02 Jan

BEST OF EJR – Fiction: “Number Six” by Lauren Candia Salerno

Photo Credit: iStock

Number Six
By Lauren Candia Salerno

Content Warning: Mentions of Violence, Horror

Word was the guy stole hearts. A recent slew of murders had everyone on the boulevard talking.  Five girls had been found dead, their hearts neatly cut out but with no signs of any external incision, as if they had simply been born without this vital organ. No one even knew the heart had been taken until the autopsy. I thought the story was bullshit. Still, five girls were dead and maybe I could be next. I asked around about who the john might be, but no one knew what the guy looked like or what he was into. This isn’t the safest job, but the lack of information made me feel more vulnerable than ever. Lots of girls were taking it easy. I wished I could have done the same, but I had a rent check due at the end of the week and not nearly enough money to cover it. 

It was a slow night, and I was one of the only girls out. I pulled the collar of my coat over my nose to keep the cold wind from burning my face. I was ready to walk home when a guy carrying a small duffle bag approached. He looked around nervously as he caught up to me.

“I’m…I’m looking for a date,” he said. 

I uncovered my face and smiled at him and relaxed as much as I could without letting my teeth chatter. “Baby, I’m a sure thing.”

He blushed. “I was hoping that.”

I stepped closer to him, eliminating the space he left between us. We were close enough then that the steam of our breath mingled as we continued the conversation.

“What’s in the bag?”

An incredible shade of red spread from his collar to his hairline.

I smiled. I have a thing for the shy ones.

“It’s okay,” I softly stroked his cheek. “Tell me what we should do tonight.”

He struggled to get through the details, pausing and lowering his voice for words I imagine he didn’t say out loud too often. All he wanted was a night with no talking and no questions. He just wanted me to follow instructions.

“I don’t know, kid. That’s not really my specialty.” 

“I can pay,” he blurted out with an almost frantic look that quickly passed from his face.  “Anything you want. Up front even. Right now.”

I couldn’t refuse at that point. I took care of rent right then and there.

We got a by-the-hour room. He asked that I undress in front of him. At first, I made a dance of it. I imagined a smooth saxophone playing in the background while my body slithered out of my top. I opened my eyes to see what effect I was having on this guy. It pissed me off to see he wasn’t paying attention. He wasn’t even looking at me. He was just sitting on the edge of the bed, examining his hands and rubbing them together. I stopped with the theatrics and shed the rest of my clothes. I waited for his next order, all the while keeping an eye on the clock and reminding myself that rent was due.

He gave my body a quick look up and down before he stood from the bed. He held my face in his hands, brushed my hair behind my ears, and kissed me. His lips tasted bitter and my tongue went numb. I wanted to push him away, but he grasped my head and pressed his lips hard against mine, keeping my lips open. I got my arms between us and tried to get some distance, but he wouldn’t let go. My mind went into panic mode. I tried to scream but I couldn’t make a sound. It felt like my entire body was turning into stone. I couldn’t fight back. When he finally pulled away, I was helpless and immobile. My hands were frozen in front of my chest, palms out. My eyes were wide and unblinking. I became a grotesque statue.

He carried me over to the bed and laid my body down. He rolled me on my back and pulled my arms down to my sides. I don’t know how much it matters now, but he did all of this with an unexpected gentleness. He was about to push down my eyelids but then he stopped. He hovered over me, studying my face. He stroked the side of my cheek and whispered a name. Something with an A. He left my eyes open. I realized that I would have to see everything as it happened, and the first tear fell. 

 He moved out of my line of sight, but I could still hear him moving around. I heard the shuffling as he moved away from me and the canvas of his bag rustling as he stepped closer. The mattress bounced with the added weight of the bag and I heard a zipper unfasten. When the guy came back into my view, he was still fully clothed and holding a jar. He unscrewed the lid from the jar, and the chemical smell of the liquid inside was so strong that breathing in became another kind of torture.  

He straddled me and stroked my cheek one last time. I was breathing hard as he put his hand on my chest. I wanted to fight. I wanted to make him hurt. But I never got the chance. My chest burned and I felt some pressure as his hand went through my skin. My body instantly went cold and I never breathed again. 

The burning served to both cut away and cauterize the arteries. The heart pulled easily through the rib cage and out of my body. He eased my heart into the jar with such care, making sure to wipe the edges of the jar clean before fastening its lid. He sat there examining the specimen from all angles with a look of awe on his face. He seemed so far away as he twisted the jar around. Then he must have realized that too much time was passing because he returned to my body. A burn scar was the only evidence of foul play that remained. He glided his hand over the scar, and with each pass, the skin healed until it looked as if nothing had ever happened. So there I was, Number Six, and the man who stole my heart got away.

_______

You can follow Lauren Candia Salerno on twitter: @ParanormaLauren

02 Jan

BEST OF EJR — Fiction: Jaded Mirrors by Mercy Dhliwayo


JADED MIRRORS
by Mercy Dhliwayo

The smell of the over boiled chaumolia carried a nauseating stench of anger: an instant appetite killer. With their green boiled out, the roughly chopped and browned vegetables, served with an intimidating mountain of maize meal took class out of Mother’s expensive china. The one’s she received at a relative’s funeral during the distribution of the deceased’s belongings. The ones she kept in our glass display cabinet and only used when we had visitors. We did not have visitors, but because Njube, like many other places in Bulawayo had not had water in almost two weeks and we had exhausted all the clean dishes and had little water left for just cooking, Mother had no option but to use her special plates, even in the foul mood that she was in.

Mother was angry at Father and this was testament in her cooking. Father had bought me a new pair of shoes from Edgars using his overtime pay. In his defence, Father said that I had worked very hard at school and he felt that I at least deserved something new for our form four farewell party. Mother, on the other hand, found it extravagant for Father to have bought me shoes when we had mounting unpaid bills. What aggravated her more was where the shoes had been bought when there were other cheaper options like Chinese shops. Because I understood Mother’s reasoning, I felt guilty about the shoes and more especially about the fact that I loved them and was unprepared to let them go.

I glared at my food, feeling hungry, but lacking the appetite. I had not eaten since morning and now wished that I had volunteered to cook even if it was mother’s duty. I had, however, been too preoccupied with thoughts of the night ahead for me to be bothered about cooking. This was the night that I had been waiting for for weeks. Our farewell party and more especially my date with James. A night that I had fantasized about for ages. If my prayers were answered, by the end of the night I would be having a boyfriend and will be bidding farewell to all the years of invisibility.

