Creative Nonfiction

JEWEL OF THE DELTA by Noemi Martinez

Once called the jewel of the delta, Delta Lake is a tiny man made reservoir where poor families would go and eat in the 80s, claim a table to have lunch or a picnic on the sand and have Easter Sunday cookouts. You’d get there by driving out towards Edcouch, a lonely stretch of a curvy road, tiny and desolate as far as roads go down here. Mom would take us some weekends when the truck was working and there was gas in the tank. As a treat, she’d say, “Pack the cheese sandwiches.”


I couldn’t drive on expressways on my own until I was 25. I had this fear my car would veer off the side. It was the 281 exit going towards Edinburg I couldn’t bring myself to get on, no matter how hard I tried. I was superstitious about it. I couldn’t try on Sundays. I couldn't try with the radio on. I couldn’t try because someone did a hex on me. I couldn’t do it because I had a susto when I was 17, driving to Florida with my mom. Her dad was dying and I helped drive. I took the wheel while she slept and it was the rainy season. Now I sometimes wake up from dreams where I’ve fallen off tiny roads, and off I go, towards nothingness. The curves of roads in my dreams never change, they get tiny and nothingness overflows.


One Sunday after church, we packed the sandwiches and she said, "Let’s go to the lake." We didn’t tell our dad, he never wanted to go with us anyways. It was mundano, too worldly I guess to want to be out when sinners who were also enjoying themselves under the hot sweaty sun. My mom turned on her Motown classic tape on the deck, which my dad definitely thought was mundane. Hell, if we're winning, let's go all the way.

This one Sunday, the road kept curving and curving and it seemed like we got lost. The more she drove, the tinier the road got. I wished maybe we’d be transmuted to another world. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d wish, in driving, we’d be found in salvation.


This one is different. In this dream, I am mad, but then I become water and disintegrate. I cease to exist and crash into waves of water, right there on the chair.

For the short time, when Mom was in hospice after I found her, I’d have dreams I was so angry that I couldn’t speak. I’d wake up with my heart racing, my blood boiling, my throat a hot stone. My anger boiling and seeping into the night.

That night I told Mom it was fine, she could leave. It rained so hard and violently, a cold front had come into the valley the night before driving the temperature close to freezing. The wind shook my car across the expressway and I inched my way back home. The wind and rain crashed down, and I knew. I knew. I had stayed as long as I could. The roads by then were lonely. It was almost Thanksgiving break. I never saw another car out there. It's like those times when you're driving by yourself and the world seems eerily empty and still. The earth was not still that night.

I had played Mom’s favorite Aretha songs. I had touched her legs. I held her hands more than I had ever in all my life. The day she left, the earth shook and the heavens brought down the rain. Maybe, I like to think, her Despedida surrounded by water was like her arrival surrounded by water.

Read More »

DOING IT IN PUBLIC by Angela Miyuki Mackintosh

Joey likes to do it in public. Other guys prefer the privacy of a locked door, a secluded bedroom, drawn curtains. Joey likes to do it that way too, in the bedroom or the kitchen or the hallway, pushed up against a wall or shoved into the carpet, but he’s not afraid to do it in front of an audience.

The first time he did it outside of our apartment was at a party, after he caught me looking at another guy. He said, “You want to fuck him, don’t you?” I guess it made him really hot, got him going and whatnot. We went at it on the concrete stairway outside—my ass against the railing, then on the steps, my fingernails digging into his flesh, moaning and screaming. We were so loud that everyone in the party came out to watch. I felt a deep sense of shame while he was doing me that first time. 

The second time he did it, I felt my shame start to evaporate. It was in the parking lot, after a nice dinner at Angelo’s and Vinci’s, and I’d ran into the only guy I’d dated prior to Joey and hugged him. I guess knowing that there was someone before him made him want to do it. He did me on the hood of my Honda, and then on the yellow painted lines of pavement, our takeout pasta spilling onto the sidewalk.

After the third time he did it, the shame disappeared and I felt nothing at all. We were at Lake Havasu on spring break getting fucked up on piss warm Tecates and tequila, a sea of boats docked side-by-side in Copper Canyon, me in a neon thong, Joey showing off his newest tattoo of a lion with skulls intertwined in its mane, and he wanted to do it in front of everyone. I guess me deciding to dive topless off Jump Rock—heck, it was tradition—and the fact that our friend Sean slapped my ass, made him want to do me right there. Sean even tried to get involved, so did strangers on nearby boats. It was a real show.

Most of the time, Joey liked to do it at band practice. He was a drummer and I sang backup vocals. Our band performed covers of Rolling Stones songs at parties, the occasional Black Sabbath cover, and we always had a jam session. Joey liked to show off by doing drum rolls. He kept a real steady beat—you can imagine how this came in handy—his muscles flexing, the tightness of his neck, his strong hands, him pounding me—bam, bam, bam. I was always sore the next day.

After a year of doing it in public, the last time he did it was after we split up. Our group of friends would go to Magnolia’s Peach on Thursday nights after band practice for Reggae Night because they’d let us in without IDs. I had just slipped by the bouncer when I saw Joey out of the corner of my eye on the side of the line. “Hey!” he yelled. “She’s not twenty-one. You let her in and not me, what the hell!” I was glad he didn’t get in. We had a rough breakup, I swallowed a bunch of pills, and the police were involved. I wanted to forget all that.

Magnolia’s Peach served Budweiser long necks, and to save money I’d stash some in a cooler in my car, go out the side entrance, and sneak them back in again. But I wasn’t going out for a beer that time; I was going out for a cigarette. The sun was just setting, the sky filled with orange and purples, fading like a bruise into grainy grey dusk. I opened a new pack of Camel Lights and lit one, feeling the smooth burn against the back of my throat. Right as I exhaled, Joey walked up. “I saw you dancing with that black guy,” he said. My body tensed because I knew what he wanted to do. It was the same song, every time. Before I could turn back towards the side door, he grabbed me and threw me against the brick wall, pushed his body against mine and lowered his voice. “You want to fuck him, don’t you. You whore.” 

