Creative Nonfiction

FOREIGNER by Rachel Laverdiere

When the cockroach and I lock eyes, I’m almost relieved. You’ve half convinced me that I’m neurotic. You say I imagine the scrutiny of the old ajumas at the outdoor markets, the side-eyed stares on the train to Kimje, the personalized attack by the orangutan at the Taegu Zoo. Yet, I’ve caught these glossy black orbs peering at me from above the window overlooking the hall. A hand’s-breadth from the closed classroom door. My only means of escape. I twist the pinching wedding bands your mother had made for me when we came back to Korea to exhibit our newborn son. She’d tried to convince me that her son and grandson belonged in this country, with her. It didn’t seem to matter where I belonged. 

At last, I have proof that I’m being watched, but I hardly feel vindicated. 

Your metred baritone penetrates the wall between our classrooms. The machine-gun clatter of children’s laughter and then a lull. Soon, the hall will fill with the youngest yuchiwon kids. If I don’t make my move now, I’ll have to wait for “Jake-teacher” to settle his next kindergarten class. I ease my chair away from the half-finished reports. I keep my eyes on the giant cockroach while I edge toward the door. 

Once I make it into the hallway, your voice booms. I glance into the window, watch the kids smother you. Black ants on honey. When I rap at the windowpane, the furrow dividing your angular brow crosses concern with annoyance. I raise my eyebrows and mime helplessness. This cannot wait.  

You brush off the children and line them up at the door. Soon, they screech toward the office to meet the piano teacher. 

Rather than explain, which would likely lead you to dismiss the cockroach as another over-dramatization and judgement of Korea, I say, “Just come. Please.” You glance at your watch but follow.

 

Entering my classroom, I point out the intruder, still perched near the ceiling. You glance at your watch again, sigh and remove your polished shoe and climb atop a student desk. Thwack! As your shoe smacks the wall, the cockroach soars across the room and lands on my desk. You topple to the ground, your shoeless hand protecting your face.

I choke back my laughter but cannot conceal my grin as this tragedy becomes comedy. 

“It’s a foreigner!” You spit the bitter words before you crush the cockroach between your shoe and my reports.  

My smirk melts from my lips. Twisting my wedding bands, I ask, “But how can you tell?” 

“Native cockroaches don’t fly.” You force your foot into its shoe and yank the shoelaces so hard I’m surprised they don’t snap. Your gaze hooks into mine, and you add, “Foreigners can’t be trusted to stay put.”

The heat of your words stings my cheeks. The door thuds behind you. 

As I scrub cockroach remains from my reports, I picture the hefty white envelope at the bottom of my teaching bag. It’s stacked with enough won to pay back my student loans. Almost enough to get our son and I settled back in Canada. I set my teeth, determined to leave before I, too, am squashed.

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THE SCHWINN by Rob Kaniuk

Mike showed up yelling and hollering about "the perfect gift" for Murph’s 40th birthday. He insisted everyone eat dinner and he’d give my dad his gift after we all had cake. Brylcreemed white hair, D.B. Cooper glasses, and one of his teeth, rimmed in gold, that twinkled when he smiled. It was a sly smile that was there whether he was handing me a butterscotch or crushing my hand purple in a handshake. He lived in a cabin, kept goats to maintain his lawn, and always had a paper bag filled with quarter sticks of dynamite.

 Mike was nuts, but he was our nut and we loved seeing his white Ranger kicking up dust unannounced. 

Since his crazy had been well established, and he talked about this gift very loudly while we all ate, a crowd followed him to the back of his truck.

He pulled out a brown grocery bag.

“Here you are, Murph,” he said, handing it to my dad with a touch of evil in his grin. “Happy birthday, from one Polack to another.”

My dad never said it, but he was afraid of Mike. He held the bag in front of everyone and couldn’t hide the look of inevitable embarrassment.

“Mike, I have my kids here–is it okay?”

“You’re not getting out of this one.”

“Mike, what the hell is it?”

“Take it out, you nervous bastard–it ain’t gonna bite.”

“I can’t see–what is it?”

Mike snatched the bag from my dad and poured it out on the tailgate. The goat’s head popped out first, then all four hooves. Mike roared laughing which made everyone else kinda laugh in support of his insanity. Murph laughed a what-the-fuck laugh, holding the head by a single horn, while my sister and I hid our faces and convulsed in quiet laughter at his inability to hide his discomfort.   

