Welcome to Issue No. 79 of Prime Number
A Journal of Distinctive Poetry & Prose
Letter from the Editor
We are excited to present the winners of our second annual Prime Number Magazine Awards! First Place winners in each category receive $1000 and Second Place winners receive $250.
We hope you will enjoy these outstanding prize-winning poems, essays, and stories.
Thank you very much to our three judges: Alan Michael Parker (Poetry), Rebecca Makkai (Short Story), and Sarah Einstein (Nonfiction).
You may have noticed that we are currently closed to submissions. That is because the magazine is undergoing some exciting changes. Look for an announcement coming soon about our future! (Hint: we're not going away.)
One more thing: Prime Number Magazine is published by Press 53, a terrific small press helping to keep literature alive. Please support independent presses and bookstores. And speaking of our publisher, note also that our cover this month is from page 79 of Susan Jackson Rodgers's book, Ex-Boyfriend on Aisle Six, published by Press 53.
Issue 79, October 2015
The 2015 Prime Number Magazine Awards
SHORT STORY (Judged by Rebecca Makkai)
POETRY (Judged by Alan Michael Parker)
NONFICTION (Judged by Sarah Einstein)
First Place: Short Story
Our Judge, Rebecca Makkai, had this to say about Amy Wissekerke's story, "Epimers":
"Epimers" is an intelligent, psychologically astute story. The loose, expansive structure is harder to pull off than it looks, and it yields something unusual for a short story: the evolution of characters over many years. Beautifully done.
by Amy Wissekerke
followed by q&a
The pill made Sara sick, and even though we were scientists we took stupid chances. It wasn’t long after I signed our Hell’s Kitchen lease that Sara was pregnant and sick all day thanks to a nose that could detect every sulfurous hard-boiled egg in a three-block radius. One evening I came home from work and found her weeping, head on the cracked toilet seat.
“Charles, I can’t live like this,” she said. “No college wants to hire a pregnant professor.” She pushed the heels of her hands into her eyes, taking a deep breath. “Not even in New Jersey.” She looked at me, her eyes red-rimmed and hollow. “I should have had an abortion three weeks ago.”
“Don’t say that,” I said. I sat down on the side of the tub and brushed her dark hair back from her face, wiped her eyes and mouth with a wet cloth. “We could do this right,” I told her. I thought of my mother, who had put the phone down to whoop and dance when I’d secretly told her about the baby. I thought about the ring hidden in my sock drawer. “We could get married.”
Sara looked at me like I had suggested handcuffing her to the kitchen sink and burst into fresh tears.
Let me tell you about my girl and me.
When I met Sara, the only girl in our chemical engineering class, the first thing I noticed was her rack, buoyant enough to make you a believer in self-levitation. But she was sharp, too, and by the second week of class, she and Professor Schulz had already drawn their weapons.
“What was that word?” she said. “The one that rhymed with ‘frefrimmer fries?’” The whole class broke up, and Dr. Schulz’s bald spot turned a dull red next to the glowing overhead projector. The room went quiet enough to hear the hum of the fluorescents. He enunciated, slowly.
“Epimerize.” He put his pen down, raised his gaze to put her in her place.
“And that means?” she asked, holding his eye.
Never once had I asked in class what something meant. Some of the other guys shifted in their seats and coughed. If you missed a word, it meant you hadn’t done your homework. You did not call out The Schulz as a mush-mouth.
Schulz went to the board. “As you should have found in Chapter 6, to epimerize…” Here he attacked the board, spelling out the word with hard chalk strikes. “To epimerize is to change one epimer into another—to take a compound, and without changing its chemical formula at all, alter its physical configuration in space.” He held up two splayed hands, joined together at the thumbs to resemble a bird’s wings, and keeping them joined, flapped one wing down as if broken, hanging from the thumb. “Switch the three-dimensional position at a single atom…and what effect would this have? Hodges?”
I started at my name. Sara looked at me, giving an eye-roll in Schulz’s direction: What an asshole.
I looked down, tried to decide where to start. Stereochemistry was my thing. “Never mind. Gupta?”
Dev Gupta answered in the kind of suave British accent I’d coveted since middle school. “It would change the compound’s reactivity. As when glucose epimerizes to galactose.” Dev looked around the room, as if we were all there to have tea and delightful conversation and someone might like to chime in. He adjusted his cuffs, blindingly white against his brown skin, and sighed, adding, “It can no longer be used as blood sugar—it passes right by glucose receptors.”
“Indeed, Gupta,” said Schulz, returning his attention to the projector. “Astute application.”
Sara raised her eyebrows at Dev, as if to say, Well, how do you do? Dev made a little bow to her from his seat: At your service, milady.
Looking back, I try to laugh at that moment. As it turns out, the ways molecules contort and shift are how I make my living. One of my lab techs made a hand-lettered sign calling us the Decay Detectives, and hung it next to the HPLC machine. We track how a drug, a clean chemical, can twist itself into something new in the hot soup of the cell, turn away from doing the work it was designed for and become ineffective. Even toxic.
I worked my way in from the outside and got Sara. I was a new man when I went away to college. So what if I used to have the kind of acne that makes you think of The Day After or The Incredible Melting Man? So what if all I did besides study was shoot solo baskets in the driveway and read X-men one-handed? Show me a man who loved high school, and I will show you a total prick.
I joined her study group, and one day in early December when Dev was running late, I found my opening.
“Dev’s mother can’t stand me,” Sara said, staring at her textbook. “She doesn’t want him dating a white girl.” She paused. “I would wear a sari,” she said.
I snorted. “I’m not sure that’s what she’s looking for.”
“I know,” she said. “It’s hopeless.” She sighed and flipped an index card across the table at me. “Make yourself useful.”
Then Dev showed up, striding down the aisles of walnut tables and burgundy chairs like the Duke of Brookingham Library, and she turned back to making flashcards and quizzing me, smiling daggers and putting on a show contrived to make him eat his fist. On the really good days she’d laugh at my jokes and lean over to touch my arm, which I would flex in an unobtrusive way.
I knew I wouldn’t have to wait too long for Dev to call it off. Enough heat will break any bond.
After graduation, Dev moved back to London and I followed Sara to Massachusetts for grad school. I wasn’t the kind of guy to make a move, but when she suggested we work at her place, a monstrosity she shared with three musicians who were always out at gigs, I brought beer, and Sara took matters from there.
An hour into our studying, she sat down next to me on the couch. “We’d be good friends if you weren’t so attracted to me,” she said.
There was no easy way to play that one. My face got hot. I looked down at the coffee table. Someone had painted it in psychedelic swirls. “We’re not good friends?”
“No,” she said, and squeezed my thigh, hard. “Friends don’t look at each other the way you look at me.” She laughed. “How am I doing? Is this the way you hoped it would go?”
She slid off the raspy couch and knelt between my thighs, massaging them. I tried not to panic. The blood rushed to my groin so fast I felt dizzy. “It’s okay, Charles,” she said. “I know.” She bent my head and laid a gentle kiss on each of my closed eyes. I wrapped her in my arms and buried my face in her warm neck and sent up a brief prayer: Please, let this not be the only time.
It wasn’t, but it wasn’t everything I wanted, either. Sara wouldn’t commit—she just kept me on the hook. But the way she came back to me, over and over, like I was medicine, taught me how that laser-focus, that look that says, There is nothing I want that is not you, is like a heat-ray. A slow melt.
In the end, the academic market was bad for her, but industry was looking great for me. I took her out to dinner at the nicest restaurant I could afford and wore a fitted shirt. Ironed. I put product in my hair.
“I’ve got an offer in New York,” I told her. She’d always loved the city.
“Manhattan? You poor thing,” she said, taking a deep swallow of champagne. She smoothed her hands over the white tablecloth, took in the bar in the corner, bottles glowing gold against the dark wood. “Say hello to Central Park for me. I’ll never forget the time I saw Paul Simon there.”
“Stop making shit up,” I said, taking her hand.
“Look,” she said, “his old partner is behind the bar.” She raised her glass to the curly-haired bartender, polishing a martini pitcher. He winked at her and saluted.
I went out on a limb. “You could come with me.”
She pulled her hand back and took another sip. “Convince me.” She set the glass down on the table and dipped her finger into the champagne, running it around the edge of the glass to make it sing. “Convince me it’s not pity.”
She took my hand back in hers, petted it, then brought it to her mouth and bit my knuckle. “I won’t play wifey. And I won’t cook you dinner.” She looked up at me, serious. “I’ve got my own job to find.”
“I know,” I said, “I get it.” I kissed her fingers, one at a time. “You can pay me rent.” My heart was pounding in my chest. “But you can’t have your own bedroom.”
Later on, when I tried to figure out what was our peak, I had the feeling it was right then—when our real life together was all in my imagination.
My mother took to Sara. She came to the city a week before the wedding, stayed in a hotel, did all the errands so Sara could lie down while I was at work. Sara’s mother slipped her a check for $10,000 with only Sara’s name on it. “Keep your own bank account,” the card said, which Sara left out on the dresser for me to find.
It was fine. Really.
Especially after Sara hit the second trimester and her illness faded like a half-life, hormones working in my favor as Sara craved to be touched and held and loved. It seemed like the nameless baby had given me everything I had ever wanted. As the due date neared, I took her for a long weekend to a B&B out in Montauk, one with a booming summer garden and a berry patch. Sara picked warm blackberries with purple-stained fingers.
“Have you ever had anything so good?” she said, eating every other berry she picked.
“Never,” I said, though I didn’t like blackberries. Too sour. I examined my own pint, the berries asymmetrical and deformed, the globules too large in the wrong places. The next day we drove back to the city, enjoying the quiet period, the waiting that remained.
Our daughter Nora arrived, late, small, and curiously sleepy after the grisly natural birth. Sara cried and laughed over her in the hospital bed, swept up in an ecstasy of motherhood I could not share. I watched from the nursery window as Sara palmed the back of Nora’s head and dipped it into the stream from the faucet, the nurse’s red hands lathering the whisper-fine black hair into suds. The nurse was grandmotherly, and smiled with satisfaction as Nora began to scream under the faucet until she turned herself blue. Their smiles both faded, Sara’s into confusion, the nurse’s into an unreadable wall.
Nora’s heart had a hole in it. Three out of four parts of Tetralogy of Fallot, they said, which made me wonder why it was not the Trilogy of Fallot, or the Amazing Epilogue of Fallout, or the Incredible Prequel of Despair. She would need surgery before she was a week old.
That first day, post-op, the baby barely looked human to me, more like a white-bellied Xenopus frog, splayed on a dissection tray. Tape and a ventilator obscured her tiny face, her thorax expanding and contracting like a wrinkly balloon. More tape covered a long bumpy line down the center of her chest. Holding her wasn’t permitted; Sara could barely breathe. “There, there,” I said, standing behind her. Pat, pat. Big Bird smiled obscenely from the baby’s diaper.
Sara only came home from the NICU to cry. No one could tell us why it had happened, but Sara had her own explanation. “All those years of radiation in the lab,” she said in a dead voice. Sara had worked with radiation all the time, we all did. Back in organic chemistry, our professor washed his cracked hands with benzene, almost like a dare. Carcinogenic, sure, but it dissolved all the other stuff off your skin. Mutagens, clastogens, teratogens. Our world was a dangerous place, full of frame-shift mutating intercalating agents, x-rays, and goddamn acrylamide French fries. The more I thought about it, the more impossible it seemed that any group of cells could go from morula to blastula to baby without a catastrophic glitch. We like to think of DNA as a reliable blueprint, but if it weren’t so mutable, the last three billion years would have been a long and drawn-out story about bacteria.
Sara slumped on the couch at home, pumping her breasts in endless cycles of wheeze. My mother, a retired nurse, came to hold down the fort, and I went back to my job. A few days after the surgery I arrived home from work, roses in hand, and found my mother and Sara in the kitchen. Sara had taken a bottle of pumped milk out of the fridge and held it up to the light of the kitchen window. The milk had separated, fatty cream sticking to the sides. She opened it to pour it down the sink, saying “It’s poison anyway.” My mother took the bottle from Sara and looked at her, gray eyes steady and calm, then set it gently on the counter. Sara made a high-pitched noise and covered her face. My mother put her arms around her and rocked her against her own breast, shhh, shhh, shhh.
I placed the roses on the counter, cellophane crinkling. They turned to look. Taking in the flowers, Sara’s eyes went hard. With a resigned sigh, she took a vase from the cabinet, filled it from the faucet, and dumped the still-wrapped roses into the water.
I left. I meant to go back to work, but found myself on the way to the NICU instead. I hadn’t gone with Sara for the last couple of days, but I felt drawn there; I wanted to see the baby without the weight of Sara’s grief. I signed in and at the nurse’s direction, scrubbed my hands and put on the gown that would protect her from all that clung to me.
The baby was asleep. I stood there, watching her chest rise and fall inside the clear plastic tub, so different from the Moses basket Sara had prepared at home. Glossy vaseline covered the line of exposed black stitches in the center of her chest, where they had cracked her open like an egg. I could almost hear the little bones separating, and the thought made a draining sensation swirl from the base of my skull all the way down my spine.
“Would you like to hold her?” a pretty nurse said at my elbow.
The nurse laughed. “She’s doing great. She might be able to go home tomorrow.” She pointed to the little tubes that had replaced the ventilator. “She’s breathing on her own. You won’t need to come back until the second surgery in a few months. Her prognosis is actually very good.”
The nurse put Nora in a blanket and into my lap. I felt like an imposter, but my arms seemed to know what to do. For the first time, I noticed her squashed little nose, like a boxer’s. My nose, made in miniature and set in her tiny doll face. She opened her eyes then, dark, still pools that regarded me with passive patience. “You see me,” I whispered. The blips and beeps of the room faded away, and I could only hear her soft, steady breathing, the whisper of air in and out. She blinked slowly back at me, a Yes, Grasshopper, I have always known you. Sloppy tears poured down my face, and my own chest cracked open with a sweetness too strong to bear. All I could do was laugh.
Nora grew strong, into a girl who could run and play, but would rather paint than catch. Sara treated her like she was breakable, but to me the white line that faded more each year made her look tough. Like a survivor. By the time she was ten her favorite building in the city was the big New York Public Library with the stone lions out front. I’d pick her up there each Wednesday after I got off work, and we’d experiment with dinner on our own while Sara taught her night class.
One fall evening I surprised her, showing up on foot, kicking up leaves on the sidewalk. She stood underneath Fortitude, her head centered beneath its heavy paws. Watching people getting in and out of cabs on the street, she was as still as the stone. Time slipped. I saw her again, three years old and sitting in the yellow observation chair at her new preschool, chubby hands folded in her lap, slippered feet swinging. I could see it through her eyes, the fuzzy, dun-colored carpet, Francine and Jeffrey saying, “Stop it,” and “You stop it,” the sweet smell of wax and glue and expensive wooden blocks. With a wave, I dismissed the teacher’s concern about Nora’s supposed lack of engagement. My girl was engaged, all right. Just another outsider from Day One.
For Nora, I dropped my resentment of Dev Gupta enough to try every single Indian restaurant on East Sixth Street, one week after another. We’d order paper masala dosas that arrived at the table three feet long, lamb vindaloo so hot we stole napkins from the next table to blow our noses, desserts that looked like pink jelly pretzels. One week Nora would stroke the batik tablecloths and explain to me how they were made, the next, tell me about the pastel series of gilded elephants she had begun in art class. Every little thing delighted her, the crystals hanging from electric wall sconces, the patterned tin ceilings covered in flaking paint, or in one place, the owner’s collection of snow globes, stacked in risky pyramids behind the cash register.
Nora loved art; Sara loved her job. Sixty-hour weeks at Barnard took their toll, new lines forming between her brows, late nights spent with her laptop, not me. We argued sometimes. But it was the winter when Nora was thirteen that scorched the earth.
My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer that fall. At first, I wasn’t worried. Surgery, chemo, radiation; there is an obvious sequence to these things. Cut out the mutation, then burn down the countryside and wipe out the rogue soldiers. When she got a second opinion, we found it was a lot worse than we thought. Sara and I went with her to meet the oncologist. Stage four, the doctor said. My mother looked grim.
“The cancer has moved into the lungs and bones,” he said, indicating bluish blobs on the scan with a ballpoint pen. “That explains the difficulty you’ve been having walking up stairs.” He adjusted his glasses and looked at my mother. “You’re lucky. Bone cancer can be very painful, or mostly asymptomatic, as yours has been so far.”
“Lucky,” she said.
“Can I talk to you outside?” I asked the doctor.
We walked out into the hall. Through the sliver of doorway I saw Sara take both of my mother’s hands in hers. They touched their foreheads together, Sara’s dark curls swinging against my mother’s limp, gray-blond strands. The door clicked shut and I turned to the doctor.
