All posts in “Non-Fiction”

Free Body Culture

The campground looked normal at first.  Tents and RVs were planted across a tired lawn, and kids milled about.  A woman rode by on her bicycle, clothed.  Then a man walked past, naked.  My boyfriend Michal and I exchanged glances.

On the nine-mile bicycle ride from Ulcinj, Montenegro, we’d passed a billboard for this campground, Ada Bojana.  The advertisement showed the silhouette of a sexy lady, rising naked from the Adriatic Sea.  Ulcinj, that tourist trap of a city, had driven us to a nudist resort of our own free will.

We leaned our bikes—panniers ripped and coated with dust—against the registration office and walked inside.  A man greeted us.  We paused, uncomfortable.

“Do we have to be naked here?” Michal asked.  He spoke in Czech, his native, Slavic language that had so far helped us find bike mechanics, bargain for rooms and procure apples.

“No,” the man said in English.  He waved his arm dismissively.  “Some people are, some people aren’t.  You can do whatever you want.”

Michal looked at me, I looked at him.  I shrugged.

“Ok,” Michal turned back to the man.  “We’ll stay.”

The man smiled.  As he wrote out a receipt, I zipped up my bike shirt as high as the collar would go.

§

By the time we arrived on the southern coast of Montenegro, Michal and I had biked more than 500 miles from Pec, Hungary, our tires punctured daily by thorns.  It was our first bike trip.  We built muscle up the gentle hills of Hungary, and spent nights in wheat fields in the hot plains of the Serbian Danube.  There were busses—through the steep Javor Mountains into Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and on to the city of Mostar.  But from there, we biked along the hard blue jewel of the Croatian coast, and around the Bay of Kotor.  On my last legs in the Dinaric Alps in Montenegro, I saw a viper, immobile and bloated, with the legs of a frog sticking from its jaws.  I stopped on the road side, gasping.

“Who’s more dead, snake?” I asked aloud.   “You or me?”

Michal and I liked to think of ourselves as adventurers.  He, a Czech, and I American, had met on hammocks in a jungle hostel near the Guatemalan coast.  I followed him back to the Czech Republic, where we worked; I taught English to teenagers, and Michal sat in front of a computer, assessing development projects.  We were happy, more or less.  But after two years of staying still, we thirsted for more.  So in the summer of 2011, we decided to travel the Balkans by bike.

I knew a bit about the Balkans, but Michal was more informed.    He’d grown up vacationing on Yugoslavia’s Adriatic Sea.  In 2003, when he was 23, he’d spent a summer with other European volunteers, picking up bottles, syringes and old shoes on Montenegro’s Velika Plaža, the eight-mile beach that stretches between Ulcinj and Ada Bojana.

Three weeks into our bike trip, Michal and I arrived in Ulcinj.  We sat in exhaust fumes at intersections where barefoot boys begged for money.  The stores to our right and left advertised all your beach needs: blowup rafts, swimsuits, kite boards.  Women at tables on the street sold smaller wares:  watches, sewing kits, underwear.  There were ice cream parlors, chic hotels, and tourists—throngs of beach hungry tourists—obliterating the sidewalk in one long, sun-creamed stream.

Hungry, we found a Ćevapčići stand, and devoured the ground meat and pita bread over a greasy outdoor table.

“There is a campground at the end of this peninsula,” Michal told me, licking his fingers.  “I think it’s really quiet there, lots of nature.”

Usually, we kept clear of big towns, looking for a field or piece of woods in which to camp.  The night before, we’d slept near an old, mountain road, the sounds of cowbells faint and comforting from the village below.  Ulcinj was another story.

“I’ve heard it’s a nice campground,” said Michal.

“How far is it?”  I asked.

“Maybe an hour’s ride.”

I sunk into my plastic lawn chair.  It was three in the afternoon.  We’d already biked five hours, making an ill-chosen short cut out of a thorny cow path along the Bojana River, a brown waterway that served as a border between Montenegro and Albania.

“The thing is…” Michal continued, “it’s FKK.”

“What?”

“Freikörperkultur,” he said, grinning.  “You know, Naturist.  Free Body Culture.”

He was being mysterious, but I was getting the gist.

“You mean it’s a nudist camp,” I said.

“Well, it used to be.  Now, who knows?”  Michal said.  He shrugged.  “We could go have a look.”

Loud pop music blared from the Ćevapčići stand; cars honked.  I thought about the sleeping options in the city: overpriced hotels or dusty roadside campgrounds.  The ground meat was already turning in my stomach.  “Let’s get out of here,” I said.

§

The New York Times put the southern Montenegrin coast—Ulcinj, the Velika Plaža, and Ada Bojana—on its list of, “The 31 Places to Go In 2010.” It noted that Americans would appreciate the great weather, long, gray-sand beach, and thermal winds that brought throngs of kite surfers.  But Europeans discovered the Montenegrin coast long ago.  On the Velika Plaža, beach squatters tent in dry grasses, kite surfing classes thrash the waves, and years of beer cans, cigarette butts, and toilet paper nestle in the sand.  Michal walked the beach, wishing his volunteer trash-picking efforts could still be seen.

Only the three-mile island of Ada Bojana remains relatively untouched.  The island is formed by a delta of the Bojana River which then runs into the Adriatic Sea.  Just the southwest corner has been developed; tranquil, natural beauty abounds.  The only caveat?  Nudity.

We pushed our bikes around Ada Bojana’s campground, looking for a spot to pitch our tent.  RVs outnumbered tents; nudists outnumbered those clothed.  The naked campers washed dishes, hung laundry to dry, walked to the beach—all the while wiggling openly.  No one resembled the sexy lady’s silhouette from the billboard.

We put up our tent, not speaking.  Finally, I looked at Michal.

“You gonna get naked?”  I asked.   A large woman was striding across the grass towards the toilets, her breasts boinging crazily across her chest.  Michal’s expression was hard to read.

“No,” he said.  “Are you?”  I grimaced.

“Uh-uh.”

As the sun headed toward the horizon, the air became threaded with an evening chill.  A corpulent Serbian man at the campsite next to us had been active and naked for hours.  When it got colder, he put on a t-shirt.  We waited for him to complete the outfit, a pair of shorts maybe, some jeans, but he did not.  Instead, he walked up to a thick, velvety air mattress he’d propped on the grass, raised his arms, and fell backward.  His body bounced on impact.  He boomed with laughter.

Michal and I kept to ourselves.  Mainly we envied the lawn furniture that sprang from well packed RV’s, and the chilled beer that came from interior fridges.  From our dirty packs, we pulled out our “beach towel,” a stained piece of fabric, which we sat on uncomfortably while eating pasta.  Our clothes—however salty with sweat and dirty from sink-washings—remained on.

The next morning, Michal and I put on our swimsuits, and picked our way past the shabby buildings and warped basketball hoop.  When the grass stopped and the sand began, we looked out to an aqua sea.  It was easy to understand why people kept coming back:  Ada Bojana had a gorgeous beach.  Careful to put our towels out of reach of the nude volleyball game, we lay down.

After a few minutes, Michal said he was going swimming.

“Ok,” I murmured, “Have fun.”  I drifted back to sleep, but was woken up by a loud whistle.  And then I heard Michal: “But you’re wearing your shorts,” he said.

I sat up.  Michal was standing in the water, his arms folded at his chest. In front of him, slightly higher because of the slant of the beach, were two men, tanned and muscled and broad.  They were lifeguards.  Each had an orange whistle hanging against his chest.  Michal is six feet tall, but next to the lifeguards, he looked like a boy.

“But you’re wearing your shorts,” he said again, lamely.  One of the men pointed at Michal’s shorts, and then pointed down to his ankles.  Shorts off! The other man put his hands on his hips.  They waited.  Michal turned around and walked back to me.

“I thought this place was clothing optional,” I said.  I was laughing.

“Looks like the beach is not,” he said.

“Well…”  I looked at all the body shapes around us: fat, thin and in-between. “When in Rome.”

Michal was already pulling off his trunks.  His tanned legs were dark as chestnuts after all that biking, but his bum glowed white like the moon.

“Come on,” he said.  “You too.”

I hesitated.

“Ok,” I said.

I took off my swimsuit.  We ran until the sea enveloped us.

About Sarah: Sarah E. Earle is an MFA student at the University of New Hampshire.

Reverence

I must feel the crash of the hard water
and gather it up in a perpetual cup.
                                    —Pablo Neruda

There is always water.

My memory is fluid, rippling out.

I am three or four years old when someone throws me into a pool. My eyes and nose sting with chlorine, but instinctively I know not to let the water rush into my lungs. I kick my feet, propel my arms, until there is air again. I breathe fast and hard before slipping under once more. This is how I learn to swim, how I come to believe at five or six that I am a mermaid, and the water is where I belong.

I spend years of my childhood along the Jersey shore. Sand in my hair. Salt on my skin. When I’m ten, my father teaches me to body surf, and the ocean becomes my summer home. I learn to time my launches, to slide down the face of each wave. And I learn something, too, about fear, about how to tuck my head and tumble when the momentum of the sea grabs hold of me, refuses to let go.

It takes only seconds to drown.

The dreams I have are of the deepest blue.

I wake, feel the weight of my body falling, my lungs bloated, pushing against the cage of my ribs. The house I live in fills up with rainwater. That is real. Not part of the dream. Like Noah in the Bible story, but there is no boat. Only forty days and forty nights of driving rain.

So much floats away.

My water breaks in that house. Twice.

Two daughters are born, twenty-one months apart. The year the youngest is born, a tropical storm floods the streets of our town. In thirteen houses along the creek, water rises to the second floor.