“That’s Shoeless Joe. Broke his leg in a damn gopher hole yesterday, so I had to shoot ’im. Perfect timing, really. Saved me a few bucks on a case of Coors.”

“Say it ain’t so, Joe.” Murph backed away from his "perfect gift."

“Robbie, Colleen, I got you something, too–” he said and slid the head aside and threw a hind leg for my dad to catch. He then grunted as he pulled a Schwinn out the back of his truck. The tire knocked the head of the goat on the ground. Mike grabbed it by the horn, put it back on the bloody tailgate. 

It was a women’s model Schwinn with the low bar that looked like it survived the scrap drives during The War. 

“You two can share this. It’s a damn good machine. Don’t build’m like this anymore.”

We thanked Mike for his gift, and he laughed a Camel-non-filtered laugh and squeezed my hand into submission.

 

The red clay cliffs at the edge of the campground were 30 to 40 feet above the beach at Elkview Shores. Every drop of rain washed a little bit of that clay into the Elk River. This left large canyons in places where the water funneled. One of the little canyons was right in front of my dad’s trailer. To fill the giant void, people threw large metallic trash items into the chasm. Lawnmowers, refrigerators, steel lawn furniture–anything that promoted rust and filled the hole. Once the trash started to wash down to the beach, they abandoned this approach and decided to grab shovels and go ‘Trailerpark Corps of Engineers" on the problem. All of this trial and error happened before I was born, so by the time Coleen and I were beating around the campgrounds, there were tons of rusted metal trash in the various points of erosion and a four foot mole-hill that ran parallel to the river. The mole-hill ran the whole length of the park and acted as a swale to guide the rainwater from the rest of the park to one area where it would drain through a pipe and into the river below.

I couldn’t tell you about that when I was growing up. All I knew was that we had a half-mile-long mound that was built for two things: laying on our backs at night to get lost in the stars, and for jumping our bikes during the day.

I’d ride the rusty Schwinn up and down that campground and ghost ride it into the bushes so the other kids didn’t think I took my post-war relic seriously. But I did. It was, as Mike said, a damn good machine. Everyone made fun of it, and they tried like hell to break it, but they couldn’t. Colleen and I tried, too. Even the older kids couldn’t break it, and they could break just about anything. Buried in sand, ridden half-submerged, sent riderless, flying over the levee countless times. It was the AK-47 of bicycles. 

Crazy Mike’s Schwinn got respect in the end. After everyone else’s Huffys broke and got replaced, the crappy Schwinn was still around. If it was 30 pounds when we got it, it must’ve weighed a hundred when we were done from all the sand that found its way into the frame. 

I got older and abandoned it by the bath house for someone else. It belonged to childhood, not me. It belonged to laughter and Elkview Shores and reckless abandon. It belonged to another kid like me who needed that Schwinn as an escape from an alcoholic parent. I was old enough to escape in other ways. Old enough to fight back if I had to.

I like to think there’s still a kid riding it down the boat ramp into the water and he’s laughing. He and his friends can't stop laughing about the rusty old women's bike they found in the woods where the weirdos hang out. And they’ll never admit how damn cool that bike is. But they know.                                           

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LIGHTNING STRIKES by Emily Livingstone

Once upon a time, something truly devastating lanced out of the sky and struck the protagonist, turning him into a tragic hero. He was dead and born again in an instant, a demigod with a one-line history of having killed his whole family in a madness borne of squabbles between gods. He went on to perform twelve labors beyond human capability. He married a new wife and ascended to Mt. Olympus, a god-immortal. 

Or, once upon a time, there was a woman whom the earth swallowed. In fact, it may have swallowed a whole town, but then she climbed out of the chasm, and was awakened, a goddess all along, just asleep before, needed by the world in her new, better, more powerful form. And what of the town that fell into the chasm? It is only the backstory.

When suffering scraped me raw, did it empty me of something? Did golden, liquid power pour in to displace what was there? Did wings spring from my back, spreading wide from telephone pole to telephone pole, ready to bear me off on a quest? Did I become a weapon? 

On our search for salvation, a psychic told us about Michael the Archangel. I knew about him, but had never really considered him before. We could call him Mike, she said, and talk to him anytime, driving in the car or wherever. I see him now, in a flash of lightning, brandishing his sword aloft, illuminated in the darkness—muscular chest and wings outspread, a face full of confidence and potency. Whenever he appears, an 80s power ballad plays—maybe “Holding Out for a Hero” or “Livin’ on a Prayer”—and other angels roll their eyes, but they secretly like it, and he has the goods to back it up. And maybe, now, I’m beside him, glowing golden with my own set of wings, filled with a power I only half recognize. 

