Issues /  / Creative Nonfiction

I cherish a photograph of my mother carrying her first grandchild, my daughter. She is dressed in white and looks like a ghostly bride, a virginal Belle of Hartford. Carrying my two-year-old girl, she radiates a classic gorgeousness. Her hair is still mostly black and pulled back in the same chignon that always signaled to me she was happy for the moment.

Then there is the glossy black and white photo that I worshipped when I was a little girl—in it my teenaged mother seems to be gazing at something far away. Her preternaturally dark lips come across as a burst of red against the picture’s gradations of white and gray and black. My mother was looking for sunlight. Now she incubates under the fluorescent lights of her nursing home. Every time I see her, she is in the midst of another metamorphosis—one that continuously forms her into an old woman I barely recognize. Her voice, which had the pellucid quality of a broadcaster, is thick with mucus, studded with gravel. She tells me that I should have taken care not to let my hair go gray, go old. It’s just natural, I tell her, and in the next moment, she looks right through me.


My mother was sorrowfully named for an aunt who died in childbirth. In English, my mother’s name, Matilda, has a Teutonic harshness. The Spanish “e” at the end of Matildé softened her when she spoke Spanish


The soundtrack of my early childhood: my mother’s manic typing filling up Sunday nights. My mother was back in school, and she pounded the keyboard as if she were trying to liberate enough energy to set fire to our three-bedroom colonial that sat on a corner lot. She wrote weekly research papers in the dining room in a desperate bid to complete her weekly homework for her master’s degree in Spanish literature. The anxious clickety clack of her industriousness set us on edge. She brought saw-tooth ferocity to her work.

In that first year of study, my mother was assigned to read Don Quijote de la Mancha. And so that time belonged exclusively to Don Quijote. My mother said that Miguel de Cervantes didn’t actually write the novel, believing Cervantes’ ruse that the fictional Muslim historian Cide Hamete Benengeli was the rightful author. This was a triumph of literary verisimilitude. Yet there was so much gullibility to go around as my mother studied and memorized. For years the name Cide Hamete Benengeli rolled off our tongues as if we were on to something. But Cervantes tricked us. My mother’s version of Don Quijote also portrayed Dulcinea, Don Quijote’s girlfriend, as a beautiful woman who resembled my mother. Sancho Panzo, Don Quijote’s squire, never figured into my mother’s reinterpretation of the story. Who wants to be a sidekick?


A wild half-thought: This was 1965, the year my mother was Dulcinea the beauty to my strong, steadfast Don Quijote. My mother rationed Don Quijote’s story to me before my bedtime. At the end of the day, her long hair, lightly streaked with a tinsel-like silver I was noticing for the first time, fell out of its bun. She almost always cried when she put me to bed. “I’ll miss you during the night,” she whispered as she turned off the light. I felt like the most important person as I held my mother’s precarious world together. Even at such a young age, I knew I kept her anchored, purposeful. “Read, Mommy,” I whispered. Sometimes we cried together as we made our way through a chapter. “I’m studying for a better life,” she said. Neither of us knew what that life might look like. Although she did not articulate it at the time, she was attempting to be my role model.


My mother entered her master’s degree program in Spanish literature in America with prerequisites that included luck and survival instincts. That bit of luck depended on who was going to demand a transcript trapped behind Cuba’s creaky Iron Curtain. My mother charming, irresistibly so, as the ultimate survivor, made the request seem as unreasonable as Fidel. She enrolled in her first class without incident, seven months pregnant with my brother. I was five and liked to pat her round belly. “I think this is a boy,” she said hopefully.


I was married with children when I volunteered my mother to tell her story for a friend’s art project showcasing women’s immigrant stories. But my mother had few documents or actual objects from Cuba to buoy her tale. All she had to give was a rambling narrative as she fanned herself with the sleeve that once held a Cubana Airlines ticket—a remnant of her first trip to the United States. She also presented a pink robe with layers upon layers of scratchy taffeta and a piece of black velvet fabric to tie into a bow. My grandmother made the robe for my mother’s wedding night.

But mostly my mother conjured an adrenaline-fueled escape during Castro’s occupation of the University of Havana. I took notes as she told her story to the artist—Googling dates that she pitched at warp speed. However, those dates were not adding up. My mother was off by a few years about the university’s closure. There were no classes in session in 1958, so she could not have heard gunfire as she took a quiz. Incredulity came over me that day as I listened to her interview. I was the custodian of a lifetime accumulation of my mother’s tales so tall that they pierced the sky. She not only pulled off a base of knowledge for which she had no formal education, but she also had the skills to earn a master’s degree without an undergraduate degree.


My parents’ differences are stark and wide, beginning with the fact that my mother was four years old when Cuban officials refused to allow Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany to disembark the MS St. Louis. Add Cuba’s decision to a raft of other countries, and it became the definitive image of a voyage of the damned. The ship returned to Europe, and most of the passengers perished in the Holocaust. In a drunken outburst, my grandfather told his little daughter that there was no hiding from the Nazis in Havana. That same year, 1939, my father was a senior at Yale being groomed as a company man to carry out secret missions for the United States.


My mother had always hoped her advanced degree would graduate her from high school Spanish teacher to university instructor. She scared me as a kid when she threatened to run away to the Universidad de Salamanca in impossibly faraway Spain to earn a Ph.D. In the meantime, she needed a job. My father wasn’t earning enough to pay for her shopping sprees. She called her teenage students burros. She tired of trying to get them to conjugate irregular verbs. She said there was no creativity in what she did. I think she meant there was no glory. And my mother wanted so much to be magnificently wrapped in beauty and light and wealth. She said she was no better than a caballo de circo—a circus horse—a beleaguered animal destined to drift in circles. Or maybe she was like Rocinante—Don Quijote’s long-suffering horse. Rocinante was another of Cervantes’ allusions. In Spanish, rocín means work-a-day horse.That pitiful horse was a stand-in for Don Quijote, the bumbling knight-errant, and my mother, the struggling high school Spanish teacher.


My mother also became a United States citizen in her first semester of graduate school, and my brother was born in November. “Tenia que dar luz a tres Americanitos before I could become an Americana myself.” The idiom to give birth in Spanish literally translates as “to give light.” Soon after, my mother wailed as she typed her final paper of the semester, postpartum and miserable, in December darkness.


At first, my mother read Don Quijote to me slowly, incrementally. She eventually gravitated to the knight rather than to her version of Dulcinea. His anti-hero stance was very much my mother’s alter ego. Where someone might see Don Quijote’s foolishness, my mother saw his victimhood—even his martyrdom. “Pobresito, Don Quijote,” she sighed frequently. She read to me in Spanish but translated in English as I sat in the kitchen coloring luncheon placemats the hostess at G. Fox’s Connecticut Room handed out. My mother embarrassed me when she brazenly took a whole stack of them. “She has so many crayons to use,” my mother said through the widest smile. As I colored, I was mesmerized by my mother stirring another hapless concoction of stewing meat and ketchup. Cervantes’ immense novel, weighted down with stories and sadness and misadventures, was barely contained in the cookbook holder.


The metal arms of my mother’s baby blue Smith Corona struck the onionskin paper like a match. I was scared that my mother and the paper would combust at any second into un carmín encendido—a hot fiery red. I intuited that anything my mother created could potentially burst into flames like Don Quijote’s library. His attempt to accumulate all the knowledge in the world turned into ashes, ashes, we all fall down.


Lying in bed upstairs, I heard my mother’s desperation suddenly shoot up like a geyser. She screamed, “Ay Dios mio!” over and over to prevent herself from falling asleep. She was always chapters behind in her reading. I wanted to crawl on her lap, but I was afraid of unleashing an even more ferocious tirade. My mother’s desperation will bring her to slap her own face, pull out clumps of her hair. Later she will transfer that vehemence to me as she throws whatever is at hand. One time she hit the mark, and a vitamin bottle grazed my head. As my father administered to me, he mumbled, “A lot of blood in a head wound.”

Don Quijote de la Mancha is the thickest book of words and action and themes my mother has ever tried to read. Her copy, in the original Spanish, dropped on our doorstep all the way from Spain. Wrapped in brown paper and festooned with stamps I had never seen, the book looked as ancient as if it had belonged to Cervantes himself. Its arrival was a milestone in my mother’s education and a millstone around her motherhood.


Everyone knew Dulcinea was fea, fea, fea—ugly, ugly ugly. Everyone knew that except Don Quijote. In my mother’s new literary world, fea was code for puta. I am twice the age my mother was when she started her master’s program, and I still cannot wrap my head around the fact that Dulcinea was a prostitute. I was shocked when I found out in college. It turns out I was like Don Quijote all along.


Don Quijote had his moment on Broadway in The Man of La Mancha. We didn’t have the record. Instead, we implausibly listened on repeat to Fiddler on The Roof, along with Straus waltzes and a children’s classical music record with a creepy oboe solo in “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” And of course, there were the full-on brassy canciones of Beny Moré, which we danced to until we were black-sky, star-flecked dizzy. My mother said that Beny died in prison after Fidel tortured him. When I was older, I did my research and put another pin in my mother’s fantasies. Pop, pop, pop. I told her that Beny Moré died of alcoholism. I expertly ducked when my mother threw a vitamin bottle at me in response.


One Sunday afternoon my father took us three kids for another dull ride to nowhere in the Malibu so my mother could wrestle with the term paper of the week. He started to march us out of the house like little soldiers, with me the oldest leading the way, when I saw that a thin, fragile piece of paper was hopelessly trapped in the roller of the electric Smith Corona. “No puedo. I can’t,” my mother muttered over and over. At that moment, a familiar feeling came over me. My mother was the only one in the world who cried so fiercely over things that seemed so harmless. I, the most Latinx child of my mother’s three children, the only child who spoke her language, also cried my way through a hypervigilance that almost always gave way to panic. Around my father’s hostile New Haven, Connecticut family, Spanish was our strained, secret language. My mother wanted them to know that I belonged only to her.

In the end, did my mother doubt her ability to write the paper, or was this a fit of pique over a broken typewriter? Did the blank page trap her? Did the paper, crinkled and useless, attack her? Did she think this education she wanted so much was a privilege to which she was entitled? Her hair was splayed atop the typewriter. Her fingers were dark with ink. The typewriter ribbon was out of its carriage, flabby and twisted. What was more wrecked—my mother or the typewriter? Pobresita, mi madre.


It took my mother five years of night school and summer school to complete her master’s degree. During that time she became close to one of her professors. The professor was an American like my father. He was also from New Haven, and he graduated from Yale a decade after my father. The professor lived a few blocks away from us, and every Thursday night he gave my mother a ride home from school. I peeked through my curtain at his car parked in our driveway, the headlights illuminating my bedroom. Even as a little girl, I knew the professor was special to my mother, and I was afraid of losing her to this man. But timing has always been cruel to my mother, tripping her up, setting her life sideways. My mother slapped me when I sang a grade school ditty about “Mommy and the professor up in a tree. K-i-s-s-i-n-g.”


Decades later my mother will calmly read the professor’s obituary to me over the phone and tell me, “He was a caballero. He asked Daddy su permiso to give me the rides home.” On those long-ago Thursday nights, my mother and the professor sat for a long while on our driveway in his parked car with the engine on. In the following years, my mother insisted, “I was a lady.” I never doubted her when it came to sex and virtue—my mother’s moral compass steadily pointed north.


The professor was married to a Spaniard who also had a Ph.D. in Spanish literature. Her name was Pilár—the name means pillar, and I pictured him leaning against his sturdy, granite wife for support. For my mother, Pilár came into play as the fea Dulcinea—a notion that comforted her.


The professor took to walking his dog when I was at recess. He’d stand on the other side of the chain link fence with his large golden retriever and watch me. Occasionally the professor and I waved at each other anemically, and then we quickly turned away. I still wonder if the childless professor wished I were his. I kept him in my peripheral vision the same way I kept track of my parents when they fought over money and my mother screamed, “You’re not a man!” In retrospect, I understand that only a woman in love with another man could be so hurtful to her husband.


The mothers of the kids who bullied me on the playground or just plain ignored me in school had acceptable accents. Liz Andrews’ mother was British and beyond reproach. Joelle Plaisance’s mother spoke with a velvety French accent that was rich and classic. The afternoon my family gathered to watch the moon landing in my aunt’s den, my cousin announced that she was going to study in France for the coming school year. My Americana aunt told my mother her daughter was learning French because it was a more refined language than Spanish. My mother popped up from the leather sofa and ran out the door. Dad bundled us three kids in the Malibu’s backseat and inched along after her on Whalley Avenue. My aunt’s husband followed her on foot, and we little ones screamed for her to stop until she collapsed on the street. She was robotic as my father placed her in the back seat between my brother and me. She moaned all the way back to Hartford. Tears and snot and makeup ran down her face, and for the first time I understood I would be on high alert forever.

My mother had an accent, but I could barely discern it. It was simply the way she spoke and sang and cursed. But the other kids heard my mother’s accent, and coupled with her frantic insistence on picking me up from school, or lurking on the rare occasions I had other girls to the house, made her the freakish standout. It was bad enough that she didn’t allow me to walk home from school with the other kids. She waited for me every day with my wailing toddler brother bucking in the stroller. The kids heard her speaking to me in a long streak of Spanish. Nicky Stavros called me Spic-N-Span to divert attention from his sweaty, hairy upper lip, his labored breathing and the reeking moussaka, which in my tunneled memory he brought for lunch every day.


My high school did not offer a fifth year of Spanish, so my mother insisted on teaching me over the summer. We were supposed to read La Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes y de sus Fortunas y Adversidades. It’s a picaresque novel that has young Lazarillo on the road begging and stealing. We barely got through half of the novella. Instead, my mother told me stories about her time at the university in Havana she never attended. She told me her father only gave her a quarter for bus fare and a Coca-Cola on the days she said she went to classes. These deprivations propelled her to forever hunt for fortune.


I attended the same college that awarded my mother her master’s. It has a small foreign language department, and I took a class from my mother’s beloved professor in the Spanish short story. I detected his faint gringo accent and precious ceceo—the Spanish lisp he acquired from Pilár. He often looked directly at me when he lectured. To this day, his magnetic stare points out the inevitable: I am my mother’s daughter, and I still shudder over his attention. We read Miguel De Unamuno’s work that semester, and when it was apparent that none of us had done the assignment, the professor sighed and said in his American-accented Spanish, “Sometimes I wish I woke up at sunrise and went to sleep at sunset. During the day I would work the land and then fall into a dreamless sleep.” Although my mother always wanted to be somewhere else, she would have hated being a farmer’s wife.


My mother graduated in 1969 in a rented cap and gown. The graduation took place on the kind of day about which people exclaim, “There wasn’t a cloud in the sky!” My sister and I wore matching white dresses with white patent leather shoes that had pilgrim-like buckles. My little brother was at home with the mumps.


My father wrote out the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” on note cards so my mother could sing the national anthem at her graduation. He told her, “You’re an American now for Chrissakes.” I was the only one who saw her stash those lyrics in her purse with the finality of the latch’s click. But my mother had memorized “The Pledge of Allegiance” for her citizenship test. I imagine her with hand over heart, gazing at the Stars and Stripes. That was more than enough of my father’s patriotism for her. My parents’ relationship was a paternalistic one. He thought Latin American countries needed father figures to run them. Was Fidel a father who terrorized his children?

My father tried, but ultimately failed, to tame my mother. He was a patriot who at one point was in the CIA. How curious that his wife was from Cuba—a sealed off island nation, despised by the government he revered. I was four days old when the United States severed diplomatic relations with Cuba on January 3, 1961. That breakdown shattered my parents and split my identity. From that time on, I was destined to be at war with myself.


My father tried to recruit me to be his little patriot, his ally. “Can you help your mother learn “The Star-Spangled Banner?” I could, but what would I receive in return? I thought it was a fair trade when my mother taught me all the verses of “Guantanamera.”


“The things I could have done if I had been born here,” my mother still rages into the universe. She is a woman in a wheelchair whose life has shrunk down to a twelve-by-twelve room she shares with a demented stranger. A curtain between their beds is meant to deliver the illusion of privacy. Does anyone besides me notice this tragic detail? My survival has always depended on a close read of my mother. She is a mixture of blood and wonder to me. It makes for the heavy dose of Cuban magical realism I have inherited.


Ever since I was that little girl guarding my mother in the Malibu, I stayed one step ahead of her rusty iron curtain tirades about how she wanted to run back to Cuba. I was exhausted from the constant hypervigilance. I too was once plagued by the thought of what I, the American-born daughter, could have accomplished. What a day it was when I understood I was simply a late bloomer, the chrysalis that took her time to emerge as my own woman and master of my narrative. I, who was forged in the fire of my mother’s anger, her ambitions and good intentions, now believe that even through the miasma of her emotions, she knows she gave Don Quijote to me in love and in hope.

Judy Bolton-Fasman


Judy Bolton-Fasman is the author of ASYLUM: A Memoir of Family Secrets from Mandel Vilar Press. Her essays and reviews have appeared in major newspapers including the New York Times and Boston Globe, essay anthologies, and literary magazines. She is the recipient of numerous writing fellowships, including the Alonzo G. Davis Fellowship for Latinx writers at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. She is a five-time winner of the Rockower Award from the American Jewish Press Association and a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee.

paper texture

If it was bedtime, I wasn’t sleepy. At five, I had too many stories to tell myself. I’d recently received the best present of my life from my grandfather, Abuelo: a series of personalized books in which I was the main character. The best of the set was My Birthday Land Adventure, in which a birthday elf leads Brooke (me!) down Read Boulevard, my street in New Orleans, and into the fantastical Birthday Land where he offers me a calendula, an opal ring, and other October-themed birthday gifts. The more Abuelo reads me this book, the more I’m convinced that my New Orleans streets hide portals to other worlds. Bedtime is my chance to expound upon these stories. On this night, I’m thinking up where I might take the elf for his birthday adventure.

My grandmother, Lala, sees my beloved books as a betrayal of our language. Que carajo, why aren’t these in Spanish? My love for them is apostasy. (I still regret that whenever I write her, I’m forced to translate her speech into English, the language she refused to learn after emigrating from Ecuador in the 1960s.) This apostasy feeds Lala’s new narrative: once I start school, I’ll forget all about her. I’ll spend my days learning American caca instead of staying at Lala’s while my mother works long hours as a secretary at a law firm downtown. I won’t beg for weekend sleepovers at Lala’s like I do now, I’ll make tonta friends who speak that ridiculous idioma. What she doesn’t know was that the stories I tell myself at bedtime, in my head, are all in English. The betrayal has already begun.

Most nights Lala interrupts my secret stories to make me pray in Spanish aloud to her, and to God, I guess. Tonight she’s late, so I start without her. Padre Nuestro que estas en los cielos, santificado sea Tu Nombre. It’s funny when I consider my prayers in Spanish versus English. Spanish prayers feel more powerful because they’re sanctioned by Lala, and even Diosito knows she’s una bruja. A witch. She has the ability to make certain things happen. If someone has the hiccups, she’ll sneak up from behind and smack a square of wet newspaper on their forehead—no more hiccups. She can cure any case of gas with a sprinkling of anise water and get rid of a stye by tying a piece of string into a bow around the middle finger on the opposite hand of the afflicted eye. Not to mention she can silence me like no one else by simply removing her chancleta. I wonder why we have to pray for things to happen when Lala can just do them, and also whether Catholics are also allowed to be witches. Lala looms so large in both my reality and imagination that it seems like prayers, Dios Himself, and even the small spells I’ve seen her perform are all inventions to further tether us together.

For once, Lala’s not here to oversee, so I relinquish Padre Nuestro to tell my own stories. I fall asleep planning a pool party for my birthday elf at the YMCA, just a few blocks from Lala and Abuelo’s house.

Suddenly Lala shakes me awake, puts my fingers in her mouth and tells me, “If you don’t sneak out with me to get some beignets, I’m going to chew these off one by one.”


It’s only a few moonlit interstate miles from Lala’s home in New Orleans East to the French Quarter. I’ve only been awake for twenty minutes when Lala parks at the north end of the Quarter near the closed French Market. She drives a red Dodge Charger whose horn plays “La Cucaracha,” solely, it seems, to humiliate me. Luckily, no one’s around to hear her celebratory honk for finding free street parking. Summer nights like this one, the air moves in tandem with the Mississippi River, not quite a breeze, more like un soplo de Dios. God’s breath. We’re only a few steps into our beignet escapade when we come upon a statue of a man on a horse. The man wears armor, a crown of ivy, and he hoists a proud flag, shining golden in the moonlight. I ask Lala his name, and she tentatively reads the inscription: Joan of Arc. “This girl fought a war for New Orleans a long time ago, before even I was born. But she also shaved her head. No good reason for any girl to do that.”

Lala says she vaguely remembers learning about Joan of Arc in school but has forgotten most of her story. What matters is that Joan was a rebel. Walking through my city way past bedtime, past a girl who shaved her head and became a statue, I imagine that I, too, could someday control my own destiny. I won’t have to choose between Spanish and English, Lala or America, God or godlessness. I can be one with the streets. New Orleans streets once rescued by a girl.

Just past Joan of Arc, there’s a man lying on a bench. He’s the statue’s opposite, tucked tightly into himself, but his hair sticks out everywhere; I’m jealous he probably never has to wash it. His shirt slumps down off one shoulder, like someone recently grabbed it and flapped him about like Lala does with wet sheets before hanging them on the clothesline.

“Diosito asks us to love everybody,” Lala tells me. “Except for caras de verga.” She knows I love it when she says dickface, so she uses the phrase whenever she can (and I admit, Spanish curses beat English ones almost every time). “But look, this guy seems nice. He has a cigarette!”

Lala bats her eyelashes, signals for the Marlboro tucked behind his ear. He hands it over, then pulls a matchbook from his socks, a quick magic trick, and lights it for her. His one open eye is sky blue, the color I covet over my dark brown, but that doesn’t make up for his other eyelid, which appears to have been glued shut. I wonder if he can only see half the world. I remind myself to practice being one-eyed sometime.

Lala exhales like it’s the first time she’s ever breathed. “Thanks you, gentlemoon,” she says. She introduces me. “This is Brooksita. Mi hija.” My daughter. It’s not the first time she’s pretended to be my mother in public, and like I respond to most of Lala’s lies, I just go with it.

“Be good to your mama,” he tells me before rolling back into himself. I’d bet that eye of his could haunt me if I didn’t listen, so I wouldn’t dream of disobeying him. Even if he’s technically wrong about the mama part.


The closer we get to Jackson Square, the greater the olfactory competition between horse shit on one side of Decatur and the sweet, fried dough on the other. Just outside Café Du Monde, four Black street performers dressed in green candy cane-striped suits play guitars and trumpets and drums. A sign propped up behind a coin-filled hat reads their name: The Corner Band. Lala does a cumbia jig, which frankly doesn’t fit with this music, as the hostess seats us at an outdoor table.

Despite clearly enjoying the band, Lala scoffs. “Those men don’t love who they sing for, that’s why they do it badly. Playing music like a conversation they’ve had so many times before, oh hello, how are you—carajo, they’re sick of it.”

All I can hear is the blow of the trumpet, the beat of the banjo. The men bob their heads up and down in perfect rhythm. This is American music, which I greatly prefer to Julio Iglesias and Luis Miguel, so I make sure not to insult her by bobbing my head too.

