Prime Decimals 47.2
by Benjamin Ludwig
They were out picking potatoes in the garden. It was almost noon. The moon was still up. The father stood with a shovel, gently heaving up shovelfuls of soil. As he did this, potatoes and clumps of potatoes fell heavily and abundantly. His little girl, who was only two, picked them up, studying each one, pulling them from the greens before putting the potatoes in a basket. At some point she caught sight of the moon.
She dropped the potato she was holding so that she could point. “Sees the moon,” she said. No subject-pronouns. Not yet.
“I see the moon too,” the father said. “See the potatoes?” He wanted her to learn about things of the earth, and to love them as he did.
But the girl was still looking at the sky. “Sees the moon,” she said again, more excitedly; and then, “Needs to hold it.”
The father pushed the shovel into the soil. She was always talking about holding the moon. He wished she would look down instead at all the potatoes spilling at her feet. “The moon is too big for you to hold,” he told her. He leaned on the shovel and looked at her. “The moon is too big. I’m sorry, but we can’t hold it.”
She looked back at him, and he could see that she was thinking. “Just the stars,” she said, her chin dropping. “They are tiny.”
The father paused, then bent to pick up the potato she had dropped. He didn’t say a word because he couldn’t bear the thought of pushing her any further than he already had.
Benjamin Ludwig writes and teaches from New Hampshire. He is the recipient of the 2013 Clay Reynolds Novella Prize for his novella, Sourdough, which will be published by Texas Review Press this coming fall.
by Spencer K. M. Brown
Wait. Waiting—it felt like that was all I ever did, just waiting by the open front door, mindlessly puffing a cigarette as she took her time getting ready. I was so impatient, calling her name, asking if she was ready. She would snap back a response that kept me quiet for a few moments. The way she would climb into the passenger seat, the way she would take the cigarette from my hand and curl her soft, puffy lips around it, taking a long drag, always made me forget about waiting. I forgot everything when she was next to me.
Waiting. Sitting on the couch after a few drinks, feeling vulnerable. Feeling loved. I would wait to see what mood she was in. And with a soft graze of my hand along her thigh, she would pull me into a delicate kiss. I could feel her chest as it rose and fell, rose and fell, like waves before a storm, her heart pounding into mine. All the while I was just waiting for it to happen, waiting for her to finally be done with me. Waiting for it all to be over.
Wait: to pause or postpone some action. I sit in the Greyhound station, waiting for the clock to read, 3AM. My eyes continuously close, but I try to stay awake. I hate sleeping in public places. I climb onto the bus and stare numbly out of the hand-printed window. Wondering how long I must wait until I will be happy again.
Waiting—it was the one thing she said she would never do. Not for a day, not for a year. Not for any amount of time that I asked. She said, “A woman worth having doesn’t wait.” And I suppose she was right.
Spencer K. M. Brown lives in Southern Florida where he is a junior at Ave Maria University. His stories have appeared in Contraries and The Gyrene. In 2013, he published his debut novel, Wolfe.
by Milton Ehrlich
I was always surprised
how warm milk was
when I milked a herd
of Holstein cows,
and how cold father’s
body became as red rivulets froze,
the moment he stopped breathing.
How easy it used to be
to laugh out loud
and stomp my feet
to not pee in my pants,
and how now nothing
seems quite so funny
as I read the obituary
making sure I’m not there.
I worry about my insomniac friend
with the wit of Oscar Wilde,
who now roams dark streets
weeping to himself.
I must remind him what it feels
to be human by holding each other.
Milton P. Ehrlich, Ph.D., is an 82-year-old psychologist who has published numerous poems in periodicals such as the Wisconsin Review, Shofar Literary Journal, Christian Science Monitor, Slipstream Magazine, Toronto Quarterly Review, Seventh Quarry: The Swansea Poetry Review, Antigonish Review, Descant Magazine, Huffington Post, and the New York Times.
Jacinta V. White
I used to be six, sneaking wine from the clear bottle that belonged in the latched box sitting next to me on the back seat of Dad’s ’77 black Sedan deVille, wondering how it—tasting like old grape juice—healed; how it was going to cleanse the man Dad prayed about just that morning, before the congregation and the Good Lord.
I used to be six, sitting in the back seat of Dad’s ’77 black Sedan deVille on the way to the house on the hill that sat next to the House of Prayer, wishing I drank something that left a better taste in my mouth, not hot and dry, sticky and bitter, like the outside air. Wondering how the dying man having the same pungent breath as mine was going to cleanse his sins and bring him right with God.
