Creative Nonfiction

STAYING CLEAN by Megan Premo

The foamless rectangle was greenish-blue, an institutional color, not a tropical one, and it smelled like something meant to clean dishes or toilets or floors, not human hair, not fourteen-year-old girls’ bodies.
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The old say to the young: 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘸𝘰𝘳𝘭𝘥 𝘪𝘴 𝘺𝘰𝘶𝘳 𝘰𝘺𝘴𝘵𝘦𝘳. And when the old men speak these words, they are sincere, because the world has been delivered unto them, and the world is now theirs to bestow.
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FACTS OF LIFE by Laetitia Keok

Male emperor penguins protect their eggs from the harsh Antarctic elements by balancing them on their feet.

When I tell you this, you lift me up and balance me on your feet. I am four and weigh nothing. You are a mountain of a man. With my tiny feet stacked atop your larger feet, you hold my hands and start taking wide, steady steps. We pass the balcony, and I feel the warmth of sunlight as it filters through the glass door to fall onto our bodies. Our shadows dance on the floor tiles like puppets. Then, I am flying. Past my mother’s old room that is now my aunt’s. Woosh. Past the cot that my baby sister is sleeping in. Woosh. And I am not afraid of falling—it doesn’t even cross my mind. We waddle across the living room, my cousins cheering softly in the background. Soon I am yelling directions, “停!左!等!右!” and we are zigzagging around the sofa and the stool and the bright red toy car that I have long outgrown, but that you’d fixed anyway. I keep my eyes on the floor—I am your guide, telling you to swerve to avoid the cracks in the floor, to turn at the right corners. When I look up, there is light everywhere—the room melts away and we are in Antarctica, inventing our own little penguin waltz. It is a long time before I am willing to walk on my own again, and I tell everyone this is how I learnt to do it: safe in your arms, fearless. 

Only I am not fearless yet. I am six and it is my first day of primary school. You walk me to the gate, but I refuse to go in. I am afraid of the sickly cream-coloured walls and the pillars thicker than the width of both our bodies. But mostly I am afraid for you to leave. “Let’s walk for a bit more before I go in,” I say. “One more round, before you have to go.” You shake your head, but let me lead you to the zebra crossing and then back to the bus stop across the school compound. We circle the bush with the small white flowers once, then twice. You say “最后一次”, but we circle it another time. I cling onto your shirt sleeve. When you finally get me to step through the school gates, the walls and the pillars meld into a blur in my eyes. I am crying. I am reaching for your hand and grabbing air. I am begging for one more round, and always one more round. 

Even as a child I knew to ask for more time. 


There’s a line in Terese Marie Mailhot’s heart berries that says “Time seems measured by grief and anticipatory grief”.

The summer I spent chasing all 311 episodes of 《天下父母心》 with you was also the summer I realised you were not invincible. A light in the house had blown a fuse, and you were going to change it. I helped you get a ladder from the storeroom, and as I watched you climb it, I was terrified. I could not shake off an image of you falling. I imagined all the bones you could break, and all the hard edges that could break you. In my mind, I heard the dull crack of your spine, your neck, your hips. I let you get to the third rung, then made you get off. As I scaled the ladder in your place, you smiled and said, “Qi, see? Isn’t this easy? It’s good to learn now, I won’t be here forever to do it, you know.” I knew. I knew before you said it and it made me afraid. 

At night, fifteen minutes into episode 201, you dozed off. As I watched the glow of the television tint your skin a ghostly purple, I traced the rise and fall of your chest and braced for the hitch in your breath, but there was none.  

In so many ways, I have already grieved you.


In Parkinson's disease, certain nerve cells in the brain gradually break down or die. Early signs may be mild and go unnoticed.

At first, we do not notice the tremors. Then, they are all we see—you, earthquaking into yourself. 

Here is how a body forgets itself: everything you can no longer bite into, the stiff of your feet, the hunch of your back, the tremble of your arms. You have always been quiet, but you no longer talk during meals because you’d choke if you did. You blink less. Your stride narrows. 

Once, when I asked you how you’d lost half of your middle finger on your right hand, you told me you had been peeling an apple, when you’d accidentally sliced it off. I was fascinated. I thumbed the almost smooth ridge of skin that pulled itself over your remaining knuckle. “Did it make things frustrating?” I asked. “Like you suddenly couldn’t do so many things?” You ruffled my hair, chuckled, and said no, you’d just decided you didn’t need that finger.

