Issues /  / Creative Nonfiction

First, turn to your friend Thom and ask if he wants get out of the basement and go sit on the screened porch. When he says yes, turn off the TV that’s playing the closing credits of a Saved by the Bell episode in which Zach Morris and Kelly Kapowski kiss. Follow Thom past shelves full of Legos and Matchbox cars that have begun gathering dust. Follow him up the stairs and past the kitchen where the moms are talking about whatever moms talk about. Follow him through the sliding door that leads to the screened porch and sit beside him on the wicker couch. Look at the pine trees and smell the dying leaves. Talk about soccer and farts. Try to find a cool way to say how cool it is to be inside and outside at the same time. Give up and think about Kelly Kapowski and Zach Morris.

Shiver, because it is autumn in Wisconsin and you are all skin, no fat. Want to not need a blanket. Need a blanket. Pull the orange one from the basket at your feet and open it on your lap. Ask if Thom wants some blanket. Feel nervous as you ask, because Thom is a year older than you and five times as sure of himself; because he has black hair and blue eyes and knows how to waterski and when he is happy you are happy; because he makes the rules to the games you play, and if you don’t follow them he’ll say you’re not invited to his birthday party. Feel relieved when Thom takes some of the blanket and pulls it over his legs. Then feel a feeling you don’t have a word for.

Talk about vampire bats and flying squirrels. Talk about that time you peed in a spray bottle and chased his screaming brother around the yard. Talk about how pretty Kelly Kapowski is and how cool Zach Morris is and how lucky Zach Morris is to get to kiss Kelly Kapowski. Feel happy that Thom is smiling and laughing as you talk. Feel happy that you are sitting together on a cold porch under a warm blanket. Feel like you are in a fort together. Tell Thom that Zach Morris is really handsome.

Watch Thom’s face. Notice that he’s still smiling, but squinting, too. Realize that he’s looking at you the way he looks at you when he’s about to tell you you’re not invited to his birthday party.

Don’t flinch when he says, “That’s gay.”

Or maybe it’s, “That’s gross.”

Or maybe, “You’re gross.”

Don’t worry about knowing exactly what he says. Thirty years from now, you won’t remember. All you’ll remember is feeling like a poked balloon. All you’ll remember is feeling like something is leaking out of you, something too big or small to wrap your fingers around, something you want back.

Try to take it back. Say, “I was just saying.” Say, “I don’t like him.” Say nothing. Stare at Thom as he stares at you. Wonder if you should tell him that last year you read in Tiger Beat about the actress who plays Kelly Kapowski and then sent her a love letter that your mom proofread. Wonder if Thom ever wrote a letter like that. Wonder if he is messing with you. Wonder if he also likes both Kelly Kapowski and Zach Morris and knows that that is okay and just isn’t saying so, like that one time when he and Nathan were laughing loud and wouldn’t tell you why no matter how nicely you asked.

Don’t ask.

Just say you didn’t mean it. Say this to Thom, and after he’s gone home and you’ve gone inside, say it to yourself. Keep saying it until you believe it. Then spend a decade or two only thinking about Kelly Kapowski and only saying things you think Thom would like to hear, even when he moves a thousand miles away. Keep doing this until, one day, you also find yourself a thousand miles away, in another country, looking at a man who is looking at you and who doesn’t speak the languages you know best. Feel a feeling you don’t have a word for. Wish you had a word. Wish you’d had it decades ago. Wonder if it’s true that adults can’t learn another language. See how it feels when you try.

Brian Benson


Brian Benson is the author of GOING SOMEWHERE, and co-author, with Richard Brown, of THIS IS NOT FOR YOU. Originally from the hinterlands of Wisconsin, Brian now lives in Portland, Oregon, where he teaches at the Attic Institute, facilitates free Write Around Portland workshops, and is a Writer in the Schools. His short nonfiction has been published or is forthcoming in Hippocampus, Off Assignment, The Sun, Five Minutes, and Blood Tree Literature, among other publications.

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As I waited for him to pull in the driveway, I perched myself in the small living room’s window so I could run out before my mother had time to invite him in. I was nervous, buzzing with the uncontained charge of being a teenager. Looking back, I wonder if he was nervous, too, or if his confidence knew no bounds. How else would a thirty-two-year-old man drive to a seventeen-year-old’s house to pick her up for a date, waving casually to her mother as he pulled away with that woman's only daughter, if not one hundred percent sure that he would never appear suspicious, dissembling, let alone a predator?

It was the spring of 1998, and last year’s student teacher turned this year’s new full time ELA teacher at Pine Bush High School was driving me to see The Horse Whisperer. I remember almost nothing of that movie and never saw it again. But watching the grainy trailer on YouTube, I realize that Mr. Burns (I never called him by his first name) must have chosen that movie for a reason: a traumatized young girl is taught and healed by a dashing older man, wise and wild as the horses I grew up around in upstate New York. He bought me popcorn, and I could feel him watching me each time I lifted a salty handful to my mouth. His slight overbite glowed in the darkened room when he smiled at me, as he pressed his leg against mine. Nothing at first, just the hint of warmth, and then closer and closer. His hand on the armrest, in the popcorn, on the edge of my thigh.

To be honest, I thought he was a snooze. A bore, not funny, even as he held court in class, telling some story about being drunk at an MTV spring break party and falling or vomiting into the pool. This was my first creative writing class: we were in eleventh grade. I was purposefully trying to make bad choices, tired of being the good girl honor society student, and thought this mildly attractive man-child would be just about the worst one I could make. We talked on the phone a lot. He brought me to see a play in nearby New Paltz, invited me to his house afterwards, but something in me had the wherewithal to decline, say my mom was expecting me. He played me his favorite music, bought me a copy of K’s Choice’s Paradise in Me after making me listen to “Not an Addict” during lunch one day. It was a terrible song and a worse album, but I didn’t tell him that. He told me I was beautiful and that, when I got to college, I’d have to beat the boys off with a stick. He told me these young boys couldn’t appreciate my intelligence. He told me that age meant nothing to him, that he felt young at heart, blah blah blah.

All of my close friends knew. The Simpsons was The Thing in the late '90s and there was no shortage of Mr. Burns jokes. When I turned eighteen, a friend drove me to the gas station—I still didn’t have my license—so I could buy everyone cigarettes, and she bought me a glow-in-the-dark keychain that said, I ❤️ Andrew. We all knew I didn’t. I was still in love with the boy who broke up with me earlier that year, the one I was in love with for all four years of high school, the one that I would later learn died of a heroin overdose in 2016, my first year teaching creative writing at an arts high school. I didn’t love Mr. Burns but I wanted to try out who I would be near him, just like I didn’t really enjoy the Parliaments and Camels and Marlboro Lights I bought and smoked around a campfire the night I officially became an adult.

To the uninitiated, trusting a teenage girl with a possibly career-ending secret seems like a death wish. I never told my friends all of the details—to this day I have blocked a lot of it out, the blessing of a scattershot memory—but they knew enough. I talked, they talked, teachers talked. Be careful around him, my no-bullshit cigarette-smoking English teacher said to me once. But that was it. Because that’s exactly the point: it didn’t matter how much I blabbed. The only thing that cancels out the fact that teenage girls can’t be trusted to be quiet is the fact that teenage girls are rarely believed. Or young women, or cynical middle-aged ones.


In 2017, reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey broke the Harvey Weinstein story for the New York Times that would serve as the spark for the #MeToo movement. In the days following that first October publication, prominent women in different industries began creating both private and public lists of unchecked abusers, serial harassers, and sexual assaulters. Among these are notable examples such as Moira Donegan’s “Shitty Media Men” list and Karen Kelsky’s “Sexual Harassment in the Academy: A Crowdsourced Survey.” Having been unable to hold these abusers accountable for their actions, women turned to whisper networks in order to warn others about potential threats and/or to galvanize victims to come forward with accusations once they’d learned that their experiences were not isolated incidents. The biological act of whispering requires one to hold one’s vocal folds rigid, creating a space with which to communicate but without enough force to cause a vibration. The idea being that a woman cannot always use her full voice, her full agency to protect herself, but that in a hushed collection, she gains power.

Every year, I hear stories about the male teachers who put their hands on girls’ shoulders and linger too long behind them at their desks. Who tell them secrets, who look at them in a way we still don’t even have language for yet, though we recognize it immediately through our skin. An alert, a pulse of warning. And every year, what fills me with white hot rage is not the predator, for he is to be expected: it is everyone else who sees that man and smiles, waves him on his way.


I have a theory about what motivates someone to pursue a career in education. A job endless in nature, thankless in practice, infamously low in pay, and dangerous in times like these in which school boards are banning books, politicians are policing class curricula, and hotlines are encouraging parents to put teachers on a watch list. A watch list for sexual abusers and those who manipulate young people for their own personal pleasures? No, a watch list for those who teach feminist ideologies, the history of white supremacy, art by queer, trans, and BIPOC makers.

My theory is that there are three categories for what drives people into becoming a teacher. Some of the categories overlap, but in the nineteen years I have worked in the classroom, I have found these archetypes to be consistent: The Wounded, The Idealist, The Predator.

1. The Wounded is the teacher who was harmed in some way as a child, either in or outside of school. They were told they weren’t smart or good enough; they were physically or emotionally abused; they were ignored; someone they trusted betrayed them. This person made a vow subconsciously or consciously one day that she would be the watchdog, that she would be vigilant in defending those most at risk: the forgotten, the quiet one in the back, the brash one that was always cracking jokes but never wanted to talk about home, the one who was hungry, the one who never ate, the one who swore there was nothing wrong, everything is fine, I am in control. This teacher knows what it’s like to be out of control and they have spent their lives arming themselves with the skills they need to bring some semblance of order and justice and safety to even just one young person because that is what they had so desperately wished for themselves all those years ago. And sometimes still now.

2. The Idealist is the teacher who believes with all her heart that education is the most radical act of service, that only through education can society advance and become more equitable. This teacher was saved in a library as a child, or else the library was so far away and they had no ride and so had to read the same four books in the house again and again, and then eventually began writing her own stories herself. She is passionate about her subject because it brings beauty when beauty is scarce. This teacher can tolerate most things in this world, except indifference. Seeing a student get all fired up with ideas and poetry and history and science, what Emily Dickinson likened to the top of her head coming off, witnessing this moment year after year is a balm for this teacher, and helps them muster the strength to revise that syllabus and do it all again next year.

3. The Predator teacher is often gregarious, cool. Rarely are they universally acknowledged to be an asshole—a tyrant, a bully—but I’ve seen that a few times. Rarely, too, though, the predator is preceded without at least a few whispers: there is always a hint of something not quite right, a warning to be careful around him. This teacher is angry about where their life turned up and so takes a private sense of comfort in wielding their power over these ungrateful, entitled children with their whole lucky lives splayed out before them. I imagine this teacher doesn’t think these thoughts in complete sentences, but in flashes of color and memory and sound bites. This teacher is usually a misogynist, a racist, a homophobe, a transphobe. She can be very conservative, or she can loudly announce that she voted for Obama while also lowering her voice conspiratorially when she talks about the black students in her class. This teacher likes having authority and freely comments on students’ clothing, hair, behavior, intelligence. This teacher thrives in the gray spaces and has mastered the art of disguise. He is there, smiling, because he knows this makes you feel at ease and because he knows that he isn’t arrogant, only correct.


Etymologically, the word whisper derives from the Proto-Germanic hwisprōną, which means “to hiss, whistle, whisper.” In this way we can understand two possible intentions of a whisper. One is sinister, linked to the snake—the ultimate temptation in the Old Testament—and gossip, which is also inherently gendered, as the women who gathered during childbirth to help the midwife and mother were called the gossips. The other intention is to give warning, to shriek a call for help or to shrilly call attention to danger like a forgotten kettle. Eventually, this concept will transform into the term whistle-blower, as a way to reframe the negative connotations of the individuals who reveal truths of those in power at their own risk. An unsilencing so forceful it can startle both the whistler and the crowd.

The term whisperer has also evolved to refer to someone who is innately gifted at controlling and taming an animal, specifically without physical force. Because animals are highly responsive and receptive to possible threats, they cannot be trained with aggression. Or else they can be, but the physically abused animal often becomes skittish, too unpredictable—a danger in its own right. If the whisperer presents himself as gentle and non-threatening, though, he can lull the animal into a state of calm. A sympathetic, rather than a domineering, method is the key to accessing the animal’s trust. The man, no match for the horse’s strength, is able to use psychological coercion to gain control. He lightly touches the horse, he makes no sudden movements. He observes from afar, he is patient. From the outside, this manipulation is almost imperceptible.


When I moved to Boston for college, Mr. Burns occasionally sent me cards and cash, but I was over my small town bad choices and cringed when my roommate asked me why on earth was my former high school teacher mailing me $50 bills tucked into Hallmark greeting cards. I think it wasn’t until later that year that I found out Mr. Burns had gotten a student at my school pregnant. She was a year younger than me and I knew her only tangentially. The internet was still in its infancy, and to this day I can’t find any articles about him being fired or suspended or any kind of consequence at all. I heard only whispers about rumors. I both wasn’t surprised and also ashamed of myself for somewhere deep inside feeling a twinge of surprise that I wasn’t the only one. Not special at all, just another young girl for him to tantalize himself with, to feel smart and strong and powerful next to.

I wonder what my life would be like now, had that girl been me. Had my mother not gotten pregnant with me at eighteen and had I not seen the consequences of sex so viscerally all my life. Had I not listened to those fears, had I gone to his house, had some drinks while listening to cheesy '90s rock. At the time, I was convinced that I was in control, that he was the impulsive horse and I was Robert Redford. But he smelled the trauma and neediness off me from a mile away, must have done the same with this girl, too.

I don’t know if they married, but I do know that she had the baby and that he had some kind of partial custody or visitation because one year I looked him up and discovered that, in 2005, he abducted their child and the two were missing for almost four months. They were discovered in New Zealand with fake passports. He was arrested and eventually extradited back to New York, facing one to four years in a state prison. The word gobsmacked doesn’t begin to explain the feelings I felt that late night in the glow of years old newspaper articles from New Zealand and upstate New York. It was like a crime movie in which the villain finally gets what’s coming to him. All those years and who knows how many girls, and there was his goofy little clean cut face on wanted posters for all to see. That’s where I left him: in a state prison for a few years, then just hopping from job to job, the ones that don’t do background checks, the ones that put him in no contact with impressionable, vulnerable young people, the kind of day to day living in which he had to humble himself and was never again the person in the room with the most power.


Almost every one of my girlfriends has a story involving a man who preyed on them, who made them feel small or unsafe. Last week, when I was telling my sister-in-law about a student who came to me in tears to report a teacher who had crossed boundaries, she told me her own story about a principal who searched her for a hidden pack of cigarettes, lifting up her shirt in front of a classroom of her peers. Totally humiliated, she says into the phone. After that, she was homeschooled and graduated by the end of the year—a couple years early—because fuck all if she was going to go back. But this was in Ukraine, long ago, she said, and she couldn’t believe how shocked she was that this type of behavior was still going on now, here.

When Scarlett Johansson filmed The Horse Whisperer, she was thirteen years old. In the credits, her name is preceded with “introducing” even though it was her seventh role. Reflecting on her performance in the film, Robert Redford said that she was “thirteen going on thirty.” She's an Old Soul, Precocious, Wise Beyond Her Years. This was often a trait assigned to me, and one assigned to many young girls who find themselves in a world of adults. We are voracious readers, ambitious beyond our own small worlds, and have learned how to operate in rooms filled with mostly adults. This is often our superpower, yet it is also often a tool that eventually turns against us when we find ourselves in situations that remind us that no matter how much we have read, no matter how much life we have lived, no matter how many film sets we’ve worked on, we are in fact children. Though Johansson began acting at age nine, her career skyrocketed in 2003 when she co-starred with Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, a film in which a seventeen-year-old Johansson plays the love interest of the fifty-two-year-old former Ghost Buster. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote that Johansson’s character “would plausibly have sex with him, casually, to be ‘nice,’ and because she's mad at her husband and it might be fun.” And therein lies the dream. A gorgeous, young, wounded girl ready to fuck some old weathered dude because she wants to be polite. This is not an anomaly.

Who is trained to be more polite than a child? Who knows more about following rules and listening to adults than a young person, especially a young person who wants to be seen as an adult, who wants to be praised and considered intelligent? Smart beyond her years?


Gender is, of course, important here. While boys are saddled with the masculine expectations to subvert their emotions, man-up, and be strong above all else, girls are socially conditioned to disappear. He is the subject and she is the object. He is more likely to raise his hand in class even if he is unsure of the answer, and she is more likely to apologize for speaking up, for taking up space. A 2012 study by Princeton University and Brigham Young University found that in group settings, women speak about seventy-five percent less than their male counterparts. Girls and women are conditioned to be pathologically polite and spend much of their socialization policing themselves so as to not appear too loud, aggressive, confident, opinionated. I have never once heard a man called opinionated, but have lost track of the times this moniker was given to me as a way to shame me into silence. In my time as an educator, I have been called a bitch, conceited, stuck-up, and several student evaluations more or less asked, exactly who does she think she is. I have had more than one male student scare me with threats to the point that I had to call campus security. Consider, then, just how ingrained male entitlement and patriarchy must be to override the social conditioning a human undergoes in order to convince us to respect authority figures. And how dangerous a white straight man—in other words, someone who has been told how powerful he is his whole life—can be if his ego, his desires, and his authority go unchecked.

Bill Murray is a beloved actor because he bucks the system, he is irreverent and wily. Living in Charleston, South Carolina, for the past thirteen years, I have heard many stories about Murray drunkenly showing up at bars and restaurants, being loose and fun and just one of the guys. In fact, my first years in the small town when I was working as an adjunct at the local community college, I supplemented my income as a server at a storied French Quarter restaurant. One night, Murray showed up and within thirty minutes, the bar was mobbed with hangers on and fans, offering to buy him drinks, asking for selfies and autographs. I remember being acutely empathetic to him, how isolating it must be to become an object of attention wherever one goes. This was in 2009, years before multiple stories about his abusive behavior on and off set would cast a shadow over his good guy persona. As I was cashing out that night, counting my bills in correlating stacks of sticky green dollars and crisp little printouts, my friend, the bartender, told me how Murray had asked her outside to smoke a cigarette and then, without warning or invitation, kissed her smack on the mouth. Never mind that she was thirty-five years his junior, never mind that she was in a relationship, never mind that she was banking on his tip to pay her bills. It’s no big deal, my friend said, he’s harmless.

Who can say no to such a man.


When I was young, my father loved the films of Woody Allen. He’d talk at length about their nuance, their humor, their brilliance. I had no interest in any of this until college, when I found myself at Emerson College, filled with film majors equally agog with the tweedy neurosis that Allen infused into all of his onscreen personae. Perhaps it was my daddy issues, perhaps it was my fear of death, or maybe I was just swept up in the Gershwin black-and-white New York City of it all, but I fell for it hook line and sink her. By the time twenty-one-year-old Scarlett Johansson appeared in her first of three Allen movies—2005’s Matchpoint—though, his light was starting to dull for me. I found his movies formulaic and drab. I was twenty-five and, sadly, still not at the point in which I could fully analyze the narratives he’d consistently been presenting from the beginning of his career. I’d actually watched Manhattan in college, while simultaneously taking feminist theory courses, and felt the swell of romance when Allen’s Isaac runs several NYC blocks at the end of the film to find his true love—the sixteen-year-old actress Mariel Hemingway playing the seventeen-year-old Tracy. In the film’s last scene, Isaac—forty-four while filming, forty-two in the movie—tries to convince Tracy not to go to London because he loves her. Hemingway’s dialogue is barely audible; in fact, her voice throughout the film remains incredibly girlish, breathless. After Isaac professes his love for her, she laughs, says in a kind of sexy whisper, “Guess what, I turned eighteen the other day. I’m legal, but I’m still a kid.” He brushes her hair out of her face and Gershwin swells one last time, as we cut to shots of sweeping Manhattan expanses. This is his city.

In Hemingway's 2015 memoir Out Came the Sun, she writes about Allen’s attempts to lure her to Paris two years after the film wrapped, when she was just eighteen. He flew to her parents’ Idaho home to convince her, and ostensibly her family, that this was a fine idea, a safe idea, a trip of a lifetime. The teenaged Hemingway told her parents, “I didn’t know what the [sleeping] arrangement was going to be [in Paris], that I wasn’t sure if I was even going to have my own room. Woody hadn’t said that. He hadn’t even hinted it. But I wanted them to put their foot down. They didn’t. They kept lightly encouraging me.” When Hemingway insisted that she would only go if she had her own room, Allen flew home the next morning, alone on his private jet.

In 2019, Scarlett Johansson told Vanity Fair that she loves Allen: “I believe him, and I would work with him anytime. … I see Woody whenever I can, and I have had a lot of conversations with him about it. I have been very direct with him, and he’s very direct with me. He maintains his innocence, and I believe him.” The fact that Allen would ostensibly withhold abuse from women or girls in positions of equal power of course says less about the accusations of rape and incest charged against him than the ways in which a predator calculates his prey. Will she tell, will they believe her. A man who presents himself as nebbish and submissive, a man who directs the young ingénue in order to further her career, who gives voice to artists at the start of their careers, a man who innocently shows up at the home of his intended conquest to ask for permission—who would see him as anything other than harmless, a role model, a mentor?


According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), “One in nine girls and one in fifty-three boys under the age of eighteen experience sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult.” In 2004, the Department of Education released a report that found ten percent of students—or one in ten—“experience sexual misconduct by a teacher at some time during their K–12 school experience.” We know that sexual abuse is an underreported crime, not least of which because the victims are often not believed, or worse, vilified. So we might imagine that instances of this gray space, this erosion of boundaries, this precursor phase, are often downplayed, ignored, forgotten. In a post #MeToo world, even I can be lulled into thinking that there are more measures in place to stop harassment, abuse, and assault—that more of us are armed with the knowledge, resources, and bravery to speak out when we see something that makes the skin pull up from our bones. And yet.

I haven’t looked up my former teacher for years, partly because he happily exits my memory bank for long stretches of time and partly because I prefer to keep him in that courtroom awaiting sentencing, in which the reporter noted, “He was silent and downcast as he walked into the state police barracks.” But after a student came to me recently, disclosing incidents and intimacies that made them question themselves, made them shake with anger, that man wormed his way back. What was the line, my student asked, between an adult being nice and something else? We sat in my office, their eyes darting from side to side as they recounted the past two years. Too much, too close. Humiliated, they said, finally breaking down in tears. And, for a brief window, both of us thought our voices would be enough.

I couldn’t sleep for nights. Sleepless for my student, for myself, for my rage at the teachers and administrators who remain silent. And so I opened a Google window and began digging.

Nothing reporting any jail time, but there he was, still teaching. A doctor now: an EdD, a Doctor in Education. Dr. Burns has taught at various private and public CUNY colleges throughout New York and New Jersey. According to his bio, posted on the College’s site where he is currently employed as an Assistant Professor, “In 2016, 2017, and 2018 he was awarded an Excellence in Teaching Grant.” Various entries on Rate My Professor echo each other, noting that he is “hilarious” and “a little bit of a goof” and “just one of the guys.” Apparently, he is still doing his stand-up routine about his past exploits, as some wrote that “We had some FUNNY class discussions on things like m/f bathroom behaviors, dating and relationships,” and “He tells great stories. Get him to talk about the chili pepper story or the wild turkey in the parking lot, ha!” And a few students stressed that he is not just a teacher, but “a mentor and role model.” That exact language appearing over many years through many schools is especially noteworthy, as this is the story I imagine he tells about himself. A mentor, he thought, as he put on his plaid button-down and khakis on the morning of his first day student teaching. A role model to those in need, he thought to himself as he read a young girl’s poem about her dead baby brother in a casket so small she thought it was made of styrofoam. A funny guy who tells that same girl stories about the first time he had sex and about how he heard there was a girl at school who danced at the strip club in the next town on weekends and don’t you think she’s pretty. A stand up guy, he thought, as he folded a crisp fifty into a card and licked the envelope in one long swipe.

Danielle DeTiberus


Danielle DeTiberus teaches creative writing in Charleston, SC. Her work has appeared in Academy of American Poets, Copper Nickel, Entropy, The Missouri Review, River Styx, Waxwing, and elsewhere. Her poems have been featured in Verse Daily and included in the anthology Best American Poetry. In 2016, she received a fellowship from the South Carolina Academy of Authors, and currently serves as the Program Chair for the Poetry Society of South Carolina, bringing nationally renowned poets to Charleston for readings and seminars. You can find her @DDeTiberus.

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Sept. 14, 2017, 6:30 PM

There’s a man atop the crane erected at the construction site on Broadway. I’m standing in a crowd of people, held back by a wooden police barricade, all of us watching his every move. I’m having trouble finding my breath, as he toys through the bars ten stories above, like a child on a playground. He seems reckless. Worse than reckless. Indifferent. The man in the suit to my right thinks he’s just some idiot looking for attention. Thinks he’s just wasting everyone’s time. The man in the suit to my left agrees. A woman behind me says that he’s probably on drugs. Says he’s probably just some junkie. Many others around me agree with her. They point. They mock. They laugh. But no one breaks their stare. The man on the crane inches toward the edge of the platform. I whisper to him: climb down, please, climb down. Something in me already knows what happens next. I keep whispering to him anyway. Please, climb down. A single drop of rain falls from the dark sky above, landing in my right eye. I don’t blink. I see the man step off the platform. I see him fall. I see him hit the ground below, landing on the concrete with an unceremonious, wet thud. Like a sack of meat. The sound has no echo…

An Insignificant Sunday, 2019, 2:30 PM

It’s early autumn. I’m sitting out on the back deck of my childhood home, visiting my parents for the weekend and thinking about the voicemail one of my clients, John, left for me on Friday afternoon. His message plays in my head. He says he won’t be back to the shelter for a while because he’s in the hospital. He says he’s sorry for missing his session the day before. When he no-showed, I assumed the worst. Jail. Overdose. Dead. In an overtly twisted sense, I was glad he was in the hospital, whatever that may mean. I’d start my morning tomorrow by visiting him.

Outside the confines of my inner world, there is a chorus of birds in the trees that line the yard. Blue jays. Robins. Cardinals. Sparrows. A lone crow. All darting in and out of the branches that still hold their leaves. My mom sits across from me at the white patio table. She’s doing a crossword puzzle, pressing the pink eraser of her pencil to her cheek as she thinks. My dad is in the yard, prepping the old lawn mower for a long overdue cut. In the distance a dog barks. The children next door laugh while playing with water pistols. I’m taking it all in. How the present moment evokes nostalgia. Flashes of my childhood in this very space. I feel a half smile stretching across my cheek. I can almost remember it fully. Then a thought arises, like a body surfacing from the depths of a perfectly still lake. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. My dad starts the mower.

I watch him as he begins pushing the mower, coming toward the deck, stopping, pivoting, and then retreating to the other side of the yard. The old, whirling blade popping and cracking with every non-grass entity it encounters. Sticks. Rocks. Fallen acorns from the old oak my mom is convinced is going to fall on the house during the next wind storm. All chewed up and spit out the side of the machine. The thought lingers, becoming more prominent with every second that passes. And oddly enough, there is no feeling with it. I am taken with the thought. Drawn into it. But utterly indifferent. I am not startled or disturbed. Not depressed. Nor angry. Not even confused. Somehow, the arising of this thought, in this particular moment, makes sense to me. The natural conclusion of a months-long battle trying to resurrect the concept of meaning in my life, a concept turned fossil, a mere relic of my past, like the dirt patch I had worn into the corner of the yard from hitting so many wiffle balls as a kid, now a mere outline, overrun with time and grass. I watch as my dad pushes the mower over that spot in the yard. Just like he did any other spot. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF.

“Brett,” my mom says, snapping me from my trance. “What is a five letter word for a Greek philosopher?”


“Plato!” she repeats, genuinely excited. “Thank you!”


She writes the letters in the squares with acute precision. I laugh a bit through my nose as I see her do so. Something about the seriousness with which she approaches her task. I envy it. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF.

I return to silence, now thinking of Plato. Reading the Republic my freshman year of college, a handful of years ago. Studying the famous Allegory of the Cave. Learning early on that nothing is as it seems. But it’s one thing to read it. To conceptualize it. It’s another thing to see it in action. To watch reality change in an instant. To watch the things that make up your life—your values, your friends, your family, your memories—all lose their color, all become mere shadows on the wall. It’s happening now. It’s been happening for months. One microscopic particle whirling through empty space at a time.

The Allegory of the Cave describes breaking away from the illusion of conditioned thinking and coming to know Truth. It likens the process of being freed from the cave of your limited perceptions and preconceived ideas about the world and seeing the light for the first time. At first it hurts. It blinds you. At least until your eyes can adjust to the light. The light he likens to Truth. I’m wondering if my eyes are still adjusting. Or if this is it.

This is a great metaphor. Except Plato never said Truth might come to you in the form of watching a homeless person commit suicide right in front of you on your walk home from work. Plato never said Truth was no one giving a shit about that person either. Because he was homeless. That the world would keep turning, people would keep moving toward home, and the local media would refer to him as a “traffic disturbance.” That all of modern life is a sleepwalk, a fashion show—an elaborate hoax we’re all in on to keep everyone distracted from the fact that we are all traveling at 9.8 feet per second squared toward the concrete below once we’re kicked out of the womb. That no matter how much stuff we accumulate or hollow milestones we check off or Christmas cards we send, the ground awaits us all. No wonder, according to Plato, those still imprisoned in the cave want to kill the one who has been freed after he returns. No wonder I’m no fun to be around anymore. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. One of the little boys is crying next door. I look up. He’s rubbing his eyes with his palms. I’m guessing his older brother sprayed him in the eyes with the water pistol.

“I’m telling!” he says. He runs inside.

“No! Don’t! I said I was sorry!” his brother pleads, following him.

The lone crow lands on the fence. I notice the silence. Or better yet, the absence of sound. My dad has stopped the mower. He walks into the shed. Returns with a rake. And starts compiling the clippings into a pile to be bagged and thrown into another pile at the compost down the road.

“Brett?” my mom says, voice trailing up.


“Is everything okay?”


“Is everything okay?” she repeats. “You’re awfully quiet.”

“Of course,” I say, not knowing if I’m lying or telling the truth. “Just enjoying the beautiful day.”

Now I know.