Not wanting to aggravate Mother, who sat next to me seemingly struggling to digest her own food, I dug into my plate and scooped a lump of maize mealand a bit of the vegetables and pushed the combination into my mouth. I, on impulse, instantly spat out the food as a strong bitter taste of a granule of coarse salt that I had chewed stung my tongue. Mother was insulted. ‘My husband has never spat out my food. I guess those rich friends of yours have made you too good for my food.’ she said. I thought of apologising and explaining my actions but Mother had already worn her victim-face and knowing her, any word I would have said would have been countered by a stream of guilt provoking silence. A sudden knock at the door, rescued me from the lurking awkwardness. I immediately abandoned my plate and attended to the door.

‘Mandy.’ My heart pounded rapidly at the sight of the lean and beautiful figure that stood at our door step. ‘I’m coming just now,’ I said before slamming the door in Mandy’s face. Mother thought it rude. I did not. What was she doing at my doorstep when our arrangement was to meet in town?

I ran to my parent’s bedroom, where we kept our clothes and changed into the clothes I had put aside for the night. A brown leather skirt that I had found in an old trunk in which my parents kept old clothes from their younger days. I wore it with a black string top and my new shoes. Having dressed up, I knelt down to inspect my hair in the little triangular surviving potion of our dressing table mirror. Inspired by an image of Mother in an old photograph stuck on the dressing table, of her sitting on a high stool with Father standing behind her staring into her eyes, I had combed my hair into an afro and had worn a black elastic hair band above my forehead just as she had. I however did not look as beautiful as she did. Her face was clear and did not have a sign of a pimple. I on the other hand had a manifestation of pimples that never disappeared no matter how much I squashed them. They had a revolting character of their own. It was as if the pimples had a face as opposed to my face having pimples. The pimples made it difficult for boys to notice me. I really did not desire all the boys’ attention. All I desired was James’ attention, but he too never seemed to notice me, until Mandy and I became friends.

When I returned from the bedroom, to my astonishment, Mother had let Mandy inside the house. I was angry at her but angrier at Mandy for disregarding our arrangement and coming to collect me from home. Who did she think she was? And who had told her that I needed to be collected. Now she sat on Father’s sofa. The one that only Father sat on. Mother said nothing. Maybe it was her who had told her to sit there since she was angry at Father. Father’s sofa was the better sofa in the house after all. As much as I prayed that Father would not walk in and find her sitting there, I was glad that Mandy had not sat on the other two sofas. The worn out sofas that we had stuffed with old clothes, would have sucked her into their hollowness. Or worse, she would have heard the rattling movement of the fearsome rats that came out of their hiding and ran about the sitting room even climbing on the sofas as we slept. Noticing Mandy’s eyes zoom from my plate of food to the cracking plaster peeling off the wall of the interior of our house, I quickly announced to Mother that we were leaving and hurriedly walked out of the house with Mandy following me behind.

Mother also came out of the house and went to speak to Mandy’s mother who was in her car waiting for Mandy and I. Since I was to return home later at night, way after my usual six o’clock curfew, Mother had expressed her desire to speak to Mandy’s mother who had undertaken to bring me back home after the party. While I had foreseen then speaking to each other telephonically, I had not foreseen them talking face to face. There was Mandy’s mother. Having gotten out of her twin cab, you could see the Daniel Hechter floral dress that set well on her body and her neat matching court shoes. From afar, one could imagine how she smelt: like rich scented roses. And then there was Mother, wearing an old pink morning gown, that had not only grown khakish from over washing, and smelling a combination of sweat from a hard day’s work at the factory and soot from the fire on which we cooked from on those days when there were power cuts.

While I was still recovering from the trauma of Mandy having been in our house, Mandy requested to use the bathroom. Our bathroom was located outside the house. It consisted of a blare toilet and a shower. The room was dark as we hardly replaced the bulb and it maintained its stench no matter how much I cleaned or disinfected it. I thought of someone like Mandy inside our toilet and I wanted to die.

‘I think there is someone inside,’ I lied.

‘I don’t think so, the door is not closed.’ Mandy knocked on the bathroom door and proceeded to get in without waiting for a response. Despite always having desired to be her friend, I, at that moment hated Mandy. She was invading on my privacy just as she had when she set foot in our house. Although I had been at Mandy’s place countless times, I had been there on her invite and besides, unlike me, she was from a rich family and really had nothing to worry about. I therefore cursed the day that she got to know where I lived. I had just walked out of our gate on my way to school when our neighbour, maSibanda, from across our house, bellowed a greeting to me. When I looked back to respond, I was shocked to see Mandy walking out of maSibanda’s shabeen. I wondered what she was doing in my neighbourhood and with a person like maSibanda around seven o’clock in the morning. That, however, was the least of my concerns. Mandy had seen where I lived. No one from school knew where I lived; not even my closest friend, Shami. While I could live with being the invisible girl at school, I was terrified by the thought of people from school about the kind of house I lived in.

I was not embarrassed about where I came from. I was just not proud of living in the rented crammed space that we lived in; a two and a half roomed house which consisted of my parent’s bedroom, the sitting room where my younger brother and I slept on separate sofas and a tiny kitchen. Contrary to my fears, Mandy did not tell anyone about where I lived. She had instead requested me not to tell anyone about our encounter when we met in class after two days of her being absent. I found the request awkward but did not think much of it. I was rather overwhelmed by the thought of Mandy talking to me and her friendliness since she hardly spoke to me in class.

I did not need much convincing to keep our encounter a secret. In addition to being rich, Mandy was the most popular girl at school. Everyone wanted to be friends with her and her small clique of friends. Being friends with them enhanced one’s chances of being someone and even of getting a boyfriend. Thus, my sole purpose at Prestige College, apart from maintaining high grades to keep my bursary, had been winning Mandy’s friendship. Disregarding her request would have killed my chances of achieving this. My chances were already slim thanks to the unnecessarily numerous casual days and school functions that tended to reveal my poor background. Since my parents only bought us new clothes once a year towards Christmas, I often had to wear clothes that I had already previously worn at school and second hand clothes passed down on me by relatives while everyone else always wore something new and trendy. This made it difficult to be noticeable to Mandy and even the boys at school. Being maSibanda’s neighbour however seemed to have changed my fortune.

****

Mandy began to speak to me more often after her awkward request. I soon found myself hanging around her and her friends at lunch time and it was not long that I began to visit her house. I helped her with her school work and allowed her to copy my assignments sometimes. It was through our acquaintance that James began greeting me at school. The cherry on top was Mandy arranging for James to be my date at the farewell party when she realised how much I liked him. Before going to the party, we passed by Mandy’s house because Mandy had insisted that there was no way that I was going to the party dressed the way that I was dressed. This despite her mother having told me that I looked beautiful and unique. I however did not disagree with Mandy.

