Categories
2019 NonFiction

Claire Robbins

PUBLIC SPACE, PUBLIC BODIED

I want to say that I have many bodies. I have arms that lift weights, legs that walk across town, a stomach that hungers and fills. My body feels emotion, is energy. My body can give and feel so much pleasure. My body looks great in jeans and boots, my body flows in a skirt. Even in my flaws, my body is powerful and alive.

My body can also be damaged by other bodies. I have been relatively safe in my life, but there have been times where I was close to being killed by another body. I also know that my body is capable of killing another body.

I’ve heard people say that they could never kill another person. I want to say to them that they have not been put into the right situation. I want to say that there are words and actions that will break anyone. I looked into the well of my emotions and I knew that I could kill. At that point I knew I had to stay away from the body that had caused me so much pain.

I sat on my ex-boyfriend’s lap in my backyard and I looked at my son’s aluminum baseball bat in the grass, and I knew that if I picked up the bat, my ex-boyfriend would be dead. I knew that I could look at his bloodied body as it stopped moving. And I felt a rush at that. I felt all the rage from all the times of not hitting him back. I felt the pain of cigarettes put out on my arm, the stink of his piss soaking my clothes, the pain of his fist; I heard every slur he had called me, heard him telling me how he would kill me; I felt the pain of the surprise that I got away alive, just to come back.

So, I would have been justified in killing him, but did not. This doesn’t make me any better that those who have killed or hurt their oppressors. Long live Cyntoia Brown; long live Ahed Tamimi; long live those who hit back, who kill. Long live those who get away and don’t get back.

I want to say that of all my bodies, they all belong to me. This should be obvious to the world but is not. The power, the pleasure seeking, the sore muscles, the taking up of public space, the black eyes, the anger. Every body I contain can bubble up to the surface. The boy, the victim, the loud, the body that wants to make love every day, the body that likes to look.

In public places and in relationships I am reminded that my body is not my own. I must constantly work to re-own my body. No body is re-owned dead. Some folks must work harder to re-own their public bodies. I am thinking about mass graves; I am thinking about the body of Freddie Gray; the bodies of murdered indigenous women. Those who have lost their bodies, their lives, as they struggled to own their bodies, or just to be a body. No one even chooses to exist this way, as a body.

There are small and large ways in which we learn our bodies are also public bodies: the murders of those who exist as we do; the hug that lasts too long; the being told to smile. Those moments that pull us out of our private existence and put us face to face with the desires, hates, prejudices of others.

I have begun work to re-own my body. I say no when my girlfriend asks me if I will wear lingerie, realizing that for others wearing lingerie is exactly how they re-own their bodies. I take up space, I don’t ever smile unless I feel happy. But this is hard work, constantly met with resistance. My girlfriend tells me I am overreacting when a man touches my back at a bar and I cry as I drive home. When I put my body in a bar, I put it there for many reasons, but I do not consent to being touched by strangers, ever. Even if it is just his way of saying, let me walk behind you. I want to practice punching strangers who touch me without my consent.

I never consented to my body being a public body. A body commented on and touched by men in passing. I’m not dead and so I will work to take my body back. I will work to find my voice and cuss you out when you interact with my body in ways I do not like. Ideally my body bridges public and private space. It is how I let in what I love, what feeds me. My body is how I communicate. But it also must be how I shut out that which can harm; it must be how I shut out that which I don’t like; it must be my barrier between the world and me. My body must be my first line of defense.

If you have ever seen a person put their body between an oppressor and the oppressed, you have witnessed magic.

My body has harmed other bodies in ways I am ashamed of. I seek to step away from harming those who have caused me no harm. In the same motion, I will step towards harming those who harm innocent bodies. I reject pacifism, because that pacifism has allowed so much past pain. I did not hit back and he kept hitting.

I begin noticing the ways some bodies interact in public space, and I cannot un-notice these bodies and the violence of their existence. These bodies controlling public spaces tend to be male, they tend to be white in America, they tend to expect privilege. They expect to be smiled at. They expect other bodies to step out of the way. If they speak to me, they expect an answer. If they touch my back, they do not expect to be punched.


Claire Robbins serves as the guest creative non-fiction editor for Third Coast Magazine, holds an MFA in fiction from Western Michigan University, teaches college writing, and has published work in Nimrod, Muse/A Journal, and American Short Fiction.

Categories
2019 NonFiction

Rowan Lucas

WATER OF THE WOMB

There is a stone that lies just below the hollow of my throat. Suspended above my heart by bile and blood. A bezoar I crafted out of what was given to me. Whole, I pushed it down a reddened gullet. Down to weigh down my stomach. Down into the places my body sinks. Down to anchor me to earth.

When I was twelve, my great-aunt Miranda gave me a pink coral cameo. It was her mother’s, she said. Written in yellow ivory was the face of a strange woman crowned in flowers—her edges surrounded by twisted gold filigree that no longer shone. She looked away from us, smiling down at what we couldn’t see. Great-aunt Miranda told me she wanted me to have her and pressed her into my cupped palm.

Thank you, I said.

My grandmother’s belly swelled and stretched with her daughter before she became an adult. As penance for their sin, my grandfather married her. Her daughter was wrenched from between her legs and given a name honey sweet to match her hair. Her daughter inherited everything.

My grandmother says that my grandfather is a lot of things and so they broke.

Long before I was born people would dose themselves with small slivers of poison to build immunity. Increasing their doses bit by bit, until it was that which would have been fatal otherwise. They made their bodies learn. Learn to take the small bits and attack. To break. To nullify what could stop your heart; to make it harmless.

Once, tradition held that a bezoar dropped into a cup full of poison would make the poison as safe to drink as water. The word “bezoar” comes from either the Arabic “badzehr” or the Persian “panzehr.” Both these words mean “counterpoison.” In the 11th century the knowledge was brought to Europe. It was used when there was nothing else.

My mother liked to tell me with wine stained lips and cigarette teeth that I was my father’s child. She spat it like a curse. It flowed freely through clenched teeth and fingers until I drowned.

My mother says that my father is a lot of things and so they broke.

Bezoars were so prized and cherished that some were decorated with gold or silver or gemstones and turned into jewelry and charms. Formed into special things. Trinkets meant to protect. And if the time came, desperate hands would crush bezoars to powder and add them to wine. Then gulp them down and plead for salvation.

I swallowed my mother’s venom for her as she went to different men that did not love her. I spat it back as it burned my gums. I spat at the violence they hid beneath the whites of their eyes. The secret they kept carefully clutched away from their children. But I was my father’s child.

When I was eight, my father hit a deer with his truck. I watched him as he walked to where it crumpled. I watched as it gasped through a broken neck. I watched as its body jerked, its legs swimming against the red ground. A struggle for something solid. I looked away when my father grabbed his gun.

Poor thing, I heard him say.

Bezoars were taken from either the intestines or stomachs of goats, oxen, and deer. They are made of what the animal could not digest—rocks or too hard plant matter. Over time, calcium and other minerals collect around the object, making it grow while muscles smooth it out. If it grew too large, the animal would die.

All my great-grandmother’s children live on the same road, with the cemetery at the corner, across from the church. The family’s roots have been there so long that both road and church carry its name. My mother was the only one who left, heavy with the weight of her womb.

My mother told us as children that if not for us, she would still be with the family. She said this with her poisoned breath and we tried to swallow it around what air she didn’t take from us. I swallowed what my brothers could not. I breathed it all in and felt it take shape.

My mother had a box full of her grandmother’s jewelry. None of the rings fit her fingers, but she would open the box sometimes and look at them. She sometimes let me look too, but never touch. They were too precious for me.

Bezoars can also grow in the stomachs and intestines of humans. They too are made of what humans cannot digest. And like animals, if a human’s bezoar grows too large, they will die.

The family whispers to itself while pretending not to see past their road and their church. They whispered as my mother continued to poison herself. They whispered as her poison seeped into her children. They whispered as I swallowed it bit by bit, to spare my brothers. Trying to make my body learn. I was my father’s child.

My father is a lot of things. He married another woman and had new daughters with her. I imagine they live a happy life. A life I do not know.

Your mother is a lot of things, he said before he left.

My mother once gave me a small heart-shaped box of tarnished silver. The heart’s top layer had worn away—beaten and chipped by time and the jostling of being unused. But inside lay bright pink velvet. It was new there. It was raw. She pressed it to me when I was six and said, Be careful.

My brothers’ father bit syrup lies to my mother. Sweet to match her hair. Sweet to soothe the sting of him finding another woman. The family reminded my mother that she left them.  

I swallowed what remained of the bottles on the floor. The secret my mother gave me. I felt her hands close around my throat as I stared at where she swam—her glass spilling red onto her hand while she slept.

My brothers’ father is a lot of things. I watched them as they broke.

In the 16th century, a French physician poisoned a prisoner and gave him a bezoar as an antidote. It did not work, and the prisoner choked as his heart stopped. The bezoar crumbled away out of favor and into nothing.

My brothers’ father took my mother’s box of jewelry and never gave it back. I see it lying in a ditch collecting leaves and dust. I see it next to the tarnished heart my mother gave me—a tarnished heart that hides a cameo framed in raw velvet. Never touched.

There is a stone I keep just below the hollow of my throat. At times, I feel the waters of my body push it up. I feel it as it scrapes against the backs of my teeth until I bleed. The acid of what I cannot swallow comes back up and mixes with my blood. The bezoar absorbs it all. I curl my palms around it and press it back in. Back in to weigh me down to earth. The flood of what I was made to carry seeping through my fingers.


Rowan Lucas lives on the top of a hill in Richmond, Virginia. She likes to collect tea and plants, and when she’s not writing she hikes around the James River. She holds a M.A. from Virginia Commonwealth University in English Literature and Composition. Her fiction and creative nonfiction work have been published in Amendment and Ghost Parachute.

Categories
2018 NonFiction

Christina Harrington

DRAGONFLIES BY THE DOZENS

The afternoon after my grandfather was buried, my mother and I sat at her crowded kitchen table and drank out of wine bottles left over from his service. My mother sipped pinot grigio from the slender neck of her green bottle; I gulped something red. We were trying to forget the morning, the rain and the mud, trying to artificially advance through the stages of grief until they were safely behind glass and observable from a distance. We drank until it was night.

I was hungover the next morning when I went with my mother to the funeral home. We paid the last of the bills with the professionally gentle funeral director. He gave us the photos we’d used at the wake, the shells from the 21 gun salute, the trifolded flag entitled to my grandfather as a veteran of war and a tastefully branded bag holding the last of his belongings. While we waited for the charges to go through–It might take a few minutes, my mother said, an apology caught in her throat, they aren’t used to me spending this much–I went through the paper bag branded with the funeral home’s understated logo. His bolo tie, his wedding ring, and, in a small red velvet bag, his wire frame glasses.

