All posts by BLR Staff

W. F. Lantry

Lantry-0729a-HiResW.F. Lantry’s poetry collections are The Structure of Desire (Little Red Tree 2012), winner of a 2013 Nautilus Award in Poetry, The Language of Birds (Finishing Line 2011), and a forthcoming collection The Book of Maps. A native of San Diego, he received his Maîtrise from L’Université de Nice, M.A., and PhD in Creative Writing from University of Houston. Honors include the National Hackney Literary Award in Poetry, CutBank Patricia Goedicke Prize, Crucible Editors’ Poetry Prize, Lindberg Foundation International Poetry for Peace Prize (Israel), and the Potomac Review and Old Red Kimono LaNelle Daniel Prizes. His work has appeared widely, in journals such as Asian Cha, Gulf Coast and Valparaiso Poetry Review. He currently works in Washington, DC and is an associate fiction editor at JMWW.

Richard Tuschman

Morning Sun 2012
Morning Sun 2012

 

Spotlight on an Artist

Richard Tuschman began experimenting with digital imaging in the early 1990’s, developing a style that synthesized his interests in graphic design, photography, painting and assemblage. His work has since been exhibited internationally and recognized by, among others, Photo District News, American Photography, Prix de la Photographie, Paris, and the International Photography Awards. Commercially, his work has been featured in publications and advertisements for clients such as Adobe Systems, The New York Times, Penguin, Sony Music, Newsweek and Random House, among others. He has lectured widely on his artistic technique and creative process, and has taught at the University of Akron Myers School of Art (Akron, OH), Ringling College of Art + Design (Sarasota, Fl) and Cuyahoga Community College (Cleveland, OH). He currently lives and works in New York City. Find more of his work here.

 

Hopper Meditations

Hopper Meditations is a personal photographic response to the work of the American painter, Edward Hopper. 

Woman Reading 2013
Woman Reading 2013

My images are created by digitally marrying dollhouse-size dioramas with live models. The sets I built, painted and photographed in my studio. A lot of the furniture is standard dollhouse furniture, but some I made myself. I then photographed the models against a plain backdrop, and lastly, made the digital composites in Photoshop. 

I have always loved the way Hopper’s paintings, with an economy of means, are able to address the mysteries and complexities of the human condition. Placing one or two figures in humble, intimate settings, he created quiet scenes that are psychologically compelling with open-ended narratives. The characters’ emotional states can seem to waver paradoxically between reverie and alienation, or perhaps between longing and resignation. Dramatic lighting heightens the emotional overtones, but any final interpretation is left to the viewer. These are all qualities I hope to imbue in my images as well.

Hotel By Rail Road 2012
Hotel By Rail Road 2012

In other ways, my pictures diverge from Hopper’s paintings. The general mood in my work is more somber, and the lighting is less harsh, than in Hopper’s. I am trying to achieve an effect perhaps closer to the chiaroscuro lighting of Rembrandt, another painter I greatly admire. I would like the lighting to act as almost another character, not only illuminating the form of the figures, but also echoing and evoking the their inner lives. I suppose I would like to marry the theatricality of Rembrandt with the humility of Hopper. In this way, I like to think of my images as dramas for a small stage, with the figures as actors in a one or two character play. The characters, by appearance, are rooted specifically in the past, somewhere in Hopper’s mid-twentieth century. For me, this augments the dreamlike, staged effect of the scenes. The themes they evoke, though—solitude, alienation, longing—are timeless and universal.

Still-Life Montage

This series of still-life montages digitally layers tabletop photography, painting, and assemblage. Though the process relies heavily on technology, it is important to me that the work conveys a sense of intimacy and emotional weight, qualities that one does not often associate with technology. I see the works themselves as mood pieces, exploring themes of loss, vulnerability, longing, growth and decay. 

Hat & Book 2007
Hat & Book 2007

The fragile beauty of birds, flowers and small plants has always seemed an apt metaphor for the ephemeral preciousness and variety of life itself. In addition, for a long time I have been drawn to organic materials such as wood and oil paint for their primal physical presence. I had been working with these materials for many years before digital technology came along, so it felt only natural to incorporate them into my digital work. I also like the way the early photographic techniques left artifacts of the process on the finished print, adding both an abstract poetry and a reference to their creation. I suppose I am after a similar effect. The scanned and photographed painted textures in the montages are built layer upon layer of brushed, scraped, rubbed, and glazed oil or acrylic paint. One step leads to the next, applying the paint in one way or another, then responding to that, over and over. When I am compositing the scanned textures and photographs on the computer, the process in analogous. Instead of applying layer upon layer of paint, I am continually re-working layers of images and textures, trying different opacities and blending strategies, dodging and burning, etc. I see each new layer as analogous to an event in the life of the piece, one leading to the next. In this way, even those layers that end up invisible in the finished version, much like forgotten events in our lives, have somehow contributed to the whole.

 

Western Still Life 2011
Western Still Life 2011

Danusha Goska

Danusha V. GoskaDanusha Goska‘s new book Save Send Delete tells the true story of her debate about God, and love affair, with a prominent atheist author. Celebrity Larry Dossey, M.D. called her work: “Lyrical, forceful, inspiring…” Her blog is http://save-send-delete.blogspot.com.

 

 

Star Tattoo

I descended my neighbor’s outdoor, concrete flight of stairs, as I always do on Food Bank Day. I descended from bright August sun and stifling Indiana heat to the basement’s cool, dank dark. My neighbor had a new tenant; this tenant had cats; the basement, where the twice-monthly Food Bank was held, would reek. The aluminum shelves of canned food and cereal boxes would be lit by one overhead, sixty-watt bulb. There would be people like me there: poor, but decent. At last, I’d get to feel at home. As we filled our bags – even, on a bad week, with just five boxes of breakfast cereal and one can that had lost its label – we’d rejoice that we were receiving the weapons with which we could defeat hunger for the next two weeks, till the next Food Bank Day.

As I pulled back the screen door, I was happy with anticipation. But something had gone wrong. Three sweating white males crowded the readily available space and monopolized the air. In opposite corners were two women. The only sound: the scrape-scrape panting of a hound.

The younger, slutty woman was a stranger. I studied her. She was looking, alternately, absent and then focused and then absent again, like a black-and-white, rabbit-eared TV, oscillating between clarity and static.

I know the small woman in the other corner. She is a food bank regular. I don’t know her name. I know her enough to like her and care about her looking cornered and scared. She’s tiny. She wears worn but conservative skirts and blouses, even in this heat. She has neatly cut and permed hair. She has stopped me in the street, downtown, and told me that angels have informed her that she must relocate to Minneapolis.

She was snarling like a weasel trapped someplace rectangular and domestic; she was shooting looks and balling her fists. One of the guys, sleekly bare-chested, like the others, but with tattoos, was smirking. This guy was maybe in his early 20s. He was like a human razor: economically designed for mental or physical assault. He stood out as the leader of his own pack: another, blonde boy, the substantial hound, and the slutty blonde teen.

I’m big. Taller than the average woman, big-boned, and I walk a lot so I look sturdy. Before I got sick, and came to need food banks, I had been a teacher. I demanded, just with my body, “What’s going on here?” and I announced, with my body alone, “Whatever it is, it had better stop.” I created a passageway. The Small Woman took it, sliding behind me, bolting out the door and up the steps. I glared at the tribe of Smirkers. They deemed me unworthy of eye contact. But I knew that they had “heard” me. The Smirkers shot challenging looks at the third man. The third man suddenly seemed very alone, under their stare. He’s an organic farmer, another food bank regular, a man I know, and a new father, but I’m not sure of his name. Taking their cardboard boxes and their time, the Smirkers sauntered out, one by one. Even their hound was surly.

I was now alone with the Farmer in the basement. I looked at him. He volunteers his truck and his back to gathering food at drop-off points – restaurants, bakeries, supermarkets – and bringing it here. He was sweating from his exertion. He was fuming with righteous rage.

“What was that all about?” I asked.

“It’s not worth talking about,” the Farmer announced. He knows that this food bank, that materializes every other Wednesday, is as much my place as his. I, too, have unloaded the trucks full of expired soymilk and day-old loaves for our vegetarian, low-impact, food-bank-cum-lefty-political-powwow. I’ve put in hours in the dim light and cat-piss smell and instructed newcomers to sign the waiver (the back of a recycled sheet of paper, usually some political flier) stating that they won’t sue if they get sick from spoiled food. I, too, have adjured patrons to donate (into a coffee can with a slotted plastic lid) and begged them to volunteer (to carry stuff in off the trucks; to watch the many toddlers that accumulate underfoot like dust under a dresser, so that they don’t fall on the concrete stair). The Farmer doesn’t know my name, but he’s seen me do this work; he wasn’t dismissing me or being unkind. It’s just that he is a farmer, and his idea of what is worth talking about and my idea of what is worth talking about, are two very different ideas. But I was frustrated, and I was curious. My route back to serenity out of such a frightening stand-off is words. His route is silence.

We opened some boxes and stacked some shelves. We greedily pocketed some goodies for ourselves alone – I grabbed the lone can of mandarin oranges. We set some goodies aside for others: “Cashew butter! Jed will love that. His kid’s allergic to peanuts.” I love cashew butter, too, but I did the math in my head: added my hours of volunteer work, subtracted the mandarins, multiplied by Jed’s kid’s allergy, and found my balance could not cover the cashew butter.

Eventually, the Farmer did speak. The head Smirker, the dark haired one, with the tattoos, had once beaten up a woman friend of the Farmer’s. That Smirker – that batterer – had yet to repent. The Farmer wouldn’t have that. He needed the guy to publicly state, “I did it. It was my fault. I’ll never do it again” before he’d allow him back into the community.

The Smirker, fresh from prison following the battering, had showed up this morning at the food bank, surprising everyone. The Farmer, apparently thinking, at that moment of the Smirker’s arrival, that it was worth talking about, had dropped a comment about the Smirker’s rap sheet. “You smell like prison,” he had said. The Farmer repeated the line to me. He had meant this as an open door, he explained. The Smirker could apologize, and lose that smell.

The Smirker had been bending over a box. He stood up straight. He did not apologize. Rather, he stated, loudly and clearly, “Takes two to tango.” The Farmer was infuriated. But, he decided to just let it go. Some things are not worth talking about.

The Small Woman, as far as I could make out, had never even seen the Smirker before, and knew none of his story before she arrived. She’s just a food bank regular. She just walked in on it all. She just overheard. She just wanted to brain the Smirker, the batterer, the bare-chested man/boy ex-con with the tattoos – I never learned his name. She just itched to torpedo her small, marginal, girly body, which had maybe never done violence to anything more threatening than a pack of tofu, and make him, just, just, make him sorry, just show him what it’s like, make him know, make him … just, make him. The Farmer had had to hold her back. Everyone had been staring their challenges when I walked in.

“Mmm.” I nodded. I went back up the stairs and outside.

I found the Small Woman hyperventilating in front of a sun-drenched, bee-thick patch of Jerusalem artichoke growing in my neighbor’s yard. Careful of the bees, I approached. The sun was punishing. I squinted. I had no idea what the appropriate thing to say would be. I didn’t have much vocabulary here. The tough looking Smirkers in the basement hadn’t actually said anything after I’d entered – had they? The Small Woman had merely muttered. Had I understood everything the Farmer just told me? Had he told me the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Whatever had just happened was something I was feeling, not reading. I didn’t even know the Small Woman’s name, either, though I’m sure that at one point she had told it to me. It was something Midwestern, like “Betty,” “Sue,” or “Jane,” not the kind of coastal name associated with those who speak with angels that you’d expect in Berkeley or The East Village. Not knowing what else to say, I settled on, “Do you want me to stick around?” My large body will never make a man fall in love with me, or land me the lead role in just about anything. But I have known, since kindergarten, that I can use it to make smaller people safer, when that is needed and I like the smaller people.

“No, no. That’s cool. I’m fine. I’m leaving Indiana soon anyway. I think I’m supposed to be in Minneapolis. That’s where my fate awaits me. But you know…no, no. I’m fine. That’s okay. You don’t have to stick around. That son of a bitch.” She was still hyperventilating.

I stuck around without calling it “sticking around,” until the Small Woman got into her rickety, perforated compact car and drove off.

If it’s a good haul, I get two weeks’ worth of food, or at least two weeks’ worth of something – bread, soy milk, cereal – on a given Food Bank Day. But then I need to transport the boxes back to my room. I usually do this by stationing myself next to my boxes of food and gazing hopefully at other food bank patrons as they pass me, returning to their jalopies. I never have to ask. They ask me. And they do go out of their way.

The Smirker approached. I could smell his sweat. I could hear the air bruising the thick, dry sycamore leaves above my head. He sized up my load. “Come on,” he said to me, with a jerk of his head toward his rusted Caddy. “Get the dog in the backseat,” he directed this to the younger, blond guy, the deputy Smirker. “Get her boxes in the trunk. Get that shit out of the way,” he said to the blonde girl. “Here. Sit here. Where you going? Okay. I know the way.”

I sat next to him in the front seat. I was afraid.

I wasn’t afraid of physical assault. I’ve been there and done that so many times, from both ends, that maybe nothing scares me less than flying fists, which I know is not a healthy or normal response. I was afraid of being awkward. I was afraid of saying something stupid. I was afraid of being struck dumb, indicting him with a silence so icy it could only be understood as, “I’m a woman and I’ve been beat up and I think scumbags like you should have your balls cut off and shoved down your throat. You hillbilly gangsta geek, you’ll never get a decent job in your life, ever; I’m better than you, and I’m taking your ride, but I will not talk to you.” I was afraid of saying something school teacher-y, Politically Correct, “Oh, so you are a batterer, how nice, and do you have other hobbies? Everything is beautiful in its own way.” I was afraid of failing, of not being equipped, of not being cool. I was so focused on adrenaline and ego that if a Hoosier had cartwheeled naked in front of the car, I would have missed it.

Then I realized that my focus was pathetic. So I drew my focus away from my fear. Lacking any other handy targets for my racing brain, I folded my hands in my lap, as our nuns used to encourage us to do when we prayed silently at our school desks, and, just, sat, quiet, listening, seeing, and waiting, making myself ready for the voice of God.

It was the Smirker who spoke. “I am not seen.”

Someone nodded ascent; maybe the deputy smirker, the out-of-focus girl, or the hound jammed into the backseat with three-people-and-a-dog’s-two-week haul of foodstuffs. I thought I heard some kind of “Amen” back there. I looked at the man/boy holding the steering wheel.

“I’m seen as a label. I refuse to be a label.”

His biggest complaint was not that the Farmer rejected him, pretty much ensuring that his post-prison readjustment would have to proceed without benefit of the only food bank in this small, tightly-knit town. His biggest complaint was not that I was stiff and silent while sitting next to him. His label metaphor impressed me.

He asked, “Is a person the worst thing he has ever done?”

I gasped and stared really hard. I resisted the urge to dive in and lead a discussion analyzing this very question.

“They don’t react to me. They react to the image inside their heads. They never say anything about us, and we were ‘us.’ But forget her. I’m more than that. When you turn a person into a label, you’re not talking about a human being any more. I’m not going to participate in that.”

The Lead Smirker, the Bare-Chested Tattooed Man Who Has Done Time, melted. The unlabeled struggled to communicate himself to me during our timed car trip. Apparently, he, too, had been trying to find the right thing to say. He looked younger. He looked human. Same species as I, as the Farmer, as the Small Woman, as the girl he had battered.

There was another long silence. Tossing out the hope of saying anything pertinent, I tilted my head and asked what seemed most immediately pertinent to my curiosity, “How does your mother feel about all those tattoos?”

“Pfft. My mother? I would not know. I ran the fuck out of there when I was fifteen.” The way he pronounced this suggested that he was unaware of the full dimension of the dictionary definition of the word “mother.” I immediately lunged at the clock of our time, trying to slow it down, so that things could be said and done that would expand the world and make it better.

I saw where we were. “Yeah, that’s it, right there. That’s what I call ‘home.'” He pulled up. Our journey was ending.

They insisted on carrying my boxes of food inside and putting them on the table, though I could have easily done so, and usually do. I was confined in my room with two scary, bare-chested men; the dog and the girl were out in the car. As they had in the basement, they did take up space, these men/boys; no, they throttled it, with their muscled bodies claiming the sole possession of limited things like the space in a room, or the dignity.

I was no longer afraid. I knew I wouldn’t say the stupid thing. It was a hot day. They had worked hard. I said the obvious thing. I offered them some juice, or water, and homemade cookies. They took water. I plopped in some ice cubes. The Lead Smirker had a five-pointed star tattooed on his back. It was solid and dark blue.

“Why a star?” I asked.

“Five points,” he told me. “Like a human being.” Demonstrating, he slapped his head, point one; his hands, points two and three; and, lifting them, the soles of his feet, points four and five. Ah, of course, a human being. “It’s not satanic,” he insisted. “That’s bull cooked up by the officials.” As he explained, he seemed tall, though he hadn’t, before. Suddenly I realized that I was looking up at him, which I hadn’t realized, before, either. He seemed a professor, with worthy knowledge he was happy to pass on. “In prison, they strip you; they penetrate you; they take everything. They give you a number instead of a name. They can’t take away your tattoo.” It was time to go. He left.

Before their departure, the younger guy, the deputy Smirker, hesitated – stalled – not the right words at all – took time, made time, to stand at my door, make eye contact with me, and shake my hand.

Kurt Caswell

Kurt Caswell is the author or two books of nonfiction: In the Sun’s House: My Year Teaching on the Navajo Reservation, and An Inside Passage, for which he won the 2008 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Book Prize. He teaches creative writing and literature in the Honors College at Texas Tech University, and in the low-residency MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. For more information, please go to: www.kurtcaswell.com.

 

Haboob

It was like coming down the mountain, not like dying at all, but like living and coming down the mountain, even as the world wanted to die, as the rooms of the house went dark in daylight, the great dust cloud of the haboob come over the top and pressing in, the sun blotted out, the view of the neighbor’s house blotted out, the sky blotted out, the weird orange light in the darkness at mid-day, like the bomb at Trinity, I imagined, like Semipalatinsk, like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, sitting alone, wondering if this might not be the end of something, the end of this thing now, the end of the world, at last. It was like coming down the mountain from the pure, happy clarity of the high country, its sparkling waters and expanses of blue, its trees and wild strawberries, its bears at root in the ground for termites and in the air for cutworm moths, lazing in the sun, its horny toads, the little ones, poinging off into the shades of sage and pine and stones on the trails that ascend to the nine summits where from this vantage, you see cranes in migration on the wing, another 10,000 feet above, still, almost into the heavens. It was like coming down the mountain into the dark valleys and onto the wide plains filled and covered over with the smokes and wastes of industry and the chemicals of agriculture, the writhing masses of the people living one on top of the other, one on top of the other, and the land scorched and burned by summer fires, and spring fires and autumn fires with the rise of the mammals, and then the primates, and the great apes, and Cain and Abel into you and me and we, and into the ten thousand years of agriculture pushing the sixth great extinction on earth.

In Muleshoe, Texas, October 17, 2011, a haboob came to town out of the Llano Estacado, the dry, flat wastes of the Texas tableland. A photograph taken by a resident showed a massive wall of black dust towering eight thousand feet into the atmosphere. The photograph made its way onto the local news in the neighboring city of Lubbock, where I live. Get ready, everybody, the weatherman announced. Seek shelter now. This haboob is headed our way. It’s a wall of dust, a great body of black dust moving at about thirty miles per hour and pushed by winds with gusts of up to sixty miles per hour. It won’t take long to get here. It will be here real soon. Get ready.

Your poet, Li Po, the simple man, the lover of wine, the lover of the moon, the Banished Immortal, writes:

Sunlight is light bringing tangled sorrows
Facing ten-thousand-mile winds, autumn geese leaving,
we can still laugh and drink in this tower tonight,

chant poems of Immortality Land, ancient word-bones.

The word “haboob” is Arabic, as haboobs are most common in desert regions like the Middle East, North Africa, and also in western Australia and on the southwest plains of North America. Why Arabic, I wonder, and not Comanche, or Kiowa, or Nubian, or Walmajarri? I wonder what the Comanche called the dust storms descending upon their horse herds and their teepees, on their camps out on the flat wastes of the Llano Estacado where the U.S. Calvary feared to go? The word comes from the root “habb,” which means “wind,” and “haboob” means “strong wind.” During the Dustbowl years of the 1930s, most of the great dust storms were haboobs, but people in this part of the world called them “black wind storms,” or “black blizzards.”

At my home in Lubbock, Texas, the photograph from Muleshoe came to my attention on the local news. It was astonishing. It was terrible. It was beautiful. I had no idea what it meant. The local TV news turned to the national TV news. Maybe I’d see what was happening in the world while waiting for the haboob. Then I’d know what it meant. I wanted something new, but it was the same news as last night, the night before, every night. Conflict all over the world. Nations at war with each other. Nations at war with themselves. Nations at war with drugs. Drugs at war with drugs. The real estate crisis in America. A world economic slow-down, recession, financial collapse. Nations going bankrupt. Banks going bankrupt. Corporate executives taking people’s money, and then going bankrupt. Another environmental disaster and its cleanup, even while new legislation makes future environmental disaster inevitable. The most disastrous heat, again, in the history of record keeping, but don’t ever, ever use the term “climate change.” One person is murdered in a city park, and a famous person has died. A thousand people are born. The world’s population at seven billion and climbing ever faster. What are we going to do? Never mind that. Pro life! Pro choice! Abstinence. It doesn’t work, but let’s pretend it does. Get married. Get divorced. Pro gay marriage. Anti gay marriage. Humidity. Terrible flesh eating bacteria. AIDS. Avian flu. Swine flu. Whooping cough is back. The common cold, stronger than ever, killed nine people. Fracking is poisoning your drinking water, and nobody cares. YOU ARE GOING TO DIE! Pause for a commercial break. Buy this prescription drug. It will relieve your symptoms from your obscure condition; the short-term side effects range from shitting yourself to death, to death, but if you live, the long-term side effects are unknown. Ask your doctor about it now. Your doctor isn’t smart enough to know what treatment you need. You do, because you watch TV. Take aspirin for your heart condition. If you don’t have a heart condition, might as well take it anyway. Buy this insurance for your insurance. You can never have enough insurance. Back to the news. A plane crashed in Russia, everyone dead. A white collar criminal goes unpunished, again. Nobody cares. A poor minority (fast becoming the majority) gets the electric chair, in Texas. Nobody cares. Everybody in America is obese, and the children are obese, soft, dying. Nobody cares. Does your school have a contract with Coke or Pepsi? More darkness. More degradation of the earth’s air and water and the loss of biological diversity. The ice caps are melting. Greenland is melting. Glaciers are melting. Polar bears are dying. Maybe. Nobody cares. The conservatives publically maintain that climate change is natural, and Jesus will solve all our problems. What would Jesus do? Don’t bother with voting or recycling or walking instead of driving your car. Just pray. Pray, baby pray. And then, the finalé, to counterbalance all this death: an orphaned, three-legged dog finds a friend in a blind chess champion, somewhere in small-town West Virginia. And that’s the news, folks.

The haboob is coming.

Haboobs form when strong winds flow down and out of the leading edge of thunderstorms and cold fronts. These winds pick up dust, condense it, drive it forward, usually at about half the velocity of the winds themselves. The dust cloud can extend for sixty to ninety miles, and reach five thousand to eight thousand feet into the atmosphere. Some might reach as high as fifteen thousand feet. Such storms don’t usually last very long: thirty minutes maybe, three hours at the most. Haboobs in the Middle East and North America are typically associated with thunderstorms, which is why it often rains after a haboob, though in arid climates, this rain might never reach the ground. Haboobs in Australia are most often associated with cold fronts.

Out of the thunderstorm or cold front comes a strong wind. When this wind passes over dry, loose soil, the smallest dust particles (0.002 millimeters and smaller) are immediately suspended in the air. The threshold velocity of a wind that can move small particles like this is only about nine miles per hour, so a strong wind will move much larger particles as well (0.5 millimeters). The largest particles are often too heavy to be suspended in the air, so they roll along the ground, a process known as “creeping.” Between the small and the large particles are the medium sized particles (0.002 to 0.5 millimeters), which climatologists call “silt” or “dust.” Dust particles are too heavy to be suspended, but too light to creep. They bounce against the surface of the earth. When these bouncing particles hit other particles, those other particles bounce too, and then those particles get still more particles bouncing. The effect is exponential, like the world’s birthrate. Dust particles bouncing off the surface are born aloft when caught in the power of the wind, and as more particles are drawn into the storm, particles have yet more particles to bounce against. The result is that these medium sized particles, too heavy to be suspended in the air under normal circumstances, are suspended in the air by bouncing from the surface and from one particle to another. They climb thousands of feet into the atmosphere by bouncing.

These bouncing particles also generate a static electrical field. By bouncing, they acquire a negative charge. The ground has a positive charge. The flow of energy between positive and negative creates an electrical field. As this electrical field builds, the particles require less and less wind energy to keep them aloft, until ultimately, the field itself will lift particles from the ground.

The interplay of bouncing particles, which escalates rapidly with the force of the wind, and the building static electrical field, is known as “saltation,” and is the major action of a haboob; saltation makes a haboob a haboob.

The summer of 2011 was the hottest on record in west Texas. Like a lot of places in the U.S., in the world even, heat records of all sorts were broken daily. Many of those records were set in 1930s, during the Dustbowl. In Lubbock, June, 2011 was the hottest month in recorded history. Until July, which broke the June record. Until August, which broke the July record. It didn’t rain. One hundred miles to the north, Amarillo recorded fifty consecutive days with temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. And no rain. Lubbock recorded forty-nine consecutive days at temperatures above normal, and as many at above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. All records. The night temperatures in the region, the low temperatures, were also the highest on record. At midnight, it might still be 90 degrees Fahrenheit in Lubbock. And no rain. The trees in the city were dying. Juniper and red oak, pecan trees and pines, Siberian elm and rose of Sharon. You could hardly grow a tomato in your backyard. Even the weeds failed. People went on watering their lawns, sometimes at mid-day, and often they overwatered, so water flowed in the streets. The city insists it is not running out of water, though it exhausted its main water source at Lake Meredith in 2011, a reservoir on the Canadian River one hundred forty miles to the north. At the end of 2012, a new pipeline, sixty-five miles long and costing $2,000,000 per mile, began pumping water to Lubbock from Lake Alan Henry, a reservoir to the southeast on the South Fork of the Double Fork of the Brazos River. Stage two water restrictions are in place. Even still, when I go out for morning runs, most any day of the week, any time of the year, water flows in the streets.

