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The Seat Next to Me

Nobody sits next to me on the bus. Boarding passengers of slender girth or impressive
heft—even those with an enviable and unbounded sexuality—ignore, overlook, or simply slide
by the apparent barrenness of my soul. Today I’m in no mood. I’m nearly forty, and I have a date
for the first time in months. I will make myself approachable if it’s the last thing I do.

A young kid with a skateboard in his hand and a silver piercing in his eyebrow marches
by me in clunky white basketball sneakers and legs so bowed I don’t know how his knees could
ever touch. I have no chance. Behind him an old woman with streaked grey hair talks with the
bus driver while reaching for something in her overstuffed shoulder bag. She walks down the
aisle toward me, and I move closer to the window to make room for her. I imagine myself the
type of man an old lady feels safe sitting next to. Then she passes by. I pretend to glance at my
watch, then at a delivery truck slowing down for a narrow turn, but really I’m just following the
movement of her bulky tan bag with the squint of my eyes.

Soon the bus stops near Loyola University, where a strangely erect young woman with
lustrous hair storks her way up the stairs and into the aisle, her yellow laptop angling from her
backpack as if it’s about to fall. She’s appears East Asian to me, perhaps Korean, yet she looks
nothing like Christina or Fung in my 10 a.m. class at the public Chicago university where I teach,
a place of first-generation college students not nearly as sharp and polished as the young woman
who has entered the bus. I scooch my butt, again, closer to the window. She pauses in the aisle,
lowering her backpack and making quick eye contact with me, her rose red lipstick only a few
feet away. She’s attractive the way young college females often are: boundless possibilities. Then
she takes a half-step back and lowers herself into the vertical handicapped row just behind the
driver. I feel his eyes follow her. The seat next to me remains empty.

In law school, the professors never called on me. “You look like you don’t want to be
bothered,” a professor shared with me the semester before graduation. Then an image of myself
emerges. My civil procedures book spreads out before me as it were a tablecloth; my notebook is
doggie-eared and restless; pink, yellow, and green highlighters sprawl out before me like
crayons. I’m a mess, a young man shielded by his stuff. I try to relax the muscles of my face. I
open my mouth in a fit of oral calisthenics. What kind of stuff shields me now? I drop my bag
from my lap to the floor.

The bus continues, stops again, and I barely notice a young man with tight, faded hair
until he is almost on top of me. He’s not too tall, but so muscular that his shirt hugs his young
chest. He reminds me of the high school kids I coached so long ago. I want him to talk to me—to
sit down next to me and tell me about his life—but I don’t know how that would happen. The
girl with the yellow computer case shifts her body so she can follow his path, wherever that
might lead. I slowly raise my head and look up at this marvelous boy, so close I can nearly reach
out and grab his chin as my grandmother used to touch mine. Instead he pauses and passes by,
perhaps in search of his own image reflected back to him in the window.

Maybe I can look sexy for him, for the girl, for whomever else. I touch the front of my
hair—all in place—and run three fingers over the tattoo on my left forearm. A skinny young
woman with grad-school hipster glasses and red frayed jeans pauses to swipe her bus card. I
doubt I am her type, but I sit upright anyway and puff out my chest. I feel my barely-parted lips
with my index finger, imagining a face far smoother, refined, proportioned, and sexier than my
own. I think I even wink at her. I must look ridiculous, perhaps even grotesque. She talks with a shorter guy behind her, a goatee-wearing grad school clone with a piercing in his nose. They
walk by me without a glance. Still empty, the seat next to me, and I hope no one notices as I
caress the stained blue fabric. Then I rub my fingers together to keep myself busy. I’m not sure
what else to do.

I pull out a book from the bag beneath my legs and start reading. Maybe I’m just staring
at the symbols on faded paper, noticing the emptiness, the absence of contour and meaning I
know so well. But then I turn a page and feel a warm sensation against my leg. Someone has sat
down next to me. I don’t look at the face, but I can see the skin is nothing like my own. A dark
mahogany hue. The weighty leg feels heavy like a man’s body, and the way he presses his upper
leg against my body, unapologetically and attached to no larger purpose, reminds me how
different we must be. Then I imagine approaching someone else—not him, but someone
else—the same way he approaches me. I press my leg heavy against his for the rest of the ride,
so heavy that I imagine missing my stop.