Mandy having been in our house, I, for the first time, felt embarrassed about being in Mandy’s house and in her room. The house was a lot neater than ours. Her room was much bigger than my parent’s bedroom and even bigger than our sitting room and kitchen combined.She had her own inbuilt closet, more spacious than my parents fully packed wooden wardrobe that had some shelves missing and the back board falling off no matter how many times Father hammered in new nails. She even had a proper dressing table with an intact mirror. The old dressing table that we had at home had uneven legs and therefore had to be supported by differently sized bricks strategically placed on the two shorter legs. Its mirror was broken and the wooden board that had been left exposed by the absence of the mirror had been covered with family photographs glued on to the board with chewing gum. The only surviving part of the mirror was a small rectangular portion at the bottom left of the dressing table board, that forced one to always kneel if they wanted to make use of the mirror which was only big enough to reflect ones face. I envied Mandy’s life and would have done anything to live in a house like hers and have as much clothes as she had.

From the clothes Mandy gave me to choose from, I picked a short green dress and matching pearls for the night. Mandy then produced a makeup kit and began working on my face without enquiring if I needed make up or not. I did not protest although my heart pounded at the thought of turning into one of those girls whom Shami and I often ridiculed because of their daily after school ritual of rushing to the bathrooms, as soon as the siren rang signalling the end of the last period, to secure a spot on the bathroom mirrors where they would smear their faces with vanishing cream or thick layers of cheap face powder that we called isibhuda.

Girls who would tweeze off their eyebrows only to replace them with thick eyeliner drawn where their eyelashes used to be. Although we often laughed at the effort these girls took to enhance their beauty, I saw nothing to laugh at when I glanced into the mirror and saw what Mandy had done to my face.

I was stunned by the reflection of myself. The makeup had concealed my pimples and I, for the first time, had a face of my own. A face I could own. I felt the beauty Mother said I possessed. I saw the beautiful eyes that Father said I inherited from Mother. I imagined James looking into my eyes the way Father looked in Mother’s eyes in that old photograph on our dressing table. Such a beautiful moment with James was possible for the young woman in the mirror as she was simply stunning. The green dress she wore looked lovely on her as though it were her own. Yet staring at her in that Cinderella moment, the initial embarrassment I felt when I saw Mandy in our house clung on to me like the foul breath of unbrushed teeth that overshadowed that fact that one had actually bathed. It was more than just shame. I felt  some sort of guilt that was different from the guilt I felt earlier over my new shoes. I felt guilty of something that I could not identify. Something that seemed to be represented by the mirror glass that separated me from the reflection that gazed back at me. That something left a sour taste in my mouth that reminded of the real life that the stunning girl in mirror had to return to when the night was over.

On arrival at the party, Mandy and I, having met with our dates, immediately drew the crowd’s attention. I could sense what my association with the company that I was with would do for my popularity. James invited me for a dance. Mandy and her date were already dancing and I eagerly accepted James’ invite. While he danced around me in circles, I nervously moved my shoulders back and forth without moving much of my body. After our dance, James took me to the kiosk where he bought me a soft drink. He, on the other hand drank something that was in a yellow water bottle labelled “Power Sport”. We stood against the wall with our drinks. James moved closer to me and brought his face close to mine. My body shivered as I foresaw what was to be my first kiss. I was glad Mother had finally bought some tooth pasteafter almost a week of brushing our teeth with just a tooth brush and salty water. My lips grew itchy with anticipation but James’ lips did not reach mine. Instead, I felt their hotness against my ear and they grew erect in anticipation of a romantic whisper. My lips were ready to whisper “I love you too,” but were instead compelled to shout out my name to correct James who had just shouted ‘Erica’ into my ear.

‘Jerica?’ James laughed. ‘What kind of name is that?’

From his laugh, I foresaw James finding ridiculous my explanation of how I got my name from the combination of my parent’s names, Jerry and Monica. I therefore did not respond. I blushed shyly and waited for him to shout in my ear again. Although not as romantic as the whispers I had fantasised the two of us exchanging, I did not mind the shouting as it was the only way I could hear him in the noisy hall. Besides, I did not want to miss a single word from his mouth even if it was the ridiculing of my name.

 

‘Anyway Jerica,’ James continued. ‘Tell me something about your friend.’ These words prematurely melted my Cinderella moment. No girl liked to hear such words from a boy she had a love interest in. I however stayed calm and asked: ‘Which friend?’

‘Mandy. Is she dating that guy?’

I did not know whether Mandy was dating the form six guy that she had brought as her date . nonetheless confirmed that she was.

‘I need to talk to her. Can you arrange that for me?’

Although I knew what that meant, to save face, I smiled and nodded my head. I was both hurt and confused. It was Mandy who had set me up with James, yet James was now asking me to set him up with Mandy. The anger I felt towards Mandy earlier returned. I felt alone and out of place. I missed Shami. I had not seen her at the party and I was not sure if she had even attended. It would have been sad if she had not attended, I thought to myself. We had both eagerly anticipated the party since our first day of form four and often fantasized about what we would wear and what it would be like. We had also both shared the same desire of being Mandy’s friend. For some reason that did not happen for her and since Mandy and I became friends, Shami and I hardly spent time together as we previously did. I now needed her company more than ever. Had she been there, we would have found so much to talk and laugh about and I probably would not have had to spend the rest of the night watching James watching Mandy closely and waiting for an opportunity to be alone with her. It was particularly torturous how he would now and again send me to her to ask for a private moment with her. Unfortunately for James, Mandy’s date stuck on her like glue and I did not send any of his messages to Mandy. I merely reported back to him how she had no interest in speaking to him as she was at the party with someone else. It nonetheless made me feel inferior watching him watching her.

While I looked beautiful in the borrowed green dress, I was not good enough for James, or anyone else at the party for that matter. I did not spend the whole night with James as he now and again disappeared and reappeared later and in his moments of absence, none of the boys approached me for a dance or a simple chat. After his last disappearance, James returned later rigging of alcohol and invited me for another dance. Because of the loneliness I felt and the fact that he seemed to have forgotten about Mandy, I again, accepted the invite. He put his arms around my waist as we danced. Although everyone seemed to dancing with their arms around their partners, I did not feel comfortable. I however continued dancing. James moved closer to me and began fondling me.