Pigeons cluster under the just-emptied table next to us and feed on leftover beignet scraps.

“Did you know a paloma once flew onto my shoulder and kissed me on the cheek?”

“No me burles,” I protest. “Birds can’t kiss!”

“This one did. She pecked me right by my mole, trying to steal my beauty!” I make a dubious face, and she says, “Te prometo, you’ll have that same beauty mark someday.”

“No gracias, I don’t want it.”

Dios mio, Enriquita! Belleza es fuerza.” Beauty is power.

“Anyway, why would a bird try to steal your beauty? That doesn’t even make sense.”

“Who knows why anyone does what they do? Maybe because she was heartbroken. Because someone didn’t love her back. I didn’t force her to explain.” She rolls her eyes as if this were the most obvious thing in the world.

“The bird didn’t explain because birds can’t talk.”

Mija, just because you never saw something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Birds can talk, just like people can fly right out of the cages they’ve been trapped in.”

Lala uses this elliptical language, similar to children and drunks, that makes any subject of conversation sound like a fairy tale. Then again, from my earliest memories, she’s spoken to me straightforwardly, as if I were her peer. Now she clarifies her cage metaphor: she’s always felt trapped by men. It’s a song I’ve heard before and will hear time and time again. Before I knew precisely what the word “rape” meant, I learned her first husband, Honesto, had raped her while they were dating, but since he’d stolen her virginity, she felt compelled to marry him anyway. In a different way, she felt trapped by her second husband, my Abuelo, who didn’t physically hurt her, but abandoned her repeatedly for other women, only to return each time a contrite hijo de su madre. Over time I recognized Lala’s beauty, which she’d so relied upon, had never been enough to save her. Which later made me wonder: why did she want beauty so badly for me?

For now, among the powdered sugar piled on deep-fried bread and café au lait, she tells me the true story of how she lost the beauty mark just above her lip, the one that in pictures looks like a tiny, brown bubble. It used to live just to the side of her left nostril, the place where she points for me to kiss, and where there’s a scar. The beauty mark killer, she says, was Abuelo, who one night began kissing her face uncontrollably (when she was just innocently standing there at the sink washing dishes, imaginite!). He started at her forehead and worked his way down. When he got to her mole he nibbled a little too hard, like a feeding bird, and tasted blood. The mole became infected and had to be removed. The moral here? “Any man or bird can rob your beauty at any time, so be prepared.”

Sometime later, I’ll hear another version of this story—that it was actually my mother who scratched off Lala’s mole in a fit of jealousy (Mom never got the beauty mark Lala had promised her and thus made Lala pay for it). When Lala told the story this way, the moral was that beauty cannot be robbed; it is inherent, destined, and conquers even the most vicious jealousies. In her typical Lala vagary, depending on the context, she’ll insist on the veracity of both versions. If she were alive right now to tell you her cause of death—congestive heart failure—she would, on the one hand, agree with the medical examiners: that at the age of eighty-five, years after giving up walking because it became too taxing, her heart no longer pumped blood through her body as well as it needed to, and it stopped working one morning while she slept. On the other hand, she’d swear that the only plausible way to interpret congestive heart failure is that she died of a broken heart—because no one in her life (me!) had been able to love her sufficiently, so she finally gave up on utilizing her most essential muscle. I probably don’t know this yet at five years old, but it will become part of my life’s mission to distinguish the reality of her stories from their fictions.

Post-beauty mark-story, she’s in warning mode. “Your beauty will be a problem, because it will never be appreciated in this country. Because men will not know how to express their desires. En Ecuador, men sang to me as if it was their last song on earth, con fuerza, con amor, the way people did before they had language. All they say here is ‘Oh, you pretty.’” She twists up her lips, “‘pretty,’ Dios mio, que palabra tan fea.” Such an ugly word.

“But wait,” I say. “How could people sing without language?”

Mija, you do too much asking-questions and not enough feeling-feelings.”

To make up for the song I’ll never hear from an American man, Lala sings me one of her favorites, “Cielito Lindo.” The song reminds us how singing can make the heart happy. It’s in the tradition of the French blazon, cataloguing the physical attributes of its subject: dark eyes, small mouth, beauty mark. I’ll be just a few years older when a dark mole finally appears just below the left corner of my lip. Lala will credit her frequent singing of these verses, along with her witchiness, for the magic that grew ese lunar perfecto. The perfect beauty mark. In one of the song’s verses, when a bird abandons her nest and then finds it occupied by another, the moral is that she deserves to lose it. This line has always terrified me, because I interpreted it personally: if I ever left Lala’s nest, could I be replaced? Where, then, would all that love go? But now, as back then, I just need to shut up my mind and let Lala sing the final verse that asks the listener to sing rather than cry: “Ay ay ay ay, / Canta y no llores …”.

After we finish our beignets and café, we walk back down the street, Lala leading the way, with the sun not far behind, preparing to give us a new cielito lindo, a pretty sky. I don’t remember seeing Joan of Arc again on this night, though when I walk past her these days, the times I take my kids to visit my mother in New Orleans, I think of the only story Lala told me whose version never changed: how she watched her own mother die of tuberculosis at a TB camp where they were quarantined when Lala was only three years old. How blood poured from her mother’s mouth like a river of chocolate. How her pharmacist father worked too much to take care of her, so Lala was sent to live with a gaggle of evil crone-aunts in Manta who instantly hated her beauty and childish mischief, who made her kneel on rice for their fun, who’d smack her face raw while she screamed, “Is somebody hitting me? I don’t feel anything!,” and who, oh yes, once shaved off her long, dark hair as punishment for some wildness or other. Back then, before I was born and gave her the name “Lala,” she was Gladys. This girl with the shaved head would grow up not to rescue New Orleans streets, but instead, gift them to me.

And suddenly, I’m in bed again. I remember nearly everything about that night, but not arriving back at our car, or driving the I-10 back to Lala’s house on Michoud Boulevard. Lala had the power to magically place me into the French Quarter and then back home. Tucking me in, she says, “This was all for you, todo es para ti.”


Before Lala begins our prayers, I say a private one in my head, another secreto I keep from her every night. I press my hands together in supplication, fingers pointed to the ceiling (that way, the prayers go straight to heaven). I understand secret prayers are more like wishes, and to involve God in wish-fulfillment, if He exists, means they likely won’t come true. So far they haven’t, anyway. I’ve secretly prayed for invisibility, for overnight adulthood, for lighter skin and blue eyes. Maybe the problem all along was that my secret, internal prayers were in English. My prayer tonight may be my most insidious yet, but it’s the one I most desperately desire. Only much later will I understand the depths of its irony: my secret prayer, in Spanish, is that I’ll be able to take Lala into the world of English with me. Sort of like I’d been planning to do with the birthday elf, except with the stakes much higher, because this is real life. I can convert her, make her slightly more normal, more American, like me. I pray for power over her. Mi fuerza. Just without the beauty part.

Then Lala begins our real, Spanish prayers as we always do: first by blessing the universe and then working our way down to our community, our family, ourselves.

Que Dios bendiga a todos en el mundo que sufren, los que tienen nada, los que roban lo mismo que los que fueron robado.” It was important to start with the great sufferers of the world—the hungry, the thieving, the lonely. Those who didn’t have bread or Lala to comfort them, like I did.

Que Dios bendiga la familia.”

Los que siguen en Ecuador.”

Y Abuelo. Mama y Papa.”

Tu y yo.” You and I.

“And God bless the French Quarter man who gave you a cigarette. Even though you aren’t supposed to be smoking.”

She reminds me, “En español, cielito.”


Until just now, writing these memories down, I’ve forgotten that one of Lala’s dearest names for me, cielito, means not just “little sky” or “pretty sky,” but also “my darling,” and “little heaven.” As far as Lala was concerned, I was all of these at once. Boundless. That’s a lot to live up to. Maybe that’s why, at five, I’m praying for another version of life I can’t even imagine, saying yes to it, and saying no (or not quite) to the life she’s given me so far. Even if that means the nest of her heart might later be inhabited by someone else. In my secret prayer, I’m taking the chance of being cielito to no one.

This night, like all the others, we begin and end in the first language I ever spoke. With Lala gone for years now, I can barely remember how to mouth the Spanish words I so loved, the curses, the sobriquets. It’s felt like a betrayal in my writing to translate Lala from Spanish to English, and now I’m thinking about how that translation betrays the younger me, too. In Spanish, I saw my city’s streets, I learned to doubt and believe. I learned to love her and be loved in return, imperfectly, profoundly, with a depth some lonely people—los que sufren—might even pray for. But some words require no translation; they’re just the same in both languages. Together Lala and I say aloud our final word to each other every night: Amen.

Brooke Champagne


Brooke Champagne was born and raised in New Orleans, LA and now writes and teaches in Tuscaloosa at the University of Alabama. She was awarded the inaugural William Bradley Prize for the Essay for her piece 'Exercises,' which was published in The Normal School and listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2019, and was a finalist for the 2019 Lamar York Prize in Nonfiction for her essay “Bugginess." Her writing has appeared widely in print and online journals, most recently in Under the Sun, Essay Daily, and Barrelhouse. She is at work on her first collection of personal essays entitled Nola Face.

paper texture

In the early ‘70s, at ten years of age, my friends and I play war on what is called The Lot or The Big Hill, an undeveloped plot of land sandwiched between a row of connected brick houses. The Lot rises to meet the exposed tracks of the D train between the Avenue M and Kings Highway stops in Midwood, Brooklyn.

Usually we play war in teams, but this Saturday it’s just two of us. Howard Horowitz wins the game of rock paper scissors. He attacks first, firing his machine gun and lobbing grenades, hunks of hand-sized ballast that has trickled down from the train tracks. When the stones thud, he makes a loud explosion sound. I shelter in a bunker behind an uprooted tree and wait for my opportunity.

During a lull in Howard’s attack, I stand and commence my counter, squeezing off a few rounds, but before I can toss a single grenade, one of his nails me in the forehead and knocks me on my ass. I touch the wound. There’s dark blood on my dirty fingers. I drop the ballast, throw away my weapon, and scramble to my feet. Will I need stitches? Will I have a scar? Brain damage?

As I streak away, Howard yells, “You know we have more than one life, right?”

Around this same time, I also spend countless hours in the woods or along a stream that runs by an old house my father and stepmother purchased in the Catskills. This is where I practice creeping up on large stones or logs and, with a surge of stealthy, curious intent, turn them over.

The sudden splash of daylight startles the pill bugs, beetles, night crawlers, centipedes and millipedes, red eft salamanders, toads, and garter snakes nestled in their dark, moist sanctuaries. Once the stone is flipped, I quickly assess the larger residents, the amphibians and reptiles, and consider how best to wrangle one or more for the moss and leaf-lined ten-gallon terrarium tank I maintain. When done, I always replace the stone, careful that it is set just so, as if this never happened.

In the terrarium, garter snakes feast on toads, toads eat insects, and any creature that eats a red eft dries up and dies, victim of the toxins on the salamander’s flesh.

One Columbus Day weekend afternoon, I reach down to grasp the edges of a flat, pine needle-littered stone to find, just a couple feet from my nose, a pair of copulating timber rattlers, each thicker than my prepubescent arms. I freeze. Neither sticks out a forked tongue or shakes its rattle as I thought it would. If either of them strikes and sinks its fangs, as I’ve seen in Westerns and read about in various wilderness survival books, I’m in deep trouble, since I am not carrying a pocketknife to slice an X over the bite and suck out the poison. I will end up like a toad that swallowed an eft, desiccated and dead.

I race back to the house, sequester myself in my room, and read superhero comic books until dinner. I’ve carried a pocketknife on every hike ever since. I’ve never encountered another rattlesnake.

Three years later, Mr. Giselman, our bearded, hip-hugger-wearing seventh grade English teacher, presents us with Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery.

The room is late spring warm and uncomfortable, and when Mr. Giselman leans against his cluttered desk and announces read-aloud time, we assume our attentive listening positions. For some kids it’s sitting bolt upright in their seats. For others it’s propping their chins on crossed arms, face up. For me, and I am not alone in this, it’s to lay head on folded arms, face to desktop.

Mr. Giselman’s on point, stressing and inflecting, and doing voices. As the story unfurls, it becomes abundantly clear that the collected members of the tightly knit community, even with her mom frantically beseeching, “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” are intent on stoning little Tessie Hutchinson to death. The mounting tension and inevitability become too much to bear. I cry. Not open weeping, mind you, but some tears and slight sniveling into the hollow between my face and the desk.

As per usual, Mr. Giselman has timed it out perfectly. There’s a couple moments silence, no discussion of meaning or theme or anything, just the weight of the story hanging in the thick classroom air.

When the bell rings, I make like I have fallen asleep.

Someone says, “Oh, you missed a good one.”

A year or two after the stoning of Tessie Hutchinson, Frank Chang and I, a bonded pair of anxious adolescents, pool our dollars and purchase our first nickel bag from Little Joe, the neighborhood weed dealer.

Under cover of dark, we head to The Lot and sit with our backs against the same fallen tree where Howard Horowitz pegged me with a hunk of ballast, chunks of which still litter the space, and fumble our way through rolling a smokable joint.

Frank nervously strikes a paper match; I toke, try to hold the smoke against the burn the way I’d seen older kids do, but choke and hack instead. I pass the joint, and Frank has the same reactions.

After a few giggle fits, we settle into that new, unique quiet of being high. Out of nowhere, Frank, blessed with a smooth voice, a member of both the school and his church’s choir, starts to croon the chorus to Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me.” Even though I cannot carry a tune, I join in.

After two or three rounds, because that’s all either of us knows, we sit in a deeper reverential silence. The D train rumbles by. Eventually, we develop our first ever case of the munchies, head over to Armando’s, and scarf down a couple Sicilian slices.

I eventually leave Brooklyn to attend university. Prior to graduation (an English major), with no real career-oriented prospects and with the assistance of a poetry professor and neighbor, I arrange to live and work on a kibbutz in the Northern Galilee. It’s a lush, Eden-like location overlooking the Mediterranean just north of Nahariya.

Jerusalem is a four-hour or so bus ride from there. On this one particular excursion, it’s mid-morning, and the bright, expansive plaza before the Western Wall is bustling. On the other side is the Holy of Holies, where God directed Abraham to offer Isaac, where Moses was told to store and David brought the Ark of the Covenant, where Muhammad set off to heaven. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is a few hundred yards away. This is the geographic nexus of the three major Western religions.

The air vibrates with the murmurs of prayer and conversations. At the base of the wall, to my immediate left, a black man wearing a yarmulke reads from a pocket-sized prayer book and davens. Crunched up bits of paper, wishes and prayers that had been crammed into cracks and crevices, blow over our feet, my white sneakers, his scuffed black wing tips. I think of the scene in “The Lottery,” where Mr. Graves empties the lottery box of the entire towns’ entries for the final round of picking.

I press both hands to the wall, like other men are doing.

The stones are rough. The stones are also soft. I consider praying myself but don’t know any, don’t really know how. I close my eyes and lean in.

The background hum fades.

An inner quiet spreads, like warm honey; I am a small child enveloped in its loving mother’s arms. I am filled. I am absorbed. I am blood. I am heartbeat. I am breath. I am present, but I am gone.

When I blink open my eyes, the praying man is gone. I lower my hands and take a moment to orient myself. A couple of small boys are chuckling and ducking and dodging through the crowd. Their dad cleaves his way through the throng to corral them. I slowly walk away from the base of the wall and take a seat in the shade on the floor at the back of the plaza.

I visit this site more than a few times during my six months in Israel but never have an experience like this again.

A decade later, my wife, Yvonne, and I move our young family to the North Shore of Long Island, Gatsby country. Our town is on a peninsula that is the base of the Wisconsin terminal moraine, a ridge of earth that runs from northern Brooklyn to the middle of Long Island created some 13,000 years ago. If one is in a car or on a bicycle and crests a hill here they can catch a glimpse of Manhattan. The Manhattan skyline is always visible from the shore.

The retreating glacier also left behind many large stones, glacial erratics, ranging in size from five million pounds to a ton or less, that dot the landscape and shoreline in unique and interesting ways. There was one the size and shape of a skewed picnic table in the backyard of our first home here. It was a key component in our sons’ play, part of an obstacle course, the launching pad for action figures, etc.

On 9/11, our boys are 8, Jason, and 5, Derek. Even as we see the plumes of smoke from our backyard, even as neighbors and friends arrive home, some coated in ash, even as the horrific images cycle on the TV, I try to present some semblance of calm. That’s what parents do. Yvonne has set out to retrieve her cousin, Sylvana, stranded by the shutdown of the railroad from a South Shore town.

When dinner is ready, I call the boys to the table. Jason appears, but Derek does not. I call out a couple more times; he doesn’t show. He is not in his room. Derek loves to play in closets, so I pull open the lone closet door. No. He is not in the closet in his brother’s room, the coat closet, the linen closet, the pantry. The last closets are in our bedroom. Just as I reach for the last possible knob, panic surging, I catch sight of him in the backyard, seated on the big stone, back to the house, facing the plumes of smoke some twenty or so miles away. In a couple days the wind will shift and the electric and burning plastic stench will force us to shut all the windows and stay indoors.

I hear the strumming and plucking before I even set foot on the grass.

Derek is sitting cross-legged, tiny and summer tanned, playing my wife’s childhood zither. It is resting in his lap. When I come into his periphery, he stops and cocks his head, like a spider monkey on a branch.

“Hey, guy, whatcha doin’?” I ask ever so gently.

He peers at me and then, in that long since gone raspy, childhood voice of his, he says, “I’m playing for all the soul’s going to heaven.”

“Oh,” is all I can muster. “Oh. Oh, I see.”

He turns, lifts his gaze skyward, and continues. I retreat inside, turn off the TV, and Jason and I eat pasta pesto with chicken and broccoli. As we chew in silence, I feel myself softening, submitting to everything happening in the world.

The first year or so of the coronavirus pandemic brings out similar feelings as the weeks and months following 9/11. It also creates lightly trafficked roads.

Ringing Rocks is about one hundred miles from our home. The attraction is that many of the boulders in the seven-acre field produce a musical tone when struck with something hard. There is only one other place in the continental U.S. where one can experience this phenomenon; it’s in Montana.

In Upper Black Eddy, the sky is gray, the trees still late winter skeletons. I park, slip on my backpack, we use the facilities, and then head down the path with a half dozen or so visitors. There are folks carrying claw and ball-peen hammers; I see a blacksmith’s hammer and other varieties I do not know the names for. Some of us are in masks; some are not.

The boulder field looks like a giant’s dry streambed, stones piled on stones to who knows what depth. Yvonne and I wade in, careful not to fall or twist ankles, and, following the lead of the other visitors, start striking stones. Numerous boulders have been struck so many times that silver-gray indentations mark the sweet spots.

There are bass boulders and those that sound like church bells, wind chimes, cowbells. While I am not a musician, I recognize when a sound is true, like when Van Morrison or Frank Chang sings or when a five-year-old plays an old zither for innocent souls ascending to heaven.

By mid-morning, the field is chock-full of kids and parents, couples of various ages, a pair of very senior seniors who tap away on the perimeter.

Yvonne is blessed with perfect pitch, so she strikes and listens pensively to each tap. We fan out. By the time I reach the far side of the boulder field, the late winter sun pokes through. I lean against a boulder, lay down my hammer, lower my mask, and reach into my backpack for a bottle of water. Next, I reach for a Honeycrisp apple, open my pocketknife, and slice off a piece.

Just as I bite into the second sliver, a pair of twelve or thirteen-year-old boys in Flyers jerseys, wool caps, and facemasks comes through the trees. One says, “Hey, mister, you mind if we play here? This is our jam.”

“Sure,” I reply, pick up my hammer and backpack, fold up the knife and slip it into my pocket. I hold the apple in my mouth and clamber over a few boulders.

They climb atop their respective rocks. The first boy, the kid who addressed me, removes a pair of ball-peen hammers from a reusable Wawa bag and passes one to his friend. They slide down their masks, lock eyes, count off, and launch into Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” Boom. Boom. Bah. Boom. Boom. Bah.

When the boys reach the first verse, I toss the half-eaten apple into the woods and join in drumming. Even I can keep this beat. When we reach the next verse, a nearby couple joins in, pounding and singing along. By the chorus there are more drummers and singers. For the concluding guitar solo, the other hockey-jersey kid stands tall on the boulder and, eyes closed to the sky, plays air guitar on his hammer, singing out each note over the echoing boulder drums.

Taking it all in, I am stoned, stoned to my very soul.

Jeffrey G. Moss

Jeffrey G. Moss

Jeffrey G. Moss was born and bred in Brooklyn, USA. After 32 years guiding 13/14 year olds in crafting their worlds he is finally following some of his own writer’s advice. He has had work in Bending Genres, HOOT, Humana Obscura, and forthcoming in Cagibi and Under the Gum Tree.

paper texture

And here you are up to your elbows in pumpkin. You drank too much, you stupid, stupid girl. First there was wine and then there was tequila. One tequila, two tequila, you don’t remember, you lost track. But the point is the tequila and now the pumpkin. You lost a ring—something special and wholly yours because you bought it for yourself. Made from an antique spoon: a silver engraved daffodil with earrings to match. But now—you’re sure—it’s in this vat of pumpkin innards. This trash can that you’ve knocked down so that it lays parallel to the dry desert earth. Reach a hand in and pull at the pulpy orange mess, search for a small hard object. A tiny ring in a trash can full of pumpkin. And now it’s time to vomit—you knew the time would come, you just didn’t expect it so soon. You run back into the house, to your house, your one-bedroom casita that sits on a property with other casitas. An old adobe because this is Tucson, a place you have moved to be on your own, all your own. You’re in the bathroom now, and there’s no need to explain vomit. No, but it is violence. Your body heaving. Tears gathering. You lost the damn thing carving pumpkins earlier—emptying out their guts so their insides were smooth and carvable. It must have slipped off your thumb as you were digging through the seed and flesh. You’re shivering now, your body rejecting itself. Why tequila? The thought makes you vomit again. But you moved here for a fresh start, a chance to prove yourself—to start a career and build a life. A new city you can make home. You already know the walk to downtown, the walk to the river path, the bike ride to the university. But now you’ve lost your ring and you’re shivering over a toilet, alone. Get warm now, girl. So you crawl to the tub and crank it on. You peel your clothes off. A black shirt, a short turquoise skirt: who were you trying to impress? The neighbors? Your friends who biked from their house across town? Now you’re naked and standing, stepping into the tub. You shiver. The water burns your skin. Your skin: white and purple and red and orange. You stretch your whole body along the length of the tub, the water barely at your ankles. You shiver. You forget, for a moment, where you are. You are back in California, in Santa Ynez at your cousin’s house where you spent the summer, bartending weddings and washing dishes. You saved your money, and this is why you’re here now in Tucson, without a job, with a house. But right now, in this moment, you’re back there in Santa Ynez. Your cousin’s kids are in a room across the house from you. They’re young: two and four or something. You didn’t expect to love them as much as you do. They call you Aunt Allie. They take your hand and lead you to a patch of particularly delicious tomatoes growing in the backyard. They crawl on your back, and you carry them out to the barn to see the chickens. You love the weight of their tiny bodies trusting your body. And back in Santa Ynez, you are in the bathtub there. Or rather they’re in the bathtub and you’re sitting by, clothed, helping them wash the back of their necks, get the dirt off. You’re also, mostly, making sure they don’t drown. It seems impossible for them: sitting up like they are, alert and alive. And your dumb hands in pumpkin. Pulling out the threads and chunks, seeds sticking to you, the raw vegetable smell. You’re on your knees, desperate, reaching through armfuls of orange, staining your skin. But right now, you’re in your bathtub in your casita, the water running. It’s filling up, and surrounding you against your skin is pumpkin, thickening. Pumpkin swallowing your body, something special and wholly yours. You feel around, reaching for the ring. Hands scraping against the sides of plastic or tile. You can’t feel the edges, just the mass of pumpkin entrails. You feel it around your ass and your breasts. And then up to your neck, thinking again of your niece and nephew: how much scrubbing to get this pumpkin off them. Scrub at the orange, scrub away the thin shreds and the watery chunks. You remember holding the towel out for them, one at a time. Or was it their mother? Either way, you were there, and there was a towel, and you’re feeling the warmth of the towel wrapped around you. You’re feeling the hot liquid pumpkin against your throat, over your chin. And there it is spilling over the old tiled tub, onto the floor, across the house. It’s not pumpkin anymore, just a hot rush of water. And your head almost beneath it. Drunk girl in the bathtub. Drunk girl flooding her casita. Drunk girl standing and stepping onto a soaked bathmat. Drunk girl stepping into a small hard circle, a ring. The ring, there all along or there finally. You pick it up and turn off the water. Your casita is flooded. Your arms orange. Your ring curled into the palm of your hand.