But you will need your body, and you will not have it. It will no longer feel like yours. You will have trouble swallowing, talking, walking. You will need a wheelchair. I cannot imagine it, but you will grow unsteady. This time, there will be things you can no longer do. 


There is no known cure for Parkinson’s. It is a disease that is chronic and worsens over time.

The day you are admitted, I see my mother cry for the first time in years. I learn we are all afraid—there is no such thing as fearless. She had woken me up in the morning before going to you. After she left, I sat in bed, and time swelled all around me. I had slept through it. You were in pain and I had slept through it. You were in pain and I should have felt it, somehow. Except I hadn’t. And I had slept through it all. 

When I was younger, to correct my posture, my mother made me stand up straight against the kitchen wall. “Hold it for sixty seconds”, she would say. You laughed and counted the seconds with me. 

Now, I count with you as you relearn your hands, finger first. One, thumb to index finger. Two, thumb to (half a) middle finger. Three, thumb to ring finger. Four, thumb to pinkie. I show you how to make a fist and unfurl it. Now, you memorise the motions to stand up safely, and I watch as it takes you multiple tries. I watch you learn to move sideways to navigate space, “like a crab”, you say. We waddle across the living room—I am your guide. I remind you to not look down, to take larger strides—“往前看,大步一点”. When I feel the ridges of the anti-slip mat in the bathroom dig into the soles of my feet, I know it must hurt for you, too, and learn you are a patient man.

Your body forgets, but mine remembers. I remember it all. Your feet, warm under mine. Your hands, always gentle. I remember that day, from years ago, when we walked eleven blocks and two traffic lights to pick my cousin up from kindergarten. I had slipped my hand into yours and thought, how I will miss you when you are gone.

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STICK FIGURES by Sara Solberg

In an eastern New Mexico desert, amid a forest of mesquite and bluestem grass, overlooking nothing but miles upon miles of iron-pressed, sunbaked earth, sits the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP for short). On the surface, it looks like any other government base: a simple grid of unremarkable squat buildings, the tan color of which bleeds into the surrounding arid landscape. But step into one of the elevators that spend their days bobbing up and down WIPP’s vertical mine shafts, ferrying hard-hatted workers between ground level and the ancient salt bed 2,150 feet below, and it’s a different story.

One of the few deep geological repositories in the world, WIPP’s raison d'être is to store the radioactive waste produced by the US’s nuclear reactors. While the facility is only licensed for 10,000 years, the barrels of waste that get buried there will be harmful to humans much longer than that—250,000 years, to be exact. But with its rising popularity as a cleaner, more reliable, more land-efficient alternative to other forms of energy like fossil fuels and solar, both nuclear power and the often lethal byproducts that come with it seem here to stay. 

Storage is one thing. What happens to that storage after we’re gone is another matter entirely.

A few months before my mom died, I asked her for a favor.

“I just want Dad to have something he can keep going back to,” I said, feet folded up onto the recliner in Mom’s office nook while I watched her work at her desk. I spent a lot of time like this in those days, trailing behind her around the house like I used to when I was little, desperate to soak in her presence while I still could. “You know. For different occasions and stuff.”

Outside the window her desk faced, a cardinal swooped back and forth across the bronzed orange trees lining the border of our yard.

Her bare brow furrowed beneath the rim of her fleece cap. “Write him cards?” The cancer had spread to Mom’s throat by then, and her voice was rough, her words sounding as though they’d been scoured raw with a steel dish scrubber before being set free. 

I rocked back and forth, springs creaking as the chair bobbed in time with my rhythm. “Yeah. And on the envelopes you can put things like ‘open this on our anniversary,’ or ‘open this when you’re having a bad day’ or something. Like on Pinterest.”

Mom, ever allergic to technology, didn’t know what Pinterest was. 

“Like a letters to your future self kind of thing. But for Dad.” Trying to prepare for the future was another thing I did a lot of in those days. But how can a person prepare for something that can only be understood in hindsight? 

When I looked outside again, the cardinal was gone. 

In 1981, the US Department of Energy commissioned a multitalented team of experts (physicists, engineers, environmental scientists, political scientists, sociologists, archeologists and behavioral psychologists, to name a few) in anticipation of the Yucca Mountain geological repository that was to be built. Though plans were ultimately scrapped in favor of the repository in New Mexico, the team—christened the Human Interference Task Force—became founding members in the emerging field of nuclear semiotics. The sole purpose of this field is to answer one thing: How do we stop generations 10,000+ years into the future from unearthing radioactive waste?