He and I made a plan together, the stages of attack. It felt good, like suiting-up to win all-out war. We laid it out for my mother. She was in shock, nodding and looking at the floor. But I let her know I would take care of her, the way she had always taken care of me.
The next day Sara informed me she’d taken leave from work. She and my mother were taking a trip.
“A trip?” I said. “My mom needs to have surgery yesterday.”
Sara took my hand, led me to the couch. “There’s not going to be any surgery,” she said. She threw around a lot of phrases that meant nothing to me, like Quality of Life, like Death with Dignity, but the truth is, there is no such thing. Maybe we imagine looking out the window at some goddamn tree branches silhouetted against the sunset, an eagle soaring into the great beyond while the morphine drips and drips, but the reality of a super-shit diagnosis is panic, is trying to upload your consciousness to the cloud before your organs turn to black ooze and leak out, stinking, onto the bed.
After I ripped their plan apart, Sara took a deep breath and gripped her knees with tight hands. Her mouth was drawn in a hard line. I knew that face. That face was the end of patience, the face of when Nora was three and banging her head on the kitchen floor, Sara ready to lose it, and it was my turn to be the adult. Instead, I stood up and slammed out the door.
She left me a note. I considered cutting off our credit cards, but in the end I just sat in the old rocking chair each night and nursed one beer after another, getting up only to pee off the fire escape so I could ruin someone else’s day.
On Wednesday, Nora picked up samosas for me on her way home from school, handing me the bag with an expectant half-smile.
“No thanks,” I said. I could smell the hot grease through the paper bag, the cumin like an old yogi’s armpit. “God, I can’t fucking stand Indian food.”
Her face fell like I’d punched her in the gut. After that she went to ground, hiding in her room and reading, but not my old comic books. Nora had found my collection, and worked steadily through them. At dinners, she’d start long, frame-by-frame discussions about why Jim Lee was better than Frank Miller, or ask me what would be my special power. She wanted to be invisible. I wanted mind control.
I can be a sentimental man; when she told me she was going to embrace her scar, and wear v-neck t-shirts, that her scar was special the way Rogue’s white streak of hair was special, I’ll admit, I almost cried. So when I saw my comics piled recklessly outside her door like trash, I wanted to cry again. I paused, ready to knock on her door, some music I’d never heard of blasting from the other side. My eyes dropped to the stack, Professor X, impotent in his wheelchair at the top of the pile. I turned and shuffled down the hall to the kitchen. Cracked open another beer.
Sara and my mother did come back, eventually. My mother had filled out a DNR.
She lasted three months, the shortest time in my life that ever felt endless. She traveled, spent time at the beach with Nora. I went once, took them all out to Cape Cod for a weekend. I don’t know how anyone does it, pretending to make bittersweet memories while a person they love is drying out like a time-lapse study of decomposition. After that, I told them I needed to work weekends, anything to escape the hospital bed in Nora’s room. Sara stayed home with my mother, watching movies during the day and administering medication at night, until the night my mother didn’t need the medication anymore, and two men in long wool overcoats came from the funeral home. The big man in black leather gloves covered her body with a white sheet, picked her up like a little straw baby, and carried her to the long car parked in the halo of a streetlight.
We went back to my hometown for the memorial, held at a Unitarian church my mother had frequented since I left home. I faked through the reception, indistinguishable pale strangers touching my arms, my hands, praising my brave mother for taking death straight on rather than hooked up to forty machines like a cyborg.
When Sara looked at me, her eyes said it: That’s what you wanted to do to her.
That look, her contempt, withered whatever I had left for her. It was like coming home and finding the locks changed, and deciding, whatever this place is, I don’t want to live in it.
I stayed late at work, of course. But not just working.
There was a new receptionist on our floor. Young. Flirty. Not too sweet. Not too smart. But she did something for me. She gave me that same look I used to give Sara. I can’t tell you how intoxicating it was, after so many years, to be the object of someone else’s laser. I was still young. And she was smooth and rubbery, with pert little breasts that wouldn’t implode like a silent bomb, death from the inside out.
I knew I was in for it that first time I shared a cab with her, when she licked my finger and dragged it up under her skirt. Everything she knew about sex she learned from porn, so we fucked nasty on her ironic leopard-print sheets, and I’d burn and scrub myself after, the shower like a scene straight out of Silkwood.
She blew up my phone with texts I could not delete fast enough. When Sara found the one that said I LOVE THE WAY YOU EAT MY ASS, the one with the emoji with a tongue sticking out, she decided we were done.
Maybe Sara was waiting for me to give her a reason. It tore me up to see Nora wonder if the divorce was her fault. “No,” we told her. “Of course it’s not you.” But I took it a step further, and told her the fault was mine. Notice how once infidelity enters the picture, nobody digs any deeper. It’s as if the complex series of reactions that led to total disintegration, to the obliteration of us, could now be neatly summed up in two words: I cheated. And with those words, the only girl who really loved me looked right through me and said, “I don’t even want to know the person you are now.”
It’s tough to argue with that.
The first time I went to pick Nora up after I moved out, Sara met me at the door.
“Look,” she said, “she doesn’t want to go.”
I stuck my finger in her face. “Don’t you dare turn her against me,” I said, my voice higher than I expected. “The agreement was for the whole weekend.”
Sara looked at me with pity. “Charles, I wouldn’t do that.” She leaned against the door and rubbed the lines between her beautiful brows. “Talk to her. Just try not to take it personally, okay?”
I walked past her into the apartment and found Nora sitting on the couch, phone in hand. I sat on the coffee table across from her. There was no duffel bag packed, no pillow, no art case. Her glossy hair was held off her forehead by a red headband, small pimples just starting to appear by her hairline.
“Nora,” I said, “It’s time to go. I’ve got a cab waiting.”
She didn’t look up. Her jaw was set, her chin more prominent than the last time I’d seen her, braces subtly changing the shape of her lower face. She kept her eyes cast down at the phone, one finger scrolling and scrolling.
“Nora, look at me, please,” I said, ready to lose it. From the corner of my eye, I saw Sara watching carefully from the doorway.
Nora’s finger continued to scroll. “Goddammit, Nora,” I said, and snatched the phone out of her hands.
“Charles,” said Sara.
Shaking, I carefully set the phone down beside me. “I’m still your father, Nora.” I steadied my hands on my knees. “You’re coming with me.”
She crossed her arms and met my eyes briefly, then colored and shifted her gaze over my shoulder.
“Nora!” I said.
“Charles, just come back here,” said Sara. “Come back, Charles.”
Here’s the thing they don’t tell you about custody and visitation—it’s hard to visit someone who won’t see you. I watched her face a moment longer, hoping for a flash of concession, but she gave me absolutely nothing. The most common degradation pathways aren’t explosive. A single internal twist and the reactant flies away, predictions overturned, hypothesis void.
The cab took me to my new, empty apartment and I waited for Nora to call me.
I waited over two years.
She’s sixteen now. Goes to one of those magnet schools for the arts. It’s just right for her, of course.
Work has been good to me. The first year after the divorce was messy, and I don’t like to talk about it. I spent most of my downtime as a drunken troll on the internet, whipping up anyone who would take the bait. Anti-vaxxers. Tea partiers. Defenders of the black widow spider, Crossfit cultists, and my personal favorite, vegans. But I still showed up every day at work, and for some reason, people there acted like I had something valuable to add. It helped.
I saw Dev Gupta at a conference six months ago. He acted unsurprised to hear about the divorce, but he always was a smug bastard. My therapist, Dr. Pierce, called the two months after that a bit of a step backward. Lots of time spent imagining Dev and Sara finding each other again, now that I, the competitive inhibitor, had been dislodged, but Dr. Pierce said there is such a thing as taking an analogy too far.
In any case, that’s not the story I really care about anymore.
On my birthday this year, I received a large, flat brown package in the mail.
It was a painting of me.
It’s in the comic-book style, very Jim Lee, and I’m in the lab, wearing my white lab coat over a three-piece suit, something I have never owned. I am dapper, tall, shoulders powerful, standing at my lab bench with a micropipettor lying as if forgotten in one hand, and an Erlenmeyer flask full of bubbling, purple liquid in the other. I’m looking out of the frame at something hidden from view, my eyes turned down at the corners and wistful, like my mother’s. My brow is creased, my hair is full of wind. Electrified. A radioactive-pink, late afternoon sky lined with sooty gray buildings fills the window behind me. Other figures populate the lab with blurs of movement—at the centrifuge, leaning into a chest freezer, entering data into a computer, all holding black lab notebooks except one—a still girl in the background with long brown hair, sitting on a stool with one leg tucked up underneath her and a sketch notebook in front of her on the lab bench. She’s looking at me and drawing.
I look at that painting and feel it again, that small satisfying chock as a key turns and the lock-pins fall into new positions. She is older now, and I hope something has resettled in her. The nerves that connect heart to brain to eyes have formed new synapses perhaps, the ones that show you are grown, and can look at your father and see a man, and maybe forgive him for not yet being the best man.
So I sit back in my booth at one of our old restaurants and I wait for her. She is coming, she said. And I feel a pain in my chest like a man caught underwater and wait for the clear, silver ring of door chimes, the rush of rain-scrubbed air into the room, for the sway of her long dark hair as she turns and sees me, once again, seeing her.
Amy Wissekerke is an award-winning biology and chemistry educator specializing in youth mentoring, laboratory research, and sarcasm. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia with her family and is currently at work on a novel. This is her first fiction publication.
Q: What inspired this story?
A: An Amy Bloom story with an unreliable narrator caught me while I was reading lots of Junot Díaz—all I could find, books, interviews—and I got excited to attempt a voice and POV that wasn’t at all mine. Charles came out, sharing my obsession with molecules that won’t behave.
Q: What writers or books do you consider influences?
A: Stephen King and Ray Bradbury planted the first seeds, the desire to write stories. Lately I can’t read enough Lauren Groff, Kelly Link, or Margaret Atwood, and I just started a Karen Joy Fowler kick. But knowing that the author of The Hundred Year House (Rebecca Makkai) would read my story compelled me to actually enter the contest rather than saying, “Oh, I’ll just keep working on this.”
Q: What’s the most important writing advice you’ve received? Is it reflected in this story?
A: Octavia Butler’s succinct essay, “Furor Scribendi,” encapsulates all the best advice. “First, forget inspiration…habit is more dependable. Forget talent…. Persist.” Without encouragement like that, I wouldn’t write at all.
Q: Where do you write?
A: I write at a quiet desk in the hall outside my bedroom, or in an easy chair, or sprawled on the floor of my friend’s home office while she writes in her husband’s office. The floor is best. The carpet is soft, so when I bang my head on it or roll over to stare at the ceiling, I’m still pretty comfortable.
Second Place: Short Story
by Denise Smith Cline
followed by q&a
I was seventeen on the May afternoon in 1962 when I first learned the basics of what my boss called tobacco stabilization. I listened hard about chains and acres, sled rows, and other technical aspects of that summer job and took notes in pencil in a spiral notebook left over from school. But no one in that sleepy government office ever taught me how to look a sunburned farmer in the eye and tell him he had to destroy part of a field of fine, nearly grown tobacco. No one ever told me either that when delivering the death sentence for a money crop on a hot dusty day, it helped to keep it short, stand up straight, and to point several times at the clipboard I’d bought with my own money at the drugstore. And then, the touch I took special pride in: nod three times, slowly and firmly, while pointing to the clipboard as though facts were just plain facts.
Each farmer was different. Sometimes farmers called me “son” and I was met with a gracious handshake and a glass of tea or lemonade “from the Missus.” Sometimes it got so bad, I worried about whether a shotgun would come peeping out of a tobacco barn. Most of the time, I didn’t know the farmer or the family. Delivering unwelcome news to a stranger never got easy, but those days aren’t the ones I remember. The time out at the McLeods’ place, though, I remember that one like it was yesterday.
I got fifty cents an acre for measuring a field, but for supervising a plow under, as we called them, I got double that. The farmer, though, got worse than nothing: he had sunk money into seeds, bought and applied herbicide and pesticide, nurtured, irrigated and fertilized---all that and then to have to watch those deep green stalks plowed under like so many expensive weeds. Although only the size of four city lots these days, a half-acre of tobacco in the early ’60s would buy a farmer a good, nearly new car, a major appliance, maybe a year’s tuition for a kid at State College.
I was pretty skinny then and not tall enough to look like much of a force, I suspect. Sometimes, sitting in my car before delivering the bad news, I would remind myself that I was working for the federal government. That seemed pretty impressive at a time when Vietnam wasn’t much in the news yet and my own Vietnam was still years away.
The official name of my employer was the Agricultural Conservation and Stabilization Board but we all called it the Tobacco Board. They told me the goal was to help the government stabilize the price of tobacco, not only for our town and county but also for the State of North Carolina and the whole United States of America. I didn’t pretend to understand all the workings of tobacco. My father had a temper, but when he could keep a job, he sold furniture or whatever else he could, and my mother taught school. We lived in tobacco country, though, and most of my friends and I had cropped tobacco in the late summer. Either that or their fathers sold supplies or loaned money to tobacco farmers and families.
Under the program each farmer had an allotment to grow or not, but if he grew too much in a season, he had to destroy it before time came for market. Otherwise, according to my boss Bob Mattox, the price of tobacco would plummet and all the farmers everywhere would suffer. That made good sense as he explained it to me in the pale green office in town, a big box fan blowing in my face. It was harder to summon a picture of plummeting prices everywhere when I had to look into the face of a farmer on a sweltering afternoon.
Every third or fourth day I would go to the office and pick up my assignments for the next several days, which consisted of large aerial maps of the territory I was to cover, with complicated markings showing each farmer’s allotments. The rest of it was sort of like surveying. I would go out to the farmer’s field and pull a sixty-six-foot chain to measure the fields of tobacco. Then I would take the measurements back in, and, after some calculations, my boss would tell me whether the farmer had grown too much tobacco. Not every farmer got checked every summer, but the program worked on the basis of an honor system, re-enforced by random spot checks. I was the face of the program for all the farmers I met, Mr. Mattox told me on my only day of training. The backbone of the system was the honest word of the farmer and workers like me and did I understand that part? I tried to listen during that speech, but I kept catching myself imagining the money I could save that summer toward a car, the chance of college.
In the early days, I fumbled both the chains and my speeches to the farmers. I had gotten a little better when the McLeods showed up on my list. The McLeod boys went to my small town high school, although Mac was a year younger and Ben was in my little brother Tommy’s class. Mac and I weren’t friends, but we had played on some baseball teams together and he had a fine arm.
They went to our church, too, although I hadn’t seen them in a while. Mrs. McLeod had always seemed quiet, different from my mother or the mothers of my friends. She was awfully thin, not wiry thin and strong, but sunk in and fragile looking, her graying hair limp and long instead of in a brisk-looking helmet of hair like my mother’s and her friends’. I recalled Bud McLeod walking with Mrs. McLeod toward their pew, one arm under an elbow, as though she needed holding up. I didn’t know what that was about. Mother, who knew everything about everyone in town, hadn’t mentioned them to me either.
Their farm was about eight miles out of town, and it looked to be in pretty good shape as I drove down the long dirt driveway, dust flying behind me. When I got close to the house, though, I saw white paint was peeling from the house. A few wilted flowers in the front looked to be victims of both the heat and weeks of neglect. My old car made noise in the drive, but I didn’t see anyone at first. Then a curtain in a front window of the house parted, swung closed.
Bud McLeod came out of a shed behind the house then and I got out and gave him my speech about my job, as I didn’t know if Mr. McLeod had been checked before. I had a hard time hearing over the rumble of some kind of farm equipment from a close-by field, but Bud McLeod leaned in close.
“Just to measure?” he said, almost yelling above the noise. When I told him yes, he nodded, said he’d be interested to hear. I spent the better part of the morning measuring his fields. Just after noon, I had finally finished and was getting ready to drive off when he drove back into the driveway in his tractor. I pointed to my clipboard, trying to signal that I had to take the measurements in. He just tipped his hat as I left, didn’t even get down from his tractor. He didn’t seem like someone to worry about, or at least that’s what I hoped.
My parents weren’t worried about me in that job or any other job, as I think about it. We needed the money, only some of which I got to keep. And working for the Tobacco Board wasn’t my first job for money. From the time I was small, I worked on a paper route or in grocery stores bagging other families’ food. That’s the way it was in my house.
When I was twelve, I worked at Turner’s Mart, which was on the other side of our small Eastern North Carolina town. The store mainly served farmers and some Lumbee Indians. My job at Turner’s was mainly bagging, but I did my share of sweeping, trash detail, mopping, hosing down the sidewalk in front. My father got me the job at Turner’s. Mother thought I was too young, but I could do all the stuff I was supposed to do, except reach far back on the high shelves. But it was my age and not my reach that got me fired in the end. One day Roger Turner came in flustered after a lunchtime Kiwanis Club meeting and told me the labor board was coming out to make sure everyone was good to work. He told me they couldn’t take a chance on a citation and then said “But here’s the thing, son,” he said. “You’re tall enough to look like you’re thirteen, don’t you think?” I stared at him.
