This year, The Ovitt Family Library in Ontario, California asked The East Jasmine Review to collaborate on a National Poetry Month project to feature work done by poets in the geographical area adjacent to the library. With this in mind, East Jasmine Review chose poets with ties to Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley, The Inland Empire, and Palm Desert. On the heels of Women’s History Month, we also decided to feature women poets with strong times to community organizing and grassroots activism. The library asked us to select poems along the theme of “Lost & Found,” which gave us room to include transnational work, disability justice work, and work around self-discovery. We hope you enjoy the poems we have selected in partnership with the library. We’d also like to thank our favorite librarian Lauren Candia Salerno for reaching out to us for this special project. Read the poems below the cut.
by Melinda Smoot
He wasn’t a bad teacher or anything, just spacey. My dad even hinted that he was spacey when he came home from back to school night. My dad, the math guy, said my geometry teacher, Mr. Alvarez, was spacey. Actually, I think my dad really said Mr. Alvarez reminded him of an aerospace guy, whatever that meant. I suppose that’s about as much of a mean comment my dad could muster up when it came to a teacher. Mean words certainly weren’t going to come out of my mom’s mouth unless the teacher was coming at me with a knife or something.
Mr. Alvarez definitely wasn’t going to come at anyone with anything, much less a knife. He was shorter than most of the students, and you could tell he had spent a large portion of his life hunched behind a computer because his head was poised on a neck that was cricked slightly forward. He was bald on top, but the hair he did have around the base of his head was thin curly and kept the back of his glasses warm. My friend Hillary said he looked like a seventy five year old version of Squints from the movie Sandlot. When he opened his mouth, he was nowhere near as cool as him.
“Good afternoon, mathematicians,” Mr. Alvarez had said the first day. His voice sounded like a vacuum that was set on the wrong setting.
“Mathematicians,” Bruno muttered from behind me. The brim of his baseball cap bopped the top of my ear, “he does know we’re only here because we have to be, right?”
While other teachers simply handed out syllabi and read from it verbatim to get everyone accustomed to their rules, Mr. Alvarez began the class with no syllabus and a dot to dot illustration of the ranks and files of “Seventy Six Trombones”. He then spent the remaining hour attempting to show us how to prove the maximum quantity of trombonists allowed on turn of the century streets would be only about five in rank, which made the files enormously long and what a parade that would be!
It didn’t take long for other students to start doing their own thing while Mr. Alvarez rambled. We hadn’t even thought about solving equations for three months, and suddenly the geometry teacher was ready for us to go straight into complex proofs. Bruno was playing his own dot to dot game between his right and left hand—where you make squares out of dot to dots. His right hand was winning.
Being raised by southern parents, my background was to smile and nod. Unless something was explicitly wrong, you just treated people with common decency as a citizen of the human race. Mr. Alvarez was a part of the human race, at least in some small fraction of his DNA, I hoped. Bless his heart.
We went home that night with homework of “prove your room is or isn’t a perfect square”, but we hadn’t even checked out geometry book, or any math book for that matter. I stayed up until eleven that night staring at my notebook paper that said Geometry, fifth period, Mr. Alvarez at the top before my dad told me I best get to bed—No good math happened after eleven. I simply wrote the sentence on my paper saying “My room isn’t a square because it’s passed eleven and my bed is a rectangle.”
The next day, my Geometry class had been cut in half. Hillary was gone. Bruno had enough space in front of his desk that he could stretch his legs out and nap while Mr. Alvarez talked. Mr. Alvarez did seem to notice the lack of attendance, but in his words, we were the ones who would be working for NASA someday, and all who missed were simply losing out. That hour was spent attempting to show us how isosceles triangles factored into a cue ball’s movement in Billiards. He didn’t even collect the homework, which all but infuriated me.
~ ~ ~
“Does he not realize I was up all night doing his homework?” I snapped at Bruno on the way home. I had crumpled the paper I had stared at the late hours of the night into a ball and tossed it towards a trashcan. It missed. I kicked the paper up towards the trash again, and when it missed a second time, I kicked the trashcan itself.
Bruno had more colorful choices of words for what he thought of Mr. Alvarez, ones that I can’t repeat for the sake of my soul. “I’m not going to class tomorrow,” he said as we stopped at the nearby 7-11.
“You’re ditching?” I asked while he grabbed some Big League chew and a Sprite.
“No, I’m going to get my mom to get me out of there,” he said. After handing the cashier a few dollars, he took his stuff, and we left. He shoved a finger full of Big League chew and blew a large bubble. It popped before he continued, “I’ve not learned anything there. Simple as that.”
For a small moment, I wished that I had Bruno’s parents, but I knew, eventually, it would have to get to that point if I complained to mine enough.
~ ~ ~
The following day, Bruno was gone and class attendance was a total of six. Mr. Alvarez’s eyes were dark. His face was gray. His voice was deep. He looked straight in my eyes and asked, “Why do you suppose the class has gotten so small?”
I bit my lip. I wanted to say because although it was clear he knew his geometry principles, it was also clear that he lacked a certain something when it came to teaching high school students. I never really got a chance to speak though, because one of the few remaining students spoke for me.
“Because we haven’t learned anything,” she said. Her fake eyelashes seemed to sassy clap together as she spoke.
Mr. Alvarez’s eyes narrowed. He grumbled that we should pick up our math books.
“We don’t have any,” I said.
“Then listen and listen good. That’s how us older and wiser ones did it,” he said. He uncapped his dry erase marker and drew a circle. This was going to be his moment, I knew it. He outlined the circle with his dry erase marker again.
“Say you have a round patch of land,” he began.
“You mean a cir—” I started, but Mr. Alvarez interrupted.
“No! We don’t know it’s a circle!” He pointed his Expo marker at me as though it were a ruler poised at the ready to slap me between the eyes.
“It looks like one based on your drawing,” another student said.
Mr. Alvarez stood and walked around the empty desks. He hid his dry erase marker behind his back and explained, “I know my drawing looks like a circle, but geometry is about proof with support of mathematic principles. We have to prove this is a circle. How would we go about doing that?” he asked.
The class was silent. It wasn’t because we didn’t want to participate, but because we had absolutely no idea how to go about proving this drawing was—indeed—an actual circle. We certainly didn’t have geometry books we could cross reference yet either.
Mr. Alvarez could tell we were struggling. He moved toward the white board and drew a line from one edge of the circle out to the top right corner. “Okay, let’s change things a little bit here, shall we?”
I rubbed my eyes and yawned. When my yawn was gone, I saw two lines drawn out to a point in the top right corner of the whiteboard, although the second line was from almost the opposite side of what might have been the circle, should we have the knowledge to prove it. “Say you and your family are prepping claim for your homestead out west. This circular plot looks nice and wonderful, doesn’t it?”
“Sure,” I said.