Allison Field Bell


Allison Field Bell is originally from northern California but has spent most of her adult life in the desert. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Prose at the University of Utah, and she has an MFA in Fiction from New Mexico State University. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review, New Orleans Review, West Branch, Ruminate, and elsewhere. Her nonfiction appears in Alaska Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Witness Magazine, The Pinch, and elsewhere. Find her at

paper texture

I’ve been waiting for my body. Been waiting to accept the shape and size of it, the way it refuses to do certain things as well as it should. Anger, for example, it holds it wrong. It uses it against itself and walls and wrong words at the wrong people. My body does unforgivable things with anger. Once, it lit cigarettes and put them out on its own hands, arms. Once, it drove drunk into a wall of snow and nobody even reprimanded it. They were drunk too, and a man took the wheel and drove the rest of the way. Once it climbed into a bathtub with all its clothes and fell asleep there, still drunk, and woke up with its head barely above the water. When my body is angry at men, it fucks them. It makes them buy all the drinks, and then it fucks them, and it doesn’t enjoy the fucking at all. When it’s angry at itself, it starves, it runs too much, sleeps too little. Drinks too much bourbon for too long with the wrong people in the wrong place or the right people in an okay place. Or alone. My body doesn’t always care for company. My body’s anger is the same as its sadness. There is just no acceptable word for sadness in my body’s vocabulary. It is all anger because my body’s sadness is volatile. It is not ice cream and movies and bubble baths. It is bourbon or gin or wine or vodka. It is strangers and plane tickets and walks alone at night in places a woman shouldn’t walk alone at night. It is waking up shivering in a bathtub in the winter with a lit cigarette and spilled bottle of wine. It is crawling into bed and surprised to find a man there. It is, what’s a man doing there? Everything ruined begins in my body. The throat constricts, the blood beat heart beat flutter, the underarm sweat, the shaking dizzy stomach ache stutter. Sometimes my body thinks it can escape itself. Sometimes my body wants to run its way out of itself, sometimes it wants to fuck its way, drink its way, yell its way, punch its way. Sometimes my body thinks it needs yoga. And kale smoothies. Other times it thinks it needs to max out its credit cards. Fly to England to see a Shakespeare play. Hamlet. And go home with the guy who works at the whiskey shop down the street. Dan or John or something. Sometimes my body just wants to be touched. Or a massage. Or an orgasm. Sometimes it wants desert mountain sky thunderstorm rain smell. What does my body really want? Does it want to move to Spain or New York or New Orleans or Tucson? Does it want to move back to California and be swallowed up by family and fog? Does it want to sell all its furniture and start over or rent a truck and keep even the shitty end table and the broken pineapple lamp? Does it need a man? A good one this time, stable. My body isn’t attracted to stable. It wants the man who climbs into the tub with it, all clothes on, to say sadness looks okay on your body. It wants the body of the man who said it wasn’t good enough. You’re not good enough, the man’s body says to my body. And what the fuck is the body to me now? A thirty-four-year-old body. A sick-in-the-brain body. A woman’s body. My body.

Allison Field Bell


Allison Field Bell is originally from northern California but has spent most of her adult life in the desert. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Prose at the University of Utah, and she has an MFA in Fiction from New Mexico State University. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review, New Orleans Review, West Branch, Ruminate, and elsewhere. Her nonfiction appears in Alaska Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Witness Magazine, The Pinch, and elsewhere. Find her at

paper texture

Hong Kong (circa 1985)

Every few months I left Tokyo for Hong Kong to renew my visa. I usually stayed about a week and always in the same place—a tiny hostel on the twenty-sixth floor of a high rise. The ceilings were so low that to enter the hostel, stepping out of the elevator, I had to duck my head. The rooms were miniscule, more like closets really, with just enough room for a single bed and sink—too small even to do a push-up. The views, though, were magnificent, especially at night, when the city ignited with garish brand names, looking festive and trashy and futuristic, like a scene out of Blade Runner.

At night, I strolled through the carnival-like streets, the outdoor markets and endless shopping malls strung along the harbor, studying faces, feeling isolated and alone, longing to descend beneath the city’s frenetic surface and connect—with what or whom I couldn’t say.

Days I ran up Victoria Peak, following the narrow, winding lane, with thick, nearly tropical vegetation on one side, the city and bay falling away on the other, and an endless string of automobiles streaming past. I needed the challenge, to turn myself inside out, and climbed at race tempo for an hour or more—T-shirt sopping, calves burning, gulping exhaust—as if back in college again running cross country.

Once I reached the summit, I collapsed onto a bench, spent, and stared down at the city, where toy junks drifted across Victoria Harbor, light slid over towering steel-and-glass façades, and millions scurried like insects. I felt utterly blank—the world at once removed and within my grasp, as if reality could be altered by will alone. It had been two years since I left the States in the wake of my father’s death, and I longed to do something exceptional—write, be a jazz musician. At twenty-three, nothing seemed more valuable than being an artist. A fashion model—certainly that wasn’t me.

Eventually, I would take the tram down the mountain and return to my little room, feeling dreamy and full of wild impulses, all the while stringing sentences together which sounded gorgeous in the cathedral of my mind. But as soon as I set them down on paper, they looked phony and ridiculous.

Of course, the only reason for adopting my Hong Kong regime was to stave off having to confront myself. The idea of facing the big question—What are you doing with your life?—was to fall into an unimaginable void.

One day, after running up Victoria Peak, I met a Chinese couple coming down on the tram. They were in their thirties, attractive, impeccably dressed, spoke with an English accent. Had I run up the peak? they asked. I had, I said. They made big eyes. The woman said something in Chinese to her husband. He nodded. A moment later, she said, “You look like a young Kennedy.”

I smiled. I had heard this before but didn’t know how to respond.

They asked where I was from, what I was doing there. Boston, I lied, I’m on holiday. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them I was a model, without a real home, an opportunist capitalizing on my looks—my Kennedy-like looks—and exploiting the Japanese and their ripe economy.

They asked me to join them for dinner. They would send a car. At six that evening, a limousine pulled up in front of my building, a jet-black Bentley. The driver, a grim-looking Chinese fellow who wore black leather gloves, didn’t say a word except to ask my name. About an hour later, after driving south across Hong Kong Island to the seaside village of Stanley, he climbed a steep, single lane through dense jungle and turned into a driveway. He parked below the house, which was built high up into the hillside and spectacularly lit. We took a small, creaking elevator, which looked like it belonged in a Parisian apartment building, up through the bowels of the mountain. When it stopped and the elevator doors slid open, I had the sensation of being transported to an alternate reality. Everything glowed supernaturally, and ripples of light played over the walls and ceiling as if I were within an ocean grotto. The immediate room appeared staid and colonial—oriental rugs, wood-paneling—but then, down a short staircase, the house opened onto a patio and swimming pool, and beyond, the Po Toi Islands and South China Sea.

The driver withdrew, descending in the elevator, and a Chinese woman, dressed in a French maid’s uniform, led me to the patio, took my drink order, and disappeared. High above, palm fronds shifted against the sky. The sun was setting, and I stood at the railing watching the bay turn a deep crimson that made me think of a massacre at sea.

“Ah, there you are.” The hostess appeared, dressed in a sleek, plum-colored evening gown with plunging décolleté, her hair pulled back, feet bare. She wore pearls and smoked from a long, ivory cigarette holder. As she kissed me lightly on each cheek, I took in her scent: jasmine and rose, tobacco, a hint of musk. “I hope you’re hungry,” she said. The maid returned and handed me a glass of Yanjing. Behind her, the host arrived, bowing ceremoniously, wearing black-tie. In my wrinkled linens, I felt ridiculously underdressed.

“Jay, welcome,” he said. I felt at a distinct disadvantage, not recalling either of their names. We settled into wicker chairs, which creaked beneath us with every shift of weight. At a corner of the patio, in a large cage, a pair of parrots repeated the same Chinese phrase over and over again.

“What are they saying?” I asked.

“Oh, nothing,” he said. “Nonsense.”

“He just doesn’t want to tell you,” she said, laughing. “Jin curses like a sailor.”

“I do not,” he said.

“Oh, please—you most certainly do.”

The host sighed. “To be precise, the phrase is, Qing wa cao de liu mang, which means, Frog-humping son-of-a-bitch … You see, I often pace out here when I make business calls, which may explain the colorful language.”

We all laughed.

The maid came with more drinks. Night fell. A warm breeze blew in off the sea. I discovered the hostess’s name—Lan—and admired the slender line of her body, the way she sat with her legs folded beneath her, the arch of her back. In the distance, across the straits, a suburb blazed like a galaxy.

We went in for dinner. There were candles, a white tablecloth, a French Merlot. We started with vichyssoise, moved on to watercress salad, then braised endives and bœuf bourguignon, and ended with crème brûlée—everything superb.

They spoke together in Chinese, and Jin’s face subtly changed as if he had swallowed something distasteful.

I raised my glass of Merlot and complimented them on their hospitality, the meal, their exquisite home.

“Our pleasure,” Lan said.

“Yes,” said Jin, though he seemed distracted. A moment later, tugging on his shirt cuffs, he took on a confidential tone: “Forgive me, Jay, but then I am just a businessman, and not nearly as sophisticated as my dear wife …” He said this with palpable sarcasm. “I think it’s about time we spoke up and did away with all the subterfuge …”

Lan clucked her tongue. “Jin!”

“Ah, you see, my wife wants romance, spontaneity, nothing as crass as a proposition.”

As she lit her cigarette, the ivory holder trembled in her hand.

“I’m sure, from the way Lan has conducted herself this evening, it comes as no surprise that she wants to sleep with you.”

Lan turned her face violently away, exhaling a stream of smoke. Too embarrassed to look him in the eye, I stared into my wineglass.

“And, naturally, a man wants to please his wife—no? But, alas, there’s no graceful way to overcome jealousy—all that petit-bourgeois hysteria …” He downed his glass. “So, tell me, Jay … do you find my wife attractive?”

I hesitated. “Very pretty,” I said.


“Oh, stop bullying him, Jin!”

“But, my dear, I’m only inquiring if he’s up to the task.”

“Maybe I should go,” I said, starting to rise.

“You see,” she said, “you’re scaring him away ...”

“Oh, for God’s sake, do sit down.”

She turned to me, her eyes heartbreakingly sad. “Please excuse my husband …”

I hovered a moment longer before sitting down again.

“Jin, make amends.”

“Certainly, by all means …” He smoothed his hair. “If I’ve acted like an ass—which seems to be my tendency these days—I do apologize.” He said this to no one in particular.

Lan then rang a small, golden bell, summoning the maid. “Shall we take our drinks on the patio? Such a lovely evening …”

We returned to the wicker chairs; the parrots resumed their chanting. Spotlights lit up the treetops. The Jacuzzi mysteriously gurgled to life. The maid brought cognacs. On the table before us lay a mirror with six neatly drawn lines of cocaine on it and a small silver tube.

Before long, Jin leaned forward, matter-of-factly, and snorted up two lines in quick succession, then, pinching his nose, settled back into his chair with a satisfied grin.

Lan then positioned the mirror in front of me. “Please,” she said, “help yourself.”

I had tried coke before and liked its effects but usually begged off—imagining myself in training. But what the hell, I thought, the evening held untold possibilities. I took up the silver tube, ducked my head, and snorted up a line, then, reeling a little, collapsed into the wicker chair.

Lan took her turn, devouring the coke with relish, then stood, walked over to the Jacuzzi with cognac in hand, and stripped off her clothes, pearls, and underwear. She lowered herself into the bubbling water, her body as delicate as a child’s.

“No time to be shy,” said Jin, rising from his chair.

Soon we were all in the water together, naked, drinking cognacs and laughing. From the coke, I felt jazzed up and infallible. Someone brushed a foot against my thigh. The thought that it might be Jin, hankering for a threesome, triggered a rush of homoerotic fears, and I pulled away.

Moments later, Lan said something in Chinese to Jin, at which point he stood from the water, penis dangling, and bowed in the same ceremonious way he had greeted me. “Farewell, young Kennedy.” Then, to his wife, he said: “May your night be divine”—having apparently suppressed or transcended his jealousy.

Once he had gone, Lan and I faced each other, motionless. Then, beneath the churning surface, I felt her hand slither up my leg.

When we had finished, she kissed me tenderly, lingering a beat, then excused herself. I assumed she would be right back, had only gone to the bathroom. But then minutes passed, and I realized she wasn’t coming back.

Eventually, the chauffeur tapped me on the shoulder. It must have been close to midnight. I dressed and followed him back to the elevator and down to the car. He drove in silence along the coast, the sea dark and rolling, the rim of the sky glowing faintly from city lights. I had come down hard from the cocaine. Moments, impressions, repeated themselves: the dinner and Jin’s thinly concealed rage, the cocaine and Jacuzzi, the blissful pain of release, the parrots screeching, and Lan’s sad eyes.

Back in the city, a delivery truck blocked my street, which was still animated despite the hour, and the Bentley stopped at the corner. I thanked the driver and stepped out. When I slammed the door, he sped off without any acknowledgement.

I found myself standing in front of a restaurant. Behind its front window, a half-dozen snakes writhed within a large glass bowl, slithering up the bowl’s steep sides, under and over each other, repeatedly, pointlessly—only to slide back down again. One—jet-black with orange piping and a flanged head—struck at the others with startling ferocity. I stood there, stunned, a little queasy, as if watching a detail come to life from Rodin’s The Gates of Hell.

An old Chinese man lingered beside me wearing a traditional, black Chinese suit. He laughed, observing my expression, and smacked his lips as if relishing the taste of snake. I nodded, pretended to smile, then turned to face myself in the window.

Jay Kauffmann


A former top international model and travel writer, Jay Kauffmann holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has taught at Randolph College, the University of Virginia, WriterHouse, and the Miller School of Albemarle. Winner of the Andrew Grossbardt Memorial Prize and nominee for a Pushcart Prize, his work has appeared in CutBank, Lumina, Mid-American Review, upstreet, Gulf Stream, Storyglossia, Prime Number, The Writer’s Chronicle, and many other journals and anthologies.

paper texture

I lost a lot of things in the separation: a house, a side yard I’d planted with woodland phlox, purpling ground cover, honeysuckle sliding up the old cable wire, bees drowsing in summer heat, the dresser that held my jeans and old sweatshirts, a shared bank account, and a couch that wasn’t a futon, but what I miss most tonight is the glorious bath. The tub was porcelain, and the tap was delectably slow, hot water crept up at a snail’s pace, warming my body inch by inch while the rich thrum of the fan drowned out the sound of the children, of traffic, of the creaking oak floors. I was cradled by the water, comforted by the wind.

If I’m given enough time alone, I start to brood over life’s incongruities, my mind fixates on the particularities of my life, picking it apart piece by piece, but I’m soothed when I’m fully immersed in the water, feeling alone, but content. Something about the warmth, or maybe it’s just a reminder of the womb, no matter how old I am, quiets the pitter patter of idle thoughts. My apartment has a bath too, but it’s smaller, and the hot water always gives out before too long, and I am only half-covered by the water, discontent, wondering whether it’s worth the twenty-minute wait while the pipes warm.


The father of the essay, Michele De Montaigne, thirty-eight, the same age as me, retired from his public life to Bordeaux, tired of its obligations. The parallels end there, as I have only recently started my career path, around the same time Montaigne left his. In his retirement, beyond inventing the essay, Montaigne suffered from kidney stones, and he often stopped at baths on his European travels, hopeful that the ache would disappear in the healing waters. One imagines him lying there, this French aristocrat, nearly doubled over in pain, waiting in vain on a bit of warm water to ease his pain, hopeful as we all are, for something miraculous to happen. Montaigne’s pain never went away, but his skepticism about baths grew. He saw that only foreigners were healed, and he understood, without knowing it yet, the placebo effect.


I was at the ruins of Pompeii this summer, that famous Roman villa annihilated in a single day by the eruption of Vesuvius, which covered the city in piles of molten ash, extinguishing the dreams and stories of two thousand lives. The bodies are preserved in plaster casts, which take the shape of mummified horrors, people holding hands to their heads or crouching in the doorway. The plaster was poured into the hollow space that bodies left in the ash, and when the casts hardened, some of the bones were locked away in them as well. In the distance was the blackened top of Vesuvius, still glowering over the remarkable remains of the city as though it were an ancient and whimsical god. There is something in disaster which attracts the human spirit, some recognition of our own frailty, which we so often deny.

We were listening to a guidebook about the city as we wandered by the public baths there, unique for the sexually-explicit images that were painted in the men’s and women’s dressing rooms—threesomes and various other sexual contortions. We couldn’t find the blocks, or perhaps they have all been hauled away to a museum nearby, and the baths, as they often do, just looked like an empty grassy knoll, and it was left to our imagination to fill in the mosaic tiles and Romans bending down to lift water onto their backs, but I suppose the better part of life is being able to imagine the lives of others, which I often fail at.


As a child, I loved baths, loved the way my body felt so light, loved the way I could fashion soap bubbles into a robust beard, loved the way I was cordoned off in a world of childish fantasy while my mother tended to the house. I was free to push cars along the white enamel rim of the bath, conjuring thunderous tsunami with the wave of a hand, free to conduct fierce fights between my G.I. Joe's, free to exult in being alone, the world, which held its own sadness, like my departed father and sad mother, held at a remove from whatever I imagined.

As I grew older and everyone else transitioned to showers, I still bathed, still sat in the scalding hot water until it had gone lukewarm, reading fantasy books about magical elves, dazzling swordfighters, and cauldrons full of dead men. I loved the way that a book’s spine bent easily in my hand and the way the fan kept the world of puberty, of video games, of robust sexual fantasies and furtive masturbation, briefly at bay. I was embarrassed that I still took baths, but I couldn’t stop myself. Like many teenagers, I felt that my life was fundamentally different than everyone else’s, and I wanted to hide that from them, while still retaining the childish pleasure of a warm bath or a long walk around the neighborhood with my mother.

Time passed as time is wont to do. I got married, bought a house, had two children, checked the boxes of a good American life. My course seemed set, like the laying of bricks on a Roman road, one day passing into another. It was easy to imagine retiring into a life of reading classics in the tub, Dickens, Tolstoy, and a glass of a medium-bodied Italian wine waiting in the kitchen. And then I lost it. Any life can veer off course, stirred by the same childish whims that once produced storms in a bath, and then life is something new, something that has lost its shape, and I’m now bending words by myself in an apartment. But that isn’t this particular essay. This essay is about baths.


The Romans made bathing into a fashionable spectacle, a place to see and be seen. Like most great Roman ideas, it was cribbed from the Greeks and made into something more lavish, more suited to the rise in their living standards, the ornate tiles in many of the houses in Pompeii far surpass the boring white walls in most modern houses. The Roman baths were spread throughout the empire, tracing the advance of the legions. The baths closer to Rome, like the one I half-saw in Pompeii, were legendary, mosaics adorned the floors, marble walls gleamed, and columns held up the roofs of fire-proof terra cotta bricks. Long furnaces ran beneath the floors, super-heating the water on its way to the baths, an impressive feat of architectural engineering in the service of human pleasure, that oldest of pursuits.


After the separation, I made a vow to travel once a year to Europe alone. My own father started traveling a few years back after inheriting some money at the death of his mother. Now we’re both traveling the world on solo trips, seeing the world anew, but he’s still hard to imagine sometimes, my father.

There are the ruins of baths in nearly every city I’ve visited. In southern Spain, the baths were a remnant of the Ottoman Empire, and I stood in those baths in Granada, taking pictures of a circle of blue sky overhead. In truth, though I can’t imagine the baths as anything, I still pay to visit them, stamping my life with an approved touristic experience, even though I abhor the word tourist and call myself a traveler. My father tours in groups; I travel. I haven’t quite found what I’m looking for in life or in the baths throughout Europe, but I keep following the same well-worn paths, travel, freedom, tropes of a new life, as if I am looking for a second, secular baptism, hoping that the right path appears sometime, and I can walk down it towards something like a public bath, naked bodies clothed in water and light.

I traveled to Budapest this summer, the Hungarian city that’s known for its baths, a former communist city, boring and blocky, that has become a playground for partiers where people wander between ruin bars, swilling beer and looking for drugs. I snapped pictures of Vajdahunyad castle, ivy creeping up its stony side, pleasure boaters paddling on the reflecting pool across from it. I walked across the Szechenyi bridge at midnight, capturing the stunning Hungarian Parliament, Fisherman’s bastion, regal and white, and the whole of the city aglow across the mirror of the Danube. Those pictures are from the first night, when the place I was staying was full of drunken revelers, people who looked like homeless pirates, and my bed didn’t have a sheet on it yet. I’d just traveled eighteen hours, and I couldn’t imagine spending the night surrounded by drunk Brits and Americans trying to drink their way through Europe. After taking pictures for two hours, I walked home across the bridge and towards my neighborhood, and every two blocks a woman appeared from the shadows and said hello. It took me three or four hellos to realize the women were prostitutes, and I stopped saying a cheerful hi back and hustled home through the darkness.

I flew out a day later, on my way to Amsterdam and then Prague, but when I returned to Budapest a few days later, I was eager to see the city with fresh eyes. The world had been returned to me in the days in-between, and the myopia with which I’d viewed the full range of human experience, drunken or not, had passed away. I’d been reminded of the beauty, the silliness, and the confusion of human life, dancing on a stage in Prague, or wandering the streets after eating a brownie in Amsterdam, reminded that I wasn’t above anyone, even drunken piratic people, whatever pretensions I clung to. But first, I needed a bath.

The Gellert Baths in Budapest were founded in the thirteenth century, when King Andrew put a hospital at the base of Gellert Hill and pitched the baths as restorative for the wounded. Montaigne would have been skeptical, but he had the good sense not to have been born yet. The Ottoman Empire eventually captured Buda and installed a complex of baths of their own, which were later destroyed as well. There were attempts to revive the baths throughout history because everyone seems to love a good warm soak as much as they love destruction.

