The 125th Commandment

The week Amy got her first disciple was the same as many others that year. The morning radio talked about the eruption of Kilauea off in Hawaii, and at Glendening Elementary, Ms. Welch read the third graders Twenty-One Balloons and Lizard Music so they could better understand the nature of volcanoes. All Amy knew of them she had learned from a children’s science program on PBS where they had shown how life was returning twenty years after the last eruption of a mountain (whose name she couldn’t remember), but the pretty host of the show was wrapped in a blue duffle coat and green leg warmers, so it must have been someplace cold. Later the volcano had blown again, she couldn’t remember when, and all she could think of was how silly the gophers had been to move back, to settle in as if the danger was over. Silly, silly pocket gophers, it’s never over, she had thought. Their babies must have died too. If she was a pocket gopher she would protect all the babies from eruptions big and small, then build them houses on something quiet and sedimentary, just like sweet Jesus did.


The idea of Peter being Jesus’s rock had comforted her almost as much as hearing that if she put a quarter in the basket and sang on key she would eventually go to a place where there was no screaming, only harps and wings and songs with regular measures. She had looked around for a rock on which to build but had been disappointed in what she found. Her brother Michael would make a poor rock on account of him being obstinate and swearing all the time.


Amy certainly was with her babysitter enough for her to be a good candidate, but Diana was a shaky foundation at best, being always five seconds away from a major meltdown. Plus, the way she kept her fingernails filed to points and painted cherry red wasn’t all that church-like, and Jesus probably didn’t approve of how she treated the baby. Then again, she was making the decisions here, not Jesus, but she agreed with Jesus on this one, so, no, Diana just wouldn’t do. Ms. Welch was calm and orderly, which Amy appreciated, but after 3:00 p.m. she went her own way and Amy went hers. A part-time rock was like no rock at all. After looking most of the week, she finally broke down Thursday morning and asked her mother.


“I’m starting a religion, Mom. Would you be my rock after they crucify me?”


The rusted Mustang struggled up the incline in the 5:00 a.m. dark of the winter morning. Her mother was silent, face focused forward on the skyline of the city in the distance.


“Really, Mom, I need someone to do this, okay? I don’t want to go around setting up people for glory just to find out later I didn’t have the right rock so nobody cared. Okay? Okay, Mom, okay?”


“Amy, please, it’s early, have a little pity.”


Although she’d been told many times that her mother’s nerves were shot from nightly data entry classes at the vocational school; even though she’d been told that no one likes a blabbermouth like her cousin Charlie’s wife, Lynn, who, it was said, could’ve helped the boys win last year’s Labor Day raft race if only they’d used her mouth as a motor; and even though she hadn’t even written her own commandments yet, so wasn’t entirely sure what her religion would require, she continued talking.


“It wouldn’t take much, Mom. You’d just need to walk around telling people how great I’d been and, well, come out and meet me when I come back. That’s a big part. I’d like it if maybe you could bring some chocolate milk with you when you come meet me on the road. I’ll probably be pretty thirsty after being dead three days and all. Okay?”


“I’ll get you a rock all right,” Michael murmured from the back seat, “upside your head.” The summer before he had entered a new level of cool, being eleven and all. During lunch recess, he and his friends would jump the back fence and smoke by the creek. When Amy would try to follow, they’d say, “No, teachers’ll miss your mouth.” He listened to Aerosmith and Stevie Ray Vaughn and took down all his Michael Jackson and Culture Club posters.


“Well, you’re not going to be my rock, so there.”


He pushed on the back of her seat, jostling her forward and causing her neck to struggle against the seatbelt.


“Fuck you.” He hit the seat again.


“Watch that mouth.” Their mother came out of her traffic-induced haze and adjusted the heater vent, sending a blast of warm air toward the back seat.


“Why? What’s it gonna do? Tricks?”


“I mean it. Diana says she won’t take either of you anymore if you mouth off again. Says the other kids are picking it up.”


“What? That slut Tracy’s only 16 and’s got a kid already. There’s a bad influence around there, but it ain’t me.”


“Michael, hush.”


“You know Diana offered me macaroni and cheese for a week if I’d go throw a bag of dog shit on the dude’s porch?”
Amy perked up at the mention of macaroni and cheese. She thought she heard her mother whisper “trash.”


“I wish I had the money to keep you over at Judy’s, but she’s asking more than I’ve got.”


“Why, Mom? What’s wrong with Diana’s?” Amy asked.


“Huh? Oh Amy, don’t worry about it. And don’t you go saying anything to her about what I said either.”


Their mother went back to focusing on the traffic, waiting for it to ease up so she could make the left-hand turn into the babysitter’s driveway. The children opened their doors and said their goodbyes, and their mother pulled away into the morning traffic that would take her the half hour to the Dyserts’ fertilizer factory out on Route 33. Amy liked that her mother was working for the Dyserts now, not only because the pay was more regular than temping as a secretary, but also because all the pennies in her pockets came back green, which Amy took as a sure sign her mother was magical and indeed worthy of being her rock.


Once inside the coal and wood fire-scented coziness and chaos of Diana’s, they went into their regular routine. Michael headed for the new addition, where the black and orange afghan was already waiting for him, still crumpled on the edge of the couch where he’d left it the night before. There were plans to add siding sometime soon, but for now the addition was just the old back porch enclosed with Tyvek and drywall. Although the word seemed a bit much for the space, Diana liked the sound of “the addition,” like things were on their way to adding up to something grand. On most mornings there were six of them, nine if you counted Diana’s two still at home, but since the Stoudts didn’t come until nearly eight, almost time to catch the bus anyway, there was plenty of space. Michael in the addition, Amy on the brown nubby sofa in the living room, and Tracy’s baby in a pen in the kitchen.


“This kid ever go home?”


Amy leaned into the pen to get a better look at the splotch of dried pea on the baby’s cheek.


“You ever shut up?” Diana asked as she chopped something tough and brown on the cutting board. The voice of Dusty Rhodes on 700 WLW (The Voice of Ohio River Valley) was deep and soothing. Amy could see why Diana still listened to him even though the station was coming from down to Cincinnati. He described the smoke that warned of a coming new eruption and the evacuation of people living near, but neither Amy nor Diana paid much attention and let his voice be a comforting drone in the background.


“It stinks. You should clean it.”


“Well, thank you, Miss Blondie. I’ll make sure to get around to that.”


The way Diana called her Miss Blondie confused Amy since all she could think of was that singer her cousin Dustin listened to, who seemed, by all accounts, attractive and successful. She said it with a note of blame, a note of disgust, a note of disdain which led Amy to believe that where Diana was from it must have meant something else. Since she couldn’t figure it out, and Diana just walked away whenever she’d asked, Amy took it as a compliment.


Amy pushed herself up to see onto the counter.


“That looks like last night’s liver.”


“Because it is.”


Diana chopped the pieces smaller and smaller until each was only the size of a single bite, something that could almost be swallowed without chewing, something that would not go down easy, but would go down all the same.

Amy still remembered the gritty taste from the night before, how hard it had been to make herself chew it thirty-two times before forcing it the rest of the way down.


“For Christ sake, just swallow it,” Diana had said in response to her faces of exaggerated chewing and disgust. But Ms. Welch had said “chew 32,” so chew 32 was what she would do. There are ways things should be and ways they shouldn’t. Michael hadn’t eaten his and had nearly flung the plate on the floor, but Diana’s husband Clint had raised his hand, a warning none of the kids ignored more than once.


“This is shit. Cheap shit.”


He’d walked out to the addition to finish House of Danger, the Choose Your Own Adventure book he’d started that morning. Diana had picked up the liver with her long thick nails, real but so good looking you would have thought they were press-ons. She put it in a small orange Tupperware with a clear lid which now sat empty beside the cutting board as she chopped.


“This isn’t for breakfast is it? Because Commandment Number 5 of Amyanity clearly states Thou shalt eat no liver on Thursdays before noon. Now, Fruity Pebble, Fruity Pebbles would be excellent. If you have Fruity Pebbles, I would accept those as an appropriate tithe.”


“This is Michael’s breakfast, you’ll get yours when you wake back up. Now go on, get to your couch.”


“Tuck me in?”


“In a minute.”


Satisfied, Amy went to the living room to lie down. The thought of liver two days in a row would have been too much and she was glad she’d been quick enough to think to add that commandment. As she snuggled under the Dutch girl quilt, she began to hope there’d be grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner that night. Even though she knew Commodities didn’t get passed out until Saturday and the possibility of any of the cheese being left on a Thursday evening was slim, she was sure that if she hoped hard enough, it would be there. She’d get done with her homework and there on her plate would be the warm melting deliciousness, maybe even with macaroni salad made with the shells instead of the little elbow pastas, the shells that trapped the mayo and celery inside so you didn’t know you were getting some until it was in your mouth. It was comforting to know that sometimes good things were hidden, but that eventually you would bite down and have yourself a mouthful. And Coke, maybe there would be Coke still in the can too, with a little drop of water coming down the side like in the commercials. She wouldn’t share any of it with Michael. Not sharing was selfish though, she probably should share. Maybe she’d share with the baby, she liked the baby. Yes, it was settled, she would share the Coke with the baby. And maybe Clint would have to work late and Diana would let her talk during dinner. The daydream grew and grew, as daydreams do.


Since she couldn’t sleep, she focused on what the evening would be like with its grilled cheese and Coke, trying not to hear what was happening in the addition. The “I won’ts”, “you wills,” and “fuck yous,” soft things hitting the walls, hard things hitting the walls, and finally the sound of a mouth being held shut against its will, which is to say, stillness. Soon Diana, flustered but victorious, came to check on her and put an extra log in the fireplace. Amy didn’t ask about the noise, just stayed quiet waiting for any cue from Diana. She knew not to question, but could she talk at all? Tell her about her next commandment, which would run something like thou shalt not scuffle between sundown and sunup on the Sabbath, every day being the Sabbath in Amyanity?


“Good night, Diana,” she said, finally figuring this was safe enough.


“It’s morning, Amy.”


She caught a glimpse of the brown liver lodged beneath Diana’s red thumbnail.


“Oh, well then, good night/good morning.”


Diana shook her head. “Okay kid, good night/good morning,” and she walked back to the kitchen to wipe down the cutting board and listen to the radio announcer report on the distant volcano disrupting the lives of others.


“Diana?” Amy called.


“Don’t sound like you’re sleeping.”


Amy slid into the kitchen. “Diana, I’m worried about the volcano. Will we get evacuated?”


She sighed, answered anyway, “We’ll get some heavy rains our way, that’s about it.”


“Any ash?”


“Ash? How strong you think the winds are?”


“Ms. Welch said that when Krakatoa blew, they had ash in Connecticut and snow in July in Cleveland. Cleveland! I’m just saying I don’t want snow in July like those people got back then. I’m sick of winter already. I want to be warm when it’s supposed to be warm.”


“No, Amy, it’s just on the radio. It ain’t happening to you.”


“Then why do they keep talking about it?”


Diana paused and, having no answer, returned to her original stance.


“You don’t look like you’re sleeping.” She turned Amy toward the living room with a gentle scootch.


That night for dinner they had Johnny Marzetti with pintos instead of beef, even though it was better with kidneys. Dreaming of grilled cheese during arithmetic had been nice and thinking of the Coke, a pleasant distraction during recess when Michael was showing his friends the scratches on his arms and face. Michael’s badass status, for the day at least, turned the fight into a win-win. Amy’s list of commandants grew: thou shalt not build a fire when the coal furnace is running lest the smells conflict and thou shalt have no scratches. The redness of the lines on Michael’s arms worried her, like maybe they could get infected or leave a scar. He ate his dinner that night without a fuss. Then again, it wasn’t liver. The evening would have been reasonably pleasant except for the baby’s crying that drowned out everything, from the sound of T.C.’s helicopter on Magnum to the filing of Diana’s nails in the living room.


