table of contents
Man in a Wheelchair by Arrie Porter
On Sharing a Birthday with Pablo Neruda by Vivian Wagner
Problem Sets for a Math Teacher by Lynne Viti
Tonight’s Menu by Tatiana V. Johnson
Memory by Victoria Ramirez
Empty Nest by Yvonne Higgins Leach
Leaves by Victoria Ramirez
Heptatitis A by stephanie roberts
Donald, Called Mark by Kent Hanson
Questions at the Corner of Spring and State by V. Jane Schneeloch
You Have by Zechariah Riebeling
Estuary by Vivian Wagner
Nouveau Breeds by Tatiana V. Johnson
Mourning Light by Brandon Marlon
Requiem for a Baby by Kent Hanson
Yearning by Wendy Tatlonghari Burg
Mirror by Victoria Ramirez
Triplets by Mickey Revenaugh
From the Editors
– Jessica Gonzalez
– Sabrina Zertuche
– Monique Cortez
– Madison Raines
Man in Wheelchair in Stratford Pub
Arrie Barnes Porter
I met a man
Who loved me today
Heard him say
You’re quite beautiful
You’ve made an old man happy
And I placed my arms around his shoulders
To love him back
On Sharing a Birthday with Pablo Neruda
If little by little you stop loving me,
I shall stop loving you little by little,
he warned, but he knew I wouldn’t stop.
He knew it was an empty threat.
He’s gone now, and I’m reciprocating
with my own slow deterioration,
my body a poem of condensing spine and
thinning blood, my heart stretching and hiccupping,
repeating his words for solace, to the end:
My love feeds on your love, beloved.
Still, though, we share a beginning,
a birthday, a cake knighted by a
crown of flickering light.
And this: the present.
Problem Sets for a Math Teacher
I. A Set of One
At fourteen, my teeth encased in braces
afraid of math, more afraid to fail but
burning up to beat down that language of numbers
with pencil and eraser,
I was a hard case.
But you cracked me,
made me ease up on myself,
showed me how the numbers worked out
on both sides of equations.
Your patience forced me.
Like a bulb pushing out green stalk
From a kitchen window in winter.
I extruded solutions,
learned the lexicon of x and y, q.e.d.
II. Keeping Track
One never thinks of a nun
as a bloodhound, but even once
we left school and plunged
fast into the world
you seemed always to find us,
trace our paths to a street address
or post office box.
You wanted news of our new lives,
details from the altar,
the nursery, the office, the court—
You made the connections we craved,
got them down in print, sent them off to us
like paper boats on the muddy river
their candles burning against the black water.
You were the reminder of where we’d been,
and why we had to hold you
and one another in our hearts.
Tatiana V. Johnson
A glass of milk for healthy teeth and bones,
And a drop of honey for antibiotic.
A broccoli stalk for healthy blood,
And an orange for your immune system.
A glass of water for your skin,
And carrots for your fingernails.
A spoonful of sugar for the pain,
And a capsule of cinnamon for the waist line.
A dab of vanilla just behind the ears,
And again, a swig of apple vinegar for the belly.
A fish oil gel cap for your hair
And a teaspoon of sugar for the pain.
A glass of cranberry juice for the kidneys,
And grapefruit for your metabolism.
A pinch of St. James wort for depression
And a lettuce leaf for lunch.
A sniff of sugar for the pain,
And green tea for your gut.
A glass of wine to kick the Zoloft,
And cotton ball dipped in orange juice for dinner.
A Xanax for the anxiety,
And a snort of sugar for the pain.
A shot of anything strong for focus
And a prayer for dessert.
A dash of lime for the smell
All the family is coming to dinner.
My flesh aches, craves, yearns,
For the warmth of that leather couch.
Sun shining in from the bay windows
Upon my face.
My eyelids fall –heavy.
They don’t discriminate against
My ears embrace
My sisters’ laughter,
The chatter from the TV.
I hear the slam of the
Backdoor. My dad stomping in
Brown boots, wearing grass
And lawnmower gasoline.
Mom’s cooking something
Spicy with cheese and meat
In the oven.
This couch, this sun,
Welcomes sleep more
Gently than a dark room
Wendy Tatlonghari Burg
On the day Brett Paul died there was a party going on. It was still early in the summer before the temperature set records and the humidity grew into a sticky blanket. The sky was a blue that looked manufactured, not as deep as bluebell petals, or as gray and light as a blue jay’s feather. It was a mix of those colors, perfectly flat and bright, as if painted on a canvas. A slight breeze came off the lake, the scent of pine and mowed grass wafting through the house. The water, a pane of dark glass, still frigid and the splash of fish jumping broke the morning silence.
I was stuck at home, which was outside of town, and on the other side of the county from where the party was. I didn’t have my driver’s license yet so I couldn’t take the car on my own. Someone would have to come get me, but I knew there was no one. No one I hung out with lived by me. There were only a few farmers, big farmers, meaning they had a lot of land, but few in number. And they didn’t have kids my age. The one family with older kids had a dad who was very strict. Those kids just worked the fields, milked the cows, and went to school. They were good at sports, but they were not allowed to go to parties, movies, or dances.
“Sex and drugs.” Sue Lynn, the oldest, said. “That’s all that’s out there my dad says. Sex and drugs.” They rode the same bus to school as we did. They were nice kids, two girls and a boy, clean, and cheerful. But they were not going to the party.
I stayed in my room trying to figure out how I could get there.
“Raymond! Joseph? Halika!!” I could hear my father calling out to my brothers in the yard. He wanted to take the boat out on the lake, maybe go fishing. I could hear the screen door off the kitchen slam shut once, then again. Then a few more times as my brothers came in and out for various things, a hat, a bag of chips, some drinks. I wanted to join them but knew I would grow bored fast, and want to be taken back to the house too soon after we cast our lines. My father would rather scold me for two hours then bring me to shore. That’s probably why he didn’t call for me.
“Tayo na!” My father often yelled in Tagalog but never taught us how to speak it. We responded to words like dogs to commands, not knowing exact translations.
“Go now, he’s calling you.” I heard my mother say. “Gigi, they are leaving.
Do you want to go?”
I pretended not to hear her, and waited for the sound of the motor on the boat to fade away in the distance. I wanted to get to the party. We moved to this small town two summers ago but only now was I finally feeling like I might fit in with the kids at school. Being one of two other Filipino families within a hundred miles, and coming from a big city, the first year at middle school was tough. Most of the boys called us “redskins” or “chinks” because they didn’t know what to make of Filipinos. To other Filipinos we looked mestiza, with our fair skin, narrow noses, and deeper set eyes. But we were “pure Tagalog” my mother said. I didn’t know the difference. I just knew that no matter how light my skin was we weren’t white.
Once my brothers sprouted to a decent five foot eight, rather tall for Filipino boys, and filled out as well, no one messed with them. They showed too much potential for athletics so the high school coaches wrangled the other boys, and got my brothers into weight training. I, on the other hand, was left at the mercy of smirks and catty comments. Most girls made fun of my clogs, and macramé bag, and one even asked if my mother was “a real doctor and not just a medicine woman.” I didn’t know that actual Indian Reservations were within a two-hour drive from town, and they didn’t realize that Filipino women became more than just mail order brides.
But in my freshman year of high school everyone seemed to change, their bodies and their attitudes. Even I filled out in some places, and only lengthened in others. I was stronger and more competitive in sports, and that brought me closer to my teammates. The other girls were nicer to me too. They complimented my clothes and hair, which I wore down and long rather than in a ponytail or braid.
And then Brett came to our school. Being white and a guy, it was an easier transition for him than me, for sure. But I could tell he was trying to fit in as well. He was tall but not the most athletic. He had jet black, curly hair, and deep set brown eyes. He was freckly, and lanky, not super talkative but not brooding either. I didn’t know where he came from, but he was not a farmer. He was too sharp and witty, but not snobby either, just open.
“Hey,” he said to me one day at my locker. “What’s the deal with lunch around here? I see a lot of trays of food in the cafeteria but no money exchanging. Do I just get in line?”
“Yea, if you don’t have money they put a mark by your name and bill your parents at the end of the month.” I said, “My folks gave me no info my first day either. Mrs. Paulson is nice, she’s got your back.”
“Cool, thanks.” He walked away, and then turned around at the end of the hall and called out, “I’m Brett.”
I just nodded and smiled. I never knew what to call myself. All the teachers called me Virginia when they took roll. It was my given name, but then one girl started calling me Ginny, and it stuck with the other kids. I guess it was easy for them, like Becky being short for Rebecca. But to me, a girl called Ginny wore ruffled skirts and weird hats that tied at the chin.
The next day my mother dropped me off in front of the school, and called out her window, “Gigi! Come to my office right after school, OK? Don’t forget. Dentist hah!”
I nodded and waved, then saw Brett crossing the street towards me.
“Gigi, huh? That’s cool,” he said. “I thought your name was Ginny.”
“That’s what everyone at school calls me,” I said. “My family calls me Gigi.” Filipinos loved nicknames, like Totoy or JunJun.
“Filipino. Is that what you are?” Brett asked. “So where is that? Near Hawaii or something?”
No one had ever asked me about the location of the Philippines. They just nodded as if they knew, their eyes searching their minds for confirmation. At least he tried to guess.
“Farther, closer to Vietnam. North of Australia, south of Japan.”
“Huh. Can’t say geography is my strongest subject.”
“It’s ok. I’ve never been there,” I said. “I was born in New York.”
“Explains the accent,” he said.
“Where are you from?”
“Oh, well, sorry about your Cubs.”
“There’s no shame in it,” he said. “It’s easy to be a Yankees fan. But it takes true faith to be a Cubs fan.” He opened the door to the school for me.
“I like the Mets,” I said.
“Same difference,” he said. “It’s still a sign.”
“A sign of what?” I asked.
Once in the door, he was swept up by a couple of guys with a trail of girls giggling behind him.
“That you’re cool,” he said. He turned and walked away with some older boys. New kid in town, I thought, and easy to like.
We didn’t hang out much but he was close to my friend Mary Seltzer. Her father owned a grocery store and she lived close to school. She had dark brown hair, and bright green cat eyes. She was super skinny, and her butt wiggled when she walked. Brett sat behind Mary in history class the whole school year, and once in a while she would let him cheat off her when we had a quiz. He would whisper in her ear and I could see her shoulders shake as she stifled a laugh.
“I don’t know how you two never get caught,” I said. “It’s so obvious that you guys are talking.”
“I think Mr. Douglas likes Brett,” Mary said. “Or he just doesn’t want to pick on him ‘cause he’s new. Wait til next year, Brett will be kicked out every day.”
It was hard to imagine because Brett was so likeable and didn’t run with just one crowd. All the teachers had their target group. The English teachers hated the jocks, the math teachers the farmer kids, history the nerds, and so on. Brett hung out with everyone. At lunch, he sat with the brainy, soft-spoken types, like Joey Barnes or Kyle Johnson, clean-cut boys from the Catholic school that got good grades, but never raised their hand in class or spoke out of turn. Brett played basketball so he had practice after school with the other jocks. He wasn’t a great player but often times he would be on the court early to goof around rather than warm up, or would stay late shooting around with the coaches.
Sometimes in the morning, I would see him hanging out with some of the farm boys waiting for the bell to ring. He wore a denim jacket with sheepskin lining just like they did, but he looked too clean and scrawny to be coming in from the fields. Brett would have a toothpick hanging out his mouth just like them, but he wouldn’t scoff at people, or tease the middle school kids. By Spring he was a sure bet for next year’s homecoming court.
“Hey Gigi, what do you do on weekends?” Brett asked, “Why aren’t you ever around?” He was placing pins on a frog we dissected in biology class.
“My parents are kind of strict,” I said.
“What about the movies?” he asked, not lifting his head. “Want to go to the show with a bunch of us on Friday night?”
“You could sleep at my house,” Mary said, and passed Brett another pin.
“I guess. I’ll ask my parents,” I said. “You know they’re not big on sleepovers.”
“We can get pizza across the street after,” Mary said. “Everyone goes over after the movie. It’s really fun.”