The Art Nouveau structure that makes up the current Gellert spa and baths is only a hundred years old. The exterior has a rounded dome, and the complex has ten different pools, an impressive interior adorned by marble columns, a wave pool for kids, steaming saunas, and a frigid pool. In the warming pool, gargoyles spit warm water over the backs of old Hungarians, which fractures off them, as though they are possessed with wings of water.

If the baths were once constructed for healing, I needed it. I was in the throes of a break from a tempestuous relationship and freshly released from the academic year where I have two jobs and precious little time to myself. My downtime is usually spent correcting thesis statements and dreaming up new ways of describing critical thinking to eighteen-year-olds. The week had been long—five flights, long nights of alcohol-fueled conversations, days of threading through the magical streets of Prague, walking along the canals of Amsterdam, brisk and gleaming waters—solitude, connection, loneliness, beauty. Gellert was the ur-bath, an attempt to wash everything away, the life that I’d traveled here with and the life that I’d been living here, which couldn’t last. I should tell you that I’m always reading the archaic torso of Apollo; I am always trying to change my life.

How long do you have to stay warm before everything starts to change? Montaigne could have warned me, as I sat outside in the mildly warm outdoor pools, the yellow façade of the baths framing a rectangle of blue sky, curtains of clouds, that life doesn’t change in an instant, that it takes days, weeks, years, for the new self to emerge.

Besides which, I had a return flight. And the flight dictated that I’d land and be thrust back into the life with its myriad of complications that I’d constructed over the last three decades and mangled in a way that vaguely reminded me of my own childhood, my own absent father.


And so, earlier tonight, three weeks after my travels had ended, I was lying in the shallow lukewarm suds of my bath. I’d added Epsom salts to assist with the aching in my aging knees, worn cartilage from years of basketball, waiting for the water heater to kick in again. I was weary with the strictures of life, of shuttling the children off to school, then hopscotching through traffic across town to work, two hours of commuting—a slog through the Columbia Heights neighborhood in DC, backtracking, honking, listening to short story podcasts, philosophy bites, attempts to capture meaning in the day, trying to slip through side streets, only to be foiled by a van, or construction, and all the drivers trying to pass through the narrow streets that come together like tributaries to form a river. I rage until I arrive at work, cutting off the last strands of an interview where a writer is talking about the permutations of a short story they love. I suppose I should take some small pleasure in the way we are all united on that morning commute, all wishing we were somewhere else.

In the evening, I roast broccoli, heat chicken nuggets, put apples on the table while the children shovel food in and watch something PBS approved that teaches them a lesson about kindness or the value of persevering. After dinner, I remind them to clear the dishes, elbows deep in the sink’s water, never sitting myself as I prepare their meals for the coming day: stuffing snap peas into containers, sunflower seeds, dried cranberries, sandwiches, hummus for one child, SunButter and jelly for the other. Dad, they keep saying, as if they are babies again, just learning the word, trying to direct my attention to cards, to cars, to a drawing they’ve done, or something interesting they saw at school. And now my hours are limited, so I say yes, time and time again, bending over to peer at pictures, to vroom cars across the floor until I am wrung out like a towel.

Which is why I want to lie in the unsatisfyingly lukewarm bath as if it is a cave at the end of the world. I want to wander Europe again, taking photographs of mountains reflected in lakes, to ruminate on butterflies whirring round the vineyard below a monastery in Prague, or marvel at the leaves whirling in small tornadoes beneath a windmill in Amsterdam. In the bath, I read a book of quiet essays about nature—peat moss, flowers touched by pebbles of rain. From the distance, I hear my daughter calling out, dad, dad, dad, dad.


The moss is still growing around the baths of Caracalla in Rome. At its height, the baths built during the second century included a small windmill, two libraries, one for Latin books and one for Greek, and an enormous window that looked out on the tableaux. And this contents me, knowing that two thousand years ago everyone else was sitting round in the warm baths turning the pages of books to pass the time, mulling over the vagaries of life.


My daughter is an anxious sort, perhaps pulled apart by the separation, forced to stretch her slender psyche between two houses like a rickety bridge spanning canyon walls. She learned about rabies and asked questions for hours, wondered if she’d get it and die, asked about the shots, about whether animals in DC had it. She approaches me daily, brow wrinkled with sincere concern: I ate a soap bubble; I breathed in some smoke; I think I accidentally ate a pom pom frond; Can I die from that? At first, I try to reassure her quickly. No. No. Not from that. When it goes on for days, I start telling her she has thirty seconds to live, then I slowly begin to count.

Once, when she was much younger, and we all still lived together, I told my daughter a story before bed that went like so—there was a daddy squid who lived in the sea. When the day was over, other fish kept talking to him, and he got tired. He sprayed ink into the water and slipped down and down into the depths of the ocean until he faded away. She leaned towards me sleepily, and I repeated down and down into her ear as my own eyes closed, whispering it like an incantation. The daddy squid went down and down and down and down and down and down and down and down and down and down and down and down and down and down and down and down until no one could find him.

What I want my daughter to remember—this little rope of bunched muscle—are the mornings I was there when she was very young and she swam to me, round, fat, and pink, and I gathered her in like gold.

We were in a swimming class together months after she was born, and she had balls of doughy flesh gathered at her knees and elbows, protruding from her little pink bathing suit. When I stepped outside with her cradled in my arms, I saw row upon row of mothers cupping babies to their chests. I stood at the edge of that lonely stretch of blue, knowing I was an intruder. Mercifully, the teacher encouraged me to get in.

The water was cold, and I felt like the ugly duckling. I stared right at the teacher or right at my daughter. I was aware if I looked around I’d feel more out of place, or the women there would think I was trying to stare at their chests, or Sadie would think I was going to drop her in the water. I focused on the baby and the cold. We were told to hold the babies away from us, and she started to cry. I gathered her up in my right arm, holding her fleshy body against my chest. She was so warm. She batted the water with her ham-like fist, lifting droplets into her face, which astonished her each and every time, her blue eyes, now brown, shot through with wonder. We never went back to the lessons. But I hope somewhere a shred of that day remains, her father holding her, droplets of water clinging to her long eyelashes.

I still remember the swim lessons my father took me to and the outdoor pool that was so frigid in the early summer. He stood at the edge of the pool, but I don’t remember if he encouraged me or merely passed the time.

When my daughter was first born, we gave her baths in the kitchen sink. When she was slightly older, we moved her out of the sink and into a small white tub that we rested on the kitchen table. The first time we tried to give her a bath there, we forgot to plug the hole in the bottom properly, and the water quickly drained away, soaking the oaken table and floor. My daughter screamed and screamed, her mouth flaming crimson as she screamed at the cruelty of whatever the hell it was that we were doing to her.

My father didn’t have a proper bath in his room in the apartment, so I eventually started taking showers. I remember standing there in my towel while my father taught me that you only put a quarter’s worth of shampoo into the palm of your hand, that a little goes a long way. I retain that memory until this day, thirty-one years later, and I tell my own children something similar about the shampoo, how they only need a small amount to wash their hair.


The early Christian baptism included a full immersion in water, the idea that not only were sins washed away, but that the soul was born anew. After Christ’s baptism, the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove. My baptism in the Catholic Church was a mere sprinkling of water on the forehead, a consecration to a God I no longer believe in.


As my daughter grew, I gave her more baths myself, and I had to invent elaborate games to pass the time while she soaked in the tub. This time gave birth to Mr. Froggerton, a small green hand puppet who was prone to getting in trouble. The puppet had an English accent for some reason, and he loved to describe his stories of narrowly escaping large birds of prey, darting beneath the water, threading through the children’s legs or passing over their hair in the madcap adventure to save his life. Most days he made it out safely, and the children would want to talk to the hand puppet, giggling at the way he called them both love.

Later, when I was tired and disengaged, and the children begged for Mr. Froggerton, I’d end the story more quickly, saying something like, and then the falcon eviscerated Mr. Froggerton and spilled out his entrails, the end. The children objected to this particular ending, not because he died, but because the story was so short. Tell it again, they’d say.

Mr. Froggerton is gone now, banished to the bathtub two blocks away, but the memory of him still lives on, such that whenever my son hears a British accent he asks after the puppet, as though all British people know Mr. Froggerton well.


My tepid bath, disappointing though it may be, was an escape into my own time—time which evaporates into a world of snacks, ice packs, screen time allocations, inane games like Chutes and Ladders, and idle encouragement of nearly everything—art, spelling, defecation. I am tired of admiring the particular shape of feces, of the squiggly lines of sunshine in the corner of a picture of a mom and dad who are no longer together. What I want is to sit in lavish silence and brood, ungratefully, on what life has brought to me as though I have had very little role in shaping things, which is wrong, but a belief I cling to, naively, stupidly, fiercely.

I wonder after my own father then, standing at the edge of the pool, watching four of his six children take lessons, wonder if he knows how he shaped his own life or whether he too feels that something overwhelmed him. I suspect that we’re not so different, he and I, no matter how many barriers I sometimes try and put between us.


At Gellert, I lay in the quiet of the afternoon and gaze at the tableaux of thin clouds, birds wheeling overhead, and the blue meaningless sky. I had lain awake most of the night before, awash in memory and sorrow. I kept waiting for the wave of tiredness and sadness to break as though the bath could cleanse me of everything. I wanted the sun and water to melt me down to my constituent parts so I could be rebuilt again.


Soon enough, my daughter’s voice swayed me. I folded the book down and placed it next to the bath. She was frantic then, lightly crying, and I lay next to her in the dark. She calmed down and told me a wild story, so happy for presence. Fatherhood is easy. It’s just being there, and then being there again, and again, and again, and again, and again, ad infinitum. What could be easier than presence?

While my daughter and I lay there, my phone beeped. I had a text, and I slid my phone from my pocket and let the glow fill the room, eager to be elsewhere. My daughter was relating a series of puns she’d read in a magazine, why did the cow cross the road. He wanted to go to the mooovies, and I tried to laugh, desperate for the interaction to end, for the silence to return. What am I so desperate to get back to, to brooding at the edge of the bath?


By 500 AD, the baths at Caracalla, once one of the seven wonders of Rome, were in ruins. The baths at Gellert were only one hundred years old after having fallen into disrepair, and the baths in Granada were only remnants, red bricks, green grass, everything comes to ruin.


At Gellert, the new friends I’ve come with tumble out of the super-heated sauna and into the frigid cooling pool. Earlier, in a daze from lack of sleep and tending my sadness, I’d lost them both for over an hour, wandered the complex, checking in every room, the warm pool, the hot pools, the outdoor pools, desperate to find them. But now I know where they are, and I sit in the warm outdoor waters, the sky a cathedral of blue overhead, and I breathe in and out, very deeply, as time thrums on, just as the fan once did when I was a child.

Montaigne died at the age of fifty-nine, which meant he spent twenty-one years essaying, in search, through words, for meaning. Everyone knows that the origin of the word essai is attempt, but no one wants to attempt something, they want to succeed.


I am nearing forty years old myself, the halfway mark of a contemporary life. After I leave my daughter’s room, I sit on the edge of the tub, eyeing the tepid water. I wonder over the shape of the years to come what the children will make of the life before them and if they’ll make, as I have, something less of it than it should be. I want to slip into the bath and read with the intensity I once did as a child, shutting out the world, but the water isn’t warm enough. I pull the plug and watch the water drain away, exposing the white enamel, stained by small spots of rock salt from when I’d left our wintry shoes in it last winter, one more ruin. I sit on the edge of the tub, bone-tired, naked, and alone.

Andrew Bertaina


Andrew Bertaina's short story collection One Person Away From You (2021) won the Moon City Press Fiction Award (2020). His work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Witness Magazine, Redivider, Orion, and The Best American Poetry and notable at Best American Essays 2020. He has an MFA from American University in Washington, DC.

paper texture

Most days in Limerick, my temporary and beloved home, I was inside gray skies, a grid of buildings, and strangers under hoods and umbrellas who could be friends but were not yet. We rushed by in our haste to get warm and dry, to get food and drink, to get drunk and laid. I also lived across the street from the Shannon River, so wandered the boardwalk with a vagabond’s hope for a heron or swan to claim me, swooping me up across the water. The Shannon is a tidal river, surging at four knots on the ebb. High tides can reach seventeen feet under a full moon and high winds. I tracked its rise and fall, and its current, quiet or quick, and understood in my river keeping the predictable metaphor: time was a current.

But this current was more than a metaphor.

People lost and at their ends–booze, drugs, unemployment, heartbreak–and feeling forgotten in this post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, men, mostly men, and mostly young, jumped into the Shannon from Thomond Bridge. Two men in one month right in front of my house. Search and Rescue found the bodies washed ashore far down river, tangled in the reeds like flotsam and jetsam. My landlady, Eithne, explained that for a few years, right after the 2008 crash, it felt like a suicide a day. “It’s gotten better,” she said. “Not as many, not as often, but what is ‘better’ when it comes to suicide?”

One morning while I was drinking tea in bed, still holding onto the night’s warmth, a helicopter churned loud and low over the river. Boats and fire trucks raced into view. News flashed on my feed: “Emergency services have been deployed to a river rescue following the report of an individual entering the River Shannon this morning.”

I watched at the window, hands pressed to the cold pane—

[–and remembered, as I prayed, a long-ago November night in college when I jumped into a half-frozen lake and was saved by campus security. How I swam away from their dinghy, how I fought their hands and kindness, how I longed to disappear underwater, to stay alone in my aloneness, how a burly officer dove in and hooked his arm around my neck as if catching the saddest, angriest sea monster.

“No,” I said. “NoNoNo.”

“Yes,” he said. “YesYesYes.”

When we reached shore, I shivered with a sudden tooth-chattering violence, but felt, too, how I was being returned to the world. I remember the moon, so bright and distant in that dark sky, and the officer whispering, “We’ll get you warm. Help is coming.”]

And the odd flash of recognition when I walked alone at night along the Shannon, a keening toward that old despair: how easy to jump into that current. I searched, instead, for the swans paddling in the moonlight as if my searching for them mattered.

One late night, I walked around the river, crossing over its bridges, circling the dark, circling my ordinary loneliness, circling my way to compromise: keep moving don’t stop keep moving don’t stop. I leaned against the river railing and watched a swan paddle through the dark water. Ghost bird.

A man and woman on bicycles and wearing bright yellow vests pedaled up and stopped. Quiet, gentle smiles. The Limerick Suicide Patrol.

“How’s your evening?” the man asked.

“Grand,” I said. “Just watching the swans.”

“You okay out here by yourself?” the woman asked.

“Oh,” I said, “just walking.” The answer was no and the answer was yes and I knew I’d keep walking and would be in bed soon, would not be in the river because I could see that was what they feared because the man was searching my face and the woman seemed to be watching my hands that gripped the railing.

“It’s just that we noticed you’ve been walking around the river for a while now so,” the man said.

How many people had they missed? How many people had they found who might have been thinking this this this now now now, and how many had they saved? And could I be a counterweight to the many they had not?

I saw their worry and decided not to worry them unnecessarily. “Thank you,” I said. “It’s a lovely night, no rain. But now I’m on my way back home to bed.”

They smiled, waiting on their bikes, and I saw they were hoping I’d walk on, and so I did.

Kerry Neville

Kerry Neville is the author of the short story collections Necessary Lies and Remember to Forget Me. Her work has appeared in publications such as The Gettysburg Review, Triquarterly, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She is the Coordinator of the MFA and Undergraduate Creative Writing Program at Georgia College and State University where she is also an Associate Professor.

paper texture

After the Bad Thing happened, I went on living. This greatly offended a lot of people. After the Bad Thing, I said too much, too little. I had to be mute and say everything all at once. I wasn’t a saint, I wasn’t a sinner, exactly, just something you needed to step around.

Have you ever encountered vomit in public? At a bar, say, or on the street. You gag and gag. Maybe you’re a sympathetic vomiter like me. But no doubt, you turned away. You said Is that? Oh god, it can’t be, it is, and you turned away.

Once, my cat vomited all over my favorite book (The Brothers Karamazov), and I had to throw it away, soaked through and reeking of hair and meat. My stomach said I had to contribute to the awful, so I puked on the carpet, then on my pajamas. Then I took off my clothes and puked again, this time all over my skin, like an inside-out birth.

In order to clean up the carpet with paper towels and whatever spray I found in the dark, I had to turn on the bedroom light and look at the piles and puddles of orange I had made. When I was done cleaning, I found my cheap lighter on the nightstand, went outside, and had a smoke. I can’t remember if I brushed my teeth before or after smoking or not at all. It was that kind of night. I let myself feel lonely. If you’re naked, smelling of your own puke, on the back porch in the dark, having a smoke, you’re allowed to let yourself feel lonely.

I was afraid I’d puke again, there on my dilapidated back porch that resembles a broken animal. And then I’d have to keep looking at it forever. I’d have no choice.


I know some Catholics bury statues of saints in their backyards, to the confusion of the new buyers. Who are they burying? What is it for? I always assumed it was St. Anthony—the patron of lost causes. I suppose if it’s the new buyers discovering the statue, then the ceremony didn’t do much good. That house is gone.

A saint is a dead holy person that a religion venerates. There are other religions that do this, but Catholics are known for their communion of saints. To qualify for sainthood, you must be of the faithful, you must perform two miracles after your death, and you must already be dead. Catholics make statues and shrines and claim the saint intervenes to God for them. A go-between. A lawyer, in a way. The saints are not prayed to but prayed through. Catholicism is a monotheist religion, but you could have fooled me. (This is no way a criticism; the pagan element is what makes it exciting.)

Laura Palmer is not a saint. I would advise against putting her in your yard. She’s a hot mess. She two-times her boyfriend, she does cocaine, she does sex-work, all while being in high school. Too-grown, tenacious, exactly who you don’t want your daughter to be.

Some people claim to have a special relationship with the saint. St. Francis is always looking out for them, they might say. Saints take up special causes or concepts, and that becomes what you pray through them for. You can pray through St. Anthony if you misplace your drugs, for example.

I have heard the saints described as superheroes, walking amongst the soldiers and nurses as spirits. Or as family members who’ve been through shit and now know how to help you. It’s not that you need a mediator to talk to God, but talking to a coworker, not the boss, is nice sometimes.

It’s not Laura’s fault she’s the way she is. For one thing, she’s fictional. Laura Palmer is the hole at the center around which Twin Peaks spins. She’s already dead when the story begins. Having found her blue and indelible on a lakeshore, the bumpkin fisherman mutters the iconic line: She’s dead, wrapped in plastic. And then there’s an FBI agent and a giant and a demon and some other stuff too. But without Laura, there’s no mystery to be solved, there’s no Twin Peaks. Without the Dead Girl, we have nothing.

We all know how fictional characters work, and they’re different than how saints work. Someone makes them up. Starting with an idea or image, and then they’re birthed. Although it is worth mentioning that Mark Frost and David Lynch most likely based Laura Palmer on Hazel Drew, a real Dead Girl, found floating in a pond in 1908. No one knows who gave Hazel that deadly blow to the head.


I was hiking with my husband, and he spotted a frog to the left of where we were trudging. My husband was pointing animatedly to a spot among the dried Bermuda grass and black-eyed Susans, just off the gravel path. Look, Nadia, look, look. A frog! And I looked where he was pointing and said, Ummm. He said, Let me get a little closer and see if it’ll move. So he took a step closer, leaned in, and something hopped away. Oh, there it is, I can only see these things when they move, I said.

The amphibian was not one I had seen before. It wasn’t the kind of toad I see on the porch when I smoke at night, or the kind of tiny green frog that clings to the windows when it rains. This one was the size of a thumb and an index finger making a circle, dark green and dappled all over with lighter green. It looked too exotic for Texas, even on the trails. My husband took a photo of it and uploaded the picture to an app that told us it was a spotted leopard frog. We watched it for a while and then said, How nice, and kept walking. We had miles to go, and neither of us were terribly excited about it in the summer heat. I was breaking in my new hiking boots which were green too.

I can be as childish about animals as I please. I can say How nice when I see one I like and keep going. Not everything has to be a grand revelation.


The goodness of saints is that you don’t have to answer to them. They are on pedestals, sure, and they invite unpleasant comparisons to your own wretched life, but you don’t have to appease them.

That’s the idea, anyways. By and large, they are based on real people. There really was a Mother Theresa and so forth. When a person is transfigured by veneration and time, they tend to lose their warts. Is their humanity not part of their holiness? Are delicate stomachs and rage not part of the hopefulness of saints? Saints are a way we can reach God, a Tower of Babel, and I do not want mine made of marble.

Television and America love a Dead Girl, as pure and remote as God. Twin Peaks is many things, but it is prototypically the Dead Girl show. Dead Girls have to be everything and nothing. Do I even need to mention that Laura Palmer is classically beautiful, thin, and white? In the first few episodes, we learn that Laura ran a meals-on-wheels program, tutored a Chinese immigrant in English, tutored a special-needs boy, and worked at a perfume counter. She was a quintessential homecoming queen. But Laura had a dark side, plenty of warts; she did way more cocaine than any high schooler I know, she cheated on her boyfriend, she did sex work. What I am saying is, forget Laura Palmer’s secret diary, I want to see her day-planner.

Some critics found Laura’s character problematic. She had no real reason for her troubled ways, they said. She was gorgeous, popular, well-off. They said Lynch just didn’t understand young women. These critics seem to have forgotten that Laura was being raped by a demon who had possessed her own father. Given the extremity of the situation, I don’t think there’s a bad or unjustified way of handling it. I don’t think Laura would have done her after-school special smorgasbord if she weren’t being violated by an interdimensional being.

BOB, the interdimensional being, is the other part of Twin Peaks. It’s not just a Dead Girl show. The lore is another essay entirely, but it’s important to know that there is mythos, a realm we can almost see but not understand. In the end, the best way to be raped is for a demonic force to do it and then die afterward. The hole at the center of a record isn’t black; it’s the color of whatever it’s being held up against. Laura is dead by the first episode, wrapped in plastic, but still her presence, her leitmotif, lingers on. We only see what’s taken her place.


Maria Goretti is a more recent saint, as far as real saints go. Her canonization was in 1950. Her life was a sad, short one. Maria was born in 1890, in a region in Italy. Her family was poor and large. When she was five years old, her family lost their farm and went to work for other farmers. Her life was hard, caring for her younger siblings, in charge of household duties while her parents worked. But this isn’t what made her a saint.

When Maria was eleven, the son of the farmers the Goretti’s were working for, Alessandro, assaulted her. He had been making sexual advances toward her, and she would refuse, telling him premarital sex was a sin and would damage his soul. She kept his sin quiet. This time, the final time, when the child refused to submit to him, he stabbed her fourteen times. She died forgiving him.


After Twin Peaks ended the first time, Lynch made a prequel movie, Fire Walk with Me, that takes place in the days leading up to Laura’s death. The film is brutal. Unlike the show, there’s no cozy, small-town murder mystery feel to it, no chief of police and CIA agent being adorable best friends. We already know what happens. Laura’s going to die. Laura’s going to get wrapped in plastic. We know who does it. The answer is improbable but undeniable: An interdimensional being, BOB, possesses her father, Leland Palmer, like a parasite, and he rapes and slaughters her.