I stand on the front porch of that house beside a husband I hardly know. Twice, he’s become a father. Not once has he marveled at the changing shape of my belly. Not once has he pressed his hands against the jutting bones, wanting to feel the movement, his own blood orbiting.

I don’t even know if he can swim.

I become buoyant.

After the storm, I leave with my daughters. The three of us are mermaids, drifting to another shore. Scales of emerald and sapphire. Aquamarine. When a wave takes us, we are ready. I teach my daughters: head-tuck and roll.

The summer the oldest turns seven, she begs me to let her jump from the diving board into the deep end of a pool. I agree, but only if I am there to catch her. With her knobby knees turning inward, nearly smacking up against one another, she bounces for a while on the end of the board. She needs to go over exactly how this is going to happen. I can sense her uncertainty as she looks down into the water.

I remind her that she doesn’t have to do this now. Then I glimpse her body in midair, the blue bathing suit, her long limbs extended, knees bent slightly, arms out to the side, splashing as she breaks the water’s surface. But she does not jump far enough toward me, her slender body slipping in between my fingertips, barely grazing my skin.

In a single moment, she drops to the bottom of the pool.

Nine feet down.

Numbers lurch through my mind. Whole numbers. Fractions. Depths. Percentages. Odds. On average, ten people die every day from unintentional drowning. More than half of those deaths occur in swimming pools.

My daughter had only been able to hold her breath to the count of sixteen-Mississippi when we’d practiced earlier in the shallow end.

I dive straight down, adrenaline pumping my heart so fast I am dizzy.

Thirteen-Mississippi. Fourteen-Mississippi.

Struggling to grab a hold of her, I try hooking my arms under hers.

Fifteen-Mississippi.

She kicks and flails.

Sixteen-Mississippi.

I slip beneath her and propel upward. She finds air. I can hear her coughing and gurgling, but I remain below. Still underwater. No strength left in my arms. No air left in my lungs.

If I give up, we will both sink back down.

Not now, I think. Not like this.

I learn to scuba dive in a quarry. This is something I must do. Find how easy it is to let myself drop sixty feet below the surface. To steal air from a silver tank. To watch my own breath ascend like tiny torches of light.

Years later, I am diving from a boat in Indonesia. It is the last dive on a ten-day trip. At forty feet, I hook into a rock as I feel the current getting stronger. It pushes against the mask on my face, tugs at the regulator in my mouth. My breaths are shallow, fast. The moment I release the hook, I am swept away by something so intense it feels almost like grief. I strain to kick against it but at some point I surrender, pray it will take me to a calmer place. And it does. At fifteen feet, I stop for a few minutes, let my bubbles ascend before I do.

There is victory in this stillness.

Reverence in remembering water’s capacity to overwhelm.

There are people here who live on the sea. Clustered together in protected coves, small floating villages. The water is their way of life. By lowering their oars beneath the surface, they can feel the tides, the currents, find where the sea will be calm, where fish will be abundant.

They learn young to dive deep for oyster pearls, to hold their breath for five minutes at a time. No silver tank filled with air. No weights to help them sink. Only the propulsion of their bodies. Hunger driving them further down. I become fixated on how it is they survive, the way they head straight into the earth’s belly and take from it what they need.

The tide here keeps time.

Waves come fast on the wind.

At night, under the new moon, our boat makes passage. The storm is sudden. Fierce. Swells slam the boat like fist-punches, lifting it then letting it fall. Hard. I lean my body into the sway, look to the horizon, a fixed line. The water, a force.

About Kristina: Kristina Moriconi received her MFA in creative writing from Pacific Lutheran University’s Rainier Writing Workshop in Tacoma, Washington. Her work has appeared most recently in Rathalla Review and Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, and her chapbook, No Such Place, is due out in the fall of 2013 (Finishing Line Press). She teaches writing in the Philadelphia area and runs a writing workshop with Mothers in Charge for women who have lost children to violent crime.

Live! Dancing! Girls!

The women turn towards each other and lunge, chests puffed up, shoulders back, spines arched. Maybe it’s the looks of proud hostility twisted over their pretty faces, all dewy with sweat. Maybe it’s the way the words “CAT FIIIGHT!,” in singsong, seem to hover over any woman-to-woman confrontation. Or maybe it’s knowing that any “angry girl” can get cheapened with one quick, “You know, you’re so cute when you’re mad,” or—perhaps most likely, if we’re being honest—the oversexed reactions, the ones that accompany everything a decent-looking woman does: “Whatever she’s doing, it’s hot,” from some; “Whatever she’s doing, she knows half the guys in here are just thinking how hot she is. What a slutty outfit,” from others.

Around me, members of the audience add spurts of laughter to the scene, loud and confident, certain it’s meant to be funny. “The way women exhibit their woman-ness,” the director announced at the start of the show, “was a key part of our choreography.” Slinky black sequined dresses dance across a stage so dark that each shimmy or jump, each simulated tussle, catches just enough spotlight to toss a burst of light into the crowd. The program says this piece references an old television show I’ve never heard of, something about the hustle of city life. But even with the glitter, the laughs, the nudging pop culture references, I feel a wistful sense of shame.

As an audience, we watch the sequined performers on the stage take turns dancing solo, each playing at aiming to please her viewers just a little more than her neighbor had.  I uncross and re-cross my legs, shifting in my seat so I can try to catch a glimpse of the faces in the audience around me. I grow uncomfortable at the realization that I might be alone in projecting all this drama and hurt onto the movements of the women entertaining us.

Then some of the women collapse, others rush to their aid; in pairs they stay on the ground, tightly-wound balls of sisterhood, until each one gets up, shoulders tensed, faces covered in what-makes-you-think-I-needed-your-help. Those who’d knelt, offering maternal comfort just moments before, spring up too, back away with I-wasn’t-trying-to-help-you-anyway-bitch shakes of their heads. Perhaps the performance truly is about nothing more than an old television show, or the glamorous hustle of city life, but the goose bumps trickle up my arms anyway, because I can see it right there, on stage—how it can be to be a woman, among women.

About Brenda: Brenda is a recent graduate of the MFA program at CSU Fresno, where she was also editorial assistant and webmaster for The Normal School. Her work has appeared in Knee-Jerk Magazine, fwriction : review, and Puerto Del Sol.