I was never invited to the roller-skating rink, or the bowling alley on Friday nights so I had no idea what other kids did on the weekend. I had a sense, but never really knew what I was missing. Most of the time I just hung out at home with my parents, watching whatever they wanted on TV, or reading in my room alone. They didn’t seem to care either way if I was with them, but they never took me out or encouraged me to go out with friends. So, it was no surprise that when I asked them if I could spend the night at Mary’s they just went with their usual “No.”
“Please? Just this once,” I asked.
“Why do you want to go there?” My mother was washing dishes and didn’t look at me. She often talked like she was conversing with her own mind. If she couldn’t think of a reason for me to want to go out, there must not be one.
“We’ll go to the movies. Then have some pizza,” I said. “You don’t have to drive all the way back to town to pick me up. I can meet you at the hospital in the morning during your rounds.”
“There’s no one to watch you,” she said. “Who will stay with you at the movie?” By this she meant adults. If we lived in Long Island she probably wouldn’t drop me off at a movie theater with my friends, but that also wasn’t a town of eleven hundred people, one third of which were probably related to each other in some way. Not a day went by when I didn’t meet someone who had been treated by my mother, or was Mary’s aunt, or a staff member at the school.
“We will watch a movie here,” she said. “You stay home.” The fewer words she used, the thicker her accent sounded.
I went to my room, sentenced to the same routine. The isolation of living by the lake frustrated me. When we first moved in, it was great. It was summer, we swam all day, ran around the blueberry bushes in the woods, went fishing off the dock, and grew our own vegetables. I had a sketchbook and spent hours drawing the boats on the lake, the sunset, random trees and birds. But the novelty wore off like cheap nail polish. It felt more like self-imposed exile created by my parents. We were outsiders, and living in the country kept us that way.
“Sorry you can’t come with us tonight Gigi,” Mary said at lunch the next day. She started calling me Gigi once she heard Brett say it a couple of times, and a few of the nicer girls did too. I liked the sound of it, as though they wanted me in their group even though I hadn’t grown up with them, or had a cousin marry into their family.
“I’ll call you in the morning to give you the scoop if anything happens.” Mary raised her eyebrows as she said this. I wasn’t sure what she meant but I already felt left out of something. Mary invited Katie Dern to the movie once she knew I couldn’t go. Katie also lived in town. Her father owned a car dealership and her mother was a hairstylist. Katie’s hair was blonde and feathered back like Farrah Fawcett’s, and her sister had the Dorothy Hamill cut. Katie kept telling Mary that she would look great with curly hair and should let her mom give her a perm, but Mary said she couldn’t stand the smell for as long as it would take to set.
When that Friday came around I felt like my friends easily forgot about me. Katie and Mary lived only ten blocks from each other and even closer to other kids at school. They all went to the same church, ate in town at the same restaurants, would see each other walking their dogs or mowing their lawns. I wasn’t missed because I was never there. The only events I was allowed to attend were my brothers’ games, and even those had to be home games. Mary never called me the next morning, but the following Monday Brett came by my locker.
“Hey, you didn’t miss much last Friday,” he said. “Your parents saved you from a lame movie and cold pizza.” I nodded and opened the door to my locker.
“You know I’m thinking of playing baseball this summer,” he said.
“Really?” I switched out my books, not looking at him.
“I’m no Mookie Wilson, but you should try to get to the games.” He repeatedly tossed a copy of David Copperfield in the air and caught it.
“That’s not really swaying me,” I said and shut the door to my locker.
“Oh c’mon. Even bad baseball is fun baseball,” he said, and grinned.
Will Simon rushed by and stole the book out of Brett’s hand and tossed it to another boy. Brett started down the hall to catch up with them, but then turned around and called out, “Try to get to a game Gigi! Want to see you around this summer!”
I heard some boys ooh at me, and a few girls laugh but I just rolled my eyes and went to class. On the bus ride home I thought about how Brett remembered that I liked the Mets. I imagined going to a baseball game and actually knowing one of the players. But once I saw my house on the lake, I knew another summer of solitary was ahead.
“Hey, what are you doing?” Mary called the morning of the party. I was glad to hear her voice. She worked at the Dairy Queen so we hardly talked, but she had the day off.
“Just hanging out,” I said. “My dad took Ray and Joe fishing.”
“Can you come in to town?” I could hear people talking in the background. She was probably on her kitchen phone.
“I don’t know, why?” I looked out the kitchen window to see if my dad’s boat was still gone.
Mary lowered her voice. “There’s a party at the river.”
“Are you going? How will you get there?”
“I don’t know but Katie said Will and Tim are heading out at noon.” Will Simon and Tim Weaver were in the grade ahead of us. Will drove an old blue Mustang convertible that he bought with money he earned washing dishes at the hospital on weekends. “Just see if you can come over,” Mary said.
“I’ll try. But either way, call me if you get a ride.”
“Ok, but hurry up and get here.”
I had only been to the river once, when Raymond drove a teammate out there after their softball game last summer. Trent Miller’s uncle owned the land and all the Miller boys and their cousins used it for fishing or parking or parties. Raymond drove my father’s Ford Bronco, and I was along for the ride home. That night I saw the pick-up trucks, and could smell wood burning. I heard the beat of the music, and buzz of the crowd and realized what high school would be like. I saw a future and couldn’t wait to be a part of it. When we got home, Raymond said to me, “Don’t ever go out there. Dad would kill you.”
Three hours passed and Mary hadn’t called. There was still plenty of time to get to the party. It would go for most of the night anyway, with a bonfire going and maybe even a keg of beer. But I wanted to go before it got dark. I washed my hair and blew it dry, out of nervous energy. I put on some black eyeliner and frosty plum eye shadow, and then dusted my cheekbones with cherry blush just in case I got to go. The makeup made me look older, and my face a little thinner. I used mascara to lengthen my lashes but wanted to wait to put on lip gloss for when I got to town.
“Gigi phone,” my mother called from the kitchen.
“It’s a boy,” she said, and furrowed her eyebrows as I took the receiver from her.
“Gig, it’s Brett.” He dropped the “e” sound at the end of my name, shortening it even more. It was annoying and cute at the same time.
“Oh hi. What are you doing?” I turned away from my mother who was about to take a cleaver to a raw chicken.
“I’m seeing if you’re going to the river,” he said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m supposed to meet Mary.”
“Then will you come to the river?” He sounded like a kid asking for dessert. I smiled but didn’t want to get my hopes up.
“I’m not sure I’ll even get to town,” I said.
“What if I come and get you?”
“How are you going to do that?”
“I’ll figure it out,” he said. “Get ready. I’ll see you later.”
There was mischief in his voice that made me anxious. I didn’t really believe him, but I still felt drawn to his confidence. I started to picture the scene in my mind. Older girls in crop tops and cut-offs smoking cigarettes, and boys carrying twelve-packs of beer, some in high school, some just graduated. Some of them would have on cowboy boots and jeans with faded rings left on the pockets from their snuff cans. There would be speakers set on the roof of someone’s Chevy or El Camino, and music could be heard down river.
I just needed permission to go to Mary’s. There was no guarantee we would get to the river anyway so I could say we were just going to play cards at her house, or get a root beer float at the A&W. I heard the sound of the boat’s engine coming closer to the shore then stop as it drifted toward the dock, waves washing up on the sand and rocks.
“Gigi!” my father yelled. He had a baritone of a voice and often spoke louder than necessary. “Gigi! Your turn!”
I wasn’t sure what he had in mind. My “turn” just meant he felt guilty for leaving me behind or focusing only on the boys. Sometimes it manifested into a gift; a small ring or pin that he saw at JCPenney, nothing that required long spans of attention.
“Gigi, we’re getting the skis. Let’s go,” Raymond called, as he walked up to the house and into the garage.
“I don’t want to go,” I called back from my bedroom window. My mother opened my door without knocking.
“You need to go. Daddy is waiting.” She set down some clean laundry on my bed.
“Can I go to Mary’s?”
“Why Mary’s? Your father wants to take you water skiing,” she said. She opened my dresser drawers and put my socks inside, then my t-shirts.
“I don’t want to go water skiing. I want to go into town.”
“What is in town,” she said. “It’s family time.”
“My friends are there.”
“Your friends,” she said. “If your friends want you, let them come and get you. I go to and from town every night for emergencies, deliveries. I’m sick of the drive.”
“Raymond can drive me,” I said.
“Raymond is skiing,” she said. “As you should be. The lake is right there. Use it.”
“Fine.” I grabbed my swimsuit from the open drawer. “Will you take me to Mary’s after?”
“No, Hija,” she said. “Tomorrow after church we will go shopping in Fargo.”
“Gigi! Come on!” Raymond yelled.
“Now go,” my mother said. Then she slammed the drawer shut and walked out of my room without closing the door behind her.
I got dressed and went down to the dock, my flip-flopped feet stomping on the worn wood. Raymond was standing at the bow of the boat. His hair was cut so close to his head in the back that it stuck out a like porcupine, while the rest of it was long enough to sweep over the top. He had narrow eyes like my father’s and mine; only his cheekbones were high and sharp like my mother’s.
“What’s your problem?” He was waiting for me to untie the boat and throw him the line. Joseph was stowing the tackle box under one of the seats.
“Nothing.” I threw a life vest that was lying on the dock into the back of the boat.
“Well, hurry up. Untie the boat and get in.” He grabbed the vest and put it on, snapping the straps together.
“I don’t even want to go,” I said. My face felt hot and a knot was forming in my throat.
“So stay then,” he said, and jumped onto the dock to untie the boat himself. My father was collecting the fishing rods and placing them inside some hollow poles he had set up on the shore.
“Ano ba?” he said. “Bakit?” My father looked at both boys. Raymond shrugged and gestured a nod toward me.
“You don’t want to ski?” my father asked.
“I want to go to town,” I said. I blinked hard so not to cry.
“She wants to go to the river,” Raymond said.
“Shut up,” I said, and glared at him with narrowed eyes.
“What’s this?” my father asked. “What riber?” He always pronounced his “v”s like a “b”.
“I want to go to Mary’s,” I pleaded.
“It’s a party Dad,” Raymond said. “Out past Big Pine.”
“No.” My father shook his head. “No riber,” he said. “Lake.” He pointed at the water.
“Ugh! Thanks a lot,” I shouted at Raymond. “Next time mind your own business!”
I stomped back up to the house and slammed the back door. I locked myself in the bathroom so no one could get to me. I grabbed a Kleenex and started to wipe the eye shadow from my lids. Tears welled up in my eyes and I felt my face crumple when I saw myself in the mirror. I turned on the water so no one could hear me cry, then cupped my hands under the stream from the faucet, and buried my face in them. I could feel my nose and face turn more slippery as I sobbed, and I squeezed my eyes shut to keep from wailing. I almost wanted to drown in that water, to take a deep breath and disappear under the weight of it. But I choked and coughed, and opened my eyes to my stuttered breathing. I pulled a towel out of a cabinet and dried my face. In the mirror, I saw my puffy eyes and lips, my cheeks and nose a red and little raw, looking babyish without any makeup.
I heard a knock on the door and then my mother’s voice. “Gigi? Are you in there?” I rolled up the towel and threw it in the hamper.
“Open the door,” she said.
“One second.” I didn’t care that I snapped at her. I wanted the anger in my voice to be known, to hit her in the face. As soon as I opened the door I brushed passed her in the hall without looking at her.
“Gigi.” She whispered and followed me into my room. “You know that Brett Paul?” She always spoke of strangers in modifiers, like they were objects on a shelf.
“What about him.” I kept turned away from her and kicked off my sandals into my closet. I didn’t want her to see that I had cried.
“What? You’re lying.” I would have never called my mother a liar to her face but I was convinced she was just trying to scare me with a rumor from some nurse.
“There was a car accident,” she said. “I have to go to town.”
“I just talked to him,” I scoffed. “That was him on the phone.”
She ignored my disrespect. “He was in the backseat. The kids driving were drunk.”
I found out later that Brett was riding with Tim in Will’s convertible with the top down, on Highway 17. They lost control of the car, ran off the road and hit a slough. Brett was thrown into the ditch and killed instantly. They were four miles from my house.