Although I had always dreamt and fantasised about being in James’ arms, the manner in which his hungry hands sunk into my flesh, especially after witnessing his obsession over Mandy, made my body shiver with discomfort. He brought his face close to mine in an attempt to kiss me. I moved my face away from his as a strong stench of alcohol hit my nostrils.

‘Come on; just a kiss,’

‘No,’ I responded trying to tear myself apart from his grip.

‘Loosen up. It is only a kiss.’ With these words, James’ lips forcefully covered my lips with a repulsive wetness that made me want to throw up.  His saliva wet my lips making them sticky with some unforgivable staleness.

‘I said no,’ I screamed angrily and tore away from him. This was not only a kiss. This was my first kiss and I had envisaged it to be romantic even if it was with him.

‘You crazy freak,” James yelled as he noticed the attention that my scream had drawn.

‘You think you are special, you and those borrowed clothes. Well you are nothing. There are a lot of girls out there, more beautiful than you.’

I hoped the music in the hall had been loud enough to swallow James’ hurtful words, but from the eyes that glared at me, I feared that everyone had heard him. Feeling naked and as stale as his kiss, I ran to the bathroom regretting having attended the party. Tears filled my eyes and I desired to just let them loose but when I reached the bathroom, Mandy was there, alone, shedding tears of her own.

Seeing Mandy in the bathroom was infuriating. She had everything and all I wanted was time alone to cry out my pain. Yet, even in a moment of pain, Mandy still had to have it all. Without noticing my pain or waiting for me to ask her what was wrong, Mandy sobbed: ‘Everyone knows.’

‘Knows what?’ I brushed away my own tears.

‘It was a secret. Only Catherine and Sammy knew. I thought they were my friends’.

I had no idea of what Mandy was moaning about but the thought of someone as infallible as her in tears was, in a way, intimidating, so I dared not ask.

‘You did not tell anyone did you?’

‘Tell them what?’

‘About maSibanda.’

I glanced at Mandy through her reflection from the bathroom mirror trying to comprehend her question. Her face was soggy with tears and snorts were almost running down her nose.  She wiped some tears off her face smudging makeup across her cheekbones.

‘You have no idea what I am talking about; do you?’ she sniffed. ‘You will soon find out anyway,’ Mandy added before confiding in me about an abortion she had had. This explained what she was doing at maSibanda’s house and her subsequent strange request for me not to tell anyone about seeing her with  maSibanda. It made perfect sense especially in light of the rumours that I had once heard in my neighbourhood, about maSibanda assisting young girls and even married woman in removing unwanted pregnancies.  I was not sure of how to respond to Mandy’s revelation, so I asked her the first thing that came to my mind, and that was whether her mother knew about it.

‘No,’ Mandy chuckled. ‘She wouldn’t have noticed even if I had kept the baby and maybe dumped it or given it away after giving birth.’

I thought of Mother and imagined hiding something that big from her. It was impossible. Mother could sniff a pregnancy from a neighbour’s child and living under her roof, she probably would know if I fell pregnant even before I myself knew.

When we left the bathroom Mandy wanted to go home. For obvious reasons, I too wanted to leave. Having failed to contact her mother, Mandy called a taxi that took us to her place, situated ten minutes away from our college. We entered the house through the kitchen and my attention was immediately drawn to the sound of smashing glass and Mandy’s mother quarrelling with someone in the house. “Not in this lifetime, Never,” she screamed. Ignoring the commotion, Mandy led me to her room. She switched on her music player and let the music play on high volume. She picked up a magazine and threw herself on the bed.  I, without saying anything, removed the borrowed clothes and wore my own. Wishing to go home, I sat quietly before the dressing table and waited for my host to say something. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and noticed the makeup I had applied. I certainly could not go home with it, but the prevailing atmosphere made it difficult for me to freely go to the bathroom to wash it off, or to even ask for permission to use the bathroom. I therefore pulled the top part of the string-top I now wore and wet the inside part with my tongue before vigorously rubbing my face in a bid to remove the makeup.

Although the music was loud, the commotion from the other room could still be heard, but from a distance. However, as the song that had been playing faded away as the disc that had been playing came to an end, Mandy’s mother could be heard screaming aloud: “Kill me now. Kill me if you want”. I grew highly uncomfortable and immediately stopped rubbing my face. I resorted to chipping off my finger nails using my fingers. Mandy did not change the disc or do anything to resume the music. I suddenly felt like an intruder and Mandy’s silence and prolonged gaze at same page of the magazine that she had been gazing at for the past five minutes only reinforced the feeling. I wondered if Mandy hated me as I had hated her earlier when she was at our house. I wanted to go home and could not help but wonder what Mandy was thinking of and whether she had forgotten that I needed to go home. Without anticipating it, I felt Mandy’s abrupt movement from the bed and out of the room. A few seconds later I heard her scream: “Stop it. The two of you. I am tired of this. I wish you were not my parents. I hate you both.” After a few seconds, Mandy stormed back into the room, threw herself on the bed and buried her head under a pillow. She was shortly followed by a man who appeared startled to see me. I assumed the man was her father. His shirt was torn and had blood stains on it. While I was speechless and still deciding whether to great him, the man greeted me. ‘I did not know Mandy had a friend sleeping over tonight.’ He added.

‘I am not.’

‘Oh, I see. I will take you home then.’

These words were relieving. The man disappeared from Mandy’s room and returned a minute later wearing a clean t-shirt. He asked Mandy if she wanted to accompany me home but she did not respond. We walked out of the room and on the way out of the house, we walked past Mandy’s mother in the lounge. Her face had a fresh scar and she sat with a bottle of whisky and a half filled glass. I did not greet her. I did not know how to. I just rushed out of the house hiding behind Mandy’s father.

  The ride home was quite uncomfortable. I was forced to engage in small talk when all I preferred was some silence to calm my nerves. Speaking to Mandy’s father was however inevitable since I had to give him directions to our house. I was relieved when I finally arrived home. It was just after eight o’clock; almost an hour earlier than the time I had been allowed to return home. My parents and brother were on the fireplace heating water for the evening tea. My brother sat on a log one side of the fire, arguing with Father about which team was likely to win the upcoming 2010 World Cup soccer tournament. My parents sat on the other side, with Mother squashed in Father’s arms, laughing at Father’s failure to counter my brother’s reasoning as to why an African team was unlikely to win the World Cup. Her earlier anger towards Father seemed to have disappeared. It was not surprising though. Mother never managed to stay angry at Father for long and I could not think of a time that I had ever seen Father angry at Mother.