(The Truth) About Danielle Ariano

Danielle Ariano is not a fictional character. Nor is Danielle Ariano a fiction writer. She is just a girl who likes to write about things that happen to her or to other people. Sometimes the way that she writes about the things that happen to her or to other people resembles the way that a fiction writer would write about a fictional situation, but Danielle Ariano assures you that this is not fiction; this is nonfiction-fiction because all nonfiction is fiction. Danielle Ariano assures you that if you read this nonfiction-fiction piece closely, it will reveal all kinds of true things about Danielle Ariano. This assurance should make you feel better because Danielle Ariano is not a liar. In fact, most people think that Danielle Ariano couldn’t tell a lie if her life depended on it. Once, Danielle Ariano applied to the Delaware State Troopers and she made it all the way through the application process—through the part where she had to run and do sit ups and even through the part where they interviewed her and asked her how she would handle all kinds of made up situations, but then she failed the lie detector test. The reason she failed the lie detector test was because she lied during the test. Actually, she had to take the test twice because the first time the results were inconclusive, which meant that she almost fooled a lie detector test, which she supposes could mean that she might actually be a really, really good liar, but then she failed the second time. Conclusively, she failed, which meant that her hopes of becoming a state trooper were dashed, which was probably, ultimately a good thing, because Danielle Ariano doesn’t really like driving. In fact, she hates driving and troopers have to do a lot of it because that’s what they do. She also doesn’t like confrontation, which is another reason why it’s probably a good thing that she failed that test because if she’d passed she’d have to confront a whole lot of people about why they’d done bad things like speed or drive drunk or worse. When Danielle Ariano was applying to be a state trooper she’d told herself that she’d get over the parts of the job that she didn’t like, like the driving and the confronting because she’d figured that she’d get used to doing something she didn’t completely love, because she’d gotten used to doing a lot of other things that she didn’t completely love over the course of her lifetime, like taking out the trash or doing the laundry or listening to the guy she worked with who often told her the same stories the same stories the same stories again and again because he couldn’t remember that he’d already told her the same story the same story the same story and she was too polite to interrupt him and tell him that he’d already told the story to her on three different occasions. Also, Danielle Ariano thought that if she were a state trooper maybe one day she’d get to fly a helicopter, which seemed like a lot of fun and Danielle Ariano had always believed that having fun could make doing things that she might not have completely loved much more tolerable. The thing Danielle Ariano lied about during her lie detector test was the drugs she’d used in her life. The reason she lied was because she’d tried mushrooms once in college and mushrooms were on the list of drugs that led to automatic disqualification if you were applying to be a state trooper or any other kind of cop. Danielle Ariano knew this because she had a friend who was a cop. She also knew this because before she’d moved to Delaware, she had once started the application process for the Maryland State Police, and she had told them the truth about her drug use on an initial evaluation sheet. After telling the truth, they asked her to write a letter explaining the circumstances surrounding her use of mushrooms. In the letter she told them that she’d been young and dumb and that she’d tried mushrooms once, just to see what they were like, which was true. What she didn’t tell them was that she’d put them on a cheese sandwich the way that you’d put lettuce and tomato on a cheese sandwich, and then she’d gobbled them down. She also didn’t tell them that after she ate the mushrooms she’d ridden down to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor with some guys who had also eaten mushrooms and that they’d spent the day oohing and aahing over every little thing they saw, especially the Imax movie about whales that they’d gone to see at the Science Center. Another thing that Danielle Ariano didn’t tell them was that while she’d been tripping on mushrooms, she’d thought that she understood everything about everything in a way that she’d never understood anything about anything ever before, but then when it was all over she couldn’t remember any of what she’d understood so deeply and profoundly and it had always seemed slightly tragic to her, the way that she had felt all the secrets of the universe unlock only to have lost sight of them afterwards in a cloud of sobriety. Danielle Ariano also did not tell them that she often wondered why things couldn’t seem as beautiful without mushrooms as they had with mushrooms, but even with all the things that Danielle Ariano didn’t tell them, the Maryland State Police rejected her after she’d sent that letter, and that was when she first found out that applicants could try all sorts of other drugs but not hallucinogenic drugs because hallucinogenic drugs supposedly stayed in your system for life and anyone who had ever tried a hallucinogen, even once, was a liability too big for the police department to take on. So during the lie detector test for the Delaware State Police, Danielle Ariano admitted to having smoked pot on a number of occasions, which she had, but she lied about the one time she had used mushrooms and she almost lied well enough to fool a lie detector test, but not quite. Danielle Ariano knows now that she would’ve been an awful state trooper, that she probably would’ve hated the job, what with the driving and the confronting and probably with the shooting if she’d ever had to do that. Danielle Ariano isn’t entirely sure that she could ever shoot someone. She supposes she could if she had to, if it were a shoot or be shot type of situation, but she isn’t entirely sure. She’d killed a couple of things in her life: bugs, of course, and also a lizard that had bitten her finger and sent her into a deep panic during which she’d flailed her arms around wildly until the small lizard flew off and tried to scurry away at which point Danielle Ariano stepped on it and then dragged her foot across the concrete, something for which Danielle Ariano had felt a great deal of remorse, so much so that she’d once written a terrible essay about her remorse. Danielle Ariano had also killed her best friend’s pet frog when she’d accidentally left it in a coffee can on a hot summer day. When she’d come back for the frog, it was turned over on its back and its legs looked crispy and dry, the way you might want them to look if you were going to eat them. Danielle Ariano had felt some remorse over the frog but not as much remorse as she’d felt over the lizard because she hadn’t meant to kill the frog but she definitely, definitely meant to kill the lizard. Danielle Ariano never wrote a terrible essay about that dead frog, but she did go to a pet store with her mother where she bought her friend a new frog, but only after she’d told him what had happened to the old frog, even though he probably would’ve never known if she hadn’t told him and she’d just put the new frog in the tank and pretended that the new frog was the old frog the way they did on T.V. sitcoms, but she didn’t do that. There were probably a few other things that Danielle Ariano killed that she cannot remember, probably some fish or something small for which she felt no remorse but she can’t really remember, and the point is that she’s not really good at killing, which maybe means she would’ve been a great state trooper because you don’t want troopers who are great or even good at killing, but Danielle Ariano doesn’t think she would’ve been a great trooper, she suspects that she probably would’ve hated it, but she still sometimes wonders whether she would have been able to deal with hating it as long as she got to fly a helicopter. Danielle Ariano still thinks that flying a helicopter would be fun enough to make up for a good bit of misery. Another reason it was probably a good thing that Danielle Ariano didn’t become a state trooper was because shortly after failing her lie detector test, she met the love of her life. Danielle Ariano had never been able to call anyone the love of her life until she met the love of her life and after that it had been easy, but the love of Danielle Ariano’s life lived in Maryland (not Delaware) exactly 3.4 miles away from where her mother lived in Maryland (not Delaware) which is pertinent because the love of Danielle Ariano’s life was something of a momma’s girl and being a momma’s girl, the love of Danielle Ariano’s life would never have moved away from her mother, to whom she spoke every day, sometimes twice, which is why it was a good thing that Danielle Ariano didn’t pass her lie detector test for the Delaware State Police because as it turned out, Danielle Ariano hated long distance relationships. She especially hated talking on the phone, which was sort of a necessity if you were going to engage in a long distance relationship, unless of course you were technologically savvy in which case you might use FaceTime or Skype but Danielle Ariano had never been technologically savvy, so Danielle Ariano would’ve had to either quit her job so that she could move to Maryland to be with the love of her life or stay in a long distance relationship, which probably would’ve never worked with her hatred of the phone and such or she might’ve had to throw her hands up in the air and walk away from the love of her life and chalk it all up to bad timing,  but as you know by now, after reading this essay and reading the 54 truths contained in this essay by Danielle Ariano about Danielle Ariano, who is not a liar, at least not a good enough liar to fool a lie detector test, walking away from the love of her life is just not the kind of thing that Danielle Ariano would do. You know this, or you think you know this because you have almost finished reading this essay by Danielle Ariano about Danielle Ariano and maybe you should feel like you know this because Danielle Ariano is not a liar but Danielle Ariano wants you to know, that despite what you may or may not think you know, you actually know nothing or next to nothing about her. The reason you know nothing or next to nothing about her is because people are so vast and big and so much more than the sum of the things they’ve done or the things they might remember to tell you in an essay that may or may not be true, so rest assured that you know nothing or at best, very little and if you think about it you will know that this is true because it’s hard enough to know yourself, who you’re with every second of every day and if it’s hard enough to know yourself, who you’re with every second of every day, it’s goddamn impossible to know another person, even if you’re with that person every second of every day, which we all know is impossible, but if it were possible, you still couldn’t know them because you couldn’t be in them and that’s why we have wars, because nobody can understand anybody, but everybody thinks they understand somebody. True story.

biopic2 copyAbout Danielle: Danielle Ariano is a writer and cabinetmaker who lives in Lutherville, Maryland with her wife and their two Golden retrievers. Her first book, Getting Over the Rainbow, is available on her website.

Return to Issue 8

Sweating Vietnam

Dr. Ransom, the town’s physician, removed the blood pressure cuff from my arm and wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead with a damp handkerchief. All who lived in Tuxton suffered equally the withering humidity of a Chesapeake Bay summer, and this cherubic man with soft chin and white shock of hair was no different.

“Richard,” he said, shaking his head, “I’m sorry.”

He scratched the swell of a mosquito bite on his arm. With his head down, he  walked to his desk to pick up his clipboard. A slight breeze moved through the screened patio of his home which served as his summer office.

I estimated a few seconds before the news would become official. In seven days I’d be leaving my twenty-one year old, slender, brown haired wife and our eighteen month, gurgling, blue eyed daughter.

Within the year, I’d be dead of a bullet or of fear, whichever came first.

I cracked my knuckles twice. Damn, why didn’t I do what my old time Needham Heights buddies had done to avoid the draft? Jerry, president of our senior class, graduated from Princeton Magna Cum Laude, and had an anti-war psychiatrist document him as mentally ill.  Phil, the high scorer of our mediocre basketball team, graduated from Boston University and escaped to Canada. Myer, our best poker player, completed his degree at the University of Massachusetts and took a hatchet to his big toe to claim physical disability. And Jason, the guy who always won the golf tournament at our country club, claimed conscientious objector status and served in a hospital in downtown Baltimore.

But no, I didn’t take any of those routes. I remained free from conscription for valid reasons: married with child, graduate student, and teacher in a poverty-stricken school in humid, soggy Tuxton, Virginia. By my second year of teaching, U.S. officials increased troops in Vietnam to more than a half million and cancelled my deferred status.             In April of 1970, I received my draft notice from the Needham Selective Service Board to appear for my physical May 29th at the Boston Armory. Spending the night at my parent’s home in Needham reminded me of how I grew up; a nice house, new cars, and a high school with its own swimming pool.

The Tuxton, Virginia high school kids I taught lived in dilapidated trailers, drove rusted out trucks, and attended a high school without enough toilet paper. Not that everything needed to be fair in America.

§

Damn, damn, damn, I should have done what the tall kid did at the physical. I remembered his name, Eric Forehand. His older sister, Nancy, was in our high school class. She was the most beautiful girl on the planet. My buds and I never did ask her for a date, she only dated older guys, but we stared at her a lot and imagined the impossible.  Eric, two grades below us, seemed like an awkward loner with bad acne. He played the bass in the school orchestra. But now, standing in front of me, I saw that his acne had cleared and he towered above me. I don’t think he recognized me. If he did, he wasn’t letting on.

The building looked like a huge airplane hangar, seemed a mile high, and the walls were painted dull blue over concrete. Must have been a hundred or more of us recruits on this day of the month when Needham draftees were called. Yet, we filled only a fraction of the vast space. The place smelled like ammonia, rubbing alcohol, and dust. Eric avoided eye contact with the Military Police (MP) whose job it was to guard the armory and keep us in line. Eric stared at the ceiling. I viewed the back of his black trench coat and his red Afro hair as we shuffled along until he was at the front of the line.

An MP said, “Remove your clothes and put them in this basket,” and handed Eric a wire basket.

The kid made no attempt to take it. He let it clang to the floor. He did not move, large black eyes still gazing upward. A guard stepped forward and removed his coat.  Eric did not resist.

The guard pointed to his plaid, flannel shirt, buttoned to the neck. “Take your shirt off!”

Eric whimpered, “No, no, no. You’ll find out. Please, don’t make me.”

I watched in wide-eyed awe.

The guard signaled with pointed index finger to three others in uniform. They rushed toward the kid.

Eric yelled, “No. You’ll find out!”  His pupils dilated, and he darted away from the guards.

Two of them caught him and grabbed his arms; another guard with a look of controlled menace unbuttoned the top of his flannel shirt.

Eric screamed, “Get your hands off me!!! I’ll do it myself.”

The head guard nodded and the others released his arms. Eric howled like a coyote at full moon. He ripped his shirt open, buttons flying everywhere, revealing a shiny red and blue Superman outfit complete with cape. Eric screamed, “Now everyone knows my powers!”

He ran in circles, waving his cape.

