Dance Dance Revolution

Ben Jahn

The Office of the Child Advocate reports that the young man who shot the schoolchildren with his mother’s Bushmaster was obsessed with the video game Dance Dance Revolution. It describes him playing, in the months leading up to the massacre, frenetically, hours on end, at home or at a local theater, dancing until he was drenched in sweat, dancing until he was out of money, dancing to keep his mind off his mind.

And one of the children said to him, “I don’t want to be here.”

“Well, you’re here,” he said.

We think of our kids begging to skip school. Mornings, eating standing at the sink, the refrigerator door slightly ajar, some of the dishes in the dishwasher clean, jam in the peanut butter, peanut butter in the jam, forced air from the vent in the floor warming a pile of laundry. “You have to go,” we say. “Everybody has to do things they don’t want to do.”

The artistic director tweaked the Nutcracker storyline for the area’s progressive left. In this version, Clara and Fritz are destitute, living on the street, until an act of generosity shows them a new future. When the show opens, they’re huddled outside the toymaker’s house, shivering, sharing a tattered blanket.

At the end of Act One, sinister, dream-conjured mice surround a toy soldier who stands quavering at center stage, wooden rifle aimed at the audience. The music is dubbed with a pop at the bottom of an eight-count, and the dancer-soldier simulates rifle-kick, scattering the harassing mice.

In the lobby at intermission, one ballet mom can’t get it out of her mind. She keeps hearing the report, says it has torn through her. She tells me the Bushmaster’s ammunition was designed to disperse its energy on impact, to do maximum damage and remain in the flesh. Parents were barred from the bodies, asked to identify them with pictures. 

Nothing could keep her from the body of her child. “Pictures aren’t real. I would never believe it was true. Who designs a bullet to not act like a bullet, to not go through? An entrance with no exit.” 

Last year, on the day of the shooting, Act Two, the Little Angels bourreed on stage on demi-pointe, first-grade girls dressed in shimmering ankle-length gowns with pleated sleeves, smiling eyes drawn taut by topknots. Innocent little angels in line behind their Big Angels. 

Every year they shuffle on, the energy shifts, the audience awwws. It is pure, reflexive. But not last year. Last year there was no sound. Just the impossible welling up of wet silence. Of sound swallowed down.

To escape the peppermint and perfume, we walk along the footpath that perpends the avenue, running back to the studios and dressing rooms. We glimpse dancers flitting out for fresh air, lithe in leotards and tights. We stop in the shadows away from the yellow cones of light meant to fend the homeless. 

She says she dreads the Little Angels. “We’re all going to awww again like nothing happened.”  

“Like it was a liberal hoax,” I say.

“I think I understand that,” she says. “It absolves us of comprehension.”

One year, we shared a joke about the program, its half-page ad for the company’s open house event for boys: a photo of a soccer goalkeeper and an opposing striker, leaping, arms and legs balletically extended. “Look, dudes,” she said, in the voice of the ad. “These guys are basically dancing—and they’re not pussies.”

“I tried to sign Nick up,” I said. “But he watched the other boys chase the ball and went, Dad, I’m not a dog.” 

“I didn’t know you had a boy,” she said, meaning a boy in ballet.

“I’m the one.”

The ad is still there. But now the keeper seems to be attacking the striker, a player I recognize from a local professional team. He has one of those smug, suburban names—Landon, or Hunter, or Trace. My teammates and I used to pick them out before games, saying, “Who’s your red card?” 

I don’t mention this because her own son’s name is Hunter, and today is not the day to casually discuss boyhood aggressions. 

We talk about mothers who only have girls. She envies the purity of their fear and outrage. “When you have a boy,” she says, “you never know.”

She wishes she could judge the shooter’s mother—and she can, to some extent. “It was her Bushmaster.” She wishes the woman had lived, so she would have to comprehend with the rest of us. His killing her first was an act of mercy. “Or was it?”

“We’ll never know.” 

“And where was his father?” The report says his father tried to reach out via email, suggesting a ballgame, a hike. “I think we can agree,” she says, “an email is not reaching out.”

Someone comes by to congratulate her on her daughter’s progress. “She’ll be Clara soon. Then the Sugar Plum Fairy.”

“Nothing is guaranteed,” she says. 

The chime sounds, and people begin to drift toward their seats.

“I don’t want to be here.” 

“Well,” I say.

The next year, her daughter is Clara, and Nick is Fritz. 

We drop them off at Saturday rehearsal, and I follow her home, staying close to her bumper so we don’t get separated. 

At a stoplight, I text her: “What about Hunter?”

She texts back: “With his dad.”

At her place, in the living room, I take off my shoes and jacket while she sets up the game. “Have you ever done this?”

“Never,” I say. “Never anything like it.”

“It’s pretty intuitive,” she says and unfolds two vinyl “dance mats” printed with blue arrows, up-down-left-right. When the game begins, she cranks the TV volume, and we move our bodies to 90’s pop. 

I’m clumsy, at first. “I haven’t danced in years.” I try to track the digital arrows sliding up the screen, but my eye is drawn to the swaying avatar, glowing blue-white. I know without having to ask that she thinks of the avatars, ghost-like figures trapped in another world, as little angels.

“The trick is to let the music go through you,” she says between songs.

Or, I think, to let it enter and disperse its energy.

We dance until our clothes are soaked and shucked, we’ve thrown the windows open, and the TV is the only light, its grainy, pulsing radiance a medium through which we might connect in a suspended present. 

It’s as if we’re living in a GIF, perfectly looped, like the one Nick showed me of the spinning ballerina. “You can make it switch directions with your mind,” he said. “But it never stops.” I said, “If it switches directions, doesn’t it have to stop?” I didn’t want to tell him I could only see it turning clockwise. “No,” he said. “That’s the beauty of it. Whichever way it’s turning is the way it’s always turned.”

I wake on the floor in the dark with the rain outside. Wind gusts suck the curtains against the wet screens in great heaved breaths. The TV is off, and I look for a digital indicator that might define the space. It takes me a few seconds to realize we’ve lost power.

I’m cold, except in the places our bodies touch. I reach for a dance mat and draw it over. The flexible plastic square settles stiffly around our torsos. A poor blanket, it gives little warmth. It’s something no one should ever have to feel.

Ben Jahn’s work has appeared in Fence, PANK, ZYZZYVA, McSweeney’s, and The Santa Monica Review. He received a National Endowment for the Arts grant in fiction, and his story, “Reborn,” appeared in The Paris Review as the winner of NPR’s Three Minute Fiction contest. He lives in Richmond, CA, teaches English at Contra Costa College, and spends his summers traveling with his longtime partner and her kids. For infrequent updates, go to benjahn.com 

The Skull On My Desk

Lauren K. Watel

Lauren K. Watel is a poet, fiction writer, essayist and translator who lives in Decatur, GA. Her prose poems have recently been published in The Paris Review, The Nation, Narrative, Antioch Review, The Massachusetts Review, and Five Points.  Her essay on the work of Toi Derricotte is featured in the Spring 2019 issue of Birmingham Poetry Review. Other work has won awards from Poets and Writers and Mississippi Review and has appeared in publications such as Ploughshares, Slate, Colorado Review, Poetry International and the Collected Poems of Marcel Proust.

Hall of Hauntings

Rebekah Bergman

That October, their father suggested they wear an animal costume for Halloween. A horse or a donkey or zebra. One twin could be the front half, and the other the back.

“Won’t we have trouble walking upstairs?” they asked, horrified.

“Ah, right,” said their father. They saw, in the mirror, how his face fell and they felt a twinge of guilt for him. His best ideas never panned out.

 

Naomi used to handle the costumes and Lionel didn’t know how she came up with the ideas or made the girls go along with them. His only thought was to put them inside one costume. Save them all some trouble and money too, but the girls had raised an important concern.

So, what now, Naomi? he asked in his head, but his late wife did not respond.

He had shaved off his mustache long ago, before his wedding, but lately, he felt the ghost of it like a phantom mustache hovering over his lip. As if being a widower returned him to bachelorhood. He looked in the rearview.

“What will you be then?” he asked the girls. “It’s Halloween. You can be whatever you want.”

 

Their father was wrong. They could not be whatever they wanted. Not this year. What they wanted was secondary to what they needed to be, and that was: different.

Each of them had made the decision not to be matching. They’d been matching every year before then, in costumes their mother had made. But now they were seven, their mother was dead, and their father was helpless. They longed to be something—anything—for once, of their own.

Neither twin told the other about the vow she had made with herself, so it became a waiting game. She could not choose a costume until her sister did. But, of course, her sister could not choose a costume either. They were stuck and they more or less figured out what the other was up to because of it. Even this private pact became something shared.

When their father parked, they looked at each other and shrugged.

