two of us, backpacking unbeaten paths the way we had intended. I wrapped my arms and legs around him and murmured in his ear how much I wished we were alone so we could fuck. We kissed and then the others noticed and made cooing noises because we were newlyweds. I was self-conscious of our audience, not knowing if I should let go of Boyfriend Unit or stay straddled.
Everyone decided to jump a second time.
“Go ahead, I’m going to stay in the water,” I told Boyfriend Unit.
“You sure?” he asked.
Boyfriend Unit splashed me and crawled out of the pool along with Tamera America and Bland Mark. They disappeared behind the rock face, climbing back to the top. Boyfriend Unit was always more boisterous about those kind of things than I was, but seeing Tamera America and Bland Mark eager to jump again was a surprise. I felt suddenly lame in comparison, treading water at the bottom alone.
The same dread washed over me that had been happening every time I was alone since the trip began. There was movement in the pool beside me and I felt a coldness in my stomach. I swam to the edge and gripped the wet rock face, knowing what came next. And just as I’d expected, Kimberly appeared, treading water next to me.
Kimberly–she had been with me in quiet moments on the hotel beach, in the resort buffet queue, in the honeymoon suite when Boyfriend Unit was showering in the next room. I didn’t understand why. Boyfriend Unit never mentioned her anymore.
The swimmer version of Kimberly had long dark hair that stuck in wet tangled strands to her neck. Black string bikini, tattoos. Legs covered in scrapes– each one a relic of some past adventure. She was falling apart to an annoyingly exquisite degree. I realized that I resented her–Kimberly, like a child who had died, and I, the one who had outgrown her simply by surviving. My marriage with Boyfriend Unit would succeed or perhaps not succeed, but Kimberly got to stay the same age, beautifully suspended in memory, a star, a ghost of a person. An unbeaten path.
I could feel Kimberly’s manic energy electric in the water. She gently took my hand. “Like sisters,” I thought. Kimberly told me with her eyes that I needed to get out of there. I knew she said this because sisters could read each other’s minds. I didn’t actually have a sister, but I was pretty sure this was one of the things sisters could do.
We drifted to a stone ledge where the backlights had gone magenta. Kimberly took the small of my back. The tiny hairs on my skin were erect under her fingers. She kissed me, and her mouth was warm and tart like blackberries in the sun. Her tongue, metallic. Infinite minerals were feeding into my tongue from hers.
I pulled away, struck with a jolt of nausea. My stomach was its own well. A gulch of black bile.
Back in college, I began sneaking out of parties without saying goodbye. It wasn’t as if I disliked parties. I guess I just had a limited threshold for them. I had fun until I wasn’t having fun anymore. And the moment it wasn’t fun anymore, it became incredibly important for me to leave instantly. Sometimes, I would run all the way home.
Boyfriend Unit thought this was crazy when I told him.
“I love you but sometimes you make no sense at all,” he had told me.
Boyfriend Unit, Tamera America and Bland Mark were still out of sight, climbing up behind the cavern walls. I looked back to see if Kimberly thought I was crazy too, but she was gone.
I got out of the water and toweled off. At the entrance to the cave I retrieved my sundress, sandals and daypack from metal storage lockers bolted ludicrously into the cave walls. I slipped out the way we came in. I didn’t tell anyone.
A wall of deafening heat hit me as I crossed the parking lot. I passed the bus, the gift shops, and a noodle cart. “Hellomadamwhereyoufrombuysomething,” the vendors called out to me in one long flat breath.
The light was a late afternoon ochre. The air smelled of diesel, cinders, and sunbaked earth. Beyond the parking lot lay a mangled expanse of jungle– endless but for a clay brown path funneling deep into the foliage. I checked my daypack–phone, wallet, an unused Khmer phrasebook, and a half-eaten bag of banana chips.
I began walking, I must have continued fifteen minutes or longer. The jungle path eventually opened out onto a clearing, similar to so many I had seen from the noiseless hybrid bus. All about me, a dry red earth so fine it was almost sand, and long brown grasses parched from the sunlight. I kept along the path into the sunlight. The trail led to a large ornate gate, its stone broken and falling apart. Though in ruin, the gate would still command the attention of anyone who came upon it. And yet, the grand villa to which it must have once led was nowhere in sight. Where an estate would have stood, there was nothing more than bramble, yellowed fronds, and more dry red earth. Or maybe it was the gate that was lost, not the villa, wandered off into parts unknown. I didn’t know whether to feel sad about it or not.