I used to be six, sitting in the back seat of Dad’s ’77 black Sedan deVille, wondering how these small drops of wine from this tube stuck between black velvet (like a body tucked in a casket) meant something so serious that when we arrived to the man’s house, I would have to wait alone outside. Pretend the smell hitting me from the cracked window wasn’t something dark and deathlike.
And, after it was all over and we pulled away, silent—Dad’s kit sliding closer to me, with each turn, on the leather back seat of that ’77 black Sedan deVille—I would quietly pull out the bottle that once held the power potion. My fingers tracing the rim of the miniature cup still wet from the dying man’s lips. I believed, right then, to have what I was told he’d received. Eternal Life. I used to be six.
Jacinta V. White is an NC Arts Council Teaching Artist, and has received numerous awards and scholarships toward her creative endeavors. She was the first recipient of the Press 53 Open Award in Poetry. After completing her MPA at Georgia State University, Jacinta founded the Word Project (www.poetryheals.com) – a company dedicated to using poetry toward personal and community healing. Through the Word Project, Jacinta has facilitated numerous workshops and training for organizations including schools and hospitals. Finishing Line Press published Jacinta’s first book of poetry, broken ritual, in 2012. Jacinta blogs at 3rdSpaces.com.
followed by Q&A
A few months ago, I watched this movie about a guy who had cancer and a fifty percent chance of survival. I laughed a lot. There’s this scene, though, where the main character starts to ask questions about how the anesthetic works—how long he will be out, if he’ll accidentally wake up during the surgery, how they know he will even wake up at all. When the doctor explains how it varies from person to person, he lets out a whimper for his mother who grabs him and tells him he is going to be just fine.
And then there I was in your room in the intensive care unit, standing next to you, who, after two weeks of visits from family and friends, two weeks of video games and anime, faced your mortality at age fifteen. I imagined the surgery room—white tiled walls like a bathroom with two huge UFO lights, surgeons huddled over your body in mouthwash colored scrubs. Was Mom allowed to walk you in? Was this how you hugged her, unsure if you would ever feel the warmth of another body again? Did you regret kicking my ass all of those times?
I showed Mom the movie. She was stone-faced during that scene. Hardened. I asked her about the moment before you got that apricot-sized tumor cut out of your brain. I asked her if it reminded her of you. I asked her how this scene did not make her flinch at all. I lived through it, she said with a smirk and her brow raised, brown eyes fixed to mine. I guess it just doesn’t compare to the real thing.
Whenever my brain pulses near my temples and I can’t think straight, I run to the medicine cabinet for some pain pills and can’t help but wonder when I will be tested, when I will have to face my mortality like that fifteen-year-old boy did, his little brother too emotionally immature to understand. I can’t help but wonder how genes work, how hereditary illnesses mutate within us, how we are all just ticking time bombs waiting to explode while we worry about work and people and what’s in the fridge and whether we have paid our bills on time or not.
In the final couple weeks at the hospital, when they’d moved you out of the ICU and into that ward that looked more like a hotel, the pastel green walls carefully matching the dark rug in the hallways, the windows cascading with sunlight, the absence of beeping heart monitors and life machines, I remember how healthy you seemed before the surgery. How, though we’d moved to a ward that labeled you as not needing intensive care, you were recovering and couldn’t get out of bed anymore. How your eight-inch scar down the back of your head was new, how you lacked motor skills, how you could barely open your drowsy, medicated eyes. Mom seemed different, no longer pink and puffy behind her dark turtle colored glasses. She stayed with you in the hospital every single night, until you were in that new ward. When she went home and allowed us to stay with you instead, we knew you’d be okay.
After weeks of makeup work: mindless worksheets about tap water or rounding to the nearest tenths or hundredths, I returned to school. Most of the students never asked any questions or seemed affected. My teacher told me that when I didn’t return to class after the diagnosis, my friend looked worried. She never told me how he looked worried, but I imagined his vision getting blurry, his stomach hurting, his hand shaking as he asked to be excused to use the restroom. I imagined his bent back as he splashed water on his face, staring into his glossy eyes in the mirror, his jaw slack. Maybe it reminded him of his own siblings or his own parents. Maybe someone in his family had lost the battle to some sickness. Maybe he didn’t need anyone to teach him how to feel; maybe he was born with it.
