Brian McCurdy

2018, NonFiction

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

Aram Mrjoian

2018, NonFiction

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

Kathryn Smith

2017, Poetry

CRACKING THE EGG

I scramble the egg
until it does not resemble
egg—no longer the globe

a body bore into
the world for a purpose
entirely other. First I scraped

the blood-knot
from the albumen—trace
of its potential, of what

reminds me of me,
life force hidden
in the viscous clot.

When the speckled hen
grew listless and drew her head
to her puffed chest,

I quarantined her
in a crate lined with soft
clean shavings

where she could suffer alone.
Two days later, when I entered
the dark garage,

her carcass, as she stiffened,
had pushed through the crate’s
makeshift door

as though she’d tried for escape.
Her eyelids made a final
translucent seal.

It was like
scooping a dead wasp
from a windowsill, or

freeing a bloodied mouse
from a sprung trap
as I lifted her body

into a plastic garbage sack
and placed it
in the trash: So much

for that one. Not loss
exactly, but more notice
than I give the ova that slip

unceremoniously from
my body when the moon
shifts from sliver

to smudge, simply
doing away
with what there’s nothing

to be done with. I
have seen the self’s
raw resemblance

wriggling with need
in dreams
where she’s

a misplaced parcel,
wrapped and left
in a bureau drawer.

She’s large-headed
and adult-voiced,
and when

I wake, it’s with
such relief to be
alone with morning, which

demands enough,
the way it
repeats itself, its hunger.


CREATION MYTH

And the Lord said let ants be fed
from the egg-caps of walking stick
insects that hatch disguised as ants.
Let impostors pass undetected
from a subterranean nest. Let fur-bound
beasts carry exoskeletal beasts from one
hinged continent to another, and let land-
bridges break. Let humans break land
and build bridges from elements dug
from the land. Let rats unhinge ribs
from spines and climb through pipes
invented by humans to keep our
shit and nakedness away from
the shit and nakedness of rats.
Let humans set poisoned traps.
And thus I tell you: an erroneous vision
of heaven and hell shall come to you
in books, and this will divide you.
Some will say it’s possible
for a child to die and come back
from death having seen the realm
of God. But some will say what
does it matter when earth is a lonely
chasm where children die unnoticed as
we sharpen our knives and whiten
our teeth and tighten our skin and
implore our screens to refresh.


Kathryn Smith’s first poetry collection is BOOK OF EXODUS. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, The Collagist, Bellingham Review, Redivider, Carve Magazine, and elsewhere.

Jackson Burgess

2017, Poetry

LAST FULL MOON IN IOWA

Sirens in the east, moving towards some tragedy, and
who would commit a murder under a moon like this?
Who would break anything, a window, a skull, knowing
she was watching from above? I have bronchitis
again—too many smokes and nights not knowing
what color socks you’re wearing, whether
you remember my smell. Hours wheezing, wondering
what bad jokes I’ve been mumbling in my sleep.
Do dogs howl at the moon or to each other?
Did you know how much I love you is why
I wash my hands? Someday when I’m better
I’ll read you a list of things you became to me:
runway, poltergeist, mourning dove, splint, in hopes
you’ll kiss my sternum, crack the same ribs as before.


Jackson Burgess is the author of Atrophy (forthcoming, Write Bloody Publishing) and Pocket Full of Glass (2017, Tebot Bach), winner of the Clockwise Chapbook Competition. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has placed work in The Cincinnati Review, The Cimarron Review, Rattle, Colorado Review, and elsewhere (jacksonburgess.com).

Luis Lopez-Maldonado

2017, Poetry

BODIES LIKE PAN DULCE

black & beige chairs
hugged our black & brown
skins, smiles galore
         smiles galore
                 smiles galore
limp cocks full grown

& you were mine
& I was yours
& heat rose like dough


FromtheCityofSirensandSalsa

 


Luis Lopez-Maldonado is a Xicanx poeta, choreographer and educator, born and raised in Southern California. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California Riverside, majoring in Creative Writing and Dance. His poetry has been seen in The American Poetry Review, Cloudbank, The Packinghouse Review, Public Pool, and Spillway, among many others. He earned a Master of Arts degree in Dance from Florida State University and also a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from the University of Notre Dame, where he was a poetry editorial assistant for the Notre Dame Review, and founder of the men’s writing workshop in the St. Joseph County Juvenile Justice Center; He is currently co-founder and editor at The Brillantina Project. www.luislopez-maldonado.com