I joined my family by the fire place. Everyone was delighted to see me and had millions of questions. In no time, the four of us were sharing some tea and the warmth of the fire place. A familiar warmth that surpassed the embarrassment that I felt over our house in Mandy’s presence. A warmth that replaced the hurt I had felt over what had happened with James. It was a warmth that I had known all my life. A warmth that I would not trade for anything in the world.

06 May

ANNOUNCEMENT: “Tell Me More” — New #MeToo Writing Contest

Sexual Assault Awareness Month may have come to an end, but the editors of The East Jasmine Review strongly believe in keeping the conversation going year-round. Being a literary magazine that prides itself on representing diverse voices, we are excited to announce our first Tell Me More contest of “Me Too” stories. We are asking for submissions encompassing the spectrum of sexual assault, including not only of the act itself, but also of the healing process and aftermath of such an event. Submissions in fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry will be open from May 1st until June 24th. Winners will be published in an electronic and print version of our inaugural anthology series. We will not accept nor read submissions where sexual assault is treated as a “joke” or from the perpetrators point of view.

Poetry:

  • Submissions may encompass the spectrum of sexual assault including the trauma, anger, or healing.
  • Between 1-3 poems per submission.
  • Submission not to exceed 1500 words.
  • Only 1 submission per author.

Fiction:

  • Submissions may encompass the spectrum of sexual assault including the trauma, anger, or healing.
  • Submission not to exceed 2000 words.
  • Only 1 submission per author.

Non-fiction:

  • Submissions may encompass the spectrum of sexual assault including the trauma, anger, or healing.
  • Submission not to exceed 2000 words.
  • Only 1 submission per author.

CLICK HERE TO SUBMIT

08 Dec

Fiction: “Spacey” by Melinda Smoot

Spacey
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

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.

08 Dec

Fiction: “In All Honesty” by Kim Venkataraman

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 Venkataraman
kimvenkataraman.com

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.

07 Dec

Fiction: “Matty” by Brian Paul Mendoza

Matty
by Brian Paul Mendoza

The letter was simple enough.

“Dear Sir,

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.

Thank you,

Matt”

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.

Before AIDS.

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?

Yours,

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.

“Dear John,

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?

Sincerely,

Matty Meehan”

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.”

“Okay.”

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.”

“Thanks, again.”

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
@brianpaul2669

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.

07 Dec

Fiction: “A Sleuth of Bears” by John Brantingham

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

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.

06 Dec

Fiction: “Bacha Posh” by Meagan Noel Hart

Bacha Posh
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.   

05 Dec

Fiction: “The Afterlife” by Lena Zaghmouri

The Afterlife
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
is a fiction writer.

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.

07 Nov

Fiction: Leave It At The Altar by Jasmine Wade

Leave It At The Altar
By Jasmine Wade

 

Planning dates with my boyfriend Henry was always an ordeal. For one: he never showed up anywhere on time. So, a show or movie was out of the question. Two: our illnesses combined were like a herd of cows blocking the road to Normal Dateland. He suggested an action movie, a concert, and crowd watching at Fisherman’s Wharf. None of those were viable options because of my hallucinations. I suggested nachos and drinks at a local bar which he couldn’t do because of his bipolar medications and their oh so pleasant side effects.

This sort of thing was not an issue when we met. We had both been in a psychiatric hospital hidden in a wooded, secluded part of Northern California (civilization was at least 20 miles away). Paramedics wheeled me in on a stretcher. Joey stayed by my side while the nurse gave me a tour and took my bra (“The underwire is dangerous, dear”) and deodorant (“because of an incident with an alcoholic”).

Henry was the first fellow patient to talk to me. He was about my height (short for a guy, tall for a girl) and wore the same blue Cal hoodie the whole week he was hospitalized. His brown baldhead shined under the fluorescent lights. I tugged at my hair, which desperately needed a relaxer, and tried to look somewhat presentable.

“What are you in for?” he asked.

For a second, I thought about lying and saying something less stigmatized like depression or anxiety, but something about his smile made me want to be honest. “Schizoaffective disorder. Meds stopped working. You?”

“Whoa, schizoaffective. That’s schizophrenia plus bipolar, right?” He held a hand over an open mouth. I nodded. “I’m just regular old bipolar. Went off my meds.”

“Naughty boy.”

He chuckled, and the fat of his belly jiggled like it was laughing too.

That was three years ago. I’d managed to stay out of the hospital since then. Being healthy involved a balancing act between my two boyfriends: Henry and my illness. Both required respect, attention, loyalty, and tenderness. The madness was more demanding. It decided where I went, what I did, and who I did it with. If I stepped out of line, didn’t give it the attention or care it felt it deserved, I was punished with visions of pedestrians on the road where there were none or creepy crawlers on the walls, the ceiling, my skin. It was abusive but there was no breaking up, no moving away, no hiding.

But still, I dreamed of a normal boyfriend and a normal romance. That life would be like a really boring movie, but we would be enthralled with it and each other. Normal life (house, marriage, maybe a kid or two or three) was the altar, and I was the pilgrim walking many miles to get there. My illness, however, put up road blocks and detours to make the journey seem endless and the destination impossible. Henry was my golden ticket. Because he had a mental illness too, we’d be more understanding of each other and make better caretakers. He would take my life to the next level.

Joey plopped next to me on the couch. He tossed his leather jacket on the floor and flexed his chest muscles under his white tee. “Why don’t you just stay in? Order Chinese and watch a movie on Netflix.”

That’s what we always did, and I was sick of it.

“Then, go out the next morning to some public place. Like the Botanical Gardens. That shouldn’t be crowded on a weekday morning.” I stared into Joey’s eyes. The blue of his irises and the white skin of his eyelids were blurred slightly, my clue that he was a hallucination. But, in that moment, he was also kind of brilliant.

“How about we stay in tomorrow night?” I suggested to Henry. “We can order Thai and watch that World War II movie you wanted to see. I have to work the next day but the day after that, we can go to the Botanical Gardens.”

“Sounds perfect. And maybe over the weekend, we can drive up to see the Redwoods and walk along the beach.”

“I’d love that.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow at six.”

Six o’clock came and went with no Henry. I practiced pitches for the arthritis medications I sold to doctors during the day. I went over the index cards I kept in my car. Dr. Herman was a big fan of Crossfit, so I would mention the squat challenge I did the month before. Dr. LaSalle hated exercise junkies, so I would bring the double fudge cookies from the bakery she liked. Dr. Harbinger did a juice cleanse during the second week of every month, so I’d scrap the treats for that visit and bring detox tea instead. Dr. Singh’s daughter was preparing to go off to college, so I would be extra sympathetic and bring apple tarts. I went over the science behind the medication until I could pronounce all the terms perfectly.