One MP standing near me mumbled to the others, “Jesus Christ, it’s the fuckin spoiled assholes from Needham. They should fuckin blow these bastards up!”

The commotion brought more soldiers and more yells. Shortly they muffled Eric, threw a green blanket around him, and carried him into a back office.

I admired Eric’s ingenuity.

§

The MPs kept the line moving.  I did all that was expected of me by the medics at each station. I took my clothes off, weight and height were measured, eyes and ears tested, blood and urine taken, and blood pressure recorded. At the next to last station, the medic put on a latex glove and prodded my penis, testacles, and anus. And then he directed me to one of the dozen private cubicles against the back wall, each containing a medical doctor in uniform sitting behind his desk reviewing the folder of the incoming recruit.

The doctor looked over my folder. He slid his eyeglasses down the bridge of his nose. His unencumbered eyes looked directly into mine. He had the stern expression of a prosecutor getting a confession of guilt from the defendant.

“Your blood pressure is very high. But your records show no previous history. Might you explain to me why it’s so remarkably high today?”

“No sir, I don’t know.”  It was my truthful answer.

He beckoned for a guard and told him to take me to the holding room. The doctor turned to me, “You’re here for the rest of the afternoon. No food and no water. I’ll see you at the end of the day.”

Four hours later he retook my blood pressure. It remained high. The doctor had a weary, I’ve seen it all, look. Elevating blood pressure was a simple trick, and Needham men were known for subterfuge, Superman and all.

He handed me a form and instructed me to go back to Tuxton,Virginia and have a local physician take my blood pressure every two weeks for the next six weeks. The physician was to record each reading, complete the form, and mail it back.

§

I had not thought that one’s life could come down to a single piece of paper that someone completes and signs. But now, sitting in the office of the sweating, white haired Dr.Ransom, and after the last blood pressure check, it had come down to this. By his look, words, and gestures, my goose was cooked.

He signed the form, walked over to me, and gently rested his hand on my shoulder.  He said, “Richard my boy, I’m awfully sorry. Your blood pressure is too durn high for the army.”

I checked my impulse to broadly smile. The pressure of his resting hand with the husky, drawling, sadness of his voice confused me about my own feelings.  Happiness was no longer a part of them.

I said, “Thank you Dr. Ransom.”

§

My Tuxton high school students would be among the 58,000 soldiers who died in Vietnam. One of my Needham Heights friends lost a finger and couldn’t play lacrosse anymore. Not that everything needs to be fair in America.

I’m glad, but not happy, that I was disqualified. I never did hear what happened to Eric and his Superman outfit. And my blood pressure?  It never returned to normal.

004About Carl: Carl has received several awards in creative writing including the 2012 Bill Westhead Award for Best Memoir sponsored by the Southeastern Writer’s Association. His stories have appeared in StoryTeller, Still Crazy, Colby Magazine, Kappan, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Austin Statesman, and numerous other newspapers throughout the United States.  In his previous career as a professor at the University of Georgia, he authored fourteen books in education, three receiving outstanding book of the year designations. He and his spouse, Sara, reside on a farm in Athens, Georgia, and spend summers in her ancestral land of Saint Albans Bay, Vermont.

How I Taught English in Korea (Without Leaving My Dining Room)

I am going to grad school and I need a part time job, and what could be more appealing than a Craigslist ad that reads, “Earn Money Teaching English from Home”? The website seems legit because it has a decent-looking American dude who appears to be my age, young twenties, posing in a classroom full of Korean children. Everyone is smiling like they love English more than anything in the world. I also love English. I’ve been in college for four years for it. I’m collecting my second degree in it. I love it so much that I suddenly want to teach it to anyone who has never had the pleasure of reading Flannery O’Connor in her native tongue.

So I answer a few online essay questions. (What is most important to you? English, of course. What is your teaching experience? Talking on the phone with a native Spanish speaker at my local literacy council.) Two days later a woman from Maryland calls and asks several advanced questions about my computer. We speak cautiously in the, “Are you best friends with a Nigerian prince?” kind of voice. I repeat her questions out loud and do my best to respond in my natural, normal interviewing voice with the answers my husband is whispering beside me about our technology. After this, I prepare a sample lesson on compound words. They tell me it’s good if I end the lesson with a game, so I do: virtual basketball—if they get the word right, the ball goes in!

It works. I am hired to teach English as a Foreign Language class in South Korea from the comfort of my own North Carolina apartment.

I do not speak Korean. TV’s Arrested Development taught me annyoung (hello). Another teacher warns me to never use the word dong (city) or dongsa (verb) because it is too close to the word ddong (poop). I get so worried about speaking a language with two d sounds that I don’t even try to learn more.

But South Koreans are eager to learn English, a necessity to get the best jobs. English is a required class from the third year of elementary school all the way until high school graduation. It is not a problem for large cities like Seoul to attract native speakers who are eager to live in an exciting foreign world with private karaoke rooms and kimchi-flavored Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s a little harder to create enthusiasm for the rural towns, such as the island of Ulleungdo, which has a total of 10,000 people.

I can understand. I spent three years living in the bottom of the Arkansas public school system, where nobody else really wanted to live or teach. In fact, were it not for the wonderful high school teachers I had later, in a different town, I wouldn’t love English at all. I know English as a Foreign Language is more like the Spanish classes I dreaded in college, but I can’t help but think I’m about to change lives halfway around the world.

I start with a private class. Private classes are in the morning in America, anywhere from 5 to 11 a.m Eastern, which translates to 6 p.m. to midnight in South Korea. I fix my hair and pull on a collared shirt, then complete my outfit with pajama bottoms and socks. An average of three students log in from their computers at home, each with their own headset and webcam. I have prepared whiteboards and we can move words and images around, almost as though we were editing PowerPoint slides together.

But I do not teach. I perform. “Repeat after me,” I say, and then dramatically hold my hand to my ear, cueing their voices. When a student provides a correct answer, I throw up my arms in joy. I clap my hands. In the background, I can hear a father make fun of me. “Yay,” he says, after I do.

I expand my game repertoire. Now, if the students get a word right, they get to move a clipart car around a racetrack of colored squares, make their move on Tic Tac Toe, or drop a token in Connect Four. On big review days, we play Jeopardy, Memory, or Let’s Make A Deal. If there is extra time at the end of class, we can play Hangman or Pictionary.

My boss tells me that I should anticipate the normal home distractions for these classes. For example, one time she had a father casually observe his son’s class from the background, dressed only in his tighty-whiteys. “It can be distracting,” she said, “but that’s only happened once.”

Except that one of the students in my youngest class is visited every day by her brother in only his underwear. Luckily, the other students don’t have the vocabulary to ask, “What’s the deal with your little brother?” Sometimes they speak to each other in Korean. I up my performance to keep the attention of the crowd. I learn to draw funny pictures. I reference the Korean superstars: Rain, Yuna Kim, Ji-Sung Park, Psy. I think of ways to include Manchester United and StarCraft into my lessons.

And they are not the only ones with household distractions. I cannot stop my apartment’s maintenance man from weed-eating outside my window during the middle of my class. One day, a man completely removes the window as I get ready to teach a few feet away. “I have to do this now,” the man tells me. “It’s the last window to be replaced.”

“Just be quiet,” I hiss at him. He is, although occasionally the bottom of his jeans enters the picture of my normally all-white background. I make up a dance move to the song we are singing that hides his presence. Because home or no home, this is a classroom, and learning is happening.

I spent two years in a private school during junior high. I took an entrance test before beginning the year and placed two grades below the normal levels, despite high grades in my public school classes. The private school curriculum was designed for homeschoolers, so I moved through the workbooks at my own pace, retaking a workbook until I mastered the material. When I had questions, I raised a flag in my cubicle and a teacher came to my workspace. For Algebra, I had to go to the principal for tutoring, as he was the most qualified person in the school to help. In Biology, I went to a private booth, and watched videos of a scientist dissecting a starfish and a pig. I was happy that I didn’t have to do it myself, but I couldn’t ask the scientist questions. And I felt a little silly stopping by the principal’s office after school to clarify how I was supposed to solve a word problem.

The system had its benefits. But there was no personalization. The workbooks weren’t engaging. There were rarely new classes to choose from. I was thirteen years old and sitting in a cubicle.

I think of the technology now, just thirteen years later. Oh, the possibilities.

§

The public school classes are a different beast. There is only one webcam and one microphone for the class to share. My face and whiteboards are projected on the wall of a typical public school classroom. A Korean teacher stays in the room for behavior management, as these classes can contain up to thirty students. They occur before, during, or after normal school hours. That means from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m. Eastern time.

My first class is at 3 a.m. on Friday morning. I am thankful the low camera pixels hide the dark circles under my eyes. I concentrate on my first task: figuring out everyone’s English name.

“What is your name?” I ask as slowly as I can.

“Minime,” a girl in the back answers.

“Brittany?” I ask.

“Minime,” she says. This time I hear Mini-Me, like Dr. Evil’s child from Austin Powers, but I know this cannot be the right name.

“Stephanie?”

“Minime,”

“Tiffanie?” I am sure she is messing with the new American teacher.

“M-I-N-I-M-E,” she spells. The Korean tech person observing my class confirms that is her name.

The odd names don’t end. Mini-Me sits a row behind Donkey. I encounter Mario, Luigi, Goofy, and Dragon in other classes. I hear about teachers who have taught Brad Pitt and Madonna, the Korean students. I accidentally name a boy Heidi because I can’t see him clearly the first day.

Names aren’t the only mishap. There are countless technological issues. A microphone will stop working. The power will go out. We are using the third software program in three years. One morning my students don’t show up in the designated classroom, and suddenly we are lost on the Internet. As I enter Room 1, then Room 2, then Room 3, I wonder how we will ever locate each other, millions of miles away. We don’t even speak the same language. But somehow we do find each other. The class goes on.