There was movement in the wilderness behind the gate. I steeled myself for Kimberly.
But it wasn’t Kimberly.
A Khmer woman moved into the middle of the path. Dressed in woven indigo resplendence and adorned with hoops and beads and flowers, she moved with simplicity, as elegantly as a shoot of bamboo. She should have been beheld and adored by thousands. But she wasn’t. She was as solitary as me. I stopped moving, not knowing where to look.
As a matter of deference, I kept my eyes downcast, trained on my chest as if to catch my heart thumping. I slipped off the path to pass around her. The Khmer woman also stepped off the path, blocking my way. I could feel her eyes boring into me, even without looking at her. I moved to the other side. She blocked me again.
From the folds of her skirt, I caught sight of a long piece of lumber that she was holding. Brandishing. Was I imagining it?
She yanked my left arm. Her hand was cold. Bony. Strong. She swung with the lumber and there was a bludgeoning thwomp across the back of my head. I fell to my knees and touched the back of my head. A sticky crust surrounded warm wetness.
The woman grabbed me again. Her breath was rank, like mothballs and tooth decay. For all the leanness of her face–the gaunt eye sockets and hollowed-out cheeks–her eyes were surprisingly soft and malleable, and I realized that she was younger than I had first thought. Her ears were pierced and I found myself wondering who had pierced them for her. Standing in front of me, holding the ragged plank, she looked scared.
We were both scared.
There was movement in the brush again. The Khmer woman looked at me for another second longer with cold, careless indifference. Bizarrely, I felt hurt that she didn’t acknowledge the way we were connected, standing together in a clearing in the jungle. It was probably a stupid thing to feel hurt about.
And then she was gone.
I touched my head again, but couldn’t find the sticky wetness again. A twig snapped. Boyfriend Unit.
“HI?” he said. The most obvious question in the world. “Hi,” I said.
He was with one of the shop vendors. I recognized her because she was wearing a faded Pink Floyd t-shirt.
“This is Chenda, she helped me find you when I realized you were gone,” Boyfriend Unit explained, with an unmistakable whiff of accusation.
“You okay?” Chenda asked, “your husband very worried.” “I’m fine,” I said.
“It’s been half an hour, where were you?” Boyfriend Unit asked. His eyes had an edge to them, and I could tell he was even angrier than would let on, because Chenda was with us.
“I just went down the path to look for a place to pee.”
Boyfriend Unit’s arm flew back behind him, a berserk marionette. “There’s restrooms in the parking lot. We used them earlier.”
“Yeah, I know,” I replied feebly.
He didn’t wait for further explanation, which was for the best because I had none. He simply rubbed his brow, which was what he did when he was annoyed, and he sighed.
“Where you from?” asked Chenda. “We’re from Canada.”
Chenda nodded. “The capital of Canada is Ottawa. They speak English and French.
They use the dollar and they eat maple syrup.”
Boyfriend Unit nodded back, mirroring Chenda. “That is all accurate information.”
Chenda nodded again. “You come back to my store. Good price.” “Sounds like a plan, Chenda.”
I took Boyfriend Unit’s arm, relieved that he didn’t immediately jerk it away. “Let’s just sit here. Five more minutes.”
He rubbed his brow again. “I think everyone’s eating noodles so I guess we’re not keeping anyone waiting.”
I shook my head. “It doesn’t matter. Five more minutes.” Boyfriend Unit softened. “Okay,” he said.
We found a mound of grass to sit on. The clearing, which I had thought so silent, was actually full of sound. We listened to the dried palm fronds as they roused in the breeze, and to the whir and tick of beetles in the tall grasses. Boyfriend Unit wordlessly handed me his bottle of water and I realized that I was thirsty. I knew I was forgiven, or, at any rate, that I was understood.
He sighed. “It must be getting close to beer o’clock.” He gestured to stand.
“Yes. Let’s go.”
I took my husband’s hand. We started walking.
The Khmer woman, Kimberly, and me.
Kate Millar’s work has appeared in Litro, Paper Darts, Masque & Spectacle, Event, Imminent Quarterly and The Danforth Review. She is a past recipient of Canada’s Western Magazine Award (fiction category). A native of Atlantic Canada, she currently lives in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
TENSION AND RELEASE:
DIFFUSING PRESSURE POINTS IN THE ABNORMAL ADOLESCENT
The hospital: Here are some pictures of normal kids like you with scoliosis: doing gymnastics, playing sports. You can’t even tell! We can fit you in a brace right now, today. Or you can make an appointment for a surgery.