She also told us we’d live near the ocean one day. Maybe we will. 

When the scans were bad—when each one, despite everything, showed a growing tumor, our current house seemed to me like it might be cursed. 

Later, when he could get up from the couch without his legs giving out, when he was feeling better, it seemed to teem with life. Each garlic clove I bought from the supermarket sprouted immediately. The crocuses and paperwhites outside pushed through the stony ground ahead of schedule. I felt possibility running through all of us. I wondered if the green insistence of it would pulse within me and give us a miracle child. The child would be all our love, hope, and persistence—our future made manifest, a middle finger to cancer and all that came with it. What a terrible burden for a baby. But, no, it would not be that. It would be joyous. A whole life placed between us and death. A whole person more to love. The little person we dreamed of before, and have not quite given up. 

I have dreams for us, but he is not back to normal, and life is not normal. The days are long and sometimes they require of me so much that there is nothing left at the end. My body is numb to feeling and touch. In the “Sleeping Beauty” story, when the whole kingdom went to sleep together, waiting for the prince, was it really a curse? Wouldn’t a shared sleep—one finally long enough to make up for the all the sleep that was eaten away by stress, children, and illness—wouldn’t it heal? It seems to me that if I could have a sleep like that—a long one, with all my loved ones asleep too—I might feel better.

Peace and danger are still at war in my life, and only a thin wall separates them. Things are better, but with any ping of my phone, with any change in medication, with a change in the cells of the brain, with a shift in scar tissue, a sudden swelling, with an illness caught by chance, with a tree falling through the night, with a car that slams into us without notice, the chasm could engulf our entire existence, and I don’t know who or what could crawl from the pit after that. 

The apocalypse is happening around us all the time. Someone’s life, as they know it, is ending. With the spread of a virus that has hushed the world, many people are being swallowed by whales, now. The asteroids have fallen indiscriminately, the oceans have risen angrily, and the sun has died. I still feel the fear, and sometimes, it tightens around me like a boa constrictor, but I’ve had practice living with it. Sometimes, this seems like a superpower, and sometimes, it seems like a festering wound. I pray, and my prayers are not just for my family. The prayers are articulate hope, spoken against inarticulate dread. 

To drown the dread, I go to the beach where my grandparents used to have a house overlooking the ocean. The cold wind climbs down my lungs. Now it’s the wall between me and my grandparents that feels paper-thin, and I sense them on the other side, can almost hear them, touch them. The ocean is there, and the sand. Something inside me loosens and warms, even in the cold. I can remember sleeping downstairs in their house, listening to the continuous speech of the waves and feeling comforted and afraid at the same time because of the imagination of childhood, that opens doors without being sure of closing them. 

I take a pebble from the beach: smooth and cold in my palm. I bring it home to add to other talismans I’ve collected. I perform all the discreet magic I can to keep my family alive. We all do. 

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AT THE ANIMAL LEVEL by L Mari Harris

I was not born with this rage.

I don’t remember when it first entered me. (Yes, you do.)

Nor do I remember when I first realized everything I saw was faintly veiled in red: the city streets, the faces of people I passed by every day, my reflection in the mirror as I brushed my teeth. (Are you sure about that?)

Now, I drape this red rage over me like a hooded cape made of velvet and ermine. If I tuck my head just right inside the hood, I cannot see the trim of white that once scampered along a winter’s day. Isn’t that the point—to hide from pain and suffering? Me, I mean. Others, too. How red is tied to beginning, middle, and end: my birth, my shoe in the middle of a street, people gathered at a shocked distance, hands clasped over mouths, those same mouths that the night before tore at a medium rare steak on their plates (a death, but not my own).

***

Here’s more red for you, born of pain (the rage came later): The corner of Washington & 17th, July, year of our Lord 1993. You are silky soft, lapin-eyed, still smelling of country-girl little bluestem, cornstalk buildings cleaving clouds when you tilt your tender little head and sniff these city smells, concrete seizing heat you feel through new city-girl shoes. Even the grackles and Blue Jays are softer here, trounced by the grinding of delivery trucks and SUVs. This city is too new. Too much. Too, too, too many people panting mad in the heat. Noses twitching like alley rats. This city is too hot in its fur. This day’s dawn, a fabrication, rubicund, but this moment still honeyed, still pure as a cottontail. Until a predator—say a coyote or a man—appears from downwind. Run in those new city-girl shoes as fast as you can. Until you trip, and a tempest rolls in, hovering, heavy, smelling of rot, of sweat, of bile. Kick and claw and bite, throw out all you have. You have tried. No one can accuse you of not trying. Later, after you clean yourself up, relief. It could have been so much worse, such a deeper red.