Laura Palmer has one of the most iconic portraits, homecoming queen, perfect cascade of blonde hair, perfect American smile. Everyone who’s lived through the ‘90s knows that face, but I had to look up who the actress was. Sheryl Lee. Sheryl Lee is phenomenal in Fire Walk with Me. It was good to see a Dead Girl more fleshed out, someone with ideas, a hypothetical future, charm, mannerisms, humor, and profound empathy.

The movie had mixed reviews. For one thing, it’s bananas. There’s no other way to put it. There are giants, paintings, magicians, creepy CGI, and lumpy masks. For another, it lacks the charm of the original series. No coffee, pie, and donuts here; just mountains of cocaine, rape, and murder. The concerns are different.

Unlike the critics, many women and girls found this story redemptive. When I learned that, I was puzzled at first. I mean, we know Laura dies, and, oh look, she died. But I think the redemptive thread is there, and it’s complicated. Because it’s Lynch, everything is braided with itself and everything else. The first thread of the braid is that Laura finally has a voice. We know what happens, but this isn’t a movie about BOB, or Leland, or even the FBI past the prologue. This is Laura’s movie. We see her go to class, we see her laugh with her best friend, we see her write in her diary. We see her do mountains of cocaine, but now we know why. Secondly, Laura fought back. She fought against BOB with everything she had and did not stop trying, even when no one else would believe or help her. BOB won in one way (Laura is the ultimate Dead Girl) but lost in another. He got her body, but not her soul. She did not despair and, moreover, she did not become evil. Lastly, something mystical happens around her death. She calls to FBI agent Dale Cooper, who in a sense is her guardian angel. In his dreams, albeit too late, she’s already dead, and he solves her crime. We see her in the Black Lodge being escorted by angels. As if that’s all that can ever be hoped for dead rape victims: someone to solve their crime.

Seeing the Dead Girl’s story as a story of survival despite Laura dying is, I think, a valid interpretation, even if my own reaction was revulsion and horror. With only half an hour left, I had a panic attack, had to take a break and go outside and smoke. I was sickened, because even though we know BOB is the Big Bad, we see the evil that men do too, with their treatment of teenage girls, with their suppressive sexual politics, with their drugs, with their violence.


The rapist Alessandro repented in prison. He said he had an angel praying for him in heaven. He called dead Maria my little saint. Not a, but my. After he was released, Maria’s mother and Alessandro would pray together, and eventually he became a lay brother, living out his days in a monastery. He attended Maria’s beatification and canonization.

At Maria’s canonization, in 1950, Pope Pius XII addressed the crowd of tens of thousands: Young people, pleasure of the eyes of Jesus, are you determined to resist any attack on your chastity with the help of the grace of God? And the crowd shouted back, Yes, yes we are.

St. Maria Goretti is now the patron saint of chastity, victims, youth, purity, and forgiveness. She is given the special title of martyr, which is reserved for those who died defending their faith. The story goes, she did not want Alessandro to rape her, because if he did, he would go to Hell. When it comes to martyrs, oftentimes they have one defining moment: being burned at the stake, being eaten by lions. But Maria also had her ongoing silence. This was her miracle.

It is our job to not be raped, because that puts the rapist’s soul in danger. It is our job to keep quiet. It is our job to forgive.

The only way to be a good rape victim is to be a corpse.


What’s surprising, perhaps even to Lynch himself, is Laura doesn’t stay a Dead Girl. Not because of the angels and Black Lodge or having a voice, but quite literally. She doesn’t stay dead. Twenty-five years after its cancellation, in 2017, there’s a third season of Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks: The Return.

There’s a lot of lore in The Return too. The Black Lodge, the White Lodge, tulpas, doppelgängers, aliens, magic. You get the idea. Midseason, in the eighth episode, there’s an extended, dream-like, black-and-white sequence where we see the origin of BOB. It involves an atom bomb and some other things too. A nuclear explosion, people become shadow people, BOB emerges from a woman with a terrible face. Something like that at any rate. The narrative structure in this episode is different because it’s not following a main character, just images of what happened unfolding, as if it’s found footage, without the shakes.

I learned that all analysis begins with description. I am trying to give a description only, so that we might analyze later, but analysis and description keep bleeding into each other. Lynch is like that. History is like that. I am trying to give a cogent explanation for what I saw on my television. Cogent, Nadia, cogent, not airtight.

I have taken Maria Goretti’s life and turned it into poetry. This is ethically dubious at best. It’s rude. Am I no different than the Church, making an example out of a person who was real, who lived, who was not made of marble? There is more than one way to rob someone of their humanity. And so, I tried to just give the facts for what I read on my screen. No grandstanding, no editorializing. Just what happened and what the Church did with her.

We know how fictional characters work. Someone thought them up, and so forth, because there was a story they wanted to tell.

Not so long ago, there was little girl who lived with her parents on a poor farm. Soon they lost all their money and had to work on someone else’s farm. The farmers’ grown son made passes at the little girl, who was only eleven. She resisted but kept quiet. One day, he tried to rape her, and when she said no, he stabbed her to death. She was rushed to the hospital and died forgiving him. The rapist repented, and she was made a saint.


Lynch dreamt of a part-frog-part-cockroach, and in that extended, black-and-white sequence, we see the frog-roach loping through the desert. It has the forebody of a cockroach and the hind parts of a frog, wings, eight legs total. It crawls into the mouth of a girl while she sleeps.

On a website, I saw an animal that was just as real as the spotted leopard frog but not nice, like the frog-roach. This animal was also an amphibian, but something was the matter with it. Its open mouth revealed its eyes were inside, above the wide tongue. There is something pukish about a light tan, isn’t there? The color of the freakshow, obviously, isn’t the important takeaway, but it does feel worth mentioning. A washed-out brown, the color of old belly, desolate beaches, cracks. In the photo, two toad-arms reach out, midstride. The mouth is gaping, so tongued, so toothless. And on the roof of its mouth are two eyes, one looking up, one looking down, huge black irises, concerned with you not at all. Only then do you notice that where the eyes should be (on top of the head, typically) is a nothing. Just smooth toad-head all the way around.

To navigate, the unfortunate toad has to have its mouth agape at all times, lest it be shut up in its own darkness, like a tomb.


In the eighth episode of The Return, during the black-and-white sequence, one of the shadow people murders his way into live radio broadcasting. He asks the DJ Gotta light? and then kills him. Over the airwaves, he intones, This is the water, and this is the well. Drink full and descend. The horse is the white of the eyes and dark within. Everyone who hears the broadcast dies.

I checked the validity of the photo I had seen, drawn as always to where story and truth overlap. How was such a creature still alive? Snopes says the color photograph may very well be a fake, but there was a real photo too, in black-and-white. The latter photograph shows a similar malformed toad, presumably of the same species. Its mouth is less agape, and the interior eyes are closer together. The body position is also different; this toad appears to be demonstrating, almost, whereas the color photograph shows a toad caught in motion, fighting being seen.

In the second-to-last episode of The Return, Dale Cooper, FBI, says he wants to go back in time and save Laura. And guess what? He does it! Except not so simply. He goes back in time, meets teenage Laura in the woods the night of her murder, and wrenches her away. The calculus is off, so she winds up in an alternate dimension. Cooper finds her again in Texas in 2017, and she remembers nothing of Twin Peaks. She has a different name. She is in her forties. Still pretty but someone life has worn down. Her name is Carrie Page, and she works in a diner and doesn’t seem particularly robust or vivacious. But she’s not dead, not yet.

St. Carrie Page. Her patronage is obvious. Patron of bearing, patron of messages. St. Christopher is the Christ-bearer. Page must carry herself as one who went on living.

The black-and-white monstrosity in the photograph, too, is resigned but in a cheeky sort of way, like a too-old waitress that kept her sense of humor. The toad is almost saying, Oh, you want me to do the thing, don’t you? Well, have at it. Its mouth-eyes are looking right at the mouth-eye of the camera.

According to Snopes, the black-and-white photo was taken by Scott Gardner for the Hamilton Spectator. Allegedly, two children found the toad in a backyard in Ontario. The BBC reported on the toad as well. The theory is the toad came about due to a macromutation, which is what it sounds like, a mutation affecting a large part of the organism, as opposed to, say, freckles. Macromutations are theorized to be the cause of adaptation as well, such as webbed toes. In the case of the toad, the macromutation has no, and could have no, adaptive purpose. It was just nature’s mistake, although some scientists have theorized parasites may have been the cause.


Twin Peaks is a show of almost-but-not-quites. Page claims to have never been to Twin Peaks and has no idea what Cooper is talking about. But her eyes flicker when Cooper says the names of her parents, Sarah and Leland. She agrees to go with him back to Twin Peaks. In this dimension, everything is different. Laura’s mother is no longer living at that house, which Cooper and Page discover when they show up on the doorstep. In the final shot of The Return, we hear a flashback of Sarah Palmer calling Laura, Laura, and Page screams, remembering her other life and death all at once. Page screams with everything she is and isn’t: guttural, loud, full, woman. She is screaming for herself, for her past, for her future. The scream echoes off the cul-de-sac.

Not so long ago, there was a real little girl who lived down the lane, and we have no idea who she was. The important thing is, she’s dead now. The important thing is, she’s praying for us now, to God, for our protection. The important thing is, she never kept a diary, she never got a prequel or a sequel. The important thing is, she’s still dead, she never stood in her old neighborhood and screamed and screamed.

The BBC points out that the toad’s eyes aren’t that far off from where its eyes should be, just in the wrong socket. It’s not as if a human winds up with eyes inside their mouth. That’s not a mutation that can happen to people. It’s not as if we can get parasites that reverse how we see things, how we speak. It’s not as if a single human has had their eyes lodged in their throat and sees everything through a cry of No. It’s not as if a single human has to let their own light in for the rest of their lives.

And if that macromutation were to happen to a human, to a real girl, say, which it won’t, we might call that person a martyr, someone who battled a demon and won. Or we might call them a monster, something David Lynch dreamt up.


My friend tells me that saints are just people who got really good at being exactly themselves. My other friend tells me she used to think that moths were just butterflies that grew up in ugly places.

The toad with eyes on the inside is not part roach. It is not part anything. It looks out of a scream. Maybe it was born wrong or got a parasite, but it went on living. It says, Gotta light? The toad says, All the better to see you with, my dear. The toad says, My webbed feet do not pray. The toad says, Bury me in your yard, wrapped in plastic. The toad says, Let me be Laura’s third miracle, because grotesque and miracle is only how you write it. Write that in your diary. Have a pope proclaim it to thousands.

A bright, curious girl would hold the toad in her hands. She would hold it up to the camera and say, Look. She would not be afraid. She might even say How nice. She would see it before it moved and for what it is—a miracle, to go on living.

And when I move in black-and-white, I croak, Gotta light? I say, After he did the Bad Thing to me, I went on living, appalling, like a roach, appalling like a vomit stain you cannot get out. Roach girl, too many legs, getting in your throat. When I move in black-and-white, I will make you look. I have eyes on top of my tongue. My scream goes outside of space and time, bouncing around the cul-de-sac, but through it, I can see.

Nadia Arioli


Nadia Arioli is the co-founder and editor in chief of Thimble Literary Magazine. Her recent publications include Penn Review, Cider Press Review, Kissing Dynamite, Heavy Feather Review, and San Pedro River Review. She has chapbooks from Cringe-Worthy Poetry Collective, Dancing Girl Press, Spartan, and a full-length from Luchador, and a full-length forthcoming from Lemures Books. She was nominated for Best of the Net in 2021 by As It Ought to Be, West Trestle Review, Angel Rust, and Voicemail Poems.

paper texture

I find it again at a Goodwill. At first glance it looks like a coffee table book, meant to be perused while waiting for someone or something or to avoid uneasy conversation. The book was published in 1974, smells like stale potpourri, and is tucked between an old Junior League cookbook and a biography of Harvey Milk–all shelved incorrectly. A slip of paper has been left in page 324, a page titled: “Things: Things on Shelves,” and I initially read it as “things on selves,” which feels right because on the notepaper, in a jaunty font, it reads “Jennifer … is Terrific!” It’s like it is meant for me.

I don’t know where the original went. Donated, tossed, burned.

When I was nine, on the lowest shelf of my father’s bookshelf, I discovered The House Book by Terence Conran. Above, on the higher, more accessible shelves, were Mein Kampf, books on conspiracy theories and bonsai, and H.P. Lovecraft paperbacks. It was that kind of home, and my father was that kind of man.

The House Book. Such a simple title. The jacket was covered in red bricks, just like our apartment building. The book contained hundreds of photographs and dense type of best practices to make a home suitable. Suitable for whom, the book didn’t say.

It quickly became my shelter: the rustling plastic cover, the doughy smell, the families and homes as still-life.

“A frail arrangement can’t be expected to last for five minutes even on the fringes of the circulation area.” Our family was, in fact, a frail arrangement, one where abuse was a decorative motif and fear an incense, burning twenty-four hours a day.

As a kid, my nails were bitten to bleed and my fingers were so dry the paper sliced through my skin with ease. But I flipped through the pages of the old book, taking the wounds in a kind of stride. I craved the book and came to it almost nightly.

The photos had an orange tinge, making me feel warm, beckoning to me to sit by the figurative and sometimes literal fire. There was one photo of a family in a living room–everything was navy and white: baby and mother on the floor, father and an older child smiling wide–so wide–on the pristine white sofa.

One chapter invited me to study halls and stairs and landings. I lived in an apartment; stairs felt like a luxury. I visited this section often. Six photographs of stairways were arranged on a page, and in one of them two children sat tightly packed on an uneven set of narrow stairs. I was the one in the back, I told myself. The one clutching a book, socks pulled knee high. These children looked so happy. These stairs were what made them happy. How I wanted to live in a house with stairs! Somehow, stairs said “escape” to me. A way up and away, down and out.

In our stairless home, bullets rolled like Lincoln Logs in drawers. The place was so littered with the accoutrement of abuse and neglect–clothing, vodka bottles, carpet remnants, dead plants, guns, a rusting shopping cart–that you could barely make out the furniture underneath.

Conran would frown and slowly step away. He said: “There can be no definitive roll-call of potential accident areas because every house is different, with its own black spots that need watching.”

There was a family in our home, or an approximation of one: father, mother, two children. We were kindling. Amidst all of that tinder, my father ruled his kingdom so doused in alcohol that he was a walking match. The conflagrations often got so large, the whole place threatened to burn down. It never did; it was a slow burn.

I circled the images I wanted in my make-believe home with a pencil. Doing so lightly in case I wanted to erase my presence.

One day, my father caught me. “You don’t fucking write in books,” he roared, snatching it from my hand.

“No, please don’t,” I cried, reaching. “Stop!”

He ripped the page out. Crumpled it. I saw a little pink from a loveseat. A paper starburst. Supernova. This was a bigger infraction than penciling on pages, but it mattered little.

Snot gathered around the rim of my lips, I whimpered and begged, but he didn’t look up from his rampage. After several small massacres, he flung the book my way. The corner glanced off my foot, leaving a tiny but deep gash.

Later, I found the wrecked pages in the garbage. I pulled them out and attempted to smooth them out, but they were covered in food muck. I wiped my hands on my pants and stuffed them back in the bin.

“When you no longer feel some positive pleasure while looking at your things, it’s time to rearrange them.”

That was how the book came to live in my room. I tucked it between sticker books and diaries I collected but never used, the kind with generic flimsy locks. I fingered the ripped edges in The House Book, trying to remember what images were lost. Whispered my own kind of Mourner’s Kaddish.

The police came. The police went. The police came again. I lied, again, deciding that the danger my father put us in was still better than the unknown. If I were taken away, how would I find my way back to the carefully staged photos that had become my surrogate home?

Of walls, Conran said: “Before imposing your will on the house, give the place some sympathetic consideration.” He talked about load-bearing walls. Am I a wall? I wondered. I was certainly load-bearing. “Alteration work to buildings is often dangerous and more complicated than would appear…” It was true; I had tried.

Later, in my teenage imagined world, on overlapping rugs, surrounded by textiles from around the world, I would lie on my belly, legs kicking behind me as I perused Tiger Beat magazine. To be carefree like that in the middle of the room, what freedom that would be! To not have to skulk around the edges of a space, like prey, to circumvent detection, to avoid the meaty fist and leer of my father.

When I was grown, I would install Roman blinds and ceramic floor tiles. I’d cover my walls with Japanese grasscloth or tongue and groove boarding and, in those walls, I would be safe.

I am not stupid. Books are just paper, and you cannot jump into them like Alice. But don’t tell that to young me. Because under the canopy of a four-poster bed, there was no man perched on the corner in the dark of night. It was roses. It was paisley. It was chairs that were pieces of art by Wassily, Eames, and Knoll. It was safety in a sunken living room dotted with human-sized pillows.

I was not yet born when this book was published. It was a world I could never truly inhabit. The original copy of the book–the one that I was so attached to in childhood–was gone, and I hadn’t thought of it in decades, until that moment at the Goodwill.

In the thrift store, under eighties easy listening, I am brought back to the easy-listening radio station soundtrack that issued from my mother’s little bedside radio. From the shelf, amongst the other once-discarded books, I pull out The House Book, its jacket covered in plastic to preserve it.

I buy the book for a few dollars and take it home.

Jennifer Fliss


Jennifer Fliss (she/her) is a Seattle-based writer whose writing has appeared in F(r)iction, The Rumpus, No Tokens, and elsewhere, including the 2019 Best Short Fiction anthology. Her flash collection, “The Predatory Animal Ball” will be out in late 2021.

paper texture

In my younger days, I used to canvass up and down the streets of local towns, knocking on doors and handing out religious magazines. We called this “witnessing.” The idea was to win people over to our faith through industry and shoe leather, the way religious groups have done for centuries. It has never been an easy proposition, however. Most people are far more likely to switch their laundry detergent than their religion, and those who aren’t religious at all are seldom convinced by someone thrusting a sweat-stained tract into their hand.

By the age of twelve, I’d begun to grow discouraged by my lack of success. I could see the words “No, thank you” forming on people’s lips before they opened the door. Whatever it took to convince people to accept a spiritual magazine, I didn’t have it. I lacked the aptitude for witnessing the way I lacked the aptitude for algebra, which was a mystery to me.

What kept me going, besides my parents’ insistence, was the idea that someone out there was waiting for me to come along and change their life. The one person in a million. That’s what I was counting on. I’d heard stories about such people. They were looking for answers. Hungry for the truth. Desperate for hope of any kind. Many of them were in far-away countries, but a few were in my part of the world. All they needed was a brochure, or a magazine, or a little encouragement from someone like me. They were out there. I just had to find them.

I had a dream. It went like this: I would stumble across some poor soul at his wit’s end, who’d lost all reason for living, and who was eating TV dinners and barely getting out of bed every day, and, by virtue of my sunny presence at his door, would so alter his life that he would step back from the precipice the way a man will step back from a bridge before leaping to his death, talked down by a kind stranger who says just the right word at just the right moment.

Such people, however, were hard to locate. I hadn’t encountered a single one in all the houses I’d visited. Maybe they’d all moved away to someplace more conducive to their despair, or maybe they just didn’t want to talk to me. At any rate, I was tired of looking for them. It seemed hardly worth my time. Why look for people who don’t want to be found?

On top of that—out of a kind of youthful cynicism, I now realize—I began to despise the people I did encounter. None of them seemed to know what was important, or how high, in my eyes, the stakes were in their life. They couldn’t wait to get rid of me and go back to watching The Lone Ranger or some other Saturday afternoon TV program. If they didn’t care about what mattered, and couldn’t be bothered, why should I?

America was asleep. I’d seen it myself. Through the window, as I approached a house, people would be visible stretched out like cadavers on couches or La-z-Boys. When they came to the door, they would stare at me vacantly as if I were part of their dream. I hated it all: the slumbering houses and the slumbering people who didn’t have a clue.

When I admitted this to my father, he shook his head sadly. “You can’t give up on people,” he said. “Sometimes it takes just one word to change a person’s life. You never know what kind of effect you’ll have on them, even if they don’t take your magazine.”

My father loved witnessing. Nothing was more noble or important. He witnessed whenever he saw an opportunity; at the grocery store, the mall, the library, the men’s room at the gas station. One had to be ready at all times. The next opportunity could come along any minute.

I might have abandoned the enterprise altogether if my father hadn’t come up with a game he called “Drive-by Witnessing.” He must have sensed how dejected I was and how badly I needed a new approach. “Drive-by Witnessing,” as he explained it, involved throwing our magazines into people’s yards from a moving car, the way newspaper boys hurl papers from bicycles. This was done all over America, every day of the week. If you could throw a newspaper with comic strips and astrology charts into someone’s yard, said my father, you could certainly do the same with a magazine containing life-changing information.

“It’s going to be great!” he promised.

The idea appealed to me immediately. I loved throwing things in general: balls, sticks, rocks, darts, frisbees. I threw whatever I could get my hands on. I was a thrower by nature. It was in my blood. Give me a target, and I would happily aim something at it. This was the brilliance of my father’s plan: combining what I loved with what he loved.

I also believe, in hindsight, that Drive-by Witnessing was my father’s great contribution to door-to-door evangelism, which frankly needed a little refreshing. Who knows how much better the world might be today if the Disciples had thrown scrolls into front yards as they perambulated through Judea, Ephesus, Galata, and other parts of the Mediterranean?

My mother, when informed of my father’s plan, thought it was a bad idea. It seemed crass to her. Knocking on a door was a dignified thing. A respectable thing. People had been doing it forever. Throwing a magazine into a yard was too much like littering. People threw trash and bottles out their car windows. Did we want to be associated with that crowd?

My father didn’t care about that. He just wanted to keep me witnessing.

We put the game into motion in the summer of 1968, on a family trip through Oregon on Route 99 W. Being right-handed, I had to sit in the backseat behind my father and throw out the left side of the car. On the seat next to me was a stash of rolled up Signs of the Times magazines, each bound with a rubber band. Each magazine contained articles on how to stop swearing, how to pick a marriage partner, how to live a healthy life, how to prepare for the end of the world, etc.

My sisters were dubious. They’d never seen people witness the way we were about to do it. If it was such a brilliant idea, why hadn’t other people done it already?

“Are you sure about this, Dad?” said my older sister.

“Yes, I’m sure,” said my father.

On a quiet stretch of road near Newburgh, he told me to get ready. Rolling down my window, I picked up a Signs. Swerving into the opposite lane, my father shouted, “Throw!” and I heaved a missile into the yard of a yellow farm house, scattering some chickens into a dead run.

“Not bad for a first try,” said my father, veering back into his own lane.

“Do you have to do that?” said my mother. “It makes me nervous.”

“Me, too,” said my younger sister. “It’s dangerous.”

“It’s fine,” said my father, ignoring them. “Nobody was coming.”

At the next house, I threw too late and the Signs went sailing into a ditch.

“Don’t worry about it!” cried my father. “We have more where that came from.”

He was deliriously happy. You could tell by the sound of his voice. His happiness spread around the inside of our car and chased away any doubts about the rightness of our cause.

Sitting behind my father, I slung magazines into yards throughout the Willamette Valley, pleased by the way the little tubes sailed through the summer air. Sometimes you could see them turning slowly in flight, the sun reflecting off their glossy surface. They made a whistling sound when they left my hand and a pleasant thump when they landed in someone’s yard.

Looking back at me, my father said, “Do you feel it?”

“What do you mean?” I said.