“Shut it up or call its mama to come get it.” Clint had little patience now that his own three were in their teens and learned their lessons long ago. Diana held the baby tightly, hoping the weight of her body would comfort it, but this did no good. The baby didn’t know that Furnace Two had gone down at the plant that day. The steel had begun to set in the vat and not in the wheel molds. The baby didn’t know that Clint was looking at a long, hot weekend, as everyone on B Crew would pull double shifts to get the vat cleared out and ready for another week of steel and fire. The baby didn’t know that Clint’s oldest girl, Shelly, had announced at dinner that she wasn’t going into the Army after graduation as planned, but instead was keeping her job at Central Hardware to be closer to her boyfriend. The baby didn’t know that it wasn’t the only one who just needed a good nap and some clean underwear.


“When’s Tracy getting off tonight?”






“Ten.” The louder she spoke, the louder the baby cried.




“Oh, Jesus, ten o’clock, Clint. Tracy will be back around ten and Rod’s not got the sense God gave a cricket.”

Diana went into the kitchen to heft the baby into the pen and Amy followed.


“In my religion, babies can cry whenever they want and no one will yell. You can be my first disciple.” The baby was not comforted by this promise.


“You can be my disciple, too.” Amy placed her hand on Diana’s shoulders as she hunched over the Formica countertop, hands raised, eyes closed for a moment. Amy tried to reach up to pat her head, but could not quite make it.


“Special Commandment 73: All babysitters will have assistant babysitters. I could be your helper, Diana. Take the baby for walks, play peek-a-boo, clean her up after supper.”


“She don’t want to play peek-a-boo and can’t tell the difference between dirty and clean.”




The solution had seemed so reasonable, Amy was unsure where to go next, so she went to her couch to sleep until nine when her mother would get out of class. To sleep meant she couldn’t hear whatever was happening in the kitchen. But she still knew. It was the same thing that happened every night and it never ended well for the baby. Diana never seemed more relaxed, but things were quieter, which was something. When she arrived, her mother said nothing about the scratches and neither Amy nor Michael brought them up.


The next day was Friday, which meant her mother would pick them up at six and they would have dinner at their own house sitting around the little maple table Granny Mingus had passed down after she’d gotten that government grant to update the house. It had looked so small in the new space that her kids had pitched in to buy a new one that fit better. They had gotten the old one with its years of gum stuck to the underside and its mismatched center leaf. The thought of that dinner could get Amy through the day. Commandment 87: Thou shalt eat pizza at home each Friday with milk and salad (cucumbers and radishes optional). She liked the way that sounded. Her commandments were coming together nicely. It felt good to have a list, to know that X and Y could and would add up to Z, even if she had to write the equation herself. She hadn’t decided yet what the afterlife in Amyanity would bring, but it would be more interesting than angels and harps and less time consuming than reincarnation.


Friday morning Amy was ready to move to this next step. “Mom, what should Heaven be like? I think I’ve got my rules, now I just need the reward. No one will do anything without a reward.”


Her mother cranked the engine and pulled the car out toward Diana’s.


“What should it be, Mom? There’ll definitely be no homework and maybe no rain or snow. What else, Mom? What else?”


“Quiet. Heaven will be a very quiet place.”


“Oh, but what about birds? Won’t there be birds in Heaven? My Heaven should definitely have birds.”


“Take a fucking hint you moron,” Michael pushed the base of his hand into the seatback, then once again for good measure, and the car was quiet the rest of the drive.


Truly, Amy hadn’t planned to steal the baby that day. After she’d said “goodnight/ goodmorning” to Diana, she lay on the couch picking at its large decorative buttons, unable to sleep. Usually the house was quiet in the morning except for the radio and small kitchen noises as Diana packed her children’s lunches and fixed their breakfasts. The evenings were the loud times, when Clint was home and the TV was on. But today the baby was crying. Diana had yelled first, then turned the radio up, then yelled again. When Amy heard the slap over the Dusty Rhodes Show, she felt a commandment she’d forgotten to write had been broken. One about mornings, and quiet, and babies getting to be babies.


She was tired of people not respecting Amyanity. At this rate none of them would get to Heaven. After Diana passed through the living room toward the back hallway, Amy snuck to the kitchen and lifted the baby from her pen. She hadn’t been expecting it to weigh so much, or maybe she had been expecting herself to be stronger. The baby was surprised to silence, assessing the new situation. It was too cold to walk outside without taking time to get their winter gear on, by then Diana would be back from the bathroom. So she took the baby downstairs where no one ever went except to put more coal in the furnace or to do laundry. She hunkered down under Tracy’s old clothes hanging from the water pipe, the red corduroy overalls making a cozy fort. The concrete cold seeped through her jeans making her chilled even though the furnace was not far away.


“It’ll be okay. Don’t you worry now.” She sat the baby, all squiggly arms and flailing legs, in her lap. It made soft guttural noises of escape and reached its arms toward the ground. She heard her name being called from above and then the sound of the backdoor opening. Attempting peek-a-boo with the baby did not distract it from reaching for the hot, bright metal of the furnace not two feet away. It was not a very good disciple; it didn’t care if she ever reappeared from behind her hands. The door reopened and she heard the quick movement of feet above her and the older children being roused from their sleep. Her name some more, doors being opened, doors being closed, the word “Hell” a few times, her name some more.


“Let’s go somewhere where there’s no yelling, okay? What do you think of that, baby? Not a quiet place, just no yelling. Except you, you can yell all you want. Yell your head off. And me too, I can yell. We can yell our fool heads off. What do you think of that, baby, what do you think of that?” She took the coo as an assent and smiled. Although she was still unsure where such a place was, knowing it might be out there was comforting.


“No, baby, that’s hot,” and she struggled to pull the baby’s arm back toward her and away from the furnace. It began to cry and push her away. The word “basement” and the scuffle of four pairs of feet came from above. No shushing or bouncing would stop it, so she held the baby loose to her chest to muffle the sound, but it squirmed even more.


“I don’t hear her anymore,” Michael said when he was halfway down the steps. Amy pressed the baby tighter as she’d seen Diana do, it was still. She tucked her feet under and let Tracy’s old clothes engulf them both as Michael moved around the room shifting boxes of old Barbie gear and Star Wars toys for just a minute to sound like he was giving a good search.


“Maybe it was coming from outside?”


“Keep looking.”


He sighed and put his hands on an old T-ball uniform and a ballerina skirt then slid the clothes back and forth, his eyes never leaving the ceiling.


“Nope, not down here.”


He huffed his way back up the steps and Amy heard four pairs of feet heading out in the winter dark. The sun was just beginning to rise over the east edge of town, catching the light off the well-meaning but not quite right skyscraper of the LeVeque Tower. They would all go to school soon and Diana would take a nap before Price Is Right. Breakfast, kids off, nap, Showcase Showdown, lunch, and Days of Our Lives with tidying during the commercials. That was the way it had gone when Amy had been home sick from school, and she was counting on that being Diana’s ritual. She could probably get the baby down the hill and to her house while Diana was sleeping. There would be the spare key to get in, and she could hide out until her mom got off work. Her mom would know what to do; otherwise she wouldn’t be the rock. She’d bring the baby chocolate milk and show Amy how to get the peas from its face and how to soothe it when it cried. After a few minutes, Amy relaxed her hold and took a deep breath. The baby reached up and patted her face. She crossed her eyes and rolled her tongue to make it giggle.


Unsure what else to do, she sat and waited for the baby to grow restless again, for the sound of the game show to start, for someone to realize that half-assed was the only way Michael ever did anything and come double-check the basement. While she waited she made a new commandment, one that was the best one yet. Commandment 125: Everything turns out okay in the end. It has to, it just has to.



What Remains

He sat across from me at that tiny table, in that tiny apartment, gesticulating and performing for others, and how I wished it would all fade away, every pixel in the scene blank except for him and me. I was buzzed from one beer, a worrying feat, and my suspicion was that the smell of him changed my brain chemistry.


The first time I saw him—truly saw him—came weeks before that night in the apartment. I was at work, on my way to the bathroom, when I saw him hunched over a computer a few cubicles down. There was something in the shape of his bearded jaw, its almost leporine nature, that stopped me. In the ensuing weeks, I subsisted on crumbs: listening to him talk about his favorite books, ones I hated but assumed I just wasn’t cultured enough to understand; examining the meditative photos he took of the city’s rare natural landscapes and posted on Instagram; gushing about him to anyone who would listen and watching the disinterest build up in their eyes like cataracts.


That night in our mutual friend’s apartment was the first time I’d seen him outside of the office, and for that reason I had expectations. But after an hour of sharing him with others, I felt like a failure for not already getting him home with me. I excused myself to the bathroom.


Gazing into the mirror, I took stock of my face. There was a seriousness in it that I was unaccustomed to, a tired look that had nothing to do with my lack of sleep.


I’d always known that the difference between lust and love is what remains after orgasm. Many times, I tried to come and forget, to toss my intoxicating obsession with him away as easily as a wadded-up paper towel. After all, that method had proven itself depressingly effective in neutralizing my feelings for the many boys I’d bedded in New York: the gay nightclub residents and queer, “non-scene” academics I’d met in cafes or libraries alike. But it never worked with him.


I left the bathroom, skirting around a circle of conversation that included my close friend, the one who had expressed mere minutes ago that she was bad at meeting new people, whom I had invited under the guise of getting her to meet my coworkers when she was actually there as emotional support. Our eyes met, and I smiled. It stood to reason that if I didn’t look guilty for abandoning her, then she wouldn’t feel abandoned. She smiled back, and I found my place at the table.


He was quiet now, listening in that intense way of his that I had come to adore. He wasn’t simply waiting for his turn to talk, itching to give his hot take. He was reacting, supporting, absorbing. It was I who was impatient to speak. I was onstage at Madison Square Garden, and he was the only person in the audience. Every laugh was a step closer to my bed.


And that’s when I had to ask myself if a night with him would be water or gasoline for the flames that eagerly licked my chest. I had imagined it, of course, but only for a few seconds at a time. Images of us intertwined strobed in my brain at night when I couldn’t fall asleep. But if we went through with it, if I tasted him as hungrily as I wanted to, what would remain?


I tried to picture it as realistically as possible—yes, at that table, surrounded by others—and I knew my answer. After the climax, after he’d come, his monopoly on my desire would remain. His face didn’t change in my mind’s eye, it never became hollow and disfigured like the faces of so many one-night stands. The touch of his phantom limb, my tactile approximation, never failed to give me chills. My compulsive need to expel my traumas as fast as my lips could spew them to his ivory ears never lessened, it never ceased.




We left the apartment, all of us, and went to a bar. I sat next to my friend, knowing I had some damage control to do. We discussed her job. How stressful it was, how rewarding and taxing and stimulating and frustrating and fitting. And I realized that loving him was exactly the same.


He sat at the other end of the table, once again gesturing and speaking animatedly, and I considered begging God to release me from this captivity of want. I had learned as a child in church that through Him all things are possible, that you only needed to pray with enough conviction. And He had done it before. There were boys I believed I’d never forget whom I barely thought about now: the real estate agent who lived with his boyfriend in Philly, the poet in Austin I stopped texting once I was sure he hadn’t killed himself.