A Letter to Eve

by Summer Doris, Second Place Winner of the Novus High School Creative Writing Contest

Caribbean people are lazy. This phrase lingered in my head from the moment these words
were uttered from a disapproving mouth. Sitting in the wooden chair of my stuffed classroom, I
looked up from the dusty linoleum floors to examine the face that belonged to this mouth.
Caribbean people are lazy. I studied the smirk on his face, and the look of pride that glistened in
his eyes. The classroom began to feel more stuffy, I couldn’t breathe as the whispers of
disapproval for islanders encompassed our classroom. In utter shock, I began to look towards my
teacher, my eyes begging him to rectify the situation. My teacher saw my pain, and redirected
our conversation towards a different topic. Still, my peers felt the need to further perpetuate their
disapproval for people like me. This is simply because Caribbean people, like me, are lazy. And
in my environment, what the majority believed, was inevitably true.

To my great-grandmother Eve, laziness was never an option. With eight kids in total, she
learned responsibility from a young age. After the birth of her firstborn, she worked relentlessly
to provide for her children in the bustling city of Georgetown, Guyana. Like any Guyanese
woman, Eve understood the true value of family. Job after job, she worked vigorously to make
sure her kids would lead a life that they deserved. Their education and happiness was a priority
for her as a mother, and as a human being. She would do anything for her family, even if it
meant that she did not rest or eat well, it was all for the sake of her family.

From her gem-like spirit, and tireless work ethic, her kids learned the value of staying
true to their dreams. She and her children were grounded in the value of community, and
receiving a prosperous education. Eventually as Eve worked, she found an opportunity to
enhance her, and her children’s lives. She made the difficult decision of heading towards the
United States alone, without her children. There she was, establishing a home, and taking
each of her kids from Guyana one by one. Eve was simply phenomenal, her ambitions made-rich by
the sunshine of our beautiful country. She touched each generation of her family, spreading her
wisdom to her sons and daughters, her wisdom spreading intergenerationally. In the eight years
that I spent getting to know her, I adopted her values of the Guyanese way of living.

Consequently, I have never believed any one Caribbean person I know to be lazy. After
all, most Caribbeans I have met are the ones within my own family. So, as I sat there in that
stuffed classroom, full of whispers I garnered the courage to question my peers. I questioned
why they believed this to be true, for they never even cared to meet us. How could they open
their mouth, and demean people of a beautifully hardworking, family-oriented culture. And as I
challenged my peers, their lips fell silent, and their eyes no longer glistened of pride and
disapproval. My love for my people, and my Guyanese upbringing allowed me to find my voice,
and question their incompetence. Their eyes now showed their regret, and reconsideration of
their stance on people like me. It was abundantly clear to them that in this instant, their
assumptions were wrong.

In this instance, Eve’s spirit offered me the courage to oppose my peers in an
uncomfortable situation. Thanks to her, I can always remember that my heart is green, red, and
gold, and my blood flows through me like the many waters of my beautiful country. My hair
falls like the Kaiteur, my eyes stay as starry as the Stabroek market, as I dream for my future.
Although I was born in America, Guyana is the home of my consciousness. I thank Eve, for if
she taught me anything, it was that we Guyanese are hard workers.

Illinois Awaits

by Shelby Jones, First Place Winner of the Novus High School Creative Writing Contest

The woods behind her house went so deep we could have never explored it all, but she
and I used that to our advantage. We were wizards… powerful, unfathomable wizards. The
woods were our hideout, our safe spot. Even though the air was blistering cold, and the wind
chill was fifteen degrees, we were out there for hours. Jumping between rocks gave us a quick
shot of adrenaline while climbing the trees tested our limits. Certain rocks had fallen over one
another to create a perfect hideaway. Our wizarding activities took course throughout the entire
stretch of the forest; we always went deeper into the forest than her mother allowed. The only
thing that could force us inside was her mother’s sweet voice, calling for lunch. Her specialty
was the “Chaco taco” – an Eggos waffle smothered with Nutella and folded in half to resemble a
taco. The smell of the toaster slightly burning the shell to our tacos was swallowing the fresh air.
The bliss of childhood had never been so real.