He laughed. “Keep throwing. You’ll see.”

In Dundee, I threw a Signs into a hedge, where it got stuck in the branches. Near McMinnville, I hit a mailbox and bent the little red flag. In Amity, I threw a magazine into a culvert where it disappeared. Pulling over for gas in Corvallis, my father gave me a pep talk.

“Your technique is good, but you have to throw it a little harder. Can you do that?”

“I think he’s doing great,” said my mother.

“So do I. I’m just trying to encourage him.”

The trick, I discovered, was using a sidearm motion, with a quick flick of the wrist. It also took an exquisite sense of timing: throwing one millisecond too soon or too late meant missing the house altogether. My goal was to throw the missile right to the threshold, so the person had only to open the door and pick it up. But a rolled-up magazine is not a ball or a rock, and it’s neither weighty nor spherical like most thrown objects. I pitched Signs into birdbaths and wheelbarrows, and sometimes against tree trunks, but rarely onto doorsteps. If I missed the target badly, my father would throw back his head and howl, the sound disappearing into the wind.

In truth, he loved it all. He didn’t care when I missed a yard or threw a magazine into a ditch. It was all part of witnessing, which wasn’t an exact science. He had a hundred more magazines when I had exhausted our supply. He hoarded them like bars of gold.

“Here comes a house!” my father shouted over his shoulder. “Get ready!”

And so I threw, again and again, one house after another as the miles rolled by. It was a miracle of efficiency. I could witness to twenty houses in the time it once took me to do three. Best of all, I didn’t have to talk to anyone. And no one could say “no” to me or close a door in my face. It was the perfect way to witness if you didn’t want to meet people.

That first night of the trip I lay in our motel room imagining all the good I had done that day. I saw some solitary fellow mowing his lawn and finding my Signs in the grass, then reading the article on how to find a marriage partner and putting the tips into practice. Then, in a fast-forward, I saw him and his wife running hand-in-hand through a meadow, the woman’s hair flying in the breeze, and imagined meeting them years later and announcing that I was the one responsible for getting them together. This made me warm all over. We are just as pleased, I have found, by the idea we may have done some good as we are by any hard evidence of it.

The next day, back on the road, I started imagining how I was going to change dozens of lives. I had a grand conception of myself as a rescuer of the lonely and unhappy. But as I threw my magazines at the passing houses, where people could be seen moving about behind the windows or working in their yards or gardens, it wasn’t always easy to imagine a cheery outcome. The looks on the faces I saw, and the way people comported themselves, told me more about where they had been than where they were going. All of these things were clues that pointed backwards rather than forwards, as so often happens in life.

Approaching Junction City, we passed a man walking along the road with a slight limp, almost unnoticeable, but there nonetheless. Was he a veteran? I wondered. Had he fought in World War II? I imagined him running through the woods after German soldiers, then being launched into a tree by an explosion, his arms and legs going in opposite directions. Now he lived in a veteran’s home where he played checkers with the other wounded men and went for walks along the road. He’d never married, but that was fine. What he minded was the limp, which made him self-conscious. He’d been able-bodied before the war, but now he needed help with things and couldn’t walk as fast as other people, and that bothered him.

All of this, whether true or not, made me wish I knew the man personally. The details I had just told myself were persuasive. Not wanting to hit him with a Signs, I waited until we had passed, then tossed the magazine into the grass and hoped he would pick it up as he came along.

In Junction City, we stopped at a red light. I was counting my Signs to see how many I had left when I heard voices through my open window. In the house to our left, a blond-haired young man was leaning out a second-story window, talking to a young woman standing by the fence. It started again, the imagining and conjecture. This young man was Scandinavian. His family owned a farm in Finland, where the nights were cold and the stars bright. Now he worked at the local hardware store where his accent had charmed this young woman when she came in yesterday. Originally from Portland, she had moved to Junction City to try and start a new life. He’d seen her walking by and called her name, and she’d been flattered that he remembered it. Both of them were lonely, but something had drawn them together. It seemed to me, watching them smile and laugh, that all people want is to meet someone who also wants to meet them. It was not a profound observation, but it seemed so to my twelve-year-old mind.

I waited until the last second when the light changed and then threw the Signs. It rolled past the woman’s feet and stopped at the fence. She glanced up as we pulled away, but the car behind us blocked my view. Nevertheless, she had seen me; I was sure of that.

Everywhere I threw my magazines from that point on, I seemed to have broken through a barrier. The invisible plane between me and everything else vanished, as if all it took was a magic word. The world had absorbed me, swallowed me up, pulled me close to its beating heart.

Near Eugene, behind a small house in a hayfield, I saw a woman hanging laundry in her backyard, the wind whipping the wet clothes about her face as she put one garment after another on the swinging line. She had four children, all under the age of ten, but she couldn’t provide for them now that her husband had left. Her children missed their father, and she had trouble explaining where he had gone because she didn’t know herself. She just knew he couldn’t be relied on any more, and she would probably have to ask her family for help. She felt empty and scared and couldn’t imagine raising her children alone. Just then she turned and glanced at the road, her hair whipping about her face, and saw an object fly out of a passing car and into her yard, and thought it was a newspaper, with all the news of yesterday, which had no bearing on her life, and so she turned back to the laundry, full of worry about her future.

“Do you feel it?” said my father, not looking back this time.

“Yes,” I said, watching the woman grow ever smaller behind us. Whatever he meant, whatever “it” was, it had to be something very close to what I was feeling at that moment.

By the time we made it to Grants Pass, near the California border, I was throwing the Signs within reaching distance of almost every door. I threw without thinking, as if my arm were acting on its own, as if muscle and intention were one. There was a kind of synchronicity to it all, as if throwing and being were the same thing, and all part of the purpose of my life.

I think of that trip every time I go back to Oregon and find myself in the Willamette Valley. If I let my mind wander, I can still see those people along the road in all their wondrous particularity—the limping veteran, the young couple, the woman at her wind-tossed clothesline, and all the others. Whether I changed anyone’s life is doubtful, but maybe that wasn’t the point. My father, it seems to me, was really trying to win over his son, who loved any game that involved throwing, but had not yet learned to love others. The assortment of people along our route, each with their own personal history, changed all that. Each of them, I’m convinced, was witnessing to me. Each of them had a story to tell, and the fact that I had seen one part of it, or thought I had, made me feel more connected to the great family of earth to which I belonged.

Bruce Benway


Bruce Benway, PhD, is a creative director in New York. His writing has appeared in Threepenny Review, The Baltimore Sun, Quantum and other publications. He is executive producer of “White Woman, Black Boy,” a play featured in the 2021 Broadway Bound Theatre Festival, and is producing a film based on a fictional meeting between Emily Dickinson and Arthur Conan Doyle.

paper texture

I toss my head back and press my eyes shut as I down my fifth Jägerbomb, the shot glass clinking inside the lowball, a spicy warmth sliding down my throat and spreading to my fingers, the music a dull thrum against my temples. I take a drag from the hookah in front of me and breathe in a swirl of grape-mint, water gurgling in the glass base. I can tell that Tarun Tehlani is checking me out over his drink from the far corner of the bar, but I pretend as though I am unaware of his occasional glances, and I hook my arm around Mouli’s neck as she holds up a digicam for a selfie, both of us swaying clumsily on our stilettos, crowds of inebriated teenagers pressing up against us. I recognize faces of classmates—a girl from my economics class, a bespectacled boy from my computer science tuition, the captain of the nature club who was recently caught two-timing his girlfriend, his girlfriend and her friends from the dance team.

“Don’t look now, but oh my god, Tarun is to your right,” Mouli says into my ear, louder than she probably expects to, her breath reeking of liquor. Tarun, a senior, is the scion of a wealthy Sindhi family from Alipore, and he’s quite the rage with the girls at our high school.

I’m drunk and single enough to be flirtatious, and I bend forward on the mezzanine mosaic bar top and sweep my hair over to my left side so that my chandelier earring catches a sliver of the purple light scattered by the disco ball above and glimmers in the fluorescent darkness.

Tarun takes a swig of his scotch and smiles, nods hey. He’s in a green Ralph Lauren shirt and his hair appears to have been meticulously tousled. A Punjabi song comes on, and Mouli tugs me away from the bar; we totter down a flight of stairs and toward the cramped dancefloor, hey-ing to people we only barely recognize, elbowing our way through, stepping on someone’s foot, pushing against a girl who spills some of her martini and mouths an obscenity.

It’s two a.m., and just a few hours earlier, Rishad, my boyfriend—now ex-boyfriend—of two years called to say that he was boarding a flight to America and that he’d miss me. He graduated from our high school earlier this summer, and I still have a year to go. He’s a laconic guy, and he kept the conversation curt, touching briefly upon the hours it would take to get to Doha and then Des Moines. He didn’t say we were breaking up. He didn’t have to; it was a given. He’d spent the previous year taking his TOEFL and SATs and applying to foreign universities, and I’d understood—or been made to understand—early on the implications of his impending departure for undergraduate studies. Although I’d seen the separation coming for months, I found myself swallowing back riotous tears, not so much out of shock but more so from being forced to confront and deal with the inevitable eventuality that I had been putting off coming to terms with.

“Why don’t you apply for uni here,” I’d asked him one evening on the front steps of my verandah, under the gulmohar tree in my garden, my calico brushing up against his leg. He was a meritorious student, a school prefect, and the captain of the golf team, and would, I was certain, have no trouble getting admitted into a prestigious university of his choosing here in Calcutta. “To Xavier’s or JU or Presidency,” I continued, hoping to sway him with the options.

He shrugged, picking up my calico and placing her on his knee. “Nah, they don’t have white girls here,” he said, and I gave him a light punch on the shoulder.

Now his words seep back to me through the blaring din, and my gut churns.

Everything’s a pounding, dizzying whirl. I’ve had one too many drinks, and I feel heavy one moment, vacuous and light-headed another. Strobe lights flash through silver veils of cigarette smoke. Two guys to my right grope a girl who appears to be underage, probably seventeen like me or younger. An older teen in a sequin dress gyrates on a tabletop, her breasts spilling like butter out of a dipping décolleté. A newly released hit by a Scottish DJ comes on—I recognize the track, “Drop The Pressure,” because Rishad often played it on his car’s stereo when he’d pick me up to go have coffee at CCD or brunch at the Tolly Club—and Mouli grinds to the music. I notice a slight rip in her skirt but don’t mention it. We carve out a niche on the dancefloor beside a speaker, and the music pulses syncopated beats through my sternum.

Mouli holds my hand above my head and twirls me around. The room spins in a disorienting haze of purple faces, laughter, beer bottles, more laughter. I imagine Rishad at an airport security checkpoint in Doha, lugging his suitcases, his backpack, and his Titleist golf bag onto a conveyor belt. He drums his passport and boarding pass while waiting in line behind a tall girl—she could be American, English, Finnish, or Polish; I can’t guess her ethnicity, but she’s white—with honey-blonde curls cascading over bare, slender shoulders.

“Hey, you’ve dropped something,” he says, his right dimple deepening in a lopsided grin.

“Oh, thanks,” she replies, bending to reveal a smattering of freckles on her neck and breasts, like the flecks on a trout’s skin. She’s pretty, definitely prettier than me. He notices the peep of her cleavage and the swell of her hips, taut against her denims.

“See, I told you you’d be over Rishad in no time,” Mouli says, slurring her words.

“I guess,” I mumble, nauseous. “I need to go pee.”

“Do you want me to come with—”

“No, I’ll be right back,” I insist, holding my palm up to her face.

I squirm through massed, sweaty middle-schoolers who smell of cheap deodorant. I wonder whether the girls have told their mothers that they’re out drinking with boys, or whether they’ve insisted that they’re finishing homework at sleepovers with other girls—I’m certain that it’s the latter. My mom thinks I’m staying over at Mouli’s for the night, and her mother believes she’s at mine. We’re supposed to be completing a history project on Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army. The two guys who were groping a girl are now plying her with a drink. I am tempted to ask if she’s okay, if she needs help getting a cab, getting home, to offer her some lime water and bully the guys into backing off, but I do none of these things.

Instead, I lurch into the women’s washroom, where I find all three cubicles occupied. I cross my legs and hold in my bladder. There are clumps of toilet paper beside my foot. One of the cubicle doors is ajar, and a girl is slumped against the commode, a string of yellow spittle draping down from her mouth whilst her friend holds her hair up over her face. I glimpse the mirror and wince. My eyeliner has smudged and my lipstick strayed along the corners of my mouth. I fiddle in my black clutch—Rishad used to tell me that the redder the shade of lipstick, the sluttier the girl—and I pull out the reddest shade and apply it.

The girl beside me is shading in her brows, puckering her lips. A few girls from the dance team enter, and snippets of conversation reach me: “He’s such a harami,” “He can go fuck himself.” One of the girls is sobbing, her mascara meandering down her cheeks, and her friends console her: “Leave him yaar, he’s a jerk,” “You deserve way better, Neha.” I slide into a vacant cubicle and when I sit, the walls shift, the cubicle wheels around. I press my forehead into my palms, suppressing the urge to cry, a resentment welling up inside me like bile. I thought, quite foolishly it now strikes me, that going drinking would ease the discomfort of the breakup—it was Mouli’s decision to go drinking; she believes alcohol is the solution to every problem, however stubborn or unforeseen—but as the realization that Rishad has left me and this city for good begins to cement, I feel the sting of tears and a sweep of indignity. He’d said a year ago that when he would leave for college, the breakup “would be mutual,” but it doesn’t feel mutual; it feels as though I’ve been arm-twisted into agreeing to it; it feels almost as though I’ve been dumped.

Dumped. The word is jarring and ungainly and appears inside me like a kidney stone. My stomach tightens, and I break out into a cold sweat. I hear a toilet flush, vomiting and hacking, the sound of a pedal bin, and I’m accosted by a vague and nebulous uneasiness. I pull my pants up and teeter to my feet and stumble out of the washroom into the shimmying darkness, a drape of toilet paper clung to my heels. A bouncer asks if I’m okay, and I kick the toilet paper off and wave him away with “I’m fine.” I’m fine, really. I’ve been drinking on an empty stomach, and I decide to ask Mouli if we can take a taxi to Azad Hind restaurant for dinner. I imagine greasy platefuls of food served under the red glow of silk lampshades. My stomach rumbles at kulcha and malai kofta and daal makhani. Mouli is laughing, surrounded by a circle of her friends. A song by Bombay Rockers comes on and she squeals. I hesitate, take a few steps back, fumble in my clutch for my pack of Gold Flake Lights, and begin cleaving my way out of the club.

Out on Camac Street, the night is warm, and the streets are empty. A breeze stirs against my skin, and I’m grateful for the fresh air. I can’t remember much of the elevator ride down, as my memory has started to fragment. The shacks and shanties with their tarpaulin awnings are draped in the orange shadows of streetlamps. Mice scuttle in gutters. The night carousels.

I light a cigarette with trembling hands. The smoke fills my lungs along with my unspoken confessions, and I begin to count them one by one like rosary beads. I wasn’t prepared for Rishad to leave, even though I’d been warily counting the days for his departure. I wanted a long-distance relationship, although it would cost me eighty rupees per minute. I wanted to follow him to Iowa, although I’d never stepped foot outside the continent. I wanted him to ask me to move with him, but I never mustered the boldness to say so. I wanted him to stay—

A blue Honda crunches to a halt in front of me. Its tinted window rolls down.

“You waiting for someone?” Tarun asks, his elbow resting on the sill.

“My friend’s upstairs,” I nod, “I’m just—getting some air.”

The car dawdles. “You wanna join me for a drive?”

Tarun has a reputation of promiscuity, and so, I hesitate.

“She’s definitely a slut for being with him,” Rishad once said to me during an annual interschool music fest, when Tarun walked past with a girl on his arm and his striped tie loose around his neck, shirt half-untucked under his black blazer. A band was performing onstage in the auditorium; someone was crooning “Zombie” by the Cranberries. “I never wanna see you around him, you understand?” Rishad continued, sliding his hand over mine, his brow furrowing.

“Of course,” I replied, bringing his hand to my lips.

I walk over to the passenger’s seat of the Honda, stubbing my cigarette out with my shoe, and I slide in. The car smells of fresh leather seats and citrus air freshener and something else—Tarun is rolling a joint, tucking the paper down into its cardboard filter.

“I noticed that you were kinda bored up there,” he says, licking the paper. He has a light scar over his right brow. He’s unconventionally handsome, I conclude—I almost stop thinking about Rishad; almost. In the glare of the headlights, an old woman, probably homeless, squats on her haunches on a cardboard mat beside a blackened cauldron on the pavement.

“Your friend looked like she was havin’ a good time,” he continues, packing down the tip of the joint with a pen. He lights it, takes a drag, and leans in to hand it to me. I catch a whiff of his perfume—Davidoff Cool Water. I hold the joint in my hand stupidly, afraid to take a hit.

I promised Rishad that I’d never do drugs.

I inhale a drag and cough, my throat burning, and Tarun laughs a lazy laugh, his eyes glazed. As the car turns into Park Street, everything stretches and slows down into a crawl—Stephen Court and Park Mansions, nightspots and jazz bars spilling smoke, juddering yellow taxis, paan shops with rusted metal shutters pulled down, teens staggering down colonnaded arcades, beggars crouched in shadowy corners, loitering ragpickers, dim hotel lobbies, dark windows of restaurants and bistros and the tearoom where Rishad and I used to stop for our favorite coupes and sundaes. A somnolent city inches into view degree by small degree. Along the AJC Bose Road flyover, the Victoria Memorial rises from behind box-like buildings, its green lights shimmering through the smog, its white marble dome arching into the sky like a breast, a bronze faerie perched atop the monument like the guardian deity of sprawling slums.

“How’s Rishad?” Tarun asks, two fingers on the steering wheel, his second joint lit.

“He’s left town for college, he’s going to Grinnell,” I reply as I text Mouli on my flip-phone, thumbing a string of smileys, letting her know that I’m okay.

“Ah, good for him. And what’s up with you?” he asks.

“Preparing for boards, that’s about it.”

He doesn’t ask whether Rishad and I are still together. Perhaps he doesn’t need to.

“What do you plan to do after school?” he asks instead.

I shrug. I haven’t seriously considered it.

“I don’t know. What about you?”

“I might take a year off,” he replies, taking a drag and passing the joint to me.

“To chill?”

“No, uh—my parents are getting a divorce. I wanna be there for my sister.”

“Sorry to hear that,” I mumble, after which an awkward silence sets in.

He clicks on the stereo. The dashboard reads a song by Above & Beyond, and Zoë Johnston’s voice fills the car. Outside, the sky is turning tinsel-gray. Crows begin to caw atop electricity poles sprouting tangles of wires. A coconut vendor rattles his cart down the street.

“Anyway, I should probably drop you back—” he says.

“To my friend’s place in Jadavpur,” I reply.

“But only after—” his words trail off.

Oh gosh, he wants to make out, I think, and I fidget in my seat, uncomfortable, unsure of how I feel. I only just broke up a few hours ago, and I don’t believe I’m ready for this. The alcohol is wearing out, and a tiredness weighs heavy over my shoulders, a strange lethargy.

“But only after you try the chai at this place I’ve been going to for years.”

I’m not sure that I’ve heard him right. “Chai?”

His car turns into Bhowanipore and passes rambling bungalows with slatted green windows and finally pulls up at a small dhaba beside the gurudwara on Elgin Road. The sunroof above me glides open to a sky that is broken by the grasping branch of a banyan tree. A cool, air-conditioned breeze rushes out of the car, and the smell of sewers and freshly-fried luchis wafts in.

I look up at the sky, wonder which way is America.

A boy approaches, his vest blackened with soot, a grubby red cloth slung over his shoulder. He’s carrying a tray, and he hands us each an earthen cup of tea.

I take a sip, and the flavor takes me by surprise.

“Wow, this chai is really fucking good,” I say, a sudden relief swirling rich and creamy.

“I know, right?” Tarun replies. “Oh, but wait, the chai isn’t complete without—”

He nods toward the boy, who hands us paper platefuls of fluffy samosas and toasts golden with butter and sprinkled with sugar. I nibble on the warm, sweet bread. Beside our car, a man in a chequered loincloth works a hand pump into a plastic bucket. A couple of pariah dogs roll in the dirt. I hear the gush of water, the jingle and clink of a rickshaw, the clatter of steel utensils from the dhaba’s kitchen—a city tossing off its tumbled sheets and stirring to its feet.

I dip a samosa into tamarind chutney, and my mind wanders like a leaf and comes to rest on the image that I hold of America, the America that Rishad has left me for, its autumn leaves, breweries, county fairs, and tall-grass prairies sprinkled with wildflowers. I picture steepled churches with Gothic windows and red-brick university buildings ornamented with Ionic pilasters. I imagine Rishad in a departure lounge that hangs over a blinking runway, planes lifting off over tarmac. He’s bent over his Nokia phone, waiting to board his flight to Des Moines, his earbuds plugged into his iPod Mini, a tan hoodie pulled over his bowed head, and I’m uncertain whether he’s texting to say he’s thinking of me or playing a game of Bounce.

I imagine him nodding to sleep in a fleece blanket in the soft, low hum of an airplane cabin, a cranberry juice or an Agatha Christie novel on his lit-up tray, and I begin to wonder, through a mouthful of gingery potato, what someone would see if he were to squeak his palm across the cold oval of an airplane’s window and look down onto this city that is emerging from twilight into morning, at the tops of terraces, hovels, tumbledown mansions, hoardings of gold jewelry, at the street lights blinking off and a car huddled under the shade of a fig tree and through the car’s sunroof, a couple of half-strangers sharing samosas with a side serving of life’s uncertainties.

I wonder what he would hear through the purple clouds when the nightclubs wind down, the DJs pack up, partygoers mill homeward, and the music straggles to a stop.

Bhavika Sicka


Bhavika Sicka is an emerging writer from Kolkata, India. She holds a BA in English from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi University, and an MFA from Old Dominion University. She has been a finalist for the Times of India's Write India contest and the recipient of the 2019 Dickseski Fiction Prize. Her work has appeared in Arkana, Cold Mountain Review, Lunch Ticket, and Waxwing, among other journals.

paper texture

The Spectacular Years Collapse


Remember when you couldn’t buy your own candy? When dollars were a thing only grown-ups had, and they got to choose what was worthy of them? You remember, but hardly. It was so long ago, eras or eons or entire geological time periods, so you hardly remember sitting in the bucket seats of the minivan, fields and fields, cows and horses and bales of hay, while Mom doled out little surprises for good behavior: a gold gel pen, a mega roll of hard Spree. Remember how rich you felt with it melting in your pocket, staining the pale cloth red and blue and green?

I was eight years old, three days shy of nine, when we set out for Yellowstone National Park from Green Bay, Wisconsin. Three days shy of nine, no camera of my own, armed only with a composition notebook. There are photos of this trip, probably an entire three-ring album full of them, but I don’t have access to it. It’s somewhere in my parents’ house, somewhere I haven’t ventured in many years, somewhere that is blocked off to me now that I no longer speak to its inhabitants, now that we’ve all surrendered to the slow tectonic rupture, decades in the making, me stranded alone on the other side.

