Categories
2021 Under Pressure

Under Pressure: Jessica Abughattas

Jessica Abughattas is the author of Strip, winner of the 2020 Etel Adnan Poetry Prize selected by Fady Joudah and Hayan Charara. A Kundiman fellow, her poems appear in The Adroit Journal, Best of the Net 2019, Tupelo Quarterly, among other venues. She lives in Los Angeles.

Interview

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: How long did working on Strip take, from conception to publication?

Jessica Abughattas: The oldest poems are four years old now, so in that sense, four years. In the sense of sequencing and conceiving of a manuscript, I started doing that early in 2018.

SHP: Where did you get your title inspiration from?

JA: I mined my manuscript for words or phrases and ended up staring at the word strip. I wrote a first draft of the poem “Strip” then, and months later rewrote it to resemble its form in the book. So the title came first. It’s a command. It’s something the book required from me. I like that it contains “rip.” It evokes place; both pleasure and suffering.

SHP: If given the choice to spend 24 hours in a museum creating something, what medium would you prefer?

JA: Film.

SHP: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?

JA: I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but Jenny Factor encouraged me early on to think of a book as an art object. It helps me not to over-identify with it, its praise or criticism. I’m not the book I published at 28 any more than I will be the one I’ll write at 40. I want to continue writing for a long time, so I try to counter self-limiting beliefs with the reality that I’m evolving. It doesn’t serve me to obsess over what I think I ought to have done differently.

SHP: How do you feel about deadlines? Are they a good or bad pressure for you?

JA: Good pressure. Even when there aren’t deadlines, I impose them to help me generate. I still procrastinate to meet them, but that’s not the point.

SHP: Your book interrogates desire in many ways. Could you tell us about the power of desire, or the engine behind many of these poems?

JA: This book’s mantra is “I want.” Pleasure can feel empowering when you’ve been subject to states of disempowerment, whether it be due to dysfunctional relationship/family dynamics or persecuted identities. To own it, state it felt like something I was taking back. But desire, the craving and longing for pleasure, brings suffering (“It infuriates me that he’s good at living”). It is suffering, to ruminate on possibilities and lack. The speaker contemplates desire and pleasure, what of it belongs to the self. Ultimately, there’s pleasure to be found in what is. (“I love my misery. / I give thanks to it.”)

SHP: When and how does inspiration find you? For example, do you go outside to find it in nature, or does it suddenly come to you in the middle of the night?

JA: Outside in nature, driving, in the middle of my work day, first thing in the morning. No sense of a pattern yet. While it’s a nice idea to wait for inspiration to find you, I prefer to be in the habit of writing all the time, even if it’s just jotting down a sentence that I thought of in the middle of a chore. A lot of my drafts begin in the Notes folder on my phone.

SHP: What advice would you share for those sending out a manuscript now?

JA: Let everything be up for negotiation, be willing to re-envision poems, titles, and sequences that have been considered “done” to you. Mess everything up and see if you still agree with your choices. When you solicit outside feedback, try everything on, but trust your gut above all else.

Facing rejection, remember your expression is your gift and you were meant for kindness. Let the mother archetype inside say “They are wrong” if that’s what it takes to keep going. Find close readers who appreciate you. June Jordan’s mantra “I will love who loves me. I will love as much as I am loved.”

SHP: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate in or feel are important to your writing?

JA: Spiritual practice, in any form, whether grounding myself with movement, visualization, or standing outside in the sun and noticing the sensory pleasures of nature in my yard. Even contemplative reading, or contemplating what feels tense or stuck in my body. Mind-body connection has been a healing force that has propelled my writing. When I was younger, I wrote from a place of panic, anxiety, and discomfort, but I’m learning to attend to myself rather than beating myself up to be productive. It’s not easy to do.

SHP: If you could describe Strip using a 3 song playlist, which songs would you choose and why?

JA:Perfect Places” by Lorde, because indeed, what the fuck are perfect places? “Scott Street” by Phoebe Bridgers for its sense of humor. “Lucky” by Britney Spears – self-explanatory.

Order Strip here

Categories
2021

THIRTY THREE

from Grunch in Bed by Jamaal Peterman

THE BOILER PRIZE

Selected by Kendra Allen

Winner: A. Shaikh
Runner-Up: Aimee Herman


ART

Jamaal Peterman has developed a highly encoded language of abstraction that ricochets inside of, between, and beyond the frame of the image. Peterman’s dazzling geometric abstraction illuminates an “absolute reality” in which color and form communicate hierarchies of space and movement as well as class and race. Central to Peterman’s landscape work is the artist’s reflection on how black and brown bodies navigate through urban space. Shades of black and brown encode certain elements in the paintings as representative of black bodies, communities, businesses, and ecosystems.

Lines of connection run between these forms, while their quantity and direction suggest routes of access and exclusion, at once making reference to flows of information, the design of a circuit board, and processes of redlining. In this way, Peterman’s visual symbols are designed to aid in marking the time, history, and spaces that black bodies have continually navigated and constructed. Resembling sidewalks, bricks, or building facades, textured sections of each canvas are embedded with expressionistic marks and symbols that act as possible cheat codes for entering the image. Just like a handprint or name pressed into sidewalk cement, these tactile details represent memory and the disappearance of physical identity.

Jamaal Peterman (b. 1990, Fort Lauderdale, FL; lives and works in Brooklyn, NY) received his BFA from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (2014) and his MFA at Pratt Institute (2019). Most recently, he undertook residencies at MASS MoCA, Wassaic Project Residency, and Fountainhead Residency. Peterman has presented work in numerous solo and group exhibitions within the US. 

Categories
2021 Poetry

Jaz Sufi

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

after Franny Choi

What a gift it was, your dick inside me. Thank you
to the man who gave generously, saw my body
as a charity. I giggle when a new man tells me
an old joke and pulls a bouquet out from the trash
like a magician. Thank you for recycling.
Man who calls me his mother’s name, expects me
to wear her hospital gown to the altar. Thank you.
Thank you, hands that smooth my hair back
as I deposit the day in their bed. I appreciate
that I’m never so ugly your eyes avert themselves.
Always a parlor room to powder the other side of the bed.
Leave a chalk outline. Leave your fingerprints
on the water glass, thank you. Woman who returns
to her wife in the morning. Fingers that fill themselves
with other breasts, thank you. I’m so grateful
for the crumbs you left in my bed. I’m licking them up
like flowers at a funeral, all the colors blooming
like a manufactured season. Thank you. I don’t know
what I would do if no one offered me a fire escape
as I set all the stairs ablaze. I’m desperate
for an exit. I’m listening for your voice. It’s amazing,
how I can slice myself so small
a tree wouldn’t grow from my core. The forest
won’t have me. I’ve begged my branches to grow. Thank you.
I, too, humble myself before the photos I sent you.
I pin my smile to my skull in someone else’s favorite updo.
I’m so lucky to be chosen, with my own face
and this same smile. All of my clothes are re-stitching
themselves to my body, I want you so bad,
thank you. You make me so wet I rust shut, thank you.
I’m so lucky that you think you’re so lucky, I’m drowning
in this pot of gold. I’m a gift peering at its own teeth.
Thank you, I crack the frames you lock me inside of.
I’m wearing your future on the wrong face. I’m so grateful
for your gun down my throat instead of something
sharper. Even the balconies shudder beneath me.
Even the scrapings claim they’re from my skin.
I want to kiss your scraps and I kiss myself instead.
Thank you. I’m so happy to be seen. I’m so grateful
to be loved. For meeting my eyes with your eyes,
for apologizing, thank you, thank you for apologizing,
please, say you’re sorry, just one last time, again.


