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

Nonfiction: “Open Gym” by Noriko Nakada

Open Gym
by Noriko Nakada

A Saturday afternoon. I was running up and down a court with girls from my high school basketball team. It felt good to be there, on a court in our small town’s Mormon temple’s open gym. But we could feel the end too. Graduation was right around the corner, and after years of playing hoops together, we knew this could be our last chance to share a court. We didn’t let them break the girls up. We knew how pick up games worked. Most of the time guys ignore girls on their teams, never pass to you or let you bring the ball up the court. They probably thought we’d be easy prey, so when we said we wanted to play together, they agreed.

Most of the other players were LDS men, elders, and there were a couple of younger guys, boys we knew from high school, like Robert. He and I had gone to middle school together, had been two of the best basketball players back then. We were also both half Asian. His mom was Polynesian, my dad was Japanese American, and when we dated at the end of eighth grade, people thought we were the perfect couple. We broke up before starting high school, but I watched him from afar. I hoped Robert would want to play with us. He knew we could play, but he joined a group of the older guys, men I didn’t know.

We won the first game, surprising everyone in the gym, including ourselves. Then we won the next. We were in better shape. We were quick. We snatched steals and made our lay-ups and even when we missed it was okay because we were winning by four or five. We laughed as we ran up and down the court. It had been a while since we’d won. We were coming off of a long losing season of basketball. It felt good to win, to dominate the court even though we were young, and small, and girls. We held the court.

After our third win, we were waiting for next when Robert started talking with one of my teammates. She stormed off the court and didn’t say a word to me. I glanced around the gym and saw the men looking at me sideways. Robert walked toward me as another game started on the court: a game without us, without the winners.

“What’s going on?”

Robert motioned for me to follow him out of the gym. I grabbed my keys and water bottle. I sensed I wouldn’t be coming back.

“They asked you to leave.” Robert said as we stepped out into pale spring sunshine. “They say it’s because you aren’t Mormon.”

I felt tears welling up in my eyes. I turned away. Robert was still a great shooter, was still a good guy, I thought. I loved him in the eighth grade and maybe I still did, but he never seemed to forgive me for breaking up with him. He went to the rival high school; he was Mormon so things would never would have worked out between us even. Yes, we had much in common for this small town where we were both born and raised, but the differences were mounting.

“You know it’s not that,” I said, my voice betraying me with a quiver.

“Well, yeah, it’s also all of the laughing. It’s just not what they want in their gym.” I looked at him, studied his handsome face as he made excuses for these men. And then I wondered if he agreed with them. “Come on, Nor. Sometimes you just have to take it easy.”

I squinted back up at the sky, back up at Robert. “Take it easy playing or take it easy being me?”

Robert shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe both.”

I turned toward my car and left him standing there in the sunlight. I wondered if he was right. Maybe we should have been less gleeful in our victories. Maybe we should have stopped playing hard, should have been more subdued. We could have laughed less and scored slower. Maybe I could have been a different person, the kind of girl who played at the Mormon church’s open gym and wasn’t asked to leave, who didn’t break up with her boyfriend because it could never work out in the long run.

I drove away from the gym toward home and let the tears come. I wasn’t sure why I was crying. Maybe it was because I didn’t fight, because I didn’t walk back into the gym and say, “We got next.” Maybe it was because I was a girl, and there were places where I was not welcome. Maybe it was because Robert hadn’t stood up for us, for me. Maybe it was because I hated those men in the gym who expected women to stay home and have kids and give up whatever other dreams they might have for their lives.

But by the time I got home, I’d recovered. I’d done nothing wrong, and I hoped those men who were still playing in their all male, all-Mormon game felt bad. I hoped Robert felt bad, because when I told the story later that day, later that summer, and for the rest of my life, I told it with pride.

There was this one time when the Mormons kicked me out of their gym. I was winning. I was laughing, and they couldn’t handle it. They couldn’t handle losing. They couldn’t beat us. They couldn’t handle me.

___________________________
Noriko Nakada
norikonakada.com

Noriko Nakada writes, blogs, tweets, parents, and teaches middle school in Los Angeles. She is committed to writing thought-provoking creative non-fiction, fiction, and poetry. Publications include two book-length memoirs: Through Eyes Like Mine and Overdue Apologies, and excerpts, essays, and poetry in Lady Liberty Lit, Catapult, MeridianCompose, Kartika, Hippocampus, The Rising Phoenix Review, and Linden Avenue.