A shock went through me, like there was a static charge held by the glasses, just waiting for my fingertips. The plastic protectors wrapped around the end of the wire arms were yellow with age. The silver paint was worn in the spaces that would have rubbed against his temples; a tired brown peeked through here and there. The nosepads were filthy with grease and skin flakes.

My grandfather slowly went blind for the last ten years of his life. At the end, he couldn’t see my face, misrecognized my voice for that of my long-dead grandmother. I couldn’t remember the last time he wore his glasses, except for the day before when he was alone in his casket. I felt pressure build behind my eyes. Here was this object, indispensable to my grandfather, utterly useless now without him. Something so personal, now personless.

Oh, my mother said, when she looked over my shoulder, I wanted those to stay with him.

***

I was just shy of sixteen and we were homeless. After years of promising, my mother lost the house I’d lived my whole life in, the big, creaky place on Center Street. My older brother was away at college, so my mom, myself and my younger brother and sister found ourselves with nowhere to go, until Grampa agreed to let us stay with him.

My grandmother had died the year before, and the house on Wallace Row was now a cold place to visit. It felt changed the same way grandpa changed with her death. Where once there was cherry Jell-o and sugary cereal to indulge us with, there was now a leaking refrigerator and empty, moth-smelling cabinets. No Christmas tree was put up that year, and The Last Supper painting—no bigger than the size of a postcard—only hung on the kitchen wall out of habit.

I slept in the living room on cushions folded out from a chair my grandfather built when he was my age. My mother, on the couch. Sometimes, in the dead of night, I’d wake up to pressure on my shoulder, like someone squeezing it gently, only to find no one there, my mother gently snoring.

We weren’t allowed upstairs, where my grandfather slept alone. He was annoyed by our loudness, his grandchildren, laughing in the kitchen. But when the dog got out, he chased him down the street, up a steep hill, until he caught hold of his collar and led him back home. This was before the fall in the shower, the hip replacement, the walker and then the wheelchair. His persistent belief that he’d walk again. Someday.

The most tactile memory I have of this time is the lumpiness of the cushions from the old chair underneath my hips, how I’d toss and turn to find sleep. All I seem to recall is the old, matted shag carpet an inch from my face, how small the whole living room seemed, now that I was growing and growing. Most importantly, I remember the synergy of that moment—how I turned sixteen without a home, how I learned in that year to distrust the veneer of stability, how it can be pulled out from under you, quick as a trap door.

***

Eight months later, for the first time since we buried him, my sister and I visit our grandfather’s grave. It’s the hottest day in an already hot summer. We scatter wildflower seeds over his blank gravesite. We shake bottled water over the naked ground.

What the fuck, my sister says, voicing what we’re both thinking. In the direct sun, the graveyard is cartoon green, neon even. Except over where our grandfather lies. No grass has grown there.

We wander through the headstones, each engraved with consonant-crammed Polish names, looking for indignities similar to our own, finding none. The cemetery is almost beautiful, ringed like it is by a quiet stand of trees. The rich kids that I went to high school with lived out here with their in-ground pools, and sprawling lawns, and finished basements. If you pretend the headstones are statues, the graveyard looks like a park. There are dragonflies here, flitting from granite tombstone to marble plinth to anemic rosebush.

Dragonflies are supposed to be the spirits of people who love you, Kate says. Oh, I say, watching a pair, the curve of their flight, how their wings blur invisible.

The church cut back on maintenance, my mother tells us when we call her on speaker. They just don’t have the money to make sure the grass roots. I guess I’ll have to come by and plant some on my own.

I think about the church, the stucco and dark brown wood of it, the meticulous lines of pews, the candle-smoke smell of the place, how my grandfather’s father built it. I think of the Pope, too. The Church, with the big C. His robes and red velvet slippers. The famous gold throne. There is no correlation between what the Pope can have and what my grandfather is not allowed to have.

I wonder if my mother hadn’t been back to the grave yet. If she’d only thought about it, pictured a carpet of green growing over the site. If she assumed everything was running the way it ought to run, for once, without her having to help it along.

I say nothing about this to my sister or my mom. Kate and I say nothing about the wildflower seeds, how they bounced across the brown earth, or the dragonflies we saw, by the dozens, or the heat in the field, baking down on us.


Christina Harrington is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College where she received her MFA in writing. While at SLC, she was the managing editor on LUMINA vol XIII. Since graduating, Christina has been pursuing her dream career in the comic book industry, first as an editor at Marvel Comics and now as the managing editor at AfterShock Comics. You can find her writing in Foliate Oak, Eunoia Review, Crack the Spine, and forthcoming in Gyroscope Review

Categories
2018 NonFiction

Brian McCurdy

FATHER

Waiting for my second child to arrive, a girl this time, I find myself saying all the expected things an expecting father says. “I hope she’s healthy.” “I wonder what she’s going to look like.” “A girl? What’s that going to be like?” “Sweet sleep, your days are numbered.”

But there’s one standard expression I’m no longer able to say—I’m going to be a father. The truth is, I already am one. The toys scattered across—on a bad day, littering—the living room floor tell me this. The photographs on the fireplace mantle tell me this. The Play-doh stuck in the carpet, little toothbrush and bubblegum toothpaste in the bathroom, primitive drawings on the kitchen table, miniature bicycle in the garage, cartoon voices and sound effects blaring from the TV, child seats set up in both cars—these and a hundred other details say to me, yep, you’re a father.

But when did it happen? When did I go from not being a father to being one?

Technically it happened when my son Leo, now late in his fourth year, was born. I’ll never forget the moment I saw him for the first time. No father, no parent, forgets this moment. My wife Mayu was having a C-section, and we were in Japan, where fathers-to-be are kept a safe distance from this particular birthing procedure. In fact, because my Japanese ability was so poor at the time, I didn’t even know the C-section had started. I was asked to wait for what I thought was a kind of prep time, standing there by myself, looking through the receiving room glass at a few babies asleep in wheeled beds, waiting, like a man from my own father’s generation, for my son to be born.

And there he was suddenly, held up to face me by the short, brisk, astonishingly capable midwife who carried him into the receiving room from some mysterious inner-chamber. Through the glass I saw him as the midwife presented him to me, one strong hand under his bottom, the other supporting his neck and head. He was moist-looking, that wrinkly water-logged newborn look, but thankfully cleaned up a bit. Wailing. Squirming. Squinting. Clipped umbilical dangling. My son.

Was that it, then? The first time I saw Leo and acknowledged to myself, in a giddy, shocked sort of way, that he was my child—was that the moment I became a father? It was the beginning of fatherhood, I can say that much. The beginning of a process. The process of becoming responsible for a new human life.

Before I had a child of my own, I had not held many babies. One or two perhaps. The opportunity comes rarely for people without children. Family get-togethers, for example, are classic arenas for baby-holding. But for men, especially the ones who are not fathers, life can be a baby-holding desert. So many times I saw women passing babies, like flour sacks, amongst themselves, most of these women already practiced mothers. The sight of a woman accepting or taking a baby, any baby, into her arms seemed so natural, even aesthetically pleasing. As if every woman was at any moment ready and able to manifest the eternal spirit of motherhood. But I couldn’t imagine it, holding someone else’s baby, much less bouncing or rocking it or whatever people did while holding a baby. And it was rare that a mother turned to me and asked, “Do you want to hold her?” And of course I never extended the request (or offer) myself.

But when I held my son Leo for the first time, at that same maternity clinic in Japan, it felt completely natural, if also a little new and strange. At nearly ten pounds, he was quite a bundle. But it was no burden, this living weight in my arms, no awkward imposition. I didn’t fear I was going to drop him—maybe at first I did—and I didn’t find myself searching the room for someone to pass him off to. (Only Mayu was available for this, and she looked, well, like she needed a rest.) He was warm and soft, and I liked the way he smelled. “This isn’t so bad,” I remember thinking. “I kind of like this.”

Whether or not holding a baby comes more naturally to women than men, it does take a little practice, I think. And most men have a deficit of such practice by the time they become fathers. Even after I had held Leo many, many times, I was still not the expert that Mayu was becoming. A stay-at-home mother, she spent hours and hours with Leo, getting to know his every gesture, sound, and habit, including of course how he liked to be held. “He doesn’t like his head on that side,” she might say, or “Hold him a little bit lower.” Sometimes I would in fact decide to pass him off. “Here, you hold him,” I would say. But more often I was becoming deeply interested, not just in how to hold any baby, but in how to hold this particular one, my flesh and blood.

“Don’t try to hold him like I do,” Mayu once said. “You have to find the position that works for both of you.” This was one of those simple but profound statements that Mayu periodically throws out there for me to contemplate. Yes, I realized, holding a baby was not a one-way street. It also included the baby being held, two points of view. Once I understood this fact, that holding Leo was not an act, a task, but rather a relationship, the whole enterprise was much more successful.

In Korea, where Mayu was born, they start counting a child’s age from conception (or thereabouts). That is, when a baby is born, they consider it to be already about a year old. This view makes perfect sense to me. When I look at our growing baby’s ultrasound images, I know I’m watching a person moving through the earliest days of her life. Later, I feel her moving, too. She kicks and rolls like a little astronaut in her dark space capsule. And though I can’t do much for her yet—from here on planet Earth—I already feel very much her father. “How’s she doing today?” I ask Mayu, looking at her belly. I put my hand on what might be the baby’s knee or her bottom. I get close and hum some made-up song. I say, “Hey you in there? Everything Okay?” When her orbit is complete, and she finally makes her landing, I will indeed have known her for about a year. “So that’s what you look like,” I’ll say. “I expected you to be a little taller.”

Those first days in the maternity clinic, breast feeding did not come easily to Leo and Mayu. It didn’t help matters that Mayu was recovering from a C-section, which made handling Leo, born at nearly ten pounds, a difficult routine. So, concerned about Leo’s nutrition, and in response to what clearly was a very hungry boy, we went along with the clinic staff’s recommendation to feed Leo formula.

I was conflicted about this choice, probably more than Mayu, since I had time on my hands to research the topic on the Internet, usually a bad idea. “But it’s going to alter his digestive system,” I ranted. “He’ll have the same stomach enzymes as an adult!”

“He needs to eat,” was Mayu’s common sense reply. And I couldn’t deny that both mother and child benefited from the relief a simple bottle of powdered nutrition (I hoped) and warm water could bring them. I stopped visiting the websites.

