Creative Nonfiction

kai ming mckenzie

BUS PORTRAITS by Kai Ming McKenzie

A man on a bus is writing in his day plannerThere is a slender man who spends every morning bus ride one winter scratching out notes to himself in a little day planner. He looks so busy that we who are seated near him are tempted to try to read over his shoulder to see what he is writing about. He has tiny and meticulous handwriting, and he writes straight through the delineated intervals of his days with a fine-tipped pen.Everything is done with quick and efficient motions, which paradoxically give the impression that there is something wrong, a neurological syndrome of some kind at work. Perhaps it's just that he never seems to have to pause to wait for the next word to come — if those tiny marks even are words. Maybe they are symbols forming some other kind of record.When he gets close to his stop his busy hands loudly rip apart the velco straps of his insulated, soft-sided lunch container and put the pen and the planner back into the front pocket. Then he pulls his knit hat down over his ears and carefully rewraps his scarf around his neck, three times. It is eight o'clock in the morning, but the page of his day is completely inked over.We want to know where he will record the rest of his hours, since his day is already filled in.A kind of fastidious graphomania or sheer nervous energy channeled out through the fingertips — that's how I described it when I wrote about it in my own little book, while I was sitting in the seat behind him, looking on. One bus rider draws portraits of anotherA woman is sitting near the front of the bus. She can't stop waving her arms. Her crooked fingers brush her black nylon kerchief and catch in it; her head bobs left and right with the ruts in the road. She is making gestures that seem devotional or beseeching, but may be meaningless. There is a white crust around her lips. Her face is gaunt, her muscles taut and ropy under her warm, dark brown skin. Naturally we do not look directly at her, but around her, carefully.Seated further back is a white man in his fifties who got on earlier. He is balding, but retains a ponytail; he is dressed casually; he is not on his way to work. He has a large newsprint sketchpad propped on the seatback in front of him and he is drawing this woman with soft vine charcoal which he pulls from a ziplock bag in the pocket of his leather vest. He spends about a minute on a portrait, then turns the sheet over with a quick flourish and starts again. They are pretty good gestural sketches. She is shown in profile, since she is in the handicapped seats and he is facing forward. He pays attention to the face.This is what this guy does — we see him on the bus all the time. He pays his fare and rides around for a couple of circuits, drawing the passengers, then when he gets bored of us he puts his pad under his arm and gets off at the coffee shop near the university.After the fourth or fifth portrait she seems to notice he’s drawing her and she grows agitated, but can't seem to turn to him to communicate, can only glare at him out of the corner of her eye. His sketches begin to show her evolving rictus of distress. If she wanted to get him to stop, she would have to rely on help from someone who could read that this was a new and different kind of distress than her default state. Actually, we do understand — but we are trying to look away. None of us tells the artist to stop.Eventually, and with some trouble, she produces a ballpoint pen and grasps it in the air before her, making parodic, palsied sketch-strokes in the air, still not looking at him directly. Now her expressions are genuinely ugly. Then she finds a piece of paper and slashes at it with great effort, producing some marks — a portrait of the artist — which she clumsily rips up and tosses to the floor.We do our best to ignore this exchange. We have ridden with the artist before. Those who have sat in front of him have been annoyed; those who have sat behind him have mostly just watched him draw. A woman writes a note in the stairwell of a busThe bus lurches down a dark street, behind schedule by a few minutes. Although it is night, there are still plenty of us riding, headed towards downtown. At the stop at the corner, a woman is waiting in a dull yellow pool of light with a two- or three-year old girl in a stroller. The bus stops in front of them and the doors open, but instead of getting on, the woman tries to ask the driver something. She doesn't seem to be able to move her lips and tongue in order to form words; she can only gesture and make loud, inarticulate noises.While she does this the bus driver is half-yelling, what? where? to her while keeping both hands on the steering wheel. She can only respond with more blocked sounds.We passengers sit listening to her moaning and the bus driver yelling back for a while, seemingly in a stalemate. The engine has an irregular idle, and it rocks us gently. Finally someone from the back of the bus says in frustration, for fuck sake, give her something to write with, and everyone comes back to life, fumbling for pen and paper to take to her. We are glad to have something we can do.She gratefully takes the pen and the scrap of paper from a passenger and writes something down and passes it up to the driver, who says, with an emphatic head nod, yes, I stop there, get on. So she stands her daughter up on the sidewalk for a moment, then collapses the spindly stroller and tucks the U-shaped handles over one arm while gathering her daughter in the other. She mounts the steps and takes a seat at the front, quickly unfolding the stroller, setting the brake, and getting the child buckled back into it.As the bus pulls back into the street she starts to take off her coat and, while doing so, finds that she is still holding the pen and the scrap of paper that she wrote her destination on. She folds the paper up and pockets it — she might need to show it again when she gets off at the other end. Then she looks up at us, holding out the pen to return it, scanning our faces to find the owner, showing no emotion that we can see. Keep it, keep it, we say, shaking our heads.From the stroller on the floor the child is turning her head to catch her mother's every movement, looking mutely up at her with love in her bright eyes. She fidgets against her seat belt, looking like she's got something to say, as if she is getting ready to speak for the first time, to say I know what it’s like.
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(According to the National Institute of Mental Health, and also Me)