I looked around to see if anyone was watching, but they weren’t. A row of empty black metal tables on the side of the building, shaded by large palm trees, the spotlights under them buzzing then flicking on. My nerves were ramping up, my skin now slick, wet. “Yes. I want to fuck him. That’s exactly what I want,” I said. The next thing I felt was my cigarette going into the side of my neck like the hot sting of an angry bee. Then a blow to my left cheekbone. My ears ringing like the feedback from an amp, the world spinning around me. I fell to the concrete, struggling to find footing in my heels. He pulled me up by my long brown hair as I screamed, grasping at his hand, a clump of hair coming loose in his fist. With all my ninety-six pounds of strength, I pushed him away and started to run. He caught me mid-air and hurled me back against the wall, clutched my neck with one hand, and ran his sharp fingernails down the front of my face with his other, forehead to chin, dragging my flesh with it. Then there were people there, watching the show, trying to get involved as always. A man confronted Joey, told him to stay away from me. A woman called the police. Joey ran. The police arrived. 

I was sore the next day, as always. 

This isn’t a love story. 

Never said it was about sex.

Joey’s version of doing it in public was a black eye, a scratched face, a cigarette burn, and the ever-present fingerprint marks around my arm. Other times it was a cluster of purple bruises around my neck and a hard lump to the back of my head. That’s how Joey liked to do it.

I’d like to say that the incident at Magnolia’s Peach was the last time Joey did it in public with anyone, but it wasn’t. Twenty-something years later, I look up his full name on Google and find his mug shot. It says that the 45-year-old, 5 ft 11 in, 200-pound male was arrested in Colorado for the Felony Crimes of Domestic Violence: Coercion, Assault, and Strangulation. Apparently, Joey still likes to do it in public. He just does it with other girls now.

Read More »

BLACK HOODED NUN by Caroljean Gavin

Stunned, I took the subway and rattled off to work at the Starbucks on 51st and Broadway. My brain’s way of assimilating my mother’s news was to take customers’ orders while imagining plunging a knife into their chests. Would I have to struggle to penetrate their clothing? Would there be a slurp of suction when I tried to yank the weapon back out of their flesh and muscle to repeat? Would they fight? Would they be angry? Surprised? Terrified? What would they say? What would their eyes look like? What would it feel like to not turn back? To go for blood? To go for death? And when death came would I know it right away? And when I knew it, what would I know? 

I knew I would probably feel alone. 

I mean, customers would call the police. Co-workers would restrain me. I would be physically surrounded. I may even be physically assaulted. If any of those people liked me before, they wouldn’t now. They wouldn’t know who the hell I was. Their eyes would drain of all recognition. Fill up with something else. 

But if I was by myself? Say it was just me, and the dead woman who raised me, rent open on her bed with her violet patterned sheets, her down alternative comforter that had comforted me when I was young, and scared, and overtaken with the flu? If it was just me and a sudden silence? No burbling? No screaming? No pleading? No labored inhalations. Excruciating exhalations. Just me and the darkness, and the curtain blowing over the window where I had left it open after I crawled inside? What would it feel like then? With only myself and this thing I did? This bad, bad, bad, bad thing? Would I feel horrified at myself? Regretful? Or proud? Satisfied? Hopeful? 

They say he did it for the money she wrote him in her will. 


Two years before the killing the killer told me he was scared of birds. 

The killer wasn’t a killer when I met him in San Francisco in that shitty old car full of my shitty old relatives and my mom’s friend Becky, who wasn’t old or shitty, but hot in a 1980’s way: hairspray, lip gloss, frosted hair. The killer was still a kid. A teenager. On drugs, sure. A high school dropout, sure. But he was still a kid, a teen, a young man, a person with positive potential.

I shared the backseat with him and my mom’s cousin who was the type of woman to carry a purse big enough to fit her full size salad dressing bottle and leave enough room to spare to shovel in more free samples of dog treats from Petco than was reasonably appropriate. Like, the employees side-eyed her and hated her with every fiber of their polo shirts. I could tell. They weren’t happy with me either. My mother’s cousin, Jackie, introduced me to the killer, “He was my job after you,” she said. 

She knew us when we had tiny faces and giant eyes. Before we learned how to wash our hands. 

I’m not sure why the killer went on the crazy lady outing. Maybe he was bored. Maybe it was about the free food. Maybe it was Becky and the vanilla perfume she wore. 

I wanted the free food and the ride to the pet store. I was in the process of replacing my boyfriend. I had already bought a vibrator and was currently on step two: companionship. I wanted a bird. Something beaked and winged that had the potential to fly to wherever the hell it wanted and start a beautiful life in the tree of its own choosing. Something that could poke the eye out of anyone who tried to stop it. I wanted a metaphor for my spirit (the irony, cruelty of this, totally lost on me at the time) and I wanted something to make sounds in the night to distract the ghosts that played mean tricks on my dreams. 

While Mom’s cousin was shoving “free” pet food crap in her purse, I looked at the birds, the killer orbited around me, hands in his pockets. 

When I found the black hooded nun finches, I knew I had found my bird. The auburn body, the waxy blue beak erupting from a jet-black head. Unconventional. Goth. Tiny. The employee I fetched was not wild about having to do what he was about to do. I overheard him talking to a coworker, “Last time we did this, all of the fuckers got out. Some of them are still up there,” he pointed to the beams beyond the lights.

The black hooded nuns bolted into all corners when the employee stuck his hand inside the cage. So much frantic flapping and fluttering. A bird was caught. Dropped into a box handed to me.

“I don’t like birds,” the killer said. He hadn’t left my side. He watched the whole thing.

“Why?” I said, the small brown box in my hand. It was so light. It could have been empty. 

“Scared of them,” he muttered. I probably made an understanding face, but I thought how stupid, tough guy, scared of birds. Really I wanted to laugh at him so hard. 

The box with the bird was so light. 

I didn’t laugh at the killer because I gave a shit about his feelings, but because the box was so light. 

I didn’t laugh at the killer because I wanted to shake the box. 

I wanted to shake the box so badly. I had to breathe slowly as I carried it to the register. 

I was scared of myself, shaking that damned box.

Knowing and feeling are totally different things. 

I knew there was a living creature in that box. I knew shaking the box would be bad for the creature living in that box. 

Feeling is a body knowing. 