The choice to give formula to Leo was good for me, too. Eventually, he and Mayu found their breastfeeding groove, which continued for nearly two years. But Leo was indeed a hungry kid, and there was never quite enough breast milk to satisfy him. So I helped out by feeding him from the bottle whenever I could. It was a welcome break for Mayu, and for me it was a chance to be the provider of sustenance that perhaps many fathers can’t be. Holding Leo in my arms while he suckled at the bottle’s nipple—the relaxing rhythm of liquid drawn through that tiny rubber aperture—I looked into his wide, beautiful eyes and felt close to him, connected. He looked at me, too, thinking or feeling whatever a baby does in such moments. “This is nice. I know you. I’m sleepy.” Maybe it was something like that.

While Mayu and I were trying to bring a second child into our lives, I had a dream. I was standing somewhere, I don’t remember where, talking to a girl who seemed to be about eighteen years old. She had dark, thick, straight hair down to her shoulders. Her face had an Asian appearance, soft and oval-shaped, pretty. I don’t know what we were talking about, only that we were very close and that some boundless love existed between us. I do remember saying to her, “I’m so proud of you,” and hugging her as a father might his daughter. She hugged me, too. Then the dream observer, that part of our mind that watches and thinks about the dream but is not really participating in it, not an actor in it, said to itself, “This is my daughter.” When I woke soon after, I felt warm and exhilarated, like I had just been reunited with a loved one after many, many years. “I have a daughter,” I thought to myself.

I had a similar vision years earlier, during one of the first conversations I ever had with my future wife, Mayu. I was working at an English tutoring center, and she was one of the students who came their to study and practice. This particular conversation meandered into the topic of children. “Do you have children?” she asked me. “No,” I said. Indeed, at that time, I was as far as anyone could be from having children or thinking about children. “Do you want children?” she asked me. I had been asked this question before, but only now did I hesitate before giving my answer, which should have been no. “I’m not sure,” I found myself saying. “How about you,” I asked, trying to regain my pedagogical footing. “Yes,” she said. “I’d like a family.” And suddenly, looking into Mayu’s face, wanting to touch her hand, I experienced a brief fantasy in which she and I were together, and around us were our children. Somewhere in my mind and heart, welling up like the realization of a long-forgotten happiness, was the certainty that one day I would be a father.

My relationship with my son Leo has always been pretty physical. In Japan, as soon as he could walk competently, he rarely wanted to be in a stroller. Usually the stroller would serve only the last leg of any trip through the city, when Leo had walked his toddler legs to their limit. Many times, out of convenience, we left the stroller behind altogether, and Leo would ride home in my arms when he couldn’t carry himself any longer. Before I became a father, I used to watch in vague envy at parents carrying their tired children through a shopping mall, a carnival, or some other communal, pedestrian setting. They looked so close and comfortable, one holding, the other being held, though it looked like a lot of work for the parent. It was indeed a lot of work lugging Leo, say, from the train station to our apartment fifteen minutes away. My father (maybe every father of his generation) used to yell, “Sack of potatoes,” humping around the house with me or my brother over his shoulder. Leo was more like a bag full of sand, I’m sure. My arms grew pretty strong during that time, enhancing my fatherly ego. But carrying Leo was also simply close and comfortable, just as it had seemed for those other kid-carrying parents. The warmth of his body, fast asleep by now, against my chest and shoulder, the gentle pressure of his hands on my arm or neck—it was always worth the strain (and sweat, on a hot day).

There was also the bedtime holding, when Leo was very small, as I paced our little Japanese apartment, bouncing him to some soporific song I had thrown together. And the table-side holding later, when he sat on my lap to eat a snack or scribble with a crayon. And the zoo, museum, and shop-window holding, when I lifted him to see what he couldn’t see from his natural height. This holding continues to this day, I’m happy to say, with Leo more able now to seek me out instead of passively being picked up and carried around. “Daddy, can you lift me so I can see that?” he might ask plainly. “Daddy, can I sit in your lap while I’m drawing this?” “Daddy, can you carry me on your shoulders?” In my tired, grumpy moments, I sigh inside at the thought of his 50 pounds pressing onto my thigh bones. But as always, once he’s situated there, talking to me and being with me, I’m thankful. Like all the other Leos I’ve known, this one will not last forever. Eventually, he’ll truly be too big for my lap and in any event won’t have much interest in being there. He’ll be a different kind of son, and in response I’ll need to be a different kind of father.

What kind of father am I? A good one, I hope. I try, anyway. I listen to Leo when he’s telling me something that seems important to him. I sit with him and build cities out of blocks, or play board games, or act out rescue dramas with his action figures. I jog beside him as he rides his bike through the neighborhood. We go to the library together and pick out books and DVDs. I give him baths and help him brush his teeth. I read him stories every night. I hug him and kiss him before I leave for work in the morning.

But it’s not always easy, when I’m being with Leo, to maintain a dependable level of joy and energy. A child’s stamina for play is difficult for an adult to match, especially for a middle-aged one like me. I can tag along for about an hour before my eyes start searching for a clock, or my mind returns to its backlog of adult concerns. “Now let’s play, Daddy,” Leo says, tugging my chin, whenever my attention wanders or I grimace from the pain in my lower back. It’s ironic that this part of fatherhood, being a playmate, can be the most taxing. Sitting on the floor, producing voices for stuffed animals, pushing toy cars from one end of the room to the other—these simple activities can leave me wanting a nap.

The challenge is not taking the nap. So far, I’ve been able to accomplish this feat. I hear of other fathers who, shortly after arriving home, recline somewhere, if not to sleep, then to watch TV, play video games, or retreat into a similar thought-silencing activity. Granted, some of these fathers appear to put in harder and longer workdays than I do, so their process for moving from work life to home life might be a matter of physical maintenance and mental survival. My own father was in this category. Owning and managing his own optometry practice, often serving as eye examiner, lens crafter, frame fitter, and all-around customer pleaser, he came home with very little left, of either energy or time, for us kids. I understand now, even if I still feel a little sad in my memory that we didn’t spend more evenings playing together.

All the same, I wouldn’t have wanted the half-hearted attention he could muster for me at the end of those long days. No, maybe I would have wanted it. Leo seems to want every minute I give him, even when my energy and focus are obviously compromised. His tenacity in wrangling my adult attention, a tenacity most children seem to possess, is impressive. And it never fails to reach my compassion, even if it has to push through layers of fatigue, worry, impatience, and—if it’s dinner time—hunger to get there. “Kawa-ee-so,” says Mayu, a Japanese expression that means, in this case, “Poor little guy.” She is ever Leo’s advocate in such moments. Ever reminding me that children, whatever their flaws and weaknesses, need us. And this need, above all else, more than the cuteness, the warmth, the flattering admiration, is what continues to make me feel my fatherhood. It’s a duty, yes, a responsibility, but also a beautiful reason to keep working and learning and desiring.

Besides fatigue and sometimes boredom, the biggest source of fatherly guilt for me is my impatience, my anger. To some degree, of course, I’m just a typical parent who blows up on occasion, those moments when the kid pushes me to the limit. I’ve let my voice roar like a monster, my hand shove a little harder than necessary. I’ve thrown things I shouldn’t have and said things I regretted later. Fighting with our children, we sometimes become children ourselves.

Here, in my anger, I feel my own father most potently. “Your father and his Italian temper,” my mother used to say, diverting part of the accusation onto my father’s ethnicity. The truth was, my father could be scary. “I’m gonna kill you kids if you don’t shut up back there,” he said once, trying to drive while my brother and I horsed around in the back seat. He did get our attention, though. We shut up. But I’m sure he didn’t feel so proud of himself, seeing his children obey him out of fear. I’ve achieved the same effect with Leo, sometimes simply losing control, other times unable to think of a more creative way to direct my child. My clenched jaw is my father’s clenched jaw, my racing heart his racing heart, my desire to smash something his desire. Sadly, Leo’s style of getting angry, of losing his temper, is partly something I taught him.

So we try to teach our children patience, too, when we have it ourselves. “Settle down, Leo,” I say gently, hoping he doesn’t remember my tantrum from the day before. “Have some patience.” And we show them joy when we’re lucky enough to feel it. I see my father’s dark side so clearly in memory, but somehow it balances out with all the good memories I have of his smile, his laugh, his equally Italian love of life. Maybe Leo will remember me in a similar way, as someone who made him both laugh and cry, who hurt him and loved him.

Sometimes I think the most important thing I’ve done for my children so far is give them their names. Though Mayu is Korean, she never had a desire to give her children Korean or Korean-inspired names. “I don’t like that kind of thing,” she said. “Our children will live in America. They should have English names.” I was actually happy about that. I would have felt as much love calling my son Jin Soon as any other name, but still I wanted something more . . . familiar. At the same time, I didn’t want our kids to have names that were so foreign to Mayu that she would feel distanced from them. Pronunciation was important. Her tongue should never get tied saying the names of her own children. I asked Mayu if I could collect names for us to consider. “You’re the writer,” she said.

So I searched and searched, poring over name lists as most expecting parents do. My family name, McCurdy, is a bit long, so I wanted the name of our son to be short, definitely no more than two syllables. When I lived in Japan, I created product names for a branding company. Naming a new person was no different, I discovered, than naming a new sedan or household cleaner. The name should be easy to say, easy to remember, and possess a distinct flavor and character. And it shouldn’t have negative associations for the people who have to say it. When I came across the name Leo in my research, I knew it was the right one. It seemed to satisfy all the criteria. (And as far as I knew, Mayu had nothing against lions.) Plus it had the benefit of referencing my father’s true Italian family name, Leonetti, which had slipped away from his father through a history of adoption and name change.

Looking for a girl’s name was equally challenging, especially because I wanted the name to have only one syllable. Brian, Mayu, Leo, and X. Yes, the list had to resolve into a single syllable. Always the writer concerned about musicality. And the name couldn’t begin with a B, M, or L. I didn’t want this girl’s name to sound like anyone else’s in the family. Like a Joe father and Joe Jr. son. Or a Leo brother and Leah sister. No, none of that. The name had to be pretty but strong. Definitely not too cute. Couldn’t end with a y or an ie.

As with Leo, the name we settled on for our daughter felt perfect the first time I saw and heard it—Tess. I knew Mayu and I would have to discuss this name and compare it to the others on my short list (which included Kate, Skye, Jane, and Anne). But secretly I knew the decision had already been made.

As I wait for Tess to be born, I feel such anticipation and excitement. She will be lovely, I know, and I’ll hold her and feed her, sing songs and read books to her, do all those enjoyable parent things. I’ll watch her grow and change and become more and more interesting, as I’ve watched her brother these past four years. But most of all, I feel thankful for the chance to be yet another person’s father, and to have this privilege stretch out from now until the end of my own life. For fatherhood, once it comes to you, and no matter what you decide to do with it, never leaves.