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

Nonfiction: “2 Girls” by Bridgid McBride

2 Girls
by Bridgid McBride

Two girls at a softball game. One with silky golden hair and one with red shoes. It’s one of their boyfriend’s games, one of those interchangeable boys – maybe he has long hair, maybe he has a nose ring, maybe he’s in a band, maybe he wants to be a chemist, maybe he loves her – it doesn’t matter. The girls don’t watch the game; they drink lots of water and sit on the ground with their legs crossed and talk about the horror film they’re writing – the one where a two-foot-tall Yoda doll kills their interchangeable boyfriend(s).

Two girls at a coffee shop. One with Adobe InDesign and one with a notebook and a pen. It’s a self-aware kind of coffee shop, with recovered wood tables and framed burlap coffee sacks on the walls and bearded baristas with endless banter and delicate tattoos up their arms behind the counter. The girls don’t do their homework; they drink too-expensive coffee and speak in soft conspiratorial voices about their futures – Costa Rica and fancy new laptops and pseudonyms and foreign grad programs and no babies!!

Two girls on a porch swing. One with wine in a mug and one with beer in a can. It’s a party, but it’s really just a bunch of boys getting stoned on a couch and listening to boring jam bands and watching psychedelic Youtube videos. The girls retreat outside, to the porch swing, to talk about why this gross house is better than the last gross house these boys lived in; it has three floors and a loft and beautiful stained glass windows in the dining room and a gray cat named Wednesday.

Two girls in a bar booth. One in a grey hat and one in a green skirt. It’s Halloween but neither is in costume – they dressed up over the weekend, as a martini and a Stephen King character – and they split a pitcher between the two of them and Ed, who went to get more quarters for the pool table. They say that they feel transmigrated into another time period, where the lighting is cozier and the beer is cheaper and life is simpler, where the pinball machine in the corner has relevancy, some modified 90s where there’s also a Buck Hunter game and the curly one can still use her smartphone to take a selfie in the window glare.

Two girls on a dock. One in her boyfriend’s t-shirt and one in her bra and underwear from the day before. They’re mad at each other, but they never say why. One is upset that the other didn’t wait for her to take acid the night before, leaving her alone at the height of the trip, and the other is upset that the one didn’t tell her she was coming to the North at all. They both pretend otherwise, and they hold hands as they jump into the freezing October lake. The girls scramble out and wrap a giant towel around both of their thin shaking bodies, smiling as the resentment dissolves, and they step lightly to avoid pine needles pricking the rough undersides of their summer feet on their way up to the house. It will never be as easy as it is right now again.

________________________
Bridgid McBride

Brigid McBride is a cook and barista living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She has a BA in English from the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. She loves to bike, write, drink beer, and watch movies. She hopes to be a TV writer when she grows up. Her favorite album is “Exile in Guyville” by Liz Phair. Her biggest inspirations in writing are her sisters, mother, and grandmother. She hopes you like her story.

05 Dec

Nonfiction: “She” by DM Philips

SHE
by dm philips

Here is everything I know about her.

She is a mother now. Then, she was unmothered. Non-mothered? Not mothered well. Almost alone. A lonely child, vassal to a just-older sister who was just plain mean. Shuttled around the world by her parents in the service of other, lesser gods: flight, love, cheap housing.  

She was unfathered, too. Not-well fathered. Father, unwell. Is it true he threw her pregnant mother down the stairs? Well, if he didn’t, he could have. Just plain mean. A mean drunk, that’s what I heard. Perhaps that’s why she doesn’t drink. He’s dead now, by the way. I wonder if she cares. If she feels his absence is now complete.

It is important to mention: she is a mother. Becoming a mother made sense to her. Being a mother seems like the fulfillment of other goals unreached. Like time, unlost.

She spent her time in the shadow of her sister.  Forever trying to be good, to be enough. To be good enough. Born just 10 months earlier, she grew larger by her taunts. The sister drove deep in her a sense of unworthiness, a shame she’d struggle to shake. Once slender, she turned to food to fill what was unfillable. Her lean body rounded out pleasantly, then unpleasantly. Not unpleasant to me, but she spends her time now talking about diets, about order, about “tomorrow”.