The haboob rolled in over my house, snuffed out the sun. I sat in my little room with the TV news, and my vision became a tunnel, darkness closing in until the TV was the only light. I looked down the little tunnel to the TV, like looking through a tube or a pipe, or looking into a drinking glass. It came on fast enough that I didn’t notice it at first, that adrenaline dream-time in slow motion, or some delay in my brain’s synapse. It was light. It was dark. I stood up. I went to the window. I could see it wasn’t night, and it wasn’t an eclipse, and it wasn’t a monstrous thundercloud. The atmosphere was brown, black-brown, and the air had thickened like a gravy, heavy, saturated, laden with material. I could see it, the stuff in the air, swirling around. I could not see it. Even as it went dark like a switch—on/off—it went dark in stages too, like rungs on a ladder, steps in a staircase. Step one. Step two. Step three. I remembered the steps—one, two, three—as I stood at the window after it had already happened. I stood at the window in the center of the haboob, and I experienced the haboob as it came in. I could not now distinguish between what was happening in front of me, and what had just happened. I lost my belief in the flow of time from the past to the present. It all seemed to happen at once, the on/off, the stages, the blotting out of the sun, the tunnel vision to the TV. These separate events seemed to occur separately and simultaneously. I knew then that Einstein was right. I stood at the window. I looked out. It was astonishing. It was terrible. It was beautiful. I stood at the window.

The major hazard of a haboob is low visibility. You can’t see shit. And it comes on suddenly, within seconds. Planes cannot take off or land. Drivers on the road panic and stop without warning, triggering multi-car pile-ups. The particulates in the air combined with the wind can uproot trees and power lines, and cause damage to electronic equipment, houses, barns, buildings, everything. In the Dustbowl of the 1930s, people developed “dust pneumonia.” The storms came so frequently, it troubled and choked their lungs. The morning after a storm, farmers woke to find their livestock dead in the fields. These days, such dust clouds are more toxic, containing pollutantslike heavy metals, carbon monoxide, pesticides, sulfur, salt, byproducts of industrial agriculture, and all of it raised up from the land.

You need a lot of dry, loose soils to form a good haboob. In North Africa and the Middle East, you have a sea of sands. The Sahara Desert, for example. In west Texas, you have a lot of cotton farming. Up until the mid-nineteenth century, the southern plains, the Llano Estacado, was a sea of grass, supporting the greatest bison herds in North America. If a windstorm got up, a downburst from a thunderstorm or a cold front, the grass held the topsoil in place. These days, everywhere you go on the Llano, you see plowed fields with exposed topsoil. Thousands and thousands of acres of it. Top soils drift away on the wind, and then when the time comes to plant cotton, Texas farmers fertilize. Maybe the word “haboob” is Arabic and not Comanche because the Comanche didn’t know haboobs. They knew wind, but the ground, in those days, was luxuriant grass that supported their horse herds, and the wind was a helpful spirit that blew in over the land.

Your poet, the Banished Immortal, writes,

But slice water with a knife, and water still flows,
Empty a winecup to end grief, and grief remains grief.

You never get what you want in this life, so why not
shake your hair loose on a boat at play in dawn light?

At Preston Smith International in Lubbock, the tower was evacuated, and the controllers directed air traffic from the backup room on the ground floor. A small cargo plane on the ground turned over in the wind. Across the city, trees unmoored and came down, shingles flew from roofs, neighborhoods lost power. Instead of a thunderstorm, this haboob came out of a cold front, the winds of which hit sixty miles per hour. After all, winter was coming too.

The haboob passed over. Where I stood in my house at the window, blue sky and bright sun. I went to the back door. I thought about seeing the turkey vultures a week or so before, kettling, floating in that narrow gyre on their southern migration, right there behind the house. Some years they roosted right there behind the house, a couple days, a day more, and then moved on. I went out to check for damage, but the crepe myrtle and the red oak, all intact.The massive pecan on the neighbor’s side, still intact. The Siberian elm, not much to boast about, still intact. A few small branches down, dead branches that would have come down anyway. The Rose of Sharon still dead from the impossible summer heat. For now, the living were still living and the dead were still dead. The haboob was still a haboob, but it was over there now, instead of right here, as it was when it was in Muleshoe, before it was here, that little window between then and now, between now and what came next. The haboob would blow itself out in an hour or so, its winds would spend out their energy, and the dust—the small, the large, the medium sized particles—would return to earth. Somewhere else. This is how things get moved around, how change occurs. A chaos of wind. A calm of light. Blue sky and bright sun. I did not know it in that moment, but soon, from behind my house, I would see sandhill cranes high overhead, a steady pattern to build the day on, and winter would arrive with its cooler temperatures, temperatures that would allow me to believe, once again, that the world would endure another year.

Christopher Lowe

When You're Down By the RiverWhen You’re Down by the River
by Christopher Lowe
Publisher: BatCat Press
Date: May 2014
Pages: 59
ISBN: 978-0-9843678-9-4
Reviewed by: B. Kari Moore

 

            The South is in Christopher Lowe’s blood. You can feel it from the first words of his new short story collection When You’re Down by the River. Each story is steeped in sweet tradition and it’s clear that Lowe is taking a leisurely path below the Mason-Dixon way. You can feel the South, but not its expected heat; Christopher Lowe’s stories are cool in their simplicity but rich and thorough in their execution.

            Lowe has the ability to make martyrs ruthless and the angels sing in sin. In “Uncle Frank,” his ex-convict turned preacher-family man feels altruistic; while the spurned spouse in the title piece is a hard woman to love, a woman you’d cheat on yourself if you had the chance. With each storyline and each character, Lowe makes a point of keeping them human and close to the ground. The lofty ideals are left to the reader.

            There are four distinct stories in You’re Down by the River and each shares a certain reliability. While you never see the strings, each decision made by the author seems square and fitting, without comment but with expectation. Lowe knows where every story is going and we deliberately follow along. However, common enough to be part of the aesthetic but rare enough not to taken for granted are moments of pure daring and skill, where the Mississippi man takes the reader all the way to the edge, sometimes even dangling us off. He is ever in complete control, reeling us in when needed, keeping our minds in check but leaving our bodies on walkabout.

            A solid collection, When You’re Down by the River by Christopher Lowe will make you crave the South, a certain type of people and a different type of living. Blue Lyra Review is honored to have published Chris Lowe before, and we look forward to watching his continuous and inevitable rise.

Elaine M. Starkman

Hearing Beyond Sound Elaine Starkman coverHearing Beyond Sound: New and Collected Poems
by Elaine M. Starkman

San Ramon, CA: DVS Publishing, 2013
Paper, 72 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9883006-2-0
Reviewed by Zara Raab 

 

 

Light Travel, Sound Travel 

Fog is universal, but nowhere does it have quite the presence that it has in the San Francisco Bay area, where Elaine Starkman has lived most of her adult life. Starkman’s new book opens with the characteristically unpretentious language of “Alive, Winter, 2008,” in which imagery of pear juice, goblets, and fog establishes a tone and mood that pervades many of her poems: 

My view
illumined by

fog-drenched
phantom orchards.

“Sandy’s Gone, January 2011” captures in title alone her simple, understated language, evoking the temperament of a diarist who keeps a journal, or a faithful correspondent, each letter dated, sent from ports in her travels through life. Reflections on death and solitude intermingle in “Sooner or Later, 2000”: All this will end//[. . .] Loving and not loving knowing/sooner than later we’ll part//Then what we think/ will not matter//Then we’ll wonder/what silences we’ll take//with us/ to our graves.” This poem reads like a letter to a spouse of many years. Many of Starkman’s poems have much of the simplicity and intimacy of personal correspondence. This isn’t to say Starkman’s descriptions aren’t lovely. In “June, 1999,” the line breaks have the purposeful presence of suggesting a necklace of the pearls featured as an image in the poem: 

Night—
chips of pearl
fading toward
dawn

 “Stillness, February, 2006,” set in Green Gulch at Muir Beach, epitomizes this poet’s reflective cast of mind:

I didn’t think
this calmness
could happen,

this sweet
immeasurable stillness

By following the contours and normative turns of her syntax, and breaking predictably, Starkman’s lines mirror her zen approach to life, one of whose tenets might be paraphrased as “the way is easy for those who do not pick and choose.” Starkman rarely offers rhythmic surprise, or breaks the poetic line to amplify or qualify meaning – to strive for more than is natural. Although Starkman has chosen to keep her poems free from the strictures of meter and rhyme, she has not then taken on the difficulties inherent in rhythmic surprise, enjambment or complex meaning. Starkman is never overly ambitious in her use of the freedom of free verse. This has a calming effect, slowing down the progress of the poem and perhaps facilitating connection with the reader. It is rather like some of William Carlos Williams’ early poems, before he mastered his brilliant rhythmic patterns in what James Longenbach has called the “annotating line.”

One of my favorite poems, in the section of “History Lessons” drawn from Jewish and her own history, is “Peaches, Netanya, Near the Sea,” an homage to Avram, an “old immigrant/from Eastern Europe” who sells peaches from a cart with his helper, young Yosef, “the singing Yemenite;/ his dark sandaled feet” dangling “over the cart pulled by a donkey,” while their dog Cush runs alongside. The poet recalls Yosef teaching her how to say the Hebrew word for peach, “Ahfarsek,” and giving her a taste. She concludes:

Oh, fruit of the land
Oh, milk and honey.
Where are you now,
Singing Yosef,
Silent Avram,
Lost Cush

“Every Single Day, a Ray of Light” evokes the Jewish Kabbalah, and “Kaddish for the Columbia” discusses “the sketch/ by a boy in Auschwitz” carried into outer space by the space shuttle Columbia, without echoing any of the rich, wrought cadences of the Hebrew bible. Ancient Jewish traditions pervade these poems, while the sparse style remains firmly planted in the twenty-first century. “In the Kibbutz Laundry, 1969,” one of a series of poems set in Israel, is dedicated to Rivka Cooper, whose arm is tattooed with a concentration camp number:

 In the kibbutz laundry
 Her hands move in an act of love.

“[E]ngraved on her arm/ Lives a page of history/ That all the soap/ And all the rubbing/Can never wash away.”

Family bonds are a rich source of reflection. In “Apricots for Isaac,” the poet savors an afternoon of walking with her grandson in an abandoned orchard; he climbs an apricot tree whose fruit is beginning to ripen. In “Patterns,” she reflects on the links between the generations, the patterns tying her to her mother, and from her mother through her, to her children:

How is it that I’ve become my mother
Stand at the sink   wash her hair

The way she once washed mine
How is it that I carry everything

Unnamed between us
Onto my own children

And call it love

“Re-reading Poems of Anne Sexton, 1984” makes evident Sexton’s influence: “The fearless courage of your writing/ nourished my own.” Preoccupation with childhood motivates poems like “Three A.M., November 2011,” recording a dream of a “blue eyed/dark haired brother and sister//I knew long ago,” or the poem “Chicago: Garfield Park Conservatory, September, 2004,” conjuring a neighborhood where the poet “trudged with [her] father through winter snow, spring rains, and summer swelter more than /half a century ago.”

Although Starkman begins her poems with a personal perspective, she is by no means a Confessional poet, and she writes of male literary influences, capturing in brief stanzas the essences of Hemingway, Einstein, and Gandhi, each of whom “lets me know that my life/ is in my own hands” (“Traveling Among Men, June, 2012”).

Never inflated, didactic, or politically correct, Starkman isn’t generally interested in news headlines but in the slow news of family life, as in the charming “In Praise of Old Man’s Pee,” dedicated to her father, whom she visits in the hospital near the end of his life. Starkman celebrates the “men we don’t hear or/read about who give/us their manly gifts//who love us gently/with compassion.” An overarching theme of Hearing Beyond Sound is the need for an inner voice.

No, I don’t want
To know who’s
Making money
Losing it
Who’s having affairs
Who’s winning
[. . .]
More news  more websites
More blogs  more spam
More more more—

There’s lively detail in Starkman’s portrait of the well-dressed man in a wheelchair selling soap on the street corner in “Lost Words, 2009,” and humor in the poet’s recognition that, caught up in the petty trials of her own life, she does not really see him. Starkman is most exuberant in her friendships with women. “Cabana Carioca, New York City,” dedicated to the poet Florence Miller, describes a New York City outing:

We abandon ourselves
To every pan-handler
[. . .]
We swoon at the stocky waiters
In Cabana Carioca on 45th Street.
[. . .]
we samba up the line in step
to the last of the Portuguese buffets
where we pay the counter price
for paella and flan at this lunch of love.

At times, Hearing Beyond Words reads like a travel letter from Israel, Europe, and Asia, and occasionally the line between poetry and good prose is sustained only by the thin thread of the line break. Yet without straining for heightened literary effect, the poet connects with both the people in her stories and her readers beyond the page. Even in sleep, she is traveling, with the notion of some ultimate journey beyond life hovering like a shadow. In “Traveling Toward Dawn, September, 2005,” she writes, “Soon I’ll lie down to sleep/wrap myself in night/ fold its coverlet above me.” Travel is evoked even by this tender collection’s elusive title, referring to the “celestial sound” of the highway, the “angelic humming//from the car tires/ as we pass sandy dunes,” on their way somewhere. As reader, I welcome these missives from other lands. I travel with her.

––––––––

Zara Raab’s latest book is Fracas & Asylum. Earlier books are Swimming the Eel and The Book of Gretel, narrative poems of the remote Lost Coast of California in 19th  and early 20th Century. Her poems appear in River Styx, West Branch, Arts & Letters, Crab Orchard Review, and The Dark Horse. She is a contributing editor to Poetry Flash and The Redwood Coast Review. Rumpelstiltskin, or What’s in a Name? was a finalist for the Dana Award. She lives near the San Francisco Bay.

Vanessa Marsh

TwoCarsandaLamppost

Spotlight on an Artist: Vanessa Marsh

 

Vanessa Marsh is a visual artist from Seattle Washington now living and working in Oakland, CA. Although the end result of most of her work is photography, she engages with drawing, painting and sculpture to create her images. She has received fellowships from Headlands Center for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony and Kala Art Institute. Her work can be seen at Dolby Chadwick Gallery in San Francisco, CA, Kala Gallery in Berkeley, CA and Julie Nester Gallery in Park City, UT.

Artist Statement:

Always Close But Never Touching 

WomanWalkingTo make the images, I construct miniature scenes out of models and natural elements such as moss and grass and photograph them against real backgrounds. Inspiration for the scenes is drawn from memories of human interactions and the experiences of the landscapes of Northern California and Western Washington.

The specific details of the memories have been transformed over time in my mind—influenced by subsequent observations, events, and occurrences. As memory is a combination of both real and imagined elements so too are the photographs. Alluding to different locations and experiences simultaneously, the images are of unknown, imagined places yet are also evocative of something familiar. Ultimately, the images reference a shared experience of isolation. 

I create dreamlike spaces that are at once anonymous and entirely personal. Rooted in imagination and memory the images represent locations that are suspended in both time and place, with no before or after. 

San Francisco 2008

Everywhere All at Once 

Sometimes there is a hazy, almost tropical light that falls over the Bay Area. The moisture in the air falls on the landscape and makes it appear as a series of two-dimensional planes intricately layered together. When I see this light, I imagine these individual planes of landscape each moving freely along independent trajectories. In my imagination, the landscape becomes one of dislocated landmarks, geography and infrastructure, constantly changing. Within the series Everywhere All at Once I bring to form these imagined landscapes and combine them with intensely starlit skies, highlighting both a personal as well as a collective experience of the world. My goal is to make images that are familiar and dreamlike, evocative of an almost unreachable memory. 

Looking out over the landscape the night sky provides a reminder of the smallness of our existence and also the vast possibilities inherent to our experience. It provides a connection between distant individuals, a jumping off point for belief systems, and an interstellar reference that helps us to navigate our world. For me, more than anything, the night sky provides a sense of space and infinity that is at once the essence of openness and possibility and also terrifyingly complex and unfathomable. 

I remember as a child the first time I looked intently out into a starry sky. I was away at summer camp up in the San Juan Islands and we were sleeping outside in a field by our cabin. It was dark enough to see the Milky Way; so dense it looked like a large smudge of light across the sky. Our counselor explained to us that the light we were seeing took so much time and crossed so much space that the stars it was coming from may not even exist anymore. I don’t remember when I fell asleep that night, but I know it was awhile that I lay there staring up, my heart pounding, realizing the vastness. 

-Vanessa Marsh, Oakland, 2014


Bikers

 

Landscape#12

 

Image Info:

Vanessa Marsh, Two Cars and a Lamp Post, from the series Always Close But Never Touching
Vanessa Marsh, Woman Walking, from the series Always Close But Never Touching
Vanessa Marsh, Bikers, from the series Always Close But Never Touching
Vanessa Marsh, Landscape #8, from the series Everywhere All at Once
Vanessa Marsh, Landscape #12 from the series Everywhere All at Once

Rutu Modan

Rutu Modan. The Property book coverThe Property
by Rutu Modan
Hardcover: 232 pages

Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly (May 14, 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1770461159
ISBN-13: 978-1770461154
Reviewed by Maya Klein 

 

Appropriating Memory

“To find something, you have to know what you are looking for,” says a character in The Property, the second full-length graphic novel by acclaimed artist and writer, Rutu Modan. The novel makes this assumption, along with numerous others, and subjects it to a form of scrutiny that is original to Modan – playful, while at the same time, remarkably telling.

The story follows Mica, a young Israeli woman, and her elderly grandmother Regina as they take a week-long trip to Warsaw to reclaim property owned by Regina’s family before World War II. Regina is the quintessential “Polish Lady”: prickly, mercurial, and oftentimes impossible; she is also an intelligent, loving grandparent and has an irresistibly dark sense of humor. Her granddaughter, Mica, possesses the same quick temper and sharp wit, and she is as gutsy, sarcastic and smart as she ought to be, even demonstrating her expertise in “Krav Maga,” a self-defense system.

Modan’s use of the medium is virtuoso; her talent in depicting visual detail – a slipped bra strap, a messenger-bag, or just the right pantsuit – is coupled with the manner in which she writes dialogue, expertly navigating the voices through three languages – Hebrew, English and Polish, which are denoted by changes in font. Each language is given its own particular, authentic inflection. For example, when Regina is stopped by Israeli airport security on account of her water bottle, she attacks the guard and says, “Rules – were they handed down to Moses at Mount Sinai?”

At their best, graphic novels delve deep into weighty issues, almost sneaking up on the reader with their significance, and The Property proves no exception. Like Spiegelman in his seminal MAUS (despite his reluctance to being cast in the role, Spiegelman is largely considered the father of the modern graphic novel), and like Satrapi in Persepolis, Modan makes full use of the freedom that the genre entails. In this deceptively quick read, potentially explosive issues relating to individual and national identity, history, and politics are all depicted in simple and convincing frames.

First, the novel raises the ethical dilemma regarding the legitimacy of using personal stories – taking real people’s pain – and turning it into art. This question is exacerbated when dealing with trauma that is both personal and collective, such as the Holocaust. The love affair that Mica has with Tomasz, a Polish artist whom she meets in Warsaw, brings the matter to light. Tomasz is working on a graphic novel, a rendering of the events of World War II from the Polish perspective. When Mica discovers that he has in fact been sketching her grandmother’s story, she becomes infuriated and suspicious, fearing Tomasz is merely using her to realize his artistic ambitions. He apologizes, but Mica, flinging his flowers in the trash, mutters, “I forgive but I don’t forget.”

Worldly and intelligent, Mica chooses words that are steeped in Holocaust discourse. The staying power of the narrative, the collective trauma and also, arguably, the sense of victimhood, persist in Israeli culture; they are closely tied to notions of personal identity and infiltrate the most intimate relationships. Through the character of Tomasz, the novel also seems to be asking ethical questions: Who is authorized to tell a story? And from which point of view? Does it really belong to anyone?

Indeed, the “property” that this graphic novel is concerned with undergoes a complete and comprehensive reconfiguration. As in English, the Hebrew word for property, “neches,” is also frequently used in its verb form, “lenaches” – to appropriate – and the journey that Regina and Mica take towards rightful ownership or re-appropriation is complex precisely because it does not merely pertain to tangible property.

An opening scene depicts the women’s flight to Warsaw. The plane is packed with rowdy high-school students on an educational tour of the concentration camps. When asked as to the purpose of their own trip, Regina and Mica adamantly deny that they are on any kind of “roots journey”: they say that their trip is purely business. The women are careful to set themselves apart from the sort of “concentration camp tourism” that is subject to scathing irony from Modan. The teenagers are going wild on the plane, one of them wearing a “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” t-shirt, while another has “The March of Life, 2008” emblazoned on her back. Their schoolteacher nonchalantly ticks off the itinerary while munching on his breakfast roll. “Let’s see. . . Monday – Treblinka, Tuesday – Madjanek, gas chambers, etc. Personally, I prefer Madjanek to Auschwitz. It’s much scarier.”

Modan illustrates how the real horrors of war are subjected to the mechanisms of memorialization that are unable to do them justice. Memory and tragedy are appropriated, not by the artist figure (like Tomasz or perhaps Modan herself) but by a system, such as the Israeli educational system which has been entrusted to maintaining them. The result is a warped, flattened representation, with educators looking to frighten their disinterested young audiences into submission. Furthermore, as indicated by the re-enactment scene in the Jewish ghetto, the need to constantly up the ante, to titillate audiences so that they can experience “the real thing” is not limited to Israeli culture, or to desensitized youth thrice removed from the events. The desire to have an authentic experience of trauma results in grotesque farce. Hence, sighs the overzealous director of the society for Jewish memorialization, “I miss the ghetto.”

Though not stated explicitly, this issue is particularly relevant to politics and the Israeli political milieu, where Holocaust narratives and notions of victimhood have often been employed and are reintroduced on a regular basis. Examining the appropriation of memory is also an implicit form of critiquing the political forces that work to sustain them, and which perhaps, also benefit from their proliferation. The graphic novel, as a seemingly innocent form, provides a perfect vehicle for such a controversial message within the context of Jewish, and particularly, Israeli culture. In this sense, the book continues in the tradition of subversive graphic novels and uses its medium wisely, with striking imagery and heavy doses of irony.

The Property is undoubtedly a good book. It is included on more than ten best-of- the-year lists, including those of The Guardian, Publisher’s Weekly, Salon, Amazon, and The Washington Post. It is well-deserving of the praise it has received. However, it is also an important book, illuminating the culture and the politics of appropriation that are at play within it.

In the end, in a final twist of irony, the protagonists reconnect with their pasts and uncover deep family secrets, but in the process, they relinquish the property that they came to claim, proving that sometimes, in order to find something, you have to give up what you were looking for.

 ––––––––
Maya Klein is a writer and translator based in Tel Aviv. Her fiction has appeared in The Ilanot Review and The Literarian.

 

 

Sarah Seltzer

Sarah Seltzer is a winner of the 2013 Lilith Fiction Prize, and has had fiction published in Joyland, S-Tick, Extract(s), LABA Journal and elsewhere. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is a journalist in New York City with nonfiction bylines in The Forward, The Rumpus, LA Review of Books, Vulture, The Hairpin, Ms. Magazine and The Nation, among many other places. Her novel-in-progress, “Joy, Somewhere in the City,” was awarded a grant from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

 

Disorder

Kat was born into famine; her sister Rina into plenty. Kat was black and adopted; Rina – white and “biological.” Kat pursued science, and Rina, drama. Kat was mellow to the point of being taciturn, while Rina had been a babbling fountain of foolishness and song.

Had been.

Kat was alive and Rina was dead.

There were similarities, too. Rina and Kat had both been known as tall, broad-shouldered, standouts. Rina – everyone said in the days after the accident – had been kind.  So had her sister. Such sweet girls, everyone said.

Yet as her grief bit into her, tore into her, melted her bones, the usually mild-mannered Kat, who as an adult had engineered her life to not offend the white people who made up her community, could feel herself turning mean.

Case 1: After the news of Rina’s gruesome and tragic death in front of a subway train plastered the tabloids, Kat’s phone began to ring with regular insistence. Most often, the flashing screen bore the number of her childhood “best” friend Joy. Kat pressed “reject” on her cellphone for two days in a row.

Joy began to try the house phone. Some people could not take a hint. Kat heard her mom, Ellen, sobbing over the receiver in some far, but too near room; imagined her mother and Joy cradling each other’s voices in apartments half a mile apart. Evidently, Ellen did not share her surviving daughter’s aversion to Joy’s partaking of the family tsuris, their loss that was now the entire city’s.

Kat sat at the kitchen table, which smelled of tobacco and sour wine, listening to her mother’s choked voice. She heard her mom say, “Oh, Joy,” and start crying afresh. Her heart hardened even as it broke. She moved to the floor of the hallway, leaned against the wall and listened to her stomach growl, a relentless tiger. She lit another cigarette and erased Joy’s number from her phone.

Case 2: During shiva, she had been given pills by Cameron, her sister’s best gay friend. They loosened her tongue, thus, when she was regaled with Rina stories – some debauched – by Maya, her sister’s best female friend, she replied caustically, “Why should I care?” (But she cared, she cared.)

Case 3: While the cold meats were being put away, she rolled around on her bed with her pseudo-ex Ezra – if endless sexual experimentation in high school and occasionally in college qualifies one as an ex. Ezra was her sister’s best straight male friend, a too-sensitive socialist who was always cause-hopping, being holier than thou, and getting into trouble. As he zipped his pants back up, she told him he needed to “get his shit together.” By which she meant, I want you, but fuck you for not being my sister.

Case 4: There would be no case four. Look at the way things stood. Her sister had had a best friend in every demographic, it seemed. Kat had only her sister, and Joy.

She had to be better, to make Rina proud. So she asked her mom for Joy’s number and arranged to meet her old friend on a stoop on One-Hundredth between Broadway and Amsterdam, a place their childhood selves had determined with mathematical precision was halfway between their homes. Lounging, soda cans in their hands, they’d once regularly discussed Rina’s doings as part of the confabulation. Now Kat relented. They would discuss Rina’s lack of doings and she’d behave.