He drew two covered wagons at the point where the two lines crossed, “But your rival, Sparky Mcgee is eying that land from his camp also. You gotta get there before him.” Mr. Alvarez told a lovely story about how your rival was only a thousand miles away, and you had to make a trip of about fifteen hundred miles with a young child who was dying of dysentery and a broken wheel that needed repair. It was as if he were transporting us back to the good old days of playing Oregon Trail on the Apple 2E in kindergarten. His eyes seemed to light up while going on about how life was so complicated back then, and we had a much longer trek to make just based on the data alone. He was quoting theorems that we hadn’t learned yet, but soon would learn in his own words. It was easily the most animated moment I had ever seen come from a math teacher. For a moment, even I wanted to believe that this would be a moment when he showed just how wonderful math was.
Then there was a sudden pause, and his face dropped. Three other students were busy passing notes, but I could see a small sparkle in the corner of his eye. A small freshman student in the front row broke the inevitable silence.
“Mr. Alvarez,” she asked.
Mr. Alvarez held up an empty palm in reply, effectively silencing the student of any potential for criticism, though judging from the thickness of this freshman’s glasses, I’d be surprised if there was any kind of utterance similar to that.
“I’m very sorry, mathematicians,” Mr. Alvarez said. His voice was slightly higher than usual. He turned to the drawing on the whiteboard and wiped at his eye. Condensation was beginning to form on his glasses. He threw the Expo marker onto the tray by the eraser and said, “there is no such circle like this.”
The entire class was hushed. Even the students who were passing notes back and forth seemed to stop.
Mr. Alvarez picked up the eraser and lifted it toward the circle that he had proven wasn’t a circle after all. The eraser shook as he made contact with the whiteboard. It would have only taken a few seconds to wipe the whiteboard clean and have his mistake behind us, but he seemed to choose to keep the shape on there. Perhaps it was the fact that he had, at long last, received our undivided attention at the most inconvenient time—everyone knew he had messed up.
“We all make mistakes,” I said. I knew plenty of teachers who had written or done something wrong in front of students, but this shape seemed to completely unwind Mr. Alvarez to his very core. This circle, or not circle, had suddenly proven to him that he had chosen an incorrect path somewhere in his life—not that he had simply made a miscalculation in a moment of manic illustration.
Mr. Alvarez lowered the eraser into its cradle with his Expo marker. The shape—whatever it was—stared at all of us.
I sat there, torn. The geometry teacher who just seconds ago had excitedly belted off mathematical principles collapsed into the chair at his desk defeated. I wanted to give him a hug, but that was not the time or place to do that.
What I had seen before as a sparkle seemed to grow into a tear. It moved from his eye to the bottom rim of his glasses. Several other tears joined and pooled there until Mr. Alvarez lifted his glasses to rub his eyes. The tears then coasted down his cheek despite the fact that he tried to bite them back. The room stayed completely quiet until the bell rang and fifth period was finally over.
The six of us who remained left the room with Mr. Alvarez spewing tears onto his black loafers. I thought I heard him saying “What a waste” as we left.
~ ~ ~
By the following day, all the remaining students had all been reassigned to different geometry teachers. My new teacher, Mr. Moreno, reminded me of Fozzie Bear from The Muppets. He would clap his hands together and say “Come on guys” when we misbehaved, but he brought us back to the basics of geometry—where proofs meant “Prove triangle ABC and triangle DEF are similar”.
There was a small bit of mystery to what exactly happened to Mr. Alvarez. Bruno swore he probably drank himself to death, but I held out hope that despite him obviously not fitting into the high school environment, he was off somewhere in a covered wagon, listening to seventy six trombones marching down an extremely small street.
Melinda Smoot lives in Cypress California, where she and her husband have an ongoing war with the air conditioner temperature. In her spare time, she enjoys karate and chasing her cat and dog around the house. She holds a Bachelor of the Arts in Creative Writing, Fiction emphasis.
In All Honesty
by Kim Venkataraman
Maybe it wasn’t the accident that planted the seed, although later that’s how she’d think of it. But it wasn’t an idea that grew and developed over time. No, it was as if at the moment of impact—when metal and glass exploded—Liz understood exactly how things would unfold.
Sean’s comment, forgotten now, had them all laughing in the easy way of two couples out for dinner on a warm summer night. As their car stopped at an intersection, a red convertible pulled up next to them. Later they’d all remember admiring the car, but Liz was the only one who said she’d known—even before anything happened—that something was not quite right. The four of them were still laughing when a truck slammed into the back of the stopped convertible, pushing it forward into the intersection.
“Oh my God,” Liz said, maybe the others did too. And in that moment the evening changed, although in all honesty, it was different already. On the surface it was like many of the Saturday nights in the last few years. They’d met at Beth and Sean’s condo and had a beer on the deck while they debated where to go for dinner. Eventually they narrowed it down to either the steakhouse or the Thai place, finally leaving with a plan to decide in the car. Liz and Beth had been roommates in college, and Sean and Tom both worked at Sun Life. And while Liz and Tom had started dating first, by the time the two couples had moved into apartments near each other, there were so many ways their lives were intertwined they almost couldn’t remember who knew each other first or how they’d all become friends.
But this night was different. They hadn’t been out together for more than a month. The reason was something they all knew and yet it remained unspoken. Separately they’d talked, but as a group there seemed to be a silent agreement to pretend that everything was normal. Maybe, Liz thought as the evening began, this would be their new normal. In the last few weeks, she’d been thinking a lot about trust and how, in the end, virtually everything depends on it. We go about our lives assuming that bridges won’t crumble and that elevators will stop. We fill a glass at the sink and trust it’s safe to drink. But, yet, we know that airplanes sometimes do fall, and when we’re in our cars, sometimes the driver behind us doesn’t stop. So if it’s all about trust, what do you do when you don’t have it?
The trunk of the red convertible had been crushed, although the rest of the car looked unchanged. The silver-spoke hubcaps sparkled in the light from the streetlights; something Liz thought was odd to be noticing even as it occurred to her. As the four of them watched, the driver of the pick-up truck put it into gear and looked back over his shoulder. The truck reversed about thirty feet, its brakes screaming as it came to a stop. The whole time the man and the woman in the convertible sat stiffly in their car, staring straight ahead.
In the moments before the truck began moving again, Liz had time to consider what was happening. Maybe the truck’s brakes had failed? Maybe the driver was drunk, or maybe he was going to take off? But even before the truck began accelerating, she knew that what was happening was about love and betrayal and someone wanting to hurt someone else. For a second time the pick-up rammed into the back of the convertible. This time the truck wasn’t going as fast, but the sound was still shockingly loud, and the convertible was pushed a few feet further into the intersection. The truck looked as if it was wedged into the red car’s trunk, and for what seemed like minute after endless minute, the vehicles continued to sway from the impact.
“Oh my God,” one of them said. Maybe they all did.
When another car pulled up behind the truck at the intersection, Liz was reminded that what they were watching was real, not a scene from a movie. The pick-up truck was now blocked in, and she watched the driver, waiting for him to get out of the truck or go crazy and pull out a gun. She felt pressure in her throat, as if she was going to throw up. She glanced at the convertible’s occupants, who still sat immobile in their car, and then at the traffic light suspended above the road.
“Green…the light’s green,” she said, choking on the words.
Beth reacted next. “Sean, go! The light’s green.” She reached over to push on his leg. “Go, go. Let’s get out of here!”
And as they pulled away from the intersection, they sat in stunned silence. Liz tried to decide whether she dared to turn back to see what was happening.