Lauren Haldeman

2017, Poetry

SELECTIONS FROM INSTEAD OF DYING

Instead of dying,  we  take  you  in — sick,  alone,  confused  — and
start a series of healing  regimens.   For  the   first  week  you drink
only  water   infused   with  lavender  and  vinegar.  After  the  new
moon,   we   begin   to   feed  you   base  elements:  cream of tartar,
kombucha,  filmjölk,  carrots.  When the visions  subside,  we  start
the  physical routine.  The   air   is   still  cold  as  we start your lake
swimming cycles — twice  across   &  back   the  length.   You   hear
robins   like  ticker   tape   through   the  branches   of   April.   Your
mood  improves.   We  cut  out   bread,  cereals,  muffins,  milk.  We
cut   out   gumdrops,   taffy,   milkshakes,   wheat.   Your  hair calms
down, your fingernails are  trimmed.  Instead  of  dying,  you  start
jogging,   in   a  zip-up  track-suit,  early  in the morning, sunlight a
disco ball across your face, lawn-sprinklers starting up all over the
neighborhood.

Instead   of    dying,    you    build    an    elaborate    village    out    of  
plumbing.    Even    the     plumbing    has   plumbing.   You   tell   the
community   that   this  construct  of  vital passageways is indicative
of   microcosms   within   the   geodesic   loop.   You   tell   them  that
space   isn’t  space  without  unfilled  vessels.  You   explain  how the
pipes  are  not  the  actual   substance  of  the  village’s  construction

— it’s   the  air  that  the  tubes   go  through.  Ignore  the  pipes,  you
say.  The  real  plumbing  is  the  space  in-between.  This  is the true
disposal system. This was the way the universe is flushed & refilled.

 


Lauren Haldeman is the author of the poetry collections Instead of Dying (winner of the 2017 Colorado Prize for Poetry, forthcoming from Center for Literary Publishing 2017), Calenday (Rescue Press 2014) and the artist book The Eccentricity is Zero (Digraph Press 2014). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, The Colorado Review, Fence, jubilat, The Iowa Review, and The Rumpus. A comic book artist and poet, she has been a recipient of a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award and fellowships from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. You can find her online at http://laurenhaldeman.com

Sally Burnette

2017, Poetry

VIEW. MAGIC MOUNTAIN, VALENCIA, CALIFORNIA
         Joe Deal, 1977

what you can’t readily see:
a man in a white shirt on the right
underneath the roller coaster’s main drop
facing away from the camera
fucking someone wearing
a barbie head ball gag


WE’RE REALLY HAPPY. OUR KIDS ARE HEALTHY, WE EAT GOOD FOOD AND WE HAVE A REALLY NICE HOME.

         Bill Owens, 1972

i meant to say cats not kids
we only have the one
kid i mean we have twenty
cats & they’re all in great shape
i worry about the kid though
he always makes this fist
& only eats creamed corn
he’s quiet never cries or blinks
it’s honestly unsettling but
look at those eyes it’s not so bad
i guess would you like a grape
i’m just kidding these are fake
but don’t they look so real
don’t you want to feel them
in your mouth don’t you want to
taste the dust sometimes i stand
at that window facing the field
of electric pylons & pretend
i’m in some kind of sci-fi movie
i hear ice clinking
feel the sweat from jim’s
old fashioned glass soaking
skin through my sweater
i hold my breath & brace myself
& one of the cats starts hacking
& he tells me clean the puke
before it stains the carpet & i do
the kid watches from the counter
never cries did i tell you that already
we’re so lucky
really happy

 


Sally Burnette was born in North Carolina but now lives in Boston. Their poetry has appeared/is forthcoming in Reality Beach, BOAAT, Winter Tangerine, Nat. Brut, and others.

Jennifer Popa

2017, Fiction

THE CURRENT

I.

When, in a flush of sweat, the neighbor boy began the task of dying, the whole neighborhood turned up—a congregation of down-turned, worried faces. I only recognized him by the port wine birthmark stretching from his brow to his collarbone. On his warm body it was now dull, muted. He was the only altar boy at Mass that I could pick out each Sunday. He usually delivered the chalice to the Priest. I used to do the same when I was an altar boy many decades ago, long before brick laying ravaged my knees. Though we’d only exchanged polite nods after Mass, I felt compelled to visit his mother as he declined. She smiled when I turned up, though she didn’t pretend to know my name.