Sunday, 8:00 PM

I’m sitting on the couch in my living room, watching a show I’m not paying attention to. Abbey, my fiancée, is on the couch next to me, on her computer, working. I’m tired but restless. My eyes dart about the room. The many scented candles. The plants mounted on the wall. The uneven floorboards. The gray rug. The wooden coffee table. The roof over my head. I’m home. I’m safe. I think. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. The thought is louder than the comfort of this space. There’s a weight on my chest. My breaths are shorter than they were seconds ago. I look at Abbey. The glow from her screen lights her face, artistic energy flowing from her fingertips and into her designs. Her process always seems so effortless though I know that’s not the case. Please don’t become a shadow, I think. Not you. Not like everything else. My right hand is shaking. I make a fist, holding tight to nothing. A timely metaphor.

“Are you okay?” Abbey says, without looking up. Like she could see into my head. I swear sometimes she can.

“What?” I say, pretending not to hear her question.

“I asked if you were okay.”

She’s looking at me now, with big beautiful eyes.

“Yes,” I say. “Why?”

“I don’t know,” she says. “You just”

Off? A peculiar term. Awake is more like it.

“Maybe a little,” I concede. It’s easier that way. Better to not get caught up in semantics. The rest of the world is already caught up in semantics anyway. All the noise. Left, right. Good, bad. Truth, lie. Right, wrong. It’s all just a show. And no one sees it. Correction: no one wants to see it. There is a difference there. A big, maddening difference. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. “I’m okay though.”

I did it again.

I rise from my seat and walk over to the kitchen. I open the cabinet above the stove and pull a small glass from the top shelf. I hit the switch for full cubes on the ice maker on the door of the fridge and press my glass against the lever. The gears in the freezer churn with a loud grind for a second or two before producing a handful of oval shaped cubes, each landing in the glass with a distinct clink. I walk over to the shelf behind the couch and grab my whiskey bottle. I pull the cork from the top and begin pouring. The fresh ice cracks as I fill the glass. I place the cork back in the bottle and return to my seat on the couch next to Abbey, whiskey in hand. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. I take a sip. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. Another sip. I think of my visit with John tomorrow morning.

John and I have been working on getting him into a mental health housing facility where he could stabilize over the course of a year before transitioning into a more permanent arrangement. He was doing good work for sure, but was noticeably struggling over the past week or so since I told him about this possibility. Often when these rare opportunities arise, the stress of receiving good news can trigger all sorts of trouble for someone who has such few instances of good news in his life.

John started drinking when he was seven years old. Seven. It was his best coping skill. His mother was an addict, never around. Stepfather was violent, around far too often. John told me how he used to steal bottles from the liquor cabinet and take a few swigs before his dad woke up in the morning—that way he wouldn’t feel much when his dad beat him. That way he wouldn’t feel much of anything at all. When he used to blame himself for this behavior, we’d often talk about how he was just a kid, doing whatever he could to stay safe—to stay alive. That this deep-seated habit came into his life as a means of protection. That it wasn’t his fault. The only problem now is that John is in his forties and hasn’t had much more than a couple of weeks of clean time since he was in first grade. He has no idea who he is sober.

In the message he left me on my voicemail, it was difficult to understand him. However, it wasn’t John’s drunk voice. I knew that voice. In the message he sounded confused. Scared. He said he couldn’t move. He said that on Friday morning he woke up and couldn’t feel his body from the neck down. That the doctors had no idea what was going on. I didn’t know what to think. All I knew is that John didn’t deserve it, whatever it was. No one I worked with did. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. I take another sip. And another.

“What’s going on up there?” Abbey asks, snapping me out of my train of thought.

“What?” I say.

“You look lost in thought,” she says, smiling that endearing smile I fell in love with her for. I’m glad I still can notice that. “What are you thinking about?”

“Oh,” I say. “Just work stuff.”

“Busy day tomorrow?” she asks.

“I think so,” I say. I take another sip, noticing the glass emptying and leaving the slightly melted ice cubes. Time for another.

“You should just stay home,” she says playfully. “Call in sick.”

I laugh. “Maybe.”

“Really,” she says. “I like when you’re here.”

“I can’t,” I say with unnecessary seriousness. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. I stand up from the couch, glass in hand and head back over to the liquor shelf. I pour another glass.

Monday, 5:30 AM

I’m lying awake, watching beams of light travel across the ceiling as cars drive by outside. The menu on the TV is stuck on a screen that asks me if I’m still watching whatever show I selected to fall asleep to. Yes or No. Always a hell of a question. I don’t remember what I had picked to watch in the first place. These days I just need voices in the background. Voices in the dark. Otherwise, I lie awake. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. The thought endured the night. I reach for the remote and select “Yes.” The television begins playing the bass line to the opening from Seinfeld. That’s better. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF.

I roll over and look at Abbey, sleeping soundly. I laugh a bit at the faces she makes while she sleeps. It’s as if she has completely let go. Completely fallen asleep and is at peace with this lack of control. I admire it. I envy it. I reach over and place my hand on her shoulder. I give her a gentle nudge, though I know I shouldn’t. Though I know I should let her sleep. Her carefree expression condenses and forms a grimace.

“Is it time to get up already?” she asks, her voice heavy with fatigue.

“I’m sorry,” I say, realizing I lied again. I want her to wake up. I want her to be awake with me. I want her to talk to me. To say anything. Anything other than what’s in my head. Give me anything. Then again, she might ask me what’s wrong again. “Go back to sleep. Sorry about that.”

She rolls over and nuzzles into the pillow, returning quickly to the free fall. I roll over and stare at the ceiling again. George is talking to Jerry about something. I’m not listening close enough to know what exactly. A show about nothing, as it is often coined. I laugh a bit at that idea. It’s brilliant. Brilliant and horrific. I reach for my phone to check the time. 5:37. I don’t leave for work for another hour and a half. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. I decide to get up. I can’t lay here anymore. I need to move. I need to do something. Do what? Anything. Anything else but this. Why? I don’t know.

I swing my feet around and place them on the hardwood floor. I’m thankful for the ground. I stand up, stretching my arms toward the ceiling. My back cracks. My head hurts a bit. I’m falling apart. I limp over to the bathroom, yawning. I flip on the light and kick the door closed behind me. I place two hands on the bathroom counter and look at a stranger in the mirror. Unshaven. Dry lips. Dark circles beneath faded green eyes. I think of how my little sister once called my eyes “jungle eyes,” because they were wild and full of life. I think of how that was years ago. I turn on the faucet, cold, and crook my neck to drink tap water from the sink. I gulp with a thirst only one too many whiskeys can inspire. Then I turn the faucet off, stand up straight once again and reach for my toothbrush. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. I brush facing away from the mirror. There’s nothing to see here.

Monday, 8:00 AM

I’m in line at Dunkin’ Donuts on the corner of Causeway Street outside of North Station. The line is long. Not moving. I’m going to be late. I don’t care. Those waiting with me stare at their phones, looking up only to sigh and roll their eyes to demonstrate their frustration with the service. I envy their frustration.

It occurs to me here that this moment could have been yesterday. Or the day before. Or tomorrow. Or any other day. Same place. Same people. Same slow service. Same coffee order. Why are these people surprised? They must be still sleeping. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. One customer orders, steps aside. The line moves forward in unison one full place. Left foot, right foot. I can hear gears churning. Just not sure from where. Another place. An eternity. Another place. Another eternity.

“What’ll it be this morning?”

“Medium iced, please.”

“Cream or sugar?”

“No, just black.”

“That’ll be $3.53, please.”


I pay and step aside. I watch the same man who took my order turn, grab a plastic cup, step over to the tap and pull the handle. The brown liquid flows steadily until it comes to a sputtering stop. He glances at the half-filled cup.

“Tapped,” he says. “I’ll have to change it. Just one minute.”

He walks into the back and disappears. The line behind me groans collectively. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. While I wait for the barista to return, I remove my phone from my pocket and open up my personal email. I scroll down until I see my last email from my therapist. It’s been three months since I last saw her. I open a new message to her and type impulsively:

Good Morning Kathy,

I hope this email finds you well!

I know it’s been awhile but I was wondering if you had any openings in the next day or so. Nothing urgent—just wanted to check in. Thanks!



I don’t hit send at first. It stays a draft. I close the app. The barista returns, hauling a long cylindrical metal keg from the back and rolls it under the counter.

“Be right with you, sir.”

“Take your time.”

Monday, 10:00 AM

“Hello, I’m here to see John Farraghty.”

The nurse behind the desk looks up at me, suspicious. I smile back hap-hazardly.

“And you are?” she asks.

“Brett Dixon,” I say. “I’m his case manager.”

“Hold on.”

She pushes back in her swivel chair and rotates to face in the other direction. She stands with exaggerated effort and walks straight-legged over to the wall behind her to retrieve a clipboard pinned to the wall. She flips through the few pages clipped to the board.

“Who?” she asks.

“John,” I repeat. “John Farraghty. He was transferred here from downtown yesterday I believe.”

“I don’t see a John,” she says, still looking at the clipboard.

“He’s here,” I say. “He left me a voicemail from his room.”

“One sec.”

She walks into the back office and closes the door. I can see two other individuals in the back, one with a lab coat and one dressed in scrubs sitting around a small table sipping what I can only assume is coffee from plain white mugs. I can see their mouths move. I can’t hear what they’re saying. Faint footsteps from down the other end of the hall echo and fade under the harsh fluorescent lights. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. I sip from my iced coffee, now mostly melted ice at the bottom of a plastic cup. YOU SHOULD—

The nurse opens the door and returns.

“We hadn’t updated the list yet,” she says. “Room 8C. Down the hall, on the right.”


I walk down the hall, backpack slung over one shoulder, glancing in each of the rooms. 1C. 2C. The wing seems dead. No movement. No voices. The smell of cheap disinfectant. 3C. 4C. Every room is occupied. People laying under white sheets. Still. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. 5C. 6C. There are brown water stains on the cardboard ceiling above. 7C. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. 8C.

I stop in the doorway and pause. There’s a bed in the back left corner, the view of which is covered by a blue pull curtain stretched halfway across the length of the cot. I see a hospital gown covering two thighs atop two pale, thin calves and two boney feet, skin cracked and bruised. I can feel my heart hitting my chest. I can hear it thump in my temples.

“John?” I whisper in a sheepish voice.



There’s a minor stir from behind the blue curtain. The legs remain still. I hear a grunt. Then a sniffle.

“Hello?” a raspy voice sounds.

“John? It’s Brett. Can I come in?”

“Brett!" he says, clearing his throat, a trace of his signature enthusiasm still in his voice. “Yea, yea, come around.”

I step forward, pushing the blue curtain aside to reveal John’s full figure, dressed in a traditional hospital gown, lying on his back, arms out to the side, palms up. He has his head crooked to the side toward me, mouth slightly agape. His eyes are bright, but noticeably sad and his hair, normally pulled back in a ponytail, now falls over his face and onto his shoulders, stringy and greased. He smiles, showing noticeable effort, the right side of his mouth stretching farther than the left.

A lump forms in my throat at the sight of him.

“It’s good to see you,” he says. “Thanks so much for coming.”

“Of course.”

He grunts. Licks his chapped lips.

“You got my message then?”

“I did,” I say. “Have they told you what happened?”

“They don’t know yet. They’ve been running tests but they got—”

“What’s that?”

“Sorry,” he says after the pause. “My mouth is so dry. Do you think you could grab my water cup on the table for me? It’s the one with the blue straw.”

“Yes, of course.” I reach for the cup on the table. “This one?”

“Yes, thank you. I’m so thirsty and I can’t move my arms to grab it. The nurse put it just far away enough for me to reach with my mouth,” he says, laughing a bit. I muster a few laughs as I tilt the straw his way. He purses his lips and clasps the straw tip. He sips gently and gratefully, every gulp hitting his throat with cartoon-like exaggeration. A unique combination of warmth and grief overtakes me. I want to cry watching him. He finishes drinking with a satisfied ahhhhh.

“Thank you so much,” he says.

We fall silent. He turns his head slightly away from me, his gaze facing up at the ceiling. He closes his eyes. I want to ask him more about what the doctors have found. How does one simply become paralyzed from the neck down without any injury or illness? I shouldn’t ask more, I think. I can’t resist. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF.

“So the doctors, John—they don’t have a diagnosis?”

He opens his eyes.

“No, no not yet. It’s the weirdest thing,” he says. “I’ve stumped them. Only me, right?”

He laughs. I want to, but can’t.

“I’m assuming then they don’t know how long you’ll be here?”

“Oh no,” he says, certain. “It’ll be a while either way. They don’t know what’s going on but they want to work with me on trying to get some mobility back. I can’t even stand up to piss without help.”

“I see.”

“Yea, so, I’ll be here awhile,” he asserts. “But hey, at least it’s a warm bed and a roof, you know?”

“True,” I say, somehow more numb than before. “You know, the housing stuff we were working on, we aren’t going to stop working on it, okay?”

“Oh I know that Brett. I’m just not sure I’m going to be ready when my name gets called.”

“I know, but I’m going to do everything I can to hold your spot in that program we talked about and make sure this doesn’t set back the progress you—”



“I know all that. I’ve done this enough to know how this works. If my spot is still there whenever I’m ready—if I’m ready—then I’ll take it. If not, well, we’ll see what happens.”


He nods reassuringly. The role reversal is not lost on me. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. There’s a knock on the door behind me.

“John?” a raspy, female voice says behind me. I turn to see one of the nurses standing in the doorway.

“Yes?” John says.

“Time for a bath, okay?” the nurse says.

“Sounds good,” John says with his trademark enthusiasm. Then he looks at me. “They’re really good to me here,” he whispers.

“I’m glad,” I say. “You deserve that.”

The nurse walks over pushing a cart with medical and cleaning supplies on it. She reaches over me, grabbing the curtain to draw it around the frame and covering the whole bed.

“I’m going to get going,” I say. “I’ll be back again soon though, okay?”

“I’d like that,” John says.

I nod and smile. He does the same. I turn and start making my way toward the door, leaving John with the nurse behind the curtain. As I make my way toward the door, John’s voice rings out behind me.

“And Brett,” he yells, with noticeably strained effort. I stop.

“Yes John?”

“At least I’ll stay sober in here,” he says. “I was starting to slip.”

The words hit me like a suckerpunch. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF.

“That’s true, John. That’s true.”

I exit the room, the sound of John grunting as he slips out of his gown fading behind me. I remove my phone from my pocket and open up my emails to the drafts folder. I hit send on the email I had written earlier this morning.

Monday, 11:00 AM

I’m racing down the hospital hallway. Rooms filled with death and dying whizzing by my peripheral vision as my eyes scan the directional signs for a bathroom symbol. I’m shaking. Neck hot. Face hot. I can’t breathe. Thoughts are deafening. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. My heartbeat seems to pound outside my chest, taking up all the empty space in the hallway. My mouth is dry. So dry. I think of John sipping from the cup. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF.

I come to an intersection of hallways, nurses and doctors and guests all passing me, passing through me, their faces dark and blurry, as I stand scanning for bathrooms. My eyes latch onto a sign with a male and female silhouette. I shuffle towards it, grasping the door handle, turning it and throwing it open with one motion. I slide into the small, tiled restroom, locking the door behind me. The automatic light doesn’t switch on. I wave my hand in front of it. Nothing. I try again. The light switches on, illuminating the room with harsh fluorescent light. I lean my back against the wall and slide down onto the floor. I press my forehead to my knees and clasp my hands over my neck. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. I’m gasping, breaths shallow. The world is turning so fast. So senselessly. You know what this is, I whisper. You know you’re okay. You’re okay. You’re okay. I pick my head up from my knees and notice I’m eye level with the toilet seat.

I reach for my phone in my pocket with a trembling hand. I open my email. There’s an advertisement for a sporting goods store I once bought shoes from. An advertisement from Amazon. An advertisement for a new credit card offer from my bank. Nothing else. I check my text messages. There’s one from Abbey. It reads: Hi! How’s your day? I look at the question for a moment. Then I close my phone and go to place it back in my pocket. My hands are so shaky I miss my pocket and drop my phone onto the floor. The sound of the small plastic casing hitting the tile sounds like a gunshot. It vibrates throughout my body. I shudder. You’re okay. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. You’re okay. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF.

I close my eyes. I hear a sound. A distant sound. A familiar sound. An unrecognizable sound. The sound of a human being hitting the pavement from ten stories above. The wet, dull thud. Like a sack of meat. It plays again. And again. Drowning out my heartbeat, as if to say: ask not for whom the bell tolls, the bell tolls for thee. I cover my ears, knowing the effort is futile. It plays and plays. And then—a knock at the door.

I pick my head up. Eyes watering. Nose running. I wipe my face with the back of my sleeve. The sound stops. Time slows just enough for me to gain my footing. I stand up, walk over to the toilet. I press the flusher with the bottom of my foot. I walk over to the sink, wave my hand under the faucet. It spits lukewarm water into my cupped hands. I splash the water on my face and neck. I avoid the mirror as I pick my head up and walk over to the paper towel dispenser, pulling a single brown square from the rack. I dab my skin dry. I clear my throat. The sound echoes off the bathroom wall. I unlock the door and open it, exiting into the hallway. A tall figure stands by the door, waiting. I don’t look at them. I watch my feet tread the tile below, making my way toward the exit.

I’m outside. I’m alone again. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. Alone with my thoughts. Like I have been since I left the cave about a year ago.

My phone pings with a new notification. There’s a new email.

Tuesday, 8:30 AM

I’m standing on the platform waiting for the next Orange Line train outbound toward Forest Hills. Kathy’s office is a block away from the last stop. It’s an old Boston townhouse, turned over for businesses on the inside, her office at the top of the stairs and to the right, the old bay windows letting in the perfect amount of sunlight and painted a soothing shade of purple. For about a year it was my safe space. A haven from the outside world. It was there I learned how to stop hearing the sound of a body hitting the pavement in my head. It was in there I learned how much of my life I’ve spent trying not to be the scared-shitless little kid I was when I was younger. I loved it there—and I hate that I am going back. It seems like one giant step in the wrong direction. Like I’ve failed myself and those I serve. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. It’s eight minutes to the next train.

The station is crowded. Likely due to the delays earlier this morning. There are always delays. Frustrated commuters congregate just behind the yellow line that runs along the edge of the platform, all likely bloodthirsty for the first spot on the train that is likely overcrowded already. I’m standing behind them, partially for space, partially as an act of nonviolent resistance. I don’t want to be like them. I hate that I ever was. I observe them from only a few feet away and yet somehow it feels like a bird’s eye view. They have no faces, no features. Their forms are blurry. Distorted. And they are all dark. Shadows cast from no form. No substance. Barely existing. Barely outlined in the endless void around us. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. The train is six minutes away.

I’m watching them even closer now. Many pace back and forth, compulsively checking the time on their watches and phones, huffing and puffing and staring deeply into the clouded sky above, cursing God for having to wait. For having to spend one minute alone, silent and still. You can hear their collective cry: Oh Father, why hath thou forsaken me? And yet, they do not hear one another. They don’t know the pain of their brothers and sisters. Instead, they know what the Kardashians are wearing. How many likes have accumulated on their last Instagram photo. Who won last night’s game. What the interest rate is on a house they can’t afford. All this muck courses through their veins. Keeping them from feeling a goddamn thing. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. The train is three minutes away. I notice my hands trembling. I put them in my pockets.

How is it I detest and envy these strangers all at the same time? There was a time when things were simpler. I know it. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. Two minutes. I step into an opening in the crowd. There was a time. I’m sure of it. One minute. I step to the edge, crooking my head to look in the direction of the oncoming train. A headlight emerges in the distance. Its boundaries quiver against the gray surroundings. The light pulses, dances, allures. It grows larger and more enticing as it draws near. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. I’m on the yellow line. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. The hypnotic clacking of the steel wheels grinding against the old tracks echoes off the concrete walls. I’m standing, frozen, shadows all around, the light nearer. And nearer. A muffled announcement sounds from the station speakers: NEXT TRAIN TO FOREST HILLS NOW APPROACHING. PLEASE STAND BEHIND THE YELLOW LINE. I remain on the yellow line. A moth drawn to the flame. In an instant, it could all be over. In an instant, I could be nothing. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. The wind from the approaching train gently kisses my cheek. It is cold. My eyes are watering.

I look down for a moment at my feet and use my sleeve to wipe away the moisture. I blink a few times to reset. I notice my shoes planted on the platform, unmoving. Next to me I notice two sets of feet. Two little feet in velcro sneakers and two feet in high heels. I raise my glance slightly and see a little boy next to me, his eyes wide and his hands covering his ears as the train approaches. His face is pale, his eyes are wide. I recognize the expression on his face. It is fear. My heart breaks. I raise my glance higher and notice the blurred, distorted form of a woman next to him. She’s dressed sharply and has her head down, the glow of her phone lighting her face. I infer she is the boy’s mother. Either that or the boy is cowering behind a stranger. Who knows, it may be the same thing. The train grows louder to my left. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. I can’t look away from the boy. I want him to uncover his ears. So I can tell him it’s going to be alright. Even if I have to yell it over the deafening noise. He turns his head away from the train, away from me and hides his face in his mother’s thigh. I turn back toward the train. The light is here. Right here. YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF. I think of Abbey. I think of John. I think of the boy. I think of me, barefoot in the backyard, throwing wiffle balls up in the air to myself and hitting them, only to then have to retrieve them across the yard so I could hit them again. Wearing a patch in the grass in the yard. A lump forms in my throat. The light passes by me followed by the whooshing of the train cars. I step back from the yellow line. The train comes to a stop. The door opens. I stand off to the side for some shadows to step off. Once clear, I step onto the train without thinking, swept up by the current of the boarding crowd. I take position in the middle of the car, barely enough standing room for any of us. I reach up and take hold of one of the dangling rubber rings above, hoping to keep my feet still as I ride. The doors close unceremoniously. An unmistakable hush fills the car. I look around for the little boy. He’s disappeared somewhere into the crowd. The train starts moving again.

Tuesday, 10:00 AM

I’m in the waiting room outside Kathy’s office, sitting next to a small table. There’s a stack of magazines on the table. They’re familiar. Probably the same stack from a year ago. I can’t be sure.

The space is silent aside from the hissing of the white noise machines outside the office doors. Machines meant to protect privacy. They sound like surging water. The three office doors are closed. Sessions happening all around me. So many problems in the world. So many helpers. So many problems.

Kathy’s door opens and a heavyset, balding man appears in the doorway. As he zips up his windbreaker, he turns and says, “Thank you.”

See you next week,” a comforting voice returns. The man makes eye contact with me briefly, nods, and then turns away, as if ashamed. I hear him descend the stairs. The door remains open. I keep my eyes fixed on the empty space, heart racing. I’m nervous and I shouldn’t be.

A few seconds pass. Kathy appears in the doorway.

“Hello there,” she says.

I offer a toothless smile and nod. A feeble gesture but genuine. I follow her into the room. She sits in the same chair she always sat in before. There are two chairs across from her. Before I always chose the one on her left. Today I sit in the one on her right. I settle in. Even with a different vantage point, the room looks exactly the same. Still comforting. Still soothing. It’s horrible. I look at her. She smiles.

“Welcome back,” she says.

“Thanks,” I say.

There’s silence. She nods for a moment, keeping the silence. Then she breaks.

“So,” she says. “What brings you back in?”

The question comes with impact. Like the cold, hard ground after a long fall. It’s then I notice the silence in my head. Sweet silence. I have no answers. For once. No answers.

“I don’t know,” I say.

The words taste so sweet. I want to say them over and over. So I do. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.

B. Dixon


B. Dixon is a writer and licensed mental health counselor living in Salem, MA. His work has been published in the Main Street Rag, Pithead Chapel, the J Journal: New Writings on Justice, and the *82 Review, among others. His writing has also been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Best of the Net.

paper texture

One Sunday after meditation, near the end of the potluck brunch, a woman came in the back door of the meditation center holding a cardboard box, close to where I was standing. “Here’s your cat,” she said in a loud monotone to no one in particular. “Take your cat. Keep your cats out of my yard. I’m not going to tell you again.”

I looked into the box she was holding. There was a tiny, screaming orange and white kitten. Another woman enjoying the potluck took a peek inside. “Oh no, not again, oh no,” she said and walked away. I found myself holding the box with the kitten inside it and the neighbor gone. The few people still hanging around were muttering, “Find Guy… Where did Guy go?” Slight, balding Guy was the caretaker of the meditation center. He had a workshop in the back, where we found him, and I showed him the kitten. “Oh no. This kitten is not from here. I only feed one or two cats, not kittens.”

I dipped my finger into a can of cat food Guy had on hand and the kitten lapped it up. I already had one cat, so I thought, “This I can manage.”

The Buddhist nun who taught high school art the rest of the week took the tiny kitten in her hands and brought him to the altar, a spectacle of beautifully arranged offerings and golden statues. She laid him at the foot of the giant Buddha in the center, recited a mantra in Sanskrit, and told me she had named him Bodhi, short for Bodhisattva, the compassionate enlightened one.

“You can change it to anything you want. I named my bird Bodhi, too.”


Back at home in my dilapidated rental, in my sleepy privileged seaside town, I consulted a couple of neighbors who were “rescue people.” Everyone knows one, but I knew two. I learned how to remove fleas from a tiny kitten: use baby shampoo and a fine-tooth comb; Frontline will likely kill him. Bodhi got a free vet visit (healthy, about five weeks old), but the overwhelming message I got from the rescue people was, “You have to go back and find Bodhi’s mother and get her spayed.”

Sure enough, within a week or two Bodhi’s siblings emerged from the base of an enormous hollow oak between the meditation center and the neighbor’s house. The adorable monsters were now impossible to catch. The feral mother was a little dilute tortie, one of the cats Guy was feeding all along. I called Ilene, a friend of one of my rescue neighbors, who came to the courtyard of the meditation center to lend me a trap and show me how to use it. “You won’t catch any cats as long as people are feeding them,” she said dryly. It turned out she was right.

Guy thought it was cruel to stop feeding the cats, and Tana, who volunteered in the office most days, liked to go outside on her break and watch the kittens play. No matter how many times I returned and gently or not so gently explained the situation—that mama was going to suffer and die birthing three litters a year in the hollow tree, and that the kittens, if trapped now, could be socialized and get safe homes—Guy was going to continue putting out food and Tana was going to come outside and tell me to leave the kittens alone.

Finally, I went when they were not there and set the trap and waited. I stared at the mother cat in the rear-view mirror of my car, sitting on the wall, well fed and not going near the trap baited with tuna. While mama was on guard, the kittens stayed in the hollow tree. I tried to work with my emotions in a Buddhist way, but I was really angry at these stupid meditation center people. I remembered a Buddhist teaching from the old days at Naropa. Its founder Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche learned English at Oxford and soon took off his robes to be a more relatable teacher. He called this “idiot compassion.” It’s basically doing something that makes you feel good, or avoids conflict, but does not have any basis in true compassion, which requires some backbone and wisdom.

One Sunday a few months before I brought Bodhi home, I received a Buddhist empowerment. I recited the Bodhisattva vow along with everyone else, with seriousness and ease: I vowed to save not just myself, but all other sentient beings from suffering, with equanimity. At Naropa years before, my writing teacher Anne Waldman mischievously told us the story of when she took her vow: “I crossed my fingers behind my back, because my vow is to Poetry!” raising her index finger in the air. I thought if she could do that and be so wise and generous and joyful afterward, I would be okay, too.


The idle trap was in the trunk of my car. I avoided going to the meditation center altogether. Then Ilene called and wanted her trap back.

I was advised to drop it off at a nearby rescue, the one my neighbor volunteered at. Someone with a nose ring asked if I wanted a tour.

We passed the dogs leaping and barking in their kennels. We went into the cat adoption center and a cat-sized medical area. Then we went to the “cottage,” a building onto which many additions had been built, where dozens of feral cats were housed. My tour guide explained that they could never be adopted because with no human contact before eight weeks old, they had no capacity to accept humans into their lives or be a decent pet.

She said that at some point in time, they were trapped, neutered, and “rescued” from the streets for a life of indoor safety. They sat together huddled in a dark corner when we came in. Clearly this was a failed experiment. Their safe, healthy lives were miserable, surrounded by humans they feared and crowded in with other cats they did not like. It took hundreds of hours of precious human lifetimes to care for them. More idiot compassion. I am glad I saw that place first.


In the four years that followed, I trapped, neutered, and returned—or “TNRed”—a few hundred cats working with a different rescue by answering an ad on Craigslist. Local governments contracted with the rescue to humanely address the exploding feral cat population in some densely populated suburban neighborhoods in the Metro New York area. The rescue would pay me $10 to $20 per cat, to defray the cost of gas. I went out with one of the other trappers on a couple of jobs and learned. Then I was given the name and number of someone from the endless TNR waiting list the town had compiled and set out to work.

The caller was typically a complainer (“Keep your cat out of my yard”), and I would have to educate them. They were typically unhappy to find out I was not going to remove the cats from their yard permanently. I would usually have to do some sleuthing to see who was feeding the cats, and convince them to stop for forty-eight hours, then return, set the traps, sit in my car and wait for the hungry cats to walk in. Sometimes the feeders were cooperative and even helpful. Some refused to stop feeding: “It’s so cruel to starve them.” We called them feeder-breeders. I would set the traps in the yard of the complainer, randomly trap, neuter, and return a cat or two to satisfy them, and move on to the next on the list.

On one hand neutering any cat is helpful for that individual cat, to reduce its suffering, especially the females. One female cat can easily have two or three litters totaling twelve or more kittens in a year, growing exponentially and quickly from there. The goal is to trap every cat in the colony, have them spayed or neutered and vetted, give them a few days to recover and return them to the place they were trapped, to their feeder and their colony, where they will live out the rest of their short outdoor lives (about six years) without reproducing. The vet removes the very tip of the cat’s left ear to identify that it has been TNRed and does not need to be trapped again. Over time the neighborhood overrun with feral cats will just have a few and then none. Return is key. The other options are the feral “cottage” or the gas chamber.

It was common to find many dozens of kittens, who, if under eight weeks, could be brought to the adoption center of the rescue, socialized, and rehomed. The kitten volunteers did not even get $10 a cat, but to them, the trappers were rock stars. “I don’t know how you go out there and do what you do and see what you see. I could never do it,” said the kitten volunteer with freshly scratched arms, while cleaning the medicated kitten diarrhea from the aluminum foil lasagna pans filled with non-clumping litter.


The first day trapping at a location was always the best. Nothing was more satisfying than hearing the metallic tink of the trap door falling shut. Sometimes the cat inside would be enjoying a can of Fancy Feast, completely oblivious, but often the cats did freak out. I would keep old towels to cover the trapped cats, to keep them calm, then load them into my car and drive them to the feral room at the rescue, where they waited for their day at the vet. “Simple but not easy,” was my assessment after several trapping jobs.