Years after the surgery, you will be okay—a little neurotic, a little fickle—things we will crack jokes at, trying to diagnose you psychologically, detectives offering solutions like maybe it’s the section of his brain they removed. It could be worse. You could have brain damage. You could have an infection, or you could slip into a coma. You will say you forgot all the Spanish you learned. You could lose your speech or balance, even coordination—though you will have to relearn how to walk. And then you will walk like a pro. Run, even. You will be clumsy, but I can’t remember if you were before the operation.
One day, you will break skin on the sharp corner of my computer desk, the metal track for the keyboard broken and jutting out, your shin bleeding from the deep cut.
I will know what to do.
I will find some rubbing alcohol to clean your wound, and I will tell you to moisturize the area with lotion, because alcohol dehydrates the skin. I will help you dab some Neosporin on a Band-Aid and I will watch you stick it over the dark red line.
A. A. Singh is a sleepy over-thinker who lives in Tampa, Florida, where he teaches English courses at the University of South Florida. His work has appeared in The Caribbean Writer and has work forthcoming in Diverse Voices Quarterly. He is the Associate Nonfiction Editor for the literary magazine, em: A Review of Text and Image. He is currently working on a memoir about growing up in Florida as an Indo-Trinidadian.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: The early drafts of this essay failed because of a beginning that was too heavy handed with what it was about, and because of an ending that didn't seem to go with the focus thread of the essay. I was surprised at how many paragraphs of scene I'd written, just to clear my throat, and also at how an image at the end could better do the work I so desperately tried to do with exposition.
followed by Q&A
Anyone walking past us wouldn’t think anything of it. Just two friends, two girls, standing together on a cold Friday morning. You wear a gray button-down jacket, and when I look at you so snug in your oversized coat my heart flails like someone losing her balance. Your lips, pale pink, caress your cigarette like a tulip ravishing the first bee of spring. And thinking of bees makes me think of birds and I blush, thinking this, thinking this while I stare into your syrupy brown eyes and breathe in your cigarette smoke, thinking that I’d have to slouch to kiss you, to arrive at your height. Thinking that your hands rest at the perfect height to hold the supplest parts of me.
From overhead someone would probably skip over us to the hawk perched in the skinny sapling. Certainly a hawk warrants more attention than we do, heartbreaker and heartbreakee; you took me here so we could see it, after all. Took me here so you could light your cigarette and smile at the hawk and say look, with your soft nicotine lips. Look, you say, I’m just not in a good place to do anything like dating, or romantic, with anybody.
The hawk, statuesque now but maybe not for long; of course the hawk stars in this scene.
I imagine an ending where we grasp one another’s hands and fly away, higher than the hawk, to a galaxy where the only white powder you care about is the stardust on our eyelashes, where the comets burn bright enough to obliterate all your scars, where the light of the sun makes me look like someone irresistible. We will outstrip that hawk, tuck stars like sticks of bubblegum in our pockets, dance like goddesses above all the trees and ceilings that ever towered over us.
I imagine an ending where you choose me.
The secretary behind us has no idea, I’m sure. She stands here every hour puffing her own brand of cigarettes—a brand I don’t care to know, not like I care to know every detail about you, like how you smoke L&Ms on a daily basis and Marlboros (which you call Marls) when you feel fancy, like how you have cigarette burns on your forearms, like how your favorite perfume is Sunflowers by Elizabeth Arden, which I bought last Saturday and wear religiously. The secretary, loitering somewhere behind us, sees two brunettes: one short, one tall; one in gray, one in red; one perfect, one average; one letting the other down gently, one fallen too hard to save. Or maybe the secretary sees nothing of the sort. Maybe she watches the hawk, or the students trudging by, or the clock as its hands pass 9:50. Maybe I’m the only one who thinks about us at all.
Alaina Symanovich is a graduate student pursuing her MA in Creative Writing at The Pennsylvania State University. She prefers to write lyrical, character-driven pieces of creative and flash nonfiction. She draws inspiration from authors like Lorrie Moore, Jhumpa Lahiri and Alice Munro.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: This piece surprised me from start to finish; when I sat down to write, I didn’t plan to revisit the memory of the hawk because it was still so raw. But my thoughts kept returning there, to that morning, and I knew I had to surrender to my instincts. Interestingly enough, writing (and crying) through the moment reframed how I remember it. It’s no longer intensely painful, but somehow poignant, even beautiful, in my mind.