At the funeral, an enlarged copy of Brett’s school picture was displayed at the front of the church along side a portrait of him with his parents and older sister. As I watched his parents weep and console each other, I felt both responsible for their loss and guilty for being spared. Mary and Katie sat with Tim and Will behind Brett’s family. I wanted to sit with them too but my mother pulled me into a pew off to the side. Even then I wanted to be with them, to be part of their communal pain and misery. When the casket was brought in, Brett’s absence was overwhelming.
I pressed my lips together as tears ran down my cheeks. My mother nudged me and passed me a tissue, oblivious to my yearning and loss. I knew she would never understand how I so wanted to included and belong, and to be bound forever by the memory of a summer party. I was sure she thought such wishes were trivial, and my show of emotion was gratuitous.
My hands shook with sorrow and I sobbed. Because what I wanted back wasn’t the party, or the movies, or the baseball games about to happen. It was the phone call, the sound of Brett’s voice as he grinned, and the way he said my name. I already pined for how it made me feel, like I wasn’t missing anything but that I was the one being missed. I had waited so long to feel that way, and my heart shattered at not knowing if I would ever feel that way again.
Yvonne Higgins Leach
In the silence the room’s four bare
walls compress, the carpet
trodden, the closet swept away
of the clothes she wears.
All the things that were hers,
that were clenched in time
and space, now occupy
a home of her own.
She lives without me now.
I pretend, in the unapologetic light,
to be the mother robin
unrepentant, even celebrant
of the fierce push from the nest.
But I am not.
Not until this riotous wind inside me
calms and falls away,
not until the threading of night
is more than darkness
will I stop asking,
as the poets have asked:
Are we ever spared the loss?
Today I took a walk down the dirt road
That was ours.
My burning flesh shivered as the wind
Forcibly kissed my skin.
You would have appreciated the way the
Gray sky threatened to spill its tears.
But all I could focus on were the leaves
Beneath my feet – they didn’t crack.
You remember how we made it a game
To jump on and crumble every fallen leaf.
You loved the crisp, crackling music their
Dried up bodies sang.
But today –
They didn’t split apart into smaller pieces when
My weight pressed their soft bodies to the ground.
No crack. No break. No noise.
They are not dead.
But you – whose eyes just blinked in glassy
Recognition, warmth just touched in gentle circles,
Scent overwhelmed of lilac and cinnamon –
As the ground embraces in eternal intimacy –
The world freezes over – how are these leaves not dead?
Wayward boy, hold fast
your newly unwrapped heart;
Hepatitis A is not like love.
Blood retains the stain
of nation.Who he is:
platelets of Africa,
Caribbean plasma, dancing
red solar cells of Central
America, and anti-bodies,
lurking from this long
infection of Québec.
My boy inherits
as a sockeye to the river
of No Memory.
Before Honduras, we fill
his arm with pharmaceutical
patents against god’s judgement.
He needs to start antimalarials
now. In a land of no
care over water,
hand washing, taking
our medicine daily.
Heed me, boy. Rest your heart
remember blood; Hepatitis A,
is not like love; once you get it
you have it forever.
Donald, Called Mark, Enters Heaven
Like stitches in a wound,
bloody thread pierces and binds
the flesh, once bay or gray or chestnut,
colors accelerating astonishingly
through the resistant air,
only to finish bleached,
utilitarian, a tool
for child’s play and dreams
of being larger than life,
of taking the hill
and staring down all comers,
left or right, real or imagined.
We threw that thing for all
it was worth, cousin, taking
our fathers back like a time machine
to fresh-mown fields and perfect bodies, to diamonds
of certain perception
where memory and promise
fused in a flash of wrist-borne ash,
a crack utterly
clean, a natural grace note
that cut through every spring
like marrow in the bone—
blood to blood, flexible and free.
We were minor league fools,
chasing chimeras as if
the fire would never be exhausted,
caught in backyards of myth and mutual desire.
buckled to nostalgia,
we should have abandoned the game,
but neither of us
had the right constitution.
You picked up a gun.
I picked up a pen. Nothing
could replace what we’d left behind.
Now you turn the nozzle
on the tank, struggling for one
last breath. I wonder if the heartbreak
of parting is harder to bear than what we felt
as each day passed, taking
us into a future
that failed our imaginations.
Death is a snap curve—
despite our best intentions.
We see it coming, and we wave.
Questions at the Corner of Spring and State
Where does dignity grow?
Between ivy leaves on granite buildings?
In Petrie dishes in steel laboratories?
Or in refrigerator boxes in alleys?
How does dignity grow?
Does it shoot straight up like daffodils in spring?
Does it inch forward like a glacier?
Or does it gradually accumulate like tin cans in a grocery cart?
When does dignity grow?
Does it rise with the dawn?
Does it appear suddenly at the moment of battle?
Or does it wait patiently in line for soup?
Sam liked to keep busy. As a 21-year-old pre-law student, working part-time as a waitress to stay on top of her bills, Sam had mastered the art of penciling in every meeting, homework deadline, and work hour into her schedule. Every minute of every day was carefully accounted for. Even her personal time with friends and her boyfriend was written into her smooth, leather-bound planner, down to the very hour.
Her drive for structure grew stronger once she left her parents in Tennessee to go to a university in California. Her life was now completely her responsibility. So, Sam kept detailed plans. Graduation was on track, next would be law school, career, and, hopefully, marriage and kids. By the looks of her relationship with her boyfriend, Tom, and her grades in school, Sam had no worries that she would reach her goals.
At the same university, Tom was working on prerequisites for medical school. In fact, that was where they met. The schools they planned on applying for after graduation were within close proximity of each other, so Sam knew there would be no bitter fights over long distance dating or jealousies built on the inability to see who the other was spending time with. No, all that drama would be avoided. In fact, Tom was incredibly supportive of Sam’s goals and hardly questioned her strict schedule.
“So, what are you doing tomorrow at five?” Sam asked Tom over dinner at her small, one-bedroom apartment. Sam lived about thirty minutes from campus, while Tom lived closer to the school with his roommates, Jeff and Ben. But during Sam and Tom’s two years of dating, they usually spent time at Sam’s to be alone.
“I’m not sure,” he replied, sitting across from her at the table, eating his pizza. On the small T.V. in her den, the sounds of a comedy show’s laugh track periodically drew their attention.
“Well, I’ll be out of class then so do you want to get together?”
“Yeah, that’s good with me.”
“But I can only stay till six. I have a meeting with the honor society.”
“I figured,” he sighed, staring across the table at her. “I can never have you as long as I want.” His hand reached under the table for her leg. She pulled at the edge of her shorts, covering the skin he touched. She hated the way her thighs spread when she sat down and she didn’t want him to feel it. But she didn’t want him to know that either.
His eyes narrowed. Sam recognized the look in his eyes. She knew he could never understand why she would make certain moves.
Her muscles tightened and she gripped the metal fork.
“So…what about tonight? Do I need to leave?”
“No, tonight I’m okay,” Sam responded, picking at her chicken salad. “I got up early this morning and did my proposal before work.”
Tom smiled. “If I were half as productive as you—”
“Well, you just wouldn’t be you, Tom,” Sam smiled back, feeling herself settle and untighten.
Sam’s eyes glanced toward the T.V. A commercial played, an ad for Victoria’s Secret underwear. The models pranced along, their bodies winding and curving. Not an inch of flesh revealed a scar, stretch mark, or even a freckle. Did they really look like that?
Sam put her fork down and glanced at Tom. He was finished with his pizza and checking his phone. She scooted closer to him. His eyes met hers and he smiled.
She initiated the touch and covered his lips with hers.
For a few moments, Tom helped her forget, took up another slot in her planner. His touch, their entanglement, fleeting and effective. In the dark, she forgot who she was, pretended she was someone else, someone worthy, someone who could experience life to the fullest.
For a moment, the sweat, the heat, the pulsating passion completed her world and there was nothing else.
But then it was over.
They laid in bed together, her head on his chest. He stroked her arm. “That was great, Sam,” he breathed with contentment.
But she was anything but content. “Yes,” she said, eager to put her clothes on, be completely from his sight. “Do you need to get back home though? It’s getting dark out.”
“I was thinking…maybe I could stay?” he kissed her forehead.
“No, no, I…I have too much studying to do tonight, Tom.”
“Are you ever going to let me stay over?” he asked. She could hear the slight crack in his words. His hand moved gently along the soft lines of her stomach.
She slipped from his arms and put her clothes on so quickly he could never have seen an inch of skin even if the lights had been on. “Yeah, Tom, maybe during the holiday break. It’s just too busy for me right now.”
She hurried into the bathroom to allow him time to dress and to get away. She looked at herself in the mirror. Her eyes drifted over her slightly mussed, dark blonde hair. She lifted her shirt and stared at her stomach as she did every time she came in front of a mirror. It didn’t matter how much she refused to eat junk food, how much she exercised. She would always see what she didn’t want to see. She pulled at her skin, poked and prodded, turning herself red from the force and violation.
“Sam?” Tom called from the other side of the door, muffled. “You okay?”
“Yes,” she dropped her shirt over her stomach. “Yes, I’m perfect.”
“You threw him out after sex?”
Sam shifted uncomfortably on the couch, staring across at her best friend Joy. She had stopped by an hour after Tom left. Straight from her shift, Joy had her hair in a bun, wearing the same black shirt and paints that all the waitresses wore at the restaurant they both worked at, Cliff’s.
“I didn’t throw him out…”
“What’s wrong?” Joy laughed, her dark eyelashes fluttering closed. “You have a really sweet guy; sweeter than the ones I end up with. Honestly, he’s as innocent as a puppy! Why aren’t you happy with him?”
“I am,” Sam defended herself. “I am happy with him. I don’t want to be with anyone else.”
“Then why didn’t you want to keep him? Sleep in bed with him? Have him cuddle you to sleep? Damn, most girls love to be cuddled after messing around. I know I do.”
“I don’t mind cuddling,” Sam said. “I just don’t really like where he touches me.”
“What do you mean? Sexually?”
“No, I do, I love it. It’s after, when it’s over and he touches my arms, legs, stomach. It makes me…cringe.”
Joy nodded. “Ah, yeah. I see.” she paused. “Well, Sam, I don’t really know what to tell you except that you’ve got to just try and get over that. You’re a gorgeous girl. You shouldn’t feel bad about your boyfriend touching your stomach out of love. Just let him, okay? He’s not thinking you’re fat. He’s thinking about how much he loves you. Okay? Just understand that, because that’s a very nice thing to have someone think about you. Okay?”
“No, you better mean it when you say it!” Joy grabbed Sam’s hands tightly. “You’ve gotta believe that he loves you and thinks you’re beautiful,”
“It’s just hard,” Sam settled her head against the couch. “I know I sound ridiculous. I’d never admit this stuff to anyone but you because I sound like an idiot.”
“Of course,” Joy let go of Sam’s hands and stroked her hair like a mother might to comfort her child. “And I would never judge you. I know, we all feel like this from time to time. But it just sucks the life out of us, you know? You’ve got so much going for you. And you’ve gotta believe that you deserve every bit of it.”
Sam nodded, unable to commit.
“Just try, okay? Because if you can’t love yourself, it’s going to be really hard for you to love anyone else.”
“Wow,” Sam cracked a smile. “You’re going to make a really good shrink.”
Joy rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah. Well, at least I’m not going to be a slimy lawyer.”
“Hey!” Sam smacked Joy’s arm, tension fading.
“Hey, you’ll be the one good lawyer in the world! You’ll save the entire species.”
“So, how was Cliff’s tonight? Was Cassie in?”
“Yeah. God, I swear she lives there. If you were a restaurant manager, I swear you’d be just like her. Always working. Not that I’m complaining! She’s the best boss. Always letting me sneak bites here and there.”
Sam rolled her eyes.
Joy slid her finger over her phone and the numbers 12:05 lit up brightly. “Well, I need to head home now. Kat’s probably wondering where I am.”
“Text me in the morning before we meet for our run?”
“Oh, yeah…running. You want to do that tomorrow?”
“Yeah! If we don’t we’ll gain the freshman 15 or whatever.”
“Except we aren’t freshmen anymore, Sam!”
“Still. So text me!”
“Well, you know I wouldn’t call. You know our one rule.”
“Of course,” Sam laughed. “Never call. Only text!”
“Right,” Joy winked moving toward the door. “’Night, Sam. And remember what I said, okay? You deserve everything you have, so stop thinking otherwise.”