Rina had died on a stifling August night weeks away from her first marquee role on Broadway; these were stifling August days. Rina had fainted from the summer heat, stumbled, floated through the air onto the tracks as the train pulled in. Or so the cops told them. Perfect drama. Quintessential Rina. These “incidents” with girls fainting, they happened all the time, the cops said. The left side of her had taken the blow; when they asked her family to identify her, they covered that side with a sheet. The rest of her body, tall and broad-shouldered, was recognizable only as the shell that had housed an unstoppable – no, a stoppable – a stopped life force.

“Broadway Beauty Mowed Down by L,” the headlines read. New Yorkers, ravenous for horror, turned the pages on their morning commutes, sweaty fingers staining the paper. Kat lost four pounds. She smoked twenty cigarettes. She had zero sisters.

Rina meant “joyful” in Hebrew because that’s what her parents had been at her birth. Kat had arrived in their arms curled up like a kitten; her older sister had named her on the plane home from Ethiopia. The namer, the knower, Kat’s guardian ever since. Rina had swatted hands away when they tried to touch Kat’s hair; she had snapped “she’s my sister,” when people puzzled out their relationship, and “the Upper West Side,” when they asked where Kat was from. When Kat interrogated her family about her origins, as she had inevitably done at age 15, Rina had supported her: “Yeah, where? Why?” She had approved of the black feminist novels, the African art on Kat’s wall, the radical treatises on her desk, her demands at the dinner table, to her family. “Admit that your white privilege is a problem.”

“We admit it, Kat.”

Of course, Joy had wanted Rina to look out for her, too. Who would not want a protector unafraid to snap unwanted attention from you towards herself? 

Kat and Joy stood in front of their stoop, their empty stoop, unable to make small talk because of the momentousness of Rina’s absence. Kat tried to dismiss the ironic echo, the similarity in meaning between the names of her sister and her former best friend.

“How are you coping?” Joy asked.

“How do you think?”

Kat raised both her hands, gesturing at her face, hoping the deep circles under her eyes might steer the conversation.

“Did it turn out that Rina had been drinking that night?” asked Joy. “I know I shouldn’t ask. But my mom and I were just wondering, you know, if there was anything else to explain…”

“Some wine. Nothing she couldn’t handle,” said Kat. “You knew her.”

“Why wasn’t anyone with her?” Joy asked, her tone quieter yet.

“She wanted to study her lines,” Kat said, feeling the stoop scrape against her bare thighs.

“I just – I’m just trying to understand how it happened. I’ve even gone to that platform myself, you know, to see where – ”

“Okay, so have I. I’m a scientist. I’ve tried to piece it together, but. . . enough, Joy,” said Kat. Enough Joy, to her ears. Her sister had been happy, hadn’t she? Kat’s voice came out cold, but her insides cycloned and roiled. She would never release all of her tears; she would remain a nasty piece of work even as a grandmother, snapping at her grandchildren, unable to forgive their ignorance of Rina.

“How do you think she fell, I mean, did they catch it on camera?” Joy’s voice barely above a whisper. 

Kat didn’t answer. She recognized what Joy was doing, as her own family had done for days, would probably do for years: turning the big question mark about why it happened into little ones about how.

“Was she – was she depressed? Or on any new drugs or anything like that? Sometimes they can make people do things, you know. . . feel things.”

“I don’t know,” said Kat honestly. “Can we take a break from this line of questioning?”

“You know, the last time I emailed your sister, she never wrote me back.” Joy’s voice was plaintive now. “You guys are tough to pin down. We all used to be so close.”

Kat could have told Joy that Rina, busy with rehearsal, always needed to be bugged to respond to emails. She could have told her about her theory – about the heat and Rina’s even more vegan, even more restricted diet for the new role, and about Rina’s history of fainting. She could have told Joy that the idea, this hovering idea that some clandestine fear, depression, agony, misery had gnawed at Rina, and that Rina hid it away from Kat – that this above all threatened to utterly unman her, leave her crawling on the sidewalk, an insane thing, an insect whose wings had been plucked by a cruel child.

So Kat clung to what she couldn’t un-know: intense heat, screeching, thuds, pain, a body broken – all in an instant.

The conductor of the train, his flashlight ducking between the cars, had tried to reassure Rina that help was on the way. She seemed, he told the press, “so lovely, so beautiful.” (Classic Rina – to look beautiful in death – the half of her not mangled, at least.) But no help or comfort arrived.

“I spoke with her that night,” said Kat, amazed that her voice sounded like a voice and not a wail.  “She seemed normal.”

Omitted – the call had been a wheedling request that Kat take care of their parents’ anniversary present. Had she been settling her affairs, or just dumping the task on her sister?

For the life of her, Kat couldn’t remember whether the call had ended with “Love ya” or not. But she had felt it, right? Sisters and best friends, that’s what everyone said at the funeral. “My sister, my shield, my partner,” Kat had said in her eulogy, even then recalling the lines that Rina had needed to rehearse, full of dudes and mans and groovys.

She didn’t tell Joy that after the police had called, had come to pick them up, she had been sure it was a mistake and called her sister, and called her again, and again, and again, hearing the click of the voicemail so many times that she finally had to lean out the window of the police cruiser and throw up.

And then she’d kept calling until, at the precinct, she saw the phone she was trying to reach in a small plastic bag with red smears on its insides.

Now with Joy, Kat let her first barb slip out.

 “I don’t know why we’re here, to be honest. I appreciate your concern, but I feel like we had kind of slipped into an occasional coffee friendship, you know? This heart-to-heart thing is weird.”

Of course, their meeting didn’t feel weird at all, because of the physical memories embedded in this ugly stoop. If things had gone on as they should have, they would just have continued their yearly faux-delighted get-togethers, feet tapping with impatience, or fingers smoothing the velour couches of some coffee shop, bookended by disingenuous assurances of “we should do this more often.”

Joy turned bright red. “Well, we were best friends,” she said defensively. Then her mouth turned into a trapezoid; she whimpered.

Kat sighed, irked by the surge of pity she felt. A wide-openness about the girl reminded her of Rina the way a copy of a painting on a postcard tried too hard to duplicate the original.

But here was the difference – when Rina rushed up to friends’ parents or new acquaintances, and threw her arms around them, when she pulled Kat to her side and said “my sister,” she became addictive. But no one craved Joy beside her, no one.

Joy’s thumbs wiggled inside the tight pockets of her jeans, causing a vibrating anxiety in Kat’s gut. The twitching inched Joy’s shirt up, showing a soft white belly, a previously well-hidden heft protruding over her skinny legs. Kat knew Joy’s body intimately.

They had been best friends.

“Remember playing star fairies?” asked Kat, thinking of their bare legs flashing through the grass in Central Park. “Remember Rina instructing us on how to cast a spell – as if she knew!” Her sister, Kat had come to see in high school, had really not been cool in the traditional sense. She had just been so defiantly herself.

“She seemed to know everything,” said Joy. Joy had never figured out the secret to Rina’s poise.

Joy had despaired when they stood side by side in front of the mirror, as though Rina’s coltish beauty lay hidden on its other side. Kat hadn’t cared, perfectly content with her own practical build. But then, of course, she’d had a sister to call her beautiful.

 “Shall we eat, maybe?” Kat asked.

Kat in these weeks had felt a filmy curtain, a shimmer in the air between herself and the physical world. She reached a hand forward, tried to push through. She struggled mounting and descending the curb, having lost her ability to fathom where her feet should go. She came down too hard or wavered mid-step. She felt like she might pitch forward or back if a gust of wind or an impatient pedestrian hit her, just like her sister had. She groped at door handles and gripped railings like she was old, frail, her bones brittle.

In that trance-like state, Kat led them into a pasta place with an aroma of starch and sweet tomato paste that leaked onto the sidewalk. Only after the bread basket came and Joy eyed it vindictively did Kat learn that her friend was on the South Beach diet.

“Well, why didn’t you tell me you were off carbs before we went for pasta?” she asked. Joy had been afraid to displease the sisterless one, she guessed.

Joy looked hungrily at the bread. “I need to lose ten pounds by my birthday,” she said.

“October,” said Kat instinctively. “A week after Rina’s. You were birthday buddies.”

They smiled at each other, tentative. Maybe it would be tolerable between them.

Joy ordered a salad that arrived with pale green lettuce and a scattering of purple and orange. She scraped her fork across her small plate while Kat twirled long, dripping pieces of thick spaghetti into her mouth. She ate out of spite and in hunger. The life force asserting itself despite all the cigarettes, the nausea.

“Do you remember how in the children’s choir, Rina always got to do a solo at shul, for Oseh Shalom?” Kat asked, marveling that the joyful words her sister had trilled as a young girl were the same words that closed the mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer they’d now say over and over again for her.

Oseh shalom bimromov, hu ya’aseh shalom alaynu, v’al kol yisroel; vimru Amen.

“Yes. Her voice was so. . . I don’t know. Angelic? But goofy; do you remember the trip to Rockland County?” Joy asked.

“She had you singing the ‘Comet’ song.”

Joy chortled and they sang a few bars together, under their breaths. “Comet, it makes your mouth turn green!”

“I thought it was so funny,” said Joy. “Your sister was a budding director, even then. And I was her ingénue.”

Kat detected an emphasis on the “I.”

Kat had gone searching for newts and tadpoles, had held their slimy bodies in her cupped hands, presenting them to the adults, hoping to elicit a shriek. But Rina and Joy, unaffected by nature, put on song and dance routines. It was true: Rina loved to use Joy as a prop, a chorus. Joy would stare at Rina with those round eyes and do whatever she was told.

Kat had been the odd one out, with her science and her stubborn avoidance of show biz.

“Truly epic. How about the summer we got obsessed with judging each other’s dives at the pool?”

“The Barbie soap operas we devised?”

The stories accumulated, exquisite and excruciating.

“Do you remember how you’d always bug Rina when she tried to do her homework?” Kat asked. “You would pad down the hallway and peek into the maid’s room, then Rina’s room.”  The two of them had watched the older girl bent over her homework, or a script, in the light of her lava lamp.

“Leave her alone,” Kat would say. “She’s got to learn her lines.” Rina’s legs would splay out on the bed, spectacularly. Her hand with a pen in it would prop up her chin for so long that her arm fell asleep.

“Yes! And her arm, the thing she’d do? Whipping her arm around and around to get the feeling back?”

When Joy wasn’t around, Rina would let Kat perch on the edge of the bed and braid her older sister’s hair, or massage her shoulders or listen to her run her lines. But Joy was around too often.

Kat waited, pinned down by dread.

“Do you remember how everyone used to think we were sisters?” People always did – always had. They pegged Kat as the friend, the third wheel.

Why had Kat shared so many of her life’s now-finite Rina moments with such a parasite?

At least there was the comfort of the times she’d mocked Joy with her sister, who of course hadn’t always been kind, or generous, or even thoughtful. “Deviated septum my ass,” Rina once said to Kat in a moment of candor, sitting on an island between two lanes of Broadway’s zooming traffic with frozen yogurt cups on their laps.  “Joy’s nose,” they’d squawked. Once aquiline, it lost its bump. Kat had been delirious that day on the street with her sister, arms linked against the world, buoyed by Rina’s vivid energy.

“What are you smiling at?” asked Joy. They stood to leave.

“Oh, just a private joke. Well, not so private, I guess. It was about your nose. My sister found its transformation very amusing.”

Joy’s mouth dropped open.

“Oh,” said Joy. “I didn’t realize you knew.”

You moron, thought Kat. Everyone knew.

“Okay, well, so. . . I guess I just wanted to ask – can we be friends again? Real friends?”

 Kat recited her lines stiffly: “Sure. I’ll call you when I’m ready.”

And then the last blow surfaced from deep within her, from a place thick with bile and envy. “Oh, and let me know how the no-carbs thing goes,” she said. “If you do drop those ten pounds, or fifteen maybe, you could fit into Rina’s clothes. Well, her shirts, anyway.”

She didn’t look to see the expression her words left on Joy’s face. She turned around and walked back to the house of mourning, forward on a long black ribbon of time that would take her from this curtained-off half-life to a life that was diminished, but a life nonetheless.

She supposed they would run into each other at some point, and sure enough, about three years after they parted that day at the stoop, Kat arrived at an engagement party on Park Avenue, a twinge in her memory’s muscle asking if she’d see her old friend there. Kat didn’t cry as often now, but she popped antacids like candy.

Sporadic Facebook binges and gossip had told her enough. Maya had had a nervous breakdown; Ezra had become an Orthodox Zealot in Israel; Cameron was gentrifying Brooklyn. And Joy?

“I’m delighted that Joy is doing well again,” said the bride-to-be, Zoë, with a sigh as she ushered Kat through the room. Sporting a big diamond ring, a smile, and a willingness to gossip, she led them to the balcony. To Zoë, this was mere idle gossip.

Kat felt the familiar gauzy curtain fall, partitioning her from her surroundings. Her free hand gripped the brick wall behind her until it hurt. She stopped sipping her champagne, its taste suddenly acrid. “What do you mean? What happened?”

“Oh, you didn’t hear? Have you guys lost touch? Her eating disorder got really bad. She had to be hospitalized and fed through a tube. Poor thing. She’d been dieting obsessively and then it just tipped right over that line.”

Her eating disorder? Was that the South Beach diet? Hospitalized? Kat remembered of course that she’d said a cruel, cruel, thing to her old friend – the words sparkled, knife-sharp, piercing through the humid shroud of that unspeakable summer.

Zoë clucked and hushed her voice.  “You guys growing up together and so on, the thing with your sister hitting her so hard. I thought maybe you’d heard, somehow. Parents or something.”

“Oh,” Kat said, putting on her too-sad-to-talk-about-it face, feeling the brick scrape her palm. Rina would know exactly how to weasel out of this.

“I guess I wasn’t in good touch with anyone for a while.”

“Understandable,” said Zoë. “La vie, eh? So tough. I wonder if she’ll come tonight. I invited her. She’s doing so much better, you know.”

A year before, Kat would have rolled her eyes, unable to shoulder the concept of anyone else’s suffering, even if she’d precipitated the slide into hunger, anguish, feeding tubes. Even now, a sliver of her judgment found something contemptible in Joy’s succumbing to such an illness, an illness that, despite all the medical truths she’d learned about genetics and brain chemistry, she found, well, somewhat narcissistic.

Still, Joy’s round eyes, her irritating questions, her relationship with the mirror and with Rina’s theatrical poise arrived in a new light of desperation, and Kat felt her soul clench with remorse, genuine remorse. Yes, Rina was her sister, hers alone. But Kat had wanted to siphon the sorrow for herself when there was plenty to go around.

What did the scarred-over wounds between them signify, anyway? Joy was “doing great” now. Joy had conquered her demons. Joy had soldiered on without Kat, the shattered sister.

Kat let her champagne glass rest, trying to stitch back together the newly-reopened gashes. Joy showed up half an hour later. The two women circled each other, exchanging pleasantries with others. They smiled over strange shoulders like prospective lovers.

At last, Joy approached Kat, armed with a new confidence, a slimness in the belly, a sense of having survived, and won.

“How are things?” Joy asked. “I haven’t seen you in forever.”

“It’s been – ” said Kat. “Well, it’s getting better. Well, not better, but bearable, I guess. I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch.” She looked down at Joy’s shoes, which came to an abrupt point. Power shoes. Probably Joy had just been asking how things were, in general. She probably didn’t want a report about where Kat had arrived in the five stages of grief.

They spoke of this and that, of Joy’s new career in arts administration – she was working at a theater – and Kat’s promotion at her lab.

“You always did like experimenting,” said Joy. “You must miss Rina. You still go to synagogue right? I’ve gone a few times, wondered if I’d see you.”

“My family stopped going. Like, totally. I don’t really know why, but I actually do go pretty often on my own, and I always go for Rina’s yahrtzheit, just to hear her name and say Kaddish. It’s actually next week,” Kat said, surprised at the rush of words, the lilt in her voice. As though she was asking something of Joy.

“I know it’s next week,” said Joy. “I wouldn’t forget. Hmmm. You shouldn’t go alone. I’ll try to make it.”

Despite herself, Kat nodded.

“That would be so lovely,” she said.

The next Saturday, Kat arrived at the synagogue and looked for Joy, but didn’t see her friend in the lobby. She chastised herself for holding expectations. Why was she here anyway? Because no one else who was close to Rina was. Because here in this crowd, with no other family or friends to mourn, Kat could hear her sister’s voice and be alone with it. Selfish to the last.

But she wasn’t alone. When Kat was nine and lost her grandfather, they called his name from the bimah each Sabbath for a month. Every Friday night, her family stood up to acknowledge their loss, always to Kat’s humiliation and Rina’s perverse pleasure. But on the fourth Friday, Joy came and sat with them. And that night they stood together. They stood up as one family suffering one loss. One family, knit together by Kat, Joy and Rina’s friendship, their voices murmuring the words of the Kaddish in unison. Rina’s voice the clearest, the highest, a voice people said was “destined for the stage,” a voice whose sudden silencing would never, ever end for Kat, even as it receded behind layers of time.

Now, Kat sat in a corner, finding herself looking at the same stained glass, finding faces and patterns in it as she had when she was a girl. Strange that she was the only one in her family who came here, the one who wasn’t born a Jew, the one who baffled people. There were so many things she’d lost since she’d lost Rina. She’d lost her parents coming to shul, she’d lost her ability to empathize, she’d lost her sister as a shield and protector, and she’d lost – she’d pushed away – Joy. They might not have stayed close. But a yearly coffee didn’t seem so terrible.

Loss builds upon loss. A sudden wind sneaks through a cracked window and every thread of the curtain inside is displaced by the movement of its neighbors. The ripples go back and forth, from the threads that are nearest the wound in the glass to the edges of the cloth and back again. 

Kat never imagined she could bear such a thing, but here she sat. She was still here.

She stood up in the pews when the Rabbi read out Rina’s name and craned her neck around to find any other mourners standing. But she was alone, as always, the eyes of the congregation on her, on her skin and on her hair and on the hole beside her where her sister should be. She recited the words of the Kaddish by heart, loud and unafraid, because it gave her comfort, because she would remember always as the ripples slowed but never ceased.

They would never cease for her, but they would never cease for Joy either – for Joy, somewhere in the city, walking forward in her power shoes with her head high, touching the other side of a thousand-threaded curtain, an endlessly shifting curtain of lamentation.

Oseh shalom bimromov, hu ya’aseh shalom alaynu, v’al kol yisroel; vimru Amen.

 

 

R.A. Santos

R.A. Santos is a Filipina-American artist based out of New York City. Her writing and photography have appeared in or are forthcoming in the Kartika ReviewRio Grande Review, and Cleaver Magazine. R.A’s work explores notions of place and impermanence. She currently works in public affairs with a larger focus on art and activism. 

 

Body in Hands

1.         You met him on the street, at fourteen. It was daylight and you were passing around cheap vodka mixed with Sprite in a Poland Spring bottle. Marlene was the one who knew him from a math class; she’d texted because the two of you were bored and he lived close. She offered you a Camel and you took it. He watched as you exhaled, and you felt the hot spotlight of his gaze. The feeling of a man’s eyes on you was a paradox of craving and detesting something all at once. It made you want to hide in your skin.

But he was not a man. He was a skinny, ninth grade boy. And when he said, I love the smell of cigarette smoke, you didn’t notice that his voice cracked, because those were the first words he had spoken to you and not your friend.

People walking on the street stared at the horrific picture of the three of you. Children smoking and drinking in broad daylight. You introduced yourself, and he said, I’m Sam. He watched as you exhaled and you passed him the water bottle.

In a strange way, Sam made you feel comfortable, even in those moments between meeting and knowing. The space between you is fear and love. And even years later, you will be close, but sometimes still exist in silence, like people who were just introduced. He will still sit in your cloud of smoke, breathing in your toxins, never complaining about the closed windows or the graying walls. Still be there just because you asked.

You remember your mother told you once that there are some people who meet and they barely have to speak. They don’t need to think. It happens that fast. It’s like nature, or physics, or a sunny sky after a rainy week. They meet and they never stop meeting. As if they’ve known each other for longer than they’ve lived.

2.         Sam knows nothing about you at home and everything about you at school. He knows how much you hate math, and how much you like to take pictures. He knows that you do homework in your free periods and that you are friends with all the security guards because you stay in the library every day until they lock up.

He is like everyone else in that he gets this look on his face when you speak Tagalog on the phone to your mother. He becomes mystified, in awe. Tries not to make it noticeable, but concentrates extra hard on the floor so that he can listen without looking. Hard consonants spin him into a spell.

He sees your body like the rest of them do, too. Your bra size is that much more exaggerated in his mind, your boobs bigger than even the most voluptuous of your classmates. Your waist is somehow smaller than other girls’ waists. Hair that much longer. Lips fuller. Sometimes, at school, you wonder if people really see you or if they just see some old World War II trope. Everyone says your skin is dark but when you compare it to theirs, it looks more similar than different. The New York winter ravages it into the same dry patches. Skyscrapers block the sun from your pores the same as they block it from everyone else’s.

3.         Sam holds onto his Jewishness like a lifeline. You never really discuss anything too personal, but it is in the way you categorize your lives that you start to know each other. He speaks about his religion in facts: Purim, Passover, Bar Mitzvahs, Seders. You tell him about Confirmation and Communion, how many beads are on a rosary, and together you count how many invisible lines make up the Sign of the Cross.

4.         It was in the way he wanted to know your opinion. It was when he asked for a drawing from your notebook. How he went to your first exhibit at the art school. His face when you talked to other boys. His face when you talked to him. The time when something came up but his phone died, so the next day he told you, I waited for two hours. It was in the four years that you saw each other every day but he never stopped looking. In the way his friends called you exotic and mysterious, but he always said smart and distant.

5.         You hate the idea that we could be together, he told you when you were sixteen. This moment you will remember forever. I don’t know what you’re talking about. His breath was the whole contents of an Old English 40 oz. and his temper was carbonated. You know what I’m saying.

One of your friends stumbled over and dragged you away. I’m stealing her! She’s mine! They handed you another beer and tugged at your hands until you were dancing, but you could feel his eyes on your back. Later, when the last song had run its course, you tried to find him to take the train home like always but he’d already left.

6.         It was always at night when it would happen and it was always while you were asleep. The only way you knew was, when you’d open your eyes and a figure snuck out the door. Your room was so dark sometimes you felt blind.

7.         One day he starts sitting at the opposite end of the room. He has been talking to a girl with wavy hair and long eyelashes. She is nothing at all like you. She is calm and laid back. Likes comic books and is good at science. Her family has cartons of Parliaments that they share, because they smoke openly in their house.

He begins leaving class for ten minutes at a time and coming back with a goofy smile on his face. In the library, they do crosswords together, hunched over the table looking for words they don’t actually care about finding. Someone tells you that they went on a date. Another person says they saw them at the movies. He stops answering your texts, and when you hear her whisper to her friend, Sam asked me out, you feel your whole teenage universe come crashing down. It’s in that moment that everything you ever wanted becomes so clear and then so far. This is how you know.

8.         He disappears, gradually, from the parties. Spends time with her indoors. Every Friday and Saturday, you find yourself dressing with the idea in your head: I wonder if he’ll be there? And even if he never is, you repeat this cycle every seven days.

I wonder if he’ll be there?

I wonder if he’ll be there?

I wonder if he’ll be there?

I wonder if he’ll be there?

I wonder if he’ll be there?

I wonder if he’ll be there?

I wonder if he’ll be there?

 

9.         In May, the letters come in. Everything becomes about tuition. For some people, the story of school is about serendipity: I felt at home as soon as I stepped on campus. For others, it is about bills: Where can I get the most money?

Everyone has their dream place, but few get in and few can pay. Really, when a decision like this comes around, it is not a question of want and more a question of ability. Financial aid is announced and you go one place. Most people from your school go to the state university. I don’t really have a choice, he tells you. But then he leaves something out. One day you walk into the college counselor’s office, and there is Ana, putting a deposit into an envelope with a familiar address. Suddenly, you feel like you’re watching your whole life ending with one lick of a stamp.

10.       At graduation, he says the first thing he’s said to you in months, which is, I wish she and I were going to different places.

And you say the last thing you’ll say to him for months, which is, But you aren’t.

11.       Everyone puts up pictures in their dorm rooms, but you wish you could put up your memories. In a perfect world, you would pin that first cloud of smoke with a thumbtack. Your bulletin board would have all the words he’s said to you. Pushpins would anchor knowing grins across classrooms. Blue tacks would connect the walls around you to the sound of two people laughing at once. 

12.       College has you on the computer constantly. You start taking photography classes and when you’re not looking through a lens, you are looking at a screen. You spend your time editing, manipulating, saturating, animating. Making life into something else. On late nights, you log into instant-messager, hoping for some old friend to be awake and willing to procrastinate alongside you. It becomes clear that his name is always there. That username – a mess of adolescent humor and misspellings – constantly plastered in the space of the screen that Adobe does not fill. It is there every day – popping up at night and staying until the morning. You cannot hear Sam or see Sam but you watch, nonetheless, until Sam becomes just a name, or a word. A screen. A conversation that does not get started. You wonder if he is also looking at his computer and watching for your word to become a message. If somewhere in upstate New York he is also waiting with tunnel vision.

Those minutes on those nights are seas of anxiety. Names on lists glare back like pennies in a tourist wishing well. The minutes are the quietest galaxies where nothing is said and everything is hoped. They make you wonder: where are the words in silence?

13.       It happens at night in the middle of a heat wave. You are home for the summer after college and he shows up at Marlene’s apartment. You and some friends have been drinking wine from the bottle all night and lamenting the lack of air conditioning. When he knocks on the door, he finds you gulping down Riesling that still has the price sticker on it. You have not seen each other in at least a year, but when your eyes meet it becomes the most uncontrollable reaction. Mouths turn up into wide smiles. Shoulders relax. I missed you.

The heat wraps around the room like a wool blanket. He takes out rolling papers and makes you cigarette after cigarette. Ana smokes, he explains. Yes, you say. You remember. She doesn’t like to buy them, he says. So I just sort of picked it up.

The night unfolds like a pre-pubescent crush. You sit closer and closer to one another until finally you are both on the couch. A few people have left, but neither of you pays attention and eventually his arm finds its way behind your back. It’s high school all over again. No more computer screens, no blinking cursors waiting for an instantaneous response. Just the two of you, talking. Staring.

Marlene yawns and pulls you and him over to the mattress on the floor. You all lie down and the two of you are awkward at first, but then you find a place between his shoulder and his forearm and it feels too safe to leave. It is not long before Marlene gets bored of the bed and wanders into another room, where the last guest is packing a bowl.