“Wow…what the hell was that?” Sean said. Which is what they were all thinking, but it was also how Liz knew that their marriage wasn’t going to survive. There was only so much pretending that any of them, especially Beth, should be expected to do. Sean turned west on Route 9 as if he knew, or had decided, where they were going.
“You know, honestly, I’m not really that hungry,” Liz said.
“Mmm,” Beth responded.
Tom reached across the backseat for Liz’s hand. “Yeah, why don’t we just call it a night?”
Sean nodded silently and, at the next intersection, turned to go back home. The tension in the car grew as they rode the rest of the way in silence, each of them knowing that, in all honesty, sometimes there’s no such thing as a new normal.
Kim’s short stories have appeared in The MacGuffin, Midway Journal, Redivider and others. She recently completed a novel, “Enough”, based on her grandfather’s experience of being orphaned at the beginning of the depression.
by Brian Paul Mendoza
The letter was simple enough.
I am a fifteen-year old male who thinks he might be homosexual. I was looking through the classifieds of the Washington Blade when I saw your ad. It seemed very nice and I thought I would write to you because I have a few a questions.
It was the “fifteen-year old” part that confused me.
Could the author of this letter really be a fifteen-year old boy? I found it highly unlikely. First of all, it was the early ‘80’s. So this was before Will and Grace. Before Ellen. Before Matthew Shepard. Before My So-Called Life. Before Pedro Zamora. Before Madonna.
These are the touchstones of contemporary gay culture in America. I mean, sure there was Liza Minnelli and Studio 54. And before that, Judy Garland and the Stonewall Riots. And even before that – wait. I think I just proved that homosexuality is genetic.
No. This was 1984. And unless this kid was way ahead of his genetic make-up, my first response was the author of this letter wasn’t really born in 1969. Although quite a year for the gays it was, my figuring was that this letter stemmed from the pen of someone who liked to pretend he was born in 1969. A twistedly creative sexual deviant looking for someone to help him fulfill his role play destiny. My dirty little mind set to a wandering as I searched frantically for some stationary and a pen to respond post haste.
Hmm. Did he imagine himself a varsity football player going one-on-one with his high school coach? The wayward pupil kept after school to face his punishment in detention with the hot chemistry teacher? Perhaps he fancied himself a lone altar boy in search of the gentle guidance of a neighborhood priest. Okay. That one’s a little creepy. Especially in light of all the sexual havoc the Catholic Church has wreaked in the past twenty-five years or so. But it was the early ‘80’s.
Anatomy of a letter:
“Dear Matt,” (I figured if that’s how he signed his name, that’s how I should address the letter. As opposed to “Yo, kid!”, “Hello, sweet bird of youth” or “Oh, you who will soon be taking your SAT’s”.)
“Thanks for responding to my classified.” (I had placed a personals ad in an underground gay newspaper. This is how I figured the author was anything but fifteen. The fifteen year olds I knew were learning how to drive not seek out the advice of a lecherous older – wait. Is it considered libel or slander if I write that about myself myself? Nah. Just low self-esteem. No wonder I was placing an ad in the gay lonely hearts section).
“I think it would be great to meet you. Although I can’t read it very well, your postmark seems to indicate that we live in the same zip code.” (Practically neighbors.)
“Are you familiar with Crossroads Shopping Mall? I’m just down from there, near the dam. We could meet here, then go for dinner or grab a drink. You must have a fake id, right?” (Even if he wasn’t fifteen, I was hoping to play into his fantasy. I was kind of getting into the whole role play thing.)
“Why don’t you write me back and we can go from there?
John.” (It wasn’t my real name, but did anyone give their real name in the ‘80’s?)
I put it in the mailbox and somewhat expected never to hear from him. I mean, it was a personals ad. If he really was a sexual adventurist, surely, he must write tons of guys in the greater DC area, right? Imagine my surprise when I heard from him within the week.
Thank you for writing back to me. I’m actually in the 22044 while you’re in the 22043 but I am familiar with the area. I see you live near the lake, which is right by my old school, which means, we live pretty close to one another. I would like to meet you as well. Saturdays are best for me, but Sundays are okay, too. When would be a good time?
Nothing really stood out about this letter other than… “right by my school”!?!?
Okay. This didn’t make me nervous but, admittedly, the closest school to me was a middle school. You know, the school between elementary and high school? But something told me this was not the work of a fifteen year old. This guy, this Matty Meehan, had to mean the community college. Although nowhere near where I lived, this is the justification I fooled myself into believing. I mean, what if he was fifteen years old? But, no, that’s crazy. A fifteen year old responding to an anonymous personals ad? In the ‘80’s? That just didn’t happen.
So I wrote him back and we decided on a Saturday afternoon. This is where the story takes an unexpected turn into the realm of surrealism, so bear with me as try to parlay the afternoon’s events into something less than traumatic.
He really was fifteen.
I quickly closed the door on him because, well…he really was fifteen! And I was wearing a pair of flimsy nylon jogging shorts, and nothing else, mind you, made popular by Bruce Jenner when he gold medaled at the 1976 Olympics and graced the box of America’s breakfast of champions… Wheaties. I’m dating myself. Intentionally. For I need you to grasp how shocked I was that he was actually fifteen and I was, well… old enough that my gay fashion sense was inspired by the 1976 Olympics. In other words, I was born way before 1969. But this kid was determined. He was now ringing the doorbell. Incessantly. I couldn’t just turn him away. Not on a Saturday afternoon no matter what I was wearing. I had to invite him in.
“Do you want to come in?”
“Uh… sure. Should I tell my mom how long I’m going be first? She’s parked downstairs.”
And the clock keeps melting.
I quickly ushered him in, then volunteered to put on some clothes after offering to get him a glass of milk. I was a mess. And still am. Clearly. This is more than twenty years ago and it still makes me nervous. Finally, not quite sure what to do, I found myself staring out the sliding glass window. I could hear him kicking his feet on the base of my sofa. I had to do something.
“Do you read?”
“Well, I did write that letter.”
“Sorry. What I meant was, have you ever read anything… gay?”
“I read those gay classifieds. What does submissive pre-op trannie mean?”
“Do you want some cookies? I think I have some Mrs. Fields in the kitchen.”
“Uh. No, thanks. They might spoil my dinner.”
Spoil his dinner?! Was this kid serious? Wait — yeah. He probably was. Because that’s the kind of thing fifteen-year olds say! I suddenly realized that I was sweating. Profusely. Maybe it was the fact that I could possibly go to prison with the potential of what might happen in this room. Where the hell was this kid’s mother? Oh, that’s right. Waiting in the car. Out front!
“I have an idea. Why don’t you… finish your milk and I’ll be right back.”
I quickly made my way into the bedroom. I had to get this kid out of my apartment. And fast. Who knows what the neighbors might have seen? Now if I were fifteen and thought I was gay what the hell would I want to get my hands on besides, well… a penis? Probably reading about getting my hands on… a penis. And pictures of getting my hands, or… someone’s hands, on a penis.