“But Mr. Turner, you know I’m still twelve. Won’t be thirteen till May next. May 16. Will they count that?”
“No, they won’t, boy. No, they will not,” he said, frowning now. “And if you want to keep working here, I guess you’re going to have to tell them thirteen and get convincing about it.” He grinned at me then, slapped the table as though the subject was closed and left.
I didn’t mention this talk to my parents, but in my room that night, I practiced my speech about my age in front of a mirror. In spite of my practice though, when the stout man with a bow tie came in the next day, I didn’t last long. He asked first thing about my age, and I tried hard to say thirteen, but the best I could do was blurt, “I’m going on thirteen, sir, coming right up on May 16, sir.”
That was the end of my time at Turner’s. Mr. Turner paid me out of petty cash that day and shook his head like it was all my fault. After that, I did paper routes for a year or so and then got another grocery job bagging groceries at Brown’s Groceries. Brown’s was the store my mother and her friends went to and it was close to the center of town. My mother worked that job out with Mrs. Brown, who was on some committee with her at church. Mr. Brown was a brisk man with a red face, who was prone to spells of anger about unexpected things. I didn’t try to be on good graces with Mr. Brown, because there was no such thing, but at least I could tell by the color of his face what was up that day.
I still count the day I quit Brown’s as one of the happiest days of my life. In addition to staying on top of Mr. Brown’s moods, I never managed to lose my embarrassment when the mothers of my richer friends came through the cash register and saw me mopping or bagging groceries. After I got my license though and my parents arranged for me to use my grandmother’s old car, I turned in my notice at Brown’s. After I left, I balled up my apron and threw it into a field on the way home. I don’t remember whose field it was, but I never saw the apron again and I never looked back.
That’s when I started working for the Tobacco Board. I started my days early. My little wind-up alarm clock would wake me when the sky was still a dark navy blue. By the time the sky lightened to deep gray, I was up and dressed, gulping down a leftover biscuit and a glass of milk from the kitchen. I started setting my alarm a little earlier every day and would be well on my way before I saw the first sliver of light gray on the horizon. The earlier I got started, I figured, the earlier I could finish and the less I’d have to bake in the sauna of a North Carolina summer afternoon. I also thought that if I kept getting up early, I’d be finished measuring and headed to the second farm before the first farmer ever got up. Looking back, it was foolish to think I could just drive up to a farm and start measuring without identifying myself first, but it didn’t matter anyway because I never once beat a farmer to a field.
Most of the days ran together unless something happened—the hum of tractors and tillers, heat rising in waves over the fields, the driver’s seat of my grandmother’s 1953 Olds so hot some days that you couldn’t sit down without opening the door and waiting for it to cool. Some days, I stopped in a roadside store for a cold Coke to drink with the lunch my mother had packed. Then I’d stay inside the cool dim of the store for every minute my lunch period lasted.
On the first day I visited the McLeods’, I didn’t get back to turn my measurements in until about 4:00 o’clock. I wasn’t anxious to turn them in, either. The McLeods had more than 10 acres and it seemed like every possible space was planted, either with tobacco or cotton, but I didn’t care about the cotton. That night at supper, I told my folks I was worried I was going to have to tell the McLeods they had too much tobacco.
My father kept cutting his meat, putting small pieces in his mouth two or three at a time. He loved to hear who was on my list to measure, which families were set for a plow under, who got in under the wire. He said again how lucky we were that he wasn’t a farmer, that Tommy and I had it really good. Mother didn’t look at him during that speech, but poured everybody more tea and watched me.
“Heck, Willie, don’t you worry about Bud McLeod.” Daddy said. “He knew the rules and the rules are the rules. He makes good money on that plot. He cares so much for that little wife he ought to get out of farming or follow the rules, one. She’s not gonna get better if he doesn’t get her some fancy doctor, I guess. And he made some money a while back, that’s all I know.” Daddy went on to tell us about a fancy bedroom suite they bought back when he worked for Majestic Furniture in Sanford.
Mother frowned then and asked if I had seen Flora McLeod. I told her no, but I thought she was back in the house when I had gone out there.
“Flora had her heart set on somebody else,” she said. I kept eating cornbread, trying to look like I was barely listening, knowing she’d go on if I didn’t seem interested. “Flora was a fine pianist in her day. Her father got run out of town and it was a real scandal I guess. Flora felt she had to make up for that and marry steady. But then she fell hard for an old soldier who had been hurt in the war, much too old for her.”
“Did she marry him?” I asked.
“No, honey, she married Bud McLeod,” Mother said, looking at me like I was daft. “The older fellow wasn’t in any shape to marry and he put her off. She was really heartsick and Bud starting sitting with her right after and then she took him, I guess.” Mother told us she had something awful now, a female thing and was going downhill fast.
The next morning in the office, Mr. Mattox showed me the map and told me Mr. McLeod was half an acre over. Even to me, that seemed like an awful lot. I asked him if he was sure, but Mr. Mattox was always sure. He told me to get on out there, the sooner the better. I didn’t go out first thing, which was probably a mistake because I had the whole morning to dread it. Around lunchtime, I drove by home and got another shirt. As I remember, it was hotter than any day so far that summer and my shirt was already sticking to my back.
When I got to the McLeod farm, I turned off the radio as I pulled up to the house and just listened to the distant buzz of machines through the open window. For a moment, I held out hope that Bud McLeod was too far out to find, and I could put this off another day. Then I saw it was Mac and Ben out to the far right of the house in the tobacco. Finally, I saw Bud leave the house and go back behind the equipment shed. I took a deep breath then, shut the car door firmly, squared the clipboard in my hand, and checked to make sure the ballpoint pen was in my pocket. Although I know he probably heard my old car, Bud didn’t look up until I got within about ten feet of him. Then he looked right back down at the part he was working on, some bolt on his tiller, it looked like.
“Um, Mr. McLeod?” Of course, my voice cracked. He was silent a moment and then looked up briefly at me.
“Willie—is that right?”
“Yes sir. Willie Stuart.”
“Well son, I don’t know why you’re back out here. I thought we got done with your measuring business yesterday. You didn’t get what you needed?” His eyes stayed on the tiller.
My stomach tightened. I had delivered bad news before, but not to people I knew, with somebody thin and sick in the house, whose kid I had played ball with. I pushed my glasses back on my nose and stared at the figures on the clipboard, trying to summon my usual routine.
“Well son, let’s have it.” Bud said after a moment.
“Half an acre, sir. You got half an acre too much.” I tapped my pen on the clipboard, nodded, once, twice, three times. Bud squinted up at me. Then he took off his Dekalb Seed cap and stood up.
“Son, you have got to be pulling my leg. A half acre? That just can’t be right. I ain’t stupid. No way is that right.”
“Yes sir. I have the figures right here.” He stared at me, shaking his head, silent. He looked down, slapped his cap against his right leg. His eyes had turned a hard glittery blue, searching my face. He glanced over at the house.
“Son, my boys say you’re in school with them. That right?”
“Yes sir,” I said, “but not in my grade.” That sounded stupid, but I didn’t like just standing there, both of us just listening to machines droning in the fields.
“Well then you know about Mrs. McLeod, don’t you?” I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I nodded yes.
“I just don’t know how I can give up that much. You see that don’t you?” I did see that, saw it very clearly. I nodded “yes” and then combined it with a half-hearted shake “no” at the same time. Bud’s voice got firmer.
“Well, see here, we can’t do it, can’t give up that much and I don’t know why anybody who knows what they’re doing would say the other, if they knew. If they knew, you know. Half an acre. Just can’t do that.” Then he stooped back down and started back on the tiller, his hand less steady now. I pulled out my pen again and started to move toward him with my clipboard.
“Sir, I can show you my measurements.”
“I don’t give a goddamn about your measurements, boy,” he snapped. I stopped walking. Although a lot of farmers cursed at my news, Bud McLeod didn’t seem like the type. Mac had pulled up in the yard by then and had started walking toward where we were standing. He was nearly three inches taller than me and a lot sturdier. Ben followed.
“Mr. McLeod, sir, I don’t make the rules,” I said. I thought about what my father had said. “The rule’s the rule,” I added, then immediately regretted it.
“Is that right?” he said, looking straight at me. “You think that’s right, son?”
“Yes sir. That’s what they told me anyway,” I said, my voice trailing off.
“Rules. That what you think, Willie? We all got to follow the rules? Do you want to go in there and tell her that?” He jabbed his thumb in the direction of the house. I looked down at my dusty shoes and then at my clipboard, its edge damp now from propping it against my midsection. I turned to look at my grandmother’s car and the dust that had settled on it just on the drive out. Would anyone come out this far to check this one farm between now and market? I didn’t know how that worked and I sure hadn’t asked Mr. Mattox.
I stayed quiet for a moment, struggling. Although I thought about Mrs. McLeod briefly, honestly, I was mainly worried about myself, about having to go back to bagging groceries. I didn’t think I could face going back and I didn’t know what choice I had.
“Mr. McLeod, I’m sorry sir. But I gave my word.” Damn my voice, cracking again. He stared at me, finally nodded a little.
“Mac. Ben,” he yelled, even though they were close by then. “Get on over here.”
All I could think then was I was done for. A drop of sweat leaked into my eye then and I wiped it out with my handkerchief, fast. I wondered if the McLeod boys thought I was crying and so I managed a “Man, it’s a hot one.”
Mac had lumbered over from where he had been watching. Ben came closer too. He was just about as big as Mac, but Mac had a harder look to him.
“Boys, y’all know this Willie Stuart here?”
“Yeah, Pa,” said Mac, looking at me. Ben just nodded. My breathing sped up then and I began to think I might have to make a run for the car.
“Willie here says we got half an acre too much,” he said. “Got to plow it under. That right, Willie?” I nodded, not sure what else to say.
“Want you boys to go get the disk and get started, then. Plow her under.”
The only thing I could think was it was a trick. Mac didn’t move.
“Why, Pa?” he finally said.
“Apparently, son, these men up in Fayetteville or Raleigh or wherever they are have sat up there in their offices and decided we have to. And they’ve sent this boy, Willie, to deliver that very bad piece of news. It seems awful hard to me, and I know it does to you too with your Mama and all.”
“What for, though?” Mac said, looking straight at me now.
I couldn’t trust my voice then. I just tapped on the clipboard like I cared about the numbers there, like they were important, like they were the most important thing in the world. Bud McLeod straightened up then, wiping his hands on his pants. “Well the thing is, Willie here has given his word to those men. He has given his word. That right, Willie?”
“Yes sir, I guess that’s right,” I said, trying to believe him.
“All right then, boys. And so that’s what we got to do. Let’s get to it, you get that disk out here and let’s plow her under. Willie here will tell you what’s got to go. Let’s go get it done. I’m gonna go in and see your Mama about it.”
Bud McLeod looked at me, nodded once and turned to walk back to the house, not looking back even once as his boys pulled the disk into the field. After they set it up, I showed them where to start and finish, my stomach easing at last. The plow under went pretty fast after that. I stayed on the road beside my grandmother’s car, watching them mow down row after row of dark green until they finished the half acre and pulled the disk back in the shed. As I drove away, they were headed back into the fields, dust kicking up behind their tractors. I drove on out to the next farm on the list.
Even though my own tobacco money was good that summer, after market, there was no car for me or anywhere close to it. My father had lost another job and I had to work wherever I could, every spare moment. One chilly Friday night that fall, I ran into Mac McLeod leaving the stadium after a football game. I tipped my cap at him, hopeful for some sign he understood I was just doing my job. I know he saw me, had to have, but he turned his head, pulled up his collar and walked on.
I didn’t see any of the McLeods after that, even at church, and it was another year before I heard anything more. I managed to get a little scholarship and with that and a small bit of money I had set aside, I started at Chapel Hill. College life seemed a little unreal to me at first, boys drinking beer till all hours, no one checking up on me. Sometimes I missed home, but I sure didn’t tell a soul that. One rainy Sunday afternoon, word came I had a call on the hall phone in my dorm. My mother was on the line. Mrs. McLeod had died, she said. Cancer. The boys and Bud were a wreck.
I teared up then, standing on that hall and grateful for the shelter of the phone booth. I wondered whether that half acre would have made any difference to that bone-thin woman and her boys, wondered whether I did the right thing for the sake of a tobacco quota. I still haven’t figured that out, and I don’t imagine I ever will. That was a hard job, and I’ve had my share over the many years since. I knew by then how easy it was to lose a job, just by saying the truth, even if the truth turned out to be no real help to me or anybody else.
I haven’t forgotten that summer field either, as hot as any later jungle, searing into me an early lesson about telling people what they can’t bear to hear. Even now I can summon that field, the silver teeth of a disk biting into green stalks, churning pungent leaves into row after row of black dirt like so much fodder, the boys’ flushed faces barely visible under their caps.
Denise Smith Cline started her writing career as a newspaper reporter fresh out of Davidson College, but an assignment to cover a murder trial diverted her into a legal career. Her fiction and non-fiction has won awards from Carolina Woman, Salem College’s 2014 International Literary Contest, and the 23rd Annual Carteret Writers’ Contest, and it has appeared in Carolina Woman, The Shoal, the Raleigh News & Observer and Mamalode. She lives and still practices law in Raleigh, North Carolina where she is working to perfect her first novel, inspired by a fire in her hometown of Greer, South Carolina.
Q: What inspired this story?
A: Our early jobs teach us so much about what’s important and what’s not. Sometimes it takes the longest time to figure out the lesson.
“Plow Under” is based loosely on a friend’s experience. As a teen in the 1960s, he measured farmers’ tobacco fields for the government’s allotment program. Hearing his story, I was inspired to learn more about the vanishing world of tobacco quotas and auctions and a different story emerged.
Q: What writers or books do you consider influences?
A: My answer to this question shifts each season, depending on what I’m reading. Currently, Alice McDermott, Ann Patchett, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Colm Toibin and Norman MacLean come to mind. I am an avid reader of fiction and non-fiction, and my circle of talented writing friends and teachers are also big influences.
Q: What’s the most important writing advice you’ve received? Is it reflected in this story?
A: I struggle with over-writing. So, I have to work to keep a storyline moving forward, to pare down nonessentials. “Plow Under” was once a much longer story. Lots of people also correctly have advised me to start any project by writing something, to get something on paper and let the story emerge with revisions. It took a while for Willie’s story to surface, as opposed to the story I had heard. It was daunting, too, to try to tell the story through the perspective of a seventeen year old boy, living in a very different time. Willie’s voice and story appeared only after many revisions.
Q: Where do you write?
A: I write on my sunny porch in the summer and in my cozy library in colder months. I also write at my office when my schedule permits. As I’m self-employed, my boss is lenient about that kind of thing.
Third Place: Short Story
The First Circle
by Emily Jones
Can you fall in love with a dead man? That’s the question Alice asks herself the summer she turns sixteen. Her older brother Marcus has married his high school sweetheart in August, a simple wedding. Two tiered cake, his father’s tux, her uncle’s band. Love, love, love. Love, schmuv, Alice wants to say. And then she meets the transcendentalists, in a quiet corner of the town library, in a large leather armchair that swallows her still-narrow hips and sails her away from her turbulent high school world. She climbs through Emerson’s journal, sieving through lofty aphorisms and sweeping proclamations about God and death and life. “Nature,” he sings to Alice from the page. “Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house a world; and beyond its world, a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you.” Alice contents herself with such ideas.
Now, for the first time, Alice has brought home a boy. A real boy, she tells her family, sounding like Pinocchio’s wood carver. She’s an anxious girl, a woman now really, who prefers listening to others speak over hearing her own voice. Maybe this is why she’s drawn to Andrew, with his loud wisecracks and cocky smile. He’s from South Carolina and speaks with a drawl that Alice’s colleagues find dreamy. They tell her this following the employee Christmas party, gathering around her six by six foot cubicle when their boss Maria leaves for her midday meeting. The drawl reminds Alice of all that she and Andrew don’t have in common.
She doesn’t want to fall in love with Andrew, tries not to in fact. They meet at a UVA toga party, two days before graduation. It’s the type of scene that goes down when everyone knows that they’ll never cross paths again, and so three girls have climbed up onto the kitchen table, which they haven’t done since freshman year, and two lacrosse players, lax-bros they’re called, are fighting over an incident that happened two years before—something about a wheelie chair and thirty bucks and a guy named Craig.
Andrew fits into this scene better than Alice does, with his collared shirt and neatly pressed khakis. Alice can’t pull off this look, nor can she pull off the anti-preppy boho style that is equally cool and acceptable. Both looks take effort. And money. She prefers Target or TJMaxx, which are neither classy nor quaint. This she knows and so this she hides, telling those who ask that she prefers shopping in thrift stores.