Lowell Mick White’s Professed, reviewed by Brandon D. Shuler
Lowell Mick White
College Station: Slough Press, 2013
Lowell Mick White’s second novel, Professed, is a satirical look at academia from the perspectives of the lowly adjunct, the lofty ivory tower of a multi-book-published tenured professor, and the disengaged student. White, in less than 140 characters, describes the book as
Professed is comic novel set in #highered filled w oddness craziness
dysphoria teaching drinking grades sex murder lust adjunct fun:::life!
But the book is more. White’s Professed experiments with form and style in a way that makes the disjointed life narratives of adjuncts, tenured professors, and students embody the disconnectedness that affects most English departments in American higher education.
White’s Professed tells a linear narrative. But, he structures Professed by not weaving the various perspectives throughout the story, but by stringing together three vignettes that drive the story. White’s structure tells Professed’s narrative almost better than the characters themselves.
Professed opens with the adjunct, the workhorse who drives the new corporate model of higher education. The adjunct becomes the disposable commodity that makes way for the disenfranchised and disengaged student, but not before the seemingly safety of the protected tenured-class professor is proven to be just as disposable and faceless as the missing portraits of the professors that came before her and the adjunct who has to babysit her spoiled cats just so he can make ends meet. Professed screams that the system is broken, but by ending with the student’s tale whispers at the inanity inherent in today’s higher education model.
Professed in not a screed; it is not a manifesto; nor is it a sappy recount of the personal discontentedness a singular character feels in navigating the university’s hallowed halls. Professed is an empathetic story that captures the interpersonal politics of the English department and the characters who inhabit them. Professed captures each character’s desire to be included into the greater whole. Professed is a must read, not only for the English major, but for anyone who has wanted desperately to belong.
Lowell Mick White, a recent inductee into the Texas Institute of Letters, is the author of Long Time Ago Good and That Demon Life. Awarded the Dobie-Paisano Fellowship by the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Institute of Letters, White lived in Austin for 25 years, at various times working as a cab driver, as a shade tree salesman, and as an Internal Revenue Service bureaucrat. He is now Assistant Professor of English at Pittsburg State University, where he teaches creative writing and literature.
Prime Decimals 47.3
by Owen Vince
He remembered the nine months of his pregnancy. I mean to say, of his own gestation, the months of his unfolding, of his creation in the womb. For years he went by oblivious to it when, slipping jerkily on a bloom of ice, he knocked his head. That was when he remembered how he had come into being, built from cell to cell.
He couldn't look at his mother. He couldn't bear to face her. She called him on the telephone and the unknown intimacy of it overwhelmed him. He bit his lip and blushed the colour of tinned salmon. But he was obsessed with it, with realising that memory. He spent hours wrapped tight and body-curled on his bed, piled among sheets. He wore three pairs of socks. He bathed for hours, thickening the water with flour.
Tremblingly he explained it to me. How he remembered this complete awareness. How his organs splayed and grew and filled the spaces of him. Of recalling the hazy development and definition of his fingertips and toes, the clarification of his mouth and nose. He even recalled the taste of his mother's birthing fluid—the taste of game, with a distinctly floral tang. He tried all sorts of concoctions to remember it—hare and honeydew, deer and damson, pheasant and plum. None of them recalled what he had once tasted.
We worried about him. This project of bringing back what now was gone. He let his job slip, his commitments and familiarities. He grew angry when we told him he was too obsessed. He simply explained the fact that he was born strangely blue. Of how the midwife had marked the time of his birth from an unusual and non-clinical oriental clock, the hands of which were spread like the heads and buds of flowers.
He spent more and more time at the local pool, just floating in the warm water, his fingertips crinkling like sodden paste, eddying on the tideless waves.
It wasn't long before he had spent his savings on creating a vast spherical tub in his garden. We came to visit him, but he was simply agitated and dismissive. He glanced anxiously at the too-hot sun and repeatedly dipped his fingertips into thick water, ducking his head into buckets, under it.
On the day of the sphere's completion he donned a mask and tube that connected with the outside world. He called it his umbilical. His eyes were glassy and shallow like fake pearls. He clambered up a ladder and, moving his legs slowly like an astronaut, he dipped his body into the thick, brackish fluid. He floated there in the depth of it, spinning slow trellises of himself in the soup, his body twisted into a question mark.
He never spoke again. Even to this day we wonder whether he got his wish—whether he shrunk to a point, and disappeared into the mash.
