I Wake and Feel the Fall

In the middle of the afternoon I wake and feel

the fall of dark — the shadow on the dogwood


and the shortening of days. It is easier to say

things to the facelessness of crowded places full


of light. You can kill the thing you cherish in a

thousand different ways. In my dream I got


your name wrong; would you leave me if you knew?

In your place there are a thousand other faces


and I don’t know what to say. Long ago you gave

me something from the darkness to hold onto


through the failing of the springtime, through

dimming of our faces — would you make a last

appearance and remind me what it is? You can


kill the thing you’re scared of if you let it walk

you home, if you let it come in close enough —


enough to feel your breath. In my dream I

didn’t know you and you laid down on my bed.

Wax Lips

shirtlesss

seven maybe eight

swigging

lemonade maybe coke

climbing

a maple maybe a jungle jim

eating

mud maybe pez


bawling

my room maybe the basement

parents

shouting maybe screaming

angry

staying together maybe not

hiding

the bed maybe the closet


grown up

forgiving maybe not

wishing

i could again view the world

barefoot,

frog in my pocket

bactine on my knee

chewing on wax lips

FUTURE INSTRUCTION MANUAL: On Justice

Blindfolded // she’s been molded into and out of systems of loopholes and bureaucracy // corruption and special interests // a more than occasional rush to judgment // leading to injustice // her antithesis // within justice is word play // just/ice // a metaphor for coldness in the belief that what was handed down was somehow just // righteous // this is no game. lady // and Lady Justice is no lady // at least no longer as you might define it // stronger than the chains // the cuffs // the zip ties that bind // mightier as she drops the scales from her hands and eyes // and simultaneously spies what is just // no longer our bronzed statue // a blind-frozen bust of trust in a system that, by the evidence presented, can no longer be trusted // Lady Justice on the move is not to be confused with on the take // follow her // follow her into the hood and the holler // places urban and suburban // into cities where bigotries fester // she is nobody’s monument // not standing for the standard binary // not him and them // neither he nor she but we // not black nor white or even bronze // but a color you can’t quite put your finger on // unable to tip her newly balanced scales // follow her // which is to say you, us, and for all // pay close attention for hers is the new face of conviction.

Hot roti

It is because he was from the hills. Further up in Himachal, his village was in the Chamba valley.  He said because he belonged to the hills, his skin broke into a rash through the peak summer months of May and June in Jodhpur, when the sun rose high by seven in the morning and did not budge from its pedestal until very late into the evening. When Kalu rode home, after stacking away the files in the shelves and closing the administrative building of the High Court, he went straight home to the refrigerator to pull out the leftover lunch. His wife sat on the floor in the next room, watching her evening soap with rapt attention. The other women in the official quarters also watched TV but Kalu would often notice someone knitting a child’s monkey cap or shelling beans in tandem, just something to do so they were useful, even as they entertained themselves. Women were usually kept so busy, TV did not deserve their undivided attention. He warmed the food on the gas stove, helped himself to the stale roti from the box, and sat alone to eat. The children would pass by him, nosed into the mobile phone or languishing before the TV set like dull insistent moths bent upon ruination. 


Rarely did he feel the attention of any of them upon him. He was providing for them, surely the least any of them could do was to fetch him a glass of water. Self pity creeped into the water of his conscience and colored it irrevocably dark. After many years in a marriage that was as uneasy and uncomfortable as his Judicial Court uniform in the prickling summers, the weave of the synthetic fiber chafing against his skin causing his rashes to flare up, he knew he should not expect much. He counseled himself, even as he felt deep outrage at his wife and his children’s callousness.  His work uniform at least looked impressive in its shiny whiteness and he took pride in it. His marriage did not impress others or himself at all, however. His marriage looked like a white lie. One may put up with a shoe that bites, a starched collar that scrapes the back of the neck, a pair of Presley trousers too snug on the crotch– all for the sake of improving one’s public appearance — but when the cause of aesthetics remains unserved, there isn’t sufficient reason to go on suffering. 


He swiped his finger across the congealing surface of the daal in his bowl and pushed away the thought. It was unbearable to have to think the same thoughts every day. He was considered fortunate amongst his village friends. Kalu was not above seventeen when he moved out of the village to begin work as a domestic helper in a large family in Bhopal. He was placed through the recommendation of a cousin who told him, “Work hard for them and you will go ahead in your life.” Working hard was a not a problem for Kalu. He had seen much adversity early in life, such dire deprivation and neglect that he could squeeze himself into a ball if it helped to roll faster downhill. Then from one household to the next – sweeping, mopping, washing, cleaning, late night cooking, early morning wiping – everyone needed a different job done at the assigned hour, and when you worked full-time as household help, you worked round the clock to keep the wheels running. He knew he had to stay calm and go on, else that government job was never going to be his. Every village boy dreamt of an appointment as a Class IV employee, but most never got there. Kalu had left home, moved to Rajasthan with the hope of more government sector vacancies, where his years of service in households, massaging the feet of family heads, carrying trays of food at odd hours of day and night, had earned him dividends in building a bridge to another family of privilege and power that would land him that government job he ached for. No matter what it took, Kalu was not going to hang up his boots. 


It was soon after his twenty fourth birthday. Well, strictly speaking, no one knew his birth date as such, but his mother said he was born on the new moon of the fifth month by the lunar calendar. When the need to fill the applicant’s date of birth column for the newly announced vacancies in the High Court came up, he filled in 7-5-1975 without much ponderance. There was a lyric beauty to the figures. He liked that. Then the appointment letter came, the confirmation, and he was married off to the woman his parents had chosen. Now he lived with the woman of his parent’s choosing. He couldn’t be thinking endlessly, he chided himself, walking to the house where he worked evenings as a part time cleaner.  He hummed and softly sang a movie song as he strolled ahead, swinging his arms to wrest out the dredges of ugly repentance. 


It was nearly eight at night and he noticed a light bulb flickering at the doorway of the last residential quarter in the same row as his own. It had been vacant until yesterday, he thought to himself: who is here today, he wondered?  The next evening he noticed the light bulb aglow, winking from the end of the line of row houses and dropped his pace instinctively, his singing dropping a pitch in alignment, as he surveyed the first signs of settlement around the house – a clothes line with a saree blouse and a man’s vest, There was a woman’s silhouette in the shadows of the window, going about busily. He heard her call out from behind him, “Won’t you sing that line again – louder now!” she coaxed merrily, stretching out her neck from the window frame. Kalu had lived in the hills and then in different cities of the plains, but not once had a woman accosted him in such a brazen manner. He paused and turned around, trying to focus more sharply at her round face dotted with a large bindi on her high forehead. Now that she was standing under that lone bulb, smiling wide, acutely aware of his sombre eye on her, he was baffled. He could not resist the call. Besides, there was a comeliness to her plump figure that intrigued him. His brows flickered with concentration and his eyes shut close as he intoned the line again– as close as he could be to his memory of the notes — but before he could open his eyes, she was singing with him, her notes like the plump wild apricots that fell off the tress in Chamba valley, his mountain village’s crisp thin air, catching him unawares, swollen with the sweetness of a mountain summer, ripe with the joy of a surprise. He was struck by her effortless grace in singing: once he found out her name, “Madhu,” he found himself rolling it in his mouth through the day. He couldn’t say it aloud. He knew he was married and with children. He scolded himself. Then again, like a lozenge that refuses to melt away in one’s mouth, her name reappeared like an apparition in his silent mouth.  


Kalu’s wife’s mouth curled with displeasure at the sight of her husband – there had always been something rakish about him, his saunter which had pleased her endlessly when she saw him first, his dapper court uniform that she neglected to wash and iron anymore, his hairline receding near the temples but his moustache, thick even now. She found him singing gayly all over the house. He would play the karaoke on his phone and sing along like a bird in heat. He smiled as though he had discovered a gold pot. Why, he hadn’t looked so happy even when he last got promoted? She knew how much the cable television cost every month, the price of the salwar- kurti she had chosen for herself, the phone recharge value for a prepaid connection and many more things. She couldn’t fathom the cost of happiness of this loony smiling man. She told Kalu the house needed a refill of flour as she slammed into the next room.


Kalu wasn’t certain how he was going to make it, but he had committed to join Madhu’s music class. She was a member of the group where the teacher, Masterji, was a  man who taught the basics of Hindustani classical music. She ensured that Kalu didn’t need to pay the fee. For the past many years, Madhu had been singing at weddings, small neighborhood gatherings, at the officer’s Mess parties with the group members playing the keyboard, table and Masterji on the harmonium. Within the span of a few lessons, Kalu realized the music group had its own pecking order and Madhu was no less a trusted lieutenant of Masterji. 