Brian McCurdy lives in Michigan with his wife and two children. He’s been writing personal essays about anything and everything for more than twenty years. He is the author of Anatomy of a House and Portrait of a Vegetarian

Categories
2018 NonFiction

Aram Mrjoian

ANIMAL KINGDOM

The president is on television calling people animals. He is not the first. He will not be the last. He is one of many throughout the ages, snarling with glee as he uses one of the oldest tricks in the book. The animal can be labeled a pest and a pest can be exterminated. A pest can be undone. In fear, predatory nature emerges. Clothing and smartphones and the wonders of modern architecture become nothing more than a façade for our feral roots. Build a wall. Pen the unwelcome. Believe in the salvation of barriers. In a country far away, on what was once the land of another country far away, there is a mountain that they say Noah’s Ark came to rest atop. A grand ship measured in cubits, docked high in the sky, loaded to the brim with precious cargo. Long ago, in its hull, the animal kingdom waited for the flood to subside, two of each breed, ready to repopulate the soggy landscape below. Among rotted trees and waterlogged fields, a mushy crust of mud, they returned to a land without borders. A map free of demarcation. The colorful menagerie, survivors of a world awash, no longer tethered to the arbitrary boundaries of the past. Legend has it the ark remains hidden at the summit of Ararat, nestled in the crevices of the frozen peak. When the ice melts and the flood returns, I wonder who will be invited to board this ancient buoyant vessel. Who will weather the planet’s second inundation? Who or what will survive? Perhaps, the weatherworn, cavernous boat is full of holes. Given its lighter load, it could topple in the massive waves, so many of its original couples having long since vanished from the earth. Or maybe the rich will push and pay their way aboard, cram their bodies into every nook and cranny, fill the gaps with their worldly possessions, until the beams crack and the joints snap and the cabin collapses and everything sinks toward the undefined darkness of the ocean floor and as the water line rises and the shores disappear and the tree line submerges and the hilltops are baptized, we’ll all be left to drown.


Aram Mrjoian is an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books, an interviews editor at the Southeast Review, and the assistant managing editor at TriQuarterly. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Millions, Kenyon Review online, Longreads, Joyland, Colorado Review, Tahoma Literary Review, The Masters Review, and many other publications. He earned his MFA in creative writing at Northwestern University and is pursuing his PhD in fiction at Florida State University. Find his work at arammrjoian.com

Categories
2018 NonFiction

Melissa Wiley

LAND OF MILK AND HONEY

7:45 am

The last day of my life, I tried walking into someone else’s. I tried but couldn’t gain access a couple hours after having sex with my husband, when my thighs gripped his hips as he slowed his rhythm. After clearing his throat, he told me to spread my knees wider across the mattress. Only earlier in the week I pulled a hamstring that resisted healing and preferred staying shredded, likely because it realized my life had nearly ended.

Since dying and surviving the experience, I have stopped waiting for life to become a man whose cock is always hardened. Since discovering the afterlife harbors no more hell than heaven, I have stopped envisioning an eternity spent beside someone on a bed with no box spring beneath it, a bed cloaked by gauzy curtains. Yet I can still see traces of its edges as a fly buzzes through a hole in a nearby window’s screen. The time there is always late morning, and I haven’t had my coffee. Even in paradise, I was always waiting for someone to fill my cup with something missing.

8:30 am

Yesterday morning, I drank my first cup with milk inside my kitchen as I waved goodbye to my husband. I bought my second at a shop I used to frequent until its manager left my life entirely, when he decided to take another position. I walked inside the shop one last time regardless, hoping for if hardly expecting salvation.

The last time I saw him, several months before this, he mentioned he was born with a broken collarbone. In response, I suggested his bones were like sea star arms to comfort him. All good things grow back in the end, I said without believing it. Before his first birthday, his clavicle had fused itself into oneness. As an adult, he looked a ripe, whole specimen.

I can no longer clearly see his face in what has become a receding memory of my life before this. I only know that months ago, as I stood in front of him with my coffee cooling, I pretended to trip over a fallen napkin by way of demonstrating the further bones that could be broken were he to trip across some swath of cotton. Life lived too far away from a bed without a box spring risked more injury, I was trying to warn him.

Seeing him a couple times a week for a couple years on end almost made the gauzy curtains seem an option. Looking at him alone, I often felt as if I was staining the bed sheets with honey already. I often caught myself swatting the fly that wasn’t buzzing around me. Life is nothing, however, if not leaving those you love yet hardly know on a fairly constant basis. That was true before I died and remains true after. There is no heaven where anyone wraps his legs around yours forever. Leaving the coffee shop after confronting his continued absence, skies began to darken into as black a blue as the bottom of the ocean.

10 am

I walked across the street and inside a florist’s, where daffodils nodded from their stems, nodding as if in agreement with something I hadn’t said but they heard regardless. For a couple minutes, I lazed among a world perennially verdant rather than return to my apartment, where I had left a manuscript that I was being paid to edit. Work, though, makes less difference as life’s end approaches, while plants feel necessary.

I bent over at my waist to smell hardly any scent from several purple succulents. The florist had arranged them inside a suitcase whose leather skin reticulated into a web of veins and arteries. She had made a vase of a suitcase dating from the 1960s, because the beauty of things so old they might be dying always enhances the lesser beauty of the living. As I stayed there bending and staring, I remembered how in this life I was so soon leaving there was once a suitcase that contained an organ, the smell of whose leather casing once suffused our kitchen.

For years, its aroma lingered near our oven after my dad carried it up a hill every Easter morning. When opened, the suitcase revealed an inflorescence of organ keys that always reminded me of teeth blotched with coffee stains. With my dad’s fingers pressing them, the teeth sounded church hymns referencing a reality beyond the senses.

10:20 am

Perhaps the ghost of his old suitcase inside the florist’s was my dead dad coming to express his sympathy for my own death approaching. Only I never went with him to Easter sunrise service when he asked me. I always thought there would be more time until there wasn’t. With each passing spring, I saw the suitcase folded near the oven, yet I never saw him play what lay inside it.

The organ was too heavy for me to ever lift, much less carry, even inside our kitchen. When I asked him how he managed it, he only smiled, saying he did some huffin’ and puffin’. I hated, though, to think of him as a steam engine. Even now, I want to say this explains why I never climbed the hill with him—to avoid witnessing what must have been some pain in his exertion—but I know it doesn’t.

Given his heft, given all the extra weight he carried in his abdomen, I’m still half convinced my dad sprouted wings at these moments when I was never with him. I’ve pictured the same of everyone I have loved, however, when some source of hurt approaches from which I can hardly shield them. I have done this in place of offering any real assistance. From the florist, I bought a small bouquet of pale and pink carnations.

10:30 am

As I walked back to my apartment, rain began falling in fat, hard droplets. Brown birds perched on browner branches, not seeming to care or notice my crumbling carnations. Back inside my unit as I untied my shoelaces, I confronted a portrait I painted years ago of my husband. It’s one of a series depicting him winged and naked, which once seemed to me the obvious course of human evolution. I have since revised this theory after dying and remaining the same person.

I was less in love with my husband while painting it than in search of a good subject. I was attempting to depict a timeless beloved, while he remains timely and complicated. In each of the portraits, he flies over a sepia ocean with a full erection. Perhaps a kinder person then, I may have painted him with wings as compensation for some part of me knowing he would someday also realize there is no hell or heaven. In this way, I may have been trying to help him survive his own life’s end. His chiseled, handsome face I made yet more chiseled and more handsome.

For weeks, birds have gathered half a block from my apartment. They flutter wings smaller than those I rendered in the portrait of my husband. They crowd inside a bathtub then shake their feathers free of any dampness before flying higher to rest amid plastic branches. For months, I’ve assumed this is a pet shop about to open, but no sign ever announces its opening to the public. No other animals ever make an appearance. The birds are apparently not for purchase.

2 pm

The woman whose manuscript I’m being paid to edit writes about color theory with remarkable acumen, something she herself has often told me. I edit her findings for grammar and spelling, though I quickly lose interest. Each time I reread what she has written, she states again at the beginning that all color is the mind’s invention. In her eyes as well as those of science, color has no objective existence.

The human retina house three cones, she mentions early in her thesis. Once light strikes them, neurotransmitters convince the brain to interpret the sensation as hues along the visible spectrum. Without any cones in the eye generating this illusion, the world would likely have no florists. A colorless world would have little reason for flower arrangements. No suitcases disemboweled of their organs would hold any purple succulents whose odor they diminish.

Of color blindness much has already been written, for which reason this manuscript explores its opposite, reporting on women born with four rather than three cones inside their retinas, women who as a result see millions more colors than the average. Science to date reveals less about their wider color spectrum and more about language’s inability to accommodate a vaster array of perception. These 12 percent of the world’s women have no way of knowing how much more colorful their world is than that belonging to the rest. They are also invariably mothers or daughters of colorblind men, many of whom live out their lives believing they see the world the same as everyone around them.

As I trimmed some of my client’s sentences while formatting her references, I realized love and color were no different. You could love someone who had vanished, yet no one would know how vividly the love still shown behind your eyelids. Someone could tell you all color is a phantasm, but that doesn’t make scarlet flowers turn pallid. You can look all you like at a suitcase holding an organ, but this doesn’t mean you hear its music.

3:45 pm

My pregnant sister called to say she’d gone to the gynecologist to hear her baby’s heartbeat. Only the gynecologist told her she heard nothing, which meant my sister was having her second miscarriage while caring for two young children. The boy whom she and I had both sensed the baby becoming would soon filter from her uterus the same as any ordinary menstruation. She said she felt too sad for a long discussion, but she wanted to let me know so I didn’t buy any clothes or toys for the baby.

Her version of heaven had been growing inside her then suddenly stopped breathing. For the past month, her heaven had made her vomit each morning and gain some weight in her belly. In six months’ time, hers may have existed outside her body, wearing little hats and jackets, which neurotransmitters would have overlaid with color defying reality. I told her how sorry I was while wondering if tomorrow she too might feel dead while living, knowing nothing better was coming.

5 pm

My husband called to ask what we were eating this evening. He called knowing I cook only pasta or scrambled eggs if I bother cooking anything other than layering meat and cheese for sandwiches. I suggested we meet at an Italian restaurant down the street from our building, and we agreed to 6:45, which would allow us both to work a little longer. I decided I would wait a day or so before telling him about my sister. Sensing my own life ending by then, I didn’t bother trying to picture a fetus dissolving out my sister’s body winged and naked.

6:30 pm

Walking to the restaurant while the sun dropped behind the skyscrapers as its color deepened from tangerine to red and bloody, I stooped to pull some strands of grass growing between the sidewalk cracks. I bent over, probably looking as four-legged as a family living in rural Turkey who were featured in a documentary I watched the previous evening. The family crouched the same as I was doing in place of walking upright. Neither the parents nor their children were capable of standing for more than a few moments without losing their balance. To the camera, the father expressed his fears of them being compared to monkeys.