 

Hall of Hauntings was open all year. The adult costumes were horribly gruesome. Bloody werewolves, bloody doctors, bloody brides. There was blood everywhere and a million body parts. Swollen lips, bulging eyeballs, hairy man legs.

It wasn’t the most kid-friendly store. Lionel had forgotten that.

“Let’s stick together,” he said. “I’ll grab mine first.”

Lionel wanted to be a cow. It was the subtle gender swapping of it that was fun. He’d have udders. And fake eyelashes. It would be almost like dressing up as a lady. That’s what was great about Halloween. On a normal day, he had no desire to dress this way. But because he could on Halloween, he figured why not?

“Wait here,” he said as he went into the dressing room. He put on the cow suit quickly and came out to show them. He stared at himself for a minute, loving it. A cow was such a majestic, maternal creature.

“Girls,” he said. But his girls were not in the reflection.

“Shit,” he said. Then, “Sorry,” to apologize to them for the swear.

But no, his girls were nowhere behind him. His tail swept back and forth on the dirty ground as he paced and then ran.

“Girls?” he said, shouting now. “Girls!”

 

Silently, they walked away from their father and away from each other. They parted separate paths through the wigs and the face paints, passing a dress made of doll heads, two clowns with yellow teeth and bloodshot eyes. They wondered about this holiday. Why did adults return to these childish things? The dress looked so heavy. And all those doll heads would bang together whenever you walked. There was something about the clown’s smile that looked like their father. They hated that they thought that. But they did. The baby aisle was similarly confounding. Babies as lobsters being cooked in pots. A baby as what looked like a homeless man. A baby with a lump of poop it could wear on its head. Humiliating.

One sister strolled slowly with a hand out, touching every costume she passed. She’d stop to consider an option before finding its flaw. She could be a shark but that was boyish, a cat but that was boring, a giraffe with a long neck that would extend up from her head with a hole for her face. Disgusting, how a face would come out of a neck like that.

The other sister walked more deliberately. She thought she knew what she wanted. She’d eye a section and rush toward it and then stop, look at a costume and know that no, she was wrong. Even when she did find what she’d been looking for, the reality of it wasn’t what she had pictured. She rejected a watermelon, a vampire, a pilot.

Ok, each sister thought. Pick something. We don’t have much time.

When their father found them, they were inside costumes that they’d tried on over their clothes: a hotdog and an elderly man.

“I couldn’t find you,” he said, breathless. “Do you know how scared I was?” One daughter was blanketed by a hotdog bun. The other had a bald cap and a cane. They were beautiful, his daughters.

“Do you know how scared that makes me?” He meant to yell at them for leaving him in this store full of nightmares, alone. He meant to make his voice loud and foreboding.

To frighten them with his own catastrophic ideas of what might have been.

“Girls,” he said again and bent toward them. He could do it, be angry. Do it, he said to himself, in Naomi’s voice.

He saw them, all three, reflected: a cow, a hotdog, a shrunken old man. He didn’t know who was in which costume, but it didn’t matter.

The old man’s wire glasses slipped down her nose. He put a hand around each of their heads and pulled them into his shoulders. The hotdog smelled slightly of relish.

“Ok,” he whispered. “Ok,” he said, crying softly. “We’re ok. We’re ok.”

 

Their father paid for their costumes and they left, still wearing them. The girls didn’t know why he had cried like that. His eyelashes, as a cow, looked longer. Didn’t they? And they felt a little afraid of his udders—why? It was a small fear that they found fascinating. The way they felt about the tooth fairy, whom they no longer believed in but who remained—strangely—a greedy, invisible possibility. They kept thinking about it as they drove home. How, when he had bent down to hug them, his udders had been right there, rubbery, hollow.

They thought of their mother, too. They missed her. She would never have let their father dress in that cow suit.

Still, they had done it, found something different to be for a while. This is what it felt like. They tried to comfort themselves with that, looking at each other look different. But they knew that even inside their separate costumes, their thoughts were the same. And they didn’t feel any different, anyway.

 

When the car pulled into the driveway, nobody said anything. Inside the house, they each stood in a different closet with the door closed. They peeled off one set of clothing, and they put on the next.

Rebekah Bergman’s fiction is published in Hobart, Joyland, DIAGRAM, Cosmonauts Avenue, and The Masters Review, among other journals. She is a contributing editor of NOON. Read more: rebekahbergman.com

The Book of Yeezus

Julian Randall

Julian Randall is a Living Queer Black poet from Chicago. He has received fellowships from Callaloo, BOAAT, & the Watering Hole, & was the 2015 National College Slam (CUPSI) Best Poet. He is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize. Julian is the curator of Winter Tangerine Review’s Lineage of Mirrors. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as New York Times Magazine, Poetry Magazine, The Georgia Review, Sixth Finch, & in the anthologies Portrait in Blues, Nepantla, & New Poetry from the Midwest. He received an MFA in Poetry from Ole Miss. His first book, Refuse, is the winner of the 2017 Cave Canem Poetry prize selected by Vievee Frances & was named a finalist for the NAACP Image Award in Poetry.

On a Spaceship Somewhere, Long After Empire’s Collapse

Jesús I. Valles

Jesús I. Valles is a queer Mexican immigrant writer-performer originally from Cd. Juarez, México/El Paso, TX. Jesús is a 2019 Lambda Literary fellow, a 2019 Walter E. Dakin Playwriting fellow at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, a recipient of the 2019 Letras Latinas Scholarship from the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, a poetry fellow at Idyllwild Arts Writers Week, and a recipient of a 2019 Fine Arts Work Center scholarship. Jesús is also a 2018 Undocupoets fellow, a 2018 Tin House scholar, a fellow of the 2018 Poetry Incubator, the runner-up in the 2017 Button Poetry Chapbook Contest, and a finalist of the 2016 Write Bloody Poetry Contest. Their work has been published in The Shade Journal, The Texas Review, The New Republic, Palabritas, The Acentos Review, Quarterly West, The Mississippi Review, and is forthcoming in Winter Tangerine and The Adroit Journal. As an actor and theatremaker, Jesús is the recipient of four B. Iden Payne awards, including Outstanding Original Script and Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama for their autobiographical solo show, (Un)Documents.

Domestic Coffee

Rachel Purdy

I remember the tin can of Folgers that sat on the kitchen counter when I was a child. I used to open it up, press my face inside and inhale. Coffee was among those foods whose aroma conjured up future happiness, like the scent of vanilla extract and the promise of birthday cakes with cream cheese frosting, or pumpkin seeds roasting in the oven and the promise of jack-o’-lanterns and Halloween. Coffee was slow, weekend mornings, standing in front of my father as he brushed out the knots in my long, curly brown hair, scanning the headlines in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel on the table next to his mug, while my mother flipped pancakes in the shapes of zoo animals in the kitchen. Coffee promised me the morning, the start of a new adventure, a day unsullied.

Twenty-five years later, when my grandfather woke up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. on the morning of August 30, 2016, he made a cup of coffee before he killed himself. Before he laid out black plastic trash bags on the floor, he settled a paper coffee filter into his coffee maker. He added twelve or thirteen scoops of ground coffee into the filter, creating a little mountain of grounds, dark like the color of potting soil. Some forgotten grounds speckled the counter. As the coffee brewed, he supported his once robust 6-foot tall body with his walker – too proud, and if he was honest, too exhausted to sit down at the nearby table while he waited. He poured himself a single cup of coffee into a chipped, white porcelain mug, a souvenir mug, like one with the words “Someone in Florida Loves Me.” He could have placed the mug on the tray of his walker, as he inched to the small table where he eased himself down into one of the wooden, Windsor chairs. But he left the walker at the counter, gripping the coffee in one hand and the kitchen table in the other, moving his 80-year-old body precariously like a toddler trying to find his footing, but on his own. It was quite routine, except there was no newspaper in front of him today. He took his first sip of the coffee. It was black and strong, nearly overwhelming in its acidity, and exactly the way he preferred it. 

I know exactly how my grandfather liked his coffee because I was the one making it for him two days before he died. I was the one piling the grounds high, as he sat in the Windsor chair, telling me, “Almost. A little more.” 

I was the one wiping the counter, not to remove the crumbs of coffee, but scrubbing away months of spills and baked-on grease left to harden. I was the one who offered to visit, to welcome him home from his stay at a rehabilitation facility following a surgery to repair his collapsed lung. 

It was me who filled the “Someone in Florida Loves Me” mug, and then again for a refill. 

It was me who told my mom how frail he had become, and how stubborn he still was.  

In the 30 years spent with my grandfather, decades of once-daily phone calls and summer-long visits to Pittsburgh, I’ve repeatedly been told that he wouldn’t change. He wouldn’t stop drinking, gambling, smoking. In the years since he died, I’ve been told why. 