There. On the nightstand. A penis. Well, not really. But there were books. About penises. Kinda’. A collection of gay short stories. A biography of Oscar Wilde. Some cheap porn. I bundled them up quickly and rushed back into the living room. Such a good boy. He’d finished his milk evidenced by the foamy substance forming on his top lip. Either that or he had rabies. Regardless, I had to get him out of my apartment because the foaminess that made up his milk moustache was most likely clinging to the peach fuzz that made him every ounce of his fifteen-year old self. This would not look good and I would not do well in prison.
I tossed the books in his general direction, grabbed the empty glass and headed straight for the kitchen. “Do you want something to uh… conceal those with? A bag or something. Matty? Matt? Matt, did you-?”
And I’ll never forget this. It’s one of those images that haunt you for the rest of your life because it was one of those images where you know you’ve changed someone’s life but you don’t know how you’ve changed their life and chances are you never will.
Sunlight streamed in from the sliding glass window. It danced on his bare legs. Get your mind out of the gutter, he was wearing shorts. But the light caught the hair on his legs as it flitted about. Yes, flitted about, like that loose mossy shit that lives on coral. Underwater coral? The kind you only learn about when you’re watching some special on the Discovery Channel? Sea Coral: The Abandoned Tenement of the Deep Blue Sea. Because, you know, everyone squats on sea coral.
Tangent aside, the kid was shaking his right leg back and forth, almost as if he were wagging something. If humans had tails to wag as opposed to asses to shake, it would have been something akin to that. He was excited. Engrossed. Energized, if you can imagine that. It was as if his whole world had suddenly become something he never imagined it ever could be. And when he looked up from the porn magazine — he hadn’t even opened it, just staring at the cover — there was so much… possibility in his eyes.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” he asked.
How do you answer a question like that? To someone on the verge of discovering who they are. To someone about to understand what it is to be a man. To someone who you’ve just given the key to a multitude of countless broken hearts and numerous gifts of inconceivable beauty. To someone who might very well expose his soul to you and rip your heart out at the same time. To someone who, god love him, didn’t even know what to do with pornography. How do you answer a question like that?
“Uh… you’ll figure it out?”
And as quickly as possibility appeared it was replaced by unmitigated terror.
“Uh. You’ll figure it out.”
And the possibility was back. Like that. Crazy that much…muchness could hinge on nothing more than the inflection of my voice.
“You should go. Here. Put those, especially this, in this non-descript, brown paper bag. It isn’t suspicious at all.”
That was funny. He didn’t laugh. He didn’t laugh despite the irony-laden humor of putting pornography into a non-descript, brown paper bag because the boy had no idea what the fuck even pornography was! I could just feel prison peering into my apartment through the peephole. This kid had to go before my guilt got the better of me and called the police. On me.
“And then you should put that in your book bag.”
“I didn’t bring my book bag.”
“Of course, you didn’t bring your book bag why would you bring your book bag when your mother is parked in the 15-minute zone or did she find something in the garage?”
“She’s in the handicap spot. I told her she shouldn’t park there on account she isn’t handicapped but that didn’t deter her none.”
Prison was literally planning a surprise party to welcome me to the cell block.
“Then whatever you do, do not open this until you can get into the privacy of your own room, can lock the door and… figure out what to do with it. And can this please, please, please stay our little secret? You can have the books. Their yours. Do what you want with them, just… do not reveal where you got these from.”
“Okay. Thanks, mister.”
“Actually, my real — you know what? Mister is just fine.”
We were at the front door and I knew I’d never see this kid again. I couldn’t have been more relieved.
“Here let me get that for you.”
I closed the door, threw the bolt, then crumpled to the floor. Dramatically. I imagined myself some fierce ‘80s actress with a severe Nagel-esque blush application doing the doorframe meltdown. You know the scene I’m talking about. It’s when Meryl or Jane or Karen Black, although nowhere nearly as celebrated as Streep or Fonda, Karen Black had her moments, gets such terribly devastating news she collapses and literally melts down leaning against the door? Yeah. That scene.
Well. The knock from the police never came. The call from his mother was never placed. And the state penitentiary will never know the gifts I had to offer. So many gifts. I suppose the statute of limitations on guilt have finally – oh, wait. No. Had they lifted, I probably wouldn’t be writing this story. But I wonder. I wonder what ever happened to little Matt Meehan.
Matty. The fifteen-year old with a penchant for milk.
Brian Paul Mendoza
Brian Paul Mendoza received an Honorable Mention in a National Contest for an original radio play written for Children’s Radio Theatre produced on NPR — he was in the 7th grade. After a slight detour into the world of musical theatre performance, Brian Paul wrote his first stage play, *change at Babylon, produced by and starring Chad Allen (CBS’ “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman”).
His collection of short fiction, The Gay Cycle, for which “Matty” is the first story, is a veritable gay La Ronde. Following the intersecting lives of gay men over a 25 year period, the collection opens when Matty is fifteen and questioning his own burgeoning sexuality and closes with the adult Matty, now an adult with a lifetime of love and experience and once again the Narrator of his own story.
A Sleuth of Bears
by John Brantingham
Martin’s grandmother wakes him on the day he’s supposed to leave for college by shaking his big toe. “Martin,” she says. When he doesn’t open his eyes, she yells, “Marty.” She slaps him on the leg a couple of times too, something she hasn’t done in the long months since he graduated from high school.
“What?” he says. “Jesus Christ, what?”
He sits up, and she makes her eyes wide. “It’s a bear.”
The sentence doesn’t make sense, but he gets out of bed and follows her into the kitchen. Sure enough, a bear is in the backyard snuffling near the trash cans. He must have come down the alley and slipped over the chainlink fence. Maybe he was driven out of the foothills and into the city by the lack of water this year, and there are fewer blackberries or whatever it is they eat.
“It’s a killer,” she says. There’s terror in her voice, but it’s the same sham terror she gets when Martin stays out late with his friends. He’ll come home, and she’ll be awake and weeping emotional blackmail.
“No.” Martin points across to the other side of the house. “It’s a whole group of them.” Two others are over on their own near the kiddie pool that’s become a mosquito farm in the tall weeds.
“What more do they want?”
“What do you mean?”
“I gave them the leftover Chinese food and a frozen pizza, and they still want more.”
She gets that addled face again as though she actually believes this was a good idea. “Grandma, you can’t do that.” He says it as though he’s scolding a child, as though she doesn’t know it already, as though this isn’t just her game.
“No?” For a second, he wonders if she is actually delusional. Her face his weak, slack-jawed. Her skin seems be sagging and graying. “But if they eat a whole pizza, I mean a whole pizza, they should be full and leave.”
He wants to tell her to drop the stupid act, but he can’t do that to this woman who has given him a place to live these last five years. “You can’t feed bears.”
She doesn’t answer except to shake her head as though his words don’t mean anything. “Can’t you see that I need you?”
“Grandma, any time you need anything, and I’m not around, just dial 911.”
She reaches out and touches his face with her finger. “Honey, I don’t think I can live in this world alone.”
Martin turns his head to the ceiling and sighs heavily.
“Do you know what kind of labor I went through for you?”
He looks at her hands, which are massaging her fingers. He looks at her chest, which is swelling up and down.