Olivia was the kind of friend you just know. You don’t remember how, when, or why you
became friends, but you are. She was a warm-toned blonde with just a few freckles dotted across
her nose. She wore big square glasses that were always either plum purple or black with a light
blue rim. She was extremely fit, never missing a day of soccer practice, her family was mine and
mine was hers.

Flash forward a year, I get the news. My best friend, Olivia, will be moving to Illinois in
August. My heart has never dropped so fast. It felt like I had swallowed a fifty-pound weight and
couldn’t get it back up. No tears ran, not yet; those would come later. It was the most world-
shattering, soul-wrenching news I could have ever imagined. We were about to go into the sixth
grade: the most dramatic change in my preteen life was about to occur, and there was no getting
through that without Olivia. She called me to tell me the news, “Hey Shelby,” the sweet voice of
Olivia’s mother. “Hey, Mrs. Katie!” I answered excitedly, with no idea of what was to come.
“Me and Olivia have some news. You may not like it,” she said begrudgingly. I swallowed the
lump that had just appeared in my throat, “Olivia’s dad got a promotion,” she said. I interrupted
her with a quick congrats, she let out a sigh, “ For him to keep doing good at his job, we need to
move to Illinois.” There were so many ideas running through my head about what this phone call
was about. Not that. Never that.

There was never any doubt that she and I were the most important people to each other.
But before she left, the question arose as we were sitting on the blistering playground swings. It
was a hot August summer, and her neighborhood playground was calling our name. We walked
behind her house to the large football-sized field. Glancing across the way through the bright
almost autumn sun, there was a gentle outline of the playground swings in the distance. Skipping
our way through the field, we chatted about simple things like Harry Potter or what the plan for
tomorrow was. We got to the playground and ever-so-quickly hopped on the swings. The air
flew through our hair and we pumped our legs to get our swings higher and higher. I stopped my
momentum very suddenly when I had my thought; for I couldn’t swing and question my entire
friendship at the same time. “Olivia?”, I said with a slight weariness to my voice. “Yes?” she was
out of breath from exerting so much energy trying to get the swing as high as it would allow.

“Will you make a new best friend when you move, or will you just call me all the time?” Sixth
grade me, truly believed that she would never make another friend, for it felt I wouldn’t either. “I
don’t know. I might have to. I don’t wanna be all alone at school.” She answered; I could hear the
worry in her voice. She and I never brought that subject up again. I was convinced I would be
alone while in middle school, high school, and college, and then eventually just die alone.

We went about the beginning of school rituals as usual: school shopping, clothes
shopping, schedule reading, and multiplication flash cards. This time it felt different. Olivia was
only going to be in my class for a few weeks, then, poof-gone. The thought of her not being there
to complain and de-stress with me brought a genuinely sick feeling to my stomach. She and I
hung out every day that she was available. She was in travel soccer and was very good for an
eleven-year-old. Somehow we managed to hang out so often that the woods never got a break,
not until that day- the day she left.

The day had come, and the night before was sleepless. My mom woke me up earlier than
the birds sang to say goodbye before they left. It was a chilly morning, the type to make those
microscopic hairs on your arms stand tall. The air was thin and the sky was a strange shade of
blue, almost gray. Her house, even from the outside, was dead. The liveliness and joy that used
to radiate from her home had been vacuumed away. My mom and I pulled into the driveway
slowly. The crackle and pop of the tires on the driveway gravel seemed to last for hours. Finally,
the car came to a stop. I wish the car door would have just locked shut, forever, and not let me
out into this nightmare. My heart told me to not touch that door handle, but my mother’s nagging
voice told my head that I had to get out.

I walked into the garage, and through the door leading to her house. Somehow the outside
world’s gloominess leaked inside. No barstools carefully tucked under the hightop, no crayons
on the counter, no toaster, no more pictures delicately hung on the fridge. I could tell Olivia was
tired; she was just standing there, waiting. The entrance room floor was stacked with the few
remaining boxes, the ones that wouldn’t fit in the U-Haul. She gave me a look, one I was
unfamiliar with: it felt alien. We took a walk around the now ghost town of a house. Every step
we took seemed to creek louder than before. It echoed through the empty halls and the, somehow
sadder, paler walls. As if we were in our old age, she and I recalled memories as we explored
each empty, cold room. The spellbook we wrote in her bedroom. The Barbies we stripped of hair
in her playroom. The “ghosts” we hunted for in her living room. The ceilings were so high I
could have mistaken the house for a circus tent and I was the clown, running circles around the
ring of truth that was her getting in that car and driving away.