Andrew laughs at the way her hands become more animated when she speaks of family. They’ll arrive in Richmond the next day, her mother and father driving down from Massachusetts, with Marcus and his two kids, who live in a neighboring town, and her sister May flying halfway across the country from Colorado where she studies Parkinson’s disease. A professor of neuroscience. Alice has started calling May Dr. Adams, ever since she graduated with her PhD last spring. May hates this decorum, even in jest. Alice has been meaning to visit her all year but job applications have kept her so busy that she hasn’t made the trip.
In fact, school and her job search have kept Alice from doing much of anything. That’s why, when Andrew sits down beside her on the beer soaked couch, she finds herself at a loss for words. Andrew’s holding two 12-ounce cans of Pepsi, and he hands one to Alice as he adjusts the couch cushion behind him. She searches the room for the source of this anomaly but sees only the keg and a half-full Bernett’s handle. “Brought them from home,” Andrew says, smiling.
Alice circles her hands around the cold, red and blue can, focusing on the small droplets that have condensed around the rim, then she cracks the can’s metal tab and takes a sip.
“Benny tells me that you’re moving to DC,” he says.
Alice nods. Like Alice, Benny will graduate with a BS in Environmental Science. She makes eye contact with her friend across the room and sees him wink. “I’m interning with the DC Climate Institute,” she says to the stranger beside her. “In policy.” She doesn’t know what this entails just yet.
Andrew smiles, though she’s not sure why. Her hand travels self-consciously over her neatly tied back hair, searching for pieces sticking out at odd angles.
“I’ll be working for the Republican National Committee.”
“Oh,” Alice says, studying the top of her Pepsi. “So you’ll be in DC as well.” She fiddles with the metal tab until it breaks clean away from the can.
“Yep, likely fighting the very people paying your bills.”
Alice looks up sharply but sees that he’s smiling. She lets herself laugh. They make small talk after this—where in the city will they live, have they visited before, do they have any friends there? Not many, both concede to the last question, smiling at each other. When their knees brush, Alice’s stomach flipflops. She wishes she had worn a dress rather than a toga.
Andrew prefers country music, Alice folk or soft rock. Andrew likes dogs, Alice cats. Andrew can quote every top five box office hit since 1998, whereas Alice wouldn’t know the difference between Brad Pitt and Bradley Cooper. But Andrew asks Alice out and then asks her out again, and before long Alice finds herself thinking about Andrew more often than she thinks about climate change or the Alcott family. Alice prefers walks in the woods to church on Sundays, but still accompanies Andrew because he seems dismayed the first time she denies his invitation. The music is soothing, really. She closes her eyes and pretends that she’s home.
What would Emerson would think of Andrew? Her prognosis is grim. It isn’t until their third date that Andrew dates the world’s origins to 4004 BC, and not until their fifth that he begins talking politics. For the most part, Alice just listens. Before Andrew arrives at her apartment for dinner, Alice hides her Native American dream catcher and Zen garden and Buddha statue in the closet. She rips her Cat Stevens poster from the wall and then decides to fold up the Indian wall hanging above her bed. She rotates the stack of books on her desk so that the spines face the wall. “Never change to impress a man,” May tells her. “I’m not,” Alice tells herself. She’s not trying to impress Andrew. But she would like to avoid offending him. There’s a difference, she thinks.
“Emerson was an ordained minister,” Alice tells Andrew, when he finds her collection of transcendentalist writings on the bookshelf. She doesn’t tell Andrew that Emerson resigned from the Second Church three years after joining the clergy. She doesn’t tell him that Emerson questioned his faith, nearly lost it entirely, when he lost his first love to tuberculosis eighteen months into marriage. Every time Alice rereads Emerson’s journals, she relives the death of Ellen, a girl from New Hampshire, with a china doll face and a dog named Lord Byron. An avid reader, a romantic.
On December 28th, 1831, nearly one year after Ellen’s death, Emerson scratches only one line in his journal: “I visited Ellen’s tomb and opened the coffin.” White space echoes around this line on the page. What does this mean? Alice wants to know, desperately. She’s not a romantic, but this gesture takes her breath away. What did Emerson hope to find? This man who believed in transcendence, who preached impermanence and the unity of soul? We cannot escape our human impulses, Alice believes. Philosophy and faith can only lead us so far.
On a morning in June, Andrew finds Alice doodling in the New Testament he’s bought her at a used bookstore downtown. She’s sitting on the back porch, chin resting on one hand, pencil held loosely in the other. Alice slams the book shut when she senses Andrew behind her, but he says nothing. Later, he fans through the pages with his thumb and finds an intricate tree planted in Genesis 2. Root tendrils wind around the words, overlapping, curling together, trailing to the margin’s edge and snaking off the page. “The drawing is beautiful,” he says after a long silence.
“She’s a simple girl, isn’t she?” Alice overhears a friend of Andrew’s say. Alice knows that Andrew has always liked simple girls, girls destined to become dutiful wives, dutiful mothers, dutiful daughters of God. But Andrew knows that Alice isn’t simple. Soft spoken maybe, but not simple.
“What’s your denomination?” he asks her, the night that they meet. The word that slips from her mouth surprises her. “Catholic.” She’s not Catholic. Well, her grandmother was, but her parents certainly aren’t and Alice has only attended a Catholic mass once, a college friend’s confirmation. Until Alice meets Andrew, she has never told a lie, not a real one, like this. But neither has she met a boy who tells her he loves her. Alice finds herself adjusting to this charade. “So you think you could get used to this?” Andrew asks eagerly the first time Alice attends his own Methodist church service. “It’s not so different, right?” If only you knew, Alice thinks.
“The soul knows no persons,” Emerson says in his 1838 address at Harvard. “It invites every man to expand to the full circle of the universe, and will have no preferences but those of spontaneous love.” July in Cambridge would have been hot. His talk spawned fury. Atheist, Bostonians called Emerson. Infidel. Emerson believed in intuition. This, Alice understands.
It’s Andrew who suggests visiting Alice’s parents and brothers during the Christmas holiday. It’s Saturday afternoon, and they’re sitting at his linoleum kitchen table. Alice reads the Washington Post and Andrew plays Words with Friends on his iPhone. Every few minutes he expels a loud breath and slams his fist down on the table. They had planned on biking through Rock Creek Park that morning, but the sleet tapping a rhythm against the roof has kept them inside. Andrew walks to the window and raises his hands to the dark clouds in mock thanks. He would much rather pass the day indoors, especially in the winter months.
“What do you think?” he asks Alice, standing up to fill a glass with water from the sink. “I’d like to meet them.” Alice isn’t sure if Andrew truly wants to make this trip home with her or if he feels that he should. Alice suspects the latter. Andrew has been nothing but chivalrous since they met, but she’s not so sure she wants chivalry. Alice sets her coffee mug down on the newspaper’s front page, so that a dark ring forms around the word “Washington.” Alice has yet to tell Andrew that she’s not Catholic, not religious at all really, at least not by his terms.
“Don’t you want to be with your parents? Won’t they want you home?” Alice can’t imagine missing Christmas with her family.
The car pulls into the driveway, tires crunching on packed snow. Alice steps into the night air and stretches her arms, stiff from the eight-hour drive. She can see the Christmas tree through the living room window, draped in white lights and the homemade ornaments that Alice, May and Marcus crafted as children—a snowman made from one sock, twine, and a permanent marker, a candy cane molded and painted in high school pottery class, a star shaped from newspaper, flour and water, makeshift papier-mâché. The large window over the sink frames her parents in the kitchen. She can see her mother bouncing around the room as she prepares dinner, singing to Christmas music blasting from the speakers by the door. She’s probably listening to Bruce Springsteen’s version of “Santa Claus is Comin to Town.” Her mother loves Bruce. She lifts a pan from the cabinet and hands it to Alice’s father, who stirs at something on the stove.
Shadows of childhood flit through the dark yard—the tree swing drifting lazily over the snow, the horse corral at the bottom of the long grass hill that Alice and May loved to slide down on plastic saucers, bailing into the snow just before hitting the splintered wooden slats of the fence. The white picket fence that Marcus had built around the vegetable garden to earn his Boy Scout carpentry badge. The off-kilter mailbox, damaged from so many adolescent run-ins with the wooden post during driving lessons. The stone wall against the road, which Alice liked to walk along like a balance beam, stepping her bare feet from one wobbling rock to another. She had fallen from this wall at age eight and broken her collarbone, an injury that had led to sleepless nights and kept her out of school for days.
“Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn,” Emerson writes. “Every end is a beginning.” Does this mean that all beginnings must be ends? “There is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.” Alice feels the urge to climb back into the car and drive away. Instead, she takes Andrew’s hand and walks up the gravel walkway. Home.
May arrives the next day, bustling into the house with her lab coat still on. Alice leaves Andrew with her father that night, talking about V-type combustion engines, and runs upstairs to pull May away from her notebooks. “Fruitlands,” she says, bouncing up and down on May’s bed. “Can we go?”
May walks to the window and cranes her head to look at the sky. The stars are bright tonight. In childhood, they would run to Fruitlands to watch the constellations, skipping down Still River Road in the dark and sprawling out on the field, lulled by the cricket chorus sounding around them and talking of their lives ahead. Now, they pull on any clothing they can find—athletic pants over blue jeans over leggings; parkas over logoed sweatshirts over knitted sweaters and long sleeve tee shirts. They will not be cold tonight.
May can barely fit behind her steering wheel, and Alice has to pat down the poof of her parka as she slides into the driver’s seat. They throw their bodies back into the snow, star-fishing their arms and legs to form snow angels, lying head to head so that their matching blond hair tangles together. “Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear,” Emerson wrote. That’s how Alice feels now, glad to the brink of fear.
May and Alice snuggle into their snow parkas, pulling their hoods tight around their faces so that the stiff material obstructs their peripheral vision and channels their gaze toward the sky, a sky that stretches vastly onward, riddled with stars like holes in a black, billowing canopy. Alice will miss these stars when she returns to the city.
“I’m stuck to the earth,” May calls out, into the night, an old joke. Her breath puffs white into the air.
“Gravity, don’t let me go,” Alice hollers in response.
She lifts her arms and legs from the ground, as though to clamber away into the heavens, and then lets them fall with dead weight back onto the snow. “I’m stuck!”
“Phew,” May says, giggling.
“Gravity don’t let us go!”
Here, in this moment, they are ageless. Their words disperse into the night, particles of sound unconstrained by the gravity holding them down. The air, the universe, this infinity swallows them up, claims them. Alice imagines a black hole filled with so many voices lost to the night, pleas and whispers and exaltations, ricocheting off one another in a large cavernous space of being lost. Where am I? Don’t let me go! Hows bouncing off whys, the whys expanding in concentric rings, subsuming each other. Why, why, why, why, larger and larger rings looping around each other endlessly. Warm whys, still hot with human breath, congealing into the atmosphere. They laugh, smiling private smiles into the dark. “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary picture is repeated without end,” Emerson says. “It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world.” Beyond this world, this hole, too, is a circle.
Alice reaches across the snow and grasps her sister’s hand. “Last week in lab,” May responds, cutting into the silence, “I held a human brain. And all I could think was, this is it, this is a person, right here, who she was. Her memories, her neurons, formed by experience. An entire life in my hands.”
Alice murmurs amazement, but wonders if she can truly reduce this woman to that, reduce a life to myelin sheaths and neurons firing. Andrew is not all wrong. She presses her mittened hands over her face and watches these tangled neurons spider web across her closed eyelids. Neurons like the Nashua river delta or the rhizomatic tangle of root growth beneath the snow or the intersecting stone walls and animal routes and walking paths networking through the forest around them. Alice could keep her eyes closed like this, and the tangle would deepen, pulling her further and further into splotchy red darkness.
At one point, Bronson Alcott considered leaving his family for Harvard’s Shaker community, abandoning his wife and children in pursuit of his ideals, in pursuit of what he called the virtuous life. What is the virtuous life? Alice thinks now. The Shakers, so named for their impassioned manner of worship, lived a celibate, ascetic existence. Right now, she envies such spiritual zeal. She desires such passion. This commitment to conviction. “You know,” Alice once told Andrew, “the very best physicists eventually arrive at transcendence. At God.”
Faith and life. Life and afterlife. Guilt, love, peace, life, heartbreak. The words don’t quite fit together. If she were to stack them one upon the other, like Jenga blocks—guilt and then peace and then love and then heartbreak—the tower would topple. These words belong in a heap, meeting and overlapping at odd angles. She knows that she could break Andrew’s heart.
Does cause and effect really work like this? Sometimes, she wants to believe in a world where answers follow questions in neat, linear rows. She lifts a handful of snow in her mittened hand. “God planted a garden and there God placed man,” Andrew tells her. She thinks about Bronson and Louisa, their ghosts flitting across this field she now wanders.
We’re all here for such a short while anyways, she thinks.
The next morning, when Alice and Andrew walk through this same field, where Alice and May have come the night before, she sees their hardened angel imprints in the snow. The morning is bright, the mountain’s form crisp against the sky.
“I believe in your god,” Alice says. “But I don’t think you believe in mine.”
“I don’t understand,” Andrew says.
“It’s all the same,” Alice says. “Emerson said that…” She’s blubbering now.
Andrew says nothing.
She feels him slipping away, retreating into himself. Floating farther and farther away until he becomes a speck on the horizon, above the Alcott farmhouse, above the mountains. Until all they had together dissipates into the air. “Andrew?”
First Place: Poetry
Our Judge, Alan Michael Parker, had this to say about Susanna Lang's poem, "Romance":
A complex, rigorously played meditation upon music and memory, this fine poem weaves together piano lessons, a childhood idyll, and the making of meaning—all in the shadow of the speaker’s relationship to Mom. I love it: what a subtle, well-turned work of art. Plus, there’s a rueful wisdom earned, the child-artist “stumbling / through my practices, hating the mistakes, / the need to do it over.” I also wholly admire the trust in the materials the poet demonstrates, how images are evinced and left to shine, a nuanced virtuosity.
by Susanna Lang
followed by q&a
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich
After all these years, the violin
is still in love with the piano,
the kind of love that shakes your hair
from its pins, insists on discord,
follows a weedy path
to the clotted pond at the end.
Water bugs and unseen mouths
dimpling its surface, and the piano
percussive as a woodpecker, somewhere
among the trees, sure of itself
beneath the leaps and turns of the melody
until it reaches the last few notes, almost
too low to be heard.
I find myself listening to the piano
the way the violin listens, reaching
to touch, my hands aching
with memories that don’t belong to me.
The composer hadn’t yet
written her Romance when I took lessons
from my mother, stumbling
through my practices, hating the mistakes,
the need to do it over.
I remember a pond
among the trees, green
with what dropped in the water,
a large flat stone at the edge where we sat
in the sun, a boy from my class and me. And now,
my fingers think they know, they can’t stop
Susanna Lang’s most recent collection of poems, Tracing the Lines, was published in 2013 by the Brick Road Poetry Press. Her first collection, Even Now, was published in 2008 by The Backwaters Press, followed by a chapbook, Two by Two (Finishing Line Press, 2011). A two-time Hambidge fellow and a recipient of the Emerging Writers Fellowship from the Bethesda Writer’s Center, she has published original poems and essays, and translations from the French, in such journals as Little Star, New Letters, december, The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, Blue Lyra Review, Prime Number Magazine and Poetry East. Book publications include translations of Words in Stone and The Origin of Language, both by Yves Bonnefoy. She lives in Chicago, where she teaches in the Chicago Public Schools.
Q: What inspired this poem?
A: The immediate trigger was a performance by the Chicago Chamber Musicians of Romance for violin and piano, which Ellen Taaffe Zwilich wrote in 1993. But the music also called up memories of a time when my mother was still trying to get me to play piano, which had been her first passion.
Q: What writers or books do you consider influences?
A: There are so many! I spent this summer reading Mark Doty and Tracy K. Smith. But I have been in love with so many writers—Kefin Prufer, Lucille Clifton, Louise Glück, Maxine Kumin, Jane Kenyon, Deborah Digges, Pablo Neruda, W. B. Yeats, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson….
Q: What’s the most important writing advice you’ve received? Is it reflected in this poem?
A: Michael Dennis Browne is the one who made me set aside a period of time each day for writing, even if it’s not much time. I’m a public school teacher, so time is a vanishing commodity. I start work early and I’m up late reading student notebooks. But I get up even earlier and write for 20-30 minutes every morning. He also said that anything can audition for a poem. I remind my students of that all the time.
Q: Where do you write?
A: The most generous gift I’ve ever received is my own study, which had been my son’s bedroom till he moved downstairs into what we call his cave. My husband painted the walls and refinished the floor and framed images and broadside poems to make it a special place for me to write.
Second Place: Poetry
by Edward McManis
followed by q&a
I guess it makes sense,
how the city spreads out
like a picnic tumbled from a
Sunday morning basket.