“He’s a Serb,” my mother said of her father. 

Though I waited on the phone silently, she didn’t elaborate. 

I prodded. 

What it means, my mother told me, is that my grandfather was stubborn and proud. It was nearly a year after his death, but she accidentally used the present tense when she described him, though she corrected herself. It means, she said, that though he was raised in the United States after his family moved from Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1939, his culture has so finely imprinted on him, that he can no more change himself than the average American can change their innate individualism or materialism. He was three years old when he came to the United States and I wondered whether this was an excuse. It seemed like a way to blanket an entire country, a massive region really, with some basic characteristics. I asked my mother if she believed this. 

“I don’t know. I’ve never been to Serbia.”

Coffee didn’t interest me until after my grandfather died. After his death, I ordered cups of coffee from diners, hoping that it would smell familiar, that it might trigger some unremembered memory of him. At home, I used a small hand grinder to pummel the whole beans I bought in bags, as if I could physically expel some of my resentment over his death. 

I could imagine him planning out his death, while I filled his refrigerator with microwaveable meals that he could cook on his own, as I did months of dirty laundry, and folded the new pants I bought him to replace the ones with holes in the pockets. I had come to take care of him, and he let himself be cared for, but only until I was gone. 

I paused in my grinding. Or maybe he hadn’t been thinking that, at least not yet. He was impulsive. He had been in pain. My father told me I should be compassionate, but my father was almost unfairly unbiased. Once connected to my grandfather by his marriage, now many-years divorced, my father and my grandfather were like strangers before he died. Should I have taken away his shotgun, I wonder. I should have taken away his gun. My mother tells me that she should have told me to take away his gun. 

It didn’t really matter if I felt resentful or guilty, because, either way, I was angry. 

I brewed intense cups of coffee for my boyfriend as he slumbered out of bed. 

“It’s so bitter,” he said, adding milk to the brim of his mug.

The month before my grandfather’s death, I celebrated my birthday in Greece. My grandfather left me a message that I would replay constantly after I couldn’t conjure up his voice at will. 

“Your grandfather loves you very, very much,” he said. 

He often spoke to himself in the third person. The emphasis was always on the “you”—or on me, rather. It should have seemed detached, him referring to himself in the third person, but it seemed more intimate. He loved to refer to himself as “Grandpa” or “Ggrandfather” as if the role subsumed his identity. 

I sat at a café in Naxos, scrolling through my phone. 

“You’re so close to the homeland!” my grandfather’s cousin wrote on my Instagram post of Athens. 

The homeland was Serbia – close because Greece’s mainland was already in the Balkan Peninsula. I opened the map on my phone and I stretched my thumb and index finger in the shape of a backward “L” and I could connect the two countries easily.

But when the waiter delivered the wine and bread, I set down my phone and I never replied to my cousin. There was something unnerving about having a “homeland” that I’d never visited, like I had seen myself in a mirror that only showed me from the waist up. 

I wish I remembered the first time someone told me about the prevalence of café society in the former Yugoslavia, or about the importance Balkan people place on coffee. 

I knew it wasn’t my grandfather. Since he left Yugoslavia when he was three, he probably never had traditional Serbian coffee. He rarely talked about Serbia. I remember peeking into his bedroom when I was five or six years old when he was on the phone with his brother Pete. 

“Grandpa sounds funny,” I told my mother. “Something’s wrong with his voice.”

My mother peeked in the bedroom. 

“He’s speaking Serbian,” she said, although she never learned the words herself. 

Hearing my grandfather speak in another language was so perplexing, so terrifyingly strange, that I eyed him warily when he emerged from the bedroom. 

“What’s wrong?” he asked. 

When I refused to answer, he scooped me up and dangled me upside down from my feet until I couldn’t stop laughing. 

I finally booked a trip to Serbia this May out of frustration, as much as curiosity.

Months earlier, in January, a distant cousin, a Zoroya, who shared my grandfather’s last name, was in Key West at the same time as me. I messaged him, asking if he wanted to meet. 

When my boyfriend and I walked into the restaurant, I knew instantly who he was, though we’d never met in person. Aside from our tanned skin, dark brown eyes and hair, there was something in our mannerisms that seemed eerily alike – the way we made direct eye contact, how we smoothed our dark eyebrows, the territorial arrangement of our silverware while we waited for our food. 

“The Zoroya genes must be strong,” my boyfriend said. 

My cousin had found me through Ancestry.com, where our DNA was a match. We could trace our common ancestor to my grandfather’s grandfather. He ran a few groups on Facebook that connected family members with the last name Zoroya, not just in the United States, but in Serbia, Croatia and other former Yugoslavian countries. 

When we spoke about my grandfather, I described him as I remembered him – a man who would give his grandchildren $100 to spend frivolously at Toys “R” Us “because money was made to be spent,” who chain-smoked from the age of 10 years old and “wasn’t about to stop now,” who would mail the algebraic notations of chess moves to an opponent for a game he played in his head because “exploiting weakness is more important than pure skill,” who would hang up on my uncle when he was “tired of listening to his bullshit,” who would spend hours on the phone with me when I was 10 playing nonsensical games “because I love you, granddaughter.” 

I wanted to know if he was the man he was because he was Serbian, or just because.

“Stubbornness is a Zoroya trait,” my cousin said. “As is being extremely intelligent and attractive.”

I pressed him.

“I’ve heard those generalizations, but I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve never been to Serbia.”

I didn’t know if I was asking the right questions, but I knew that I wouldn’t find the answers in the United States. 

When I got off the plane in Belgrade, I was alone. I was surrounded by Cyrillic script, but there was some familiarity in the prototypical airport surroundings, the fluorescent lights, the faint smell of bleach, the uncomfortable metal chairs with their faux-leather seats. As I rode the bus to the city center, I tried to describe the landscape in my head. There were plain, concrete block buildings in the brutalism style once popular during Tito’s reign of Yugoslavia. The bus passed large buildings, some governmental structures, built in the more aesthetically pleasing Baroque-style—a holdover from Austro-Hungarian rule. The cityscape wasn’t particularly remarkable—it was ugly even—but I wanted to see the people. From the protective windowpane on the bus, I stared at the people walking on the streets.

Most seemed tall, and they walked with their heads high, instead of staring at the screens of cell phones, and they seemed paired off intimately, two-by-two. When I arrived at my rental apartment, I soon fell asleep on top of the sheets, listening to the start of raindrops, with the window cracked open, imagining I was Noah and deciding which creatures would be saved on the ark. 

When I left the apartment the next morning, I went out to hunt coffee. I was armed with a few key Serbian expressions, including how to order coffee. Domaća kafa, or domestic coffee, is the safest way to order it at a café. This is because in Serbia, the Serbs refer to it as Serbian coffee, the Croats refer to it as Croatian coffee, the Bosnians prefer Bosnian coffee, and so on, throughout the former Yugoslavia. But all countrymen will admit that the coffee has its roots in Turkey. It is a holdover from Ottoman Empire rule, and to call it Turkish coffee, is generally acceptable.

What makes this Turkish-style different from what Westerners picture as coffee is that it’s unfiltered. The coffee is both heated and then served in a džezva, a small, long-handled copper pot filled with the brewed, unfiltered coffee and hot water. A few bubbles should emerge as the džezva is on the stove, but it shouldn’t be boiling. Sugar can also be added during this step, but many prefer it black. Sometimes the coffee is poured from the džezva into a ceramic cup and served this way. I had read many techniques about how to drink this coffee. Some people advised continuously stirring the coffee so that there are no grounds left in the bottom of the cup. Others encouraged leaving the “mud,” the grounds left at the bottom of the cup, to settle. 

I wished my grandfather had taught me how to drink this coffee. As a child, he loved to teach me useful things, like how to tally the totals in a blackjack game or how many brick phone books it would take to prop my head above the steering wheel of his car as we cruised over hills. I felt like an imposter, sure to be caught out, when I visited the café recommended to me by my Airbnb host. 

I sat down and I puzzled over the menu. There were cartoon drawings of various coffees, a tiny cup for espresso, a cappuccino with a portion of milk, a latte with an even larger portion of milk, and so on – all Italian-style espresso drinks. 
 “Domaća kafa?” I asked. 

Ne,” the waiter said, shaking his head. 

After a few minutes of broken Serbian and broken English, I gave up and ordered an iced coffee. 

Perhaps this café was inauthentic.

But this happened again, and again. I started to wonder if the books I’d read that described the emphasis Serbs place on the ritual of drinking Turkish-style coffee were part of some conspiracy—a propaganda campaign to lure unsuspecting foreigners to the Balkans with the promise of unlimited caffeine. It had only been a week, but the impatient American in my head was anxious.