A few months later, at 2:30 a.m., my Internet service cuts out. My cable isn’t working. I cannot reach any American co-worker on the phone. I wake up my husband, who immediately thinks a tragedy has occurred.

“The Internet is down,” I say, trying not to panic. I wonder how many people even know the Internet isn’t working in my city of 100,000 people. And of those that know, how many care? And of those that care, how many of them are waking up their spouses, on the verge of tears because of it?

I make a phone call to South Korea. I didn’t even know my cell phone made international calls.

“You are lucky,” my Korean co-worker tells me. “Your school just canceled the class. Their Internet is broken.”

I have trouble falling back to sleep. Later, I nod empathically when I hear new mothers say they couldn’t sleep because of a bad night with their baby, that it’s hard when you don’t know what is wrong or how to fix it. But it’s worth it.

My job is exactly like that.

§

I took one online class during my public school education. Once I moved away from the private school, to a bigger and better public high school, my counselor told me I was behind in my science credits so I had to take either Physics or an online Astronomy class. I decided to enroll in Astronomy. Two weeks before graduation, I finally got around to starting the class. I did most of the work the night before it was due, soaring through by memorizing only the answers I saw on the quizzes. When I enrolled in Astronomy in college two years later, I remembered nothing from the online class.

There will always be hiccups in education. But technology jumps over borders. Soon, there will be no reason that a student can’t have a perfectly qualified teacher, no reason for a student to be limited to the classes only his or her school offers. If I can teach English on an island in South Korea, anything can happen for a school on the Arkansas/Louisiana border.

I work a few other jobs during graduate school. I teach two Introduction to Creative Writing classes at my university, I tutor students in the University Writing Center, and I lead third-graders in writing activities once a week. I have to remind myself not to throw up my arms when a student gets a right answer. I do my best to speak at a normal tempo. My husband tells me college students won’t appreciate the Jeopardy game about grammar I began to design. I like these jobs, but I am always thinking of stories to tell my Korean students, of funny pictures from my life that they would like to see.

Three years later and I am finished with my degree. It is time to find a full-time job.

I ask for a letter of recommendation from people who might not know me on the street. And yet, I have become too attached to these people. I love South Korea like it is my own country. I don’t want to leave.

“Maybe I’ll teach one more semester,” I tell my husband. I doubt it’s just one more semester.

Because now it is three in the morning and I’m doing the Hokey Pokey by myself in my dining room. My neighbor has drunk-dialed his girlfriend to break up with her, and I can hear his every word on the other side of my wall. So I talk louder. Right hand in, I say, emphasizing the vocabulary word. Right hand out. I am literally in the future, teaching English. Oh the possibilities.

authorphotoAbout Allison: Allison Frase Reavis received an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. She is a native Arkansan currently residing in Carrboro, North Carolina.

Jaffa

The sea heaves in dark waves just outside the window. Rain patters against the glass and slides down in blurred lines. I lean against the rock wall of the restaurant. The stone is porous, chalky, the color of old paper. It has stood through wars, shifted and shed identities.

He reaches across the white table cloth and curls his fingers around mine. His hand is always so warm. Even the color of his skin, a rich cinnamon, gives off heat. He doesn’t smell like cinnamon, though, closer to cumin, but fresher. I like to bury my nose in his neck just below his black hair and breathe him in, deep lungfuls of J, until I am giddy and full. How can I leave?

I sit quiet, look out the window at the restless gray sea. A glass of white wine before me, a plate of hummus and pita in the middle of the table. It is a normal dinner, two people in love. Except we are in Israel. I am American. He is Palestinian.

There you go again, I can hear him say. You insist on putting those walls between us. They’re only there because you imagine them. I have been behind those walls for almost two years. They seem daily more insurmountable. I am leaving in a month to go back to the U.S.

Yalla,” he had said that morning in the West Bank. “Let’s go eat fish by the sea.” My heart lifted. We got in the battered Peugot and drove through towns and cities where we didn’t hold hands in public like this, because it wasn’t done. We drove out of the gray overcast West Bank along a road lined with glowing red poppies, through mountain valleys, away from the Wall. The Peugot breezed through checkpoints because J has a Jerusalem ID, so his car has a yellow Israeli license plate. Plus, with my blond hair and white skin I look like an American settler. We tipped our hands to the Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints, and they waved us by. We drove laughing past the blinking blue lights of the armored jeeps. We curved down from the mountains of the West Bank, across the flat belly of Israel’s plains, through the ghosts of Palestinian villages past, and the lingering stubborn villages of Palestinian-Israeli present.

It is like this every day. The thin lips of laughter drawn over the dry teeth of occupation.

Living in the West Bank is a daily evaluation: Could I live here? It is a question and an answer. I do live here. But every day I reassess. My changeable decision is swayed by my gut. One day I look out over ancient hills and feel as rooted as the olive trees.  Then a string of lonely days are spent all in Arabic and I resolve to go. There is the elastic pull between family and lover. The muttered leers of men on the street wear at me, though my tolerance levels fluctuate. Some days I am immune to the whispers of “ajnabia”, foreign girl, that trail me through the streets. Other days it is my sensitive open wound, and all words are salt.

It is impossible to forget though: ajanib, foreigners, can leave. I want to belong, to be Palestinian, but my blue U.S. passport allows me a range of possibilities, a whole wide world of them. Palestinians dig their roots in deep and don’t leave until they are exiled or displaced, and become refugees.

The skies clear, and the rain dries from the windows. The room feels lighter. He smiles at me from across the table.

I am leaving, and this wavers between us, our fragile day-to-day existence tempered by the coming pain. Broken up one day, together again the next, we kiss, we fight, we love, we wear each other down. In his smile, I see a plea. Stay with me. Don’t go.

The waiter sets plates before us, and steam rises from the fish and condenses in drops on our wine glasses. We live together in this ending. The fish disappears in flaked forkfuls, the clink of our wine glasses, the low murmur of the sea.

BAKERAbout Beth: Beth Baker lives and writes in Missoula, Montana. Her writing has appeared in or is pending at the Christian Science Monitor, Punchnel’s, The Montana Naturalist, and A Natural History of Now, an anthology of new nature writing. She has read her work at Wordstock and Wild Mercy. She is currently working on a memoir called Unsettled, and blogs at magpietidings.wordpress.com.

Emergency

I closed my eyes and saw red hair.

I opened my eyes and saw blood.

“Your veins are being stubborn,” the nurse said to John. “They won’t give me any blood.” She laughed, a rehearsed kind of laugh. She was used to cracking jokes for patients’ sake. John forced an empty, nervous laugh. His veins were as stubborn as he was.

We were lying in hospital beds, maybe five or six feet apart. After several attempts, the nurse finally filled a syringe with some of John’s blood. They had taken a sample from me, too. Now they were prying with the needle again in our skinny arms, searching for the big artery. Veins are trickier, smaller, harder to find beneath the flesh, but with needles in veins you just feel a prick. A needle in an artery hurts like hell.

I tightened my jaw and breathed in. The nurse found mine easily, jabbed the needle through my skin and connected the IV. She patted my arm reassuringly. I looked over at John. His face had turned as white as the hospital bed sheets. He squirmed. He hadn’t done well with the blood samples. His chest was heaving now, and I could hear his breath quickening.

“He’s having a panic attack,” I called out to the nurse.

The nurse sat down beside him, put a hand on his shoulder, spoke softly and rubbed his arm. I knew she wouldn’t help him by doing that.

“He gets panic attacks,” I said. “And he hates needles.” I knew everything about him, or at least I thought I did.

I closed my eyes and saw her. Abigail. I saw her red hair, her stupid, unapologetic smile. She was three years younger than me then–nineteen– and I hated everything about her. She was there, in the space between John and me, but when I opened my eyes, it was just the nurse standing under the humming florescent lights.

I inhaled deeply, whether from the memory of him confessing earlier that winter, or from the lack of oxygen, or both. Then the two nurses strapped the masks on us. They told us to breathe normally, that we’d need to stay there for a while, just to be safe. But I hadn’t breathed normally since December, when I found out about Abigail. I had taken off school that fall so I could do an internship in Washington, D.C., leaving John and Ohio behind. Before I left he said it was okay, we’d be fine. He told me a lot of things, that he loved me. Once I was gone, phone calls became shorter, then no answer at all sometimes. He couldn’t come visit because of school, because of money. I had known, I think, all along about her, about someone else, at least.

Breathe.           

The oxygen was helping. Oxygen works as an antidote to carbon monoxide poisoning. It quickens the removal of carbon monoxide from hemoglobin, which in turn stabilizes the body with normal levels of oxygen.

John looked over at me from his bed. I wanted to yell at him as I thought about her. But he looked so frightened, so helpless, so pale. Behind my oxygen mask, John could not see that my lips were trembling.

“Do you live together?” one of the nurses asked.

“Practically,” I said, fogging up the plastic of the mask. John was a ghost now, and maybe I was to him, too. I said I had forgiven him, but we both knew I didn’t. He stayed at my apartment most nights because he thought it would make up for what he had done. I let him stay because I thought it would make me forget.

The nurse smiled and pulled our beds together. John’s face was turned toward me now, his bright blue eyes washed out in the harsh hospital lighting.

“I just want you to know that I’m sorry,” he said when the nurse left. His words were muffled behind the mask. He was apologizing because he was thinking about dying. He reached out and gently squeezed my hand, using all the strength left in his punctured arm.

Breathe.

§

“Why do you think you have carbon monoxide poisoning?” the first nurse had asked before. She probably thought we were high or something. My eyes were heavy, and I was having a difficult time focusing on her as she checked our vital signs.