Her children have round bodies, too. Round, sweet bodies on the verge on distended, unsweet. She stuffs them with treats. This is one version of love.

She was always wanting for friends, yet never quite finding them. Those she found, she trusted deeply, even the untrustworthy ones. She was left at the mall once. Abandoned in a blizzard. The mall closed, the governor called a “state of emergency”. I imagine her standing outside in the thin clothing she wore then. Huddled by the door, watching snowdrifts fill the desolate parking lot. Wondering what to do, if anyone would come for her. Who did she wish for, in the state of emergency?

She was pregnant, more than once. She was hungry for sweetness and she found it briefly in unreliable, older men. Three, four, five abortions, that’s what I heard. Her mother knew, cursed her, damned her to a fiery hell. Is it true she threw her down the stairs? Well, if it isn’t, it could be. Her mother was always mean. History repeats itsef, unless we stop it.

She is the kindest person I know. She always tries. Even when people are cruel to her, she dips underneath their cruelty and tries harder. She is so sensitive, so freaking sensitive. She cries at the drop of a hat, at goodbyes, at movies. Her crying is sniffly and messy and wet. She tucks love notes scrawled in the handwriting of a grade school girl into my bags when I leave. She is complicated at drive-throughs. She wants everything on the side. She drinks coffee and then falls straight to sleep. She loves mint chocolate chip ice cream. Two scoops. She has talked about “going back to school” for the last fifteen years. Perhaps this year, she will.

When her son was sick, she slept sitting up for three weeks. He could not move or speak but sometimes she imagined he did and sprang up to check. She had known something was wrong. She brought him to the hospital before it was too late. She learned, then, to trust her instincts. Her motherly instincts, they were just enough. She was a mother, first.

I was there when she fell in love. I don’t know what they were doing behind closed doors, but it seemed to take an agonizingly long time to get to the good part. Every day for years he would come over and they would watch basketball and ‘Martin’ on television. My grandmother, who spoke little English yet loved this enormous, gentle Black man, would feed him bowls of rice and curry. She’s dead now. Maybe those were the good parts.

He would leave at 5:45 pm, just before her mother came home. Once, he lost track of time and was forced to hide in the closet. Why was he a secret? No matter— this is where I learned much of what I know, of what I’m telling you now. Through a shouting match. The abortions, the shame, all was yelled and screamed. There was pushing. There were stairs, maybe. A broken arm. That’s what I remember. That’s what I heard.

They used to play-wrestle, piling themselves on top of each other, giggling hysterically. Sometimes I would join. I was a lonely child, too. Their bodies were warm.

I wonder if they’re there, wrestling in their house, giggling, right now. With their three big, beautiful, brown children, who are all well. The mother, now the grandmother, might come over to babysit. She was not just plain mean, after all. Perhaps there are snowdrifts outside. The older sister, now the lonely one, calls for her advice. Sometimes the call goes to voicemail while she speaks to her other friends. Her younger sister loves her, too, thinks she’s the kindest person she’s ever met. Feels mothered by her. Well-mothered. Mothered, well.

That’s what I heard. That’s what I know.  

_____________________
dm philips

dm philips is a storyteller and birthworker born in goa, india, and raised in the northeastern US. her work explores queer diaspora, madness, unmothering, and finding/coming home. dm is a columbia university community scholar and two-time VONA/voices fellow. her writing can be found in the decolonizer, hot metal bridge, and elsewhere.

 

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

Interview: Siobhan Hebron for Post-Trama (Art Exhibit)

Interview with Siobhan Hebron for Post-Trauma, Art Exhibit for Keck Medicine
by Julianne Carew, Fiction Editor

 

I first heard Siobhan Hebron read her work at a compilation reading of artists with chronic illness. The reading was as eclectic as it was moving, but what I immediately noticed about Siobhan was her in-your-face attitude about illness and the language that surrounds it.

Her short essay, “Hair,” was not about the devastation of losing what most women consider their crowning glory, but instead, about the many other aspects that make living with a chronic illness a reality. Aspects like uncertainty, and the resiliency of the human spirit in the face of it, and the way even devastating news can be turned into art.