So I made a very un-American decision, a very Balkan decision I’d later learn, that I would stop seeking out coffee, and let the coffee find me.

I still drank coffee, four or five cups of espresso every day—a moderate amount by Serb standards. I still spoke with Serbs, but I stopped asking about coffee. I oscillated between moving—I walked eight, ten, twelve miles each day—and sitting—spending one or two hours at a time in a café, just observing, not using any of the armor that I would at home, like books, or a cell phone, or even a notebook.

In the mornings, I wandered. When a certain café struck my fancy, I stopped and sat down. When you walk up to a restaurant in Serbia, you can sit anywhere. If you inquire about a table’s availability, the waiter will look at you, look around at all the empty tables, look back at you, and then wave his hand to indicate anywhere—you may sit anywhere. If there is a small “Reserved” sign on the table, you should ignore it. There are no reservations.

Once I understood the process, I watched. When an interesting couple would sit down at a table nearby, I would try to interpret conversations using body language and facial expressions—it was surprisingly easy to guess the nature of a relationship—lovers, business partners, friends, acquaintances. When I heard English, I eavesdropped.

One afternoon after walking nearly eight miles along Kneza Mihaila, one of the busiest pedestrian streets in Belgrade, I sat at the first restaurant with an open table outside, Snežana. I was exhausted and hungry, but the place seemed like a touristy restaurant, with a large binder for a menu, so I was skeptical about the food.

I ordered a pizza.

A group of two men and two women were at the table across from mine, speaking an unfamiliar language that wasn’t Slavic. I watched the men drink two bottles of wine, before ordering four large pizzas for the table, and then a round of beers, pivos. The waiter watched them as I did, wondering what they might do or say next, like the lit fuse of a firework.

Heavily-accented English interrupted my imaginings. Two women in their early 20s sat down at the table next to mine, and I listened to their conversation. One of the women lived in Belgrade now, but neither carried themselves with the confidence that Serbian women possessed, women who promenaded on the streets wearing impossibly high heels, flicking their long, dark hair over their shoulders and frowning at men who stare at them.

“You must try the coffee,” the local said to the visitor.

“Is it special?” she asked.

She nodded, and when the waiter appeared, she ordered domaća kafa.

A few minutes later, a copper tray with a džezva appeared, filled with brewed, unfiltered coffee and water, along with two small ceramic cups. As she artfully poured the coffee in the cups, she described the ritual of drinking coffee.
“It’s more than just the coffee,” she said. “It’s a lifestyle here, very important.”

I looked at the table across from mine, and I noticed that the men and women were drinking espressos now, rather sedately. The men spoke softly, so quietly that I couldn’t have understood them even if I spoke their language. The women answered in kind, occasionally raising espresso cups to their mouths where their lipstick stained the white porcelain the color of sangria.

The two women at the other table never ordered any food, but they stayed, talking, until the domaća kafa was cold.

I didn’t order coffee that day, and although I circled the restaurant a few times in the next two days, I never went back while I was in Belgrade. I’d found what I was looking for, but it didn’t seem like it would warm me in the way that I wanted. I was scared that it would just be a cup of coffee, and nothing more, and I needed it to be more.

Rachel Purdy is pursuing an MFA from George Mason University, where she studies creative nonfiction writing. As a recipient of the Alan Cheuse International Writers Center fellowship, Rachel traveled to the Balkans, where she started working on her current project, a memoir about family and identity through the lens of coffee and cafés. She has received support from the Key West Writers’ Workshop and is a 2019 Tin House Scholar. Rachel serves as the editor-in-chief of the literary journal phoebe.

dive in

Evie Shockley

the body, bodies, in a pool of bedding, blue,
                                                a sea of sweat, shared ~ we each slip into some-

            one more comfortable than loneliness, than
                                                                           shame, not easy but something to do with our

                              hands, our mouths, till we can forget, let go ~
                      yet the body remembers when it was twenty-

something, thirty-something, happy to be
                                          stroking, stroked, swimming, limbs pulling,

                                                                      thrashing, toward the o of oblivion ~ these
                           positions still take the body reaching, fluttering,

     grasping, gasping, back to that timeless place, all
                  of it happening in the now, in the mind, a transit

                                                             between mind and (__)it, transport, transferring
a rage of pleasure between us ~ the outrageous

                                                  sound of this joy, the silence at center, we’re
                                                                                in over our heads ~ a body can get carried

                   away in that headiness, i did, and you with me,
                                                swept up in a wave of language and tumbled

Evie Shockley is the author of semiautomatic and the new black, both winners of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in Poetry; semiautomatic was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the LA Times Book Prize. Her publications include as well the critical study Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry. Among her honors are the Stephen Henderson Award, the Holmes National Poetry Prize, and fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the American Council of Learned Societies. She is Professor of English at Rutgers University.

Hexagenia Limbata

Kathryn Nuernberger

This bug with a needle out the back that might be
its stinger or a body’s length of genital or just
the endlessness of an unlikely thorax has translucent
black-leaded wings and picks its way across my table
in this bar, lifting its skinny ass up and down in a way
you’d have to agree is sexy. What shall we call it?
A man I know who likes to read archaic Latin
just came in and didn’t recognize me, so I watched
him walk away in his humble slouch of cargo shorts
and bald head, a little overweight, thinking to myself
that if he were to sit down next to me and read
this passage or that from some very old tract
on Roman property law for no other reason than
he likes what language can do, I would kiss him
up and down his throat and into his mouth, one
sentence at a time. Among other reasons, to help
me forget how earlier today I read the transcripts
of that poor girl’s testimony against a Harvard-bound
ambassador’s son and how she just couldn’t believe
what was happening to her was happening to her,
so she was quiet when he did it, and tried for two days
after to believe she had asked for it and there was
nothing to report. Because how do we live in the world
if it wasn’t our fault? Easier if we should have just
said or done something different. I’ll walk home
alone and tipsy tonight, as my friend who never
even got to testify did, because it’s a great pleasure
to be by yourself, drunk with the night. Though
it’s hard not to think about how she was grabbed
by the throat under just so many stars. She was afraid
and she wanted to get away, so she offered to blow
him instead, because, she said later, we’ve all done
things we didn’t feel like doing just to get it over with.
I’ll remember how I tried to explain this to my dad
once at the end of a long drive. That I too really love
to walk home alone in the dark, but he didn’t get it.
Words never seem to live up to the promise they make us.
Why would I want to do something so stupidly
dangerous? he asks. Another night we were talking
about politics and transvaginal ultrasounds and I said
nonchalantly that I’ve had six of them because once
you’ve had six you can’t help but be nonchalant
about it. He was shocked so I explained it was
the miscarriage and the retained placenta. They call
the thing a wand, but it looks just like a dildo
and the nurse puts a condom on it for hygiene
and practicality. “No need to reinvent the wheel,”
she jokes as she rolls the latex down in front of you.
But since language can’t reinvent what happens
to you, it still feels really screwed up to lay on a table
with a lube-soaked, condom-covered dildo in your body
watching the movie it projects onto a flat screen TV
of your larger-than-life dead baby who isn’t really a baby
or other times it’s just the emptiness inside yourself
the doctor is pointing at. There’s language again,
twisting what is into what isn’t. It was a baby to me—
I don’t expect it to have been to you. This time
my dad is wiping his eyes, I can’t believe it,
but he is. Maybe because, and this hadn’t occurred
to me before, but maybe he loved that child
who never was and maybe because he loves me too.
My stranger with his Latin writes about linguistics
and philology and charmed me once by saying
he likes the puzzle words make, how he can
take them apart and apart and apart and then
reassemble them into a language more familiar
while he drinks alone at this bar in this private life
of his with no woman and no man. All the while
that strange, unknown insect with a body like lace
has been crawling along my arm. I didn’t notice.
Does it even have a mouth at this stage in its life?

Kathryn Nuernberger’s third poetry collection, Rue, is forthcoming in Spring 2020 (BOA).  The End of Pink (BOA, 2016), won the 2015 James Laughlin prize from the Academy of American Poets, and Rag & Bone (Elixir, 2011) won the 2010 Antivenom Prize. A collection of lyric essays, Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (Ohio State University Press, 2017), won the Non/Fiction Prize from The Journal. She teaches in the MFA Program at University of Minnesota and has received grants from the NEA,  American Antiquarian Society and the Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life.