It felt like there was nothing in that box. My body just wanted to check. My body just wanted to know. 

Maybe the killer’s killing had nothing to do with money. 

Maybe he didn’t even hate the woman who raised him?

Maybe he didn’t even want to hurt her?

Maybe there was just something he wanted to know?

Maybe I’m just full of shit. 


The customers I didn’t hack up and kill got their delicious lattes or Frappuccinos or whatever the hell and they left, going on with their day, and if they thought of me at all, they probably thought I was nice, or awkward, or cute, or wasting my life, but they probably didn’t think of me, and they certainly wouldn’t have imagined that I was thinking about where best to stab their particular body, and with how much force. 


Sometimes, those days, walking around New York City, I’d be walking behind a group of young women in skirts that lifted up above their knees, exposing that soft place of skin behind, and I wanted so badly to lean in and touch them there. Just this small little trespass. Just this one little thing. Who could that hurt?

I just wanted to give the box the littlest jostle. 


Something people seem to believe is there is only good or evil, only person or monster. People are good. Monsters are bad. Supernaturally bad. Demonic. Diabolical. People are superior to the monsters. No empathy for the devil. ‘Cause once you start empathizing with the killers, what does that make you? A monster yourself? An accomplice? A devil with a Fast Past to an afterlife of somehow very painful horrors? And fire? Lots and lots of fire. 


Writers know that to make a believable character, a human being, you mix the good with the bad. The NICU nurse shoplifts candy bars. The arsonist brings flowers to the nursing home. 


The killer wasn’t always a killer. Once the killer was a baby, born drug dependent because of his mother’s choices. Once he was a toddler learning how to walk. Once he was a little boy laughing, milk dribbling down his chin. Once he was so small with shining eyes that still trusted the big people around him. Once he was innocent. 


I named the black hooded nun finch Quiver. The thing I didn’t kill, I caged, fed, and played classical music for. Eventually I gave him away to a nice lady on Craigslist. I moved to the other side of the country. Found out that troubled kid my mom’s cousin loved so much brutally murdered his mother, and I couldn’t understand how someone could do something so grisly, so heartless, so willfully violent. I could get how someone would want to do it. How someone could think of doing it. How someone could imagine doing it and plan doing it, but how do you actually do it?  How do you push a knife into someone, and hurt them, cause them horror and pain, and not throw up, not throw your body into a shock of seizures to stop you from doing this thing? 


I didn’t try to empathize with the killer to understand him. I wasn’t trying to excuse what he did. I wasn’t trying to give him the benefit of the doubt. I was asking the monster in me how far it would go. I was asking myself what was I really capable of. 


How do any of us actually know what we’re capable of?

I was a terrible bird mom. I had no idea what I was doing. I named my black hooded nun finch Quiver because it seemed scared all the time and of course it did. I was this huge lumbering thing that trapped it. 

When I’d slip my hand in the cage for feeding or cleaning, Quiver would freak out, flap in a frenzy.

I didn’t know finches weren’t supposed to be alone, without other finches that they could die from loneliness. I tried to get him a friend, but no one else would sell me just one. 

When I bought the bird it did not matter to me that I probably wouldn’t be living in San Francisco much longer and that I wouldn’t be able to take a pet with me when I left. 

When I did give Quiver away, I gave him away to the first person who answered my ad. She seemed nice and knowledgeable about birds, but it’s not like I checked, not like I made sure she was going to be good to him and not hurt him, and even though I never shook his box, and even though I never purposely hurt him, I felt like shit about the indirect harm I did. 


I made myself imagine inflicting horrible physical violence on my customers, and I could imagine it, and it made me physically ill, hunched over my register shaking. 

All there was for me to understand was this. 

So if you should ever see me shudder while you’re talking to me and you worry I’m thinking of jabbing you in the eye with the kebab skewer, just know it’s nothing personal, just know I’m probably as harmless as a tiny, tiny bird.

Read More »

NO EASING INTO IT by Lori Yeghiayan Friedman

November 7, 1994: I sat on William and Luke’s bed, listening to the ring, ring in my ear, each ring getting fainter like a distant alarm. I was about to hang up when someone answered—a man.

“Hello,” he said, startled, like maybe I’d woken him up. 

“Hi,” I said into the receiver of the beige rotary phone on my lap. I scanned The Yellow Pages opened next to me on the faded maroon bedspread. I checked the ad: Did I get the number right? I looked out their bedroom window and up at the night sky: What should I say? No answer.

“We have a body that needs embalming,” is what came out.

It’s a moment that will take years to unravel. I am still stunned that I used the word “embalming.” I think it’s funny that I made it sound like we’d murdered him: “a body.” 

Twenty-five years later, I sympathize with that twenty-three-year-old girl―me―sitting on that bed, rotary phone on her lap, The Yellow Pages open beside her. She’s in way over her head. She tried her best to perform this final task. I even have sympathy for that young man in the next room, not the one whose life was over―he always had my sympathy―but for the one whose life was just beginning. The bonds of our strange union were about to break, and for a long time, I hated him for the pain caused by this avalanche of loss.

My friend is dead. I couldn't bring myself to say it, so I kept it clinical, like I was describing a frog suspended in formaldehyde.

Twenty minutes earlier, I picked up the phone. It was late on a Tuesday night. The call had come and I’d responded like a soldier would to deployment orders: perfunctorily, with resolve.  “I’ll be right over,” I said, pulling on my red Keds. I drove the five minutes from my apartment through the empty streets of Hillcrest, past the Gay & Lesbian Center, the post office, Topsy’s Diner―the site of many drunken late-night patty melts.

I parked my Hyundai in front of their apartment like it was just another night, stubbing out my cigarette in the overflowing ashtray. Their place was in a U-shaped collection of five or six low, Pueblo-style cottages the color of sand within a Spanish-style apartment complex typical for San Diego.

I stepped with purpose onto the path that weaved from the sidewalk through the small center courtyard, but I slowed as I reached their front door. Once the door was open, there was no going back. I let the nearest section of landscaping distract me―a sparse and neglected collection of cacti that I noted with surprise retained a few of its blooms: bright red, yellow, and pink against the apartment’s beige stucco—unexpected bursts of color in a place it would be hard to imagine anything would grow.