When Kalu drove his motorbike toward home, he was habituated to park a few houses before his own so his  vehicle rested under a tree shade until it was time to ride again. Lately though, he entered the colony from the second gate and parked strategically between their homes. As he parked this evening, he saw Tawar Singh, his neighbor from two houses away, walk toward him eagerly. “Ay Kalu, you’ve become a big man; we see you go and come you never forget your way and come to meet me. You have put on some weight; have you been promoted again? I never got any sweetmeat from you so don’t hide now…..” Tawar Singh could chatter. Kalu kicked the stand in place and snapped his fingers around the key. He admired Tawar’s self-worth, in that one rarely needed to encourage him to play his news bulletin. Tawar wasn’t as much a buffoon as you’d guess him to be on the first meeting. He brought useful information quite often – last week Tawar had sounded him about a truck parked near the south gate to sell onions at half the market rate. Tawar came grinning, his oily face a landscape of excited humor. Tawar continued unspooling the thread of his chatter, “You saw that Bengali singing woman in the last house…her husband works in a steel factory…no children yet…what she sings all day…I wonder…when her husband looks like her uncle….she wants a job…she has been asking around…I told her she could try…” Tawar spun his unpunctuated sentences and kept busy with his own garrulous self, indifferent to Kalu’s annoyance at the description of Madhu as the “singing woman.” 


How easy to label a woman and this tendency to insinuate that a woman singing, by herself particularly, was inferior to an unsinging one. He wrestled with this misshapen notion as he jiggled the motorbike key around his index finger. Tawar wouldn’t follow him beyond a furlong, as Kalu’s wife had ensured no one came seeking the solace of a cup of tea to their house. Kalu knew though, that apart from the cup of tea, she avoided letting anyone in so they wouldn’t see her unswept floors, the disregard with which she kept her home. Drop it, he scolded himself, as he gripped the door handle ajar. Madhu was conveniently situated next door. In a few months, Kalu was playing the harmonium well enough to perform at forgiving home parties. The patrons didn’t pay handsomely, but the host would feed them well and occasionally a beer would be served with the meal. Twice, Madhu had sat alongside him on a makeshift wooden stage, the run down slats covered with white sheets, under the blazing stage lights to sing romantic duets from Hindi films. After the shows they would return together, Madhu riding pillion on the motorbike with him. They would linger near the tree grove a few feet from her house, knowing the late hour, the crickets chirping a rhythmic reminder of time passing by. Kalu leaned against the motorbike, looking at her toes just a few feet from him, a silver toe ring circled the second toe, her toes stubby plump insects with pink nail-paint heads. He thought of the color of the nail paint and its luminescent glow in the dark. Would other insects be attracted to her too? Her glowing pink toes, her big red bindi, the round outline of her face, the small circles of gold earrings on her lobes. Her saree this evening was an ochre with a red border, but he noticed now that the thick red border was also jampacked with row upon even row of red orbs in a pattern. He wanted her to stay, so he began telling her about a childhood incident when his mother and father had to go visit his mother’s family, leaving behind his brother and himself in the care of his father’s parents who lived a little way from their home. 


His mother never really got along very well with her in -laws and so the children, a nine year-old Kalu and his five year old brother, had never spent the night in anyone else’s house. Both the brothers were told to eat and sleep with the grandparents. The brothers picked their way up and down the hills, they brought pails of water to fill the clay pots of the grandparents. They played with the few wooden toys they had brought along but they helped sweep the floor. Kalu himself, conscious of this formal stay, took care to wash his own and his brother’s clothes. The grandmother was a hard woman who threw the flaky millet roti on their plates and looked at them with small dark eyes. 


He remembered that all three nights: his grandfather slept on the cold floor so that the young children could sleep on the only cot of the house. Not that the cold mattered to them then, said Kalu, but when he lay down on the cot with his brother beside him, he could look down at his grandfather right below and not feel scared of the dark room or be swallowed by the unfamiliar house. His grandfather felt like a relative, a close friend at once. Their grandfather took them in the surrounding hills and spoke about his ancestors with unheard of names. How one forefather served as a pharmacologist and could turn the poison of arsenic into a medicine by soaking a tracer amount in sheep milk over six days and nights. The government school did not teach them these things. No one else had treated Kalu with as much attention until then. He was his younger brother’s constant companion, his parents made it obvious he was the responsible, older son,  but his grandfather spoke to him of the hills and where the secret brooks were, of the history of his family and the hope that he would make a mark upon the world too. His grandfather, made him know that he wasn’t just another person born in an ordinary family but that he was one in a long line of hill people, with mystical knowings of the Chamba river, its pebble banks and the wonderous trees and plants in it.  


His parents returned from their trip but from then on Kalu stayed with his grandparents every Friday and Saturday night. He would arrive with his brother, clean and sweep the house, polish the metal utensils with wood ash, fill the water pots and spend the evenings talking late into the night with the grandfather, the grandfather insisting as always that the children sleep on the cot. Before they left for the parent’s house on Sunday morning, his grandfather would buy them hard orange lozenges, a sweet treat from the many glass jars with green metal caps that sat in a row on the shop counter. It would be roasted gram flour, laddoos, or white cookies speckled with cardamom, and sometimes even sesame-coated stickjaws. The treat was always a souvenir of unexpressed joy for the company of the boys as well as an invitation for the following week. Madhu sat down on a stone log and heard him with the patience only a woman in love could hold. Then she asked, “Did your grandfather take you in his arms when you came to see him?”


“No, I don’t think so. He’d smile and stand watching us from afar and when we came forward to him to touch his feet in greeting, he’d just pat our heads and cheeks. That’s all.” And so it became a ritual between them. When they wrapped up a live performance and came home together, riding on his motorbike, Kalu and Madhu would stand by the grove of the trees, in shamanic remembrance of their childhood, a wide- eyed reverie of their future, of things gone by. In this desert city, a foreign land to them, they listened to each other, of life in the hills, of how it was to live by a river and hunt food, and not have to buy it. She would tell him about her childhood in the far eastern Bengal, the many fruit trees and how endless afternoons were spent chewing the creamy, sticky sweetness of mammoth jackfruits. A pool of cousins and friends would collectively work to unload the ripe giant fruit and make an expedition of it. How plentiful food was, how raucous was the rain. He recalled to his mind long forgotten experiences, of the goat kid who became his uninvited pet, the school friend who fed him millet cakes. It was an equal exchange and she asked as many questions as the folds in the stories he told. 

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The sharing of childhood stories was a kosher context for a married woman and a married man to converse under a tree on unbearable evenings that they might have justified to one another. Did this exchange of their years of innocence lead to some not-so-innocent fantasies? Perhaps he allowed his hand to rest on hers for a moment longer than needed when he dropped her groceries? Maybe she didn’t lift her sari pallu quickly enough, restoring it to the loop of her left shoulder, just so his eyes could linger longer on the concave flesh of her twin breasts? Those mild flirtations that each of them had been deprived of in their bursting youth, came oozing out of their skins now, relieving them of any more regret. 


Strangely, it wasn’t the conversations that Madhu and Kalu shared with one another that gave them the strength to become lovers. It was in their singing in class as part of a group and to audiences small and large that they began to see each other as a couple. People would clap for them when they performed on stage, and in that passing moment, as they stood at arm’s length from one another, they experienced a solidarity of purpose. They’d sing together, arranging their voices to dance together, seamlessly moving from one to the other, and in some time, she found it was just as effortless to hold him against her and allow for mutual pleasure. When they sang a duet in public so flawlessly, how could their private coupling be flawed? For if you sang songs of love and romance with all your heart, diligently practicing the “togetherness,”– matching your notes to complement one another — how could they be asked to remain inhumanely aloof to each other’s flesh and bones? 


In Kalu’s village, where marriages were sanctified by the panchayat and thereby all dissolutions were also determined by the same body of collective morality, how was Kalu to convince a group of hoary men that his wife from the village made him feel unloved and uncared for? If love is the essence of marriage, then why should the extinction of love be not reason enough to break away from the rigor of it?  It is to my home that Kalu came in the evenings to help with the cleaning and upkeep. We have known him for close to two decades, for just as long as I have lived in this house with my in-laws and husband and by now I can say with some confidence that I gauge Kalu’s mood from the way he hums as he sweeps the floor. He walks in gets straight to work, silently moving through the space that is as familiar to him as any. Last week, when I was helping him move some furniture from one room to another, both of us heaving under the weight of the old dressing table, gripping its underside and warning one another of the edges and corners that could be chipped, it crossed my mind that both Kalu and I were getting older. We weren’t anymore the young souls who had come to be introduced as I was being formally let into the house of marriage. He was my mother in law’s man of first choice for accomplishing all the fine mending and cleaning of the house. Lately she complains that Kalu is too exhausted to ever do anything beyond his routine jobs. It’s my guess that Kalu wants to get away from all his assigned duties he has adeptly maneuvered for the better part of his life. Not the least being his marriage. 