Carbon monoxide is absorbed when you breathe and enters the bloodstream through gas exchanged in the lungs. That’s what had happened that night. We were rushed into the ER immediately after checking in around 11 p.m., past all the people in the crowded waiting room.

I explained that the gas company had come to my apartment earlier that night and took a reading. The CO2 levels were off the charts, they told us.

“Oh,” the nurse said, raising her eyebrows. “Let’s get you right back then.”

I had insisted on going to the hospital, even after John and I left my toxic apartment, windows thrown open to let the cold March winds waft out the gas. John had not wanted to go—I knew it was because hospitals gave him panic attacks. On the car ride to his dad’s house, where we were going to stay for a night or two, I was feeling weak and lightheaded.

“I don’t feel well,” I said.

“What’s wrong?”

“My head. My head is spinning.”

I closed my eyes and saw red hair.

“I have a headache, too,” he said.

We dropped our hastily packed bags at his dad’s house, and John drove us to the hospital. On the way there, my vision was blurring as I gazed out the window at the frost-covered hills. All I could think about was what the men from Columbia Gas had said.

“It’s a good thing you called us. If you had slept in here tonight, you could have been dead in the morning,” said one of the men who inspected my apartment. “Especially with living on the second floor. Gas rises.”

Gas rises, I thought, and like the worst lies, it can suffocate you.

Breathe.

§

There was a knock on my apartment door earlier that night. One of the girls who lived in the apartment below was wondering if my apartment smelled like gas. She and her roommates had noticed the smell that afternoon. I told her we couldn’t smell anything, but we called the gas company anyway. They came an hour or so later, and a few workers inspected the basement and ground floor, then checked my apartment upstairs. The gas water heater in the basement had broken, they said, and it was leaking gas and carbon monoxide into the house. There was a carbon monoxide detector installed in the first-floor apartment, but it hadn’t gone off.

John and I had spent most of that day inside, studying for exams. It was an excuse for silence, because silence without an excuse would have been unbearable. It was March, I had known about Abigail for months, and a palpable tension punctuated our every interaction.

When I had to face him in January, the first time after his confession, he came to me with rosy cheeks from the cold and red eyes from crying. He said he’d never do it again. I slapped him, so hard I almost apologized. I had thought it would be satisfying. I thought I’d smile and say, “You deserved that,” and walk away, unflinching. But instead, I stayed. I let him wrap his arms around me in my kitchen, and I didn’t tell him to leave. Instead, I cried, and he held me closer.

Since that day, we lingered in a forced silence, because talking about the obvious would mean falling apart.

§

In the emergency room I was feeling cold. The nurse brought me an extra blanket. I fidgeted in my bed—my arm was aching from the IV. Hospitals are never comfortable. No one ever wants to be in a hospital bed.

There was a girl on the other side of the emergency room, strapped down to a gurney. Her bare feet were dirty and bound together with a lock and metal chain. A fabric strap around her stomach secured her to the bed, and her thick, dark brown hair was unbound and unruly around her face.

She noticed me staring at her, and her eyes darted between John and me, from my bed to his and back to mine. I thought she was holding her hand in a fist at her side, but when I shifted my eyes from her scowling face to her hand I realized she was giving me the finger. She held her fist there, forcefully, an act of defiance against who knows what. She threw up her jaw and her mouth twisted into a snarl. She looked like an animal.

Suddenly, I was afraid everyone in the ER might have noticed that her gesture was meant for me. I turned to John, but he hadn’t seen any of it. His eyes were closed, blocking out the uneasiness that the hospital made him feel.

I looked back at the girl, and she was jeering at me, middle finger still extended. I thought of Abigail, red hair around her. This girl in the ER wasn’t her, but it didn’t matter. Abigail was always there.

Soon, a doctor and police officer came over and rolled her away.

Breathe.

Another doctor, the one who was treating us, came over to tell us that they had detected traces of carbon monoxide in our blood. We’d have to stay there another hour. In our separate beds, we laid in silence, and I wondered if John was thinking about her.

When the nurses told us we had had enough oxygen, they took the IVs out of our arms and let us go. They told us to not go back to the apartment tonight but that we’d be fine. The poisoning was not serious, and there would be no long-term effects.

I closed my eyes and there was red hair. I opened my eyes and there was no blood, no crazed girl on a gurney.

Breathe.

The oxygen was coming back to my head. We were free to leave the hospital.

mullin authorAbout Emily: Emily Mullin grew up in the hills of Western Pennsylvania, among steel plants and abandoned coal mines. She nows lives in Washington, D.C., where she works as a health and science journalist. Her creative writing has been published in Silent Things, The Minutiae and Line Zero, and her reporting has appeared in newspapers in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Texas. She is the co-founder and managing editor of TOSKA Magazine, an online literary journal of creative nonfiction.

Balloons

I knew his name before I ever knew who he was.

At St. Thomas More High School, the more popular you were, the more variations your name had. Barlow Lancelot: Bar. Lance. King (as in Arthur?). But there were so many popular senior boys that he didn’t stand out until the spring musical. He was the unexpected star of Grease, his Kenickie easily out-shining the affable Danny. I’d seen the movie more times than I could count, having watched it daily during my eleventh winter. I knew every burp in the old VHS, every place where Mom had pressed the pause button just a smidgen late; I knew all the scenes where Olivia Newton John wore a fake ponytail, had nailed the hand jive choreography. When the announcement of the spring musical was made, I wished I had the nerve to audition, dreamed of playing Rizzo, was almost coaxed into joining as an extra, but ultimately settled for attending three performances, two of which I was seated in the front row.

I was one of those below average freshman girls, not pretty or skinny enough to elicit upperclassmen attention, not artsy or weird enough to elicit upperclassmen ridicule. Nothing special. Which is exactly why, when the idea came to me, I knew that I might just be nobody enough to pull it off.

At STM, with its prison architecture and frigid air conditioning, the balloon kiosk served as the administration’s emblem of fun. It was the place where students could purchase balloons for other students, whose names would be called during the afternoon announcements. The beginning of the year was always the business boom, the excitement of back to school buoyed by consumerism. On their birthdays, the popular kids could hardly wrestle every last balloon into their cars (inevitably one popped or was given away to some lucky passerby). Heartbreak was a fourteen-year-old boy waiting after school for his mom holding a single happy birthday balloon. But I liked to fancy myself the only balloon secret admirer.

There was an art to it.

I recognized almost all of the mothers working the balloon counter; their enthusiasm betrayed smug gratitude for their popular children. That first day, the mother stared hard at me, as though she was trying to read a riddle in my blank face and shiny brown hair.

But I had tailored a list of foolproof rules to keep me safe: never make eye contact; act natural; always use exact change; make the purchase during first lunch, when most of the seniors were still in class and most of the freshmen were ballooning up on grease from the cafeteria. I slipped the note into the envelope, already queasy at my rhyme:

School’s more exciting
when I see your smile
My mind and my body
taken over, Kenickie-style

§

That day I bolted right after school, too scared to watch him retrieve his balloon, sure that he’d intuitively know it was me. The second one he picked up a day late and I only glimpsed him ripping open the envelope as Amy, my best friend, dragged me out into the parking lot. Already she was getting exasperated by my devotion. When I’d said “secret admirer” she envisioned more note-passing in Biology. What she hadn’t anticipated was me brainstorming clever rhymes while she watched Saved By the Bell virtually alone after school. You just missed Slater’s afro jiggle! What is wrong with you?

From my locker I watched Barlow retrieve the third balloon, betraying (could this be real?) excitement. At the very least curiosity. The play had been over for a month now. He read quickly, then put the note back in the envelope and into his back pocket. He patted it once, then looked awkwardly at the balloon. He made a reticent move towards the trashcan, shook himself straight, and strode to the door like he’d just been given a scholarship to somewhere he wanted to go.

Still, I knew I was blowing up a fantasy that was sure to be popped. How long could I keep cranking out these cutesy rhymes before he got bored? And one day, wouldn’t one of the Blonde Bobs (Amy’s name for the mothers) get wind of my name, perhaps mention it to her kid, who mentioned it to…

Charlotte Goodwin. Her name was synonymous with talent. She wrote poetry that got published in teen lit journals like Stone Soup, had danced the Nutcracker since she was six, and was the best Rizzo since Stockard Channing. She was the only sophomore girl in the freshmen second period P.E. because of her private piano lesson during sophomore P.E. She was rightfully peeved. For starters, second period was the very worst for P.E. because you’re wearing the muggy Louisiana grime-air by ten o’clock. Even worse, freshmen P.E. was “taught” by Coach Arnold, who wore too-tight polyester shorts that crept up his chunky inner thighs. He also ogled the pretty skinny girls.

With the exception of a few die-hard athletes, most of the prettyskinnies hated P.E., and Coach Arnold was a willing sacrificial lamb for their severe protests. As long as they moaned and complained, he smiled and cajoled. The more they fluttered their eyelids or caressed their flat stomachs (But I just got my period, Coach Arnold!), the more he’d flash that sweaty-eyed grin (Then it’s a perfect time for you to work out some of those cramps!). As for those of us who had flabby arms and tummies untamed by our P.E. shorts, well, we became part of the outdoor shrubbery, blending right into the blue and maroon stripes running the length of the basketball court.

Though Charlotte definitely qualified as a prettyskinny, she seemed to derive no pleasure from his attention. Somehow, we’d become cursory friends. We exchanged glances when Coach Arnold’s butt crack crept out of his polyester as he demonstrated a discus throw, discussed the probability of Bill Clinton inhaling, partnered up for the medicine ball toss.