Driving down through
the Sausalito tunnel
the vista appears suddenly
—a mouthful of champagne—
all in one gulp.
Fog twists like a ghost
couple dancing through
the arches, connecting cables rising
like the ribs of a giant harp,
plucked by wind.
Promises of afternoon sun
climb behind the layered morning
mist, blue sky creeping
up over Oakland, the outline of
the other bridge
a mouthful of braces
from the second chapter
of a cheaper story.
Colors magnify off the
water, a natural
HD—sounds carry, the splash
rising from your
the foghorn a lazy,
turning in his bed.
And Alcatraz, the center-
piece, surrounded by exotic
birds, sailboats, tourists
glorifying Al Capone, Bird Man,
clicking digital photos inside
a 6-by-8 cell just small
enough to crush
It makes sense
how they’re always facing
the city when they jump
Pacific and all it could be
at their back. How they’re not
jumping down…rather forward
into the Bay
Where we gather to stare
over the edge wondering how
the safety net of prayers
Edward McManis is a writer, singer/songwriter, editor, husband & dad. Not always in that order. He’s been published extensively through the years. His most recent Chapbook is Sr. Mary Butkus. He currently is the Head of Sterne School in San Francisco, a small school for students who learn differently. Little known fact: he holds the outdoor free throw record at Camp Santa Maria—67 in a row. He and his wife, Linda, have two sons: Jamie & Sean. If you email him, he’ll send you his hit cult song: “Who’s on the Cover of Oprah.”
Q: What inspired this poem?
A: I drive the Golden Gate daily. It’s always spectacular. And, it’s also a suicide destination. Through the years there have been numerous debates about the Bridge and putting a net under it. The cost, efficacy, the social responsibility, all the pros and cons. I was in a coffee shop and overheard someone talking about someone who jumped. They then said something about how they’re (jumpers) always facing the city when they jump—this started the poem. I sat down & wrote it in one chunk, with a few additional revisions.
Q: What writers or books do you consider influences?
A: Influences? Allan Sherman to Allen Ginsberg, and everything in between. Currently reading Joe Hutchison, Kooser, David Lehman, Linda Lancione. Drawn to narrative poems right now.
Q: What’s the most important writing advice you’ve received? Is it reflected in this poem?
A: Develop a strong hide (Joanne Greenberg); apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair—at some point you’ll sell out every member of your family. So it goes. Whether conscious or un, all advice leaves an imprint.
Q: Where do you write?
A: Everywhere. I’m always working in the little office in my head. I also like the ambient noise of coffee shops, restaurants, book stores.
Third Place: Poetry
May Day, West Berlin, 1971
by Bill Griffin
followed by q&a
At Theodor Heuss Platz the red flags bloom
like blood, not poppies: what do we students care
for Heuss, eight years dead, or any other Bundespräsident
to come? And what do I care, eighteen, Wolf Bierman’s
new poems in my back pocket, Leica across my shoulder,
marching with Klaus while back home in Spandau his father
curses such verdammte ignorance, grabs our collars, tries
to tell us one more time of those years after the war,
in the pot two potatoes, seven around the table,
“more eyes looking in than out.”
The young march forward, the old march back.
The time has come, Comrades, let us raise the chorus,
Auf zum letzten Gefecht! Arise to the final battle for rights
we aren’t aware we’ve lost. Today the only thing I’ve liberated
is a liter of warm Schultheiß with my Marxist brothers
while approving the liberation of our Leninist sisters
from cotton, lycra, all oppression of the bosom.
Could we ever imagine, eighteen years from now,
Die Internationale from the throats of our East Berlin sisters
and brothers will wrench the stones from this Wall?
The singing dies. These days I’m looking into my own
hungry pot, empty of whatever I might have found to march for,
to fight for. Don’t mock me, Daughter, here are the photos,
yes the Levis, the impossible hair, hurling words like stones,
Fascist, at any who dared to disagree. No entry at all
in the Englisch/Deutsch dictionary for doubt. Today
I doubt everything. Can there be any liberation for me
at sixty, lockstep career, bald capitalist, songs forgotten?
We watched, oh yes, while they trampled the Wall
but when we looked away walls sprang up again in Ukraine,
in Gaza, at Westboro Baptist in Topeka, in elections
to the highest bidder, for mothers with three jobs
and hungry children. More eyes looking out than in.
Pray, Girl, the pot’s not empty. March forward.
I’m counting on you to tear down everything
I’ve left you. Listen. I might yet teach you to sing.
Bill Griffin is a family physician in rural North Carolina. His poems have appeared in many regional and national journals including Tar River Poetry, Poem, NC Literary Review, and Southern Poetry Review. In 2010 the choral suite The Wanderer’s Carols, lyrics by Bill, music by Mark Daniel Merritt, premiered at Biltmore House in Asheville NC for Christmas. Bill has published four chapbooks, including Snake Den Ridge, A Bestiary (March Street Press 2008), each poem illustrated by his wife, Linda French Griffin. Bill features Carolina poets at his blog http://GriffinPoetry.com
Q: What inspired this poem?
A: I spent my senior year in high school (1970-71) as an exchange student in West Berlin, living with a family whose home was about a mile or two from the Wall. Total cultural immersion. My host brother fancied himself a Red (which turned his WWII soldier father pretty damned red) and he took me to numerous political rallies and events. I can still sing the refrain to The International auf Deutsch.
Q: What writers or books do you consider influences?
A: For craft and the use of language – Fred Chappell. For minute observations of connectedness – Mary Oliver. For fun – Billy Collins. And lately in choice of subject, approach, and search for meaning I am most influenced by the process-relational philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (especially as elucidated by Robert Mesle).
Q: What is the most important writing advice you e received? Is it reflected in this poem?
A: Find your own voice and imagine yourself speaking to someone. In creating this poem I definitely imagined myself from start to finish speaking to my adult daughter. I’ll be interested to share it with her, because I’ve never told her all my stories from those years.
Q: Where do you write?
A: On the back porch in the morning before my wife wakes up. In the car with the radio off. In bed in the middle of the night - is sleep deprivation the inspiration or the affliction? (And the final common pathway is a circa 2002 version of WordPerfect - works damn good and I ain’t upgrading to no Word, Mr. Gates.)
First Place: Nonfiction
Our Judge, Sarah Einstein, had this to say about Anjali Enjeti's essay, "Borderline":
“Borderline” is a lovely, thoughtful essay that weaves the author's own story with the story of her grandmother to create a story with depth and richness. The difficult subject matter--pregnancy, miscarriage, and abortion—is handled with rare grace, and there is a complexity here that's too often missing from the public conversations about a woman's right to bodily self-determination. Both the writing and the thinking in this piece are stunning, and even with such a strong field of finalists, it stood out as exemplary.
by Anjali Enjeti
followed by q&a
The Pre-Op floor is quiet, anesthetized even, for a Monday morning. My gown cloaks me three times over, yet fails to keep out the chill. The stiff sheet encasing my torso is dotted with the stains of dried tears.
Almost fourteen weeks pregnant, I await a Dilation and Curettage, a D & C.
Three days earlier, I celebrate the retreat of morning sickness with cheery greetings to my husband and children. The buttons on my pants refuse to come together, like two stubborn toddlers. I glance underneath my bed to the maternity clothes I’d been storing for two years, and remind myself to toss them in the washing machine.
Later today, I think, I will tell the world about my pregnancy.
In my loosest clothing (the last outfit I will wear with a smile for a long time), I pose in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom. My posture exaggerates an early second trimester pregnancy. I massage my third child, eager for the day when it kicks back, eager to introduce him or her to my two older daughters. In March 2007, we will be a family of five.
That afternoon, at a routine checkup with my doctor, the all-knowing Doppler skates back and forth across my slick belly. Loud echoes pulse off the walls in the exam room. But the doctor who delivered my first two children is not yet wiping me off with a towel or instructing me to take care until my next visit. She continues drawing figure eights, in smaller circumferences, outlining every organ.
Finally, she breaks the pattern.
I don't hear anything that sounds like a heartbeat, she says.
An ultrasound later confirms that something went terribly wrong. The fetus floats around in my fluid, lifeless, like a buoy in the ocean. From a supine position, my stares command the heart on the screen to flicker. But my plea fails—my meek attempt at prenatal discipline goes unanswered.
This horror is compounded by time. Because it is too late on Friday afternoon to schedule the surgery, my baby and I must remain joined until Monday.
At home I feel lost, defeated, enraged. Crying jags punctuate ordinary conversation. I now detest my swollen body, and in an attempt to punish it for its physical deception, stuff it into skinny jeans. The seams crack into my skin.
Despite my depleted state, I drive my daughters to an orchard for pony rides and face-paintings. As we run though the corn mazes, stopping and starting at false openings, trapped among the stalks that rise above our faces, I hide my tears in a sweatshirt sleeve while clutching my belly.
Three days later, in Pre-Op, scrub-wearing workers stream in and out, poking and prodding without consolation. The nurse monitoring my blood pressure never looks up from my trembling arm.
As I’m being wheeled into surgery, my grandmother, Oma, is 700 miles away in Tennessee, cramped and kneeling in the pews of her church, praying for a surgery without complications.
When I return home after the procedure, as soon as my husband opens the door to the house, the phone rings. It is Oma. Underneath her thick Austrian accent and muffled sobs, she offers a sentiment I will hear over and over again from many others.
But she is the one who says it first.
Anjali, she whispers, I am so, so sorry.
On March 13, 1938, Oma, age twelve, glances out her living room window. Adolf Hitler’s booming voice marches itself through the streets of Linz, Austria. He embraces cheering salutes of Heil Hilter from every angle.
Oma feels sick to her stomach.
Within hours, the familiar doorways of her childhood, the store where her mother buys each day’s groceries, the bank, and her neighbors’ homes, are draped with images of swastikas. Her father shakes his head in disgust and increases the volume on Radio Free Europe.
Four years later, Oma is a sixteen-year-old living at home alone with her twelve-year-old brother. Her mom has fled to her own mother in Steyrling, a small town in the Austrian Alps, to give birth to her third child far away from the German occupation of Linz.
Oma’s father, captured by the Allies, is a prisoner of war in England. In her parents’ absence, Oma is the head of the household, attending college, working, and taking care of her little brother.
One gray afternoon, while making dinner, sirens cut through the air, followed immediately by the crescendo humming of planes leading an air raid. Oma and her brother tear down the stairs to the basement. Within seconds, a hard thud jolts the ground below them, knocking them against the rear wall.
After, when Oma and her brother force open the door to the daylight, they discover the remnants of a bomb splattered in the backyard garden. Shards of glass and wood from their home’s blown-out windows and collapsed roof coat the dismembered furniture.
Across the street, rotting corpses are stacked like piles of firewood.
In the days that follow, Oma and her brother pick through the wreckage, rescuing familial artifacts. They sleep on the kitchen floor, the only safe space, until their mother returns from the mountains.
The following year, just after Oma completes college, the Reich sends her to a Nazi work camp, arbeitsdienst, in Czechoslovakia. She rises at 3 a.m. and dresses in a red and blue Nazi-regulated uniform to march and sing German nationalist songs. The führers then transport Oma and the other female workers to a farm to chop down trees that tower over them, shave off the leaves, and then break them down into quarters.
Outside during the winter, Oma sees her breath from morning until night. Her uniform fails to shield her from frigid temperatures. She has no gloves to protect her cracked and calloused hands, and most days she can’t feel her feet. An angry red rash erupts on her legs from the required wool tights.
She sleeps on a straw mattress in a Nazi barrack with eleven other girls. They take turns staying up all night, stoking the fire and adding coals to keep the führers warm. In the morning, icicles surround them while they bathe in the washroom. The shower water freezes upon exiting the faucet, hitting the tile like hail.
Oma’s stomach aches from raw hunger—her daily nutrition a small bowl of pudding-flavored water and a slice of black bread. At night, she listens to the whispers throughout the barracks of sore, exhausted, and frozen bodies. Another girl speaks of a camp just up the Danube River from Linz.
They herd all the people through the doors. They never come out again.
Late in the night, after everyone else is asleep, Oma wonders about this camp that no one leaves, not far from her family home.
On a hot, humid day in the spring of 1994, I drive up from college to attend the March for Women’s Lives in Washington DC with three other Women’s Studies students who are proud to call themselves feminists.
After a four-hour drive, we emerge to signs that read “KEEP ABORTION LEGAL,” “CHOICE NOW” and salute one another on the Metro and in line for the port-a-potties. On a small patch of grass on The Mall, we position ourselves among our sisters, shouting chants, singing songs of solidarity, and listening, mesmerized, to the activists advancing our cause.
To protesting pro-lifers lining the Mall, I shout, “An acorn is not a tree,” confident that a metaphor about botany confers a medical understanding of the difference between an embryo or fetus, and a living, breathing newborn.
Though I have never had an abortion myself, my feminist consciousness and curriculum have transformed me from a silent bystander to an activist, leading me to believe I know what it might be like to terminate a pregnancy.
In early 2001, seven years after I marched on Washington, I am pregnant for the very first time. At the six-week ultrasound, I discover evidence of life, pre-birth life. It moves and wiggles, as if signaling to me. The technician points to a beating heart.
In the few moments it takes to view a pulsing embryo in a darkened room, my whole pro-choice world is blurred. I find it impossible to deny the existence of what I can see with my own eyes. The question of viability, a term I had once considered crucial in a conversation about abortion rights, seems irrelevant in light of my impending motherhood. Because when I show my friends and family members pictures from the ultrasound, I do not call it “my embryo” or “my pregnancy,” I call it what I believe it truly is—my baby.
Five years later, in the summer of 2006, I am a mother to two children, and expecting my third. During the pregnancy, two ultrasounds at six and nine weeks reveal a growing, thriving baby. At nine weeks, when we identify its limb buds, I imagine myself kissing hands with tiny dimples, rocking a baby to sleep in my arms, and the sensation of a newborn face pressed up against my cheek. I consider the holiday card we will send out to our family, featuring an infant sandwiched between two adoring big sisters.
Because my pregnancy is progressing well, I cavalierly dismiss my doctor’s suggestion to schedule an eleven-week diagnostic ultrasound.
Because, I naively explain, we will have this baby no matter what.
After the War, at an American GI social, Oma is drawn to a man with dark, slicked back hair, captivating eyes, and deeply bronzed skin. The soldier notices her, too, puts out his cigarette, and saunters over.
Oma learns he is a Puerto Rican-American serving in the US Army. They dance and laugh late into the night. He doesn’t care that she can barely speak English, and she doesn’t mind that falling in love with an American might mean a permanent departure from her homeland.
They marry in 1947, and in 1948, Oma and my grandfather, Opa, cross the ocean by naval ship to New York City, to settle in the Puerto Rican section of the Bronx. Oma picks up English while ushering movies in Times Square.
In late 1949, Oma becomes pregnant. Nausea wakes her at dawn and persists until late afternoon. She pats cold compresses on her forehead with one hand and, with the other, clings to the four-page letters her mother sends her every week from Austria. She boils pots of hot water for gemeente tea—her mother’s antidote for stomach ailments.
In 1950, days after the beginning of the Korean War, Oma gives birth to a son. The US Army stations Opa, a brand new father, to Trieste, Italy.
Oma is alone in New York with a newborn baby, her only relative a mother-n-law who detests her for her Anglo blood, her German tongue. During her sleepless nights, the nausea, which has only recently abated, returns with a vengeance. She is pregnant again. Over the next few months, alone in her drafty apartment, Oma stumbles in the dark to fix her son a bottle before running to the bathroom to throw up.
A few months later, she is reunited with Opa in Trieste, where she gives birth to her daughter in July 1951.
One year later, in 1952, the US army stations Opa in Massachusetts. Oma must stay behind with her infants at a hotel near a ship port in the Italian Riviera. She does not have her own bathroom or kitchen and, in the middle of the night, creeps down to the building’s kitchen to warm milk for her two babies. A few months later, she boards the ship back to Massachusetts with her swaddled newborn and toddler son.
Two years later, while living in Massachusetts, she gives birth to their third child.
Oma is worn out from being woken up two to three times a night by children’s nightmares, cries for a bottle. She worries about her husband’s safety in far off lands. She is frustrated by a language where her “thats” always sound like “dats”—eliciting cruel snickers from shop store clerks and upper class neighbors. She misses her family, her girlfriends from school, the taste of schnitzel and knaedles, and the texture of European black bread.
She is determined that this third child will be her last.
From 1954 to 1958, the family moves from Massachusetts to Alaska, to Washington State, to Texas, and then to Germany, where an old girlfriend tells Oma about a pill that prevents babies.
Oma wants this pill. Every month, she stares into the toilet bowl in a state of panic any time her period is late. Her youngest daughter has serious vision problems; she is nearly blind in both eyes. Oma cannot imagine changing diapers and cleaning bottles again, while taking care of a child with severely impaired vision.