You take the final drag of your cigarette before stubbing it out. This is the closest proximity you’ve ever been to him. It is the line in desire between fantasy and reality. The wine has you drunk, but you start to get nervous thinking about all the times you’ve dreamed of this and all the time he has, too. His body is as bony as it was when you first met him. You are about to comment on this, but then he says, In high school, I liked you. It is an avalanche of upset. You cannot find your words. It becomes ping pong game of secrets:

                    You were so hard to get close to

I was afraid

                    It made me hate you

I made a mistake

                           You are so beautiful

__________ __________ __________

                             I wish I had known

I wish you had too

                              It’s too late now

Everything changed

                               Sometimes, I wonder if it had been you and not her.

I wish we were still kids.

He touches your waist and asks. but doesn’t wait for a response. He kisses you, and in an instant it’s a thousand thoughts spinning out of control inside your head. You are still lying down and his body is on yours. If he were a flavor, he’d be sweet. You have a preteen reaction to his lips: shock, confusion, awe, but most of all, self-consciousness. Panic. The two of you have always been so in tune and it’s been a year but he still knows your feelings when you say, I don’t know what I’m doing.  And you still know his feelings when he says, I can’t do this.

15.       All it ever takes is a pause, and when that happens, everything is retracted. If the night is in motion, you are the finger that presses Rewind.

Limbs between limbs and

Lips on lips

His hand on your face

Can I kiss you?

In one second, you reverse. Your hand on his chest and your breath on his neck. He gets up a million times and lies back down again. Don’t leave. Tries to kiss you and you pull away. You avoid his eyes, but stare into his shirt. Please stay. You want to be in this place forever. 

I feel like I don’t know you at all, he says. 

Sometimes it’s like talking to a stranger. 

Tell me something,

               anything. 

16.       Your body can tell the story of all the things he doesn’t know.

Your feet could say the places they’ve walked. The hallways they’ve wandered. Dirt roads on trips back home. Churches and seminaries. Chapels and convents. The cold linoleum tile of a sterile outpatient ward. How one anti-depressant made all the blood rush to your toes. How another made you feel like you were walking on clouds.

Your thighs speak to the one time, when you were younger, when your dad was still drunk every day. Your thighs know the kaleidoscopic web of burst blood vessels that decorated your legs. Continental-sized bruises coloring your limbs blue, yellow, purple. The place where the other end of the belt hit and the metal latch dug into the muscle so that when you tried to walk away, you limped. The next day was the first time your dad went sober, and your mother slept with her arms wrapped around you for three weeks.

Your wrists still have the shadows of middle school. Soft, pink lines where scar removal cream failed. It would be the story of pocketed XACT-O knives from the art supply closet. The sting of your mother’s tears as they fell into open wounds.

The torso holds memories of skin on bone. An upper body that looked like a harp, every rib a string to be plucked. Anyone who got close enough could hear the symphony of an empty stomach. The rumbling of gas and air as you digested vacant space. Your concave gut singing the song of six years spent chewing gum. Of losing vision when you stood. Hair falling out. Stripping naked every morning on a scale full of hope. Sometimes, your heart might say, the sound of speeding up whenever Sam was close.

But your breasts could tell the most. They are oversized and full, perfectly formed in acute post-puberty. Even now he looks at them, like they all did in high school, but if he really saw them he’d find tiny white stretch marks that trace lines along the undersides of each breast. They are like rings on a tree trunk: they tell you about years. This one is 2001 and you’re twelve, and your chest inflates too quickly for your skin, so as they grow, they leave marks. This one is 2002 and the tissue swells, overflows until you cage them in underwire. Men stare at you on the street, calling, Nice tits. Shouting, I’ll show you what a real man feels like. This one is 2003 and your uncle lives with you. The lines are a young body in old hands. They are the things you can’t say.

17.       The next week becomes a series of messages written but not sent. It is a full Drafts folder and an empty Inbox.

On Tuesday you write, I was too drunk. And on Wednesday you try, Can we talk? At dinner with your parents on Thursday, you type under the table, I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

Friday night, Marlene invites you to the bar where she works. There might be a job opening up and you’ve been looking for extra hours. It’s a cigar joint right next to that famous steakhouse in Williamsburg, so it’s not difficult to imagine their clientele. The tips are unbelievable, Marlene told you. All I have to do is light their cigars and laugh at their shitty jokes. Wear heels and put on some makeup. The one time you’d worked as a hostess, you got fired because you refused to flirt. That’s dumb, you told your boss. That’s the job, she told you.

The bar is not very big and you show up wearing both heels and makeup. You have a sheer nude shirt on and it contrasts against your skin, which is so yellow in the winter but so brown as soon as the sun comes out. Marlene told you to wear the black skirt, so that is what you have on, and while you walk from the train to the subway you hear the anonymous echoes of men’s thoughts escaping their mouths.

                         Chinita, you are so fine.
                                   Hey Baby, I like how you look.
                                       I could watch you all day long.
                                 Mami, I wanna know your body.
                         Come on. Give me a smile. 

Marlene greets you the way she greets the businessmen who filter out of the restaurant and into the bar. She grins and runs a hand through her hair. Good evening, welcome to Velvet. A tall, handsome man comes up behind her. He has evenly-tanned skin and a shaved head. No more than forty, you think. Maybe forty-one. He’s wearing a t-shirt and jeans, and his upper body is sculpted with the dedication of an obsessive vanity. You know him already. He is Marlene’s boss, Phillip. You like Phillip because he played along when you said, I’m twenty-three, I promise, and he let you drink for free since, Marlene’s his girl.

So, you down for the job? he asks. His eyes scan up and down your body, lids lifting and falling as he goes from head to waist to hips to soles. You’d be great. I could train you after we close. 

18.       After hours, the bar is quiet and small. You sit on a stool and he shows you how to light a cigar. Use the tallest flame, he explains. Rotate it like this.

Together you go through a bottle of red wine as you go over time sheets. You’re better than Marlene, he says. She’s the best hostess, but that’s all she is. You are something else. It is not very clear what he means by this, but with recent events, you take it as a compliment. He invites you to his apartment upstairs for a cigar, and then a joint. Smoke with him and talk to him. Think, this will be good. Think, a job will distract me.

When you look down to stub out the cigar, he takes your face in his hands and kisses you. I’m nineteen, you say. That’s fine, he says. You take a
second to pause and consider it, and even though that’s not what you came for, you realize, like a little girl, that this is an opportunity. Okay, just for practice. The fortyyear-old man looks at you and laughs. What the fuck?  So you say, I don’t have a lot of experience, as if that is a logical argument.

But even if you are a prude who’s been lost in her own fantasies, the first time you realize the way a kiss can escalate is always a shock. It starts with you thinking, I’m going to practice making out, and it becomes your legs on either side of him. Heart rates go up and each breath becomes a gulp. Phillip carries you up the stairs and onto his bed. It is very dark in the room. He starts at your feet and moves his hand up your thighs. Kisses your stomach, then your ribs. He pins your wrists above your head. Unbuttons your shirt. Unclasps your bra. With both hands, he touches your breasts.

               Your body can tell the story of all the things Sam doesn’t know.

Being naked like this is a disorienting experience. It’s like being an adult but feeling like a kid. Phillip is the farthest thing from a boy; he is a man, and now the story has become an old body in young hands.

When he spreads your legs, you let him. But as soon as he touches you, your nerve endings die. You go numb. Cold. It’s like something switched. As if you are floating somewhere above yourself. You’ve heard about this kind of thing happening, but you didn’t know it would be so literal.

There is no feeling, but there is movement. At that moment, he is the most alive person you have ever seen. There is a tangible difference between you. He keeps looking at you but you look away. He is here and you are somewhere else. Finally, you say, I’m tired, and move to the edge. On your side now, you feel his arms around your waist. Hear his voice in your ear, Goodnight, Yana. Soft strands of chest hair against your back. His breath on your neck. You want to cry and when it seems like he’s fallen asleep, you crawl out of Phillip’s bed and cover your body with blankets. At four in the morning, you sit on the floor of a man’s room, and you write a note to a boy. 

19.       Years later, in college, you stand at the back of the crowd for an event led by a women’s group. It has been months since you’ve even thought about Sam. Messages were, as always, never sent. Words never spoken. And when you returned to school, you decided, chance missed. Sam still wrote to you now and then. Told you things about him and Ana. You talked about your work, the photo thesis you’d been planning. I’m glad you kept up with it, he said. I remember your stuff from school.

By now, you have met someone else and it has been the greatest revelation because, in some way, you never thought it would be possible. He is the first person to make you think, maybe that wasn’t it, and his words and his thoughts consume you like the strongest gust of wind. The first night you spent together, he pointed to the black-and-white blow-up on your wall and smiled when he said, That’s my favorite picture.

When he looked at you, he saw your eyes before anything else. In the morning, you didn’t even realize that it was your first morning with anyone. Sunlight from the window washed your bodies in honesty and every piece of you that was ever shrouded in darkness or quiet or creams was suddenly there, but you kissed him with closed eyes and you couldn’t see the light, all you could do was feel it.

And yet, six months later and here you are again. Behind a sea of people with him at least one hundred bodies away from you, standing at the front, holding the hand of a girl whom, after a moment of silence, takes the stage to say the words that many other girls before her have said this night. The event takes place in the dark, and the only ones speaking are the women at the podium, so that the rest of you stand to listen in a hush, faces lit by candles. It is beautiful, really. It is tasteful, really.

When you lost your voice was when you lost your nerves, the second you were touched but not looked at. You were in bed with him and it happened again, just like you remembered it did with Phillip, just like it did with Sam. The next day, your voice box was empty, and sitting in class with him became an out-of-body experience of looking at your hands shaking, legs jerking, hairs standing up and pores brimming over with a cold, nervous sweat. It became painful to watch yourself, and he said the same things that Sam did. He said, communication and closeness. Why won’t you talk to me and Say something. Say anything.

His new girlfriend is standing at the podium and her voice is the loudest sound you’ve ever heard. She is amplified by the supersonic power of the microphone before her, and she says the words, keeps saying the words, that you can never seem to say. 

____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ _________________________ _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ , 

          they go on forever 

____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ __________________________ _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ . 

                    as if she’s said them before and she’ll say them again 

____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ _______________________________________ _____________ ! _____________ _____________ 

                              and you listen in the quietest galaxy of a crowd in tears 

____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ __________________________  _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ ? 

          you watch as he goes up to hold her when she starts to cry, too

____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ __________________________ _____________, _____________ _____________ _____________

               think, 

____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ __________________________ _____________ _____________ _____________ .

 

               my body can tell the story of all the things She will always know

 

____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ __________________________ _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ 

wonder,

____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ __________________________ _____________ , _____________ _____________ _____________ .

                                                                                                                   where are the words in silence

 

 

Sara Henning

sara henning picSara Henning’s poetry, fiction, interviews and book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as Bombay Gin, Willow Springs, and Crab Orchard Review. Currently a doctoral student in English and Creative Writing at the University of South Dakota, she serves as Managing Editor for The South Dakota Review.

 

 

Cutting It Down

My mother, the apple tree, her house in Des Plaines.

My mother, turning pages with juice-stained fingers, entire afternoons of books and wind. Sparrows’ toes tempting her to become part tree, part girl.

Then Dean Martin gushing through the living room windows. Then time to hide the children.

Memories are made of this, her father’s voice joining the lilt. Sixth Martini. You’re nobody ‘til somebody loves you.

Her body dropping reckless from branches, plucking toys from her sibling’s hands. Sister on her hip, palm hard against her brother’s back. Up the stairs, shoes shorn for soft stepping, into closets. Cotton and leather to swathe the body. Silk for the face.

Always a different location. A game of memory.

Bedroom, crawlspace, bathroom cabinet. Wherever their bodies, contorted into shapes of fear and corduroy, could slink. Linen or bivouac. Whichever safety would hold them.

Breathe lightly, she’d tell them. Gather your breath into a small orb of light and hold it in your chest.

Stockings stained with cinder, upstairs fireplace. Children still as lamps, children behind curtains.

Hold it there. Like they’d entered a game of waiting.

Try not to let go.

Needle grafting the record’s face, the return to song. Her father’s voice, her mother’s voice.

Leave them alone, like her mother would say on Saturdays in autumn, when he’d spend mornings raking, then burning leaves. When he’d return to the pile from a break with the paper to find the gold and burnish ravaged, stains of laughing and jumping, a trail of things dead and glowing.

Her youngest running to show her the rake-shaped marks on her legs.

Leave them. The bodies, tucked away. The bodies unheeded.

Leave them. First, soles of leather shoes slapping wood. Then restlessness, small things curling away from their latitude, their longitude. The ripping apart of drawers, waspish oblivion. Kicked cat, kicked dog. How his body looks when it touches the bed. How his body, in blackout, is still reaching.

Gather the children like apples, turn them over in her hands.

When she returns from school and the apple tree is gone. Hollow, he’ll tell her, spectacular with rot. The next storm would fill it with a rage of water. The house would lurch when it split the roof. Have mercy, he’ll tell her, on a thing that will fall.

The tree, not the fruit now bitten.

The book, not the hands that clutch it.

The wind, toes of sparrows, not the leaves that hang, not the rain still clinging.

Never the apples, brutal.

Never the storm.

Issue 2.4 Fall 2013

Theme Issue: Stories We’d Rather Not Tell

Click on the author’s name to read their work(s) and bio. Let us know what you think on our Facebook page and on Twitter using #BlueLyra. Also, consider leaving a comment for everyone to read.

"Tuk Tuk with Monks"  Art by Bernardo Medina
“Tuk Tuk with Monks”
Art by Bernardo Medina

Poetry:

Julie Brooks Barbour | A Gamble | No Destination
Robert Perry Ivey | Letter To Tally Bryant Ivey
Marilyn Kallet | What Will Baby Eat?
EJ Koh | Division | Visiting My Estranged Mother At A-802 Adena Luce In Seoul, Korea
Mary Meriam | Singular Heart

Minh Pham | Chasing A Boy | A Sister’s Love
Lauren Plitkins | Rebeca
Jade Ramsey | The Anger Of Flowers
Dale Ritterbusch | The Stump
Jorge Sanchez | The Poet | The Sounds Now
Nancy Scott | The Outside Rear Steps
Philip Terman | Teaching My Daughter The Mourner’s Kaddish | Putzing Around
Pia Taavila-Borsheim | Showdown | Chance

Fiction:

Michelle Auerbach | Geriatric Safe Sex
Judith Skillman | Me And Claire Marie

Spotlight On Artist:

Nicoletta Ceccoli

 

 

"With Suitcases"  Art by Jesse Wells
“With Suitcases”
Art by Jesse Wells

"Power King II"  Art by Karen Hackenberg
“Power King II”
Art by Karen Hackenberg

 

Nonfiction:

Natalie Friedman | The Shivers
Debra Fox | He Doesn’t
Tiff Holland | Sign Language
Roz Leiser | Urban Legend
Carla Sarett | Sam’s Will
A. M. Thompson | Amnesia 

Translations:

Chantal Bizzini | Bloom
**Marilyn Kallet
Moshe Dor | Sentimentality
**Barbara Goldberg
Mordechai Geldman | Voice
**Tsipi Keller
Victor Hugo | (Even as the Sailor)
**Julie Kane

Book Reviews:

Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine {Review by Lenore Weiss}

**Indicates translators

 

"Unraveling"  Art by Terra Holcomb
“Unraveling”
Art by Terra Holcomb

 

Nicoletta Ceccoli

 

Nascondino
Nascondino

Nicoletta Ceccoli born in 1973 in the Republic of San Marino. She always loved picture books and since childhood she then has never stopped  browse through them, smell them, buy them. She graduated at the Art Institute of Urbino in animation. She currently works as an illustrator in San Marino. Her first book was published in 1997. Since then she has illustrated for the major publishing houses, amongst the others by Random House and Simon and Shuster of  New York, Mondadori in Italy. She likes to experiment with different techniques and materials, from traditional acrylic on paper, to the use of plasticine and photography .Her books have been widely translated throughout Europe, Asia and South America and appreciated by readers of all ages. Her latest work has been  as  concept artist for the film La Mechanique du coeur directed and written by Mathias Melzieau and Stephane Berla and the production of Luc Besson. His personal works have recurrent theme of loss of innocence. Her protagonists are fragile snow whites living in worlds of paradoxes and loneliness in atmospheres between fable and Flemish painting. Her site is http://www.nicolettaceccoli.com/

 

Interview with the Artist, Nicoletta Ceccoli

 

 

Eat Me, Drink Me
Eat Me, Drink Me

Please tell us about your background – your childhood and art school.

My mother, a primary school teacher, always surrounded me with beautiful children’s books. My father is a carpenter, and it is from him that I received both my creative spirit and the love of creating things with my own hands. I grew up spending lot of time with my father in his workshop.  He worked in wood to make beautiful  furniture, and he gave to me colored pieces of wood with glue, and I loved creating objects from them. I made dolls and funny little animals and houses for them to play in.

I drew endless worlds of my own where I could imagine living another life. These places were always more magical to me than the real world . When I was 14 years old, I discovered the wonderful world of picture book artwork in Bologna, where I had traveled to see one of the most important children’s book fairs. I decided then and there that this would be my career.

 

 

Can you describe your work space ?

I work at a large table in the center of my studio space. Behind me is a giant library filled with picture books. Some of my favorites are kept open on the shelves….. Edward Gorey’s pop-up book, ‘The Dwindling Party,’ and ‘The Cat With Boots’ by Stasys Eidrigevicious. Also ‘Tiff Taff and Lulu‘ by my friend Eva Montanari and ‘Nemo in Slumberland’ by Winsor McCay. Then I have a shelf with toys that inspire me. Some of them belong to my childhood; a Pinocchio made of wood by my father, a Jiminy Cricket crocheted by my grandmother, and a cottage of sugar, made from many lollipops and candy canes. On the wall are prints by  Femke Hiemstra, Edward Gorey, Guido Cagnacci, and a poster from the film ‘Drive’ by Nicholas Winding Refn.

 

You work in a small town of San Marino. Please describe the city and what do you see from your window ?

San Marino offers a breathtaking view of three medieval towers that are on the top of the Titano Mountain. This inspires me to create the exaggerated perspectives from high places that I often like to play with in my children’s books. From my studio windows I can see a bit of the Titano Mountain and the Sea of Rimini.

 

How much of the town and nature are an inspiring for you and how much is it a separate world that you imagine and paint?

What I imagine has no special relationship to my actual surroundings….I feel that I paint separate worlds.

The city where I studied, Urbino, influenced me a great deal, visually. The school where I received my art training with master classes, The Institute of Art, is located within the Ducal Palace. Time stopped for me in this place… I was surrounded by historic treasures and masterpieces like ‘La Flagellazione’, created by  Piero della Francesca. I enjoyed this frozen stillness, and  felt enchanted by the entire city, which remains an open air museum of the 16th century.

 

Who are your characters and what story or message they have?

My stories are about the  mysteries of adolescence. My girls innocently and sensually  allure without being completely aware of this delicate passage. In my playful way, I like to suggest a mischievous sensuality. Some of my work brings to mind the iconography of the martyrs… St. Sebastian, St. Teresa…. bodies ‘slain’ in pain, but appearing almost in the throes of pleasure at the same time.  These pictures show bodies of martyrs punished and tormented, and the more wounded and tormented they are, the more they  shout their sensual presence.

My protagonists are fairies that I dream of, candidly expressing cruelty, loneliness and fragility, and simultaneously flaunting beauty  and madness. My work is poetic on the surface and speaks of a child’s sweetness, while the  contradictions, like the dark side of a nursery rhyme, betray my deeper anxieties.  

 

What is the  process of your work ?

I sketch a rough and then draw it. The idea may change, but a concrete painting brings forth precise contents.

 

Do you have a vision in your mind when you sit next to an empty canvas?

My work always begins with a precise sketch, and after, I use colours.

 

Do you leave your art to the viewer’s interpretation or is it important to you that they will understand the story you wanted to tell?

I prefer for every one who looks at my work comes away with their own interpretation.  In this way, a sense of mystery remains. I want people to consider their childhood joys and nightmares…

 

What is your inspiration?

Everything I see and experience nurtures my inspiration; faery tales, poetry, paintings, literature. I am interested in mythology for the irrepressible imagination and metamorphosis between creatures of this world and the humanization of all things. I believe that our imaginations connect us to the mysteries of life, the truest part of ourselves.

 

 

 

Fisheye Copia
Fisheye Copia

You are children’s book illustrator. How is it different from painting ?

May I say that I prefer to be thought of simply as an artist, and when I am working or playing, I am painting. My illustration projects are commissions for storybooks that interpret  a story, and this requires me to follow certain rules. When working on a structured project, I miss the chaos that is everywhere with personal work. At the same time when I am  totally free, I miss the constraints, because they reassure  me.

Illustration tells a story with images that are parallel to the written words, and consistent with that story, and I think the best illustration conveys the essential meaning through another language. I take on commissions that intrigue and inspire me, and not too many, so that I have time to create exhibitions of my personal work, too.

Working as an illustrator over the last 20 years has allowed me to keep in touch with the child within myself. I hope that when one of my story books is the first form of visual education for a child that he or she may feel inspired to imagine conquering their fears in real life, just as in a magical fairy tale.

 

Who is your favorite writer ?

Kurt Vonnegut because in his writing he approaches very serious matters with a bitter and unique sense of humor .

  

Who is the writer you like to work with ?

I loved to work on The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum with  Kate Bernheimer.

 

What is your favorite classic children book?

Pinocchio 

 

Arpia
Arpia

In your painting there are some influence that remind the Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories. what can you tell us about it ?

My adolescent girls are all a little bit Alice, struggling with a body in flux, changing, in a world that is itself in constant metamorphosis– transforming and evolving in a way that is ‘illogical’ in its very nature. Wonderland  is the place where every feeling and emotion exists beyond rules and conventions. Here, the usual course of things is turned over and over again in an unusual way. This is where we search for and discover our own  identity and dreams.

 

Are there any aspects of your life, things that you love that find their way to your paintings?

I do realize that the characters in my pictures reflect my alter ego. When I look for an idea, though, I don’t really think about a personal experience. After the painting is finished, I often realize how the painting evolved from my own feelings. The unconscious process is quite like in a dream, and what I mean by that is when I have discovered an idea I pursue it completely unaware of where I am heading or what I could encounter along the way.

 

Who are the artists that inspires you ?

Too many to list!  Remedios Varo,Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini, Alberto Savinio, Mark Ryden, Stasys Eidrigevicious, Edward Gorey, Paolo Uccello, Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dali, Jan Swankmajer…….

 

Do you listen to music while you paint?

Yes, and sometimes I am very inspired by a particular song, or the melancholy within the music.  “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is a song by Joy Division about  the end of a love affair and the drying of  feelings. I used that title for one of my recent paintings where between two lovers there flows water that separates them, just as love ebbs in the song.

“Girls Don’t Cry” is a title that I used for another painting, and it was my intention to homage the band The Cure. A little girl is full of tears because she cutting an onion, in theatrical pose as if she were Giuditta beheading Holofernes’s. It is a comical scene, and reminds me that I need to laugh a little more, and not take myself too seriously.

 

Can you tell us about a project you are working on right now?

I am working on designs for an artist series of candy tins for Hint Mint. I am enjoying it because I have complete freedom to illustrate the flavors cinnamon, chocolate, mint and pomegranate in a whimsical way. I am creating a sugar coated world of pleasures and sweetness, which is an extension of my recent personal work, “Eye Candy,’ that was exhibited at AFA in New York. I will be working on another show for them for 2014, and I sign limited edition prints that are shown in their galleries in the US and France. 

 

What is your motto in life?

Use humor as response to fears.

Lenore Weiss, review of Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine

Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine

edited by Mari L’Esperance and Tomás Q. Morín
Prairie Lights Books, 2013
Distributed by University of Iowa Press
ISBN: 978-0-9859325-2-7, 194 pages, paper

 

When I read Coming Close, a collection of essays written by students from Philip Levine’s poetry workshops, I felt like I had met Philip Levine forty different times. These are like love letters of appreciation.

Levine is a master poet who, during his fifty-year teaching career, won just about every literary award, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for The Simple Truth. More recently, he served as the country’s Poet Laureate from 2011-2012.

Many celebrated poets who have studied with him frequently associate the word “generosity” with his teaching. Whether meeting Levine as a young poet sitting in a room permeated by the smell of fertilizer from the fields outside California State University in Fresno, encountering him later in his life as the Distinguished Poet in Residence at New York University, or intersecting with him at points in between, all of the writers said his teaching changed them.

Many writers, such as Aaron Belz, maintained a correspondence with Levine long after he had left the classroom. Belz shares some of Levine’s advice that was helpful to his own career:

“You asked for detailed advice on how to deal with taking yourself seriously as a poet & yet not puffing yourself up & at the same time believing in yourself as a poet. I can tell you this: long before I believed in what I was writing I believed in myself as a poet, believed I had something to say but had not yet found out how to say it. I suppose I was saying to myself, Philip, you are a person of intelligence, feelings, wit, some charm, you have as much right to this poetry thing as anyone else, though it is obvious that some others are more gifted (Hart Crane, John Keats, Wilfred Owen, etc., I was not yet 25), so stick at this thing & see what happens. No harm will come from this doggedness…”

There are other glimpses into student letters and notes that provide a fuller picture of Levine, a man who set an example not only by his passionately lyrical poems, but by his devotion to his students. He was not all sweetness and light. Levine had a reputation for eviscerating his students’ poems (but not the poet), and once, on the first day of a class, felt obliged to disavow a story of tearing up a poem into scraps before its author’s eyes. On the other hand, that quality of “no bullshit” was why so many of his students held him in high esteem. Paula Bohince writes:

“…he wanted to see us develop, caring enough to push us as we would have to push ourselves when our program ended.”

Others acknowledge that his tough feedback was tempered with outrageous humor so that, as Shane Book says, “you could take it because he made you laugh; the alternative was to weep. Levine wanted us to know how tough it was to write well.” Another student shares how his grading system was based on the OK system – decent stuff merited an OK+, the mediocre, OK-, and the truly awful won a low growl of argh!

Levine encouraged his students to reconnect with their own fractured memories and to allow imagination, as Colin Cheney says, “to give new life to what can’t be restored.” By giving the Detroit working class a face and a life in poetry and later broadening his work to encompass the nature of democracy in the United States, Levine’s poems encourage others to be truthful to material from their own lives.