I trapped in rough neighborhoods and rich neighborhoods, meeting people of many races, ages, ethnicities, and languages, professors and doctors and people on disability. Everywhere there were cats. I had a spay and neuter letter that I would leave on people’s doorsteps with my phone number, in case they knew who was feeding or needed help, but mostly it was PR. The basic message was: “The town is aware of the feral cat problem, and a volunteer is coming around, so be nice to them.”

It’s true I didn’t know what I was going to encounter at any time. Certain images stand out: people, locations, individual cats.

Early on I trapped a kitten with a BB lodged in its spine and it had to be euthanized. Someone at the rescue plastered the neighborhood with wanted posters to find the armed cat killer, but we never did.

I worked with a fourteen-year-old girl who had socialized a litter she found in the alley by keeping them in her bedroom, feeding them, and letting them out and back in through the window when they were old enough to want to roam. The neighbors had complained. The girl’s parents worked all the time, so they never knew. I returned her neutered indoor/outdoor herd of cats.

The biggest cat I ever trapped was by the water in Adams Port, near the boat yards and co-ops by the bay, in the dead of winter. The best time to trap is when there is a light layer of fresh snow, paths of pawprints visible, routes the cats used to get from here to there, the perfect place to lay a trap. The giant tom was all black with yellow teeth, hissing and spitting, a terrible panther. I opened the trunk of my car to show him to my son and to my boyfriend, because I needed witnesses. The irony is that I was terrified of these animals a lot of the time, and not without good reason. Still, I couldn’t turn down a trapping job. I loved trapping. I was kind of addicted to it.


On Friday nights the meditation center had a class called “Freedom from Addiction.” I decided to go mostly to avoid the Sunday people, after the drama that launched my trapping career. I was drinking a lot of wine in the evenings, so meditating one night a week instead seemed like a good idea. I missed basking in the space of that beautiful meditation room. A dozen blue glass bowls of water, fresh flowers, sweets and drinks, rows of jars of jam each with a Hershey’s kiss on top, elegant glass bottles of olive oil and seltzer grouped by color at the feet of Green Tara and Red Dakini statue, naked gold until someone draped her with a red scarf. The offerings were just groceries from Trader Joe’s, skillfully assembled by someone with artist’s eye, and changed each month. One day I happened to be there when they changed the altar and gave the sweets away. It felt like good fortune.

Pete, the Freedom from Addiction teacher, had a best friend named Pete who was always at the Friday class. I liked these ex-junkies. Pete the teacher told outrageous stories of his shady past, a deep calm voice working the mic. His meditations could lead to the type of transcendent trippy out of body experiences people go to meditation for. One time I was just having a lovely floaty time with my breath and Pete’s voice, and then out of nowhere I had an orgasm, a fluttery real orgasm. I just kept breathing, but my heart was pounding. I turned it over in my mind many different ways, but I never knew what to do with that experience. Was his out of body having some kind of encounter with my out of body? Or had he just invited so much bliss into the room? It did not seem like a conversation I wanted to have. It seemed like it would lead to an end, to my old default modes, to things in the news about Buddhist teachers.

Then Pete got sick; it was cancer. Then he looked thin, then he was dead. I went to his Powa, the Buddhist prayer ceremony for the dead. At the end a tiny paper flag is set on fire over a candle, to help the dead get to the pure land, but also to help the living let go.

Later, the other Pete and I found ourselves at the regular Sunday class, and we were disappointed by Sunday, happy to see each other, and had nothing to say. We hugged lightly. He looked so deeply sad, and his long hair had turned completely white over his boyish face.


Spring, and it was kitten season. The woman who called was not a feeder or a complainer, just a concerned citizen who saw a lot of strays in her yard. When I arrived with two cursory traps and little hope, I was on my way to work: an adjunct teaching freshman composition at 8 a.m at the community college. This address was on the way. I planned to set the traps and swing back after class. The traps would be empty for sure, because neither of us could find a feeder.

At this early hour, she was having breakfast with her husband in the Florida room, wearing nothing but her big white bra and underwear. We looked at each other through the glass slats in shock. She laughed and put a robe on. When I returned after class a big white cat was in the trap. A day later the vet who spayed her told the rescue she was lactating. That meant she had been nursing kittens and they were nearby somewhere. I went back with a cat carrier. In underwear woman’s lush yard, again early in the morning before class, I poked around and heard high pitched sounds, like the bird songs of spring, but different. In my cardigan and flats, I followed the chirping, wiggled between a shed and some fence posts, to a bare and junk-strewn yard, just the way cats like it.

Standing in front of a shed with no doors were five adorable kittens, the size of Bodhi when I took him home, too young and helpless to run away. I gathered up the white, silver, and apricot colored bouquet of tiny cats and wriggled back with them tucked in my armpits and hands. Underwear lady was delighted to watch over the carrier full of kittens until my class was over. When I was done trapping she potted up an avocado tree that had sprouted from her compost pile and gave it to me. I had admired the tropical foliage growing out of the kitchen waste, reaching toward the dappled sun, randomly finding happiness.


I started to believe that cats were all little bodhisattvas showing us the way, myself included. They had the ability to find people who needed help, and not the other way around. The people had nothing else going for them. They were lonely and sad. They were poor at social skills. They mistakenly thought they were being kind, putting out food for a poor lost cat, and then suddenly there are two dozen. There is a grain of truth in every stereotype, so here goes: so many elderly ladies…

In Greenfield there were two widows, catty-corner to each other, both named Mary, in their tiny original cape houses, now surrounded by McMansions. Ironically the two women who were so much alike, knew and despised each other. The nicer of the two let me watch the traps from her kitchen window. She had an indoor cat she named Swirly Jordan, for his marble tabby markings, cream and black spiral heart shapes decorating his flanks.

She said, “The day of the blizzard, it was terrible, I opened the door to bring the cats their food, because they still have to eat you know, and he ran right inside, just like that! Isn’t that right, Swirly Jordan?”

The friendly young cat headbutted our legs and leapt onto the crowded countertops. Defying all evidence, the nine-month-old kitten decided he had enough of being feral, decided to try out indoor life, and decided to be Mary’s only friend.

It was easy to assume because the two Marys lived so close to each other they were feeding the same cats, but they each fed their own separate colonies. They each knew every cat and had been responsibly getting them fixed. A few cats had their left ears tipped to prove it. But at some point the cats bred too fast for them, in their old age, to deal with. I had some sympathy for that. The people at the rescue came to realize I had a knack for dealing with “old ladies,” that I specialized in that, and they sent me to the elderly women that the other trappers couldn’t deal with. They put them all on my list.

While waiting around in my car for hours, I would look on the list for houses in the same neighborhood where I was trapping. The town wanted us to go in order, but at that point I did not care for their system. An address near the two Marys was on the list. Without calling I drove over and knocked on the door. A silver tabby with long white tufts hanging from his ears observed me from the bay window. A youngish woman wearing a “Run for Autism” t-shirt opened the door. When she saw I was holding two cat traps she started to cry; she was so happy someone had finally come. A year and a half prior she had called the town, because there was a pregnant cat in her yard, and within a year there were fifteen. She gathered all the kittens she could, kept some, and found homes for others.

I trapped all the cats and found just one kitten, a female tabby who quickly got fat at the shelter. I picked her up with rough abandon from her cage and felt the new stiches on her belly with surprise. She was weeks old but already two pounds, heavy enough to be spayed and find a home.

On so many occasions there was one stubborn untrappable cat staring at me while I sat in my car, like Bodhi’s mother, while I tried not to make eye contact. Usually it was a smart calico queen. After a few days, I had to move on with the knowledge that in a year or two someone would complain and I would be on that same street, trapping again.

I saw tense marriages, where usually the man cruelly insisted his wife just stop feeding, which is never a good solution, watching cats starve to death in your backyard, knocking over trashcans and getting hit by cars looking for food, always still breeding.

I trapped and accidentally returned a pregnant calico who had not yet been spayed. I had misread the tag on her cage. At that same location a racoon decided to check out the Fancy Feast in broad daylight, which the cat feeder refused to deal with. It had eaten half of the towel by the time I arrived and refused to leave the trap after I opened it.

I accidentally let cats escape from their cages while cleaning and feeding them in the feral room. It was a terrible phone call to have to make. The door could not be opened until the cat was captured, and once a cat has been in a trap, it is a lot less likely to go in again. Trying to take them by hand is impossible, so the only other option is the net. One little black feral in a huge crate alone had pulled a towel through the bars and put it in her can of food. Her tail was in bandages. I ever so slightly opened the door to pull the towel out and put fresh food in. The cat flew out of the crate, right past my face, across the room, and onto a high shelf in the corner, looking at me. I had fucked up everyone’s day for sure, with my idiot compassion.

A cat I had trapped escaped from the trailer where they did the spay and neuter operations at the town shelter, before I could return her, but after she was fixed. I had no time for that. Chrissy, the trapper who trained me, who I called when things got complicated, helped me dismantle and reassemble the deck of a local legislator to rescue three mewing kittens underneath. We snuck into her yard at night while no one was home. Her son-in-law was living there and told us to “stay away!” because he “didn’t like cats.” That is just a plain idiot with no compassion. We also successfully used a carrier full of hungry crying kittens to lure an untrappable queen under a drop trap. By then I had upgraded to a hatchback to fit the awkward contraption. This was by far our all-time greatest feat of trapping.


Night was falling in mid-summer, and we never trapped at night. Night brought only racoons and other problems. No one wanted to take jobs in Adams Port, where I caught the terrible panther, because it was so far away. My boyfriend Lee lived there so I didn’t mind. At dusk I told the feeder to shut the traps and she said okay, but by the time she got around to it, two kittens were in a trap together. When I got the phone call, Lee and I were halfway between Adams Port and our favorite sushi restaurant twenty miles away.

I begged the woman to keep them in her house overnight, but she didn’t want to, so I had to drag Lee along on another rescue adventure, the long ride back to Port to pick up the trapped kittens, down to the shelter on the South Shore, and anywhere still open at 10 p.m. to have dinner. The kittens were about ten weeks old, and the shelter was completely full in mid-summer. The director, Kim, told me without emotion, “I am very sorry but they are ten weeks old and over two pounds and there is no room or time for them. They will be really hard to socialize, and unless you want to see a shelter full of feral cats like that other one you saw, so I know you know, you need to bring the kittens back to where you trapped them after they are fixed.”

Kim shielded me from taking home kittens to foster, because it was much harder to find a trapper than a kitten foster, and fostering takes time away from trapping. But Chrissie always did just what she wanted and put the two kittens in her bathroom to protect them from the outdoor life, but since she was always trapping, she did not have enough time to socialize them, just as Kim had said. The kittens were living in her bathroom, hiding under the sink, and not becoming friendly. “If you take one,” she suggested, “they won’t be so attached to each other. They will be forced to attach to people.”

“I will socialize her, but I can’t keep her,” I said.

“I am sure there will be a home for her. There always is,” Chrissie said.

The kitten was about three months old and skinny. She had black fur that was neither long nor short, a funny looking cat. Her first day at my apartment, in the small dog crate on the kitchen table, my Chinese landlady saw her and asked, “What is it?”

A girlfriend and her five-year-old daughter were coming to visit for the weekend, and I thought what fun for us all to play with the foster kitten. When I returned from the train station, the crate was empty. We looked everywhere. No kitten. Now we were trapped inside because I was loathe to open the door and have the kitten escape. Eventually, I opened a desk drawer I hadn’t checked, so overstuffed with papers it was stuck, and I saw a patch of black fur. I ripped away at the papers and grabbed at anything, a tail, an ear, a leg, and I got her. This kitten was smart. She slid the tray in the bottom the crate to the side just enough to escape from between the widest gap in the bars. She played this neat trick later, when she would slide the bowl out from under one of my hungry boy cats, so she could eat before them. She knew I could only carry two bowls at a time.

I kept asking the kitten shelter people if they had room yet, and they never said yes, and they never said no. How could I put her back in a cage now that she had the run of my apartment? How was she going to compete with smaller and friendlier kittens, to win someone’s heart and find a home?

Maya bonded with Teddy and Bodhi, the odd gay couple that they had become, and to some degree to me, but she was always semi-feral. If I sat on the sofa long enough to read a book she would jump on my lap to kneed and drool, but if the door opened she scrambled to run and hide. She had tufts of fur between her toes like the Grinch and slid all over the polished wood floors. Lee and I moved in together, into an old cold seaside house, and Maya was now a beautiful long haired black cat.

Once I posted fliers around the neighborhood with her picture, blaming my teenage son for letting her escape. A day later she emerged from a hole she made in the box spring of his bed. So when Lee and I took a vacation, I told the cat sitter, “Don’t worry if you don’t see her. She likes to hide.” I returned and found her weak and disoriented in an old cat bed in the basement. Somehow in the rush to leave we had neglected to shut the basement door. I brought her to the kitchen, where she liked to rest on the heater, and she ate, but she didn’t look right.

Having neglected my duties while away, like my gig doing errands for an elderly couple, and teaching my classes and grading papers, I put off taking her to the vet until the next day. When I returned from class, Lee told me she didn’t make it. I didn’t believe him. He had lovingly wrapped her in a towel and put her in an Amazon delivery box. I sat outside on the freezing porch and unwrapped her body and sobbed. A day after I realized she was sick, she was dead. I had reluctantly committed to twenty years with her but had only gotten two. Attachment, impermanence, grief, suffering.


Later that spring, when I went to the annual rescue fundraiser, all anyone wanted to talk about was “the house” where I was trapping. “The house” was an opening into the very pit of hell itself. No one, not even Chrissie, especially not Chrissie, believed what I saw and heard and smelled there. You had to experience it for yourself.

I set five traps in the complainer’s yard, the house behind “the house.” I saw the masses of decrepit outdoor shelters and cats and cats and cats. I drove around the block, a wealthy neighborhood of immaculate high ranches, and this one house. There were piles of food and excrement all over the front lawn and driveway. The cats I saw up close were those that couldn’t run away, cats with tumors, cats with both eyes crusted over, skin and bones and matted fur. There were cats darting in and out of the garage which was opened a bit for them to come and go. I knocked on the door of “the house.”

An elderly woman answered the door in a filthy housedress and mismatched slippers on her feet. I was invited inside graciously. She apologized for the newspapers on the floor. The indoor cats mostly all looked the same, white with yellow eyes and pale gray ears, and I quickly counted twenty or more. The smell was overwhelming of sour milk, diarrhea, a tan crust on the newspapers, layered with more newspapers, flies buzzing around, mama cats and their kittens, and the “naughty tom who just won’t leave the girls alone.”

Rosette was once a woman of culture. Her paintings and sculptures were still decorating the walls and tables of the house. She was so pleased to have company, to show the art she had created long ago. She was happy to give me a tour, but only of certain parts of the house, oblivious to the horrors going on around her. While we were making small talk, I was counting cats, and a white kitten with only three legs scooted under a sofa. After a long negotiation, and her repeated offers for me to sit down and enjoy some tea with her, she agreed to stop feeding the outdoor cats only, so I could TNR them.

When I told Kim and Chrissie what I had seen and heard and smelled, “like something died in there,” they thought I was being melodramatic. When they didn’t believe what I told them, when I told them twice, when they bragged about how they had seen things I couldn’t even imagine, I got angry. I said to myself, fuck it. I’ll trap them all and actually make a little windfall cash at this place. When they see the condition of the cats and how many cats and pay me $10 for each, maybe then they will believe me.

I was sitting at the entry table at the annual fundraiser taking tickets, and everyone wanted to talk to me.

“I hate these people who cause these problems for themselves and then just expect us to do everything and fix everything.”

“Just grab the kittens.”

“How do you know there are dead cats, did you actually see dead cats?”

“We are supposed to be having fun!" I said. “Let’s talk about it tomorrow.”

The other trapper, Gail, couldn’t help herself. When Kim and Chrissie walked away she whispered, “Just keep working on her. You are good with old people. And when she’s not looking, grab the kittens.” I went back and filled my car with cats and went back. Rosette let me take some of the indoor kittens, but not all. She had to decide. She had to pick and choose. I was patient. I went back every day. I went two, three, four times. Twenty, thirty, forty cats, but I never saw a penny.

Every time I went in the house I accepted the nauseating smell, growing more and more like death. I had a pair of flats I kept in a plastic bag in the car, just for “the house” because now they were ruined. I tried to advise Rosette on how to get some help cleaning her house. She had a friend named Marty who delivered food and cat food to her, but I guess he drew the line at delivering cat litter.

She said that a social worker was trying to get her cleaning help, too. She said she had a daughter who was a psychologist who lived far away and who refused to help because she did not approve of the cats. It was hard to know what was true or not, but I tended to believe her. I believed it was possible to help this woman get things right enough for her to stay in her home with her cats, if they were all fixed and she got a cleaning service. To not believe was to consider the unthinkable.

The next day no one answered the door. I stayed a long time and kept knocking, even trying the doorknobs, but it was all locked. I called Chrissie and went to go teach my class. Marty and the social worker from adult protective services arrived to feed the cats just when Chrissie got there. They told her Rosette was in the hospital for tests, and then was going to an assisted living facility. Her daughter had decided.

Kim and Chrissie went to the house and took more kittens, thirty-six in total. (The three-legged kitten was healthy and got adopted very quickly.) They found a dead cat lovingly wrapped in a towel in the downstairs bathroom. Kim said it was the worst hoarding she had seen in twenty years and thought that Rosette should go to jail. But the fate of the cats was the same: they all had to be euthanized. Without a feeder, they had no hope. I had tried to save Rosette, too. Sympathy for the devil, but it was hopeless.

I went back to “the house” with catnip, sage and a candle. In the backyard, I softly chanted “Om mani pame hum” to invoke the bodhisattva of compassion and watched a pregnant tuxedo kitten run up a tree and do flips, playful and clownish on catnip in the last hours of her short feral life, before the town animal control crew came with the nets to take them all to the gas chamber.


I took a break from trapping and fostered some kittens. Socializing an eight-week-old kitten is a lot of work. Virulent diarrhea had spread through the shelter all summer and fall, so it was urgent to get the kittens out. The disease is actually called “shelter diarrhea,” and it happens when many animals live indoors in a tight space. Elaborate protocols were set up: if you picked up a kitten, you had to wear a hospital gown and change it before picking up another. Every inch of the place had to be washed in bleach solution every day. Everyone who could took pairs of kittens home. Teddy and Bodhi were perpetually outraged at having kittens around. They peed territorially around the house, ruined a few sofas, hissed when they walked by me. It was December, and I was really glad kitten season was over. I showed up at the rescue to stuff fundraising envelopes. Someone had trapped an older tabby kitten. No one had found her colony or a feeder. She would be all by herself outside. “Just this one.” The kitten volunteers persuaded me to take her home and make her friendly, before Kim insisted she go back outside.

Tabby kitten was always scared, but if I snuggled her inside my sweater, she was calm. When I put her on the floor there was a lot of running and hiding, and me grabbing a tail, an ear, or a leg to get her back into the crate. Christmas Day we had company. One friend was curious about the kitten. I opened the crate and grabbed her by the scruff and handed her over.

“Should you grab her like that?” she asked, laughing. We were drinking wine.

“I am not very good at this fostering kittens thing. Do you want to try? I know they need—”

“No, no, no, no, not me.”

My anger rose but I remained polite.

“No one wants to do it. I’m not good at any of it, but I try and help them. If they hadn’t trapped her…three litters a year, six years lifespan, living outside, blah blah,” a speech I had given a hundred times.

It is true I wasn’t good at any of it. I even started to think the rescue people were just politely keeping me around. I found a Buddhist book, The Wisdom of No Escape by Pema Chodron, and I read it over and over again without a hint of irony despite choosing to spend so much of my precious human life trapping feral cats. She wrote: “It doesn’t do any good to get rid of our so-called negative aspects, because in that process we also get rid of our basic wonderfulness.” And with that I kind of gave myself a break, about all of it. None of it would ever be resolved. I was not going to be able to rescue myself, and it was really okay.


Chrissy had put on her #fosterfails feed a video of Maya’s sister, one of the pair we separated and saved from the street, who was now her pet. Holly was having a little seizure from some neurological disorder. She needed to take medications for the rest of her life. Chrissy told me, “These two kittens were sick when you trapped them. That’s what happens when they are drinking antifreeze and have no vaccinations. Maya’s death wasn’t your fault.”


When I went to the meditation center, which wasn’t often, I didn’t stay for brunch anymore. The Buddhist nun who had named Bodhi on the altar told me she retired from teaching art at the high school and was invited to Canada, to live and work at a center where they create all the Buddhist statues for all the centers around the world. She informed me that all the statues, even at this center, on this altar, contained hundreds of little scrolls with chants and teachings hand painted in Sanskrit, and she was going to create these tiny artworks to put inside the statues. It sounded like something from a dream. I said goodbye to my last friend at the center.

One day, Guy approached me. It was some time after I took Bodhi home and tried to trap his mother. Guy said, “Thank you for what you did for the kitten. I just wanted to let you know that someone else came and trapped the mama cat and had her spayed, and then she took the other four kittens home for herself.

“Really!” I said. “No kidding.”

“And the funny thing is that her name is Karen, too.”

I did not correct him.

“She is a member here, too. She was easy to work with. She wasn’t in a hurry at all.”

I could see what he was saying and not saying, and I tried not to take it personally. “I’m so glad it all worked out.”

“And the tree is gone. That was the problem. We had to take down the tree.”

We walked to the back. The courtyard was a different place, open to the light and clean. There was an iron table and chairs. Where the giant hollow oak stood someone had planted a flower garden around a concrete Buddha. I wasn’t sure I liked it. I was still attached to the cat friendly wild courtyard.

Once we were outside, he motioned me close and whispered, “Cats are not allowed here anymore.”

“So they made you stop feeding?” I hissed. Again, I stopped myself.

He gave a sly and knowing look, put a finger to his lips and went into his workshop.


Names of people and places have been changed or omitted but the events
remain faithful to my memory.

For more information about feral cats visit: Community Cats Coalition.

Karin Falcone Krieger


Karin Falcone Krieger’s recent prose, poetry and visual art have been published in Tofu Ink Arts Press, Viewless Wings Podcast, Tupelo Quarterly, LITPUB, Newsday, Contingent Magazine, BlazeVOX, The Laurel Review, and in the anthology, “A physical book which compiles conceptual books” (Partial Press, 2022). She published the zine artICHOKE from 1990-2008, taught freshman composition as an adjunct instructor for 20 years, and was an adjunct union representative. She has an MFA is from The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa and is a suburban homesteader who occasionally types poems in public space. Links to these and other projects can be seen at

paper texture

Three times in the night the orderlies come around to check on me. They bang the metal door frame and shout my name. Is it my name? I can't remember. I have to say yes and they have to see eyes or they keep banging.

I lift my head to the backlit doorway and look for the face in the shadow. Their eyes can see even if I can't—so they close the door and I can sleep again, unless they make me take more medicine.

Nobody gets to sleep by themselves more than four hours at a time. I think once I slept more, but I wasn't alone.

No wonder everyone's crazy.


My room is the first one in our hall. It’s the only one with two windows: a small one by the door where the orderlies shine their flashlight, and a big one along the wall facing the man behind the desk. I call him the Control Center.

The Control Center sits in a glass box with a switchboard of lights and buttons, like in that Netflix show where the white lady goes to prison. The Control Center is at the intersection of our two halls, which come together like a T behind the counter where the orderlies hang out. Our two halls are both dead ends.

Here is Inside and Outside.

Inside are the bedrooms, the telephone stations, one room for Group and another for talking to the doctor. There’s a visiting room somewhere, but you can only get there with an orderly.

Outside is a closed atrium with only one set of doors to enter. The atrium is sealed off with a hard plastic ceiling overhead. The Control Center controls those too—the doors, not the ceiling. Only the Control Center can open doors here.

Outside is mostly for smokers. When they make the call for Outside all the smokers line up. The orderlies count us going through the door and give us one cigarette each. I go outside every time even though I’m not a smoker, but sometimes I forget and take the cigarette anyway. Then someone asks me, Hey, are you going to smoke that cigarette?

There are no ins or outs. You either go or you don't when the doors open, because they don't like to count twice. So I stay out there until it’s time to go inside, even though it’s cold and I don't have my jacket. We line up by the door like it’s recess, and when I step onto the cold concrete wearing only my socks, I wonder why nobody told me to put shoes on my feet.

Outside is also where we eat. Today they give us hamburgers, served on those blue plastic trays we used back in grade school. I sit down at one of the rubber-coated picnic tables bolted to the ground, and a short woman with a stubby face takes the seat across from me. She has slanted eyes like mine, lots of wrinkles on her face and her hair is turning white.

I think we must be friends, which is why she came to sit with me. She’s talking to me. She wants to trade her cookie for my hamburger. She says, Want to trade? and suddenly her hand is shooting straight for me—

I slap it away and get yelled at for that. No touching without permission. I grab my tray, knocking over the milk carton in my hurry. Drops of 2% spill through the diamond-pattern holes of the table, onto the pavement. I get yelled at for that too: No food on the table.

The other woman just sits there laughing. Her laughter seems too big for her body, like she’s threatening to explode. She screams, You're crazy! as I back away to an empty bench.

She says, You're really crazy—and I guess we aren’t really friends after that.


When I was fourteen, I lived alone in a concrete brick apartment tower where the guy downstairs got busted for prostitution. This was ten years ago—after my dad moved back to China, after my mom died, and after my sister left for college.

My cousin Anna lived with my Aunt Isa and grandma in the next city over. This was after Anna’s dad was murdered, after our grandpa died, and after Aunt Isa became the sole caretaker for both her mother and daughter. I wasn’t so close with them during those years; Aunt Isa rarely had time for me, but I saw them occasionally.

On one occasion, Aunt Isa took me and Anna to the mall. Anna was maybe eleven or twelve, a few years younger than me. Something I did scared my Aunt Isa. She got really upset and started shaking her head. She said, Ala is really crazy. Aunt Isa grabbed Anna by the hand and marched back to the parking lot, with me trailing behind.

She told Anna, Don’t talk to Ala. Don’t even look at her! She’s crazy.

And Anna started singing: Crazy, crazy, crazy…

I didn't look at either of them because I was sad, and because I loved Anna. Anna had a dead dad and I had a dead mom, and I thought maybe we could be something like sisters.

I didn’t say anything when Aunt Isa drove me home, not until we pulled up to the building. Then I said Thank you and Goodbye and ran out of the car. I rode the elevator up to the twelfth floor, slid through its still-opening doors and sprinted down the hall to my apartment. I fumbled the keys to my door and slammed the deadbolt behind me.

That’s how I always came home, fast-like.

I did this because there were monsters in the hallway. I could hear them in the walls at night, see their shadows move under the door frame when I lay down to sleep. I used to turn the TV on loud, listening to mattress jingles and laugh tracks for hours after midnight. I’d stare at the screen until all I could see were the bright moving pictures, and not the dark shapes inching closer from the corners of the room.

I always stayed there like that, watching TV until I couldn't keep my eyes open anymore. Until I couldn't hear anything either.


I can’t remember how long I’ve been Inside. Later, I learn they can only hold you for seventy-two hours.

It feels like I’ve been here forever. I’ve already walked the whole of our floor dozens of times. There’s not much to do here except walk the halls or ask to make a phone call.

I have a piece of paper with names and phone numbers. I ask the orderly at the counter to make a phone call and give them the number from my piece of paper. Sometimes they get mad if I ask too often. But even if they ignore me, if the phone rings at the end of the hall I speed walk over ‘cause I know it's for me.

I speed walk. We’re not supposed to run.

I can call any number from my paper, though I don’t remember how they all got there or who wrote them down. I’m not sure who all the numbers belong to, but some of them have names next to them. There’s Abbas’s number, my Aunt Yi’s number, and my cousin Lena too. And Jenny’s number—Jenny, the friend who put me in here.

Jenny is not your friend.

Now I also have Mersadie’s number. She is getting out today and wants me to call her on the outside. Honestly, I don’t want her number because I already have too many to keep track of. But Mersadie is watching me with her black and missing teeth and wants to see me write hers down. So now I have Mersadie's number, except she crosses her name out and writes Mercedez.

None of the numbers mean anything to me, except for one. That one doesn’t have a name next to it. That one is the first string of numbers I ever memorized as a child. I used to dial that number all the time—it’s my mom’s cell phone number, but it hasn’t worked in years.

I try to give them that number at the Control Center, but the phone down the hall never rings. I ask them to try again but they just shake their heads and say, Do you want to try another number?


I read a book once, about a man who time travels and the woman he leaves behind. Every time the man time-hops the woman is very sad and alone. It’s not a particularly good book, but it seemed extremely meaningful at the time. I was absolutely certain the words I read were a message meant for me alone—a communication I must act on.

Later, my doctor will call this a delusion of reference.

The book left a strong impression. For a long time I’d suspected I was not alive, and the novel affirmed this belief. It became clear I was in some sort of purgatory—perhaps already dead, or perhaps only in a simulation of life. It wasn’t a depressing thought. Rather, I believed I’d been given the opportunity to find my mother again. This became my singular goal—to follow the signs and reunite with my mother, saving us both from this place and the pain of separation. I was determined to find her.

That year, I was traveling abroad when I lost my friends in a crowded outdoor park. This seemed extremely meaningful. I felt I was meant to lose them. I had not simply lost sight of them—rather, those friends were gone forever, never to be seen again. It was a sign I was journeying somewhere they could not follow.

I moved through the crowd urgently, certain I was about to see my mother to the point of hearing her voice nearby. I tried to communicate my efforts to those around me. Please, I need to find my mom, I said. Please, before they kill me. But nobody understood. Nobody pointed me in the right direction, and some started to shove me as I grew frantic.

I don’t remember everything after. I remember restraints, someone else’s hands on my body, and the sharp stab of a needle. I remember waking up wrapped in tinfoil. I wondered if this meant I was alive again, or perhaps they’d killed me, and I was a different kind of dead.

Later, my doctor will name this as Cotard’s delusion.


Sometimes I go to Group.

In Group they mostly talk and draw pictures. Sometimes the doctor is there, but usually it’s one of the nurses and an orderly. I don’t like Group because everyone talks too much and too close together. There’s the girl who tried to steal my lunch. There’s the boy with the missing hair, and the other boy with scabs on his face.

I am scared of those boys because they like my sweater.

Every time they see me they say: I like that sweater. I like that sweater so much, I want that sweater. Then the boys nod at each other like something secret, and I try not to meet their eyes so they won’t see me.