As I watched the documentary, a bee had flown in through a hole in our window’s screen. My husband started swatting, but I insisted that staying frozen as corpses was our best option. He ran into the next room as I sat there motionless and shallowly breathing. While the Turkish family stood clinging onto chain-linked fences, the bee rested on my nose a moment. It traveled down to my lips as if tempting me to eat it. Its fuzzy body and fluttering wings made me ticklish. I closed my eyes, trying to convince myself I was only dreaming. When I couldn’t do this, I remembered that even when I opened my eyelids, the bee had no real color to its sting or body. Of everything that happened that last day of life still lived with a belief in a better one to come after, this felt most important, letting a bee trace the outline of my lips. Coming close to real pain rather than feeling the ache of something missing.

While we ate our platefuls of spaghetti and our waiter refilled our water glasses, I asked my husband if he remembered the bee last evening. He looked toward the restaurant’s windows and nodded. When I told him it had kissed my lips, he only shook his head, saying he didn’t believe me.

8 pm

Half a block from our apartment, my husband pointed at the birds inside what I was still unsure was a pet shop or wasn’t. Some lights were on, and a woman wearing a sweater with a cowl neck was sweeping the floor of fallen feathers. My husband tapped on the glass, when she waved us in. After we opened the door, the birds’ silence on the other side of the glass changed to screaming.

Most looked to be blue and yellow finches. Many were masturbating, using hard notches of plastic branches as phalluses that never went flaccid. Several had plucked some of their feathers from between their legs. They were all females, the woman practically shouted to be heard above their shrieking. She said they had grown aggressive because they wanted to be mating, something that her limited space prohibited because she had no room for their offspring.

She had rescued them all from an adoption agency and was planning to open this space as a form of community therapy, she explained while putting her broom away. She was also adopting several bunnies and wanted to provide pastries and coffee. People living in apartments without any pets, she added, could come and play with birds and bunnies gentler than humans.

Yet the finches’ needs seemed to me more basic than bridging the divide across species. As I looked at the birds pleasuring themselves with plastic, I wondered how she made her money to fund this project. After we left, my husband said he found her attractive. I too had noticed her beauty as well as a certain calm she radiated amid the finches’ screaming. Were my husband inclined to play with birds or bunnies, he might find his own land here of milk and honey.

8:30 pm

Inside our apartment, our bathroom ceiling was leaking. We would have to wait and call our handyman in the morning, I said, when my husband grew silent before mentioning that in the past few days I’d been smelling badly. I knew he said this now because the water falling from the ceiling angered him. For some time, though, I had been decaying. I had been dying for so long by then that I’d become inured to my own odor more than likely.

As the leak in the ceiling strengthened over the next hour, my husband began turning more against me. I had been the one to want to rent this cheap apartment, he shouted. I should be earning more money instead of staying home editing on a freelance basis. Our whole life would be drier now if only I lived a more normal existence. In response, I screamed instead of saying anything. I screamed while wondering if when he came close to me he smelled a suitcase organ, which was always a little musty. Perhaps inside me there also lay some latent music.

10:50 pm

After he came to bed with his hair wet and matted from the shower he takes each evening, he asked what I’m really doing while he goes to his office and I stay home and edit. I’m wrestling with color theory, I didn’t bother explaining. Only because I am not the daughter of a man with color blindness, I can see no more colors than the average.

In the darkness of our bedroom, all the world’s colors then dissolved into grayness. Shapes alone arrest the retinas after dusk descends. I closed my eyes and imagined a broken collarbone fusing itself into wholeness. The vision resembled the act of mating though was quickly finished, never to be repeated.

11:45 pm

Unable to fall asleep, I left our bed and walked inside our kitchen. I poured milk into a saucepan, turned on a burner and watched its blue flames surging. Never before have I drunk warm milk to put myself to bed, but this once I opened a jar of honey and began stirring an amber string into liquid begun bubbling. I yawned, my feet cold from the floorboards. After draining the cup to its bottom, I lay myself against a warm, familiar body. I lay awake for most of the evening while watching spring snowflakes begin to twitch before landing on the sidewalk and melting.


Melissa Wiley is the author of Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena (Split Lip Press, 2017). Her creative nonfiction has also appeared in places like The Rumpus, DIAGRAM, Phoebe, Entropy, Waxwing, The Offing, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Juked, Noble / Gas Qtrly, and PANK. She lives in Chicago.

Categories
2018 NonFiction

Angela Youngblood

NAVIGATION BEFORE TECHNOLOGY

Tucked between small mountain ranges, you’ll descend like a bird of carrion to my childhood home. Redwood Valley is a blink of an eye, easy to navigate. A right at the house with a red barn off of E. School Street, where on dewy mornings children stand at the stop sign, wait—wait—waiting for the bus, you will find Pinecrest Drive.

The house I grew up in is on the left. Down the road a bit. Before asphalt disappears into dirt, just before a copse of Redwood trees. If you reach a steep hill of dirt and gravel where I once fell and cut my lip because my bike forgot how to brake, you’ve gone too far. Go back.

As you pull into the gravel drive, please note it is not the first house on the right. Alta lived (lives?) there. If you see a small Native American woman who used to train wolves and caught rain water in abalone shells to water her plants, please give her my regards.

My house is the larger ranch style just past hers. Maybe, too, you will come the same epiphany I came to at the age of six as your feet crunch rock on the path to the door, “Oh! Now I get it! The lights are on but nobody’s home!”

Rerouting…

                                                                                 ***

I was always struck as a child when I came across books with flowers or clovers pressed between the pages. Something once living, dried, now, an image. Was this not the purpose of ink on page? Pressing words to paper?

One image: Where the irises grew, I learned of beauty in gentle folds; feminine and bearded. Bulb plants the color of fresh bruises, resilient and still blooming. If you gently pull back the flesh of a petal and let it catch the light, just so, an intricate network of veins is exposed. The spiky green leaves, the cartilage backbone of each stem, do not bend in the wind or under the weight of the bloom, they quiver gracefully for their one to three weeks of unabashed flowering. With little to no tending, they will bloom again.

What do you call the bowl of a tree where the branches take off from the trunk? The basin at the divergence, the catcher of rain, fallen leaves, and debris? Rot pot. Decaying stew. Organic. Childhood.

Search results: Unable to find image.

                                                                                 ***

The absence of. I feel like my life has taken up this mantra. I feel an unremembering. No recollecting. The collection is a scattering. Flash in the pan. Fools gold. Triggers; bang! Bang!

I remember a fence of wood and squared wire. Imposing. Insurmountable. But there seems to be more questions than memories. Scientists say black holes follow all the laws of physics, including gravity—especially gravity—that everything becomes so dense hurtling toward this one point, not even light can escape. My thoughts are following physics, and I am helpless in the pull.

Another image: My mother’s hands seemed slender, elegant, otherworldly, juxtaposed to the soft doughy flesh of the rest of her. Her hands took on a life of their own, little birds chopping vegetables, cool hand to fevered forehead, fluttering monarchs of maternalism. Almond shaped fingernails and a bulb shaped callus from years of meticulous grocery lists and budgeting. Duality. These hands closed latches, brandished a fire poker, locked the bathroom door for two days. These hands said, “KEEP OUT!” in their futile quest to keep it all in.

Redirecting…

                                                                                 ***

When I was in college I read Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. I became obsessed with Wemmick. Wemmick was a colleague of Pip, the main character, but to me, Wemmick was the meat and potatoes. I thought about him constantly, wrote an essay entitled “On Wemmick and Human Battlements,” and walked around town looking for houses that had the facade of a castle tower; there are three houses in the town where I now live that I found in my obsession. He permeated my consciousness, slipped into my dreams. I felt a kindred spirit in Wemmick. A man who lived in the heart of a dirty and bustling city, separated by a moat and drawbridge. A home, shielding a cozy domestic bliss behind physical battlements. There was a work-Wemmick and a home-Wemmick. Each domain was compartmentalized. Separate. Safe.

I started imagining people walking around like their own castles, some with cannons, others with algae-thick moats 10 feet wide, a few with crumbling mortar. I felt a bit like the last castle—rocks askew, ready to fall apart.

Error. Please try again.

                                                                                 ***

Crows are known to have episodic-like memory. They have to add “like” to the end of episodic, because there is currently no way of knowing whether a crow’s form of remembering is accompanied by conscious recollection, which is a key component in human episodic memory. Episodic memory is the who, what, when, and where of memory. Autobiographical. A collection of personal experiences that occurred at a certain time and place. Data.

Input: early childhood memory

Pages fell like snow, almost lazily, to the ground. A too-soft juxtaposition to books being ripped from their spines. Whiskey. Another flying book. Thud. Paper, gently drifting to meet the living room floor. Funny, that my dad built the shelf the books were coming from. Stained the wood. Something he created with his hands. These same hands were also capable of undoing, ripping the threads that bind, tearing things apart. I kept my eyes on the paper, tried to find beauty in the rage. My mom kept pushing the books back on the shelf. She never looked so much like a bookend.

When we moved out of my childhood home we had to wash the walls. Blank canvasses, lighter patches of paint, now hung where pictures once had. Squares and rectangles of wall surrounded by layers of nicotine. Where Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Want had resided over the dining room table, the serene image of a family being served a bountiful Thanksgiving meal, nicotine had exercised creative license—precise, hard lines containing a hollow space. Ten years of nicotine wrung out in the Pine Sol and warm water, staining my thirteen year old fingers, erasing histories.

My parents had hired a man to clean up the yard, tame the jubilant growth of the plants, take down the squared and wired fence on the left corner of the property. At what point do cages need not be physical? I watched him, first, remove the chicken wire, a later add-on to keep things in, that slightly tilted in at the top of the fence. Then he methodically began removing staples from the posts and rolling up the heavy squared wire of the enclosure. Next he unhinged the latched gate. Lastly, he pulled the posts from the ground. He made it look effortless. Funny, that that space still stands in my mind, just as tall and sturdy as the day it was built, despite me seeing it torn down.

                                                                                 ***

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More and more, with the building and removal of physical barriers and walls, psychologists are grappling with how these structures have impacted the human psyche. Since the seventies, a decade after the Berlin Wall went up, psychologists have been theorizing about the effects of physically imposed isolation. “Mauerkrankheit” translates to “wall sickness,” describing the malaise that accompanied living with the Berlin Wall. This term was coined after the fall of the Berlin Wall when mental health specialists saw a rise in despondency of those who lived near or within the confines of the barrier. Gritta Heinrich, who lived up against the Berlin Wall in Klein-Glienicke said, “It was this real feeling of narrowness.” Despite the wall being torn down 30 years ago, many people who live in East and West Germany still experience “Die Mauer im Kopf,” or “the wall in the head.” In Israel and Palestine, where The Separation Wall still exists, they have only just begun studying the psychological implications of the barrier. The barrier that separates Pakistan from India is called “The Line of Control,” a double-row of fencing and concertina wire, electrified and motion sensored. The small area of land between the double fence is covered with thousands of landmines. As with Israel and Palestine, surveys and studies have only just begun to measure the psychological ramifications of these partitions. All studies show an increased number of individuals with distress, anxiety, and feelings of displacement. Each fence, line, barrier, wall, enclosure—keeping things in, keeping things out; signifying other.