As Kalu and I gently lower the dressing table to the ground, he sits down on the floor for a moment and we are both at the same level. He doesn’t look up from the mosaic floor, and I notice he is unable to squat as easily as could until a few years back. All that Kalu says to me with the air of fatigued resignation is that there comes a time when a man is tired to his bones and all he wants is to be able to eat hot roti when he comes home. Fresh roti. 


Glossary

Bindi – the circular dot usually in red color put on a woman’s forehead which is often also       

interpreted as a sign of matrimony.

Daal-cooked pulses seasoned with mustard cumin etc. which form a staple in an Indian meal.

Laddoo-a sweet that is shaped into a sphere and could be made of a variety of ingredients 

using wheat, gram flour, semolina or such other grain as a base and a variety of additives 

including raisins and other dried fruits and nuts.  

Pallu- the loose end of a sari that is anchored on a woman’s shoulder and flows freely along 

the length of the body on one side. 

Panchayat- a selection of people elected from amongst the populace at the village/district level who collectively act as leaders for the entire population and take various social, financial and judicial decisions. 

Roti- unleavened flatbread that is made from dough of a grain and forms a staple in many Indian homes.

O’Hare is a Circle of Hell

It is December in Chicago.    

When I step off the train, there’s a palpable cold. The car pulls away, and all the air suddenly goes with it. I follow the other hollow-eyed travelers to the escalator; only small children and middle-aged women with something to prove take the stairs. When I get to the top, I dig out my paper boarding pass. I’ve never trusted the mobile ones. The few times I’ve used them, I end up killing my battery. The whole way through line, I’m terrified that the phone will die at the exact moment I reach the TSA officer, so I constantly tap the screen back to life whenever it goes black.

            Terminal 4. I squint at the sign above me, which reads Terminals 1-2-3          5. I feel my eyebrows lock in a furrow that won’t be undone. Around me, bodies mutter and part. Somewhere, a busker is playing a dirge. Slowly, the number 4 starts to flicker in between three and five, a weak neon beacon. I follow where the arrow points.

            I’ve only brought a single backpack, and I wonder if it looks suspicious. But I’m only traveling from Chicago to St. Louis—a mere 30 minute flight. Lesser beings would have driven, but when December in the Midwest is a choice between abject misery and utter misery, you take your chances. The security line snakes around to the accursed Spirit Airlines “service” desk. Bodies looking for human assistance and bodies waiting to be stripped of their shoes, hats, boots co-mingle. Three drug hounds patrol lethargically.

            As soon as I get in line behind a family of four, I begin to strategize: Liquids, laptop, Kindle, shoes, coat. But over the course of an hour, which is how long it takes to get to the part of the line where this process begins, things start to go wrong. There’s so many people that more and more get shunted to the metal detector, which you think would make the line go faster. But it seems as though no matter which line I’m in, there’s an abundance of things that make it move more slowly: A man’s taken all off his coat and shoes even though he’s clearly over 80 and is slowly and painstakingly folding them to lay into a tray. A kid gets loose and runs through the backscatter machine, so it has to be recalibrated it several times. A TSA agent opens a bag and finds a forty of Mickey’s in it. “Sir,” he says without emotion, you have to toss this or drink it.” Without hesitation, the gentleman in question drinks half and throws the rest away.

            When I finally get to the backscatter machine, I spread my feet and hold my hands up over my head as though I’m at a stop and frisk. “Higher,” the TSA agent says, and I raise my shoulders, feeling my t-shirt start to hover above my gut.

            The agent beckons with a skeletal finger. I lower my arms and walk through, but he holds up a hand for me to wait. I should have put on more deodorant or at least used the stuff that says its made and tested in laboratories. The clinical smell would be fitting in this labyrinth of which I am but one rat waiting my turn to access the cheese cubes. After a few moments, he waves me through, several blessings be upon me. Other passengers are furiously pawing at items, as if everyone’s flight is in exactly ten minutes. I shoulder my backpack and gather my various detritus into my arms like babies. I redress myself, but I’ll never regain any sense of pride.

            Where is terminal 4? I go from person to person to ask this question. I even Google “Ohare help” and manage to find some sort of hotline, but am told that there is no information for terminal 4.

            “As in, it doesn’t exist?” I ask.

            “As in, I can’t help you,” the operator says tersely, hanging up on me. By now, I’ve sweated straight through my Led Zeppelin tee, but I’m trapped inside winter apparel until I die of dehydration or get to my gate, whichever comes first.

            “YOU ARE LOOKING FOR TERMINAL 4.” That voice. At once familiar, unnerving. Many decibels too loud, strained as though the speaker had never heard of an “inside voice” or at the very least, had always had to compete with a screaming crowd.

            I turn to see a man—an 80s Adonis really, blonde hair teased out like a halo around his head. He wears a tank top tucked into tight stonewashed jeans. And he’s tan and glistening. So very tan and glistening. In addition to his strange appearance, the man has absolutely no luggage and no coat. I try not to stare at his nipples, erect from either cold or perhaps it is simply that his skin was too tight and muscly to contain itself.

            “YOU ARE LOOKING FOR TERMINAL 4!” he yells again.

“Me?” I say like an idiot.

            “I’LL TAKE YOU,” he says.
            This seems strange, but I’ll be honest reader—I am desperate. Before I arrived at O’Hare, which now seems to be days ago, even years, I imagined what it would be like. Sure, the TSA lines would be long, but once inside, I’d make my way to my gate with an hour to spare, then order a coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts (1 cream, 1 sugar, perfectly mixed by a machine designed to do exactly this), drink leisurely, take a PPP (pre plane poop), and get back to the gate as they start to call for passengers.

            “FOLLOW ME,” orders my overly energetic guide. 

            I do as he says. He leads me past the Cinnabon, where the line stretches beyond what I can see. All the nearby tables are crowded with patrons who chomp the sweet buns mechanically one after another. We pass the lactation room where a crying woman is trying the door, which appears to be locked. She’s knocking, pressing her ear to the door, waiting. She walks away, circles back, and repeats these desperate motions. We walk past restaurants where people are eating expensive hot dogs and flavorless pizza that costs $25. A teenager almost runs me over as she walks briskly with her head down staring into her phone, then looks up desperately. She’s searching for an outlet that will never appear. As we pass the Sunglass Hut, an older woman is trying out one pair of glasses after another, never satisfied by what she sees in the tiny mirror she has to squat to look into. She can’t find the right pair even though her flight to Florida is in an hour and she needs to, at all costs, protect her eyeballs.

            My guide notices me watching these events and says, “DO NOT TRY TO REASON WHY. THERE IS NO HOPE FOR THEM. WE WALK. I NEED FUEL.”

            My brisk walk turns into a gallop to keep up with him.

            We stop at a Starbucks. The sea of people part before my oiled-up guide. I attempt to meet their eyes in apology, but they are shriveling away from us like the sad seaweed people in The Little Mermaid as Ursula’s shadow passes over them.

            “MACCHIATO. CARAMEL” my guide booms at the barista who honestly doesn’t seem shaken. Maybe he’s used to the ever replenishing supply of weirdos here.

            “Name,” the barista asks holding a sharpie over the cup.

            My guide replies, “I, HULK HOGAN, AM THE ONLY ONE.”

            “Pick it up over there,” the barista says.

            Later, a voice calls out “caramel macchiato for Hoke!” My guide picks up his drink, inhales the steam deeply, and booms, “SMELL IT, WARRIORS.” I honestly can’t say who he’s talking to, but I realize we still haven’t made it to Terminal 4. He seems to sense my unease and places his giant hand on my shoulder like a lead weight. “THANK YOUR CREATOR, LITTLE SQUID, WE ARE NOW GOING TO TERMINAL 4.”

            Minutes later, we round a corner. The lights are flickering in this hallway like a David Lynch movie. It seems relatively abandoned for O’Hare’s usual bustle. We’ve run out of restaurants: A solitary Quizno’s sits at the entrance to Terminal 4. Years of neglect have not been kind to this forlorn sandwichery: Faded etchings depicting demonic hamster-men decorate the walls. The stench of roasted porcine flesh fills the air. This terminal seems oddly narrow: A series of dark arcades. A wall monitor comes into view: Abandon all hope, you who enter here. My guide shouts, “WE ARE ABOUT TO ENTER PARTS UNKNOWN.”