CONFESSION

I steal your coat in the dead of winter
and ransom back its pockets’ stones.
I defraud your knife of its edge;
your oven of its heat. I cheat.
I plagiarize your noose. I loot
your overdose for its pills. I kidnap
your children from their beds
and give them more gracious names.
With their father’s eyes, they hate me
for it. I embezzle blood from your bank
teller’s pen. I misappropriate the funds.
I withdraw more from my own account.
I run off with your wife. I marry
her when I meant to marry you instead.


THE OTHER KIDS USE THEIR HANDS

The other kids use their hands
to rain salt down on the snails
outside the church where we

don’t go to church. Our parents
rent the space out on Saturdays —
no Christ here today, no one

dying for someone else to be
forgiven. I’m not so furious
as I could be, but am I ever?

I’m furious. I’m screaming
Stop, so loud it’s another straws
tacked against the existence

of miracles that none
of the adults inside hear me
outside. You’d think you’d

be able to hear that kind
of pain — the snails, I mean,
you’d think each grain

of salt would sizzle as it
struck their fistless bodies,
their lidless eyes, unable

even to blink or look any
place safer than inward.
Can snails hear what happens

outside their shells? My
frenzied rage, the other kids
laughing, the clatter of salt.

Certainly not my brother,
gripping my hand in his and
crying so quiet next to me

none of us even noticed
when he wasn’t there at all,
ran inside the church to tug

at my mother’s sleeve
and beg her to come outside,
stop the salt, stop me,

and she did. Even after
we left, though, I couldn’t stop
telling the story the whole drive

home, over and over again,
couldn’t even buckle
my seatbelt for my hands

still shaking. Did you see,
I asked, Did you see?
Not Did you hear me?

or what my brother had said,
dragging her outside to witness
a wrong kind of worship;

whether he whispered or begged,
like a screaming snail
if a snail could scream.

Why, when she went back
and told the other adults
what happened, the parents

of no one had cared. Did you
see?, my brother’s palm
pressed against mine in the backseat,

both of them still sticky
with salt and sweat. I squeezed
too hard, and he made

a small sound, a whimper,
but I wasn’t listening,
Did you see? Did you?


Jaz Sufi (she/hers) is a mixed race Iranian-American poet and arts educator. Her work has been published or is upcoming in AGNI, PANK, Birdfeast, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She is a Kundiman fellow and National Poetry Slam finalist, winner of the 2020 Yellowwood Poetry Prize, and is currently an MFA candidate and Goldwater fellow at New York University.

Categories
2021 Fiction

R.S. Powers

THE HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH

He gets down on one knee with a waxy smile. He pops an old glasses case and points at me a .22-bullet-sized inset that gleams like a blood-dark shard of church glass. I’ve seen the ring on his mom. Will you marry me? he trumpets and everyone outside Cinderella’s Castle begins to din and take videos I’ll see online for the rest of my life. I’m hearing a dirge that isn’t there—I’m outside myself murmuring: Yes. He bear-hugs my ribs and Mickey and Minnie rush over to help and I’m in the gummy jaws of coliseum lions, an entire metropolis roaring for gore. What am I doing? It’s Star Wars cosplay day—May the fourth be with you! I’m white-robe Leia, he’s fighter-jacket Han. I don’t know how to tell him we’re not getting married.

*

The only working channel in our motel is the porn one. He’s shirtless on the bed using my laptop to share proposal photos with our families. I’m on the little balcony over the parking lot, the dusk a deep bruise. I’m in my late grandma’s swimsuit with a pack of old cigarettes.

I could feed him tall boys, wait for snoring, take his car, leave my phone, but he’d get his cop brother involved. I could take my phone, taunt him when he calls, but he’d call my mom and she’d call his mom and together they’d preach about what a magnanimous angel I’ve been. This is fixable! my mom would say. Your many children will love you! his mom would say.

Get in here, he says, putting on a torn t-shirt. He wants me for a video he’s posting. I show the ring and say: Next stop Vegas! We watch and re-watch our first take. His smile is nowhere near mine. He must’ve known I would’ve said no. He needed the crowd.

*

Only a few days ago he and I were on a ragged Gulf beach watching the day die and buzzing on something cheap I’d bought at a gas station. He told me he’d likely be fired for kicking his construction job supervisor in the kidney over poker cash. He asked if we could move in together; I said we should go on a first road trip to Disney. I packed that night, thinking: We go, we return, we’re done, hallelujah. He pulled up at dawn insisting he drive all twelve hours. Almost right away, he called my mom about the rides he’d researched. You’re such sweetness! she said. Next, he called his mom: How I envy you two!

*

We nail his video on the fourth take. He shows me photos of the ask he got from passersby. You look so surprised, he says, holding the laptop to his face. Like you can’t believe it. I want to say: I can’t. I say: May the fourth—a date that will live in infamy! He holds my shoulders, says: I’m sorry I surprised you but we’ll be telling this story for the next hundred years. This is the first normal thing we’ve ever done. He drinks quickly and waits for me to bless him with forgiveness. I watch him talk Vegas chapel plans and our heading there tomorrow.