Almost alone, I should have written, because it's important to be precise with words. My sister has one of the photos tacked up on her bulletin board at work: the two of us straddling a jackalope statue on the streets of Wall Drug, a tourist trap located somewhere between Mount Rushmore and the Badlands of South Dakota. I don’t have any photos and I barely have any memories, but I still have that notebook, which is how I know, now, about Mom’s surprises, and how large they loomed compared to the many wonders the West has to offer: a bison sleeping on a slab of stone in the hot springs where the steam changed colors in the sunlight, just a few feet away from the boardwalk, no fences to protect us if it woke up angry. Blues so saturated they hurt my eyes, and rows of mountain ranges crumbled up like broken teeth on the horizon.

These vaguely violent images aren’t from the notebook. I invented them just now, sitting at my desk in my Chicago studio apartment more than two decades later, leafing through the notebook searching for something, while snow falls furiously outside my window like it’s trying to wound the ground.

You remember, don’t you? You remember, and you understand: This is a memory, not a fact. This is a specific kind of truth.


Every day in my notebook, I record Mom’s surprises: a roll of Necco Wafers, a cherry-flavored sucker. Every day I record the fact of waking up: “I just woke up in my bed.” “I just woke up and got dressed.” “I just woke up in the trailer.” Every day I record what I eat: a PBJ, pears, juicy pears, popcorn, lemonade, a Frosty from Wendy’s, a donut from the gas station. Every day I declare at the bottom of the page, “Today was a great day!” I use one exclamation point to confirm it was, indeed, a great day, and two or more to confirm it was, instead, an exceptionally great day, a great day better than all the other great days before it. Once I use seven exclamation points, a star, and a smiley face, all in a row: the Everest of great days.

I fill my notebook with observations like, “We are crossing a river. It is very wide,” and “Now the beautiful scenery is blocked by a small hill,” and “We are going to eat breakfast while looking out the window at the presidents. That is considered looking at Mount Rushmore. Neat!” I struggle to describe the “beautiful scenery” because my tools are clumsy—the only adjectives I know are “neat” and “cool” and, once in a while, “breathtaking.” I devote three pages to the Badlands, lacking the language for adequate similes, let alone good ones. “It looks exactly like the moon!” I suggest, on July 17, 1999. I keep trying: “The Badlands look like mountains, but I know they’re not.” “The view reminds me of Mount Moon from Pokémon.” “The scenery looks just like the Grand Canyon”—a place I’ve never been. I know some colors, so I list those out: brown, pink, red, orange, purple. I recognize patterns: stripes, zig-zags. I call the clouds “grumpy” and complain about the rain, which is “destroying the beautiful vista.”

Besides the daily surprises, there is almost no mention of my parents throughout these pages, though there are traces of them if you look hard enough. “Vista,” for example, is a word I’ve started using after asking, “What’s another word for ‘scenery’?” Once in a while I come up with a sentence like, “It looks like someone took a knife and cut some of the mountain off,” or, “The mountains look like someone just came along and painted them with watercolors”—observations I’ve surely stolen word for word from some other source: my sister, perhaps, three years my senior and already an artist in the making, or, more likely, my dad, holding his video camera out in front of him and staring past it vaguely, eyes unfocused, white socks pulled halfway up his calves above the gleaming sneakers he got free from his little brother, a Nike company man of high stature.

“It looks like it might rain today,” I write ominously on July 18, 1999. “The clouds are darkening. Jenny and I are going to draw horses now. Today was a great day!”


After “neat,” the most common word in the notebook is probably “Jenny.” To read my account, you’d think we were on this trip alone, just the two of us, without our parents, without our little brother. There is something untrustworthy about the filter of a child, the massive optimism, the impressionable sponge that is the brain, the inability to turn experience into language and language into reliable memories. Even that phrasing is deceptive, a paradox; memory is a notoriously unreliable form of currency.

Today, my sister is my sole tether to my family, the only proof I have that I once belonged to them, that they once belonged to me. The reason for this is simple: She forgives them, and I cannot. She forgives them and I cannot and sometimes I don’t know if I can even forgive her for forgiving them, and this is why my relationship with my sister, my sole tether to my family, is flimsy, skeletal, a deciduous tree in a perpetual winter. She checks in now and then. She texts me photos of baby bunnies that hop into her lawn. “Hope we can carve out time to catch up soon,” she writes cheerfully in a Christmas card, but I know she won’t follow up and she doesn’t. Neither do I. This is what remains. This is what I’ve got.

The reason for this is complicated, I should have written, because it’s important to be precise with words. In the Wall Drug photo, my sister is awkward and overalled, frizz-haired and grinning so mightily you can count all her braces even from the distance at which the photo is taken, far enough to fit the top half of the jackalope in the frame, three times as big as both our girl-bodies combined. I’m behind her in the saddle, smiling with less force but no less joy, stick straight hair parted in the middle and pulled back in a low ponytail, my Accelerated Reader T-shirt tucked into some black denim shorts that surely belonged to her first. Both of us are thrusting two-fingered peace signs toward whoever is holding the camera, confident that we are performing, correctly, whatever it is family vacation photos are supposed to stand for.


Remember the documents of your childhood? The first dollar bill you found under your pillow, paradoxical proof of magic and fairies and growing older? The Pokémon cards? The tickets for the Lord of the Rings movie you saw in theaters seven times? The grease-stained Auntie Anne’s receipt from the first time you went to the mall by yourself? Maybe you don’t remember, or maybe you wouldn’t until you had them sitting in front of you, until you started flipping through an old composition notebook, the brochures you secured with Scotch tape in the back.

I am searching for something. The documents tell one story. The memories tell another. What I remember, what I wrote down, what actually happened. The horizon is not the line where the earth and the sky meet, only where they appear to. I can’t tell the story of my family straight, head-on. I have to look at it indirectly, out of the corner of my mind. I have to sneak up on it, or the whole thing might shudder and fade into something else:

This is a fact, not a memory. This is a specific kind of truth. Here is what it’s like, now that you’re thirty, surviving off the promise to all your selves, your starry-eyed younger selves and your regular-eyed older ones, the ones who need nothing and no one, that you’d leave and never look back: Lord of the Rings in bed every Thanksgiving, the dog snoring softly against your thigh. Baked potatoes in the microwave. You remember. You don’t remember. Your mother’s old wooden clock clicks like an insect on the wall while you try to write it down.


Every day in my notebook, I record Mom’s surprises: a pack of sugar-free gum, a grape-flavored Baby Bottle Pop. Every day I record the fact of waking up: “I just woke up in my bed.” “I just woke up and got dressed.” “I just woke up. Today is going to be even better than yesterday!” Every day I record what I eat: applesauce, three baby carrots, a baked potato over the fire pit, frozen Gogurt while watching Jumanji (“the best movie in the world!!!!!”), pizza at Pizza Hut, a PBJ, an unidentified “special dessert” for my ninth birthday.

Jenny and I spend a lot of the trip chewing gum and drawing. We spend a lot of the trip writing in our notebooks. We spend a lot of the trip filling out worksheets at nature talks so that we can earn Junior Ranger badges to take home and sew onto our Brownies vests. “Today we learned that a hummingbird’s nest is the size of a quarter and their eggs are the sizes of peas!” I write on July 20, 1999. “That’s how small hummingbirds are,” I add, just in case. We learn that when a beaver senses danger, it slaps its tail on the water to warn the other beavers to return to their lodges for safety. In front of “lodges,” I’ve crossed out “dams.” “Beavers do build dams,” I correct myself, on July 21, 1999, “but they LIVE in lodges.” We learn that when beavers abandon their lodges, otters take over and live in them instead. “How lazy they are!” I write, appalled by the audacity of otters. We learn that if a bear is chasing you, you shouldn’t climb a tree. “Dumb!” I write, appalled by the stupidity of humans. I don’t write what you’re supposed to do to escape a bear instead of climbing a tree.

We see a “dad moose” eating grass and leaves at sunset. “Everyone else saw his antlers, but I just saw his butt,” I lament. We see a mud volcano—“a bubbling pond of mud,” I explain, helpfully—called Dragon’s Mouth Cauldron, and we see the prettiest trumpeter swan and two big handsome elk. “I’ve never seen any elk handsomer than them,” I proclaim on July 26, 1999. I report that falcons eat other birds in the same matter-of-fact tone I use to report my little brother stealing a marble from a basket at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum. “Dad had to take the crying baby Luke to the van,” I write. “Oh, well.”


This I remember decades later even without the assistance of the notebook: Luke howling like the world was ending when my dad made him put the marble back. Or maybe the memory isn’t mine—maybe it belongs to my sister. Maybe I’m appropriating it because my own memories of this trip are so wispy, only visible when they catch the sunlight just so. Maybe I didn’t even witness this scene when it actually happened, maybe all I’m remembering is the way my sister tells the story, sometimes giggling, sometimes laughing so hard she cries.

A few years ago, she posted the Wall Drug photo to her Instagram with the caption, “#tbt to the wild wild west #walldrug #jackalope #familyvacation.” This is the only version of the only photo I have access to: a photo of a photo, several layers removed from reality. Her profile is a blend of #tbt photos like this, plucked freely from my parents’ albums, as well as current photos of her and her husband beaming in the company of my parents and my brother, a shiny family unit looking happier than I remember us ever being: the five of them at Thanksgiving, the five of them at my sister’s graduation, the five of them plus my brother’s new wife at his wedding.

I’ve never met her—the new wife. I’ve met her, I should have written, because it’s important to be precise with words, but only once or twice, years and years ago, back when she and my brother were both nervous undergrads, not adults with their own health insurance, apparently. “Do you regret not going?” I asked myself while I was swiping through all thirty-one of the wedding photos my sister posted to Instagram. “Not even at all,” I answered, out loud and not without scorn, but I felt like there was a bone or a thorn lodged in my throat, or like I needed a drink of water but couldn’t remember how to swallow, or some other feeling I didn’t and still don’t know how to package into words.

I read each one of the captions, jangling with hashtags and emojis: “#mawwiage #oncloudconnelly #nofilter.” I threw my phone out the window. I didn’t throw my phone out the window, but I never tapped the heart.


Remember the documents of your childhood? The school photos in multiple sizes, your hair braided tight and painful, baby teeth falling out year after year, one by one or three or five? All those Seventeen magazines, clippings of Hayden Christensen, Elijah Wood, sticky tack bleeding through the corners because you weren’t allowed to use tape on the walls? The notes written in sparkly gel pen, changing colors every line, folded up like origami and dropped into a Skechers shoebox under the bed, code names on the front and the back, your hands still remember how to crease the seams just so?

I don’t know whether the brochures, the notebook, would be considered primary or secondary sources. I don’t know which kind is more valuable, more beholden to the truth, and I don’t suppose it matters. When I wrote that the documents tell one story and the memories tell another, I should have written the documents tell many stories and the memories tell many more. I am searching for something, anything, that could reveal the cracks present in the nine-year-old’s glossy bubblegum-pop account of this family vacation:

This is a fact, not a memory. This is a specific kind of truth. Here is what it’s like, now that you’re thirty, surviving off the promise to all your selves, your starry-eyed younger selves and your regular-eyed older ones, the ones who need nothing and no one, that you’d leave and never look back: Pancake batter made with water instead of milk. Vanilla ice cream straight from the carton. You remember. You don’t remember. It’s dark as a cave in there, your eyes just as likely to be open as closed. You try to write it down.


Every day in my notebook, I record Mom’s surprises: a beanie baby wolf for me, a beanie baby ostrich for Jenny, a beanie baby squirrel for the crying baby Luke. Every day I record the fact of waking up: “I just woke up in my bed.” “I just woke up and got dressed.” “I just woke up. We are going to look for moose where we saw them before.” Every day I record what I eat: a plate of spaghetti, two baby carrots, raspberry applesauce, mixed cereal, fluffy buttermilk pancakes, a mix of chocolate ice cream and vanilla ice cream in a bowl with flowers around the edges, a PBJ, a “hot peace of bacon.”

“We’re at our hotel,” I write on July 24, 1999. “It is yellow because we are in Yellowstone.” We always stay five to a room, my sister and I in one bed, Mom and Dad in the other, the crying baby Luke on the pullout couch with his Gameboy. It is not neat sleeping in a bed with my sister, who hogs the blankets and kicks my shins with her heels. It is not neat when the hotel pool is only three feet deep and when the view from our window is the parking lot. It is not neat that when we arrive at our next destination, we will have to unload all our luggage again. “Once again, we are staying at another Holiday Inn,” I complain in my notebook toward the end of the trip. “We’ve stayed in four of them with this as the fifth already.” It is not neat to eat at the Holiday Inn every night, instead of at a real restaurant, because kids eat free at the Holiday Inn. It is not neat when we have to switch rooms because there are ants in the beds.

But hotels are, in general, pretty neat. I devote an entire page to describing the stuffed animals my siblings and I receive as a welcome gift from the “lady at the counter” at the first Holiday Inn, and another to the choreography my sister and I practice in the hotel pool later that night: “1) Dive off the edge. 2) Do a front flip underwater. 3) Spin around underwater (what we call the screwdriver). 4) Do a pike dive. 5) Small routine with arms.”

“It wasn’t as easy as it sounds”—a crucial rejoinder, afterwards.


No matter how cheap, there is something soothing about hotels, some unmatchable level of sanctuary, Jenny and I have always agreed. I have loathed holidays since adolescence—the forced togetherness, the inevitable eruptions—but hotels are clean and quiet and they feel safe like the inside of a church. The TV is always on with the volume turned low and there’s always someone nearby, smelling faintly of chlorine and cheap shampoo, close enough to reach out and touch but almost definitely asleep, or at least, too tired to get angry.

I remember my mom as an angry woman. I don’t remember her on this trip just like I don’t remember most of this trip, but the years that came after I remember as defined by fear, by dread, as she kept getting meaner, crueler, less predictable. I remember how the rest of us fell in line behind her, how my dad kept getting gone, working late, working weekends, while my siblings and I tiptoed around her mood swings as if we were sneaking out at night. My sister stopped saying no, learned to apologize every third word, to cry preemptively like a security deposit, and the crying baby Luke developed such a lunatic temper they almost sent him to military school. He was all rage so often I grew as fearful of him as I was of my mom, and meanwhile I was perfecting the art of isolation, of pushing away, of convincing whoever thinks they love me that they are equivalent to the guy who climbed a tree to try to escape a grizzly: “Dumb!”

But the years after Yellowstone are not what this essay is about. This essay is about ten days and a nine-year-old with a notebook and how we do the best we can with what we’ve got. That’s what I should have written, because it’s important to be precise with words. We learn what it takes to protect ourselves, and then we survive.


Remember the documents of your childhood? The school projects, the report cards, “a pleasure to have in class”? Remember the tickets to the minor-league hockey games, the Goo Goo Dolls concert? Remember the AIM logs, printed off the Laser Jet next to the family computer, there was never enough ink but the drawers were always full of clean white paper, stacked into sturdy rectangles, wrapped up crisp like birthday presents from distant well-meaning relatives?

Were we an unhappy family already, in 1999? I can find no evidence to suggest it, but you can find anything if you look hard enough. The evidence could be hiding inside the surprises and why I recorded them so faithfully, without directly mentioning my parents otherwise: not because positive attention was the rule during this time of my life, something valuable I could rely on, but because it was the exception. Not because they were something I’d earned, something good that came my way as the result of something I’d done or hadn’t done, but because they were symbols of approval—tangible things that verified I had pleased them, my mom and my dad, things I could hold in my hand or press against my tongue, roll around inside my mouth and savor, to remind us all I was worthy of their love, at least until the next day reared up in the morning and I had to convince them it was true all over again.

Or maybe it wasn’t like that when it actually happened. Maybe I was just a kid who wasn’t old enough to buy their own candy and I felt like a genuine king with a half-eaten roll of hard Spree melting in my pocket, staining the pale cloth red and blue and green. Maybe there were no bad omens, no doomful signs, maybe foreshadowing is always a literary device, not a reality of lived experience. Maybe what I’m searching for doesn’t exist, maybe this trip was exactly as golden as it appears, a microcosm like a snow globe of a gilded time before the fall, a time when we were a family whose greatest threats came from outside rather than within. Maybe there’s something valuable my sister is holding onto, something real and solid underlying her decision to remain part of this family where I could not, and think how it would all have to shift, to accommodate that truth:

Memory plus fact equals truth is always plural. Here is what it’s like, now that you’re thirty, surviving off the promise to all your selves, your starry-eyed younger selves and your regular-eyed older ones, the ones who need nothing and no one, that you’d leave and never look back: You’re still angry. You’re still afraid. You try to tell it. You don’t know how. You need to retrace it but the tracks are all gone. They’re nowhere, like you, now, pressing “Delete.” You press it again, and again.

? ? ?     DETOUR: YOU ARE NOW LOST     ? ? ?

In the back of my notebook, I find free postcards from the Holiday Inn—five carefully diverse children piled onto a bed, laughing and sharing an ice cream sundae—and brochures from various tourist attractions: The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota; Old Faithful and Mud Volcano in Yellowstone; Grand Teton National Park, half an hour south; Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse and The Birds of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. “Your free copy” or “25-cent donation,” it says on all the covers.

No matter how factual, the documents only tell exactly what they tell. They don’t tell about my dad, a company man like his little brother, but not at Nike, and not of stature, his face tired but his moustache not fully grey yet, digging around his pockets for a quarter so that I would have something to tape into the back of my notebook, something to help me remember this trip when I’m three times as old and haven’t spoken to my parents in years. They don’t tell how it was my mom who hated the Holiday Inns, who complained relentlessly about their smell, the cheap fabrics, the tacky art. They don’t tell how I used to crave the peculiar pain of twisting out my baby teeth before they were ready, the way a mouth tastes when it’s filling with blood, the delicious, crunching chord of all those roots snapping free, and they don’t tell how afraid I was of the bison sleeping in the hot springs, so close to the boardwalk and no fences to protect us. Did I hesitate when I saw it? Did I grip my sister’s hand more tightly? Was it a secret feeling, one that made me ashamed, and what about all the other secrets, events, experiences, feelings, that I never confessed, not even to my notebook, not even to myself?

There is something untrustworthy about the filter of a writer, the inevitable heavy hand, the ability to trap experiences inside words or at least rearrange them in space until they are no longer themselves. The more we tell ourselves a story, the better we think we’re remembering it, when really we’re just reinforcing our own biases, our own constructions of “what it all means,” because in order to keep getting out of bed without a family, walking the dog without a family, pushing buttons on the microwave without a family, I have needed to believe in my parents as villains. I have needed to remember it the way I remember it. I have needed to believe it’s not my fault, the rupture, the unforgiveness, that it couldn’t have happened any other way, now that I am three times as old and I haven’t spoken to them in years, and I’ve needed to tell it in exactly this way, now, reclaim the story of this golden family vacation and shape it according to my 20/20 hindsight, because a notebook is tangible, concrete, but I can’t press it against my tongue, roll it around inside my mouth and savor it, rely on it to remind myself I am still, no matter what, theirs, and they are still, no matter what, mine; I am still, no matter what, worthy of their love.

What I remember, what I wrote down, what actually happened. Why I remember what I remember, and why I wrote down what I wrote down, and therefore what I don’t remember that actually happened, what I didn’t write down that did, too. It’s important to be precise with words, so maybe I’m not worthy, I should have written. Maybe I’m exactly as alone as I deserve to be, maybe that’s all I’ve been trying to say, this whole time, maybe all being a writer means is finding new words for all the other words we’ve been ignoring to keep ourselves alive, figuring out the best words to describe what we can’t stomach describing. Disguise, I should have written. Fear and fear and fear, I should have written, but we believe what we want to believe. We tell ourselves stories, even when there is no one left to convince.


On July 22, 1999, I write in my notebook, “I have to decide whether I’m going to stay at the trailer with Uncle Phil and Aunt Pam or leave with the rest of my family.” After a few blank lines, I confirm, “Jenny went back to the lodge, but I decided to stay at the trailer.” I find ways to occupy myself, alone, while my aunt and uncle read gas-station paperbacks in the upper bunk: “They said I can play with my flashlight until the light up there is off. Then I have to go to bed.”

I have memory wisps of staying in the trailer with Jenny: Jenny and I playing Uno sitting criss-cross on the tile floor. Jenny and I sneaking outside in the middle of the night to hunt constellations. Jenny and I inventing a dance routine to “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys, while the golden-hour sun makes the trees around us glitter. But I have no wisps, nothing at all, of staying there alone with my aunt and uncle, the rest of my family sleeping soundly somewhere far away, close enough to each other to reach out and touch.

Why? If I have learned to need nothing and no one, why don’t I remember this early instance of apartness, this proof that I have always been safer alone? Why doesn’t it make me feel triumphant, reading this passage so many years later, more than three times as old as I was when I wrote it? Why does it, instead, give me that thorn-in-the-throat-thirsty feeling I could never name, still don’t know how to name, will never know how to name?

The next night, at a Jackson Hole critter talk called Moose Mania!, I learn that during mating season, the bulls attack each other in an effort to impress the cows. In my notebook I write, “They fight until one gets too exhausted to go on.”

Jax Connelly


Jax Connelly (they/she) is an award-winning writer whose creative nonfiction explores the intersections of queer identity, unstable bodies, and mental illness. Their experimental and hybrid essays have received honors including Notables in the Best American Essays 2021 and 2019, Nowhere's Fall 2020 Travel Writing Prize, first place in the 2019 Prairie Schooner Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest, and the 2018 Pinch Literary Award for Creative Nonfiction, among others. Her work has also appeared in [PANK], Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, Pleaides, Ruminate, and more.

Learn More
paper texture

I did not wonder, not then, if it would last.

I did not wonder in those summers when a roller-skate key hung from a shoestring around my neck even in bed, ready for dawn, for concrete sidewalks spider-cracked beside our soft lawns. On our block, grass grew thick one yard to the next, mowed by white-T-shirted men, tuckered-out daddies to whom we belonged then. My older sister galloped those sidewalks on her make-believe horse, making her own way but still within the we—my three sisters, my parents, and me. I believed in the we like I believed in the God we prayed to on our knees at night and at Mass on Sundays in our tights and dresses.

On Saturday nights, neighborhood dads shot pool in our basement rec room while the kids twisted to Chubby Checker. Soon, the moms would claim the record player for “The Beer Barrel Polka” and pull a man or a child into the dance, and later, into our backyard to find the Big Dipper amid the stars. Standing together, our moms and dads, each with a Brandy Old-Fashioned or Pabst in hand, would point to constellations and planets, the brightest lights. We kids, huddled on our picnic table, looked up to their faces and beyond to the stars, rapt until we drooped with sleep into one another’s laps.

I did not know, not then, that belonging like that couldn’t last.


It was the 1960s. We lived on Milwaukee’s southwest side in a neighborhood bursting with young families. Most were white, a generation out of Europe. Even our homes looked alike: pale brick boxes, three bedrooms apiece in a thousand square feet, and a garage out back. Many families were Catholic like mine; a few were Lutheran. The slightest differences were noticed; even a child could see.

Many nights, Mom flung an old bedspread like a picnic blanket onto the living room carpet and gathered her girls for stories. I’d beg for the tale of a little boy who swore. For penance, he had to draw a circle on a shed’s wooden floor and pound in a nail for every naughty word. Soon, he swore less. For every day without a curse, he could pull one nail out. One day, he pulled the last. He was pleased but sad, too, for he saw that holes remained. Mortal sins can be forgiven, but not erased from a soul.