“I’ll try,” Sam nodded. Though she knew it was easier said than done, talking to her best friend had really helped her mood. “Goodnight.”
The door closed.
That night, as usual, Sam tossed and turned in her bed. She stared at the blinking red numbers on the alarm clock on the nightstand: 2:15 AM.
They taunted her.
If I go to sleep now, she thought. I’ll at least get three good hours…
Morning began at 5:20AM with the screeching buzz of Sam’s alarm clock that startled her out of a REM cycle. She felt tempted to remain in the safety and comfort of her warm bed. Her body ached and her stomach lurched from the lack of sleep. But she needed to workout.
She texted Joy. Still on for the run?
She changed into her clothes in front of the mirror. She watched as her body bent and moved as she placed her sports bra over her breasts and covered her white stomach with a tank top. She pulled her eyes away from the mirror to look at her phone.
Sam scoffed. “Figures. She slept in.” So she went without her.
She ran along the road, through crosswalks, and made her way to the beach. One mile down. She kept to the sidewalk, careful not to run into the sand, but enjoyed the sound of the light waves and the image of the dark blue water before the sun touched it. She embraced this for a moment before sprinting. She ran, taking in deep breaths, pushing until her stomach cramped and threatened to empty itself of last night’s salad. Two miles down. Three. Four. Once her legs were shaky enough, she went back home, satisfied with her burning lungs.
After showering, getting dressed, and eating a grapefruit for breakfast, Sam caught the bus at sunrise. She flipped through her planner and started adding in her green and pink sticky notes. Pick up fruit. Write essay on bureaucracy liabilities.
As she was about to add, ab workout after shift at Cliff’s, her phone buzzed in her bag. Grabbing the phone, Joy’s picture blinked on the screen and large bright letters spelled out her name.
“Calling me?” Sam answered with a small laugh. “You know our rule. Text—”
“Sam?” the words broke out with a whimper.
“Who is this?”
“Joy’s roommate, Kat. Sam, I’m really sorry, I called you as soon as I got a chance. Joy’s in the hospital today…”
Sam’s vision blurred and her ears buzzed. “She’s what? Why? What happened?”
“I found her passed out in her bed this morning. Her parents are on their way. They only live an hour away so they should be here soon, but I knew you would want to know since you’re her best friend. How soon can you get here?”
“I can come right now. God, what happened? How could she just be passed out?” Sam cut herself off. “Just tell me what hospital it is and I’ll be there right away.”
“It’s Saint Peter’s Medical Center.”
It took her two hours of switching bus routes and stops along the way, but she eventually walked through the sliding doors of the hospital. She breathed in the smell of antiseptic, like the air itself had been scrubbed clean.
At the waiting room sat Joy’s roommate Kat. She looked up at Sam, dark circles under her bloodshot eyes. They were swollen, Sam knew, from crying.
What happened?” Sam approached Kat.
“I…” her voice was as cutting and sharp as fingernails scraping along a chalkboard, back and forth, back and forth. “I found her,” she continued. “She had swallowed a bunch of pills last night and I called the ambulance, but I wasn’t sure how long it had been since she took them. She was still breathing, but wouldn’t wake up and—”
“Joy’s not suicidal,” Sam spat. “She must have taken them by accident or something, there’s no way she would have done that on purpose.”
Kat grimaced, new tears squeezed out from her swollen eyes and Sam recoiled. “I’m sorry, I’m just…you must have been wrong. Joy’s the happiest person I know. She would never kill herself.”
She wouldn’t leave me without telling me goodbye.
Kat nodded. “Yeah, maybe…Well, her parents are in the room with her. No other visitors are allowed, but I’m sure they’ll come down to update us soon. I think she’s still unconscious…”
“Okay,” Sam said, taking a seat to wait.
Tom sent her a text about 30 minutes after Sam talked to Joy’s parents. Her parents didn’t offer much information. Joy’s mother, worn and ragged, explained that Joy was still unconscious but should wake soon. The doctors were doing everything they could. Her father said nothing.
“Where are you?” Tom texted.
In that instant Sam remembered that she and Tom usually met for lunch at the cafeteria on Thursdays. She imagined him sitting alone, watching for her as he always did with that brown hair curling at the nape of his neck. She felt her stomach tense. She didn’t know what to text. Every sort of explanation felt empty.
“I’m at the hospital,” she eventually responded.
“What? Why? Are you okay? Can I come see you? What do you need?”
These texts came at such a fast rate that Sam sighed and dropped her phone onto her lap as it buzzed incessantly. She rubbed her temples and breathed in deeply.
“I’m fine. It’s Joy. You don’t need to come, I’m just going to be here for her.”
She then silenced her phone and placed it into her backpack. She couldn’t keep texting. The feeling of the screen beneath her fingers, the constant vibrating, was making her stomach hurt even more. She wanted to throw up.
She needed to throw up.
Sam stood up and moved to the bathroom. It was rather large and it smelled a lot better than the rest of the hospital, in fact. It smelled like lavender.
Her ears buzzed and her vision blackened and spotted before her. She wobbled to a stall and shakily shut the door behind her. Panting, she fell to her knees, gripping the toilet seat with her hands.
She leaned over the seat, taking in one deep breath after another. She wanted to throw up. It would make her feel better. She needed to get it all out.
But it wouldn’t come.
She backed away from the toilet as her vision cleared slightly. She stood up and walked out of the stall, making her way to the sink. She stood before the mirror and felt her hands instinctually move to the bottom of her shirt.
She grasped the tip of the cotton and lifted it slightly, revealing flesh. STOP!
She dropped her shirt and stared directly into the eyes of her reflection. Her eyes stared back at her; black and dull. So void of feeling. Void of life.
Had Joy felt this way? No power? No nothing?
“She woke up,” Joy’s dad told Sam and Kat as they stood together in the waiting room. “Her mother’s still with her,” he continued. His eyes were worn, his shoulders bent and drooped.
“Is she okay?” Kat asked quickly, her voice still scratchy. Sam cringed.
“Yes,” he said. “Uh…she’s gonna need to be in here for a while and…uh…she’s under a watch for a while.”
“What kind of watch?” Kat asked.
Before he could open his mouth, Sam supplied, “Suicide watch.”
Kat gasped in pain.
Sam cringed at her lack of tact. Why had she blurted that out?
“Really?” Kat asked. “So, she swallowed her pills on purpose? Why? Why would she want to kill herself?”
Sam saw Joy’s father tense up, the veins in his hands and arms raising up like mountains. She could see him breaking.
“You should be with her,” Sam said. “We’ll be okay. Just, please let her know we’re here?”
“Can we see her?” Kat asked, hopeful as a child.
“Not today…uh, perhaps tomorrow?”
“Okay,” Sam replied. “That’s fine. Just let her know I was here, please?”
“Of course. Here, I’ll give you my number so we can text if anything happens.”
“What happened?” Tom asked Sam that evening. He stood at the door of her apartment. She had just gotten home a few hours ago before. The sun had disappeared from the sky, and she was ready to just go to bed. But then Tom had knocked on the door.
Once she opened the door, his words stumbled out in a stampede. “You wouldn’t answer my texts,” he said. “What happened?”
Sam tilted her head against the door. “Tom, I’m really tired. Could I explain tomorrow? It was a long day and I missed my classes so I’m going to have to figure out what I’ve got to do to make up for quizzes and—”
“Could you forget about school for just a second!?” Tom suddenly outburst. Sam was shocked. She wasn’t used to Tom getting upset with her. He barely raised his voice when he got frustrated over a football game.
“Please,” he pleaded. It shocked Sam when she realized his eyes shone with tears. “You can’t do everything by yourself. Let me help you? I want to be here for you, but you’re always shutting me out. See, even now you won’t even let me in the door.”
Sam blinked and her throat tightened. Her fingers gripped the doorknob. “I’m sorry you feel that way. It’s not like that I just…”
“Don’t try to make excuses,” he sighed in exhaustion. “You can’t. You’ve treated me like this for a long time. I thought if I gave you some time it would get better, but It’s not.”
“I’m so sorry, Tom.”
“I can’t do this anymore,” his shoulders slumped. “I try to be there for you but you never give me the chance and…Look, I know something happened with Joy and you don’t want to talk about it. But if you can’t trust me enough to talk to me when you’re upset, what am I to you?”
She had nothing to say. She didn’t know what to say. She slowly backed away, feeling sick and horrified. She shut the door.
The next day Sam woke at 5:15 AM, but didn’t go for a run. She laid in bed, staring into the darkness around her as her stomach twisted and ached.
Did I eat yesterday? She wondered. Do I even care?
Her nausea answered that question as her stomach lurched and bubbled with the emptiness of acid and bile.
Not eating is going to throw off your metabolism. It’ll make your body hold onto fat. That’s what all the health magazines say. You’ll end up looking fatter than if you had eaten a donut.
Sam sat up in bed and shuffled into her kitchen. Looking for something to eat, she opened the refrigerator, met with the cold spill of brightly lit air.
Bagel. That would work.
She grabbed out a bagel from the bag and stood at the fridge, eating the cold, plain, breakfast. The bread stuck in her dry mouth, scratching its way down her throat.
You’ve got to eat. Force it down.
She swallowed. She thought of Joy. She thought of Tom. Her stomach revolted, the bread came crawling up her throat faster than it went down.
A few hours later, on the bus to Saint Peter’s Medical Center, Sam emailed her professors letting them know she was not going to be making it to class due to a family emergency. She also texted their boss, Cassie, who told her to take as much time as she needed. “Of course, Sam. I know this is a hard time for both of you.”
Joy’s parents had of course alerted Cassie of what happened.
Soon, everyone will know.
Sam breathed in deeply, remembering the day she met Joy, two years ago. They had both been hired at the restaurant the same week. They spilled drinks, screwed up orders, and suffered the humiliation of being the newbies together.
At the hospital lobby, she pushed these memories away and instead texted Joy’s father.
“I’ll be in the lobby today. Just in case I can see Joy.”
After she sent the text, she sat down in a chair and waited. She flipped through the outdated magazines on the tables, read an article in National Geographic about mummified children and felt her stomach twist and turn again.
After half an hour, Joy’s mom walked up.
“Sam,” she said.
“Hi,” Sam tensed in her seat, unsure if she should offer to hug the woman or not. She had only met her a couple times. But Joy’s mom made the decision for her, wrapping her up into an embrace.
“How are you?” Joy’s mom asked, gripping Sam tightly.
“I’m fine,” Sam responded as the hug loosened. She then looked at Joy’s mom. Helen. Right, that’s what her name was. She had those same dark eyelashes, deep brown hair, and fair skin. Around her eyes were wrinkles that sang of a lifetime full of laugher and liveliness, but now her eyes were cold and still.
“Let’s sit down,” Helen motioned to the chairs. Sam dropped the National Geographic magazine back onto the table.
“So, she’s doing better. She is awake today,” Helen said. “I mean to say—she’s doing better physically. It’s going to be a long road to recovery.”
“So she really meant to…” Sam couldn’t finish.
And Helen couldn’t say it. Her eyes leaked tears, but she didn’t cry. “It’s something she’s dealt with for a long time, Sam. Something we’ve been trying to help her with.”
“I never knew. She was always so stable. She was the one, between the two of us, who had stuff together.”
Helen nodded. “She was good at hiding it. When she would come home to visit she would smile and laugh. She’d be the life of the party. But, it just wasn’t what she felt on the inside. The inside was hurting her.”
“She’s going to be a therapist,” Sam said. “How? I don’t understand. I mean, she knew about depression and suic—”
She couldn’t finish the word.
“And I think part of her reason for that major was because of how she felt,” Helen spoke gently with a sharp bite of clipped pain on her tongue. “It just wasn’t enough to help.”
“Why though?” Sam asked. “We were best friends and I never knew. Was there something she wasn’t telling me? Did something happen to her? I don’t understand.”
Helen’s tears then did more than leak, but started pouring down her face. “I’m her mother. And I honestly don’t know.”
Hours passed. Helen came and went. Sam sat diligently in the lobby. When the time finally came that Joy’s parents spoke the words, “She’s asking for you,” Sam wasn’t ready.