Similar to WIPP, it’s a deceptively simple question on the surface that gains immediate complexity with a little digging. Creating a warning message that will be understood by people 10,000 years out is the bare minimum goal of nuclear semioticians. Ideally, such a message would not only last a couple hundred thousand years in addition to that, but could also be deciphered instantaneously—an unmistakable Turn Back Now; Do Not Pass Go; Do Not Collect $200 that can be understood by any person in any context. But 10,000 years is already double the length of recorded human history. 250,000 years is almost as long as Homo sapiens have existed. 

To come up with a clear message that will not only survive in meaning, but in material form—something that will resist the decay of time, that won’t wither like a plant carcass in the searing New Mexican heat, eroded by nature or chipped away by human hands—is almost incogitable. 

I stopped by Target to find some cards that looked worthy of being the message bearers to my future, widowed dad from his future, deceased wife. The fluorescent lights reflected off the white shelves and white tiles and white ceiling, and it felt like I was the dead one, ascended to a heaven that resembled the gift section of a department store. The Hallmark dogs with their halos and wings only solidified the mirage. 

I stood in front of the blank, boxed cards for several minutes, trying to choose from an assortment simultaneously too meager and too diverse. What, I wondered, was the appropriate design for a situation like mine? Colorful circles, bumping up against one another in random patterns like marbles tossed across a floor? Shadows of birds balanced on a wire, twittering quarter and eighth notes that trailed in a wispy string above their heads? The tidy, monochromatic lineup of trees, each a different shade of blue? What design most strongly said, I’m sorry I died? What most said, I was thinking of you then, even if I can’t be there with you now?

I ended up buying two boxes of flower prints: the first a diverse bouquet, the second a wreath of roses and daisies, in the center of which perched a green and yellow, vaguely bohemian sparrow. Its one visible eye, just a small black dot on its turned away face, stared into the distance, perhaps contemplating the wrapping paper a few feet away, or maybe its own two-dimensional existence, frozen on paper until it was either destroyed or disintegrated with age.

Mom loved flowers—loved the wild bouquets I’d sometimes pick for her, loved getting dirt under her fingernails pulling weeds from the garden. Mom loved birds, going as far as to get a few birdwatching guide books so she’d be able to identify the species that tended to hover around the backyard feeders. She loved life. 

The cards weren’t enough. They were never going to be enough. But they were better than nothing at all. 

Numerous solutions to the nuclear semiotics riddle have been proposed since the 1980s, each with their own unique shortcomings. Perhaps the most commonly suggested warning is a simple written message—Rosetta Stones whose multilingual inscriptions can be updated every handful of decades for indefinite millennia. Languages, though, are as alive as the people who use them, ever-changing as they age. It’s only taken six centuries for the English used in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales to become unreadable to modern English speakers. Given the infinite unknowns that await humanity, it’s an act of pure faith to believe a message written today will still be translatable 10,000 years out.

Some have suggested using pictograms; Carl Sagan famously insisted the most effective message would be a simple skull and crossbones. But symbols, like language, are ever-evolving. Before it became an omen of death during the Golden Age of Piracy, the skull and crossbones was used by the Knights Templar as a symbol of the Christian rebirth. Today, it’s inseparable from children’s Halloween costumes and Disney movies featuring Johnny Depp. 

The next logical step after individual pictograms is a series of them. A narrative. A comic strip depicting a person dying after they’re exposed to the radioactive waste buried below. Stories and stick figures, after all, are two of the few universals that have existed as long as humans have been around. But even then, there’s no guarantee future humans will interpret a comic strip in left to right sequence. Read right to left, it becomes a resurrection story. 

Other solutions have included everything from folktales to atomic priesthoods to bioluminescent cats that will glow when they’re within a certain distance of a repository. 

And others still have said it’s all a lost cause. Humans have always had a compulsion to excavate. To know. To remember our forgotten histories. Surely, any warning message we leave is just as likely to be seen as an invitation. Why waste our own finite time on earth trying to protect some distant perhaps? 

Mom bought a small, hinged box from Hobby Lobby to put the cards in—one that resembled a pirate’s treasure chest, complete with an arched top and fake iron plating. It sat in my room for weeks after her funeral, wrapped in a plastic grocery bag to shield it from dust, shoved to the far corner beneath my bed. 

As I promised her I’d do, I gave it to my dad once things settled down and the reality of our new lives had started to take shape. There was nothing I could think to say in response to his tears or shaking hands when he reached out to take it—no comforting Hallmark platitudes, no way to boil down the immensity of our loss into something comprehensible. 