The current had arrived for the child a few days earlier accompanying the storm that pulsed at our homes’ gutters. At the time I hadn’t known it was the current; the two of us were strangers then. Still I saw her coursing through him, felt her percolating below his bloomed skin and sensed her briny breath upon me whenever I sat near the child. Perhaps she’d found him through a spark of static buzzing in a doorknob, or perhaps he’d ridden his bike home in the rain, absorbing her then. She didn’t seem happy to be there, a bit bored if I’m being honest, but she clutched to his small body without flinching. The boy’s bed had been moved to the living room: a tiny brass frame tarnished with pocks of age. We layered wet terry cloth on his forehead and the mother rubbed the arches of his feet.

“To draw the fever down from his head,” his mother nodded, animating the chubby foot until it looked like it was pumping a pedal. Though the foot flapped, his little body was still, consumed by the vapors inside his caged lungs, the bubbles where the current thrummed in his veins. The mother prayed aloud, asking God why, but the current was unmoved. The whole ordeal felt a bit routine. The current surged on, oblivious to our attempts. She would take him soon, as she’d undoubtedly taken many before. I’d seen death before, on the blood-tinged axe at the chicken’s throat, the spider-webbed crack of a windshield, but the current had not been there in either case.

I lit candles for him at Mass, and prayed three days for his little life, but when I saw him on the mattress, dampening his sheets with that dumb look on his face, I knew he was very nearly gone. The current wouldn’t be dammed by our trifling efforts, and so with the moon lodged between her teeth and cheek she lapped him up.

Sometime in the night his mother’s wails confirmed the child’s turn. Kitchen lights flipped on, and lit boxes of helpless worry illuminated our block. The storm had passed, as well as the current with the child in her keep.

II.

When I saw the current again it was many years later, just after my diagnosis. I found myself wanting for everything and nothing. I’d taken out the sailboat with no intention to return, because if I was going to die it would be at my own hand, not while waiting around to be snuffed out. The boat’s engine sputtered, gave a cough and whined like a bumblebee turned inside-out. I set out without destination, and steered my vessel toward the dark until the shore was a faint fissure of light. Lying down with my back on the boat’s deck I searched for stars between the clouds to little success.

The barefaced current approached in silence. I felt her draw the boat to the south. Tugging with such force I suspected a whale was spinning me. I sat up. When I squinted toward her crest at the stern, attempting to discern her curves, it was as if I were moving in to kiss her, or look up her skirt—and with a small splash she bit me. It wasn’t so much that she was mad, but however benign the violence was, it made her eyes flicker.

Had she wanted to level me, to tip my vessel or submerge me she could have, but instead she came aboard, slipping from water to mist before finally becoming air. She raked her metallic fingernails through my hair, and her breath was cool on my skin. She told me she’d migrated great distances, skirted entire continents, plotted with the moon and the sun. Water was her medium of choice; she could manipulate it—the tides, waves, direction, force—it had all been her. She puffed when mentioning how she’d known malleable liquid morphed from crystallized flakes at the North Pole, and sighed over some drops she’d known who were mere degrees from a gaseous dissolution. She placed her head in my lap. She said other days she preferred to waft along as a breeze, sometimes she sought out diodes and other semi-conductors so that she might flow to predetermined destinations. She was electric when she didn’t want to think. For her it was boarding a train which traced the same path again and again; these were the days when she only went through the motions. Even then, depressed myself, she seemed quite sad.

She whispered that many looked to her for absolution, to trickle on the foreheads of infants in baptismal gowns. I realized she was flirting. She slithered over me, into my ears, along my brow and her silky tongue probed the gaps between toes. Parting my lips she teased and sucked my breath from me, but never the whole lot. She was careful to leave just enough.

I told her to stop, pushed her from my waist, but she whistled and only pressed further. She clung to me, wrapped my wrists with a grip so tight I thought she had rope. Then she told me of the men she’d swallowed, the suicidal jumpers thudding in her straits. She had a taste for the ones who fought it, who thrashed and clawed at her swells. She became excited. The current said there was water water everywhere, in every fiber of tissue, in the lazy eye of the tarot card reader, the damp cries of the sirens luring sailors beyond the stern. Once she conspired with the moon and snatched a whole village in one swig. Though when I asked her where these villages go all she could say was that they’re sent to the belly of the earth, somewhere beneath the mantle, near to the core.