1) Impulsive and often dangerous behaviors, such as spending sprees, unsafe sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, and binge eating. 

When I was five, I’d sneak sandwich meat, pudding, cereal—anything quick and easy to snack on—into my room and hide it so my parents wouldn’t find out how much I was eating. I did this until I was nine when my mom cleaned my room and found moldy bologna under the bed. Since then, I mindlessly eat almost every time I eat. I can’t control myself. I’ve been doing it for eighteen years.

2) Distorted and unstable self-image or sense of self

I was always the fat kid growing up. When I was twenty, I joined a gym and went six times a week, stopped eating like crap, and drank only water. I lost fifty pounds in three months. Everyone around me said I looked great—even skinny. It was the best compliment I had ever received. The only compliment that mattered. So, I kept losing weight. People told me I should stop working out so much because I was going to wither away. I still thought I was fat.

3) Self-harming behavior, such as cutting

I cut myself the day my brother attempted suicide in 2010. It was my first time. I was in ninth grade Earth Science, standing in the back of the room, running scissors across my left wrist. I wasn’t breaking the skin. I wasn’t bleeding. I couldn’t control all the pain Andrew’s attempt caused me; I wanted to control my own pain for once. When I got home from school and my parents were halfway to Charlotte to see Andrew, I tore apart my razor. I sliced my left forearm once, twice, three times. It worked much better than the scissors.

4) Intense and highly changeable moods, with each episode lasting from a few hours to a few days

One Thursday, I had a lot to do—homework, class, sending/reading e-mails, searching for post-grad jobs—and I planned to get everything completed during my four-hour shift at work. I wasn’t too worried. When I got to work, I looked at my color-coded planner and my inbox. I cried. I was so behind on everything. I did what work I could, but I was so depressed by the end of the shift. I thought about what it’d be like to dig through my secret hiding spot where I keep my razor blades and use them for the first time since August. I skipped my classes and meetings that day. I needed to cry in bed and sleep the emotions away. By the end of the night, I didn’t feel depressed anymore, just stressed.

5) Recurring thoughts of suicidal behaviors or threats

I missed the last three months of my junior year of high school because of a back injury. When I went returned for senior year, rumors said I had just been released from a mental hospital. My friends abandoned me. After not cutting for almost a year, I relapsed. Both my forearms looked like ladders. I thought it’d be better if I weren’t here. I planned how I would kill myself. I was too afraid to actually swallow a bottle of Ambien, but it was always in the back of my mind in case I decided to.