Genealogical Trip to Pulaski, Virginia

L. Renée

The mayfly swarm undulates like the perfect hip
roll, mottled bodies plow brown bodies midair.
Wings fade as fine gossamer in June sun
buoyed by a buzz too quick to be caught
by my eye, which doesn’t want to bear the witnessing:

how nature persists in getting on with it, publicly—
life, sex, death in the span of a day. 
I turn away, overcome by shame. I look through
my Ford’s cracked glass at white mile markers blurring
a black highway. Why does our making always begin

in denial? When I find my great-great grandmother, 
Frances Houndshell in Census records, branded
mulatto and a mother at age 9, I do not wince. I practice
numbness, focus only on getting back to the alpha mama
who owned her own body, her own name, somewhere

off the coast of Ghana or Nigeria, maybe,
where her breath, not her sweat, was enough
currency. In Virginia, it’s common to see the dead
mayflies skip across pavement like flat rocks tossed
sidearmed at a stream’s surface, then lodged 

in sidewalk cracks, among orphaned pebbles, 
sticks and sprigs of grass. I’d rather look 
at uncountable rows of tobacco leaves
which leave me breathless, dizzy even. All those
green ears flap like an elephant’s hello, hang woody

scents heavy through my car vents like next-of-kin
hugs hugged only at family reunions. In death, 
female mayfly lips freeze into an ‘O’ as if readying 
a whistle, as if leaving evidence of ‘no,’ after the males 
give chase, grab their tiny legs, drag them to the ground,

after the mount. It happens like this. Whole lives 
purposed for labor and procreation. Night collects 
her bounty. By daybreak, bodies pile by the hundreds 
on windowsills, in porch corners, in the middle of a passage 
pedestrians stroll between a jail and courthouse. 

The nice white genealogist at the local library tells me 
Frances’ age must be wrong, an error in reporting. 
But I know a nymph can be snatched from her skin, 
molt and molt until she becomes something new,
gains wings, if only for a brief view of the dust 

she will soon call home.

L. Renée is a poet from Columbus, Ohio. She is a second-year MFA candidate at Indiana University, where she serves as the Nonfiction Editor of the Indiana Review and as Associate Director of the Indiana University Writers’ Conference. She is the recipient of scholarships and fellowships to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Minnesota Northwoods Writers Conference, Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, and the Green Mountain Writers Conference. She was awarded a National Silver medal in poetry at the NAACP’s Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics, and a Joseph Pulitzer II and Edith Pulitzer Moore Fellowship from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she earned her MS in Journalism.

Galley Club: Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl

Tin House Staff

A few months ago, we invited a handful of early readers behind-the-scenes for a sneak peek at Jeannie Vanasco’s hotly anticipated memoir, Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl. Carmen Maria Machado says “It’s hard to overstate the importance of this gorgeous, harrowing, heartbreaking book, which tackles sexual violence and its aftermath while also articulating the singular pain of knowing—or loving, or caring for, or having a history with—one’s rapist. Vanasco is whip-smart and tender, open and ruthless; she is the perfect guide through the minefield of her trauma, and ours.” And over in TIME magazine, Laurie Halse Anderson writes that “such a confrontation is bold, unsettling and timely. She wanted to find out how a person who hurts others talks to himself about his actions. If we are ever going to reduce sexual violence, it’s a critically important question.”

Instead of our usual infographics, instead we offered Galley Club members the chance to contribute questions for an exclusive Q&A with Jeannie—after all, this book is meant to be a conversation-starter. Here is what they had to say:

GC: At one point in the book you acknowledge and begin to use the word rape, but only after it’s pointed out to you in various mediums. I wonder: How did the absence of or even deliberate subconscious redaction of this word impact early drafts of this project?

JV: Avoiding the word “rape” made approaching Mark and listening to his explanations a lot easier for me. And since I wrote the book in real time—letting my writing and research stages coincide—I resisted revising earlier sections by inserting the word. That would have felt dishonest, since early on I couldn’t bring myself to use it.

GC: You mention that writing your first book helped alleviate some of the guilt you felt after your father’s death. Did you have a similar experience in finishing Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl? If so, why do you think that is? If not, how was finishing this different?

JV: That Mark affirmed my memory of the rape, confessed that he knew what he was doing was wrong while he was doing it but did it anyway, and acknowledged that real pain had been inflicted—all of that helped alleviate the guilt I’d felt about the rape. Part of the research process involved talking about it with my therapist and my friends. Those relationships were essential to my processing what had happened.

GC: How did you emotionally decompress after the conversations with“Mark”? Did you have to take breaks in writing?

JV: I swam laps (occasionally screaming underwater). I gardened. I played with my cats. Maybe I should have taken more breaks than I actually did. But writing this book became an obsession. I wrote it in eight months. At a certain point, I wanted to get it over with.

GC: I was really invested in Hannah’s role in the story due to similar backgrounds. What advice can you give towards young women writers that you wish you heard in college?

JV: I know this can be tough advice to follow, but let yourself write badly. Don’t worry about sounding literary. Focus on telling the truth. And if writing about a traumatic subject interferes too much with your mental health, step away from the project. Find a friend you can talk to about it. The writing can wait.

GC: What take away would you hope that male readers who consider themselves “Nice Guys” take away from reading about your trauma?

JV: I hope they talk to boys about sexism and consent. I hope they have deep conversations with other men, strategizing ways to stop sexual violence (ways that don’t involve causing more violence). More generally, it’s essential that men talk about their feelings with other men. Too often they rely on women to do the emotional labor.

GC: How important was form in telling this story? Did you always know you wanted to use transcript and dialogue or did it take a while to discover that a balance of other voices and inner monologues felt most honest and genuine?

JV: I knew early on that if Mark spoke to me, I’d want to include transcripts of our conversations. However, I thought they needed breathing room. And I needed breathing room. Taking breaks between transcribing the conversations helped me perform a close reading on what Mark and I talked about. It also gave me a chance to talk to my friends about Mark’s answers. My friends offered such great insight and analysis. I could not have written this book without them. They pointed out my impulse to comfort Mark. That impulse seemed worth exposing and analyzing, and I wanted the structure to reflect that.

GC: Besides wanting to bring awareness and dialogue through exploration around the “nice guy trope” and exploring the idea of societal expectations that are placed on rape victims, what else did you want to get out of this project?

JV: I wanted to show that there is no one way for a sexual assault survivor to respond to sexual violence. We don’t all think, feel, or act the same. I wanted to put the focus on the perpetrator’s actions. I’m so tired of people focusing on what a survivor could have done differently to prevent or stop an assault. This book was my means of understanding and talking about sexual assault by shifting the focus back on the abuser by interrogating him on my terms.

GC: Did you find it was therapeutic to write or did it make you think about the assault more than you wanted to?

JV: Writing this ultimately was therapeutic. I didn’t expect it to be. But connecting my thoughts and feelings to the event—and to my processing of the event—proved essential to feeling better and to crafting a better book.

GC: Did you, or were you tempted to, ask other women who knew Mark about their experiences with him? Or did you always remain clear that you wanted the story to be just about you and him?

JV: I wanted the story to remain focused on Mark and me. I considered contacting his sister, but I decided that it was important for him to take that step and tell his family what he did. He hasn’t yet—not that I know of anyway. Once he does that, I think I can fully forgive him. A big part of apologizing is making that apology public to the people in one’s community. In this instance, it’d be his family. I lost my relationship with his family. He knows that. And I think he knows it’s the next step in the forgiveness process. He did recently email me to say that if his family reads the book “so be it.” He believes, or said he believes, he’s protecting them, but really he’s protecting himself—and protecting men in general. Because the more we go on thinking that certain men are incapable of sexual assault, the harder it will be for more survivors to come forward.

And here are what our Galley Club readers took away from the book:

What was your favorite quote from Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl?

  • “The term shouldn’t matter, but of course it matters. The FBI revised its definition of rape because language matters.”
  • “I want readers to meet one of these guys, to think, I’m probably friends with one of these guys without realizing it. Also, I don’t want readers to focus so much on me that they think about what I could have done differently to prevent or stop the assault. I want readers to hear Mark say, I knew what I was doing was abhorrent.”
  • “I treated men how I treated literature: I feared misinterpreting their intentions.”
  • “What stories do the men tell themselves? Is rape an aside for most of them?”
  • “If he could photograph that night, would be blur it? Where would he blur it? My memory is blurry. There are gaps.”
  • “Memories are built to fade, or maybe the brain is built to forget. But the memory of that night still belongs to me. I wonder how his memory is different.”
  • “I want him to become beside the point. I want him in the past. I want the narrator to reappropriate her own narrative”
  • “There’s nothing original about my story, and that’s the point.”
  • “The point of this project is to show what seemingly nice guys are capable of.”
  • “I doubt he needs praise. And I don’t believe he deserves it. His participation in this project really is the least he could do”
  • “But I have such great female friendships now, and a lot of that is because we’re so open with one another. We confide in one another. We help one another through tough situations.”

After reading Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl, what should someone read next?