All of the writers share an admiration for Levine’s work. Blas Manuel De Luna says:

“He was a model. If you tried to be like him – if you took your craft as seriously as he did, if you took the work as seriously as he did, if you took your life as seriously as he did, if you believed in poetry in the way that he believed in poetry – then you had a chance to make work that could last.”

Each essayist shares a facet of Levine, a man who appeared to David St. John as a cross between “Woody Guthrie and Paul Newman.” Nick Flynn recalls a time when Levine explained, “If you had remained an electrician, you would know how to get the lights to come on, but you are now a poet, and each day you must invent the world. Not the world, but your place in it…”

All of these women and men knew that they were studying poetry with someone whose work mattered and, like Ishion Hutchinson, wanted to be “owners of his myth.” Mark Levine recounts the poet saying, “There’s only one reason to write poetry. To change the world.”  Included here is an earlier essay written by Larry Levis, a beloved student and friend of Levine’s. When Levis died in 1996 of a heart attack, Philip Levine edited Levis’ last collection of poems, Elegy.

The editors of Coming Close have done a masterful job of pacing these essays to build a pathway toward discovering Levine and his influence on several generations of poets. L’Esperance and Morín both have essays included in this collection. Read the book to meet Philip Levine as a teacher, and the students who found what they needed in his classroom to become successful in their own work.   

 

Written by Lenore Weiss

Her work has been widely published online, in journals, and anthologies. West End Press published her full collection of poetry, Cutting Down the Last Tree on Easter Island. She serves as the copy editor for The Blue Lyra Review

    

Victor Hugo

Translator’s Note of Victor Hugo’s Work: 

Like a battlefield doctor performing triage, a translator has the unenviable task of deciding what can be saved and what must be sacrificed for the latter’s sake. In the case of Hugo’s “Even as the sailor,” I chose to jettison the end-rhyme in order to preserve the rhythms and syllabics of Hugo’s phrasing and the deliberate simplicity of his diction. The original ten-line poem rhymes abbabcddcd and is in alexandrine meter (12 syllables to a line). My translation, although unrhymed, maintains the original’s alexandrine syllabics.

I also chose to retain the direct translation of lieues as “leagues” rather than to substitute the more modern “miles.” Evoking Jules Verne’s 19th-century sci-fi novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and the old French folktale of the Seven-League Boots, that one word seemed to me to impart a more distant, mysterious, and timeless quality to the setting of the poem. “Even as the sailor” is the tenth in a sequence of seventeen poems concerning the death of Hugo’s beloved daughter Léopoldine. Newly married and pregnant, she drowned with her young husband in a boating accident. 

 

Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was a French writer and political activist. While he is best known in English-speaking countries for the novels Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in France he is considered to be a major Romantic poet. 

 

Julie Kane’s translations from French and co-translations from Lithuanian have appeared in Nimrod, The Drunken Boat, Louisiana English Journal, and the anthologies Druskininkai Poetic Fall 2005 and Contemporary Lithuanian Poetry: A Baltic Anthology. The 2011-2013 Louisiana Poet Laureate, she is a Professor of English at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana.

 

(Even As the Sailor)

Even as the sailor, who calculates and doubts,
Asks the constellations to steer him on his way;
Even as the shepherd, that visionary one,
Seeks in the midst of woods his polestar and his route;
As the astronomer, inundated by rays,

Measures a planet’s mass across millions of leagues;
Me, I seek something else in that vast and pure sky.
To me, that dark sapphire is a hidden abyss.
One can hardly make out, at night, the blue dresses
Of shivering angels, gliding in the azure.

—   April 1847

 

X.

Pendant que le marin, qui calcule et qui doute,
Demande son chemin aux constellations;
Pendant que le berger, l’oeil plein de visions,
Cherche au milieu des bois son étoile et sa route;
Pendant que l’astronome, inondé de rayons, 

Pèse un globe à travers des millions de lieues,
Moi, je cherche autre chose en ce ciel vaste et pur.
Mais que ce saphir sombre est un abîme obscur!
On ne peut distinguer, la nuit, les robes bleues
Des anges frissonnants qui glissent dans l’azur.

— Avril 1847

Mordechai Geldman

Translator’s Note:

Mordechai Geldman came of age as a poet in the seventies, a heady and auspicious time in the development of Modern Hebrew poetry. Young poets, such as Yair Hurwitz and Yona Wallach—friends and contemporaries of Geldman, with whom he shared a strong kinship—were publishing their first books, inspired by the freedoms their elders had established as a matter of course. These poets—David Avidan, Natan Zach, Yehuda Amichai, and Dahlia Ravikovitch—who began publishing two decades earlier, had turned away from the poetic conventions of their immediate predecessors, notably Natan Alterman and Avraham Shlonsky, who were still very dominant in the fifties and sixties. Avidan, Zach, and their contemporaries vehemently rejected the flowery, the hyperbolic, and the sentimental, along with rhyme and formal verse. They advocated for and embraced the modernism of Pound, Eliot, Auden, and Wallace Stevens, to name a few, and so paved the way for Geldman and his generation of poets.

Geldman’s poetic journey is transformative, and he seems to exhort us to pay attention, to be mindful, and perhaps share in the kabbalists’ vision that “There can be no perfecting above without the perfecting influence of humans when they are righteous and act from love.” (Zohar 2:155a). For Geldman, the determination to seek and to understand through the act of writing is equated with the determination to live. To feel and to formulate becomes not only his way of life, but his survival strategy. The devotion to the written word is sacramental and binding, impelling him toward precision, on the one hand, and toward humility, on the other.


Mordechai Geldman
’s poems, in my translation, have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Absinthe Literary Review, Cider Press Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, and in Poets on the Edge: An Anthology of Contemporary Hebrew Poetry (SUNY Press). Years I Walked at Your Side, spanning thirty years of Geldman’s work, is now under consideration with a publisher in the United States.


Tsipi Keller
(the translator) was born in Prague, raised in Israel, and has been living in the United States since 1974. The author of nine books, she is the recipient of several literary prizes, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fiction Award. Her short stories and poetry translations have appeared in journals and anthologies in the United States and in Europe. Her novels include Retelling, Jackpot, and, most recently, The Prophet of Tenth Street (2012). Her translation collections include: Poets on the Edge: An Anthology of Contemporary Hebrew Poetry; and The Hymns of Job & Other Poems.

 

Voice

What is his true voice?

Have words wrapped him
in murmurs
in forms
in worn-out constructs that came before him?
“Person” described him
better than “frog”
but the croaking of frogs in the night’s ponds
or the whistle of birds at dusk
or the sound of fruit dropping to the ground
drew him out better than Hebrew
as Being revealed itself to him in its fullness

And at moments of imposed openness
when fatigue dissolved his inhibitions
Yiddish melodies floated up in his mind
songs of mournful wisdoms
of a cursed chosen people of God
tunes of an exiled truth
and suffering and the rolling of the dead[1]

And at times other voices
voices of others
snuck surreptitiously into his secret cave
echoed in his voice and from within
infecting his voice with alienation
alien voices echoed in his voice, simulating his voice
his voice at times getting lost in simulation

But was it really simulation
was there really a voice that was not his voice
as it used his mouth, his palate, his tongue, his teeth
in order to set forth in the world
out into a vastness of odd-looking funnels

And wasn’t his voice muddled up
when adjusted to the auditory frequency of listeners
who had no intention to listen
and certainly never made the effort
and in fact never could

A suspicion played in him
annulling any pure sound
true like the roar of a river
virginal like the note of a reed
that has just been pulled from the edge of the swamp
or cruel and desirous like the wail of prairie wolves

But always an intense pain
an absolute final truth
whose voice was a scream or a shout
a voice distilled of dross
a voice of pure pain
pure voice of pain
four final words
and the chorusing of wasps
in landfills

*

In the end I couldn’t save her 

I who was appointed by her to save her
I who had saved her since childhood again and again
from the death that hummed in her
from the Poles, the Germans, from the neighbors, from Father
even from myself—
in the end I couldn’t save her
all my efforts fell short
for in the end her time had come

In the end she knew nothing
except her death
that surged from within her like a conquering killer
and she, as if yearning for him without alarm
placed herself in his hands

In the end she could only say—
“Shabbat is here”
as if all of time had been lost
and only Shabbat remained
a white dress she wore for her Shabbat
and all the days all day
she lit more and more Shabbat candles
and a Shabbat fire she lit on the stove
and eternal light she lit in the bulbs
and set the table for the Friday meal
as if waiting for me
as if waiting for him
lecha dodi likrat kallah[2]

In the end the candles dimmed
and the white dress perished as well
for it was stained with food urine and excrement
and I who had been appointed to be her grace and glory
could not in the end save her
for all my efforts fell short

 

Chu

          A monk asked Chao-Chu:
          Is the nature of Buddha in the dog?
          Ehhhh, said Chao-Chu

 

1.

A car ran over the cat Chu
and I wept for my cat Chu
(affectionately I called him Chu-Chu)
as if he were my son or my friend-beloved

But my weeping distressed me—
how can you, I said, cry for a cat
while death consumes people in its thousand mouths
the land is filled with widows and orphans
and many parents lost their sons
and he who didn’t die in the war died in a terrorist attack
and he who didn’t die in a terrorist attack
died in a car crash, floods, fires

And he who didn’t die in those died from old age or illness
and he who didn’t vanish in death
is now blind and lame or scarred with burns
and all are awaiting the next war
that will destroy even the birds and cats

 

2.

The cat Chu like most of the cats in our land
was a fourth-world citizen
living at the bottom of society’s ladder
below the beer guzzling foreign workers
below the shaking drug-addicted whores
together with the litter-nibbling hobos

But I raised him from the gutter
to be a domestic noble tiger
a green-eyed striped tiger
daintily stepping on pillows and armchairs
feeding on Italian preserves
and preferring to catnap with his head in my palm
Am I an orphic poet who seeks
his beloveds in the lower worlds
who favors a stone the builders refused[3]
who imports his poems from the lands of death?

 

3.

At night Chu came to me in his spirit
and said in the language of humans:
“Now that you’ve written two poems
you want to forget me
but I’m a cat of three poems
if not more”
 


[1] Refers to the belief that when the Messiah arrives, Jews who had died in the Diaspora would roll under their graves, through tunnels and caves, to Israel for the Resurrection

[2] From the liturgy, a song recited in synagogue Friday evening to welcome the Shabbat, referred to as a bride and queen: “Come my beloved to greet the bride”

[3] From Psalms, CXVIII, 22: “The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner.”

Moshe Dor

Moshe DorMoshe Dor, born in Tel Aviv in 1932, is one of the most prominent poets in Israel. The author of forty books of poetry, essays, interviews and children’s books, A recipient of the Bialik Prize, Israel’s top literary award, and twice winner of Israel’s Prime Minister’s Award in Literature, he is former President of Israeli P.E.N., Counselor for Cultural Affairs in London, and Distinguished Writer in Residence at American University, Washington, DC. As a young man, Dor joined the Haganah and later worked as a journalist, serving on the editorial board of Ma’ariv, a leading Israeli newspaper. Many of Dor’s poems can be found in Hebrew textbooks and studied by students of all ages. His poems have been translated into some thirty languages, including Arabic and Chinese. Dor is the lyricist of Erev Shel Shoshanim (Evening of Roses), one of Israel’s most beloved songs, performed worldwide as a wedding song.

 

Barbara GoldbergBarbara Goldberg, raised in Forest Hills, New York, has worked with Moshe Dor for over twenty years. They have translated and edited several books of contemporary Israeli poetry, including After the First Rain: Israeli Poems on War and Peace with a foreword by then Prime Minister Shimon Peres (University of Syracuse Press), The Stones Remember: Native Israeli Poetry, recipient of the Witter Bynner Foundation Award (The Word Works) and The Fire Stays in Red: Poems by Ronny Someck (University of Wisconsin Press). Goldberg is a poet in her own right, with four prize-winning books of poetry, most recently, The Royal Baker’s Daughter, recipient of the Felix Pollak Poetry Prize (University of Wisconsin Press). Among her awards are two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, numerous grants from the Maryland State Arts Council as well as awards in translation, fiction, feature writing and speechwriting. Goldberg’s work appears in American Poetry Review, Best American Poetry, Paris Review and Poetry.  Goldberg, visiting writer in American University’s MFA program, lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Find her website at www.barbaragoldberg.net 

Scorched by the Sun: Poems of Moshe Dor, translated from the Hebrew by Barbara Goldberg and Moshe Dor (The Word Works, 2012) is their most recent collaboration. The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature awarded Goldberg a grant for her translations.

 

Sentimentality

Listening to Russian folk songs while brooding
over dim memories, which even now
are growing dimmer, and biting
your lips as you mull over each
missed opportunity, and feeling
your tears flow without
restraint or shame, oh,
oh what a jerk!

 

MosheDor_Hebrew

Chantal Bizzini

Chantal BizziniChantal Bizzini is a poet and translator who was born in 1956 and lives in Paris. She’s published poems as well as translations of Anglo-American poets including Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, W. H. Auden, Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, John Ashbery, Clayton Eshleman and Jorie Graham in Po&sie,  Europe, Poésie 2005, Action  Poétique,  Le Mâche-Laurier, Rehauts, and Siècle 21. She defended a thesis at the University of Paris on Ezra Pound and Hart Crane and is currently pursuing research on these poets. She just completed translating the complete poems of Hart Crane and an anthology of poems by Adrienne Rich both of which will appear in Circé Editions. Éditions Obsidiane will publish Bizzini’s first collection of poems in 2012.

 

 

Marilyn KalletMarilyn Kallet (translator) is the author of sixteen books, including The Love That Moves Me, poetry, 2013, as well as translations of Benjamin Péret’s The Big Game (Le grand jeu) and Paul Eluard’s Last Love Poems, all from Black Widow Press.  She is the director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Tennessee where she holds the Nancy Moore Goslee Professorship in English. Each spring she also teaches a poetry workshop for the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in Auvillar, France. Kallet has won the Tennessee Arts Literary Fellowship in Poetry, and has served on the Tennessee Arts Commission Literary Advisory Panel. She was inducted into the East Tennessee Literary Hall of Fame in Poetry in 2005. She has performed her poems on campuses and in theatres across the United States, as well as in France and in Krakow and Warsaw, as a guest of the U.S. Embassy’s “America Presents” program. 

 

Bloom

This unknown flower that disturbs,
miniature death
mask, opaque object,
you turned away from it, not able to undo
the mute chains.

The hue and the texture of this abrupt flowering…
it must now
dazzle black sky with its revelation
since its oblivion would carry bare
and solitary death.

It will blossom like this, another star,
scarlet and without fire;
and the slow swinging of the sky
in the regularity of its movement
will negate the verve of its color
to weave, in the style of a destiny,
the space where you live;
on the same stalk that ties earth and sky
pain
and vertigo cling.

The stars, the Milky Way, two planes glimmer.

 

 

Éclore

Cette fleur inconnue qui trouble,
masque miniature
de mort, objet opaque,
tu t’en es détourné, ne pouvant défaire
les chaînes muettes.

La teinte et la texture de cette floraison brusque…
il faut maintenant
éblouir le ciel noir de sa révélation
puisque son oubli porterait la mort
solitaire et nue.

Elle éclora ainsi, autre étoile,
écarlate et sans feu ;
et le lent basculement du ciel,
dans la régularité de son mouvement,
niera l’élan de sa couleur
pour tisser, à la manière d’un destin,
l’espace où tu vis;
sur la même tige qui lie terre et ciel
s’attachent la peine
et le vertige.

Les étoiles, la voie lactée, deux avions clignotent.

A. M. Thompson

A.M. Thompson is a wife, mother, blogger, and distance runner. She holds an AA in Liberal Arts and Certificate in Creative Writing and is currently pursuing her B.A. in English online. As a freelance writer, she has authored several press releases, travel and tourism articles, nonfiction works and written webcontent for various sites. Her works have appeared in APIARY Onlineandiran.tumblr.com  and Examiner.com. One of her stories was turned into a short film, which was screened at the International House in Philadelphia in 2011.

 

Amnesia

“I told your father there are three things I will never tolerate: lying, cheating, or hitting. If you lie to me, I will leave you. If you cheat on me, I will leave you. And if you ever lay your fucking hands on me – if you ever hit me – I will leave you.”

I wonder if that was in my mother’s vows:  I, Evelyn, take you, Daniel, to be my wedded husband. To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness or in health, until death do us part (unless, of course, you fucking hit me. Then your ass is out on the curb).

You may now kiss the bride.

My husband and I opted to write our own vows. His included mutant pigs and deformed frogs; mine were sappy and sentimental, like a greeting card dipped in chocolate and rolled in sugar. My teeth hurt while saying them. My wedding took place on October 19, 2007. It was nearly 90 degrees and rained all day, not quite the fall weather we were hoping for. By the time I arrived home from the hair salon, I had to re-curl the free-flowing strands that once framed my face: humidity had caused them to fall flat in less than five minutes. Of course, it didn’t matter in the end, but when you are getting ready to marry the man of your dreams; the smallest things will set you off (like realizing you don’t own a single umbrella that isn’t broken). Two years of planning and $10,000 later and all I remember are the vows, the kielbasa, and the roasted potatoes.

The first time he hit me was over a banana. We were in our one-bedroom, white-walled apartment in suburban Philadelphia, and he had had one too many beers; I hadn’t had a drink all day. We weren’t yet married; engaged, yes, but still – essentially – single. He was a joker and began pulling bananas, one-by-one, off from a bunch on our kitchen counter and then smashing them, Hulk-style, on the floor. We weren’t made of money and while each one cost no more than ten or fifteen cents, I became angry: he was wasting both food and my hard-earned cash (not to mention he was making a slippery-yet-sticky mess). I told him to stop; I told him to clean it up. He grabbed another banana. When I attempted to take the banana from his hand, a struggle began. Not a true struggle; it wasn’t like I was trying to wrestle a gun from his grip, but a drunken tussle. Before I knew it, his right hand had connected with the left side of my face; I couldn’t see it – or the macerated bits of banana and blood on my orange hoodie – until the swelling went down two days later. 

I told everyone I was in a car accident. Not a terrible one – there were no broken bones or fractured ribs – just one strong enough to deploy the airbag, shatter my nose, and blacken my eye. It seemed reasonable enough. Truth be told, I would have kept it to myself if I didn’t have to work the next day, but since I did, I stuck by my story. No, I said, the car was okay; a few dents and dings but nothing terrible. It was only body damage.

That’s the thing; you make excuses. You know better than to say you fell down a flight of stairs – it isn’t viable in the movies and certainly your friends and family will see through the lie – but you also can’t bring yourself to say it; your husband-to-be clocked you in your face over a banana. So instead you deny it; you deny it like you denied yourself that spa treatment last weekend, the one in the city with your girlfriends at the W Hotel. You forget it like you forget what you had for dinner last night. It becomes just another story.

You make eggs and bacon for breakfast, sip your coffee, and choke down that burnt bagel you thought you could soften with copious amounts of butter. Sort the laundry. Get dressed. Toss your hair in a ponytail. Whatever you do, avoid the bathroom and the full-length mirror in the hall. And don’t touch your face; it will sting.

The second time it happened was a blur. I woke with bruises on my legs and left arm and the leftover traces of fingertips on my neck. Pictures from the night before proved they were fresh; they also proved we were both wasted. I had walked around town in an oversized Justin Timberlake t-shirt and smiley face thong (these were my more voyeuristic days), and sometime before taking the photo beneath the basketball net (the one with my pierced tongue hanging out) and arriving back home, the bruises formed. His story differed from mine, and in the haze of the hangover that followed I began to believe whatever he said.

You promise yourself this will never happen again. You consider leaving, talk about getting a divorce – you can do it; you don’t need him – decide to go to couples therapy but find yourself going on a dinner date instead. Too many years; too many memories.

You immerse yourself in boxes and bubble wrap. You will be moving next month and need to pack six years and four rooms in just over five weeks. Pack the bookcase first then pictures and DVDs. Move to the closet; toss the t-shirts you haven’t worn since you were seventeen, but keep the twin-sheet sets that no longer fit your queen-sized bed. Leave the kitchen for last. Call the cable company, the gas company, and the electric company and schedule their shut-off dates. Call back and complain when you find yourself without power two days too early. Wish you had a house phone to slam, then throw your cell phone anyway. Contemplate why you are so angry as you slink around the house, shuffling Sharpie-labeled boxes from room-to-room while checking cabinets you already know are empty.

The third time was in Disney World. We did what Walt warned us about and drank around the world. (For those unacquainted with this concept, “drinking around the world” involves consuming an adult beverage from every “country” in Epcot; at last count, there are 11 countries.) We started in Mexico, made our way through Norway and China, and ended up in England where – we thought – success tasted like Smitwick’s and Guinness. Then we realized a fatal error: While we had shopped in Japan, we forgot to buy a beer or plum wine. With minutes to spare, we ran halfway around the globe to order a single cup of sake we never should have been served. Success was creamy, smooth and sweet, until we got onto the Walt Disney World Transportation System, realized we forget to pee prior to our departure from the park, and found ourselves lost and stumbling around the oversized lake at Coronado Springs with urine dripping down our legs. I could see our hacienda in the distance – each section of the Coronado Springs resort bears a different Mexican marker. I turned to my husband, muttered something I thought was clearly “I’ll meet you in the room,” and made a run for it. After a few misguided swipes of the room key, I entered, drew a bath, and jumped in the tub; my toe didn’t even test the water. I took a breath and plunged my face beneath the surface, letting the bath water carry my shoulder-length hair from side-to-side. I stayed under as long as I could; I didn’t even hear him enter. When I opened my eyes I saw his face, red and trembling, inches from mine. He told me that I left him. He told me if I wanted to drown myself I should do it – stop fucking around and just do it – then he held my head and shoulders down. I kicked and flailed, hoping to break the surface and take a breath.

After finally breaking free, things got worst. Closed fists met my arms, my chest, and my face. Everything was in extremes: black or white, hot or cold, dead or alive. I tried to call my friend for help but my phone was waterlogged (having been in my pocket when I took the bathwater plunge). Eventually he passed out, and I lay shivering on the floor. I remember being surprised how comfortable the carpet was. We slept, if one can call it that, until we were picked up and whisked away to Animal Kingdom for the next phase of our fun-filled family vacation.

You try and keep up. The small things are easy. You go to the grocery store, bring in the mail, make sure the milk isn’t spoiled before pouring it in your coffee or over your cereal, but the big things – like that article you were supposed to write ten days ago but haven’t started  –  fall to the wayside. You fight with the clerk at Stop and Shop: sure they may make minimum wage, but pineapples were advertised as $2.99 each and you don’t want to pay a dollar more. No, I asked for plastic, not paper. You put the food away and drop a carton of raspberries on the kitchen floor. Shit. You attempt to rinse the barely bruised berries and toss the rest. Pay the bills. Hang the Christmas cards. Do the dishes. Curse yourself when a glass cup slips from your hand and shatters. Grab the remains and cut yourself while moving the oversized shards from the sink to the trash. You rinse the blood away – under cold water – cover and bandage. You sit on the couch and take a nap; crawl under the covers and take a nap; take a Tylenol PM and hope you can take a nap.

Your desk is covered with clutter: uncapped pens, receipts you meant to rectify but haven’t had the time to do, and dozens of opened envelopes (just because you bring in the mail doesn’t mean you open it). You start forgetting tasks at work; even the ultra-bright Post-it notes adhered to the side of your monitor fail to remind you to report payroll or oversee the annual company inventory. Just be grateful Paychex calls you if you don’t call them.

It happens again and again: in the living room, in the bedroom, in the kitchen. Every room is tainted by memories only you can see. Mr. Clean’s Magic Eraser can’t clean these spots from my eyes, though he can clean blood from the walls. It happened just before my birthday, days before our anniversary, and one week after Christmas. (There’s always a card to mark the occasion: an unintended Hallmark moment.) It happened in Florida, Las Vegas, and Philadelphia—at the Loews Hotel on Market Street, and at the Four Points Sheraton on Race Street.

It was our first trip back to Philadelphia after moving to Brooklyn just three months prior. I was scheduled to run in the Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon, and since the race began at 8:00am, we decided to get a hotel room in the city the night before. I could carb load on breadsticks and pasta while my husband bonded with friends and beer. We were only supposed to be out for a few hours, only supposed to stop by one restaurant and one bar. But friends kept filtering out, one-by-one, and the hours passed almost as quickly as the shots (and since I was running, all these drinks were passed his way and not mine). By the time we arrived back at the room, it was well after midnight. Four hours, three noise complaints, and two paramedics later he finally passed out. I crawled into bed and cried myself to sleep, my cheeks still damp when the alarm went off two hours later.

You always smile at the desk clerk on the way out, but this time you also thank the bellboy for his help at 4:00am. You call your husband on the way to the race, and tell him if he isn’t at the finish line we are done. You know the ultimatum should be more than a mile long walk and two extra hours of sleep, but you can’t seem to shake the good memories: the late night talks on your mother’s front porch when you were 18, the way he dances with your cats like a proud father at his daughter’s wedding. The key is to forget it; forget it like you forget your toothbrush every time you travel. Forget it like you always forget the milk, bread or toilet paper at the store.

Somewhere between mile one and mile three you consider pressing charges. You consider going to the cops – confessing your husband beats you in your face – but by mile nine you consider running off the Falls Bridge instead. He’s a good man. You don’t want people to think otherwise. Besides, it’s your word versus his, your friends versus his. But you can’t seem to kill yourself either, so keep running, keep crying, and hope something will change when you cross the finish line.

Remember you did nothing when it happened. Sure, you called the cops this time, but you didn’t press charges – just wanted a second opinion, someone else to see if he needed his stomach pumped. Realize you were abused and did nothing. Realize you are abused and still lay side-by-side with the perpetrator.

He waits for you just before mile marker 13. You ask how he feels, even though you don’t care. You go to brunch with friends; he orders water, you order a beer. Smile and nod, appear engaged; don’t talk about the night before. You ride the bus back to New York City in silence. When you arrive home, he goes to bed. Turn on the TV. Search the web. Feed the cats. Pour a cup of water and open the mail you have been putting aside.

One envelope grabs your attention: It carries extra postage and is slightly bigger than a bill, but smaller than a greeting card. You peel back the pearlized paper and pull out a folded-over piece of black cardstock. You read the stamped silver ink, first in your head and then out loud:

He slipped the ring on her finger, a promise made for life…
Join us and share their joy as they become man and wife! 