A few weeks after she begins taking the pill, Oma experiences extreme dizziness and nausea. While lying on the floor, the ceiling mercilessly spins above her. She can barely walk from one side of the room to another without stopping for a break.
Oma flushes the remaining pills down the toilet.
Oma begs Opa to help her prevent another pregnancy. He refuses. He is a proud Catholic Hispanic and sees no need to deny his seed its rightful territory.
In 1962, Oma’s period is late. She frantically checks her underwear before each bath. Her stomach bloats, her breasts return to their familiar ache. She curses at Opa and throws shoes at the wall in their tiny flat. She muffles her cries in the wool coat that hangs in their closet.
Oma gives birth to her fourth child, and then the following year Opa, Oma, and their four children sail back over the ocean, to El Paso, Texas.
With a family of six, the refrigerator sits nearly empty. Opa’s military salary barely meets their household expenses. Oma must get a job. She turns over the baby’s caretaking needs to her eldest daughter, who is now twelve.
While her four children are still sleeping, Oma rises at 4:00 am and drives in the dark to the local bakery to knead bread, mix batter, and squirt icing on cookies for eight hours. She returns home just as her children arrive from school, where she begins an evening of cooking, cleaning, and mending. She collapses into bed late at night, with only a few hours of sleep before her alarm goes off again.
Shortly before her fortieth birthday, the nausea returns. Her breasts burn. Her underwear remains unstained. She is pregnant.
This time Oma is resolute. She tells Opa, point blank, that she is getting rid of it. Opa knows his wife; he knows she means what she says. He does not want her to do it alone.
One evening, just before sunset, Oma and Opa leave their four children at home and drive to downtown El Paso. They park their car near the foot of the Sante Fe Bridge and walk over the slow trickle of dingy water known as the Rio Grande into Juarez, Mexico. She smoothes the skirt of her black dress and keeps her eyes forward. He pretends to enjoy the landscape—slum houses of corrugated metal, mud and cardboard.
When they reach the city, they hail a cab to a hospital.
The taxi driver will know exactly where to take you, an Army buddy told Opa.
Soon after entering the hospital, Oma is surrounded by Spanish voices used to caring for American women. They gown her quickly and lay her down. Oma concentrates on her children at home to calm her nerves while the staff begins administering the anesthesia.
After the surgery, my grandparents retrace their steps over the bridge. This time, Oma shuffles slowly over the border while holding onto Opa’s arm. He resignedly pats her hand and helps her into the car. They arrive home by midnight.
When Opa is stationed in Germany again, Oma becomes pregnant two more times. Her second abortion occurs while on “vacation” to Austria, where a midwife, a friend of the family, will take care of it in Oma’s mother’s home.
Oma lies on her back, without anesthesia, while the midwife inserts a catheter to open her uterus. After the midwife leaves, the cramping and bleeding begin. She miscarries the following day. The entire family returns to Germany a few days later.
The following year, she boards the train from Germany to Austria, again under the guise of a vacation. This time, hours after the procedure, buckets of blood drench her dress. Her mother paces back and forth, examining the rags and the debris in the toilet, searching for an expelled lump.
There is nothing but blood.
The next morning, Oma is rushed to the hospital in Linz. Oma’s mother mutters prayers of the rosary under her breath. Her mother fears they are too late when she sees the blood-soaked towels that she has placed under Oma in the car.
The doctor who will perform the D & C flips impatiently through the patient chart, and shakes her head at Oma’s stained and gowned body—this botched, illegal abortion. He asks her, since she is married, why would she end her pregnancy?
On the verge of losing consciousness, while the blood continues to flow onto the hospital floor, Oma recalls the arbeitsdienst, the American GI social where she met her husband, suitcases in strange lands splayed open with clothes for four children, her two youngest children with severe vision impairment, the yeast-scented bakery before sunrise, morning sickness, the sleeplessness and stresses of new motherhood.
Because, she replies in her native tongue, I am tired. I do not want any more.
On a Tuesday, one month after my D & C, the phone rings. I don’t hesitate to pick it up—phone calls to my house have finally returned to the routine of annoying telemarketers and friends scheduling play dates—not offerings of apology that cause me to sob into my tea.
My doctor’s voice surprises me. The baby was a boy, she says. The genetic testing revealed a chromosomal abnormality. He would never have survived the pregnancy.
I concentrate on not dropping the phone, and after hanging up, dry heave into the kitchen sink, while dinner burns on the stove.
Later that night, I pull out my ultrasound photos, scanning closely for evidence of a life gone awry. I see nothing but a sweet, perfect baby.
The following spring, the raw pain and grief of miscarriage subsides. When a friend becomes pregnant, I insist that she show me her ultrasound picture.
She hesitates before pulling the thin paper out of her wallet. My hand is shaking when I grasp it. Numbers crowd out its top right corner, indicating she is eleven weeks along. I identify the baby’s limbs, its curved torso, and a tiny, upturned nose.
I wonder who this child might be: A boy or girl? A teacher or scientist? An introvert, an extrovert? I remember what it’s like to have hope, to conceive dreams for a baby who is months away from taking its first breath, to guess at personality traits, to create a vision for a family.
In that moment, while smoothing the creases of the waxy paper, I uncover an uncomfortable truth about my third pregnancy, my capabilities as a mother, and the limits of what I mistook for unconditional love:
If I had shown up for my eleven-week diagnostic ultrasound and instead of a nonviable fetus discovered a struggling, misshapen life, slowly dying from defect—
I would have had an abortion.
Opa died of a heart attack in 1980, leaving Oma a widow at the age of 53. Her three older children were grown, her youngest child a senior in high school.
She had been working for years in the shoe section of a large department store, fetching several sizes of the latest heels, wedging sneakers on cranky toddlers, ringing up back-to-school loafers. At the end of each shift, her knees and ankles were sore from bending and prying. The arthritis flared up in her wrists from threading and lacing.
Her low wage, along with her husband’s military pension, barely covered the living expenses for her and her youngest child. Had she not had the abortions, after Opa died, she would have been a single mother to three more young children.
Oma has many regrets. She regrets the war that separated her from her family, the loss of her beloved homeland to the Nazi regime, the loneliness and isolation she experienced as a foreigner in foreign lands, the limited options for birth control in the early 1960s, Opa’s premature death, and the pregnancies she never wanted.
But she does not regret getting the abortions.
And while I—her first grandchild—will never fully understand what it might be like to have led such a life, or to terminate a pregnancy—I have evolved from the college student who feigned empathy for another woman’s dilemma on The Mall in Washington, DC—the textbook feminist with the good fortune to view life in black and white increments.
Rather, I am a mother armed with hindsight and history (both mine and Oma’s), who now knows what it might be like to regret conception; to confront despair; to grieve the lack of second chances; to become pregnant with a baby I would have loved, but never would have birthed.
Because if I shed my politics and my preferences, and separate my love from my logic, I find myself telling a different kind of story about my pregnancy and loss: Only luck and a few weeks’ time, made the difference between what ended as my miscarriage, but could have been my abortion.
In the summer of 2007, after two more miscarriages, I am pregnant again.Although the pregnancy is free from complications, anxiety plagues and controls my day. I frantically call family members when a few minutes pass without the baby’s movement. My nights threaten nightmares, restlessness, and insomnia.
I frequently visit the ultrasound room, and refuse to look at the screen until the technician confirms a heartbeat.
Oma, now in her eighties, lives two hours north in a retirement home, enduring the same stresses about my baby’s health. Although she is decades beyond her own pregnancies, she senses the urgency of my own. She has assumed an understanding of technology and terminology—crown-to-rump measurement and beta HCG level—which didn’t exist when she was building her own family. She knows the day and time of each pregnancy appointment and distracts herself with soap operas and game shows, until the phone rings with good news.
During our monthly visits, when we sit together on the couch, I lift her hand and place it on my belly. When we feel the baby’s kicks, we breathe a sigh of relief.
Had she not gone blind after retiring from the shoe department, Oma would have packed up her belongings, sold her small ranch home, and made one final journey back across the ocean to the Austrian Alps, the Danube, and the geography of her childhood—minus the violence of war.
But instead, she remains here, in her adopted country, awaiting the arrival of her newest great-grandchild.
A few days after I give birth to my third daughter, my mother brings Oma to the doorway of my home, where I greet her with a hug and guide her slowly by the elbow through the foyer, into the living room.
Oma leans over, feels for the edge of our leather sofa, and follows it around to the far armrest. I adjust the pillows behind her back and position my restless newborn along her forearm, into the crook of her elbow.
Oma’s measured rocking quiets the baby immediately. It’s as if my sweet daughter had been waiting all morning for the comfort of her great-grandmother.
I cross to the other side of my Oma. To minimize the sting of my incision, I lower myself slowly into a nearby cushion. My head rests easily on Oma’s shoulder, the hypnotic rise and fall of her chest forces my eyes closed. As my shoulders release the stress and tension of the last nine months, from the last couple of years of grief, I find, at my grandmother’s side, a deep, restful sleep.
Anjali Enjeti is a novelist, essayist and literary critic. Her essays have appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Alternet, Dame, and elsewhere. Her criticism, interviews and humor have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Kirkus, The Millions, The Rumpus, Paste, The Guardian and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. A MFA graduate of Queens University in Charlotte, she has recently completed her first novel. She lives in suburban Atlanta and can be found at anjalienjeti.com or @anjalienjeti.
Q: What inspired this essay?
A: My grandmother has never talked much about her life, and I knew, from my mother and aunts, that it was a difficult one. I knew, too, that she’d had abortions, but it wasn’t until she was in her eighties, and after I’d suffered from my own pregnancy losses, that I finally got the guts to ask her about them. I interviewed her several times, taking diligent notes. A few years after I completed the essay, she began showing signs of dementia. I’m so thankful I had the chance to ask her about her experiences when she was still able to share them.
Q: What writers or books do you consider influences?
A: I love Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, Joan Didion, ZZ Packer, Amy Tan, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Salman Rushdie. I can only hope some aspect of their craft or gift for storytelling influences my writing! Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things changed me from being someone who wanted only to read stories to someone who also wanted to write stories. I reread The Great Gatsby and Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart nearly every year and learn something new from them each time.
Q: What’s the most important writing advice you’ve received? Is it reflected in this essay?
A: I was told once that the writers who get published are the ones who are the most persistent when it comes to the submission process. This essay was completed six years ago and submitted to dozens of publications. I had given up hope that it would ever see the light of day. And then I heard about this contest and I thought. “Okay, just one more time.”
Q: Where do you write?
A: I write at home, usually in my sunroom, with the soft glow of sunlight warming my keyboard, my bichon frise puppy wedged in my side. I write in my bedroom, too, late at night, with my three daughters snuggled next to me or sprawled across my legs.
Second Place: Nonfiction
by Jocelyn Pihlaja
followed by q&a
With every turn of the tires, the highway delivered a tha-thump to my rear end, nestled as it was on the floor under the dashboard. I was curled into a ball at my mom’s feet, the backs of my legs sticking to the plastic mat that covered the industrial carpet. Folding limbs tight, I made myself small enough to fit into my special “fort” at the front of the car. When my legs became prickly, I unfolded and stretched, weaving myself through my mother.
Tired of the confines of the car as our family drove long hours across rectangular states, I found relief in this new space, this fort under the glove compartment.
We’d drive all day. By dusk, I’d finished reading Nancy Drew, filled in pages of Mad Libs, exploded Pop Rocks on my tongue, listened to my brother and sister pick at each other. Invariably, the town where we’d stop for the night was still thirty miles off. Only then, as sunlight slanted sideways across the striations of The Badlands, over yet another Wall Drug sign, through the parking lot of Al’s Oasis, would I slither from the backseat, that jumble of kids’ discarded amusements, and ease my body into the space I carved around my mother.
Even with the windows open and the sun fading, it was sweltering. We were bored, tired, ready for the motel. Maybe there would be a pool. Maybe we’d be there in time for Charlie’s Angels. Maybe my sister and I would watch from our shared bed, my brother from his roll-away. Over on their bed, my mom might stitch or write a letter while Dad went out to find us some dinner.
Before all that, though, we still had highway to cover.
Just when it seemed the day would never end—that we’d never get to the motel—Mom would start talking, telling stories from her youth, pushing against the road-trip malaise. With her words, the stifling air of the car lightened. She recounted memories of wearing ugly tights to school, building a teepee in her 4th grade classroom, grabbing a handful of her brother’s golden curls so he didn’t drown. Occasionally, I would pipe up with questions, my voice rising from the floor. Eventually, she’d get to her college years and recollect a love story: the night she met a transfer student at a chili dinner held for newcomers. Intrigued by his reserve, she set her cap. In every telling, this story detailed her standing outside his dorm, staring at his window; making him cookies when he was sick; dating his roommate to inspire jealousy; wanting to get married the day after they graduated. Her reminiscence, unfurled while sitting next to my dad as he held the wheel, always included the words “He never liked me half as much as I liked him.” Despite that feeling, she successfully kept herself in his sights. While they didn’t get married the day after graduation, they did six years later. In relatively short order, they produced three children.
Decades later, during my second pregnancy, when I was in the midst of figuring out motherhood for myself, a new story emerged—on an afternoon when the only thing my growing belly and I wanted to do was accompany the pipping two-year-old out to the yard to hunt for four-leaf clovers. My daughter and I started out on hands and knees, crawling around the grass, noses touching blades, counting leaves, but before long, I was lying on my back, my girl gently climbing astride my torso, careful not to hurt the baby growing inside. Leaning her face over mine, she told me to close my eyes and feel the butterfly kisses of her eyelashes on my cheeks. Laughing, I toppled her sideways, and we lay next to each other, her legs resting on mine, the grass tickling our necks. As we gazed at slow-moving clouds, looking for rabbits and turtles in the puffs, my husband—a gentle, thoughtful man much like my father—slid open the patio door.
He called, “I’m making coffee. You want some?” Hearing a clatter on the front porch, he continued, “Sounds like the mail came. Probably just junk, though.”
A couple minutes later, he wandered out to the yard, holding an envelope addressed to me.
Strangely, the letter was from my mom—who was due to arrive at our house within the hour. She and her sister had spent several days driving across the plains for a visit. She must have posted it just before she reversed down the driveway and pointed her car eastward.
Assuming it would contain the usual “I saw this snippet in the ‘Humor in Uniform’ section of Reader’s Digest and thought it would make you chuckle” contents, I ripped it open.
The first sentence read, “The topic of this letter may surprise, even shock, you.” By the second sentence, the alveoli in my lungs filled with sludge, and breathing became difficult. My mother was filing for divorce from my father, her husband of nearly 40 years.
An hour later, when our visitors parked in front of the house, I marched outside, grabbed my mother, and confessed, “I can’t pretend any niceties. I just got your letter, and I can’t stop crying.”
“Me, too.” Her voice was tremulous. We leaned into each other. She seemed small. When had she gotten small?
Eventually, we moved into the shelter of the house. The others retreated, managing to give us space in 966 square feet. We spent the next hours on the couch, passing the Kleenex box as we talked through the earth-shattering decision my mother had made to derail what everyone had thought was a very pretty life.
Her complaints were myriad: my father was not an expressive or demonstrative man; for 40 years, she had felt unloved; she had decided she’d rather live alone than with someone in such profound loneliness.
During our couch therapy, I rested the pads of my feet against my mom’s thighs. When my daughter ran in, wanting a book read, she clambered aboard a raft of mother and grandmother, suspended by our limbs as we flipped the pages. At book’s end, she slid down, shouting, “Daddy, now you read this to me!”
Energetically, she tore away, and the conversation shifted from Good Night, Gorilla to my mother’s years of tormented journaling and unaddressed despair. Shifting uncomfortably on the couch, I rubbed her back—as she had mine the time my eardrum burst—and told her how sorry I was about it all. Absently, I realized I was doing well with the mothering. But the daughter? The daughter was lost.
Over the next few days, I managed a lively exterior, but bruises in my heart turned purple, then blue.
I felt bruised for my father, a quiet Finn defined by his reserve. I felt bruised by his lack of representation during The Airing of the Grievances. I felt bruised because his health was dismal, he was 67, and suddenly he was facing his final years alone.
I felt bruised because I’d just discovered, absurdly after the fact, that the story of my youth was a myth. I hadn’t actually grown up in a reasonably happy, well-adjusted household but rather in a home of ache, unexpressed anger, and hardened misery.
I felt bruised because the child growing inside of me would never bask in the heady collective adoration of his grandparents. He would never sit between them on a porch swing, encircled by their palpable affection. There would be no circles of love at all, just straight lines between far-removed individuals.
I felt bruised as I realized I had never truly known my mother. Not only had I been unaware of her unhappiness, I had never noticed that her steady burble of words hid an aversion to direct communication. But that letter she sent. The decades of unuttered upset. The fact that, several days into her visit at our house, she asked, eyes bright, “Do you notice anything different about me? I’ve been waiting to see if you’d say anything, but you haven’t.”