*

Everything about him once brought me an unfamiliar joy. We met a year ago in the Main Street coffeehouse where I freelance-edit technical manuals. He approached with a bag of sour worms and said he’d seen me eating them. He was weird-cute, pale with short dyed-black hair, shabbily dressed like in a bad band, dozens of little arm tattoos crisscrossed with scars. He’d been a marine, he said, in Iraq, and asked if I wanted to go see a new British aristocracy film. That afternoon we fucked in his un-swept bedroom like sad teenagers. I asked if he’d ever killed anyone—we were in our underwear, drinking boxed wine—and he said I wouldn’t believe him whether he said yes or no. When I found out he’d never been a marine, he said: I wanted you to know I could protect you, and he tried to punch through his bathroom door. He had me make a list of my passwords—social media, email, what-have-you. You’re older, my mom said on the phone. Mature him. When I met his mom, he took us for dinner at a Chinese takeout he used to work at. Afterwards, he and I were in my bed and he struck me on the fleshiest part of one of my bare buttocks. Naked, he stood over me and said he didn’t think I was strong enough to do the same: Hit me, Alice. Show me badness. Show me you. He first pretended to kill me after saying I should pay his entire electricity bill. Your deadbeat roommates should pay! I said and he shattered his cereal bowl in the sink. He grabbed my throat, shuffled me to the doorframe. You love this, he said, which was a little true. I spat in his face, raked my nails across his nipples. We belong together, he said weakly. A few weeks ago, we were in my car in an empty Walmart parking lot after he was fired from a telemarketing job. I bit his ear lobe and drew blood. He kept on sobbing: I’m nothing. I’m nothing. He’d never looked more broken. I realized then I’d only ever been devoted to how dangerous he might be. He won’t remember who we really were.

*

He falls asleep mid-sentence, something about an Area 51 honeymoon.

There’s nothing for me to pack. I take his keys.

On the little balcony the new night is alive with screams bouncing between the stucco buildings, a nearby boozy block party getting started. My USA flip-flops aren’t designed to climb down to the first-floor balcony and push through the wall of barbed bushes. I make a promise: When I remember today, I’ll remember the lacerated lines on my arms and legs. I’ll remember my midnight drive in search of revelers. The rest will have never happened.


R.S. Powers’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Sou’wester, Speculative Nonfiction, X-R-A-Y, World Literature Today, The Hunger, and other journals. He is currently a PhD candidate in creative writing at Florida State University.

Categories
2021 Fiction

Lucy Zhang

BLUEBEARD’S SISTER

Her brother leads his wives to their deaths.

It happens like clockwork: the wife–maybe willowy and tall like the tree swaying near the mansion, brushing against the windows without scratching the glass, maybe short and compact, a package of spitfire and sass, maybe soft and curved with that childlike plumpness witches like to stir in their evening stews–marries into the family with a small wedding in the back garden, under a birch arch strung with ivy, attended by more birds than people.

It happens like clockwork: her brother tells his wife I need to run an errand, here are the keys to all of the rooms in the mansion, you may open any door except for the one leading to the underground chamber, I’ll be back in a few days and hands the silly wife a ring of keys, all shiny and new besides one–the runt, the rusted, the one that smells of old pennies and whose surface seems to flake away upon touch. The wife wanders from room to room, hesitates for a moment before prying open the final door whose hinge flap and knuckles squeak, disturbing the silence. The wife descends into the underground chamber, discovers the floor is wet, screams as she counts the corpses hanging from hooks around the room–women, some dripping blood, some not, each finer than the adjacent body. It happens like clockwork: the wife drops the key in fresh blood and quickly snatches it back up, runs out of the room without cleaning her sweaty fingerprints from the doorknob or her trail of bloodied footsteps, tries to revert to a state of mind before entering the chamber.

It happens like clockwork: her brother finds out and strangles the wife in his underground lair, the silly pigeon, the dumb dove.

You aren’t like them, he tells his sister. You’re clever.

What is cleverness? she wonders as she wrings the rag dry and hands it to her brother so he can scrub down the doorknob. The stiletto of one of the hanging corpses clatters to the ground, clumps of the original wearer’s rotting skin falling with it. She reaches out to grab the shoe and balance it back on the desiccated flesh, but he places his hand on her wrist, thumb drawing a circle around her ulnar styloid, and shakes his head like she should know better, like she is a child trying to fix a fracture with hot glue.

It’ll just fall off again. Why don’t you get changed for dinner? I’m almost done here.

She nods and walks–more like glides–to her room; her feet leave no trail of blood, a ghost in the hall.

In her room, she steps out of her dress, now a puddle of white fabric and crusted splotches of brown. She inhales the metallic scent of blood like she can absorb it into her skin. She stares at her naked body, a spidery creature–all limbs and protrusions. She reaches her hand behind her neck and touches the ridges of the vertebrae down her spine and finds the scar, a small stitch in the fabric of her skin, so imperceptible she sometimes questions its existence.

When they were kids, their parents tried to marry her off to a baron whom they owned a significant debt. Originally of modest wealth, their family suffered when their main trade of furs lost business thanks to the development of cotton. At ten years old, she learned she would marry into the sixty-year-old baron’s family as his third wife when the servants led her to not her room but the guest room where the baron, a walrus of a monocle-wearing man, sat in his bathrobe, sipping wine and balancing checker pieces between his multi-gemstone, multi-ring-adorned fingers. He beckoned her forward and wrapped his hand around her waist, slipped his fingers under the back opening of her dress. His rings grazed her skin, like ice compared to his sweaty hand. Her mouth refused to open, lips pursed, fists tight, and then, like she’d been stabbed with a hot iron, she bolted. The baron’s diamond ring scraped her back–it seared, but she shut off the pain and pulled until the dress tore under his grip and she escaped the room. To her brother’s room, where he welcomed her in, patted her on the head like she was a stuffed animal, cradled her in his arms, and let her sleep in his bed. The next day, coroners deemed the baron dead due to a heart attack–that old man had always been overweight and full of clogged arteries. And if anyone asked her brother where he was that night, he smiled and said he’d been studying in the library and no, he hadn’t even known the baron was in their home.

Her brother is clever: he makes money out of broken businesses, charms investors, sabotages competitors, and look–now they are rich, protected from unwanted suitors, eating fresh fruits even when they’re out of season, wanting for nothing. He knows to leave his tie loose for his wife to tighten, a calculated act of intimacy. He knows how to pinpoint a family’s favored daughter–the one who will inherit all the one-of-a-kind antiques, the one who will leave the family in sorrow, how to emerge from a marriage proposal with a dowry valued at twice his initial goal, how to pleasure a woman one night and strangle her for her transgressions the next. 

She is not clever: she doesn’t know when men want bed warmers or conversationalists, how hot her tea is until she burns her tongue, why she hears a pulse in her ear that matches her heartbeat as she spies the wife running back upstairs, dripping blood onto the hand-spun Persian carpet.

She has tea with the wives before they open the chamber door. They gossip like teenagers at a sleepover, sitting prim and proper on four-legged chairs that are more air than wood, their backs so straight a plank must have slipped into their spines, so still they could balance encyclopedias from A to C on their heads.

Use food coloring to dye hot water yellow, the wives tell her. Pretend it’s chicken broth–men like when you have an appetite, but they don’t want it to show. The wives gesture to their hourglass figure cinched with a corset.

But brother doesn’t care for that, she tells them.

