Pipe Dream

Joni Renee Whitworth

I woke up most Saturdays of 1999 in faded flannel sheets. The alarm went off at 5:15 a.m., but I usually snoozed it a few times due to the cold: a pervasive, wet Oregon chill that breezed through our 1880s farmhouse and left a dewy sheen on the wallpaper. My dad would drive us over backcountry roads dusted with frost, past filbert orchards and nurseries that grew starter trees for Home Depot. Saturday mornings he took me to the local community center for a sliding scale ballet class.

The promise of dance is a channeling. I think he knew I had that rage, that if I didn’t find an outlet, I’d start to turn it on myself. Ballet class was warm, full of sunrises and two-name girls: Susie Mae, Sarah Jo, Lee Ann, and our teacher, Maggie Jane.

Maggie Jane wasn’t a renowned dancer. I wouldn’t say, for example, that she ever competed outside county lines or performed at a wider venue than the hanger at the state fair. I still remember Rachmaninoff bouncing diagonally off panels of rusted steel siding, all the way down to the blue ribbon steer yard, diagonal like the lines she’d draw in the air with her sinewy calves. Maggie Jane was an unpredictable performer making work steeped in erratic movement. You couldn’t call her choreography nuanced, but I loved her for her jutting rhythms, sharp lyricism, and stringent economy of movement. She was a good teacher, blasting Tchaikovsky loud enough to drown out the insecurities racking our preteen bodies. Maggie Jane didn’t mind my chubby knees, how I stomped across her maple floorboards and mashed powdered rosin on my toes to keep from slipping, how I started class red and got redder.

After class she’d bang out the door and smoke half a pack on the sidewalk, waiting for some date or another to come pick her up, and we’d wait for parents. Our county was mostly about waiting. Once before we drove away, she motioned for my dad to roll down the window of our Ford and slapped her hand on the frame. “You got a young gun here, buddy,” she said, one hand on her hip, “a live one, a real handful.” Handful. My wife calls me that when I’m bad at parties. “Too candid,” she’ll chide on the drive home, “you have to learn. Let them have their social graces.” Aw, but people should say how it really is, not, “Hand me that tin of butter cookies,” pounding spiked nog like, “those sequins bring out your eyes.” Not fake like they aren’t still angry you didn’t lay down your fair share of the bill at Gino’s. I’m learning to move through it. Channeling. Maggie Jane taught me that, and other things: brisk steps, the confidence to make moves on a stage, to coordinate my own and foreign bodies.

She had these three towhead brats, all of whom refused to take ballet. They’d read Goosebumps in the corner and dump out rosin tins, turn her purse upside down and hunt for gum, orange pill bottles scattered at their feet. If they swept up dust bunnies after class, Maggie Jane’d give them each a quarter. Loose curls all over the hardwood. In any room full of girls you’re bound to get hair on the floor — little whispers, dropped secrets.

One Saturday morning, Sarah Jo, Lee Ann, and Susie Mae were lined up outside the community center, hanging over the railing of the stairwell. 

“Door’s locked,” Lee Ann called down, shivering in her leotard. This was before cell phones. We just hung around. Knocked a few more times. 

“I guess no class today,” Susie Mae shrugged after thirty minutes or so.

We walked down the street to the bikini barista. Candice was tall and pretty and worked in a little A-frame hut with a sign out front that said BABES R US. She slid open the window and leaned out with her big fake tits and a busted lip. “Mornin!” We ordered three cocoas and a muffin top, stretching up to reach the counter and lay out our couple extra bucks because Dad said you gotta tip them well, “It’s not as easy as they make it look.” 

Candice always took her time opening the hot chocolate packets, stirring the powder. God, she was good. Swiss Miss separates into these little round balls. You have to really get in there, whisk it around. The winter sun lit her up like the Madonna as she asked how much water I wanted, and it’s important because if you fill it to the top, it lasts longer, but the flavor’s all muted. Or you can keep it low in the paper cup and get rich, creamy drinking chocolate. I was torn. I was ten.

Maggie Jane overdosed on OxyContin. That’s why she wasn’t there to unlock the door that morning. I don’t know why they did open casket, maybe to put a head on a pike. Always trying to teach us a lesson. Maybe if we tried a little harder. She had these tracks on her forearms, mouth caving in like she was still sucking down a cigarette. Most parents would have sheltered their child from a coffin like that, but my dad had this way about him — wanting me to say how it really was. Maggie Jane’s kids went into the foster system that same day.

I didn’t recognize the social worker with her cropped boots and winged liner; she must have been from Town.

Joni Renee Whitworth is an artist and writer from rural Oregon. They have performed at The Moth, the Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts, and the Museum of Contemporary Art alongside Marina Abramovic. They teach poetry at the MacLaren Correctional Facility in Woodburn, Oregon, in partnership with the Morpheus Youth Project. Whitworth was selected as the inaugural Artist in Residence at Portland Parks and Recreation and Poet in Residence for Oregon State University’s Trillium Project. Their work is funded by the Regional Arts and Culture Council. Their writing explores themes of nature, future, family, and the neurodivergent body, and has appeared in Lambda Literary, Oregon Humanities, Proximity Magazine, Seventeen Magazine, Eclectica, Pivot, SWWIM, Smeuse, Superstition Review, xoJane, Inverted Syntax, Unearthed Literary Journal, Sinister Wisdom, Dime Show Review, and The Write Launch.

The Geographical Cure

JP Gritton

Only in hindsight would that summer of borrowed things appear full of disaster—at the time, we experienced it as a series of hilarious anecdotes. That night at the end of June, for instance, how the bumper of a borrowed car kissed Mrs. O’Rourke’s mailbox and sent the thing toppling over into the wash. Or that night, end of July, how we tossed the burning nubbin of a cigarette into that very wash to set the prairie grass ablaze. There was bad drought that year, we might’ve set the whole Front Range on fire, but that’s what garden hoses are for (we borrowed the neighbor’s, who never missed it).

There were three of us—MicahDevinMe—and we were about to become college dropouts. Devin had stumbled into some kind of inheritance, and Micah had stumbled into this sweet house-sitting gig, and I had stumbled into unemployment. We borrowed our cigarettes from perfect strangers and our booze and our pills from the cabinets of houses we didn’t live in. As for our accents, we’d flat-out stolen them from such films as Patriot Games and Far and Away. Twisted on secondhand Percs and pillaged wine, we relished the taste of borrowed words in our mouths:

“How much do you reckon it’ll cost us, loik? Replacin’ the toil an’ all?”

That night we cracked the tile—toil, I mean—we were down to our last shreds of self-respect, down on our hands and knees in Mrs. O’Rourke’s kitchen, picking up the anvil-heavy mortar we used to crush the pills, sweeping the Percocet powder into our palms, giggling at our phony Irish accents:

“Tee hee, ho ho! What’d ye drop the mortar for, ye bleemin’ eedjit?”

“Ho ho, tee hee! It were an accident, loik!”

Now I know we’d been begging for something ugly to happen, begging to be set straight. Burn me, we must’ve been pleading, that I might rise up from the ashes. Do you know that thing we’d been hunting? That giddy terror that attends the moment of reckoning?

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.

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

The Coyote’s Dance

Austin Gilkeson

One night last winter, I looked out our sleeping son’s window and saw a coyote dancing in the snow. Our backyard is a narrow rectangle pillared by a fat maple. The coyote danced under the tree. She was probably after one of the gray and black squirrels that scurry up and down the maple, or our yard’s resident chipmunk; or maybe she really had been dancing for a moment, enjoying the puff and crunch of new snow under her paws. Either way, she soon scampered into the shadows. The next day I found her footprints in the snow, and her scat in a pile of pine needles behind the garage.

My wife Ayako, our five-year old son Liam, and I live in an inner suburb of Chicago; the city’s northwestern border is only two miles away. It’s a place of quiet streets and squat postwar ranch houses with neat square lawns. We moved out here from the city for the usual reason: Space. Space inside for us and our stuff, and that green rectangle outside where Liam can run around and play.

What I didn’t know, or at least didn’t fully understand when we bought the house, is that Nature does not willingly square. If I slack off at yard work (which I do often), our grass grows tall, thistle creeps into the flowerbed, and knotweed blooms in the asphalt cracks of our driveway. In the spring, the maple spangles the yard with crimson buds. In the fall, it papers it over with yellow leaves. And at night our backyard hosts a congregation of woodland mammals: skunks, raccoons, possums, foxes, and the coyote.

Honestly, I’d happily let the yard go, let it spill over the edges and revert to prairie. I’m still learning how to be a suburban dad. The first time I used our edger I thought, “This can’t be too hard,” and promptly slashed open my leg. I get vertigo every time I climb our rickety ladder to clean out the gutters. But I do want Liam to have his space. He’s happiest when he can run wild under the sun and not have to abide by adult rules and schedules. He loves swinging from the maple, biking around the block, running races up and down the driveway, gathering leaves and dandelions, and spinning out strange stories and games from his prodigious imagination.


Liam has invented a new game for us to play: Roadrunner and Coyote. We’ve been watching the Chuck Jones Looney Tunes cartoons on YouTube (like any Dad, I’m introducing him to what I think of as the “classics”) and he wanted to act it out. He shouted “Meep meep!” and ran around the yard. I chased after, never catching him, occasionally folding my body onto the ground or careening gently into the maple tree.

This is how our games go. We’ll run around and he’ll announce “I win!” after crossing an invisible finish line I didn’t know we were racing towards. We’ll throw a frisbee in the yard and he’ll tell me he scored ten points while I have only scored three. His Rock-Paper-Scissors arsenal includes items like Super Scissors that can destroy Rock. Like Wile E. Coyote, I am inherently doomed, subject to a reality that warps and remakes itself according to a physics whose only law is that I must lose.

There’s a Dad-ness to Jones’s coyote I’d never noticed before. Wile E. stoops as he walks. His skin sags, his snout droops. He scratches his back in idle moments like I do. He’s a self-proclaimed genius whose schemes to thwart nature always blow up in his face (often literally). He always looks so tired. In his book Coyote America, Dan Flores calls Wile E. an Everyman who is, like the nation that imagined him, addicted to the “technological fix” with his ACME mail-order catalogue gadgets. It’s no coincidence that Wile E. Coyote debuted in 1949, in the postwar boom when our neighborhood was built and pop culture’s vision of the modern American Everyman, the suburban dad, was created. Wile E. paved the way for Fred Flintstone, Clark Griswold, Homer Simpson, Phil Dunphy, and all those other lovable, overconfident, oft-injured buffoons.

Coyotes hadn’t been on my own list of suburban dad hazards until I saw the one in our yard. I worry she might attack Liam when he’s playing in the yard by himself, or that I might stumble over her when taking out the trash at night and she’ll tear a chunk of flesh from my leg. When we visited the little nature center near our house, I took out every book they had on coyotes. I read a great deal of coyote facts, including the comforting one that attacks on humans are extremely rare. Then I came across a different breed of coyote in Native writer and storyteller Joseph Bruchac’s book Native American Animal Stories.

I knew Coyote often appeared as a trickster, guide, and god in Native American folklore; a liminal figure slipping easily between the human, animal, and spirit worlds. But the coyotes in Bruchac’s tales play a different role. In the Miwok creation story, Silver Fox and Coyote are the first two beings in existence, and they make the earth together: “So the two of them began to sing and to dance. They danced around in a circle and Silver Fox thought of a clump of sod. Let it come, Silver Fox thought, and then that clump of sod was there in Silver Fox’s hands.”

It’s a creation story, but also a parenting one. Silver Fox and Coyote dancing with each other, the “clump of sod” that grows and takes shape to the sound of their words. There’s great joy in Bruchac’s telling, the joy of two creatures finding each other and then making a new world together.

Bruchac’s second Coyote story is also a parenting one, but sadder and sharper. It’s a Hopi story about how coyotes got big yellow eyes. Coyote Woman meets Skeleton Man, the lord of the dead, in a meadow. He teaches her to send her eyeballs flying out of their sockets to look for prey. But Coyote Woman loses her eyes and replaces them with big yellow gourds. They work well enough, but when she returns to her pups they’re frightened of her eyes and flee: “Coyote Woman chased her children. ‘Come back,’ she called. But they continued to run away.”

Skeleton Man is a kindly and helpful figure in the Hopi folklore I’ve encountered, but still he embodies death. After meeting him, Coyote Woman’s body breaks down and when she returns home, her children scatter. They no longer recognize her.

Every time I leave Liam, I kiss his cheek and tell him I love him, because some small part of me wonders if this is it, if this is the last time I’ll get to see him, if today’s the day I’ll find my own Skeleton Man waiting for me in the meadow. What if I die and leave him behind? What will happen to him when I’m dead and can no longer help and protect him? When Ayako and I are gone, who will guide him?


After Liam was born, no one could draw Ayako and me a map of this new earth we’d made together. We read all the recommended books and blogs, watched videos, took classes, and talked to other parents. We compiled advice and notes like so many travel tips. “Do this, don’t do this, try this, go here, buy this, not that, don’t be discouraged, be consistent.” But nobody could account for the disposition of our kid, the landscape of his personality and desires, and how quickly it remakes itself. One moment Liam’s an infant, helpless and mewling, and the next he’s making us scrambled eggs for breakfast. We’re moving in slow-motion as he zips ahead.

Liam’s at the age now where he loves to tell us about what he’s learned. He’ll tell Ayako and me all about the shapes of shark tails, or that in the deep ocean lives a lethal creature called a Sword Crab, or that all the bones in my body are breaking because I drink too much beer and coffee (he has a point). His mind is an untamed yard, an unruly riot of color, facts planted like seeds in his imagination and blooming into strange, beautiful shapes. It fills me with incandescent joy. It also wears me out. He doesn’t understand how much harder it is for me to play Wile E. Coyote than it is for him to play the Roadrunner: the penalty gravity extracts for hurling my soft, aging body onto the ground and standing up again.

During the half hour ride to and from his school, Liam used to ask me to spin out elaborate stories involving the Octonauts, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Super Mario characters, or whatever else he’d gotten into lately. I always obliged him, but so many times I wished he wouldn’t ask. I’m so tired, Liam, I wanted to say. I’ve been at work all day. Let’s just listen to music, okay? But then one day he didn’t ask for a story and it was like a door slamming shut behind me. All of a sudden he’d outgrown them.

My mother once told me that every time you think you’ve got your kid figured out, they change on you. You’ll perfect a bedtime routine, or dinner menu, or trick to getting them to cooperate, and then just like that, it won’t work anymore. What do you do then, I asked. You adapt, she said.


When I was Liam’s age, growing up in Durham, North Carolina, coyotes seemed comfortably Out West—creatures prowling seas of grass and scrub like lesser sharks. But they’ve colonized the entirety of the continental United States now. They live in the wilderness, farmland, suburbs, and cities. There are coyotes in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, and all throughout the Carolinas, where they first moved in around the time I left for college in the late ‘90s.