            Although we have entered the place that I had thought was my destination, the feelings of loss and despair do not leave. And my glistening guide shows no signs of ending his guidance. He keeps striding along into the terminal with purpose. And so I follow him into the darkened hallway. When he finishes his drink, he crumples the paper cup, arm veins bulging, and throws it to the ground.

            “Hey,” I start, about to scold him for littering, but the cup rolls toward the wall and disappears into some black, endless abyss that swallows his transgression.

            He sees me staring and shrugs – at least, I think he does, for it is impossible to distinguish his shoulders from his neck. “I HAVE ACCEPTED MY FATE, TRAVELER, WHAT ABOUT YOU? HAVE YOU ACCEPTED YOUR FATE?”

            What had the fates dealt me? It is then that I do start to smell it (Warriors). I taste it—that hunger for a $30 sandwich gnawing at my bones, but I feel I must press on. I turn back to look behind us, but my guide grabs my arm with his tyrannical grip. “YOU SEE NOTHING,” he simply states. Existentially, the words stung. But he was right. If there was anything back there at all, it was only endless bathroom lines, drinking fountains whose filters were always on red alert and needing to be changed by a night janitor who never appears. Indeed, there is no greater sorrow than to recall our times of joy in wretchedness.

Although the journey here had been harrowing, nothing prepares me for the sights of terminal 4. As I follow on the heels of my steroidal guide, things start to look more familiar, but uncannily so. There are now gates on either side of us, but I shudder looking upon those waiting there. A group of ragged travelers have built a trash can fire to keep themselves warm, but the sprinkler system periodically erupts to extinguish the flames, so they continually throw items out from their carry-ons to stoke it back to life. “Why don’t they just move the trashcan?” I ask my guide, watching the Sisyphean scene.

“THE SCREEN,” he yells, pointing to the flight status monitor, which shows that the flight has been delayed five hours, but continuously updates to say it will only be five minutes more. I now understand that they cannot move for fear that their flight will leave without them. So, they huddle together in their misery forever.

Over the loudspeaker, Styx’s Come Sail Away plays. My guide tenses, and I wonder if he too has always thought that Styx was too hardcore of a name to be responsible for such a lively song celebrating the following of one’s dreams.  Perhaps this infernal dichotomy is why the song has been banished to Terminal 4 and karaoke bars. At the next gate, I see a man watching advertisement after advertisement waiting to use the free wifi. Each ad is increasingly more annoying. The man starts to sing jingles to himself, occasionally letting loose a maniacal laugh, his eyes never leaving his laptop screen.

We pass by the chair massage place where the cries of passengers rise up in an opera of pain (I assume because their 30 min massages are $100), children with soot on their cheeks chew on the foliage of decorative plants. I look at my boarding pass, crumpled in my hand and damp with sweat. Gate X8. I am here. I look up at my guide, who begins to launch into a speech as though he has a camera trained upon him. He begins with a loud and vigorous snort. “AS YOU TRAVEL BY CONVENTIONAL MEANS, THE NORMALS YOU TRAVEL WITH EXPERIENCE MALFUNCTIONS. ALL THAT IS LEFT IS TOTAL SELF-DESTRUCTION…”

I stop listening. My stomach is growling like a hellbeast, and I want nothing more than to get on the plane and eat my pittance of dry pretzels or, if I am blessed, speculoos cookies. Will I leave limbo today? The worker behind the desk wears the navy blue of American Airlines, the scarf around her neck a river of deep red. She picks up the intercom and puts it to her mouth. My own mouth is dry; I am neither dead nor living. I am in some kind of eternity. Praise be upon Group 9, I silently pray, those behind families with small children, active military, and those of the endless large carry-on. May we again behold the stars.

Photography by Sumner McMurtry

Metaphor for Lilies (Covid 19)

if it wasn’t for the old ones,

we’d be dancing through this sickness

with zinfandel wine and stacks

of rice, beans, coffee, milk,

all the necessities to survive

isolation


while making a cup of coffee i wonder

if our grandmothers will die before we are able

to buy them any more flowers.

every Easter my mother gives Grandmama

white lilies, which could represent doves, signs

of salvation, or any kind of metaphorical bullshit.

i’ll add my own metaphor: my grandmother’s face,

planted in soil. three lily faces are sleeping

inside a plastic pot


first face: she stands in blue skirt and white blouse,

brown curls gripping cheeks younger

than mine are now. did the photographer

add that pink blush to her cheeks?

does she know what is coming?


second face: she stands against the background

of dark kitchen cabinets, wearing the same kind

of white blouse but her hair isn’t brown anymore,

graying against the whole-body fever

blush of her skin in middle age.

can she feel the sickness creeping closer?


third face: she wears a pink jacket over the white blouse

and holds a birthday present, peering past pale tissue paper

because she can’t remember that she already

opened this one, so she will reopen

the truth of the future and keep

forgetting it


I wonder if she knows

that we have kept away because we love–

isn’t that the way it goes? we keep away

from what we love to keep it safe?


I bought an orchid and watched it slowly wither,

turning black, first the flowers, then the leaves,

as it sputtered dead on the kitchen stove


I’ll go to the edge

of my grandmother’s driveway, waiting

until it’s safe to see the lilies again, withered,

but still hanging on, reaching

their petals toward my waiting body

from behind the screen door,

that lonely picture frame

The Girl

            “Hi beautiful angelfish! Have you had a mermazing day?” The words vomited out of her mouth as if she rehearsed them religiously before my brother and I arrived. 

            “Yeah it’s been pretty good,” I tossed in to the stale air of that apartment room on the second floor. I was taught to treat everyone with respect. Had my mothers’ voice not have been disturbing my quiet thoughts, I would have walked right through the door without hesitating to ignore the girl. That’s what she was to me. The girl. 

            I dropped my things on to the carpet next to the couch. It was a dull couch, smelling as if it was something they got for free somewhere, maybe sitting at the end of a long driveway with a “please take, it’s free!” sign leaned against it. Cigarettes, cheap ones, and the stench of a litter box protruded my nose. They didn’t have a cat. I had no other options, being that the living room consisted of the couch, a small tv on a stand, and now my stuff, so I sat down. 

            “So glad you could make it baby, where’s Daniel?” The words fell off my dad’s lips in one long breath, slurred together as if he was talking in cursive. 

            “He was right behind me, should be in here any time now.” As I glanced around locking my eyes with anything other than my dad’s, the door opened and my brother walked in. I could tell he didn’t wanna be there. I couldn’t say a thing though. I didn’t either. The corners of his smile stayed pointed down, just like they were stuck. And he never lifted his head completely straight up anymore; he just lifted it high enough to see you. 

            I stayed put on the couch for a while. I had nothing more to do other than find something interesting on my phone. There was a boy I went to school with. I threw myself all over him even though his hair and his voice bothered me. I didn’t mind; I took what I could get. You would think a 12 year old girl would be getting lost in a diary or in a game. I was getting lost in people, creating versions of the ones around me that were better than they really were. It was easier that way. 

            My dad came near to me, falling into the space to my right. I didn’t want him to get close; that’s when I cold see his eyes. They were foggy and shadowed like when you’re driving late at night in the rain.  The car headlights uncover only a few feet in front of you. The rest is hidden and dark and not a place you want to shine a light. 

            I could tell when he opened his mouth. The smell still assaults me and it’s been 8 years. I can’t smell alcohol without feeling as though I need to tie my heart together with a rope to prevent it from falling apart all over again. I smell alcohol once and then I smell it everywhere. I create the smell when it’s no longer there, determined to find someone new to blame. Marsala wine. He was drinking Marsala wine. I could tell because he made Chicken Marsala all the time. I could never forget the way he cooked the mushrooms, garlic, and thyme in a blend that tasted better every time I put it in my mouth.  His favorite part was the alcohol. 

            He placed his left hand on my legs for far too long. He laid his head on my shoulder, “I love you baby. I loveyou, I love youIlove you. So glad you’re here baby. You’re here, on Christmas, Eve. I love you.” He spoke to me in a tone that made it hard to understand who he was trying to convince. I knew he loved me, but the more he said it the less I knew. 

            The girl stayed off in the corner of the kitchen for a while. My eyes would catch her pacing during commercial breaks of River Monsterson Animal Planet. I really didn’t care to see some guy catch the world’s most venomous animal by hand, but it put my dad to sleep. 

            The interruption of her shrill voice woke my dad from his nap. “Rheanie, let’s play a board game or something.” 

            The 4 of us made our way to the kitchen table. It was bigger than I thought it would be. It filled all the space allotted for a dining room. I couldn’t tell you how long we played Pirate’s of the Caribbean Yahtzee, or what we ate for dinner that night. But I remember the girl’s face. She was 21, barely. She appeared as if she was 13. Her glasses were brown and the frames were thin. Her hair was pulled back in to a low ponytail containing her stop sign strands. I was a child and even I was judgmental of her Sleeping Beauty t-shirt. Her mermaid-scale pants. Her purple shoes. It didn’t make sense. 