She mentioned nothing about Barlow’s balloons. It was easy to forget that she was dating (probably having sex with!) the guy I thought about even more than Father Louie, the young priest who said Mass once a month at school. Sure, she got to kiss him. But I made him smile sometimes, and he didn’t even know my name.

§

Amy and I watched Grease in her loft bedroom with two twin beds. Her room was all pinks and whites and the softest cotton. A box of Lucky Charms was spread out on the floor in front of us so that we could more easily pick the marshmallows from the cardboard cereal. When we got to the slumber party scene, I dutifully performed Jan’s “Brush-a, brush-a, brush-a” song without a flaw. Amy laughed so hard that she spit a chunk of blue marshmallow out onto the floor. I laughed, too, but I was tired of loving that song. Tired of going along with the consensus (established years before) that we should fast forward through “Hopelessly Devoted to You” because it was too long, too boring. If I couldn’t even admit to my best friend how much I loved Sandy’s nightgown in that scene, wasn’t I the actress?

That night, bloated, I wrote rhyme after rhyme and rejected them all.

§

Amy was right, I would get caught. And the craziest part? I didn’t care.

In fact, my fear of getting found out was dwarfed by my fear of no longer writing rhymes, pushing a damp dollar bill across the counter, imagining the cigar box where he stashed all my notes. I thought about school without the balloons: gray and over-air-conditioned. Classes I’d long ago grown bored with, and the looming Theology assignment of memorizing—and then reciting to the entire class—the names of all sixty-six books of the Bible. Old and New Testament.

And then one day in P.E. Charlotte and I were getting changed in the locker-room while all the other girls tried desperately to de-frizz their hair and resurrect their soggy faces. She turned abruptly towards me just as I was tugging my shirt on over my bra. My eye barely caught hers as she glimpsed my belly. Flustered, it took me a minute to register her words.

Barlow got into Brown. And he’s going. He’s, like, practically enrolled already. And I’m really happy for him, I just don’t know if I want a long distance relationship, you know? I mean, he’s going to be so far away, surrounded by so many new girls, who are going to be, obviously, so pretty and smart—here she takes a breath and I’m trying to figure out why she’s spilling this to me—I mean, college isn’t like high school where there are so few original and interesting people it’s easy to be someone special, or noticeable.

I nod.

If I were him, I’m sure I’d want to be free to explore my options.

I’m still nodding, but she looks like she expects a response so I say:

So are you, like, breaking up with him?

I say it because I’m actually curious about how she’ll deal with this major crisis, but as it slips out of my mouth I remember the note I sent him just yesterday—

Your eyes warm these frigid halls
Your mouth looks good enough to eat
Your voice echoes off the walls
And my heart skips, skips a beat

—and I sort of catch myself and for the first time since she started talking, Charlotte seems to notice me. She sighs.

Well, I don’t think I’ll break up with him until he leaves. Because there are still two more months of school, and prom’s coming up, and it would suck to have to be at school without a boyfriend.

And then Charlotte starts to cry. Not belly sobs, but tears so real I have to stop myself from touching them. Instead I hug her. I feel her small body shaking, her crying tapering and then finding renewed strength as she no doubt remembers all the great sex they have. And as I imagine all the things that she is going to miss about her boyfriend—his disheveled morning hair, the stubble that is popular among the senior and junior boys—I realize that I really know nothing about him.

And for the first time since Grease, I’m mad. Mad because here I am comforting a girl who gets to hold hands with her boyfriend in the hallway, gets to shop for prom dresses with her friends, gets to roll her eyes when Coach Arnold compliments her badminton swing. Mad because it would be worth it to have my high school boyfriend leave for a fancy college with prettier, cooler girls than me, if it meant getting to have a high school boyfriend. Mad because Charlotte doesn’t even seem to notice the secret admirer that is weekly assaulting her boyfriend with elegant poetry. Mad because those tears are mine.

§

Mad because now the thrill was over. Barlow was going to Brown; I was running out of rhymes and dollar bills. I needed to end it. But how?

For a few days, I thought about Rizzo’s sorrowful song and tortured myself with thoughts of the worst things I could do. I could sing, “You’re the One that I Want,” outside his bedroom window. I could declare my love in a letter so long it would weigh the balloon down to the ground.

Instead, I called him one night from a tent of sheets on my bed. I could hear the television in the living room, could smell the spaghetti I’d eaten for supper on my breath. Though I knew he was probably at home doing trigonometry problems at the kitchen table, I couldn’t stop thinking about Kenickie at the car race down at the L.A. River. I hung up a few times until I didn’t.

I begged him to never tell anyone at school. I wanted to believe him when he assured me he wouldn’t. My balloon admirer hadn’t been played on a major frequency, but it certainly had been picked up as a minor buzz on STM’s gossip channel. Barlow was popular, which meant he had no loyalties beyond his crowd. Why would he keep this juicy bit a secret? Then again, I thought, what if he keeps it a secret out of embarrassment? After all, no one knows who I am. Maybe he won’t tell because there’s nothing, really, to tell.

Here is what I will never forget:

You’re a freshman? Wow. From those notes I guessed you were at least a junior. I kinda thought you were one of the senior girls just playing a trick on me.

And there you had it. My writing had transformed me into one of the cool! senior! girls playing a trick on Barlow! I could not have been more thrilled.

§

As long as I can remember, I’ve hated endings. Most kids grieve the end of summer, but I’ve always grieved the end of the school year; summer happens again and again, but fifth grade is only once, and then it’s gone. The first time I saw the ending of Grease I was annoyed that Danny and Sandy’s red convertible becomes airborne, heaven-bound. Even at twelve, I knew I would never be as thin as Sandy, as bad-ass as Rizzo, would never nab the most popular guy at school. I could still imagine it though. But a flying car? From then on, I always stopped the tape before it happened.

The real ending of this story, the honest one, goes like this: Barlow still didn’t notice me at school. And the following year, after he’d gone to Brown, Charlotte began dating Keith Broussard, the guy who played Putzie in Grease. Though we usually smiled and said hey in the hallways, she never really talked to me again.

But I wish this story ended with me floating away on a balloon. Set adrift above the gray prison of St. Thomas More High School, unworried about my flabby arms and eleven-minute mile. I wish I could tell you that I became close friends with Charlotte and she helped me to unleash some of my own creative talent. I wish I could tell you that Barlow found me at school the next day and dragged me down an isolated hall just as the bell rang to begin class. He kissed me passionately, met my gaze, and then drifted away to Physics. I wish I could say I played a Pink Lady in a local production of Grease a few years later when I went to college. Mostly, I wish I could tell you that I was sent a few happy birthday balloons that freshman year. And boy, it sure felt good to walk outside into the thick Louisiana air and wrestle those suckers into the back seat of Amy’s mom’s Corolla.

About Jessica: Jessica Dur Taylor lives and writes in Santa Rosa, California, to the tune of her husband’s piano playing and their daughter’s happy shrieking. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Prick of the Spindle, Fractured West, Recess Magazine, Hipmama, Hobo Camp Review, and others. She blogs at www.gyrlwryter.blogspot.com.

Fresh and Hot from My Mother’s Oven

Judy shifted in the booth across from me, relaxing into her usual slumped-forward state— arms crossed, chin up, cigarette in mouth. “I know you like to write about places,” she said. “But why here? What’s so special about this Pizza Rhea?”

My response—“Why not?”—contained several, hidden reasons: Because I work for the same establishment fifty-seven miles north. Because I’m also a waitress who runs about in a tacky red apron and matching baseball cap.

Because the entire “Pizza Rhea” franchise has to do with our reunion.

“Well, it’s messy in here today,” Mom said, pointing toward a miniscule pile of crumbs on the floor. “I’m gonna say something to Christie.” Then she took a long drag from her cigarette.

My Aunt Christie is the evening manager at the Rushville, Indiana Pizza Rhea. Their slogan—Bringing Families Together, One Slice at a Time—has a different meaning for my family.

As if on cue, Aunt Christie came running into the dining room carrying another tray full of breadsticks and beer, barely missing the wooden doorframe on her way. She managed to stumble safely into the booth beside my mother. Being accident-prone is a family trait. My mother broke her arm once falling from a stool. I broke my foot scampering from cops in platform pumps. My aunt, she just runs into things—doorframes, walls, gumball machines, invisible children. And she’s broken all of her toes. Twice.

“Whoa,” my aunt said, sitting down, “I just about ran into the damn wall.”

“I noticed,” I replied.

Aunt Christie tucked her long blonde hair behind her ears and smiled a big cheesy smile. “Ok,” she said, “I’m ready to be interviewed.”

“I’m not here to write about you,” I said.

Aunt Christie frowned. I think. She, my mother, and I all have the same frown. No matter how grave a situation might be, our frowns actually look like smiles—like we’re trying our best not to crack up. “Ok, Christie,” I said, humoring her. “Compare your life to a pizza.”

Before my aunt had a chance to elaborate on her instantaneous response—“Messy!”—my mother interrupted: “Why are you asking her questions?” Mom lit a new cigarette. The filter from her last was still smoldering in the ashtray.

“I’m just here to write,” I said, my hands defensively splayed at my shoulders. My Aunt Christie looked as if she might sucker punch my mom for disrupting. “Anyhow, where were we?” I asked. “Oh right, messy. Why messy?”

I caught the first part of my Aunt Christie’s response. It was something like, “Well, when you paste a pizza, you automatically get crap everywhere. It’s like ‘pasting life’. You can try to make it as neat as possible but, no matter what, you’re gonna get crap everywhere and….”

I stopped listening. Though I kept my pen moving, I nonchalantly looked around the dining room, making mental notes: So this is the Pizza Rhea where my biological mother works. So this is the town in which I was born twenty-three years ago.