But without my current toxic affection, what would I be left with? My feelings for him were the only valence in my life. The only time I rose above numb was when he hurt me or flattered me, always without him noticing.


My friend had said something to me, something to which I was supposed to respond, and I heard the slight pleading in her voice, pressing me, Be here.


I made a pithy comment, some offhand ironic statement that bordered on self-parody, and the response was a smatter of laughs. Had he noticed? I wondered. Did it make him wish he’d heard what I’d said?


I got up to get another drink.


A strange phenomenon had occurred the moment I stepped inside the bar. The bright flashing of sports games on TVs and the loud chatter of patrons caused an almost instantaneous rush of sobriety. I had become clearheaded, hyperaware, conscious in the most disconcerting of ways. The three whisky-somethings I had downed since our arrival did little to improve my condition.


There were a number of strangers whom I would have pined for on any other night, a diverse array of God’s finest creations, His divine flexing, but lowercase “he” had long supplanted my usual need for “someone.”


The bartender came closest to making me forget him. She was beautiful in a striking way, like time didn’t mean the same thing to her as it did to me. And I could tell that she understood me based on the slight smile on her face when she heard me order cinnamon whisky, the drink that eclipsed all others in terms of abetting bad decisions and bone-aching hangovers. She knew immediately. I was running. I wanted out, I wanted to leave. And this was my ticket.


Her knowing that made her all the more attractive, all the more otherworldly, and a part of me yearned to bare myself to her, to tell her how the loneliness and fear and isolation made me ravenous for love, or even a facsimile of it. I wanted her in a way I had only wanted a few women before, but there wasn’t any more room in me for not-him.


Glass in hand, I walked back. A few of our party announced their departures, and after the goodbyes, our group numbered few enough that we were able to begin a shared conversation. And suddenly I didn’t want to escape. This was my World Series. Here I was, stepping to the plate, pointing to him, in the stands at the other end of the field, and saying, This one’s for you.


I was charming. I was funny. After a group chuckle I’d lean into my friend and whisper an inside joke that would make her choke on her drink. I complimented his hair, like it had only suddenly occurred to me how beautiful his auburn ringlets were, like those strands of dead cells hadn’t made me want to pull out my own at times. He complimented the character of my nose and for the rest of the night it was my favorite part of my body.


But nights like these always ended too soon for me, and one person’s “Early day tomorrow…” was an impetus for everyone but myself to express similar sentiments.


As we walked to the train, I kept waiting for a moment when things would take flight, when a touch or a look would change my mind about the reciprocity of my obsession. But there were people between us and in front of us, and we kept pinballing past each other in the herd. I cursed the narrow, cockblocking sidewalks and stewed in the brisk, October air.


I said goodbye to him last and couldn’t quite catch the seconds as they ticked by, as if I were forgetting in real time. I knew this much: it was brief, too brief, tragically, horribly brief. Did we shake hands? Did we hug? Did we nod?


I’m standing on the corner of 110th and Broadway. I am alone and far from home, the ache in my chest my only company.


Image Descriptions

I have 31,639 photos saved on my phone. I am a hoarder of many things: pictures, videos, trinkets, birthday cards, dead flowers, and most significantly, memory.




The Cloud has allotted me a dangerous ability to hold on to and reflect on moments more than one should be able to. My photo album eats up a large chunk of the phone’s storage. I feed it continuously with the promise of deleting, although I rarely do: what would I lose if I were to rid my phone of the thousands of images I likely don’t need? It’s a question I’ve considered but have been afraid to answer.


There are pictures of me in all different stages of adulthood saved to my phone. There are some from my first years of college and some from the last. Ones from graduate school and after. There are pictures of exes, friends, and family. My dog, other people’s dogs, random insects with which I’ve had portrait-mode photoshoots. There are photos of people I’ve loved and people I currently love. There are photos of people who are dead. I hold onto them as though keeping them will stop the years without those people from expanding.


I can look at a photo, just about any that I’ve taken or been in, and know exactly what I was feeling at the time.

See: a picture of me smiling in a bird store, a blue-and-yellow macaw perched on my arm. I see that and I remember how it feels to have been loved in all of the wrong ways. Not pictured: a man who only phones after dark; my face pressed into the carpet of his bedroom floor; a chronic stomach ache; ten months and the more I will let him take from me. The bird is a shining gold and royal blue. I am the smallest version of myself I have ever been. I keep the picture on my phone for days when I need to remember whom I have survived.




I keep the pictures I took in my yellow-lighted bathroom of my stomach flexing in the mirror, daring abs into view. Not pictured: a fear of rice; a fear of bread; a fear of pasta; a fear of carbs; protein bars that made me sick; a near empty refrigerator; the day I ate nothing but broccoli; the urge to cry at every restaurant; crying when the toast came out buttered; heat exhaustion; dehydration; a boyfriend with an Instagram feed full of women who are not me; a boyfriend who does not love me and never will; an image of health that is anything but.


A picture of my best friend from college and me: a selfie we took with soft smiles, another where we are squeezed together in a hug in front of a street sign in somebody’s backyard. Not pictured: the drugs in our system, prescribed and recreational; the many midnight trips to In-N-Out via Uber; laughing so hard one of us pees; me getting cursed out for not sharing someone else’s cocaine; Saturdays at the mall; Sundays at the beach; the years to come and her last; a tweet that sounds like a suicide note; months of therapy; a lifetime of regret.




A picture of my father and I on a trip to California from when I was in high school, both of us smiling, his head bald. Not pictured: the two years of uncertainty; the chemo that was supposed to be radiation; coming back from summer camp to find him without hair; fear of what if and a possible recurrence looming on every horizon.


A picture of an ex and me on vacation in Mexico. I’m wearing a long black dress with embroidered flowers. He is kissing my cheek. Not pictured: a very public elevator fight; the weeklong trip without any sex; our blatant incompatibility.




A picture of a wall with blue-potted flowers that I took on a trip to Spain with my dad. Not pictured: me hyperventilating the entire plane ride, in the hotel room, outside of the hotel room; the realization that nothing is real; the realization that I am not real; an overwhelming sense of impending doom; the desire to throw myself off of the tallest building; panic attacks that feel like death; wanting to be anywhere else but on Earth.




A picture of me at the county fair, smiling between two friends, stuffed unicorn prize and bag of cotton candy in hand. Behind us, the Ferris wheel rotates. Not pictured: the longest summer of my life; the third psychiatric medication in two months, the first making me unbearably dizzy; the fear that this feeling may never end; psychiatrist appointments; doctor’s appointments; therapy appointments; seventeen hours of sleep a day; taking thirty minutes just to pee because this body didn’t feel like it was mine; Xanax to keep me from crawling out of my flesh; Wellbutrin that makes me manic; the fear that I will be this way for the rest of my life; the knowledge that I will be, cyclically.


Ferris wheel


A picture of a sunset on the beach I took from my apartment window, the sky settling into an amalgam of blue and pink and orange. Not pictured: two nights before this one; a man who does not warn me before he is on top of me; a man who takes and then leaves; his remnants on my face; three showers in a row; cowardice of keeping quiet; memory that will haunt and disrupt.




A picture of me and friends at a sorority formal circa 2015. Not pictured: the excessive drinking beforehand; a shortage of chicken wings and fried macaroni balls at the event; a mediocre DJ; a bus ride full of vomit and no plastic bags in sight.


Thousands of pictures of my dog. Not pictured: constant crying due to the realization that someday my dog will die.




A picture of my hand with a ring on it. Not pictured: my hand shaking with twice the speed it usually does as it is slipped on my finger; his hands also shaking; a love I have always wanted and now have.




My grandparents’ wedding photo. My father in college. A picture I took of a picture of my mother at sixteen. Random farm animals I’ve pet. My birthday cake from four years ago. A meal that changed my life. An incredible croissant I consumed in under 20 seconds. Places I’ve been. Memes that have made me smile. Memes that have made me laugh. Poems that have made me cry, or pause, or have left me with an open mouth. Places I have lived. Things that have made me say, “I need to take a picture of that.” It is both a blessing and a curse to be able to capture, to keep, to review. I hold on to both the bad and the good. I want to remember feeling of any kind. Not pictured: all of the things I wish I had taken more footage of. Not pictured: all of the life that existed before I held a camera phone. Not pictured: the life I have [yet] to experience.




The Lunch Party

At the time, everyone’s partner had the same name—David.


There was no good reason for it. Initially, we joked that the name had been in vogue the year they were born, but that couldn’t be true: the Davids were set apart in years, the youngest being Alena’s boyfriend at nineteen, and the oldest being Audre’s secret, at fifty-eight. Perhaps the first of the sisters to procure a David—Audrey, at thirty-two, who had been courted for eight months by an age-appropriate David at the swimming club where she tuned her finely muscled thighs every weekday evening—had set some kind of subconscious example for the rest. Whatever it was, within a year of Audrey’s formal introduction of the First David to the family, Adalyn and Alena had both found Davids of their own, followed by Ayla, and then, when they all turned to Audre, the eldest, thinking wouldn’t it be funny if she found someone after so long and that person turned out to be a David, too, it came out that she’d been carrying on with a married man this entire time, their father’s wife’s orthopedist. Who, of course, was named David.


There were five of them, Audre, Ayla, Audrey, Alena, and Adalyn. It’d just been Audre and Ayla at first, but their father’s second wife had come packaged with the indomitable Audrey. When Wife #2 passed quite suddenly from belatedly discovered leptomeningeal disease, he brought the three girls, aged twelve, seventeen, and twenty-one, to get their meningitis vaccinations, which, no two ways about it, was where he met the woman who was to be his third wife. Me.


By the time the twins arrived, it’d been decided that they’d continue the tradition of names beginning with A. Myself, I thought it’d be nice to break away. Didn’t mind a Darby, or a Christine. But the older girls sensed my discomfort and pressed down hard, insisting on keeping with convention. In private, I consulted with their father. You already have an Audre and an Audrey. Are you sure? Truthfully, I was afraid he’d mix them up. He wasn’t getting any younger, and his memory had never been crystal. The thought of five similarly named girls wandering around in that big house just seemed like a trap. You want to know the worst part? Ask me my name.


Call me Anita, I said, before the battle lines had been drawn. I was only twenty-three, I had no peers to consult with. All my girlfriends had found men still on their first go. Later, they’d say: you should have established authority first thing. Don’t try to be their friend. Where was this advice when I was first inducted into the family? Not yet hatched, I suppose. Anyway, being authoritarian wouldn’t have worked. And the girls knew it. Anita, they’d say, we’re out of eggs. Or, You’re so cuteAnita. Wielded at a distance, as if to remind me that my presence in the house was but a passing amusement to them. Even the twins didn’t anchor me: the other wives had come and gone, too.


Audre, the eldest, is saying it now. Don’t mind Anita, she takes a while to process things. The way she always says it, Ah-ni-ta, the ta a harsh spit. I look to David, but he is of no help. He’s in that spot men eventually all find themselves in, between enamored and guilty. It’s the first we’re hearing of the affair, and looking at Audre, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a smugness in her eyes, a certain challenge in the set of her chin. She crosses her legs, her hand snakes into his. I can’t believe how reckless they’re being. Life can’t be lived on a whim. And yet. David is one of my oldest friends, and I had no clue. Even though it’s been a while since I’ve had to see him for my herniated disc, I meet him and Celine at least once a month for lunch. Celine. Oh god, Celine. I look at him again. His eyes are pleading. I can tell he’s asking permission to smile, to take Audre’s side. So, it’s that fresh. A fifty-eight-year-old man, still hanging on the tail end of his mistress’s every sentence. Audre says it again: Earth, earth to Anita. And laughs. It’s the laugh that does it for me. I put a hand on my husband’s lap, turn to my old friend and orthopedist, David, and say, You know, darling, we should all have lunch.