Those two boys share a room. All the rooms here have two or three or four beds, and two or even three people there together. Some people even have pictures in their rooms, or hairbrushes, makeup, and other things.

Everybody shares a room except me.

My room doesn’t have anything except me and my pillow. There isn’t even a blanket, which is why it’s so cold and I can’t sleep. My room has four beds too, but all the other beds are empty without sheets.

Actually, there was someone else who used to sleep on one of those beds. A short woman with stubby features. But something happened—I hit her in the face, bloody nose—and they took her away. Then they took everything else away too, except for my pillow.

I’m not sure that’s exactly how it happened though, because I don’t remember anything for a long time after that.


Today Jenny comes to visit with her parents.

I go to meet them in the Visiting Room. I’ve been to the Visiting Room a few times—we can have visitors once a day, though I'm not sure what time because it always looks the same Inside.

Aunt Yi is back again too. Aunt Yi is Aunt Isa’s older sister. She immigrated to the States a few years ago to help with my grandma. Aunt Yi is more maternal than Aunt Isa. In the times I’ve visited Aunt Yi, she always cooked my favorite things and sent me home with a week’s worth of food. I like when Aunt Yi comes to see me in here. I think if Aunt Yi had been there growing up, things could have been different for me.

Aunt Yi brings some fruit and some snacks to eat. We’re allowed to eat the snacks, but only in the visiting room. Aunt Yi is watching me; I think she must be worried I’m hungry. But today Aunt Yi and cousin Lena, Jenny and her parents all came to visit; we’re all squeezed together and it’s too many people, and I forget about the snacks.

I don’t like seeing Jenny or her parents. Especially not Jenny. The last time I saw her was in the waiting area of the Emergency Room, a few days ago. Before they put me in here.

Jenny hugs me tight when she sees me, but I don’t hug her back. Jenny tries to hold my hand. Jenny smiles. Jenny says she is my sister, and her parents say I am their daughter.

But I am not their daughter.


The last thing I remember before this place is Jenny’s house. Jenny’s house, and the emergency room where they tied me down.

I flew down to spend Thanksgiving with Jenny’s family, like I used to when we were in college and I had nowhere else to go. Even before I arrived, I knew something important was about to happen.

I had suspected for months those around me were trying to hack into my brain. When I met an ex-coworker for lunch, he asked all sorts of questions about my life, and my opinion on his work. I felt he needed answers from me, answers he could not find himself. It seemed clear he would kill me if I tried to leave, and I barely made it out of our lunch alive.

Later, my doctor will call these persecutory delusions.

After Thanksgiving dinner, Jenny and I went camping. Jenny brought a journal to write in, and all colors of pens to write with. Out in the wilderness, I let the torrent of voices I’d been keeping at bay finally rush over me. I heard whispered instructions and shouted warnings, random thoughts that seemed connected. I wrote them all down in Jenny’s journal, pages and pages, then tore out all the precious words and placed them in a sleeve of Jenny's backpack.

We drove back to Jenny’s house the next day. But when I asked for the journal pages, Jenny said they were gone. She said her sister had taken the backpack in the other car and left.

That’s when I saw something crawling underneath Jenny’s skin.

I knew then she was one of them—some hellish spawn preying on my mind. Jenny must know I was getting close to my heart’s desire, so close to reuniting with my mother and leaving Jenny behind. Jenny would do anything to prevent me from it. She would steal my thoughts, and then she would kill me.

That’s why I ran, and that’s why they chased me.


I tell one of the orderlies my feet are cold. The orderly tells the Control Center to open the double doors and takes me to a room with just a table in the middle and shelves of suitcases on the walls. The orderly asks which is mine but I’m not sure, so he walks around flipping through the name tags.

The orderly brings down a suitcase, sets it on the table, and opens it facing away from me. I vaguely recognize the carry-on I packed when I ran away from Jenny’s house, everything thrown together in a hurry. It swung behind me when I ran into the dark street, with Jenny’s mother teetering after me in her house slippers.

Later, after I leave this place, this is a scene I will repeat many times: packing a bag and fleeing some unseen danger to some unknown place. In years to come there will be times I’ll believe I am about to be killed, and times I’ll believe I am about to journey somewhere beautiful. Each time I will pack fewer things to bring, perhaps believing it is the objects that slow me down.

Now, I stand in the luggage room while the orderly digs around the suitcase. Finally he holds up a pair of worn-out Converse low tops and says, these?

The orderly takes the shoelaces off and tucks them away. He hands over my shoes with both tongues hanging out.


One of the boys went home today, the one with the scabs on his face. He kept saying he would, kept telling everyone, I’m getting out today. I didn’t believe him at all, but then one of the orderlies took him through the big doors and he never came back.

I’ve been thinking about that, how come he can leave and not me. Because that boy has scabs everywhere, pulls out his own hair and bangs his head against the wall until the orderlies have to hold him down. If he can leave then I should, too. Because I am not supposed to be here. Because I am not crazy.

Jenny is the one who tricked me into the hospital. She said they would help me, and I believed her. In the E.R., Jenny put her headphones over my ears and her sunglasses over my eyes. She played "LOVE." by Kendrick Lamar. She used her body to shield me from the other sick people, whose faces loomed large and grotesque.

I was really sad when she did that. Like something about what I knew was wrong. Maybe Jenny was not trying to kill me, because why did she place my hand so gently in hers? I felt tears in my eyes—something was wrong with my head and yet I was so close, so close, and Kendrick himself was singing in my ear. I was only an exit away—

I believed Jenny when she said the doctors would help me. But they strapped me to the bed with leather restraints, all four limbs, and I don’t know how long I screamed. At some point a face appeared above me; I watched gloved hands thrust a needle into the tube attached to my arm.

I knew what was about to happen. I knew I would forget everything soon, and yet I was so close. This time I almost made it. Only an exit away—

My mother, only an exit away. So close, I must have just missed her.


I have a meeting with the doctor today. The orderly takes me to the doctor’s room, who I recognize from Group. The doctor’s room is the only one with a window to the real outside. It’s small and square and high up on the wall, framed by black iron bars. I think I see something green on the other side, but the slits are too narrow to get a full picture.

The doctor is an old white man with glasses and long hair, even though he's going bald. He looks old from his hair, but up close he's maybe forty or thirty-five. I don’t remember talking to him, but he knows things about me. Knows about Jenny and the notebook.

The doctor says, Your cousin Lena tells me you would like to go home.

I say, Yes.

Doctor: Are you still hallucinating?

Me: No.

But that’s a lie.

The doctor talks a lot. He asks questions and says: Don’t do this, Don’t take that, and Remember to update your medication. I don’t understand everything he says, but my Aunt Yi told me to tell the doctor I’m ready to leave. She said it’s important he believes I’m OK to go home.

So I nod along at his words, psychosis and schizophrenia. Even though I am not crazy. Even though I suspect the doctor is in on it. I don’t tell the doctor that this time, I was so close. I don’t tell the doctor I’ll do anything to see my mother again.

Finally the doctor says I can leave. Go home. But it’s too late today, so he gives instructions to the orderly that I’ll be discharged tomorrow.

The orderly walks me back to our hall. He smiles big and says, Good job, Ala, you really improved!


It’s leaving day today. Last night they didn’t make me take medication, which is good because when I wake up I remember where I am, and I remember I am leaving today.

The bad part about not taking medication is I couldn’t fall asleep all night. The other bad part is I remember where I am, and I remember the girl with the bloody nose who used to sleep in this room. I remember the leather straps and metal buckles on the bed. I remember the boys who like my sweater.

Everything is clearer and I don't think I should be here. The other adults frighten me, but I seem to scare them too, so we walk around each other in the hallway. I don't have friends here but that's OK, because I am not crazy.

Someone has written my name and social security number in huge letters on the wall in my room. There it is, pencil on plaster: my name, nine numbers, and something else too. Help me. The orderlies won’t give me a rag, so I have to use a half-size, unsharpened pencil’s eraser to clean it off. I haven’t made much progress when the orderly says it's time to go, but still I drop everything and follow him.

The Control Center opens the double doors, and we walk to the room with my suitcase. Then another set of doors, and I see my Aunt Yi and cousin Lena.

The orderly makes the handoff, and I walk with my aunt and cousin down the last section of hallway. At the end of the hallway there is sunlight; these last doors are glass, and the light from outside pours onto the floor. I haven’t seen sunlight in days.

I don’t look back as I walk to cousin Lena’s car, but as we drive away I sneak a single glance toward the building we’ve just left. It looks so small, that concrete brick building—I think I died there, once.

Ala Fox


Ala is a Muslim American daughter of Chinese immigrants. She writes in English, Python, memories, and Javascript. When not programming, she contemplates life and love @alalafox. Her essays have been published in Ruminate, The Common, and Muslim Matters. She is passionate about racial equity and Oakland.

paper texture

There was no internet. The only video game was that Pong one. You were who you were unless you had a book—and if you were a girl in the 70s, you read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

If you grew up a boy in the 1970s, you probably didn’t. In the 80s, not many read Margaret. The Reagan administration tried to ban it. Every year. Thus, a thumbnail of Margaret’s plot seems justified: just shy of twelve years old and lacking discernable mammary tissue, Margaret Simon tries to fit in. The story takes on puberty with a frankness that was “totally awesome”—to borrow an expression making its debut during the decade in question. Margaret sniffs her underarms, she stuffs her bra, she practices with sanitary napkins for her first period, which she is sure she will get after everyone else does. She confesses that she doesn’t feel much for God in churches, yet throughout, talks to God—about religious confusion, about wanting her period, wanting breasts. The girl asks God for breasts.


Margaret’s conversations with God launch with the titular phrase. As my friends whispered during lunch—the period—about the boobs and period stuff, Feather Meade expressed her customary befuddlement.

“Why are the words all slanty ‘n stuff when she talks to God?”

I explained that italics conveyed internal dialogue, even intimacy. ‘N stuff.

Kellie Hallahan said, “Duh, Feather,” and sipped her Pepsi Light.

We were the popular girls of the fifth grade. By “we,” I mean a giggly gaggle of us, but when I get to where I chronicle the junior high part of this experience, a slew of blonde, sporty types interlope, and it is distracting to have seventeen characters traipsing about as I wrestle with my avatar. For the sake of clarity, I am collapsing the we-girls of the fifth grade into two: Kellie Hallahan and Feather Meade. This device will allow me to assign them qualities that, in the fifth grade, I could feel on my tongue but did not yet have the grace to trust.

Kellie was the most popular because her older sister was a total fox and Kellie looked just like her. Defying stereotype, Kellie was truly sweet. In fourth grade, before the year-end talent show, I watched Kellie take considerable care to write in my memory book, “I hope your dance solo goes oright.”

Feather was marginally less blonde than Kellie, marginally better at sports. At that point in our friendship, I was baffled by the constant explanations about seemingly obvious things that my friendship with Feather required, but—and here is another from the tasting menu of future knowledge—I was not blonde. I flopped at every sport I undertook. I was mouthy and generally right, qualities that did not endear girls to boys. So clear was my comprehension of what girls were supposed to be—them—that I had no definition of myself beyond “not them.”

Here is another from the future beamed back: if you want to be cool but weren’t pretty enough, it helps to hang out with popular girls. Which made me manipulative.

Such was an issue Margaret would have taken up with God. I tried. Not out of spiritual need. I was rehearsing for my starring role in the movie.

Are you there, God?

And that is where it ended. In the fifth grade, I had nothing to say to God.

Here we go: I never know how to “drop” incest into the conversation. To reveal it threatens to make it the focus, which it is not, at this moment (to the degree that as a survivor, incest ever is not). But to avoid incest as it shaped my burgeoning puberty—well, duh.

I am going to do here what I did then: stuff it under the rug. Easier to fathom than a God who allowed incest were the “we must, we must, we must increase our bust” exercises that, in the book, Margaret learns from a friend: make fists, bend elbows, move arms back and forth, thirty-five times a day. The girls in Margaret were so brave, publicly doing things related to their bodies. I would never; I practiced at home, in my bathroom, because I shared a room with my sister. I had to listen to my father rape her, too.

“We must, we must, we must increase our bust.”

I didn’t chant along. Perhaps that is why the magic didn’t happen.

Do you see how I did that? All that pain I brought up about my sister went right under the rug.

Kellie showed me an exercise that was supposed to conjure. By fifth grade, Kellie had kumquat-sized bumps, so I paid attention. Heels of palms together, fingers pointing in opposite directions. Press and hold. For hours. I remained flat. In my bathroom, I poked marbles under my t-shirt. Just to see what normal would look like. The marbles slid. In fifth grade P.E., when the class took a break from volleyball, Josh Jacobs was blunt in his utterly unsolicited assessment of my social frailty.

“You got no tits.”

Who else, then, was destined to pull my name from the literal hat a forgottenly-named teacher had us all drop slips of paper into, an exercise in the sex class we all loved dreading. Boys in one hat, girls in the other. Before we drew, everyone heard Josh, not bothering to whisper, “Watch me get—,” then he used my last name. I wasn’t even a girl to him.

Josh Jacobs wasn’t his real name, by the way. I’ve decided to change them all. Make ‘em up. Smear details. The truth is the truth, but we were children. It is wrong to write meanly about children. Also, what if Kellie or Feather or what’s-her-face—the time-consuming one that ran the lightboard? She’s not in this piece. But what if she reads it? She could tweet about me.

If there was no God, there was karma: in the sex class, Josh did indeed pluck my name. We had to look directly into our partner’s eyes and say something we liked about them. He stared with sullen dismissal up and to the corner.

“You’re nice. I guess.”

It was all my fault. All of it.

In the book, the equally flat Margaret is unhampered by incest’s numbing responsibility. She wants to play “Two Minutes in the Closet” with Philip Leroy, the walking sex of the suburban sixth grade. That Philip turns out to be callow and a weak contributor to group projects did not surprise me. And then there is Nancy, Margaret’s pal of “must increase our bust” fame. I smelled a big fake long before Margaret discovers that Nancy lies about getting her period. I didn’t know precisely when Kellie and Feather first got their periods, but during the seventh and eighth grades, Kellie’s kumquats morphed into oranges. Feather grew willowy. There were days she wouldn’t go swimming. I was so out of the loop, I didn’t get it until Kellie explained, pssst pssst whisper whisper.

Kellie knew when Feather had it.

I didn’t because I hadn’t.

Junior high was troubling in other ways. Increasingly, my avatar gravitated toward the aforementioned blonde, sporty girls who had gone to the other elementary schools. All spelled their names with variant “y” endings—Kellie, Kelly, Kristie, Kristy, Kathy, Kathi. All clearly got their periods. Dumped like milk from different cows into the bovine products facility that was our town’s junior high, the Y Endings clotted like cream. Kellie had them over—after school, Doritos. Sometimes, Kellie’s sister kindly shared holy older knowledge before her boyfriend called.

I was invited. Once. The discussion revolved around why they—the blonde, the athletic—were not the most popular, an honor bestowed on the bitchy girls who sneaked off campus during lunch to smoke out, et cetera, with the popular eight-grade boys. Kellie attacked the injustice of the situation with an analytic ferocity that I reserved for my homework. She plotted how to get these sexually active stoners—hereafter referred to, as they were in that conversation, as Those Bitches—out. She missed entirely what her foxy sister was trying to tell us, that in two years, we would be in high school. Those Bitches would be knocked up or in the alternative program. Kellie didn’t have to do anything. Popularity was her destiny.

I chewed a Dorito. Probably several. Said nothing. If Feather—sporty and stacked, yet indefinably second-tier—was out of place in this hot-blooded dismemberment of junior-high celebrity, I was not pretty enough and did not yet get my period.

Et cetera.

It would be more than a decade before the full rage at my powerlessness over incest had me pelting the back fence with ceramic cups and pounding unopened cans of soda against brick walls until they exploded. As a captive pubescent, my fury went into bulimia—the numbed frenetic stuffing followed by the eruption, a sparkling dramatization of everything I could not control yet would not accept. I had the wrong parents and the wrong body, right down to the wrong hair color. In their column, those Y Endings had blessed inevitability. Their very real worries about social status did not take into account my additional terror of being used in adult ways before I was ready, without my consent.

There is a reason we survivors start screwing anything with legs. Or shut down, sexually. And/or drink, do drugs, starve, binge and purge, shop compulsively, or construct around ourselves the myth of perfection. It is because we grow up. Like normal girls, as soon as we read Margaret, we begin waiting. Like normal girls, we eventually get our periods and our boobs, but the important thing never gets addressed. That is left for us to strive for, but it is impossible to remedy as a minor in the care of and financially dependent on those abusing you.

The 80s debuted. I was not unpopular in high school. Our unpopular were standard for high school unpopular: the unfortunately unattractive, the truly socially awkward, the anti-establishment for no reason anyone could figure out, and Those Bitches. Freshman year, Kellie and the Y Endings arrived. Similarly, I found providence with the self-proclaimed drama weirdos and dance fags. (I don’t remember the boys in choir being tortured as much as those in drama and dance. We might want to ask the boys in choir.)

The truth about boys in the arts remains, most are gay. I could stay as sexually shut down as I needed to.

Kellie remained friendly throughout her ascendance to Homecoming Court our senior year and as genuinely enthusiastic about my artistic undertakings as she was in fourth grade when she misspelled “alright.” She was the first person I told when the list went up for the musical and my name—my name—was on that list; and the only freshman, somehow confirming everything my high school self could hope but could not really know: that there was a God, that you didn’t need to find Her in church, that life was going to work out. Our drift was well underway, so you decide if it was just luck that I ran into Kellie on my victory lap to third period.

It was certainly not pure fortune that Kellie was among the handful of freshmen girls asked to prom, but—totally weird—that shortlist also included me.

A senior from choir asked me. He gave me a flower and said he’d had a crush on me since the fall, poor fellow. He and prom went right under the rug until the Thursday prior, when I mentioned to Mom that my weekend plans did not include the standard nothing, but: prom. Not understanding the mystique and pleasure imbuing prom—not even getting that I perhaps might need a dress—didn’t truly sadden me until the first draft of this essay, when it dawned with the pain of slow comprehension I experienced the day that Kellie and Feather knew when the other got her period while I was still waiting.

At the end of high school, the tail end, graduation, the adults in charge were switched on enough to accept that on grad night, we would all drink ourselves silly. Years prior to my grad night, they established the Senior All-Night Party.

The operating principle behind the Senior All-Night Party opposed directly that governing The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” where you could check in any time you wanted, but you could never leave. For the Senior All-Night Party, you had to check in two hours—one hundred and twenty minutes—after graduation, or you wouldn’t be allowed in. If you left campus before the 5 a.m. whistle, you couldn’t re-enter. Theory: there was a limited amount of mischief even a wasted grad could get into on campus, surrounded by parent chaperones and teachers dutifully dressed according to theme—Barbary Coast, Mardi Gras, like that. If a graduate wished to float acidly to the gym where some all-white cover band took their best stab at “Beat It,” there was no detention, no Monday morning in the principal’s office. The sole goal was to present us still breathing and not pregnant at five the next morning.

Most of the Senior All-Night Party took place on the lunch patio, called the patio as if the school’s other patio, the music patio, haven to artistically gifted, sexually disinclined individuals such as me, did not exist. On the normative patio, action was plotted during the last half of the average school week (“Dude, Carver’s parents are skiing this weekend.” “Party at Carver’s!” “Invite Feather Meade!”) and then gossiped over during the first part of the next (“Did you hear that Feather Meade…”). I had spent no significant time on the lunch patio since abandoning all forms of social mobility early my freshman year. I could only gape at the Y Endings with their cute boyfriends, high school versions of Philip Leroy, the good-looking fellow from Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Even the super-thin one who never got asked out had a boyfriend. I had Celia.

I wonder, now, what happened to Meg. Celia and Meg were best friends. I was their other best friend. The summer after graduation, Meg eschewed our art-house-movie-then-Denny’s routine. Several years later, Meg apologized for blowing us off after graduating—as in one hundred and twenty minutes after graduating—for I do not remember Meg at the Senior All-Night Party. Just Celia, to my right, and perfect Kellie with her Philip Leroy beau and her shiny friends.

Then Feather Meade accosted me in a pleasant, drunken state, waving a little flag that vaguely reflected the evening’s theme. I was confused as to why she would talk to me after I had so crassly rejected her friendship, but mostly, I was numb.

If I could reach through time and peel back that numbness, I might discover thoughts about Nancy, Margaret’s “we must, we must” so-called friend who lies about getting her period. I might have been imagining that, throughout high school, Nancy goes down on guys in order to retain both popularity and virginity. Fast-forwarding, the Nancy of my bitter imagination gives it up in college by convincing herself that he is the guy she is going to marry. He dumps her. She flirts with her best friends’ boyfriends. Not out of attraction. Out of a Scarlett O’Hara-like need to prove that men desire her more than they do their partners, even if their partners are Nancy’s dear friends. Nancy watches from the cheap seats as, one by one, those friends marry. Nancy claims she prefers the sexual freedom of singlehood, yet thinks, “This is it!” on each first date. She sleeps with them right away, plies the hapless beaus with questions about ideal numbers of children, and then ponders why every last one drops her. Hitting her upper thirties, Nancy marries for money and fossilizes in a McMansion.

I have no doubt that life has been harder on those shiny girls than it appeared then. I wish for them the joys I remember from bright afternoons in elementary school, before we read Margaret, before we realized that the exciting changes soon to come would change everything.

On the patio at the All-Night Party, Celia stood. Perhaps Celia intuited that within three months, she would lose her best friend to men in bars, her second-best friend to a better school than she got into, and would go on to become the sole woman in the management-training program at a men’s clothing chain. Perhaps Celia was beginning to sense then what I only began to understand twenty years later, watching my young son: the only way to grow up is to break away. Margaret, in the book, is right. You don’t feel God most keenly in churches. I felt mostly numb, but I think Celia was more there for herself, for she would order apple pie a la mode and a decaf, and depending on if I were binging or starving—I can’t remember which it was that night—I would order the same or nothing. But for that to happen, Celia had to say, “Let’s blow this pop stand,” and we did the unthinkable. We left grad night. We went to Denny’s.

Alle C. Hall


Alle C. Hall’s debut novel, As Far as You Can Go Before You Have to Come Back, is nominated for The Pacific Northwest Booksellers Book Award. The novel won five prizes before publication, including the National League of American Pen Women’s Mary Kennedy Eastham Prize. Her short stories and essays appear in journals including Dale Peck’s Evergreen Review, Tupelo Quarterly, New World Writing, Litro, Creative Nonfiction, and Another Chicago. She has written for The Seattle Times, Seattle Weekly, and was a contributing writer at The Stranger. She is the former senior nonfiction editor at jmww journal and the former associate editor of Vestal Review.

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Late August 2018, the cicadas are unusually loud; their tympanic chirps reassure me that the seasons still progress somewhat predictably. Salton and I meet for dinner at the modern Italian place, where we sit outside on red folding chairs amidst the din of the insects and other diners. My daughter has left for college and I’m desolate, I tell her. She grasps my hand, then says, I’m going up for quadrennial review and my dossier is due next week; soon I’ll pick myself up off the floor, but not yet. We clutch each other and laugh, our levity bringing instant relief. Salton knows that exactly a year ago today, my mother lay in the hospice, dying. And now her mother is dying, too. Lately, we confide, we have been experiencing premonitions of emptiness, bad tidings of old age blowing in from parts hitherto unexplored.

How to describe a death? I ask myself. And why my urge for economy? It seems that everyone talks too much, spooling out paragraphs when they could express their truths in a few cool shots. And so, this: that my mother fell in her bathroom on a Sunday morning in August 2017, as she tried to wrest the top off a bottle of Klonopin with her Parkinsonian hands. That she was lying in the bathroom unconscious when my stepfather returned from church. That all the brain surgery and hope could not face down my mother’s bleeding brain. It was hot the day my mother was transported to the hospice from the neuro unit at the hospital; my sister rode in the ambulance with my mother, and I drove there alone, although I can’t remember a thing of it, and maybe I was not alone, maybe I was with my stepfather. After three weeks in hospice, my mother died.

Now that it is the new semester, Fall 2018, we are launched: at school, or at a residency, as in the case of my sister, who is hunkering down in Omaha for eight weeks at the Bemis Foundation. She is carving puppets out of wood; on a Sunday in early September, she tells me that she has not left her studio for three days. I marvel at this, as if she is a caged creature, but caged by what? Her passion for her work? Her resistance to the world? Or is she grieving our mother? I have finally begun to unpack the containers of my mother’s clothes that I removed from her closet; their sweet smell permeates our dining room and I put them back in their plastic bin until my sister comes for Thanksgiving and gets the chance to smell them. My sister is a still person; when my mother was dying, she kept vigil next to her bed all day, every day, for three weeks. I cannot sit still. I close the lid on a plastic bin, grab my purse, and lock the front door behind me.

I walked the path around the hospice while my mother was dying. It was only a quarter mile, but it offered different views: of the parking lot, of the back of the hospice, of a stream shaded by trees, and of a rose garden. I can visualize each of these spaces as I sit writing and remembering—they seemed like different countries to me. The shady, cooler part by the stream was entirely different from the blazing hot section bordering the parking lot. As I walked alongside the stream, my thoughts focused inward; but passing the parking lot, I felt unsettled by the skillet of asphalt baking under the cloudless sky, the comings and goings of perturbed families. I was not in grief as I walked the hospice path while my mother was dying, although it is difficult to say what state, exactly, I was in. Just walking through all the different moments of it: the last days of summer weather; eating pizza at the table in the hospice kitchen; constructing my syllabus at the table in the alcove in my mother’s room; driving home and then back to the hospice, early mornings and late nights, the quiet of the world blooming around me.

So, this is the autumn of the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death. It is also the autumn of my daughter’s first year away at college. I mark these events by developing a gynecological problem. After sex one night, there is a fiery throbbing in my right ovary. Nothing is wrong with my ovary, but they find a fibroid in my uterus, and my uterine lining is thicker than normal. There is some concern, but not of the dramatic, rushing variety: more a slow-cooking anxiety. I can’t shake the conviction that I am experiencing a perverted form of pregnancy, in which my yearnings for rebirth, my longing for my daughter, have gestated uncanny symptoms. I spend more time in my armchair than usual, occasionally remembering the other me, the vital me who walks and does not feel tired and troubled.

Somewhere around this time—early October—I meet Salton again at a wine bar near my house. Salton is teaching me how to drink alcohol after all these years of my lacking interest; she orders me a green drink, something with lime and ginger beer that sets the fairy lights in my brain twinkling. Salton drinks something in an icy copper cup. Her mother has finally just died, but neither of us talks about our mothers. We discuss school business, weaving around the topic of retirement. She is ten years my senior, although I always forget it, and between us we share a yearning for and dread of retirement. I do not feel like doing anything anymore, she tells me, and I reply that I feel a similar revulsion to making an effort. Again, we clasp hands.

I got the call about my mother’s fall on an Amtrak train from Montpelier, Vermont, to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I was taking the long trip back home after a writing conference. Before the phone call came, I felt healthy, having walked the hilly streets of Montpelier all week. Inspired by the conference, I was planning to revise a piece, dreaming of what to write next. Then, unexpectedly, the call from my stepfather, who was sitting in the E.R. in Lancaster. The train ride was so long that the man next to me had to listen to me talk on the phone about my mother’s condition for hours. Soon this stranger deciphered the gist of the situation and didn’t hesitate to comment on it in a sensitive way. He got off the train in Philly, but I can’t remember a specific detail about him except that he was a kind presence (because of this, and despite the fact of my atheism, sometimes I think he was a manifestation of God).

It is worst in the morning: I have trouble getting out of my armchair and into the shower, then getting out of the shower and into my clothes. The hot water cascading down me eases the pain in my shoulder that has recently lodged. What to wear? What to wear? What to wear? Meanwhile, 8:30 looms, with its seminar room full of first-year students. And what is this “it” that is worst in the morning, I ask myself, as I get in the car with my new teal backpack. This “it” that follows me as I walk down the path to my first class, crunching the acorns under my fabulous new red boots.

My daughter comes home from college on the Amtrak train the first weekend in October. As soon as she is in the house, she decrees that we must bring up the two boxes of Halloween decorations from the basement. Last year, it was difficult to coax her to unpack these same decorations, even though, when she was a child, she begged us to get them out on the very last day of September—but today it is as if she is a young child again. Within an hour, she has transformed our house into a riot of Halloween: our porcelain pumpkin heads and ghosts grin on the Halloween tablecloth on our dining room table, and garlands of skeletons bedeck the lintels. We bought most of these beloved objects during the Saturdays of my daughter’s early childhood, when we accompanied my friend Alicia on her trips to yard sales to scour for treasures for her vintage clothing and houseware store. I feel ambivalent about this invasion of Halloween into our house so early in October, yet it is a sign that my daughter is happy, pumped with energy and still connected to home. But I will have to live with these things, even after my daughter goes back to college; she will want to see them when she returns in two weeks for fall break. It is a little bit like living at the local bagel store, run by two guys who look alike, who go over the top decorating their space for each holiday.

The mornings are now so dark. I feel entombed and enclosed. 7:10 on a Monday morning early in October, and the sky is a petulant gray. At least it is not chill yet. I feel I cannot bear the cold this year, the advancing days of winter. I remember my mother lamenting each oncoming winter, saying how she could not bear it, and now it is as if she has risen in me to bestow this discontent I never had before. I used to like fall and winter; I liked all the seasons for all the various reasons that one likes each season. When I remember myself walking through the crisp leaves on a bracing October day wearing a new corduroy jacket, I see happiness, and I know that my mother has infected me with a thin ribbon of her depression, something that ties me to her in her death, something I will have to untie with gentle determination if I am to walk again through the world with bounce.

On the other hand, my mother insisted—until the last two years of her life—that old age was good. She enjoyed so many things until her Parkinson’s took hold: her second marriage, her lovely old house with its electric candles lit in each window, the view from her kitchen window into her spacious back yard, glimpses of the groundhog who lived under her deck, going to the library, going to Starbucks, getting pedicures. She loved it when we visited; until she could no longer cook, she made us sumptuous roast beefs and roasted chickens. She microwaved popcorn for my daughter and sat with her watching The Land Before Time over and over again. In the mornings, my mother sat in bed in her pink bed jacket reading with a mug of overly sugary, lemony tea. Later in the day, we went on outings to Matthew’s Diner, to the petting zoo, to Ridgewood, my mother driving her car, Bluey. For so long—for most of my daughter’s childhood—it was so comforting. It is only now, during this second year after my mother’s death, that I am beginning to unwrap the happy memories, to forget the final days before the fall when her Parkinson’s made my mother want to die.