I worked until ten o’clock and then started my nighttime routine: meds, bedtime yoga positions, herbal tea, and a book. I curled under my covers and tried to focus on the words on the page and not my irritation that Henry didn’t show up. (I was really looking forward to sexy time.) Part of me was used to it. He was a freelance photographer. When he was healthy, he traveled the world taking photos. When he wasn’t, he stayed at his mom’s house in Oakland. I didn’t know if it was his personality or his job, but he had this idea that he could sweep in and out of my life whenever he pleased. It upset me, and it upset my other boyfriend, the madness, who needed a predictable routine to lull it into dormancy.

As the meds and tea began to work their sleepy time magic, statistics ran through my mind. An old psychiatrist once told me, sixty percent of schizo-types functioned at a diminished capacity. They were greeters at grocery stores and had family or the state taking care of them. Ten percent were institutionalized, unable to leave hospitals without a judge’s approval. Ten percent were dead at their own hands. And twenty percent were out and about, holding down jobs and attempting to blend into mainstream society. I was one of the fortunate twenty percent, but that wasn’t guaranteed to last for the rest of my life. If I messed up badly enough, I could have another psychotic break and get knocked down to diminished status. I’d gone over these statistics a million times.

Similar racial statistics and their accompanying mantras—Talented Tenth, twice as good—were the rope at the end of a finish line that kept moving. And yet, I kept trying.

At three ‘o clock in the morning, loud booming knocks hit my front door with an impatience I could feel under my covers.

“Someone’s at the door, sugar pie,” Joey said. He stretched his legs from the papasan chair in the corner of my bedroom, as if he was also waking up.

I paused for a second, thinking maybe the knocks weren’t real. I froze, my head just an inch away from the satin pillowcase. The knocks came again, so loud and impatient I was sure the neighbors would wake. The cold air hit my feet first when I threw the blankets off of my body. Something’s wrong, I thought. As I walked to the front door, images of fires, earthquakes, freak tornadoes in San Francisco whirled through my mind. I imagined the end of the world. (Assassins also entered my mind for an instant, but what assassin rings the doorbell?)

I peeked through the peephole and flung the door open when I saw who it was. “Henry? What are you doing here?”

I took a good look at him. His eyes drooped, and he wasn’t moving like himself. He seemed slower, heavier.

“My mom kicked me out.” His voice trembled. “We had another fight. She said she’s tired of playing caretaker or some nonsense. She’s too old or whatever. I’m too much or something. I don’t really want to talk about it.” He sniffed.

“So…” The unspoken question hung in the air. I needed him to ask me, especially when I saw the two large suitcases and duffel bag sitting on my porch.

“Can I stay here for a few days? Just until I can find some other place to rent.”

“Just a few days?” I imagined my other boyfriend roaring with rage. Moving in? It would destroy my routine. But Henry was my actual boyfriend, accompanying me to the Altar of Normal. (Plus, moving in was a super adult move, right? Definitely something normal people did.)

Henry blinked back tears. ” I’m so tired. I think I need a day to rest. Or two days. Two days to rest and then two days to find a place.”

It didn’t feel right. But what could I say except, “Okay, baby, come on in.”

He pulled his suitcase right to my bedroom, threw his stuff onto Joey’s chair, and then crawled into bed on my side.

I watched Henry fall asleep almost immediately–something I had only known men to do.

Joey zipped his leather jacket up to the middle of his chest and shoved his hands into his pockets. “You should have talked to me about this first.”

“This is what adult couples do. They move in together,” I whispered.

“He’s not like you.”

“I know him better than any other guy I’ve dated.”

Joey snorted. “Yeah, all three of them?”

“Shut up.” He was right though. I’d been on more medications than dates. (Shit, I’d been hospitalized more times than I’d had orgasms of the non-vibrating variety.)

A shadow passed on the wall as Henry rolled over. “Who are you talking to?” he mumbled. He didn’t stay awake long enough for me to answer.

I crawled into bed next to Henry and tried not to toss and turn even though I couldn’t sleep. Just when I closed my eyes and began to drift into dreamland, my alarm blared. I caught it as quickly as I could and started going through the motions of my morning routine. When I got back to my bedroom after a shorter run than usual, Henry was awake, still in bed, and staring at the ceiling.

“Come get back in bed,” he said in a pitiful, whiny voice.

“I can’t stay with you. I have to go to work.”

“Come on, play hooky.”

“No.”

I peeled off my running clothes and hopped in the shower. The water–as hot as I could stand it–beat against my skin. I had to stick to my routine. I couldn’t play hooky. The potential for chaos in my mind was so great that my world had to be as orderly as I could make it.

I stood before my closet in just my lace panties, wondering if the sight of my almost naked self would get Henry out of bed. He didn’t seem to notice. I put on my tan skirt suit and pink blouse. In the kitchen, I made a kale, strawberry, and blueberry smoothie with almonds. Half went in a travel cup, and the other half went in a glass for Henry.

“I’m leaving,” I said as I placed his glass on the end table next to him.

He mumbled something.

“Pull the blanket away from your face so I can hear you, please.” I add the please a second late.

“I feel heavy.”

“Are you depressed?”

His body moved under the blanket in what looked like a shrug. “Probably.”

“Then, you need to get up.”

I knew mental illness demanded that I do the opposite of what my brain told me to do. If my brain told me to trust what I saw, I had to be a little suspicious. Henry’s brain was telling him to sleep all day. He needed to do the opposite.

“Go for a walk,” I said. “Head down to that grocery store you like and pick up some veggies to go with dinner.”

“Goddammit, Dawn.” He kicked at me from under the covers.

I walked out of the room without saying another word. I tried to remind myself of all the things I liked about Henry. He was smart, funny, and sweet. He never showed up on time, but when he did show up, he usually had flowers or something else to make me smile. He thought it was cute that I had a flat screen TV mounted on my living room wall even though I didn’t watch TV. (I liked the way it added to the decor of the room.) I needed to be patient with him. After all, if the roles were reversed, if my madness were out to play, I would want him to be patient with me.

We were a perfect match. We would take turns playing caretaker. Give a little, get a little. I told myself this over and over as I drove to the VA Medical Center in Oakland. By the time I pulled into their parking lot, I had calmed down.