Owen Vince is a poet and writer living on coastal west Wales. Originally an archaeologist, he has since turned to writing, which has appeared in Cadaverine Magazine, The Siren, NNATAN, and Igloo, among others. “Swim” was one of the winners of the Press 53 Flash Fiction Contest at AWP 2014.
by Eric Ramseier
followed by Q&A
It's Kansas spelled backwards. It's also a dystopian version of a strip club that would make Ernst Bloch shudder. Beer is ordered by the pitcher exclusively. The cushions on the booths have stab wounds repaired with duct tape. No, they really are stab wounds, from knives. The woman gyrating on stage, if they ever had primes, are well past them. And hot dogs. They sell hot dogs out of an old school cafeteria warming station. The place stinks of hot dog water.
We all have pitchers, oil slicked on the surface. The woman—she is not a girl—has a jagged and noticeable c-section scar. We can't help but laugh. Later when I read de Beauvoir and Butler and d'Eaubonne, I will think back to this day and wonder if I've objectified this woman. Probably. But I think it is more of a pure positional thing. Who can we laugh at except those less than us? We are bad off, so we think, but she is worse. It is just too bad she is a woman.
My buddy laughs so hard he falls out of his seat and smashes his nose into the bolted-down table. Blood spills from his face onto the floor. The woman on stage stops her gyrating to the Krokus song and disappears backstage only to reappear a moment later with a dirty yellow roller bucket and mop. She puts a lot of elbow grease into cleaning up my buddy's blood without any safety equipment. She hands him a wad of brown paper towels, the kind they have in elementary schools. She does all of this with a smile on her face.
"That's the exact kind of person I need," my buddy explains. "Look at what she does for me."
Eric Ramseier has earned an MA from Kansas State University and an MFA from Old Dominion University. His work has appeared in Specter, Whistling Fire, and others.
Q: What can you tell us about the inspiration for this piece?
A: As horrifying as it sounds, Sasnak is a real place, and this somewhat autobiographical.
The Minor Poet Commits the Eighth Deadly Sin
by Lois Marie Harrod
followed by Q&A
There is no greater Sin after the seven deadly
than to flatter oneself into an idea of being a great poet. John Keats
The minor poet wanted to be a major poet and so he refrained
from the seven deadly sins, not spewing his wrath on the face
of the sheet, but being long-suffering and gracious when
the not-so-good poet won the latest publishing contest, 60-96 pages
and $1000, even writing a congratulatory letter, glad to hear
your confessional schlock found a home, thought that stuff
went out with Lowell, and he eschewed greed, how avaricious
could he be when the biggest prize couldn’t rescue a Cambodian
family of four from poverty? And nobody could ever accuse him
of sloth. He wasn’t one of those Sunday poets who wrote only
when inspiration struck, oh no, he scribbled every day,
even if only a haiku. Why he often wrote a poem on the way
to work because what poet could live on his poetry, no laziness
for him, though he had heard leisure was necessary for culture,
and it was certainly true that very few of his kind seemed to have
any time to read poesie. As for pride, what did he have
to be proud of, that stapled volume, his life’s work, several
hundred copies, remaindered on his shelf, at least his ex-wife
had left him that. Of course, there was lust from time to time,
that cute seventeen-year-old with the voluptuous verbs and sinuous
sonnets, but really, he wasn’t a pedophile like those Catholic
priests who were also trying, but not very hard it seemed, to avoid
the seven deadly sins. He suppressed occasional envy, all those
kids right out of MFA programs blogging their poems, tweeting
on and picking up prizes here and there, he would have had
a much better chance if he had gone to Harvard or Yale.
As for gluttony, well, like most poets he had given up red meat.
However, he did flatter himself at those open readings where he
was better than most and always had an extra single-spaced
three-pager wadded in his pocket to pull out when the host said,
“Yes, one more poem but then that is enough.”
Lois Marie Harrod’s 13th and 14th poetry collections “Fragments from the Biography of Nemesis” and “How Marlene Mae Longs for Truth” appeared in 2013. “The Only Is” won the 2012 Tennessee Chapbook Contest (Poems & Plays); “Brief Term,” poems about teaching, was published by Black Buzzard Press (2011). Widely published in print journals and online from American Poetry Review to Zone 3, she has received six fellowships from VCCA and three from New Jersey Council on the Arts. A Geraldine R. Dodge poet and former high school teacher, she teaches Creative Writing at TCNJ. Visit her work on www.loismarieharrod.org
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: Since FAMOUS POET is an oxymoron, I have been having fun writing about MINOR POETS in all their bizarre and touching manifestations. “The Minor Poet Commits the Eighth Deadly Sin” is part of a series that includes “The Minor Poet Takes Her Old Lady Students Out to Write en Plein Air” and “The Minor Poet Gives the Two-Poem Warning.”