            She would bite her nails starting from her thumb to her pinky and back again. My body knew she was nervous before my head did. I couldn’t shake off my thumping heartbeat and my bouncing leg. 

            “Come here baby, come here.” I hesitated but obeyed my dad’s command to come sit on his lap. The closer I got, the faster I wanted to run. I didn’t want to smell him again.                   

            I sat across his legs, our bodies making an x. He laid his hand on my legs for far too long. He pulled the hair off of my right shoulder, and tucked the locks behind my ear. His breath was warm and rich. His lips lined my ear and his new catchphrase started as a whisper.

            “Renee, you are so selfish. You are so selfish. You are so selfish. I want you to know that. Daniel, you know your sister is selfish? You are so selfish Renee.”

            “Dad, enough, Please stop.” My brother released the words I couldn’t. It didn’t change a thing. 

            His whispers grew in strength. “You are so selfish. You’re such a butthole. Why do you have to be so selfish Renee? I want you to know you’re a selfish butthole.” 

            I ached. I had never ached before. I also froze. I caught a glimpse of a passing car outside the living room window. Where were they going? To dinner? Home? I wanted to go home.

            “Renee you are so selfish.”

            “Dad let her go. Renee come on, Renee come on, Dad stop, let her go.”

            I tried to stand in reverence to my brother’s wishes. I couldn’t move. My dad had his arms wrapped fully around my chest and back. He was squeezing, and tightening, and fixing his grip. He was holding one wrist with the other hand, using his joints as support. 

            “Dad, that’s fucking enough!” 

            I shook and bent like a fish in someone’s hand. I leaned forward and back, and forward and back. 

            My dad soon released, as if he was unaware that he had a hold on me for so long. I stood and ran with sights on my brother’s long arms. 

         “Dad. What the fuck! I’m so, damnit. I can’t do this!” My brother slammed his hands to his temples, running them along his head. His fingers gripped, pulling so tightly on his hair that his head lifted. His eyes pointed to the ceiling but they remained shut. 

            The girl sprung from her chair as if she was chained and they finally broke. “Let it out, Daniel, let it out. It’s okay.” 

            I looked at the girl. Her eyes swelled and her face became the color of her hair as if they had bled together. There was no longer a line to separate the two. The girl was red. Red. 

            “We come all this way to see you, dad, and this is what you do? You act like this? I’m so fucking done dad.” My brother paced the tile floor for so long a pathway began to form. Like years ago when travelers made their way through the forest in the same spots leaving trails of where they had been. 

            “You’re drunk. You’re so drunk, you’re always drunk. I can’t stand to be around you anymore, I can’t do it.” 

            It was in this moment I witnessed what it looked like to watch someone lose themselves. My brother was collapsing under the weight of all that second floor apartment kept concealed. I wanted to stand there in awe of him yelling at my dad for hours. I didn’t want him to stop.

            I turned to face my dad, preparing myself to see him retaliate. But, he remained in the chair. He sat there unaware. Daydreaming, probably, about when we would finally leave. If we left he could get in his car in search of something stronger than Marsala wine. He could approach the girl again, and he could shower her in affection and assault, compliments and attacks, sex and abuse. She was already red.

             I didn’t care for the girl, so I was ready to leave.

My father turned his head in my direction. His face was pointed toward my feet, but his dirt eyes lifted and landed right on mine. I couldn’t look away. I forgot how. 

            I saw myself being carried out of Walmart on a summer afternoon. I was being held as if I only weighed 2 pounds. My dirty blonde hair was flowing over the back of my father. I was almost asleep, getting lost in his arms and tangled in his Jesus tattoo. I felt heated fingers press against my cheek. My father brushed my hair off of my right shoulder, and he tucked the locks behind my ear. 

            “Renee, we need to leave now. We can’t stay, can’t stay here like this. I don’t care if we leave before we planned to. It’s really time to go.” 

            I broke the daze between my father and I and turned to gather my things. I hadn’t stayed long enough to take anything out, so it was accomplished in an instant. 

            “Here, take all of yall’s gifts. Please take them I’m sorry we couldn’t open them.” The girl hurried around, throwing a stack of presents in to one larger cardboard box. Did she think that’s why we came? Did she think that’s what we wanted? Was she jealous that we could leave that place and she was stuck?

            My brother approached me, enclosing my baby hand in his. His hands were wet and balmy and safe. We exited the second floor apartment, fleeing toward the steps, skipping 2, and then 1, and then 3. We were running and rounding the corners of the buildings. His blue car was lost in a field of others who were unlucky enough to call the vicinity around that second floor apartment home. I wanted to keep running until my ankles disintegrated. I wanted to run out in to the street alongside the cars. I wanted to run through the red lights and back again. I wanted to run back in to that apartment building and break my dad in to a thousand shattered pieces. And then I wanted to run those pieces of him to the bridge above the interstate and release them. 

            But my brother and I got in his car and we went home. Neither of us said a word.

            I still feel my dad’s arms around me. Tightening, squeezing, gripping. I’m always reminded of how I can find security in his large arms but I have yet to fully trust them again. How am I supposed to be held by the man who gives me the reasons to need an embrace?

            I still feel my dad’s hand on my legs for far too long. Never crossing the line but coming close enough that it’s only blurry now. He tells me I look beautiful and it makes me feel violated. To wear a crop top, a swimsuit, or a tight dress is something I try not to do around him. He fell in love with the girl and got turned on when she would come home in her Minnie Mouse sweatshirt and Ariel hair. Why should I expect him to look at me like I’m just his daughter and nothing more? I know he would never take anything too far. But, has he thought about me the same way he thought about the girl when he saw her for the first time when she was 17? Does he look at his daughter and see the same thing? 

            I still feel my dad’s hand brushing back my hair. I feel it maneuvering the locks in to place behind my ear. I hate the way I look with my hair behind my ears. I feel like a doll. I don’t feel like a daughter. I don’t want my hair pushed back anymore. 

Art by Sarah Simic

To the Girl in my English Class

You belonged to the moon

Hidden behind your eye’s blinds

There was no sunlight peeking through

small spaces, I didn’t know you

But I knew this much:

You have a tongue that traps your words 

Silenced stories waiting to be discovered 

And hands that hang like the pill bottles I once knew 


Mocking me — a mind of a puzzle

with mismatched pieces 

Doubled vision

Conversation

And biting air against pale sickly skin 

I loved you 

And perhaps I was the only one who did

This made me want to pull you out of your own shadow

and show you the other side of the moon

If only you would listen


Kisses of cocaine 

The touch of ecstasy

Cracking knuckles and dry nailbeds

Discolored skin

We were once lovers 

But we taught ourselves to be strangers 

We were silently intimate 

I saw through your painted canvas

full of inviting colors 

You were not good although you wanted to be

Beyond your voice you were begging

To be heard

To be saved 

To be seen. 


A hall full of mirrors 

Our other halves follow us 

Footsteps with a delayed echo

A smell unable to be pin-pointed

although it seems familiar 

Tip-toeing through the shadows 

A motionless light at the end 

Only one of us will ever touch 

Photography by Sumner McMurtry

Black Lace

I was packing my travel bag when a reassuring thought came to mind. You can never go wrong with black. No matter what a lady looks like, wearing black underclothes will always make her feel beautiful, and I did. I looked at my under-dressed reflection and felt a feminine beauty radiating along my curves, exaggerated by black lace.

I put on my work uniform and grabbed my bag. I took one last look at my bedroom before heading off to work to confirm that nothing seemed out of the ordinary. That my bedroom looked like any other normal person’s my age. I passed my parents on my way out and told them goodbye. I reminded them I was spending the night at a friend’s house after work, which was a lie, but they would believe it all the same.

The next four hours I spent making pizzas and coming up with more alibis for what I was about to do. The trick to them was to include an embarrassing or slightly incriminating detail, but never including the full extent of what really happened. It was a busy shift as usual, but the other cook, Dan, helped keep me from getting bored. We would always insult each other and tell ridiculous stories of our past inebriations to pass the time. It was his turn to share and he described in detail how he had once taken LSD and had managed to set a mouse on fire, consequently setting fire to his bed. We had gone back and forth “spilling the tea” as we called it. And though I didn’t tell him my secret plans for the night, he could tell I was withholding some information from him. He knew a little about my coworker and I’s escapades, but not this one in particular. The time passed quickly, and I started going over the steps to the plan in my head. The anticipation consumed me, and at eight I clocked out. Before I left, I glanced over at my coworker and gave him an encouraging smile, knowing he was feeling the eagerness, too. Most nights, I barely saw him at work because he was delivering. Other nights, he was my boss and it was just us in the building for the most part. He liked to surprise me while I was working, sometimes by leaving a bottle of whiskey and a dozen roses in my car. I’m no alcoholic, but that’s when I knew he loved me.