Near the doorstep, William and I hugged. Above us, the dark sky was lit by an absurd number of stars, like a worldwide fireworks display designed to mock our grief. He broke our silent embrace, turning his head away from me and heading inside. I followed him, expecting to walk together to where Luke lay. Instead, William stopped short and handed the phone book to me.

“I don’t know,” he said in response to my questioning look. His blue eyes, deep set on a regular day, were sunken, an ocean after a storm, a calm masking the turbulence below. His wry, crooked smile was gone. The creases around his eyes and mouth were more noticeable with his face slack. He looked older than his twenty-four years.   

“Look under ‘F’ for funeral homes?” he said, one corner of his mouth turning up. His Kentucky accent, full-blown under duress, made the o in “homes” sound more like aw.

How odd this was. Seconds after I’d arrived, he handed me the phone book, assigning me a task like I was sent from some agency. 

He knows I have to see Luke first, right? I thought. I have to say goodbye

The hospital bed in the living room of their one-bedroom apartment looked built for a giant with Luke, always petite, now shrunk to child-sized. My mind wandered to an interaction I’d had with a leather-daddy gay I barely knew. We had both been cast in a play and I must have mentioned my friend Luke. Leather Daddy was convinced he knew him, so I described him. He said something like, “Oh, yeah. I know him. Pocket-sized gay, right?” I objected to that phrase, but when I told Luke later, he didn’t seem to mind. Instead, he smiled. It surprised me, then I thought, What do I know about what passes for an insult or an endearment in his world?

Luke’s head lolls to the side. His face―hollow, cheekbones sharp, skin stretched and blue―is turned toward the TV set, the screen blank. I still see the pink-cheeked Luke―delicate features, earnest smile, freckles―and his body, instead of hidden under a hospital gown, adorned in his preferred 1970s style: striped bell bottoms with a shiny, close-fitting, paisley button-down shirt. I expect the real Luke to rise up from this other Luke.

Then an internal collapse; my throat constricted, and my heart beat fast, as if I’d been running. My body was reacting to the horror of what had happened. I think: I knew he would die, but I didn’t know that meant he’d be gone. I’m so stupid, so stupid.

I nearly laughed remembering that I’m so stupid, so stupid are the exact words Shirley Maclaine says as the character Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment. It’s right after her daughter, played by Debra Winger, dies. She’s even standing by a hospital bed. It’s the kind of melodrama Luke lived for. Somebody give my daughter the shot! I imagined him screaming, hitting his fists against the table, theatrically miming pulling a cardigan around his shoulders in a mock version of Aurora’s famous hospital tantrum. He would have been perfect as the fierce Southern mama-bear who was willing to rip to shreds anyone who caused her baby pain, in some imagined John Waters version of the film. 

There is no easing into it. One minute you’re sure-footed while three of you walk together toward a future hand-in-hand. The person you both love is right there―and here’s you and here’s him and there’s him, right here, right where you all have always been. 

Your memories give the illusion that things are as they have always been. There the inevitable end sits, like the edge of the world, visible but distant, a cliff you know you’ll reach―someday. You see it, you believe in its existence, you’re not blind. You’re just busy, doing regular things, like seeing movies, eating loaded potato skins, singing cheesy lyrics, going bowling, painting sets, chatting in a hospital room while eating fries and marveling at how everyone thought that “someday” had come, that you’d reached the edge, but actually you hadn’t, haha, not today. 

The step off is a shock, the world one minute full of noise and movement, and then the next  quiet; a dizzying nothingness rushes in, taking up all the space, the space where the person―your person―used to be, as he vanishes along with every anchoring thing, and you are catapulted into a slow-motion free fall with no foreseeable end. 

I turned away from Luke, dry-eyed and resolute. William had asked me to do it, so I would. I glanced over at him, busy doing who-knows-what in the kitchen and walked toward the bedroom, eyes to the ground, clutching the phone book to my chest like it was the last piece of earth I clung to before I fell.

Some names and identifying place have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals. 

Read More »


Tell your mother you are going to see a movie. Ride with Hannah in her gold Honda Accord to the liquor store on Harrison, the one that doesn’t card. Watch the sun skirt behind clouds while she buys a handle of Malibu. Fling ping pong balls into cups of Tecate at Chloe Peralta’s house. Take shots of blue liquor until the night whirls in your stomach. Wake up crying on shag-carpeted stairs because out of everyone here you will be the last to find love. When your mom asks how the sleepover was, say it was fun.


Fly 2,586 miles. Believe the adults who say you’ll blossom soon. Share a cinderblock room on Washington Square with a girl from New Jersey named Meg. Turn 18 and dye your hair red. Duct tape a forty to your hand on Friday nights. Earn the nickname Ginger Lush. Black out in a French maid costume on Halloween and stop a boy from kissing you because you only want to be kissed if it’s meaningful. Overhear classmates laughing about the girl who wanted meaning. Drunkenly toast the Art History faculty on a January trip to Italy with the other smart kids. Cry, often, because you are not in bloom.


Flirt with ecstasy and Adderall in another cinderblock room at another college. Fall in love with pale ales and whiskey plus Xanax. Take as needed, or as not needed. Give an honest answer to the psychiatrist who asks how many nights you don’t remember. Ignore him when he says the exact number is not ideal. Listen to him when he says alcohol is not your primary problem. Spend years wondering what your primary problem is. Spend 36 hours in jail following work karaoke. Break up with the therapist who shared a pamphlet on binge drinking in the aftermath of your arrest. Return to her office four minutes later and tearfully proclaim that you’re too pure-hearted for New York City. Drink to alter the ratio of world to self. Fall in love with men who’ve explicitly stated they’d rather you not. Drink to forget your thin lips and flat chest and that you are not the only person who has ever felt alone.


Swap coasts, again. Cease to be a virgin two years later than the age you swore you’d kill yourself by if you were still a virgin. Hate and envy Instagram models in equal measure. Fall hard and fast for a comedian who says you have sparkly eyes. Cut yourself and take 10 pills of Xanax when he doesn’t text you back. Fail to prove a point. Wake up in a hospital and ask your mother how much your roommate Nicola, an aspiring actress, told her over the phone. Explain Instagram to crisis hotline volunteers. Drive after accruing a $90 bar tab at a bowling alley in Koreatown and notice an LAPD car directly behind you. Pull over in relief when he turns left onto Wilshire and disappears into the darkness of a Sunday night. Stare at the empty sidewalk and do not feel better about this, now or ever. Leave LA with a tarot reader’s blessing.