Her heart beat against her ribs on her way to Joy’s room. But when she finally saw her, she was shocked. Joy looked better than she had imagined. In her mind, she thought Joy would be hooked up to machines with a tube down her throat like the people always did in Grey’s Anatomy. But she wasn’t like that at all.
She sat up in bed, she had no hook-ups except for a single IV in the top of her hand. Her eyes were dark and her lips and skin were pale, but other than that, she looked like Joy.
“So, how’s it going?” Joy asked with a slight smile.
“How are you?” Sam deflected. She noticed a slight edge in her voice. She was angry without even realizing it.
“I’m okay. My parents finally left me for a bit. It’s nice to be out of their judging eyes.”
“They were just worried about you,” Sam said. “Don’t be like that…” she trailed off and stared down at her feet. She couldn’t look at Joy.
“Hey,” Joy called. “Why are you here?”
Sam forced herself to look up. “What?”
“You heard me,” Joy said, her voice rough. “Why are you here? You come here to judge me too? To tell me I’m an idiot for trying to do it?”
She paused. “I don’t know what I came here for honestly.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I just said I don’t know,” Sam raised her voice slightly before pulling it back down. “I mean…you tried to kill yourself, didn’t you?”
Joy stared at Sam. Unflinching. Unfeeling.
How could she be so unfeeling?
“You tried to kill yourself,” Sam’s voice began to build. “You’re my friend, Joy. My fucking friend. WE ARE FRIENDS!”
Joy’s face held strong, no emotion, no reaction to Sam’s screaming.
“You saw me that night and you just…just left? Did you have a plan? Did you know then that you were going to try and kill yourself? Are you going to do it again? What the hell!? I thought we were friends! I thought I could fucking trust you! And what you just—”
She stopped. Joy wasn’t even looking at her. She was staring out the window at the bright sky. And that’s when Sam realized the truth.
Nothing she said would matter.
Nothing Joy had ever told her in their years of being friends had ever made her see the world differently. Joy could tell her she was beautiful and strong and deserving, and yet Sam would still have complained about the fat on her stomach and cringe at Tom’s touch just as intensely as though Joy had never said a thing.
You can’t change the unchangeable.
“Okay,” she whispered to her friend. “Alright. It’s okay. It’s okay, Joy, just…You be okay, okay?”
And she left.
She stared at him from across the living room on her couch. He was sitting at her little table, near the kitchenette, doing work on his laptop, some sort of math quiz. His eyes went back and forth from typing in numbers on the screen and scribbling math equations on the scraps of paper to his left.
She sighed with a smile.
It hadn’t taken long for Sam to hear from Tom. It wasn’t like him to stay away from her and this time wasn’t any different. He wanted to see her and she let him.
But something was different this time.
“Yes!” he exploded from the table. “Got a 98!”
“Good job,” Sam grinned at him, leaning her head against the couch.
He hopped up and landed in the seat next to her. He grabbed her around the waist and she abruptly gasped before settling in his embrace.
“I don’t want to look at numbers anymore for a long time,” he muttered into her hair.
“Well, how does T.V. sound instead?”
She flipped the channels before settling on a rerun of Friends.
A swimsuit commercial played during the break, and the models walked along the screen. Sam pulled her eyes away and looked over at Tom. He was still holding her.
He wasn’t comparing her.
“I don’t have to,” she whispered as her muscles began to clinch. He isn’t. Why should I?
“You don’t have to what?” he asked her.
“Compare myself to those models,” she admitted, shocking herself.
“Of course not,” Tom said. “God, why would you even want to? You’re perfect.”
“Sure,” she laughed.
“Damn,” Tom said. “I hope you don’t compare me to the guys on T.V. though. I don’t think I’ll ever get those six-pack abs.”
Sam laughed, unclenching. I’m okay. And she was going to make sure she stayed that way. Just like Joy had told her, she deserved what she had. She was worthy of it.
“I’m gonna run to the bathroom,” Sam kissed his neck and hopped up and out of his arms.
Shutting the door behind her, she stood before the mirror. In the bright light, her face shone; every freckle and the green of her eyes stood at attention. Her eyes glanced down at the bottom of her shirt.
Would it hurt? If I just look? Would it make a difference?
Shoving away from the sink, Sam ran out of the bathroom. She flew into the den and rifled through her purse for her phone.
“What’s wrong?” Tom asked.
She dialed Joy.
“I have to tell her,” Sam broke out breathlessly, phone at her ear. “If she can tell me—”
Someone picked up.
A chuckle. “Sam. You know our rule.”
pulling tighter on the strings.
A flag won’t wave when your throat is pulled tight not allowing your voice to sing.
So you will never fly without the use of machines.
Yet your ideas let them take flight
just a small concept of the way you fly.
as you stay down on the ground.
Not a cog or gear.
Just a hole that has
will be used.
It’ll happen again.
:been left alone.
no nature no control.
You are the blood that coils, boils, oils
the machine that you don’t own.
You are, however, the hums and screams,
The cyclic nature of abuse that repeats.
a vessel with means,
bursting at the seams,
that operates the machine, ones of broken dreams.
you are the rope’s end.
They’ll come again pulling fulfilling till they meet their needs and drain you again.
The scars on your back-
A memory of what has been.
of a time before the machine.
Machines built by nature,
natures built by machines.
the last of the string,
one of the many kites stuck in a tree.
In a peak of a dying crown
the leaves of which are an orange and a brown.
Believe the land is free,
it’ll feel better when you concede
just believe, child’s belief
this is how it should be,
kings and queens
tyrant and thieves
these are the gods to whom we beg and plea
your freedom is the honey they eat.
:a hive mind,
following orders blind,
believe now and find
the golden opportunity that can bind
a life of freedom that is no longer mine.
this is my last cry.
Don’t let the freedom of the few
override the freedom that were the many.
don’t let this be the norm.
New York dreams of wind
brackish streams retracing
armies of scraggly-
suited cockroaches marching
waves crashing into
When an island’s stories
go untold long enough
they re-emerge, the
old terror of silt and tides.
Tatiana V. Johnson
Let them question your gentry, my good sons,
With or without your creed, they’ll judge your birth.
No, you may not have been born in the sun,
But we all get planted firm in the Earth.
They wash their hands ‘round twenty times a day,
While the dirt sticks calmly beneath our feet,
When they are done praying the rage gives way
And we’re the ones their anger seems to meet.
When their eyes flash red just widen your smiles,
Our teeth appear white against our dark skin,
When their eyes flash green, hide your mother’s child,
They’ll show us where in their world she fits in.
You are either too rich for your born skin,
Or it’s a shame you were born in that form.
If our varied existence in a sin,
Then hell is our norm.
While sitting shivah it dawns on the daughter,
lorn and reft of an existential pillar, scalded by misfortune,
that the deceased was a fleeting blessing,
a foretaste of eternal companionship,
and that even the pain she inflicted was better
than the pleasure derived from others.
Strange how only in a period of darkness
shades of difference come to light.
Garbed in the customary dishabille,
she slouches on a lowered chair
as the community enters bearing
hot platters of food, setting them down on trivets,
proffering condolences and prayers lauding life.
When the world finally leaves the home,
she notes that the foods are the familiar foods
and the aromas the very aromas
reminiscent of the dearly departed,
who even in death made certain to nourish the family.
Requiem for the Baby
Your heart is served
on a cat’s claw, razor still
after the raging
reaches its hushed conclusion:
no more midnight assaults
or pissing in the hallways;
no more satin brushes
signaling out of the dark.
The bloody rock
stays like a secret, buried
affections and resentments.
Nothing quickens, even
when you wish with all your might
or feed hope through the nose
with an umbilical tube.
It’s your birthday,
and if I give you this ball
of need and anger,
it may bounce back to bite you,
shredding delicate veins
time has conspired to protect
by simply walking out
of a customary room.
Embrace the dead,
the reckoning demanded
as the film gets stuck
in the midst of the damn show.
Remember the action
and you’ll know what was— the purr
before the pause, sudden
footsteps puncturing the frame.
It’s your birthday,
and if it seems forsaken
consider that lessons come
in thunderclaps and toil,
windows shattered or opened
to let the outside in.
Then we can rest, and can live.
The rabbit is laid out on the driver’s side floor, not yet stiff, just cool and solid in the early August morning. I discover it when I wrench open the door of my mother’s old white station wagon, borrowed for the night and parked just down the street from my last-summer-in-Bakersfield apartment, my 1975 way-station between high school and college. I probably had not locked the car when I’d pulled up to the curb late Saturday night, probably never locked it: this neighborhood on the outskirts of downtown is that deserted. But someone has killed an animal or found one dead and chosen my car, our family’s car, to dump it in.
Maybe whoever did that somehow already knew what I’d just learned. The morning jangle of the phone, my mother’s tight voice on the line: There’s been an accident. My sister Merry in the passenger seat, her over-age boyfriend behind the wheel, crashing through construction barricades into a concrete embankment. Her 16-year-old body trundled into the hospital an hour after midnight, and now it’s 7 am. She hasn’t regained consciousness. My mother needs a ride home from Mercy.
I grab the rabbit’s hind legs, dredge it up out of the well under the steering wheel and fling it as far as I can. It lands with a thud in the dusty oleanders poking through the auto supply store’s chain-link fence up the block. I force my eyes away from the lump it forms in the bushes and get into the car, start the engine coughing. As I pull away from the curb I check the rear view to see if I can still see it, and by the traffic light on 23rd Street, I can’t.
Merry is a twin. Merry and Melody, brunette and blonde, taller and smaller, pointy and soft. They’re 17 months younger than I am, and for a good run of childhood we are lumped together in the middle of the family like an accidental archipelago. In photo albums, our mom’s captions say “the triplets.” Above me by four years, sister Adrian, our babysitter and stand-in mom, and five years older still, brother Mark, who heads out early to join the great wide world. Later, below the twins by five years, our baby brother Matt, a reminder of what it’s really like to be a little kid.
As infants Merry and Melody are said to have their own twin language, all jibbers and chirps like cartoon chipmunks, but by the time they are three in 1962 and we move from Oregon to the first of many houses in California, they have become fully distinct from one another. Golden-haired, round-faced Melody, temporarily the bigger of the two, is tender and already a little dreamy. Merry, dark and quick, is like a spider monkey, all wiry energy, brown eyes tensely watchful above a tiny grin. She is not easy. She’s got her own terms.
The first house we live in, off a Highway 99 frontage road just south of Sacramento, has dozens of rooms. Mom calls it “The House of a Hundred Doors,” all perfect for angry slamming. Our father, a newspaperman with a new big city gig and a minor flair for the grandiose, no doubt saw the huge pool out back surrounded by louvered guest quarters and thought, this is our California due. Mark and Adrian already know how to swim and waste no time jackknifing off the diving board, doing handstands in the shallow end. Dad straps water wings on us three little ones and plops us in, too. Melody paddles around, puppy-like, laughing. I struggle to maintain my five-year-old dignity, which is directly connected to keeping my face out of the water. Merry screams and screams, flails for the ladder, grabs Dad’s arm and will not let go until he pulls her out like a plug from a bathtub and deposits her on the warming cement. There she scrunches her face and limbs into a ball of fury and will not be moved.
Melody and I look at each other and back at her. We sense the big kids’ sudden stillness as well: They are watching our father, his balding head reddening in the sun.
He stands over Merry, casting her in shadow. “Come on, now,” he says. “We don’t have anyone in this family who’s afraid of something new.”
“No,” Merry says.
“But it’s like walking on air — right, kids?” Dad looks out at us, and I, for one, am nodding as hard as I can without getting my hair wet.
“No,” Merry says. She locks her thumb into her mouth and stares at nothing.
Dad peers down at her for a minute, then shrugs. “Okay, then,” he says. He runs his hand over his head, then makes a slow show out of pulling a Marlboro out of his front shirt pocket. “Now it’s your brother and sisters’ job to see you don’t drown.” He waves his unlit cigarette in our direction. We can hear the plink of his lighter as he walks back through the screened-in passageway to the house.
Merry meets our gaze then and flutters the fingers of her thumb hand once, twice. Her other hand finds its way into her wet hair and starts winding a strand. Otherwise she does not move until dusk comes and we all go indoors, wrinkled and chilled, Melody and me dazed from floating and paddling under our older siblings’ direction. Merry holds out for another year before she consents to the same lessons.