The name “coyote” still feels Southwestern to me, that long o between the sharp coy and te raising my mouth into a steep-sided mesa. It’s from coyotl, a Nahuatl word, like chocolate, only English hasn’t quite managed to sand away the final e sound into something more comfortably appropriated. The coyote’s Latin name is canis latrans, meaning “barking dog,” a laughable name since the first animal anyone thinks of when you hear “barking dog” is, well, a dog. The faux-Latin binomials that Chuck Jones gave Wile E. Coyote—Carnivorous Vulgaris, Famishius Vulgaris Ingenuisi, or Eatibus almost Anythingus—are more apt. Flores writes that Anglo-American settlers of the continent called coyotes “prairie wolves.” The Spanish first called them “foxes” and “jackals.” But the coyote slipped from those colonial names, as from a hunter’s trap.

It’s easy to imagine the settlers’ confusion. The line between wolf and coyote is blurry. At a glance they’re hard to tell apart. They can reproduce together easily, and often have. The Great Lakes Wolves next door in Wisconsin have a large admixture of coyote DNA. Eastern Coyotes in the Northeast are significantly larger than their Western cousins, thanks to a healthy contribution of wolf and dog ancestry. The coyotes here in Illinois, an ancient lineage, are part-wolf. Even the coyote’s genes are hard to pin down.

At a work dinner recently, I met a young scholar from Duke who’d studied coyote behavior in North Carolina. I told him about the coyote I’d seen in our yard. He said urban coyotes behave differently than their wilderness brethren. No longer crepuscular, they come out more at night, when we’re sleeping. They’re less aggressive, but also less shy. They’ve adapted quickly and admirably to human spaces. We tamed the dog and drove out the wolf, but the coyote’s wily enough to have eluded our rule. She’s found her own way in this earth we made.


The other night it was my turn to lie with Liam in his bed as he went to sleep. He snuggled into me and said let’s play Rock-Paper-Scissors. I threw paper, he threw Super Rock. We played a few more rounds with the same results, and then he curled up into the quiet of sleep. I stayed next to him and watched the gentle rise and fall of his chest, the flutter of his eyelids as he began to dream.

He starts kindergarten in the fall. I know before long he won’t want me to stay with him as he falls asleep, won’t want to snuggle and ask me who would win in a fight, a hippo or a rhino? I want to hold onto him as he is now in these perfect moments. “Come back,” I want to call out whenever he hits some new milestone, but he continues to run ahead. The physics of our reality, of time, dictate that I’ll never catch him. All I can do is pass on any wisdom I’ve gathered, and try to guide him as best I can as he races through the grass towards a finish line I’ll never see.

After a while, I kissed Liam on the cheek and extracted myself from his bed, unfolded my tired body onto the floor and scratched my back. Then I looked out the window. I didn’t see the coyote, of course. There’s no snow, so it’d be difficult to see her even if she were there. I went to our bed where Ayako was waiting for me. She opened a neighborhood app on her phone and showed me a photo posted by a neighbor a few blocks away, of a coyote slinking through the dark of their yard. I smiled knowing she was nearby, our coyote, slipping fences and boundaries, that genius trickster god, wild and unruled.

Austin Gilkeson’s writing has appeared at McSweeney’s, Catapult, Vulture, The Toast, Tor.com, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and son just outside Chicago.

Of Floods and Ruination

Amy Lee Scott

The summer I miscarried my whole city flooded. The rain came down and down—not just buckets of it, but whole harbors. Oceans. It fell so fast that underpasses filled to the brim like swimming pools. So the freeways closed. Abandoned cars dotted the lanes, small islands hunkered in the storm while water coursed around them.

Kayaks skimmed down the streets, oars flashing in semaphore. Kids floated their bath toys past submerged cars, past wrecked trees. They giggled and splashed in all that rain while indoors, deep in the bowels of their basements, parents watched the water creep up the walls.

The rain fell and sometimes hail. The wind cursed and rattled and sent lonely moans whistling through the eaves. Inside the water rose and outside it never ceased.

I lay in a dim room with my knees in the air. My heels bore down the stirrups while the ultrasound tech stuck a probe inside me and sat in silence while the sonar echoed around the cave of my womb. The screen looked like an old photo of a thunderstorm. Dark and staticky, then darker still.

In the middle of the screen, where a baby should have been, was nothing. A void that looked so nearly on the cusp of being something but, no matter how hard we strained to see it, receded back into the nothing that it was. Just a shadow. Some trick of the eye.

The ultrasound tech said nothing, though I could see her purse her lips as she strained to see the something in the nothing. My husband held my hand and squeezed it. I knew he was searching for the something, too.

The ultrasound tech must have known instantly.

She must have known, as I had known—somehow, two weeks before our first ultrasound—that for all my tender breasts and food aversions, for all the pregnancy bloat, and six positive pee tests, that the nothing that should have been something was not a baby. Was never a baby. And so what was there to mourn?

When the water receded, it left a dark ring on basement walls. At some point during the flood, the sewers began spewing into homes, permeating everything with a fetid odor that even bleach was hard pressed to eliminate. 

After the rain stopped, everyone tromped down their basement floors and tromped back up laden with the ruins of their stuff. They carried yards of waterlogged carpet to the sidewalk. They went back down with power tools and came back up with chunks of drywall that had once been painted beige and hung with family photos. The masks went on and more drywall emerged. Sodden wood. The mottled underbelly of carpet pads. Nails hanging off of every edge. Dumped on the sidewalk. Heaped. Just a few feet tall at first, then ten, then twenty.

Mounds of stuff lined the sidewalks and more kept coming.

The ultrasound tech said, “I’m sorry.” 

She touched my arm and I took my heels out of the stirrups and tried to straighten the paper draped around my waist. My husband squeezed my hand again trying to say so many things in that one touch.

“This happens sometimes. It’s called a blighted ovum.”

The word cut through the air. Blighted. A cold word. Fit for the long harsh winters of my city when the whole world pales.

I had heard it used before to diagnose the fruit trees that kept dying at my childhood home. They were covered with blight. As a child, I imagined great swarms of Blight surrounding the fruit trees, suffocating them, leaving nothing but a few sticks and rotted fruit when the infestation finally flew away. But the blight of our trees, as with my womb, was not like that at all. 

It was silent. Diagnosed only after it was too late. 

“Meaning,” the ultrasound tech continued, “that the placenta grew without a fetus.”

“So I still feel pregnant.”

“The placenta is what has all the hormones, so yes, you would still test positive. Still feel pregnant.”

“I see.” 

It was my eleven-week appointment. Apparently, the placenta grew without a fetus for eight weeks. Then it stopped trying. There was no point; there was no baby. For three weeks, it just lingered. For three weeks, I walked around feeling not pregnant at all. 

But I ate the Saltines and drank the ginger ale, just like pregnant women ought to do. I did light pilates and walked thirty minutes a day. I took my prenatal vitamins and read up on Baby’s progress:

Baby should be the size of a sweet pea. 

A raspberry. 

A lime. 

Baby has its spinal cord, its fingers, its eyes. 

Your baby has taste buds. 

Facial features. 

And all the while I pressed my hand against my flat belly and marveled at the miracle of it all. 

After the basements were gutted, people brought out their sodden easy chairs. Their couches, too. Defeated wardrobes with creaky doors. Whole bedroom sets. Ottomans. Children’s toys poked out of trash heaps like bright plastic smiles.

Much of the stuff was irreparable. But some of it looked deceptively pristine, especially after it dried. We could hardly tell they were damaged at all, except for the signs that warned scavengers away. Some people stood by their heaps and verbally warned people away from their trash.

“It was sitting in sewage for forty-eight hours.”

“But it looks perfectly fine!”

“The flood line is eighteen inches high in my basement. Whatever was in that eighteen inches is covered in waste.”

“I think I’ll just take this ottoman and fix it up for my dog.”

“Waste. Fecal matter. Do you hear me? This is all damaged stuff. I’m telling you. Literally covered in shit.”

“I think I’ll just take this home. Maybe resell it after sprucing it up a bit.”

And so the people came from across state lines and began trolling the heaps. They loaded truck beds and moving vans up with shit-water couches and La-Z-boys. They tallied up Cragislist profits in their heads while we in the flood zone were told to stay away from yard sales for the next year or ten.

The scavengers got so bad that some people attacked their own furniture with sharp knives. Gashed all that ruined microfiber to make sure their couches stayed put on the curb. But it didn’t work. The city finally enacted an emergency law sentencing scavengers to jail with a hefty fine.

A curfew was put in place.

The landfill nearly closed, it was so full. 

And the piles of stuff grew bigger.

I found out I was pregnant eight weeks in. I didn’t believe it after the first pee test, or the second. Even after the fourth one I had my doubts. I felt fine. Maybe a little tired and queasy. But we had just spent a few weeks hiking around Peru so that was only natural. There was jet lag to consider. But while some were lighter, each stick had the incontrovertible vertical stripe. There was no denying it.

My husband hugged me tight after each test and imagined a nursery filled with books and the fluffy alpaca stuffed animals we bought in Peru for Someday. After each test I kept saying I was not pregnant. Even as my breasts began to feel heavy and my belly seemed to swell, I stayed up late reading about missed miscarriages, where the fetus stops growing but does not expel. 

With missed miscarriages, women go about their lives dreaming up nursery décor and baby names. They tell friends and family and start reading pregnancy books. They walk around in a fuzzy baby-happy bubble for weeks at a time.

This was never me. I had never wanted a baby. Not even as a child when all my friends toted baby dolls around wherever we went. Not even as my close friends started calling with their good news and I sent little crochet bonnets along with congratulatory cards peppered with exclamation points. Not even as I grinned and cooed at these children, delighted with their every funny face and tiny baby sounds. I liked babies, loved some even, but I did not want one, until suddenly I did. 

It happened sometime after the fifth positive pee test, when my husband and I started swapping baby names on our evening walk. We both liked James, my grandfather’s name, if it were a boy. And Cora, his grandmother’s name, for a girl. 

We said these names aloud: 



And doing so conjured babies out of thin air. Gave what had been nondescript faces specific features. This amoeba growing in my belly had my husband’s cleft chin. My almond eyes. Our untamable hair. 

We were having a baby. A tiny human who would sleep in our arms and puke on our shoulders, who would keep us up late with its squalling, and later still, missing curfews and breaking hearts, mending them, and having tiny humans, too.

The day after the blighted ultrasound, my husband drove me to the hospital. The morning sky was calm. Inside the sliding glass doors, all the nurses knew. They had seen this all before and knew that bouts of crying were typical. Less typical, perhaps, were the ones like me. We didn’t cry at all. 

Instead, I put on my Good Citizen face and signed the forms. I slipped on my ID bracelet.  I stepped out of my jeans and shrugged on the paper gown. I did not cause a scene. I sat propped at an awkward angle in the pre-op room and watched the IV needle slide into my vein and my heartbeat graph rhythmically across a black and green screen. 

In lieu of sleep the night before, I consumed what seemed to be the entire internet, which was somehow filled with whole blighted ovum forums. Photos of blank staticky ultrasounds and more of what I came to call in my head, “The Procedure.” 

Some women were awake for The Procedure and regretted it. There was something like a sharp pain, even through the local anesthetic. Some women did without The Procedure and bled at home, on toilets, while unfathomable clots and sacs fell into the water, which some retrieved and reserved in zip lock bags for medical analysis. These women felt either traumatized or healed. There was no middle ground. Only blood. So much that some thought they had died. One woman passed out on the toilet and was found by her boyfriend, her blood pooling like syrup on the cold tile floor.

Many women chose to go under, like I would, and woke feeling empty. Many could not stop crying. Many wondered what they did wrong. 

A coded language emerged from the typo-ridden, emoticon-heavy forums. Talk of rainbow babies and baby dust and angel babies. Acquired verbiage and insider acronyms. *Trigger Warnings* followed by white text you could highlight to read. Or just scroll past, that blank expanse going on and on. 

The day the flood began I had cooked a meal to bring to a friend, a new mother just barely home from the hospital. Ground turkey sizzled on the stovetop and made my stomach turn, which I took as a good sign. After all the pregnancy tests I began to tally up my body’s symptoms searching for any sign that might resemble a phantom reflection of the life I thought was growing within me.

My pregnant friends had spent whole evenings outlining the woes of pregnancy. One had been hospitalized five times because her morning sickness was so severe. Another said women should be thankful for morning sickness; it meant your body was doing the hard work of making a baby out of nothing. 

So I waited for the healthy vomiting to begin, which it didn’t. Nor did the nausea. The most I could muster was this turkey aversion and I clung to it. It was something close to being nausea, if not quite, and thus something close to being pregnant. 

Outside, the rain bit hard into our roof. I turned the music up to drown it out. It was only a late summer storm.

When I was a child—seven, maybe eight years old—El Niño swept through my Los Angeles neighborhood with enormous, tidal storms. The water had nowhere else to go but inside. It crept up our living room walls. My brother brought the football team over to rip up all the carpet. We set up industrial-sized fans that blew gale force winds around the room day and night.

The rain came so fast it overwhelmed all the drains in our cul-de-sac. We did not pay attention to the strained faces of our parents, only prayed for more rain. We did not understand the cost of such water wealth. How too much of it could lead to mold and rot. How too much could cause whole foundations to crumble, strike whole families to their knees amidst an infinite stretch of waterlogged rubble. 

When I woke up from the surgery, a lazy-eyed nurse was waiting. I had a pad tucked between my naked legs to catch any blood and a dry thickness in my throat. I was told that I might bleed for a few days, that this was normal. Clots were normal, too, as were the occasional stabbing cramps. 

“It’s not unlike a period,” the nurse said about recovery, handing me the fabric bag that held my street clothes.

I went to bed when I got home and didn’t wake up for hours. There was a heaviness in my gut that did not seem to reflect what was, supposedly, my empty womb. 

I slept some more. 

I don’t remember driving the forty-five minutes to work Monday morning, but I somehow ended up at my desk, scrolling through emails, returning calls. Going through all the motions while somewhere within me a wound refused to close.

The clots were larger than I expected, more painful, too. I remembered the nurse saying to compare the clots to coins. To track them and the blood flow for signs of internal hemorrhage. If the clots were smaller than a quarter—as mine were—then I shouldn’t be concerned. 

But that did not stop me from heaving at the sight of them, the last remains of what might have been. 

What the nurses and miscarriage message boards did not tell me about recovery were numerous:

Going to the bathroom would be more frightening than the time I had a gun pointed at my chest. The pain of it. The never knowing.

That hormones are like time-released pills. And that even weeks after The Procedure I would find myself dashing out of meetings to sob in a bathroom stall while colleagues waited in conference rooms and finally shrugged their shoulders before continuing on without me.

They did not tell me that no one wants to talk about miscarriages—at least not offline—especially not early miscarriages, because there is hardly anything there to lose that soon, so what is there to say?

Or that sometimes no one knows about the miscarriage at all, so then life proceeds and proceeds, even after the clots stop, the cramps stop, even after the tears stop, but there is still that heavy emptiness everywhere and nowhere at once. 

No one told me that not wanting a baby in the first place did not make it any easier. No, that was the lie I told myself.

People learn how to mourn the loss of things. We learn young. Favorite blankets or toys get lost and never found. Friends fight and don’t make up. I lost most of my photos from college in an ill-packed move. Learning to grieve for small things makes way for the larger, more permanent losses: 

That first love with all the agony of heartbreak. The grandparent. The friend of a friend. A parent. A spouse. There are whole literatures for these. The language of loss begets a language of mourning: My mother passed away—not died—like a ship in the night. Or a kidney stone. Though these bare words skirt around the surface, they at least attempt to hedge the pain. 