You stare at the response card for what feels like an eternity. Only the sound of a distant snore breaks your concentration. You slip in the bedroom and stare at your husband; he is on his back, legs spread, and sound asleep. You watch his chest rise and fall, fall and rise.

‘till death do us part.

You return to the office and fill in your name — Mr. and Mrs. Thompson — on the line appointed attending. Some things are as simple as selecting chicken or beef for dinner (I am a chicken girl myself), but others, like deciding to end a marriage, are better left unanswered.

You slip the card in the enclosed self-addressed and stamped envelope, seal it, leave the room and turn off the lights because you know the sun will rise in the morning, he will wake headache and hangover free, and you will be lying beside him: silent, drained, strained but still together. You don’t know this will be the last time it happens. You know you are strained, drained, and silent but still hanging on.

Carla Sarett

Carla SarettCarla Sarett has worked in academia, TV, film and market research. Her short fiction has appeared in The Linnet’s Wing, Subtle Fiction, Eric’s Hysterics, Scissors and Spackle, The Greensilk Journal, Absinthe Revival, The River Poet’s Journal, Loch Raven Review, Danse Macabre, The Medulla Review, Rose Red Review, among others. Her first short story collection, Nine Romantic Stories, is available through Amazon.

 

Sam’s Will

In every family, there’s a story about a will.  No matter how little is left, there’s a petty fight about money, a greedy relative who crawls out of the woodwork at the last minute.  Whether it’s a Picasso or a dismal-looking vase, we wrangle endlessly about who gets what.  Every bit matters, that is, at least at the very end.  It’s our compliment to the dead in a weird, Antiques-Roadshow way.

My mother was an only child so, on that score at least, she had little to worry about.  Her parents, Sam and Genya Morowitz, had lost their families ‘in the war’ as we said.  My mother was all that they had left.  They weren’t rich or anything close to it, but they had saved every penny for her and they were people you could count on.     

When I was young, we saw them almost every week.  It must have taken hours to get from Upper Manhattan to where we lived on Long Island.  Genya turned up on Wednesdays to babysit and Sam visited on Sundays.   Once in a blue moon, maybe for Thanksgiving or a birthday, they’d take the train together. 

Genya came armed with bags of oranges and bananas—we were stick-thin kids and she pursued us with offers of fruit.  When my mother was safely out of sight, she’d suggest slyly: “A little banana?”  Whether I accepted or not was irrelevant.  Either way, I’d soon hear: “An orange maybe?”   For his part, Sam hid delicious chocolate bars in his pockets, Hershey’s chocolate—it was our little game.  I’d rummage through his jacket pockets until I found it.  More often than not, I would hand it over to my chocolate-loving big brother.

Sam and Genya lived in a modest one-bedroom apartment near the Cloisters in New York:  pale mauve walls, a few scattered Art Nouveau prints, books in Russian and Yiddish.  To my eyes, accustomed to our shiny split-level on Long Island, their apartment seemed faded,and it had the smell of old things and onions.  The small windows were always shut. In the dead of winter, the living room was sweltering, hissing with forced air heat. 

Much as I loved them, I felt that it was a sad place.  Sam and Genya rarely spoke to one another, although, occasionally, I’d hear a sharp, tense burst of Yiddish.  They didn’t quarrel—it was more like the aftermath of a wearying fight, an uneasy truce.  When I later read Willa Cather’s novel, My Mortal Enemy, I thought of my grandparents, in their bleak no-man’s land of a marriage. 

“What’s wrong?” I would ask my mother.

She would explain with her mordant cheerfulness, “It was always like that when I was growing up.  I think she hated him, poor man.”

Hate’s a strong word, I thought. 

They’d met in Warsaw. Genya and her sister owned a dressmaking shop in Warsaw, successful enough to support the two women.  Probably, even then, she had a noble presence.  Genya had exotic looks—light eyes that, even in old age, were clear as a lake, and blue-black hair.  She wasn’t a catch in the conventional sense, though;  she was a few years older than Sam, a Russian immigrant and a widow, besides.

My mother hinted that Genya’s marriage to Sam was a concession, unlike her first marriage – a young husband who’d died of tuberculosis.  It made little sense to me.  Genya’s first marriage had been arranged, but she’d married Sam by choice. 

Or perhaps it hadn’t been a choice.  Hitler’s thugs had already made one power grab in the early ‘20s, and Sam might have been Genya’s easiest escape hatch.  Genya had fled danger before–Warsaw wasn’t her birthplace, it was a refuge from Russia’s pogroms. Or maybe she was lonely, and no other suitor came along. But I think on Sam’s part, there was love, the kind that grabs you by the throat and won’t let go. Not long after they were married, my mother was born, and she had Sam’s slanted brown eyes and olive skin.   

In 1926, when the going was still good for Jews, Sam left Warsaw for New York.  Like scores of poor immigrant husbands before him, he entered Ellis Island alone.  Three years later, Genya and my mother followed (my mother had never met Sam before then).

Throughout the Great Depression, Sam and Genya worked in a millinery factory.  Those were the grand days of hats—everyone in American cities wore hats.  There were bowlers, feathered hats, velvet cloches, smart berets, fedoras, even hats shaped like birds, and Sam had a flair for hat design and blocking.  Eventually, he headed his own department (“shop”) on the floor—in my mother’s words: Sam was a “crazy Trotskyite, always fighting for the union.”  Vacation pictures show a satisfied, even dandyish, man in a white suit, savoring his perennial cigar.   By the standards of the Bronx, Sam had done well.

“My father adored me,” my mother told me.  She recalled freshly made cocoa delivered to her, in bed, before Sam headed to work.  On her first date, he hid behind a tree to act as her “secret” chaperone.  She was always “a good girl” and clever, too; she galloped through school and was admitted to Hunter College at the age of fifteen.  But in her final semester, she stunned her parents by her decision to quit school and get married.  My father had been drafted for the army.

Desperate, Sam tried to bribe her to graduate.  He pledged to escort her to wherever my father was stationed, after she got her degree.  Sam argued, the delay meant months, not years—and he and Genya approved of the match. But my stubborn mother had set her sights on my curly-haired father in high school and wasn’t letting him slip away. 

“It broke my father’s heart,” my mother said.  She never returned to college. Even now, after all this time, I can’t bear to think of Sam’s broken heart.

When I knew Sam, he was about sixty:  a reserved heavyset man with my mother’s happy, almost dancing, eyes.  He smelled of fragrant cigars, although he avoided smoking when I was around.  On his Sunday visits, Sam wore a suit and tie, an old-style vest and, always, a hat.  He and my mother spoke quietly in Yiddish while I sat in his lap and played with the few stray hairs on his head. 

One odd memory about Sam stuck with me.  Dad and I had enjoyed one of our special days in New York—we’d gone to see a ballet.  Driving home (by that time, we lived in North Jersey), we lost our way, since my father had taken one of his “shrewd” routes which invariably took five times as long as the ordinary ones.  We saw a man in an overcoat and hat walking briskly—in my memory, we saw him on an overpass, and we were below. 

“That’s Sam Morowitz,” my dad said, forgetting to call him Grandpa Sam.  It was the first time that I’d heard Sam referred to by his real name and it startled me.  “I wonder where he’s going?”

“Where do you think?” I asked, uneasy without knowing why.  

My sense of New York geography was sketchy.  We were uptown but a distance (so I thought) from hilly Fort Tryon Park where Sam lived.  That was where tiny grandmothers sat and talked of their clever grandchildren.  On the ridge, you could see the grandfathers carrying enormous black pumpernickels and Russian babkas along with Yiddish newspapers, back to their wives.  Torn from the neighborhood, Sam seemed like a ghost of himself.  Where could he be headed?

“Who knows,” said my father, laughing.  “The man likes to walk, that’s for sure.”

Genya’s last years were filled with illness and hospitals, and I saw less of her.  She died while I was at summer camp. After that, Sam fell apart.  There were bitter arguments with my mother, in Yiddish.  I heard her screaming into the phone, late at night.  “He’s going crazy,” she said.

Within a year and a half, he was dead of a stroke.  We buried him near where Genya lay.  It wasn’t a traditional Jewish funeral.  Sam and Genya had nothing to do with rituals, rabbis, and prayers.  

Then came Sam’s will. In it, he left all of his money to a Dr. Hoffman.  

Dr. Hoffman was my grandmother’s “family” doctor; and to us, she was always “Dr. Hoffman.”  I never learned her first name. I’d met her at Sam’s burial – a harmless wisp of a woman, fair-haired, about Sam’s age, in a lady-like knitted suit.  It was Dr. Hoffman who had diagnosed Genya’s chronic coughing as bronchitis or allergies or even hypochondria. “Don’t worry so much,” Dr. Hoffman had said.

Genya died a painful death from esophageal cancer.  The last time I saw her she was frail as a girl, her grey eyes still bright and curious.  Her coughing should have been a tell-tale sign, but it had been ignored. And in a sick twist, her incompetent (or perhaps indifferent) physician was rewarded with Genya’s money. 

My parents challenged the will on the grounds that Sam was demented.  Obviously, he’d plucked a name from thin air—a family doctor, who else?  It seemed an open and shut case, until it emerged that Dr. Hoffman and Sam had been lovers for over a quarter century, perhaps more.  The facts were indisputable.  The affair was well known to Dr. Hoffman’s children.

“That’s where he was walking that day,” my dad joked.  “No wonder those walks were so long.” 

“True,” my mother agreed, half-sad, half-mocking. “She wasn’t even pretty.”  

The lawyers slowly hammered out an agreement.  Dr. Hoffman didn’t give up without a fight, and it was a long, ugly fight. Maybe the money was split, or maybe she got most of it. I never knew, and I never asked.  To me, the money was poisoned.

My mother recalled that as Genya lay dying, she’d wanted to alter her will to ensure that her half went to my mother.  (The money was supposed to pay for our college education.)  Genya had warned, “You don’t know your father.”  My mother had cast off those words as ashes from a bitter marriage, ramblings from a sick old woman, and only later recognized their truth.   

Later, my mother expressed a more sanguine view of Sam’s affair.  “It makes me happy in a way.  At least someone loved him.  My mother never gave him any happiness.” 

Sometime later, after the will was settled, I learned of Sam’s other daughter, Bella.     

She was the child of Sam’s first young marriage, and was older than my mother by some years.  Sam and Bella never spoke – there was some old wound there.  And at sixteen, she left without a word to anyone.  She vanished into the city, or so I was told.

My mother said:  “I thought about finding Bella when Grandpa Sam died.  But no one knows where to find her and maybe she isn’t alive, or she’s married and has a different name.”      

For years, I’d listened to my mother lament her solitary childhood as an only child.  It was unnerving to discover, as if by magic, a half-sister, my own aunt.  Yet, my mother had never lifted a finger to find her, and, I knew all too well, she never would.  Even if she lived a hundred lifetimes, she would never find Bella.        

Every secret suggests another that is deeper, uglier, and darker.  I’d read about families where ordinary men preyed upon their daughters in attics or cellars.  That might explain Genya’s air of reproach, the flickers of contempt that I caught in her eyes whenever Sam came near.  Maybe she had stood guard, protecting Bella and my mother—or maybe she’d failed.  And my mother, erasing the shame, re-invented herself as the only child.  

That was one version.  But years after I heard a different story.

Sam Murawiek (the name was changed to Morowitz at Ellis Island) was the younger of two sons.  The family lived in that part of Russia that became Poland after the First World War.  As in many families, the parents favored the older over the younger.  Often, older children were schooled while the younger were consigned to factories.  Such arrangements were common.  Sam accepted it, but it rankled him.

An auspicious match was arranged for the older son: a girl from a good family, a family that could provide a hefty dowry.  But the older brother had strayed or fallen in love—after all these years, it doesn’t matter.  Either way, there was a child.  No girl from a good family could tolerate a “love child,” and no poor family could waste such an opportunity.  So a new “father” had to be produced, and the family bore down on the younger son

Sam Murawiek had no sympathy for his reckless pampered brother.  It wasn’t as if the older brother were a doctor or a scientist, someone important.  But at nineteen, he was too weak to defy his family, and the brother sweetened the deal with money.  Sam became a father to a girl—presumably there was a marriage, too.

By the time Sam courted Genya, he was saddled with the girl, Bella.  That shame alone would have downgraded Sam in any woman’s eyes.  A man like that was no bargain.   

In 1929, Bella travelled to New York with Genya and my mother. At 14, she spoke no English and like many Polish girls, had but a smattering of schooling.  America didn’t offer her a fresh start.  More likely than not, she played caretaker to Sam’s real daughter.  Perhaps Bella had steamed the milk for my mother’s morning cocoa.   

Bella was well into her twenties when my mother entered Hunter College—far older than the age I’d imagined.  She must have been sick with envy as she watched the spoiled favorite forge ahead.  No one had grand plans for Bella, and by then, surely there were unpaid debts and slights, real and imagined—in all lives, there are. Bella furiously slammed the door behind her. 

But she didn’t vanish at all.  My mother soon spotted her on a neighborhood street, and Bella lowered her eyes, and rushed away.  My mother let her go. 

I like to think that later on, Bella was grateful.  True, he’d been cold, but Sam Murawiek had spared her Warsaw’s terrors.  He was no hero, and he didn’t pretend to love her, but he honored a promise, and because of that, one life, Bella’s, was saved.   But maybe she never gave it a second thought.  Injuries often linger longer than favors.

Sam cut off contact with his older brother who lived in upstate New York. As for Bella, he never spoke of her again.  And who knows, one buried secret might have led to others. I know many of Genya’s stories – her first betrothal, her blue-eyed sister Sonya, her darling little brother Maurice. But Sam Murawiek is a mystery.  I never learned his birthplace or what his mother and father did or if they, like blue-eyed Sonya and darling little Maurice, perished in the war.   He faded into the background.

On one of Sam’s last birthdays, my dad presented Sam with a box of fancy cigars.  Sam looked him straight in the eye and said quietly, “I gave up smoking years ago.”  I can picture my father’s feigned surprise, my mother’s nervous laughter, and Sam’s tired smile.  Of course, they hadn’t taken notice.  Why would they?

 My mother pleaded with me from her deathbed: “Remember my mother, please, don’t forget her.”  She didn’t mention Sam. 

Ironically, the battle over the will was for nothing.  My father invested all of the money in the stock market, and in the bruising crash of the 1970’s, it evaporated, the way that money does.  By my college years, the family was bankrupt, and my mother’s own vendetta against my father started.  Genya and Sam’s sacrifice had been in vain—“schlect” as my mother said in Yiddish.

But maybe that’s why Sam changed his will. 

I once heard Sam sing. Late on a Sunday afternoon, we watched James Cagney, dancing and singing, in Yankee Doodle Dandy.  Sam began to tap his hand against his knee, and in his thick Polish accent, sang loudly: I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy, Yankee Doodle, Do or Die!  And he laughed and laughed like a little boy.  His slanted brown eyes, so much like my mothers, turned upwards—and we sang along, together, two confident and joyful Americans.    

My father always blamed the will on my mother’s crazy temper, while my mother argued that Sam’s stroke warped his mind, and the corrupt mistress finished the job.  And for years, the mere thought of the will made me hollow and heartsick.  If only he and Genya had spent the money, I thought.  If they’d lived in a big house (as we did), there would have been so little left, nothing to fight about or divide.  Sam’s betrayal would have died gently, yet another secret in a lifetime of secrets. 

But I can’t regret how it turned out, how he changed his will.  Without Sam’s will, I’d get the story all wrong. I’d see escape rather than a young man’s adventure.  I’d speak of sacrifice and disappointment, and I’d leave out the aromatic cigars and chocolate and love affairs.  I’d suppress the brisk walks in unknown directions, but, I know now, those walks lead Sam to me with a force that astounds me.

I can hear him now.  Look at me, he says.  Take a good, long look.  In America, an educated doctor loved me, Sam.  In America, I counted.  Whether you knew it or not, I counted. 

Whether you saw me or not, I was here.  Look behind you, I still am.

Roz Leiser

Roz LeiserRoz Leiser has worked as a grief counselor, research coordinator, RN, non-profit director, staff member for Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, waitress and movie theatre janitor. Her writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Common Ties, The Noe Valley Voice, The Sun, and Moment Magazine. She has also authored or co-authored work in the Journal of Nurses in AIDS Care, JAMA (Journal of the AMA), and other medical journals. She lives in San Francisco and is currently at work on a memoir.

 

Urban Legend

I didn’t realize I was waiting for the story until the guide finished her tour and hadn’t told it.

Slightly queasy from the crooked floor in Copenhagen’s Jewish Museum, I was a little annoyed that Daniel Liebeskind had used this architectural ploy twice. I had already walked on the uneven floor he designed in the Jewish Museum in Berlin.  According to the Danish guide, the reference was to the sea voyage to Sweden, which had saved the Jews of Denmark, and also a nod to this building’s original maritime function.  But yes, it was also symbolic of the Jews always being a little off kilter, never knowing what to expect.

I didn’t need a tilted floor to feel the impact of the centuries of persecution. My refugee parents had installed the constant anxiety and grief in our apartment, which felt like a haunted house visited by silent, spectral relatives. I was frightened by all those lost relations, but at the same time, curious to understand their lives and deaths.

My father tirelessly watched documentaries about World War II, and read histories of the Third Reich and biographies of its leaders. Images of emaciated corpses piled behind the “Arbeit Macht Frei” inscribed gates of Auschwitz, stories of babies thrown against walls, the endless catalogue of sadistic acts and futile deaths were an ironic backdrop to the “Father Knows Best,” American 1950’s of my childhood.  Although I knew that Eisenhower was the president of the country I lived in, Hitler seemed just as alive and powerful. The horror of “the war,” as my parents referred to that time drew me toward it with the force of gravity, and at the same time led me to search for a booster rocket to launch me out of its atmosphere.

And so, I swung like a pendulum, toward and away, from coming face to face with my personal historical nightmare.  I watched all the films from “The Sorrow and the Pity” to “Schindler’s List.”  When I was seventeen, a lampshade constructed from human skin in Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum, sat next to a bar of soap that might have originated from one of my distant relatives.  As I struggled not to vomit, I wanted to run but had to look. When friends asked me if I had been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., I said I felt no need. I had grown up in a Holocaust museum.  Finally, I decided I’d had enough and swore off Holocaust-related movies and books. From Hannah Arendt to Elie Wiesel, nothing was going to make this comprehensible or bearable.

But years later, when I traveled in Europe, I felt compelled to visit sights commemorating this history, if only to bear witness. In Paris I climbed down steps that led through a white passageway on an island where I watched the Seine flow by through barred windows. In Venice, where the term ghetto originated, I stood in the leafy square where the deportations began.  In Amsterdam I climbed the narrow steps to Anne Frank’s attic.  In Prague I viewed the artifacts that the Nazis collected for their planned museum of the extinct Jewish race.

Each time I visited one of these places I swore it was the last time.  I knew enough. Leave it to those who were unfamiliar with these events to learn about them.

But because the story was different in Denmark, which unlike much of Europe did not annihilate their Jewish population, I convinced myself to visit Copenhagen’s Jewish museum.  I admired the young guide’s even-handed presentation that did not portray the Danes as saints, that stuck to the facts, which included a German officer who leaked the news of the plans for Jewish deportation possibly to save his own neck after the war, (which he did).  And he cleverly succeeded in making Denmark Judenrein (free of Jews) without massive murders.

Almost 8,000 Danish Jewish lives were saved, with the help of the Danish people, some demanding huge sums for the use of their boats, others risking their lives and asking for nothing in return. In either case, they transported the Jews to Sweden where they lived through the war.

I had known this history, without the details, since childhood.  Like many other Jewish children of my generation I was told, among the horror stories, the heroic exception story of Denmark’s Jews, and of the Danish king who in solidarity with his Jewish subjects had appeared in public wearing the yellow star that marked them.  That such people existed shone a small beam of light into the seemingly unending darkness of cruelty and betrayal.

I imagined the Danish king, seated high astride a big white horse, with a huge yellow star sewn onto his regal garb.  I imagined people cheering him in the streets; people I imagined were outraged at the idea of killing their innocent neighbors. Imaginary Danes led by their imaginary king provided me with a model for resistance instead of capitulation without which I might never have imagined resistance at all.

As the tour through the small museum concluded, I waited for the guide to use this story as the climax of the tour.  But she made no reference to this event. So, as the few people in our group stood talking, I asked her about it. The guide looked at me and then looked down at the crooked floor. “Sadly,” she said, “that didn’t happen.”

The king did go out on his horse and served as a symbol of Danish sovereignty during the German occupation.  He took some risks, didn’t praise Hitler enough on his birthday, which caused a major incident, but, as for the yellow star it never graced his lapels.

I stood there on the verge of tears.  A tale that had been a beacon of hope for me had suddenly become an urban legend. As I tried to absorb this new version of reality, a dark-haired man stepped in front of his family and began to berate the young guide, saying that what had happened to the Jews of Denmark was not a big deal.

“Jews were hidden and saved in other countries too,” he insisted.

The guide looked at a portrait hanging across the room as if it could tell her what to say.  The man and his son as well as the rest of our small group drifted away.

That young part of me that grew up clinging to the legend of the heroic king drew me toward the guide.  Now that I knew the truth, I still wanted her to know that man did not speak for me.  I thanked her for the information she had given us.

“What happened in Denmark is important,” I said. “It mattered to me all my life.”

Tiff Holland

Tiff HollandTiff Holland‘s poetry, fiction and non-fiction has appeared in dozens of literary-magazines, e-zines and anthologies. Her poetry chapbook Bone in a Tin Funnel is available through Pudding House Press. Her short fiction chapbook Betty Superman won the 2010 Rose Metal Press Prize. She teaches at Austin Community College.

 

Sign Language

 “You were signing before they woke you up, an L, I think, an I. It was hard to tell with all those tubes going in and out.”

lines, like, lights

A resident appears, asks me to squeeze one hand, then the other, to push my soles against his palms, to tell him how many fingers as his hands orbit my range of vision: here and here and here.

You are the first thing I see, standing wide-eyed beside the bed and my mother there, too. Both of you with the same expression.

“You should have seen your mom,” you tell me. “I told her I thought you were signing and she made the nurses check your lines and turn down the lights. She ordered the doctor around like a drill sergeant.”

My throat is raw. I tell you I sound like an old man.

lips, lick, lie

You get closer. “You know the first thing you said?” You are smiling like on our wedding day. I wonder how long I have been gone. “What the fuck happened?” you tell me.

My mother is gone now, giving us a minute? Looking for a doctor? “Where the fuck am I?” you finish. You shake your head and I know this gave you some comfort, let you know I was really back, but I don’t remember it. I don’t remember anything. “You should have seen your mom. ‘That’s how she talks’, she said.”

You are holding the railing of the bed with both hands, leaning in. On the chair is a library book, overdue, I think, lying open on the pages near the end. You are a slow reader. It has been a while.

library, list, lift

My mother returns. “You had us scared,” she says, but that’s it. She looks around the room as if to make sure everything is in order. Later you will tell me how she had one of her coughing fits and I dimmed her out, “COPD” I whispered to the nurse in the midst of my deep unbeing. She will tell me that she told you I might never be the same. You will tell me about the stroke and the seizures, the EMTs whisking our six-year old out to look at the fire truck so she didn’t have to see me like that. You will tell me about the helicopter that took me to the trauma hospital.

little, life-flight, limp

I have forgotten most of what happened before. I had a headache. You took me for an MRI. I spoke to the doctor on the phone. She told me I’d had a stroke. She told me to take an aspirin. I remember the white pill centered on the flat of my hand, and then the two of you beside the bed. You tell me the rest. You tell me about the thick white liquid that kept me asleep, that they turned off every two hours to ask me those same questions, run neurological tests. You tell me how many days I was away and how, the first night, our daughter told you she wanted to just pretend I was home, how she stopped at my bedroom door and blew goodnight kisses into the darkness.

I tell you I don’t want to know anything else. That is enough, but I start to remember, images, mostly. I remember the milkshake we had on the way back from the MRI, scooping the whipped cream from the top with a finger, licking it off. One night, watching some medical show on TV I see a plastic tube with a yellow ball and I remember blowing into one after I was extubated. We’ll go to the follow-up visit with my neurologist and I won’t know him at all but the narrow face of his resident will reassure me. I will develop an inexplicable craving for iced tea. After I drink an entire gallon I will remember its place on the hospital tray, upper right corner with a holeless plastic lid.

It takes a few weeks for me to remember what I was trying to sign. The closed fist of the “A” is so easy to miss. Alive, I was asking if I was alive.

Debra Fox

Debra Fox’s poems have been accepted for publication in various haiku journals. In addition, her short stories and essays have been accepted for publication in in Hyperlexia Journal, Squalorly, Embodied Effigies, Chamber 4 Literary Magazine, Burrows Press, and The Meadow. She is a lawyer, and the director of an adoption agency. In her spare time she loves to dance. She lives just outside Philadelphia with her family. She can be reached at debbiefox649@gmail.com.

 

He Doesn’t

He doesn’t care if he doesn’t get invited.

He’d rather walk to Rosa’s garden and touch the lamb’s ear, the rebbekiah in early bloom, and the pachysandra.  He’d rather track the bumblebees and sign to me he knows they sting, a determined look to his dark eyes. 

In the intensive care nursery days after his birth, we’re told a consult is needed with a speech therapist, and I am slightly alarmed.  Newborns don’t talk, I tell myself — calm down.  In the dimmed nursery lies our baby, a nasal-gastro tube down his nose and throat eventually reaching his stomach where it deposits formula. We are told he is losing too much weight.  He becomes fatigued too quickly when feeding.  He has low muscle tone throughout his body, including his mouth, which needs to suck to draw sustenance, but can’t.  The speech therapist is called in to evaluate the problem.

Meanwhile our seven year old, Alex, is in second grade.  He decides to write and illustrate a book about his brother’s birth, for a school project. He proudly shows it to me, its pages all laminated.  I feel his sweet breath on my cheek, as he leans in and reads to me: there I am in labor, a woman with a big stomach lying on her side as a doctor puts a needle in her back.  There is Daddy cutting the umbilical cord after Matthew is born.  There is Mommy holding the baby.

“Honey, why aren’t I smiling in this picture?”

“Because you have your social worker face on.”

“What does that mean?”

“When you get worried, Mommy, that’s how you look.”

He doesn’t care if he doesn’t get invited.