Aubade. I have resolved to embrace my insomnia. Waking before dawn, I tiptoe down the stairs. Dark dark. The cats are excited, prancing to their food and water bowls. In the kitchen, I prepare tea for myself, carefully choosing the right mug. The newspaper awaits. When the dawn comes, I will welcome it.

I decide to wear a black t-shirt of my mother’s that I kept when I cleaned out her closet. It looks brand new, as if she never wore it, but it smells like her. For a long time, I could not bring myself to wear it, because I did not want it to not be my mother’s, to not smell like my mother—but today, rushing to get to work, I put it on. It is a bit large for me, but very comfortable. Yet all day I feel troubled: it is too big and I worry I look too small. Nevertheless, I feel that my mother has given me a gift. The t-shirt is like her swaddling me. It shames me how much I love this feeling, how I had forgotten it.

To celebrate our bestie Alicia’s fiftieth birthday, my friend Karen and I drive Alicia to our favorite inn in New Hope. The three of us have taken this trip before for other landmark birthdays, and, suffering from repetition compulsion, we always do the same things in the same order: the Italian café, then the antique store, then the funky clothes boutique and so on. The afternoon of our arrival, we eat lunch at the Italian café, and, since it is still warm, we sit out front on the porch. I am having fun, but I also feel thin and attenuated. My right ovary is throbbing, or do I just imagine this? At the table next to us, a group of men are tasting wine; several bottles stand tall on the round marble table in front of them, and the men get louder and jollier in a steady upward crest. After lunch, we walk around, and I hold myself tenderly, feeling as if something is inflamed inside. Still, I am enchanted with the datebook purchased at the independent bookstore on Main Street, although it is cumbersome to carry around in its flimsy paper bag while my indefatigable friends shop for clothes at the fancy consignment shop.

Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement. My husband and I walk to synagogue on a rainy evening for the Kol Nidrei service, he wearing a grey suit and looking grown up, I in a black dress, boots, and grey sweater, feeling comfortable (I am fearful of the stinging air conditioning in the sanctuary). We look like a middle-aged couple walking to services—stately, settled empty-nesters—but, and this is a truism, inside I am still twenty-four, swinging my arms (my grandmother on her seventieth birthday: I don’t feel a day over nineteen!). The service is in parts moving, in parts boring, and, by the end of it, I already have judgmental thoughts to atone for (my husband and I laugh about this outside of the temple). After the service, I walk by myself to the CVS one block away and relish the everydayness of the brightly lit store; strolling home, I draw in the elixir of soft, temperate air and night. Now there is too much cleaning and cooking to do in preparation for the meal we are hosting tomorrow at the end of Yom Kippur. Should we lick the bowl with the chocolate chip cookie dough in it? Fasting though we are supposed to be, my husband and I decide: yes, it really can’t hurt to lick.

At the farmer’s market, I brave the meat and cheese stand run by Mennonites. The oldest worker there, a tiny woman wearing a white cap over her grey hair, remembers when my daughter was little; this woman was kind and always offered my daughter a slice of cheese or salami. Now she asks about my daughter as I order my meat and cheese alone. At college, I tell her, but, inside my head, dramatic words assault me: I’m cast off like an old toy! Cast off! I wonder if the Mennonite women working behind the counter live close to their adult children. I bet they do, and I feel marked for loneliness. I have no idea that this feeling will wear off in a few months, and that I’ll come to realize that my daughter lives very close to us indeed.

One early morning in November I drive out to the gynecological practice. The aggressive male doctor is going to cut a piece out of my uterus and send it off to be examined in a lab by people who don’t care about me. Biopsy. I am cursing myself for letting him do this to me, for allowing myself to go to this doctor instead of to my female gynecologist with whom I could not get an appointment immediately. I watch as my chunk of bright red flesh is placed in a test tube. Somewhere deep down, I know that there is nothing wrong with me. Afterwards, I drive to Target. Happy to be alive, not particularly missing that small chunk of uterus, I experience Target as a paradise.

Salton is going to retire, she tells me. I advise her to wait a few more months before deciding; her mother just died, it is not the moment to make up her mind about something so final. But I know she is going to retire. Now I will no longer have someone to save a seat for me at faculty luncheons, I sigh. We laugh at the word luncheon, so old-fashioned, reminding me of the small luncheonette with red booths in our neighborhood in Yorkville when I was a kid. I won’t have anyone to share dessert with, either, I say. This makes us sad, so we decide not to ponder it. Instead, she orders me something new, a peach pisco concoction that magically takes away my sadness about Salton’s retirement—and about retirement in general.

Several times a day, my daughter texts me, demanding a picture of our cat, Da. We call him Da after a joke that originated with my dead father, who loved the way the Irish call their fathers Da. Send a Da pic! my daughter texts, imperiously. So, I send Da pics: Da on the sofa, Da on the armchair, Da sleeping, Da standing on the bathroom sink, staring at the water pouring from the faucet. Da has become an umbilical cord. Da has become a transitional object. Pictures of him in every posture now clutter my phone, and at night, I must delete them. Nevertheless, my daughter seems to be doing fine at college.

Sometimes I think of my mother falling, of her head hitting the tiled floor of her bathroom, her head with her thick, curly hair, still lush at seventy-nine, but not thick enough to cushion her fall, nothing is thick enough, because, under the tile, there is concrete, and then there is earth and stone and the core of the planet, and my mother’s full weight, 110 pounds, hitting all of that. I imagine her walking from her bed to her bathroom on that last morning before she became lost to us. It is useless to wonder why she didn’t use her cane or walker, because I know she hated using her cane and walker, and she was alone that morning because my stepfather was at church and there was no one to scold her into using her cane or walker. And then I remember other things: how she developed a habit of leaning towards and clutching at stable objects like counters and railings, and how this habit was terrifying, like that trust exercise where people are encouraged to let themselves fall back into waiting, unseen arms, except that my mother fell forwards towards counters and railings. I remember once at an Italian café near the end of my mother’s life, how my mother shuffled in from the parking lot and, once within arm’s length of the glass counter in the front in which lavish cakes and pies were displayed, she let herself go, pitching toward it and clutching its rim—and how, annoyed and aghast, I still didn’t say anything. I never said anything. Instead, I sat across from my mother and talked to her about my own life, enjoying the feeling of my mother still with me. At the end of that meal, I remember how we enjoyed a triple decker piece of coconut cake.

One Sunday morning I open my journal to write about my sense of relief that it is Sunday and that on Sundays I can avoid many things, including email messages that alert me to a variety of tasks I do not wish to carry out—and then, pinging into my Sunday, a text from the hospital that “there is a message waiting for me.” The result of my biopsy. The guns are out and pointed toward me. I walk slowly to the back of the house—should I open this message? Can I avoid disaster by just not answering its call? My husband is out of town, but my style is to panic alone anyway. Never have I felt my hands shake like this. But the message tells me I am fine, normal, or at least within “normal parameters,” which I will gratefully accept.

All the first-year students in my various classes are my daughter’s age (of course they are, they are starting college, too). One young woman is small and sandy-haired; she loves reading and cities and cafés. One young woman is tall, rangy, and curly-haired; she loves boys unabashedly and desperately. One young woman is pale and dour; she seems curdled by anxiety. One young woman is intense and frowny; she writes complex, philosophical essays in tortured clauses. One young woman is smart, loud, and seemingly buoyant, but confesses to feeling overwhelmed by the extra weight of her water bottle in her backpack. One young woman is cheerful and blousy, but when she tells me how homesick she is, her eyes fill with tears. All of these young women, though my daughter’s age, are not my daughter.

Mid-November. I crunch the cap of an acorn under my boot. I crunch another acorn cap under my boot. The split and crunch of it is like nothing else, unrepresentable, sensual. I crunch another acorn cap under my boot. What is this satisfaction? It is not like knuckles cracking; it is not like popping bubbles on bubble wrap. I crunch another acorn cap under my boot.

It happens one morning, unexpectedly: I am standing at the café that my daughter and I often visited before she went to college, thinking of my daughter, and I do not feel sad. I scan the wooden benches and tables inside this industrial, hangar-like space, as if looking for her, her shiny, straight hair, her skinny legs in their jeans, her long feet in her farmer’s boots. We used to come here early mornings before I dropped her off at high school, and I knew even then that I would always treasure those times with her drinking coffee before sunrise, but now I do not feel sad. It is almost alarming not to feel sad, not to miss her in this moment, and then, as I am ordering my coffee at the counter where I often ordered her hazelnut coffee and banana chocolate chip bread, a surge of joy like Old Faithful at Yellowstone explodes up through the center of my body and blooms in my head. So, this is what it feels like when people say, you’ll get your life back. So, I am going to be fine. The coffee I want is called Volcano. No one would know, to look at me, that I am a volcano, too.


Why do the holiday decorations arrive so early in the season? Not even December yet, and here are the evergreen wreaths, the lights, the ribbons and red Starbucks cups. They appear all at the same time, as if in conspiracy. My daughter has decided to go to her boyfriend’s family’s house for Christmas, which should not make me sad, since we’re Jewish and do not celebrate at home, but this year I find myself wanting to have a picturesque Christmas like everyone else. I wish we had a family tradition that my daughter could not bear to miss. Stupid, I tell myself, get over it. The boyfriend is coming to our Thanksgiving, which is a wonderful family tradition. It will be all right, I tell myself.

Chilly day in Philly with my daughter. We get off the subway at City Hall and immediately love the holiday market and ice-skating rink. How festive, how jolly—Holly jolly! says my daughter, affecting an English accent. And it is. We walk down Market Street to my daughter’s favorite places: the huge new Ulta, the Marshalls, the T.J. Maxx. Get in the spirit, Mom, she says, and only then do I realize that I am not really in the spirit. Happy to be with her, yes—but this quiver about Christmas vibrates inside. Does it really have to happen this year?

Sometimes all I can think about is what I want to buy: more plaid pants like the pair I found at Marshalls, a mug with red birds on it, small silver earrings. My mother used to buy me these things; the last present she gave me was small green onyx earrings. She was always giving me gifts. My closet is full of gifts from my mother. Jewish though she was, my mother adored Christmas. She loved wrapping paper; she loved to wrap. Sometimes she gave my sister and me matching gifts, and sometimes we didn’t like these things, compromises between my sister’s taste and mine, and then we bitched about it to each other on the phone.

Christmas 2018. I listen to Charles Ives’ “A Christmas Carol” as I sit and write. The harmonies swing me gently through my mo(u)rning, ending always too quickly; my enjoyment of this carol is almost sensual. My husband and I exchange gifts over coffee, things we have each asked for, things we like. Later, we walk by the Susquehanna River, and my husband holds out his arms as if on a tightrope when walking down a bank. I am not unhappy. This surprises me and I don’t trust it. Later, though, when my sister-in-law and nephew arrive for Christmas dinner, I recognize that we have passed a pleasant Christmas Day.

The last days of the year it seems perpetually dark. We have rented an Airbnb close to my husband’s parents’ house in Vermont, and we hunker down with our daughter and her boyfriend. The kitchen is freezing, and my daughter’s boyfriend loves it; he is a polar bear who sits happily in his bare feet playing video games all night. We like him. One morning, we go out to breakfast at a restaurant with a communal wooden table at one end of which we are seated. The joy of sitting with my husband, my daughter, and her boyfriend at the restaurant with its fogged windows is religious in character: a repletion, a satiety of my highest need. Of course, I do not tell them this; I eat my eggs and act solid, like any good mother. I tell myself to remember this moment, though, marking it as a definition for what happiness is.

And what is January? What is February? What is March? A thin grey line? A welcome routine? We are coming out of darkness. The days gain moments of light. I stretch out my hand for more like a horse stretches its neck for a stroke on the nose.

Up from North Carolina comes Missy, a former student and a surrogate cousin to my daughter. Missy, who was first my student, then my daughter’s math tutor, and now a beloved. I buy new pink sheets for the guest room, and vacuum and dust (I know Missy’s mother is a good housekeeper, and I don’t want to disgrace myself). My daughter arrives on the train from Philly. Now we are all together again, so we must drink tea and eat scones; that is our way and always will be, we say, as we sit at our customary places at the dining room table. But Missy is not happy, she hates her job as an accountant. My daughter and I counsel her to leave it, and the conversation suddenly modulates into one about the meaning of life. And who is this new daughter, almost one year into college and so wise about life that her words shore up the older girl?

Salton and I are drinking again, this time outside, under a heat lamp. It is finally April, and I’m sipping something mojito-like, with a sprig of green and lime. We order the duck fries, French fries fried in duck fat; they come with aioli, and can’t be at all good for us. I tell her about some woes with a colleague, and she nods and listens and politely refuses to gossip. I love this about her. She is retiring at the end of the year, but she doesn’t want a party. She hates endings, skipped her high school and college graduations. I joke that once she moves back to California, her home state, I will probably never see her again, and I walk home feeling remorse at my burst of hostility.

It’s true that towards the end of her life, my mother was a burden to me. Feeling guilty as I write this, I look up “burden,” using the thesaurus. The first thing I see is the word “weight.” A weight, then—that sounds better. I had to force myself to call her, had to fight the resistance which sprung up, the natural desire to push the weight away, to shove it with my toe, to shut it back behind the door. But weight is a cliché, not really apt for what I felt. What was this resistance to phoning my mother, I ask myself? It was unwillingness to hear the bulletins from the other side: the side of the lonely and shaking, the fearful, the vulnerable.

Sometimes my daughter rides home on the train for a few hours, just to be driven around and shop and get spoiled by me. I love this; I drop whatever I’m doing, if it’s possible to drop it, and chauffeur her. We go to her favorite places—the thrift store, the makeup store, the dollar store—and then we eat her favorite Nutella crepe at the crepe place. Sometimes we walk on the campus where I teach, talking. Sometimes we sit watching TV in the TV room. At night, I drive her to the beautiful old train station to catch the late train to Philly. I watch as she gets out of our car and stalks on her giraffe legs into the station and up the marble staircase; no one will have to know that I utter a prayer for her. As I drive home, I listen to the radio, only half listening, thinking, a perfect day.

Before flying to England to take up my summer teaching in a partner program, I cut a fuchsia rose from the bush in our backyard and place it on the passenger seat of the car. As I drive the road to the hospice, I try to conjure the memories of the three weeks I drove that road every day, sometimes twice a day, but my mind keeps slipping off to other things. Still, I manage to remember the time I drove in a thunderstorm at night just to sit for a few minutes alone with my mother and tell her about my day. It was like driving through the middle of an ocean; it had a mythical character, as if I could see Neptune with his trident, raging. It was like a scene from The Lighthouse, that movie that came later, after my mother died. It was like trying to make it home in a dream. Home for those three weeks was my mother’s room at the hospice, where my mother never regained consciousness. Where my mother lay on her back still breathing while I told her about my day.

As I get out of the car in the hospice parking lot, a wind tears the fragile petals off my fuchsia rose. They jig away in the wind. The tribute to my mother, so aromatic, like spice that the three kings carried, is gone. I walk desolately to the brick on the memorial path with my mother’s name on it. I have no flower for her. Then I hear my mother laughing, her voice saying, Oh, darling, I don’t care! And I remember how my mother used to laugh when we tripped or dropped something, and how it used to annoy us that our accidents cracked her up. It’s true, then: the sight of the rose petals in the wind would have made my mother laugh.

Bath, England, like the inside of a Christmas ornament. I walk by myself. I walk with my husband (ten miles along the canal to Bradford-on-Avon for a Sunday dinner of fish and chips). I walk with my students, exploring the Roman Baths and nearby Oxford. In the mornings, after breakfast, I take my students’ papers and proceed to the café upstairs in the local Waterstones, where I sit by the window, sometimes gazing out at Milsom Street. This is what happiness is, yes, but I’m aware of a ribbon of sorrow, like a piquant element in a stew or a discordant note in a symphony. I miss my daughter. But she is coming for the last two weeks and we will all go to Spain.

What missing my daughter feels like: a ribbon of grey, a little door with no key to open it, a small scoop of worry in the gut. I ask myself whether I might really be missing my mother, who will have been dead two years soon. After all, my daughter is connected to me in so many ways, coming round often, calling, FaceTiming, sharing pictures of the dogs she volunteers to walk. Whereas my mother—she always wanted to flutter away. She loved things that removed her from herself, from the world: music, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety pills, sleep, more sleep, reading. Months before she fell, she begged to go to hospice and be permitted the dignity of death. Sometimes I still dial her number on my phone’s list of favorites, hoping to laugh with her—she laughed so well, yet it was the laugh of a tragic. I do not want to inherit her thin vein of loneliness, I think, looking into the rainbow puddle on the street that reflects my face back to me like a friend.

My daughter and I walk the Explanada de España. She wants me to take pictures of her to post on Instagram. I will be glad to have these later, when the trip is over; I will sometimes look at them at odd moments in my office on a rainy day. For now, though, we wander in our flip-flops. How we like Alicante! There’s a corner café near us where the croissants are so good that we go back each day for more. There’s a gelato café for after the beach. But there are too many pigeons—palomas. I’m so afraid of them that I ruin dinner one night by standing up from my seat and shrieking.

Another academic year begins except, this time, Salton is not walking beside me at convocation. I process to the squeaky door hinge sounds of the symphonic wind band; the cycle has come around again, we are back at the beginning, except now it is Fall 2019. I do not yet know that within the year time will stop. I do not yet know the florescence of wailing, careening ambulances. I do not know that I will learn what it feels like to be shocked. Nor do I know: numbers climbing, masks, maps of hot spots, the dumb impatience of waiting, the piquancy of sitting outside on a bench with a good friend, the relief of a trip to CVS for a jab in the arm. My unknowing is still complete, brimming with the customary, the expected. I do not know—but, for now, I process.

Kabi Hartman


Kabi Hartman is currently an English professor at Franklin & Marshall College. Her work—both fiction and creative nonfiction—has appeared most recently in The Point, Carve, Porter House Review,, Fourth Genre, and is forthcoming from The Kenyon Review. She has also published scholarly writings in a variety of journals.

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The landscape thinks itself in me and I am its consciousness.

—Paul Cézanne

A crescent moon and two planets line up this January dawn outside my bay window, the orbs turned toward the horizon. They are so far off, I think, cold points of borrowed light. I shift focus,

and my face and torso outlined by a glow from the kitchen appear on the glass, a bald old man in pajamas wearing shadows for eyes. When I lean in for a closer look, my face, backlit, looms before me, and the moon and planets multiply on the double pane, grow fuzzy, and shimmer.

A silhouette of trees steps out of the night and the horizon line of the mountain waves into view. Squares of light from the kitchen window drape over the lawn forming a faint cross. The thick twin trunks of the beech fork, and the slender dogwood, a volunteer that never blooms, shakes its branches free of inky night.

I have a line from an old song about being charmed by new love stuck in my head playing over and over, but no, I must concentrate on what is happening out there in me as the film of night thins and floats free of each object: the windchime, the brass lily sculpture, the artificial waterfall empty for now, the squarish boulder that I kicked downhill last year to stand in a bed of mulch beside a redbud.

One by one, they light up.

The pebble path winds my way shyly, lined with stones and strewn with leaves on either side, and the woodshed hitches one shoulder offering armloads of oak, hickory, and poplar.

The bird feeders dangle right before my eyes from suction cup hooks on the windowpane, and a wren cheeps below. A cardinal flares and lights in the bare branches showing me where to look—oh, and another, the brown female, both turned my way.

On the road across the creek a van appears: headlights, orbs brought to earth, flash, descend, and turn away as if by magic. Through a tangle of branches the sky turns buttery, a brocaded fabric hung as backdrop, and the cardinal, emboldened, leaps from the azalea and floats through my reflection to the feeder, grabbing the first seed.

The concrete retaining wall holding back a bank of periwinkle juts into the yard, and I can just make out the cage of the suet feeder at the far end, when the tip of the torch of the sun appears on the shoulder of the mountain, leading my gaze upward.

And the moon—where did it go, I wonder?

The crescent has thinned and drifted out of sight above the window frame so I have to crouch to see it, and the planets have faded already into the satiny flesh

of my mind.

Steven Harvey


Steven Harvey is the author of The Beloved Republic, the winner of the Wandering Aengus Press Award, published in early 2023. He is also the author of The Book of Knowledge and Wonder, a memoir about coming to terms with the suicide of his mother published by Ovenbird Books as part of the “Judith Kitchen Select” series. He has written three collections of personal essays—A Geometry of Lilies, Lost in Translation, and Bound for Shady Grove—and Folly Beach, a book-length personal essay about easing fears of mortality and loss through creativity. Two of his essays have been selected for The Best American Essays Series: “The Book of Knowledge” in 2013 and “The Other Steve Harvey” in 2018. Over the years, fourteen of his essays have been recognized as notable by that series as well, and he was twice honored as a finalist in the Associated Writing Program’s nonfiction contest. He is a professor emeritus of English and creative writing at Young Harris College, a founding faculty member in the Ashland University MFA program in creative writing, a contributing editor for River Teeth magazine, and the creator of The Humble Essayist, a website designed to promote personal prose. He lives in the north Georgia mountains.

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“What’s that?” my husband exclaims, aiming his binoculars at the lake. I squint through splatters of windblown rain.

"Must be Champ." Our local lake monster, more than a myth.

"Looks like a Viking ship,” Tom says, handing me the binoculars. Focusing, I see he's right. A phantom vessel cuts through the frothy water, grows larger, fills the lenses, crashes on our deck. A serpentine prow of root, a right-angled branch pierces the clouds. Twigs shiver in the wind, remnants of black-tattered sails.

“Kristina,” I whisper my mother’s name. A sudden chill. It's April, the first anniversary of her death. I buried her in New Jersey, moved to Vermont. Had gone too far.

For as long as I can remember, I helped my mother manage her decaying house in New Jersey and all that it contained. When she couldn't pay my college tuition, we sold her collection of maritime artifacts. Kristina thrifted after that, combed for stones on the beach, lifted objet trouvé off the street.

It was also April, a few years back, when I walked into my mother's kitchen and found her face down on the table. A sargassum smell had filled the room, settled on her unwashed hair. I made tea in one of six injured pots, told her it was time to unload again, offered to help. She let me take out the trash that day: a bucket of food scraps and crumpled Kleenex.

Who was I to rid her of things? Moored by objects, our love made fast.

Yesterday’s tempest past, I open my window to a blue-sky morning. The Viking tree still hugs our deck, wrecks our view. I march across our spit of lawn, give it a push. It rocks gently side to side like a giant cradle. A whiff of spring rises from the rippling water. Should I string lights and mementos like angel wings from its weathered limbs?

My neighbor arrives in duck-hunting waders, a chainsaw slung over his shoulder. Climbing aboard a trunk too wide to cut, he severs the mast-like leader. His saw blade dips in the water as he attacks the anchoring limbs, those longboard oars. The battle too much for me, I retreat into the house.

That evening on the deck, I avoid looking at the scarred hull nestled in marsh grass, its amputated limbs piled nearby. I train my eye on the horizon: blue mountains, pink clouds, silver lake. Just before dark, a resident heron shifts her gaze from shore to sky, unfurls her wings and slowly lifts her heavy body into the air.

Jeniah Johnson


Jeniah Johnson's creative nonfiction has appeared in The Write Launch, Colectivo Tabú, River Teeth: Beautiful Things, and other publications. She holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Vermont, where she's working on a memoir.

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Care isn’t something we think about until it eludes us. The virus first finds me as we’re entering the third year of the pandemic. It slides under the door, seeps into my nose and my husband’s nose, and drops a fog over our heads. My husband and I ride COVID like the privileged people that we are: We take off from work. We open all doors and windows. We drown in books. We’re privileged even to be visited by a Kleenex-and-Tylenol type of virus, rather than an ICU type. But getting sick after years without so much as a cough opens old wounds that are off limits to my immune system.

The day I test positive, I go to CVS to pick up meds and leave with a foil balloon shaped like a dolphin. Blue, shiny, smiley. To take care of us, I tell myself. On the way home, we get caught in a summer rain, the dolphin and I, so we both arrive at the apartment covered in fat water drops. The weight of the drops keep the dolphin from staying afloat. He glides close to the floor, more like a reptile than a jumping mammal.


Funny how dolphins are always portrayed mid-jump. When I think of a dolphin, I always think of a hunched animal, but a hunch that means movement, climax, not a fragile body.


My husband comes greet me at the doorway, but seeing the dolphin, seeing how sunken it is, he shifts his attention and rushes inside with our new guest. While I deal with my wet dress wet mask wet flip-flops, my husband is in the kitchen, wiping the water off the dolphin with a love and attention I wasn’t expecting him to demonstrate towards a balloon. I, too, already like the balloon. I knew it’d be funny to bring home a kitschy dolphin, and it is, and we laugh, my husband and the dolphin and I, but it is also something else. The dolphin’s presence is heartwarming. This whole evening he floats above our heads, watching out for us as we read, as we slurp takeout ramen, as we text family back home to say we’re fine. When it’s time for bed, my husband clips the balloon to his belt loop and climbs the stairs, the dolphin smiling and floating after him like a reliable guardian. Later, the dolphin veils our sleep from the ceiling of our bedroom.

Do you think he’s changing color? asks my husband, and he also asks, Do you feel he sometimes moves his eyes to follow us? We both laugh, but we both know it’s not really a joke. The dolphin’s eyes aren’t any more sophisticated than a Playmobil’s, yet somehow if you look firmly as he floats and moves in the air, it seems like the eyes stay put. His body is swaying but he’s staring at us. Not in a creepy way. In an affectionate way.


I don’t have a memory of my mother ever looking at me like this, patient and calm and lovingly from above. The fact that I don’t remember, of course, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Even though my memories of my mother mostly involve cold stares, annoyed sighs every time I fainted, Diabo, why do you have to be so demanding?, stomping exits, I’m also aware that she cared for me in my frequent bouts of fever when I was little. These memories are faint—partly due to my resentment, partly due to the hallucinatory effects of my 104-degree fevers—but they exist. In those memories, my mother is sitting on the bed next to me as she dips a red cloth in a bowl with water and alcohol; the world smells like rubbing alcohol and dipyrone; she lays the red cloth on my forehead and then around my neck. Like a cowboy, she says. I feel her hand and feel the warmth from the alcohol, I smell it, yet I don’t remember seeing my mother. But I must’ve seen her, and her eyes must’ve been watching me from above, never straying away even as her body moved around, and I must’ve seen that she was in fact looking at me in a patient and calm and lovingly way. I must’ve had this reference at some point in my life. Otherwise, how would I recognize this look in a foil balloon?


Or it may be that, from the top of my 104-degree fevers, I hallucinated that look. It may be that I never had it, I only craved it.


During our covidy nights, my husband sweats with fever. I don’t—as an adult I’ve become a feverless person. I haven’t run a temperature since I left home at seventeen. No fever when I had sinusitis, or urinary tract infection, or shingles. Doctors would hold the results to my bloodwork, the numbers indicating a peak in white blood cells, then hold the thermometer, perplexed, the numbers never peaking: 97, 98, all good.

Not showing weakness isn’t the same of not feeling it, though. For a brief moment, COVID frays me. My body is heavy and my head is foggy, light as a balloon. I crawl from one cushioned surface to the next. From beneath the haze that surrounds me, long-lost memories begin to emerge.

In one of them, I was in elementary school, and the teachers ran their concerned fingers over my bumpy skin: thousands of tiny pimples spread on my upper arms, not hurting, not swelling, but neither disappearing. Teachers asked what that was. I didn’t know the answer, much less wanted to ask the question at home. It would go away on its own, I hoped, as it did in a few years. I was doing my best to be less demanding.


On day five of COVID, symptoms begin to subside. But while my body fights the virus and becomes whole again, I see the dolphin’s body degrade. Perfectly square folding lines show on his belly; he’s deflating. Yeah, at some point he’s gonna die, I say to my husband, pretending not to really worry since this is just a foil balloon from CVS. I know all too well what time does to foil balloons.

Deep inside, I do worry, of course. More than that, I hurt. I hurt because I know it’ll happen, and it’ll happen no matter how much I care for him.


I’m responsible for the dolphin’s well-being, and I’m powerless over the dolphin’s well-being.


In the memories that keep breaching the fog of my days, I see the exasperated face of my mother. I was telling her I was constipated again—like I’d been the previous week, and the previous year, and for as long as I could remember. Try harder, she said. I’d come to her with one problem and would leave with two: the sluggish bowel, and now the shame.

I learned as a kid that asking for my mother’s help inconvenienced her. Looking back, I can even understand why that was. Perhaps my mother’s harshness was a product of her fragility. Perhaps my asking for help made her limitations evident. She could not always help me, did not always know how to help me, and maybe it bothered her to be put face to face with her powerlessness. I can see how that may have been painful. The way she responded, though, was by playing strong, reproaching me with pointy looks from above, making me shrink in embarrassment for needing care.


The dolphin, who is already deflating, begins to descend. He floats low now, inches from the ground. His tail and fins are shriveled. One night, the dolphin roams through our bedroom while we try to sleep. He’s lost so much weight he can’t stand still anymore. He’s a ghost of a dolphin, wrinkled and sad. He approaches the bed, then swims back to the opposite side of the room, sliding his fins on the wall to steady himself as he goes, and then he turns and swims towards the bed again. All night long. I wake up in a daze to see him floating right above my feet. He’s looking at me, and his body is reflecting a single beam of city light that comes in through the window, enveloping him in a bluish glow. I jump up, inhaling a muffled scream that wakes my husband up. The next night, the dolphin sleeps downstairs in the living room.


My mother is now a ghost, too. A five-foot body emptied out of memories, a result of years into Alzheimer’s. She still lives in Brazil, my home country, and since I moved to Florida five years ago, I don’t ever see her. I’m not her caregiver, my sister is. I don’t feel I owe her any baths, any meds, any bedside time.

So I only see her in my memories, where she’s mighty, strong, her head up there close to the ceiling.


One morning, we come downstairs to find the A/C on, and the dolphin being sucked through the slats on the A/C door. Helpless. His body so thin, his eyes empty. That night, we put him inside an Amazon box for bedtime. His tail and lower body stay inside the box while his hunched head floats out of it, snarling-smiling at us as we go up the stairs without him.

Seeing the dolphin’s body degrade touches me in unpredictable ways. Whenever I pass him by, I want to hug him but I know he’s too fragile to withstand physical love now. His fragility is precisely the reason why I want to hug him. Back when he was plump and fresh, I never felt that impulse.