6) Feelings of dissociation, such as feeling cut off from oneself, seeing oneself from outside one’s body, or feelings of unreality

Last spring, an hour after a boy I was (practically) dating and I solidified our plans to watch Mean Girls, our favorite movie, I sat on the edge of my bed and stared at my closet door handle. I felt off. I couldn’t stop crying. It was a drastic change from ten minutes earlier when I was excited and bubbly. I texted the boy, described the feeling to him: the front part of my brain knew what was going on, but the back part just wasn’t me, and the back part was taking over. I didn’t feel like I was part of my own body. I canceled the plans with him, despite the fact I’d been obsessing over going on another date with him just an hour earlier. I asked a friend to drive with me to Myrtle Beach for the day—I needed to get out of my apartment. I didn’t trust myself. I hoped my friend would be able to bring me back to me. After half an hour of driving and talking, I finally felt like I was myself again: laughing, making sarcastic jokes, and having fun with my friend like always. All day, I thought about how I felt like I was watching my life happen from another point of view. I thought about how I never wanted to go back to it.

7) Chronic feelings of emptiness


8) Inappropriate, intense anger or problems controlling anger

Three of our neighbors were with my parents outside as I yelled at my father the second I parked my car in the driveway.

How could you get rid of Andrew’s clothes? They were clearly marked. You knew we were going to have a quilt made out of his T-shirts. Mom told you, I told you. What’s wrong with you? Is it ‘cause your brain is fried from all the coke? The twelve beers you drink a day? The pain pills? What the fuck is wrong with you? I hate you. I fucking hate you. I can’t believe you fucking threw the bins of his clothes away. Jesus fucking Christ. I can’t believe you. Fuck you. Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you.

9) A pattern of intense and unstable relationships with family, friends, and loved ones, often swinging from extreme closeness and love (idealization) to extreme dislike or anger (devaluation)



The marching band from freshman year











Jamison (again)



The 2018 Orientation Leader team


Jamison (again)

10) Difficulty trusting, which is sometimes accompanied by irrational fear of other people’s intentions

I was drunk and crying when I told my best friend that I didn’t trust her even though she hadn’t done anything wrong. It slipped out as she sat with me on the ground outside my twenty-second birthday party. I saw the hurt in her eyes. She told me again how much she loved me and that she wished I could trust her. I told her I was trying but didn’t know how. I didn’t want to scare her away like I had all my past friends.

11) Efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment, such as rapidly initiating intimate (physical or emotional) relationships or cutting off communication with someone in anticipation of being abandoned

Three days before our four-month anniversary, I almost broke up with my boyfriend Alex. I wanted to break up with him before he could break up with me. I felt my random, deep depressions were too much for him. It didn’t matter that he’d just spent the past three hours holding me as I cried, or that he’d told me dozens of times he loves me no matter what—everything in me screamed that he was going to end things with me, so I should do it first.

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zachary kennedy lopez

SALT by Zachary Kennedy-Lopez

You’ve come to cherish the fragility of snails, come to love them in a small sort of way. When you see one attempting to cross the sidewalk, you pick it up—and it shrinks from you—and you move it to the other side. When it rains, you become more careful, you walk home with the light on your phone on. When you step on a snail in the dark, the shape and timbre of that sound taps something deep within you, and you imagine paying someone to take a needle and ink and carve colored lines into you, marking your own skin with a rendering of a snail as a sort of penance for all you’ve crushed. You think about what meaning could be assigned to a snail shell: home, vitality, retreat. You imagine a snail your own size, and wonder how strong the shell would be then.


Your parents have a corner lot with a sizeable yard, on which for years they’ve grown fruits and vegetables. You had corn when you were young, blueberries too, and raspberries, cherries, squash, and grapes. Many of the plants and trees had to be wrapped in black mesh so that the ever-present birds, snailkind, and deer wouldn’t make off with everything.

You’d heard, likely from someone at school, that salting a slug or a snail would cause it to shrivel and vanish, and you wanted to try it—not out of maliciousness, but because you are, always have been, insatiably curious. You knew nothing of the chemical properties of salt, and that you could pour salt on something in the world and cause it to disappear seemed a form of magic, a formula that tapped into something hidden about the rules of existing. Likewise, for some time as a child, you thought that spraying water on wasps would kill them, extinguish them as though they were flame, but you discovered one summer that this was untrue.