After work I drove to my friend’s house and got changed. She answered all my questions while I braided my hair back. She was excited for me and offered some advice from her own experiences. The nervousness that pulsated through my veins made me feel euphoric. I liked this feeling. It was the kind that made me step through unknown doors out of pure curiosity.

A knock at the door interrupted my thoughts and signaled for my leave. I handed my friend my phone, instructed her to keep the tracker on, and said goodbye. My parents never understood privacy or boundaries during my teenage years, so they made me keep a tracker on my phone. I couldn’t turn it off without them immediately finding out, so to get by it, I would leave my phone hidden in places that I would reasonably be. My dad also had his police friends keep an eye out for my car while they were on patrol. Unfortunately, I had the only 2003 Mitsubishi in Lebanon with illegal tint on the windows. I found out about this after one of them spotted me at a convenience store known for selling alcohol to minors. After that incident I made sure to also leave my car behind in my reckless adventures.

Rushing to the front door, I was greeted by my partner in crime. We got in his car and quickly drove away. “This is going to work,” I said. He smiled and kissed the back of my hand. “Also, I hate the lack of tint on your windows,” I claimed. He began to laugh, and I began to live.

We ended up at a hotel that night which all felt extravagant to me. There was king-size bed draped in white blankets against one of the walls, and I wanted to climb right into it. We settled in and talked about everything that came to mind for what seemed like hours. It was when we were talking closely in the middle of the room when I asked him, “are you sure?” He responded, “I am if you are.” I pulled my shirt over my head and dropped it to the floor, revealing my black bra. As I stripped, every chain that ever held me down finally broke, and I was utterly free. The look on his face told me that a lady could never go wrong with black.

I always managed to stay a few steps ahead of my overprotective parents. And I chose to keep them in the dark about my relationship for six months, long enough for them to be unable to take matters into their own hands, but also long enough to leave me in a broken state of almost constant paranoia. I still lay awake some nights wondering what I would have done if everything fell apart during the human resources investigation. I remember the fight or flight response that surfaced in me when my boss blocked me from walking into the kitchen to clock in. How she called my name firmly signifying that I could not leave. I felt like I was just a mouse in the lion’s mouth, and I could either give up and be eaten alive, or I could stay smart. Before I even sat down at the table she was calling me to, I chose to fight for what I valued so deeply above anything else. And I fought hard.

“Can you tell me why there is a rumor going around that you’re dating one of the managers?” she asked. “I’m willing to bet you’re guilty from the smirk on your face” She said more harshly.

That always seemed to happen when I got scared. A smirk that presented a confidence in me that only I knew was false.

“I can’t imagine who would have started that rumor, or why they would start it in the first place.” I said sharply.

She kept throwing accusations at me, and one after another, I deflected them in the hopes that somehow through all of it, I could keep my job.

She started to speak again. “People are scared to work with you. Morgan refuses to work alone with you, so you can’t work Monday evenings anymore.”

“I’m sorry she feels that way, I don’t understand what I did to upset her. I do hope whatever it is can be resolved.” I said insincerely. I knew that Morgan reported us, and she feared what I might do in retaliation. For the record, I have never threatened to retaliate against her. She was insignificant to me as she was just a small beginning to an inevitable obstacle, I understood that.

Sam asked me, “Do you not want to be friends with her? It makes work easier when coworkers can be friends.”

I hesitated for a moment and looked down at the table. I wondered what I had gotten myself into, and if I could deal with the possible consequences. Every scenario that I thought could possibly happen began to blur together in my head. I kept telling myself that as long as I didn’t admit to anything, nothing bad could happen.

“In all honesty, Sam, I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to make money,” I responded.

I felt guilty for saying that because there was never “all honesty” with me during this period of time, at most there was “some honesty.” My boss made me sign some paperwork, stating that I had nothing to do with any rumors, and that I was not sexually involved with the manager accused.

She spoke again, subconsciously letting some of her anger slip through her teeth. “Look, I know you’re guilty. You’re going to ruin lives. You know that, right?”

This statement awakened every nerve in my body. Was it true? How could my actions ruin lives? I was finally happy and adored life for once. So, I chose to believe she was wrong. I leaned forward, and through my equanimity I said, “But can you prove it?”

Afterwards, she allowed me to clock in, but it didn’t erase the harsh tension the investigation uncovered that was now between us. My partner had to deal with the rougher parts of it, though, for the time being we both were safe from the consequences of our actions. But my boss was right. She and a couple others lost their jobs, and that place was never the same.

I have often wondered if my parents would have understood the fight I put up to protect someone so important to me, or if they would have disowned me for all that I did unbeknownst to them. On the surface, I was a “straight A” student who could do no wrong; but I was truly living a double life, and I loved it. My parents no longer knew me, but I knew myself better than ever. My whole life, I felt that the world moved too slowly around me, and I yearned for something to speed it up. At seventeen, I found a scandalous love that set me free from the slow-moving earth beneath my feet.

Sometimes, I feel remorse for what happened to some of the others, but if I somehow had the choice to go back in time and do it all differently, I wouldn’t. These actions led me to my soulmate, and collateral damage is simply a price some people had to pay for attempting to stifle a love so rare. Often, I wish I could hear just one more of Dan’s stories, and maybe tell him one in return. A lot of us had to leave that sad little pizza place, but sometimes I still hear my former boss’s voice telling me that I’m going to ruin lives. But here we are three years later happily living ours.

The Beginning of the End

Larry reaches over to hold Sue’s hand. She moves away so it seems like the dog is pulling the
leash. It doesn’t matter that the neighbors see Larry’s car and know he’s spending the night,
there’s something about the neighbors actually seeing her with Larry and looking like a couple
that troubles her. This is just the beginning of their romance.

“Did I tell you about that student going on and on about how his short story is like Game of Thrones during workshop last night?”

Larry nods his head negatively, but says nothing, and Sue knows he’s nodding to let her know he knows she pulled away.

“Another student said that show used too much gratuitous violence, something we’ve been discussing this week, and an argument broke out about how people like the show for way more reasons than that, and, you know, there’s always those that get biblical about everything. We were getting sidetracked from commenting on his story and I blurted out that the Game of Thrones was like Genesis, except, since the Bible is supposedly true, when the father gets drunk and rapes his daughter, it’s real there, and stated as a fact, not as gratuitous violence.”

“Seriously, Sue, you said that? How’d that go over?”

“Not so great. A couple of students gave me a quick thumbs up and others were probably wishing they had caught me saying that on their phones.”

“They didn’t, did they?”

“Who knows?”

“I bet that was quite the class.”

“Maybe it is my last class and I will get my termination papers in the mail today. Joys of being an adjunct.”

Larry wants to say more but a neighbor walks by with his dog and Sue leans over to pet his dog while the neighbor pets her dog. The neighbor usually has two dogs, but the older dog hasn’t been doing well, and Sue’s not sure she wants to ask about Beanie.

The neighbor sighs, then says, “I buried Beanie last night.”

Sue reaches over to hug her neighbor and Larry feels like he should say something. “Did you put him down?”

The neighbor starts crying and walks off while Sue quietly mumbles how sorry she is about Beanie. After the neighbor is out of ear shot, she looks at Larry and says, “What the fuck kind of question is that to ask someone about their dead dog? Is that what you say to people when a family member dies? Do you ask them if they pulled the plug?”

They walk the next block home in silence. When Larry gets in the car and backs out of the driveway, they both know this is their end.

73 Degrees

Midwinter,
When a Tennessee breeze
Brings a lull to our chilled
Misery,
I step outside.
73 degrees and dropping,
I am waiting
For memory to melt me
Dethaw the deep-freeze
Seeping
Inside my skin.
At 73 degrees and climbing,
I thought ice could never
Creep in through
Our fault lines. Abigail would walk
From Barrett Drive to meet me
As I walked Fairview
And we met awkwardly
And easily
In the middle.
73 degrees and steady,
I was a girl who felt
As strongly as any girl
Of sixteen
Seventeen
Eighteen
Nineteen now and don’t know how it all
Turned
Cold.
My Honeysuckle changed to Henbit
Far too late
To fall out of love with its fake taste.
73 degrees and dropping now—
I’ve learned to wear a coat at last
Against our Tennessee breeze.
I slip my flip-flops from my feet
And surrender my skirts to warmer days.
I love the warmth I keep with me—
But tomorrow
I must protect it.
63 degrees,
53 degrees,
40, and dropping.