(Reader, did you see distance is still needed in the retelling, all these years later?)

***

I will reframe my rage, tuck it between the pages of a book, bury it under a pillow, wrap it in a blanket, in another round of drinks. If depression is rage turned inward, what, then, do I call the simmering of avoidance? Is this why we’re attracted to fairy tales—because we understand what red signifies? —A forest, a copse of trees, a house with a plume of smoke drifting up from the chimney, an open door where more red is waiting to eat us up?

***

Let’s look at what is red:

Passion. Power. Hunger. Fear. Pain. Shame. Anger. 

Life Force (see: above).

STOP.

I now see I forgot Love, but I’m not sure where it belongs.

***

For this one I will remain in first person. (I must own this one as my own doing.)

A July weekend, year of my Lord 2000 (what is it with July?—I have concluded it’s red heat, red fireworks, a hand on a boiling pot not watched). A pleasant man sits next to me. We introduce ourselves, talk of books and art, knock back a few shots with barbaric yawps that make the bartender laugh. Here’s red again, a warm flush head to toe (see: Passion, Hunger). A red truck I jump into (STOP). The bartender’s name is Leo. I’m sure red-truck guy told me his name, too, but all I see is Red Means GO. We drive deep into the forest, up the mountainside. I know this terrain well. We pull off onto a dirt service road I’ve passed many times but have never wandered down. It descends steeply, stops abruptly at a stream. My first thought is How beautiful. My second thought is Bears live here. The third thought doesn’t come until the next morning, after I’ve popped my sixth ibuprofen and prayed over the toilet. It doesn’t matter that red-truck guy was a lovely man. It doesn’t matter that I enjoyed this small moment of my life. What matters is the heat I feel rising in my veins (see: Shame, Anger). I’m smarter than this, knowing to always keep myself out of a scent trail.

And yet.

Days later, one of the local station’s lead stories—video shot in the dappled afternoon light of a patch of tall grass near a stream. Two deputies stand over a blanketed lump, bones of what appears to have once been a foot peeking out. In the background I see a boulder with a peace sign spray painted in blue on it.

I had leaned on that boulder to slip my boots back on.

 (How do you wrap your head around this?)  If you ever figure it out, let me know. 

***

I hate to use the word “lucky” to describe how incredibly stupid I still feel for cornering myself with a strange man on a deserted mountain road, but lucky I am (putting the onus on my shoulders yet again).

Why do my actions matter? Because we have made it so. And I hate that about this world.

***

Some say rage can only be absolved by forgiveness.  My reply is this—I doubt they’ve ever truly experienced rage, then.

Forgiveness is a shade of yellow I've never allowed to color my walls. 

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BACKFLASH by Rebecca Portela

There it is. That particular tone that wakes me up from a dead sleep. Primal, sometimes guttural. Almost inhuman. Or so very human, more human than people ever dare to be. I feel for my phone in the dark. Corner of the nightstand. Lamp. Glasses. Phone. I get out of bed with less urgency than the last time and even less than the time before that. I flick on the lights and watch her for just a second. Hair in her face. Fists clenched. Body convulsing. I check the foam padding I put on the side of her nightstand from when she hit her head the first time. I look at my phone to hit record. 

We didn’t always capture the flashbacks. It used to be a novel thing where I would jump out of bed, heart pounding, trying to be her hero. I thought about all the ways I’d seen people snap out of it in the movies. You yell at her and remind her who she is and who you are. And your firm grasp on her shoulders, your skin on hers tells her she's safe. Maybe if I just love more, with more intensity. I pinned her down and pried her eyelids open so she could see me. Her trembling eyes stared right through me, as she continued to kick and fight me off like I was him. I finally understood what a flashback truly was. She wasn’t here. She was gone, far away, back to the place, back to the time, back to the moment, back to a little girl’s fearful present.