What does this say of the parent/child relationship? If boundaries are drawn for “protection,” does intent outweigh consequence?

As I am writing this my father is having open heart surgery. I feel a suffocation of fear. Fear that he may die, heart exposed, chest open on the operating table. Fear that I am exposing him with each stroke of my pen as I attempt to fill in cavities. I can imagine my mom, chain smoking and watching the clouds like a furtive dream, waiting for the call, “Everything went well. Everything is going to be okay.” I feel distressed. Displaced somewhere between anxiety and anger. Anger at he who built the cage. Anger at her who put us in it. Anxious that they’ll both die with unspoken answers on their tongues.
I want to know the shape of my time in that enclosure. Need to know the shape that has forced itself into every relationship I have ever had. Dividing. Drawing lines. Was it for a summer? A handful of days? Over the course of a few years? I ask my sisters; we are united in our unremembering. Like a bookmark pressed between the long unread pages of our youth, it leaves an indelible image of where part of ourselves left off and picked up another text.

                                                                                 ***

Unauthorized access…

I remember the playhouse. A one room wooden wonder my dad built with his hands. A-frame, shingled roof, exterior of white with yellow trim. Two windows for natural light. A counter on the wall without a window, fitted with a metal sink. No running water. How many times did I sweep that plywood floor? A door frame without a door, always open, beckoning, “Come on in!”

I called my sister and asked, “Which came first—the cage or the dog?” I could feel the distance through the phone as she shoveled buried memories. When she hit something hard she asked in turn, “Wasn’t our playhouse in there?”

I pulled out a shoebox of photos, scattered memories on the floor, in search of an image. A four year old me in front a swing-set. In the corner of the frame, our white and yellow playhouse inside the fence. Just as my dad had built the playhouse for us with loving hands, he had also built the cage for us, the cage my mother had locked us in on inattentive days.

                                                                                 ***

Image found:

Six feet of separation. A few hundred square feet of lawn. Playhouse in the corner. At the far side of the fence is where the irises grew. Through my wire latticed lense I looked out at wild flowers. Laburnum. Rhododendron. Ivy that draped in heavy vines off the massive oak. Before the chicken wire was added to the top, my sisters would climb out. I couldn’t. Wouldn’t. I felt that the cage was there for a reason. That I belonged in it.

I sometimes wonder what my mother did while we were locked away. Did she imagine us safe while she walked the narrow corridors of her memory? Did she crave the isolation she physically imposed on us, her three daughters? I remember a quiet, but ever present, hysteria closed around our childhood. The 60 Minutes clock always ticking; another child abduction, strangers luring kids to cars with candy, Polly Klaas kidnapped from her home in Petaluma, her strangled body found in a shallow grave 30 minutes from our home. While keeping these things out, they were keeping us in. Intent versus consequence.

Black hole: My sisters and I named that enclosure “The Kid Kennel.” An attempt to deflect pain, or any real depth of feeling, with humor. On the cusp, perpetually at the event horizon. But it is pulling me in. Dense. Denser still. No light memories can escape.

I have been smoothing the edges of this memory for years. Wearing the shape of the cage in my mind down to a more pocket-friendly size. A shape I can understand. Can carry with me, without consuming me. My favorite image of my sisters and I is this: A photo of the three of us. A day I don’t remember. Overcast at the beach. Grey waters bleeding into sky. A sea of infinite horizons. We are facing the waves, the three of us, ready to jump. Together. On the cusp. At the precipice of something.


Angela Youngblood lives and writes in a small northern California town. She holds a B.A. in English Literature from CSU Chico. Her prose has recently been published in Entropy. Amateur plant enthusiast, but not-as-vigilant-a-plant-caretaker-as-she-would-like-to-be, she tries to nourish things to grow. She sporadically posts on her nebulous blog youngofblood.wordpress.com.

Categories
2018 NonFiction

Robert James Russell

BLUE RASPBERRY

People would always say to me, more than anything else, that the store’s smell was too strong—that all you could smell was cologne. They’d walk up to the registers and say, stone-faced, that it stung their eyes. How could you shop for clothes, they’d say, if you had to walk through a humidor of fragrance spritzes to get to them?

(It was a mandate, by the way: to spray their musky cologne every thirty minutes on every mannequin, every T-stand, every meticulously folded sweatshirt and jean wall. To literally walk around and spritz everything in sight. It became the unofficial smell of unrequited crushes, weekend bonfire parties, sneaking off from the group and making out. And if the District or Regional Manager popped in on a whim and was not greeted with a sharp palisade in air quality, if they couldn’t smell it from the mall entrance, if they were not embalmed in the perfume the moment they entered the store, we’d hear about it.)

I worked on and off as a manager at Abercrombie & Fitch for years. It was a go-to job after college, as I navigated the film industry in Los Angeles, and after graduate school, as I tried to figure out what to do with two English degrees. The job, I quickly found out, in addition to running the store generally, required me to be a doormat—to absorb the daily barrage of (typically) mothers who hated the brand, the low-cut tops and low-rise jeans, the sex appeal and overt-sleaze, as they saw it, that was dangerous and inviting their children into a world they had been protecting them from their whole lives. A&F was, as I was told time and time again—reminded often by my own family, too—everything that was wrong with the world.

The first time I experienced this blinding animosity, a few weeks into the job in West Michigan, I was the only manager in the store, running the registers. I was drinking a giant-sized blue raspberry Slurpee throughout my shift. This was 2003, the last year the infamous in-house magazine/catalog A&F Quarterly would be printed. There had been widespread outrage over models appearing flat-out nude in the pages, no Abercrombie clothes in sight.

A mom stormed in with a copy of the back to school issue, titled—not subtly—the “Sex Ed Issue.” It was dog-eared, bent. It looked like pages had been torn out, others burned with a lighter. She chucked it at us behind the register as she stormed forward, me and the two college freshman Brand Representatives (their official, Orwellian titles). We all ducked, and the dictionary-thick magazine slapped against the back wall, fell open along the floor to a page that showed, simply, in black and white, two men and a woman running naked toward the ocean, mountains hovering sleeplessly in the distance bearing no trees, no snow, naked themselves.

The mom cussed at us for a couple of minutes. Her face puckered and reddened. Did we know the damage a book like this would cause her son!? she asked us. Why were we peddling such perversion! We did as we had been instructed, though, and listened, waited. We nodded along.

After her rant, the store muzak drummed up, the beat of nameless European techno sweetening our eardrums once more, the ceaseless rhythms she’d been screaming over returning, pounding. She looked me up and down, arms crossed, a bag hanging over her shoulder I hadn’t noticed before. She said, “And I have some returns.”

                                                                             ***

The problem was with the color red.

If you had cherry, raspberry, watermelon, and strawberry flavored products, how could you distinguish them by color, these red fruits? It was a simple question with a complex answer.

In the late 1950s, consumers were growing impatient and demanded to know if the ever-growing world of food additives was safe—if these artificial colors and flavors being added were dangerous in the quantities they were consuming them.

For a while, Red No. 2, which produced a deep red wine color, was used to color raspberry flavored items. But word got out that Red No. 2 especially was unsafe, poisonous. In 1958, the Food Additives Amendment was passed, dictating that food manufactures had to prove additives they used were safe. Red No. 2 was, but the public found out this study was funded by the very same industry that made the dyes, and Red No. 2 seemed to have its day—banned outright in 1976 in the United States.

So, the color for raspberries was quickly ousted, and manufacturers were left scratching their heads: Raspberry was a popular flavor, but they had no way to distinguish it. What was there to do?

                                                                             ***

Founded as an outfitter of expensive sporting and outdoors goods, Abercrombie & Fitch existed in that model until 1977. Exchanging hands for eleven years, it emerged in 1988 as a subsidiary of Limited Brands the way your high school crush emerged after a summer break of touring Europe with their family: the acne’s gone, they’re taller, there’s a worldliness to them you can’t quite place but you find irresistible, and they have little to no interest in you any longer.

And from there, infamy was achieved: the brand became associated with the “popular” and the “elite.” Kids saved up to buy just one of their infamous graphic t-shirts with the bad sex puns. The A&F brand was billed as a lifestyle, a way of life geared towards high school and early college students.

Wear A&F, the stores lauded, and see the world!

Wear A&F and get straight A’s!

Wear A&F and be good at all sports!

Wear A&F and get invited to all the parties!

Wear A&F and everyone will want to talk to you!

Wear A&F and be cool!

Wear A&F and get laid!

Wear A&F and never be alone again!

                                                                             ***

ICEE, the still-popular frozen carbonated beverage, changed the artificial raspberry game.

In the early 1970s, raspberry flavors still floundering without a color to call their own, The ICEE Company got creative: they had incalculable quantities of blue dye sitting around, but no naturally blue products to marry it with.

But, they said, what about the whitebark raspberry that turns a dark blue when ripe?

(Although, if we’re being honest, it’s more of a deep purple. Still…)

Yes! they said. Good enough!

And so, raspberry flavoring was paired with Blue No. 1 dye. Blue raspberry was born.

                                                                             ***

The CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch, Mike Jefferies, was legendary. He once said in an interview, “That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people.”

The phrase “good-looking people” was one I came to despise. I saw how it made people feel, shopping in our store. The management culture was one of cold-shouldering-rejection. We were supposed to ignore customers—we were told, in no certain terms—to seem “out of touch” with what was going on. It would make customers want to be part of our brand.

Once, I arrived at the store epically hungover. I formed go-backs in a dressing room into a sort of mattress, covered myself with wool-lined jean jackets and distressed green surplus coats, and napped. The other workers—friends, at the time—knew to leave me alone.

When I woke up twenty or so minutes later, I had drooled on the clothes, made a sort of nest. I looked at myself in the mirror: ruddy-faced, blood-shot eyes, sunken cheeks. On the wall behind me hung a poster advertising the new styles of jeans for the upcoming winter season. I admired the way they hung on the hips of the male model, how they fit him perfectly, even though I knew how these photos worked: clothes pinned and pulled back, tightened and loosened for maximum perfection.

My bleary-brained reflection in the mirror, unshaven, earlobes too long and knees that bowed inward, was off-brand. He didn’t, at all, look the part.