The wives snort, men–they’re all the same. Going through several bottles of wine in the evening, sloshing liquid in glasses like they think they’re professional wine tasters, spilling it over the floor so the room smells like rotten pineapple the next day–all that, we have to clean up. Best thing you can get from putting up with it is money.

What will you do with all the money? she asks.

Some of the wives want to send funds back to their childhood crushes, a forbidden romance with the poor farm boy who now works in slaughterhouses, snapping heads off chickens in well-oiled factory lines. Some want to start businesses in fashion–dresses with pockets, cushioned and padded shoes. Others dream of raising children, sending them off to prestigious boarding schools, cooking organic meals for family picnics, massaging their husband’s shoulders after a stressful day at work, comparing the number of charities they’ve donated to with the neighboring wives.

What would you do? They ask her.

Like when she was a child, splitting single meals with her family, stomach growling into the night, waiting for the next day’s charitable donation of a jug of milk and maybe a few eggs, she remembers to eat once a day and only when she faints, threatens to wither away, does her brother spoon-feed her the rich meats and sauces from the kitchen. He lets her lean into his lap, tells her about the antique ruby tiara he’ll gift her once he claims ownership over his new wife’s dowry. She moves with the same overzealous caution as she did when she was a child, every motion dictated by her fear and imagination: clowns emerge from shadows, bookshelves, barely open closets, and they squeak their red noses and try to peel her skin away, leaving her nowhere to hide; so when she walks to the library, grips a book’s spine, stitches years-old dresses back together, she keeps a candle nearby. Money, money, what can money buy?

I’m happy just helping brother, she says. It doesn’t feel like a lie.

At dinner, her brother mentions finding a new wife.

Why do you need a new wife again so soon? she asks. Aren’t I enough? She attempts to stab a grape tomato with her fork; it jumps away.

He laughs. You know you’re not wife material.

It happens like clockwork: her brother marries some country girl, the youngest of a family of six, and leaves this new wife in possession of the keys, all scintillating except for one. There’s nothing interesting behind that door, she tells the new wife over earl grey tea, repeats it several times during the conversation, implores with barely masked desperation, as she has told all the previous wives. But, like clockwork, the new wife opens the door to the underground chamber, screams, trails blood back up the stairs, over the carpet, in between crevasses of floorboards that have just begun to crack.

Her brother returns before she can finish cleaning, half-heartedly hiding the evidence. But it is not so bad, she thinks when they take care of the wife’s corpse and its aftermath–one of them rinsing rags, the other scrubbing stains–doing this together, as always.


Lucy Zhang writes, codes, and watches anime. Her work has appeared in Contrary, New Delta Review, Hypertext and elsewhere. She is an editor for Heavy Feather Review and assistant fiction editor for Pithead Chapel. Find her at here or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.

Categories
2021 Fiction

Stephanie C. Trott

(NO) VACANCY

Marlene has been inside me for nearly two years. Six hundred and ninety-four days, if you’re counting, and I have been from the start. Possession isn’t something one comes into slowly but rather all at once, like jumping off the high dive at the community swimming pool. You’re just minding your own business falling through space and then all of a sudden you’re smashing through something and you can’t breathe and you don’t know which way is up. You’re held down there in the cold and the dark with no chance of escape, even though the other side is so close that sometimes you can feel the sun and see the ripple of wind at the surface. But that’s exactly where she’s bringing me now: the surface.

I was still in school when it happened, about to get my bachelor’s and spend a summer traveling alone through Europe. Cliché, I know, but c’mon: the food, the art, the sex. Who wouldn’t want to spend three months gorging themselves in every possible way? A middle-aged ghost wasn’t on the list of things I wanted to put inside me, but that’s what happened one night in the library while I was studying for finals. I walked in as one person and came out another.

No one told me what to expect when she took hold of my body. I didn’t know I’d lose my sense of taste and smell, that my hair would lack its shine. Most days I’m lucky if I get up before eleven, and I only listen to classic rock. Now I’m more scared of being alone than I am at the thought of her staying forever.

She drops the news as I’m flossing one night after dinner, right as I’m working to free a shred of spinach: “I’m leaving you.” Her words come out of my mouth as I fling a tiny green speck onto to the mirror, and blood fills the space between my bicuspids.

“You’re what?” I ask, tasting warm iron and salt. I can’t believe what I’ve just said.

“Leaving.”

“Why?”

“I’m bored. You never take me anywhere new.”

“I thought you hated anything new.”

“See, that’s the problem,” she sighs. “You don’t anticipate my needs anymore. It’s never ‘what does Marlene want,’ not like in the beginning. I need someone who’s going to challenge me. Someone who won’t be such a pushover.”

“I’m not a pushover,” I say. “I don’t let us walk naked in front of the windows anymore.”

“I know, and I hate it. We’re holding each other back. I have needs.”

“I can change.”

“You can’t. Trust me.”

On the bus ride to work the next morning, she outlines her impending departure so that I can continue coming to terms: she’ll select a worthy partner after trying out a few and will make her final move in a month.

“What if you don’t find someone?” I ask, eyeing the other passengers and imaging her inside them. The man with a bumpy nose. The woman with body odor. The child whose shoes are on the wrong feet. “Then will you stay?”

I know this is a text-book case of Stockholm syndrome, but I can’t help it. Who am I without her? Someone who secretly still needs two credits to graduate, who knows she’s a disappointment to her parents, who’s never been west of the Mississippi River—Hell, I’ve never even been out of the Northeast. I’ve let this woman consume me, change me, define me. It won’t be a relief to have her gone; it’ll be an emptiness, like a sagging mattress tossed to the curb. Without Marlene, I’ll have to face who I’ve let myself become with her, and there will be so much undoing to be done up again.

I’ve come to find myself more comfortable in her company than in that of my family and friends. I haven’t seen them in months, though they still call every so often. Mostly they say they miss me, that it’s been too long and hope I’m okay and want to get together for dinner some time. But other than social withdrawal and a bit of concern for my sudden isolation, no one who knew me before has suspected a thing. Possession isn’t always a loud and ornate expression like they make it look in the movies; as crass and obscene as she is in private, Marlene is generally quite quiet when we’re around other people. Most of my conversations with her happen in my head, like some twisted version of a conscience. Only occasionally does she act out.

“There are at least five people on this bus who would work,” she says. “Six, if you count that baby, but I don’t like the way he’s sucking his thumb. That shit makes for years of orthodontia.”

“So you want someone younger.”

“No, I want someone with more agency.”

“A baby doesn’t have agency.” We cross Myrtle Street and I press the yellow tape to signal our stop.

“No, but he’s a hell of a lot cuter than you.”