So here I sit on the edge of the bed, holding my phone while it records the girl biting down on the pillow, bearing the gruesome scene so later she can view it herself even though it will play out just the same as all the other ones, her quivering body always facing down to the right side in the same way with her hands held wide open and shaking out in front of her face like she’s desperately trying to push something away. Her quick shrieks now fully grown sobs and wails, the kind where you swear you can actually hear the heart breaking over and over again, forced to accept the impossible as truth. I can almost see him on top of her, like someone photoshopped him out of the picture and left only her, maneuvering, fighting, pleading, screaming things like “Please, please no!” and “I can’t! I can’t! I can’t!” and eventually her body goes slack and surrenders. Her voice is far away and lost. No words, just little humming sounds. Rhythmic, distressed humming sounds as I see her body jolt forward again and again. Her eyes open wide and empty. Now she is truly gone. 

I continue sitting and recording and waiting until I recognize her face again. Her eyes finally familiar and soft, still searching for a fully formed reality. 

“You back?” I ask, knowing she’s back.

She stares straight ahead, crawling away from memories, the thrown pillows, the thrashed sheets, and nods a small but heavy nod. Her unsteady hand reaches out for water. And more water. 

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LETTER TO MY FORMER SELF ON THE 20th ANNIVERSARY OF RECOVERY by Elizabeth Muller

Letter to My Former Self on the 20th Anniversary of Recovery:

Hey, kid. Yes, you. You don't think this term applies to you anymore—you're fifteen, after all—but believe me, it does. I wish you knew how much. 

You're about to leave the dusty hellscape you've called home for the last two months, relearning how to eat so that your weight can go from 85 to 90 to 100. It cost $80,000 and your father won't let you forget it. You'll feel much better about the barbed wire fence once it's behind you. You'll keep a little barbed wire in your heart.

You'll marry the boy who's been writing to you since March. You won't be happy. One day, in the dead of winter, when you’re nursing a six-month-old baby and ten pounds of postpartum weight, he will drop a pair of running shoes at your feet. 

"Just a suggestion." 

You'll learn to run.

You'll try so hard to do everything right and the stress will break you. Bell's Palsy will turn your face into a Picasso painting. Your smile will never be the same.

When you eventually serve him the divorce papers, he will accuse you of running from the marriage. You will laugh at the irony. 

You'll keep on running.

You'll speak into a microphone when a judge asks for your name. Your mouth will go dry as a desert when she orders you to speak up. When you get home, newly divorced, two kids waiting for you in the living room, your father will not hug you. 

Someday you’ll board a plane to Paris on your own. You’ll sip champagne at take-off because you’re scared, you’ll cry during My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 because you’re a cheap drunk and a bleeding heart. You’ll tip-toe through a French graveyard finding headstones of writers you admire. You'll stand in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. 

You'll stand in the shadow of your insecurities and wonder if you'll ever find the sun. 

Your body will crack open a total of three times to bear children. Each time you will marvel at your strength. Each time you will forget the pain and your ability to bear it. 

You'll keep running, not because you’re good at it, but because you won’t have a choice. Your ass will become tiger-striped with stretch marks and sometimes you’ll feel like your body is composed of melting wax. You’ll do all that you can to hold the wax together. 

You'll go down to the basement and board the rickety elliptical you get for free off Craigslist. You'll hold back tears as you push your tired body forward and nowhere, in the company of dirty clothes and spiders. One will toil a web just in front of you, its legs spinning furious with purpose. 

Each bead of sweat on your body will be an offering into the coffer, a double sided coin. One side says, "you've earned this." The other says you will never be enough.

You’ll check your watch to see how much time has passed to serve your sentence and realize it's been twenty years. The spider will swing closer to your face. You’ll twist your finger in the gossamer and pull it down. 

You'll both begin again tomorrow.

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AMERICAN LAKE by Aaron Burch