Buy a one-way ticket to Mexico City. Learn how to say menstrual cramps and anxiety in Spanish. Vomit on a stranger’s fur coat in a club. Delete Instagram. Call your brother and say you think life is overrated. Find life profoundly beautiful one day later. Do not sleep for 96 hours. Visit an English-speaking psychiatrist in Polanco. Switch meds. Think of the psychiatrist who once said alcohol was not your primary problem. Accept that the primary problem is at the intersection of mood and personality. Think of how that same psychiatrist mentioned a study in which the 28-year-old participants more closely resembled their 14-year-old selves than their 21-year-old ones. Think you know why so many people die at 27. Hike 15 miles in Guatemala to watch a volcano erupt through the night. Decide to take yourself seriously, maybe.


Fly 2,586 miles. Again. Find an apartment four subway stops deeper into Brooklyn than your last New York address. Drink like no one’s watching only when no one’s watching (which both is and is not growth). Drink through roommate drama for three months. Wait until the house is empty to put beer bottles in the recycling bin. Realize this is sad and you are tired. Believe your therapist when she says the twelve steps are different from what you’d expect—they’re not for everyone but they might be for you. Wait two weeks before walking into an East Village basement. Drink a margarita immediately after. Return three weeks later and cry when someone says, if you’re an apple, you can be the best apple possible, but you’ll never be an orange. Find comfort in Belle and Sebastian. Promise to keep coming back.


Call a crisis hotline for the first time in four years. Drink for the first time in 44 days. Identify the underlying logic: if a room is blurry enough you’ll stop searching for a door. Realize you didn’t stop cutting yourself so much as you replaced razor blades with IPAs and shots of whiskey—just like you’ve replaced IPAs and shots of whiskey with Cranberry LaCroix and American Spirits and, for whatever reason, listening to Billy Joel’s “Vienna” on repeat. Wonder if you’ll ever truly be free of anything and, if so, who you would be. Maybe who you were at 14? Tell a room full of strangers that you had two beers last night—only two. Acknowledge that you topped them off with a Klonopin and a half. Snap your fingers, try but fail to flip your short hair, and say, “Still got it.” Love that these people are laughing with and clapping for you. Hate that you love it. Try, as promised, to think and feel in 24-hour increments, just for today. Try tomorrow, too.

Read More »

THE PULL by Ann Kathryn Kelly

I’ve felt the pull for years, to see what’s out there, how it differs from what I understand of the world. I’ve traveled distances to feed the pull. One destination, while still in the planning, thrilled me. Africa’s “Big Five” beckoned: lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, buffalo. I had my telephoto lens and a new bush hat—wide-brimmed, khaki-colored, with proper ventilation at the crown. 

I pushed aside months of gripping headaches and growing fatigue, instead buying airfare, getting vaccinations. Nothing was going to sideline me.

“You have a cavernous angioma.” 

I looked at the doctor in his white lab coat with black stitching over chest pocket. Whatever it was he’d said, all I needed, wanted, to know was what we could do to clear it up before my safari. His next sentence slammed my stomach into my shoes.

“It’s a brain tumor.”  

I looked at him, silent because I didn’t know what to say next. He looked back, silent because he was giving me the space I needed to realize my life had changed in that heartbeat.


I tried another surgeon, and another. I walked into each appointment with the hope I’d be told what I had was nothing to worry about, that the last doctor was mistaken, that I could get back to my life. Instead, they agreed I could not ignore it. I certainly could not fly. I could, they said, choose the date of my open-head surgery.

Scans showed my brain tumor was bleeding, causing the symptoms I’d been trying to downplay because they didn’t fit into my plans. Nonstop hiccupping, dry heaving, thunderous headaches, a paralysis that had started in my left foot and ankle. If the next bleed was severe enough, it might leave me with stroke-like deficits. 

I was forty.


Trips, for years, had pulled me to places I wanted to see, taste, hear, learn about. 

The goal? To come back richer, in some way, for having been there. 

I was being pulled again, but that time to an experience far from savannas; to a place I knew nothing about, something malevolent at work inside my own head. A journey I never imagined I’d take. 

The goal? To survive.


They got it all. After close to twelve hours of surgery, and three days before I’d have left for the safari I scrapped. It was benign, yet I return every two years for follow-up.

The pull returned a year after my surgery, to see what’s out there, what I might have missed were the outcome different. I remember, and mark, what I survived.

Standing feet from where it’s said Jesus Christ was laid after being taken from the cross, I remembered. Later that day, when I slipped a handwritten prayer into a crack at the Western Wall—penciled lines on a corner I’d torn from a sales receipt for coffee—I remembered. When I stood outside Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, breathing in call to evening prayer as it crackled from a minaret and bounced through the courtyard; and, again when I stood before the Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramids, the temples of Angor Wat. When I floated in the Dead Sea, crossed the Sahara desert by camel, trekked to the next waterfall in the Amazon rainforest. 

I remembered. 

When I looked into the glass-filled wall of human skulls stacked stories high in Cambodia’s Killing Fields …


I have a scar at the base of my skull. When I look in my bathroom mirror and bring another hand mirror to my neck, I see outlines of the staples used to close my head. Sometimes, I trace them.

When life’s minutiae interferes and I return to the belief that small frets are the big stuff, I touch and trace. 


The pull persists. To see what’s out there. 

To remind me of what’s good, right here, when I turn again the key to my front door.

Read More »

FRAGMENTS by Chelsea Plunkett


My mother tastes like the peanut butter sandwiches she made when I refused a homemade meal, Chai-spiced tea to soothe bronchitis, and a sprinkle of powdered sugar on brownies and banana bread. Her taste is stolen bites of cream cheese mixed with sugar as we make pumpkin cheesecake, steady instructions for achieving the streusel on sweet potato casserole, and chocolate frosting on birthday cakes. 