But the grasping that comes from trying to mourn a void, the loss of a figment or idea or dream, we don’t have a language for it. 

Without a context for my faceless loss—that empty, blighted womb—I was stranded. How does one mourn the loss of a baby that never was?

After the flood, I watched my friends pick through the ruins of their homes. Our house had been spared so I busied myself making meals to take them. I mothered them with my homemade meatball hoagies and elaborate from-scratch desserts. The salsa verde enchiladas and freshly baked bread. I cooked and cooked while the clots slowed then stopped.

We spent the rest of the summer patching up the damage as best we could. Our friends bought new furniture and painted their basements. “Almost as good as new,” they told us, feigning smiles to shield us from their worries. 

Every night my husband and I slept curled into one another. Sometimes I would let myself cry, though those nights grew fewer and fewer. We talked about going to see the leaves change in Canada. I imagined crisp autumn air, flannel shirts, and rolling hills—all things that seemed utterly impossible while trapped in the muggy swamp of our Michigan summer.

But I could almost smell timber and pine. Even beyond the air conditioner’s drone and needling mosquitoes. Even beyond the dull ache in my core. 

Eventually, the flood water receded. The piles of garbage dwindled. Insurance claims were made and denied. The bleach worked or did not. The houses repaired. We planned end of summer barbecues and bought school supplies. 

We looked ahead. 

And everywhere, the sun shone hot and sure.

Amy Lee Scott lives in Southeast Michigan with her husband and two children. She has an MFA from the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program and her work can be found in Brevity, Fourth Genre, Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, New Letters, The Michigan Quarterly Review, The Southern Review, and the award-winning anthology After Montaigne. Essays have also been listed as notable in the Best American Essays 2009 and 2013, The Best American Travel Writing 2013, and published in Best of the Web 2010. 

“Trump” “SoHo” “Hotel”

Emily Flouton

It’s March 2010, and the Trump SoHo hotel, a sleek phallus of blue steel thrusting forty-six stories into the air from the western end of Spring Street, is just weeks from opening. Press releases have promised heretofore-unseen views of Manhattan, guest rooms furnished by Fendi Casa, sexy Italian dining, and a luxury spa where you can lie naked on a marble slab and get pummeled with tree branches. Because this hotel is in a “young and hip” area and needs a “young and hip” image, Trump’s three eldest children are the faces of the venture: Don Jr. and Eric, the big-game-hunting enthusiasts, and Ivanka, whose fashion advice is “dress modestly.”

I am living in a minuscule walk-up on Avenue B, where I eat dollar pizza slices on the dining table of my frayed duvet cover, dye my hair black, make fun of things, and attempt to write screenplays. Bartending in casual spots has kept me afloat. That is, until I quit my bar gig in a fit of burnout, figuring I’ll find something better. I don’t find something better. I don’t find anything at all. Then rent is due, and there’s this job post on Craigslist about Trump SoHo.

It should be noted that the Trump SoHo hotel is not actually in SoHo, but just west of SoHo in the no-man’s-land of Hudson Square. And that the Trump SoHo hotel is not a hotel, but a “condotel,” which allows it to get around the zoning laws created to keep places like it from existing. And that the Trump SoHo hotel does not exactly belong to Donald Trump. The Hair hasn’t invested any of his own cash in the project, though he has received a nice chunk of equity in the place in exchange for the use of his name.

I try to think of the glass as half full. The place may at least be amusing.

At an ungodly hour (by bartenders’ standards) on a Monday morning, I enter the brand-new hotel’s schmancy function room and join the milling crowd of freshly hired staff. A number of very excited suits dart among the plebes, urging us to find seats. The round tables are draped in fresh white linens and immaculately appointed with full silver place settings. After we’re seated, the suits go around pouring coffee from silver pots, bowing their heads with conspicuous humility.

The lights dim. A hush falls. Two women in snug corporate dresses ascend to the podium and fiddle with it until Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” blares from the speakers. As Gaga bemoans the destructive nature of her romantic impulses, the two women dance awkwardly and pump their arms, trying to get us to do something. Cheer? I grin widely, teeth clenched.

A parade of men in slightly ill-fitting suits and women in better-fitting ones tell us the same things in cosmetically different ways. Hundreds of people applied for our positions. The group in this room is the crème de la crème. We deserve a round of applause. We give ourselves one! Then they get serious: It is a privilege to be here. We must be very well behaved so they don’t regret giving us that privilege. It seems to boil down to “with great power comes great responsibility,” but unfortunately, nobody directly quotes Spider-Man.

I’m more intrigued by their explanation of the whole “condotel” deal. You can buy one of the hotel’s 391 rooms, but you aren’t allowed to stay in it for more than about a third of the year. The hotel rents it out the rest of the time, splitting proceeds with the owner. It sounds a bit like an illegal sublet, the kind of thing that would get my landlord all in a tizzy. Yet here are these suits, referring to it as an investment opportunity.

One suit makes a speech intended to “provide us with tools” to make the hotel sound not-evil to people from the neighborhood. This may be a hard sell. No one around here wanted this monument to corporate greed blighting the skyline, with which I totally empathize.

At this point I’m not yet aware of these two facts:

—During the hotel’s negligently overseen construction, a piece of faulty formwork collapsed, decapitating a worker as he fell forty-two stories to the ground.

—Hundreds of human bones from the 1800s were discovered while digging the hotel’s foundation, which turned out to be on top of a burial vault belonging to a former abolitionist church. The Trump Organization pledged to rebury the remains, but never did. Indeed, the whereabouts of the remains is unclear.

At the end of the day, those of us assigned to the hotel’s restaurant, Quattro, get a tour of our new workplace. It gives me high-end-chain-restaurant-in-Florida-strip-mall vibes. Shelves of booze stretch up to the ceiling, and there’s a rickety silver ladder you have to ascend in order to reach half the bottles, which tells me whoever designed the place has never bartended.

The managers stress that we must never, ever refuse our customers anything. We’re just supposed to make it happen. This kind of policy is common enough in higher-end service jobs, but the enthusiasm and solemnity with which they repeat the directive feels alarming.

Cocktail training reveals Quattro’s booze program to be a dozen years behind the times. The rest of Manhattan is serving speakeasy classics with imaginative updates: herbaceous gin cocktails, smoky Scotch ones, or anything with a dash of bitter, yellow-black Fernet-Branca. Quattro mostly offers inoffensive fruity concoctions made with vodka. But I suppose if the Trump guys can get away with charging sixteen dollars for middle-of-the-road vodka mixed with frozen passion fruit puree (a “Ruski Passion”), then more power to them—er, to us.

My fellow barfolk range from slightly older with unflappable, I’ve-seen-it-all-before-honey demeanors to baby-faced and fresh off the turnip truck. One of the latter variety, a creamily midwestern aspiring actor, is so over the moon to have landed this dream job that he won’t hear a critical word about the place. The jaded among us try to keep our bitchy gripes on the DL.

Our gripes are plentiful. We don’t have half the bar supplies we need for opening, and no one in power seems to have the faintest idea how we can get them. They tell us we can “requisition” supplies by checking off boxes on a printed list and giving it to the purchasing department, but the things we need are not on the list. For instance, we need half a dozen straight pint glasses for shaking cocktails. Not on the list. In any other bar, you’d take cash from the register, buy the glasses, and submit the receipt with your paperwork at the end of the night. When I suggest this, the managers say, “No, just requisition them.” When I tell them purchasing told us they can’t get the pint glasses, they quiz me on the hotel’s three tenets of service, which I can never remember, because they are so abstract as to be useless. Even when we requisition items that are on the list, it’s as though purchasing has never seen a bar. We requisition cocktail stirrers and come in the next day to find they have left us boxes of rock candy swizzle sticks in pastel colors. There’s nothing to do except eat them.

Then soft opening is upon us, and we begin serving invited guests—graying men with expensive watches and slim, shrewd-eyed women in white pants and silky patterned tops. With actual guests staying in the hotel, we plebes are now forbidden to enter the restaurant through the front door. Our entrance is around back, a hidden rectangle in the butt of the building where we must pass through a fingerprint scanner to gain entry. On the way out at the end of our shifts, security guards search our bags—in case, I guess, we decide to start stealing silverware, which management has repeatedly informed us costs ten dollars a piece. While it would ordinarily never occur to me to steal silverware, now that they’ve got security guards rifling through my purse every night, pretending not to see my tampons, I want to steal silverware. I fondle the heavy forks as I set bar diners up for their truffle risotto, watch tiny, perfect spoons gleam temptingly next to espresso cups. But how? Big Brother is watching from every angle.

My barback is a skinny, freckled hipster kid from Tucson, a part-time model and full-time acerbic wit. He and I have regular “staff meetings” in the one corner of the bar the cameras can’t reach, taking sneaky shots of Jameson and planning silverware heists. It becomes clear that my survival mechanism for working at Quattro will be the moments when he drags me into this corner and says, with maximum drama, “Have I got a story for you!”

“At lunch, there was this old dude who ordered three mojitos at, seriously, noon. I figured there were people coming to meet him but no, he pounded them all in five minutes. Then he was like, ‘I guess I’m not getting on my flight! Can I see the wine list?’ He ordered a $350 bottle of champagne, told me to chill another one, and went and hit on these two women at a table. They drank both bottles of champagne, and then he said, ‘I’m going to take you ladies on a crazy shopping spree!’ So they went outside, where, like, his driver was waiting. They came back with so many shopping bags, wasted, and they all went up to his room.”

My uniform consists of a white button-down, a pinstriped vest, a shiny black necktie, and too-big black slacks. Despite the fact that this get-up makes me look like a middle schooler playing best man at her dad’s wedding, the suits ask me to represent my bartending brethren in the hotel’s official ribbon-cutting ceremony.

I feel honored by this, which I resent.

The ceremony brings me back once more to the function room, where Trump, his progeny, and the money guys stand in front of a white paper step-and-repeat of the Trump SoHo logo. After a few unremarkable remarks to the press, one of the managers gives me a frantic wave and I find myself leading a procession of variously uniformed hotel plebes down the aisle. Each of us is holding a gigantic pair of scissors. When I reach my designated suit, wealthy developer Alex Sapir, I hand him his scissors with maximum solemnity, like a ring bearer at a Republican polygamist wedding.

A gray ribbon rises into the air in front of the suits, hoisted by two plebes. It hangs there, in front of nothing and connected to nothing. Perhaps it would have looked nice stretched across the hotel’s imposing front door, or up on the roof before the jaw-dropping view of Manhattan. But here, hanging in the stale conference room air, it reminds me of a piece of dental floss stuck to someone’s bathrobe.

Flashbulbs pop. The fat cats’ grins oscillate. The phrase I have wasted my life runs unbidden through my head.

“Have I got a story for you! Quentin Tarantino came in last night. He had seven Long Island Iced Teas and tried to get one of the waitresses to go for drinks with him. I think he offered her a part in his next movie. The last thing he said was, ‘Thanks for the heavy hand.’”

All Quattro bartenders are required to work several lunch shifts per week, to “earn” the right to work nights. Three bar customers is a booming lunch crowd. I am not happy about spending entire days lugging crates of booze, polishing glasses, and juicing fruit to set others up for the night shift, while making a serving wage of five dollars an hour. We complain to management. Why not hire a lunch bartender and pay them a living wage? They assure us our concerns “have been noted.”

But then something strange happens. All that lugging and polishing and complaining has made me feel invested in the place. When the bar manager finally comes in one evening with those precious straight pint glasses, holding them over his head like a champion prizefighter, I let out an actual whoop.

A month or so in, on a night shift, I encounter the first customer who seems like someone I might want to hang out with, and who might give me the time of day in real life: a screenwriter, in town from LA for a meeting. He’s not wearing a baseball cap, but might as well be. It’s slow, so we get chatting, and I admit I’m working on a screenplay. He seems to dig my pitch. “Send it along!” he says, handing me his card. “Maybe I know the right producer.” This feels like a gargantuan win, possibly worth this entire painful job—if he leaves after the first or second martini. Because we all know how these things go.  

Six martinis later, he’s slurring about how artists like us shouldn’t have to conform to societal norms, how his girlfriend and my newly invented boyfriend have nothing to do with the energy between us, how I should come up to his room and do what comes naturally. I’ve already said no to this offer half a dozen times. But very, very politely. Because although I’m realizing this guy is not going to send my screenplay to anyone, we at Trump SoHo never refuse the customer anything. While I don’t think this extends to my body, I still feel a soupçon of guilt.

“Have I got a story for you! Some Real Housewife came in last night . . . How should I know which one? I don’t watch that shit. This guy three tables down sent her a Sex on the Beach. She was really flattered, but then before she could drink it, another one arrived, and then another one. The guy who sent them was waving at her and cracking up. He just kept sending them to her, like, to make fun of her.”

One evening, a skinny man in paint-spattered jeans wanders through the front door and installs himself at the corner of the bar. He’s not our usual clientele—there’s dirt on his hands—but it’s more than that. His gait is jerky, his demeanor vague. He looks around the room, but his eyes don’t seem to land on anything.

I exchange a look with my fellow bartender, who is new—three months in, staff are dropping like flies. We’d both rather this guy wasn’t here, but we’re not about to Pretty Woman him. Über-rich hotel guests come in looking like crap all the time, and it’s not acceptable to mistake some stringy-haired starlet in sweat pants for a heroin addict and refuse to make her a Ruski Passion.

The man looks in the general direction of the new girl’s face and jabs his finger at a bottle of Macallan—but not the ubiquitous bottle you’d find in any bar. The Macallan Sherry Oak 30 Years Old.  

“The Macallan 30 is two hundred dollars,” says the new girl, which makes me wince, but for which I am grateful. He makes an affirmative sound. So she climbs up the ladder for the bottle, measures the drink carefully with a jigger, and presents it with a flourish. Half of it disappears down his throat in one gulp. “Are you sure that’s what he wanted?” I hiss at her, backseat driving after the car accident.

“I told him the price!”

“Well, at least get a card for a tab.”

She quirks her eyebrow at me. Taking the hint, I approach him and say, “Hello sir, would you like to start a tab?” After a few more asks, he jams his hand into his jeans, producing a battered red debit card. I swipe to pre-authorize and it goes through, which means there’s at least a hundred bucks in his account.

When I turn back around, his glass is empty. He’s gesturing at the new girl for another drink, and she’s back up on the ladder. I say things like, um, hold on, do you think that’s a good idea? To appease me, she shoves the bottle in his face and says, “This costs two hundred dollars for one drink!” He doesn’t look at the bottle, just keeps gazing past it in the general direction of the wall of booze, but he does make the affirmative sound.

He sips this second drink, which relaxes me slightly. Perhaps he’s some wealthy, eccentric artist, working on a cutting-edge installation in the medium of dirt.