The lunch is set for the first Friday of the following month. We can’t do weekends, because then Celine will want to know where her husband is. The other four girls and their Davids have flexible schedules and somehow make it work. In the lead up to that lunch, I often wonder if Audre regrets announcing the relationship to her father and me in that way. I turn that analytical eye on myself, too. What is it in me that drove me to propose that disaster, lay that trap?


Was I conscious of what I was doing? The girls think so, I’m sure.


Just shy of a decade later, at their father’s funeral, Audre will say, flatly, while picking at a cucumber and egg sandwich, Now you’re free, Anita. She doesn’t clarify, but we both know she’s referring to that lunch. I don’t want to look at her, so I stare at her sandwich instead. Cucumber and egg, her father’s favorite. Deceptively simple, but hard to get right. The cucumbers have to be pickled in rice vinegar, sunomono style. And the eggs boiled for ten-and-a-half minutes, then whipped with kewpie mayonnaise.


When Friday comes, I spend all morning perfecting the sandwiches, then arranging them on the lunch tray. When my husband tries to steal one, I send him out for fruits. It’s a last-minute decision, and I give him a list of what I want, in order of priority: mango, and if that’s not available, then jackfruit, or rambutan. I can only breathe easy when I hear the car pull out of the driveway.


He returns with the first set of Davids. He found the twins wandering around the market with them, trying to settle on an appropriate gift. They tumble out of the car, all limbs and laughter, and together the Davids present me a massive bouquet of wildflowers. Double the size for double the girls, they say. As for my husband, he’s found the mango, my first choice. I peel and dice it, populating the table with small dishes of yellow flesh, when Audrey walks in with her David. They’ve brought wine, and I feel defensive as I send her to decant the bottle into a carafe.


Then, Audre and my old friend David arrive. They come empty-handed, as if to assume the position of host and hostess, as if to claim this lunch as thrown for their benefit. The younger Davids giggle nervously; the twins must have given them the background. I don’t let it get to me. I offer them a drink, which the traitor David accepts. We all take our seats, and wait.


Ayla flies in half an hour late, corresponding David in tow, and looks disappointed that we’re all still civil. Anita, David, David, Anita. Dad. Ayla has a laugh like a horse. It puts you on edge. To ask her why she’s late would be to offer her an opportunity to humiliate—No. We return to the conversation at hand, which vaguely, but also clearly, includes dear, absent, hapless, betrayed, Celine.


I don’t even like Celine. If you asked me directly, I wouldn’t be able to name one compelling thing about her. We met in church, after my wedding, when the twins were still germinating secretly under the frou-frou of my corset. She was a friend of the family, inducted by Wife #2. So I inherited her. She’d pressed her husband’s card into my hand, told me to call if I ever needed company or orthopaedic work. What kind of woman outsources friendship to her husband? Though it’s true that Celine’s David and I got along swimmingly. From our first appointment, I knew. He had the reassuring air of an anchor, weighty and rooted, from which Celine ballooned. Even though she was absent in that treatment room, David’s steadiness conjured her; it made you, a female, feel safe. In friendship with him, you were sexless, and could release yourself from the trappings of charm. Very quickly, over the course of treatment for a pinched nerve, David and I became close friends, bedrocked on his commitment to Celine.


Where is she during this lunch, Celine? She is back at the church, cross-stitching bible verses on the dresses of dolls, to be distributed at the Christmas service in two weeks. Every perfect and good gift is from God above. James 1:17. Poor, boring, good Celine. She’s been doing this for years. There isn’t a family within a hundred-meter radius without one of those dolls. When children bring them home, the idea is that they’ll carry these verses with them too, and, worrying the dolls over and over, that the verses will catch, and grow. That she’ll plant these beacons of morality in homes all throughout town. That’s Celine for you. She’s been volunteering at the church for as long as I’ve known her, and even after the divorce, she will stay. But we will go. We will drive twenty minutes more to attend Sunday service at another church, which is helmed by a fire-and-brimstone sort. I look at her David, who is no longer hers, though she does not know it yet. He’s looking at Audre, my oldest. The others are all looking at me, at him, at Audre, their gazes flickering between us, as if afraid to miss the slightest blink.


Audrey’s David gets up to pour the wine.


I’m sure the twins drink, but in front of me, their faces are stone as the carafe passes them over. Everyone remarks on how similar we are, how perfectly they take after me, but already the twins must be keeping secrets from me, maybe even from each other. Their Davids will only last one and three months more, and then they will refer to this period as the Davidic era, and laugh and laugh and laugh.


“It’s a common enough name.” This is Audrey’s David, the wine-pouring David. He says it apologetically; he’s a therapist with a reasonable attitude toward everything. “I was in school with two other Davids, myself.”


“But all five!” I say. He just shrugs: everything about this situation is unusual. The twins interject. Alena, older by twelve-and-a-half minutes, punches her David in the shin.


“I picked you because of your name.”


Adalyn: “And me, because it’d be funny.”


The twins glance at each other, and say, perfectly synced: “We’re collecting Davids.” They dissolve into laughter.


I’m embarrassed. I say, “What one does, the other has to do. You should see their rooms. It’s a compulsion.” I mean to say that with them, everything is a game, but that their playfulness is simply a byproduct of a sheltered youth and shouldn’t be taken to heart. Their Davids don’t seem to mind.


Therapist David sets the carafe down and settles back into his seat. I can see Audrey resting a hand on his thigh, gratefully. He speaks directly to Ayla’s David, the latecomer, making general, safe inquiries about his family. I find myself leaning forward. I know nothing of Ayla’s David. I hadn’t paid him any attention.


“One brother. Older. Nathaniel. And then I think my mother just went down the Book, picked the most normal sounding name out of the lot. Nathaniel’s other brothers in the Bible were all things like, Shimmy, or somet’n.”


“Shimea.” It’s my friend David. Just like that, Celine is with us, again.


Ayla’s David looks at him with interest. “You a deacon, or the like?”


“No, an orthopaedist. But I attend.”


I can’t help it, I snort. It’s very funny. And I know David has said it for my benefit, establishing a private bubble between us, of warmth and banter. For a moment, I feel like nothing has changed. But when I look up, it’s Audre smirking, Audre amused. Audre, just two years my junior, with her limp, dirty hair, which she shaved off once, after I ran my hands through it, absentmindedly petting her head as I introduced her at a gathering as my oldest step-daughter.


David relents. He tells Ayla’s David: “It’s a good name, it means beloved.”


Ayla’s David looks vaguely comforted. “My mother said he was a king.”


“And a womanizer.” Audre is smiling now, audacious, as she leans into David’s chest. She hasn’t even touched her wine. How could they do this to Celine? To me? I reach for another sandwich, pick at it. Technically, Audre has known David for as long as I have, though they’d never spoken outside of absolute necessity. But two years back, I’d rung David and asked if he could please have a quick look at Audre’s wrist, which had been giving her trouble. Carpal tunnel was easy enough to diagnose, and she really just needed a prescription. I remember ringing him again to complain, afterward. Audre hadn’t even thanked me. She treats me like a secretary, I told him. She always has. My old friend David had hummed on the phone, then said it’d been tendonitis. Not carpal tunnel. Though the two were so similar that they were easily mistaken, one for the other.


We are done with lunch. The sandwiches I’ve so painstakingly labored over, demolished. The mango, gone. Audre turns to my David and squeezes his bicep, bringing it sharply into existence. I blink, stunned.


“The strudel,” she says.


He smiles at us, then goes to retrieve it from his car. So they did bring something after all. They’ve kept it in the boot, a surprise.


“It’s your favorite,” Audre continues, in David’s absence. She’s speaking to her father. As if I’m not there. “Dave and I drove way out of town to get it. It was his idea; he knew you’d been craving it.” Dave? I hear a waver in her voice, I look at Audre more closely.


But a buzz of distractible excitement has settled over the table.


I’m momentarily confused, until I hear Ayla explaining to her David: “It’s this place we used to go to, as kids. It’s by our first house, when we were still living with Mom. We haven’t had it in years.” She turns to her older sister. “How’d you know it’d still be good? I wouldn’t dare. I’d be so afraid it’d disappoint.”


Before Audre can reply, David returns with two long boxes of pale yellow. He heats it up in the oven for ten minutes, then the strudels are unveiled with ceremony, one apple, one mango. He looks at me apologetically. “We didn’t know you’d be serving mango.” Puts a slice of the apple strudel on my plate.


It’s warm. I can see the glazing winking at me, the brushed sugar melted slightly from the heat. Beside me, my husband digs his fork in, bringing a big wedge up to his mouth. He’s delighted and seems to have no compunction about the scene unfolding before him. We’re all adults here, he said, when I’d raised my objections in private. What they choose to get up to is their business. He chews loudly. The twins exchange glances of wonder: the strudel is very good. Still? Ayla is smiling, so it must live up to memory. A David, not my David, is exclaiming, asking for the baker’s address. I look back down at my slice.



Nobody really understood, when I married my husband. Of course, you could argue that those were different times. These days, a girl can go with a man twice her age without the world blinking, and separate just as easily. Not I. Sometimes, when you look back on your life, you think to yourself: what else could I have done with the options that I’d had? Back then, I knew how people talked, but I’d been determined to weather it through. I married for affection, but, yes, also for agency. And haven’t I played my part? I remade myself in the image of a perfect wife, I committed to becoming a step mother when I was barely past twenty myself, I’ve always been faithful, even when I’ve had occasion to stray. I stayed. People can say what they want, but I gave myself and the twins a life not otherwise possible, and there’s no shame in that.


A year after his funeral, Audrey will call me. My overachieving, perfectly sculpted middle child. She wants my recipe for the cucumber and egg sandwiches. She’s tried pickling the cucumbers several ways, but can never quite get it how he liked it. Of course, she admits, it could just be her memory. After all, so much time has passed. It could be that they were perfectly ordinary sandwiches, and she’s inflated them in her mind over the years, enhanced by her step-father’s enthusiastic appreciation. I give her the recipe; there is no longer reason for me to withhold. A few days after that, she calls again. They are exactly as she remembers. Perfect.


I invite her back to the house, where I live alone. The twins, who everyone said resembled me so, have flown the coop. Ayla married her David, and they’ve moved to Germany. Audre and I keep out of each other’s way. When Audrey shows up, I am surprised to see that she is very pregnant. It hadn’t worked out with therapist David precisely because he wanted kids and she didn’t, but I suppose the right person can correct a wrong situation. Her new husband is apparently very nurturing. As we sit together, eating sliced cucumber, Audrey asks to see the dolls again.


How does she know I wouldn’t have tossed them? She reads the question in my eyes and says, You’ve always been one to punish yourself, Anita. Her smile is mirthless and tired.



After the strudels are done with, there’ll be a moment of awkward limbo, a pause. Then, someone, one of the twins’ Davids, asks to see their room, picking up on an earlier thread. We all troop upstairs, my husband and I, the five girls, their Davids. Push open their door. Enter the room. The twins are vibrating with mischief, excitement. Nothing is serious to them yet, they have no skin in the game. The world bears no stakes.