We get off the bus and I watch it pull away with her potential suitors as we head toward the bank. After I watched my friends graduate, the only job I could find (and keep) was as a teller downtown, monitoring money and handing out lollipops through the drive-up window. I didn’t go to college for this. I studied Proust. I analyzed Baudelaire. I thought my life might take place somewhere along the Seine or at the very least in Canada. Now the closest I come to that dream is exchanging dollars for euros, placed into the hands of folks who have more cash than they know what to do with. That’s how you travel: you have money, time, and a life that gets to be filled however you wish.

When Marlene arrived, I resold my plane tickets and used the rest of the money I’d saved for my trip to rent an apartment where we could be alone and get to know each other. It was difficult at first and took time to learn what foods she liked (chalupas and cheezy curls), which clothes she wanted to wear (nothing, preferably, but cutoffs and flannels were eventually permitted), when she slept (never), and where we could go (very few places).

Marlene’s idea of travel is our weekly trip to the public library, where we check out 1980s horror films. She’s frugal, and it’s one of the few things we can squarely agree on. Together we take walks down Elm Street, spend summers at Camp Crystal Lake, sleep restlessly in Amityville, and make snowmen at the Overlook Hotel. Today as we watch a pirated version of Poltergeist on my iPhone, I tell her there are other movies we could try. I could take her somewhere new without going anywhere at all. I suggest Phantom of the Opera, trying to find something a little more cultured.

“I hate music.”

Nosferatu?

“Too quiet.”

King Kong?

“I could get into bestiality,” she teases and has me eat a cherry lollipop while Carol Anne gets sucked into the void. A man in a white newsboy cap pulls up and fiddles with the plastic drive-thru canister, sending it through the tubes and into my hands. He rolls up the tinted window of his Benz so that only his eyes are visible. “Bet he’s loaded,” says Marlene.

Inside the container is a deposit slip, a check for $32,000, ten twenty-dollar bills, and a business card. He’s placed three red Xs by his telephone number, which he’s underlined. Guys do stuff like this all the time, send me little notes through the deposit system. I can see myself with this man: Eddie Almeida, Independent Real Estate Agent. His card says his office is on Bradford Avenue, across from the liquor store where there’s always a cop circling, and I’ve seen his face smeared on billboards near the highway. He has a reputation, and Marlene’s taste in men—questionable at best—has rubbed off. Before her, I never would have gone for a guy like this. Lately, though, even she is quick to find fault with them. Eddie rolls his window down again and presses the intercom button.

“That sucker looks real good,” he says. He licks his lips and winks.

“Oh, stuff it,” Marlene says aloud, wanting him to hear. “You’ve got the tiniest little dick and no clue what to do with it. Come back when you get some Viagra.”

I feel my cheeks flush as we process Eddie’s deposit, then return the receipt without making eye contact with him. He pulls away, likely as embarrassed as I am; I hate that she can read everyone’s thoughts, not just mine. I take the lollipop out of my mouth and throw it toward the trash bin beneath my desk. It misses and sticks to the rug.

“Did you ever think about using your powers for good?” I ask her.

“Did you ever think about using my powers for anything at all?”

*

Two weeks pass and Marlene is no closer to finding her next partner, or at least that’s what she’s telling me. Mostly she goes out when I’m asleep, but her return jolts me awake like a cat pouncing on my chest. There’s this deep weight and I can sense her inside me again, settling in and leaving me to acquaint myself once more with the heaviness of another being. I bet if you took a scan of my entire body, you’d see how physically messed up I am from having another person inside me for this long. My fingers have curled, my feet have bunions. Sometimes I wonder if she’s given me stomach ulcers or if it’s all the coffee she drinks. My eyesight is gone—like, completely shot. I ache all the time, but I can’t remember what it’s like not to.

There are days when I look in the mirror and see only her face, but I know that a part of me is still in there, somewhere. I see who I was in the freckle on my right pinky toe, in the scar above my upper lip that I got when I was ten. Everything else is Marlene: the way my sweat smells like cigarettes even though I’ve never smoked, how my eyebrows now thin at the ends where they once were thick tufts of blonde. Her table manners are what’s worst, the chewing and the smacking and the slapping of my lips, and the way she swallows things whole. It hurts, inside and out, when someone has taken control of you.

Marlene was a waitress in her mortal life, at the all-night diner down the street from our apartment. I never went there before she moved in, but since then I’ve become one of their regular midnight customers. Marlene takes me there when she’s restless so that she can watch the desserts spin on their chrome plates. I buy us a piece of chocolate cream pie and wait for her to settle. Tonight she wants to play AC/DC on the jukebox, but I don’t have any quarters. “We can listen to music at home for free,” I tell her.

“You don’t have anything I like.”

“We can find something on YouTube. There’s a ton of B-sides on there. Or I can reserve some Slayer CDs from the library. Whatever you want.”

“No. Just knowing you’d rather listen to ‘Coat of Many Colors’ puts me in a mood.”

“Everyone loves Dolly Parton.”

“I do not love Dolly Parton,” she growls.

We sit in silence as she becomes transfixed with a bowl of rotating JELL-O and I finish the pie knowing I fucked up. The waitress comes over and says it’s nice to see me again. I smile and Marlene licks the graham cracker crumbs off our fork. I joke with the waitress and tell her I’m practically part of the furniture now. She places the receipt face down in front of me, as if I don’t already know it’s $4.73, that it’s the sixth piece of pie I’ve eaten since Tuesday, that my pants are ripped beneath the crotch from where my thighs can’t stop rubbing together. I’ll need to get a gym membership when Marlene leaves. Shit.

The waitress smiles big and leans over the counter. Her breasts rest on the sugar shaker.

“Anything else I can get you, hon?” she asks.

I feel my eye start to twitch, and I quickly slap five bucks on the counter. Whenever Marlene’s about the act up, my left eyelid quivers and then it’s only a matter of moments before she’s flipping a table or calling someone the C word. It doesn’t happen often, and when it does I mostly black out.

“Thanks for the pie, bitch,” I hear Marlene slur as we trip toward the glass doors and spill into the night. She finds my keys as we’re walking toward a yellow Camaro, their metal edges poking out from my hand like Freddy’s jagged nails. Tunnel-visioned, I watch as she scratches three deep lines from tail to front and bangs my fists on the hood, barely making a dent.

“Dumb blonde,” she says, and walks my jelly legs back to my Toyota.

Inside I come-to slowly. My foot hurts and the skin between my fingers is bleeding. I fumble for one of my brother’s old Black Sabbath tapes and play it as I drive us home. It has taken so long to learn how to please Marlene that I have lost the things that please me: Édith Piaf’s “Padam Padam,” the taste of fresh strawberries, sunrises, the feeling of my dog, Arlo, sleeping against me. I had to rehome him early in our relationship when Marlene jokingly tried to kick him, and I haven’t seen him since.

“What was that about?” I ask calmly, not wanting to upset her more.

 “She’s the one.”

“What? How?”

“She’s perfect.”