I haven’t seen the process of my mother’s body deflating, but I’ve seen milestones in the pictures my sister shares. I see my mother become crinkled, veiny, clearly fragile. But I don’t want to hug her; I never feel tears pool up in my throat when I look at her. To me, she’s encyclopedic evidence that life dwindles. Sometimes I feel guilty for not valuing her life as much as I value a foil balloon’s.


I think my mother’s strength invalidated mine. Willingly or not, she left me feeling constantly unsafe. In her, I saw someone who could care for me but who could also decide not to. Stomping away when I fainted at eight years old, cutting me off from health insurance at eighteen. She had the dipyrone and she had the power to crush it.

I’m still waiting to hear my mother’s voice from up above, You’re safe now.

The fact that the balloon stays long after the virus is gone only proves he didn’t come to treat a dry cough. A dry cough is something I could—and did—treat on my own. But I resist that. I feel I’m owed care. I carry a hole in my body. For years, I’ve been wishing for someone to fill me up.

A wish I know is impossible. There’s no cure for the hole. But the dolphin is here to remind me I have the right to wish it anyway.


In our living room, my husband moves the dolphin in and out of the Amazon box without much thought. I can tell he’s not as devastated as I am by the balloon’s shrinking. He’s sad, but he’s focused on making sure the dolphin is as whole as he can be. My husband takes great pleasure in caring. For me, for the dolphin, for himself.


The dolphin is now almost flat. He lies on a chair—not even his sleeping box can support him anymore. As he loses all his air, I realize that what I’m afraid of losing is not him properly, but the idea of him. The idea that someone can, and will, take care of me.

Even when care doesn’t provide a cure, it provides refuge.

COVID is long gone from the house. Our lungs are back to full capacity. The world wants to crawl back to normal, too, and so employers resume work trips. My husband’s suitcase for the week is parked by the entrance, waiting for his Lyft to the airport. For the first time since the pandemic started, I’ll be on my own. Before he leaves the two of us behind, my husband puts the balloon on his lap, carefully unties the string attached to his lower fin, and finds an opening. He takes it to his mouth and blows up the dolphin.

Flávia Monteiro


Flávia Monteiro is a Brazilian writer based in Miami, FL. The dolphin balloon now permanently occupies a chair in her living room. Her work has been published by Vol.1 Brooklyn and Memoir Monday. She’s an alumna of VONA, Kenyon, and the RootsWoundsWords writers conferences. You can find her tweeting erratically @flavia_monteira.

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It is hot enough in the California summer that heat shimmer appears in the distance like a mirage. When I drive with my father on dusty backroads, the pavement looks like water, except around here the winding river dried up long ago, the bridge connecting one side of our no stoplight town to the next, spanning across an empty bed, the reminder that nothing wants to stay.

All day I’m damp with water leaving my body, sweat making my clothes stick to my skin though I try to shed them like the lizards and snakes that populate the empty dirt fields surrounding my house. When the train rattles through town to somewhere better, dust fills the air and turns everything dirty. When sweat makes rivulets on my limbs, it leaves little trickles of clean. I wish we had air conditioning like my school friends who live towns away where people actually want to live, where they have money enough to keep themselves cool. Here I take a cold shower before bed and sleep with wet hair and the windows open and bags of ice under my knees and behind my neck. At night the bags open and I dream of swimming.

It is hot enough I hardly believe what I see when my father motions me over to the cardboard box he brings home after a long day of construction work. Inside is a turtle the size of a dinner plate. The patchwork shell reminds me of my mother’s quilts, pieced in precision from scraps.

Placing my palm across the shell, I discover it is cold, and I wonder how anything can find comfort in the heat. The shell is hard and smooth despite the creature’s soft and rough body, and I delight in this contradiction—how you can be two things at once.

When my hand strays too close, the turtle hides inside its shell. I am amazed that a body can provide protection. Already at five, I know the body as weakness, as something to escape. My body is what hurts from too much hot in summer, too much cold in winter, too much hunger when the fridge is empty, too much shame when the kids at the school I attend on scholarship point and say I don’t belong, like not belonging is written all over my body, like I am a fish out of water, gasping for breath.


Water wicks away, rolling off the truck no matter how hard I spray with the hose. My father laughs at my elementary school determination, the way I try to outsmart the turtle wax.

We’ve spent a long afternoon applying the green wax to my father’s old work truck, the one he uses to haul fence posts and pickets to fancy towns where he builds the borders used to keep outsiders like us away. His truck is old and worn, but he tends to it and teaches me the same. We wash the dust from the vehicle, rivulets of water running through the caked-on dirt and down our limbs too, reminding us that we are marked by the place we call home. I jump over the puddles and run fearfully through the overhead spray my father makes as he tries to coax me with rainbows in the sky not to be so afraid of water, so afraid of drowning.

The wax we apply to the car in circular motions dries quickly in the heat, leaving murky clouds, but my father buffs it away slowly to reveal a shining surface. It is magic, the way something old can look brand new, the way he can trick the rich people he works for into letting him into the house to use the restroom just by making something as silly as a truck sparkle.

The turtle wax comes in a bright green container with a fluorescent yellow lid. I like to move the lid off and on, listening to the satisfying click of something settling into place. I like to stick my finger into the thick green, gathering it like halfmoons under my nails, the smell overpowering but comforting.

More than once my father catches me smearing the green wax across my body like I am a turtle, like I am protected. Like nothing can hurt me. Like nothing can get through my shell.


Sleepovers are scary, so I curl into the solitude of my sleeping bag.

The girls at school rarely invite me to anything. When they do, I rarely go because on weekends we are too poor to afford gas to drive into the fancy town where I go to school. Sometimes, if I am lucky, my parents work on weekends and I can accept an invitation, so long as it’s not a birthday party because we can’t afford to give a gift.

Today I wonder how my friend can afford all the plastic horses in her room and all the real horses in her stables. My fourth-grade friend has invited me for something called branding day. All day, we ride horses around the barn and stables, watching the crowds at her family’s ranch. Actually, she rides and I hold on behind her because my parents have told me I am not allowed to ride because we don’t have health insurance or money for a doctor if I fall.

At lunch we stop to eat BBQ and the air smells like burning, the sound of squeals and laughter all around. I start to cry when I see men wrestle a calf into submission, press a glowing brand into its side, leaving my friend’s initials as a bright scar. “Why are you sad?” my friend asks, so I scar my face with a smile instead.

At night I can’t sleep because all I see is hurt when I close my eyes and I can’t get the sound of sizzling flesh and fear out of my mind. I have run out of things to say to my friend to convince her I belong, so I hide inside my sleeping bag pretending to be asleep until she stops talking. When I hear her breath shift into slumber, I poke my head out.

Underneath her bed is dark and cluttered, but I keep myself awake all night by trying to identify the objects. When the morning light breaks the loneliness, I see, nestled inside a cardboard box and a few folded blankets, a giant turtle.

“Oh, yeah,” my friend says nonchalantly when she wakes. “He’s dumb though. He just sleeps.”

Later her mother explains brumation to me, the way a turtle slows its heart in order to survive. This is how it endures when food is scarce or a turtle needs to wait out the extremes of winter, she explains, motioning to the motionless creature. They are alive but inactive, she says, and I try to imagine what this feels like, if it makes the creatures sad.

I wonder what it would be like to feel safe enough to sleep. I wonder how to stay alive by convincing others you are dead.


When the tape gets to the end, I rewind it back and start again. I’m trying to memorize the stories, watch the same Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles VHS from the library a dozen times. I am fascinated by these odd, mutant creatures who convince the audience to love them anyway.

At elementary school everyone says, “Cowabunga, dude!” and I say it too, even though I don’t know what it means. When I first spy the tape at the library, I watch it over and over so I can repeat plot points at school so people will think I have cable, even though we can’t afford it, can’t afford a full lunch for me most days, which is why my favorite Ninja Turtle is Michelangelo, with his boxes full of gooey pizza and his catchphrase of “Party, dude!” because even when his city is dark and full of fear, he can still celebrate.

There are only three episodes on the tape, so soon I have the stories memorized enough to bring up in conversation with my classmates. I even get invited to a Ninja Turtles birthday party and convince my parents to let me go. At the party we eat so much pizza we are sick, and then we play games where the prizes are the same turtle action figures I’ve spied in the expensive toy aisle my parents don’t even let me walk down. I am desperate to win.

But I haven’t seen enough of the episodes to act out the action scenes or defeat the bad guys, and after a few rounds of turtle trivia, everyone gets tired of me referencing the same three episodes. I wish the party was like my favorite episode, the one where the turtles get small, small, and smaller still until they almost disappear.


“The turtle will die,” my father says when I am only five, “if it stays where it doesn’t belong.”

All afternoon I watch the turtle wander in its box and then up and down the sidewalk leading to my front door. It’s like the turtle is coming home, a welcome pet to help heal the hurt I feel when my kindergarten friends say they can’t come to visit because it’s dangerous. I want to be like the turtle, to curl in on myself and sit in the dark, which I do sometimes alone in my room, crying quietly until my parents call me to help set the table for supper.

I believe this turtle is for me, but eventually my father says it is time to take the turtle home. “It was only temporary,” he says. The turtle never belonged here, never belonged to me.

“It has to go back to where it comes from,” he says while I cry into his arms that smell like sweat and sawdust from long hours working in the sun. “He needs to have somewhere to swim.”

I try to think of where the turtle could have come from, the river in my town long dried up, the ocean close enough to remember but far enough we can’t afford to drive there days the heat claws at the backs of our throats. As my father collects the turtle back into the box, I start to choke on the heat and the dust, the sound of my own sobs.


I nearly drown before someone pulls me to safety.

In middle school I am invited to a swimming party because my father built the fence around the pink-tiled pool and around the other pool too, black-tiled and cold, and also around the tennis court and the putting green. I go with him to work sometimes and eventually babysit the children who live in the elaborate house so big it has multiple pools.

I do not want to go to the party because the other girls invited are mean to me at school, but this is a business arrangement, my invitation a kindness granted to my father.

The pink pool tiles match the pink bathing suit stretched tight across my body. It cuts into my legs so that it hurts to walk. It is a suit for a baby, but I wear it anyway because we can’t buy new bathing suits like we can’t afford the dentist, the kids at school pointing at my teeth and calling me vampire or pointing at my too-short pants and calling me spider.

The only pool I’ve spent any time in is my baby sister’s sandbox in summer, when we dump it out and use the garden hose to fill it with a few inches of lukewarm water. The sandbox is a hard plastic green turtle with a shell for a lid that absorbs the heat so that sometimes it is too hot to swim and you scald yourself if you jump in without testing the waters.

The girls from school tell me to jump.

“New girl goes first,” they say in their chorus of bright bikinis. They stretch out languid in the sun like they believe bodies are not something to hide away.

When I walk into the shallow waters, eager to keep my feet on the ground, but also eager to hide my too-small bathing suit, they point to the other side.

“Over there,” they say, pointing in unison. “We promise.”

I realize after it is too late. Down I go, into the deep end of the pool. I thrash and thrash, my hands slipping along the tiled walls. Over the sounds of splashing, I hear their laughter, warm and protected on the shore.

Eventually the man who owns the house hears my cries and runs from his putting green to pluck me out to safety. He sits in his golf gear the rest of the afternoon while I try to catch my breath and steady my legs in the shallow end, and the girls take turns diving from the deep end and seeing who can swim away from me the fastest.

Later he will tell my father what happened, will offer to pay for private swimming lessons for me. I will try for a while, but eventually give up, convinced I’m not the kind of person who can risk letting other people see me drown.


“Don’t you go anywhere?” my high school friend asks, incredulous. She and her family have just returned from Canada, from England, from Hawaii. “Travel is important.”

I want to ask her why she never comes to my town to visit if travel is so important, but I know the reason, the way she insists on rolling up her car windows and locking the doors when she does, insists I walk her out in case she is attacked by a bad guy in my bad town.

At school she makes jokes about my zip code, calls me a fish out of water, points out the hole in the toe of my shoe or pulls on a string in my sweater until the whole thing comes unraveling. But I think this is what it means to have a friend, what it means to belong. She is the first friend I made that did not abandon me quickly, both of us sitting together during an elementary school pool party, me afraid to swim, she afraid to let others see her big body in a bathing suit. We glimpsed each other at the edge of the water, became friends because we both were hoping to blend in enough to not be noticed.

She gives me gifts from her travels. This time it’s a puka shell necklace with a charm in the shape of a turtle.

“I know you’ll never go to Hawaii,” she says as she hands me the souvenir.

Her keepsake is a turtle she acquires when she returns, an exotic pet to remind the family of their exotic travels. The turtle is out of place so far from home. It struggles to adjust, to thrive in the new environment. It is skittish to the touch, retreating in on itself.

Eventually it brumates for long months, preferring sleep to socializing. For years, I ask about the turtle when I visit. The family says it’s asleep somewhere in a closet like an old umbrella or forgotten coat. One day they decide to leave it outside somewhere, convinced they cannot care for something so cold.


Even at my California university near the coast, I cannot seem to get warm. In the apartment I share with three roommates, I layer leggings underneath my jeans, long-sleeve shirts under my sweaters. In classrooms, I struggle to focus because I cannot stop shivering. During the day, I pull my hands inside of my sleeves for protection, and at night, I put a sweatshirt over my two pairs of pajamas, pull the hood over my head like a shell.

I am the first in my family to attend college, which is why it feels like I am constantly treading water. All around me are rich, beautiful girls who belong, which is why they all seem to know each other. Even my old high school friend, who is not beautiful but rich enough to have her school and apartment and credit card funded by her parents, floats around campus with ease.

My lack of cell phone and car, my clothes, and the fact that I do not know how to use a computer because we’ve never owned one make me stand out when all I want to do is camouflage. Inside, I feel soft and vulnerable, and I long to go back home, where it is poor but warm, where even rough construction men like my father stop to care for lost turtles.

I harden. I barely have enough money for my groceries each week and I begin to ration my food in order to pay my bills. Soon the girls at school compliment me on how thin I am. My disappearing body is the only thing I have that makes them jealous. Even my friend, who has always struggled with her weight, says admiringly, “You’re the only one I know who lost the freshman fifteen.”

Soon my bones show like a turtle shell, which is formed from its skeleton, the rib cage and spine creating protection visible from the outside. I am tired of being weak, and decide instead to be the kind of strong that is all brittle bone and determination, deprivation a kind of power. I start restricting food, which is easy since I rarely had enough to eat growing up. As I shrink, I grow to love the empty feeling inside, the way I am a shell of my former self.

I lose so much weight that I walk through the world in a daze, as though I am sleeping or dead. I move in slow motion, but the sound of my heartbeat lets me know I am still alive. It keeps me up at night. Over the sound of my pulse, I can hear my roommates softly snoring through the walls, just like the sleepovers of my childhood. The sound competes with the noise coming from my stomach, the only thing I believe gives my starvation away.

All night, and throughout the day, I quiet the hunger and avoid eating by drinking glass after glass of water. The water fills me up, makes me feel like I can avoid the hollow hurt. I drink so fast sometimes I sputter and gasp for breath.


The first time I travel is when I move to Nebraska for graduate school. My old high school friend says this doesn’t count, because nobody wants to go to the Midwest. But it feels exhilarating to watch California fade behind me in the rearview mirror until it is as big as an insect.

In Nebraska, no one has ever heard of my small town, so no one makes fun of my zip code or the fact that I shared clothes with my mother or that my father built the security gates around their luxury homes. No one knows I have never been out of the country or that I mispronounce smart words in books because I have never heard them spoken aloud.

Here I am camouflaged by the fact that I am so far from home. But I miss home more than ever. I want to watch the railroad rattle through town, kicking up dust in the air to swirl with the sawdust from my father’s latest construction project. I want to take a garden hose and shoot straight into the sky, watching the water fall back down to earth. I try to bury this down deep in order to convince myself I am happy, to convince myself that here is where I belong.

For class, I am asked to visit a museum of natural history and I wander through the corridors of evolution, watching time trickle from one eon to the next, surprised by the species that survived. Out of the mammoths and buffalo, the cranes and crocodiles, my favorite specimen is a giant tortoise dug up from a rural farm. The shell stretches six feet across, big enough for any human to hide. It shines and sparkles under the museum lights, a reminder that once the Plains were home to a great sea, that belonging extends beyond the surface. I imagine a farmer digging the turtle shell up after a long winter snow, eager to plant crops and finding the creature instead.


When I begin work as a professor in Massachusetts, everyone around me complains about the cold and snow, about how horrid it is to hibernate. Snow is still a novelty to me, just like the fact that my colleagues all assume I’ve studied abroad or done extensive travel outside of the country. Sometimes they say my home back in California is a place they would like to vacation.

All winter, everyone speaks about their summer homes by the beach, about the first day they will be able to use their swimming pools, about whatever exotic vacations they plan to take when it is warm enough. They wear expensive boots with matching briefcases made from leathers or crocodile skin with a pattern like a turtle shell.

Because I am starting to belong, I book a summer trip to Bermuda. When I get there, I wander the length of the private pink beach alone or sit under a cabana while employees rake the sand into beautiful patterns and shoo away tourists who have managed to slip past the resort’s expansive security fence. I drink fruity cocktails until my belly is full.

My favorite place on the island is a small inlet cove I pass through while on a jet ski tour. The guide says there’s nothing much to see, just some rundown houses and a lot of seagrass, which makes it difficult to swim. We only stop to watch the numerous sea turtles who gather there to nibble grass and avoid the cruise ships and beaches flooded with tourists.

We leave quickly, passing a shipwreck popular with scuba divers who like to dive below the surface and see what happened to sailors who didn’t realize the coral was sharp and rough, who lost themselves because they didn’t belong.

Later, I rent a small boat and return to the bay alone. Behind me, the horizon stretches endlessly, a reminder that you can wander the earth as far as you want to go. I know that just beyond my view is the Bermuda triangle, full of legends and myths of people who tried to leave but failed.

In the warm sun, I stretch my body, feel the hard tension ease, my muscles relaxing into softness. I feel as though I am waking up after a long sleep. When I turn back to face the shore, dozens of sea turtles rise to the water surface to greet me. We stare at each other briefly before they dip back into the water to feed on the grasses. The tour guide called them weeds, but over and over the turtles dive, happy to eat their fill.


I purchase my first home near protected wetlands. When I look around the several wooded acres in Massachusetts that are mine, I can scarcely believe I am privileged enough to afford a home. To get there, I must turn onto a private road that leads to a lake, drive past the sign like those I grew up seeing with my father, the kind that tells people who do not live in the neighborhood to keep out.

Perhaps this is why I’ve torn down the fences bordering my property, eager to let in deer and foxes, great blue herons and hawks. I know what it means to claim a place that does not claim you back. I know what it means to try and survive where you don’t feel safe.

It is not uncommon for me to discover water creatures in my yard. I’ve seen crawdads scuttling too far from shore. One day, I spy a small turtle struggling in the grass. I wonder how it managed to escape the water and wander so far away. I wonder if it will be able to find its way back. I don’t get too close for fear it will hide inside its shell, or that I will detour its return journey.

The wetlands that feed into the lake are not so far, but the turtle seems disoriented. It keeps heading in a direction farther away. I stand in my yard, the place I have claimed, and realize it doesn’t take much to get lost. I wonder how far away is too far to get back home.


After my father returns the turtle to the side of the road where he found it, he brings me a gift. Because I have cried big salty crocodile tears for my lost turtle, my father lets me open another box. Inside is a plastic turtle, an exact replica of the previous one, the same size and shape, the same color and gentle pattern. The only difference is the hardness. The toy is stiff plastic but it is also hollow and can be squeezed like a hug. I can touch this turtle without frightening it back into its shell, can hold its tiny clawed foot, can kiss the top of its tiny head.

My family doesn’t have money for gifts outside of birthdays and holidays, so this is a rare offering. My father must know what losing the turtle means to me. He must know too, that even as an elementary school child, I already feel like I am treading in the depths.

After I open my gift, I am allowed to join my parents in the hot tub. It is the only luxury we have, an investment made because we rely on my father’s body to pay our bills. After ten- and twelve-hour workdays and six- to seven-day workweeks, my father’s body aches, and he comes home to take pain medication and sit in the hot water. In summer, though, if I beg loud enough, my parents turn off the heat, and I pretend the lukewarm water is a pool, the ocean, those cold bodies of water my fancy friends access so easily.

I swim around and around to make the kind of waves I can handle, my feet always on the floor. I practice swimming because here no one can trick you into jumping off the deep end. I pretend to be a mermaid like a Disney movie, but then I pretend I’m a turtle because hiding in your own shell is better than giving up your voice to hang out where you don’t belong. I make my toy turtle dip and dive, and I squeeze the shell so water spurts from its mouth. My parents clink their bottles of wine coolers, and my dad sneaks me a sip and I say “yuck” because I am a turtle.

All around, the town is mostly dead, brittle from drying up in the sun. A train rattles by, kicking up dust, but this time I don’t want to ride with it to somewhere better because here, in the water with my parents, is perfect. When I sit on the edge of the hot tub to dry myself like a reptile in the sun, I can see the dried riverbed that cuts through the center of town like a pulse.

I think about the turtle’s hard shell and soft body. I think about how it found a way to survive with no water, to live on next to nothing. I think about the strength it takes to harden yourself until you become your own protection, and about the hope that comes from still leaving yourself soft enough to save.

Sarah Fawn Montgomery


Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Halfway from Home (Split/Lip Press), Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press) and three poetry chapbooks. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University.

paper texture

I own six pairs of one hundred percent cotton Barely There bikini panties in white, nude, black, and gray.

Three bras: nude, seafoam green, red.

I’m lucky. I have a suitcase full of clothes, more than most of my neighbors.

I own a dress that sat in my closet for over a year before I had the confidence and shoes to wear it.

I own a black leather belt from Buffalo Exchange and black leather walking shoes.

I own a few toiletries: Tom’s of Maine all-natural deodorant, travel size toothpaste, floss, and one pair of monthly disposable contact lenses. The rest were in my apartment.

The caseworker I meet with at Red Cross says, “We don’t replace contact lenses.”

I add contacts to the mental list of things to buy.

“But maybe you lost a pair of glasses?” she asks.

“No,” I say.

“Maybe you need a replacement pair?” she asks. “It’s always good to have one of those.”


She seems disappointed. She gives me vouchers for groceries and KMart. She gives me a booklet on life after fire; it’s called Returning to Normal.


I'd just returned from a trip to Mexico. I took my phone. I didn’t get reception there; the voicemails piled up.

Well, Michelle, it’s Daniel. And, I don’t know where you are, but I’m sure that you heard, uh, the news. And my heart goes out to you. I’m grateful that you were not in the building in some ways, on the one hand, but—well, no one was injured to my knowledge—but on the other hand, you were not there to take care of your things. So thinkin’ of you and you’re in my thoughts and prayers. Okay? Bye bye.


I own turquoise and silver drop earrings from Zuni pueblo that Henry gave me our first Christmas together.

I own a Mac laptop and a journal I keep by the bed. I’m writing a book about my grandfather and World War II. Shell-shock. The book is about inheritance, the things we carry for those who came before us. Some chapters are on the newer laptop. The rest were on an old Mac in the apartment.


Hey Michelle, it’s Hilary. I don’t know if you’re back, but I just wanted to have voice contact with you, so to speak. I’ve been thinking about you and hope this isn’t slamming you too badly and that most of your writing was with you. It really does boil down to what’s most important in our lives, doesn’t it? Anyway, we are here, ready to help in whatever way fits for you. Lots of love. Bye. Also, I really want to hear about your trip to Oaxaca amidst all this, uh, news.


I own a new wardrobe.

I live with Henry now, and his two kids. He organized a clothing drive. He bought a garment rack and set it up in a corner of the bedroom we share.

There is a window between the kids’ bedroom and ours. The house came like this. K, the boy, is four. Some nights he calls through the window, “Daddy, will you lie down with me?” Mornings I open my eyes, and there’s the girl, P, looking at me from the top bunk. “Hi, Michelle.”

P is seven. Every day she pulls a skirt, a blouse, matching scarf, shoes, and earrings from the heap. More clothes come. The rack collapses once or twice a week from the weight of things.

In the apartment, I lived alone. I emptied my thoughts into a journal before speaking with another human being. The first people to greet me were the characters in my book.


Dude, I heard your house burned down. I heard this from Paul who heard it from Sasha. And Paul and Bob are going out of town for ten days and said you could stay in their house during those ten days, but it sounds like you might already have a place. So let me know what’s going on. This is Beth, by the way. Talk to you later. Bye bye.


Returning to Normal advises, “Create an inventory of the items you lost.” Everything. It goes like this:

Category: Furniture
Item: Desk
Quantity: 1
Cost: $120
Age: Eight years
Place of purchase: Unpainted Furniture

I stained the desk a shade called “green tea.” Mornings I’d sit warming my hands on a coffee cup and looking over my laptop at the fruitless plum out my second-floor window. I’d light the white candle on the windowsill, read the writing contract I signed with a friend, and then turn to my manuscript, handling the pages like sacred, ancient texts.

Category: Food
Item: Fair trade coffee beans
Quantity: 8 ounces
Cost: $5
Age: one month
Place of purchase: La Montanita Co-op

The kitchen. I bought homey things, pairs of things: two bowls for atole, two cups for chocolate. I bought them because I wanted to draw a partner into my life. Six weeks after I signed my lease, I met Henry. We’ve been together a year and a half.

Category: Housewares
Item: Textiles
Quantity: 3
Cost: 500 quetzales
Age: 17 years
Place of purchase: Chichicastenango market, Guatemala

I bought the fabric my first time out of the country. I was twenty. The red one with the band of yellow down the middle decorated my bed. My grandmother’s bed. Next to it, a basket of books: Ceremony, Love in the Time of Cholera, The House of the Spirits.


Some mornings I wake while Henry and the children are sleeping. I sit on their couch and write in my new journal with my new pen.

People send money, books.

At first it is tempting to get free stuff just because I can. It’s how I end up with a dented stockpot and a pair of rubber shoes with Velcro straps.

I wash the kids’ clothes. I make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Sometimes the kids ask me to draw on their lunch bags. I draw stick figures: a duck, a chicken, a ninja at the beach.

I reach for things that aren’t there.


Oy. Lord. Girl. Mm, mm, mm. It’s Lisa. I will try you I don’t know when, I—you may or may not want to talk, but girl I am right here with you. I have free minutes after nine o’clock at night, which is right now. I can—just…girl…that’s all. I’m just sorry I don’t have an apartment that you can come to and lie down on the couch. Love you. Bye.


It started the night of the lunar eclipse.

I am in Oaxaca, sipping mezcal, dancing to La Negra Tomasa when my neighbor calls.

Michelle, this is Raísa. I was just calling to let you know that our apartments are on fire. It’s about 8:09 on Tuesday night. Um. Give me a call as soon as you can. Bye.

Of course, I don’t get that message because I don’t get cell service in Mexico.

I don’t know any of this the next morning when I sleep in, then write and read. I don’t know that afternoon when I pack my laptop and walk three blocks to Los Cuiles. I order my favorite, huevos a la mexicana con frijoles y pan and café con leche.

I check email. So many messages. A friend in Oaxaca writes, “CALL HENRY. THERE WAS A FIRE IN YOUR APARTMENT. Sorry.”

Another email. A news clip. It’s burning. Right now.

It’s gone.

I look for Henry’s emails. I message him. “I’m here. I know. Let’s talk.”

I cancel my order. It starts to rain. Outside taxis pass with their service lights dimmed. I need a ride to my friend’s telephone. Here is an empty cab. He charges fifty pesos for a thirty-peso ride. Maybe Luz María isn’t home. I am crying when she opens the door.

“¿Qué pasó, Michelle?”

Her phone is ringing.

“Me habla Henry,” I tell her as I kiss her cheek and run past her toward the phone.

He asks how I am.


I’m starting over. A clean slate. I don’t have to deal with that pile of papers on my desk, those gold shoes I inherited when my grandma died. This buys me time to write my book.

“Yeah,” he says. “What else?”

Red heels and a wool rebozo, my Grandma Rosie’s handmade doilies, the letter my dad scrawled to me on a napkin, twenty years of journals. I wasted time in that apartment. There were mornings I could have written and didn’t. And I am here, and where do I land when I get there?

“How could my apartment burn down? I’m in Mexico.”


Hey, it’s Kata. Welcome home, even though to a burnt-out apartment. I’m sorry. I know it’s not funny, but what can you do but crack jokes, huh? Mujer, wish I could do more, give you a big hug. I want to just see how you’re doing. And I’m super crazy busy. I’ll come up for air in about ten days. Yeah. It’s a good busy, but my God, it’s a lot. Sooo I hope you’re well. And…let me know if there’s anything I can do. Okay?


A friend texts my horoscope for August: The month begins with a sense of loss. Be grateful for what replaces that loss.

Henry meets me at the airport with his little boy. K holds a bouquet of flowers up to me and says, “Michelle, your apartment burned down.”

We drive to the building. I walk outside the chain link fence put up to keep out looters. I stand on the street facing the entryway to my second-floor apartment.

Next week the windows will be boarded; today my blinds dangle from one string. A white curtain frames my neighbor’s window, as though a hand might pull it back at any moment. I can’t see the top of my green desk, the corkboard that hung next to it for good luck.

I want something, anything, that was mine.

The sidewalk is streaked black from the entryway to the curb where fire hoses flushed magazines, a welcome mat, and toilet paper rolls and spit them at the curb. On top, a daisy etched in wood, a candleholder that sat on my kitchen windowsill. Cracked, swollen, it smells of smoke.


We drive to Henry’s parents’ house for a dinner of enchiladas, rice, and beans. P drapes me with a scarf she picked out just for me. Henry’s sister holds me to her chest and whispers, “It’s just stuff.” I think she means that stuff can be replaced. No one was hurt. I am okay. I am bigger than what I lost. It’s just stuff.

It’s my stuff.

At Henry’s, he pulls the children to him and says, “The kids and I want to welcome you. You’re not just a guest.”

P says, “This is your house now.”

K jumps up and down, clapping his hands, giggling, and whispers to his sister, "We get a stepmom. We get a stepmom.” She hugs him and together they look at me as though I am a new puppy.

The next morning, they leave for school. I lie on Henry's bed and stare through the window at the tops of Siberian elms. I miss everyone. I miss everything I’ve ever owned. When they return, I walk across the yard to the office, put a blanket on the floor, lie down on it, and weep.

That night, I dream I scale a ladder to my living room window, hoping to reach in and pull out my journal, the coaster that held my morning tea, the picture of my grandpa as a young man in his baseball uniform. His hair is thick, black curls in a pompadour. Even in my dream, I can’t see inside.