Honey Queen

it tasted like a bee hum in the mouth
brush of silk wings against tongue
stinger embedded in cheek lining.
that’s what happened when i swallowed
something that didn’t belong anymore
to my gluttonous stomach
the residual honey clinging to my teeth
a sour-sweet reminder of the sphere
where i was queen

Maybe Aphasia

Aphasia is a voice disorder resulting from damage to the brain. This damage can be caused by sudden injury or develop slowly. Aphasia is one type of many communication disorders.

Wake up without words

Grasping at air like a child begging for attention

A bit of warm water and honey

Can’t save your voice


Months of visits to airtight coffins with icebox walls

And wintery hands against your throat

Told you to speak and heard only the sounds of a Galton’s whistle

Silence. No diagnosis


I speak for you now

That I know what permanence means

What if I end up like her

Your lips, two camellia petals brushing against each other

Pushing out prayers

Everything will be okay

The first lie I ever spoke


Years from now, someone will ask

About you, who you were

What I loved

I will say, I loved everything

But your voice.

Picture Imperfect: Juli’s Two-Faced Journal

Juli came from a family line that suffered from depression, passed on by the patriarch, Gabriel, who came down to Mayagüez from a highlands jíbaro family, built up an auto parts empire, and according to family and community legend, “tamed the mountain.” He brought law and order to Caiseas Hill by poisoning the dogs, and running off the Dominicans who in those days washed ashore and roamed through the Algarrobos hills, terrorizing young virgins. 

Although a non-believer, Gabriel had married into a network of Bible-readers. By the time Juli entered El Colegio, Gabriel was confined to a wheelchair, mute but keenly observant. When Juli failed out in Spring 2019, it was determined that she suffered from the depression passed down from Gabriel through her mother, Isabela. Juli was prescribed anti-depressants and returned to El Colegio for a second try.

Juli was brown as a nut, unlike her abuela Marta who had the color of a Georgia peach. Juli had a special relationship with Gabriel. She would come talk with him, telling him her small joys and frustrated ambitions. Gabriel would beam at her, angelic, limited in his responses to the guttural noises some neighbors mistook for dementia. But Juli carried on conversations with him. In a family of believers, she sought out the sole non-Christian as her confessor.

Isabela was always a good child. She saw what other teenagers were doing. But while they went through their rebellious stages, out drinking and hooking up, she was ensconced in her room. She was not one to get into petty skirmishes, never disrespected the church, would never snap at her mom. She was the whole package of what every parent wished their youths could be. 

Now, as an adult, it seemed like the trials of Job had been visited on Isabela’s family. So many things were going wrong in her life. The electricity was cut off, and she had to call her mom, again, and Marta paid the bill. The only way she could deal with things was to keep her emotions bottled up, just like she had kept herself locked up as a teenager. 

Whenever Marta, now elderly, would ask for help around the house, Isabela never thought twice. Sí, mamá, ya voy. I’ll be right there, mom. She had just cleaned out a few old photos from a family album. Then, amidst stacks of old photo albums in her mother’s attic, layered with years of dust, lay something she could have happily lived without.

She picked up a loose stack of photos. Most were going straight to the trash pile. Then she saw a tiny ancient-looking cedar box. The rusty lock broke easily. Isabela was expecting jewelry, maybe some girlhood trinkets, but inside she found a stack of faded black and white pictures. Most of them were of a couple, a man and a pregnant woman she could barely make out. Flipping through them, certain repeating details came into focus. The man had deep brown skin, and a bright smile. The woman’s face had been scratched out, in every picture. Her arms were around the man. 

Her heart began racing, pounding. She dropped down from the attic, letting the trap door thud shut. Through a door ajar, she saw her mother, lovingly caressing her immobilized husband. 

“Mamá, can I borrow you a moment?” Marta let go of Gabriel’s hand and shuffled out.

“What happened? Did the dust get to you?”

“Look mom, do you know where these came from?” She held out the faded photos. Marta’s faced changed briefly. She registered shock momentarily, then her eyes took on that habitual joyous, tender look.

“Haven’t set eyes on these…..in ages.” Marta peered closely at one shot. A wave of emotion crossed her wrinkled face. Then she shoved the dusty photos back into Isabela’s arms.

“Trash them,” she said, disgusted. That was not was Isabela had expected. Maybe a story about old times. Marta registered the confusion on her daughter’s face and quickly shifted gears.

“Those are from a different time nena,” she said sweetly. But there was an undertow, an unspoken subtext: “a time we’re all trying to move past.”

Gabriel was groaning again. To his side Marta returned, directing her angel back to his comfort zone. A wry smile crept over Isabela’s face. “But this is what we women do,” she can hear her mother’s voice. “We are loyal.”

Taking leave of the aged lovebirds, Isabela waltzed into the room that had once belonged to Fern, the missionary. It was a small space but the big mirror vanity set made it feel bigger. She studied herself in the mirror. Suddenly there was a pit at the bottom of her stomach. She traced her fingers over lips that now felt thicker, and a nose that, like a mulatto Pinocchio, seemed wider. She spread out the old photos on the bed. The dark man, el Prieto, had thick lips, a wide nose, and strangely familiar eyes. She scratched her neck in a nervous tic. Her skin was warm and pale, not dark, just like her mother… just like the woman in the picture.

The woman’s face is scratched, but in one photo, taken from farther away, her arms are visible. No wedding ring to be seen, no jewelry, none of all the things Gabriel was buying her from the beginning. The only thing visible is something that Isabela wished she had never seen. A small birthmark on the corner of her hand.

There on her own hand, Isabela saw the same thing. She felt the room sway like a sea cabin. She rushed back upstairs to sort the pictures hurriedly, and yelled a quick “nos vemos” towards her father’s room. Running out the door, she nearly bowled over Josué Carrasco.

“Hold on, is something on fire?” Isabela quickly straightened her hair, and leaned in to kiss his cheek. She’d always liked Josué, her unofficial uncle. He brought her a gift every holiday, and shared in the family festivities, celebrated every accomplishment.

“Oh, you frightened me! How have you been?”

Todo bien, finally found some of those old songs me and your dad used to listen to. …..And you, everything OK?”

“Yes, I’m fine,” she lied.

“Alright now. I think I saw Juli hanging out in front of the church.” He gently kissed her cheek in a brief goodbye.

She found Juli lounging on the church steps, playing games on her cellie.

“Hey ma, what’s…”

“We’re leaving.”

“What?” Her brows furrowed. “I thought we were staying to help grandpa?”

“Change of plans. Get in the car.”

“Ma can you please freaking calm down. At least tell me what’s up?”

“Not now, Juli,” she snapped. “We need to go NOW.”

In the car, the air felt sucked out of the space between them. The sweat on her mother’s brow was speaking to her…. The ground had shifted underneath her, she could feel it.

“I ran into Josué today,” said Isabela. “Um, in more ways than one.”

“Oh, I like Mr. Carrasco so much,” Juli said. “His eyes are so bright, so full of, like, hidden love.”

         Isabela slammed the brakes. They came to a sudden stop and turned to look at each other.

Juli’s “Two-Faced Diary”

Entry #1, August 21, 2019

My Advanced English teacher Anne Francis is statuesque, deep brown, full lips, just so hips, a business skirt slit halfway up her thigh. I look at her and think, if I were a black woman, I mean seeing as how I am, well at least una mulata, that is how I would like to carry myself.

         Miss Anne keeps going over to the control dial to turn the overhead fans on and off. Watching her stride and sway across the floor is a spectacle that demands my attention. The simple gesture of turning that knob attracts me somehow–those elegant but I suspect impractical long fingers, trying to find a setting that will get the blades to spin. 

Some of the fans work, and some do not. The August heat is sweltering. The fans make it hard to hear anyone. When Miss Anne turns them off, sweat pours off my forehead, out of my armpits. I hear moaning and panting around me. I feel so much older than this crop of Prepas who have been taught to dream that their blood runs green. 

My counselor asked me to keep a “two faced diary.” To keep tabs on my emotional state. And to observe my physical environment. This is how I met Ruth Delgado.

My mother made me go to “Prepa Week Colegial” 2019. Mamá wanted me to have a “fresh start.” She dropped me off underneath the giant green bulldog at the front gate. So there I was on July 29 rubbing elbows with the island’s brightest science students.

I read the flyer: “The Department of Counseling and Psychological Services give you the most cordial welcome to our…..¡Antes, Ahora y Siempre…COLEGIO!” That slogan is plastered everywhere, on walls, T-shirts, stationary. “El Colegio” is like a mythical kingdom of higher learning. It has always been there, is still here, will always be there for us. 