“But you just mangled her car. You don’t even know her.”

“I’ve been watching her for a long time. Doesn’t give a damn about other people, lives in a shitty apartment across town and only cares about her next paycheck. She’s got no savings, just that car, and she reminds me of myself when I was alive. She’ll get those scratches fixed in no time, and then I’ll have something nice to ride around in once I get her to actually drive it right.”

“I think the Camry’s pretty nice.”

“It might be nice for you!” she roars, and we swerve into the empty bike lane. The car rumbles and then quiets as I get us back in the road. Marlene sighs. “You heard how she smirked at us. She thinks she’s better than you.”

“So?”

“So she needs to be taught a lesson. I never had anyone do that for me, okay?”

We’re silent for a few songs until the tape clicks over. This savior complex is a new side of her, one I don’t understand. Am I not worth her staying to help me clean up this mess? Why does she have to fix someone else when she’s broken me? She waits until the intro of “Turn Up the Night” finishes before she speaks again.

“Don’t come back to the diner when I’m gone. Go to Europe, like you were going to. I hear Paris is nice.”

“What would I do in Paris?”

“I don’t know. Drink wine. Meet someone new.”

“But I have you.”

“We each need to find ourselves again.”

“Please, Leen, I don’t know what else to do. I’ll miss you too much.”

“Shut up. You won’t.”

“We could go together, before you leave? One last hurrah. I’ll sublet the apartment and show you the Mona Lisa. We can ride through Montmartre on a Vespa.”

“Those things are ridiculous.”

“Yeah. I know.”

*

Marlene leaves me on a Tuesday just after three A.M. We’re watching The Exorcist, the part where Reagan’s head spins all the way around, and I’m waiting for Marlene to laugh like she always does. “Demons don’t have to obey the limits of anatomy,” she told me the first time we watched it together. “It’s different with ghosts. You go and snap your neck, and I’m stuck living in a cold house until the Rapture swings by to pick me up.” It’s never stopped me from thinking about it, especially when I thought she might be off with someone else. But we both knew I’d never jump. If I died, she’d have no one to come home to, and neither would I.

Reagan’s head begins to turn, and I feel a rumble in the pit of my stomach, like green slime might come out of my mouth if I’m not careful. Instead it’s Marlene, loud and deep and rolling out of me in waves. I feel her next in my chest, then in my throat and on my tongue. Finally she’s everywhere, her voice and mine filling the room as we laugh at someone else’s misfortune, someone else’s undoing. She keeps going and I can’t stop it, the sound of her leaving, the sound of me coming back. I laugh for what feels like forever, until Father Karras dies and the credits roll and roll and I’m not laughing anymore. I’m crying, alone. Lying in my bed with my sweat and my stench and my own body. Mine. Not hers. Not ours.

I gasp in air and feel it reach the bottom of my lungs, welcoming oxygen to touch the parts of my body I’d forgotten were meant for just me. I piss myself, the sheets soaked with a deep, aching relief. I was a bed-wetter as a kid, and the feeling is familiar, safe. But as it cools and the warmth dissipates, I’m swept by the quiet realization that it’s happened: she’s gone. I’m alone. And Paris is so far away.


Stephanie C. Trott lives and writes in southeastern Massachusetts. She is a fiction editor at Longleaf Review and the 2021 guest editor for Emerging Voices in Fiction at Oyster River Pages. Her fiction additionally appears in Prairie SchoonerBlood Orange Review, and New South.

Categories
2021 Poetry

Rita Mookerjee

ELEGY IN AUGUST TOWN

The taxi man asks how I am coping with the recent incidents
on Hermitage Road. When I ask what happened he says violence

and before he tells me about the young man, I already know exactly
what happened. He says violence and the word bursts from its skin,

a word that leaves more words in its wake, almost always the same:
recent string of    teenage    investigation     pavement     unknown.

Back home, when the news says BREAKING, I hold my breath and wait
for the picture, which is usually a school photo. People tend to keep

those on hand. Here in Kingston, the boy’s aunt doesn’t have one.
It is her face in the paper instead, caught mid-speech with a clenched

hand and jaw to match. You can tell she is saying enough because 13 years
ago, her son was shot, then her daughter, now her nephew who was making

his way back from the market with yams, okra, and Scotch bonnets, his
Tuesday ritual. The paper reads DEATH STALKS AUGUST TOWN but I

know that this plague is not unique to the island. Against my will, I have
lost count of the dead back home. I have forgotten too many of the names

belonging to black bodies left too long on asphalt, many gone before
they grew facial hair or learned to drive. This too is an act of violence

of which I am guilty. The taxi man’s name is Rondell. He mistakes me
for an islander—Guyanese or Trini. He sighs, what has happened to us?

He doesn’t know that I’m just an import. Just a brown Yankee nerd in her
tortoiseshell glasses who hoped that things would be different here, that

black boys could jog home after rugby, bend to knot their shoelaces, grab
Ting from the gas station and make it back from the market. When I look

at the paper, at the aunt’s fury, I know that black boys in a black country
are not safe in the way I imagined. As Rondell turns onto the college campus,

a student bolts onto the road to jaywalk. In an instant, Rondell stops. He lets
the student cross. With a guilty smile the young man waves in gratitude.

He looks like a first year, maybe the same age as the boy who was killed.
Rondell waves back, calls from the window, muss protect the next generation.


LESSON FROM THE ORACLE WHO HAD SEEN TOO MUCH
for R.J.

For a time, my professor Regina was one of the lost
women trudging up and down Broad Street. You’ve
seen the type: an ageless person in a black down coat
too hot for the present weather. The type that prays
out loud to lost gods for a fix or even just a lemonade.
The type that screams as if waking from a nightmare.
The type you avoid eye contact with on the subway.
Regina kept pace during the day and slept in houses of sex

and crack after dark. But past the broken bottles and plastic
cups, up the rotted stairs soured with piss and butane,
she laid in dank rooms and thought of greater things. She
considered the pyramids and how they aligned beneath
the stars. She scrawled prayers to Tehuti on gum wrappers
and dropped them in fountains across the city. She channeled
Queen Nzinga leading her troops to battle the Portuguese.
She dreamt of James Brown onstage camel walking, euphoric.

Regina and the Broad Street walkers saw Philadelphia
grow wicked: scores of cops leering on side streets, cuffing
panhandlers, pulling out batons to bust protestor knees.
All this before the bombing of the house on Osage Street.
In her fury, with time, Regina found like minds. They wore
leather and rolled their hair with wax. But for all the big guns,
raised fists, and dreads, the Panthers were a brotherhood, not
a coven, and she still had many questions hanging in the air.