Men in wheelchairs and on canes hung out in the grassy area outside the main doors. I nodded and smiled at them as I walked in, even though my stomach twisted in knots. All the pain in their faces and their bodies made me feel like my samples of arthritis medication were insignificant. Inside the lobby, my heels clacked against the orange tile.

There was no one at reception. I looked around and a middle aged woman walked up wearing a white coat and carrying a clipboard. She was dark-skinned with a cheerful, round face. “Hello,” she said. “How may I help you?”

I held out my hand to shake hers. “I’m Dawn, a rep from Mantex Pharmaceuticals. I’m here to give some samples to Dr. Herman.”

Instinct told me to look her up and down, but instead my mind wandered to what Henry was doing. I hoped he had at least moved from the bed to the couch to watch Netflix on his laptop.

“Oh, Dr. Herman just went into a meeting with all the other doctors. I’m on my way there now. I’d be happy to drop off the samples.” She reached out her hand. “Unless you needed to talk to him?”

Henry needed to snap himself out of his depression before it got more intense. There was a way to head these things off. Didn’t he know that? Why wouldn’t he let me help him? “No, no,” I said to the woman. “I mean, talking to him would be ideal, but if he’s in a meeting, I’ll call him later and make an appointment.”

“Great. I’ll take the samples to him.” The woman stepped a little closer, her smile widened.

I stared at her for a moment longer than was appropriate. Something didn’t feel right. “Thank you,” I said as I handed her the bag. Maybe I could convince Henry to cook some comfort foods with me. Mashed potatoes. Fried chicken.

The woman took the bag and shuffled down the hall. I started to walk back through the lobby towards my car. Maybe I could convince Henry to go to a movie with me. Or sex! Sex was good for depression, right? (Although I wasn’t sure how it would impact his man parts.)

Just before I walked back out the front doors of the clinic, I looked over my shoulder at the woman who took the samples. Damn, I should have gotten her name. New doctor meant new contact and new index card. I was off my game. She was pretty far away, but her shoes looked awfully comfortable, like slippers. I stared at her feet as they moved farther and farther down the hallway. She was probably wearing some comfortable brand of loafers.

Back in my car, I pulled out of the clinic parking lot. As I approached a red light, a green hatchback appeared in front of me. I slammed on the breaks wondering where the hell the car came from. The silver car behind me laid on the horn. I glanced in the rearview mirror. “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” I muttered. When I looked back in front of me, a second later, the green car was gone. I looked in all the lanes–no green car. The light was still red. Down the streets, back in the rearview mirror–no green car. I froze. The light turned green, and I didn’t move.

The green car was a hallucination. Not too bad, it happened from time to time. But it got me wondering about the woman at the clinic. Was the clipboard she was holding a little blurry? Was the white coat slightly out of focus? Who did I give the samples to?

“You should go back and check,” Joey said from the backseat.

“No, that would make things worse.”

“You gotta do something to cover your ass.”

The silver car honked again, and the world came back into focus. I moved through the intersection just as the light turned yellow.

I debated going back, but it would be worse for me to go back and admit I gave samples to a hallucination, right? Instead, maybe no one would even know I was there, and I could schedule an actual appointment with Dr. Herman. Or maybe I could say I gave them to an orderly whose name I didn’t catch. Either way, I had options.

I was about to go pick up some food to take to the next doctor on my list, but I realized I left the other packs of samples at home. I sped back and ran up the driveway as fast as I could in heels. I prayed Henry was at least sitting up.

I didn’t notice the blood at first. I tracked it halfway down the hallway before I noticed my shoes were sticking to the floor. I turned around and almost screamed at the sight of bloody footsteps. I recognized my small shoe-shaped prints in the blood, but there were larger prints with red toes on my hardwood floor.

“Henry?” I followed the bloody toes through the hallway to the entrance of my bedroom. The door was closed.

Joey breathed on my neck. He reached his white hand toward the doorknob, and I followed with my brown hand.

The trail of blood led from the door to the bed, where Henry was a lump under the covers.

“What happened? Are you hurt?”

He poked his head out. “Everything hurts.”

“I know, baby, I know.” I sat at the foot of the bed, wishing I could see under the covers, unsure of how to get him out of his cocoon. “But there’s blood on the floor. Where are you hurt?”

“Everywhere.”

I reached up and started to pull the covers away.

Henry’s hand flew near my face and dragged the covers back. I propelled myself backward, trying not to get hit.

I passed the green smoothie, untouched, on the nightstand as I left the bedroom.

Glass crunched under my feet when I stepped into the kitchen. My mouth opened and closed as I searched for words and breath. Every dish in my cupboards was on the floor in a heap of broken glass. Blood mixed in with the shattered pieces and trailed out of the kitchen.

Joey came in behind me. The glass didn’t crunch under his feet. “This, my dear, is what we call a 5150 kind of situation.”

A 5150 involved a call to the police, who would come and investigate the situation. They would inevitably deem Henry “a danger to himself or others” and cart him off in handcuffs to the nearest hospital for a psych evaluation. He would ride in the back of the cop car, sliding around the seat with every turn, unable to brace himself because his hands would be cuffed behind his back. He would be “escorted” into the hospital, with anyone watching unable to distinguish him from a criminal. He would be forced to disrobe down to his underwear in front of the cops and bear the cold, sterile hospital air in just a gown. The cops would tell the nurses to chain him to a bed and station a guard outside the door. It was humiliating. (Believe me, I knew.) It was the sort of thing that damaged the soul, and would definitely damage a relationship. I could not convince my black self to call the cops on my black boyfriend just because he broke my dishes.

I rushed back to the bedroom. The smell of decaying fruit hung in the air. But my nose adjusted after a few seconds.

“Henry, we have to talk. Do you know what my kitchen looks like right now?”

He rolled over so he was facing my direction even though his head was still under the covers. “It was an accident.”

He accidentally broke all my dishes?

“The first one was. An accident, I mean. I’m not sure what happened after that.”

“Is there anyone I can call for you?”

“I’m between treatment teams.”

“The whole team?” We were marching into dangerous territory. No treatment team meant no therapist, no psychiatrist, no professional support.

He poked his head out. His eyes were red. “I can get better on my own. I just need time. You know how this is. Sometimes you just have to ride it out.”

The smoothie on the table had begun to separate into its different elements. The green of the kale sank to the bottom while the oil from the almonds rose to the top.

“Can I look at your feet?” I said in my sweetest voice. I tried to channel the psychiatric nurses, who have amazing abilities to get uncooperative patients to follow orders. “I want to help you.”

I pulled the comforter up from the bottom. Mental note: remake bed.