Then he slumps forward onto the bar, jaw slack. For the first time, it’s clear that he’s wasted. Uneasy, I ask the new girl to keep an eye on him while I find a manager, because I don’t know what to do. He probably doesn’t realize what he ordered, and he definitely shouldn’t drink any more. And while I’ve cut people off at every other job I’ve had, I’m not sure you can do that at Trump SoHo. When I return with a manager in tow, the man has a third glass of Macallan 30 in front of him. I give the other bartender a look designed to freeze lava.

She throws her hands up. “He asked for it! What was I supposed to do?”

It’s a fair question, what with the whole no-refusal thing. I serve the man a glass of water, which he ignores. “Did he pay his tab?” the manager asks. Right, because priorities.

His card goes through. In a way it is a relief—I certainly don’t want to be on the hook for his tab—and yet. Did we just steal six hundred bucks from an alcoholic construction worker and stick it in a billionaire’s pocket? I place the credit card slip in front of him and say my best six-hundred-dollar thank-you. I can see in his eyes that he wants another drink. That it’s all he wants. “I need you to sign your check, sir,” I say inanely. Eventually, he grasps the pen like a toddler with a paintbrush and scribbles at the top of the receipt.

“You have to tip us,” says the new girl. I cringe, but I’m also glad she said it. An appropriate tip—twenty percent, $120—will signify that the man understands what he ordered. He reaches into his pocket and fishes out a crumpled, disintegrating lump that may once have been a five-dollar bill.

The bar manager and the GM appear behind the man. “Come on, buddy,” chirps one of them. The man is drooling onto his T-shirt. They try to pull him off his stool, but he hunches his shoulders and refuses to go. One of the more hulking waiters joins in. As the three necktied men drag the man in jeans across the floor, he begins to vibrate his body from head to toe in protest. Violently. I’ve never seen anything like it. At first, diners crane their necks and stare, but the performance soon becomes part of the fabric of the restaurant.

I get distracted by serving other customers; diners go back to eating and chatting. Then I notice that the hulking waiter is back to refilling waters, and the bar manager to flirting with the hostess, and the GM to clearing empty champagne glasses.

“Did you get him in a cab?” I ask the GM.


“You just left him on the street? He couldn’t even walk.”

“He could walk. He took off.”

I find this difficult to believe, so I cross the room, push open the not-for-staff-use-under-any-circumstances front door, and run down the block, first in one direction, then the other, but there’s no sign of him.

I tell my barback about it when he comes in later, going for gallows humor, maybe looking for absolution. His interest wanes quickly. There’s too much other intrigue to discuss: cops showing up to arrest one of the new bartenders for stealing a customer’s Amex, our favorite manager getting fired for no apparent reason, a three-thousand-dollar bottle of cognac disappearing without a trace. I decide I’m overreacting.

Still, back in my tiny apartment, I can’t sleep. I try to tell myself the man probably was an eccentric millionaire artist. I picture him putting his battered red debit card into an ATM, only to see the words Insufficient Funds scroll across the screen. I picture him OD’ing on Sixth Avenue.

The next morning, I spread peanut butter on my toast using my new silver knife, a knife I didn’t pay for, but told myself I’d earned in a million little ways as I slipped it behind the lining of my purse. I thought having that knife would make me feel better, that tiny act of sticking it to the man, but it doesn’t. Reflected in this heavy silver knife, this shiny thing, I see the distorted face of someone I don’t entirely recognize.

*In December 2017, the Trump Organization dropped the struggling Trump SoHo. It is now called the Dominick Hotel.

Emily Flouton is a writer from the Northeast who lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.

The Long and Forevering Now

Kate Petersen

That can’t have been this year. I’ve heard this lament more times than I can count over the last three years. Maybe you have, too. Sometimes, in audio formats, it’s accompanied by a knowing oh my god

Like a cliché, this exclamation has been wrung of its declared wonder by overuse and has slid firmly into the realm of meme, where it will live, I suppose, until time is kickstarted again. For the crosscutting consensus that time is stuck, or looping, I have seen no one, commoner or prophet, hazard a way back. 

According to internet lore, that’s what computer programmer Danny Hillis hoped to do when, in 1986, he proposed constructing a “clock of the long now,” a massive objective correlative that would trigger us short-sighted humans to consider deep time. The clock would be designed to last 10,000 years on renewable power, cuckoo and toll only once each millennium. Twenty years later, he soft-launched a prototype that now resides in the Science Museum of London. If not for copyright (the Long Now Foundation is a designated 501(c)3) someone surely would have appropriated his poetic project name to describe the moment we’re living through. Or maybe they have. 

Anyway, that’s Hillis’s problem. 

Here’s my problem: I would like to write about this neverending year phenomenon, but have no formal training in time. 

Perhaps I can work by analogy in training I do have. In ecology, a positive feedback loop describes a series of factors that interact, causing an ecosystem to become less predictable, more unstable, chaotic. Feedback loops are one mechanism that has sped global warming to its crisis point, accelerating sea-ice melt and carbon loss in ways our models couldn’t predict even a decade ago. 

Something like this, I think, is what happened to time. Trump’s words changed the dimensions of our screens, which in turn made more room for his words—required them, amplified them—and as he said more, causality bent and haywired so we had both more time-space and less to watch disasters multiply, stack, unspool. 

Or perhaps I can work by counterexample, and tell you about when time still worked. Three years ago, I drove alone through Death Valley on Thanksgiving. I did this to test my aloneness. The man I was seeing was not in love with me, and in order to let myself know this, I first had to ascertain the dimensions of my future solitude. Nothing grand, just minor field tests. This—drive two days and 1000 miles through the desert with no relief driver—was one. But if I could do it, then perhaps I could muscle alone into a verb, not just my modifier. 

That November I was suspended between another before and after, too: the country I hoped I’d been living in and the one I knew now I did. 

It was a limen I wanted to drive through, fast. If this sounds like an exercise in privilege, it was—voluntary passage through a desert, over borders, money to rent a car and motel room. It was also an exercise in being a woman. Which is to say: I was still free to be run off the road, followed to my motel room, not believed. Like all exercises, this one was redundant. 

An exercise in beauty, too. Down the long indent of California’s spine and into the Owens Valley, its chain of endorheic lakes and salt flats, all the thumbprints on a topo map. Roughly tracing the westernmost leg of the cross-country trip John Steinbeck took in Travels with Charley. “Thus I discovered that I did not know my own country,” he’d written in 1962. A line I was carrying like water. 

Eight hours after leaving San Francisco, somewhere beyond Tehachapi Pass, the radio fizzed out. The road cut across a valley and I could see the whole world, all of it that blue just before gone. A red filing bloomed into stop sign. In my rearview the sky was sun through an ear, and then, like that, mauve as a dog’s tongue. Seventy past nothing and the day sealed itself shut, me on the other side. Still 100 miles from Death Valley and I was caught out of time. (The clock stops running when no one knows where you are.) 

There in my self-made pause, I tried to write down what I saw, what I heard on the radio when I could get a signal. The garish uplit chutes and shafts of the mining works as I descended into Searles Valley and heard that the president-elect said he might believe in climate change, after all. The big mission doors of Amargosa Opera House just east of Death Valley, and the sound of strangers outside it, laughing in the wide dark. 

Half a century before, in that same stretch of desert, Steinbeck had been thinking about time, too. His own road notes contain this formula: “‘Relationship Time to Aloneness.’ And I remember about that. Having a companion fixes you in time and that the present, but when the quality of aloneness settles down, past, present and future all flow together. A memory, a present event, and a forecast are all equally present.” 

That long night drive and this passage I took into it were the first twitch I felt of the forevering now. The wash of memory into forecast. Yes, I thought as I barreled toward sea-level in the dark pitch of a former sea, what good is a past to me in these turns? 

Despite that feeling, I arrived safe at my parents’ home in Arizona the next day and re-entered the ticking world. Two months later, the man and I broke up. And three days after that, according to much of America and its cultural growing zone, during a rainy parade I wasn’t watching, someone put his hand on a book and stopped the clock for good. 

That winter I bought Steinbeck’s equation: that aloneness was causing my time-bleed. But the meme of the neverending year suggests I was not alone. That, or we all were. 

And though a breaker of so much, Trump doesn’t get credit for everything. Time had already broke and been remade a century ago. A friend reminded me of this recently when he told me about this podcast he’d just listened to that recounted Albert Einstein’s famous streetcar ride: headed to work at the patent office in Bern, young Einstein passes the clocktower and imagines what would happen if he were to somehow ride away from it faster than the speed of light. The hands on the tower’s clock would still be moving, but from the streetcar they would appear paused. Out of time.

This friend and I were standing outside a building neither of us wanted to go back into yet. The young aspens behind him were clawy and blank and road salt had been spilled on the steps. The nearest clock was one of our phones. 

Then he said: So this moment in which you and I are talking here in the sunshine, according to Einstein, this will always be happening, just somewhere else. Voice trued, eyes wide as a believer’s. I couldn’t look, so I asked the trees behind him, Oh yeah? He was too old to say such things, like I was, neither of us being physicists, and anyway, I have heard this kind of thing before. Emphasis on somewhere else. 

Still, I listened to the episode. It was about people who didn’t believe time worked like time. And deep in the hour came a voice I had not heard but nevertheless knew: Marta Becket, founder of the Amargosa Opera House. A woman I’d learned about only months before her death, during my drive, because I had passed through and heard people laughing in the desert outside her theater. Voices that had meant safe crossing. Now here she was in my kitchen, singing. 

Like that, this man had rewound two years. Dropped me unknowingly into the idyll of my own last moments before the neverending year. A gift I could not readily explain to a believer in parallel universes. 

According to the podcast segment title, Becket was featured because she’d pinned her human ambitions to a spot in a desert that represented deep time. 

But from my research, I knew better. Becket picked Death Valley Junction because she’d been passing through in 1962 and got a flat tire. 

That’s how it works, with people and places. You don’t stay somewhere because of what the somewhere represents; you stay because your car gets a flat and out of nowhere the person at the fill station looks at you and says: Here, in this sunshine, we might last forever. 

I looked at the date on the podcast. Twelve years ago. Or, according to our current idiom, approximately one million years B.T. 

That year, in 2007, the idea for the 10,000-year clock was twenty-one years old. Now it is thirty-three. According to a few flossy stories that wax on the project’s grandeur, including this 2006 one by Michael Chabon, the clock is still under construction with no completion date in sight. “If it’s finished in my lifetime we’re doing it wrong,” project director Alexander Rose said last year.

According to the Long Now Foundation’s webpage, “Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. The trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, or the distractions of personal multi-tasking.” If and when the clock is completed it will be entombed in land in west Texas owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, baron of same-day shipping and the end of waiting as we knew it. 

A cop-out, a fellow writer once said to me about historical fiction. A way of not having to make sense of the messy now.

Well, history is no walk in the park—the clocktower at Bern, for instance, was refitted in the fourteenth century to serve as a prison for prostitutes of the clerics—but I took her point, and standing over my phone that night, I found myself transposing her frustration into a new key: rerunning a podcast from a wildly different historical moment without warning was sleight of hand. A time trick whose emotional machinery I could see too clearly. 

And isn’t the neverending year just another sleight? 

Here’s what I think: I think people are secretly glad to live in the Age of the Neverending Year. Because if this year goes on and on, then we don’t have to look at the last ones. 

Two years ago, a girl was mowed down by a car and killed because she was protesting a Nazi march. 

Last year, a girl was murdered and left behind a house in Lame Deer because no one knows. (And another was. And another.) 

This year children are dying in cages and some of us retweet the senators who have visited them. 

Last year scientists added up what they knew and said this is the driest the American West has been in 800 years. Said we have twelve years to keep the seas from becoming bile. To keep whole countries from burning up or going under. In twelve years, the Clock of the Long Now may or may not be done. (In either case, we may have rendered the project moot.) 

This year children are dying because they leave the house to go to school and some of us drive by the church as their coffins are unshouldered. 

This year people are dying in synagogue because a man with a gun walks in and some of us read their names. No, wait—that was last year. 

Actually, all this happened years before. Perhaps we need a new unit of measure. 

Perhaps we need a new unit of measure, said Danny Hillis, and started building a clock he hopes to be buried before. 

My father said over the phone to me that day: no one should die for going to church. In his voice I could hear how years used to work. 

No one should, I agreed. But what if I meant, no one at all? 

Early this year I let a man drive my car to the only open store in town for cigarettes. Gin had lit his need for another smoke. I hated myself as we rolled to each stoplight—for the gin in his system, and for the fact that this was the same man who did not love me three years ago. 

But here he was in my new town, driving us to Circle K. I was in a negative feedback loop, which promotes stability, sameness, null. I wished for another car then, some other soul on the road to confirm my anger, or dilute my self-pity, but we were all alone.

The eggy glow of parking lots chided me as we passed and I pressed my nose to the cold glass until I was on that streetcar at Bern, one of the unmentioned riders: a girl, unaware of the history being made in a nearby brain but thinking, like the patent clerk, of flight. Of how fast you can get away. 

Memory: What isn’t?
Present event: When I reached to adjust the showerhead this morning, my mind said, chin, so that’s how I touched it. Proof, I wondered, of drought or tenderness? But only one would cause me to tell you.
Forecast: I, alone. I alone, I alone.

Oh my god, this neverending year, the podcast pundits laugh to each other as I try to fall asleep. 

But our nomenclature is off. Each year nested in this forevering one is still assigned an ending. And at it, people climb to rooftops unarmed under skies made to sound like gunfire. They count backwards together from ten.
They stand in the streets of Khartoum and Paris and Caracas and say: we will be here till you mow us down.
The writers on the internet say: look what I wrote.
The readers say: look what I read.
The scientists say: look what we’ve done.
The soon-to-be-mourners pick up the phone, listen, say: oh my god.
The girls say nothing, thread a key between their fingers.
I clasp the prayerbook of my phone and scroll through all this.
How should I have trained for this time?

There is another universe, according to one reading of quantum mechanics, where the people stand up and walk out of synagogue into the day. Where they will always be gathering their coats and hats and watching the lip of the door so as not to stumble. 

There is one where I am still fifteen and waiting to be told I am beautiful. My whole body canted towards that word. 

One where I really am. 

And one where every woman is alive and being sung to. (Perhaps it’s you, in some future, singing). 

And one where that man is describing to me the clocktower at Bern. And how it was to climb out of the creek alone in the dark with his pack and field notebook, how sweet his self-made pause. Touching my chin so I look. One where I am tolling with these elsewheres. 

Most of us have the attention span of a lobotomized goldfish these days, a scientist on the radio says, as if this is a given, or even a good metaphor. 

But my attention is long as all these worlds pressed end to end. 

Here, I say to my hands, the rivers on them that go nowhere, try me. Count.

Kate Petersen lives in Flagstaff, Arizona. Her work has appeared in New England Review, Kenyon Review, Zyzzyva, Epoch, Paris Review Daily, LitHub, and elsewhere. A former recipient of a Wallace Stegner fellowship at Stanford and a Pushcart Prize, she currently writes about the science of our changing climate at the Center for Ecosystem Science and Society at Northern Arizona University.