Regina stays in that broken city as a protector, a keeper
of stories light and dark. She won’t talk to cops, but the media is
the specter she hates the most. She once told me in a voice like
bent steel never to watch the news before bed, that it leaves foul
residue in the mind. Leaning close, she said do not take that filth
with you into the dream world. If you do, it will live in your body
and grow like a sickness.
Though I do my best to listen, with or
without the news, all day and all night, poison swims in my mind.


Rita Mookerjee is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Iowa State University. Her poetry is featured in Juked, Hobart Pulp, New Orleans Review, The Offing, and the Baltimore Review. Rita is both the Sex and Poetry Editor at Honey Literary as well as the Assistant Poetry Editor of Split Lip Magazine, and a poetry staff reader for [PANK].

Categories
2021 Poetry

Sean Cho A.

ACCORDING TO

science I Should be dead
but as a boy I was told
the story of the man
who lived a week
or so inside
the stomach of a whale
and you still wonder
why I’ve been careless
Six months ago
you found me
with nicotine patches
stuck to my temples
yelling at the Gods
What else can you expect
from me With a face
like that how could I tell you
about the months
I spent in rehab gambling
hair ties and mouth-favors
with people I never knew
I begged at God
and you found me
I use to believe
my landlord would find
my body a week into July
and call my father
He’d cry over the long-haired
vodka-soaked liver
With my casket closed
he’d talk about the son
I use to be He’d speak
of heaven as if we’d
be reunited there
not knowing God
already answered
each of my ugly demands


Sean Cho A. is the author of American Home (Autumn House 2021) winner of the Autumn House Publishing chapbook contest. His work can be future found or ignored in Copper Nickel, Pleiades, The Penn Review,  The Massachusetts Review, Nashville Review, among others. He is currently an MFA candidate at the University of California Irvine and the Associate Editor of THRUSH Poetry Journal.  Find him @phlat_soda

Categories
2021 Poetry

Ross White

TENDER OFFER

Nothing in this world is ever what it sounds like.
Not the northern shrike, an aggressive mimic,
a predator resembling prey, who in summer keeps
silent, in winter opens throat to resemble
smaller songbirds, luring eager passerines

to the source of the song,
nor the prospective acquirer,
who during a hostile takeover may propose
a tender offer, the premium over market price
wriggling like a worm to lure shareholders
who inevitably acquiesce to the hunter,

admiring the blood on his snout.
Perhaps no offer is ever tender, in the ways
we hope for tenderness, and every kindness
is shrouded like an orchid mantis
atop a stem, its flowering jaws ready to clamp.


Ross White is the author of Charm Offensive, winner of the 2019 Sexton Prize, and two chapbooks. He is the director of Bull City Press, an independent publisher of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, and the editor of Four Way Review. He teaches creative writing and grammar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is the associate director of The Frost Place Conference on Poetry. His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, New England Review, Poetry Daily, Tin House, and The Southern Review, among others. Follow him on Twitter: @rosswhite.

Categories
2021 Poetry

Kathleen Gullion

I CAN SHOW YOU HOW

They could be talking about anything. I’m only paying attention to whether or not I can picture their fingers in my mouth. But they’re giving me a history lesson about Bridgeport and they have been for the past fifteen minutes. The gangs. The best shaved ice at 31st and Halsted. The Daleys. We’re tucked away in a booth. Robin sits across from me in black overalls and a black button-down. When we met here fifteen minutes ago I told them they looked like a business casual farmer. I think they thought I was negging them. But really, it’s a good look. 

Colleen’s is an Irish bar. Wood-paneled, the occasional shamrock. The only other patrons are here for the White Sox, slumped over High Lifes at the bar. 

There are so many characters, they say. Even the liquor store guy, okay, the liquor store guy. He always talks to me about his cat’s psychic. Apparently the cat used to be a dog in a past life. Why do I know this?

That’s funny, I say. 

All I have to do is let them talk and say things like, oh wow, yeah?, and that’s so funny. Whatever to keep the conversation light so we don’t slip into personal territory and become betrayed by some horrible information that would make it hard to sleep with each other. We’re doing a good job. Draining our drinks and learning nothing about each other, other than the way their hands wrap around a glass, and how my lips look parted in surprise. 

Something good must have happened on the screen because the men cheer and bang their fists on the counter. I look up and see all of them running. 

Robin watches me watch the men. I went to a Sox game last month, I say. I play with my bra strap. This guy in the front row got hit in the face by a fly ball. 

Now it’s their turn to say it: oh wow, that’s crazy. 

It really was, I tell them. It was like this. I lean across the table and form a fist, then pretend to hit them in the nose. Pow. They grin placidly. 

You’re supposed to say ow, I say. I’m slightly annoyed they aren’t playing along. 

Ow, they say, clutching their nose dramatically, and I forgive them. 

Exactly. Guy broke his nose. There was blood everywhere. Anyway, are you done with your drink? We should leave. 

As soon as we do, they slink their arm around my waist, the night air giving them the permission Colleen’s wouldn’t. The gesture is proprietary and I like it. They live just two blocks away — that’s why I suggested Colleen’s, they explain as we walk, don’t think that’s a haunt of mine — and we practically skip down them. I feel like a kid out past curfew, even though it’s only 8:30pm. This is how I always feel on dates. Defiant, giddy, slightly guilty. I almost don’t want the walk to end. 

But then we get to their apartment, a three-flat. That’s mine, they say, pointing to the second-floor window, which is framed by string lights hanging inside. Looks cozy, I say. We disentangle our arms and grow quiet as we walk up the stairs. I hang behind as they unlock the door in the dark hallway. No one looks sexy unlocking a door, and I don’t want to see it.

Sorry, it’s messy, they say, tossing their keys on the table by the door, which is piled with papers, dishes, a tangle of cords. The living room is a gray futon and a wooden chair piled with jackets. A few cardboard boxes stacked by the window. 

New apartment? I ask.

No, why?

I shrug.

I try not to look around as we walk to their bedroom. The mattress is on the floor and the black sheets are covered in a thin layer of white fur. Was there a dog I missed? Across from the bed there are some books stacked on top of a large plastic tub. There are no decorations except for a pothos in the window whose tendrils are so long they sweep the floor even though they’re draped over the curtain rod, creating a frame of green. And next to the bed, on the nightstand, are a collection of candles, some fat and white, some thin and green, some reduced to wicks in glass jars, clouded black. 

They sit down on the bed and I join them. I glance at the door before I sit, half-expecting a sheepdog to push through it and bound towards us, white fur fluttering from it as it runs.

A soft hand cups my cheek, and there are their eyes, intense under half-closed lids, and their lips. At first it is all wrong, their mouth wide and tongue probing, but I use my lips to teach theirs subtlety, about small kisses that turned into bigger ones, of tongues that trace instead of thrust. 