Did you grow up near water? What did you think of when I asked that—lake, river, ocean, pool, other? Do you like to swim? Do you remember learning how? Did your grandmother live not on a lake, but near? Walking distance? Do you have fond memories of going to your grandmother’s house, getting one of the large towels she kept for you in the bathroom, one of the inner tubes she kept in her garage? Do you remember being little and using actual inner tubes on the water, not an inflatable pool float or tube like you might buy from Target or WalMart or Fred Meyer or Meijer or wherever, but an actual rubber doughnut made and perhaps even previously used as the inner part of a car or truck tire? Did you ever get in trouble for using her automatic garage door like a toy—hitting the button so it would retract up and then grabbing the metal lip at the bottom and letting it carry you up in the air, when you were still young and little enough for that to work? Have you ever looked at your own garage door and wondered how one could have ever had enough power to lift you floating up into the air while also at least a little bit wanting to try to again? Do you remember that short walk from your grandmother’s house to the public access trail to the lake? Remember the one house along the way that had rabbits and chickens and goats? Remember how the trail was pretty well hidden, snaking its way between two houses, two private properties, but it was supposed to be for everyone? Remember parents telling you that every lake has to be accessible to the public? Do you think that’s true? Did you still take it for granted that most everything your parents told you must be true, and so you didn’t question it, either the legality of such a claim nor the fact that the lake had a park with a beach and a roped off swim area and lifeguards and boat access a mile or two down the road, and so wouldn’t that count as the lake being accessible to the public? Do you remember the dock at this small beach—not the big one at the park, but the one that felt both public and private, almost like your own little personal beach on the lake? Remember swimming under it? How you could swim under but then come up and wade there, your head above water but under the deck, this little hidden foot or two that seemed like another world? Did you ever do this? Did you also, later in life, have a phase where you loved getting and hanging out on roofs? What do you think it is about certain stages of your life and being under or on top of things—pillow forts, caves, sitting on car hoods or tops, the roof of your house, your local church, school, whatever building had some combination of nearby fence or tree or other accessory that made it possible to get on top of? Have you ever been skinny dipping? Do you remember your first time? Was the idea yours or theirs? When you think of nightswimming, how much do you remember? Was it clear skies? Was the moon out? Have you revisited that lake as an adult? Parked at the end of the cul de sac, next to a “Public Property, No Access” sign right where the trailhead used to be? Did you sit in your car, listening to a playlist of songs from your youth and ask yourself questions about whether you should abide by the sign or not? What did you do next?

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LIPSTICK BOTTOMS (CHICAGO, IL – JULY 2008) by Taylor Byas

It’s past 2 am on the southside of Chicago when my aunt Danielle, my father’s older sister, brings me and her daughter Ginai along for a late-night alcohol run. With each step, every part of my aunt ripples. Her hair is half-pressed half-shrinking from the dry summer heat. On her right thigh, clear packing tape covers a hole where she says a spider bite ate away at the flesh. I am too young to know that “spider bite” is a euphemism for an infected track mark.

“Damn girl, you wore those shorts just for me didn’t you?” a white man calls from across the street. I tug my shorts down in the back, even though I’m only 12. A whistle punctures the night air like a needle, and whoops and laughter follow as I grab my cousin’s arm and quicken my steps.

The neighborhood streets are alive, meetings happening in front lawns and at bus stops. The smell of fried foods and grease breeze through windows and out onto the broken sidewalks. S Merrill Ave glistens white against the tennis-court green of the street sign. Dr. Dre raps from the inside of a white Chevy Impala idling in front of someone’s house, the bumped-up bass rattling from the subwoofer in the trunk. I can see my reflection, my wide eyes in the windows’ dark tint. The distant sound of a siren is ceaseless. 

We walk past groups of black and white men in white tank tops and black shorts. One group crowds us as we pass, and my aunt twists off the cap of her vodka and takes a swig in response. I tip-toe on the balls of my feet as I walk through the trashed sidewalks in foam flip-flops, avoiding the little glass bowls of broken bottle remnants.

“I gotta pee,” Ginai announces as we walk beneath a small highway overpass.

“We got a while before we get back to the house,” I say. “You can’t hold it?”

“Not for that long.” She turns back towards my aunt, who is stumbling along a few feet behind. “Ma, I’m about to pee.”

“Hell no, not under here. People sleep under here, the hell is wrong with you?” She recaps her bottle and when she catches up, she pulls out a cigarette from her red pleather purse and lights it. “Where some bushes at?”

By the time we find bushes in an area secluded enough, I have to go too. When we ask for tissue, my aunt reaches into her purse and produces a few balled-up napkins with her dark red lipstick on them. When we hesitate to take them, she pinches her cigarette from her lips, blows smoke directly into our faces. “What? You afraid of a little lipstick?” Her breath stinks of menthol and other tongues.

We pee behind the bushes and wipe with the lipstick napkins. I smear red down the back of my thigh, past the point where my shorts stop. This doesn’t stop the whistles or the hoots or the hollers.

“Aye, why don’t you cross the street, shawty?” Another white man calls to us as we near home. I turn my head towards his group, take a mental snapshot of the black and white faces, of those sharp jaws and gravelly beards all neutralized and washed orange under the colored streetlights. 