It had once been two rooms, but we knocked the middle wall down, so the effect is that of perfect symmetry. A long room, folded in half, one side leaving a precise imprint on the other. Their beds, desks, even the random entrails of their mess, mirrored exactly on each side. I turn and see Audre’s hand on my David’s lower back, rubbing it slowly, an act of intimacy that makes me feel awfully vulnerable.


But by then it is already too late.


The twins run up to David, their eyes shining. They see him as a funny old family friend, and throughout the lunch, they’ve been watching him with growing amusement as he affects a veneer of cool, trying to keep up with the younger boyfriends. I’ve seen them exchange glances at his occasional stumble and looked away, burning from secondhand embarrassment. But David has taken it in stride, played along. He doesn’t blink until that moment. In their hands, the twins hold a pair of Celine’s dolls, worn soft from years of attachment. Do you remember, they say. Do you?



A decade later, in that same room, Audrey will turn the dolls over in her hand, flip one of their dresses up. Along the hem: James 1:17. Every perfect and good gift is from God above. She reads it out softly. They really take after you, she tells me, finally. She puts a hand on her belly, and asks: Can I have this one?



The strudel, it turns out, has gone bad. Perhaps it is the fact that it has been sitting in the car throughout lunch, cooking slowly. Perhaps it is the burden of what it was called to do. After Audre’s David, Celine’s David, my David, mine, throws up all over the doorway of the twin’s room, something shatters. My friend David sees the flash of dismay in Audre’s eyes and in it, his own pitifulness reflected. The twins snatch the dolls away.


By the time the mop is retrieved and the cleaning cloths wrung and sponged, it is already over. The hopefulness of the afternoon has been punctured. An air of frailty overcomes David. He puts one hand on each twin’s head heavily, first Adalyn, then Alena, without seeing them: they are the same to him. Says goodbye to the rest of us, politely. Audre climbs into the car with him and they drive off a little way, before parking behind the church and separating quietly.


He is a good person, my David. He returns and confesses everything to Celine, who cannot forgive him. They file for divorce shortly after, and David transfers to a different clinic, out of town, for the remainder of his practice. Neither of them speak to me again; they ignore my calls. I respect them for that, at least. And if there are any significant developments in Audre’s personal life after that, I am never privy to them. Whatever relationship we might have had is lost with that lunch party.



But all of that is later. Before the end, the apple strudel sits, untouched, on my plate. Everyone has already gone for seconds, and it’s becoming uncomfortably clear that I don’t mean to eat mine. My husband, who’s already had a slice of the apple, then the mango, then the apple again, tries to make a joke of it. “If you’re not eating that.…”


The only David that really exists in that room is quiet. He’s looking at me, and I know in his face I will see that same pleading expression, betraying his naive desire for everything to be okay. Despite the disaster of the affair. Despite the fact that this is a small town, that it cannot last. Despite the fact that we have an unspoken understanding, he and I, of solidity, of accountability. Our friendship built on the assurance of things being exactly as they should.


In that moment, if I take a bite, he thinks, it will somehow all work out. It will resolve itself. He cannot possibly believe this, but he does.


I am not looking at him. If I see that plea in his eyes, my resolve will tremble. I know this much about myself. I am not looking anywhere, except resolutely at my plate, where the shiny slice of pastry sits.


Already the twins are scheming. Already the die is cast. My hands twitch by my sides, and I grip the edges of my skirt to steady them. Audrey, my perfectly poised child, gets up and begins clearing the plates. She gestures to her David, who collects the glasses and carafe. There’s a scraping of chairs. Everyone is up, now, except me, starting the dishwasher, cracking jokes, whipping the dishcloths between them.


My friend David gets up too, to use the bathroom. He hesitates, then leaves a kiss on Audre’s forehead, a chaste compromise. It’s just Audre and I now. I raise my eyes, we look at each other. I am shocked to see that her gaze is fierce, fervent.


“Mum,” she says, her voice controlled and low, and suddenly I can see that I’ve gotten it all wrong, but that it’s too late, and has been too late for some time now, “please.”



The Writing Circle

I am going to get kicked out of my writing circle. I can feel it. When I tell this to my therapist, Melinda, she asks, “Why do you think that?”


“Because I haven’t written,” I say. “I haven’t written anything all year. I was supposed to submit, like, five times already.”


Melinda yawns and sinks into her armchair (which is much too large for a woman of 5’2”), scribbles something into her miniature yellow notepad, and half-sneezes. Finally, she says: “And writing—it’s important to you?”


“I’d like for it to be even more important to me,” I say. “That’s actually the goal.”


“I’ve heard that some creatives are more prolific during times of distress,” Melinda replies, like this is all over the news.


“Not me,” I say quickly, before she can tell me to channel my depression into some seminal work I will never in my life write—depressed or not. I just wasn’t destined for that kind of thing.


“Not you,” Melinda echoes, like she is checking a box on a to-do list. For the first time, I notice that everything about Melinda is aggravatingly tiny. Even her handwriting is so microscopic that I can’t make out a word of it from where I’m sitting, just four feet away.


“And now I’m supposed to submit again. In two days. And I have nothing,” I say, in the same tone a petulant child might use to get their mother’s attention. “I just don’t see this ending well.”


Melinda looks at me over her glasses. The image is so apt I would like to pitch it to Shutterstock under the caption “skeptical therapist.” Then she says, “Perhaps you fear being kicked out—even more than you should—because you were recently fired from a job.”


I am slightly annoyed that Melinda always finds a way to bring up my being fired a month ago. It’s something I try not to dwell on. “Even more than I should?”


“Right,” Melinda says. “More than is normal or healthy.”


“Right.” I think I understand the sentiment. After all, fear is a self-preservation mechanism. “That could be true. I mean, my writing circle is basically just a group of my friends from undergrad. We studied creative writing together. We smoked pot together. We got our hearts broken together. I’d be surprised if that’s what it came down to—me not being productive, that is.” Melinda’s expression is so vacant that all I can do is continue. “But, if I’m being totally honest, I wouldn’t put it past them. I’m not sure how I feel about them anymore, as friends, anyway.”


“Let’s talk more about that,” Melinda says.


“I don’t have much to say about it,” I start, my eyes fixated on Melinda’s baby-like feet wrapped in ballet flats, dangling just above the carpet, “but I get the feeling that they’re not, well, good people. Fundamentally.”


“And you think you’re a good person, Risha?” Melinda replies, a little too quickly. She sits up and plants her feet on the ground, as though reading my mind.




“They don’t live up to your standard of what it means to be good, it seems. I am wondering if you think that you, personally, live up to your own standard of being good.”


“Well, I’d hope so,” I say. “I try to be good. I really try to.”


“Something to think about,” Melinda says, pursing her lips to the side in a way that can only be described as annoying.



While waiting for the train, I kick a flattened Sprite can, pretending that it’s Melinda’s head. I instantly feel a little cruel, so I gently scoot it with the toe of my boot to a nice-looking area on the subway platform. A little corner next to a square bench, drenched in a trapezoid of sunlight. There, there, I want to say to the Sprite can. It’s not your fault.

When I accidentally miss my stop by two stations, I walk outside, find a large tree, and lean against it, with my backpack draped across the front of my body. Then I leisurely search through my things, as though I don’t know what I am looking for. But I know exactly what I’m looking for, and when I find the orange bottle tucked between two books—dusted with some dried tobacco leaves—I feel immediately relieved.


Soon I am walking through a park, thinking fondly of the little yellow pills sitting in my stomach, working their magic. The day looks brighter, more urgent and important. Before I know it, I have bought myself a popsicle, eaten it, walked three times around the park, given a homeless man some change, pet two dogs that belonged to strangers, and smiled at a busker. And now I am settling into a nook at a coffee shop, pouring a few of my stupid belongings—a notebook, two pens, my laptop, my laptop charger, hand lotion, a pack of gum—onto a small, uneven table stained with coffee rings. I open a blank document and begin haphazardly.



Simran meets with Judy, her therapist, in the mornings. Every Monday, they find their separate ways to a cold, ugly building tucked into a nondescript corner of the Financial District. Simi usually begins by telling Judy about her dreams.


“Last night,” Simi begins, “I was eating the biggest T-bone steak in the universe. Not just the world, but the entire universe. The actual steak, though—or, rather, the dreamed-up image of it—wasn’t remarkable in size at all. In fact, I’m sure you could easily find a bigger T-bone steak within a two-mile radius of this office.”



This is all I manage before I am sucked into an internet rabbit hole of the “ugliest buildings in FiDi.” Then “T-bone steak size and weight.” Too much time slips through my fingers, and now the baristas are cleaning the coffee machines so loudly you’d think it was a performance. A third barista weaves in and out of the seating area, setting empty chairs upside down on empty tables. I want to throw my hands up in the air and yell, “I get it, I get it!” Instead, I down the rest of my tepid cappuccino and text my brief beginning to Jessica—my best friend and the most successful member of our writing circle. We do this regularly, that is, send each other opening lines, pieces of dialogue, descriptions without context.


I pack my things quickly and thank the workers very politely, putting two dollars into the tip jar by the exit. Outside, the sun is setting, and the streets seem filled exclusively with couples—holding hands, hugging, guiding each other like one of them is blind. I feel happy that I am single and sorry for myself at the same time.


When I get home, I text my ex-boyfriend a picture of an unopened bottle of wine I have sitting around. I’ve heard this red is very bold. When he doesn’t reply for two hours, I open the bottle, pour myself a glass, and try to write some more.



Judy says it’s impressive that Simi takes an interest in her subconscious, but perhaps they don’t need to spend so much time talking about her dreams. “You are paying for this, you know,” Judy says, like Simi is being swindled and doesn’t even know it. “I want you to get the most out of this process.”


Simi tells Judy that she is very kind for considering her finances, but that she is a vegetarian, so the dream actually does have potential for deeper, real-world significance.


Judy smiles and nods. She walks around her desk and opens one of its drawers, pulls out a composition notebook, hands it to Simi. “Here,” she says. “A blank journal. For you to log your dreams in.”



My phone buzzes and I am giddy, until I realize it’s not my ex-boyfriend but, instead, Jessica: What’s a Simi


Simi is my protagonist, I write back, annoyed. Simi is short for Simran


Maybe choose another name?? I was confused.


Simran is a standard Indian name.




I wait for some time, but when it’s clear that ohhh is the extent of Jessica’s response, I offer: Do you think this story could be interesting tho


Definitely. I love cultural fiction


This is not going to be about culture


No? But she’s Indian, isn’t she????


Yes, she is. But this story is going to be about a patient-therapist relationship


Why does she need to be Indian then??


Because I’m Indian.


You’re writing about yourself?


No. But I want to write about people like me.


Got it. I just think that people will wonder what the significance is – of the protagonist being an immigrant…. They’ll want you to explore this, you know?? If you don’t, they won’t get the point of setting it up that way…. That’s why I suggested another name.


I pour another glass of wine and recognize that I feel equally disappointed in Jessica and in myself. In Jessica, because she is stupid and rude. In myself, because I surround myself with people who are stupid and rude.


I crane my head, so it’s hanging over the short backrest of the couch; I can smell its thick, hand-me-down fabric. I stare at the ceiling with intention, an expression on my face like the truth is clear to me now—even though my mind is blank.


When I hear my neck crack, I sit up again and take a sip of my very bold wine. I decide that while Jessica may be published in several well-respected online magazines, she is not the kind of writer I’d ever want to be. I’d never want to write a story in which the family dog is a golden retriever and the mother is protective of her wedding china and all the drama unfolds on a porch at night when the stars are out. I didn’t live that life or watch those movies. Not more than I had to, at least.