The Best Writing on Mathematics, 2012
followed by Q&A
Almost right is good enough
--a Chinese saying
While I obviously wasn’t included
I respect the symmetry of an equation—
not exactly the equation that’s correct,
but the one a man or woman tries to get correct
and fails—and here a boy enters, floundering
with his mathematics—and a father
who can’t countenance such floundering. No problem,
they’ll forgive themselves over this issue years later.
“How many apricots in a line would it take
to reach the moon?” Let me work on the answer.
Tim Suermondt is the author of two full-length books of poems, “Trying to Help the Elephant Dance” and “Just Beautiful.” He’s had poems published in many magazines and journals, both in print and on line, including Poetry, The Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Stand Magazine, December Magazine and Bellevue Literary Review. He lives in Cambridge with his wife, the poet Pui Ying Wong.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: I was in a bookstore, going through the “Best Writing on…” series. And when I came to the “Best Writing on Mathematics,” it opened up the floodgates to my relationship with both mathematics and my father—and how trying, which never stops, is a reward itself. Yes we usually fail, but sometimes we succeed, sometimes gloriously so.
Moderation is the Key
followed by Q&A
This is how you do it: Load the test strip into the little blue meter and watch the screen spring to life. A digital teardrop blinks, ready.
Rub your index, middle, ring, or pinky finger from base to tip to redistribute blood, changing fingers and hands to avoid callouses. Your fingertip should blush rosy, like you’ve just released your grip on the handle of a heavy suitcase.
Insert a clean lancet into the lancing device. Twist the cap of the lancet until it releases, revealing the short, sharp point. Cock the lancing device. Press the end against the side of your finger, a less sensitive spot than the nerve-clustered pad. Fire. Wince because it hurts. Wince because it doesn’t, and that surprises you. Wince because it still feels wrong to stick a sharp object into your skin on purpose. Wince because the anticipation is over so quickly.
Collect the droplet of blood, no bigger than the beads you used to string on pieces of fishing line, and feed it into the test strip until the meter beeps. If the meter doesn’t beep, set the lancet to pierce you deeper—you’ll feel the difference, a stinging, spreading warmth down the palm of your hand.
Wait for the number. Feel relief or disappointment (the self-chastising kind, the kind that curses your weakness for taut red grapes).
A dietician showed my father this process four years ago, after his first heart attack necessitated the full medical work-up that discovered his Type II diabetes. I took him to his diabetic training session at the hospital, where he got an exclusive hour with a young, attractive nutritionist, all blond perk and reassurance. As he did with women of her ilk, my father pleased her with compliance. He put his reading glasses on to examine the meal plan sheets, leafed interestedly through the booklet on carbohydrates, and, when instructed, performed the finger-prick.
But that’s what it was: a performance. My father was an expert performer. When I offered to drive him to the pharmacy to pick up his insurance-covered glucose meter, he said, “That’s okay, hon. I’ll do it later.” I knew then he’d already made up his mind never to prick his finger again. Even though Type II diabetes had brought on his father’s renal failure. Even though all the science suggested the chances for a second heart attack went up exponentially with diabetes.
My mother called it a self-fulfilling prophecy. I fully expected to fail my twenty-eight week glucose tolerance test. I expected to fail despite all the friends who told me how rare it was to fail, despite all their pleas for me to eat some ice cream and quit worrying, despite all their certainty that my pregnancy was textbook fine.
Maybe it was the family history. Maybe it was the unprecedented cravings for brownies that left me misty-eyed at the office when a colleague brought baked goods to work. Maybe it was the fact that I conceived my baby five months after my father died of a heart attack, a result of his advanced renal cell cancer, according to the death certificate. When the two pink lines appeared on my test, I immediately prepared for a miscarriage, certain as I was that my body, wracked by loss, was too noxious a place for a baby. The trajectory of my pregnancy has not been a blissful, starlit path marked by joyful milestones, but a hectic highway of nausea, mood swings, and grief. When my midwife called with the gestational diabetes diagnosis, I nodded at the phone with resignation. Then I cried for three days.
Everyone—my midwives, my friends, my husband—assured me that it wasn’t my fault. They cited the research that says gestational diabetes, unlike Type II, isn’t the result of heredity or lifestyle, but the impeding of insulin by hormones produced in the placenta. They reiterated that it could happen to anyone, regardless of body type—marathon runners could get it, they said. They reminded me that I had been eating healthy and exercising throughout my pregnancy. I’d done everything right.