The downtown apartment in the summer of 1975 was my best friend’s idea. Michele and I were graduating Bakersfield High School and about to diverge. I would be leaving town, forever I hoped, going east to Smith College, a place no one around here had ever heard of except the displaced Wellesley grad I babysat for. “Betty Friedan went to Smith,” was all she needed to tell me. I was going sight unseen. I’d begun assembling a trunk of whatever winter clothes I could find in a town where the temperature was above 70 degrees most of the year, and 115 was the summer standard.
Michele planned to do a couple of years at Bakersfield Community College, work on her portfolio, then head up to San Francisco for art school. She was the only one who knew I depended on the Sudafed bottle full of uppers I carried in my shoulder bag, or that I went through half a pack of cigarettes every time we had coffee at the diner down the street from school. I was the only one who knew she cried the first time she had sex, her face wedged against the steering wheel of her VW bug, everything all wrong. We’d have one last shared adventure in our summer apartment, staying up late drinking and talking and having lovers over, practicing for the Bohemian existence we knew awaited us somewhere far away.
We’d found the perfect place, in a tired, half-timbered two-story building surrounded by commercial properties and empty lots, hard by the traffic artery that marked the northern boundary of downtown. Our apartment was upstairs, two and a half rooms with a Murphy bed and balcony out the window, shrouded by cobwebby cypress trees that kept the place dark all the time. There were rust stains below the grimy tile in the bathtub and a bad smell in the kitchen from the food the previous tenants had left behind in an unplugged refrigerator. It was the kind of apartment you’d imagine someone drinking themselves to death in. We loved it.
And then just before move-in day, Michele tells me she can’t swing the apartment after all. She needs to save every penny this summer. She’s already on her real-life track. It’s only me that has a cul de sac to hang out in.
I decide to take the apartment anyway. My financial aid is already arranged, and I am about to start a good summer job in the classified ad department at the local newspaper. I had been angling for a cub reporter gig, being the editor of the high school paper and all, but as the Bakersfield Californian publisher reminded me in a favor-to-the-principal interview, everybody starts somewhere. The newspaper office is less than a 10-minute walk from the apartment, there’s a nice supermarket 10 minutes the other way, and my mom lets me convince her it will be good for me to be on my own before I move into a dorm in September. She may just be looking forward to a solo summer herself: Mark and Adrian long out of the house, Melody and Matt up in Alaska visiting Adrian for the summer, and Merry not due back till July from her school year with Dad and his latest wife in Carmel. Mom even offers me the occasional weekend use of her car, a 1967 Belvedere station wagon that had brought us to Bakersfield seven years earlier and suffered patiently through my learning how to drive. “Old Nellie Belle could use a little excitement in her life,” Mom says.
Merry moves fast for four and a half. Short and skinny, she slices through the fields of tall grass behind the house, through the old graveyard the rest of us are too timid to cross, and smacks her pennies down on the counter of the gas station store on Frontage Road. She might share her candy or she might not, but she always gets there first.
At family outings, Merry is often a blur, racing out to the edge of everyone’s vision and back again, always finding something to alarm: a mud patch soft as quicksand, a field of broken glass, boys with BB guns. Melody is usually a few steps behind, already torn between competing with her twin and trying to protect her. I let them run. After a month of kindergarten, I was skipped right into first grade, so now will always be two full years ahead of the twins in school and far too wise for their foolishness.
That’s why I am perched on a picnic table listening to the adults on Fourth of July, 1964. My parents have invited several other families to join us for hot dogs and fireworks, including, with barely disguised self-consciousness all around, a black couple my father knows through the newspaper. The grown-ups must have been talking about Freedom Summer, about the signing of the Civil Rights Act that had been all over the TV news. My father says something about “that wily redneck LBJ” and raises his beer can as Merry races by with a sparkler in each hand.
Just then the world begins exploding, rat-tat-tat-tat like machine gun fire and the scream of missiles, blinding flashes of light in red, green and blue. The adults without children duck for cover while the parents in the crowd race toward the blaze, screaming their kids’ names. As the black wife pulls me down behind the picnic table, I can see Mark running in an arc towards us, Merry under his arm. “The box!” he is shouting. “She dropped her sparkler in the box of fireworks!”
Almost as quickly as the barrage starts, it is spent, leaving nothing but smoke and the smell of gunpowder, the occasional fizzle of a spark falling back to earth. We gather slowly around the charred remains of the Deluxe Uncle Sam’s Fireworks Collection. No one speaks.
“That’s some little warrior you’ve got there, Dick Revenaugh,” the black husband says, tilting his head toward Merry, who is still clamped tightly to Mark, thumb in mouth, expression equal parts terror and pride. “The world had best watch out for her.”
In my shabby summer apartment, I try to cultivate fearlessness. I’ve always been confident, but that’s not the same thing. My nerve is built on being the iconoclastic wonder kid, the straight A student who flouts a few rules but never gets caught. Now school is out and I’m just one of the “ladies in Classified,” one of the dozen with teased or tired hair in line at the sandwich shop at lunch hour. This one is going through a bad divorce, that one has a kid in juvenile hall, none of them care what my GPA was or that I won a tall gold trophy for debate (Resolved: The drinking age throughout the United States should be lowered to match the voting age). Once a week after work, I walk west along 23rd Street to the Safeway and feel all the eyes of the world on me as I squeeze tomatoes and pretend to care about brands of bread.
My solitude is deliciously terrifying. After 18 years in a scrum of siblings, always elbowing for space and attention, it’s suddenly just me. I no longer need a padlock and key to keep my sisters from borrowing my clothes when I’m not home. There’s no one in the shower whenever I want to take one. My coffee cup is always where I leave it on the kitchen counter, and when there’s shouting somewhere in the building, it’s none of my business.
I hang out with Michele a few times that summer, go to a party or two. I also spend a couple weekends playing love-nest with my sort-of boyfriend — the one I met at a debate tournament too late in my senior year, the one who lives a 90-minute Greyhound ride away, the one who makes a half-hearted attempt to convince me to switch to Berkeley for the fall.
“Shouldn’t we even try to stay together?” he asks one Sunday morning. We don’t yet know that it’s the last day we’ll ever see each other. We are tangled in sheets I bought at Sears. At the end of August, I planned to fold them neatly and ship them off in my trunk to meet me in Massachusetts. I stare at the ceiling and shake my head. I’m already relishing talking about us in the past tense, the little twinge that will bring, and I sense he feels the same.
One night in late July, a ring wakes me just after midnight. I don’t have a bedside table, so the white princess phone Ma Bell installed is on the floor below my head. I scramble in the dark to answer it. When I pick up, I hear the sounds of a raucous party, music mixing in the background with gleeful shouting in Spanish and English. “Hey sister girl, time to come out and play!” a woman hollers after I say hello. I’m pretty sure it’s Michele, though not positive: she’s drunk and hoarse and I’m half asleep.
“Not tonight, too late,” I say, and hang up.
Half an hour later, I wake to the sound of pounding. Less than five feet from where I lay on the Murphy bed, someone is banging fists and what sounds like drumsticks against my apartment door. “Come on, Mic-Mic, open up, Mic-Mic,” a man is sing-songing loud enough to fill my apartment. “We bring the party to you!” A woman laughs like a trumpet, and the man starts in again. “It’s the party of your dreams, Mic-Mic!”
I make myself as still and quiet as I can. I have, in fact, dreamed of such parties, of having this place be my stage for crazy characters and wild abandon. But with the reality just an arm’s reach away, I am petrified. I pray someone in the building will call the cops, hold myself immobile awaiting the incoming siren, but instead the pair outside just loses interest.
“She must not be home after all,” the man says, his voice dimming as he heads away down the hall.
“Oh, she’s there all right,” the woman answers. Her voice is familiar, but I can’t quite place it. “She’s just playing too smart to get.”
By the time the twins start school, we have moved to another rambling house even further out in the country. There’s no swimming pool, just acres of corn, thousands of cows, a dense orchard — we are tenants in the middle of someone else’s working farm. Dad takes an apartment in Sacramento where he stays the many nights the paper keeps him late. I stand at the edge of our backyard, looking out over the fields toward the road and, beyond that, the highway and the city, and miss a life of sidewalks and storefronts that I haven’t yet lived.
To get to the school bus stop, we trudge past the milking barns and turn left down a quarter-mile gravel road, carrying our bag lunches and churning up dust with our school shoes. I am a bossy second grader, resplendent in my Brownie uniform and beanie, my Pee Chee folder full of neatly finished homework, my eyes fixed on the end of the road by the mailboxes where the yellow bus will not wait for us if we are late.
Come ON, you guys, I say out loud and in my head to the twins dawdling and squabbling behind me. Melody is mesmerized by a cloud of monarch butterflies hovering on a stand of horseweed. Merry darts into the orchard and picks up hard fallen pears to lob at ripe ones still on the trees. Melody forgets her lunch by a favorite cluster of rocks dredged from the fields, and has to run back and get it. Merry leaves hers behind a fence post on purpose. I turn my back to them both and march ahead. Come ON, we’re going to miss the bus.
Five steps before the final blacktop, the air behind me changes — becomes still somehow, suspended. I turn and see Merry on the ground a third of the way back up the road. She is on her side, half on the gravel, half on the grass, facing away from me. Melody is kneeling on the other side of her, both small hands on her twin’s shoulder, rocking. I clench my lunch and folder tight in my fists and run toward the two of them, but it’s like running through water — slow and silent. Finally Melody’s voice breaks through, “Get up, Merry, get up!” And I am there, crouching next to her.
Merry’s eyes are open and her face is chalky under her brown bowl-cut bangs, her sprinkle of freckles. Her arms and legs are curved like a side sleeper’s. “I can’t move,” she is saying. “My arms and legs won’t work.”
I peer down. “Did you trip over something? You never watch where you’re going.”
“Something’s really wrong,” Melody whimpers. Her eyes have not left Merry’s.
“Maybe you hit a wasp nest?” I look toward the buzzing pear trees.
Merry shakes her head. “I was standing up and then my legs fell down.”
I look up the road the way we came. Sometimes a farm truck will drive out while we’re waiting for the bus, but there’s nothing now but shimmers of September heat over the gravel. “We need to get you back to the house,” I say. I put my stuff down behind me and gesture for Melody to help. We slip our hands under Merry’s top arm and try to lift it, but it’s like a sleeve filled with rocks, heavy and limp. I look at Merry’s face again and see she is crying. She’s never done that silently before.
“Melody,” I hear myself saying, “You need to run as fast as you can to get Mom.”
Melody hesitates, still locking eyes with her twin.
“I have to stay here in case something else happens,” I say. “You two are too little to be by yourselves.”
Melody rocks back onto her heels, then pivots and starts to run, picking up speed like a golden pony. I watch for a minute to make sure she doesn’t waver, then turn back toward Merry. “Here,” I say, shifting to sit cross-legged Scouts-style as close as I can to the top of her. I tuck my Pee Chee folder under my seat, smooth out my brown uniform skirt, and lift her head onto my lap. Her arms sag around my left knee, so I cup them with one hand, and put my other hand on her forehead. She is shivering.
Soon Merry will be in the pediatric hospital in Sacramento where the doctors will decide she has Guillain-Barré Syndrome, an ailment so rare that no one seems to have ever heard of it. My Dad’s colleagues at the paper, the principal at Franklin Elementary, our neighbors on the farm, none of them seem quite convinced we haven’t invented the whole thing. The kids in my class give me a wide berth for a few days, as if I might be carrying some new strain of polio you can catch from mutual contact with a tetherball. I whack that rubber orb on its chain around the pole all by myself until one of the class outcasts, a chubby girl from a house down the street from the school, steps up and slams it back, and becomes my best friend for the year. Meanwhile, Melody spends most of kindergarten solo while Merry recuperates. It’s the last time either of them will experience school as a not-twin until their sophomore year.
But that’s all in the future. Right now Merry is breathing raggedly in my lap, so I try to stroke her hair the way Mom does when we’ve had a bad dream. She pulls her head away from my hand and strains left, and suddenly I understand. I slowly bend her top arm onto my lap and then round my hand over hers to bring it toward her face. She reaches with her lips toward the comfort she knows is there but can’t quite feel, so I roll her fingers into a loose fist and guide her thumb into place. She sighs then and goes heavy in my lap, her eyes never moving from the dangling tips of my burnt orange Scout neckerchief.