  • Educated by Tara Westover
  • Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino
  • A False Report: A True Account of Rape in America by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong
  • Truth is Fragmentary by Gabrielle Bell
  • Men and Apparitions by Lynne Tillman
  • And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell
  • Three Women by Lisa Taddeo
  • anything by Michelle Tea

Thanks to our wonderful Galley Club members for joining us in conversation about Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was A Girl. Interested in being part of Galley Club? We’ll announce the next Galley Club on social media soon, with instructions on how to apply!

Graphics by Jakob Vala, Q&A by Masie Cochran.

Grief #913

Saeed Jones

I grieve the boy I killed and the country fashioned out
of his blood stains. I grieve that it was so easy. The knife,
lazy and confident, invading him. This is what love feels like.
I grieve that he believed me. Dumb animal, doe-eyed, ready-made
gift, just another border outlined in barbed wire and crime scene chalk.
I grieve that, even then, I already knew I’d do it again, again, again,
again. I grieve a continent, nations united by the way terror turns
me on, the hot instant between thrust and gasp, “I want you”
and “I had you.” Again, again, again, again. I grieve my face
onto the covers of history books. I grieve the descendants,
dumb animals, dead-eyed, ready-made gifts. This is what love
requires. I grieve that they still believe me.

Saeed Jones is the author of Prelude to Bruise, winner of the 2015 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry and the 2015 Stonewall Book Award/Barbara Gittings Literature Award. The poetry collection was also a finalist for the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as awards from Lambda Literary and the Publishing Triangle in 2015. His memoir How We Fight For Our Lives is forthcoming October 2019 from Simon & Schuster. 

As Close as We Dare

Gwendolyn Paradice

When we arrive at the airport and wait for our minibus, we tell stories about multi-headed goats standing in the crooks of trees. About plants twisting their limbs and leaves to mimic the DNA of viruses. About bodies, and how they are frail, and susceptible, and only ours until they belong to age, or science, or the millions of mundane accidents that can maim, reshape, melt, or destroy.

When we get in the vehicle we drive for hours. Through old borders of old countries. Through fields that have not grown crops for more than one hundred years. Through a town that is like a body whose mind had left, all the people emptied out to cities: larger bodies, better bodies, healthier bodies, or if not healthier, at least more inviting.

When we get to the checkpoint with the sign that reads

CHERNOBYL

we sigh. Sit up straighter in our seats. Cup our hands against glass as we bump over ill-kept roads, the kinds too expensive to maintain, the kinds no one repairs because, who, in this day and age, cares about disaster’s memory?

We ask each other, can a relic be a novelty? And the answer, by consensus, is yes.

We listen to stories told by our tour guide. Grim tales of a warning we no longer need to heed. He says, we are lucky to have advanced. To have found new forms of energy. He says, people didn’t used to care, and we nod agreement. We listen to stories about bodies that wither. We listen to stories about stories: old television shows and movies that capitalized on (but informed about, too) catastrophe. We listen to stories about sarcophagi and instead of thinking about those who died, we imagine them alive. We imagine 4,000 people hefting with the inhuman strength of desperation the concrete and steel, and then pouring out from under it into the wilderness that had claimed this space.

The guide tells us, no more lives will have to be lost. He stresses the word have. He tells us, this is why we have robots, and we do not think of the programs and bodies who replace the sarcophagus. We think of the creatures in our homes: the dogs that don’t shit on lawns, the Kitchenmate that never burns the toast, the Laundrybot that even when it malfunctions, at least perfumes the house with a scent of our choosing. We nod our heads and agree that the value of human life has been appropriately calculated. Thank goodness we’ve evolved, we say.

When we exit the vehicle near the fence, the guide tells us the elephant’s foot—the remains of the reactor—is radioactive for 20,000 years. While we stand, and sit, and crouch, we try to find the best way of looking through the rows of thick, wire fence. We try to see the beyond, what normal-looking trees and foliage are hiding. We ask, what is the half-life of a sign, because it reads, in a language we subvocalize to our comms, DANGER> BANNED> RADIATION, and like the sarcophagus, it will need to be replaced, again, and again, and again. He tells us, laughing, that signs don’t have half-lives. He tells us the half-life of the metals comprising the sign are much longer than the 19,000 years we still need to wait out. He says, this sign will be here long afterwards, and we nod our heads.

But.

We want to see more. We do not like the term exclusion zone, because exclusion carries too many connotations.

We press against the fence. One of us wiggles a finger through, and the fence takes it: cauterizes to the bone with us staring at a blackened joint. The guide says, this is as close as we dare.

But he is wrong. Afterall, he is just a robot.

This is as close as we dare, he repeats when one of us pulls a rope and hook from her backpack, throws the rubber coated claw upward, and begins to scale the fence.

He says, I wouldn’t do that, and we scoff. We hit him in the head with the rods we have hidden in our bags and watch his metal crack and bend. We watch something like plasma leak from exposed wires.

We travel the length of the fence, hackerchips on our fingertips. We place them at intervals and the bravest of us drops to the other side, where she lands, on hands and knees, on grass that cushions her fall and we smile.

As close as we dare, we mock, pulling our own ropes and hooks.

***

We say, when we get sick—when our bodies weaken in the ways science cannot yet repair—they will confuse what we’ve done with stupidity.

But when we are uploaded into new bodies, we will be able to carry this memory. We will travel on new legs and spread an old gospel. We know some will call us crazy, a cult, relics, but as we’ve already decided: a relic can be a novelty, and a novelty can be marketed, and to be marketed means to be visible, which is what this place is not, forgotten as it is, a blip on a map, foliage too dense even for drones.

When we are on stage, we will invite them all to come as close as they dare, to see the revolution of remembering. We will let them finger our sockets and peel back our skin. We will let them plug into our memories of sickness and slow decay. Some will be angry that they have died once—with us—and must now die again. But some will come to understand—when they put their palms on our chests and feel the emptiness inside, waiting for the thump thump thump that never comes—that there is always suffering, because the past is not the past, but simply the slow heartbeat of the future.

Gwendolyn Paradice is hearing impaired, queer, and a member of the Cherokee Nation. Her writing has earned nominations for both the Pushcart and Best American Essays, and her nonfiction, fiction, and poetry have appeared in Assay, Crab Orchard Review, Brevity, Fourth River, Booth, and others; her short story collection, More Enduring for Having Been Broken, was the 2019 Black Lawrence Press Husdon Prize winner, and is forthcoming January 2021. She retains a MA in Nonfiction from the University of North Texas, an MFA from Bennington College, and is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Missouri, where she lives with her partner. When she’s not weightlifting, playing video games, or trying to read all the books she’s amassed, she writes speculative fiction, nontraditional nonfiction, and bends genre.

To Put It Neatly

Katie Simon

editor’s note—cw: rape, suicide, self-harm

I climb up five flights of stairs to Sameer’s apartment, an empty space enclosed by straight-shot views of the Prudential tower in downtown Boston. I sip red wine from a meticulously rinsed whiskey glass then lead Sameer up a narrow flight of stairs to his lofted bedroom. He has tucked the corners of his bedspread deep beneath his mattress. I strip down and climb on top of him and come hard and soft, my cheeks flushed.

Our arrangement started with a URL. My friend Sarah opened my barely-used Tinder app and swiped while we watched Voldemort commit murder via Netflix. She matched me with Sameer, who, like most Tinder guys, asked me about the writing I mentioned in my profile. “I’d love to read something you’ve written,” he typed. Before I could stop her, Sarah sent Sameer a link to my most recent publication in a women’s magazine, “This Is What It’s Like To Have Sex After Being Raped: One Woman’s Story.”

I started the article with a faint outline of a shallow-breathing panic attack. To put it neatly, I froze, deer in the headlights. In the article I put a lot of things neatly. I wrote that I was raped by a stranger, but not the feel of his prickly beard against my thigh, the darkness of the alleyway so thick I could barely breathe. I wrote about the years it took to rehabilitate my sex life—but only about the panic attacks that didn’t escalate, or the ones soothed by my partners’ unexpected kindnesses. I wrote the cleanest, neatest copy I could, something that would fit between an article about Christmas-themed workouts, eleven things you didn’t know about condoms, and the difference between Mercury in retrograde and Mercury in retroshade.

I wrote to the edge of what I knew they would be willing to publish.

“Sarah!” I chastise, but the link has been sent, and I laugh at the dark humor. Sameer would get what he asked for: a part of me.

But Sameer responds better than I expected—that is, he actually responds, which is also more than I expected. “You’re very brave,” he writes. “You’re helping more people than you probably know.”

***

I’d written small, well-lacquered sentences for that piece. I chose to write about a select few experiences in the perky women’s publication because I wanted the thesis, the main idea—it can get better, it happens to all rape victims, you are not alone—to reach more people. But glossed over like the shiny pages of the magazine that prints these stories, those experiences lose their depth, their meaning, their truth.