I had noticed nothing. All my life, wrapped around her feet in my cozy fort, I had noticed nothing.
She’d been waiting for me to recognize that she had gotten a nose job. The afternoon she was having divorce papers served on my unsuspecting father, she stayed at a girlfriend’s house. The next morning, at 6:00 a.m., Mom went to the surgeon and had the nose she’d always hated “fixed.” I wondered if that smaller nose had made it easier to see into a future without my father.
After my mother’s visit, pieces continued to drop from the rickety scaffolding of their relationship. Our young family, and my burgeoning belly, visited them during their last tense weeks together.
During that visit, as I helped sort the kitchen’s contents into boxes for two households, dividing the wooden spoons and cupboards of mugs with a “One for Mom, one for Dad, one to donate” count, I remembered, wryly, how worried I’d been when they’d bought that house. I’d been 24 and rattled by their decision: it meant they were selling my childhood home, and how could I ever feel like I had a place in the world without it? Naturally, the first time I visited them in their new place, all my fears dissipated. Home had never been the house; it had always been my parents. As I stood in the disarray of the kitchen, wrapping the lid of the cookie jar in newspaper, Thomas Wolfe washed through me with stark clarity: with my parents no longer together, I could never go home again.
Then, in the jumble of deconstruction, it slipped out that my mom had been seeing someone else–not a physical affair yet, but an emotional one, driven by letters and phone calls exchanged behind my father’s back.
My 67-year-old mother striking up a relationship with a former high school classmate was a twist worthy of a telenovela. Excited about her new relationship, she disclosed the details, once I caught whiff of there being “another.” However, she never told her soon-to-be-ex-husband of four decades or her other children. When, some weeks later, my intuitive dad asked me directly if there was someone else, I told him. His eyes were knowing as he confirmed, “Ah, yes. I watched them sparking with each other at their last class reunion.” It also fell to me to explain the new boyfriend to my brother and sister. After I relayed the news, Mom was relieved and asked for a rundown of their reactions. Teetering on a sharp wire strung between love and anger, I labored to find compassion: she was afraid.
Before quitting that strained visit to Montana, we spent a morning driving around town with my dad, adding my name to bank and legal documents as his new co-signer. At the end of our errands, before we got into our well-loaded car to begin the trip across South Dakota, we stood in a parking lot, trying to find a close to this bewildering, foreign time. Before that day, I had seen my dad cry once, at his mother’s funeral. On the black asphalt, for the second time, I saw—felt—him cry, as we hugged, and I held him against my thumping belly.
With my arms wrapped around the curve of his back, he sobbed. So did I, and so did my husband, holding our daughter as she pointed at birds flitting across the big sky. Minutes passed, and my dad continued to weep. Finally, his shudders slowed. Unaware this was the last time I would see or touch him—I whispered into his ear, “You deserve better than this.”
Five months after the divorce was finalized, my mother posted another letter to her children. This one began—bafflingly for the daughter who had put in myriad hours as support staff—“Though my previous messages to you about my decision to divorce were not acknowledged or replied to, none of you asked me any questions about why I did this, or expressed sympathy about my feeling ignored, unloved, and lonely for years, I have decided to write once more. It has seemed that you do not care for my feelings or me…” Her letter went on to assert that, although he’d never spoken of it or acted upon it, Dad had been gay. She’d had lunch with one of his high school classmates who prattled that they’d all known in their small town he was “not the marrying kind.” In several typed pages, my mom laid out the injustice of having been “invited into a marriage that was a hoax and a sham.” Fueled by a rage she couldn’t own, she transferred the injury of her life’s choices onto my dad, into disappointment with her children.
She forgot to include the part where she stood outside his dorm, where she made him cookies, where she dated his roommate, where she knew when she was 19 that he never liked her half as much as she liked him. She forgot the part where she could have asked him if he was gay instead of creating that story for him.
Her letter arrived two weeks after I delivered a son by emergency C-section. My mom had been there, in the hospital room at first but eventually in the waiting area when she couldn’t handle my suffering. Later, when everyone gathered to meet the baby, she went to an organ concert at a local church. When my husband returned to work, leaving me with a two-year-old and an infant so big he exceeded the weight restrictions I was under, she announced it felt like time to head home. Raw, profoundly in need of help, I watched my mother carry her bags to the car. This time when I cried, I held a pillow to the incision on my stomach, cushioning the wound.
Her letter also arrived the day before my dad died, alone, his last breath exhaled into a clinical room, no love at his side.
On the day of his memorial service, I sat in Urgent Care. During the long drive to Montana, the incision from my C-section, irritated by the seat belt, had become infected. Slightly feverish, pus oozing from the twelve-inch opening in my gut, traumatized from the agonizing process of getting that baby out of me, I tried to focus on the rest of the day, eventually arriving at a mantra of “Antibiotics, service, reception, bed.”
The memorial service teemed with people who respected my father. In the balcony of the church, former students brought a necessary liveliness. Below them were colleagues, fellow musicians, old friends, family. We three, his offspring, sat in the front row. During the service, as those who had known my dad’s beauty paid tribute to his effect on their lives, my voice reverberated inside my head. I wanted to feel better, to be steady on the black heels I’d borrowed from my mother, so that I could climb the three stairs to the chancel and testify to the grace of the man who raised me. I wanted to share the story of his growing up on a Montana ranch, of being the son who wasn’t mechanical, who was a disappointment to his Finnish father. I wanted to tell those assembled that the professor who’d trained their voices, the choral director who’d introduced them to chamber music, the bell ringer who’d stood next to them Sunday mornings, the man who once covered the Idaho panhandle explaining the nuances of Placido Domingo’s and José Carreras’s voices to his daughter, had spent his teenage years driving a tractor in circles while raising his face to the sky and singing to the clouds.
Instead, wobbly, I huddled in the pew, tucked between my siblings and my husband as he cradled our sleeping son to his shoulder. In the back of the church, from the remove of the “cry room,” my mom watched our three-year-old while listening to the service through a speaker. The grand-daughter desperately needed the bathroom but was scared to ask. The grand-mother, blowing her new nose, completely distraught, never noticed the little girl’s need.
My mom’s sadness that day wasn’t about her ex-husband’s death. Rather, she had been ripped to the core when, eager fingers riffling through the pages of the newspaper, looking for the obituary, she discovered she had never existed. While my dad’s obituary listed his children and grand-children as survivors, his wife of forty years was never mentioned.
I wrote the obituary.
At my side during the writing were my brother and sister. Embittered, my sister insisted there be no mention of our mother’s name in the accounting of Dad’s life. When I objected, my brother stepped in. Nodding his head at our sister, he cast the deciding vote: “She took care of Dad at the end. You and I weren’t there. She earned the right to decide this.” Acquiescing, I put my finger on the backspace key.
The exclusion launched my mom into paroxysms of grief. After the service, we moved to the basement to restore ourselves with cheese and deli meat. While I was chatting with an old friend, my husband tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “I want to make sure you know this so that you’re not blind-sided: your mom is grabbing every person she can and crying to them about being left out of the obituary. Basically, she’s hijacking your dad’s memorial.”
It was fitting. The day was taken over by my mom’s story, only this time my dad wasn’t sitting next to her, silently holding the wheel.
Later that night, I sat on the closed lid of a toilet in the only quiet room I could find and talked with her on the phone. My breasts were heavy with milk, and my big baby was hungry, but first: Mom. She wanted to invite us kids—except my sister, who refused—to her apartment for dinner the next night. She wanted to talk to us. Feeling the prickles of milk letting down, I started to ask what time when, suddenly, a third voice joined us on the line. It was one of my mom’s best friends, and she was enraged.
Breaking into our conversation, she screamed. “How dare you leave your mom out of the obituary? How dare you kids be so hateful after all she’s done for you? How can none of you have any feeling for her and all she’s been through? How can you be so awful? How dare you, especially—”
Leveled by the vitriol, decimated by my mother’s silence, I shriveled. Her voice spiraled higher. The telephone was slippery with tears and mucous from my nose, and I slid to the fuzzy rug in front of the toilet. Croaking, I managed, “Mom, I can’t take this. Judy, you’re being inappropriate. This is not your issue. I’m hanging up now.”
Ugly sobs bounced off the floor tiles. Stranded on an island of cheap rug, I gulped and gulped, one hand pressed against the inflamed incision that strained against dissolving stitches. Hearing me, my husband eased in and helped me stand. My milk wet both our shirts.
The next night, my brother and I took our families to Mom’s apartment, tiny rooms stuffed with antiques, knickknacks, and gilded mirrors—the backdrop to my childhood memories. Strangely, the tone was light, with her giving us a “tour” of the place, filling the air with the logistics of why she put the china closet along that wall and a report of selling the Victorian living room set.
After admiring how neatly the claw-foot table fit in the corner, we sat down. A bowl of soup perched on my knee, I juggled sipping, tapping the baby’s back, and helping my daughter climb up and down as she and her cousin occupied themselves in the tight space. My brother and I explained why we had honored our sister’s decision about the obituary’s contents. My mom concentrated her argument on the historical ramifications for future genealogists. We lurched our way to détente. Then, very officially, Mom pulled out a yellow legal pad and announced, “I sat up last night and made a list of questions I’d like you to answer for me.”
There were twenty-five of them.
“My first question is this: ‘Was I a good mother?’”
The question was loaded with reproach. Before I could muster an answer, I had to tamp down exasperation. She turned somersaults in the hallway with us when we were little. She scored Little League games; she drove us to lessons, taught us to love books, helped us pursue any interest. She always gave us love. Yes, she had been a good mother.
Yet I was fed up, craving a mother who was less needy. More specifically, I craved a mother who found places to deposit her need that weren’t on top of a feverish daughter grieving the loss of her father.
Stewing, I tried to formulate an answer that would be honest yet unobjectionable, but then my brother stepped in. Gesturing to his five-year-old—at that moment cautiously peering under the skirt of a Martha Washington bell bought at Mount Vernon in 1976—he simply said, “She’s here, isn’t she? If you hadn’t been a good mother, she wouldn’t be here.”
During the months of my father’s final decline, my mother had found a repository for some of her need: her new relationship deepened, and she started spending time in California with her “friend.” Eventually, Mom held a massive garage sale, stored her remaining possessions, and moved to California.
Over time, we learned more about my mother’s new boyfriend. Whereas my father had been a vocal professor and opera singer, her new friend, Dan, was a truck driver. There were also differences in personality—which became apparent when we met Dan.
A year after I’d received my mother’s first shocking letter in the mail, Mom and Dan decided to attend a high school reunion in Minnesota, where we lived. It had been a rocky year for us all. Not only had my dad died, but my sister had cut off all communication with our mother. Thus, it felt important to affirm loyalty, despite the fissures. I wanted them to come to our home, where we could meet her beau and take a step forward.
Before their visit, I asked what kinds of things Dan liked to eat and if he had any food issues. The response was, “Dan says you should make a roast and potatoes. And he likes bread.”
We were to put away the recipe books and follow orders.
On the evening of the meeting, a roast slow-cooked in the crock pot as Dan, three-hundred pounds punctuated by muttonchops, shook our hands vigorously. He was chatty, a dramatic contrast to my dad. He was jokey though not funny, again a departure. He complimented my mom, loudly, which my dad had rarely done.
And within five minutes, profoundly unlike my dad, he had worked the words Spics and poofs into casual conversation.
Stunned by the easily expressed bigotry, I was speechless. Then, as the words sank in, I experienced an all-over body flush. My brain knocked against my skull: “No, no, no. He can’t… No. no. no. This is—what is this? I have to say something.”
I remained silent. In the tangled web of that previous year, with everyone barely hanging on to anyone else, with so many hurt feelings, this evening of acknowledging my mom’s hard-wrought choices was pivotal. I couldn’t see how to walk the line between protecting my principles and keeping my mother.
Instead, I snapped the baby into his high chair, dodging the plastic spoon he waved wildly around my head. As my husband and I exchanged panic-stricken glances, I worked at taming my reaction to Dan—before becoming distracted by the spectacle unfolding at the table. Not only was Dan homophobic and racist, he was graceless. While chomping his roast and potatoes, he also gulped down most of the mandatory bread. Rather than asking that the board of bread be passed down to him from the far end of the table, he stood from his chair each time he wanted more, meat knife in hand, reached down the three feet of the table, across everyone’s plates, and speared a new piece.
Small talk and hope for a harmonious familial transition evaporated somewhere between the word Spic and the seventh slice of bread floating across the dinner table. Awestruck, I spooned rice cereal into my son’s mouth. We floundered through the evening, me with a nugget of sadness in my gut. In the past, I had sometimes been puzzled by my mother, but this was a new feeling.
When I was young, one of our babysitters was a 6’ 7” black man named Arthur. In 1970s Montana, a 6’ 7” black man was more than unusual, and he certainly wasn’t greeted with acceptance. Without thought, my parents embraced him. They loved Arthur. We kids loved Arthur. Outside of admiring the reach of his Afro, all we cared about was that he came into the house with a huge smile and the energy to help us plan mischief.
Yet Dan would have had a word for Arthur.
I later asked my mom what she was doing with someone like Dan–pointing out that offensive language had never been tolerated in my childhood home. “Oh, I just shut my ears when he starts in. I don’t want conflict, so I don’t listen.”
There hadn’t been conflict in her marriage with my dad, either. There hadn’t been conflict during the gloaming when I burrowed into my car fort and absorbed my mother’s version of the world as it drifted down the dashboard. In that moment, twenty-five years later, I unwove my legs from hers and rolled away to face the engine, fetal, my vision locked on a hanging wire.
Once I got past the shock of the man my mom had chosen, I pressed her to explain what she saw in Dan. Smiling coyly, she explained, “He’s a good kisser.”
Now that was lonely.
His kisses worked magic: they were going to get married. She wondered if I’d fly out and stand up with her as witness. Uncertain, I considered her request. We were tight for money, and my innards were tight with irritation, recrimination.
Trembling on the taut wire strung between love and anger, I inhaled, exhaled, and tipped to love. Of course I would be her witness.
Shortly before the wedding, too late for me to get a refund on the plane ticket, my mom called it off. Dan not only kissed, he ranted. After extended harangues–she didn’t order right at a restaurant one time, and she didn’t put a stamp correctly on an envelope another time–Mom realized her stomach hurt in this relationship. Then there was his habit of borrowing money, not so much requesting but, rather, telling her how much he needed. She also discovered he kept side relationships with other women brewing. She called off the wedding.
In lieu of a ceremony, she moved in with him. Rants continued. Money “lending” continued.
After more than a year, she moved out and rented her own apartment, a haven from his temper. They continued to date until one night, after they’d attended a bagpipe concert, Dan had a heart attack outside of his house, fell, and hit his head; as my mom dialed 911, he bled from the ears, his lips turned blue, and he died.
A few weeks later, another guy my mom went to high school with called. They dated for a bit. The report was that he didn’t rant.
I didn’t ask what kind of kisser he was.
After him, there was another—“crazy”—and another—“weird”—and so it went. Then, one day, she called to announce she’d rewritten her will. Because she and my sister remained estranged, Mom had decided to cut all three children out of her estate and leave everything to her grandchildren.
I understood her logic, but oh damn was I tired of being understanding. We hung up, the connection severed.
From then on, stunned, bruised anew, exhausted, I listened distantly to my mother’s accounts of each new man. “The itching from his eczema’s so bad that he takes boiling hot showers. He looks like a lobster.” “He was a big-time professor. He has his own website. When I’m talking, he falls asleep in the middle of my sentences.” “He spent over $80 on the buffet!”
Ultimately, my dad didn’t get his happy ending, but my mom continued to work on hers, dating a handful of men in a handful of years, until at last she met an appealing groom. She is 79 and in good health; he is 91, memory slipping. Not natural as a caretaker, she spends her days arranging a mask of deliberate affection over a thrum of annoyance. He can’t remember where the waste basket is. He got lost for hours one day until the police found him on a bench outside Target. She has a desire to travel, but his limitations keep them within a few miles of home. They watch Jeopardy together, and even though she flinches at the volume his ears require, she enjoys that shared half hour. He sets the thermostat too high for her comfort; in response, she wears a swimsuit. She quilts, cross-stitches, reads, attends club meetings, does aqua aerobics, meets with a trainer at the gym. Nearing 80 years old, she has discovered that she can do push-ups. He is fading while she finds ways to blossom.
All her life, my mother longed to be part of a Love Story. When she was young, she pursued the wrong guy. When she was older, she became a serial dater, unable to rest until she found someone to declare she made his heart go tha-thump.
Now, in a hot, loud house, she sorts through boxes of fabric—quickly, for mess bothers her husband. Many days, they share an In-N-Out Burger. He can’t remember his grandkids’ names. She beads bracelets. They laugh at wordplay.