I was weeping by then. After a string of wet hiccups clicked in my throat I asked her to swallow me up and stuff me toward the core. I stood and moved toward the bow of the boat, preparing to jump. But she rolled her eyes, slipped into the water, and shoved my boat back toward the marina. I suppose she realized that like the others I sought an end, and not her. The who of it mattered very little to me.

III.

Tonight, my lungs fill with fluid, and my breath is labored, punctuated with a sporadic gurgle. It’s peculiar how a man can drown within his own body, miles from the sea.

The current has returned, but she’s now at the foot of my bed. With a flick of her hair in my periphery she ignores me, avoiding my gaze and pretending we’ve never met. A spurned woman is the least of my worries tonight. I want to tell her that many times I looked for her whorls along the sandbars, squinted, hoping I might find her tapping a weather vane, and one time I thought I recognized her murmur in the humming telephone lines. Apologizing for my rebuff would be useless now. I cannot abate her loneliness with false apologies. It won’t change the isolation of her duty.

The boy with the port wine birthmark sits beside her thumbing through old magazines. He wears his altar boy robes from Sunday mass. My eyes struggle to focus while battling the morphine. In lucid moments, I can see her squared metallic fingernails, her swirling hair so thick—I remember its coolness slinking across my shoulders in the boat. Tonight her bare feet are tucked beneath her in the chair.

When I focus too hard, straining, the nurse asks me about these hallucinations. I tell her nothing. Now I am swimming upwards. There’s a deafening compression on my lungs, and I can feel the current palpitating within me. While my eyes throb, and my nostrils burn with bubbles, she is my bedside companion. She spared me once, but again she is indifferent to my state and files her nails. I suppose even drowning can be tedious.

 


Jennifer Popa recently relocated from the interior of Alaska to the South Plains of West Texas where she is in her second year as a PhD student of English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. She’s currently working on a collection of short stories, some of which can be found at Grist, Watershed Review, Monkeybicycle and Fiction Southeast.

Kate Millar

2017, Fiction

KIMBERLY

Two days into backpacking across Southeast Asia, Boyfriend Unit was clubbed over the head by a thief on a motorbike. When he came to, his wallet was gone. Two days after that, we registered for a tour package called Pearls of the East: Cambodia by Bus.

“It’s for your protection,” Boyfriend Unit said, rubbing the welt on his head as evidence. I nodded. We both knew this wasn’t the real reason. But if I kept my eyes on the glossy itinerary brochure in my hand, I wouldn’t have to make eye contact and acknowledge that we both knew this.

“It’s safer this way,” I agreed.


“It’ll take all the stress out of planning,” Boyfriend Unit continued. “It’s not exactly what we imagined, but now we’ll have more time to focus on each other. That’s what this trip is all about, right?”


“Exactly,” I affirmed again. Maybe that’s what love was–finding someone equally willing to go along with the lies you tell yourself.

The irony was that our families had offered to buy us one of those all-inclusive deals as a wedding present. We had politely said no, that it wasn’t quite what we had in mind. “Something a little more off the beaten track,” we had told them. As our tour guide herded us back onto our bus, neither of us were willing admit the disappointment and–dare I say–relief at how orderly things had ended up.

“Bye-bye! See you when I’m looking at your face!” called out the souvenir shop owner as we pulled out of the parking lot.

Our tour bus was by far the sleekest, most modern vehicle on the road. One of those noiseless oversized affairs. “Hybrid bus,” observed Boyfriend Unit with a nod. This put him in a good mood since he liked saving the environment. I stared out the window, watching the dilapidated local buses and tuk-tuks painted a motley palette of vibrants. They were altogether less concerned with driving at the slow and sensible speed of our driver, swerving around us along the potholed dirt roads in ecstatic clatter until they were no more than dust smudging at the horizon.

The couple in front of us turned around to strike up a conversation. I forgot their names the moment I heard them, so Tamera America and Bland Mark were the names I assigned them in my mind. They both shouted out cries of elation upon discovering that Boyfriend Unit and I were on our honeymoon, as if we were all victors of an exceptionally rare and profound accomplishment. Tamera America asked to see my ring, which didn’t exist because I never wore jewelry. She gave me an odd look and I could tell I had let her down in some unspoken code of sisterhood. She quickly lost interest in talking to me.