And yet I was overcome by guilt and fear. Guilt because my body wasn’t working as it should, and I’m quick to blame myself when something doesn’t go my way. Fear because of the complications gestational diabetes introduced to my pregnancy. My screwy insulin could affect my baby’s insulin. She could retain too much blood sugar and develop fetal macrosomia or hypoglycemia. Or worse, my placenta could “age” prematurely, pulling away from the wall of my uterus, depriving her of vital nutrition in her final weeks inside me. In the worst-case scenario, she could die.
The first line of the brochure the hospital sent me read, “If you are diagnosed with glucose intolerance, this is now considered a high-risk pregnancy.”
I declined to view my father’s body before it was sent to the morgue, a choice I’ve since regretted. I never kissed his face one last time, or breathed in his scent of smoke and detergent. I can’t describe what he looked like dead because I only made it as far as the ambulance before I couldn’t look anymore.
But after my GD diagnosis, I typed “stillborn baby” into Google and made myself scroll through the images. I was shocked by the sheer number of them, pages and pages of dead newborns. Some were gruesome, almost too much to bear, but most showed fully formed babies who appeared to be sleeping in a swaddle, or a bassinet, or, most tenderly, their parents’ arms.
Some photos were even taken professionally. The camera lens zoomed in on perfect and perfectly lifeless tiny hands resting on adult fingers. There’s a photographer where we live that will do this, take beautiful photos of the dead babies their mothers pushed into the world only to bury them.
I openly wept as I viewed the images, and never once did I assume these deaths were caused by parental neglect, by poor choices. I was amazed, in fact, by the profound love and loss I could sense in so many of the photos. All the efforts. All the hope.
But as I felt my daughter push her heel against my stomach—the game we play at night called “Show Me Your Foot”—I wondered, for what could I forgive myself?
My father taught me about indulgence. The pleasure of excess. He had mottos about it. Only order from the right side of the menu. Tip like a Rockefeller. It only costs an extra thousand to go first class. He made money to spend it, drank to get drunk, ate disproportionately down a narrow swath of the food pyramid (pasta, white bread, Hostess cakes and Oreos by the sleeve, sometimes a detour to corn or green peas drowned in butter). One weekend, both of us sick with the flu, he drove to the video store and returned with the first three seasons of The Sopranos. We had seen them before, but my father thought it would be fun to see them again while we waited for the virus to pass. We watched them in 12-hour blocks for three days straight, pausing only to eat ice cream and refill our grape sodas.
Years ago, his friends had ironic business cards made up for him: Danny Monticello: Moderation is the Key!
He was loved, of course. Who doesn’t love the permission of a friend who will always have seconds, always go one more round, always make the night last a little longer?
On the day we went to hear the results of his CAT scan, my father finished a worried cigarette outside the sliding glass doors of the urology office. “It’s not going to be good news,” he said. “I fucked up.”
I knew what he meant. He meant his life. The smoking. The drinking. He didn’t need anyone to tell him. But he was my big-hearted dad, and I couldn’t dream of blaming him for being him, of believing he deserved what we both knew was coming in those test results. Who deserves tumors because the hard things about being alive seem easier with a beer, or a smoke, or a bowl of Neopolitan? See, I’ve never understood the value of frugality, am mystified by self-deprivation. I loved to watch my father consume. Satiate. See his head loll and eyes glaze with the too-muchness of what could fill his one and only life.
Because he said yes. Because he said more.
I rested my head against his arm. “Nobody makes all the right choices,” I said. “The important thing about life is that it’s meaningful. They were all good times, Dad.”
I expected him to be thankful for the exoneration, especially from me, who had the second most to lose. But he tossed his butt and shook his head. “Wasn’t worth it, hon,” he said.
I test first thing in the morning. That’s my fasting read. Then again an hour after breakfast. Then before lunch and an hour after. Then before dinner and an hour after that. Six times a day.
Exercise helps the body process glucose faster, using it up before insulin-blocking hormones can send it to the blood, where it passes the placenta to my baby. My belly is now too large to do my spinning classes, so I use an elliptical machine. I also walk, usually several times a day, waddling up and down the streets of my suburban neighborhood in a winter coat that just barely still fits my seven months’ pregnant body. Sometimes I do squats, or lift small weights, or do a prenatal yoga video. I swim at the YMCA. I climb the stairs on the campus where I teach. I pace in the classroom, squeezing in a few extra steps where I can. I’ve reached 33 weeks. Seven more to go.