He tolerates all the doctors’ appointments, the electrodes, the needles, and the cardiograms.  He looks forward to the drive on the expressway, along the river, past the railroad tracks, and into the darkened parking garage where sounds echo and gasoline reeks.  He wants to push the elevator button, watch it light up, and feel the sensation through his body of being lifted through space.  He walks the long hallways, pressing his face close to the walls, watching them whirr by, the colors all blurred.  Even at the age of thirteen, he still runs his fingers over glass windows, mosaic tiles, bulletin boards, office dividers, and trash cans.

When I was pregnant, I manipulated his date of birth, before I had reason to know anything was amiss.  He was past due, and I was given several dates to choose from for inducement.  I didn’t want him to be born on the thirteenth, so I chose the seventeenth.  I thought I had such control.

When he turned one, I honestly can’t remember how we celebrated his birthday, or if we even did.  Was there a cake?  Were there candles?  Did he receive presents?  I don’t think I took any pictures.  He wasn’t walking. He wasn’t talking.  I felt too frozen to celebrate.

When Alex turned one, seven years earlier, we had a big celebration.  He clutched my shirt with his tiny hand as we lit the candles and everybody sang “Happy Birthday.”  He took his first tentative steps on my parents’ front lawn, his legs all chubby, as he tried to reach for a new baby lawn mower.  I took those milestones for granted and expected them, fully expected Alex to reach them each and every time.  And he did.

“Will he ever talk?” I ask the doctor.  He regards me in his white crisp lab coat with his name embroidered meticulously in red on his chest.  He looks bored or better, preoccupied.  Perhaps he is thinking he is hungry, and is considering the sandwich his wife packed him for lunch.  My husband reaches over to hold my hand.  Mike wants to comfort me.  He wants to be there for me, whatever the doctor might choose to tell us right now at this moment, while our son, who is now two years old, is still crawling on the hard linoleum floor, and staring at the shiny metal of the swivel chair the doctor deigns to sit on.

“Do you want my honest answer?”  The doctor says as he flips through Matthew’s chart, not looking me in the eye. I want to stick a pin in his side and watch him suffer, because I don’t know if he truly understands what it is to suffer.

“Yes,” I hear myself say, the way a person might say “yes” to a fortuneteller who asks, “Do you really want to know how you will die?”  My son crawls up to me, and puts his grimy hands on my knees, wanting me to pick him up and put him in my lap.  I feel him trying with all his might to stand, but his muscles are spongy, and soft, and they can’t support his weight.

“I seriously doubt it.  If he isn’t even uttering meaningful sounds now, that is troubling.  He will continue to fall behind his peers, until the gap is ever wider.” I hear Mike say, as if through water, “But you can’t know any of this for sure, can you?”

“No doctor can ever know anything for sure, Mr. Zimmerman.”  That condescending voice.  That dismissive attitude.  I reach down and gather my sweet boy, and bury myself in his curls.  I am not going to give this doctor the satisfaction of seeing my tears.

He doesn’t care if he doesn’t get invited.

He’d rather me tell him stories about the wind, dark skies, and lightening.  He’d rather run to every window in the house to make sure it’s still raining out of each one.  He’d rather flap his arms and shriek with delight, his cheeks sticky from ice cream, his shorts slightly askew.

By his second birthday, Matthew still isn’t walking.  Shortly after he was born, I bought him a pair of soft white leather baby shoes with suede soles. They are stored in a drawer underneath my bed. Unworn.  By the time Matthew took his first steps, at two and a half, the shoes were too small.  Besides, he needed orthotic inserts that wouldn’t fit inside the shoes.  But, when I bought them, I didn’t know that, couldn’t have known that.  All I knew was that I loved the soft supple leather and how it felt between my fingers, and that I associated that smell with hope.  So, I wonder, what does a mother do with her son’s baby shoes that he never wore?  Is it wrong to keep them?

He doesn’t care if he doesn’t get invited.

He’d rather fly a kite in the field and watch the wind snap it back and forth.  He’d rather let a balloon escape into the sky and watch it become a pinprick of red against blue.  He’d rather watch bubbles rush down the street in the wind.

A topaz is the birthstone for November, Matthew’s month of birth.  A pure topaz is colorless and transparent, but usually tinted by impurities.

As Matthew’s third birthday approaches, then ten year old Alex ran to our neighbor Rosa, and blurted, “Guess what?  We finally found out what Matthew has.”  Rosa put down her garden hoe, wiped her dirty hands across her faded t-shirt, grinned at Alex and asked matter-of-factly, “What?” I stayed within earshot, and strained to hear his response, “You see, he’s missing a small piece of his 10th chromosome.  Now we know.” Oh how I loved Alex in that moment – his pure joy in feeling the Matthew puzzle was finally solved.

Except, we didn’t know anything.

The function of all of the genes Matthew is missing is unknown. Matthew is the first person in the world known to have this genetic disorder.  The gift Matthew received on his third birthday was a meaningless label: 10p1.53 deletion.

He doesn’t notice my increasingly superstitious thoughts.

If we see three Volkswagen beetles on the way to the doctor’s office, his cardiogram will be normal.  If we get home before the storm, he will live into adulthood.  If I remember to wear the earrings my grandmother gave me, there will be enough money to take care of him after I die.

Birthday parties have superstitious origins.  It was feared that evil spirits were most attracted to people on their birthdays, and that the way to ward off these spirits was to assemble friends and family who made lots of noise.  In ancient times, people prayed over the flames of an open fire.  They believed that the smoke carried their thoughts up to the gods, and they would make birthday wishes come true.

I start to research other people who were born on Matthew’s birthday, or what events happened on the seventeenth of November. I discovered that November 17 is the 321st day of the year, with 44 days remaining.  November 17 is not the most popular birthday in the Northern Hemisphere: that honor is reserved for December 3, which is nine months from the longest night of the year. November’s birth flower is the chrysanthemum.  For a month that seems to have lost all color, this feels like a fitting flower. Then I asked myself, why? How would any of this help me?

The first birthday party of Matthew’s I can recall is the one at Smith Playground when he turned four. My mother bought him a beautiful cake with balloons frosted in primary colors on top.  Matthew was obsessed with balloons at that age, but I don’t believe he was able to appreciate the cake, much to my mother’s disappointment. She took his hand and tried walking him over to the cake, hoping for some sign of recognition or delight, but he couldn’t give it to her, couldn’t concentrate on that one thing, separate and apart from everything else. He couldn’t help it; he didn’t know that my mother required recognition for such things. She finally retreated to the periphery of the room, dejected. Somebody unintentionally photographed my mother that day, just at the moment she sat down, and that is the image I have of Matthew’s fourth birthday party.

Then, when he was five, there was the year of his unbirthday –the only year when we celebrated Matthew’s birthday in a month other than his real birthday.Our niece turned five that same winter, and my sister-in-law had complained about how many parties her daughter had to attend, how many presents she had to buy, how many Saturdays were made even more hectic.

Matthew was in kindergarten with seven other children. He did not receive any birthday invitations. Of course, to Matthew it made no difference. 

We waited until the following spring when grass started growing on our lawn, when the sparrows appeared in front of our house, when we could leave our winter coats at home and drive an hour north to take a mule barge ride along the Delaware Canal. Matthew ran his hand in the water and giggled.

An unbirthday is a neologism, or a newly coined term that may be in the process of entering common use, but has not yet been accepted into mainstream language. In psychiatry the term neologism is used to describe the use of words that only have meaning to the person who uses them, independent of their common meaning. At five, Matthew’s neologisms include calling Alex “Baba,” or a playground a “Gaga.”

We bring in a speech therapist named Pauline. She puts Matthew in a high chair, at the age of five, so he can’t escape. She withholds his favorite toy until he verbalizes his desire, which is a keyboard that lights up as each key plays a familiar tune.  “What do you want, Matthew?” She says to him in a high, sing-song voice that you would use to speak to a baby, not a five year old. He points to the keyboard, very directly, very exactly. She acts as if she doesn’t understand. “You have to tell me with your mouth,” she says. He points to his mouth, and then to the keyboard. She exaggerates the word “muuuuussssicc??”  He kicks his feet at the bottom of the chair, and the chair starts moving backwards. My stomach tightens. I want to reach over and grab the keyboard out of her hand with the painted finger nails, and give my boy what he wants, which he communicated to her himself, even if not in “words.”

He doesn’t notice I sometimes cry when I am with him.

I watch him when he’s six years old struggling to climb the steps to the big slide on the playground, when kids half his age have no problem. I watch him playing in the swimming pool, fascinated with the rainbows that glisten in the splashes, oblivious to the other children around him.

As Matthew’s seventh birthday approaches, I place a Dixie cup filled with baby teeth on my dresser—Matthew’s baby teeth, to be exact.  He doesn’t understand the concept of a tooth fairy, so it would be pointless to put a tooth under his pillow. But I can’t part with his baby teeth.  They sit at the bottom of a paper cup and get dusty. I justify my action by telling myself one day scientists will want a piece of his DNA to better understand his syndrome, and I will have just what they need in a Dixie cup. Never mind that they already have bits of his DNA that they tested and retested. I think uncertainty is the problem. I keep trying to clarify for myself who is irretrievably lost and who is still here. I am not oblivious to the notion that maybe, in not throwing out his baby teeth, I am unable to let go of the “normal” Matthew I never had. On the other hand, I wonder if I am demonstrating a healthy tolerance for ambiguity.  I can coexist with the dusty baby teeth.

By the time of his eighth birthday Matthew sits down at the piano, and after we sing “Happy Birthday,” he slowly teaches himself to play the song using one finger, one halting note at a time. When he is done he looks at us, as we stare at him in disbelief, and he applauds. Alex, Mike and I applaud back, and Matthew dances in circles, delighted that we have found something to be proud of about him.

“Happy Birthday to You” is the most recognized song in the English language. The melody was composed in 1893. In that year, Matthew’s great-great grandparents were just being born.  The genetic flaw that Matthew one day would inherit may have already been flowing through their veins.

He doesn’t know the dreams I have.

He runs onto a highway, and I am paralyzed to save him. He goes too far out into the ocean, and I can’t remember which wave swallowed him. We are in a large crowd in India, and all of a sudden he is no longer with me.

Then there are the dreams where we talk to each other. I hear his voice, and it is beautiful, but in the dream I take his voice for granted, so I don’t pay attention to it the way I should.  It is natural the way we speak. Like we do it every day. Some nights I try to train myself into dreaming we will talk. But I find I have no control.  And it is so cruel to wake up and not hear his voice anymore.  His voice is so sweet, I want to record the sound, but my brain won’t hold onto it.

Words.

They dangle all around the place, around him, around me.  They are written on the pictures that hang on our walls.  They are written in the books on our shelves around the house.  They come out of the radio and the television.

They taunt us in our everyday life.

I only remember one of our dream conversations.  He said, “Mommy, why do you have those lines between your eyebrows whenever you are with me?”  I reach for his soft hand and say, “Because I can’t help it; I worry about you so.”

“But why, Mommy?  Why don’t you smile more?”

“I want to smile more.  I want to enjoy you more.”

“I heard Alex tell you that as long as he is alive, you shouldn’t worry.”

I start to cry in the dream, and I don’t want to.  I want our time together to be happy.  There is so much I want to know.  And in that realization, I can feel the dream start to slip away.  His words were like jewels, clear and sparkly.  I want to hold them one at a time and raise them up to the sun.  But they start to turn cloudy, and I can see veins running through them.  The light won’t penetrate them anymore.  I am drifting away.

I am back awake in “the real world,” the world of haze and abstraction— where I can only surmise what it would be like to want to communicate, but not have the means to do so.  Where a brain can form a thought, but then have to wade through a substance that disrupts everything, and can’t form the sound that the brain hears.  In this world, I still find myself trying to teach Matthew to speak.  I say a word with great exaggeration, moving my lips slowly, showing him every movement that is involved.  He dutifully watches me. Then I say, “Now you try it.”  He walks up to the mirror in Alex’s room. He puts his face close as he watches himself try to imitate me.  But this exercise never results in intelligible language.

We’re driving to the mall, our Saturday ritual, for the past year.  Matthew is 10 years old. He is gesturing for my attention.  He is slamming his hand on the right window, saying, “Eh Eh Eh … Mama.”  I am in my own world; I don’t know why he is agitated.  Then I realize I missed the right turn, just after the underpass.  It occurs to me, he has a sense of direction.  That same morning, as I am preparing my oatmeal, Matthew goes over to the cupboard and on tip-toes, reaches for the jar of honey he knows I like, and puts it on the table, next to my place-setting.  This is the form that communication and language take with him.  I want to call that doctor on the telephone and scream that he was wrong—my son does communicate.

 

He doesn’t know how others see me.

They think I am doing well.  I go to work every day. I wake up each morning.  I walk the dog.  I do the grocery shopping.  I pay the bills.  I keep myself clean.  I function.

By his twelfth birthday, I tentatively approach Mike:

“I am thinking about Matthew having a Bar Mitzvah.”

“I didn’t think you were that religious.”

“I’m not, but I like what the Bar Mitzvah signifies—a coming of age. “

“But how would we do it?”

“Remember Elizabeth, the woman who grew up Orthodox and taught with you?  She said she helped a non-verbal boy become a Bar Mitzvah.”

“Vaguely.”

“I don’t know why I didn’t talk to you about it over the years, but I have been thinking that’s what we would do when Matthew turns 13.  Elizabeth said the only requirement of Matthew is that he be able to utter a sound, which he can do.”

“But how would he sit through an entire ceremony?”

“We would rent a moon bounce, one of those large enclosed domes that kids love to jump in. We can put it in an adjacent room.”

“Are you crazy?”

“I already called the Y, and they said they own a moon-bounce, and they would set it up, no problem.”

He doesn’t know what I do when he sleeps.

I walk through the rooms of the house in silence.  I savor the taste of cold ice cream.  I read books as I lay in my bed with the ceiling fan turning above me.  Sometimes I cry, and I can’t stop, and I don’t want to.   Sometimes I make love to my husband.

 

He doesn’t know the vocabulary I’ve learned to use.

He is “developmentally delayed.”  Other kids are not “normal,” they’re “typical.”  He has “special needs.”  He is “non-verbal.” We have a “companion dog.”  I call him “my little imp.” We still talk about “putting a pee-pee in the potty.”

I show Matthew the sign for “I love you,” and he tries very hard to imitate it.  It is a difficult sign, because it involves folding the third and fourth fingers down, while holding the others up.  He struggles.  I am intent on him expressing this emotion, if he has it, so I go and get his “PECS” book, which is short for “Picture Exchange Communication System.”  One-inch square icons with Velcro on their backs are stuck inside a binder.  Matthew is able to catch onto this way of communicating very quickly, easily distinguishing between the pictures, and the meanings of them.  I ask him to find the icon for “Mama,” a happy face with long hair curled at the ends.  He easily flips through the book and finds it, and hands it to me.  Then I ask him to find the icon for “I love you,” which is a red heart.  Again, he is adept at locating it and handing it to me.  I smile, and tell him how proud I am that he found them so easily.

 

He doesn’t know he has become a teenager.

When Matthew turned thirteen, I still hadn’t planned his Bar Mitzvah.  Had he been “normal” my parents would have put pressure on me.  Instead, they said nothing. Matthew didn’t realize he had become a teenager.  He didn’t know when I was his age I was Bat Mitzvah’d and Joe Malinowski held my hand at the skating rink, or that I wore a dark blue velvet dress with a pale blue ribbon the night of my Bat Mitzvah service.  Or that Joey Langman seemed surprised I had a good singing voice, and that the Rabbi said something disparaging about non-Jews.

When a boy is Bar Mitzvah’d, he becomes accountable for his actions, and his parents are no longer answerable for him in quite the same way.  Before Matthew turned thirteen, I liked the idea of shifting responsibility to him, however slightly.  I made Mike promise me he wouldn’t shave Matthew for the first time until after his thirteenth birthday. Now that he is thirteen, his childhood is leaving us.  His breath no longer smells sweet when he wakes; he has hair under his arms; his cheeks are becoming rough, and he has the beginnings of a mustache.  When he utters sounds, his voice is deeper, and it sounds unexpected, because he isn’t saying anything intelligible. I don’t know if he’s ever had an ejaculation. I don’t know whether that would be confusing to him.  I don’t know whether he is interested in girls, or boys for that matter. What remains, though, is a child’s innocence.

I keep trying to comfort myself by saying I can make Matthew a Bar Mitzvah any time after he turns thirteen; I don’t have to do it right now.  And I really do believe myself: one day I will reconcile who he is.  Just not now. Now I am not ready. 

He doesn’t understand my laughter.

I laugh with Alex as Matthew brazenly walks along the side of the pool, splitting up two lovers as they move out of his way. I laugh with Mike as Matthew imitates him, trying to tell me Mike was frustrated with him.  I laugh at our dog that carries a half eaten sandwich home from our walk, hoping I won’t notice.

It is early one Saturday. I am in the process of making my bed, on a dreary, rainy February morning.  I want to go back to sleep like other people do on weekends.  I want time for myself. I hear Matthew pulling icons out of his PECS book, and I am frustrated.  I envision having to painstakingly place them back on their appropriate pages.  I yell into the hallway, “Matthew, do not make a mess of your PECS book.”  The removal of icons continues.  I hear a giggle that irritates me further.  I lie on top of my bed; I don’t want to do anything anymore.  Matthew appears in my bedroom in his superman pajamas and a smile across his face.  He climbs onto the bed next to me, and just as I feel myself growing more frustrated with him, he hands me two icons:  the one for “Mama,” and the one for “I love you.”

He doesn’t notice my slow acceptance.

Natalie J. Friedman

Natalie J. Friedman is the Dean of Studies and Adviser to Seniors at Barnard College. She received her Ph.D. in literature from New York University in 2001, and has been a college instructor and administrator ever since. Her scholarly and literary nonfiction articles have appeared in various journals, such as Legacy, MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literatures of the United States, The Connecticut Review, and The Equals Record. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.

 

The Shivers

Among the various “Frog and Toad” stories by Arnold Lobel that I like to read aloud to my two children, there is one called “Shivers,” in which Frog tells Toad a nightmarish tale about a giant frog that likes to eat children, because Frog likes to feel “the shivers”—  a frisson of danger that comes from tiptoeing to the edge of an abyss and looking in.

Toad keeps asking Frog if the monstrous tale is a true one, and Frog’s refrain— “maybe yes, maybe no”— adds yet another frisson, drawing Toad, and the reader, ever closer to the darkness, tempting him with the possibility of truth while keeping him wrapped in the safe cloak of fiction. After feeling “the shivers,” one retreats back into the safety and security of the contemporary and the quotidian, back to the warm hearth, the good meal, the close embrace. And one can feel virtuous for having felt pity and sympathy for the sufferer in the story who has come through the fire and stands, whole and seemingly unblemished, before you.

For years, my mother told me a story that always gave me the shivers. It is a story about my grandfather, someone I never knew. He died when my mother was sixteen, so in a way, she barely knew him, either. But she had a small handful of memories, a little store of stories about him. One such story was about how he survived the Bor labor camp. Bor, which was in the former Yugoslavia, was a labor camp notorious for torturing its Jewish inmates. My grandfather had been tortured, in various ingenious ways, by the Nazi guards there. Luckily, he had somehow befriended an Austrian camp guard by the name of Johan Schlosser, who would rescue him from these various tortures. Once, my grandfather told my mother, someone had hung him up by the feet, a common punishment meted out for no apparent reason. The idea was that, with all the blood rushing to one’s head, one would pass out, and maybe, eventually, die. Johan Schlosser hurried to cut my grandfather down. That small act of kindness would have been enough to embalm him in the golden amber of memory, to warrant the amount of respect and awe in my mother’s voice as she recounted these facts. But then this brave Johan Schlosser later took ten men, including my grandfather, and smuggled them out of the labor camp under cover of night and led them into the frozen forests, where they were discovered by Serbian partisans: freedom fighters. My grandfather wore wooden shoes, regulation footwear for Bor labor camp Jews, and after walking in the forests for hours on end, his feet were bleeding, and a large Serbian carried him on his back to safety.

I loved this story. As a child, I would ask her to repeat it over and over again. I wanted to connect with the grandfather I had never known, a man who, in this story at least, seemed like a dashing character out of an espionage mystery. I loved that my grandfather had not one but two heroes to help him along his way, his very own “righteous Gentiles” who risked their own lives to save my grandfather’s. I loved that my grandfather had escaped from Bor, a camp that was “liquidated” – what a word for a child to know! — by the Nazis. I loved hearing the name “Johan Schlosser.” It had music in it, and it made my spine tingle.

I used this story to replace a real knowledge of my grandfather, who was no more than a ghost; stories like this one made him seem like flesh. The way that prayer has come to replace the need for animal sacrifice, stories about my grandfather – and this one in particular– replaced the bones-and-blood person he had been.

But as I grew older, and wise to the ways history is passed down, I started to ask myself whether the details of this story were, in fact, real. I didn’t doubt that my grandfather went through everything he described – I did not doubt that he had been an inmate at Bor, or that he had been tortured, or that a Serbian had carried him on his back – but I began to wonder whether there was a gap between what he had lived and what he had told my mother. Or maybe there was a gap between what my mother had heard and what she told me. I was especially curious about the mysterious Johan Schlosser, and what had become of him and the other men who had escaped, with my grandfather, from Bor.

My research did not turn up any Johan Schlosser who had been at the Bor labor camp. I discovered an Austrian composer named Johan Schlosser; there was an Austrian visual artist named Johan Schlosser; there were many, many men by that name living in Vienna today, eager to be found in the phone book or on the Internet. But none of them, as far as I could tell, was the one I was looking for, the character my mother had heard her father describe. Had Johan Schlosser served out his term as a Nazi and then re-entered civilian life, silently taking up the thread of his old prewar existence? Or was he building a new life in Vienna? Or Buenos Aires? Or had he been discovered as colluding with Serbian partisans, and had been shot or hung or electrocuted? I dug around; I looked at some books, some museums archives. I found nothing.

There is, by contrast, a lot of information to be found about the Bor labor camp. Bor was one of the infamous work camps that used up the energies of its prisoners, wasting them through work rather than gassing them upon arrival. In 1944, the Hungarian Jews were rounded up and deported across the constellation of concentration camps, and Bor absorbed about three thousand Hungarian men, my grandfather among them. As the Russian troops began advancing across Europe, Nazis began to retreat, emptying labor and concentration camps as they went, marching Jews and other inmates across snowy landscapes, often shooting them along the way, if they weren’t already dying of typhus, dysentery, and the cold. The Bor Nazis split up the camp:  half of the Jews embarked on a death march that ended with most of the inmates dying or being shot; the other half was marched into the frozen woods, where they ran into a band of Serbian partisans that captured them. The Serbian partisans quickly dispatched the Nazis, and they conscripted the Jews into partisan fighting units, eventually helping them make their way out of Yugoslavia.

I found no evidence that ten men had been smuggled out of Bor under cover of night to make their way into the Serbian forests. I read a lot about the “liquidation” of the camp, but nothing about daring escapes.

So I had some facts – a few. What did this give me? A new sense of truth? Of the way things “really” were? I had no grandfather to cross-examine, no one to ask about the relative “truth” of the story I’d been told, or how that story lined up with the facts. And even the facts, to me, became suspect, since perhaps the historians themselves were blinkered, their accounts partial, sullied by time and gaps in the archives.

Then I began to wonder about my mother. What was her role in this? She had listened to my grandfather tell his story at a very young age. Had her memory added some tints and shades, or perhaps erased some lines and figures, from the story as she had heard it? Had she been told a fable and believed it, or had her own mind supplied some of the fable-like qualities to this tale? If my grandfather had told her, for example, that he had marched into the forest with other Jewish men, and that Johan Schlosser was one of the guards accompanying them, and they had been set upon by Serbian freedom fighters, then perhaps her overactive imagination, fed, as it was, by the Red Fairy Tale Book and The Thousand and One Nights, gave Johan Schlosser a bigger role in the story than he actually had. And perhaps— if we might entertain this line of reasoning for a moment, as a thought experiment— Johan Schlosser was not even his real name. Perhaps his name was Heinrich, or Klaus, or Hans. Perhaps my mother had come up with the name Johan Schlosser, the name of a famous composer, readily available, something she read somewhere, a name with the romance of castles in it — schloss. The schloss in the forest.  Was there really a Johan Schlosser who led ten men through the frozen forest under cover of night? Maybe yes, and maybe no.

I thought about talking with my mother about the paucity of facts regarding Johan Schlosser, about the Bor escape, confronting her and asking her outright if she had made some of this up. Or perhaps I would tell her that she and I both had been told a partial tale– that my grandfather had escaped into the forests of Serbia, but not with the help of an unidentifiable Nazi and not as part of some cloak-and-dagger plan. Then I thought better of it. If I myself had put so much value in believing in the existence of a kind Nazi officer, if I had put so much effort into believing the story of the ten men escaping into the forest, then imagine the emotional investment my mother had in this story, a story about the father who was stolen from her when she was still in her girlhood, a father who missed many of the significant passages of her life, from her migration to America to her wedding and the birth of her two daughters. She had only childhood memories of him, a few photos, and the stories he had told her – who was I to go and ruin it all?

I will never know how my grandfather really managed to get out of Bor. I will never know if there really was a Johan Schlosser. Nor will I ever know the name of the brave Serb who carried him on his back. These are things my grandfather has taken with him to the Other World, olam ha-bah in Hebrew or yenne velt in Yiddish, the place from where no one has yet returned to tell us what it’s like.

But it doesn’t matter; I have accepted the not-knowing.

This probably makes me a very bad Jew. Jews put a premium on knowing. It’s important to know things: how to pray, how to read the Torah, how to understand the ancient holy languages, how to remember the Ten Commandments and the six hundred and thirteen “good deeds,” and how to honor one’s family and ancestors. Not wanting to know is tantamount to sin – or, it can lead that way. One who willfully shuts her ears and eyes, like a child, is one who will surely wander off the path.

And wandered I have, because it is a betrayal to admit that the story I was told, the one that gave me pleasant shivers in a way no other Holocaust story in my family ever had – and trust me, there are hundreds, enough to fill the brain of an over-imaginative child until she suffers from constant nightmares –  may have been transmitted to me as a partial truth. To do so is to invite the hateful invective of Holocaust deniers: if survivors’ stories can be so hard to trust, who is to say any of it really happened? My grasp on what really happened is slippery, and the only person who knows for sure has been buried for nearly fifty years in a crumbling cemetery in what is now the Ukraine. My grandfather is not able to counter the deniers; he is not here to tell them that he lived through it all, and therefore it must be real.