The fifth time Sameer and I sleep together, I glance at the Eye of Horus tattoo on his bicep, which at first seemed kind of dumb until I remembered that it’s supposed to be a symbol of protection, and then I liked it. Distracted by the Eye, I forget to breathe for a moment.

One moment of suspended breath.

One moment of breathlessness is reminder enough, a reminder of my own breathlessness during the rape, a reminder of my rapist’s heavy breathing.

I stop moving on top of Sameer. He freezes. “Are you going to throw up?” he asks and twists to pick up the trashcan next to his bed.

I am not going to throw up. I am going to implode. I wrote in my article of my early attempts to have sex post-rape, I was trying to avoid the panic, to fight my body. Tonight, though, it is already too late; the fight has begun. Already my fists are clenched, my fingernails pressed tight into my skin, pools of bruise-blood gathering beneath the surface.

“No, no, don’t worry,” I lie to Sameer, because the panic attack that is starting makes me afraid of what a man can do to me. In my mind I see an alleyway, pitch dark, and the silhouette of a man I don’t recognize. In reality, I am in a dimly-lit bedroom and intimately familiar with the unshadowed face of the man before me. I tell Sameer, “don’t worry,” over and over again until, minutes later, I leave. “Don’t worry,”—a central message of my article, don’t worry, we are all in this together, don’t worry. Or are we? Not everybody experiences panic related to sex; most people have not been raped. Can stories bridge this gap, dissolve this isolation?

I remember that my clothes are on the other side of his apartment. The bathroom is closer; I slam the door behind me as I flip the only light switch my fingers can find in the dark. The shower light turns on. Fluorescence pours from behind its glass door across the cold white tiles. I remember the times I have run into bathrooms before, trying to calm down, trying to sanitize something messy inside me so that I can explain it to the men I choose to sleep with. I widen my eyes at the sight of myself in the bathroom mirror as if doing so will help me sense danger that isn’t there. My eyes are shot through with red.

I give Sameer a watered down smile as I slip my body out of the bathroom and tell him, again, “Don’t worry.” As my shaking hands pull layers of cotton and denim and polyester over my limbs and torso, tugging cloth against skin now covered with goosebumps, I tell him, “I’m fine.” I look at him one last time, tears still streaming down my cheeks and around the corners of my jaw. “I’m okay.” I move toward the door and snatch my dirty socks off his living room floor. I carry them with me, palm sweat dampening the warm knit cloth, but I do not stop to put them on.

I try to open the door of Sameer’s apartment, but it is deadbolted, and in that moment I can’t solve a problem as complex as a door with more than one lock, and I slam the deadbolt against the doorframe over and over. Sameer edges past me in the hallway with his palms held up—he is innocent—and rotates it for me. He does not speak, but later I would wonder more specifically about what he was thinking. Was he worried about me, about himself? Did he worry he had caused this? Was he worried how I would describe this?

***

In my article I wrote about the good men, the things they have said that have calmed me. I wrote about my ex, whom I rebuffed mid-hookup, and who, rather than pressuring me, smiled and said, “I don’t want to have sex with you when you don’t want to have sex; why would I want to do that?”

In my article I did not write about men like Sameer, who asked me just one question when he saw me sobbing outside his apartment door: “Can you go down to the lobby? I don’t want you to wake my neighbors.” That is the kind of conversation that I scrubbed out of the article—one that complicates something already complicated enough.

There is so much more than what made it into the magazine article.

I feel panic-sweat oozing out of my hands, feel the brain-like creases of the balled-up socks against palm. I carry my socks in my right hand and my shoes in my left until I am halfway down his stairs, halfway to the promise of an empty midnight street, and slip them on. When facing a panic attack, I am buried deep within myself, unreachable, untouchable. Can my story really make anybody feel less alone?

I jog through sheets of rain, down empty residential streets lined with brownstones like his, angling for the 7-Eleven I know will be open at this hour, the one I know sells cigarettes, the promise of air. In smiling daylight hours, these cashiers ID me. They do not ID the crying midnight girl, soaked with rain, a torn fake leather jacket tugged on so that the shirt beneath has bunched into a knot against her back.

I pass a man and a woman as I walk down an alleyway in the rain, the air I’ve inhaled through my cigarette rushing through me, air I could not access for that one terrifying moment in Sameer’s apartment. I wonder how a woman I pass feels about being there. I know what can happen in alleyways. I wonder how drunk she is. I wonder if she is okay. But I know I would never stop to check, never stop for her. How could I help? How could anything I say, anything I write, help anyone? I run.

I dial friends’ phone numbers one after the other, friends across time zones, anybody who will pick up. But nobody does. I text the friend I used to sleep with. I want him to answer the question that is overwhelming my mind: Am I too fucked up to live? It is a question I have ruminated on for more time than any of the hopeful memories I shared in the article I wrote.

I stop at the base of the Four Seasons driveway across from Boston Common. It is one of the most well-lit outdoor spots in all of Boston. There is a smoker’s pole. I finish my cigarette and know that I have to go home.

I order a $40 Lyft for a thirteen-minute ride back to my apartment. I slide into the back seat, put my headphones in, and press play on Spotify. The same Sam Smith song, “Pray,” that I listened to on my way to Sameer’s apartment comes on, and I feel how very, very different it sounded then compared to now.

***

I walk into my apartment, braced for explaining my tear-streaked face to my roommate, simultaneously desperate to talk to her, still sobbing silently. I remember that she is at her date’s apartment, that she is likely having sex. I remember the things she has told me about her sex life, the positive things, nothing wrong with it. I wrote my article for a general readership so I pretended like my problems with sex were relevant to all people: Everybody walks into a sexual interaction with their own histories—some may be more violent than others, but nobody is really spared. We all struggle with self-esteem, or body image, or trauma. But really I believe what my roommate told me about her positive sexual encounters; really I believe that only people who have been raped feel like me. Only some people feel this way, react how I react to sex, and my roommate is not one of those people. No matter how her night went, it did not include a panic attack like mine.

I stare at myself in my full-length mirror, look at my puffy eyes and cheeks, the veins of my eyeballs bright red, making my green eyes appear greener. But I am not calming down. I am imagining picking up a serrated knife and criss cross stabbing the veins in my left wrist, of stabbing my stomach with the chef’s knife I use to chop up onions and apples in warmer, lighter hours of the day. I am considering suicide in a specific and urgent way, an urge that only comes after sex.

The facts of my article were right, but the tone was all wrong. After the rape but before I had sex again, I thought of myself as two people: terrified-of-guys-Katie and constantly-horny-Katie. But I didn’t write about the explosiveness of that kind of internal tension, the potential for disaster, the inevitability of disaster.

There is nothing that makes me feel more fucked up than pleasure.

I set my alarm so I will wake up in time for the breakfast I promised to have with my family, too few hours from then. I know I will not be calm at breakfast. I know I will yell at somebody, cry. I know the panic attack will find its way into my relationships, will not stay restrained within me.

Panic attacks are not contained to their triggering incident. I know this panic attack, seconds in the making, will be days in the dissolving. I know I will need to sleep eleven hours a night, multiple nights in a row, just to relax the sore muscles from the panic-induced muscle spasms, to relax my sore mind. The panic attack infiltrates the rest of my life, forcibly, unforgivingly, horribly.

***

I opened the article with For the most part, research on, stories about, and discussions of sexual violence didn’t touch on one of the most significant struggles I was dealing with—sex after rape. I pitched the piece as a true story, and the facts of it were accurate. But they were a narrow selection of a much broader conversation. I didn’t write about the suicidality or the deep sense of unbelonging or the shame that sometimes knocked me into bed for days after post-rape sexual interactions.

I wake up the morning after I ran from Sameer’s apartment and untangle my legs from the nightmare-induced straightjacket they have kicked into existence, and realize I still want to kill myself. I know this is not true of some friends who have been raped. I know some of them panic, but some of them freeze. I know some of them do not struggle much with sex. I know that though suicidality is more common in rape victims, it is not universal. Can one rape victim’s story really stand in for all the rest?

Somehow, persistent throughout that day and the ones that follow, there is the knowledge that no matter how limited in scope, the article was still a good idea. There is the specific kind of hopelessness that accompanies the realization that a tiny microdose of near-false hope is all that corporate America can stomach from me.

I text Sameer to prove that even though I lost control, I can gain it back with words. “Just wanted to clarify that you didn’t do anything wrong, but sometimes I have panic attacks related to sex.” I lock the phone’s screen but stare at its notification light, waiting.