“So what was up with that temple thing?” Bland Mark asked with a conspiratorial nudge to Boyfriend Unit, as if the two guys were in on a joke together. He wore dad sneakers and had a haircut that reminded me of bank tellers. “I mean, it’s supposed to be beer o’clock at the pool, not a friggin’ field trip.”

Boyfriend Unit squeezed my hand–our silent agreement to incorporate “beer o’clock” into as many conversations as possible for the rest of the trip.

They raved about our resort, Tamera America and Bland Mark did. A good place to make a baby or two, they cajoled with a wink. I turned my attention back to the window.

Cambodian roads were encoded with the same route-markers over and over again in varying sequence: rice paddy, lean-to hut, palm trees, palm trees, palm trees, lean-to hut. We drove through a village, indistinguishable from the last village save for a group of children playing in a pile of garbage along the roadside. The children were naked and happy. Everyone on that side of the bus reached for their phones and began snapping photos.

“That’s what this country is all about,” said one elderly woman wistfully, “the people.”

Boyfriend Unit screwed his mouth up into a little ball, which was what he did whenever he disagreed about something. I remember him doing that years ago, when we were just co-workers. I had told him that the colour of his eyes was dishwater gray, but not in a gross way. His mouth had made that little crumple of dissatisfaction. We became friends after that.

He had been dating Kimberly at the time, which always made me think of the Patti Smith song. The line about little sisters and falling skies. I would sing it in my head whenever she was brought up in conversation. Just that one line over and over. I never met Kimberly in person but had thought about her enough to make a meeting seem irrelevant. My version of Kimberly wore oversized men’s blazers and ran into a different best friend wherever she went. Her mouth was an insinuating mouth with lips that curled to smile at a secret for every occasion. She danced without reservation at house parties. She reverberated with a quiet, scrunched-up kind of wildness that made everyone around her broken with longing. I was convinced that’s who Kimberly was. I didn’t want to meet her. I wasn’t sure what scared me more–the prospect that she wouldn’t live up to my idea of her, or having her live up to it to a devastating degree.

When Boyfriend Unit announced to me at a coworker’s party that he and Kimberly had broken up, I didn’t know what to say.

And when he kissed me, as if the Kimberly Break-up Announcement was all an orchestrated preface leading up to that moment–I was dumbfounded.

It was the night Boyfriend Unit became Boyfriend Unit.

I dated Boyfriend Unit for a year and a half. Eight days ago I married him. I supposed that meant Boyfriend Unit wasn’t Boyfriend Unit anymore. But Husband Unit didn’t have nearly the same panache.

The bus excreted us out into another parking lot and, following our guide, we skirted a pathway through a patch of dull arid brush and entered a system of caves on the edge of a jungle. As we descended, there grew a cool mineral tang to the air. The narrow stone corridor opened into an immense yawning cavern–cliffs above us, and a turquoise pool below. The rock of the cave was golden and shafts of sunlight sieved downward in perfect parallel with misting falls and tumbled yellow vines. The formations were all backlit with spotlights in shades of green, amber, and cyan. Boyfriend Unit said it felt like being on a theme park ride. But to me, the ribbons of rock were more like cascading curtains at an opera house. Boyfriend Unit liked this.

Tamera America wanted a picture of the four of us standing at the precipice of the cliff. We put our arms around each other awkwardly.

“The trip of a lifetime,” Bland Mark said through the teeth of his smile.


The tour guide told us that if we were wearing our bathing suits, we could jump down into the pool. Except, he called it a water well. I immediately imagined the cave as a black gouged-out eye socket, the pool below as tears and crusting pus and infection. Welling up.

We jumped, one by one. Boyfriend Unit let out a whoop, wild-west style. Even Tamera America jumped, plugging her nose the whole way down. I went next, embarrassed to find my reflexes scrambling wildly in the air, pawing for something where there was nothing. I hit the pool. The water was unexpectedly warm.

At the bottom, Boyfriend Unit and I swam to a small pocket away from the others. For a moment, I could pretend it was just the two of us, backpacking unbeaten paths the way we had intended. I wrapped my arms and legs around him and murmured in his ear how much I wished we were alone so we could fuck. We kissed and then the others noticed and made cooing noises because we were newlyweds. I was self-conscious of our audience, not knowing if I should let go of Boyfriend Unit or stay straddled.

Everyone decided to jump a second time.

“Go ahead, I’m going to stay in the water,” I told Boyfriend Unit.