Other parents advise my husband and me that now is the time to see movies, take naps, eat out every night at all our favorite restaurants. But we don’t go out; all my food gets measured now, weighed in grams and doled onto on little plates where we can see our efforts precisely portioned. My husband and I scrutinize nutrition labels, counting the carbohydrates. Is it worth it to have half a cup of ice cream when I can have a whole cup of Greek yogurt? How many grapes do 3 oz. equal? In the game of Six and One-Half Dozen, I still want whatever looks like more.
My husband and I started trying to get pregnant when my father was still alive. I knew I wanted a child someday, but I’m ready to admit I thought having one now might bribe him into taking better care of himself. I had no right to do this, to manipulate him into changing. I had no right.
In the end, it didn’t matter. My husband and I waited too long to start trying. When the doctor told us my father’s cancer had spread, and we could only try to prolong his life—a few weeks, maybe a handful of months—with this or that experimental therapy, my father asked what was the point. He was going to die anyway.
My father, my mother, and I stood in the hospital lobby after the appointment. I didn’t know what to say. Behind us, the automatic doors slid open and closed, a moving threshold between living and dying, which is what all of us are doing, really, all of the time.
My mother was angry that he didn’t want to fight. “For your daughter?” she said. “For your future grandchild? Is that something you’d like to see someday, if you could?”
He looked at the floor. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I’d like that very much.”
But hope isn’t a cure, and one loss doesn’t prevent another. Though we try, don’t we? We eat the leafy greens and eschew the desserts. We run and spin and swim ourselves to the perception of safety. We count the carbohydrates. We go Paleo. We go vegan. We say it’s all a matter of priorities. Illnesses are just choices manifesting. Death is preventable.
I hinge my days on a series of numbers. I catalogue every morsel I consume. Again and again, I find my daughter’s foot. There it is. She’s alive.
My husband and I have given her a name, but as we approach her possibly risky arrival, I’ve noticed myself saying it less. Saying it only sparingly, a caution, a talisman. An entitlement I do not deserve. A whisper of hope I’m afraid to have.
When we speak, we do so slowly, trying to enunciate.
Amy Monticello’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Iron Horse Literary Review, Brevity, Natural Bridge, Redivider, and elsewhere, and was listed as notable in Best American Essays 2013. Her nonfiction chapbook, Close Quarters, was released by Sweet Publications, and her work has been anthologized in Tuscaloosa Writes This (Slash Pine Press, 2013) and Going Om (Viva Edition/Cleis Press, forthcoming 2014). She currently teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: The piece began as a kind of meditation on this shared illness between my dad and me, this link between his death and my pregnancy. But while I was writing, I was also reading a ton on diabetes, and I noticed how often the focus is on prevention through diet. That’s the culture of health we live in America, an insistence that we can outrun illness through our choices, and a conflation of health with personal value. So, the slight cultural critique that emerges throughout the essay, especially at the end—something I’m exploring further in other pieces—came during revision, when I saw the piece more as an artifact than a reflection.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: Lee K. Abbott once told me that all characters deserve “full citizenship,” which is another way of saying, I think, that they deserve to be written with empathy. They have pasts and are products of environment. Most importantly, their core behaviors can produce a multitude of effects. My father’s indulgent lifestyle most likely brought on or exacerbated his illnesses, but also brought joy to others’ lives, including mine. I wanted to show those two things intertwined, impossible to separate through judgment.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: That changes depending on which part of the journey we’re talking about. At the moment, I’m writing a lot about grief, so reading material is basically endless. But a few books that have really dug in as I work are Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians, Amy Fusselman’s The Pharmacist’s Mate, Kathleen Finneran’s The Tender Land, Emily Rapp’s The Still Point of the Turning World, and Mary Miller’s Big World. I’m still trying to figure out what it means, if anything, that all of these books were written by women. Something they have in common, though, is an explicit interest in the instructive nature of grief; they’re all inquiries into character, culture, religion, medicine, history, and family.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: Ideally, I write at home, at my little antique secretary’s desk (that’s what my mother calls it), in the middle of the day. I’m a weird afternoon writer who likes her mornings for reading/teaching/grading, and her evenings for TV. But as I get older and busier, I’m less in need of the ideal. I write in airport terminals, I write riding shotgun on car trips, I write during office hours. Sticking to the ideal would mean I’d never get enough work done.