I have my handful of stories.

I might as well have a handful of ashes.

 I think Holocaust stories give people the shivers, and although they can be hard to hear, people keep coming back for more, they keep coming back to the edge of darkness to peer in, but not enter. They know they are safe; they are hearing something, not experiencing it, and it all happened in the distant past, at a safe remove. But the teller of the tale— whether survivor or grandchild, telling a story that is wholly true or even partially unverifiable — is hardly unmarked. A reader of this essay, for example, can feel the shivers after reading the opening paragraphs, and then put the essay away and forget— I cannot. The reader might assume that I, as a grandchild of survivors, who has not lived through the atrocities, can do the same — but I cannot. Although I have been, thankfully, spared the first-hand knowledge of those horrific past events, I know what traces of the past are on me, in me, and because they are unseen, or I have become a terrific liar and good at hiding them, no one knows how deep they run. I am jealous of those who seek out the shivers and who can sink back into their blanket of ignorance, while I must return always to the things I cannot escape from: my family’s painful histories, the ruined lives, the ways that past tragedies can distort the present and warp its surface of safety. I never can or will ever feel completely protected or sheltered from what might emerge out of the dark abyss that I approach in retelling the Holocaust stories. But in order to advance the cause of “never forgetting,” of ensuring that these stories have a life, I need to compel listeners and take them with me to where the monster lies in wait, even if it means I will not sleep that night for having reawakened it in my imagination.

And so I write this essay that repeats the word “torture,” and I casually throw around the word “liquidate,” and I tempt my reader with the “maybe yes and maybe no” of truth and memory. Without the horror that I hope will linger in your mind, you might forget the crux of my argument. And even the argument ceases to matter, because, cravenly, all I want is for you to remember that the Holocaust happened, that people were tortured, maimed, burned, violated – all in the name of nothing. And I am not so noble as to think that upon hearing these dark tales you will be moved to get up and do something, find a charity to give to or sign a petition to stop genocide in Darfur or rape in Somalia or anything as big-hearted as that: I just want you to share some of my own pain. The bogeyman that lived under my bed when I was a child? He always had a Nazi uniform, and I want you to see him, too. Because if you and I look at him together, maybe he will become less scary, maybe the truth, however partial, will be less difficult to bear.

Judith Skillman

Judith Skillman - Broken LinesJudith Skillman’s poems and collaborative translations have appeared in Poetry, FIELD, The Southern Review, Ezra, The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, The Pedestal Magazine, and numerous other journals. She’s the recipient of an award from the Academy of American Poets for her book Storm (Blue Begonia Press.) Two of her twelve full-length collections of poems (Red Town and Prisoner of the Swifts) have been finalists for the Washington State Book Award. Visit www.judithskillman.com or see her blog on techno-bling: abricabrac.com

                                                         

Me and Claire Marie

           Theresa Vadio is one year and three months older, but she likes to hang out with me because, as she says, “You’re cool for a ten year old.”  I’m cool because I’m growing breasts, and Theresa already has them, but no one has breasts the size of her older sister, Claire Marie—not even the pin-up girls her father keeps under the phone books, on the night table beside the bed.

          “Not there, here—put it on top of the other one, Eva, in the same order,” Theresa says.  Order is important when storing her father’s Playboys.  

          “Where’s August?”

          “August hasn’t come yet, silly.  It doesn’t come ’til the end of July,” Theresa says, bossy because she knows more than me. She doesn’t want me to ask questions about the women posing naked on the shiny pages.  They stand with their hands on their hips, and sometimes their backsides face us as if there were nothing to be ashamed of.  Twisting her head around to pout at the camera, one of them looks barely older than Claire Marie. 

          “This model is like your sister,” I say.

          “Yeah, just look at her expression; she’s sulking over something,” Theresa says.

          The centerfold, Miss July, lies on her side, propping herself up on one elbow.  Her see-through pink nightgown has fallen open but she doesn’t seem to care.  She should be embarrassed, lying there naked, but she smiles and winks at us as if she knows some secret she’s not going to tell. 

 

          Our townhouses in Maryland—converted barracks built during World War I—have the same floor plan: living areas on the bottom floor, three small bedrooms and a bath upstairs.

          In our house the third bedroom is my father’s study, where he peers at columns of numbers from behind thick tortoise shell glasses all night long.   The numbers have something to do with the age of the sun. They run across the pages, quick and mysterious, like the roaches that come out from hiding places at night to eat crumbs. 

          The third bedroom in Theresa’s house, barely larger than a closet, belongs to Claire Marie.  Sometimes her mother, a plain, quiet woman, walks upstairs and stands in front of the closed door.  She stands there for a long time, on the verge of going in to talk to Claire Marie, who spends, in her mother’s words “too much time alone in her room.” 

          I give her all my love…

          That’s all I do–oo.

          And if you saw my love

          You’d love her too–oo.  

          Theresa puts the needle in the groove for the twentieth time.   It’s easier to slow dance than to do the twist in the heat.  Our arms make circles in humid air, exactly the right amount of space a boy would take up. The air conditioner, a brown dinosaur, set into the casement window at the top of the stairs and held there by metal clamps, makes a ruckus, but does nothing to cool us down. 

           We have to sit out “Love Me Do,” flapping the newspaper fans we’ve folded painstakingly in half-inch strips.  The ink has rubbed off on our fingers, and our palms are gray.  We love to discuss which Beatle is our personal favorite.  Theresa’s stuck on George. 

          “George is the genius behind John,” she says.  “John’s name may be on more songs, but the songs belong to George.  Come on, Eva, you have to love him. Besides, he’s so skinny.  He has brainpower.  OOOOOOhhh.”

          It scares me when she squeals.  I worry she’ll faint in the heat and I’ll have to revive her.  For weeks I have been trying to talk her over to Paul, but he’s the popular one and she steers away from the in-crowd.  Maybe because she’s kind of fat and looks drab in her school uniform.  She’s not the sort of girl that boys would look at secretly or ask out.  Maybe because she’s so smart.

          Once, while we were in the kitchen making root beer floats, I overheard Theresa’s father.  He called Claire Marie a bimbo, and said she would only be good at staying home and having babies.  I asked my friend what a ‘bimbo’ was.  She thought it meant that Claire Marie was failing ninth grade.

          The flowers on Theresa’s living room sofa are so large and dark they look like stains.  I like her house because of its different smells and tastes.  The odor of schmaltz doesn’t exist here, with its cloying richness, but in its place is something I like better: bacon.  The slabs are flat and pink when Theresa’s mother lifts them from plastic; then they crumple and twist on the frying pan.  The house is full of the sound of their sizzling.  Even though I promised my father I wouldn’t, I take the slice that’s offered.

          I live for the TV dinners Mrs. Vadio serves on Saturday evenings, when we each get our own folding metal “TV table” and sit together in front of the color TV watching Walt Disney.   With the lights darkened, the square of the TV screen hovers in the corner, the color of coral, emitting those mysterious waves my father warned me about.   After the show, on summer nights when it stays light until 9, we open the drapes.  Even the way evening falls is strange–on account of the word “catholic,” which I heard my father use while talking to my mother after dinner one evening, just before he switched to Yiddish.  They use Yiddish when they don’t want me to understand them.  It works.

          “I’m worried about Eva, spending so much time with that goy family.”
          He thought I had gone upstairs to my room, the one that faces Theresa’s across the playground circle.  But I was hovering on the bottom step, within earshot. 

          “Shhh…she has big ears,” my mother said.

          “So her ears are radar dishes.  We need to discuss this.”

          “The girls are friends.  What right have we to separate them?  This isn’t Germany.  There are no more ghettos.”

          His reply was guttural.  “Ses passt nischt.”  It had an air of finality, and my mother turned back to her dishes, banging the pots and pans with such a vengeance that I was afraid I might not be able to see my friend Theresa anymore.

          In Theresa’s house there are statues of Jesus in the dining room, the living room, and bedrooms.  Some are porcelain, some plastic.  His brown eyes are like a doe’s, and he stares down from pale eggshell walls, bleeding continually from small wounds in his wrists and side.  Theresa has a rosary that reminds me of the red beads my grandmother wears around her neck to keep away the evil eye.  She shows me how to say the prayers.  You hold a bead and say, “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you.  Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”  Then you move on to the next bead.

          “No, Eva, you’re running the words together.  You have to pause between each part.  Take your time. Otherwise you have to go back and do it all again.  Remember the time when Claire Marie went to confession, and she came home crying and stayed in her room for three days and wouldn’t eat? She had to say a hundred Hail Mary’s and fifty Our Father’s.  You can bet she took her time over each word.”

          “What did she do? ” I ask.

          “I have no clue, but it was a mortal sin for sure,” Theresa says.

          “Mortal instead of venial?”  I am shoring up my knowledge, trying to use the right terms.  Theresa likes to explain things to me.

          “Yes, definitely mortal.  If you have just one mortal sin on your soul when you die, you go to hell.”

          “With the venial kind you go to purgatory—”

          “You go to purgatory and burn until you have been purged and then you move on up to heaven,” she finishes.

          Claire Marie walks into the living room.  She has dark smudges around her eyes, and her lips look like she’s just finished eating a cherry Popsicle.  She wears short-shorts and a halter-top that criss-crosses. 

          “Hey punk,” she says, grabbing Theresa by the arm.  “Let’s slow dance.”

          “Dad told you not to make fun of me and my friends,” Theresa says.

          “I’m not making fun,” she says, and starts singing “My boyfriend’s back so we’re gonna have a party, hey la, hey la, my boyfriend’s back,” waltzing Theresa back and forth across the room.

          “Claire-Marie.  Come here,” Mr. Vadio calls from the kitchen.

          “Is Dad home?  Jesus, I thought he was at work,” Claire Marie says.  She grabs Theresa’s sleeve and wipes the make-up off her eyes and lips.  Then she walks slowly into the kitchen.

            “What’s this about your boyfriend?” Mr. Vadio asks.   “I thought we had an understanding.”

          “Dad, that was just a song.  It’s number one on the charts,” Claire Marie, says, her voice rising.

          “Go to your room.  You are too young to have boyfriends.  Go to your room and think about what you’ve done, and then we’ll see,” I hear her father say from the Formica table in the next room.

          “But Dad, I have to study for summer school,” she pleads.

          I hate the sound of supplication in her voice.  As if she knows it’s futile to plead but she must beg anyway.

          “Claire Marie, you lied to me.”

          “Dad, I told the truth, I swear.”

          “Don’t swear young lady.  Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain,” Mr. Vadio says.

          I see Claire Marie standing with her back to me, in the doorway.  She clasps her hands behind her back and extends her middle finger.  “She’s giving him the finger,” Theresa whispers in my ear.

          “What’s that mean?” I say.

          “It means she’s still going to have boyfriends.”

          Her father opens the fridge and gets himself a beer.   It makes a great big pop. We know her mother will be mad when she gets home, and we direct our prayers to the virgin mother to atone for Claire Marie.

          While my lips move over the prayers, I sit in my corner by the coffee table.  I get a knot in my stomach, and worry that Mr. Vadio will see through my lies as well.  I’ve promised not to eat bacon and not to say prayers to Mary or Jesus.  I’ve told my parents that Theresa and I go roller-skating, when we really listen to music and say the rosary. 

          If Claire Marie is going to hell, I must be going there too.  There’s nothing I can do about it, nothing anyone can do.  The fact that hell also exists in my house, in a different way—as a “conception,” my mother says, “a place as awful as you can imagine,” makes me worry even more, and I get my first pimple—a red dot on my chin.   

          “Dear God,” I say to the ceiling at night, “Please don’t let Mr. Vadio find out that Theresa and I read his magazines.  Anyway we never really read them.  We just looked at the pictures.”

          My mother is cleaning my room because it’s a pigsty.

           “How can you live in such a pigsty?” she asks, her voice rising, but it’s less a question than a statement of fact.

          Because I’m a pig, I think to myself.

          “What’s this?” She pulls out my prize from under a pile of clothes and shoes, the necklace of glassy red beads Theresa gave me, and holds it away from herself, at arm’s length.  The silver cross hangs down, flashing like a mirror.  “Oy vey.   Oy vey zmere,” she hisses.  “A rosary?  Your father will have conniptions if he sees this.   He’s afraid the Vadio’s will convert you, make you believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, of all things. Go and flush it down the toilet.”

          To my mother the rosary is a threat only in that it has the power to keep me apart from my friend.  She doesn’t believe that I’ll fall for the story of Jesus the Savior of mankind, hook, line and sinker. 

          She squints at me and says some things in her other language, strange sounds deep in her throat.  My rosary.  When I drop it in the bowl it coils at the bottom.

Michelle Auerbach

Michelle Auerbach’s work has been published in Van Gogh’s Ear, Bombay Gin, Xcp, Chelsea, and The Denver Quarterly, and anthologized in The Veil (UC Berkley Press), Uncontained (Baksun Books), and You: An Anthology of Essays in the Second Person (Welcome Table Press).  She is the winner of the 2011 Northern Colorado Fiction Prize and has a book of poetry forthcoming from Durga Press.  Her novel, The Third Kind of Horse is out soon from Beatdom Books.

 

Geriatric Safe Sex

I found my niche at the AIDS Hotline without even planning it.  When I was hired, I wondered why.  I don’t speak Spanish or French; I don’t represent any community in need of services.  When Kevin was hired, we all knew he was the junkie, but me?  I figured they hired me to get the coffee.

The phone rang one day and Melody answered it.  She kept yelling into the receiver, “I can’t understand you, I don’t speak German.”  Melody has no patience, so she put the call on hold and looked around. I tried to seem busy doing something other than looking at Simone. 

“Lyssa, can you take this?  I can’t understand a word the woman is saying.”

“Sure.”

I punched the button and got someone who could have been my grandmother speaking a mixture of Yiddish and English with a heavy accent. 

Nu, you are?”

“My name is Lyssa, can I help you?”

A gezunt ahf dein kop, Lyssa.  It’s difficult, but I think I might have a farshlepteh krenk, the AIDS.”

“How’s that?” I’m thinking how is this possible?

“I live in the Montefiore retirement community, shayna, you heard of it?”

“Yes.”

“Up here, none of us, we cannot get pregnant, and my Morris, zikhroyne livrokhe, he’s gone, and so we spend some time together, intimately, you know?”

“Who does?”

“Well, tukhes oyfn tisch, shayna maildeleh, we all do, Mr. Krupnick, Mr. Goldbloom, Mr. Fingerman . . . “

I had to pause to take a breath here and not scream, “My grandma’s getting some.” Instead I sound really professional and not very interested.

“I need to ask you some personal questions Mrs. . . . “

“Call me Dottie.”

“Dottie, are you having intercourse with those men, or oral sex, can you tell me?”

“Intercourse, yes.  And oral sex, but dear, it’s not just me, its all the girls. A deigeh hob ich, but I do worry. You know some of them men are still good dancers, and some can still schtup.  I prefer the ones who can schtup. A volf farlirt zayne hor, ober nit zayn nature, you know, you may get old, but you feel young.”

“How many sexual partners have you had this year?”

“Excuse my gerbochener Englisch, bubbeleh, I think ten, or twelve.”

          So this is what they are doing in old folks homes.  Maybe by the time I’m eighty there will be lesbian retirement communities.

“Are you using condoms?”

“No dear, no one here can have babies any more, and a lung un leber oyf der noz, I don’t want to think myself into getting anything else.”

Great, how do you convince someone like this to use a condom?  I decide on my best granddaughter voice.

“If I sent you some, would you use them, Dottie?”

“Could you?  Is that your aitzeh? That would be wonderful, we are balebatisheh yiden, you know, good people, we want to do right.”

“Perhaps you should think about getting tested for HIV, we have a center in the Bronx, could you get there?”

I was imagining senior day at the DOH.

“Yes, I want to know if I am ahf tsore, in trouble.  Can I make appointments for a bunch of alte kochers too?”

“Your sexual partners?”

“Them too, alten boks, all of them.”

I made appointments for twenty-two old folks to get HIV tests.  God save them if any one of them is positive, with all the partner swapping and bed hopping.

After that Dottie would call just for me, she refused to speak to anyone else.  I got to talk to many of the residents of the Montefiore Senior Home in the Bronx, and they were having a lot more sex than I was.  Mr. Liberman did not want me to tell his daughter he was talking to me.  Mr. Berger wanted to know if I would come and visit, was I cute?  Mrs. Steinberg wanted more condoms.  One woman, Mrs. Cohen, she had four partners that week.  She wanted to know if it was okay to sleep with that many people in a week.  I told her, as long as you’re happy and safe.  She said she was.  “I miss my late husband, don’t get me wrong dear. I miss him like a hole in the head every day.  This is good.  But it’s not like being married.”

In the category of things that make you think, this one stopped me.  Promiscuity is good, but not as good as commitment.  I looked across the desk at Simone.  What would it be like to come home to her every day, to pass my day under the light of her brain.  I’d probably never find out.  How could I even tell if I’d get to go home with her again?

Why is it that the gay boys get to do it, the old folks get to do it, and the lesbians are so behind the times?  Looks like we got to the party just in time to clean up.

Jorge Sánchez

Jorge Sánchez earned an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan. Many journals have published his work including: Poetry, Iowa Review, Indiana Review, and Crab Orchard Review. He teaches and writes in Chicago where he lives with his wife and son. 

 

The Poet

          after Richard Wilbur

Like all things parental, it bolts
from never-thought-of to sitting down-
at-the-kitchen-table: as I put
away the dishes and put dinner on,
my son sits writing a poem dictated
to his mother. The poem, like all
poems, deals with the inscrutable,
the indecipherable; namely, why
his father loves spaceships, a love
born of six year-olds living in Florida
a few hours south of Cape Canaveral,
a love nurtured as I grew older, one
that still lives, if not as love,
then as that coal an early, flippant
lover lit and blew on, returning
from time to time as a nostalgic,
earnest contentment. His poem
is a rambling set of questions,
not so different from my poems,
attempting to build a bridge over
everyday confusions and blockages.
I am where so many have been before me,
before him: I wish him safe-passage.
Yet there is something hopeless
in his poem and in this poem and all
poems, a sense of the abiding distance
amid proximity. And yet, a hope that the bridge
will stand, the line will hold, the words
will fall on the fertile ground of our beloved,
so that distances shrink with our hands
extending and the only way around it
is the repeated question, the pencil moving
across the page according to a voice, the hand
holding that pencil, gently, always writing
what amounts to a love note, or a letter home.

 

The Sounds Now

No longer the singing of the chop saw,
Now thunder. Now rock salt.
The blue benison of the grey haze
of the roadside slush. In that moment,
when the blue-gray of a winter roadside
slides along memory to some
summer carpenter on a back deck,
I remember how much of us is sound,
syllable yielding to syllable
the way a line forgotten becomes
a line unescaped when the scrape
of a taxi over the speedbump
becomes a chiasmus for the slow,
fingertip-by-fingertip reconnaissance
of a cabbage, a guitar, a lover.
How much of us is memory, broiled
steak in the bleak mid-winter a feast
of recollection: the campsite above
the lake, the heavy grate over fire pit,
the squeaky, creaky Army-truck-green
water pump. And the harmony
of senses that seem to be more us
than us: the fragrance of aspens
in a courtyard in Berkeley in March
a catapult to a Roman side street in July
a decade ago, the street’s shady nave
of impossibly tall trees on a slight slope,
and when asked, a local in the courtyard
replies that the smell is that of blooming
jasmine above the door so red in the dark.

Pia Taavila-Borsheim

Pia Taavila-Borsheim grew up in Walled Lake, Michigan, and lives now in Fredericksburg, Virginia. She received a BA and an MA in American Literature from Eastern Michigan University (1977, 1979) and an interdisciplinary PhD (1985) from Michigan State University in English, Sociology, and Philosophy. She teaches literature and creative writing at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC. Gallaudet University Press published her collected poems, Moon on the Meadow (1977-2007); Finishing Line Press published her chapbook, Two Winters (2011). Her poems have appeared in many journals including: The Bear River Review, Appalachian Heritage, The Comstock Review, Threepenny Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, storySouth, The Asheville Poetry Review, 32 Poems, Measure, Ibbetson Street Review, and The Southern Review. She is a frequent participant at the Bear River, Sewanee and Key West Literary conferences.

 

Showdown

When he struck that High Noon pose
to finger his six-shooters, itchy, I knew
right then there’d be no such thing as 

meeting in the middle. 

Right then I knew there’d be no such
thing as fingering his six-shooter, itchy
for that High Noon pose. Struck.

 

Chance

I wish I could write you
a love song on parchment paper,
blue ink applied with a quill.
I’d fold it in fourths,
leave it under your cup.
You’d find it hours later,
search for its author.

I’d fill your sky with little birds.
One would land on your shoulder
and sing to you all day.

I’d hold your toes like cotton socks
soft and heathery, the ones you pull on
before those wrinkled leather shoes.
As you walk here and there,
you’d feel me with you.

I wish to drop gold coins on you,
shimmering in mid-air,
turning in the sun like maple leaves.
You’d think yourself fortunate.

I wish I had the nerve to say,
Here I am.

Instead, I hide behind shy thoughts,
this feckless page.

Philip Terman

Philip Terman’s books of poetry include The Torah Garden, Rabbis of the Air, Book of the Unbroken Days, and The House of Sages. His poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies including: Poetry, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, The New England Review, The Sun Magazine, The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, and The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, and The Allegheny River Poetry Anthology. He teaches creative writing and literature at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. Terman is co-director of the Chautauqua Writers Festival at the Chautauqua Institution and directs The Bridge Literary Arts Center and Performance Space in Franklin, Pennsylvania. He is Contributing Editor for Poetry for the journal Chautauqua. Occasionally, Terman performs his poetry with the jazz band Catro.

 

Teaching My Daughter the Mourner’s Kaddish  

Forget about the original Aramaic,
or Ezekiel’s vision that served

as inspiration,  I just hope for the Hebrew,
but she prefers the transliteration—

which, no matter the alphabet, translates
into magnification and sanctification

thinking of the story about the rabbi
building a fire in the woods,

and reciting a prayer and who the rabbi was
and where the woods were located

and how the fire was built were all forgotten
but not the prayer, never the prayer—child,

this is the one sad song I do not wish you to sing,
elegy of sorrow, gate of grief I would forbid you

to enter, this the same syllables mourners
have pronounced for millennium and for which I rise

to chant, according to their anniversary,
for my father, my mother, my brother,

the rhythms you will enrich
with each repetition and, soon enough, over

me, so I call your name and instruct:
chant it again, from the beginning, more slowly.

 

Putzing Around

after Neruda

It happens I’m tired of being a Jew.
It happens that I go into synagogues shriveled up.
I stroll around the Jewish Community Center
singing “Hava Nagila” in falsetto.
the smell of my mother’s challa makes me sob out loud.
I want nothing but the repose of either barbequed pork or shellfish,
I want to see no more maps of Israel, nor mezuzot,
nor Stars of David, nor fancy kabalistic necklaces.
It happens that I’m tired of my facial hair and sideburns.
It happens I’m tired of being a Jew.
Just the same it would be delicious
to scare a Wasp with a Yarmulka
or knock a nun dead with one slap of my t’fillin.
It would be beautiful
to run naked through the streets with a kosher knife
kibitzing until they crucify me.
I do not want to go on being a Talmudic nudnic,
kvetching, atoning, davening in the sanctuary,
standing and sitting, repeating the same words every day.
I don’t want to be the inheritor of so much guilt,
as the last denier, as a stiff-necked corpse.
For this reason Leviticus infects us all,
with its strictures and its restrictions,
howling its Jehovah.
I want to visit the houses of the gentiles,
certain bakeries smelling of lard,
streets full of shiksas begging for my attention.
There are Jewish mothers beckoning from doors
of the houses which I hate,
statues of their adored sons on the suburban lawns,
stuffed ancestors displayed above the couch,
and holy chockies from Jerusalem all over the place.
It happens that I’m tired of being a Jew.

 

Hava Nagila – Jewish traditional folk song, often sung at times of celebrations

Mezuzot – plural for Mezuzah, a sacred prayer in a decorative case placed on doorways  

Yarmulka – or kippa is a cap worn to cover the heads as a sign of respect to God

t’fillin – are a set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah and worn during prayers

kosher – or kashrut is a set of Jewish dietary laws

kibitzing – look on and offer unwanted, usually meddlesome advice to others

kvetching – to complain in a nagging manner

davening – to recite Jewish liturgical prayers, usually swaying is involved

shiksas –  a Gentile girl or woman, especially one who has attracted a Jewish man. The term derives from the Hebrew

Nancy Scott

Nancy Scott is the managing editor of U.S.1 Worksheets, the journal of the U.S.1 Poets’ Cooperative in New Jersey. She also is the author of five books of poetry. Her most recent book, On Location (March Street Press, 2011) is a collection of ekphrastic poems based on artwork, including her own collages. Her poems have appeared in many journals including: Poet Lore, Witness, The Ledge, Slant, Mudfish, Verse Wisconsin, Raven Chronicles, and The Copperfield Review. Find her website at www.nancyscott.net

 

The Outside Rear Steps

The iceman often came down the rear steps,
empty tongs slung over his shoulder,

while Mother, heavy with groceries,
and I pressed on the railing to let him pass.

Two flights to the top. Afraid if I got dizzy
or my shoes misbehaved, I could easily slip

between boards and crash, a wingless
sparrow, onto the garbage cans in the alley.

When I made it to the landing, nothing
to see but weeds and junked cars.

My two great-grandmas, black dress,
black shoes, and gray buns neatly pinned,

hugged us in Yiddish that floated
beyond me. The kitchen smelled of cabbage

and unopened windows. While Mother
restocked shelves, I escaped to the only

other room to explore. Two beds,
white spreads, and on the carved dresser,

a glass tray with powder puffs, a brush,
hairpins, a few coins. Faded photos. A letter.

Why did they live in this musty apartment
when we had a big house and a maid?

At the red oil-cloth table, I dunked hard
cookies in chilled milk, waited for Mother

to stop chatting, and fold next week’s list
into her purse. As each grandma kissed

my forehead, I felt on my arm, the hungry grip
of her hand, her thin bones wrapped in

speckled skin. For a moment we were bound
by the only familiar we would ever know.