“You sure?” he asked.

“Mm hm.”

Boyfriend Unit splashed me and crawled out of the pool along with Tamera America and Bland Mark. They disappeared behind the rock face, climbing back to the top. Boyfriend Unit was always more boisterous about those kind of things than I was, but seeing Tamera America and Bland Mark eager to jump again was a surprise. I felt suddenly lame in comparison, treading water at the bottom alone.

The same dread washed over me that had been happening every time I was alone since the trip began. There was movement in the pool beside me and I felt a coldness in my stomach. I swam to the edge and gripped the wet rock face, knowing what came next. And just as I’d expected, Kimberly appeared, treading water next to me.

Kimberly–she had been with me in quiet moments on the hotel beach, in the resort buffet queue, in the honeymoon suite when Boyfriend Unit was showering in the next room. I didn’t understand why. Boyfriend Unit never mentioned her anymore.

The swimmer version of Kimberly had long dark hair that stuck in wet tangled strands to her neck. Black string bikini, tattoos. Legs covered in scrapes– each one a relic of some past adventure. She was falling apart to an annoyingly exquisite degree. I realized that I resented her–Kimberly, like a child who had died, and I, the one who had outgrown her simply by surviving. My marriage with Boyfriend Unit would succeed or perhaps not succeed, but Kimberly got to stay the same age, beautifully suspended in memory, a star, a ghost of a person. An unbeaten path.

I could feel Kimberly’s manic energy electric in the water. She gently took my hand. “Like sisters,” I thought. Kimberly told me with her eyes that I needed to get out of there. I knew she said this because sisters could read each other’s minds. I didn’t actually have a sister, but I was pretty sure this was one of the things sisters could do.

We drifted to a stone ledge where the backlights had gone magenta. Kimberly took the small of my back. The tiny hairs on my skin were erect under her fingers. She kissed me, and her mouth was warm and tart like blackberries in the sun. Her tongue, metallic. Infinite minerals were feeding into my tongue from hers.

I pulled away, struck with a jolt of nausea. My stomach was its own well. A gulch of black bile.

Back in college, I began sneaking out of parties without saying goodbye. It wasn’t as if I disliked parties. I guess I just had a limited threshold for them. I had fun until I wasn’t having fun anymore. And the moment it wasn’t fun anymore, it became incredibly important for me to leave instantly. Sometimes, I would run all the way home.

Boyfriend Unit thought this was crazy when I told him.

“I love you but sometimes you make no sense at all,” he had told me.

Boyfriend Unit, Tamera America and Bland Mark were still out of sight, climbing up behind the cavern walls. I looked back to see if Kimberly thought I was crazy too, but she was gone.

I got out of the water and toweled off. At the entrance to the cave I retrieved my sundress, sandals and daypack from metal storage lockers bolted ludicrously into the cave walls. I slipped out the way we came in. I didn’t tell anyone.

A wall of deafening heat hit me as I crossed the parking lot. I passed the bus, the gift shops, and a noodle cart. “Hellomadamwhereyoufrombuysomething,” the vendors called out to me in one long flat breath.

The light was a late afternoon ochre. The air smelled of diesel, cinders, and sunbaked earth. Beyond the parking lot lay a mangled expanse of jungle– endless but for a clay brown path funneling deep into the foliage. I checked my daypack–phone, wallet, an unused Khmer phrasebook, and a half-eaten bag of banana chips.

I began walking, I must have continued fifteen minutes or longer. The jungle path eventually opened out onto a clearing, similar to so many I had seen from the noiseless hybrid bus. All about me, a dry red earth so fine it was almost sand, and long brown grasses parched from the sunlight. I kept along the path into the sunlight. The trail led to a large ornate gate, its stone broken and falling apart. Though in ruin, the gate would still command the attention of anyone who came upon it. And yet, the grand villa to which it must have once led was nowhere in sight. Where an estate would have stood, there was nothing more than bramble, yellowed fronds, and more dry red earth. Or maybe it was the gate that was lost, not the villa, wandered off into parts unknown. I didn’t know whether to feel sad about it or not.

There was movement in the wilderness behind the gate. I steeled myself for Kimberly.

But it wasn’t Kimberly.

A Khmer woman moved into the middle of the path. Dressed in woven indigo resplendence and adorned with hoops and beads and flowers, she moved with simplicity, as elegantly as a shoot of bamboo. She should have been beheld and adored by thousands. But she wasn’t. She was as solitary as me. I stopped moving, not knowing where to look.