At twenty-seven, clad with black leather boots, and a fashion sense that could only be described as effortless, Siobhan Hebron is not your typical cancer patient. She’s a modern-day Gloria Steinem of illness whose mission is to shed new light on the subject, and revolutionize the way we discuss chronic disease.

I sat down to speak with her at the USC Keck Center, where her latest show, Post-Trauma, is currently being exhibited.

 

Can you tell me a little bit about your diagnosis?

 

I went to the urgent care and I told them that I had been in excruciating pain for four days. The first urgent care didn’t take me seriously. They gave me a prescription for Norco, and told me to come back in twenty-four hours if I wasn’t feeling better.

 

I decided that wasn’t going to do it, so I went to another urgent care, and they agreed with me that something was wrong. They told me I could have a blood clot, or a brain tumor, but it was very unlikely. They decided to look into it and perform an MRI.

 

What do you think the difference was between the first urgent care, that didn’t take you seriously, and the second one, that did?

 

It’s going to sound really funny, but the first urgent care was a male doctor and the second one was a female doctor. The second one was also, specifically, a head and neck urgent care. I went to them and told them, you know, look, this is what they did for me yesterday and I’m not better. I need help. I’m in too much pain. But that was my first set of concrete circumstances of male versus female pain and treatment management. I think a lot of times, doctor’s prejudices are subliminal. They don’t realize that they treat a man or a woman differently. It’s not because they want to be mean. It’s an unconscious thing.

 

Once you were diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor, what happened next?

 

The doctor’s wanted me to do chemotherapy. But when I was trying to decide what kind of treatment plan to go with, they were also saying that I needed to decide, being a young adult, whether fertility was an issue for me. They told me that in the next couple of days I needed to decide if I’d like to freeze my eggs, and if I did, they’d need to start on that right now.

 

What did you decide?

 

I did not do it, for several reasons. Children have never been something that I wanted, neither before, during, or after cancer. But what I took real issue with was the fact that they were essentially saying, “You need to make this decision right now, so that we can move forward.”

 

At the time, I was thinking to myself, okay, first of all, I’m trying to make one major decision right now, which is whether to pursue treatment for cancer. You can’t ask me to make another giant life decision on top of that. Also, this is a much different decision than if I were a man. If I were a man, this would be an inexpensive, non-invasive treatment. As a woman, it’s extremely expensive, it’s invasive, it’s potentially dangerous. It was that implicit bias that they didn’t take into account for me as the patient.

 

As a patient, and as someone who has been heavily involved in the healthcare system, what do you recommend could be done to bring awareness to medical misogyny, especially since you mentioned it is mostly subliminal?

 

I think visibility is critical. When we’re still not in a place to where people are comfortable with talking about illness in an everyday conversation, the burden is on the sick person to educate the healthy people. I think that’s why I’m so cognizant of, and so specific in my language about it, and why I make art, and why I write about it, and why I think it’s so important to be open, and have a really open dialogue about things like that.

 

What does the word cancer mean to you?

 

Is it really crazy if I say it means life? I mean, it is my life now. I just went to a wedding this weekend, and I met a whole bunch of new people, and everyone’s asking you, oh, what do you do? What do you do? What do you do? And that’s such a hard conversation for me to have. Right now, I do cancer. That’s what I do. This was especially true a year, or two years ago, when I was smack dab in the middle of treatment. And even though I’m not actively in it right now, it is still so present in my life, in every way, shape, or form.

 

How did being diagnosed with cancer effect your life?

 

It threw everything up in the air. Before, I went to UCLA. I double majored in art and art history. I graduated in four years. I did the whole thing, and I was fully on track to pursue art history, not art. I was not going to pursue a studio practice, at all. So I was looking into graduate programs for art history. I was looking to go the Ph.D. route. I didn’t know fully what I was going to do, but that’s what I was looking at. I knew I was going to take at least two years off in between, just after talking with professors and everyone, so that’s kind of where I was. I was in those years off, when this just came out of nowhere.

 

It really did stop everything. It didn’t change anything biologically or physiologically about me, that would make it impossible for me to still pursue that. I still absolutely could get my Ph.D., but it transformed everything so utterly and completely, and pretty immediately I decided, no, I’m not doing that. I don’t want to do that anymore.

 

How did the uncertainty of cancer effect your art?