We came back around to the entry hall, where our parents were still chatting about “adult
things”. I knew when I saw my mom’s face that it was time for them to go. I couldn’t accept it. I
decided to be the bigger person because who knows the pain Olivia was feeling, moving away
from all she ever knew. I assumed her pain was ten times mine, which was unimaginable but I
tried to understand.

We rarely hugged each other. Throughout our friendship the only times I can recall
hugging was for a picture or when she would win a soccer game; the only times we did, they
were happy hugs. This hug was different. She and I hugged for what felt like an eternity. Her
arms were above mine, over my shoulder. She was so tall, five foot six inches while in the sixth
grade. I was wrapped around her like a helpless sloth, wishing for someone to save me from this
slow, stretched-out goodbye. The saddest goodbye of my life. When the hug was over, her shirt
was covered in tears. I was embarrassed until I looked over at my shoulder and saw a wet spot
from where she had rested her chin. For some reason, her warm tears on my shoulder reassured
me that I knew I was special to her too. One final goodbye and a quick hug to Mrs. Katie and we
drove off.

School was never the same. Her presence was completely gone. I thought because I could
still call and text her, that it wouldn’t feel as if she was gone. It seems overdramatic to call it a
loss. So many people lose their friends and family members every year. Olivia hadn’t passed; she
hadn’t been in some freak accident. She had, however, started a different life. She goes by the
same name, she has the same family, and she may never change her personality; however, she
would make new friends. New friends, to an eleven-year-old, is the ultimate betrayal. Having
one BFF was still the fad, and the clicks had already been decided and finalized. My BFF, my
click, was gone.

As time went on, the crying became subdued. Less wet pillows and empty tissue boxes. It
was no longer the only thing on my mind. I began to focus on other friends who were physically
there, not just on a phone call that made me cry every time it ended. She still comes to mind, she
still comes up on my feed. Somehow, we still ended up being interested in the same things.
Maybe we are destined to be friends. So if we ever do reconnect, Olivia, let’s play in the woods,
let’s jump over some rocks, and let’s eat so many Chaco-Tacos that our bellies become numb.
Let’s explore who we have become, and who we used to be.

A Re-creation Story

From Cumberland’s Retiring University Faculty Pastor, Dr. Mike Ripski

February 2, 2016

   An emergency summit of the family council of the Holy Communion was called. Of course, an emergency in eternity time refers more to the depth and breadth of love than to the passage of time. The family council was called because the earth experiment was in jeopardy. Never before had it been on the brink of self-destruction as it was now. 

     It weighed heavy on all their hearts. What did love demand they do? It was the question the Holy Communion family asked in their relations to one another. It was the question not being asked by the majority of those to whom the family had given the gift of creation. How a gift is received and used is a reflection of the receiver’s regard for both the gift and the Giver of the gift. Currently there was little regard. Humans viewed themselves as self-made women and self-made men. They believed they had no one to answer to but themselves. 

   All of those around the table had this on their mind and heart: How could the family of Holy Communion show mercy to the human family and influence its heart without interfering with the freedom of its will. To interfere with its freedom would interfere with its capacity for genuine love, for true love cannot be coerced or manipulated or threatened. Love like that within and among the Holy Communion family was freely given and freely received. 

   The members of the Holy Communion family began the contemplation of this earth crisis with contemplation. Some would call it prayer. Then, after what seemed like an eternity, a voice spoke.

   It was a Daughter, Sophia: ‘The humans are now reaping what they have sown. When they ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they came to know that there is good and there is evil, but they did not gain the ability to use the knowledge wisely. They were prone to call good only what benefitted themselves or their group or their tribe or race or nation. They were prone to call good what was of benefit in the short-run. They couldn’t and, to be honest, didn’t want to see the long-range consequences of their scientific advances and technological inventions. 