As a matter of deference, I kept my eyes downcast, trained on my chest as if to catch my heart thumping. I slipped off the path to pass around her. The Khmer woman also stepped off the path, blocking my way. I could feel her eyes boring into me, even without looking at her. I moved to the other side. She blocked me again.

From the folds of her skirt, I caught sight of a long piece of lumber that she was holding. Brandishing. Was I imagining it?

She yanked my left arm. Her hand was cold. Bony. Strong. She swung with the lumber and there was a bludgeoning thwomp across the back of my head. I fell to my knees and touched the back of my head. A sticky crust surrounded warm wetness.

The woman grabbed me again. Her breath was rank, like mothballs and tooth decay. For all the leanness of her face–the gaunt eye sockets and hollowed-out cheeks–her eyes were surprisingly soft and malleable, and I realized that she was younger than I had first thought. Her ears were pierced and I found myself wondering who had pierced them for her. Standing in front of me, holding the ragged plank, she looked scared.

We were both scared.

There was movement in the brush again. The Khmer woman looked at me for another second longer with cold, careless indifference. Bizarrely, I felt hurt that she didn’t acknowledge the way we were connected, standing together in a clearing in the jungle. It was probably a stupid thing to feel hurt about.

And then she was gone.

I touched my head again, but couldn’t find the sticky wetness again. A twig snapped. Boyfriend Unit.

“HI?” he said. The most obvious question in the world. “Hi,” I said.

He was with one of the shop vendors. I recognized her because she was wearing a faded Pink Floyd t-shirt.

“This is Chenda, she helped me find you when I realized you were gone,” Boyfriend Unit explained, with an unmistakable whiff of accusation.

“You okay?” Chenda asked, “your husband very worried.” “I’m fine,” I said.

“It’s been half an hour, where were you?” Boyfriend Unit asked. His eyes had an edge to them, and I could tell he was even angrier than would let on, because Chenda was with us.

“I just went down the path to look for a place to pee.”

Boyfriend Unit’s arm flew back behind him, a berserk marionette. “There’s restrooms in the parking lot. We used them earlier.”

“Yeah, I know,” I replied feebly.

He didn’t wait for further explanation, which was for the best because I had none. He simply rubbed his brow, which was what he did when he was annoyed, and he sighed.

“Where you from?” asked Chenda. “We’re from Canada.”

Chenda nodded. “The capital of Canada is Ottawa. They speak English and French.

They use the dollar and they eat maple syrup.”

Boyfriend Unit nodded back, mirroring Chenda. “That is all accurate information.”

Chenda nodded again. “You come back to my store. Good price.” “Sounds like a plan, Chenda.”

I took Boyfriend Unit’s arm, relieved that he didn’t immediately jerk it away. “Let’s just sit here. Five more minutes.”

He rubbed his brow again. “I think everyone’s eating noodles so I guess we’re not keeping anyone waiting.”

I shook my head. “It doesn’t matter. Five more minutes.” Boyfriend Unit softened. “Okay,” he said.

We found a mound of grass to sit on. The clearing, which I had thought so silent, was actually full of sound. We listened to the dried palm fronds as they roused in the breeze, and to the whir and tick of beetles in the tall grasses. Boyfriend Unit wordlessly handed me his bottle of water and I realized that I was thirsty. I knew I was forgiven, or, at any rate, that I was understood.

He sighed. “It must be getting close to beer o’clock.” He gestured to stand.

“Should we?”

“Yes. Let’s go.”

I took my husband’s hand. We started walking.

The Khmer woman, Kimberly, and me.


Kate Millar’s work has appeared in Litro, Paper Darts, Masque & Spectacle, Event, Imminent Quarterly and The Danforth Review. She is a past recipient of Canada’s Western Magazine Award (fiction category). A native of Atlantic Canada, she currently lives in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Naomi Washer

2017, NonFiction

TENSION AND RELEASE: 
DIFFUSING PRESSURE POINTS IN THE ABNORMAL ADOLESCENT

The hospital: Here are some pictures of normal kids like you with scoliosis: doing gymnastics, playing sports. You can’t even tell! We can fit you in a brace right now, today. Or you can make an appointment for a surgery.
My mother: I think we need to think about it.