In the time of new prescription refills, when she sleeps for days on end, sugar and fat dance on my tongue. It’s a momentary high from stolen food to fill an emotional void, whole boxes of Pop Tarts and packages of Oreos stuffed down after school, the wrappings stashed beneath my sheets. When food is scarce, I taste a concoction of saltines and apple jelly. The sweetness comes up in mouthfuls of sour stomach bile from swallowing the anger and shame and a trickle of blood in my mouth from bitten cheeks. 


My mother smells of laundry detergent and an excessive, twenty-fabric-softener-sheet-per-load habit. There is the sting of cinnamon oil on wooden floors, bleach-coated bathroom tiles, and upholstery soaked in Febreze. When she approaches, she carries a sweet mixture of floral shampoo, hairspray, and baby powder. For all appearances, my mother’s home and body smell clean. 

But within the house, she is the choking cloud of Virginia Slims that penetrates deep into the walls and furniture. It is a scent that spirals from her bedroom and mixes with our musty, flooded basement that sprouts mold up wooden paneling. Within her beat-up Buick, which has crashed into a mailbox, a sidewalk, and a ditch outside my elementary school, is the haze of blueberry air freshener and coffee. Outside, within my father’s old grill, is the scent of lighter fluid and burnt plastic from the wedding album she torched. 


My mother’s soundtrack is the rattle and pop of prescription bottles, of Fioricet and Clonazapam, of medication meant for my epileptic dog and a dead neighbor. It is her dragging, sweeping gait down hallways, a crash as she throws herself down the stairs and sprains an ankle, and the leaden stomps upstairs to my bedroom. It is fists slammed against walls, splintering wood, slaps and stumbles and screaming, always screaming, barbed insults hurled against my father, against my sister, against myself.

There is the cycling of Queen’s greatest hits as we bake Christmas cookies, the collected works of the Beatles in the car, and the cadence of our voices as we sing along to SuperTramp’s “The Logical Song.” Later, it is always the same songs—Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know,” her anthem for broken marriage vows—muffled by the floorboards in my bedroom and the rasp of Janis Joplin’s “Me & Bobby McGee” in an abandoned Kohl’s parking lot, the orange glow of the radio as she hits repeat over and over, interlaced with accusations of betrayal as I break the news of my father’s remarriage. There is the thud of her body against the ground, her back arched over a humidifier, neck wedged against the nightstand, and a feral cry of “Mommy,” escaping my twelve-year-old lips in the night.  


My mother feels like gentle hugs, a trace of fingertips against my cheek, the warmth of blankets tucked beneath my chin, and the contour of her hip and chest as I lie beside her in the flickering light of the television. In these moments, she feels safe. 

But later, as she cycles to the end of a prescription bottle, her touch grows violent. It is the cool storm door against my palms as she points a steak knife, the vibration of hurled valuables and slammed kitchen cabinets, the weight of a prepacked go-bag shoved beneath my bed and clothing hurriedly stuffed in trash bags. There is the unbearable heaviness as I try to cover her nakedness before the paramedics arrive and my own anxiety-ridden fingernails digging at my scalp and ripping hair. 

Even now, twenty years later and 500 miles away, I feel her touch, reaching through the phone to produce guilt and shame. There is dizziness, shaking, shortness of breath, and the rough carpet fibers against my cheek as I sob on the floor. It is the cramp in my wrist as I write in a journal she can’t hurt you anymore


My mind’s eye is misleading, as the portrait of my mother shifts and blurs with distance and time. The child within sees the possession, the complete and utter takeover that shifts her from parent to animal. It is her shadow self, pin-prick pupils and drooping eyes, clad in a wrinkled, ripped, and bleach-stained T-shirt and panties, towering over me as I crouch on the floor. It is her silhouette behind the wheel of a barreling sedan as my sister runs through the bushes, and a stare void of emotion as we face her in court. 

There is the memory, a decade later, of untangling a bird from fishing line by the ocean, her features soft, cheeks flushed, eyes warm as we watch it stumble into the surf at dusk. It is seeing her eyes alight each time I come to town, and the devastating reminder of her humanity when we meet on video chat from the new lines etched around her mouth and eyes. 

And lately, with her renewed instability at the forefront of my mind, it is seeing the lines form in my own face, deep frowns as I watch myself in the mirror while holding the phone. It is a technique to ward off panic, to render the memories of her shadow self powerless. But as I meet my own gaze, I cannot help but see her likeness. It is present in the line of my jaw, the shape of cheeks and brow bone, my thin, straight hair. She always said we looked like twins. And beneath the skin, peeking from my tired eyes, is the ever-present fear that this cycle could begin again. 

Read More »