   “The earth was once a nurturing and nourishing mother-like garden. Now it has become as a jilted lover. No longer maternal she turns her back on those who need it most. Mother nature’s nature has become vindictive. Chemicals, assumed to be good were used without discretion and self-control. They are causing irreversible damage to all that is live. Antibiotics, a source of healing but again used without discretion, are producing germs now drug-resistant and deadly. The earth is ripe for plagues that will put the future of human race in danger.”

   A Son’s voice added to the list of unforeseen consequences that were turning the earth into a toxic cesspool: “Fossil fuels made possible travel whenever and wherever. Humans went to the moon and landed a rover on Mars. They valued convenience over speed and turned greed into a virtue. Global conferences are held to plan ways of protecting a depleted ozone layer of the earth’s atmosphere. Of course, the many attendees fly in jets that produce by-products that deplete the ozone layer even more. Skin cancer is on the rise. The polar ice caps are melting . Sea levels are rising. Weather patterns are changing. The earth’s temperature last year was the warmest ever. Drought is making famine more common.”

   The Mother’s voce was now heard. It was tender yet determined as you’d expect a mother’s love to be. “My heart breaks for the children. Not just some, but all. Children dying of starvation and polluted water. Children forced to become soldiers to kill and be killed in senseless wars for despicable causes. Children born addicted due to their mothers’ addiction. Children turned into sex and factory slaves. Children with disabilities that make them viewed as burdens and liabilities. Children on the streets of the world’s cities, left to fend for themselves. Children forced to deal with experiences that leave them traumatized. Children locked in poverty, susceptible to perpetuating the violence their violent worlds teach them to believe is the only way life can be. Children who are easy prey for 

anyone who will show them attention. Children who will spend their lives dying a slow death because of what was done to them when they were defenseless.” 

   The Mother’s voice slowly turned into uncontrollable sobs.

   The Father’s voice now spoke: “It breaks my heart that those we made in our image — to love, show mercy, forgive, treat each other as you want to be treated, sacrifice for one another, be especially sensitive to the least, the last, and the lost, live by a power that is expressed not in being served but in serving, seeing the big picture that we can see rather than only what affects them and their little group, sharing what they have so no one lacks what is needed to flourish, walking with each other through the valley of the shadow of death with no fear or evil motive, graciously giving one anther the benefit of the doubt instead of judging and condemning , being able to admit when change is needed, trusting that forgiveness is our only for the planet, willing to risk one’s own welfare confidently trusting that everything that is is destined for resurrection, that acknowledging our own personal wounds will make it possible for all of our wounds to be healed, concern for the whole and not just a part, to live by mercy, which means seeking to divinize everyone rather than demonize them.”

   The Father paused and then observed, “This is who we are and who we created humans to be. We created them in our image, but they’ve created us in their image in order to justify their evil projects and plans and agenda. They turned us into warmongers, because they’re addicted to war. They’ve made their enemies our enemies, even though all are our children too. They’ve turned their religion into rationalization for doing what is the very contradiction of who we are and what we value. They’ve turned their scriptures into clubs to pummel each other with.”

   Grandfather’s voice was heard next: “What does love demand? I know what I feel — I feel anger on the verge of rage. I feel the way I felt when I once gave up on Creation, not long after the experiment began. I wiped the slate clean — except for Noah, his family, and the precious animals he saved on the ark. But when the flood waters subsided I grieved over the loss of what I’d destroyed. It broke my heart. The grief was deep. I learned a lot about myself through that experience. I decided it wasn’t who I AM. I won’t ever again allow humans to make me turn my back on them, even though they turn away from me. That’s why we’re here today. We care about them and want their best and the best for earth. Their stubbornness and wickedness will never override our love and compassion for them.

   “So how can we bring them to their senses and open their eyes to see what we can see? How can we, as it were, change their spirit and make it holy like ours, so they will desire the Holy Communion, the mutual love and respect that we enjoy? How can we re-create them from their inside out–not imposing our will on them but rather our will and theirs be in harmony?”

   “What are we to do?”