So this is what it feels like to have my mother stare darts at me while I try my damnedest not to return her gaze.

The dining room was halved into two sections—smoking and second-hand smoking. A giant double-door frame separated the rooms. In the non-smoking area a middle-aged couple occupied a table, whispering and leaning toward each other as if engulfed in a game of “Win, Lose, or Draw” and one of them knew an answer. They’re talking about us, I thought. Somehow, they know our story. Mom and Aunt Christie and I are stick figures on poster board to them, with yellow marker streaks for hair. Because of the glances this couple kept shooting us, I half-expected one of them to shout, “Oh, I know! They’re a classic depiction of an estranged Midwestern family. Just look at the scowl on the mother’s face and the confused expression on the daughter’s. And that other one, the chatty one, well, she’s handicapped. There’s one in every family in Indiana!” I giggled to myself because, sure enough, Aunt Christie, God bless her, was still talking about her life in comparison to making a pizza.

I looked around and made mental notes of the dining room décor. Everything was glazed wood. Glazed wood paneling, glazed wood tables, glazed wood booths with red cushions, glazed wood chairs. It was like a hell for naughty maids doomed to dust their afterlives away.

The windows were stained-glass squares in the wall making yellow, green, and red streaks shimmer on the tile floor and tabletops. So this dining room is like a hell with stained-glass windows, I thought. Then it must be Purgatory or Limbo—a place of indecision, where people get stuck for awhile until they figure something out. And it’s either up or down from there.

Smoke from my mom’s cigarette twinkled and waved in the light as if bidding adieu before evaporating forever.

“The baking process is kind of like going through middle age,” Aunt Christie said, nudging my mother.

“I wish I was baked right now,” my mom said. I giggled. “Don’t write that down, Abby.”

“Are you going to write about the Pizza Rhea you work for?” Aunt Christie leaned across the table in an attempt to read what I had written. I backed up, pulling my folder to my chest. “I only want a sip of your beer,” she whispered. I pushed my mug toward her.

“Well, the Pizza Rhea I work for is bigger, but not quite as sanctuary-like,” I said, making a small orbit with my index finger in the air. “It’s not quite as dim lit and archaic. This place is medieval. I love the décor of glazed wood. You know it must suck to dust in here. Like hell for naughty maids doomed to dust their afterlives away.”

Mom and Aunt Christie had stopped listening to me. Both of their eyes were on the television behind my head. I’d forgotten to previously note the only not wood-glazed item in the dining room: the TV.

“Reunions are on Montel,” my mom said, poking her cigarette into the air. “I called them once looking for you.” She smiled at me. Or wait, maybe she frowned. I couldn’t tell.

“Well, here I am now! And who woulda guessed I’d be a waitress just like you!” I knew eventually the topic of our reunion would come up. Always does.

Staring at the TV, I noticed that my mother’s eyes were glazed—not pie-eyed like a woman in love, but earnestly transfixed on remembering something. “In my head you were a nurse. In Metamora, Indiana. That’s where I thought Welfare took you. Metamora.”

“How would you compare your life to a pizza?” Aunt Christie asked me.

Good question.

I was born kind of like a pizza—fresh and hot from my mother’s oven. Only I wasn’t served right away. I was rushed to an isolated nursery where I was put in an incubator, kept warm like a little carryout. Eventually Welfare services picked me up. Then they delivered me to a family a few cities safely away. “Here’s your baby, ma’am. That’ll be two thousand dollars and fifty cents.”

“Only I get to ask the questions,” I said to my aunt, smiling. “The next one’s for Mom.” My mother furled her brow; her eyes narrowed, and her lips parted slightly. I asked, “What do you think about me working at Pizza Rhea too?”

Mom exhaled emphatically. “Oh, I think it’s weird,” she said, rolling her neck.

Jeez, did she think I was going to badger her about my biological father again? I knew better.

“But it was cool. Like we turned out the same after so long. Except you’re doing this kind of stuff.”

“What kind of stuff?” I asked, defensively.

“Writing. I wish I could do that.”

“Well, Mom,” I said, “You can. It’s never too late to be a writer.”

Mom shrugged and turned to my aunt. “Okay, Christie,” she said. “Your turn.”

I followed suit, asking Aunt Christie if there was anything she cared to elaborate on: About working for the Pizza Rhea franchise; about making metaphorical pizzas.

“Mushrooms are like kids. They’re optional!” Aunt Christie laughed at her analogy. My mom shot Aunt Christie an angry glare. “Do you like mushrooms?” Christie continued, oblivious.

“No,” I said. “I don’t like kids much.”

Aunt Christie, my mother, and I all struggle with verbal impulse control. My mom slips expletives into her speech, unaware of her surroundings. On rare occasions, a person with young children nearby asks Mom to watch her language. To which she promptly responds, “Watch your bastards.”

Aunt Christie and I are bad about making inappropriate jokes—“Hey, who scraped the kitchen floor and dumped the trash bin onto this large pizza?” and “Here’s your medium crap pizza with a side of crap sauce, sir.” These jokes, harmless as my Aunt Christie and I figure them to be, got us both reprimanded at our own, separate Pizza Rhea’s. Twice.

The couple in the non-smoking area had gotten up; they were approaching our table.

“Judy?” A woman with thick glasses in faded jeans and a leather jacket stood a foot or so away, eyeing my mother. She’s eyeing Mom, I thought. I knew it, she knows more about my relinquishment than I do. Maybe she knew my father. Maybe she gave birth to my father’s ninth or tenth kid. Maybe she’s a Pizza Rhea regular, or Mom’s stockbroker, or my half-sister.

My mother smiled at the woman. Or frowned. One of the two.

“Hey, Sidney,” Mom said, “Doin’ good?”

The woman, Sidney, nodded. “I am.” She glared down at me. I shifted in my seat and searched my pockets for a cigarette. I took a long sip of beer, glancing nonchalantly over my mug, pretending to make mental notes of everything but Sidney. It’s not like I’d never experienced strange glares around my mother before, I simply wasn’t used to them. Nevertheless, my eyes kept bouncing back to Sidney.

Mom noticed my uneasiness. “Well, it was nice seein’ ya’,” she said. Sidney nodded and walked off, peering curiously over her shoulder at me as she went.

The sunlight through the stained-glass windows darkened a bit. I wondered who Sidney was—to my mom, to my aunt, to me. Mom didn’t say.

The dining room was empty except for the three of us. “C’mon, guys, give me more to write about,” I pressed.

“Well,” Aunt Christie began, “What else. Oh, we take great pride in our jukebox! It’s got tons of Hank Williams on it and a rare Lynyrd Skynyrd album.”

I hoped I looked impressed when I smiled and nodded at my aunt, and that my smile didn’t accidentally look like a frown. I shuddered at the thought of both my mom and Aunt Christie strumming air guitars to “Free Bird”, picking at imaginary chords with their teeth like Allen Collins once did.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t stand Lynyrd Skynyrd!” I blurted, smacking my palm against my head. “And, you know what? I’ve been writing about you guys the whole time. Little things. Your frowny smiles, for example.”

Mom and Aunt Christie exchanged glances.

“Are you drunk?” Mom asked.

I shook my head no.

Aunt Christie asked. “Do you need more beer?”

I shrugged. I really shouldn’t drink more, I thought, but what else can I do?

“Drink more,” Aunt Christie persisted. “That way, once you get sloshed, you can fall in the kitchen and hit your head on the stove again. That’s something to write about.”

I giggled. “My damn head hurt for a week.”

“My mouth hurt from laughing for a week.”

Mom put out her cigarette. “That’s one thing you get from your father.”

Aunt Christie and I froze.

“Falling down drunk?” I asked, stammering, surprised by Mom’s confession. “Because I only did that once around you. Or are you saying that my biological father also hated Lynyrd Skynyrd?”

Mom chuckled, “Well, both actually. He was always gettin’ himself stuck and screwed up in the strangest of places.” She took a big sip from her mug and smacked her lips. “Somehow though,” she continued, “he would pull himself out with a big ol’ grin on his face.”

Now, the only photograph I’d ever seen of my biological father was an out-of-focus computer printout. He was playing the bass guitar. His thick brown hair was frazzled like a child’s depiction of a man with one finger in a light socket. The photograph was a profile shot, so I could barely see any distinct features in his face.

I misplaced the photo anyhow. So, now, I’ve no memory of an expression, only a recollection of a flaccid cigarette dangling from his shaded lips.

“What’s wrong?” Mom asked. “You’re frowning.”

“I don’t remember that printout of him.” I figured it better not say “my father” or “Dad.” Or “Michael.” Or “Mr. Sansoni.” Or “That guy with whom you had two children.”

“Good for you,” Mom said. She was frowning. Wait, no; that’s a smile. That’s satisfaction in her eyes. Mom was pleased I’d lost the picture. “Are you mad that I don’t have more pictures?” she asked.

I shook my head no and peered into my folder. I furled my brow in feigned deliberation over the scratches and loops I’d inattentively made with my pen. I thought, it’s crazy that she even initiated a discussion about my biological father. Even if he were alive, he wouldn’t be the one sitting across from me, allowing me to write about him; about us.

“No,” I said, decisively, “I’m not mad at all.”

Mom lit another cigarette. Sunlight meagerly broke through the stained glass windows; then it faded. Shadows caught the hue of the smoke — silvery blonde and pale, like Mom’s hair and face and fingernails. “Now you can remember him however you’d like,” she said.

I shut my folder and laughed. The first image of my biological father that came into my head was one of a stick figure with coiled brown marker streaks for hair, smoking a stick cigarette and smiling.

About Abby: Abigail Higgs received her M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore in May 2012. She wishes to thank her moms: Janet and Judy.