SATURDAY NIGHT (AT THE ER) by Fran-Claire Kenney

Trigger Warnings: anxiety, mental illness, self-harm, suicide

  1. At best (at first), it feels like mooching off. There are all these kids in the pediatric ward with oxygen masks gripping their faces like leeches, or their scalps shiny against the fluorescents, or their parents sitting watch in a casually tragic state of exhaustion next to big beds containing little, broken people. And there I am, looking twenty-one though I'm actually not, and I've got, wait for it, anxiety. Everybody says they have anxiety. People don’t just say they were in a crash and felt each rib snap under the car door.
  2. The nurse requests I take my bracelets off my left wrist. It’s just two, but still. They keep me from shredding up my forearms because they won’t come off and I don’t want to stain them red. “What about the leather one? That one will snap off.” “No, it’s rusted shut.” “Just let me try?” “Uh. No, thanks.” Maybe I would strangle myself with my leather bracelet if I could wrench it off, but it really is rusted shut, and I have a positive association with it. Also that’s not the way I’d want to go, eyes bugging out and spit flying like sparks. And I just don’t have enough sleep in the bank to put in the effort or even have the idea.
  3. It's a prostate exam for your brain. “Tell me about the waking nightmares you're having. I'll eat them up. I'll go home and tell my boyfriend about them. We’ll make popcorn and he’ll write an award-winning screenplay based on your twisted mind.” It’s complete with small talk, too: “So where are you going this summer? Camp? And you’re a writer? And you have dogs?” Be happy you’re alive, the kind interrogation whispers.
  4. How can a crash of one’s thought process get fixed in a department generally perceived for its work in a literal crash? Relatively speaking, physical relief comes easy. Maybe I’ve just never been in enough pain to know, but it seems like hot versus cold. If you’re too cold, you can put on a jacket and really warm up within a few minutes. If you’re too hot, you can ask people not to touch you and look for somewhere slightly cooler to lie down alone. (Throw in the fact that I haven’t been able to attempt any rest without disturbing imagery barging into my consciousness, and it’s a mental health emergency!)
  5. The hospital personnel are the roommates who push you out of bed on Monday morning even if you’re hungover and caught in a monotony bubble. They’ll be late to work because they stuck around to wake you up and make you an egg, and they may resent you for it, may even sit silently on the subway and stew over how you’re a whiny fuck with a nonexistent maturity level, but hey, at least you made it to Monday. The strange thing is, that won’t happen—or worst case scenario, it’s really not your problem if it does. You’ll be moving out so soon that you won’t even get to say thanks or ask how their day was. These are people who really, really like being altruistic, and sometimes that just takes some suspension of belief.
  6. It makes me a mental patient—and makes me realize that that word doesn’t carry the weight most people expect. It feels light: you’re surrounded by white and gray and muted green and people are kind to you. In your ER pajamas, you don’t feel dangerous—just in limbo. I can now say I've wandered barefoot out of my curtained cell, battered toes squeaking against the sterile plastic floor, in search of mere company. I don’t know how much further I’ll wander for that company. I don’t know who gets to see me like this.
  7. No matter the adventure, the psychological thriller, the action flick that went down and left you emotionally spent, you don't just walk up to your friends on Monday and say, “Hey, hi, you had a cool weekend? Yeah? Well, guess where I was—the ER! Yeah, I really felt like shit, my parents thought I was going to kill myself. So they brought me to the ER, where I had nurses and a social worker named Lillian and everything! You may have had a nice time drinking lattes and having a grip on your life, but just try and top what I got done.” In a perfect world, it’s probably the normal thing to mention to the people you’re close to, but that Monday, despite the life-changing event that hit on Saturday, I just don’t.
Read More »

I DIDN’T MEAN TO WRITE THIS. by Susan Rukeyser

I meant to write about young environmental activist Greta Thunberg and her impact, how she was received on her recent visit to the US. I loved how uncomfortable Greta made the “grown-ups,” including me. I was dismayed and unsurprised by the sexism chucked at her like crumpled, plastic water bottles: How dare she not smile? 

But Greta’s visit coincided with the final stages of my divorce, and—perhaps you understand?—in that tender time, everything was metaphor. 


I read about a funeral held for a 700-year-old Icelandic glacier which had melted to the point that it could no longer move. It was considered “dead ice.” 

“I feel ya,” I said to a picture of grey rock, all that was left. 

Greta got me thinking about damage and denial and when is late too late? “The house is on fire,” she said, and it is, but it is also drowning. I watched YouTube videos of glaciers breaking apart, or calving. In one, tourists on the deck of an Alaskan cruise ship startle at the CRACK, then ooh and aah as one chunk after another of thick blue ice pulls free and collapses into roiling seawater. Some people cheer, others cry out, recognizing the tragedy they are witnessing. I wonder if they feel the spray on their faces, even at their safe distance. I wonder if they know there is nowhere on Earth that is safe. I wonder if they would admit to the thrill of watching the destruction of something beautiful. Or if they’d simply say, “How sad.” 


If you never join Twitter, does Donald Trump still make a sound? Oh, yes, I’m afraid so. Every day, in that crowded, sweaty, cacophonous room that is Twitter, your President rages and lies and misspells words, demonstrating that he is neither a great dealmaker nor a good man. We resist and ignore and wish him gone, but we remain frozen in this cruel reality.

But, lately: a promising tremor, as whistle-blows reverberate through ice. Justice moves glacier-slow, but it moves. We are not yet dead ice. 

Once the fissure appears, it’s just a matter of time before the CRACK. 


I didn’t mean to write about divorce. 

Which, in my case, this time, was overdue and bloodless, but still—a casting out, or off; a smack to the bruise of past divisions. The worst: calving from the glacier of my extended family, cousin birthday parties and wedding dances and annual reunions, holiday cards with photos of kids I don’t know. 

(Sunk deep in that old, familial ice: a Polaroid of me, age 14 or worse, at one of those family parties, smiling like I wanted to be more like them and less like me.) 

When I slipped underwater, the cold was a shock, but I got used to it. I stopped pretending to be frozen.

Who knows, now, in this destabilized climate, what weather will come? Maybe a surprising cold snap, to reshape us, again, hard as ice? On an unseasonably warm day, who knows what seeds might take hold.   

Or maybe we will stay fluid forever, curving into experience, slipping through impasse, dancing in eddies that catch, then release us, infused with fresh biology: mineral, animal, botanical. We will bear it all. 


We must be willing to drown for our transformation, I scribbled one moody night. We must be willing to give ourselves to the cold, dark unknown as we descend and decide: Will I bother to resurface, again?  

What has cleaved itself free cannot be reclaimed—thank Nature, if not God. We will grieve for our ruined illusions, of course, even as we wave them goodbye. 

I did not mean to write this.

Read More »

A CIRCULAR SCAR by Shannon St. Hilaire

A guy I dated briefly once asked about my mother of pearl ring. Everyone knows a ring has a story. 

“I won’t tell you,” I said before I could stop myself. Then I corrected, saying I bought it off Etsy, but it was too late. I would never tell him the story of my ring, because to know and understand my ring was to know and understand me. If I told someone about my rings, about this ring in particular, it would signal to me that I trusted them, and they trusted me, too. And I had no interest in giving my trust.

The first ring I ever owned was from an Irish dance competition when I was eleven. Its Celtic knot pattern reminded me that I was Irish, that I was a dancer. I wore it every day until one afternoon when I put it in my pocket to play patty cake with a friend and never saw it again. Studying abroad in Spain, I bought an amber ring. It was my first time out of the country and the ring meant I was now a traveler and always would be. When I moved to El Salvador, I was advised that if someone complimented someone else’s jewelry, it was customary to gift it to them. I couldn’t risk that; as a compromise, I put it in my suitcase, to have close to me but not to wear. I never saw it again.