“I was in labor for 16 hours. The doctor told me he’d never seen pain like that before. Your father left me the night you were born. He never said why, but I knew it was because he wanted a son.”
Her eyes have gone glassy with a lifetime of frustration and loss.
“Grandma?” he asks.
With that, she seems to snap back into the world. She blinks, and her mouth tightens.
In that second, he gives up on his dream of San Francisco. It’s too late to register for a university in Los Angeles, but he supposes there is always community college.
His grandmother starts to cry in a cinematic wail. “Fine,” she says. “Fine.” She stands up out of her chair and stomps into the backyard. The bears, all three of them, turn their heads to her. “Eat me,” she yells, and she steps forward with her hands raised. “Eat me, god damn you.”
For a moment, Martin flashes on San Francisco, the life he could have there, and his breath catches in the far flung hope that they will devour this woman before she consumes him. Then his grandmother screams, “Eat me,” and steps forward, and the bears hop over the fence in a terror of humans that has been bred into them over the last ten thousand years. He can see into his faraway future, how he will pay for that fleeting hope for her death with a lifetime of compromises and a wish that will ulcer his stomach through.
For now, however, he simply has this woman, standing in the mustard grass of the backyard, weeping and stomping Chinese food boxes as the bears flee her in a way that makes Martin jealous to his soul.
John Brantingham’s work has been featured on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac and The Best Small Fictions 2016. He has seven books of poetry and fiction. He is currently working on a collection of flash fiction pieces with Grant Hier that covers the entire history of California, and he teaches poetry and fiction at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park and Mt. San Antonio College.
by Noriko Nakada
A Saturday afternoon. I was running up and down a court with girls from my high school basketball team. It felt good to be there, on a court in our small town’s Mormon temple’s open gym. But we could feel the end too. Graduation was right around the corner, and after years of playing hoops together, we knew this could be our last chance to share a court. We didn’t let them break the girls up. We knew how pick up games worked. Most of the time guys ignore girls on their teams, never pass to you or let you bring the ball up the court. They probably thought we’d be easy prey, so when we said we wanted to play together, they agreed.
Most of the other players were LDS men, elders, and there were a couple of younger guys, boys we knew from high school, like Robert. He and I had gone to middle school together, had been two of the best basketball players back then. We were also both half Asian. His mom was Polynesian, my dad was Japanese American, and when we dated at the end of eighth grade, people thought we were the perfect couple. We broke up before starting high school, but I watched him from afar. I hoped Robert would want to play with us. He knew we could play, but he joined a group of the older guys, men I didn’t know.
We won the first game, surprising everyone in the gym, including ourselves. Then we won the next. We were in better shape. We were quick. We snatched steals and made our lay-ups and even when we missed it was okay because we were winning by four or five. We laughed as we ran up and down the court. It had been a while since we’d won. We were coming off of a long losing season of basketball. It felt good to win, to dominate the court even though we were young, and small, and girls. We held the court.
After our third win, we were waiting for next when Robert started talking with one of my teammates. She stormed off the court and didn’t say a word to me. I glanced around the gym and saw the men looking at me sideways. Robert walked toward me as another game started on the court: a game without us, without the winners.
“What’s going on?”
Robert motioned for me to follow him out of the gym. I grabbed my keys and water bottle. I sensed I wouldn’t be coming back.
“They asked you to leave.” Robert said as we stepped out into pale spring sunshine. “They say it’s because you aren’t Mormon.”
I felt tears welling up in my eyes. I turned away. Robert was still a great shooter, was still a good guy, I thought. I loved him in the eighth grade and maybe I still did, but he never seemed to forgive me for breaking up with him. He went to the rival high school; he was Mormon so things would never would have worked out between us even. Yes, we had much in common for this small town where we were both born and raised, but the differences were mounting.
“You know it’s not that,” I said, my voice betraying me with a quiver.
“Well, yeah, it’s also all of the laughing. It’s just not what they want in their gym.” I looked at him, studied his handsome face as he made excuses for these men. And then I wondered if he agreed with them. “Come on, Nor. Sometimes you just have to take it easy.”
I squinted back up at the sky, back up at Robert. “Take it easy playing or take it easy being me?”
Robert shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe both.”
I turned toward my car and left him standing there in the sunlight. I wondered if he was right. Maybe we should have been less gleeful in our victories. Maybe we should have stopped playing hard, should have been more subdued. We could have laughed less and scored slower. Maybe I could have been a different person, the kind of girl who played at the Mormon church’s open gym and wasn’t asked to leave, who didn’t break up with her boyfriend because it could never work out in the long run.
I drove away from the gym toward home and let the tears come. I wasn’t sure why I was crying. Maybe it was because I didn’t fight, because I didn’t walk back into the gym and say, “We got next.” Maybe it was because I was a girl, and there were places where I was not welcome. Maybe it was because Robert hadn’t stood up for us, for me. Maybe it was because I hated those men in the gym who expected women to stay home and have kids and give up whatever other dreams they might have for their lives.
But by the time I got home, I’d recovered. I’d done nothing wrong, and I hoped those men who were still playing in their all male, all-Mormon game felt bad. I hoped Robert felt bad, because when I told the story later that day, later that summer, and for the rest of my life, I told it with pride.
There was this one time when the Mormons kicked me out of their gym. I was winning. I was laughing, and they couldn’t handle it. They couldn’t handle losing. They couldn’t beat us. They couldn’t handle me.
Noriko Nakada writes, blogs, tweets, parents, and teaches middle school in Los Angeles. She is committed to writing thought-provoking creative non-fiction, fiction, and poetry. Publications include two book-length memoirs: Through Eyes Like Mine and Overdue Apologies, and excerpts, essays, and poetry in Lady Liberty Lit, Catapult, Meridian, Compose, Kartika, Hippocampus, The Rising Phoenix Review, and Linden Avenue.
By Meagan Noel Hart
Her mother, Pakiza, laid a blue, flowery dress across the bed. It looked alien against her dark comforter. She did not want to wear it.
“It’s only a suggestion, Safiya,” said Pakiza.
“Safi,” she corrected, offering the male version of her name.
“There’s no need for that here,” her mother said sternly. “We are in America now. Whatever you choose, we can use your given name.”
“They don’t name boys after girls here.”
“Safiya, you are not a boy. You were bacha posh, and you don’t have to be anymore. In Kabul this was best for our family. But even there, this was temporary. One day, honorary boy. The next day, bride. You are thirteen. Your body will make you a woman soon. It is not right to continue on in such a fashion, no matter what soil your feet are on. No bacha posh is meant to live as a man.”
“Some have,” said Safiya very quietly.
“Dishonorable. Living their lives in secret. Offering no offspring for their mothers, no husband. They are not meant to exist. Those that do must only out of terrible necessity. It’s punishable by death. Not a life. Not a choice.” Pakiza sat heavily on the bed, causing the dress to slide toward her some. “I admit, it is different here. America is all about choice, even bad ones. Your father wants us to embrace that, and that means allowing you to decide, but Safiya, there is only one obvious answer. Here, you can be both a woman and free.”