My summer 1975 apartment has no television, no stereo. The walls are bare other than the sepia smudges and stains of prior lives. It’s a temporary place, so I resist adding anything I won’t be able to pack into the trunk at the end of August and send away out of town. I have a little transistor radio that I turn on when the silence settles too heavily, mixing with the damp summer air and making it hard to breathe. I try to read the copy of The Second Sex that someone gave me as a birthday present my senior year, but each attempt makes me worry that I’m actually not as intelligent as I’ve led people to believe; soon I just position De Beauvoir atop the pile of Ms. Magazines and purloined newspapers at my bedside, under my white phone, in case anyone intellectual should come to visit. I spend hours instead poring over a guidebook called Cheap Chic that I buy at the mall during one of my stocking-up-for-college campaigns early in the summer. Between its mustard-yellow covers are thousands of tips for finding treasures at thrift stores, buying tights in bulk, investing in leather and wearing all black. Fran Leibowitz grouches about pastels and clothes with words on them while wearing a tuxedo jacket and holding a long cigarette. Betsey Johnson hand-letters a photo sequence showing how she assembles a tutu skirt. A nameless young woman who “works in a New York publishing house” sips a languorous drink on a fire escape wearing a silk sarong she made from an antique fringed scarf. I look up from studying five timeless finds at the Army surplus store to see that the sun has set, one more day gone from my temporary life, one day closer to the real one.
Several nights a week I walk three blocks from my apartment to the Fox Theater, a downtown movie palace whose glamor days are long behind it. You can smoke in the balcony, so that’s where I go, making my way through a dozen Marlboros and a tub of popcorn by myself in the dark. I see Nashville and Shampoo four times each that summer, and feel wise and sad on the way home through the desolate streets.
Merry gets Puppy when we move to Sacramento in 1967, the final, operatic year of our parent’s marriage. Merry’s arms and legs are long now, fully functioning: whatever laid her low in kindergarten is now past, barely a note in the clamor of family history. She’s suddenly taller than Melody, on her way to being taller than me, skinny and fast again. She’s also acquired a sly edge to her smile, which even in third grade makes her look like she could stir up some mayhem if she chose.
Puppy is a pint-sized mutt, pitch black with white paws and muzzle, and a crotchety disposition. No one quite knows how he ends up as Merry’s pet, since Melody is the one connected to animals, collecting parakeets and cats and sea horses and hamsters enough to drive her twin crazy. Maybe that’s the idea: to balance the scales, to open the heart. The whole Sacramento house is a Puppy-style experiment: eight kids, three parents, all we need is love and understanding. Puppy is still with us when Mom moves us out, first across town and then down the valley to Bakersfield.
The twins and I arrive at Roosevelt Elementary School as new kids with a month left before summer. Mom finishes up our paperwork in the principal’s office and races off to take Matt, now a wide-eyed four-year-old, to pre-school on the other side of town. “You three be sure to meet up somewhere to walk home together,” she says. “You remember the way?”
I consider it my job to remember, and I do: Right out of the schoolyard gate, left on Holtby Road for two blocks, right on Buena Vista for one, then left on Oleander to home. I may or may not wave to Merry and Melody as they’re escorted to the little-kids’ wing while I am walked to the fifth grade portable, but I am waiting for them at the gate after the last bell rings.
“Hey, new girl, what street do you live on?” A boy from my class approaches. He’s the tallest of a cluster in the back row of the classroom that snickered and made mouse ears at each other when the principal introduced me as “Mickey from Sacramento.” Now several of his friends join him at the gate.
“Yeah, let us walk you home,” one of them says.
I say I am waiting for my sisters, searching behind the boys for some sign of the twins.
“Are they pretty like you?” a third boy asks.
“No — what?” I’ve never been called that before. I am short and flat, with teeth too big for my face and wispy brown hair that hugs my head like cobwebs. Half the girls in my new class are already developing, their breasts framed by training bras visible through their summer blouses, and the other half are blonde.
I narrow my eyes at the knot of boys, who’ve added a few members. My face feels like I’m looking into an oven with the door wide open. My sisters are just little kids, I say too fast. They’re my responsibility.
“We’ll make sure you all get home safe,” the first boy says.
I spot the twins making their way across the blacktop, flanking a taller girl with bushy curls who swings her head left to right to left as the three of them chatter and skip toward us. “Come on, you guys!” I shout as they get within range. Please hurry, I think.
“What, are they both in the same grade?” one of the boys asks.
I say they’re the kind of twins that don’t look alike as I grab Merry’s wrist with my right hand and Melody’s with my left, and drag-walk them out the gate.
“Let me go,” Merry hisses as I hustle them to the first corner. She pulls her arm free. “I don’t want to walk with you, I want to walk with Bernie.” Their new bushy-haired friend saunters forward, a smile like a razor.
Melody jerks her arm away too. “Yeah,” she says. “Bernie lives on our street.”
I look over their heads and see the group of boys, maybe ten strong now, emerge through the gate and turn our way.
“Can we please, please get going,” I say just loud enough for the twins to hear, if they were listening, but they’re not. I turn left and start walking fast. There are no sidewalks on this street, only patchy front yards and low slatted fences and a culvert on either side in case it ever rains. The boys are right behind me.
“There’s a real mean dog at that yellow house,” the first boy says, coming up beside me and pointing left. I turn away and step out into the street. There are no cars, just the distant-seeming yellow bus back beside the school. I cut diagonally across the asphalt and the phalanx cuts with me, Merry and Melody somewhere near the back.
Another boy pulls up next to me on the other side. He wants to know why I’m walking so fast.
“Maybe that’s just how stuck-up girls walk in Sacramento,” his friend says as I round the corner onto Buena Vista.
“You mean Crap-ra-mento,” a boy just a few feet behind yelps as we reach Oleander.
The others double over with laughter, bumping shoulders and nearly causing the rear guard to collide. I look past the huddle of plaid shirts and sweaty cowlicks to see the twins cutting across lawns, locked in three-way conversation with Bernie, who clearly knows where she’s going. I spin on the heel of my white Keds and start to run, thankful that at least Oleander Avenue has sidewalks.
I don’t look back to see if the boys run after me, or if the twins notice me racing past the stately houses and stylized lampposts toward the painted-blue steps of the white bungalow where we live now, flimsy amid its brick and stucco neighbors. I fly up the stairs, fling open the door and slam it fast behind me, leaning back against it with my eyes closed. Puppy races out of the twins’ room and starts barking, his small-dog yap accented with the sound of his nails against the wood floor. He’s darting all around me, strategizing his line of attack, when I feel the door push against my back.
“Open up, dummy, it’s us,” I hear Merry say. I turn and swing the door open, pulling the twins inside before I slam it shut again.
Merry kneels down to scratch her dog under his chin. “Shhhh, Puppy,” she says, “everything’s okay.” She turns to look at me, braced against the door. Her brown eyes and Puppy’s meet mine for a moment, and then she shakes her head. “Come on, boy, let’s get a snack,” she says as they head away with Melody into the kitchen.
I crouch low and move to the windows looking out onto the porch and beyond. I force myself to raise my eyes above the sill to peek, but the sidewalk is empty for as far as I can see.
On the Monday of my last week in Classifieds, I walk down the front steps of my apartment building before the hum of traffic grows steady on 23rd Street. I turn south along G Street, keeping my eyes straight ahead as I pass the auto supply parking lot and the dry cleaner and the firehouse behind the Fox Theater. If there are dead animals along the way, I do not want to see them. If I cover each slab of sidewalk in exactly four paces and step over any cracks, everything will be fine. If I get to the Californian office before 8, I’ll be sitting at my station behind the walk-up counter and fielding my first phone order before anyone has a chance to ask me how my weekend was.
I don’t want to tell them about Sunday morning, my mom waiting out in front of the hospital when I arrive to pick her up. Her face is stony in profile as we drive out of the parking lot, then she lets out a long sigh, like she’s been holding her breath for a few hours. “Your father just got here,” she says. “I’m coming back after I clean up a little and check on the kids. She’s still unconscious.”
“She’s going to be okay, though?” I ask. We’re driving Chester Avenue, the main drag through downtown, and it is Sunday silent, businesses dark, sidewalks empty. “How bad is it?”
“It’s bad.” Mom nudges her glasses up and rubs the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger, something she does only in those moments when raising six kids mostly alone with too little money and too many disasters feels particularly exhausting. “There were no seatbelts and the car didn’t even have a windshield. The little shit.” She closes her eyes and leans into her hand as we turn off Chester for the last few blocks before home.
By the time we’ve pulled up in front of the house, her face is composed again, her glasses back in place. “As long as her heart is still beating, anything can happen,” she says, not opening the door quite yet. She’s rehearsing. Then she turns to me. “This is going to be especially tough for Melody, they just saw each other for the first time in months.”
I tell her I’ll stay with Mel and Matt today, though a very large part of me wants to be back in my apartment, finishing packing my trunk and reading about how a New York City poet adapted a French sanitation worker uniform into a nightclubbing outfit. I am afraid that once I walk up those blue stairs and take my place at the kitchen table, where we Revenaughs always gather, I may never leave.
Melody and Matt are already sitting there, still brown and mosquito-bitten from their Alaska summer. Melody has her hand deep in the fur of her big shepherd-collie mix, new to the family menagerie last year, now stationed by her chair, with Puppy hovering nearby. Matt is staring at the glass of Tang someone has put in front of him.
“Hey you guys,” I say, sitting down to face them. I slide my hands across the table, palms up. Melody takes my left with the hand not connected to her dog, and Matt puts both of his in my right. His hands are a little grainy. He’s mixed his Tang himself. He’s a month shy of 11.
We’re still sitting there after Mom has bustled out in her lipstick and social worker pantsuit, which she never wears on weekends. She is fully armored. She promises to call when she gets to the hospital and figures out the best time for everyone to visit Merry. Thanks for holding down the fort today, she says on the way out the door.
The Bakersfield heat soon hugs us too close. I get up to put the window fan on, and turn back to see Melody is weeping. “When we walked down to 7-11 yesterday afternoon, she looked so happy, like this beautiful new person I could get to know,” she is saying. “She kept talking about her stupid boyfriend, how she bikes over to his house every morning with fresh-squeezed orange juice.”
Matt moves his Tang to one side. “Last summer Merry let me sit with her and her friends over at the park,” he says. “They braided my hair.” He’s looking down at his fingers making patterns in the orange dust on the walnut-print tabletop.
Late afternoon, we hear a shave-and-a-haircut knock on the front door, and it’s Dad. None of us have seen him since Merry went up to live with him, and now he seems shrunken, the pouches under his eyes almost green-black, his beard fully gray. He folds us each in a hug and keeps Melody in hers an extra minute.
“Your mother wanted me to come make sure you three ate something,” he says. “You want some dinner?”
We all shake our heads.
“Well then, let’s sit upon,” he says. It’s one of those things he’s always said to get everyone in earshot gathered around the table to drink and talk and smoke, and it makes us feel less numb. “Your mom still keep her Gallo jug under the kitchen sink?” he asks Matt. Dad lines up juice glasses on the curling Formica counter and pours a few fingers of red wine for Melody and me — “Just this once,” he says — then fills his own tumbler near the top.
“It’s a hell of a thing,” Dad says. He looks down for long enough that Matt comes close and leans against him, then Dad raises his glass. “To Merry,” he says, and we say it back.
The next morning at the Californian, the Classified supervisor waits for me to finish my first call, then asks me into her office. The guys in the newsroom heard about the accident on the scanner yesterday, she tells me. Shouldn’t I be home with my family?
I’ll be back over on Oleander this evening, I tell her, making a plan as I speak. There’s not much we can really do.
The supervisor nods. She’s got lots of gold jewelry and a hot pink manicure. She graduated from my high school 10 years before me. “Are you thinking about holding off starting college, then?”
I freeze: So this is what is expected. I wrinkle my forehead as if in thought. “We’ll see what happens,” I say. “As long as Merry’s heart is still beating, you know, anything is possible.”