In Ireland I got a Claddagh ring, which I wore on a chain around my neck when I rejected the categorization of the four relationship statuses indicated by how the Claddagh is worn. Rings had never been about relationships for me; rings were about me. I didn’t want to make a statement about my status, to let everyone know right away if I was available, taken, engaged, or married. What if I was none of the above? When I fell for someone in an open relationship, the ring snapped. I rejected the symbolism. 

I waited for the ring to find me, for the feeling of fate and serendipity to make the ring mean something. I broke that rule at the age of twenty-five, when I purchased on the internet a rectangular mother of pearl ring, grooved with flowers, set in engraved silver. It was large and particular; not everyone would like it. It expressed, not me exactly, but a boldness I so needed at the time.

I’d been dating someone for about a year. When I was with him, he made everything a delight, an adventure if only we made it so. He was lively, generous, magnetic, and adored by everyone he met. I strove to be worthy of him. 

A month or two after we started dating, on my birthday camping trip, I realized something about a bump on my index finger. I thought it was a weird pimple or an ingrown hair. But no matter how much I messed with it, it didn’t go away. 

“I think this is a wart,” I said. My boyfriend took my hand in his, examined my finger with a prescriptive eye. 

“It’s definitely a wart,” he said, and dropped my hand. “That’s gross.”

There wasn’t much I could do about it in the moment. I’d heard that duct tape might help, but we were in the woods. So I laughed. He did not.

At home, I researched what I could do. There were many options, but none of them were guaranteed to work. Time was the only definite cure. 

I tried Compound W, but the protrusion, looking like a tiny, fleshy cauliflower, remained. I didn’t get around to going to the doctor and I couldn’t bring myself to call attention to the blemish by covering it with duct tape. I hoped no one would notice.

“You want to know what I don’t like about you?” the boyfriend said, months later. I did want to know; I asked him all the time. He refused to say anything bad about me, or anything good. I couldn’t tell if he liked me; my only hint was that he hadn’t broken up with me yet. And if he refused to tell me these things, he must be hiding some major dislikes. I had dozens of guesses as to what they might be. “Your wart. That’s my least favorite thing about you right now.”

We’d been kissing. He’d pushed me away when my wart accidentally grazed his skin. I knew he meant what he said.

“When you have a wart, you do something about it,” he said.

“But what do I do?”

“You go to the doctor and get it frozen off.”

So I went to a dermatologist. Because the wart went deep, nearly to the bone, he recommended a blister treatment instead of freezing. I did that. A blister blossomed underneath the wart. The blister popped and created a ring wart around the perimeter of the blister. The tiny cauliflower had become a not-so-tiny mountain range. When the doctor saw it, he said, Oh, that’s really bad. He prescribed me a cream that could take care of the new, larger wart. 

I no longer had insurance. The five-minute appointment cost me $287.

The cream looked like peanut butter. It burned through my skin, creating a raw wound that went so deep I was surprised not to see bone. If it hurt, that meant it was working. I was pleased as I watched my flesh sizzling over the course of weeks, because soon I would have one less flaw and all would be well between my boyfriend and me. But when he saw the wound he told me my finger was going to fall off.

So I went to a nurse practitioner. She said the best treatment would be to burn the wart. As she was cauterizing, she said, “What would you like to name the wart? If you name it, you can conceptualize it, and then you can fight it.” She believed in the healing power of the mind, that I could will my wart away.

“Beatrice,” I said. It seemed like an evil stepsister name.

“The goddess of beauty...Interesting choice,” the NP said. “You should buy yourself a ring. It will be a special ring, something you can use to fight Beatrice. Take control of your fingers and use it to overpower her.”

I didn’t know how much stock to put in that, but I was willing to try anything and I did want a new ring. So I broke my serendipity rule and spent hours looking online for my wart-repelling ring. It had to be my inner source of strength. Something just for me, to fight to take back my body, myself. I didn’t even ask my boyfriend what he thought of it. I didn’t care. It was the ring of my will. I wore it on my other hand to distract from the flesh-colored bandage I always wore.

All in all, I spent about $800 trying to get rid of my wart, trying to get my boyfriend to like me, or to dislike me less. In the end, it was time, and possibly garlic, that eradicated it. It disappeared without ceremony, and when it was gone, I didn’t tell my boyfriend. If I didn’t call attention to the wart having existed, maybe he would forget how much he’d disliked that part of me. We broke up shortly after the wart was healed, leaving a bumpy, circular scar in its place.

I continued wearing the mother of pearl anti-wart ring, carrying the secret of its meaning, as I grew to hate my ex and then thought I loved him again and then felt nothing at all for him. I wore it through a graduate course, two drafts of a novel, and more dates with people who never learned about the ring, people I never got close to, so they could never push me away.

I chose to be celibate for six months. I dated myself, became the sexless love guru for my friends. I ran a half-marathon. I felt like a pillar—strong, nearly impossible to topple. 

The ring, with its bulky secrets, held less and less meaning for me. It was no longer a talisman to ward off the judgment of boyfriends, or boyfriends in general. I didn’t want to wear it anymore, but I couldn’t find a replacement that felt right. So I kept wearing it, because it was my rule to always wear a ring, and what if I lost myself without it?

I don’t remember taking the mother of pearl ring off, but one day approximately a year after the wart became a scar, I became aware that I owned my fingers, with or without rings, with or without blemishes. In an unmemorable moment, the ring, its floral engraving worn smooth with countless hand-washings, had been put away with my necklaces and half-pairs of earrings. I hadn’t faded away or turned into someone else. I didn’t feel less myself. I even felt lighter without its weight.

Rings had always been a personal reminder, but the world asked about them and expected an answer. Without a ring, I was myself, but no one knew it, until they knew me.

In that moment I didn’t commit to memory, I was probably leaving the house to go out with friends and slipped the ring off my finger, just to see how it felt. I think I stepped out into the night and rode my bike to meet my friends, no longer feeling the pinching of flesh between the ring and the bike handle that had caused a callus on my palm. When I arrived, my friends recognized me, despite my bare hands. 

Read More »