Fuck ’90s Nostalgia

Vanessa Veselka

I moved to Seattle in 1992. At the time, music meant everything to me and I approached songwriting with an agony of earnestness. Freshly sober, I owed everyone I knew apologies or money or both. After years of being an unwanted houseguest, a bad renter, and homeless, I was trying to become a functioning American. I’d forced myself to learn how to drive and got a social security number. I took my GED and found a legal job. Having already squandered several musical opportunities, I decided to apply my newfound diligence there too. This time, I would put my head down and work. I would finish the things I started. I wouldn’t complain. I wouldn’t disappear when I was supposed to go on tour. And for nearly seven years, I did just that.

If you just look at the pictures today, the ’90s seem like an orgy of freedom. But when I hear people speak of that time nostalgically, as carefree or pure, I want to eat glass. I know everyone has their truth now, but if you were trying to make music in Seattle then, you were objectively miserable. The demands of the market fractured the music community. While money was the reality, the rules were still punk rock: Every band should be a democracy. Don’t ever look like you care. Don’t ever look like you’re trying. All the while people were climbing over each other to put their signatures on a contract. Word was, if you’d been a band for over six months and weren’t signed, you should break up and start over because it wasn’t going to happen.

We all existed in this hierarchy we didn’t make. Some bands were above your band, others below. You could smell the fear when you opened the paper to the music column. You were rated every time you walked into a room. As a woman, this experience wasn’t new, but it was particularly painful. There are all kinds of beauty, but there’s only one kind of cool. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to be famous, more that I wanted to be part of something and celebrity was the price. Of course the truth of hierarchies is that nobody is looking down on you; you’re all looking up. But I didn’t know that then. By 1999 all I knew was that I was done.

On New Year’s Eve of that year, I stood on an overpass in Capitol Hill with a crowd of people and watched the fireworks and waited for Y2K to wipe everything out. I knew one thing with my whole body: my artistic life was over. I was exhausted from keeping my chin up, badly in debt from touring all the time, and ashamed of everything I’d ever made. I decided to leave the band on a Friday. We played a show that night and I told everybody the next day. They took it pretty well, said we should play a final show. I said we already had.

There are many things bigger than a band. Probably everything. There had to be a place for someone who had failed so profoundly at art. In the center of the WTO demonstrations, watching Niketown get demolished, I saw a path out. I would organize unions. I would work and never sleep. I would put the whole music thing out of my mind.

A few years back I got a call from an old friend in the Seattle music scene. She was collecting oral histories from the women in bands then and turning them into a play. She asked if she could interview me and use some of my music and I said yes. On opening night I sank in my chair as they played a track off my first record while people were seated. The lights went down and it got worse. I’d expected the material from my interview to be buried among forty others’ but it was featured heavily, my rants and my discomfort spilled verbatim from the mouths of four different characters. One woman wrote one of my songs on stage. A band broke up over another song of mine. It was a Jungian nightmare. I fled as soon as it was done.

Unfortunately I’d agreed to play a show the following week in support of the play. Bands were flying in from everywhere. A local radio blitz drew young people wanting to live for a night in the fun times of the ’90s. I went up at midnight to a packed house in the best spot you could have with energy high from the band before and everyone just drunk enough to be totally on your side. With all eyes on me in this festival of joy, I played a ballad of despair about waiting for your life to start. It wasn’t what they’d paid for. Which was only fitting, because it never was.

Grief is like a channel. Once you know where it is on the dial, no matter what else you’re listening to you always know it’s playing just a few clicks down. Or maybe it’s like a frequency. Once your ears adjust, you can always hear it bleeding through. Tune it out. Train yourself. Change the station. The grief channel, broadcasting alongside everything else.

My sixteen-year-old daughter is in a band now. Sometimes I am privileged to hang out while they rehearse. I adjust a mic or tilt an amp so the guitarist can hear himself. Other than that, I stay out of it. Lately they’ve discovered ’90s rock and it comes up through the floorboards. They hear ecstatic distortion. I hear choppers. She’s done internet searches but there’s no proof of the band I spent seven years in. I know she’s told her friends that I opened for the Ramones and the White Stripes, which is true, but we weren’t all that glorious. Afraid she’d find the CDs someday and be disappointed, I decided to give them to her as inoculation.

I hadn’t heard them in twenty years. Playing them in order, I tried to stomach the shame. I was testimonial. There were lyrical high crimes. We had pop band production but were never a convincing pop band. Deeply influenced by classic rock, I tended toward the anthemic. Later I gave up exposing myself and the songs turned tough and guarded. I played them as fast as I could, as if racing through them would get me out of where I was in life. Listening to the records years later, I just hear my twenties.

We were sitting in the car when I gave her the CDs. I wanted to warn her that my band hadn’t been all that great, to tell her we were better live, say it didn’t matter—but this was my daughter, a young drummer with her own band, and there’s a special hell for mothers who lie to their daughters. So I took her hand and looked her in the eye and said the only honest thing I could: I want you to know that I meant every word.

Vanessa Veselka is the author of the novel Zazen, with short stories and nonfiction in GQ, The Atlantic, The Atavist, Tin House, and elsewhere.

On Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Danielle Evans

The summer I was twenty, I moved to Iowa City to go to graduate school. I had applied months earlier with three short stories, two of which I’d written in the forty-eight hours before the postmark deadline, having just realized most of what I’d originally planned to send was no good. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, my mother came downstairs with a glass of champagne and asked if I was sure this was a good idea. 

I was not, but she proofread the new stories and told me I’d done it and drove me to the twenty-four-hour post office to mail my application, and a few months later there I was. I had a small paycheck and an apartment that was still being built when I arrived, meaning for a month I lived rent-free in a larger unit with other displaced tenants, including the reigning Miss Iowa. I had a great deal of confidence in my abilities and also a recurring nightmare in which I was summoned to the office and told gently that my admission was a mistake and I would have to go home. 

I made friends mostly with black women who were attached to the university for other reasons. The first time I talked a friend into going to a workshop party, we drove through miles of cornfield to the farmhouse where a group of students lived, and were there only five minutes before she declared we needed to get back in the car and go home, because the occasion was a posthumous birthday party for Hunter S. Thompson and white people were shooting air rifles. I spent my twenty-first birthday at the Chili’s at the mall in Iowa City’s nearest suburb with a friend I saw as the intimidatingly glamorous older sister I’d always wanted. She had a wardrobe marked by dramatic draping, and gloriously picked-out hair, and drove a car with a Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues bumper sticker, though she peeled it off the next year. “It turns out,” she said, “that’s not true.”

· · ·

My mother was my first audience. In high school I started reading books aloud to her. Before I got to college, this gave me my best preparation for what a workshop was—to read something, and then to step outside of your head and read it again, hearing it the way someone else would hear it. Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was the first book I chose to share: I picked it when I got to the part where Francie’s exiled Aunt Sissy puts an end to a teacher’s humiliating bathroom break policy by inventing a cop husband and indirectly threatening her. Though not white, and not as long ago as the book’s characters, my mother had grown up poor in New York City, too.  

When my mother was five, a teacher sent her home from school for wearing pants. She waited hours in the rain because she wasn’t allowed to cross the major Bronx street between the school and her apartment alone and the crossing guard was gone until school let out. A concerned elderly woman tried to walk her home, but she refused to leave with a stranger. The stranger managed to get her phone number and call my grandfather. He brought my mother home safely and had to be talked down from going to the school to “stomp that teacher,” though my grandmother confessed later that she wished she’d let him go. 

I loved in my mother telling that story what I loved in the book—the way a sentimental story doesn’t have to be a cheap one, the way gentleness sometimes has to be fought for. I knew my mother loved the story of her rescue because the tenderness with which she was cared for then was not always present, the violence not always directed outward. In a life in which she’d so often been small with no one to stick up for her, it mattered the times someone had. 

I thought my mother would love the book, and she did. Until she was actually dying and it turned out to be impossible to undo, she would quote it to reassure me when I asked what she was going to do about a problem that seemed insurmountable: “It takes a lot of doing to die.” 

· · ·

Before I left for Iowa, my mother and I had a terrible fight. I can’t remember what the fight was ostensibly about; I’m certain it was on some level actually about my leaving, and in some way a variation of the only fight we ever had: she thought I did not believe in things, or people, or her, enough, and I thought she had so much faith in things it bordered on reckless; we could see these things in each other only as a form of judgment and not as a love in which we overcompensated for each other’s weaknesses. At some point in the shouting, someone walked out of the house and into the rain in her socks to end the argument. Sometimes I remember being the one who was so hurt she walked outside, and sometimes I remember waiting for my mother to come back, feeling annoyed and abandoned and worried. As much of my life as I spent angry at my mother for not acknowledging we were two different people, sometimes I also forget. 

Where memory fails me, logic steps in. My mother never would have purposely dirtied a pair of socks. She would have relished the theatrics of putting on her sneakers before walking out the door, would have yelled something like, “Do you see how you are making me leave my own home?” The one who, once she was done, was out the door without a minute longer to think about it, who wouldn’t even pause to put her shoes on: of course that was me. 

· · ·

My college and grad school years had been among the rockiest of my mother’s life, a life that we all thought would eventually be back on the upswing, but as it turned out mostly put her through hell until she died of cancer just over a decade later. She wasn’t sick then, but she was in the barely insured precarity that let her get to stage 4 with a liter of fluid in her lungs before knowing something was wrong. I had grown up with a great deal of cultural class privilege, but often little money; like a lot of first-generation middle-class people’s, my mother’s finances were without a safety net. I did not understand until I went to college what “paycheck to paycheck” meant, because I did not know that people outside of the obscenely rich had extra money just sitting in bank accounts. Increasingly, my mother viewed my every separation as a deliberate provocation, proof I was ashamed of her. I was not, but I was wrestling with the reality that at the first time in my emotional life that it occurred to me it was not my job to keep my mother alive, the conditions of her actual life seemed to suggest that someone was going to have to. 

“I can still drive you to Iowa, but I guess you don’t even want me there,” she said, but of course I did, and of course she drove. 

· · ·

I came back to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn the year I moved to Iowa, without any of the baggage I would bring to it later. I would eventually feel more romantic about graduate school, but I believed then I was in the state of Iowa to collect my check and write a book. I didn’t know yet that it was out of taste then for a book to be girly or sentimental or perceived as juvenile, let alone all three. I would learn to love some of the contemporary canon, but I’d been brought to grad school by books like Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo and Brown Girl, Brownstones. I’d become okay with the concept of Iowa because ZZ Packer had gone there; I was clueless about what legacies I was supposed to value more. It would not be the first time I was saved by my own obliviousness. 

There are things in the book that don’t hold up—its affection for diversity can’t save all of its language about race—but Smith writes beautifully and sharply about class, about how clearly you can see power from below and how little you can do about it, how often Francie is punished for being her own best advocate, things I recognized from having been a little black girl. 

I needed that book—I needed its reminder that there is still loss in what feels like escape. I needed its reassurance that children should be taught to believe in things and also to learn to stop, that a loss of faith can be adulthood and not betrayal. I had forgotten for years the order of the ending of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I remembered there was a fight about Francie’s future and a reconciliation and a time her mother comforts her after a heartbreak. But I had forgotten that after the reconciliation comes the line “In their secret hearts, each knew that it wasn’t all right and would never be all right between them again,” and that the moment when Francie’s mother comforts her comes even later still. I had forgotten the lesson in the order of operations: how long things can keep going after an irreversible break, how much you can still need a mother after you’ve left to become yourself.

Danielle Evans is the author of the story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. She teaches in The Writing Seminars at John Hopkins University.

On Lisa Shea’s Hula

Karen Shepard

The epigraph of Lisa Shea’s celebrated, but now neglected, first and only novel is from a Jorie Graham poem: “Nothing will catch you. / Nothing will let you go.”

It’s the perfect introduction to the slim volume that follows. “Nothing will catch you”: Is that comfort or torment? “Nothing will let you go”: Is that to be celebrated or lamented? A source of solace or fear? Hula concerns itself with two sisters in Virginia. The younger one describes the summers of 1964 and ’65 with her older sister, her largely absent mother, her tormented father. Most of the novel takes place in the family’s backyard, where the boundaries between the civilized and the wild, the desired and the feared, the real and the imagined are never clear. It’s the kind of book that reminds us—in a stunningly economical 155 pages—of the unknown’s emotional possibilities for children even as it depicts its often terrible consequences.

I didn’t read Hula until shortly after it came out in 1994, when I was nearly thirty, but it articulated so much of what I had felt, but not known how to say, about the pitfalls and possibilities of childhood.

I am the only child of two pretty odd parents: a Russian Jewish father who veered between narcissism and more extreme narcissism, and a Chinese mother whose prime parenting strategy seemed to be to teach her daughter not to need a mother. Though they divorced when I was three, our family’s world felt hermetically sealed and inevitable. Until I came to understand how other families worked, I didn’t know that most five-year-olds growing up in Manhattan did not take public transportation to school by themselves. I didn’t know that most fathers did not routinely tell their daughters’ friends, or waitresses, or passing strangers about the sexual abuse he had experienced as a child growing up in an orphanage. “You think you’ve suffered?” he would say before reminding me, yet again, of what had been done to him. I didn’t know that most mothers did not buy their daughters a child-sized set of CorningWare to indicate that cooking meals for herself was now the child’s responsibility. And yet, so much of their strangeness offered possibilities, and was loving: they also created a world filled with love and opportunity, extraordinary experiences, and many, many books.

Most of the books I read then were about obstacles overcome or not: triumph or tragedy. Hula is all about both, ambiguity, simultaneous conflicting feelings, and that’s what childhood had felt like to me. What a gift it would’ve been to have had that mirrored in words. By another child.

One of the challenges of writing from a child’s point of view is the problem of rendering the variety and depths of a child’s emotional understanding despite the limitations of her descriptive abilities. Hula’s unnamed narrator offers us almost no introspection at all. In its place, she gives us what children can: sharp and evocative perceptions stripped of everything nonessential, filled with a nonjudgmental immediacy about the mysterious and scary and enchanting world. She does not, cannot, tell us what all these perceptions mean. That’s up to us, her only audience. We’re the ones responsible for the most sustained attention she receives.

The book at first seems structured straightforwardly: there are chapter titles, sectioned titles within those chapters, dates, a prologue, and an epilogue. But in terms of the content within that frame of structural order, disorder reigns, producing in the reader a version of the tension the narrator herself is feeling. I remember that tension so clearly from my own childhood: This looks safe and ordered; why doesn’t it feel safe and ordered?

A lot of the disorder derives from the book’s insistence that there are no clear categories of good and bad. Obviously, the sisters are in many ways at the whim of their parents’ moods and desires, so they are each other’s solace in a world controlled by grown-ups, but they’re also contributing to the dangers of their world. Their desires are often in conflict, and they often make things worse for each other and for their parents. A young child, willing and able to manipulate her world? That was a narrator I could identify with.

I suggest to my writing students that they’re trying to identify and explore those aspects of their fictional interests that give rise to conflicting feelings in the reader. If literature allows us to step outside the world we know and then returns us to the familiar, rearranged in some small way, it’s those conflicting feelings that are going to get us there. Every aspect of Hula gives rise to conflicting feelings in me. Reading it is like standing on the tip of a small iceberg and being told to balance.