                                                                          §

My spine did not cause me pain. My body never felt wrong until they said it was. The brace forced me inwards, yet pushed me out of my self: an inanimate body forced upon my failed one. Inside it, I could not feel a thing. At twelve, I lay on my back as two friends knelt over me, holding a rubber ball. They wanted to know what I would feel if an object hit the plaster. They dropped the ball. We laughed. I felt nothing.

                                                                          §

The chiropractor, neurologist, physical therapist, nutritionist: Sleep on a flat board. Lie on your right side over a plaster block while watching TV—this will elongate the S curve. Wear the brace to ballet class. Only remove it for one hour each day. Take these five supplements. Try to keep your shoulders in proper alignment. Notice how your eyes drift off to one side. No more dairy—from now on, only soy cheese.

                                                                          §

Adolescent Idiopathic Scoliosis has no known cause or preventative measure. It is comparable to balding. Once your genes tell you that you are going to be bald, you have no choice but to wait for the time it happens in order to control it. Likewise, in scoliosis, your genes are in control. You have no escape if your genetic construction tells you so.

There are thirty-three living vertebrae in the spinal column—seven cervical, twelve thoracic, five or six lumbar, five sacrum, and three secrets. Bones in the body hold roughly fifteen percent of a person’s body weight: a body that weighed one hundred pounds would be harboring fifteen pounds of secrets.

There is no cure for scoliosis. There are forms of physical therapy available as treatment, such as electrical muscle stimulation, in which small pads are attached to the patient’s back. These pads have connecting wires that hook up to a machine on which the therapist will choose a level of pressure and a length of time. The adolescent, lying face down, will feel the back muscles clench for as many seconds as the therapist chooses to hold.

The procedure is designed to strengthen back muscles, in hopes that the body will learn to align on its own, but the patient may feel as if the doctor is doing their best to rid the body of an evil spirit.

The medical books: Scoliosis is an abnormal curve in the spine.
The chiropractor: There is no reason to not feel normal.

                                                                          §

I learned how to put on socks. They were the final challenge each morning, after buckling the brace and molding clothing on top of it. I became stiff. My torso could not bend over in a comfortable curve to slip socks onto pointed toes. Everything took twice as long. I held socks by the heel and heavily pulled each one over the bottom of my foot. Outside the brace, the entire process of putting on socks takes all of three seconds and zero seconds of planning. It is different every time, but always involves a contraction of the pelvis, and maybe a little jumping on one foot. Inside this device, I stood upright, praising my ballet balance, and drew my foot slowly upwards from the floor, my ankle sicled in an angle possible for my hands to solidly wrap the cloth around the skin.

                                                                          §

Him: It’s not that I feel inhibited. It’s just that you don’t seem fully there.

                                                                          §

Taking off the brace at any time was a breach of contract. Anything that could not be done inside it should not be done at all: dancing, eating cheese, having sex.

At nineteen I tried out meditation, searching for my spirit animal. On my back in a field, I found it was a bobcat. Eyes closed, grass prickly beneath my arms, legs and neck. In my imagined forest, in my woods that only exist for me, a bobcat appeared from behind a bush. It did not speak, but it told me plainly: keep your silence and secrets.

That was autumn, and by spring I should have known better. On my back on a green hill, in not-quite spring, I should have known.

No one’s around, he said. Let me hear you, he said. But I didn’t speak.

                                                                          §

A shift occurs after your first adolescent relationships, when the sickening bundle of insincere endearment becomes too difficult to hold. I could never hold another body for too long. When I was fifteen my boyfriend was older; he wanted to lie together in the cool dimness of his basement with our clothes off, feeling the places our skin would touch and form together. Another living body forced upon my own. I could never hold another body for too long.

                                                                          §

The chiropractor always asked me to hold my breath when he took the x-ray. I never knew if this was a necessary part of the procedure or not. I would take off my necklace, belt, and any other metal on my body. I would press my back against the x-ray wall as he stepped into the next room to flip the switch.

Hold your breath, he’d say. Then we’d wait.

Sometimes, I didn’t hold my breath. I let the spine escape through my mouth.


Naomi Washer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Ghost Proposal. Her work has appeared in Essay Daily, Blue Mesa Review, Split Lip Magazine, TYPO, Passages North, and other journals. She holds an MFA in Nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago and teaches writing and literature from her home in Vermont, below a mountain, between two rivers. Find out more at http://www.naomiwasher.com