Simi takes the notebook into her hands dramatically, like the scene is playing out in slow motion. “Thank you,” she says, doing a little bow without even realizing it. Simi feels so overwhelmed with gratitude, in fact, that she begins to talk too much: “I think the reason I’m so obsessed with dreams is that, well, because I wonder if they contain clues about my previous lives.


“When I was maybe ten years old, I accidentally read a book about past-life regression therapy—and it changed me forever. I actually picked it up at a bookstore in India, called Crosswords. We visited India every summer growing up. My dad made us—so we wouldn’t become ‘too American.’ Anyway, we did become too American, and, anyway, the book cover was a picture of a chair with a spinning top on it. There was a line on it, too, that said, simply: ‘Children Who Have Lived Before.’ In my Velcro shoes, I felt like I had just unearthed something serious and important. Like I was the only kid who was going to know the real truth.”



The next morning, I am eating oatmeal from a plastic cup and drinking Gatorade when I decide that I want to stand in line today. This is something I crave from time to time. After all, when you are standing in line for something, it’s like the world is standing still with you.


I decide I will try to sell some clothes at a Buffalo Exchange, but when I arrive at the nearest store, I see that there is no line for anything.


“Hi, excuse me?” I say to a pink-haired girl tidying up a sunglass display rack.


“Hey,” she says conclusively.


“I’m here to sell—and, uh, donate—some clothes?”


“In the corner,” she says, like there aren’t four of them.


“Okay,” I say, and wheel my small, squeaky suitcase to the nearest corner, the right, where there are too many old jeans. I turn to my left and I see a small counter at the back of the store: two buyers, one seller. I approach the available buyer, a little disappointed.


“Hey, I’m here to sell,” I announce.


“Over here,” he says, even though I’m basically in front of him.


As I place clothing from my two tote bags onto the counter, we glance at one another expectantly.


“Good day so far?” he asks, sounding embarrassed.


“Great, actually,” I say enthusiastically, trying to pick up the slack. “I’m recently unemployed, which has been surprisingly refreshing.”


“A little time off never hurt anybody,” he sings happily. “I’m Elijah.”


“Risha,” I say.


“Such a pretty name.” Elijah smiles. “So, how are you passing the time?”


“I’ve been trying to focus on my art, I guess.”


“That’s so fantastic. What do you do?”


“I’m a writer,” I say. “I mean, I’d like to be a writer. I try to write.”


“You don’t have to tell me,” he reassures. “I’m a painter, in the same way that you’re a writer.”


“I wish I could paint,” I say.


“Me too,” he says. Then we laugh together, until it is clear both of us feel sorry for ourselves. For the remainder of our time together, I browse my phone while Elijah silently sorts my clothes into two piles. It’s clear almost instantly that the shrinking pile is the one I will be paid for.


“Thirty percent in cash or 50% in trade?”


“I’ll take the 30%.”


I am only $18.46 richer for seven minutes, because I remember spotting an animal shelter across the street. I go to a few bodegas until I find the brand of cat food my cat used to like. Then I donate it to the animal shelter and feel like maybe every kind act is inspired by a kind encounter.



“I know a little bit about past-life regression therapy,” Judy says. “It’s fascinating.”


“It is!” Simi beams. “You would like this book, then. I could lend you my copy, if you don’t mind returning it.”


“That’s okay,” Judy says, in the polite way that she does.


“Are you sure? It’s basically a collection of true accounts of children who remember bits and pieces of their past lives; children who have curious amounts of very real baggage, too. For example, there’s this one story about a young girl who couldn’t stand the sight or smell of fires—fires of any kind. In fact, one time she was at a birthday party and started crying uncontrollably when the cake was brought out with lit candles stuck into it.”



The bookstore is the place I feel most at home. It’s the one place I can not just handle crowds, but in fact prefer them. Most people are browsing alone; even friends and couples navigate the aisles like strangers. There is sanctity in how we sidle past each other, silently, apologetically. Gazes must be averted at all costs. Everyone is gentle in a bookstore. Paperbacks must be cradled. We open hardcovers slowly, really hearing the way spines crack, and there is a sincere eagerness to listen.


“Risha?” a voice booms somewhere down the historical fiction aisle.


I turn and it is who I think it is, unfortunately. Jessica. “Jessica,” I whisper back, hoping she will follow suit and lower her voice.


Jessica struts past a few visibly disturbed patrons until she is next to me, clasping my upper arm with both of her hands, like a koala. She does this often. “I was literally just about to text you. I didn’t mean to upset you about the—”


“Oh, I wasn’t upset!” I say, like I’m just realizing I’ve left the milk out.


“You never replied though.” Jessica purses her lips to the side in a way that reminds me of Melinda.


“It’s been a busy week.”


“Didn’t you just quit your job?”


“Uh-huh,” I say, suddenly remembering that this is the story I’ve told my friends instead of the truth. The truth being that I was fired so loudly—over a small mistake that was my fault, but not so colossal to warrant a public firing—that my former coworkers all chipped in for consolatory flowers to be sent to my apartment. “But I’ve got tons of errands to run now that I have the time.”


Jessica frowns at me like I can do better than that fib. “Well, if you want me to read over what you have tonight, you know, before you submit tomorrow, I’d love to. I’m staying in for the foreseeable future because I have this grant deadline to make.” She groans performatively. “You know what that’s like.”


“I don’t, actually,” I say. “I’ve never applied for a grant.”


“What are you talking about? You’ve totally applied for a grant before.”


I shrug. “I must be forgetting then.” For a moment, I consider telling Jessica the more important truth: that I only have a handful of bad paragraphs so far, that I won’t be submitting anytime soon. But then she says, “Anyways, I gotta run, babe. I’ve got someone upstairs waiting for me. A potential agent! Isn’t that exciting?”


“So exciting,” I say, wanting to strangle her.



“Anyway, this pyrophobic girl was younger than I was at the time—six or seven, I think—and she had no history of trauma associated with fires. She also harbored this intense hatred towards both of her parents that seemed completely unfounded. Her parents were wonderful people, apparently—overtly loving and everything. But their daughter would never return an ‘I love you’ or express any sort of affection. Soon, her mother became very worried and decided to take her to a past-life regression therapist.


“You might know this already, but past-life regression therapy involves hypnosis. So, they hypnotized the young girl to help her return to her previous life and, when she did, they learned that she had died from a house fire in the middle of the night. The last thing she remembered from her past life, too, was her body floating above the house, her family huddled on the lawn next to several firetrucks. She thought that her family hadn’t tried to save her and carried this resentment with her onto her next life.”



“Who is it?” I say into the intercom.


“Guess who,” the voice says back.


“Who?” It sounds like Vishal, my ex-boyfriend.


“I said guess.”


When Vishal is in my apartment, he is disappointed to learn that I’ve already opened the bottle of wine. “What’s this?” he says. “You invite me over for a half-bottle of wine?”


“I didn’t invite you,” I say. “And even if I did, you’re twenty-four hours late.”


“Chill,” he says, searching my kitchen cabinets like he still lives here. He pours most of the bottle into the nicest wine glass I own and takes it into my room. I follow him in to find him sitting on my desk chair, looking into my laptop screen. “Judy and Simi! What do we have here?”


“Don’t do that.” I slam my laptop closed.


“Working on another story?”


“I am, yes.” I snatch his glass as delicately as I can—seeing as the thing is filled to its brim—and take two big gulps before handing it back. “This one’s about a patient-therapist relationship.”


“Oh yeah? Are you Simi? Is Judy your therapist?”


“No,” I murmur. “My therapist is kind of a drag, actually. I might stop seeing her when my insurance runs out, which is,” I pretend to look at an imaginary wristwatch, “probably four sessions from now.”


“What’s wrong with this one?”


“She’s just kind of problematic,” I say. “She says things that seem really inappropriate and rude.”


“Like what?” Vish asks, kicking off his shoes and lying across the foot of my bed.


I shrug. “It’s hard to explain.”


“Oh, Rish.” Vish laughs. “You always have beef with someone in your life. No one is good enough for you. Isn’t that how it goes?”


I roll my eyes and go into the kitchen to pour myself a glass of wine, since Vish didn’t think to do that. As I drain the last of the bottle—maybe four or five sips—into a plastic cup, I realize that my blood is boiling. The thought of Vishal draped across my bed like that—smug—makes me purely indignant.


“What’s that supposed to mean?” I say from my doorway.


He sits up on my bed. “Well, don’t get all mad.”


“What do you mean I always have beef with someone?”


“You really wanna know?”


“Yeah. I really want to know.”


“You’re always going on about how much everyone sucks. When we were dating, it was me. When you had a job, it was your boss. Some days it’s Jessica. Other days it’s your therapist. It’s always someone. Think about that,” he says, lifting his glass like we are going to toast or something.


“You hated Jessica,” I retort, mostly because I can’t deny any of this.


“I did hate Jessica,” he declares, “but I also don’t think I’m better than Jessica. I accept Jessica. I accept myself. I think we are both uniquely subpar people. I think the world is full of uniquely subpar people. And I think it’s our job to stick together—as shitty, subpar human beings. It’s like a karmic law or something.”




“I just don’t see the point in writing everyone off the way you do.”


“Leave,” I repeat.


Shaking his head, Vish slips on his shoes and rises to his feet. He downs the rest of his wine in under three seconds (a feat I can’t help but recognize as astonishing) and then skips past me, out of my room to the front door.


I don’t turn to face him, but I wait for him to say something else, anything else, since he’s exactly the kind of person that needs to have the final word. But there is only silence followed by the door slamming shut.



Judy looks at Simi with equal parts concern and compassion. “Simran, I think your spiritual passion is beautiful. But we should really focus on you.”


Simi sighs. “You’re right,” she says. “I guess that was just my long-winded way of saying thank you. Thank you for being so kind and patient with me. Thank you for having hope in me.” Then, suddenly, as though finally recognizing the meaning of her tangent: “I guess my point was that I can’t help but perceive you as maternal, and not just because you’re my therapist. It feels like I have known you, as a mother, specifically, in a past life.”


Simran regrets the words as soon as they come out of her mouth, as soon as she sees Judy’s face fall into a shadow of the future of their relationship—or, rather, the lack of it. After all, Judy is a good therapist. She is of sound mind. She cannot, in good conscience, continue to see a patient who regards her as her own mother.



I blink into my screen and realize that, once again, I have dug my own grave. Once again, the only relationship I have created I have also destroyed, within the brief span of a page. Once again, I have written off my one and only protagonist.


I think about Vishal’s words: “I just don’t see the point in writing everyone off the way you do.” I think about how he was too shy to use my bathroom when we first started dating, because he didn’t want me to hear him pee. I think about how comfortable he feels now—so comfortable that he’ll show up unannounced, drink all of my wine, and tell me off on my own turf.


I think about Jessica and her success. I think about why it bothers me. I think about the way she holds my arm when she greets me, or when we are walking down the street together. I think about the notes she sends me on my writing, always promptly: color-coded, marked-up with just as much praise as constructive criticism.


I think about Simran, and I think about myself. I think about missing the point of things entirely. I think about baggage. I think about baggage so old it might as well belong to a previous lifetime.



In my dream, I am eating the biggest T-bone steak in the universe, in Melinda’s office. I don’t have a plate or utensils, so I am carrying the steak around in my purse, ripping off pieces of it and feeding myself with my fingers, like it is a soft baguette.


Melinda asks why I am eating a T-bone steak during our therapy session. I say, simply: “Because I am starving.”

Without judgement, Melissa nods. From the bottom of her chair, she pulls out a colorful plate, a fork, and a steak knife—in that order. Then, she struggles to move her heavy desk in front of me, so I have a surface to eat on.