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SEISMOLOGY by James Sullivan

In 2011 I was in a 3-tatami room. 

*

That means a tall man can lie down only in one direction. 

*

How do we measure a room? A living space? I don’t know the square footage of my Minnesota apartment. Only that it’s the smallest in this building, maybe the smallest anywhere in town. But when my neighbor moved out and my landlord offered me his place (“It’s a lot more spacious, maybe $10 more a month.”), I didn’t even look before deciding against it.

*

You never know when you’ll need that money. For supplies. For an extra stiff drink to soften the edges. For an emergency ticket out of dodge. 

*

When I moved to Minnesota in 2017, my goal was for everything I brought to make the trip in my Ford Taurus. For the two years before a friend insisted I take his mattress, I slept on a folding cushion about four inches thick topped with a Japanese style futon. 

*

This was an improvement on my previous setup. 

*

Every so often I see a social media post from a woman bemoaning the state of single men’s sleeping situations, insisting no self-respecting woman would sleep with a man so close to the floor. 

*

This is true most of the time.

*

Which is good enough odds.

*

What are the odds of dying in a natural disaster? Of a tornado hitting this building that lacks underground shelter? Of a big enough hunk of destiny hurtling through the blackness of space and striking us? Of dying in a flu pandemic? Of falling in a lasting love before one of the other odds hits you? 

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Some estimates say the odds of the great Cascadia earthquake, which would obliterate much of the Pacific Northwest of the US, are as high as one in three in the next fifty years. 

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I’ve never heard of quakes in Minnesota. 

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Other dangers have longer fingers.

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How do we measure space in one’s mind? Span of attention? Capacity to remember details? The ability to hold onto three or more emotions about a single time and place? Or maybe the intervals between each nervous refresh of one’s news feed. 

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What I remember in March 2011: the rocking buildings in downtown Shibuya, Tokyo. 

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Images of a tsunami sweeping cars, homes, and people out to sea. 

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Sitting on my bed in Meidaimae, Tokyo, watching a news ticker drip updates, like irradiated fluids into the water supply, on an unfolding power plant catastrophe. 

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Tick, tick, update: US Military distributing potassium iodide near Yokohama. 

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Google searches: How far south is Yokohama from Tokyo?

Potassium iodide tablets how many safe?

Flights NRT to OMA

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Tick, tick, update: TEPCO president wants to abandon Fukushima plant. 

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Tick, Tick, update: “Demonic” meltdown chain reaction possible.

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Tick, tick, update: That jolt that nearly threw you from your bed was an aftershock. Stay tuned for more. And watch your head—this room is only one tatami wide. 

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I tracked down the share house where I lived in 2011. It’s under new management. The room is almost the same, new little rug, bed on the opposite side. But they’ve added a new desk: The same IKEA one now in my Minnesota apartment. 

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I imagine I’m writing at a desk linking these times.

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Or maybe I’m under the desk.

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Japan knows about earthquake preparedness. Myriad PSAs lectures about what supplies to keep in case of an emergency, how to prevent the fires that devastated Kobe following its 1995 quake, the reasons for opening doors (shifting buildings can cause them to stick shut, trapping you inside) and shielding one’s head under desks. But hiding under desks always reminds me of Cold War era safety drills. 

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Put your head under your desk (and kiss your ass goodbye).

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Always wash your hands. 

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During a quake in central Japan in 2016, although I opened a door, nobody in my office took cover. Everyone sat in place, stunned as the building rattled. 

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Even as the floor moves under you, it can be hard to believe it’s really happening. 

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In February 2020, I started prepping food. 

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I’m not one of those preppers, stockpiling food and weapons in cellars, training for the post-apocalypse. But I had seen videos emerging from Wuhan, China of men in hazmat suits patrolling streets, armed with semi-automatic rifles. 

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How do you protect against what you can’t see? 

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There is an Early Earthquake Warning system in Japan. Your cell phone, normally always on silent mode, quivers against a desktop, announcing in Japanese: “Earthquake, earthquake,” and maybe the shock and your translation to English cost a lengthy moment processing this information, shaving away precious seconds before the earthquake hits. 

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Near the epicenter there’s no warning. 

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Too much warning—and too much time to think—are their own kinds of danger. 

The worst thinking is about what the air contains. About the delay between filling your lungs and the first onset of malignant symptoms. 