Safiya bit her lip instinctively. She had always given her mother respect, even if it meant physically restraining herself. Her bottom lip was forever chapped, even in Summer. Safiya wanted to call her mother blind, blinded by the fairytales of the West. There was no denying women had more rights here than in Afghanistan, but it was foolish to say they had no restrictions. A society across the sea was still a society, and sometimes the rules not written in ink were the ones dangerous to break.
“Give the dress to Fereshtah,” Safiya said finally.
Her mother sighed. “You know she will not wear it. Is this my curse? To bear no sons yet have daughters who are no good as women?”
There was a gasp from the doorway. They looked just in time to see Fereshtah’s burka disappearing down the hall.
“In bimani ast,” her mother muttered, hurrying after her other daughter.
Safiya felt a pit in her stomach. Even in the land of choice, there was no choice.
In Kabul, with no sons, her parents had lacked respect. Worse than that, they were pitied. Before Fereshtah, her mother had given birth to two stillborn girls. Depressing as that was, the true devastation was that they were female. When finally Fereshtah was born, Pakiza’s mother had simply said, “Well, at least this one is alive.”
When Safiya was born, the decision to raise her as bacha posh, a girl dressed as a boy, was an easy one, and a respected one. Though no one spoke of it directly, everyone knew that even a fake boy was better than a girl. And it came with benefits. She received a better education, walked the streets freely, came and went as she pleased, helped her father with errands, escorted her sister, could work if needed, and best of all, played football. She loved football. Loved kicking the round ball as hard as she could, her blood racing, her heart pumping, her clothes filthy with the dust and grime of city streets. It was exhilarating, as if she was built for it. The real boys never guessed the truth about her in those random street games, and if they did get suggestive or nasty, as boys tend to do with one another, she would get nasty back. She had won many fights.
It was after such a fight, less than a year ago, that her mother had told her the hard truth. Her body would make her a woman. She would live like one and become a wife. It was a fact, not a choice, but for Safiya, living with the rights of a boy was also a fact. She had been Safi since she was 3 weeks old. Even hearing her birth name, Safiya, felt foreign and unreal, but going against her parents’ wishes and the demands of her culture would be dishonorable.
So, by day she wandered the streets of Kabul as Safi. At night, the coaching of Safiya began. “When you are a woman, you will not greet guests in such ways,” Pakiza would say. You will not eat this way. You will not walk this way. You will not run those errands. You will not say such things nor keep such friends. You must lower your laugh and avert your eyes. You must smile.
“You can rely on a salwar kameez, at least in summer, but you must learn to wear the head scarf properly. It is always falling off. Maybe it’s your hair,” Pakiza said, adjusting the scarf one evening. “When it grows out more, we can pin it.”
That night Safiya started trimming her hair before bed, keeping it short.
Outside, she became more aware of both men and women. She had always been aware of the obvious differences, but it was the subtle things that made her stomach churn. The comments. The glares. Both how women were acknowledged and dismissed. Once, a man made a disparaging comment about Fereshtah. As her brother, she was able to approach and threaten him with her knife while her sister stood silently back. He was at least two heads taller than her, but she pressed the blade rough against his beard, a beard she could never have. Her heart pounded, but before she could rethink her actions, the man laughed, congratulated her for being such a brash lad, and moved on. That was when she had first felt the pit in her stomach. It was only a matter of time before she could not only not defend her sister, but would take the same abuse herself.
Then the attack happened.
As her father’s son she was first to be contacted when he could not be, and received the full details. The perpetrators were from a village taken over by the Taliban. A man in the city had denied the marriage of his daughter to a villager. The villager’s brothers came to Kabul to find her. They mistook Fereshtah for this other girl and threw acid on her face and arms. Realizing their mistake, they attacked their original target as well. All on school property.
These incidents were common, but having it happen to family changed everything. How could her parents expect Safiya to become a woman? Yet, how could they not? Fereshtah was no longer marriageable. Her mother refused to send her to one of the shelters for women, insisting they would be abandoned soon by the expats who funded them, and her daughter would have nowhere to go. Fereshtah, already a reserved girl, became more so, frightened to leave the house. She did everything to hide her scars, finally resorting to wearing only burkas. Her pain was amplified by the fact that the men were never prosecuted and that no one fought for such.
Safiya’s silent rebellions became more pronounced and began to weigh heavier on the family. She stayed out later and later playing football, avoiding her mother’s training sessions. She picked a few fights with other boys, coming home bruised and bloody but victorious.
Then one evening, her father announced they were moving to America. He had secretly been preparing for it for some time, but Fereshtah’s attack urged him to escalate measures. They would be leaving everything they knew behind, meeting cousins in the nation’s capital, and this, he said, would give his children a chance.
Safyia felt hopeful when she heard the rumors about equality in the West. She even practiced introducing herself in the mirror. “I am Safyia.” The name still felt bulky, but less offensive than it used to.
They arrived to a hot American summer. Excited and jet lagged, she and Fereshtah giggled at the ridiculous sight of men in shorts and stared in wonder at the confidence and ease with which people entered motor vehicles. For two months they stayed with her fathers’ cousins while searching for their own home and while her father adjusted to his new job. It was a time to adjust for all of them, to try their feet out against this free soil. There were several daughters in the family, and at first they seemed bold and brazen, with their hair free and their every opinion rattling across their tongues, just like men, but Safiya soon recognized familiar distinctions. These girls had lived here all their lives yet still dressed and spoke differently than the boys. Their parents were more instructive with them, more protective. When they walked down the street, men would still call out rude, obscene things. They acted as if it was normal. From what Safiya could see, these girls were not the exception, but the rule.
While there, her parents presented her as Safi, out of habit and perhaps also fearing their transition would go poorly without a son. (Old habits and superstitions died hard.) This only highlighted the differences further. Safi was given a later curfew and asked, over the daughters, to run forgotten errands after dark. Also, she struggled to make conversation with them. Instead, these free girls, the ones her mother said she would soon be “just like,” spoke more easily with Fereshtha, even when she insisted on burkas and ignored their advice about scarves attracting more onlookers than scars.
Safiya spent most evenings kicking a ball against the side of the house alone, finding the sweat, the dirt, and the thud, thud, thudding comforting.
In honor of their new country, her parents had taken a new position. Being Safiya or Safi, this was her choice now because choice was American, and here, women could dress as boys and act as men without consequence. Safiya suspected otherwise, and mild research confirmed that though things were different here, people who broke norms where still met with fear and hate by many. And, the norms were clear.
TV, radio, advertisements, and neighbors bombarded her everyday with what a woman was. Silent but bold. Sexy but chaste. Smart but in the right way. They challenged men while needing them. Pakiza’s coaching sessions had ended, but something equally overbearing and much more confusing had taken their place.
Additionally, her parents instructed her to make the decision hers, despite how painfully clear it was what they expected.
“In America,” her mother said the first night away from the cousins, “you can be whatever you want to be. No more pretending. You can be you, but as a woman. You can even play football. Your new school has a team just for girls.” Pakiza ran her fingers through her daughter’s short hair. “Your father and I think it is wise you decide now, before classes begin Monday. The principal says if you register as a girl, but act and dress like a boy, it may cause issues. See, they have a physical education class there. You should like that, but as a girl, you must practice that with the girls. That makes sense, yes? Now, the principal did say they could make an exception and let you play with the boys and register you as such if it is important to your, well, he said sexual identity. It is so odd, people speaking so directly about these things. Anyway, you have options. But, clearly this option he suggests is ridiculous.”