                                                                             ***

Other companies followed ICEE’s lead, pairing Blue No. 2 with raspberry flavor, leading children everywhere clamoring for the electric blue color, the electric blue. But why?

Back in 1922, American chemist Melvin De Groote was one of the first to study children’s attractions to brightly—and often unnatural—colored foods. It’s how, for example, pink lemonade was born: it sold better than the typically colorless regular lemonade. Children just had to have that pink-colored beverage.

This appeal has been capitalized on ever since. It doesn’t matter that dazzlingly blue raspberries don’t exist in nature. It doesn’t matter that most, even today, haven’t heard of the whitebark raspberry. (Native to the Western United States, Alaska, parts of Mexico, the fruit is too soft to be grown commercially—it wouldn’t survive the farming, the packaging and shipping—so no one bothers. It’s a trophy, a niche fruit. It’s a dream.) What matters is the manipulation: these companies can, with great success, tell our brains how to react.

We don’t even know yet all the ways we’ve been spellbound.

                                                                             ***

The A&F brand represented a twisted view of what “beautiful” was and should be.

During the holidays, A&F paraded shirtless men in Santa hats, women in barely-there camisoles (Yes, yes! I learned what a cami was working there!) and pajama pants folded down real low, right below the hipbone, underwear sticking out. Consumers and media reported on it, aghast, derided the brand’s loose standards, and I, too, working there, hated this adherence to one-kind-only physical perfection—oversexed, standoffish, their way or nothing at all.

There were posters we managers would get, hung up in the back office, that showed exactly how the models at the front of the store had to wear the clothes, what angle shirts and hats and pants had to be tilted to, how much cuff jeans should have. It was horrible. I felt uncomfortable about my own body already, had suffered my whole life with body issues, how I saw (and still see) myself, and I detested seeing people feel as if they didn’t belong based only on what they looked like—on physical traits they couldn’t change.

And yet, it worked. The stores were always packed. People came by with digital cameras and early camera phones and snapped photos with the models. People hung out in the store, met friends and flirted there. They made wish lists of expensive t-shirts they couldn’t afford, tried on sweatshirts and outerwear they’d never actually own. It was a place to meet. A clothing store that people wanted to hang out in, to be seen in. To be viewed, perhaps, the way the models were viewed. That they, too, had potential.

                                                                             ***

Blue raspberry flavor makes your tongue, your lips, turn blue.

Blue raspberry flavor burns your tongue with its too-sweetness.

Blue raspberry flavor stains the plastic snow-cone cup rim, your fingernails.

Blue raspberry flavor won’t get your eighth-grade crush to talk to you, won’t make you seem more interesting.

Blue raspberry flavor won’t get your parents to stop fighting or your brother to stop stabbing knives into the drywall.

Blue raspberry flavor won’t teach you how to talk to people, how to be yourself. It will only tell you how to lie, how to become something you’re not.

                                                                             ***

Rumors swirled about Jefferies leading up to his famous in-store visits, every time—that he had calf implants, pectoral and chin implants. That he had distorted his body to the point of being unrecognizably non-human. That he refused to talk to people he considered ugly. We asked each other, scoffed, What right did a man who hated the way he looked so ruthlessly, who changed himself so tremendously, have telling us if we were good-looking enough or not?

And yet, his visits were short, albeit gaudy, affairs. They were meant to be surprise visits. To catch us off guard. We spent so much time folding jean walls, folding shirts with perfect creases, and tucked away at the Home Office in rural Ohio, he assumed (wrongly, oh so wrongly!) that clothing stayed like this in the stores when he wasn’t around. That, magically, after a busy Saturday, piles of clothes remained untouched, lorded over, fantasized about, folds remaining unbroken, unaffected by customers.

But word about impending visits would get out, as it always did. Regional Managers would whisper to District Managers: It’s your store, be ready! And then you had to pull all-nighters, get no sleep, order pizza in and listen to music and fold and re-fold piles of everything, again and again measuring stacks against thick plastic folding boards and wooden rulers. And then, the next day, the visit would happen. Everyone was placed perfectly in the store, every room decked out in Brand Representatives wearing the new hotness of the season, everyone would be smiling, the whole place lacquered with cologne. You’d get a call from someone: Jefferies is in the mall!

The store would be on high alert. Higher-ups lingered nervously, as if he never made these visits. And then Jefferies would stroll in, followed by a cavalcade of lackeys all wearing the A&F brand, middle-agers wearing popped-collar polos, distressed jeans, A&F sandals. Jefferies would literally strut in, walk to the back of the store to the register, look around, smile at the staff, and then march back out. And that was it.

In all my time working at A&F, I saw him twice, in-person. He looked just like a…man. I couldn’t see his calves, his chin looked like a normal chin. And yet, each season more posters arrived full of mandates about how we had to look, how we had to tell our employees how to look, what haircuts were acceptable, what colors were on- and off-limits. Each season we were told, bit by bit, to let go of who we were and give in to the Brand. They told us, every time, that we just weren’t good enough.

                                                                             ***

Many artificial flavors are combinations of other artificial flavors—raspberry contains, for example, more cherry and banana and pineapple artificial flavoring than actual raspberry. We’re being conditioned in ways we can never fully understand. We’re tasting a thing that exists nowhere but in our minds.

                                                                             ***

Working at A&F taught me about layering clothes—two polo shirts, yes, three t-shirts at a time, too—and to love jackets and denim, how to put an outfit together. But it also taught me how to hate my body.

I’d flip through the catalog at the models, I remind myself now, whose job it is to look that way. They do nothing else all day but workout to look like that, I tell myself. And yet, I’m back there in that stockroom, often, back in that tiny cramped office looking at the mandates from Home Office on how the male employees should dress, feeling ashamed at how I look in the mirror beside the printed photo directives. In those photos, the models’ hair never grays and they never grow course hair on their backs or their necks and their football-sized biceps with the veins perfectly center-mounted and their teeth so white and their square jaws like action movie stars and and—

Whitebark raspberries don’t look like what we imagine raspberries to look like—the color, obviously, is off from what we see in picture books and imagine in our minds, and they’re oblong, resembling blackberries, not the red raspberries we’re conditioned to imagine. They’re ugly, in the way expectations make something ugly.

I haven’t had an artificial blue raspberry Slurpee or ICEE or piece of candy since the mid-2000s. My taste for that flavor has vanished. But a couple years back, at the local farmer’s market, they were selling whitebark raspberries and I bought them on a lark. I was desperate to know what they tasted like.

Back home, I washed a handful and studied their shape. I popped one in my mouth and held it there a moment, rubbing my tongue along the drupelets. I bit in and it exploded, as berries do. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the flavor, the taste, trickling down my throat. It is, after all, exactly what it portends to be.


Robert James Russell is the author of the novellas Mesilla (Dock Street Press) and Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing), and the chapbook Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out (WhiskeyPaper Press). He is a founding editor of the literary journals Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP. You can find him online at robertjamesrussell.com and on Twitter at @robhollywood.

Categories
2018 NonFiction

Shir Kehila

CALL ME SONG OR CALLS FOR PRAYER

 

“Women usually know,” my dad told me over ice-cream, whipped cream melting on the sides, “when they conceive. They feel it, somehow.”

                                                                             *

Summer: the weekly visits to my dad’s are netted with disclosures.

Coming home that night, I stood by the kitchen window with my mom, hanging laundry to dry between thoughts. “Why was he telling you that?” she asked, the rope tightened, socks clipped on. “Why now?”

Darkened by wetness, skirts and scarves curved the rope with their weight. It had a belly, we say in Hebrew: the rope like a shelf supporting books, sunk at its midpoint. The plastic basket emptied. “Yes, I think it was the first time we’d made love,” my mom said, “that I got you.”

Did my parents make love, that night? I only know they made me, and I was not love—not love-made. But if I must stick to their terms, I could only write this: at thirty-two and forty-five, my parents made careless love. They made love careless—right on their first date, after meeting on a bus, Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, across the aisledo I know you?

On the phone, when my mom found out my dad’s age and familial situationa bachelor in his mid-fortiesshe said, don’t call anymore. But he kept calling, listened and asked questions. He was thoughtful and intelligent, and she was alone. When she gave in, invited him overthere was no need to care, anymore, nor to be careful. Just hurry.

                                                                             *

From beneath her wedding dress, tight inside the growing belly, I asked my mom: call me Shir.

If I wanted to change my name, whenever I did, as many times as I did—my mom would say “It was your choice.” But it was only my choice in her story.

The ritual went on: my mom sipped wine, red and sour under her hinuma, then watched my dad almost break the aluminium-glass. Just almost—and that was it.

 

My dad hated presents and told his family not to bring any to the wedding. He was specific, repeating this request on the phone, in invitation-letters. My mom did not follow, and all the presents they got were brought in by her guests. Except one.

Knowing my dad’s stubbornness, nearly all his family members obeyedeven if reluctantly. One woman, Shifrathe mother of my dad’s brother-in-lawcalled my mom in private, to ask if she could keep a secret. “From me to you,” Shifra said. “He doesn’t need to know.”

The night after their wedding, my mom thought of Shifra’s present: a check she did not want all for herself, a secret she did not want to keep. Unable to foresee my dad’s reaction, she drastically misjudged the situation. Not yet, she must have told herself, it’s too early a time for secrets.

My dad was furious. “She should have known better, being on my side of the family!”

“But she gave it to me, Naftali: it’s under my name.”

This didn’t seem important to my dad. He told my mom she had to throw the check out, that she had no right to keep what wasn’t hers. “You either throw it out,” he said, “or too bad we ever got married.”

The check was tossed in the trash, and they stayed together. Over the next two yearspast the big fire in the Jerusalemite woods, past my birth and the murder of prime minister Yitzhak Rabinmy mom kept throwing things away.

In Pessah of ‘95, spring-cleaning before the holiday, she found a nine year-old matzot package in the kitchen cardboardbest before March ‘86. She thought they must have been forgotten, that it was obvious they had to be thrown out—but within a few days, my dad noticed they weren’t on the shelf. “I’m keeping them for emergency! How could you not understand?” His wrinkles were deep as gorges. “Never throw anything of mine away.”

And so my mom started throwing out her own things. The urge to clean was persistent, incessant, following her around the apartment. Like the muezzin calls for prayer, it echoed back from the corners of their bedroom. In the early morning hours, before sunrise, the deep male voice found its way to my mom, across the hills and border of East Jerusalem, cutting her nights in half. You should clean, the voice said to my mom, keep cleaning.

Was this her prayer?

My dad’s nights were different: he slept soundly inside his cocoon. There wasn’t much that could reach him in there, not a sound, not my mom. Their bed, like Jerusalem, was divided—split by a border of blankets, a confine marked by wool. My dad’s night were full, extensive. He was used to the muezzin.