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Google searches: nuclear meltdown explained

radiation drift how far? 

thyroid cancer symptoms of

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Panic is a problem. Frightened people hoard supplies, take rash action, flee countries. Information travels more quickly than ever before. But what do we trust? The noise to signal ratio makes understanding impossible in crises where hours, minutes, even seconds can count. 

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More bad thinking: To prevent panic, are those who know withholding truth? 

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What could you even do?

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Recently supermarkets shelves have been plucked bare. This started the first week in March with cleaning supplies. I took a photo where disinfectant wipes and sprays used to be and posted it to my Facebook with the caption, “Is it starting?” Several people reacted with a laughing emoji. This was my second to last prepping trip before President Trump addressed the nation. I made my last one as soon as the address was announced. 

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Should I have said something more to warn other people?  I wasn’t even sure myself how much credence to lend my paranoia.

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Normalcy bias: The psychological tendency for people to believe that events will proceed according to how they have before. Leads to underestimating odds of disaster and severity of consequences.

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I wonder how long until fear supplants normalcy. How long the fear from one time period will shape the rest of my life. Will I one day perplex a nurse with my habit of disinfecting groceries? Will they find my baton? 

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I’ve lost most of my photos from that brief, stressful time when I first tried to move to Tokyo.. The photos left are of my small room in Meidaimae. A tiny folding chair and desk wide enough for a laptop. The bed, the small shelf, the clothing rack where my ill-fitting Goodwill suit hung. The house’s shared kitchen area, the shower room, the toilet. Outside, a narrow alleyway with high, concrete walls. Streets with seemingly infinite twists and turns in which I’d become briefly lost. A sign hung by a playground that reads in Japanese, “If you think it’s suspicious, run away.” 

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Then there are the photos of food. 

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Sushi

Tuna mayo rice ball

Menchi katsu sandwich

Mitsuya Cider

Curry bread

Asahi Super Dry beer

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This was the kind of junk I ate, and even if I had felt comfortable cooking in the shared kitchen, I didn’t really know much about cooking, especially working from local Japanese ingredients. This hadn’t been an issue when I first moved in. Daily trips to the center of town to buy a few items were part of my routine, orienting myself to Tokyo. After the earthquake, store shelves were empty. Everyone was panicked, and I was perhaps the least prepared person in the whole city to know which items to acquire and how. 

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The other night, not knowing what else to do, I inventoried every scrap of nourishment in my cupboards and fridge. It all fit on one note card. 

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Google searches: hydroxychloroquine 

N95 masks

Ibuprofen safe?

Sound of dry cough

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In a thread on items to stockpile, I learn that “deens” is prepper slang for sardines. 

But I don’t buy any deens. 

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I have many reasons for gratitude. I can work, at least for another month, from home, which is warm and, at least for now, not shaking. There is food, and internet, and a steady supply of power. There is a lock on my door. 

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If I weren’t alone in this room, the other person and I could keep six feet between us with our backs against the wall. 

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Tick, tick, update: A stay at home order starts tonight. I’m way ahead of the game. 

Update: I was, am, and will continue to be socially distanced. 

Update: I’m at the desk in Meidaimae.

Update: I’m at the desk in Minnesota. 

Update: I’m under the desk. 

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THE BEEP by Jason Schwartzman

I am his tutor and he is trying to tell me about an unknown variable. About X. But he has forgotten that it’s called X. 

“The mysterious thing,” he says, laughing. 

I love him for this. I will tell everyone I know about the mysterious thing. 

During one session we’re in his apartment and I hear a beep. Just one beep. The microwave, probably. 

“I’m really sorry,” he tells me, tensing up.  

Sorry for what? It feels like I’m missing something. 

“Totally fine!” 

On the walk home I wonder why he was so on edge. Then I forget about it, my thoughts about him confined to the tiny sliver of the week we share. In the middle of another session, his mom comes home. She sits next to him, asks how it’s going. He’s taken the wrong test so we’re a little behind. 

“I wish I had a baseball bat,” she says, smiling. 

I see her smiling, so I automatically smile too, before I process what she might mean. Then she makes another comment, this time about throwing him off the roof. She smiles again. 

I don’t know what I can say. Or do. Or if I’m just crazy. So far on the outside of something I can’t really see it. I say it’s not a big deal, the test. Not at all. He is doing well. Very well. 

Sometimes I think about the beep. I also think he is okay, but I don’t really know. I’m not his tutor anymore.

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