The neighbor kid comes over to play. Some nights she stays for dinner. She asks, “Are you their mom? Where’s your house?”


Homework. Grocery shopping. Chore charts. Birthday parties.

I do my best to make this new life look easy, to practice gratitude.

My space is half the dresser. Henry clears half the office. Mine is the side with a window that looks onto a yard of dirt and cheap asphalt our neighbor sold to everyone on the street before Henry bought the house. They poured it to keep out weeds.

My old neighborhood association puts out a call to replace my desk, chair, and corkboard. Henry and I pick them up in his father’s red truck and arrange them by the window. I run my fingers along the grain. I open my laptop. The screen is blank. Outside Henry breaks up the asphalt with a pickaxe.


Hi, this is Jesse. I’m so sorry to hear about your apartment. All the things that were in there. I’m really, really sorry. You did say in your email that you have a place to stay, at least for now. Gosh, I don’t know how you’re doing so I just wanted to call and chat, talk and—catch up. And I would love to hear about your trip to Oaxaca. Soooo, let me know if you would like me to call at a particular time, and I’ll try to catch you then. Okay? Hope you’re doing well, and please take care of yourself. Alright. Bye.


One morning, two weeks after the fire, men in hard hats open the padlocked gate to the property. They give my neighbors, Henry, and me our own hard hats and surgical masks and then pry boards off the door to our entryway with a crowbar. Inside we scale sheetrock, glass, and broken furniture to our second-floor apartments. My neighbor has come with gloves, plastic bins, bottled water, and Hefty bags. She puts a cardboard box in my empty hands.

The door to my apartment is locked. I haven't brought the key. The man with the crowbar, an engineer, climbs through the hole in my kitchen wall. He tells me to wait while he tests floor strength and weight distribution. Support beams have fallen. The wood floors are soaked from rain and flame retardant. We have to sign waivers before they let us in the building.

We have one hour.

“Can I go in?” I ask the engineer.

He tells me to wait in the kitchen.

Henry stays on the landing. The refrigerator lies on its side. I scramble to the top and look through the wall to the living room, where the engineer treads as though testing for mines.

The windows of my apartment are shattered. Plaster melted off the walls, exposed two by fours, wire mesh heat-curled and smoke-stained. Red brick. Sky.

“Now?” I ask.

The engineer says, “Okay. Be careful. Move slowly.”

The living room trunk where I kept glue, cardstock, and old magazines for collage blocks the door to the bathroom. My bookcases lie prostrate on the living room floor as though worshipping the sofa bed.

Nothing is where I left it.

The roof is gone. No, it’s not gone. It’s scattered on the floor, the couch, the bookcases, the guitar Henry gave me for our first anniversary.

I should have a plan. I don’t know what I expected to find. Ashes, soot, a map to my old life.

Henry asks how he can help.

“The necklace,” I say. “Can you look for it in the closet?”

It was water silver with turquoise beads. It came with the earrings he gave me our first Christmas together.

The sky is painfully blue. It is late morning, August heat closing in. All around the building is high desert, wood chip and rock yards, cottonwoods, rosemary and mesquite. My apartment is swamp, standing water, mold spores, pages of books curled black and fused together in puddles.

The engineer lifts the bookcase off the sleeper sofa and floor. Water. Gray. I grab handfuls of photos and put them in the box.

A blackened roof beam slants across my desk. I find my Social Security card, voter registration, library, and frequent flier cards. Gritty with plaster chips. Water spotted. I put them in the box. Palm Pilot I haven’t used in a year. Headphones. My old laptop melted into the desk. So many words. I don’t even know what’s missing.

I look for the journal with notes for my book, questions to ask my grandpa about World War II, a family tree I sketched across from him at his kitchen table.

I want the letters from my circle of women friends. We kept the chain going eleven years.

I want my journals, twenty years of them.

I want to touch the headboard of my grandma’s bed. I want to spend one more night here, wake up alone, stare at my computer screen and cry because I can’t write. I want back the hours that I wasted. I want to believe that, if not for the fire, my book would be finished.

But the truth is I was too frightened to write my book, to write anything. I still am.

In the closet Henry finds a red toolbox, hammer, wrench, bungee cords, moulding hooks, and nails soaking in water. All ruined. A backpack and purse droop from coat hooks. He finds stacks of my first book, fragments of my Harvard diploma. Everything but my necklace.

Later I will dream a crane lifts off the pieces of my roof, pulling away layer after layer of debris until I unearth the folder with my mom’s recipes. I’ll find the postcard from Wally Lamb thanking me for my beautiful book. I’ll find that picture of my grandpa, Henry’s necklace, my guitar, that Polaroid of Grandma China and me, the only picture I have of just the two of us. I will hear the neighbor’s parakeet, who always sounds angry.

But those sounds are not here today. The parakeet is gone. It is only the traffic on Central, paleta man, bass thumping, a city bus.

When our time is up, the engineer says to me, “Of all the apartments, yours got it the worst.”


Michelle, this is Daniel, responding to your inquiry about massage. Unfortunately, my afternoons and evenings are booked this week. But next week looks wide open for a lot of afternoon and evening appointments. I can imagine that you need a massage. I do have to tell you that I drove by the building once, and I was just devastated for you and I’m, I’m sick. Over the loss. But I’m glad that you have Henry and a place that you can call home. Sooo a big hug to you and Henry, as well. And would you do me a favor and look at your calendar for next week and we’ll see if we can’t get you in here, okay? Thank you.


At Henry’s, I sit on the office stoop. He works behind me at his desk.

My blue linen sundress drapes from the fence post. Laundry waves throughout the yard, day after day, to blow out mold and smoke. Oxyclean, vinegar, baking soda in the wash. Air dry and still the smell persists.

Colors pool on the surface of a photo I salvaged. It’s my grandpa and me, taken days after my grandmother died. I touch our faces. We dissolve into ink on my fingers.

I find a spiral notebook of early writings in blue ballpoint pen. I made corrections in black ink. The blue is faint, scrubbed almost clean. The black distinct, clear. Pages of slashes, straight lines. One word here, one there. Steps. Clues. A map.


Two months into the new normal, Henry and I get away to Jemez Springs for a soak and massages. We are out of cell phone range. I sleep and sleep.

We come down the mountain, around a mesa, red dirt behind us. My phone beeps and beeps.

Mi’ja, call me. Where are you?

Hey, sis, give me a call.

Honey, where are you? We’re at the hospital in Albuquerque. Grandpa’s on life support. Please, please call back.

We drive straight to him.

My mom found him slumped in the bathroom. He was wearing pajamas and looked asleep. A helicopter flew him from Deming to Albuquerque. Machines disconnected. He breathes on his own for three hours. He snores. Then he is gone.

I pack for the funeral. I reach for my black heels. They were in the apartment.

After the funeral I bring Chimayo dirt in a paper cup from my grandpa’s altar and put it on my new desk.

One friend gives me a red chile ristra. I hang it from a hook on the porch.


The kids and I make an altar for Day of the Dead. I sprinkle marigold petals from the front door to the altar to welcome our ancestors. I arrange their pictures and things they loved: Jack Daniels for my grandma, my grandpa’s hat, the candleholder washed from my apartment.


Demolition starts on a Thursday. I hadn’t planned on stopping, but then I find myself downtown, heading west on Central. There is the building being dissected by a crane. I see this and earth movers and a dump truck and a guy in an orange hard hat hosing down the dust, the fence pressed against my forehead.

There are tears on my cheeks. They mix with dust.

The crane stops, a claw suspended above the building, a mouth open between bites.

“Are you alright?”

It’s the crane operator. He’s talking to me.

“Are you okay?”

I look at him perched on the pile that was once my home.

“Yeah,” I say. “I’m okay. I used to live here.”

Michelle Otero


Michelle Otero is the author of Vessels: A Memoir of Borders, Bosque: Poems, and the essay collection Malinche's Daughter. She served as Albuquerque Poet Laureate from 2018-2020 and co-edited the forthcoming New Mexico Poetry Anthology 2023 and 22 Poems & a Prayer for El Paso, a tribute to victims of the 2019 El Paso shooting and winner of a New Mexico-Arizona Book Award. Her work has appeared in Shenandoah, The Best of Brevity Anthology, South Dakota Review, and New Mexico Magazine. Otero holds a BA in History from Harvard College and an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College. She is a member of the Macondo Writers Workshop.

paper texture

The secret to keeping a garden is not to burden it with specific hopes. If you don’t expect any one yield from it, you’ll never be disappointed. Scatter seeds, experiment, see what happens. But farmers can’t follow whims as gardeners do—they must calculate expenditures and plant fields judiciously. You’re all in when you buy a farm, probably until death, as the phrase bought the farm implies. This euphemism originated among Air Force pilots in the 1950s as a way to say someone was killed in action, through its reference to many airmen’s fondest wishes: to survive, make it home, and buy a farm. My grandfather’s life fulfilled these three wishes precisely; still, perhaps he should have wished for more. Buy a farm and keep it, he should have wished. But everyone knows you only get three wishes.

My maternal grandparents, John and Agnes Hottovy, were farmers, as were their parents and all the ancestors as far back as anyone can remember. They met in 1943 at a parish dance in Dwight, Nebraska, when John was on furlough from the Air Force. He shipped overseas in 1944 and survived forty-eight missions on a B-24 crew, flying bombing runs over the Himalayas, then came home to Nebraska to marry Agnes in 1945. The first year, they lived with John’s parents and picked corn by hand, chucking the ears into a high-sided wooden wagon drawn by two enormous plow horses, one white and one bay. They harvested enough to earn $500 with corn at ten cents a bushel. “We were newlyweds, in love,” Agnes wrote about that harvest in a family cookbook and history my aunt Carol published to commemorate John and Agnes’s fiftieth anniversary, “so it hardly seemed like work at all.”

John and Agnes came from large Czech families—John had ten siblings and Agnes eleven. Their families were still new Americans, Czech-speaking, having immigrated a few decades after the Civil War during America’s open border period, and claiming land through the Homestead Act of 1862. The U.S. government had taken these traditional bison hunting grounds from the smallpox-devastated Pawnee in an 1833 treaty. So many Czechs immigrated due to overpopulation and lack of farmland and settled in the same part of southeast Nebraska that the gentle rolling hills there became known as the Bohemian Alps. “The Czechs are principally an agricultural people,” Clarence John Kubicek writes in The Czechs of Butler County 1870–1940, a master’s thesis he completed in 1958. “One definite trait that was shown by the early settlers was their calm acceptance of the blows of fate. The early Czech settlers of Nebraska seem to have the uncanny ability to make crops grow.”

Calm acceptance of the blows of fate—is that a laudable achievement? Of the land homesteaded through the extended family’s labors, one farm was available to the newlyweds, 160 acres outside of Ulysses, owned by John’s parents. The farmhouse had sat empty for five years, ever since John’s oldest sister Eleanor died there. Her husband claimed she fell from a chair while hanging curtains. But when Eleanor died, her husband immediately left his three young children with their grandparents and ran off to Omaha with his teenage lover, whom he later married. The family suspected he killed Eleanor. He finally admitted he and Eleanor had a fight, he pushed her, and she fell from a chair. He was charged with manslaughter. Out of this sad history arose my grandparents’ first farm.


I considered myself an amateur gardener because I never began with seed; instead I bought vegetable starts. I’d tried starting seeds inside, but the kids watered the seedlings to death, and we didn’t have much space or window light. Don’t try to be a farmer, I cautioned myself. Just garden.

But, compelled by some instinct as the COVID-19 virus reached Colorado in March of 2020, I planted seeds. They were the first things I bought during my last shopping trip before we hunkered inside. Like Jack in the fable, I looked down at the seeds I had traded for in a foolish exchange, it seemed, for giving up my entire life, and tucked them into dirt-filled pots in my window while snow piled up outside. Was I expecting some beanstalk to sprout that I could climb to my escape?

I was unoriginal in my impulse. The radical shift in our circumstances awakened a collective gardening instinct. Seeds sold out, and on Instagram and Twitter you could watch the growth of stumps of lettuce and celery people had thrust into water glasses in Brooklyn apartment windows. With lives slowed down to plant pace, people marveled over small signs of change. I suspected most of us were not many generations removed from clawing our sustenance out of the land.

One of my writing students last year used puns I’d encouraged. In a marginal note on a scene where a guard told her protagonist to wait for an escort, I wrote, “Please change the car that arrives from a Ford Explorer to a Ford Escort.” She gave me a present after her thesis defense, a tomato-growing kit in a small pine box that read, “Grateful for you from my head To-Ma-Toes!”

When I received it, I thought, tomatoes from seed? Pshaw. But in March I dug it out of the garage. The seed packet bore a picture of a generic round red tomato, and it was labeled, simply, “Tomatoes.” What did that even mean? It was like taking a picture of a specific person and labeling it “man.” Every summer I grew bite-sized sugar-sweet Sungolds, plump scarlet-tinged yellow Big Rainbows, dusky Black From Tulas, enormous red Mortgage Lifters. Tomatoes are particular. These mystery seeds intrigued me, even though I knew with Colorado’s short growing season, hopes were dim for a seed planted in late March to bear fruit before first frost. But seeds are about hope—hope verging on stupidity. You never think about the battering hail, the devouring grasshoppers, or the baking drought, when you plant that first seed. So I planted the To-Ma-Toes.

As lockdown began, my garden tentatively emerged. After a winter of record-breaking snowfall in Boulder, the only flowers peeking through the frigid earth were the first crocuses. When they appeared I fell to my knees outside and raked the winter debris away with my fingernails. I’d always clung to flowers with a sort of desperation. I planted perennials to produce one long continuous bloom from February to October. By the time the bloom was finished, this pandemic would be over, I told myself.


In 1946, when my grandparents moved into the farmhouse where Eleanor died, there was no electricity or running water. They lit the house with kerosene lanterns and hauled water from the well. They had three children—one each in 1947, ‘48, and ‘49—before the Rural Electrification Association put in a line in 1950. That meant cloth diapers scraped clean over a washboard, then hung to freeze dry outside in winter. But my grandmother was game. Grandpa called her “Sport.” They soon installed running water, though indoor toilets and tubs wouldn't come until my mother, born in 1948, was about eight. Saturday night was bath night. The oldest girls went first, and the water became opaque with grime by the time the youngest boy used it.

My grandmother raised chickens whose eggs—sold at forty-five cents per dozen in 1950—financed the family’s groceries and clothing. More children came along. They farmed, and improvements entered their lives. A clothes dryer in 1951. “I can still remember the feel of warm dry diapers as I unloaded the dryer: Oh, Joy!” my grandmother wrote. A television set in 1952. Their first new car, a 1955 two-tone brown Plymouth. Having started with so little, each new convenience seemed a miracle, made possible by seeds plowed into the ground. My grandmother kept a garden and canned green beans, beets, and dill and sweet pickles.

They endured a period of drought and crop loss from 1955 to 1958, inherited half the farmland they’d been working when John's parents died, and purchased the rest from his brother. In 1961 the harvest was so abundant they bought a station wagon to carry all the kids. Grandma had her ninth and final child, her seventh son, in 1962.

But the farm was always hungry. They had to invest in new equipment and lease more land to cultivate. In 1965, my grandparents took evening shift factory jobs in town, my grandmother toiling as a coil winder at Dale Electronics and my grandfather as a sheet metal worker at Behlen Manufacturing. Their shifts ended at two a.m. They went home to sleep a few hours, woke to manage the farm, then drove the hour to Columbus for the six o’clock starts of their shift.

By this point, the children largely had to run the farm and watch themselves. Still, they did well. In 1984, an article in the Columbus Telegram, “Hottovy family completes 19 years of college,” hailed them as the first family of nine siblings to ever graduate from the University of Nebraska, their tuition covered by full-time summer jobs and part-time work all year. My uncle Les famously spent one college summer working in a meat packing plant near the farm. The grisly horrors of that job caused him to eat no meat, nor much of anything else for months, and the flesh slid off him.

In this era, my grandmother seemed formidable. You can find her hairdo on display at Catholic mass: all the Italian, Latina, Filipina, Czech, and Slovak women who had long, dark hair in their youth cut it short for practicality and dyed it blue-black for defiance, the whole creation forged with adamantine bonds of Aqua Net. On these helmets, familial power rested.

My grandmother wrote of farming during the seventies, “The farming economy was on the rise. Land values were making unheard of increases. The banks were eager to make agricultural loans. We increased our farm machinery with new and bigger, better equipment.” But with all those loans, which seemed like a smart bet at the time, the farm became an engine that you could never stop feeding.

On the wall of one bedroom, my grandmother hung a framed cardboard picture of a stitched sampler that read, “Who plants a seed beneath the sod and waits to see believes in God.” The picture must have come from an embroidery kit, but she didn’t have the time to actually sew it.


Colorado will punish whoever tries to plant warm season crops before Memorial Day with snow, hail, frigid temperatures. But as May ends, if you hope to yield a harvest, you’d better stick everything in the ground during that one crucial weekend.

The spring of 2020, we barely left our house for more than two months. My To-Ma-Toes sprouted in the window, the seedlings packed so tightly together I separated them gently with a fork and transplanted them to containers. Finally, as Memorial Day approached, I ventured out. I needed soil, compost, and flowers for my porch pots. Also, I wasn’t sure what to do about a pineapple plant my son had begged me to buy the prior year. It had produced one squat little fruit, and then over the winter two additional pineapple suckers sprouted from the original. Did it need more space? I couldn’t bear to see it die. I decided to take it to the store I’d bought it from to ask about it.

My favorite plant store was a seasonal pop-up operation that appeared every spring in the parking lot of a nearby supermarket. It was outdoors, with just a mesh tarp for a roof on one section of the fenced-off area. The owner was man from California named Cary, with a surfer dude accent, strong tan forearms, and the long, honey-blonde bangs and chilled-out vibe of an aging Beach Boy. It felt safer to visit Cary’s place than an indoor garden center. My daughter wanted to come too, to see how the world outside our house looked.

Everyone else in the neighborhood had the same idea. We wore our masks, trying to keep distant from the other shoppers, which was impossible in the narrow aisles. But the plants were so tempting—perhaps the only thing worth risking a dread disease for. We selected red Gerbera daisies, deep purple petunias that looked like a star-strewn sky, a fuchsia geranium, and bright yellow Bidens. We stopped grabbing flowers when we could carry no more. We waited in the long line, nervous, unaccustomed to other people, squishing together, hoping the tarp let enough air circulate, listening to other customers talk about makeshift drive-through graduation celebrations they’d thrown together for their kids.

Finally we reached Cary at the checkout counter. Cary praised the plants we’d selected. I showed him my pineapple, which I’d been lugging around the whole time.

“Do I need to transplant the little plants?” I asked.

“Wow,” he said, “You got it to pup.” He ran his hands over the slips and used a miniature saw to cut away the dead stalks. When you talked to a true plant person, they never looked at you. Their eyes and their hands were all over the plant between you, deadheading, feeling for moisture. I was the same way when people talked to me while I was with my plants. “You want to wait to transplant until the pups have a root structure.” He lifted them to check. “Not yet. But good job—you kept this alive for a year in Colorado!” He dropped his voice. “Most of these people couldn’t do that,” he indicated the other customers with a nod of his chin.

“I don't know what I did,” I said. I cared for plants by pure instinct. My houseplant collection kept growing because I couldn’t stop buying them and I almost never let them die. I kept no schedule with them—I just watered when it felt right. When one appeared to ail, I adjusted its position at the window, sensing a better spot for it, and perked it back up. “I just put it in the window and watered it sometimes.”

“You’ve got the groove,” Cary said, a hint of reverence in his voice. “Just go with it.”

As we carried our plants back to the car, Cary’s praise rang in my head. It was maybe the best compliment I’d ever received, some proof that my ancestors’ skill with plants had not vanished from my hands when the farm was lost. Did I carry the Czech immigrants’ “uncanny ability” to grow plants? Is that what the groove was?

When I returned from plant shopping, I always felt a vague shame that I’d bought too much. But I liked to examine my flaws as if they were to one day be noted in my obituary. She spent too much on plants, mine will read, too much time, too much money, too much care. I could live with that.


In 1980, when I was four, the farm belonging to my grandfather’s parents went up for auction, and my grandparents bid on it, winning it for $1100 an acre. “One bid was higher than ours,” Grandma wrote, “but was rescinded so that the land would be kept in the family.”

They moved to this land from the farmhouse that my mother suspected was haunted by Eleanor’s ghost. As a young girl, she was troubled by recurrent nightmares and visions of a witch flying down from the window of her room, back and forth to the haystack outside. When she traded rooms, the dreams stopped. When Mom was twenty, Grandma mentioned Eleanor had died in Mom’s original bedroom. Mom had no idea of that history—the adults switched to Czech whenever they spoke of it.

The new farm was unhaunted, except by barn cats, and it was my paradise. On the farm, there were so many of us, I became no one in particular. I enjoyed being part of a collective. It gave me space to sneak away to imagine and not be missed.

I’d never been to Disneyland or the ocean, but with the farm to spend summer vacation on, I didn’t feel like I was missing anything. I loved it absolutely. It didn’t matter that the air in eastern Nebraska in July cloaked me heavily like a hot damp blanket, so the first time I stepped out of the car in Nebraska after entering it in Colorado, the air felt like a foreign substance. How did you breathe this? It smelled of loam and cattle and caused me to sweat without moving. It had stage presence, this air. It demanded notice.

My father always praised the dirt of his native state, so black it looked like chocolate cake crumbling from your spade when you dug into it, compared to the unyielding clay of unamended Colorado soil.

At the farm I was totally free, turned loose with my cousins all day. There were dangers we could have encountered, but our parents trusted those acres, trusted the band of us together not to let anyone break a neck.

Not that we didn’t try. We ran, whooping through the fields, tall golden grasses, thigh-high, tickling my skin, fat grasshoppers flying up as my footfalls disturbed them, their bodies thwacking mine. The sky open and blue. The land vast. Places to run to. A pond to play in, a tree next to it we could climb and stretch out on a branch from which we could watch the water dimple and shiver as dragonflies alighted or fish lurched up to snatch a bug. We could do this all day—no one would stop us.

When we remembered to be hungry and ran back to the farmhouse, the food would be so good. Salty, crunchy fried chicken dredged in buttermilk and cornflake crumbs by my grandmother, meat probably provided by a bird she knew personally. Watermelon, abundant, luscious. Tomatoes, eaten whole, still warm from the garden, the juices bursting out all over our arms, dripping down our chins. We didn’t care. We were kids, caking ourselves with dirt, extracting all the essence of a summer's day.

We ran around like explorers, with visions of discovery in our heads. We found a series of round hay bales, tall, but not so high that we couldn't scramble up them, spaced just so we could leap between them, from bale to bale, if we jumped hard enough. Home after dark, my cousins and I drew maps of the territory we'd surveyed that day and made plans for the next adventure.

Even while I relished my freedom, at the edge of my awareness I knew this farm meant something quite the opposite to my mother and my grandparents. It meant no vacations. The well water without fluoride meant wretched teeth for all the kids; my mom couldn’t afford braces and caps until she was almost thirty. My mom didn’t like to camp after years spent trudging to the outhouse. She didn’t like to perspire, because on the farm, she was always working herself into a sweat. As the eldest daughter it was her job, from a young age, to watch baby brothers and cook for everyone. For many years, she baked a cake from scratch every single day, and it would disappear as fast as she created it, divided by eleven, sometimes with a gouge in it from an impatient brother’s handful.

Had I lived on this farm, there would have been no ease. My mom mentioned how silly they found it when their town cousins visited and considered everything a marvel, wanting to saddle up their grandparents’ old plow horses for a ride while my mother and her sister were deep in the difficult work of cleaning the cream separator or trimming bushels of green beans for canning.

Even while I was a kid, running loose on the farm, my grandmother was still working her factory late shift, a job she held for twenty-five years. Often as we grandkids played the morning away, Grandma was still asleep in her room, resting after midnight work.


Gardening always felt like play to me. I never planned my garden, drawing those dainty pictures on graph paper I’d seen real gardeners make, charting precisely what would grow, without crowding, in each inch of their plot, taking stock of sun and shade. These people completed certification courses and became master gardeners, a title that seemed like hubris. How could anyone consider themselves a master of living things? Nature was boss, not pitiful us. I was superstitious; careful planning felt too close to farming, a provisional profession.

So my garden was wild. I wrote long, meandering novels, and my garden mirrored my inner too-muchness. I always aimed for more: abundant bloom, so many zucchinis I couldn’t eat them all. Every summer, my sunflowers soared ten feet high, attracting bright yellow goldfinches to peck the seeds—and inadvertently plant next year’s crop. I encouraged and trusted volunteer plants. If this little seed decided this was the place, who was I to doubt?

Over the years, I transmitted my garden superstitions to my daughter. Late in May 2020, when we noticed a bud on one of our favorite irises, a showgirl-like stunner called Hi Calypso with golden standards, magenta falls, and an orange beard, we only spoke of it sideways. “Something might be happening over here,” I said, “but we’re not going to talk about it.”

In July, we practiced the same ritual with the first green tomatoes, afraid to praise or exclaim over them and invite any number of calamities. We certainly didn’t count unbloomed buds or unripe tomatoes. Anything might happen. Seven years ago a thousand-year rain drenched our raised bed with floodwaters, so misaligning the nutrients in its soil that no matter how we amended it, no tomato would prosper there.

That summer, as the To-Ma-Toes I’d transferred to various containers and spots in the yard began to take off, producing clusters of green fruits larger than cherries but smaller than plums—ah, so it was some kind of Campari?—I pretended not to see them.

As we stayed home, caring for the plants was my daily salvific ritual. I watered. I sprinkled eggshells and coffee grounds to discourage slugs. I pruned dead stalks. I flicked ravenous Japanese beetles into soapy water. Deaths from COVID-19 continued to mount, making it clear: nature would have its way. We were not in charge.


Every Christmas growing up, my grandmother sent each grandchild a crisp five-dollar bill in a red or green First National Bank of Columbus envelope with a picture of poinsettias or holly and ivy embossed on it in gold. Each year my parents calculated the cost of her sending five dollars to each of the twenty-three grandkids, and they’d mail her a Christmas check for a similar amount. My parents talked late at night about the farm losing money, the debts increasing, how they might not be able to keep it. All it did was siphon money away and force them to work those factory jobs to sustain it. Then Grandpa took out a loan for a center pivot irrigation system that was worth more than his land. This was his ruination.

The Christmas when I was ten, I wrote a thank you note for my grandparents’ five dollars and added the sentence, “I hope you will be able to keep the farm.”

My mom read my note before she mailed it. I’d already gone to bed and she visited me without turning on the light. Gently she told me she’d erased that line in my letter. “Tomorrow we’ll think of something else to write,” she said, “because they’re not going to be able to keep the farm, and we don’t want to make them feel bad.”

I felt like something made of porcelain inside me shattered. I questioned my mom. “Can’t Willie Nelson help?”

“It’s too late.”

“Not even one more summer spent on the farm?”

Not even one.

Gone were the salad days of 1970s farming. Record crop yields, coupled with a grain embargo against the Soviet Union, led to plummeting prices. The need for increased mechanization, pesticides, herbicides, and hybridized seed in order to turn a profit led to massive debt. Family farmers across the nation faced foreclosure. Willie Nelson launched his Farm Aid concerts in 1985, aiming to stave off that outcome. But it was too late for my family. The land my ancestors had homesteaded would be auctioned off, and my grandparents would move to town.

That winter, I became acquainted with the keen pain of loss, as my paternal grandparents were dying at the same time my maternal grandparents’ farm was going under. The loss of the farm felt like being banished from a magical, beloved place at a time when I wasn’t sure any other enchanted places existed. I was ten. I’d never seen the ocean. I’d never ridden on an airplane. I’d never left the country. I had no idea what else there was. All I knew was that this farm, this marvel, this jewel, my favorite place, my freedom place, was crumbling through my fingers like good Nebraska dirt.

By now my aunts and uncles had successful careers, not one of them becoming a farmer, though a couple worked farming-adjacent jobs, one for a tractor company, another as a horticulturist. The others worked in finance, accounting, engineering, sales. Grandpa’s three wishes had been enough, at least, to launch his children into prosperity. They had their own homes, their own gardens.

By the end, my grandparents had amassed massive debt. My uncle Les, his summer at the slaughterhouse long behind him, was now a forensic accountant in Nashville. He helped them file for bankruptcy and devised a share system for the children. Those that could afford to bought one or more shares, according to their means, in the fund that would help sustain Agnes and John, coupled with their factory work and Social Security. Those that didn’t have extra money spent more time visiting their parents. A Florida farm management company bought the farm, and the children purchased Agnes and John a house in Columbus. “My children,” Grandma always said, “were my most successful crop.”

Almost immediately after my grandfather lost his farm, he started to lose his mind. It was probably genetic, but it seemed like he believed he’d suffered a failure so immense he could not integrate it with his view of himself, and his mind fell apart. Grandpa had returned from war, he’d bought his farm, and now it was gone. His brain fog and Parkinson’s worsened, and in 1994, he collapsed from a stroke as he was opening a door, bending the key in the latch. In the nursing home, at times he returned to the farm, his hands baling hay or mending fence while he called out for help from the sons he could remember.

Meanwhile, my grandmother flourished with all those years of burden lifted. No late-night factory shift. No children to care for. No farm to keep afloat. No husband succumbing to dementia to prod into some kind of order. Having lost the farm, she gained a glorious garden. She grew peonies and tomatoes, cucumbers and irises. She showed her iris at local shows and won medals for their impressive blooms. She visited Italy with a church group and traveled all over the United States, attending grandchildren's graduations and baseball games.

As a kid it had struck me sometimes that Grandma Aggie was too crabby with Grandpa, always bossing him around. I didn’t know she was trying to manage his worsening dementia. It turned out she was actually a lot of fun. At a family reunion when my cousin Erron and I were about twenty, we convinced an uncle to buy us a six pack of hard lemonade, to make the polka music and kolaches of a Czech Nebraska get-together more amusing. Grandma saw us drinking and said, “What is that? Hooch? I’ll have one of those.” And so we drank together, with our newly relaxed grandmother, clinking our bottles against hers.

Grandpa died in the winter of 1996. My brother and I were in college at Notre Dame, with thousands of miles of blizzard-wracked prairie between us and the funeral, and Grandma forbid us to come. We were the first two kids in the second generation of the family to attend college, and she didn’t want to lose us in some ditch off an Iowa highway.