“Is this okay?” Melinda asks, pursing her lips to the side.



Our writing circle meets once a week, in an art studio for preschoolers (after hours, of course).


The seven of us huddle over two short tables cobbled together—both pieces of furniture stained with so much paint we can’t help but remember how everything is a canvas when you’re four years old. We sit on even shorter stools, with our strained backs hunched over each other’s manuscripts. We have all traveled from different corners of the city to really be here, to peer in each other’s minds for two full hours.


At the end of our meeting, while Mark is passing out the twelfth chapter of his mystery novel-in-progress, I announce to everyone: “I don’t have pages again and I was fired from my job a month ago.”


Everyone stops to stare at me, except Mark, who seems to be double-checking that his pages are stapled in the correct order. Jessica knits her eyebrows so plainly. Jason gives me a look like he’d rather be anywhere but here. Jenna crosses her arms like she is a disappointed teacher. Neil widens his eyes like he’s never heard a confession so sad before. Sam bares her teeth, like: yikes.


“You didn’t quit?” Jessica says.


“No, I got fired. Pretty publicly actually. It was a small mistake that had some medium consequences.”


Suddenly, Mark cackles loudly, breaking the tension he is oblivious to. “That’s so funny, dude. You should write about that for next time.”


Silently, Jessica walks to my side and squeezes my arm tightly. “Do you mind waiting another month to share though?”


“Not at all,” I hear myself whisper.


Then, like I am a ball being tossed around, the group takes turns hugging me, consoling me. I allow myself to move from person to person, to feel relieved in a way that seems too profound for the occasion. Each of them expresses to me—in their uniquely subpar ways—how it’s going to be okay. That is, everyone except for Mark, who is packing up his things, satisfied that pages one to twenty are in perfect, consecutive order.



If Death Is Another Dimension

If I meet Michio Kaku, I

won’t ask him about supernovas and black holes, about

New York or California, but

about his pond of fishes;

How they live two-dimensional lives

unaware that there is life beyond

water.  We can’t breathe without air,

Dr. Michio Kaku. We


can’t breathe even without the love

of our loved ones; the stomach churns, the heart

beats so fast when I think of my mother; in this

limited three-dimensional existence of

social media, and nuclear bomb,

Elon Musk Brand colonies in Mars, it is

hard for me to breathe if

I think about the moment

when the doctor woke me up: we have

been looking for you; your

mother is no more.


Did he really say your mother

or patient number something-something? Did he say,

your wife, to my father who was lying in the bed

against the wall? She lived a glorious life, she lived

an abundant life, I said, hugging him with one hand,

but not asking him to stop crying. I didn’t say

it is okay because it wasn’t; I didn’t say

it will be okay because it never will be.


That was five years ago; life was different then;

winter, less harsh. Deaths, not so common as today. How

worried I would have been about her

now, if she were still living, in the world

of rationed care? This year,

when caregivers need care, while

an invisible killer sucks away our souls.


If I meet Michio Kaku, I will ask

about dimensions. He said once,

that we are like those fishes who live

in two dimensions, we are like those fishes

who can’t imagine there is life

beyond water. I will ask if death is another dimension

where good people go. Of course, the

people we love are always good.


Do people who leave us, watch us

from this dimension? Like we watch

protest marches, hot delivery post-men,

from our balconies? Or is it a new life

where you are born at the same age

you had died, and you appear

in this world as you were?


Dear Michio Kaku, if

death is another dimension, is it in this world

of rivers, deserts, mountains, meadows?

I had once watched a short film where

people go after they are dead; it is like a commune,

similar to our world: a TV, a living room, people

who spew scathing comments or shower compassion,

but this world is crowded; the character we follow

is upset, confused, remembers her past life, and doesn’t

know how she reached here. She doesn’t know

what she remembers is a past life. What if

life after life is a crowded room

with a TV blaring. Mundane, poor,

full of absences.


If I meet Michio Kaku,

I will ask him these things. I will

ask him where dead people go. If

the dead are really dead. If

the world they go to is

really a happy world where

they rest; if they live next to us,

can see us, can help us, can bless us. If

they are in peace.


What the Dolls See

I come from a long line of nervous women. The nervousness started when my great granny’s brain cracked. I never met her, but here’s what I’ve been told: it was the Great Depression. She and hers were down to cornmeal and dandelions. She chased her husband with a meat cleaver until he promised that he and the kids would go without supper. She wanted to buy genuine taffeta. She wanted a pretty dress.


And my granny, she had broken thoughts, too. When my mama was pregnant with me, my granny climbed the sugar maple in her yard. Before Mama burned bridges with the men in the family, they swore Granny mistook the telephone wire for a branch. My mama said otherwise. Mama said Granny eyed it, and right before she took hold, she said: Goodbye, little life. She shook with the spirit.


Two weeks ago, my mama joined them in their crumbling. I told her I graduated and that made me a woman. I told her I was leaving Tennessee. I told her I was going north because I was in love. That was that. She said, “Dumplin, he don’t love you. He ain’t even a man.”


I bit my tongue. He drove a mustang. He had thick sideburns.


“He only likes you ‘cause you got that exotic look.”


I said, “You just don’t like him ‘cause he’s white and ‘cause he drinks up all the Coke.”


“Dumplin, you watch your mouth.”


“You don’t even got a man.”


She set my baby sister down, safe in a swaddle. She chased me, tank-top tugged down. Tried to squirt me with her milk. Pinched nipples—yellowed streams of milk from her chest. I hid in the safest part of the trailer. Her closet. The door gets jammed sometimes. She hunkered and tugged at the knob. That stuck sheet of pine was my savior. She gave up and sprayed the wood until Nevaeh cranked up her colic. Mama’s footsteps creaked away. Nevaeh’s whines rattled. We haven’t seen our mama since. She went with my man to Ohio.


It’s just us. Baby Nevaeh and me. We splay on the futon. She nurses the bottle just fine. I feed her until she wiggles away from the flow. The first time, I hurt her. Her squalling carried into the blue minutes of dawn. That lip-burn better not scar. We’re okay now. I nestle her in my arms, breathe in the vanilla malt on her breath. I coo. “Hush, little baby, don’t say a word. Your mama is a fucking turd.” I rock her into dreams. “And since she up and went cuckoo, I’m gonna stay and care for you.” I settle her in the crook of the futon. What goes on behind those pretty eyelids, dark and thin as petals? What do those flittering eyes see?


My dreams have been haunted with mad women. Mostly it’s Mama sneaking up the slope of our yard in shadows. Meat cleaver swinging from her grip. Sometimes I’m the one who’s lost it, pushing Nevaeh into bathwater murky as sin. But I’m not like my family.


I dig in my old toy bin by the recliner and pick a Barbie. Her white face tattooed with purple marker. Hair chopped short. Clothes long-lost. I prop her on the windowsill behind the lace curtain. Beside her, a Cabbage Patch doll I stationed yesterday. They sit on pink doilies and watch the yard. At the end of the gravel driveway, the postal woman stuffs letters in the box. Her stomach bulges. Her mullet stiff in the breeze. She studies the window, shakes her head.


I pop in a VHS tape: Labyrinth. While it rewinds, I cook popcorn on the stove. The cabinets and pantry will hollow soon. Mama left her WIC papers, food stamps. I’ll need to get a job. I’ll keep Nevaeh fat. I sit on the carpet and start the movie with salted fingers.


A soft tapping on the door. I peer through the peephole. A plump, light-skinned girl stands in a windbreaker. Her hair tied in thick plaits. A Blow Pop pocketed in her cheek. She lives in a fenced-in house across the street. She knocks, louder.


I swing open the door and hush her. “I got a baby sleeping.”


“Why you got dolls in the window?” She smacks her tongue against the sucker.


“Business is better when it’s minded,” I say.


“My name’s Elma. What’s your name?” She cranes her neck past me, into the living room. “Can I hold your baby?”


“She’s sleeping,” I whisper.


“Hey, you got any ice cream?”


“You sure don’t need none.” I step in front of her.


She backs onto the porch. “That ain’t your baby.” She crunches the candy to shards. “My mama said that your mama is a easy heifer.”


Nevaeh cries. I shut the door on Elma and scoop Neveah from the futon.


Elma presses her face against the windowpane. She fogs the glass with her words. “What’s a heifer?”


By the time I get settled, the sister on screen tries to know the difference between a truth and a lie. Nevaeh sucks butter from my fingers. The movie ends at sunset. Dusk reaches up to the porch, to the windows. I lock the door and turn on the porch light. All that swimming darkness. I scoot with Neveah pressed to my chest, to the toy bin. A clay girl, strawberry-sized. Her cheeks freckled. Her arms pocked by the old gnaw of my baby teeth. She joins the others on the windowsill. I cuddle Nevaeh on the spread futon. We sleep.


In the morning, I give Nevaeh a gentle wash in the kitchen sink. Her soft scent: lavender, baby powder. I dress her in yellow cotton. She babbles in her stroller. Before we step out, I check my pockets—ID, WIC, pocketknife. The walk to the grocery store isn’t far, but if anyone tries anything, I’ll stab. If the sharpness won’t kill them in the moment, the rust will, later. I wait by the door and steady my heartbeat. No demons stalk in daylight.


The sun bakes the porch. It rained last night. The tulipwood swells, dark. I pull the door halfway shut before I see it—below the window, a teacup with a chipped brim. It sits on a saucer. And in that cup, ripped dogwood blossoms and twigs float in rainwater. I rush back inside with Nevaeh and lock the door. My hands shake in the toy bin. I fill the windowsill with watching eyes: porcelain, paper, wood. A doll with acorns for eyes. A little girl with chewed bubblegum eyes. The last doll is a nesting doll. Eyes on the outside, eyes on the inside. I place her in the middle.


We step out. The stroller’s sunshade protects Nevaeh’s eyes. She sucks a binky. I lock the door, tug the knob three times, slip the key in my pocket. I kick the teacup and saucer. They shatter on the sun-bleached lawn. The day is humid.


The air conditioner of IGA kisses our skin. My muscles ache. My breathing throbs. I walk slow in the coolness, lean my weight into the stroller. Sleepy saxophone notes slide out the speakers. I push past dewed produce, by towers of toilet paper, keeping distance from strangers. The white women with beauty parlor curls smile at Nevaeh with pity in their eyes. I shop: a pound of cheese, low-fat milk, whole wheat cereal. Nine cans of formula. A stocker with a stain of a mustache helps me carry the food to the cashier. The cashier is a little older than me with glossed lips.


“This is WIC,” I say.


The stocker lingers, helps stuff plastic bags. The cashier totals. I give her the papers and ID.


The stocker peers. “Name doesn’t match,” he says.


“She’s my sister. My mama’s sick,” I say.


“Have your mother come in,” he says.


“She’s on her deathbed,” I say.


“I’ll get a manager.” He huffs and struts away.


The cashier whispers: “There’s a shift change at five. I work a double today. If you can come back around six, I’ll ring this up for you, no problem.” She gives a half-dimpled smile.


My thanks: pressed lips, a nod. We leave our food in the bags, walk back down the backroad to our trailer. The lock twists open with a click. I undress Nevaeh in the dim living room. She’s drenched with sweat. Her tiny body lolls. I settle her on the futon in front of a dusty box fan. She takes the bottle. I eat macaroni. She sucks the cheese from my fingers. At 5:45 Nevaeh slips into sleep. I work the binky in her mouth and tuck her into my old bassinet. “I won’t be long,” I whisper. I lock the door and pound my feet on mud, to asphalt, to tiled floor.