It’s a book that lays out in clear ways why, despite its obvious potential pitfalls, so many writers return to childhood in their work. Why so many writers find childhood a strange and mysterious place. Its ambiguity is always a useful place for literature to settle itself: a place of lush imagination and stark fears. Where the strange becomes the everyday, and the routine oddly disorienting.

The writer Steven Millhauser has said, “I want fiction to exhilarate me, to unbind my eyes, to murder and resurrect me, to harm me in some fruitful way.”

I think of this when I think of how our childhoods continue to work on us. I think of this when I read Hula and how it continues, year after year, to work on me. “Nothing will catch you. / Nothing will let you go.” Equal parts murder and resurrection. Lucky us.

Karen Shepard is the author of four novels, most recently The Celestials, and one story collection, Kiss Me Someone. She teaches at Williams College.


Ginger Strand

In the zombie apocalypse, booze will be as fungible as ammo. And it was a vague desire to be zombie-ready that caused my husband, Bob, and me to learn to make hard cider. Something about country living brings out your inner prepper. We keep a manual grinder and a propane camp stove in our house in the Catskill Mountains so that when the power goes out, we can make coffee and not kill each other. But this is mere household readiness, not prepping for survival in a WROL situation. People who use the acronym WROL (“without rule of law”) tend to be apocalypse-minded conspiracy theorists. Bob and I aren’t, but we do share a smidgeon of their survivalist impulse. It propelled us to start applejacking.

The Catskills are already a bit zombified: they’re depopulated. In the nineteenth century, people came with dreams of farming—dreams that cracked up against countless rocks. (Local saying: “For every four rocks, one dirt.”) By the 1870s, farms and whole towns were being abandoned, and a century and a half later, the only signs left of many of them are stone walls and apple trees. You can be miles from roads or houses, deep in the Catskills wilderness, and stumble upon an overgrown orchard. Untended and gnarly, the trees have gone feral, hoarding their small, ugly fruits out of reach in witchy tops. They are breeds no one recognizes anymore: Arkansas Black, Esopus Spitzenburg, Ellis Bitter, Dabinett. Black bears eat them, but few people do. They weren’t planted for eating; they were planted to make cider.

What wine is to southern France, hard cider is to the northeastern US. It’s the full expression of our terroir, the best product of our inherited expertise. Inherited but not native, since the apple is not indigenous to North America; it’s actually an immigrant from Kazakhstan. But it came to the continent with the Europeans, and like them it displaced natives to put down roots. It even interbred with native crab apples. From colonial times to the early 1800s hard cider and small beer were popular everyday beverages. Even children drank them. But during the temperance movement, farmers were urged not to sell their apples for demon drink. Some used apples to fatten pigs and feed cattle. Others chopped down orchards, or burned seedlings. By 1862, so many orchards had been abandoned or destroyed that Henry David Thoreau waxed nostalgic about a time “when men both ate and drank apples.”

Drinking apples is back now, with a plethora of artisanal brands and adorable cideries. Catskills old-timers find this ludicrous, and they assured us there was nothing to making the stuff. All you had to do was go see the Hubbells, locals who run a century-old cider press for fun on fall weekends. But there was a hitch: to get an appointment, you needed five bushels of apples. The old trees on our land produce a handful of apples that are cleaned out by bears, who swing in and out of them like overgrown monkeys. We had two options: purchase or theft.

Bob and I have been together for twenty-two years, and I won’t say we’ve grown tired of each other, but time, familiarity, and routine wear away at excitement. But crime: What could be more exciting than that? We started spending weekends driving around looking for untended trees, for apples to liberate. Let’s go applejacking, we’d say. We kept a pile of bags in the car, and we would pull up to a likely tree, look around for other vehicles, and then pick as fast as we could. If a car snuck up on us, I would pose with my cell phone, making like a tourist photographing a tree, while Bob hid in the underbrush. We focused on trees near the side of the road, but trespassing was unavoidable. I am an enthusiastic trespasser. Bob is not. Yet somehow, there he was. Cidermania had transformative potential it seemed.

We found apple trees at the edge of a cemetery, apple trees on a hunting club’s land, apple trees in the yard of a house that was for sale. Near an abandoned farmhouse, we found a tree bearing different apple breeds on its grafted branches. That same farmhouse had a pear tree, so we liberated those too. Then one day, while exploring some gangly, untended trees along a dead-end road, we hit the jackpot. Behind some scrubby woods, we came upon an entire orchard, its trees sagging under the weight of unpicked fruit. I wanted to pirate at once, but Bob resisted. There was an email address on the No Trespassing sign, so he wrote the owner asking if we could harvest his untended orchard. When we didn’t hear back, Bob looked up the property in the tax rolls. The owner lived in another state. Bob agreed to relax his principles. We parked up the road and collected at least three bushels, leaving the bags in the ditch as we filled them, to be picked up later. That day, we made an appointment with the Hubbells.

Bob grew up in suburbs, but I grew up on a farm. In addition to that, he’s an engineer, and a rationalist, while I am a pragmatist. When we bought our land, it became clear that I am a conservationist, but Bob is a preservationist. Every tree we had to cut down, every rock that was moved, caused him deep emotional pain. I was never happier than when I hired two guys with earthmovers and had them tearing up the place. When they buried a boulder Bob liked, he made them unbury it, and then he spent an afternoon hosing it down to put it back exactly the way it was.

Growing up on a farm, you get used to change: nothing ever stays the same. You get used to death: chickens, rabbits, goats, horses, cats—I’ve watched them all go down to various sad demises. At some point, armed with my reading of Freud and my dentist’s old issues of Psychology Today, I diagnosed Bob’s resistance to change as a pathological fear of completion, probably brought on by the premature death of his mother. When I reported this conclusion, the reception was predictably frosty. Bob and I are alike in our disbelief in an afterlife, but while I think about death constantly, Bob doesn’t like to think about it at all. I have at times considered this a fundamental incompatibility, because it will inevitably affect how each of us will face growing old.

But cidermaking was all about change: from apples to cider to fermented booze, an actual embrace of things rotting and turning into something else. It felt profound. At least to me it did. I think Bob was most excited to have an excuse to buy a hydrometer. We also differed on the question of equipment. Country people value the art of “making do.” I wanted to ferment the cider in some drywall buckets, then decant it into old Almaden bottles from a midden left behind by the former owners of our land. But Bob wanted gear, so we found a local home-brew supply store: an old barn packed with carboys, airlocks, and stills. The proprietor was definitely of the deep-state conspiracy camp. He had a poster on his wall showing Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini with the slogan: “World leaders agree: gun control works!”

On a crisp October Saturday, we backed our car up to the Hubbells’ barn and unloaded our stolen apples onto a conveyor belt. The barn was a death trap, with hatches and ladders and belts and flywheels everywhere just waiting to strangle an unsuspecting visitor with her own scarf. You and your apples entered on the upper story, and proceeded to the floor below, you by ladder, your apples—having been crushed—via a chute. The pomace—apple mush—oozed into the press, an impressive iron-and-wood contraption the size of a truck. The two-stroke engine fired up, and after what seemed like a long time, juice began gurgling out a spout at the bottom. All the old-timers who had been hanging around now cranked into gear: they took out Dixie cups and tasted the cider. Tart, they said, but good.

At home, we sterilized all our equipment with a food-grade sanitizer and poured the cider into two buckets. We fitted both with airlocks, and that was it. All that remained was to wait. We had never felt more zombie-ready. But the weekend yawned before us. What would we do with ourselves if we weren’t applejacking? Let’s just go look around, we said. Before long, we were raiding more apple trees. We couldn’t stop. We began to understand criminal compulsion. It wasn’t the cider we wanted; it was the thrill of theft.

In England, to go “scrumping” is to filch apples. In the UK I could say that Bob and I couldn’t stop scrumping and not be misunderstood. In the end, we collected only a couple more bushels—too few to go back to the Hubbells. But a guy in town—one of those eccentrics who fills his yard with sculptures made of old tractor parts—had a press. He looked like Bilbo Baggins and his apple press looked like one from Hobbiton: a wooden bucket with a lid that squeezed down when you cranked a big screw on top. He didn’t charge for the use of it: he seemed to be in it for the entertainment.

This whole operation was far less rigorous than the first one. I crushed the apples with a log in a drywall bucket. Bob walked in circles pushing a metal rod to crank the screw; juice trickled out into a plastic container. Bilbo sat there merrily drinking a beer and praising our industry. A pair of cats wandered in and out. We took that batch home and didn’t bother sterilizing anything. It was infused with cat hair, after all. We just fitted its lid with an airlock.

Soon after that winter came, and there were no more apples to scrump. Life seemed to diminish. We decanted the cider into carboys when it stopped bubbling, and bottled it at one month. We made it to the holidays before cracking one open. The first batch was good: bone-dry, but with a noticeable apple flavor. But it was the second batch, Bilbo’s batch, that was the real prize. It tasted like apple juice that had grown up, like apples that had learned to accept their differences. It had hints of the dryness of time and the bitterness of death, mellowed by the sweet tinge of larceny. It was six percent alcohol: just enough, after a couple of glasses, to give you that glowy feeling, as if you were getting something for nothing, as if you might live forever.

Ginger Strand is the author of one novel and three books of narrative nonfiction, most recently The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic.

On Dr. Charles Silverstein’s The Joy of Gay Sex

Fran Tirado

I was twenty at the time (but in gay years, scarcely eighteen months old), the artistic director of a local theater company in Indiana (corn-crunching, conservative, frat-run, middle-of-nowhere Indiana) putting on large-scale productions with small-scale budgets and a lot of found prop materials sourced from local dumpsters and Salvation Armies.

It was tech week, and we were in crunch time getting our set together—the show was some musical I can’t even remember the name of, about a gay man and his romantic past life. Stacking old books and accoutrements onto a shelf in the set’s living room, I pulled from a must-thick box a copy of The Joy of Gay Sex by Dr. Charles Silverstein.

1977. First edition. Co-written by Edmund White! The book found me. How bright and blinding this beacon of queerness was in the middle of Nowhere, Indiana; I felt like a video game protagonist pulling a 1000+ talisman with trumpet fanfare from a hidden treasure box. Its pages were aged to an old-lace white. They smelled like a stranger who would strike up an unprompted conversation on a park bench, one with strong opinions about why the Barbra Streisand A Star Is Born is the “definitive version.”

I was out of the closet, sure—but there is a tender period between coming-out-of-the-closet and coming-into-your-ownness that leaves fertile soil for a lot of embarrassment. That period is like a second puberty, a pit in your stomach anytime anyone so much as mentions or alludes to the fact that you, or anyone in the vicinity, has a sexual or romantic life.

And here it was, that pit—the loudest, most pornographic reminder of the self I was still too scared to know, vintage, and with (very detailed) illustrations on every page.

My coming out had been unremarkable and anticlimactic, its thunder stolen by parents who, though they were conservative Evangelicals who fundamentally disagreed with the whole homosexuality thing, “loved me no matter what.” Ugh! A writer’s greatest nightmare realized. An experience traditionally inducing trauma (writing material) was met with uneasy warmth, tearful hugs, and contradictory statements that are difficult to give dramatic value. The chapter of my memoir that would have been filled with a scene of me getting kicked out of my home or bullied was replaced by a boring conversation on my front porch and the latent understanding that my parents would simply just always be a little sad that I’m gay.

But beyond their tentative approval, the easiest thing for all parties involved was to not talk about it, a well-intentioned but deeply Christian see-no-evil, speak-no-evil policy. Our household kept this policy in regard to anything sinful, especially when it came to sex. Growing up (and still to this day) my parents would cover my eyes or fast-forward all the sex scenes. Kids in my school district received no teaching on the matter, and were instead shipped off by the busload with other seventh graders to Robert Crown, an education center forty-five minutes away that had the sole duty of giving students in the tri-state area “the talk” because our middle school health programs were not equipped, employing the help of silicone models of wombs and urethras, and corny CGI animations depicting the miracle of (straight) life, a product of the penis inserted into the vagina.

And this book, with the same confrontational quality as plastic fallopian tubes, put my embarrassment in full swell again. Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined the gay version of my sexual education and the devastation that came with it. The internet was a thing by then, sure, but not the resource it is today. There was only so much information about anal sex beyond Wikipedia pages and porn, and I had neglected to dive deep as a consequence of the Jesus-Sees-You shame that ran through my blood.

“Oh, my God,” said someone next to me, as I realized I had been holding the book and staring at it for an unknown length of time. “Who brought this?!”

No one knew the answer, or where it came from: a portent of sexual corruption. Someone grabbed the book and immediately started flipping through it, as a few more members of the cast and company gathered around. The book was opened to a chapter called “Fetish,” underneath the title an illustration of a man with a large S shaved on the top of his head, his arms tied behind his back and his body chained to a pair of shining Doc Martens, which he was bending over in full child’s pose to lick. The boots belonged to a muscled black man with high socks and a studded cock ring. The S man wasn’t looking at the Doc Martens, but out, directly at the camera.

“Oh my God,” came the refrain from the crowd now amassed around this book. Ironically, it was the furthest from God I had felt in some time.

With much giggling and pointing, the book was passed around and more illustrations were revealed. Eventually I got over my shell shock and joined in laughing, and we were proud to have come across such a find. We placed it on a shelf and deemed it an unofficial totem of our production. As a group, we decided it was ours, but deep down, I knew it would be mine.

Days went by. The book haunted every rehearsal and every performance. After the show closed, we broke down the set, and the minute I was alone, I stowed it in my backpack.

Learning to inhabit my queerness was less about pedagogy and more like Harry Potter discovering Parseltongue—surprised by his own fluency, lost to those who taught him his first language. Learning to inhabit my sexuality, however, was akin to the experience of running through downtown Shanghai with a water-stained map, not knowing a word of Mandarin, and realizing someone has stolen both your wallet and iPhone. I felt lost, in perpetuity, or so I thought.

Back home, I read the entire book in one wild night, skimming through its alphabetical index of sex: “AIDS, Anus, Bars, Baths, Bisexuality . . .”; “Fisting, Foreskin, Frottage . . .”; “Phone Sex, Piercing . . .”; “Tricking, Types, Vanilla Sex, Water Sports, Wrestling.” What I felt was not quite arousal or curiosity, but more like abject horror at the things I did not know.

The more I peeled through The Joy of Gay Sex, the further away I fell from the man I thought I had wanted to be. The book was a foreign, beautiful language. I paused over an illustration labeled “Fuck Buddies,” an Adonis lying on the ground next to an empty condom wrapper, wearing nothing but a handkerchief tied around his neck. Lengths of rope wrap loosely around his body as he pinches the nipple of the man he has his legs around, a dark-mustached hombre donning a cowboy hat and boots. The cowboy beams down with the corniest smile as he grasps the blondie’s penis with force, shooting semen a full two feet into the air. The look on the Adonis’s face was seared into my memory, a look not of orgasmic pleasure, but bliss—a serenity I had never known.

As I finished the book, I felt isolated, ignorant. I shelved it on my nightstand and only ever picked it back up as a party trick to give guests a good laugh. I trekked through the year with that book on my nightstand. It was a retro, decorative wink, but also a shameful reminder.