 

Notes:
Shir​ is Hebrew for song or poem.
Hinuma​ is Hebrew for the white veil worn by women in the Jewish marriage ceremony


Originally from Israel, Shir Kehila has lived on Mount Desert Island, Maine for the last four years and received her B.A in Human Ecology from College of the Atlantic. Her poems have appeared in Beech Street Review and The Albion Review. She absolutely loves cats.

Categories
2018 NonFiction

Annalise Mabe

LITTLE DEATHS

My parents were ex-pats in 1993, taking my sister and me to Prague where dust came from the bodies of men, old as meshed chain, armor and silver swords. The city, the churches were filled to the brim with bones.

I was three, the air swimming around me, smelling sweet of goulash and knedliky, or pilsners from the pub. My father took a job at an English language newspaper, The Prognosis, while my mother gave guided tours to other ex-pats visiting the city. At night I curled up between my parents, my sister tucked in close on the couch around the small T.V. watching Jonny Quest, a show about a young boy following his scientist-father around on adventures. Sometimes I fell asleep while watching, the static of the T.V. lulling me, a soft sea of voices rushing in and out before my parents carried me to bed, kissing my forehead or tucking my hair behind my ear. I’d like to think this was when they were still in love. This, in Prague, was when we were still together.

                                                                                *

Before my mother was my mother, she was long and thin-limbed in thrift shop clothes, in hand-me-downs, walking across a Florida college campus. Her friends called her Ally, or Ally Cat, short for Allison. Before my father was my father, he was Logan, and more of what you’d call a mod—a 60s term for a young person of a certain subculture who wore skinny ties, rode scooters, and liked all things alt. In freshman composition he got her number.

On hot summer evenings they cracked the windows wide open before falling asleep between the sheets. They called their parents not to ask, but to tell them they were moving in together. Months later, Allison moved to study abroad in France and Logan wrote her every day. Allison tied a string to a coin, dropping it in the slot, saving money to call Logan long distance. I’m sure they said “I miss you” over a hundred times, but in French, I miss you doesn’t translate neatly. It translates to you are missing from me, or, I am not whole without you. Logan told his parents he would sell all of his records for a plane ticket to see her. They flew him over.

On New Year’s Eve, Allison and Logan sat on a Parisian rooftop, swigging down champagne from the green glass bottle before kissing, before throwing it down into the street.

                                                                                *

The first thing I loved was a stuffed animal rabbit.

My parents gave me the rabbit when I was fifteen months old and I named him B. Bunny. I slept on him every night, his fluff rolling soft between my neck and shoulder, absorbing the sheen of my baby sweat. He smelled like the only home I’d ever known.

One winter while we were living in Prague, his white ear fell off somewhere on our walk home. I didn’t know where we lost it. Months passed, the sun melting the snow, when my mother crouched down, picking up the lone ear sticking out of the snow in a parking lot. At home, she took off her coat, stitched him back together, whole and anew.

                                                                                *

I am the second-born daughter to Allison and Logan.

I was small when I was born, conceived in January of 1990, after the New Year. After falling confetti and resolutions, after turmoil and arguments. I imagine I was a last try of sorts, a resolution myself, the consequence of their attempt to pick up the pieces, to put themselves back together again.

Allison was pregnant with me in France at an Opera House, flipping through the program when she saw the name she’d give me, a ballerina’s, a credit in ink: Annalise. The name means graced with God’s bounty, but I don’t think my parents believed in such a thing.

                                                                                *

La petite mort, or the little death, is the brief loss or weakening of consciousness, and sometimes, the sensation of orgasm. It was first used in 1882 to relay a post-orgasmic state of unconsciousness that some people have after sex. When the eyes roll back, when they close and you see bursts of bright light. When you transcend your body, escaping the physical confines of skin, the shrapnel of what feels like war on the field of your sheets. This is what it means when you say I love you to death.

                                                                                *

A few years after Prague, we moved to Florida to be close to family. I was five or six in my parents’ shared apartment when my sister and I climbed out of our bunk beds one night past our bedtime. Like little sleuths, we crept on hands and knees across the carpeted floor of the hallway, following the noise, the shouting.

Throwing words across the table, my parents broke like the glass cup I once dropped on the tile  floor, my mother telling me not to move a muscle. The door swung open while I watched my mother leave the apartment, the rush of cold night air greeting my face.

                                                                                *

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is the Western title for Tibet’s bardo thos grol, where the word bardo refers to an intermediate state between lives and thos grol refers to liberation, awakening, or nirvana. Some have likened the act of sex and the experience of orgasm to nirvana, which overlaps with sidpa bardo, the bardo of rebirth, said to result in hallucinations of women and men fiercely entangled, of lovers entwined.

Is this what the vow means, till death do us part? Does it mean then that divorce is a death, a rebirth, or something entirely of its own? And what, then, of those born of it, from the in-between?

Sometimes I’ve felt like the product of my parents’ limbo. Of their standing in the middle of reconciliation, or their agreement of another try. My creation, my body, has come from their willingness, their attempt to seal up the cracks. To lacquer the lines of the breaks. Sometimes I wonder what that makes me, then, knowing I wasn’t, knowing I couldn’t be the fix they were looking for.

                                                                                *

I had B. Bunny for a few more years before I lost him for good one day. I was six and sick about it, hot tears rolling down my cheeks into the pillowcase. My mother tried to tell me it was just like The Velveteen Rabbit, that B. Bunny was okay, and wandered off into the woods to be with real rabbits. That he wasn’t dead or trampled on or rained on. But I knew that wasn’t the case. I knew that I had dropped him in the parking lot of the grocery store, that he was out there somewhere, collecting dirt.

Losing B. Bunny was not a worthy case for psychoanalytical prodding, but years later while reading The Shell and The Kernel, Karl Abraham’s work rang out and I thought of the stuffed rabbit in reading: “The illness of mourning does not result, as might appear, from the affliction caused by the objectal loss itself, but rather from the feeling of an irreparable crime.” I had known then, at six, that it was my fault.

                                                                                *

A small part of me died. It wasn’t when my parents sat my sister and me down in our shared bedroom to tell us they were separating and it wasn’t when my father moved into his own apartment, reeking of freshly painted walls, a white too clean, too sterile. I don’t know if it was a Tuesday, or if it was early afternoon, or late at night in my bed, when I realized that there was no going back.

There wasn’t one reason for my parents’ divorce. It seemed more like a small grocery list of moments that tumbled together into being too much. I can’t know fully why it happened because the truth is that a myriad of things happened, all too mild, too plain and dull to suffice as a good reason.

                                                                                *

I stood small, sweating in the parking lot, looking up at my mother’s new boyfriend outside her white Volkswagen we called Astrid shortly after losing B. Bunny. He handed me a new stuffed rabbit with green silky ears, a consolation for my lost beloved.

The new rabbit my mother’s boyfriend gave me was neat with his matching green bowtie and small pink nose. In bed at night, I slept with my head on him, smelling his fake fur, looking for the scent of home, only finding what smelled like a department store.

I came to terms with loss, lying in my lower bunk bed. I knew then that the things you carry at your chest, the raggedy and torn, are fleeting, short-lived, or left for dead in gravel parking lots, for the eventual rain, or the melting of the snow.

                                                                                *

I watched my father break silently. It was in the quietness of our breakfasts at the coffee table, watching T.V. It was in the car ride home from school, when he picked us up from after care, when the sun was starting to set and we still had to cook dinner. It was in my neatly folded clothes and the ponytail he helped me tie up tight by himself.

We all broke into tiny pieces and talked little about it, my sister taking to her friends, my mother to her new boyfriend. I waited for it to get better, for things to be fixed, for the glue to set and take hold.

                                                                                *

After college, I found letters from my father to my mother while looking for an old art project in a box at her house. I unfolded the pages of yellow lined paper, his wide, familiar script inked in black.

He wrote pages to her about the times when he loved her most: Was it when you walked into the room at the cocktail party and everyone stopped to look, to hold a second of you? Was it when you slipped out of bed in the night, your silhouette in the doorframe, to nurse our first daughter?

I couldn’t help but cry, holding the aged paper in my hands. I couldn’t help but look around my childhood bedroom and feel like I had been transported, had been somewhere else.

Roland Barthes spoke of petite mort when regarding reading. He said it was a feeling one should get when they experience an exceptional piece of writing. That if the piece is good, you are there with the character, living the words, and when it’s finished, you, in a sense, are finished.

                                                                                *

As I grew up, I liked to pretend that everything was fine, that the divorce was really no big deal. I don’t care, I said.

I believed I didn’t care, but I searched for love, for wholeness, in every boyfriend. I believed that Bryan or David or Paul was “the one,” as if there was a “one.” I believed in promise rings and yearly anniversaries, cards, and lockets and ticket stubs. Boxes of letters, of folded, lined paper scrawled with ink, stuffed animals I took with me on trips, tuckered under my chin before sleep. I counted on these things, these tangible pieces of proof that said I was loved.

                                                                                *

I find myself wanting to believe. I take to yoga as a coping mechanism, an exercise and practice that yields a physical release of energy that leaves me lighter upon leaving the old wooden house, grateful for the warmth of the day settling on my skin.

At the beginning and end of class we share an Om, a resounding vibration that fills the room. I take comfort in the symbol itself that sees death, that sees dying or loss as not so bad, not so scary, but a return to something bigger, where the individual unites with a divine collective. Where the individual is no longer alone.

A part of the Om symbol illustrates the illusion that we are separate, and another part, the diamond sitting at the top, represents nirvana, or a break from the limbos, from feeling like someone, something, is missing.

In class on a Thursday night, the instructor tells us that yoga is preparation for death. I lay on my back in corpse pose with eyes closed, palms face up, open to the sky for what I may receive. My breathing slows, chest unmoving, and for a moment I am cleansed by the wash of cars rushing past outside, rolling in and out like heavy waves. I am wiped free of the day’s dirt, the thoughts that crowd the front of my head, free of my body, weightless like water, like swimming far out. The salt, the sea on my upper lip.

For a moment I unravel. I am simply undone, letting my eyes wet at the edges in a room full of people. We are alone and together all at once, preparing. For a moment, it overcomes me, the release of held energy. The world in the wooden room at a standstill, waking together at the ring of a singing bowl.


Annalise Mabe is a writer from Tampa, Florida. Her nonfiction, poetry, and comics have appeared in Brevity, The Boiler, Columbia Journal, New Delta Review, The Offing, The Rumpus, BOOTH, Word Riot, Hobart, and more. She was a finalist for the december Curt Johnson Prose Award judged by Eula Biss, and currently serves as a nonfiction editor for Sweet: A Literary Confection. @AnnaliseMabe annalisemabe.com