Streaks of blood dripped down the sheets and the bed skirt onto the floor. Henry’s feet were covered in blood in varying degrees of dryness. It was caked between his toes. It oozed from cuts on the balls and soles of his feet. Shards of glass jutted from at least a dozen places on each foot.

“You don’t feel this?”

“I don’t feel much of anything.”

I stopped myself from rolling my eyes. (Did he really have to be so dramatic?) Impatience returned with Joey, who sat in the chair in the corner. The smell from the sour smoothie returned, and I caught a whiff with every breath.

I needed to get the glass out of Henry’s feet before it got infected. I grabbed tweezers from the bathroom.

I pushed the tweezers into his skin on either side of a shard of glass and pulled. The tweezers screeched against the glass, like nails on a chalkboard, but it didn’t move. I moved to a bigger piece. Slowly, the glass separated from flesh. A trickle of blood flowed from the open wound.

Joey had moved a little closer. “Hmm. Gauze?”

The blood dripped onto the sheets and then onto the floor. Mental note: clean floor.

I ran out of the room, slamming the door behind me, and sprinted toward the kitchen. I tiptoed over the glass, grabbed my first aid kit and my hot pink toolbox from under the sink, and ran back to the room.

The stink of the smoothie smacked me in the face when I opened the door, but I didn’t stop. The kale had separated from the red and blue of the berries. I’d never been more disgusted by the color green. The bedroom felt like it had shrunk to half its original size.

My heart pounded. In the back of my mind, I heard my therapist telling me to slow down, take a break, relieve some of the stress. But I couldn’t. Henry needed me to get the glass out of his feet.

My phone rang. I panicked, knowing it was work. They were undoubtedly wondering why I had missed the rest of my meetings. Or maybe it was about the VA Center. Nausea turned my stomach (the smell plus anxiety was a bad gastrointestinal mix).

I focused with a set of hot pink pliers on one of the small pieces near the ball of Henry’s top foot. My hands shook too much to get a good grip. My brain felt like it was swelling, pressing against the edges of my skull. I was getting overloaded. I leaned back, shook my head, and felt a drop from the ceiling land right on my forehead. Just as I looked up to see where it came from, another drop hit my eye. I wiped my eye and saw paint swirling around on the ceiling, as if a large child had finger painted up there. The greens swirled with the blues and reds. Drops of paint fell and landed on me, dotting my tan suit jacket.

The pressure in my brain intensified. I took a deep breath and peeled my suit jacket off and tried to concentrate on Henry’s feet. My madness was awake and roaring. I’d upset the delicate balance of my brain chemistry. My illness collided with Henry’s in my tiny bedroom, and it was hard to breathe. I knew I needed to take a step back, let my brain heal, keep from going too far, and prevent getting knocked down to diminished status. I would rest after I handled Henry’s feet.

I pulled out a couple more shards of glass and glanced over at the untouched smoothie. The kale seemed darker, like it was rotting. My stomach heaved.

I extracted piece after piece of glass out of Henry’s right foot. The sheets would be soiled forever. Mental note: Toss sheets.

I pulled and plucked until there was just one shard left. It was tiny and hidden right in the soft tissue of his arch. I leaned forward, gripping his ankle with one hand. My face was just inches away from the glass, which was getting harder to see as the sun began to set. I pushed the points of the pliers into Henry’s foot and didn’t grab the glass the first time around. It was like those carnival games with the claw and some nice, shiny, unattainable toy sitting in the bin. Henry groaned. I pushed the pliers back in. Henry screamed, jerked his foot up, and kicked me right in the face.

I fell off the bed, stunned. I felt my face. The glass left in his foot had scratched my cheeks, chin, and nose. I couldn’t tell my blood from Henry’s blood from the “paint” on the ceiling.

Joey crouched in front of me. Neither of us said anything for awhile.

My cell phone rang again. It was my boss Larry’s special ring tone. I wondered if it was about the VA Center.

How was this my life? Covered in blood, sitting on the floor of my bedroom with a sick man who doesn’t seem to want to do anything to make himself better. And all my dishes were broken. Mental note: buy new dishes.

“This isn’t working,” I told Joey.

Joey tapped his thigh. “You’re already in relationships.”

He was right. I was stuck in the miserable relationship with my illness. Henry had his own extra girlfriend. Maybe we couldn’t all be in the bed together. There wasn’t enough room. The road to the Altar of Normal had cracked, bent, warped and it felt like my brain was following suit.

Henry and I couldn’t be together anymore. A familiar ache—loneliness, fear—grew in my chest. I had planned out the whole normal life with Henry (house, marriage, kids, dogs). The collapse of the plan ushered in a panic that my life would never be what I wanted, that I would never have someone, that my madness would always be my closest companion.

“Focus,” Joey commanded.

And so, I did.

Mental notes: Call Larry and tell him I took a sick day. Call Dr. Herman and make an appointment. Get the glass out of Henry’s other foot. Make dinner. Buy more kale.

Throw away the smoothie.

The smell assaulted my nose as soon as my thoughts turned to the smoothie. I grabbed it and stomped toward the kitchen. I forgot about the broken glass and winced when I stepped on it. The glass fell out of my hand and smashed against the tile. The green liquid mixed with the red and white checkers of my kitchen floor.

Clean up the smoothie. Take the sheets of the bed. Clean up the glass in the kitchen. Get the blood out of the rug in the bedroom.

My phone ran again. Larry was calling.

I wanted to scream. I opened my mouth and the walls of the kitchen bent inward. I closed my mouth and the walls bounced back to their original place. I blinked once and then again, harder.

“I’m done,” I said aloud.

Trembling, I found my cell phone in my briefcase by the front door. I went to my living room and curled my feet under me on the couch. I dialed 911.

“Hello? Yes, I would like to…I need a…” My breath caught in my throat, and the tears started to come. “My friend…” He’d been reduced to that. He was no longer lover, boyfriend, hopes for normalcy, plans for a good life, golden ticket. “My friend is bipolar, and I can’t help him. Can you send someone?”

____________
Jasmine Wade
is a fiction writer.
jasminewade.com
Jasmine Wade is obsessed with the ridiculous, and oftentimes traumatic, trials of growing up. Her short stories have appeared in Drunken Boat, TAYO Literary Magazine, Lunch Ticket, The Copperfield Review and others. She is an alumna of VONA/Voices and Mills College’s MFA program. She has won the 2016 Edward P. Jones Short Story Contest and was a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Founding Members Award for College Writers. When she’s not writing, she’s usually buying or reading more used books than she has space.