It isn’t until years later that I realize as I write: all this time, the book I thought had shamed me into demurity in actuality ushered me (okay, shoved me) into a clumsy sexual awakening. That year was the year I first “Bottomed,” the year I first went to a “Bar,” the year I first tried “Dirty Talk,” “Doggy Style,” “Fetish Play,” and the year I had my first “Fuck Buddy.” It was the year I first experimented with “Lubricants” and “Massages,” with “Mirrors,” “Phone Sex,” “Role-Playing,” and “Toys.” It was the year I first “Sat” on someone’s face and “Spanked” someone, and it was the year I nabbed my first “Trade.”

I had never considered myself a sexual person, but as it turned out, consideration had little to do with it. My libido was a pulsing force inside me, dormant like the very book I found at the bottom of that props box. And though reading it was a slow unlearning of the things that held me back, and a relearning of the things my own body was able to do, the feeling of humiliation that had once run hot through me was replaced by a much different emotion—joy.

Fran Tirado is the Deputy Editor of Out magazine, co-host of the podcast Food 4 Thot, and writer working on a book of essays.

Master Sauce

Grace Hwang Lynch

My brother was the one who brought up the topic of genetics. He had sent a vial of saliva to get his DNA analyzed, which seemed to me a high-tech form of divination, revealing secrets from the past—maybe your ancestors aren’t who you think they are—and predicting the future (high blood pressure, diabetes, and a higher than average chance of cancer loom on the horizon). My brother’s results revealed that he had Okinawan markers on his maternal side. Which implied that I did, too. Mother’s family folklore never mentioned anything about Okinawans; I wondered if those Japanese islanders are genetically similar to the indigenous tribes who inhabited Taiwan before our Chinese ancestors crossed the straits from the Fujian province hundreds of years ago. There is an old saying in Taiwan: We have Chinese grandfathers, but no Chinese grandmothers. It’s a coy way of saying that the earliest Fujianese settlers were all men; to perpetuate their lineage, they fathered children with native women.

When it comes to genetics, I have been curious about is whether our taste buds are shaped by nature or nurture. The craving for familiar flavors has always been especially strong on my mother’s side of the family. I remember a particular car ride when I was about ten years old. My maternal grandparents had flown from Taipei to visit us in San Jose. We were driving around, trying to decide on a restaurant. My brother, my mom, my grandmother and I were squashed in the backseat of our Volvo.

“Zhong guo cai!” Wah Gong ordered from the front seat. Chinese food, it was. (In my mother’s family, the definitions of Chinese and Taiwanese were fluid, sometimes interchangeable.) Wah Ma, girlish even as a senior citizen, scrunched up her nose and stuck out her tongue at him from the backseat.

Long before the word ‘umami’ was introduced into the American lexicon, I recognized a certain earthy, complicated aroma to my mother’s cooking. Even when it was not expressly therapeutic, the line between food and medicine was blurred. Perhaps it came from those dried things – little silvery anchovies, goji berries shriveled like red raisins, desiccated twigs and such – stored in old mayonnaise and jelly jars in our pantry. Or maybe it was distilled out of the bones and tendons that filled the pots on my mother’s stove; no boneless cuts of meat, but gristly pig’s feet, inch-long pork ribs, or a whole Cornish hen. The broth was studded with the fanciful shapes of star anise and dotted with droplets of oil. The pots were too big to fit in the refrigerator, so they cooled on the stovetop overnight. In the morning, the liquid was congealed into a layer of opaque fat covering shiny gelled stock.

I was a little embarrassed by these strange smells and their witchy suggestions. Even as a teen in the late 1980s, I knew that storing vats of animal parts at room temperature wasn’t up to current health standards. But this was commonplace in Taiwanese American kitchens. In high school, I dated a boy from the Taiwanese youth group. He called home from my house one afternoon. With a flair for drama, he re-enacted the conversation with his mother:

“What’s for dinner?”

Ba.” (meat)

“And what else?”

Png.” (rice)

His mother also kept a pot on the stove. Filled with brown liquid and redolent of soy sauce and five spice, she lowered cuts of beef into the sauce, where it would simmer all day. “But she never throws out the liquid!” he shuddered. No one ever told me why this was done, so I assumed it was out of frugality or just laziness. Later I read in a Chinese cookbook that the technique was called ‘master sauce’.  Like sourdough starter, some (or all) of the old liquid is used every time meat is braised. The stock continues to gather flavor from the various bones and spices melting into it. An especially assiduous cook might strain the braising liquid through cheesecloth before storing it for the next time. Of course, the mixture is boiled each time, killing off any bacteria that might be lurking in the primordial ooze.

In this way, every pot of braised meat inherits the flavors of the pot before it. A slice of red-cooked beef might taste like one that was simmered last week, or last year. This master sauce  could be perpetuated for generations—an irreplaceable family recipe. The DNA of meals past would be infused into each meal. You could literally eat what your grandmother ate.

Genetics is fascinating to me. Every culture seems to have the concepts of blessings and curses. Or as science might explain it, a sequence of amino acids that perpetuate characteristics from one generation to the next. Things un-seeable by the naked eye dictate the planes of our faces, the color of our skin, our propensity for certain diseases, and maybe even our personalities. Try as we might, sometimes we cannot change the path our genes have mapped for us.

When my younger son started kindergarten, I met the mother of a little girl named Hannah, who was mixed-race, Japanese and white. The mother, Satoko, told me she was actually Okinawan, from an island on the southern end of an archipelego south of Honshu, the main island of Japan. My ears vibrated upon hearing this tidbit. Okinawans are genetically slightly different from other Japanese. The island is twice as close to the northern tip of Taiwan as it is to Honshu. Satoko’s heart-shaped face and wide eyes would not have been out of place among my aunties.

Satoko homed in on me as we waited in the kindergarten yard to pick up our children. The tsunami had just destroyed parts of Japan. She hadn’t been able to get in touch with her relatives yet. “I would like to teach the kids how to make paper cranes,” she told me.

“What a great idea,” I smiled.

“Oh good! Then you can do the talking, since my accent is so heavy.”

That was how we ended up sitting at my kitchen table, sorting piles of colorful printed paper. We quickly moved past small talk, and Satoko began telling me her life story. In her twenties, she left her island to start a new life in America. “What I miss the most is Okinawan pork,” she reminisced, describing the process of cooking it. “You take a chunk of pork belly, stew it for a long time with soy sauce, rice wine, brown sugar and ginger, until it’s tender and falls apart.”

“Oh, that sounds like a Taiwanese way of preparing pork! I could help you make it.”

“Actually, I physically can’t eat it,” she explained. “My gall bladder doesn’t work right. I can’t digest fat. It will make me really sick.”

The stories she told didn’t match her voice, which was high and excruciatingly polite. I already knew Satoko had worked an as accountant, but I learned that she was also a pilot. Before staying home to raise her daughter, she taught flight school at the local state college. She was married to a retired professor of music.

“Did you meet on campus?” I asked.

“Oh no, at a gig he was playing,” she winked.

Then the conversation took a turn that seemed too personal. “I’m leaving my husband,” she whispered.

“Really?” I exclaimed, incredulous. “But the three of you walk to school each morning. You look so happy.”

“There’s no spark left. We’re like roommates. I want to find a man I’m passionate about.” Seeing my stunned silence, Satoko added, “I’m 47. My mother died when she was my age, but I’m starting over!

Sometimes, I look at my own mother and wonder what I inherited from her. We are a similar size and shape, with long torsos and short legs. But I am dusky and muscular, while she is pale and soft. She loves sequins and conspicuous logos, and I gravitate towards deep colors and simple designs. I’m all about reading books and doing research for the simplest tasks, while she relies on common sense and lived experience. We may never see eye to eye. I blame my father.

“Grace looks just like her dad!” My mother-in-law whispered loudly from the other end of the table during our engagement dinner. Steve’s relatives nodded in agreement. It was no secret. I had heard this all my life. Sometimes in unkind ways.

“Too bad she doesn’t look like her mother,” some aunties tittered at a Taiwanese party. I can no longer remember where this gathering took place, or who was there. But those words still sting like a fresh paper cut.

It was my father who invited me to Taiwan for the first time as an adult. I hadn’t been to the island since I was a six years old. “Plane tickets are really cheap!” He gushed. Most people didn’t want to fly that fall. Just weeks earlier, hijacked jumbo jets crashed into the twin towers. America was still on edge. “There’s extra security everywhere,” my dad reassured us. “It’s never been safer.” My memories of the honking streets, the wet markets, and the humid countryside were fading like old snapshots. Li Gong, my father’s father, was in declining health. Steve and I both had paid vacation time and disposable income. We were hoping to start a family soon. This might be our last chance to travel internationally for a while.

We arrived in a city that bore only faint resemblance to the Taipei captured in the yellowing Kodachrome of our photo albums. Mother had instructed me to bring gifts for the relatives. “Candy or cosmetics,” she said. “They’ll be excited by anything from America.” The arrival of overseas relatives was Christmas morning for Taiwanese. When I was six, my mother and I went to Kmart to load up on Clairol hair dye, Revlon lipstick, and One A Day vitamins. My aunts squealed when we opened our light blue Samsonite, elbowing each other to get the best picks.

This time, my roll-along bag was laden with bags of mini Butterfingers and Clinique gift sets. Uncle Jeff, one of my dad’s younger brothers, picked us up in a Honda. He was the family’s sole driver, shuttling my relatives around so they were no longer reliant on reckless cab drivers and crowded buses.

The skyscrapers of Taipei loomed ahead of us as we pushed past the suburbs and into the city’s heart. My grandparents’ neighborhood had grown denser and shinier. Department stores and espresso bars had sprung up on Zhong Xiao East Road. Out of the car window, I spied the familiar signs of Starbucks, See’s Candies, and MAC cosmetics. My presents seemed mingy compared to the retailers all around us.

Even though we were in Taiwan with my father, and even though my parents had been divorced for nearly a decade, he was obliged to take us to visit Mother’s relatives. Wah Ma lived in an apartment in the outskirts of the city. One of my aunts—the wife of my mom’s brother—came to meet us in the lobby. My grandmother and my mother’s sister greeted us at the door. Wah Ma looked the same as she did over five years ago, when she last visited California. Her hair was still thick and overwhelmingly black, still styled in a round perm. Next to her was a version of my mother, with the same doe eyes and pointy chin, the familiar oval face compressed into a heart and framed by a short haircut. And yet, my aunt shrieked as she saw me, “Ta gen san jie yi mo yi yang!” She looks exactly like third sister!

This was new. I was used to people pointing out my resemblance to my father, not my mother. Maybe the hard edges of my features were wearing away, revealing that I might be more like my mother than I thought. Her family had a different ethos than my father’s side. The Hwang clan was solid in shape and identity. Their conversations revolved around facts and figures. During our car ride from the airport, Uncle Jeff told us which groceries were cheaper at Carrefour and which were a better deal at Costco. He sounded like my father, and his father before him.  

The Chen side was more personal. They zeroed in on each other’s idiosyncrasies and ribbed each other mercilessly. While my father has five brothers and one sister, my mother has a mixed bunch of brothers and sisters. Emotions surface more easily. Only the women were present this day. Wah Ma surprised me with a fleshy embrace and clung to my hand. So this was what it felt like to be part of a sisterhood.

We sat on couches around a low table. My uncle’s wife brought out some plates of sliced fruit—guavas with pebbly white flesh and crispy wax apples—with the invitation, “Please, have some!”

I used a toothpick to skewer a slice of guava. The elder ladies watched me as I took a bite.

“Do you like it?” My aunt asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “Ho chiah.” It tastes good.

“She likes it!” Wah Ma exclaimed.

“How about this one?” The other aunt offered.

I stabbed a slice of wax apple, as well. My grandmother and my aunts scanned my face. They were mah jong players, and I was terrified of them calling my bluff. “Ho chiah!” I exclaimed, with a little extra gusto. “I like them all.”

My aunt clutched my grandmother’s hand. “Ai yo! She likes to eat. What if she gets fat?”

Where did I go wrong? I thought I was supposed to compliment the food. But with my limited vocabulary, my words probably came out sounding something like “Me like food.” I was a human version of Cookie Monster shoveling sliced fruit into my mouth. Was this what it’s like to belong to a tribe of women? They show their love by feeding me, but they’ll also show their love by keeping me in line.

“She’s like number three sister, she won’t get fat.” Wah Ma reassured her. My aunt breathed a sigh of relief.

Back at the elementary school, my younger son finished kindergarten. Satoko got her divorce and found a full-time job as an accountant. We hardly saw each other anymore. At a PTA fundraiser, she introduced me to her “running partner”, a Japanese man with sculptural cheekbones. The fall of my son’s fourth grade year, I heard a sing-song voice calling my name at a school festival. I turned around to see a heart-shaped face and wide-set eyes.

“We got married!” Satoko cooed, showing off the diamond ring on her finger. Her running partner was now her husband.

“I’m so happy for you! Did you go on a honeymoon?”

“We’re going to France over Christmas break. It’ll be a both honeymoon and my fiftieth birthday celebration.”

I saw her again in early December, at her birthday party. Steve and I could only stay for one drink, because we had other events to go to. “See you next year!” I told her, with a quick hug.

One day between Christmas and New Year, I opened my laptop to check email. I found a message from Satoko’s ex-husband. The missive was long and bizarre, something about a flight from Paris, headaches, plane diverted to Greenland. By the time they arrived the hospital, Satoko was gone. Aneurysm. But one detail haunted me. Satoko’s ex drove her and her new husband to the airport. As they talked toward the terminal, Satoko ran back and gave Hannah one last hug. It was as if she knew she wasn’t coming back, the email read.

Did Satoko’s DNA predetermine her to die at a relatively young age, like her mother? At some level, she must have suspected it, living her middle age with urgency. Meanwhile, I chugged along, scattering my time and energy in different directions. What would my kids remember about me? Probably a harried woman in yoga pants, always checking emails.

I started cooking Taiwanese food more often. Braising meat in master sauce seemed like an easy way to start. My mother often cooked this way, but in a roundabout manner. Wanting us to have “American” dinners, she made pot roast about once a week. Tough and gray with a thin sauce, pot roast was my least favorite meal, something to be chewed and chewed and chewed, and finally choked down. The next day, my mother would have to fashion another dinner out of the (ample) leftovers. She doctored the stew with soy sauce, ginger, some chunks of rock sugar, and a scattering of star anise. The mixture would simmer on the stove, until the meat took on a mahogany shade and spices mellowed out the beefy taste. The roast could be sliced and served over noodles and blanched spinach, and the cooking liquid would be ladled over it all, creating the noodle soup, niu rou mien. Slices could be tucked into pillowy white mantou, or simply served cold like the first course of a Chinese banquet. Even when my mother tried new recipes, she fell back on familiar flavors.

Now that I was a mom, I often made dinner in the slow cooker—which simmered tough cuts all day until the connective tissue melted away and the meat could be shredded with a fork.  Master sauce of shoyu, mi jiu, sugar and garlic flavored everything. Not content to do things the easy way, I took all five of the traditional aromatics—whole star anise, cinnamon sticks, fennel seeds, cloves with their stems still on, and Sichuan peppercorns—and tied them in a scrap of cheesecloth to flavor the liquid. In it went briskets, shanks, or cubes of stew meat. Chicken legs, pork shoulder, or pressed tofu could be cooked this way, too. The kids seem to tolerate this project of mine.