   Grandmother’s voice spoke next: “I see glimmers of hope in many of the humans. I’ve walked the earth with them as one of them. I’ve found young and old, people of all races and religions, rich and poor, who have compassionate hearts like ours. They are risking themselves, sacrificing their own welfare, for the vision that is our vision: family, holy communion

   “They are working tirelessly to change systems that enslave and demean and distort our divine image in them.

   They are resisting revenge over age-old animosities and prejudices. They are confessing the wrong they’ve done to each other, asking for forgiveness and granting it.

   They are crossing boundaries, tearing down walls of separation, and partnering to work together on issues that are too big to tackle alone.

   They are doing the hard work of converting enemies into friends.

   They are learning to view each other’s differences not just with tolerance but appreciation.

   They are drawing on their religions to inspire them for seeking the good of all the earth. They are letting themselves be captivated by a vision that is our vision. For many of them it’s like a dormant memory of a garden that once existed and can exist again.

   They’re know that religion can become an end in itself — used like a drug to make persons feel good rather than be good. They’re on guard against religion blessing attitudes and actions that curse.

   I see those whose hearts are beating with ours. They see the Big Picture as well as what is right in front of them. They see beneath the surface of life to what is real and true and eternal and precious.

   They simply need to be strengthened when they grow tired, cheered on whey they become discouraged, guided when they come to roadblocks and forks in the road and when they have to choose between options that appear equally good or equally bad, and encouraged when they doubt that what they are devoted to is worth it and will prevail in the end.”

   “How can we do that?

   The voice of the youngest member of the family raises his hand and offers this testimony: “I know I feel most loving when our family comes together like we are now and we focus our attention on how to love those who need love most. Maybe Grandmother is pointing us in the direction of how to love creation and its creatures. Let us whisper words of affirmation in the ears to the hearts of those who are already loving as we do, who are already inspired by the vision of holy communion, who are already caring for the least, the last, and the lost as we do. Let us breathe the breath of holy energy in them. Let us open doors that they can’t yet see that will open up possibilities they have yet to imagine.

   “We can do this. 

   “Can’t we?”

Trees are More than Bark

  1. The trees are here because they are planted, not grown on their own. They are planted
    with pebbles that have tints of red and brown. Beautiful trees stand forever. Their
    branches grow to stretch, reaching each other, and wanting to hold on to life. They grow
    to the sky letting their leaves wave in the wind. Their colors shape from green, red,
    purple, and gold. Some are bald needing more time, more food than pebbles to grow. The
    young ones have leaves all over their trunk letting them drop down to give them new life.
    They are taller than any man-made building, not in sight but in spirit. They are the true
    homes of mother nature, where the bark holds a world of creatures ready to be fed back into the outside world.
  1. What do you know about trees? The oak tree grows and knows more. More knowledge
    than any human that has or ever will live. More knowledge than the computers that will
    take us over. More knowledge than the universe itself for the trees were there at the start.
    They are the beginning and they will never be the last but carry on living. The oldest tree
    in the world reaches 5,000 years old. It lives in the harshest conditions. Cold
    temperatures and high winds would kill anything else. Any human can’t live that long
    with a healthy lifestyle or advancements let alone one with freezing temperatures. Bare to
    the bone people would die. But the tree lives on. It is slow growing. It created dense
    wood and bristlecone pine to make it resistant to insects, fungi, rot, and erosion. It knows
    how to protect itself. The tree lives longer because it grows in harsh conditions. We do
    not. We might make it out with our lives but our minds are corrupted. Trees; do not become corrupt. Even with bribery.
  1. The way trees are just there. Watching. You never think twice about the tree that lives in
    your backyard or the one that’s at school until it’s gone. You look at the ground at a hold.
    At a patch of dirt messy sprinkled with grass. It reminds me of sitting in a tree. Of laying
    against it feeling the breeze as I rested from running in the park. It was when my heart
    was racing, my skin was sweaty, and my head still spinning that I felt connected to the
    tree. The wind coming through the leaves, I felt through my bones. The ground that feeds
    the roots, I felt it in my gym shoes. The way the ants climbed up the bark, I was an ant
    climbing back on my feet. The stickiness I felt on my hands and arms after I left the park was a reminder of what I felt and believed.