 

I think the uncertainty, in the beginning, affected the medium the most. In the beginning, right after I was diagnosed, I started making stuff mainly in video and performance. When I was in school, I stayed away from that at all costs. Before my diagnosis my art was very object-based, painting, sculpting, drawing. I wanted to make things.

 

Once I was creating stuff based on my diagnosis, and thinking about my body and a lot more about this uncertainty and where I was, I didn’t want to make anything so permanent. I didn’t want to make anything that someone could hold in his or her hands, or that could be put on a wall. My art became something that had to be experienced in real time and space. For someone to be a witness to my art they had to be there at that time, in that place, and witness what my body was doing.

 

Were you insured at the time of your diagnosis?

 

Yes. When I was diagnosed I was twenty-four, and this was in 2014, right after Obamacare was originally passed. So under Obamacare I was still insured under my parents. And knowing me, having never have been sick, if Obamacare had not been passed, I would have thought, ugh, I’m too young. I don’t need insurance right now. I probably just wouldn’t have done it. So it really, truly, saved my life

 

What do you have to say about what’s going on in healthcare now?

 

It’s appalling, and terrifying, and will murder millions of people. It’s inhumane. On election night, healthcare’s the only thing I thought about. I kept thinking to myself, “I’m dead.”

 

Who do you think will be most effected?

 

I think the poor will be effected. I think all minorities will be affected. The disabled will be effected, the chronically ill will be effected. The elderly will be effected. Pretty much everyone who is not a rich, white, healthy straight male will be affected. Pretty much everyone who is not the spitting image of a congressman will be affected.

 

What do you think we should do from here? As an artist, and a patient, and someone who this effects directly, what would you like to see to make people aware?

 

The calls, the emails, the protests, the things like that. Making art is my outlet for it. But I think anyone who is dealing with issues like this, if they’re comfortable with it, and if they’re in a safe place to do so, I think it is really important to be visible.

 

It’s so misunderstood, what it takes to live with an illness on a daily basis, and to make that visible to others. Obviously, if you don’t live with it everyday, you’ll never understand it fully. But if you can make people see deeper into that situation, and have more empathy for it, it can only be better for everyone.

 

People only believe you can either be alive and well, or sick and dying. But people have a real issue with being alive and sick. I think the more people talk about it, and are visible, and see people being alive and sick, and see that we are viable human beings, the more beneficial it will be. Yeah, we’re alive, and we’re sick, and we’re going to continue to be alive if you’ll let us.

 

Do you think there’s anything the government can do to redeem itself with regards to healthcare? What would you like to see happen?

 

In a perfect world they could get rid of the American Healthcare Act, and work towards bettering the current system. Because it is working, it is good. It’s not perfect, but, it is the most effective healthcare system this country has ever had. Instead of tearing it down and starting from scratch, let’s start from where we’re at. It’s not perfect, but it’s good. So let’s focus on making it better.

 

Where does your health stand now?

 

My health is currently stable. The tumor continues to be stable. I am doing MRIs every twelve weeks. I go in for the scans and then I meet with my neuro-oncologist right after, and he goes over it. It’s so funny that I’m a visual artist and the only way to monitor my tumor is through visual means.

 

Artistically, what do you see yourself working on in the future?

 

I still have a great desire to do some kind of durational performance, potentially, over years, where it’s some kind of using up of the body, over time. Truly, my body feels like an art object now because of what’s happened to it, and it also somehow feels like so much has been done to it. Oddly, I feel closer to it, and somehow, more distant from it. It feels almost like it did in the beginning, like my body is some potential object to be used up for art.

 

____________
Siobhan Hebron
@shebron
siobhanhebron.com

She graduated from UCLA in 2012 with a B.A. in both Art and Art History. Her work engages in feminist social practice, directly embracing community and collaboration, and functions within the idea that a radically honest dialogue is needed to change the socio-cultural perception of health and illness.

 

____________
Julianne Carew
Fiction Editor, East Jasmine Review

Julianne writes new adult and literary fiction. She is currently trying to find a home for her first novel, Why Paintings Fall. She lives in the Los Angeles area, but travels all over the world collecting stories. Her work is featured or forthcoming in The East Jasmine ReviewLiterally Stories805 Literary MagazineBewildering Stories, and in numerous anthologies.

 

 

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.