He stays in his pajamas much of the day.
She reads late into the night.
On her bed, the center of a pool of light, she leans back, rubs her eyes, adjusts her legs. She flips the page.
At the end of it all, in the silence, she is alone.
Jocelyn Pihlaja has been teaching English at the college level since 1991. She has a husband who cooks dinner every night, kids who hold up hands requesting “Silence!” when their reading is interrupted, and a blog, O Mighty Crisis. Her writing has appeared on Mamalode, BLUNTmoms, The Indie Chicks, The Good Men Project, Mamapedia, In the Powder Room, elephant journal, The Mid, and Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. She also is a regular contributor to a local public radio program, Women's Words, where she delights in wearing huge headphones--and not just because they remind her she remembered to wear earrings that day.
Q: What inspired this essay?
A: I’ve always been drawn to accounts of families and their dynamics, but for most of my life, it never occurred to me that my own family had a story, which is a very peculiar disconnect. Then, when I was in my mid-thirties, my nuclear family underwent some seismic shifts. In the years since then, I’ve tried to sift through those events and riddle out their nuances; eventually, I realized I needed to cast it as a story before I could figure out its edges. Writing clarifies thinking. I needed clearer thinking. So I wrote.
Q: What writers or books do you consider influences?
A: Whenever my writing well starts coughing up dust, all I have to do is bend my head over fantastic books, and the well echoes with burbles. For me, the prose of Wallace Stegner stands out as lyrical, thoughtful, and masterful. I also am a huge fan of Elena Ferrante; as an author, she is fierce. In terms of specific books, I would note that the writing in John Williams’ Stoner struck me as simultaneously spare and rich--and that I recently finished, mouth agape, Alexandra Fuller’s Leaving Before the Rains Come. Fuller is honest, raw, unflinching, and full of humor when others would opt for pain. Just as wonderful is the tautness of her writing on the sentence level. There is not a single throwaway word in that book, not a single lazy clause.
Q: What’s the most important writing advice you’ve received? Is it reflected in this essay?
A: “Tighten, tighten, tighten.” As far as tightening goes, this essay is—ahem—somewhere on the continuum between my love of an 80-word sentence and my developing awareness that fewer words can be more powerful. Complicating things further: this is the longest piece I’ve ever written, which added the challenge of structural “tightening.” All in all, I’d have to say: no, this piece is not tight. However, in writing it, I learned a whole lot about getting there.
Q: Where do you write?
A: All of my ideas come when I’m running or moving my body. Were it not for my legs and my love of a good sweat, I’d have nothing. But when I get outside in the elements, all the rest of life falls away, and my brain realizes what it’s thinking. Thoughts pipping, I return home, plop down at the computer, and launch into the fraught process of typing seven words, hitting the backspace key, tapping out four words, reading them out loud, adding in five more, hitting delete, scrolling down and recording a few random notes for later in the piece, and then staring, again, at the whiteness of the page.
Third Place: Nonfiction
They Will Feed the Rest of the Village with Our Leftovers
by Vanessa Nirode
followed by q&a
Five of us walk in the mountains outside Al Haouz, Morocco. Only one of us, Mohammed, knows the way. Mohammed is also the only one of us who is Moroccan. He wears dark pants, a blue and white checked shirt, baseball cap, and one of the most boyish, infectious smiles I’ve ever encountered.
Moroccan mountain trails do not seem to be marked in any way; in fact, I’m not sure you can even really call them trails. There is a huge expanse of dirt, small sturdy shrubs, and an occasional tree growing at a crazy angle. We come upon a deep crack in the earth as the ground starts a downward slope. Mohammed turns back to us with his eyes sparkling. “Do you know how to walk down this gorge?” he asks. He doesn’t’t wait for an answer but takes off running and jumping from side to side, like a mountain goat, his feet barely touching the side before they take off again. We look at each other, shrug, and follow, one by one.
Dominic goes first, which isn’t surprising. He is the type of guy who tends to be first in everything. He is tall, handsome, muscular, cocky, and Canadian. His shoulder length hair is pulled back in a ponytail and he moves with the ease and grace of a giant cat. He successfully traverses the gorge without any mishap. Aurelein, who is French, goes next. He is a quiet, thoughtful, meticulous man and manages the descent with only a few slips. I go next because I want to get it over with—and I figure one of the guys will be able to catch me if I start tumbling down the mountain. My foot slips once deep into the crevice but I am able to extract it myself and continue on.
Kit is the last to come down. He doesn’t really hop or run; instead, he carefully jumps from side to side, pausing each time long enough that I feel for sure he is going to lose his balance and fall. But he doesn’t. Kit, in his sixties, is the oldest. He is kind, soft spoken, and knowledgeable about a lot. His wife insists that he go off on his own for a few weeks every year because she knows he loves and needs it. He is as tall as Dominic, has salt and pepper hair and a beard.
We are on our way to a remote Berber village in the mountains for lunch. I am beyond excited with our lunch spot choice. Ever since arriving in Morocco four days ago, I have been continuously fascinated and just a little uncomfortable. Not uncomfortable in an overwhelming way, though, just uncomfortable in the way that maybe there is a small pebble in my shoe or sock that I can feel with each step but it isn’t bothersome enough to take off my shoe and extract it. The uncomfortable feeling is subsiding with time and I as meet more people.
“Look,” Mohammed says, pointing to the new sparkling electrical lines snaking up the mountainside, striking since they are the tallest things sprouting from the mountain. They are so shiny that they sparkle in the sun.
“Our King is bringing electricity to every part of Morocco,” Mohammed says proudly, “every village on every mountain. It’s quite extraordinary.”
All I can think is how rapidly everything was about to change for all of these villages. Television and Internet couldn’t be far behind the electricity, and once that happens whole new worlds were suddenly going to come crashing into the lives of the Berber.
“Our King is really good,” Mohammed, continues, “Everyone loves him. And he loves us. He is trying to make Morocco better.”
Everywhere you look, there are brand new wide roads being built. In Marrakech, outside the Medina, you can’t turn a corner without running into a construction crew working on a piece of crumbling sidewalk or boulevard. The new roads being built between the villages and cities have only one dividing line, right through the center. To each side of the centerline, a fascinating chaos ensues as jeeps, cars, donkeys, motorcycles, and bicycles all jockey for position. There are no ‘lanes’ and drivers seem intent on going as fast as possible, running right up to the back bumper of a vehicle before suddenly screeching around it. Miraculously, few accidents seem to happen.
We pick our way around the shrubs. "Were you born around here?” Kit asks Mohammed. Kit has picked up a walking stick along the way and falls in beside Mohammed and right in front of me. I am happy to listen to their conversation. Kit speaks with a soft, measured thoughtfulness that reminds me of my grandfather. Mohammed has an open, unguarded, matter of fact way of talking about Morocco and himself and his family that makes me feel as if I can ask him anything.
“Yes, near here,” answers Mohammed. “Over that way.” He gestures to his left toward another sweeping mountain range. “In Imi-n-Tenoute. It is a small village. We didn’t have electricity for a long time but now we do. I made sure my children went to school. My son is going to be a doctor and is leaving soon for Europe to study. I am very proud.”
“How old are your children?” Kit asks.
“My son is twenty. And my daughter is eighteen. She is getting married soon. We are very happy. I work very hard for my children. And they work hard. My son always wanted to go to Europe, that’s all he ever wanted, and now he gets to go and be a doctor. It is kind of a miracle.”
“What kind of doctor does he want to be?”
“A surgeon. He wants to be a trauma surgeon. He wants to save people, stop their pain, pull them back from the brink of death.” Mohammed answers with pride.
We could all use someone to pull us back from the brink of death, I think. I have come to Morocco to save myself from something resembling the brink of death, from a stagnant life in New York City where I feel trapped and suffocated. I love the city and even sometimes my life there but have been unable to shake the feeling that I am simply going through the motions of living.
“I am getting really hungry!” Dominic says.
“We’re close,” says Mohammed, “very close to the village." We now follow an actual path that is obviously leading somewhere. As we round a bend, we come upon a woman resting on a large boulder. At first I think she is part shrub. She greets us with a smile and some words.
“What did she say?” I ask. I know Dominic speaks some Arabic, and of course, Mohammed does but they both shrug.
“We don’t speak Berber, “ Dominic says, “It’s only a spoken language so its very hard to learn. I have no idea. Maybe Mohammed…”
But Mohammed is shaking his head. “I know a very little Berber but I’m not sure what she said.”
As we near the village, we pass more people and Mohammed greets them all. The village is made up of buildings and steps the color of clay. We walk along a trench that is muddy in the middle. Mohammed tells us that when it rains it fills with water that flows down the mountainside. There are mounds of plastic bottles and bags every few feet along the trench. Morocco (like many countries) is still working out a way to deal with their staggering amount of plastic waste.
We follow steps around and behind a group of buildings. Mohammed suddenly opens a non-descript door and enters. He motions for us to follow, and we go into a long narrow room with benches built into the sides. There is a big table in the middle set with glasses, plates, forks, and bread. We slide in behind the table, settling into the cushions that adorn the benches.
Mohammed talks with two women who had appeared at the doorway when we arrived. They are smiling and laughing. I am seated next to Kit and across from Dominic and Aurelein. The table could accommodate a much larger number of people but I like our intimate group. We all grab a piece of bread and wait for the rest of the food. One of the women arrives with a pitcher of water and pours us each some. Mohammed comes back with tea and serves each of us a cup.
“So,” He says as he pours, “An old friend of mine, Malak, is here, and she’s going to come talk with us while we eat. She is involved in the government in Morocco and is an advocate for women’s rights in the countryside. She is part of the movement that is implementing schools in all the villages and encouraging families to send their girls as well as their boys. You can ask her anything you want. She’ll be here soon.”
I am very interested to hear what Malak will have to say. Gender equality and women’s rights are issues in every country. Here, in Morocco, women want to go to school and be able to own property. I home in again, suddenly, on the fact that I am the only female in our group and that Malak will be addressing a roomful, albeit a relatively small one, of men…and me. I wonder if any of the women who are cooking will join us.
The two women who had been chatting with Mohammed bring in heaping pans of meat and vegetables and set them before us. I am struck by the amount of food and say as much to Mohammed. “Oh, don’t worry,” he says, “When we are done, they will feed the rest of the village with our leftovers.” He goes back to busily dishing out large helpings of meat and joking with Aurelein about the French.
“They will feed the rest of the village with our leftovers.” I turn it over and over in my head until it becomes a chant. There are a myriad of things about it that make me uncomfortable, that seem wrong somehow, but though I suspect had I been at ‘home’ they would be clear, here they are cloudy. Cloudy because, from what I had experienced so far in Morocco, I know that the sentiment of serving visitors, especially those deemed 'important,' first is partially born in the inherent generosity and hospitality of the people here. Guests tended to be treated well in Morocco, especially guests that were invited into your home or remote mountain village.
I can’t shake the feeling of being served first because I am part of some ‘elite’ class. And the villagers eating our leftovers reminds me of how the servants in royal or wealthy households eat the unfinished food of the people they work for. I wish we could all eat together; the whole village, men, women, and children.
A woman wearing pants, a purple and red tunic, and hijab enters the room as we are all reaching for seconds. Kit is asking Mohammed about his daughter and the man she is to marry.
“Is it for love?’ he asks, “Or did you arrange it?”
“No, no, love.” answers Mohammed, “My family marries for love. We find it to be much better.”
I watch a smile spread across the face of the woman in the doorway. “Hello,” she says, ‘I’m…”
“Malak!” Mohammed exclaims as he rises quickly from his seat, “Come, have a seat. Eat. Are you thirsty?”
Malak moves gracefully to the table and arranges herself on the bench next to Dominic and across from me. Her eyes are deep pools of blue the color of the Adriatic Sea. Her hair is completely hidden by the hijab but her eyebrows are dark as midnight and I imagine her hair to be the same color. She wears many rings and bracelets that create a soft shimmering sound every time her hands move. She starts talking about how there are more and more women in professional positions in Morocco and how important education is. Aurelein asks if the younger generations are becoming less religious and more rebellious toward the typical Moroccan traditions.
“Yes,” Malak says. “Sometimes I don’t even understand them, the youngsters. I will tell you something, sometimes I feel like a fossil. I can’t keep up with them. There are so many changes. I think the younger generations are becoming less religious but I hope that they are still taught to respect all peoples. I had a religious education and that was what I was taught: always to respect others. Sometimes you talk to people about religion and they are…how do you say? Fanatics, they only see one way. And I always say ‘Look, see, listen. Look. A bag has two handles. You can’t carry a bag with one handle.’”
“Are there more professional women now?” Dominic asks.
“Professional? Depends on what you mean by professional. My mother worked. Always outside the home. And my Grandmother, she was a chef. But, yes, more and more girls are getting educated. The government pays the families to send their girls to school, to encourage it. Sometimes, though, people are afraid to send their girls to school because they are so far away. They are afraid of sexual harassment for their girls. They want to keep them home and safe. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
We nod. Yes, we understand, we do. We are all silent for a few minutes, chewing our food and drinking our tea. Mohammed pours Malak a cup of tea. She takes a sip,
“You know, here, if you wear something that is a generous color, or a generous sleeve, or if you don’t wear the hijab, people say it is your fault, you are the instigator. You are never considered the victim. I didn’t used to wear the hijab but then I found that when I did wear it, I got more respect from the men. And so I do because it’s easier. More people listen to me.”
Her words are so matter of fact that she doesn’t seem upset at all that wearing a hijab would warrant more respect. I suppose it isn’t in any way surprising and not dissimilar from how dressing in a conservative suit causes people in a work environment to pay more attention to you. This all makes me a little sad and I stare a little too intently at my cup of tea. Malak and Kit are involved now in a conversation about the importance of family and the taking care of the elderly. Malak does not understand nursing homes at all. She says that people, especially older people, need the love of family. “If there is an old person who doesn’t have any family, then it is up to their neighbor to take care of them. In Morocco, community is very important. Do you understand what I’m saying? We are taught to help the needy. It is part of our religion, giving alms on a daily basis. Our society is like a big family. We Moroccans pride ourselves on our plurality. Morocco is a place where you can come and be yourself. The Arab countries, they would ask, ‘Who are you for? Are you with us?’ What? Morocco is for everybody. We are like a rainbow. Do you know what I mean?”
I love this description of Morocco. I love the way Malak’s eyes sparkle when she talks. I think I may be a little bit in love with her and her optimism, her hope, her belief in her country. I wish I still had hope and belief like that, if I ever did.
Dominic has started up a tangent about Islam and terrorism and asks Malak if there is terrorism here, in Morocco.
“What?” she says, “Terrorism has no national identity. Terrorism can be from anywhere. Anywhere. We cannot live in a cocoon.”
I think about her words. So many people do live in a cocoon that they are afraid to venture from. They close themselves up out of fear and misunderstanding. They stop listening to the dreams their souls are dreaming. They become numb. That is my biggest fear: to become numb and stay that way, to submit to a life of a nameless cog in a corporate wheel.
“The king. What about the king?” asks Kit, “Can you criticize him?”
“No. Not at all. Never.” Malak says.
“Is it true he has many wives?” Aurelein asks.
Malak laughs, “No, no. He has only one legal wife. Believe me when I say that but…and I will tell you something honestly…who knows how many mistresses he has. He is a very rich man and I will tell you something else. A mistress costs more than a legal wife.”
We all laugh. I realize what a privilege it is to be sitting here at this table in the mountains of Morocco talking about kings and family and community with this diverse group of people. Dominic tells some joke about women and money and everyone laughs again. The laughter is the best music I’ve heard in a long time. My eyes move from face to face and I feel a camaraderie I haven’t felt in ages. I notice that I am happy and engaged and full of all sorts of feelings and decidedly not numb.
Kit puts a fatherly hand on my shoulder and asks if I want some more of the bread. I do want some more. Despite our best efforts, there is still a great deal of food left. One of the women who served us earlier pokes her head in through the door to see if we need anything. We don’t. We have everything we need. I motion for her to come and sit beside me. She hesitates for a few seconds, then comes to the table, a small trail of children behind her. Everyone automatically scoots down on the benches to make room. Dominic passes the meat to his right.
“Yes, yes,” I say, “I would most definitely like some more bread.”
Vanessa Nirode is a solo traveler, cyclist, runner, writer, and pattern maker based in New York City. Like Anne Frank, she thinks that most people are good at heart. She believes that the cure for anything is salt water: tears, sweat, or the sea. She loves all the mountains.
Q: What inspired this essay?
A: The events described in the essay happened to me on my trip to Morocco last year.
Q: What writers or books do you consider influences?
A: Dr. Suess. And Murakami
Q: What’s the most important writing advice you’ve received? Is it reflected in this essay?
A: Write what you know.
Q: Where do you write?
A: I write pretty much anywhere…kitchen table, on the subway, in hotels, on the beach, wherever.