“Why? I’ve only ever played with boys. Playing sports with girls seems more ridiculous.”
“Having a choice is important to your father. He says it will make you both more American and help your sister distance herself from her pain. So, we must consider it. But, Safyia, right is still right. The choice is obvious.”
Safiya said nothing then nor the next day. Now, with school beginning, a decision was necessary.
The blue dress was a reminder of what was right.
Safiya plucked it off the ground. It had fallen when her mother hurried after Fereshtah. She could hear her mother comforting her sister, slipping in and out of English, fighting to maintain what her father wanted, a normal newly American family, where having two girls, even a scarred one, even one who didn’t want to be one, was acceptable, normal.
Holding it, Safiya saw now how short the dress was. No, Fereshtah could never wear this either.
She walked to the kitchen where her father was reading. He watched silently as she dropped the dress into the trashcan.
“The dress isn’t necessary,” he offered. “Most do not wear them regularly.”
She shook her head. “You want me to decide. So, I have decided.”
Safiya swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry, the growing pit in her stomach finally bottoming out. She had thought on this American soil, surrounded for miles by people speaking their minds, even when it didn’t make sense or was dangerous, that making this decision would feel better. It did not. Choosing male felt like some kind of defeat. But, choosing female meant living the consequences of that defeat, and that, that would be unbearable. Trying to find something in between would only fill her life with disappointments from both sides.
For a moment she feared he would make her explain herself
, and she doubted her words would be sufficient for the things she was feeling.
Instead he nodded. Not approval but acceptance. “I will notify the school.”
She stayed still.
“And inform your mother.”
Still, she did not move.
“Thank you, Safi.”
That was what she had been waiting for. To hear his confirmation in her name. The only name that felt right.
She returned to her room, shutting the door behind her. This was not the easier choice. She knew that. The American boys would not be kind once they found out.
But, boys she could handle.
Meagan Noel Hart
Meagan Noel Hart is a lover of stories who’s been chasing the truth through fiction all her life. She mainly writes flash fiction of varying genres, but occasionally produces a poem or essay. Her work has been included in Mothers Always Write, Everyday Fiction, and Welter, and will be included in the Writers Workout’s 72 Hours of Insanity in 2017. She has three collections of work, Twisted Together, Whispers & Fangs, and A Short Stack of Silly Shorts for the Morally Sidetracked. She lives in Baltimore with her husband, two rambunctious but lovable sons, and a house full of fur-babies. By day, you can find her teaching English at Stevenson University.
by Bridgid McBride
Two girls at a softball game. One with silky golden hair and one with red shoes. It’s one of their boyfriend’s games, one of those interchangeable boys – maybe he has long hair, maybe he has a nose ring, maybe he’s in a band, maybe he wants to be a chemist, maybe he loves her – it doesn’t matter. The girls don’t watch the game; they drink lots of water and sit on the ground with their legs crossed and talk about the horror film they’re writing – the one where a two-foot-tall Yoda doll kills their interchangeable boyfriend(s).
Two girls at a coffee shop. One with Adobe InDesign and one with a notebook and a pen. It’s a self-aware kind of coffee shop, with recovered wood tables and framed burlap coffee sacks on the walls and bearded baristas with endless banter and delicate tattoos up their arms behind the counter. The girls don’t do their homework; they drink too-expensive coffee and speak in soft conspiratorial voices about their futures – Costa Rica and fancy new laptops and pseudonyms and foreign grad programs and no babies!!
Two girls on a porch swing. One with wine in a mug and one with beer in a can. It’s a party, but it’s really just a bunch of boys getting stoned on a couch and listening to boring jam bands and watching psychedelic Youtube videos. The girls retreat outside, to the porch swing, to talk about why this gross house is better than the last gross house these boys lived in; it has three floors and a loft and beautiful stained glass windows in the dining room and a gray cat named Wednesday.
Two girls in a bar booth. One in a grey hat and one in a green skirt. It’s Halloween but neither is in costume – they dressed up over the weekend, as a martini and a Stephen King character – and they split a pitcher between the two of them and Ed, who went to get more quarters for the pool table. They say that they feel transmigrated into another time period, where the lighting is cozier and the beer is cheaper and life is simpler, where the pinball machine in the corner has relevancy, some modified 90s where there’s also a Buck Hunter game and the curly one can still use her smartphone to take a selfie in the window glare.
Two girls on a dock. One in her boyfriend’s t-shirt and one in her bra and underwear from the day before. They’re mad at each other, but they never say why. One is upset that the other didn’t wait for her to take acid the night before, leaving her alone at the height of the trip, and the other is upset that the one didn’t tell her she was coming to the North at all. They both pretend otherwise, and they hold hands as they jump into the freezing October lake. The girls scramble out and wrap a giant towel around both of their thin shaking bodies, smiling as the resentment dissolves, and they step lightly to avoid pine needles pricking the rough undersides of their summer feet on their way up to the house. It will never be as easy as it is right now again.
Brigid McBride is a cook and barista living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She has a BA in English from the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. She loves to bike, write, drink beer, and watch movies. She hopes to be a TV writer when she grows up. Her favorite album is “Exile in Guyville” by Liz Phair. Her biggest inspirations in writing are her sisters, mother, and grandmother. She hopes you like her story.
by dm philips
Here is everything I know about her.
She is a mother now. Then, she was unmothered. Non-mothered? Not mothered well. Almost alone. A lonely child, vassal to a just-older sister who was just plain mean. Shuttled around the world by her parents in the service of other, lesser gods: flight, love, cheap housing.
She was unfathered, too. Not-well fathered. Father, unwell. Is it true he threw her pregnant mother down the stairs? Well, if he didn’t, he could have. Just plain mean. A mean drunk, that’s what I heard. Perhaps that’s why she doesn’t drink. He’s dead now, by the way. I wonder if she cares. If she feels his absence is now complete.
It is important to mention: she is a mother. Becoming a mother made sense to her. Being a mother seems like the fulfillment of other goals unreached. Like time, unlost.
She spent her time in the shadow of her sister. Forever trying to be good, to be enough. To be good enough. Born just 10 months earlier, she grew larger by her taunts. The sister drove deep in her a sense of unworthiness, a shame she’d struggle to shake. Once slender, she turned to food to fill what was unfillable. Her lean body rounded out pleasantly, then unpleasantly. Not unpleasant to me, but she spends her time now talking about diets, about order, about “tomorrow”.
Her children have round bodies, too. Round, sweet bodies on the verge on distended, unsweet. She stuffs them with treats. This is one version of love.
She was always wanting for friends, yet never quite finding them. Those she found, she trusted deeply, even the untrustworthy ones. She was left at the mall once. Abandoned in a blizzard. The mall closed, the governor called a “state of emergency”. I imagine her standing outside in the thin clothing she wore then. Huddled by the door, watching snowdrifts fill the desolate parking lot. Wondering what to do, if anyone would come for her. Who did she wish for, in the state of emergency?