I met Miss Delgado at a table in the student center staffed by Counseling Services. I liked her because she didn’t say anything to me at first. So I read their literature. Going through this experience a second time, listening to what adults were saying to us, and reading the pamphlets, I was struck by the emphasis on the fragilityof the students. They are treated with kid gloves, infantilized even, like of coursethey will need counseling. My second impression was the greenness of the students. Not El Colegio green blood, but unseasoned, un-ripened green. They were high-schooly, thrilled to be here, as if this was a peak experience. 

         I exchanged a few words with Miss Delgado, took her card, and left. Playing hooky on the Prepa experience. I rented the first room I saw in the Balboa district. And I bought a bicycle. Determined to have a typical freshman experience, not like last year, when I commuted from Mom’s house in Añasco.

I thought about getting rid of the anti-depressants. If I disliked my cohort so much on drugs, then surely it couldn’t be worse on the straight edge? I wondered: What else was I blunting? Did I want to go through life blunted?

Then I panicked the first week of classes. I remembered those pamphlets: “Do you feel stressed? You are not alone.” I pulled out Miss Delgado’s card. She sounded pleased, almost like she had expected me. We made an appointment.

         Miss Delgado’s office was a cubicle in the student center basement. She was low key, mom’s age, but with calm eyes. I told her about discovering that Gabriel was not my abuelo. That my real grandfather was a black man. So I had no genetic or biological predisposition for depression. I was rethinking things…. And could I just stop taking the blue pills?

Miss Delgado wanted me to keep a two faced diary. “I want you to see the world with two ears, to hear with two eyes,” she said, her eyes both earnest and sparkling.

“What?”

“I see you are paying attention.” She put both hands palms down on the desk between us. “It’s like becoming ambidextrous,” she explained. “There are lots of expressions about over-reliance on one side or the other. Like getting off on the wrong foot. Or developing left-braining thinking, because you’ve only been taught to use the right brain. To write two-faced is not to speak with a forked tongue, but to keep balance, to not be trapped in one’s head.”

I told her about abuela, who liked to quote the Bible. Some of what she said made sense, but it felt like a tug of war. Miss Delgado showed me this version of Ichthus, the Christian fish, but swimming in two directions at once. One direction was faith; the other science. She told me about doubled stories in Matthew.

“Take the two blind men in Matthew 9:27-31, whose sight was restored by touch. Two by two, it’s always pairs it seems that lead towards healing, two senses working together. So I want you to record what you observe through your two eyes and ears. That way you engage the world outside your head. Inside-out. Two heads are better than one!”

Miss Delgado was not trying to convert me, just trying to speak my language. She wanted me to write about my own double-ness, to see, hear, and speak with both sides of my being.

         So I started thinking about many things through this two-faced lens. The doubled grandfather. The Prepas at El Colegio. What else did that mean? PREPA: The Puerto Rican Electrical Power Authority. María exposed them as out of date, un-prepared. If I went down that road, PREPA also meant the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act. Now here I was, a Prepa once more. How did I prepare myself better this time? Could I write a new script?

Two-Faced Diary, Entry #2—The Sun Conure’s YouTube Channel

While talking to Miss Delgado, I remembered a dream about abuelo’s Sun Conure having a YouTube channel. This happened during the Fall of my first try at El Colegio, in 2018. I wrote this down during the Advanced English class, and used part of it for the poem I had to recite. Miss Delgado took an interest in this dream and ask me to write it for her. This is how it went:

*

I was in the cafeteria, and all the students were looking at the same video. Some of them were looking over at me, while I buried my face in a book. I heard some sound like a perico screeching, and the blood rushed to my cheeks. I started scanning all the screens around me. This animal looked way too familiar, as did the mango tree outside its cage. So I did what any teenage girl would do, I called my mom.

“Mom… what the fuck is grandpa´s perico doing on YouTube?” I said on voice mail.

Mom was out of pocket. I pulled the famous video up on my cell. This crazy Sun Conure had a wig on and was flipping a microphone up and down on its beak. The funny-looking animal´s head kept turning and glitching sideways, eyes looking directly at the camera. Then the Conure opened its beak to screeching, ear-violating moans. It was mocking abuelo, and all the students were laughing uproariously!

Then things got weird. The perico started looking directly at me, sticking its beak and its eyes out of the screen. It was halfway out of the screen, and then it started screeching at me. Everyone was rolling on the floor, splitting their guts laughing at me, or the bird. I dropped my phone. Seconds later, the parrot flew out of the screen and started following me. I heard some students say, “Isn’t that the bird from YouTube?” I tried to get rid of the bird by running as fast as I could, but the bird and the demented laughter followed me.

I began to realize I was dreaming, but focused on trying to catch the bird just to stop the laughter. My palms were sweaty; I was running in slow motion. Then I froze. The perico started pecking my hair. Finally I found myself in my grandparents´ living room, near the cage on the balcony. I couldn’t shake the sensation of the demonic animal harassing me. I started to feel like that bird was trying to tell me something. I wasn’t sure if it was about the stress I felt at the university, or the grudges I was carrying towards Mamá. To this day I cannot look at this family pet without a sense of loathing. Neither could I shake the feeling that, altho’ I hardly said a word to anyone, somehow the dream was telling me that my family life had become a spectacle. 

*

Miss Delgado felt the dream was a commentary on my relationship with abuelo Gabriel. In fact, depression was apparently a sort of a family curse. He had passed it on to me, through my mother, or so it seemed. I had a lot of repressed resentment about that. Then when I discovered that Gabriel was not my grandfather, the lineage of depression no longer made sense. I was going to have to write my way to rebirth.

When the Person Stays Dead

When the person stays dead,

you finally find time 

to deep clean the bathroom,

throw out all those promises

you almost made to God.


Afterwards, you climb the roof

and watch the stars go hunting.

Carnage chokes the sky and prayer

shoots shrieking over the edge

of the world, a river into the void.


Dawn threatens, savage with sparks

that unknot the flesh and the face

of God is a wandering home

where no one you know has been.


Way down by the water

the light still shivers offshore,

a little flame that leaps and flies

like an asteroid on the wind.


When the person stays dead,

then you know that God is a rebel

queen, with her back against the wall.

Poet Cemetery

Silver Rain dusts the bridge 

Moonlight’s beams of silk

Unwritten poems walk the rail 

An Unstable language 


Yesterdays breath 

Lingers above every arch

And sinking in every pit 

Budding between brown petals


Thirty-three names silenced by time 

Travelers who have forgotten their voice 

Strays in circles of timeless stone

Voiceless pages turn


Falling petals of the tongue’s age 

Bald grass and rotting wood 

Through these are dull points of pencils 

Still dancing in the breath of winter 

And Other Lies I’ve Told

I called grandma today,

said I needed the solace only

a woman can provide,

short of mother’s lectures.

Grandma was at home.

I called grandma today,

she was cooking, 

landline kissing the rim

of her soup pot. Marbled meat stumbling

upon soft produce, tangled in herbs

bathing in the milky base.

“your mother’s favorite”

but I already knew that.

I called grandma today,

she was missing our 

sweet faces, the cheeks that 

she gave us

and the dimples she didn’t. 

Those were from grandpa.

She didn’t say she will see me soon.

I called grandma today,

her voice matched the

silky way mother always described it,

her honey speech, words of

nectar running towards the 

point of my chin.

I wanted to be sweet like that.

I called grandma today,

we made plans 

for peanut butter brownies,

dipped toes in the glassy lake

and tales wrapped in gold.

I called grandma today knowing

my chances, slim 

like her figure in a

freshly floured apron

and yet

I called grandma today. Now she lives

in pages greased 

with butter kisses in round

spots of lakes

her body a cookbook 

bound together with stories

of a Detroit Christmas in

slanted cursive. My only 

source of her

carrot cake language.

I Think My House is Haunted

I can’t shake the spirit who 

envies my bones- 

a frame to claim as my own

rattling the broken screen

out back

guiding bitter fingers down my neck.

traces of dancing apparitions 

invitations to the ceremony 

of black dresses 

burnt orange petals, the hush 

of remembrance.

we pass 

tear-stained glasses on the roof

blushed spirits

blaze

our throats like a ghost,

And listen

to another funeral.

the cry of wind instruments

the cry of broken mothers

Sisters, friends

counting cars in procession and creating

a life 

for the dead. 

I know what it’s like 

to live beside

the cold breath

of a graveyard.

I watch Sunday burials 

with bitter black coffee

rows

         of 

                headstones 

inch closer, blurring lines of living

seeking solace 

in the smoke that escapes

my lips in thick white ribbons, 

They tempt me to join them.

NOVUS Literary and Arts Journal
Lebanon, TN