Just confess it, my uncle would say every time. I was six, then seven, the age of First Confession. He was my dad’s brother, a decade older than me and over two-hundred pounds. He’d lock me in his bedroom at my grandparents’ house, hold me to his bed, pull down our pants, and make me touch him as he touched me.

I stopped believing in God. He did not strike me down, as I’d imagined he would, when the wafer touched my tongue at my First Holy Communion. For I believed my secret was a mortal sin, too bad to be confessed. That was the start of being apart—from my parents beside me at the communion rail, from other little girls in white and little boys in black in catechism class, from the promise of heaven and answered prayers.

After Mass on Sundays, Dad was pleased to take his family on rides to the country. Sitting beside him, Mom kept watch over my sisters and me in the back of our green Ford Galaxie 500. She led us in song: “If I Had a Hammer” was a favorite. I sang loudly, rolling my window down now and then to let the world hear. Some summer evenings, we drove to Billy Mitchell Field airport. We watched jets take to the sky, our whole family sitting on the car’s hood in a gravel parking lot, longing together for the next liftoff.

Often on our rides, Mom would play the radio. Once, “Dear Abby” came on, full of advice. Abby told an anguished man, don’t hate yourself for loving another man. Mom switched off the sound. She turned around.

“The only reason your father and I would ever disown you is if you were homosexual,” she said.

She turned back. Dad didn’t speak. The Galaxie 500 kept moving. Houses and trees and cars continued to pass by. I wanted to start up another song but couldn’t find my voice. We were little girls. I was eight or nine. I didn’t know what a homosexual was, but a secret fear began to grow. Could I be the thing that would make my parents stop loving me?

It got bigger then—my need to be alone. I’d wait until our kitchen was empty so I could walk unnoticed to the basement door and tiptoe down. The sweet scent of sawdust rose to me like a welcome, although Dad’s workshop door was always closed. I’d feel my way into the darkness beneath the stairs, past stacked boxes of Christmas ornaments, hanging bags of woolen jackets, ice skates, and relinquished dolls to find my spot on the concrete. It was always cool. Darkness brought comfort. I wasn’t afraid. I longed for the smallness and quiet of that space, to be confined and unseen, free of Mom’s watchful eye. Like a shell, the stairwell held me.

I’d imagine the thrill of my legs pumping on our backyard swing, my hands pulling hard on side chains, flying.

I’d remember conversations I’d overheard, like Mom whispering to her friend that Dad didn’t talk about the war, except once he told her about seeing his buddy’s head, severed by a grenade’s blast, fall back into their bunker.

I’d think about things we didn’t say aloud.


Try finding the Big Dipper when some of its stars are obscured. You can’t, yet you know it’s there. A self is a constellation; when parts go dark, the whole cannot be recognized. I hid parts of myself to be acceptable for the company—the love—of others, to hold onto the we that defined my family and me. That is the irony. A hidden self does not feel it belongs. I longed to belong, but often stood apart. I longed to be known, but couldn’t bear to be known. Not even to myself.

Hiding became a habit hard to break. By my twenties, I began to wonder: who is living this life? I embarked on a career in journalism telling others’ stories while mine lay silent as bones.

When I moved in with a girlfriend after college, we pushed together twin beds in our apartment’s only bedroom. We weren’t just friends splitting rent, as my parents assumed. I worked at a newspaper, covering courts. One defendant, whose shoulders slumped beneath a rumpled suit jacket, begged me not to write about his case. He’d raped his stepdaughter, a pre-school child. He wanted mercy from the judge and sympathy from me. I wrote him up, and many others like him, too. I couldn’t let those stories go untold.

One night after work, I stopped at a grocery store. I was wearing my brown houndstooth coat; it must have been winter. As I waited, exhausted, in the checkout line, I glanced at magazines. A headline screamed about the horror of child sexual abuse. My anger rose. It’s not that bad, I thought. No. I had been abused, and I was fine. I was fine. I stood in line, telling myself that I was fine. Was I fine? I was not. My throat tightened. I started to sweat. I felt dizzy. I wanted to flee, but was trapped in line. Memories bombarded me. I willed my panic to a single point in my chest. I took one item at a time from my cart and placed it on the revolving belt. I looked at the cashier’s sweater and name tag, not her face. I opened my wallet, pulled out bills, and watched her hands give me change. I walked to my car.

I wasn’t fine.

Even four years later—two cities, two lovers, a new job, and another degree later—I lay alone each night on a folded futon-couch in the living room of my creaky flat with every light on and one ear cocked, listening for the door handle, the lock. Even in my dreams, listening. Vigilant. Holding still, like the small stone statue on my shelf, a Cycladic figurine with marble knees clutched to marble chest, but never at rest. I couldn’t think of anyone to whom I belonged.


What is hidden seeks light. By my late twenties, I had learned that other people had experiences like mine, yet had not kept them secret. I connected with women in bookstores, coffeehouses, music festivals, lesbian “herstory” courses in women’s centers, softball games, rape-prevention volunteer gigs, and kitchen-table talks. I read more books: feminism, politics, philosophy, poetry, good stories. My mother had given me books and poems throughout my youth. Had she known that someday they would make me feel less alone? Books became a refuge, a place I belonged.

Once, I slept for a month surrounded in bed by Virginia Woolf’s novels, essays, diaries, and letters. Tears of relief came when I read The Waves. I was Rhoda. I was Bernard, and the others, too. In them, I saw me. I felt known.

I went to Simone Weil reluctantly; I had fled Catholicism with a fervor as strong as her attraction to it. But I read and re-read Waiting for God as if it were a map home. She taught me that attention deeply and freely paid is the truest act of love. A self can be resurrected, if seen.

And so, longing to be seen, I told my family about my uncle. A few years later, I told them that loving women made me feel more alive than loving men.

My parents had been shocked about my uncle. Mom was enraged at him. Dad said nine words: “I’m not going to let this ruin my vacation.”

Afterward, Dad and I never spoke of the abuse. Never spoke of his words that fell flat on my sister’s dinner table that evening. Never spoke of my uncle later apologizing to him, not me. After Dad died last year, Mom tried to explain.

“Your dad could never talk about the things that hurt most,” she said. “Some things are hard to say.”

As she spoke, I remembered her fury thirty years earlier when I had told her I was a lesbian. I had wanted her to know me; she insisted it wasn’t true. She cried. I shook with fear. I wasn’t welcome at their home anymore.

The rending of a family is hard to bear. It’s also hard to sustain. A year later, my girlfriend and I were on a roadtrip near my parents’ home. I called. “Come,” Dad said. He talked with us in the family room for an hour. Mom stayed upstairs.

Several weeks later my mother called. “I just wanted to say hello,” she said. More phone chats followed, weeks or a few months apart. Eventually, I was invited with my girlfriend for a holiday visit. My mother, I suspected, had feared losing not only me, but intimacy with my father and sisters, too. She took a chance, made a call, to revive the we of our family. We were all adults by then, hovering within each other’s sight but abiding the distance between.


When cancer showed up in my breast at age fifty-one, I wondered how long it had been hiding there. What I feared most was dying unknown to myself and those I loved. A curtain, dense as clouds, hung between my early life and my present. For so long, I had drawn comfort from the separation, however nebulous. Now I wanted to pull the curtain back and let myself remember.

I opened decades of journals, long stashed away. What I found surprised me—not the sleepless nights, panic attacks, and images that once haunted my mind; not how I’d carried my own shell then, how heavy it was, a burden, and how it kept my family out. Not even what it took—work, love, luck—to leave the shell behind.

I discovered a truth that surely I once knew, but forgot: a kind of exuberance lived in me. It was often hidden and sometimes threatened, but always there, a visceral energy, a drive to connect.

It was there in lists to improve myself or get through despair; I wanted to live. It was there in my few but loyal friendships, my few but ardent loves. It was there when, instead of workday lunches, I devoured poetry on a cemetery bench, when I composed fairy tales for nieces and nephews, and when I danced myself out of my mind with women and men in clubs gay and straight.

It was more than vitality and different from happiness, though happiness kept company with my exuberance at times. Yet even during long stretches without happiness, exuberance purred like an engine through my veins, nerves, heart, and spine. I learned to meld my will to that engine.

I see now how the two, exuberance and will, kept me alive. They propelled me through to days—moments, really—when I knew I belonged.

Some moments were small, like the Christmas Eve when my beloved and I slept with the windows open to a D.C. night as warm as summer, then awoke Christmas morning to the roars of lions, singular sounds rising as one, up the hill from the National Zoo. We lay in bed and held hands, one cat at our heads and one at our feet, and listened—joyful, yes, and sad, too, for lions in a zoo, summer in winter.

There was the day she and I married, after thirteen years together, after our country allowed it. We walked noisy streets to an empty Unitarian church where a minister led us through vows. We hopped the Metro to the National Air and Space Museum to buy kites—mine a phoenix, hers a rocket—and headed to the Washington Monument. Onlookers cheered for us, two middle-aged women laughing and running up and down the hill until our kites soared into a cloudless blue sky. Once, my kite tugged so hard that I crouched to the earth, thrilled yet afraid of being lifted away like a child.

There were the days of Dad’s cancer treatments, and later, his dying days that brought together my parents, three sisters, and me, closer than we had been since my childhood, and yet each person more distinct. We needed to stand apart as much as we needed to belong.

One day, early on, I drove my parents to an appointment where Dad got good news: his cancer, like mine, was in remission. It became our bond. Giddy, my parents agreed to a celebratory lunch at a hip Louisville restaurant before heading across the bridge to their Indiana home. Dad ordered a mimosa, after asking me what it was. Mom thought aloud about whether to spend eight dollars on a glass of merlot, saying she might wait until she got home. I persuaded her otherwise. With my water glass in hand, we toasted Dad’s health. On the drive home, Mom pointed to an arena where celebrities perform.

“Madonna just sang there,” she said. “Also, that gay man from London came.”

Dad and I waited.

“You know, Eton, ah, Elton, Elton John!” she said.

“How do you know he’s gay?” Dad asked.

“Because he said so; it was in the paper,” Mom said. “He has kids and a husband. He seems like a nice man.”

As we headed to my parents’ home, I remembered that drive nearly fifty years earlier in the green Galaxie 500 with Dad at the wheel and Dear Abby on the radio. I remembered my family together, waiting for the next plane to take flight.


Buddhists say that human suffering arises from the illusion that we’re separate beings. In truth, they say, we share a universal consciousness. We belong to a big we. That feels true to me. Still, something drives each of us to live a life that is singular and seen. Distinct, but not solitary. We yearn to be the star and the constellation, the one and the we, the child huddled and rapt by a summer night’s sky.

Joyce Dehli


After a career in journalism, Joyce Dehli turned to creative nonfiction a few years ago. She is working on a collection of linked essays, which she began as a fellow-in-residence at Harvard’s Center for Ethics. She has an essay in Alaska Quarterly Review’s Spring & Summer 2022 volume. She lives in Washington, D.C.

paper texture
If you want to help enforce the Texas Heartbeat Act anonymously, or have a tip on how you think the law has been violated, fill out the form below. We will not follow up with or contact you.

How do you think the law was violated?
The last man I had sex with sent his spirit in the form of a bird to abort my fetus as I slept. I remember his plumage smelled like tar on a hot roof. I woke up with blood pouring from my insides, but oddly enough, I do not remember getting pregnant in the first place.

How did you obtain this evidence?
I saw it in a lucid vision of Sister Elizabeth Ryan of Galveston as she walked tranquilly into the storm surge with five orphans tied to her with clotheslines during the 1900 hurricane to retrieve her fourth favorite rosary. She told me to avoid drinking anything with ginger in it and to sleep with a bag of human hair under my pillow to ward off spirits of things that wished me ill. I used a lock of my own hair, which is possibly why it didn’t work.

Clinic or Doctor This Evidence Relates to:
The clinic walked on ibis legs not unlike Baba Yaga’s hut to keep it dry above the sea. Inside, there was a blind old woman crushing herbs and gator shit in a mortar and pestle. I do not think she was precisely a doctor.


City: Galveston
Zip: 77500
County: Galveston

Are you a robot:
Swim to me

How do you think the law was violated?

Do you know the Marty Robbins song “El Paso?” The narrator is dead as he sings it and he killed a man “in less than a heartbeat” for dancing with Wicked Felina. I did not know that you can sing after you’re dead.

Do fetuses sing cowboy ballads from the level of hell where the unbaptized babies go? What kind of omnipotent sociopath makes a hell for unbaptized babies?

How did you obtain this evidence?
I had the best refried beans of my life at a sports bar in El Paso while eating edible with my heterosexual best friend.

In his tank top, his arms looked like an invasive snake strangling a bird.

Clinic or Doctor This Evidence Relates to:
I hope people were still nice to Felina after the song ended. Really, she was treated very unfairly.

City: El Paso
Zip: 79835
County:El Paso

Are you a robot?
I also dance with strangers. Is that proof of anything?

How do you think the law was violated?

The St. John the Prodromos Greek Orthodox Church in Amarillo has a weeping icon that cries for precisely 7 minutes each year on October 16th on the anniversary of the communist defeat in the Greek Civil War in 1949. The majority of communist soldiers in Greece had been part of the resistance army during the Nazi occupation.

How did you obtain this evidence?

The statue was once a woman who, while protestant, had been having an extramarital affair with a Greek man old enough to be her father. When he was on his deathbed, she snuck holy communion, keeping the bread neatly under her tongue and the wine cupped in her cheek after it was spooned into her mouth as though she were an infant and not a grown woman.

The second the communion wine spilled from her mouth into her dying lovers, he turned into fire ants and she began to turn to wood.

She dragged herself back to the church and asked for mercy, but the presbyter gave her an unfriendly look from the rim of his glasses as if he owed her money.

Clinic or Doctor This Evidence Relates to:
No one knows for which side of the war the statue cries, so everybody likes her.

City: Amarillo
State: Texas
Zip: 79106
County: Potter

Are you a robot?
I am not a robot
I am not a robot
I am not a robot

How do you think the law was violated?

In one of those depressing years in the late 1800s that historically bleed together, a child in

Waco, Texas broke a window by deliberately throwing rocks at it and then lied to her mother

about it.

The next morning, the child disappeared and only reappeared six months later in a mourning

portrait of two parents with their dead child in the archives of the Texas State Historical Society.

Though it was likely not as interesting as living into adulthood, the child privately enjoyed the

pretty pink dress she got to wear in the ferrotype.

How did you obtain this evidence?

Her mother never found her daughter, but, if the truth were told, she did not look very hard for


Clinic or Doctor This Evidence Relates to:

The doctor treated the dead child for the measles, but the parents could only pay him in brown

eggs their hen laid. How they afforded the ferrotype remains a point of contention.

City: Waco

State: Texas

Zip: 76706

County: McLennan

Are you a robot?

I cannot tell a lie.

How do you think the law was violated?

I met a Denny’s waitress in Waxahachie who told me without me asking that she once met Sally

Field when she was filming Places in the Heart. She drank her coffee black and looked like she

was trying not to cry. She knew the waitress recognized her, but was so overwhelmed by her

kindness at not making a scene, that she paid for her coffee with a 50 dollar bill and did not ask

for change.

She looked at me and correctly deduced I’d never seen Places in the Heart.

How did you obtain this evidence?

The waitress had a rash on her arm that made it look like she was allergic to something she was


Then, again without asking, she told me she’d spent the fifty to pay to have her 15 year old

German Shepherd euthanized when she was too weak to get out of her bed, even to use the


“Did you know,” she whispered, her face now so close to me that I could smell the cigarettes on

her breath, “that I’m actually Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna of Russia? Please don’t make a

scene. Like Ms. Field, I also value my privacy.”

Clinic or Doctor This Evidence Relates to:

Franklin Roosevelt won 94% of the votes in Waxahachie in 1936.

City: Waxahachie

State: Texas

Zip: 75165


Are you a robot?

Brother, can you spare a dime?

Coyote Shook


Coyote Shook is a trans-crip cartoonist and PhD candidate in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. They can be spotted in the wild somewhere between in their natural habitats of New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana. Their creative work has been featured in or is forthcoming in a range of American and Canadian literary magazines, including The Michigan Quarterly Review, Shenandoah Magazine, Beestung Magazine, The Maine Review, The South Dakota Review, Honey Literary Magazine, The Santa Fe Writers Project Quarterly, The Puritan, The Roanoke Review, and The Florida Review.

paper texture

I used to know a lot of men, and then I turned fifty, and then I didn’t know any men anymore. Where did they all go? Greener pastures. Today Mac said I should go online and find someone to love, and I said, Who would touch me? Look at this skin, and he said, Oh, come on, it’s not so bad, and I said, No, no, you don’t understand, men are way harder on women with stuff like that, and Mac got all up in arms, saying that wasn’t true, he’d kissed plenty of girls with pimples, even full-blown acne and other dermatological conditions, but I cut him off, saying, It's not the same, pimples mean you’re young and fertile, to which he replied, Mom—you need to go online so I don’t have to worry about you all the time! And I said, No way I’d go online. At a certain point—here, I made a dramatic gesture, tossing my hands up into the air like an actress in a melodrama—you’re done with psychos! by which I meant: Online dating seemed a surefire recipe for psychos—for meeting them, that is.

And that was the end of that.

The other day, though, I did see a man—mid-sixties, coarse-featured, aura of a European—walking in the park under cover of the dark forest. He had a gray beard and hair like a rumpled paintbrush and he looked like he was about ready to kill himself, and I thought, observing him, I could love a man like that. I imagined teasing him the way my sweet aunt Annie used to tease her second husband, Claude; Claude wouldn’t use deodorant, being he was French, and she often followed him around the house like a guilty conscience, deodorant in hand, cooing, Ho-neeey, in her velvety contralto, Time for your Rolo, ho-neeey... Annie could coax and cajole with the best of them; all the sirens in epic poetry, combined, had nothing on my aunt. Don’t forget your Rolo, ho-neeey… She’d float toward him, soundless as a ghost, feet barely touching the floor, while he tried in vain to squirm and squiggle and squirrel himself away—and when she finally had him more or less where she wanted (trapped in a corner, sunk deep in the too-soft cushions of a sofa, pinned against a wall) she’d strike with the smooth, seamless precision of a cobra, plunging the deodorant under his shirt and having her way with him. Claude was never far from a lit cigarette, and a cloud of smoke perpetually encircled him like his own personal, private, low-pressure weather system. I don’t want my Rolo! he’d cry in the voice of a small boy, wincing, shoulders around his ears, cigarette dangling from his lips, but by then it was too late; the dirty deed was done, and Annie would glide off, Rolo in hand, serene as a sorceress. To Claude’s credit, I'll say this: He took his punishment like a man, which is to say he took it with an aura of fatalism that suited him, and let you know, without a doubt, he’d endured worse.

Over time, the Rolo argument took on the quality of performance art, or maybe vaudeville (her Gracie Allen to his George Burns), and the drama of the forsaken Rolo (the spurned Rolo! the bereft Rolo!) evolved into sketch comedy, which came in handy whenever things got tense, which was often—especially when Claude went off on one of his many monologuic rants, railing against the stupidity (and tastelessness!) of all North Americans, or the English, or (those offenders of offenders!) the lousy, diabolical Germans, who Claude never forgave, having lived through the occupation as a kid. (At nine, with food scarce and a German officer taking up residence in his family home in embattled Dôle, Claude hatched a scheme to steal cattle, butcher them in secret with a little gang of like-minded, enterprising French kids, and sell the meat on the black market; later, he did something similar, I believe, with scrap metal; also, wild mushrooms.) In addition to his longstanding rancor toward Germans, and the English, and North Americans (despite the fact he’d married two—both my aunt, and her first cousin), Claude had an axe to grind with anyone from “the North”—though exactly where “the North" lay was anyone’s guess. Claude never provided geographical boundaries or coordinates (the basic idea was, simply, this: The further you strayed from the equator, the worse people got), so the ambiguous, amorphous “North” to which Claude referred came to feel, over time, less like an actual place and more like a free-floating state of mind—one anyone could fall into if they didn’t watch out. No one ever asked for a logical explanation, probably because all logical explanations were quite beside the point. The point was Claude, and Claude alone—the simple fact of him: his prickly brand of Gallic charm; his chain-smoking, chemically imbalanced, moody oratorical style. Claude’s rants were verbal labyrinths; once begun, you were in for the long haul, and it was futile to counter with an opposing view; you weren't there to offer up an opinion. You were there as a sounding board, a spectator—in short, you were a witness. Which wasn't altogether a bad thing, I thought. Listening to Claude rant, I often felt as though I’d landed in a smoky, out-of-the-way nightclub where a lone virtuoso was lost in the throes of an extended solo—say, on the clarinet, or the saxophone—complete with impromptu riffs, tonal shifts, and spontaneous, unforeseen digressions. In Claude’s hands, ranting was an art, perhaps even a calling. Unfortunately, not everyone saw it that way, and inevitably, Claude managed to step on someone’s toes, prompting an argument. It was precisely at such moments that the drama of the Rolo came in handy, allowing Annie to take Claude down a notch and thereby neutralize whatever outrage or fury might weigh heavy in the air. Claude was an equal opportunity offender; he got under everyone’s skin regardless of age, race, color, creed, or nationality. The offended party might be an acquaintance over for dinner, a neighbor who’d stopped by for coffee, a long-term houseguest who’d dropped in for a few weeks (always, there were houseguests; always, there was company for dinner; always, there was food in quantity, simmering on the stove). But the offense was never intended to harm; it was never personal. Likewise, any teasing Annie did at Claude’s expense over his use of Rolo (or the lack of it) was sweet, funny, and a little dingy in the way of 1950s-era comediennes, but never mean-spirited—and it made me want to be her, or be like her, and I vowed that one day I, too, would love a melancholy man; I, too, would master the art of teasing as a form of love—one day. The man I saw walking in the park looked like an existentialist and an ex-smoker. I pegged him for a man who missed his cigarettes. I studied him as he made his way through the forest, shoulders up around his ears, hands thrust deep in his pockets, despair radiating outward from his core in all directions, like a force field. I imagined he would tolerate me but would never quite be able to shake off his melancholia—at least, not completely, no matter how I teased—and for that, I would love him all the more. Once I met a melancholy man in a dark forest, and he, too, was clinically depressed, and also European, and in many ways the man of my dreams, though he wasn't an ex-smoker—at least, not of cigarettes. He did pot in his teens and twenties, and then for his thirtieth birthday he taught himself to make crack. He was a charmer. I’ve never laughed so hard in my life than when we were in bed. What was so funny all the time? I don’t remember. All I know is we laughed like crazy; we laughed like maniacs; we laughed like a couple of lunatics locked away in the asylum, and then one day we woke up and we weren’t laughing anymore.

—October 2021

Berkeley, CA

Kerry Muir


Kerry Muir’s prose has appeared in Kenyon Review online, Crazyhorse, Fourth Genre, Willow Springs, The Pinch and elsewhere. Her plays have received awards and productions from The Gibraltar International Drama Festival, Nantucket Short Play Festival, Great Platte River Playwrights Festival and the Maxim Mazumdar New Play Festival. Two of her plays ("The Night Buster Keaton Dreamed Me," and her one-act for children, "Befriending Bertha") are available in bilingual Spanish-English editions from NoPassport Press, as part of their "Dreaming the Americas" series, curated by Caridad Svich. For more, please visit her online.

paper texture
paper texture