When I reach the base of our yard, the bags sag from my wrist and arms. My back and shoulders full of ache. Elma crouches on the porch below the window. I toss the bags to the ground and jump up the two steps to face her.


She squints at me. “You broke my mama’s teacup.”


“What the hell you doing?”


She sprinkles bits of bermudagrass in a cup of milk. “The dolls told me they was thirsty. The dolls told me, Elma, come feed us tea.”


“They did not,” I say.


She sprinkles more grass and stirs with her finger. “They woke me up last night. They was mad. They told me you don’t help their thirst.”


“Go on and get before I tell your mama.”


“What’s a heifer?” she asks.


I give her a mad-mama look. I give her a look that tells her I’m three seconds from beating her with my flip-flop. She scurries away. I cart the groceries in and go straight to Nevaeh. She looks at me, eyes wide as quarters. Her cheeks tear blotched.


“Oh, baby, I’m so sorry. I’m the sorriest.”


I plant feathered kisses on her forehead until she whines. She takes the bottle. While she sips in the bassinet, I harvest our mama’s things: jeans cut into shorts, tank tops crusted with milk, balled rubber bands twisted with her dead ends. A ceramic ice cream cone full of pennies. I dump the change on the floor and toss the cone in a trash bag with the rest of her things. A pair of scissors. A globe of yarn. There’s no more room in the bag. Hell, everything in this place she owns. I tie the bag, run down the porch, to the backyard. I toss it to the hem of the forest.


I talk to the bag. “Tomorrow, I’ll get a job. What I need you for?” I shoot spit to the mud. “What Nevaeh need you for?”


I fall asleep, naked, to Nevaeh’s light breathing and the lullaby on TV: You remind me of the babe. The babe with the power. The power of Voodoo. You do.


A sharp clanging rips me from my Mama-with-hatchet nightmare. I jolt up, throw on mama’s robe. The clock above the flickering TV tells me it’s three in the morning. The finished VHS tape sends out a steady bleat. I kill the TV’s power. Another clang outside. The rummaging sound leads me and the jut of my pocketknife into the black. Silence. Plastic crinkles. I run to the backyard. Elma hunkers over strewn clothes, rolls the ice cream cone between palms.


“What’s this mess?” I ask.


“The dolls told me there was a treasure.”


“You lie.” I fold the pocketknife. “You been watching me.”


She yawns. “I only been watching my dreams.” She pushes past me.


“That ain’t yours.” I reach for the cone. My thumbnail snags on her wrist.


She squeals. “You made blood.” She slams the cone to the ground. It chips on a stone. “You the heifer, ain’t you?”


Her feet pitter-patter away. I scoop up the mess, pile it onto the torn bag. Something leaps near my foot. I fork my fingertips through the dewed blades of grass until I feel it. The bumped skin of a cricket frog.


“Hello, little friend.” I carry his chirps inside and put him in the bassinet.


All the sleepiness leaves my bones. I shuffle to the kitchen. The magnet calendar on the fridge stops me from searching for pickles. Today is my birthday. The cabinets have what I need to mix. The sun peaks past the horizon when I finish: sweet cornbread with chocolate icing.


I take a tea candle out my room and put it on the cushion of chocolate. I suck down air and blow. The nineteenth wish of my life: let me give Neveah the care I’ve never known. I leave the treat on the counter and go back to my babies. The frog hides between two stuffed bears. I smear a little icing on the feet of the toys. The frog stays. “You just eat that when you get hungry,” I say. I cuddle with Neveah. Before I can close my eyes, she screams.


My morning is swampy diapers, warm bottles, two baths, back pats. At noon, she shuts her eyes and mouth. I find a white dress from our church days. I haven’t worn this since I graduated middle school. I squeeze in. My chest hugged flat. The short sleeves push out my arm fat. I slip into a black, hooded jacket. One sleeve is burned at the wrist. If I push the stroller just right, no one will notice. I nibble a slice of cornbread in the bathroom while I pretty my face. My choice of shoes: flip-flops, a pair of sneakers. Flip-flops will do.


Something thuds in the living room. I bolt into the hallway, to the futon. Nevaeh rests with a bottle poking out her lips. She’s safe. I look for what fell. The nesting doll, her innards split open. I put her together and return her to her post. The door is locked. The yard is empty. My steps can’t be heavy in this home. Something always breaks.


The mean heat of the afternoon makes me sweat. The sweat makes my skin lick the polyester. I itch. Nevaeh’s stroller wobbles over pebbles and sticks on the backroad. We cross the burning parking lot, into IGA. I go straight to customer service. A man with a moon belly stands at the register.


“I’d like to apply for a job.”


His thin-lipped smile stretches.


I stop filling out the application three times to feed Nevaeh, to change her. Emergency contact: N/A. Have you ever worked before? All my life.


“Come in a couple of days for the interview.” He takes the papers. “You’ll want to find a babysitter.”


I nod. The frog will keep her company. The dolls will keep her safe. I stroll her out into the early evening. The sky pink as taffy. When we reach the driveway, Nevaeh sputters out grunts. By the time I get her to the futon, her wailing hurts me. She won’t take the bottle. Rocking doesn’t soothe her.


“What you want?”


Her screaming eats at me. Her words formless as poor dough, but I know what she says. “You ain’t mine. You ain’t nothing but a heifer. You ain’t nothing.” Our fight is worse than throwing knuckles. She cries, I stroke her back. She wiggles away from milk, I sway. She calms a few minutes past midnight. She rests with puffy eyes.


I pace. My nerves won’t settle. I flick on the porch light. A mourning dove coos. That lonely sound feels like cold marbles in my belly. The frog still nestles between the stuffed bears. I take one. “She’ll be right back,” I say. I put her beneath the window, facing the wall. Pine and corkwood can’t block the sight. An extra pair of eyes offers me peace.


When our mama would get in a bad mood, she’d light a roll-up cigarette and fill the home with stink. In her room, the machine sits on a nightstand. My sloppy hands gut the first. Dry tobacco spills. The second cigarette is more paper than tobacco. I bring it along with a lighter to the door. I tap my pocket. Knife there, folded and ready. I unlock the door and open—just a crack. Nevaeh doesn’t stir. I blow smoke out into the sliver of night. It burns to the filter. I step on the porch to toss it.


Puddles of honey on the porch. Crowds of ants in a frenzy-march. Elma is a girl full of wrong. She’ll say, “The dolls want honey for tea.” The dolls don’t want anything to do with her. She knows that and hates me for it. She gave me bugs.


I drop the ember and filter to the porch. I creep as fast as I can to the bassinet. I cup the frog. “You a gift,” I whisper. It chirps. I go outside. The door clicks behind me. The frog squirms. I keep a tight grip and run down the driveway, across the street, to Elma’s mailbox. “Remember, you nothing but a gift.” I try to make it quick. The frog twitches after the second stab. My pocketknife shines inky in the starlight. I put his leaking body in the mailbox, on top of a grocery store’s ad paper.


I leave the knife in the kitchen sink to soak. I join Nevaeh on the futon. She reaches out in her sleep, brushes my mouth with her fingertips. “I hope you dream about nice things,” I say. I kiss her nails. “But don’t dream too nice. Don’t see pearls and taffeta. Dream about what you got, or you’ll wake up sad, baby.”


I wake up to the sugared singing of birds. Nevaeh’s eyes wander around the ceiling. I lift her. “You want breakfast, don’t you?” I bounce her in my arms, walk over to the window. A heat bubbles in my chest. I’ve never felt a fear like this in my life. Elma’s newest gift to me: on the porch, a wooden puppet sits with crossed legs. Ants trail up and down and up her stiff limbs. Her head is fixed up. Glossed eyes, knowing and never-lived, aim at the window. I meet her gaze.



Prayer with Burning Barn

My favorite barn burned down today.
I loved it for its imperfections,
its usedness, the way it sagged
against itself. Postcard red
worn to gray. Today
as I drove by, flame
bit the spring sky.
A plume of smoke
visible for a mile.
A line of flashing lights,
traffic narrowed to a single lane,
hoses containing the heat
but stopping nothing.
Tomorrow’s commute
will offer a touch less
wonder. There’s a hole
in my future shaped
like an old barn.
I do not mean
to make more of this
than what it is:
a story about the body.


Review: Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me by Choi Seungja

Translated by Won-Chung Kim and Cathy Park Hong

Action Books, Oct. 1, 2020.

Paperback, $18, 102 pages.


Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me


In “Already, the World,” Choi Seungja writes, “My poems, short as a shriek, / will spread / over the white horizon.” The second volume of Choi’s poems translated into English and containing poems from five different books, Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me exhibits the qualities that made Choi one of South Korea’s most influential poets. Her unflinching examinations of loneliness, of unfair institutions, and of what it means to be female in a world that continues to revolve around men combine to form a collection that disrupts and upsets the mind as much as it comforts. In lines that one of the book’s two translators, Cathy Park Hong, describes as “breathtaking and frightening,” Choi invites the reader to examine their own frailty.


Hong describes one of the central motifs as “the barren womb.” The womb is soft in its sound and the image it conjures—a cocoon of nurturing and safety. However, the uterus which Choi references in her poems is clinical—a simple organ. The uterus in Choi’s poems is often producing in ways that don’t coincide with the familial dream. In “I Have Been to the Sea in Winter,” the woman in the poem is impregnated by a contaminated sea, and from this contamination children


. . . lay their eggs

inside the earth of the Philippine jungles,

and spread syphilis or deliver stillborn babies

. . . Now and then,

they might start a revolution in the very long tedious night—

a revolution always destined to misfire.


Far from barren, this womb has created the entire world, a world that Choi presents at its roughest and grittiest, a world diseased and stagnant, unable to progress. Only a few pages later, in “For Y,” another being emerges from the uterus, called a baby but more closely resembling an underdeveloped fetus with fins, flying through the sky. In the world of Choi’s words the uterus is not without life. Instead, it is teeming with the creation of our reality versus our ideal. A reality that is built upon the things that confirm we are alive—our excretions, our mortality, our need for community.


Choi refuses to shy away from the facts about ourselves that we would most like to ignore. Her poems are riddled with rot and decay, presented through an unflinching lens that forces the reader to contend with the more visceral aspects of humanity’s impermanence. In “Not Forgetting or Memorandum 1,” the speaker describes years that “. . . left me mercilessly / alive,” after being expected to live on the very waste that polite society has deemed unacceptable. This decay is pushed toward violence in “The End of a Century”:


Oh, I wish I’d become a dog, beaten to death.

I’d like to become a carpet made of the skin of a dog

Beaten to death.


These are the poems that strike fear, twist the stomach, conjure uncomfortable thoughts in the mind.


Translated by Won-Chung Kim and Cathy Park Hong, Choi’s poems beautifully capture the universality of feeling that can exist outside of language, while still sparking with the kind of diction that elevates strings of words to poetry. The notes on translation included, while useful, are almost unnecessary. To read of “rice mixed with tears” is to understand the sadness pervading the poem, even without the added context that in Korea, this meal represents a miserable life. The visceral and vibrant construction of these poems in English reveals the reverence these translators have for Choi’s work and transfers that reverence to the reader.


Choi’s work can be described as relentless, fatal, even grotesque. At the same time, her poems are also powerful, beautiful, and elegant. Choi makes use of these opposing elements in ways that both discomfort and reassure, reminding the reader that we are not alone in our darkest thoughts. To speak these thoughts aloud, to memorialize them in words, is the gift that Choi has given us.