My mother: I think we need to think about it.
My spine did not cause me pain. My body never felt wrong until they said it was. The brace forced me inwards, yet pushed me out of my self: an inanimate body forced upon my failed one. Inside it, I could not feel a thing. At twelve, I lay on my back as two friends knelt over me, holding a rubber ball. They wanted to know what I would feel if an object hit the plaster. They dropped the ball. We laughed. I felt nothing.
The chiropractor, neurologist, physical therapist, nutritionist: Sleep on a flat board. Lie on your right side over a plaster block while watching TV—this will elongate the S curve. Wear the brace to ballet class. Only remove it for one hour each day. Take these five supplements. Try to keep your shoulders in proper alignment. Notice how your eyes drift off to one side. No more dairy—from now on, only soy cheese.
Adolescent Idiopathic Scoliosis has no known cause or preventative measure. It is comparable to balding. Once your genes tell you that you are going to be bald, you have no choice but to wait for the time it happens in order to control it. Likewise, in scoliosis, your genes are in control. You have no escape if your genetic construction tells you so.
There are thirty-three living vertebrae in the spinal column—seven cervical, twelve thoracic, five or six lumbar, five sacrum, and three secrets. Bones in the body hold roughly fifteen percent of a person’s body weight: a body that weighed one hundred pounds would be harboring fifteen pounds of secrets.
There is no cure for scoliosis. There are forms of physical therapy available as treatment, such as electrical muscle stimulation, in which small pads are attached to the patient’s back. These pads have connecting wires that hook up to a machine on which the therapist will choose a level of pressure and a length of time. The adolescent, lying face down, will feel the back muscles clench for as many seconds as the therapist chooses to hold.
The procedure is designed to strengthen back muscles, in hopes that the body will learn to align on its own, but the patient may feel as if the doctor is doing their best to rid the body of an evil spirit.
The medical books: Scoliosis is an abnormal curve in the spine.
The chiropractor: There is no reason to not feel normal.
I learned how to put on socks. They were the final challenge each morning, after buckling the brace and molding clothing on top of it. I became stiff. My torso could not bend over in a comfortable curve to slip socks onto pointed toes. Everything took twice as long. I held socks by the heel and heavily pulled each one over the bottom of my foot. Outside the brace, the entire process of putting on socks takes all of three seconds and zero seconds of planning. It is different every time, but always involves a contraction of the pelvis, and maybe a little jumping on one foot. Inside this device, I stood upright, praising my ballet balance, and drew my foot slowly upwards from the floor, my ankle sicled in an angle possible for my hands to solidly wrap the cloth around the skin.
Him: It’s not that I feel inhibited. It’s just that you don’t seem fully there.
Taking off the brace at any time was a breach of contract. Anything that could not be done inside it should not be done at all: dancing, eating cheese, having sex.
At nineteen I tried out meditation, searching for my spirit animal. On my back in a field, I found it was a bobcat. Eyes closed, grass prickly beneath my arms, legs and neck. In my imagined forest, in my woods that only exist for me, a bobcat appeared from behind a bush. It did not speak, but it told me plainly: keep your silence and secrets.
That was autumn, and by spring I should have known better. On my back on a green hill, in not-quite spring, I should have known.
No one’s around, he said. Let me hear you, he said. But I didn’t speak.
A shift occurs after your first adolescent relationships, when the sickening bundle of insincere endearment becomes too difficult to hold. I could never hold another body for too long. When I was fifteen my boyfriend was older; he wanted to lie together in the cool dimness of his basement with our clothes off, feeling the places our skin would touch and form together. Another living body forced upon my own. I could never hold another body for too long.
The chiropractor always asked me to hold my breath when he took the x-ray. I never knew if this was a necessary part of the procedure or not. I would take off my necklace, belt, and any other metal on my body. I would press my back against the x-ray wall as he stepped into the next room to flip the switch.
Hold your breath, he’d say. Then we’d wait.
Sometimes, I didn’t hold my breath. I let the spine escape through my mouth.
Naomi Washer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Ghost Proposal. Her work has appeared in Essay Daily, Blue Mesa Review, Split Lip Magazine, TYPO, Passages North, and other journals. She holds an MFA in Nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago and teaches writing and literature from her home in Vermont, below a mountain, between two rivers. Find out more at http://www.naomiwasher.com