The Stars and Tides

“I can see the stars,” I told my Dad the first night we stayed at our new home in
Tennessee. My dad smiled, “it’s so much prettier here than that shithole we came from.” Then
before he went inside, he squeezed my shoulder and said, “I have a good feeling about this place,
kid. I just know big things are going to happen to you.” I tore my gaze away from the night sky
that was dusted with stars and looked at my dad. He had big hopeful eyes and his lips were
quipped up in the warmest smile. When I heard the door shut behind him, I looked up at the night
sky again. All the stars blazing across it. I searched for the little and big dipper and as I did I
wondered if this was normal for Tennesseans. To go outside and look at the stars–or do they also
take things for granted?

Every night I went outside– just to make sure the stars were still there and hadn’t

All thousands of them.

If I had the patience, I would count each one and name them. The sticky air would make
my white Los Angeles t-shirt stuck to my ribs and make my hair double in size. The fireflies
would gently flicker through the emerald grass. I thought fireflies were a myth before I moved to
Tennessee. When I closed my eyes and listened, I would hear crickets chirping and the rustle of
leaves instead of sirens and traffic. I would look back at the house I live in now only to see my
old home back in California. The one on the cracked light grey road with the reddish brown
driveway that leads to the brown front door. It’s still tucked away in my memory, but sometimes
I have to dive deep to find it, but it’s there.

I remember coming home from school one day and my family was discussing moving to
Tennessee. At the time I didn’t know how I felt about moving. After when my dad got medically
retired and my mom had to work full time I knew moving would help us financially. I had also
never flown on a plane before, and I was curious about what it was like being above those white
puffy clouds. Those last six months in California happened so rapidly: I applied to college and
was accepted, we put our house on the market, our house sold, I graduated high school, went to
prom, and booked a one-way ticket to Tennessee where my dad meet us in the gray truck with
my orange dog’s head drooling out the window.

And now I’m looking at stars thinking about home because Tennessee doesn’t feel like
home and I don’t think I’ll ever be rooted here. I can’t seem to assimilate myself here as if it is
like the tide keeps pulling my heart further and further back out to sea like it did those seven
summers ago.

The beach was a forty-five to an hour drive away, and I counted every second till I saw
the peak of the rich navy blue ocean through the mountains. I would crash into the waves like it
was a lost embrace and swim far out until my toes couldn’t touch the sand. I wasn’t afraid of the
current as I welcomed its untamed and uncontrollable nature. I felt one with it because neither of
us liked being told what to do, and if someone tried to control us we’d drown them. Soon the
water became still and had a steady rise and fall without the waves breaking. It was like a
soothing lullaby for me to softly cradle into as the sun became a warm blanket laid on top of me.
I was getting further out into the sea, so I started to swim back to shore. I swam harder pushing
against the calm waters that were dragging me back. The saltwater was spilled into my mouth,
and my arms and legs were beginning to ache. I couldn’t fight any longer as my arms and legs were tortuously giving out like a sting being pulled taut. In that terrifying moment, I realized I
had no control over the tide. As I gave one last kick and reached my arms out, I knew there was
no escape.

So I stopped fighting, and I let the ocean take me.

I had no control over the move. I didn’t know where I was moving or what my new town
looked like. I want my house back on the cracked light grey roads. I want to see my grandparents
who live twenty minutes away from me. I miss the beach and how I would wait till the sky
burned it on fire as the sun kissed the ocean. How I used to believe that was God’s way of telling
me everything was going to be okay because I have always been written inside of sunsets.
Hidden between the pages of colors that softly coat the blue sky. Waiting for someone to stop
and notice me. To remind me everything is going the way it’s supposed to. The sun is meant to
rise in the east and set in the west. It was normal for everyone to hide behind locked doors and
put on armor when it became night. The brave ones would venture out into the night where the
twinkle of stars was the only light. Everyone keeps telling me that moving to Tennessee was the
right thing to do and I have no story to tell.

Everyone back in California moved on like I was nothing but dust carried by the wind.
The truth is I have nothing to tell other than, I burn so ardently that my lungs suffocate from the
smoke. I miss the call of the ocean and I feel like I drown when I am not near it. I am aware that
my problems are luxuries for most, but I still drown. I feel like an outsider here, nor do I want to
be rooted here. For some reason being rooted here scares me more than the former.