Sometime in 1974, a year in which Merry seems to be perpetually grounded for sneaking out of the house at night and smoking pot in the park across the street, there is a Renaissance Guild Faire in Bakersfield.
The Faire is held in Central Park, a sliver of green straddling the irrigation canal that runs through downtown to the farms beyond. Within the park, the concrete waterway widens to form a small lake ringed with rushes. A family of swans lives there, taking shelter from the heat under the covered bridge that doubles as a bandshell. Most of the year, Central Park is home to winos and drifters seeking a soft place to land after jumping off the trains a few blocks away, but the Faire has transformed it into a tapestry of ersatz velvet and silk.
My best friend Michele and I are the ringleaders of our little booth, where she and Melody sell their artwork and I am prepared to write poems on demand (for $2 per), with a peacock feather pen on paper stained with tea to look like parchment. Our costumes are elaborate as only teenage girls can make them: Melody and Michele in bejeweled and corseted wench-wear, me making like Merlin with my entire unicorn collection arrayed just so around me, and Merry in leotard, tights and a belled hat as the Jester.
Merry’s not pleased to be here, not at all happy to have been talked into playing the fool in public this early on a Saturday morning. She leans drowsily on her beribboned staff, scowling as we arrange and rearrange our displays, and sighing theatrically as we crane for attention from passersby. She picks at her white face paint. Then she spots a boy she knows from ninth-grade detention and darts off to share a slug from his wine skin. Michele and I see her long, lean form wobbling back under her jingling headpiece and exchange a look.
We don’t yet know that Merry will run away from home that October for two full weeks — barefoot with Bernie of the bushy blonde hair, just for the hell of it — and that the sheriff’s department will be called out to look for her. We don’t yet know that once she returns, she’ll demand to go live with Dad for the rest of the school year, like Mom’s the problem. But we remember what it’s like to be fifteen and flirting with trouble just because you can.
Melody’s already a step ahead of us. “Think you can drum us up some customers, Merry?” she calls out. “Think you can make these straights at least stop and look?”
Merry stares hard at her twin. Then she pounds the pavement with her staff three times, and turns to start a slow-motion, full-body jig. “Step right up, ladies and gentlemen,” she sings out, planting herself in the middle of the flowing crowd. “Don’t miss the fairest of the Faire!” Her bells are jangling and her arms sway our way. “Come see yon magical, wondrous gifts of the muse! Step right up!”
Soon there is a knot of customers in front of our table, and Melody makes the first sale. I peer between the bodies and catch Merry’s eye. Her pout eases into a ruby curve against her white makeup, and she bows deep, the belled tips of her jester cap kissing the Bakersfield dust.
Melody is afraid to go into the room. Merry has not opened her eyes, has not taken her own breath since they brought her in three days ago. Mom and Dad have been at the hospital ever since, but have stalled the rest of us. The doctors are still figuring out next steps, they told me on the phone Monday afternoon. They’re waiting to see how she is in the morning, they told Melody on Tuesday. Now it is Wednesday, and we’ve been summoned. We’re clustered together in the hallway.
“I’m not sure I can,” Melody says.
Dad pulls her close, and she buries her face in his vest. “I’ll be with you,” he says as they walk through the door.
Matt is leaning into Mom who is leaning against the wall, arm tight around him. He’s almost as tall as she is and solid as a tree, but he’s her last kid, unafraid to be afraid. His eyes don’t move from the doorway to Merry’s room.
I pace the hallway. When we’d first arrived at the hospital I told Melody and Matt to wait by the nurses’ station while I figured out where to go, and almost passed by Merry’s room before I saw my parents inside, standing on either side of the bed. They were staring down at a white cocoon of gauze and tubing and did not look up when I stepped in to stand at the foot of the bed.
“We have to decide tonight,” Mom says.
“Once everyone’s had a chance,” Dad says.
This is not the family of legend. We do not actually defy gravity. I look at my parents’ hands gripping the bed rails, their bowed heads, Merry’s closed eyes barely visible in the white wrappings, and I know I should cry, but I cannot.
“Melody and Matt are outside,” I say.
My parents and I file out of the room, me last, and I see that Dad has one hand on Mom’s shoulder. I can’t remember the last time they touched each other.
One by one, while I wait in the hall, my siblings go into the room. Afterwards I drive us all home to Oleander Ave. We sit together at the kitchen table for a while, and then drift off into various corners of the house to pretend at sleep. When our parents walk together up onto the porch just before dawn, we know Merry is gone.
The rest of the day is a blur of phone voices and airport runs. Adrian and Mark are summoned from points north and south. Dad and Matt set up my old IBM Selectric on the kitchen table so Dad can craft Merry’s obit, while Mom and Melody search through albums together, heads bent close, for just the right pictures for the memorial we plan for Sunday. I write a poem for the ceremony about Merry as a cool/hot spark, a child of frenetic sunshine. I can’t tell whether it’s the truth or not.
Late that evening I ask my Dad to drop me back off at my apartment. I still have a few more boxes to pack, I say. Dad’s Chevy Nova is bug-spattered outside and strewn with ashes inside from his race down from the Bay Area and back and forth across Bakersfield. I ask him for a cigarette and he hands me the pack without comment.
“So this is it,” he says as he pulls up in front of my building. He looks past me to the dark cypress making vertical shadows on the half-timbers, the small explosion of glass and gold liquid where someone’s dropped a beer. “Good place to write?”
“My plane ticket is for the day after Labor Day,” I say.
He grips the steering wheel and then lets go, bracing his palms against the hard blue plastic. “Your mother and I were talking,” he begins. “With everything that’s happened, you might feel like you should stay here in town —”
He lays his hand on the side of my face to stop my answer. “It would be okay if you put off going back east,” he says. “But I don’t — we don’t — think you should.”
I reach up and cover his hand with mine. “Thanks, Dad,” I say. I slide out of the car, drop my cigarette butt in the gutter and run up the steps of my building, turning back just in time to wave him away.
I don’t tell him that it never once crossed my mind to stay.
The cars snake slowly up Kern River Canyon near sunset, Mark leading in Mom’s white station wagon and Dad’s beat Nova close behind.
“Here,” Melody says. Mark pulls over onto the shoulder. We step out onto the pocked ledge, dust filtering the last sunlight like rays through a steeple window. There’s the whisper of the river below, beyond the rocks we’ll climb down to sift Merry’s ashes into the wind.
Mom didn’t come. She’s sitting and waiting in the kitchen, by the window, cigarette in hand. Now Mark leads the way and Dad follows, the container tight in the crook of his arm. Adrian gestures for Matt to fall in ahead of her; she snags the tail of his T-shirt as they climb, heads bent at the same angle. That leaves Melody and me, shoulders just touching, standing together at the foot of the grey granite rise.
Wendy Tatlonghari Burg is a Filipino-American poet and writer with an MA from California State University, Long Beach. Her work has appeared in The Ravens Perch and Sublime Odyssey. Her story, “Yearning,” is part of a larger collection that explores the immigrant experience in the U.S. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children.
Kent Hanson was born and raised in a small steel town in Western Pennsylvania, from which he made his way to Chicago and Northwestern University. For the past 40 years he has worked as a writer, something he continues to do in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Yvonne Higgins Leach is the author of Another Autumn (WordTech Editions 2014). Her poems have appeared in South Dakota Review, South Carolina Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Cimarron Review, and Wisconsin Review, among others. She earned a Master of Fine Arts from Eastern Washington University in 1986. She has spent decades balancing a career in communications and public relations, raising a family, and pursuing her love of writing poetry. She splits her time living in Vashon and Spokane, Washington. www.yvonnehigginsleach.com
Tatiana V. Johnson is a full-time, undergraduate student studying for a BA in English at Our Lady of the Lake University. She is studying technical and professional writing but does conduct research in all eras of British Literature, Xicana cultural prose, and queer theory. Currently she is influenced by the authors and poets David Day, Gloria Anzaldúa, and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Brandon Marlon is a writer from Ottawa, Canada. He received his BA in Drama & English from the University of Toronto and his MA in English from the University of Victoria. His poetry was awarded the Harry Hoyt Lacey Prize in Poetry (Fall 2015), and his writing has been published in 150+ publications in 23 countries. www.brandonmarlon.com
Arrie Barnes Porter is a native San Antonian and grew up on the city’s north side in Kenwood. She studied politics and sociology at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado and subsequently received her master’s degree in public administration from the University of Texas. Arrie is the former publisher and senior editor of Nubian Notes magazine, a regional publication. Trained as a public administrator and political scientist, Arrie Porter is a poet who works in neighborhood revitalization. She writes to further her work and to inform. Her love of writing has led her to the pursuit of the MA/MFA degree in Literature, Creative Writing, and Social Justice from Our Lady of the Lake University, to honor the craft that is her passion.
Victoria Ramirez obtained her BA in English with a minor in technical and professional writing from Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, Texas where she is now attending graduate school while working as a writing consultant and freelance editor. Victoria finds writing is a release from her anxiety, a platform to expose injustice, and a way to celebrate life and beauty.
Mickey Revenaugh developed “Triplets” as part of her dual-genre MFA in nonfiction/fiction at Bennington College. Another of her essays was recently named as a finalist for the Diana Woods Memorial Award in Creative Nonfiction from Antioch University of Los Angeles. Mickey’s work has also appeared in Louisiana Literature (forthcoming), Lunch Ticket (forthcoming), The End of the World, One-to-One Journal, Threshold, and New York Newsday. In addition to the MFA, she holds a BA in American Studies from Yale University, and an MBA from New York University.
Zechariah “Zach” Riebeling is a junior in the Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) program at Our Lady of the Lake University, San Antonio. In only his second semester at OLLU, he feels blessed to be in the presence and company of an amazing student body, staff that work tirelessly, and faculty that strive for excellence in education. The commute to OLLU is worth it! Born and raised in San Antonio, Zechariah has spent most of his life working with his family in serving the poor and poverty-stricken of the south and west sides of San Antonio. If not at work, at school, or volunteering, Zechariah can be found outside with his dog, Skia, enjoying the blessings of Creation. His hope is that all, regardless of who they are, can enjoy the bounties of all that God has created. Life is meant to be lived, so live.
stephanie roberts was a top ten finalist, in the Causeway Lit 2016 Poetry Contest. This year her work appears or will appear in Reunion: The Dallas Review, Shooter Literary Magazine (UK), Room magazine (Canada), The Inflectionist Review, Waxing & Waning, and an anthology published by Medusa’s Laugh Press (where she was a finalist in their Nano Text Contest). She has also been featured in The New Quarterly, CV2, Blue Lyra Review, and Breakwater Review. She grew up in Brooklyn, New York and counts her strengths as passionate curiosity and good humor. www.oceansandfire.com
Jane Schneeloch has been either writing or encouraging others to write for most of her life. Retired from teaching English at East Hartford High School, she has led writing workshops for youths, senior citizens, and incarcerated women. Her poems have been published in Common Ground Review, Connections: New York City Bridges in Poetry, Equinox, Flowers and Vortexes, Hello, Goodbye, Peregrine, Poetic Voices Without Borders, Shine, Survivors Review, Sojourners, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and The Best of Vine Leaves Literary Journal 2014. Her collection of poems, Turning Over Leaves, was published in 2015 by Antrim House Books. Climbing to the Moon: Poems Inspired by the Art of Georgia O’Keeffe, a chapbook, was published in 2009 by Finishing Line Press. Her plays In Hiding and The Test were produced at the Drama Studio in Springfield, Massachusetts, where she lives and continues to be inspired by her walks in Forest Park.
Lynne Viti is a senior lecturer in the Writing Program at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Her poetry collection, Baltimore Girls, (Finishing Line) was published in March of this year. She has published most recently in Pen in Hand, Light, The South Florida Poetry Journal, Little Patuxent Review, Mountain Gazette, Amuse-Bouche, Paterson Review, and Right Hand Pointing. She blogs at stillinschool.wordpress.com.
Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Creative Nonfiction, The Atlantic, The Ilanot Review, Silk Road Review, Zone 3, Eyedrum Periodically, 3QR, and other publications. She’s also the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel-Kensington), and a poetry collection, The Village (Aldrich Press-Kelsay Books).
Back Cover Art with contributing authors