Once, when your mother was working in the beds behind the house, and she’d removed a slug or a snail from a plant, you asked if you could salt it.

She said no, and reminded you that salting the slug or snail would kill it. You hadn’t considered the implications of ending a life, that snuffing out a being so small and inconsequential was still killing, and her response stopped you short.

You’ve never salted a slug or a snail, but you imagine them bending in upon themselves, as might someone in the throes of vomiting, shrinking, becoming less pliant, contorting like a receipt tossed into a fire.


You think of your manager, the one who’s vegan and has a pupil shaped like keyhole. You think of how he was heartsick for so long when they couldn’t get the baby bird out of the walls of his office, couldn’t lure it down through the air vent. You think of how he told you about an injured animal he picked up on the side of the road—a blackbird, or a raccoon, you can’t quite recall—and you remember how he’d been quiet one day because the sanctuary had called to say the animal didn’t make it, that it had died, and even he was surprised at how broken up he was. You think of how you asked him about the shape of his pupil, and you even had the word ready, coloboma—a word, incidentally, that appears in a story by one of your instructors, a story you return to again and again, even-though-slash-because you’re convinced you’ll never understand all the pieces in play, a story that you’ve had your own students read—but you come to your manager armed with this word, and he says no, that’s not it at all. He tells you about how he was wilder in his youth, how he and some friends had been on the banks of a river, when one of them lobbed a beer bottle from a distance, and it struck him in the face, exploding on impact. Your manager has scars on his forehead, and a nose that never straightened out. He tells you that some of the glass entered his eye, and he had to be awake when the doctors attempted to remove it. Each time the surgeon brought the utensils up close, his eye twitched instinctively, seeking escape, trying to evade being touched. The cycle repeated once, twice, again, until finally the surgeon told your manager to quit fucking moving his eyes unless he wanted to go blind.


Your manager, who was nearing fifty when you worked for him, had an older brother who died in his twenties. It might’ve been suicide, it might’ve been a drunk driver—another thing you wish you could remember. But his brother was involved in theater, like your husband, and your manager tells you that your husband reminds him a lot of his brother.

You saw Alejandro Iñárritu’s film Birdman with your husband, and when it was over, you looked at him and said, Don’t ever do that to me.


You bought a shirt recently and a pair of jeans, both massively marked down. One tags reads Made in Madagascar, the other Made in Indonesia. You think of a conversation with your brother about the $6 H&M t-shirts advertised as being eco-conscious, made with organic cotton, Made in Malaysia. Your brother says something like, Mmp, yep, child fingers made that.


When you were younger, but old enough for your parents to leave you and your brother at home unsupervised, you went to one of the cupboards and took down a repurposed butter tub filled with salt. You carried it through the house to your brother’s room, and said, Look, I found sugar. He licked a finger and dipped it into the white mass, stuck it in his mouth.

Years later, he still brings this up.


Your husband won’t touch pecan pie. Hasn’t since he was a child, when his grandfather made one and substituted the sugar with salt by accident. Your husband and his sister complained, said, This doesn’t taste right. Their grandfather was furious and forced them to finish their pie. He was a man steeped in the belief that food on a plate is a contract: you finish what you take, you finish what you’re given. When your husband tells you this, he says, Because that’s a great way to teach a child about obesity. There are things you sometimes forget about your husband: that he was not as slim as he is now, that there are years of his childhood he’s blacked out.

Your husband’s grandfather cut himself a slice of pie, ate one bite, and threw out the rest without saying a word.


A member of your cohort tells you no, you’ve got it wrong, salt doesn’t dessicate snailkind, just the opposite—they bubble up, boil over, and melt.

In a way, both are right: as salt removes the water from the body, a snail emits a slime in order to protect itself. The bubbling, the boil—that’s the air leaving as the snail shrinks, compresses, has nowhere else to hide.

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