“What’s in the slow cooker?” My son asks.

“Soy sauce chicken.”

“Oh, okay.”

They eat the dinner without complaint, but without any particular excitement, either. I strain the cooking liquid and save it in an unmarked glass jar in my refrigerator. It looks like a science experiment. In some ways, it is.

Grace Hwang Lynch is a journalist and essayist in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is writing a memoir about food as a means of communication in her immigrant family. Follow her work at gracehwanglynch.com.

Inside Stories, Outside Books

Joseph Osmundson

We’re living through a new, golden age of American nonfiction. While sensationalist tell-alls have often been best sellers, in the last few years, works that take literary chances, and essay collections about art, queerness, blackness, have (finally) found wider readership.

Nonfiction can still feels like literary fiction’s weird, significantly less cool cousin.  But we have to be honest: Nonfiction books sell. Americans love true stories. And we believe, perhaps incorrectly, that nonfiction stories are the ones telling us the truth.  

I’m a scientist. I’m also a writer, primarily of nonfiction, and specifically of memoirwhich I pronounce, each and every time, as mem-oire, with overwhelmingly camp, gay, French affectation. I say it like that because Randall Keenan said it like that, in all his queer husky voice. It was Randall who first told me that I was a memoirist, and he was right, and I love him.

So what is memoir then, as opposed to other forms of nonfiction? While the essay makes an argument, and reportage considers a time and a place, Randall taught me, memoir reveals—or hides—the self, as a way to say something about the world.

Memoir looks in to look out.

I wrote a memoir in 2014—a long essay or short book—and it was published in 2018.

What are the risks, and the rewards, of using our insides to tell capital T true things about the world, and ourselves, about who and how we love and live in late capitalism on this melting planet of ours.  How do we survive writing a memoir, while still living?

In 2014, I was reeling from having been in, and then leaving, an emotionally abusive relationship. My partner cheated and lied, and gaslit me before I had the term to describe his behavior. He lied about little shit to hide his big lies. He lied to hide himself.

Here’s a thing about abusive men that you don’t know until you’ve loved one: They’re easy to fall in love with. And when you decide to leave, the leaving hurts like hell. I didn’t understand why I loved him, or why I stayed when I recognized his abusive patterns.  

Yes, he lied when he’d cheated and I caught him in those lies once.  He also lied about who he’d gotten coffee with, where he’d worked that day. He lied about where he ate lunch, when we went to the gym. He lied when he said he didn’t enjoy having sex with me; I knew, inside, he did.  I knew also that he was scared.

There was no truth with him, it shifted always.  The only truth was his body, when it was there next to me, and I adored it.  I woke, at night, pulling him toward me, kissing his shoulder and whispering, “I just love you so much” as I half-slept. He was – that night – still there, and I was always surprised at this, and grateful.

After a time, I couldn’t keep lying to myself, and I could no longer accept his lies.  I left, wondering why I’d ever stayed. I’m a writer, so I did what writers do when they’re confused. I wrote. Marguerite Duras tells us, “To doubt is to write.” Joan Didion says, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” Like Didion and Duras, my first draft was a personal document: I had no idea what it would look like when I sat down to write. I had no idea what I thought; I could barely understand what had happened to me. The writing unearthed the facts of the matter; facing those facts meant I had to see ugly things in my former partner, myself, and the world.

I wrote first for me. And then I edited for a reader I imagined. And then, with a reader in mind, I had to explain my impetus to write in the first place. Why air my dirty laundry, and his, and ours? So the story became also about writing the story, or turning pain into art. The book asks whether writing, and art, can heal, or at least be a step forward on that journey.  

As a nonfiction writer, I believe in writing my world ethically. I didn’t want to write a book only blaming my ex, stating just what he’d done to hurt me, a listicle of my victimhood. I needed to be honest with myself: I knew he was cheating and lying, and I stayed. Why, why, why? I consented for too long to the relationship (why?), and I did things to hurt him in turn.  

I had to tell the world as truly as I’ve lived it.  I wrote about our sex life, our fights, our love. Our bodies and sex. And sex is messy. We’re faggots. News flash: we fuck in the butt.  Our sex is messy. So, memoir, in my case, made a public spectacle of my body in order to rebuild it into something less bound to trauma.

When I went on my book tour, over the month my book came out, this was the weight I carried in that slim volume. We write sometimes what we cannot speak; but then we have to read from it, standing, in public, in front of people.

I’d written because I had no words, and I needed words to make sense of what I’ve lived through and what I’d done.  I’d tried to write the silences between my choices. Here’s Marguerite Duras again: “Writing is also not speaking. It’s silence. It’s screaming with no noise.”

How on earth, then, could I possibly read this work out loud? In his book of interlinked essays, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee wrote, “The novel that emerged was about things I could not speak of in life, in some cases literally. I would die, or feel a weight on my chest as if someone was sitting there. But when I was done, I could read from it. A prosthetic voice.”

The years between the writing of a book and the public meeting that book is an emotional challenge to so many of the writers I know. One friend sold her book quickly, and then waited five years (and a publishing merger) for it to finally emerge.  Another good friend is waiting, as we speak, for the novel he’d finished years ago to finally come out. Waiting for reviews, sales numbers. Waiting for the one review that matters most: what your mom thinks.

The timetable of publishing means that our work usually finds its readers years after we’ve written the last sentence, placed our final comma. We meet our past selves in our published work. Sometimes we’re surprised to remember who we once were.

When I got on stage to read, I had to reinhabit the world I’d been in when I then.  I had to be visibly heartbroken over the man who’d broken my heart. Easy, no? I spent a long time distancing myself from that pain, but for my readers, they knew nothing of this world, they knew nothing of the hurt, not yet, and they knew nothing, too, of how I’d worked to heal.  

My first tour event was in my hometown in front of my mom and aunt and sister and two of my high school teachers and my mom’s best friend. I stood, wearing a sheer shirt and a sports bra, at a podium in a too-bright bookstore, to read.

The book has sentences and paragraphs like this:

He taught me how to douche. I had never cared enough before to find out what worked for my body. I had used a brand that made me clean, but wet. Too wet. But he liked a clean bottom every time.

And this:

I shit on his sheets. Once when he was fucking me from behind. I couldn’t smell it, but he could. Once when he was eating me out. Sorry, babe.

Two days later, I read again. And then twice the next week. And again in front of a hundred in Los Angeles and a hundred and fifty in New York and then a few months later in D.C. and Philly and Northampton and NYC again and Providence and Boston and Portland, Maine.

My audience, in my reading and in the question and answer, didn’t want to see me—they wanted to see the narrator of my memoir.

I’d been hurt by what happened in my memoir. But my life hadn’t stopped accumulating pain or joy when the memoir was finished.

I am not my own narrator. Somedays I wish I were. I am nobody’s God, not even my own. I fell in love again, which helped me heal, and then I’d gone to therapy, and gotten a new job, and moved twice, and read a lot, and hugged my friends, and written another book, and then another after that, and all that helped me heal.  

The trick of having the memoir in the world was returning to the emotion of the narrator, 2014 me, without undoing the healing I had done after I wrote the book.  

The catharsis of writing was necessary for the healing. But then the real work came. I had to understand what inside me needed a man like him.  It was the bullied little effeminate nerd I once was. But I love that little kid, and I wouldn’t change anything about him except how the world treated him. Every morning I remind myself that my own way of being, sensitive and caring and empathetic, makes me strong. The world is hard on sensitive, feminine men. Everyday, this work remains.

To write memoir and not harm myself more than life had already harmed me, I had to remember distance between my narrator and myself. I write memoir, but they are not the same.

I had to become the damaged self I had been in 2014, to pick him up, to act him out, and then after readings to be charmingly drunk but never too drunk. I had to smile about what had happened to me. I had person after person tell me my story was theirs, and I had to hug them and call them my kin.

My gay book is very very gay. I was shocked, when it came out, that straight women wrote to me so often saying that it was like I was a fly on the wall of their relationships.

It turns out men are trash, whether they’re straight or gay, and beyond that, a lot of them are abusive.  

People write me online and thank me for telling this story. It’s a story that so many people are shamed into not talking about. It’s not a story for polite company, and that’s the point. That’s why I wrote. That’s why it mattered.

It turns out that your ideal reader might not be the person you imagined years prior, editing your words for the world. These readers were my kin, and the weight of their stories were added to the already too heavy weight of this slim book. Lives aren’t finished, until they are, but when my life ends, I won’t be here to write it down.

My book is my life. But my life is more than my memoir. Memoirs end. My life cannot be contained in these pages.

The only way to survive writing and performing a memoir is to treat the narrator like another human. A heavy human you can pick up, and learn from, and love. I loved my narrator the way I love myself, the self I was in 2014, hurting and crying and convinced she’d never heal.

“You fool,” I say to him. “You will heal, only to be hurt again.”

“Welcome,” I say to him, “to being grown.”

I learned so much. Memoir looks in to look out. But, sometimes, you just have to sit with friends, get a drink, dance and laugh, kiss and fuck. Sometimes, you have to live in the world outside.

I had to treat Joseph in my book like a heavy human who I could, at the end of the night, my arms tired from holding her tight, put down, turn around, and walk away from, knowing I had given them her, this former me, this hurt man, this inner child, knowing I’d given him my absolute best.

Joseph Osmundson is a scientist, teacher, and writer from rural Washington State. He has a PhD in Molecular Biophysics, and his writing has appeared in places like McSweeny’s, The Kenyon Review, Buzzfeed, The Village Voice, and other places. Cry with him on Twitter @reluctantlyjoe.


Maria T. Allocco

Hot dumpling soup, mandu gook—glossy broth, white ovals of chewy rice cakes, a single feathered egg, green onion sliced on an angle, and homemade meat dumplings floating on broth—might be when my mother got the tapeworm.

She was a little girl in South Korea and dumpling soup was a Lunar New Year tradition. Once a year, my grandmother stoked the outdoor fire, boiled the water that my mother gathered from the mountain stream, and added miraculous luxuries like scraps of meat and an egg.

I imagine my mother never told her about the worm. This too, was tradition. To keep suffering in. To never shame a mother. To know that she was doing her best, and the rest to accept.

Tapeworms came and went. Curled their way through my mother’s intestines. Slipped out of her in segments.

My grandmother’s life was harder. She walked from North to South Korea by foot. The journey included my grandfather and her young son. She was pregnant with my mother. My grandmother gave birth to her that Year of the Dragon, at the end of the Korean War, on the side of the road, in a small shed a woman said she could enter. Not a manger, but close. In the winter—empty. How precious to have a daughter. At the time, many were thrown away. My mother was lucky. Still, how I wish to see an image of my grandmother holding her, rather than carrying her like a sack as she tried to find shelter.

As my mother grew, my grandmother fed her what she had access to. Even spoiled meat was rare, post-war.

Tapeworms can consist of up to 4,000 segments. I wonder how many memories we store.

As my mother served our family in America—pasta, stew, and steak—she passed along these stories, over dinner. She’d hold out her half-open fist, curled as if ready to snatch it back, an invisible gesture of rice to show me how little she had to eat each day. She’d tell me how on her brother’s back, they’d forage for crickets and berries. How the richest girl in school—the daughter of a government official—befriended her. She’d leave behind a single egg on her plate and my mother turned away, head held high.

How this friend got my mother to eat eggs at her house, I don’t know. My mother must have trusted that she loved her by then. Fifty years later, she in Korea and my mother in America, they’re still best friends.

My mother prided herself on never needing anyone. As her daughter, I learned to anticipate and do. Show up for her in actions—not words.

As I’d chew the food she made, I’d show my respect by tracking the micromovements of her dilated brown eyes. Dinner was secondary to her depictions of starvation. How to show simultaneous appreciation for both her food and her story was to learn when to lift my chopsticks, when to swallow, and when with full attention—to pause, listening, as our plates cooled off.

I learned to chew every grain in my bowl that the farmer grew. To be like a blade of rice, humble enough to bend when the wind blew.

I absorbed my mother, her dinner, and her stories. She wanted to feed me, like her mother. Could my cells hear her? Can there ever be one answer? Can cycles ever be linear?

Sometimes it felt hard to sort out which stories were hers and which were mine. I felt every single one in my body. Carried them with me. Like umbilical cords to her. Or invisible worms passed on.

Did they give me life or take it?

She shared how the head teacher—a true parasite—hit her. Her father had no bribe money. She was hit for other children’s wrongdoings—because she was poor. I never understood.

“That’s just how it was,” she said.

I didn’t understand how you could be hit for doing nothing wrong. When she did it to me, I always felt like I had done something—more than the A- or the inability to sit for three hours doing math—to deserve it.

She was the top student, in every subject. While starving. My mother’s life was harder. She told me stories of waking up early and carrying her shoes to school because she only had one pair and didn’t want to wear them out.

Sometimes one can house a tapeworm but show no symptoms.

It’s as if a little girl, who is on her way home, notices that no one is around. She begins to skip, to feel light, like she doesn’t have to carry it all with her. Who knows how long she’s held it inside. She glides—skipping across smooth dirt, as if it is not there, as if the clouds above her will dissolve it for her, and she’s a girl, high as the trees that surround her, swaying, saying back to her: You are innocent and just a girl.

Tapeworms can consist of a long chain of segments that can break off on their way out. Sometimes in the middle of a segment of a story, my mother would break off—rising up from the dinner table. She would head over to the stove to stir a pot that did not need to be stirred.

At that, the story turned.

Caught in what I thought was a safe moment to slurp up slippery lines of spaghetti I would lower my chopsticks in shame. I’d hear how I was lucky to have a dinner. How I was lucky to have shelter. Feeding off of all nourishment, a tapeworm is of no benefit to a human. How I was spoiled. To be in a house. With food in front of me.

Symptoms of a tapeworm infection include general weakness, altered appetite, and weight loss.

I felt guilty. I grew to repeat that story, and when I was twelve starved myself. Lost half of my body weight, in front of my family. My mother said nothing. Did I become anorexic out of empathy? Or in reaction to her critiques on my body?

Tapeworms can grow up to thirty feet, and live up to thirty years. Did she know that they could pass, cycling inside me, these segments repeating?

Years later, in my first San Francisco apartment, my mother would come to visit me. Sit at my kitchen table. I was new to therapy. When she began her stories about the pain of starving, I had to stop her.

Tears welled in her eyes. I wanted her to have that empathy for the girl in her. Yet, I had to speak for the one in me. Any segment left behind has the potential to grow into another worm.

“I have more memories of your childhood than my own,” I told her.
 She looked me in the eyes.
 “Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry.” If I could expel all our suffering and feed her, I would. Sometimes, in these lines there’s release. Other times, I have no control over whether they repeat, or where they go.

Maria T. Allocco is a South Korean and Italian mixed-genre writer. Her mixed race-focused work has been featured at Mixed Remixed, Hapa-palooza, SF LitQuake and The Venice Art House in Italy. Maria never left her heart in San Francisco; she flies it back-and-forth between the Bay Area and New York as an MFA candidate at Columbia University. Maria is social media free; you may reach her at: readingyourwords@gmail.com.