She was pregnant, more than once. She was hungry for sweetness and she found it briefly in unreliable, older men. Three, four, five abortions, that’s what I heard. Her mother knew, cursed her, damned her to a fiery hell. Is it true she threw her down the stairs? Well, if it isn’t, it could be. Her mother was always mean. History repeats itsef, unless we stop it.
She is the kindest person I know. She always tries. Even when people are cruel to her, she dips underneath their cruelty and tries harder. She is so sensitive, so freaking sensitive. She cries at the drop of a hat, at goodbyes, at movies. Her crying is sniffly and messy and wet. She tucks love notes scrawled in the handwriting of a grade school girl into my bags when I leave. She is complicated at drive-throughs. She wants everything on the side. She drinks coffee and then falls straight to sleep. She loves mint chocolate chip ice cream. Two scoops. She has talked about “going back to school” for the last fifteen years. Perhaps this year, she will.
When her son was sick, she slept sitting up for three weeks. He could not move or speak but sometimes she imagined he did and sprang up to check. She had known something was wrong. She brought him to the hospital before it was too late. She learned, then, to trust her instincts. Her motherly instincts, they were just enough. She was a mother, first.
I was there when she fell in love. I don’t know what they were doing behind closed doors, but it seemed to take an agonizingly long time to get to the good part. Every day for years he would come over and they would watch basketball and ‘Martin’ on television. My grandmother, who spoke little English yet loved this enormous, gentle Black man, would feed him bowls of rice and curry. She’s dead now. Maybe those were the good parts.
He would leave at 5:45 pm, just before her mother came home. Once, he lost track of time and was forced to hide in the closet. Why was he a secret? No matter— this is where I learned much of what I know, of what I’m telling you now. Through a shouting match. The abortions, the shame, all was yelled and screamed. There was pushing. There were stairs, maybe. A broken arm. That’s what I remember. That’s what I heard.
They used to play-wrestle, piling themselves on top of each other, giggling hysterically. Sometimes I would join. I was a lonely child, too. Their bodies were warm.
I wonder if they’re there, wrestling in their house, giggling, right now. With their three big, beautiful, brown children, who are all well. The mother, now the grandmother, might come over to babysit. She was not just plain mean, after all. Perhaps there are snowdrifts outside. The older sister, now the lonely one, calls for her advice. Sometimes the call goes to voicemail while she speaks to her other friends. Her younger sister loves her, too, thinks she’s the kindest person she’s ever met. Feels mothered by her. Well-mothered. Mothered, well.
That’s what I heard. That’s what I know.
dm philips is a storyteller and birthworker born in goa, india, and raised in the northeastern US. her work explores queer diaspora, madness, unmothering, and finding/coming home. dm is a columbia university community scholar and two-time VONA/voices fellow. her writing can be found in the decolonizer, hot metal bridge, and elsewhere.
by Lena Zaghmouri
It shouldn’t have surprised Kareem that his friend and former neighbor, Faris, had a heart attack last night. Kareem didn’t know much about his health, but Faris was over seventy and had just endured a trying decade: caring for a mentally ill brother and a mother undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
The manic outbursts from Faris’ brother and the pained ones from his mother often frightened Kareem’s young children. At night and during the day. The three of them would huddle under the tables or in their parents’ bed when a gut-wrenching cry or a blaring fit would break through the walls.
Kareem imagined that those outbursts must have frightened them more now that he didn’t live at home anymore, but they never mentioned anything during the weekends they spent at his two bedroom apartment.
But now they wouldn’t be scared anymore: Faris’ mother had passed a few months ago, and his brother would have to be sent to an institution because there was no family left to care for him.
And there was no family fit to perform the ghusl, or cleansing, of Faris’ body before his burial.
So the imam offered the honor to Kareem, who accepted dutifully.
He called in to work and met with the imam a few hours before in his small office at the mosque. Kareem tried his hardest to keep his hands folded and his feet still while they spoke. He hadn’t been in the mosque much in the four months since his wife changed the locks and threw his belongings on the front lawn; he figured it was best to let people discuss his broken home without fear that he would walk up and interrupt their conversations.
“Faris was your good friend?” the imam asked hesitantly as if it that was the uncomfortable matter to broach.
Kareem nodded. “Yes, of course.” But he wasn’t so sure he would define his connection to Faris that way; Kareem had only moved to this town two years ago to begin his career as a pharmacist. Faris’ house was the only one with more tension and resentment than Kareem’s, whose marriage had begun to disintegrate well before he had moved his family here, and the two men often used Kareem’s garage as a short respite from their homes. Faris had been a mechanic before he retired, and he would tinker with the engine of Kareem’s car while they discussed things like politics and their adolescent years back home in Palestine, which had been separated by a full generation. Anything but the lives they had right now.
The imam suggested they begin the ghusl soon; the funeral would only be in a few hours. He stood and led Kareem down the corridor to a separate room. “We’ll wash him together,” the imam promised as he opened the door to the room that held Faris’ body.
Kareem braced himself before looking so that he wouldn’t gasp or choke. He had seen many dead bodies in his childhood and early adult years back in Palestine, but it was a crushing experience each time. Besides, his fifteen years in the United States had softened him to such things; the threat of death was so much fainter here than it was back home.
But seeing Faris’ body wasn’t as horrifying as those he saw in the rubble back home who were often bloodied, mangled, and so young. Faris’ skin now was a slightly paler gray than his eyebrows and chest hair, but some of the lines on his forehead and around his mouth seemed to have disappeared, making him look closer to Kareem’s age than his own.
The imam wasn’t as serene, though. He stood more than two feet away from Faris’ body, and the color had drained from his smooth face. “I’ll let you do this,” he said as he rushed out. “Brother Faris would want a friend to do this.”
Kareem never thought that washing an adult body could take so much time and energy. It was different than bathing his children, who were squirmy as babies and loved to splash the water all over him and the bathroom floor; Faris’ limbs were still and heavy, and his skin was so thick and tough that it seemed like no amount of soap and water could clean it. Once Kareem had dried him off and wrapped him in a white cloth, the muscles in his arms and back burned from the effort of maneuvering Faris’ weight.
The imam had returned by then, his solemn composure regained, and offered Kareem a seat in a small folding chair next to the table that held Faris’ body. He took it, slumped and quietly panting. “Faris is with Allah, brother,” the imam said with his hand on Kareem’s shoulder. “You must make wudu to be clean before God.”
Kareem dragged himself up the flight of stairs to the washing sinks in the men’s bathroom. He scrubbed his hands, feet, and calves intensely, noticing how much lighter live flesh felt in his grip.
He inhaled deeply as he filled his cupped hands from the faucet, drinking in the air around him, and he only faintly felt the tears falling from his eyes when he doused his face with the warm water.
Lena Zaghmouri’s writing has been published in Sinister Guru, KNOT Magazine, The San Joaquin Review, and Sukoon. She has also been nominated for the Pushcart Prize for her story “Al Walad” and was shortlisted for the OWT Fiction Prize; she has pieces forthcoming in Pulp Literature and First Wednesday Journal. She is currently working on her first novel.