They pull away, out of breath. Heavy breaths turn into an open-mouthed smile, then their eyes dart to the head of their bed. Can I tie you up? They ask. 

Oh. Sure.

They crawl toward the head of the bed and stick their hand between the mattress and the wall and pull out two long black straps, which are attached to the bed somehow. Take off your clothes and lie down, they say, and I do as I’m told. I undress slowly. Their gaze makes everything grander. Gives elegance to fumbling with shoelaces and shimmying out of jeans. I leave my bra and underwear on. They are lace and expensive. When I’m down they’re on top of me, legs pinned to my sides. They wrap the straps around my wrists, securing them by velcro. I think the last time I wore velcro was on these Cinderella sneakers I had in kindergarten, and I almost laugh. But when I try to move my arms, I can’t. I’m really restrained. 

They turn off the lights. Pale moonlight gives contours to the objects in the dark, and I can see the edges of them illuminated at the foot of the bed. They stand there for a moment, larger in the dark, and I feel like something wild, a creature tangled in a shrub. My heart beats between my thighs. 

They walk to the side of the bed but don’t get on the mattress. They hover over me, and produce a matchbox. Friction makes flame. They light one of the skinny black candles from the bedside table. In the dark, the candle disappears beneath the flame, and all I can see is a tiny fire and their face changing shapes as it flickers. 

Their eyes hold mine as they bring the candle in a position over me. Wax pools under the wick. With a quick tip of the candle, a few drops of wax spill onto my stomach. I shudder at the quick blast of heat. The wax quickly cools and congeals on my skin. They repeat the gesture — pool, tip, pool, tip, pool, tip — and the wax droplets collect on me like moles. I’m not sure if it feels good or not. It feels medieval. I try to pretend we’re in a church on the moors, while monks chant in the distance. But I can’t make it stick. I could never get into all that roleplay stuff. They drop more wax on me. I decide it feels good, not for the heat, but for the way it feels when it cools. 

They place the candle in a holder and it casts a warm glow over us. They look down at me. I look down at me. All golden and lace, made delicate by the low light. I never feel delicate, but now, especially against the rough denim of their overalls, I do. From above I must look like string stretched between fingers for a game of cat’s cradle. 

Then they’re pressing and thrusting themselves into me and I remember that I’m not a string but blood after all as I’m filled with it and how suddenly words are so useless. What I want is not harder or faster or gentler but to have my edges obliterated, for a merging. My desires swirl in my head like black wind. 

But then we’re unmerging. They take off my underwear in a swift motion and perch over me and fuck me from that position. Their hand is like how their tongue had been at first: rough and probing. I wince. They readjust, but still it’s wrong. When I think of how to explain to them what I want it’s all black wind, so I just look away. For them, sex is probably about the wax, the restraints, the show. This part is probably obligatory. It’s probably an embarrassing necessity. So I accept that this isn’t going to be good, and will myself to end it quickly for their sake. I summon a rolodex of fantasies in my mind and somehow, I come, but the waves flow like stale honey. I hear moaning in the distance and realize it’s ours. 

The sound of velcro. The restraints are off, and Robin is by my side, wrapping their arm around my waist. They are still fully clothed. Shoes tied. Those damn overalls. I remember how I told them they looked like a farmer and it’s newly hilarious and I’m laughing and suddenly we are co-conspirators again, kids out past curfew. So I kiss them in my own way and unbuckle their overalls, preparing to straddle them, to show them I’m not just going to lie there and take it! But they gently grab my wrist and push it away. My hand freezes, a claw. In a soft voice they say, Don’t worry about it. You don’t need to. I’m more of a dom.

I look at the ceiling. I don’t feel like a co-conspirator anymore. I just feel like a girl. 

That was amazing, they say. They lean over me and light a few candles with a long lighter. Beside us fills with flickering. I’ve been studying something called relational theology in school, which says the divine can be found in the erotic.

That’s interesting, I say, and flick off a bead of wax. 

So sex is a method of attaining transcendence, of encountering the supreme otherness of God. And as queers, we’re a kind of otherness as well, so queer sex is even more of an encounter with the divine. That’s my thesis.

I look at them while they speak, and their eyes are wide, full of light. They’re so firm in their convictions. It makes me want to believe in something, too. Maybe sex isn’t just a way to fill the void. Maybe it’s a way to pass through the void, become intimate with the unknown. Maybe the two of us just didn’t get it right this time. Maybe there is something holy here. Maybe I just have to keep looking. 

You’re going to love this. I actually have a key to First Unitarian, and during the week it’s usually empty, so if you want, we could fuck there.

I see us ducking into the church, giggling and touching elbows. Mid-afternoon, sunlight streams through the stained glass, turning the dust in the air to glitter. They lay me down on the altar, and the wood digs into my shoulder blades — no, it’s surprisingly flexible wood, it feels fine — and where they should be I see an illuminated archway, through which I can plunge towards the divine. 

That sounds hot, I say. 

I had a feeling you were the kind of girl who’d be into that, they say, and kiss me with a lot of tongue. I close my eyes and try to focus on the archway until they pull away. 

My dad is a minister, and he actually came out after my parents divorced, and it was hard at first, mainly because I missed my mom, but if anything, it just showed me how queerness and faith are inseparable. Being gay and loving God are one in the same. 

You’re not trying to convert me, are you? 

They laugh. No, no, I respect all ways of interpreting the universe. I’m just telling you my story.

I’m relieved for a moment, but then I feel like the creature caught in the shrub again. The desire to scamper comes first, then the smack of betrayal. Where is this coming from? In the bar, weren’t we desperately trying not to know each other? Now I see that’s not what was happening at all. They were just waiting until I was vulnerable to spill their self onto me, and I feel sticky with it. I think of the way I acted: twirling my bra strap, letting them have their way with wax. It was only fake as long as we both understood it was an act. I see that version of myself as an outline in their mind, and even its existence there feels dangerous. I need to go. I have to go, I tell them. 

You’re not going to stay? Their face makes all the shapes of pout, arched eyebrows, wide eyes. I collect my clothes from the floor and dress quickly. I promise to text, confirm my excitement about the church fucking. They kiss me goodbye at the door and I nearly run down the stairs and into the clean outside air. 

No one is out but me. It must be later than I thought. I walk east towards the bus, hoping it’s still running. I walk past fountains that are shut off for winter. I walk past bushes netted in Christmas lights. I walk past windchimes, softly clanging. Past pink garbage cans, past cigarillo wrappers, past birds sleeping in trees. I walk past a sapling in someone’s front yard. Blue bottles have been placed over the ends of its branches. I stop and look at it. The bus comes and goes in the distance. I keep looking. The glass shines against the sky.


Kathleen Gullion is a writer based in Houston. She earned an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and her work has been published by Coachella Review, Esthetic Apostle, F Newsmagazine, and others