“Makes sense,” he writes back. Sameer had read the article, after all. He can comprehend the basic reason this panic attack happened. But does he really understand it? Without having experienced such a loss of corporeal and mental control himself, can he ever really understand? Without men in dark alleyways hiding in the corners of his mind, of his world, can he ever really empathize? Reined in by a mainstream magazine editor’s delete button, can the stories I write change the conversation?

Sameer writes back nothing else; I think I have my answer.

And though his inadequate reaction leaves me frustrated and tearing up, those two words of his text—makes sense—do, in a way, fulfill my article’s basic goal: to help people make sense of pain like mine. But I remember the feeling of the sweaty, balled up socks in my fist, and the article feels inadequate, too.

Katie Simon’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Lily, BuzzFeed, The Washington Post, The Rumpus, Narratively, and elsewhere. She studied creative writing at New York University, University of East Anglia in England, and the Grub Street Memoir Incubator in Boston. Katie is working on a memoir about why she kept traveling despite violence, illness, and revolution. @katiewsimon

Swamps

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
translated by Ryan Choi

Swamp I

On a rainy afternoon, at an art exhibition at the Academy Hall, I discovered a miniature oil painting in the corner of one of the rear galleries. To say that I discovered it is not an understatement—the painting was shoddily framed and hung out of sight in the worst possible light as if meant to be forgotten or shunned. It was called “The Swamp,” and its style was as unfamiliar to me as the artist’s name. Perhaps because the work was minute in size and the subject matter superficially clichéd with its imagery of floods, thickening mud, wild foliage and the like, I saw no one stop in front of it, much less even begin to appreciate what a remarkable achievement that it was: the artist, for one, used no green on the plants; the common reeds, poplars, and figs were a viscous yellow that was textured like wet wall plaster. At first, I couldn’t decide if the painting represented the artist’s perception as it was, or if it was a kind of caricature of it. I admired his nuances of line and shade, and became convinced that the painting could only have been done by someone with a visionary eye: it had frightening power, but one that revealed itself only by degrees. I was entranced by the foreground mud, the intricate yellows of the plants, feeling myself inside the scene, ankle deep in smooth dense mud, the sounds of my treading feet. In this modestly sized oil, the unknown artist demonstrated a command of nature on par with the canonical greats. Of all the paintings on display that rainy afternoon, some by the most celebrated masters of our time, none approached the eminence of “The Swamp.”

“You’re his number one fan,” a voice announced with sarcastic intimacy, and a hand clapped on my shoulder, shaking me from the sanctum of my thoughts. I turned toward the man, and recognized him as the art critic for one of the papers. I had spoken with him on a few occasions and had never cared for him.

“What’s so special about it?” the critic said, pointing at the swamp with the tip of his manicured beard. He wore on his spry body a brown suit cut to figure in a style that was ubiquitous at the time, and he conducted himself snobbishly, with the calculated grace of a man who believes in his infallibility. I addressed him with extreme reluctance. 

“It’s a masterpiece,” I said.

“A masterpiece? It’s interesting, I’ll concede that.” 

He erupted in laughter. I could see his belly punching the inside of his shirt. Some people glared at us, thinking that we were a pair, which magnified my antipathy.

“It’s a fascinating story, since it’s the only painting in the exhibition that’s not by a member of the Academy. The artist used to come in all the time and pester the office about showing his work. No one took him seriously of course, and then one day he stopped coming and everyone forgot about him until his family began showing up in his place with his paintings in tow, making the same request. And their persistence paid off, the Academy finally relented and accepted this one, whatever their motives, as long as the family didn’t mind it hanging back here.” 

“Is the artist dead?”

“Dead when he was living.”

“What do you mean?” I said, more curious now than miffed.

“He went mad, haven’t you heard?”

“He was mad when he did this painting?”

“Obviously yes.” The volume of his voice had spiked. 

“No sound mind paints colors this detached from reality. But we disagree. You say this painting is a masterpiece. For me that’s perplexing.”

He chuckled pompously. He seemed to think that I was ashamed of not knowing the backstory of the work, and more so he tried to exploit my ignorance by imposing his viewpoint on me. But his words were ineffectual. I was arrested with wonder again by the swamp, and my vision of the artist as a petulant man, tormented by anxieties and an exquisite eye for the light.

The critic rested his case, sharpening his look of self-belief, “The man went mad by attrition, from his inability to get the images from his head onto the canvas. Say what you like, but this is the nature of the work that you prize.” 

His lame assessment was the artist’s only recompense from the establishment for a work that had cost his sanity. I peered further into the swamp, and had a feeling again of unsettling clarity, seeing there the turbid waters and skies, the common reeds, poplars, and figs textured like pulpy yellow mud, and as dynamic as nature itself. 

I looked at the critic and repeated myself. 

“It’s a masterpiece.”

April 1919

Swamp II

Walking on the bank of the swamp—

I don’t know if it’s night or day. I hear the wail of the blue herons, see the watery light of dusk leaking through the canopy, the shadows of the creeping vines, the swamp brimming with towers of reeds. No motion in the water or the floating duckweeds, no ripples from the fish.

I don’t know if it’s night or day. 

I have walked on this bank for days, my body drinking cold dawn light, the stench of bog and reed. The frogs in the branches of the vine-swathed trees croak in turn at the dim star glow.

Walking on the bank of the swamp—

The swamp brimming with towers of reeds. 

It is said that a world once existed in the reeds—even now, I believe, this world exists. I hear its strange and lovely vestiges, songs on the air from L’invitation au Voyage. Only where are the nectary scents of the Sumatran forget-me-nots in the bog and reed?

I don’t know if it’s night or day. In search of this world, I have walked for days among the vine-swathed trees in a state of waking dream. Flourishing around me, the towers of reeds, bound by boundless swamp, which I must enter to find the forget-me-nots.

Wading in, I come upon the gnarled torso of an ancient weeping willow looming above the reeds. From the tree, I can dive into the swamp, into that strange and lovely world of dreams. 

I climb the trunk of the tree, and at the top I throw myself headfirst into the swamp. On my descent, I hear the chanting reeds, the murmuring waters, and the frogs gasping as I break through the duckweeds and my body sinks like a stone to the swamp floor, the image of infinite little green flames flashing and flitting around me.

I don’t know if it’s night or day.

Velvet mud entombs my body, immaculately blue waters eddy around me. 

There is no strange and lovely world. By whom was I deceived? Was it myself or the swamp nymph singing L’invitation au Voyage?

A slender green shoot grows from the dead man’s lips, punctures the surface and continues skyward, blossoming into a glorious white waterlily above the reeds and reek of duckweed.

Perhaps this is the world that I was looking for—

The musing corpse, its eternal gaze at the pearlescent waterlily.

March 1920

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927), born in Tokyo, Japan, was the author of more than 350 works of fiction and non-fiction. Japan’s premier literary award for emerging writers, the Akutagawa Prize, is named after him.

Ryan Choi lives in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, where he was born and raised. His work appears in New England Review, Harper’s, BOMB, New York Tyrant, The Yale Review, and elsewhere.

“Guillotine” and “Even the ghosts”

Nicky Beer

Guillotine

Pictorial Webster’s: A Visual Dictionary of Curiosities

In the illustration, the executioner stands
furthest back. The condemned stoops with hands
bound behind. There are two other figures:
a man pushing the prisoner towards the grim
apparatus, and a priest in a frock, his back to us.
In the foreground a coffin has been laid.
You can spot the soft hint of a wicker basket
on the guillotine’s far side. The whole scene
readied for the schoolhouse is so neatly done
the clouds’ inked lines seem to promise
a kind of steadiness, as if you could safely
walk on them . . . I could say something
about history being a terrible blade. Or perhaps
it’s the raised crucifix in the priest’s right hand,
the ineffective witness. But the truth is
it’s the basket, its bloodstains crosshatched
just out of view, still fresh enough to raise the scent
of iron to the condemned when they kneel
as the student’s head bends to the page.

Even the ghosts

Even the ghosts of police need
something to do. They take careful
inventories of the insects trespassing
our ears as we sleep. They surveil
the silent, splayed footprints of raccoons.
They are threatened by the rain, its sheer
numbers. A soul is trapped in a plastic bag
and must be duly interrogated. There
are too many windows in this city, say
the ghosts of police. Too many
tire tracks trapped in high branches,
too many red lights cut open.
The ghosts of police cannot play
music, cannot remember the feeling
of their own hands brushing against
their necks. They leap out of our faucets
and command us to stop. They pull
their hands out of their empty pockets
over and over.
                                 And the moon turns away
from us all, shows us the cold target of its back.

Nicky Beer is the author of The Octopus Game (2015) and The Diminishing House (2010), both winners of the Colorado Book Award for Poetry. Her honors include an NEA, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, and a scholarship and fellowship from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She is an associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver, where she is a poetry editor for Copper Nickel.