She kept traveling and gardening and quilting until 2010 when all that endless work—at the factory, in the fields, with her children, in the garden—caught up to her, and she froze up stiff with arthritis. She’d been stuck, immobile, for a day when her youngest son found her.

She moved to the nursing home, and before Grandma’s house sold, each of us dug some irises from the yard to take home. On Facebook each spring, her descendants share photos of the same irises that now live in Nashville, Charlotte, Chicago, Kansas City, Omaha, Denver, Baltimore, Seattle. We became a family dispersed, connected by a lineage of flowers. She died in October 2016. On a gorgeous, blue-sky autumn day, we buried our matriarch. We surrounded her with flowers.

The next spring I waited anxiously for the irises to bloom. I needed them to, especially Grandma’s favorite one, the tall purple-and-white variegated Stepping Out. But a late freeze shocked my entire crop. Nary a bloom appeared in May for the first time I could remember. My garden was telling me, again, don’t you burden me with your needs, your sought-for metaphors. Don’t you try to make me into a farm.


You could examine this story and say they were unlucky. The poverty, the lack of basic amenities, the meat plant work to finance college, and the farm bankruptcy don’t look like privilege. You could say they started from nothing and earned everything themselves. But citizenship isn’t nothing. The land they held for forty years because they came here at the right time, in the right skin, isn’t nothing, even if they lost it, even if no one inherited a dime. The affordable state college education the children obtained through that land and that citizenship isn’t nothing. So what, if during some summers, they ate so many cherries my mom grew permanently sick of them? Each of them, as soon as they could, planted a garden. Most of us grandchildren had our own gardens now. And a garden is always a privilege.

As the pandemic ground on and the experts decided it was indoor air, not contaminated surfaces to worry about, a premium was placed on time spent outside. People who studied access to greenspace pointed out that many of the areas hardest hit by COVID-19 in its initial wave were often those that lacked the refuge of gardens and parks.

When I was little, my grandfather was always out on the farm and too tired at the end of the day to play with children. Once they lost the farm, I just remember him sitting in front of the TV, chuckling at sitcoms until my grandmother ordered him to get ready for church or wash his hands for supper. I don’t remember having a single conversation with him. According to my aunt Carol’s foreword in the family cookbook, my grandfather drove her out to the fields once to check the crops and said, “No matter how many years you plant it, when it comes up and looks good, you never get tired of looking at it.” My grandfather was a man I never really knew. But when I read this quote of his, I felt I knew him.

Every spring I marvel, as the tiny peas I planted shoot up and blossom, as the irises unfurl, as the ice plants bloom and shine in the sun. I go around saying wow in my heart. I want to talk to someone about the latest developments in my garden, but I know such talk is boring and repetitive. I just want to say to someone, like Grandpa did every year, that the plants look good, that I’m thankful for them, that I could happily spend my whole life in appreciation of their goodness.

You had to have an optimism that veered on self-delusion to farm. I tried to locate within myself my grandmother’s optimism as we faced down days that looked very much like the death rattle of our nation. In August 2020 we learned the kids wouldn’t have in-person school that fall. Instead of rushing out the door each morning for her first year of high school, my daughter would remain cloistered in her room, like a fairytale princess with a bum assignment, waiting on some tardy prince.

I kept looking for optimism and the place I found it was in my garden. Broad-tailed hummingbirds with green backs and scarlet throats whirred between zinnias and a nectar feeder, their wingtips trilling as they darted and zoomed and chased each other, my Colorado yard a waystation on their return from the mountains to Mexico. Honeybees flitted between pumpkin blossoms and fuzzy purple stalks of Russian sage, their legs so padded with yellow pollen they looked like hockey goalies. Now and then a monarch floated across the yard, moving at a stately pace like a visiting dignitary. My garden bustled with life, noisy with buzzing, chirping, and frogsong from a nearby marsh. I never tired of this. My To-Ma-Toes finally ripened.

My husband and daughter mused about moving to some more temperate climate, where flowers bloomed all year. My husband, a gardener too, longed for zone 10. That's cheating, I thought. Winter’s killing cold lends the whole enterprise gravity. Something to grapple with. If you can make it through, it’s a sign of robust life.

But that year I didn’t know. Everyone expected the lockdown winter would be grim. When I looked out at the fertile tangle of my garden in August, I couldn’t help begging, in my heart: Eden, don’t leave me. You are so beautiful and full of company, and the winter ahead will be lonesome and full of loss. I was ready to strike a bargain with the Woodhouse’s toads that leaped from their hiding spots underneath the gladiolas, to ask them to enchant this place into eternal summer.

I’d wondered, as I raised my children, what would be their first big soul blow, what calamity would knock them off their feet and make them look around and ask, “Where am I?” Because no matter how I loved and protected them, there was no stopping it. It would come like a prairie tornado, one day out of nowhere, the clouds losing their innocence over the vast flatlands, darkening and gathering into a knot.

For me, it was losing my grandparents’ farm, that endless garden playspace. And I think we’ve met what it will be for my children. I could do nothing to help them endure the forced isolation, the loss of their friends, the loss of their identities. All I could do was beckon them out into the garden, and say, let’s plant a seed, or look, I’ve found a baby rabbit, or, over there, the Rose of Sharon is stretching its lavender petals toward the sun. This is good. And this is all there is. The sun on your back, the dirt crumbling through your fingers, and whatever it is that you can make grow, starting from here. I couldn’t make them any promises. I didn’t have any words of comfort. I couldn’t grant wishes. But I could direct their attention to the garden, toward what was unfolding there.

Jenny Shank


Jenny Shank's story collection Mixed Company won the George Garrett Fiction prize and the Colorado Book Award in General Fiction, and her novel The Ringer won the High Plains Book Award and was a finalist for the Reading the West Award. Her stories, essays, satire, and book reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, Prairie Schooner, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Toast, Barrelhouse, The McSweeney's Book of Politics and Musicals, Dear McSweeney's, and Love in the Time of Time's Up. Her work has been honorably mentioned by The Best American Essays, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and her mother. She is a longtime book critic, member of the National Book Critics Circle, and participant on the NBCC John Leonard Prize committee for first best first book. She teaches in the Mile High MFA program at Regis University and the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver. She writes a monthly newsletter, The Tumbleweed, about art, writing, books, humor, and beauty at

paper texture

Victoria, Canada, 2016

If you look up past the thick concrete, there is a square of cloud and sky. The muffled bustle of traffic taunts beyond the walls. 

Funny they call it a courtyard. Nothing is green or growing; it’s more like a human kennel with a skylight. Sally, a young blonde with eyes magnified by thick glasses, strides back and forth, suddenly motivated to exercise in a space two metres wide. Like a caged tiger with its powerful gait reduced to pacing, it’s more depressing to see her move than sit still. Limited to walking in circles, anyone would look mentally unwell. But this place is very much about role-play. We are the crazies here to be fixed by the capable staff.

I look up at the perfect sky until it’s too much. This is not a place of healing. This is a holding tank for flight risks like me: a punishment.

Sally continues to pace, determined to take control of her life. But in only a few minutes she’s slouched over and silent; stares into a dimension unreachable to the rest of us. This is what tall concrete walls do. We are all, in many ways, a reflection of our environment.

Nepal, 2019

Vermilion rhododendrons frame the glistening Himalayas whose vast proportions command reverence. Tendrils of mist quiet the moss-covered trails and we gladly surrender to the mountain’s spell. Hours upon hours we walk with nothing to do but push our bodies forward, scaling the sides of valleys until moss gives way to ice and snow and we gulp shallow air that leaves our lungs craving more.

What kind of magic (magical thinking?) led to me being here, walking amongst friends who joke: “We get on because we’re all a bit unhinged,” “That’s why I love her, there’s never a dull moment,” “Normal is for chumps.”

Travel was unimaginable: future clouded with mandatory psych appointments, side effects and prophecies of chronicity. But I am here, the rhythm of our feet beating against the earth underneath stanzas of laughter: “Three hundred rupees into the pot every time you trip and fall, two hundred if you let one rip!” “Five hundred if you get leeched!!”

By day seven we’re hacking over steaming bowls of water as our guide, Kalsang, covers our stuffed-up noggins with blankets. Giggling at our lumpish forms, he announces we’ll stop at a mountain village to rest and recover.

But I’m not recovering: one step, two step, maybe the ache in my bones is from the altitude? Maybe if I kept going to bed early every night, instead of making out with the hotel manager on the rooftop in between rows of linens blowing in the night, and god he was beautiful, and vapid, and too persistent, and wasn’t I always getting into bad situations and getting out of them not entirely unscathed, and wasn’t that also the start of the madness? Maybe I haven’t learned to love myself enough yet—boundaries thin like a weakened immune system.


When we reach Pokhara at the end of our two-week trek, a friend drags me to the nice tourist hospital. She fills out the paperwork for me: despite the muggy air and my layers of jackets, my hands shake too badly to hold a pen. The doctor, who has seen a lot of stupid and stubborn tourists, says I have the clearest case of pneumonia he’s seen in his career. It’s moved through my crackling lungs into my bloodstream, causing inflammation in my vital organs. When the vomiting started five days ago—curled up by the toilet, in ditches beside tea plantations, spit and laugh it off because no one likes a whinger—my body was experiencing sepsis, organs on the brink of shutting down. I should’ve been helivaced out of the mountains days ago, but my body remembers the last time I was in a hospital bed, and I kept walking forwards because I couldn’t, couldn’t go back.

Victoria, Canada, 2016

A new psychiatrist with coiffed hair breezes into the sterile room and glances up from my file, noting my glazed eyes and disorientation from the three orange tranquilizers they gave me the night before. She assesses me for a few minutes, shuts my file, and declares, “I’m sorry, Robyn, but you’re exhibiting early signs of mania and are likely having your first schizophrenic break. I can’t let you leave.”

I clear the crust from my eyes and wonder if I’ve heard correctly.

What brought me to this cold place doesn’t feel like mania but an insuppressible unravelling. For months I’ve been convulsing for hours in the night, waking up (if I slept) to the sound of the bolt on my door sliding open, pools of sweat between my breasts. My body flees over and over as if the first time wasn’t enough. (If in sleep our dreams are as real as waking reality, does that mean I’ve been attacked a hundred times now? A thousand?) Dozens of prescribed pills have only brought a rising background cacophony, unformed voices threatening to take control of the helm. Can’t focus, can’t read, can’t speak, short-circuiting. Fearing the fall towards oblivion, I've come here hoping for a test, an MRI, a tangible explanation and a straightforward cure.

“The psychiatrist from last night said I could go home this morning,” I tell her. He had smiled that big doctor smile and said young ladies like me bring ourselves to psych emerge all the time. We just need to get grounded again, have a good night’s sleep. Swallow some tranquillizers.

Before I can assemble my thoughts, the psychiatrist exits, is replaced by a nurse. “Robyn, I need you to remove your purse and jacket.”

“Excuse me?” I rise from my chair, trying to quell the adrenaline trembling through the sedatives. “I have a job interview to go to. The doctor said I could leave this morning and at this rate I’ll be late.”

She takes one step closer, her face drained of sympathy. “The easier you make this for us, the easier it will be for you.”

“What? No, I need to speak to that doctor. There’s been a misunderstanding.” Sure, things have been wobbly, messy, dark. I haven’t been coping—or rather I’m an expert coper, all I’ve been doing is coping, when can I stop?

But schizophrenia?

The nurse sighs. “I know it’s scary, but you have to stay with us for a while.”

“No. I don’t. I brought myself here and I’m leaving now.” Oh god, I sound like the other crazies. She grabs my purse, and we play tug of war. Her expression is muted, like she’s done this circus act ad nauseum. 

“You can’t leave. There’s nothing to be done about that now. Let go of your bag and jacket,” she says breathlessly between tugs, vexed I haven’t submitted. “If you don’t cooperate, I’ll have to call security and you really don’t want that.”

“What do you mean? Please. I don’t understand.”

“You can’t leave,” she says, and wins, wrenching my purse—my car keys, wallet, cellphone and inhaler, a pair of earrings, pens and scraps of paper—into her hands.

Tafraoute, Morocco, 2014

When they forced me into the backseat of the car with tinted windows and jostled us through the Anti-Atlas Mountains, I maintained calm. Focus. Poise. But in the police chief’s office, I realized my choices were an illusion. Walls pressed up against my chest, squeezed through my composure as his approach shifted from yelling to flirtation: “You have such beautiful eyes.”

“I’m leaving,” I whispered.

“You can’t leave,” said the boy who convinced me to report the crime. He had approached me with flowing blue and gold robes, his face kind and naive: “You don’t want it to happen to another girl, do you?”

“Tu ne peux pas partir,” said the police chief, grinning. “Come closer, come to me, and show me again how he tried to grab you.”

“I’m leaving,” I repeated, and opened the office door, surprised to find it unlocked. I walked past a dozen male officers and the man excused of attempted rape because he offered me lunch. They had brought him into the station, without handcuffs, and sat him in front of me. As I attempted to report what he had done, I faced a dozen leering men.

“Maybe you should fight him again,” one of them said, enjoying this.

“Maybe you should tell him to respect women,” I retorted.

I expected someone to grab me and drag me back into the station, but I kept walking, head held high.

If I must, I’ll fight like I’ve fought before: “Qui est ta mère,” I yelled at him again and again amidst the parched valley. The unexpected words came from some intuitive, primordial place. Alone under the white sun, I could tell my primal roar, surging with a force unknown until now—Qui est ta mère, who is your mother—loosened his grip, just enough.

Victoria, Canada, 2016

I rip my belongings back into my hands as the nurse staggers backwards, surprised by my strength.

I’m able to open the door and stride through reception. There’s yelling behind me; I don’t look back. Ahead, two security guards glance up, but my professional attire protects me from being deemed the cause of the commotion. I push open the doors and enter a maze of hallways just in time, slowing my gait to avoid suspicion. Was something on the loudspeaker? Code blue? Red? Orange? Down one hallway then the next, I clip past nurses wheeling patients, just a normal woman in a normal hurry to catch up with her busy schedule.

I don’t know how the system works: if I flee will they send cops to my house? Do I become a fugitive? Maybe I should turn myself in. What the hell is happening? I’ve committed no crime.

Daylight hits me. I stride towards my car. Almost there. Don’t. Run.

In my peripherals, two security guards analyze me from their van, but I’m not the AWOL girl in pajamas they envision, so they keep driving.

Footsteps approach from behind.

“What’s going on, Robyn?” says a stocky guard, maneuvering himself alongside me. “We’re told you ran from the hospital. That doesn’t seem like a very good idea, does it?” Another guard flanks my other side.

“I’m just going home,” I say, remaining steady like I did in the police station.

“Well unfortunately, we can’t let you do that. You can’t leave.”

I take a breath and keep walking.

“If you come with us now, we won’t have to hurt you.”


A male psych nurse with a horse-like face and bony arms shoves pajamas into my hands. Stage one of prepping for the role of mental patient: bid farewell to civilian clothes.

Inside the bathroom I stall for time, terrified and unwilling to surrender my dignity. No one has told me my rights.

Do I have any?

Finally, I emerge in the baggy, dried-mustard–hued pajamas and surrender my emerald armour, my wardrobe of the sane, ensuring my bra is buried between my pants and blouse.

He rifles through the pile and smirks. “I need your underwear too.”

“Excuse me?”

“That’s right,” he says. “You’re not above the rules. This is what happens when you misbehave.”

I shut the bathroom door as a sob escapes my lips. I remove my underwear and fold them up, hands and legs shaking, trying to maintain dignity before facing him. Having nailed the crazy girl audition, I was now stuck playing the part.

Kathmandu, Nepal, 2019

“Mental illness is a first world problem,” our city guide replies as we weave through rust-coloured Newari pagodas to visit Kumari, the Living Goddess, when my lungs are clear and my questions endless.

Of course, mental illness exists here too, and I’ve heard of families who lock their mad relatives away from the world, hiding them from public sight. But it’s also true there are different words for suffering here, and different cures.

After the hospital, our guide Kalsang generously insists I convalesce in Kathmandu with his family. Every morning at six a.m., his wife Dhriti invites me upstairs to join the ladies of the neighbourhood in following the merciless commands of their toned Pilates instructor. The women are wrapped in vibrant saris except the young instructor who sports lipstick and sweatpants and demands endless reps: be strong, don’t be weak! We shriek with laughter as we hop squat across the room like rabbits. The women giggle at my meager sit-ups, calling me “Luri,” skinny girl.

With her nephew washing and chopping, Dhriti cooks me three hefty meals a day to plump up the gaunt skin on my bones. Shooing me away from the kitchen, they prepare dahl baht with chicken curry, fiddleheads with masala paste, aloor dum with toasted coriander and hemp seeds, pickled soybeans and achar, pampadams, and steaming mugs of chai with sukumel, luwang, and a touch of black pepper. One evening we eat smoked tiger from Dhriti’s village: not normally permitted, but the animal crept out of the jungle to hunt cattle. The sinewy meat has been softened in a sweet and spicy curry.

Dhriti’s family sometimes rely on jhākris, shamans, when one of them falls ill. Doctors can be expensive and untethered from the local culture and worldview, so modern medical treatment is sought only under certain circumstances. To find the cause of illness, jhākris enter an altered state of consciousness, using trance and ritual to journey into unseen realms and communicate with spirits and deities. There they can find solutions and call back the missing pieces of a person’s soul to restore them to wholeness.

Due to globalization and the infiltration of biomedicine, missionaries, and non-profits, these cures are increasingly seen as backwards and superstitious, an obstacle to “mental health care for all.”

“No, we don’t have mental illness here,” echoes Kalsang to my raised brow, and perhaps they are right to preserve their own illness narratives rather than consume colonial conjurations of questionable chemical imbalances. At home, our cultural healers with prescription pads consult the DSM oracle and haunt us with projections of chronicity: is she complex PTSD or a disordered personality, mania or a psychotic fantasy?

But doctor, isn’t our deepest suffering a kind of fragmentation of the soul?

Victoria, Canada, 2018

There are parts of me still missing and I want them back. Maybe there’s truth to the cruelty people surely whisper: she’s “not all there.” But if I’m not all here, where else am I? How do I bring all of me home?

“What if it happens again?” I ask Yael, weeks of frantic insomnia thinning my voice. She sits across from me with that cheeky gaze, her rattles and smudge sticks grounded in no-bullshit bluntness. On weekends we journey to unseen realms, listening to a myriad of voices that could get us locked up in one reality and praised for strong intuition, healing and visionary potential in another.

In Peru, I learned about the Q’eros, Indigenous Peruvians who managed to preserve their culture and spiritual practices after Spanish colonization. They communicate directly with the apus (mountain spirits) and believe we’re at a time of great cultural transformation and heightened consciousness, depending on our collective choices. I find it comforting that in some consensus realities, hearing voices is a gift rather than a cerebral malfunction.

“What do you mean?” she asks.

“The psychosis. The hospitalizations.” Being helpless, at the mercy of those in power.

“But why would it happen again?” she answers with impish impatience. “You already know it needed to happen. You were shoving down your authentic self for too long, ignoring the wisdom of your body. These two ways of being couldn’t coexist in conflict forever. Eventually you had to break. You broke wide open. And now?”

Healing never happens in sterile white panopticons: “care” without consent. It happened after release, half-naked on a bustling downtown street as men and women, strangers, wrote words of healing on my body: “You’re a goddess,” “It’s not your fault,” (a panacea to “you shouldn’t have gone traveling alone,” and all the rest), in blue, green, purple and yellow paint. It happened as I trained in self-defence—upper cut, right hook, rear-naked choke—and felt safe in my body again. It happened as I cried and raged into rivers, took flight and traveled to distant lands again, realized I wasn’t the sick one. As my soul pieces returned to me, I stopped convulsing at night, settled into sleep, into dreams that lost their terror and grew in vibrance.

During the unraveling, I obsessed about escaping into the wild to be healed by the dirt and muck and mulch of the earth, where I would absorb the powers of the universe. A doctor at the hospital said this was a common delusion. “Tsk, tsk, tsk,” he scolded. “Nice young women shouldn’t be thinking those things.”

Why do so many mad people seek answers in the forest, away from the metallic hum of cities?

Once a plodding stability was achieved, I wanted, needed to see what would happen if I did it, completed the quest. I was terrified to camp in the woods, something I had done since childhood, because this might be delusion speaking; I might come undone. My boyfriend kissed me on the forehead and said, “No, I don’t think you’re going crazy again. But if you are, we’ll get through it.”

I took a week off work and went alone.

Naked I swam in waterfalls, I built fires and listened to the voices many of us hear (did I remember to turn the stove off?) and a few extra (a wrinkled crone chuckling at my fears and telling me, lovingly: you’re not so special, not the only one to lose your mind and find something more important).

On the rocky beach, I met a woman named Sarah gathering driftwood. As a storm approached, she led me into the sheltered woods, unfolded her single burner stove, and cooked us coconut soup that tasted like sunshine. “You might think this is weird,” she said, “but sometimes I hear messages from the earth.”

“Oh yeah?” I said nonchalantly. “Do you hear a message now?”

“Yes,” she smiled, “this one’s for you.”

And with her answer (and a second helping of golden soup), another piece of me, perhaps still locked in the hospital, soared through unseen realms and returned home. 

Victoria, Canada, 2016

The head psychiatrist sees me every morning. He’s a short, balding man whose mouth curls down in constant distaste. I bite the inside of my cheeks to keep from asking my usual: “When can I go home?” Even though my brain is sludgy from the cocktail of meds, it knows pleading for release will only extend my stay. In British Columbia, people committed under the Mental Health Act are deemed incapable of consent. While under the “protection” of the state, staff can force any treatment, medication and injection into us, no matter the brutal side effects. Not even our family members have a say in what happens. Electro-convulsive therapy can be ordered, if not with informed consent, then by a “substituted decision maker.” For those of us who reject our meds after the hospital, we can be forced to get monthly antipsychotic injections into our ass, indefinitely. We can be involuntarily committed for months at a time based on the psychiatrists’ whims. No fair trial if you’ve committed the crime of instability.

“I’m glad you’re starting to understand the consequences of your actions,” he tells me, peering up from his notes. “You seem to be taking responsibility for what happened.”

I nod eagerly, masking my confusion. Am I taking responsibility for what he keeps insisting is a biological illness? Or was it running away from this place I’m supposed to be sorry for? Either way, I must appear submissive if I’m going to get out.

There are consequences for causing disruption. We’re written up as “non-compliant” if we ask questions about our treatment or the disturbing med effects, so we sit quietly in our own orbits as gravity sinks its grip.

Karen and Sally are pretty blondes with big, bloated bodies: a common side effect of antipsychotics that alter metabolisms and can cause diabetes. Karen stares at the quadrants of food on her tray: chocolate pudding, some beige vitamin drink, milk, and the microwaved dish of the day. “What should I eat first?” Karen asks, her voice monotone and hushed. “What do I do now?” she asks no one in particular. When nobody responds she repeats, “What do I do now?” There isn’t much to do inside besides consider our failed life choices, so I don’t know what to tell her.

Desperate for stimulation, I ask staff, “Can I do something? Help with…the cleaning?” They instruct me to focus on my recovery, which consists of staring at white walls. There is no therapy here, or music, or laughter.

One of the well-meaning nurses lectures me about the importance of staying off hard drugs. “Crystal meth destroys brain cells,” she says with pity in her eyes.

“I’ve never done meth,” I say for the third time.

She smiles knowingly. “And sleep is so important. Meth keeps people awake and makes them think they don’t need to sleep.”

I don’t bother mentioning I tried everything—acupuncture, therapy, yoga, meditation, prescribed medication, chakra cleanses, vitamins, sex, wine, melatonin, binaural beats, and counting sheep—and still, still I can’t sleep I can’t sleep I can’t sleep.

“Just keep taking your oxazepam,” she continues. “Even if you take it for a year, it’s better than using meth.”

Benzodiazepines exacerbate insomnia and suicidal thoughts, not to mention being dangerously addictive. But when you’re in the loony bin, everything you say is considered crazy. It’s better to smile and suppress a scream: Okay. I’ll stop taking the meth I never took.

Sally cries out that she’s being molested, and a nurse rushes over to make her swallow meds. I wonder how they know she’s just hallucinating. What if it’s a memory that needs to emerge and be witnessed?

Karen addresses the room again, “What do I do now?”

“Karen,” I croak, like rousing a rusted machine. “Karen. Tell me about your favourite memory.”

Karen’s sluggish gaze finds mine. She looks so innocent, a child in a grown woman’s body. “My favourite memory?”

“Yeah.” My brain feels squeezed by metallic bands, but I fight to hold focus.

“Oh.” She’s quiet for a moment, and then her entire face lights up. “Being a mom.” She’s so radiant I can’t help but smile. “Being a mom and looking after my kids.”

Sally and Zach look over. The nurse leaves and I turn to Sally, who is dozy and silent from the tranqs.

“And you? What about your favourite memory? Or a time when you felt most in control?”

“Going camping with my family in the summertime. When I was young. I saw a big bald eagle.” Her face lights up too, just for a moment.

We turn to Zach who is thrilled we’re exhibiting signs of life: he buzzes a mile a minute and doesn’t fit into such a contained space; forcing him here is like wrestling shrouds over a burning sun. “Driving the Kia Optima,” he says, “the most fun car I’ve ever driven. Yeah. I enjoyed the Kia the most. Felt in control, because…I was controlling exactly where I was going. It was so nice because I usually take the bus. The Kia smelt like fresh leather. You know, that fresh, new smell.”

I write it all down with an orange Crayola. That’s all the positivity I can muster before slinking back into morbid thoughts. But when I’m allowed pens, I draw portraits of my fellow patients. On Sally’s I write, “You have a strong and powerful voice.” When I give her the drawing, she gasps and wraps me into a big hug.


Every day, we had to fill out suicide checklists declaring how likely we were to off ourselves. Not one staff member, though, ever asked what happened to us to make us court death as a solution to our pain.

Even if they did ask us how we were doing—I mean really ask, not just shove checklists into our hands—it wasn’t safe to tell them the truth.

I couldn’t tell them, for example, that I saw my spirit leave my body. I tried to call it back to me, but why should it have listened? My body had become inhospitable terrain. It had been threatened and assaulted, swallowed my rage and self-hate—misdirected arrows—and when its owner went looking for help, it was imprisoned and sedated into submission. So when I looked into the mirror a husk stared back, and when I pleaded with sleep to come for me, wrapped in my boyfriend’s arms, pretending to be dreaming, I saw a golden ball of light darting through the stratosphere: you can’t catch me! I’m not going back there, no way, José. I’m flying far, far away from you.

Pokhara, Nepal, 2019

I lie awake for hours. My shirt and sports bra are drenched in stale sweat, but at least these clothes are my own. Light from the hallway seeps underneath the door. A familiar tightness clenches over my heart, joins the groaning ache in my lungs: This place is not safe, I’m a fugitive on the brink of being discovered. Somehow, they will unearth my medical records. They will send me to a bad place with locked doors and no gardens.

I remind myself that the staff here, now, have been kind, and security’s job is to keep others out, not me locked up inside, and despite the fear and the insomnia I’m not about to lose my mind, and finally I let my guard down enough for sleep to pull me under.


In the dream I fall. Flickers of candlelight illuminate faces known and unknown.

I wake, my breath a shallow whisper. My lips are numb and tingling from lack of oxygen. Fear shoots through my body, but before I can call for help, darkness.

I jolt awake again as I roll to the floor. Disoriented, I scramble to my knees, untangle myself from the IV and return to bed, but there’s already somebody underneath the sheets. My own body lies unconscious beneath me.

I’m pulled through the doorway, down the hall, up out of the hospital, then higher still, through grey clouds with deep purple underbellies. I’m dying but this feels familiar, serene. When I look down towards my body, cords of golden light, like glowing tentacles of a jellyfish, sway between me and the ground, incomplete possibilities.

Death is right beside me, a gentle current…

I claw my way back down to my body. I awake breathless and scramble to inhale lungfuls of salbutamol, forcing breath down into my diaphragm. I’m terrified to fall back asleep, because what the actual fuck just happened, but I’m here now. I’m not going anywhere.


The next morning, the doctor tells me my white blood cell count has decreased from 23000 to 17000, a good sign. A healthy person’s count is around 7000, so I have to stay a few more days. “How many more days, do you think?” I ask tentatively, preparing for his suspicion.

“Probably just two or three more.” He smiles. “You’re strong and I believe you will recover.”

The warmth and assurance of his words ease my rigid shoulders. Where had those words been before? Instead of “recover” it was “manage,” like I had to become my own supervisor, ceaselessly on the lookout for self-deception and non-compliant behaviour.

“The nurse told me you had difficulties sleeping last night,” he says with concern.

My stomach flips. “Oh it’s fine, I just have a hard time sleeping in new places— ”

“Do you want us to wait until morning to check your vitals? So you can get a better sleep?”

“Oh,” I say, amazed. A choice? “Okay. Thank you.”

For lunch, I order tandoori chicken with butter naan and a fresh banana smoothie. The tandoori comes nestled on a heaping pile of steamed vegetables grown in the garden outside my window. The garden is almost as big as the hospital and teems with green leafy plants. A gecko appears from behind the drapes and crawls across the wall.

I set down my fork, eyes filling with tears. There was no hesitation. Every part of my being chose life. It wasn’t the first time my spirit left my body, but this time all of me wanted to be here. 

Maybe the sickness, like the madness, was teaching me, the message Sarah whispered from the forest: You need to learn to be kinder to yourself. Allow myself to be weak, to be injured, instead of bullying myself forwards: one step, two step, I got away, didn’t I? But not all of me: trapped in that scorched valley while the rest of me fled to Agadir.

If I want, I can haul my IV drip to the courtyard and sit in the sun, fragile pink, red, and white flowers sharing their strength and their fragrance. Or I can hang out with my mascot, the giant spider who lives in the bathroom.

What would the ward have been like if there were gardens and open gates? If our aching spirits had been given as much care and consideration as the chemicals in our brains? If the doctors told us we would recover, rather than declaring the many ways we were broken?

Because we were never broken. We just needed good reasons to come back down to earth.

I raise my face up to the sunlight, to the whole, expansive sky.

Robyn Thomas


Robyn Thomas is a Canadian writer and filmmaker currently living in Scotland, where she's completing her PhD in anthropology with a focus on mental health. Her writing has been published in Orca Literary Journal, Marrow Magazine, Mad In America, Psyche Magazine, and The Polyphony, and she was a finalist for the North American Review’s 2022 Terry Tempest Williams Prize for Creative Nonfiction. You can find her on Twitter @MzRobynThomas.

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