That’s the paradox of such situations: finding a way to communicate the incommunicable.

I left my parent’s bedroom in silence, quietly closing the door behind me. 

Many people mistakenly assume WIPP is located where it is because it’s remote. As survivors of disasters like Fukushima can attest, after all, living in the vicinity of radioactive material isn’t an enviable position. In actuality though, the facility owes its placement to one thing, and one thing only: the 2,000 feet of continuous salt below.

The remnant of a sea that evaporated 250 million years ago, the salt bed is an ideal burial ground for nuclear waste for multiple reasons. It’s accessible. It’s malleable, and therefore easy to mine. It’s geologically stable, and impermeable by water. 

But above all else, salt is capable of healing. Eventually, 75 years or so after WIPP’s mine is filled to capacity and closed off, left to sit for time immemorial—either remembered or forgotten, as all things are—the salt will collapse around the barrels of waste. It will collapse, and then it will begin to stitch itself together, fractures and fissures filling over the course of a few decades until the barrels have been wholly encapsulated, the surface sealed once more. 

I wonder what scars will remain.

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Boston is burning itself over a baseball game. Outside of Fenway, the local evening news zooms in on a few torched sedans. Undercarriages in flames like hibachi grills. White boy ruddy faces rejoicing. Game 4 of the 2003 ACLS. A Red Sox victory.

I care about baseball because I love you. I want to wake you up to celebrate Johnny Damon and Pedro Martinez and all those other shaggy-haired rascals hellbent on breaking the curse. Once you view the game highlights, I want you to bang me against the TV, so my bare ass kisses static. I want you to tell me it’s all okay, that it’s only the oysters like you said—no, slurred—before you passed out with puke on your tongue. 

Boston ties with the Yankees for the series. So, they revel and pelt the pavements with their empties. Some brawl in bars while others lay waste to their beloved hometown with spray paint and gasoline and alcohol-impaired decision-making. At first, I don't understand why their response to winning is as if they’d lost. Then I think about all the times I lucked out when I thought myself doomed. Hope, victory, delusion—whatever you want to call it— can feel like you’ve managed to cage death. Like you have to edge closer and reach through those bars to truly know what you’re up against. Like you can only make sense of your good fortune by testing it. 


I watch you in your clammy, fucked-up sleep. You’ve been this way for hours. Still and corpse-like. You don’t stir, but you sweat. God, do you sweat. You’ve got that after-vomit sheen, skin the color of a dead tooth. You’re still wearing your good clothes but we’re not going anywhere. 

In my new lacy underthings, I slump against the bed frame. I glimpse my wan face in the mirror and behold a pouty, bare-breasted child. I contemplate the ways my skin folds when I cry, the way my eyes retreat into my babyfat cheeks but leave wet traces. The way I look when I’m alone: pathetic but honest. 

The celebration-cum-riot continues. Drunken, gap-toothed bros too close to the camera. Mouths like clogged drains. I wonder if I could spy the mayhem outside our hotel window, but I’ve no idea where Fenway is. I’ve seen so little of this city since we arrived this morning. Just a raw bar kiosk in Quincy Market, the inside of a Victoria’s Secret, a basement Mexican restaurant in Faneuil Hall, and a shitload of Dunkin’ Donuts. If I didn’t know about Paul Revere and the cobblestones, I’d think there’s no rich history here. Except for sports, of course.

The truth is I don’t need history. I’m happy to be lulled—no, fooled— by the present, the way our bodies find ways to collide from moment to moment, the way your hands and mouth and dick quiet my fears, make me forget about everything else but us.

It feels like grief when you’re lost to me like this. I worry you’ll wake up and forget—no, remember—what we’ve done. You’ll see it differently and then you won’t see me at all.

You blame the oysters, but I ate them too. It’s not bad seafood and it’s more than the booze or the drugs—though they certainly play their part. It’s that you haven’t seen your boys in months now, that you are reminded of your youngest when we landed at Logan because it’s his namesake. It’s the foggy realization that even in these clandestine and anonymous spaces where no one knows our sordid origin story, the odds of this working out don’t change. Wherever we go, there we are—totally tragic and out of control. The havoc our passion creates is literally making you sick, but you’ll never admit it. 

This trip is intended as an escape. A respite from the harsh demands of your wife’s lawyer, the real repercussions of our workplace romance, the tenuous nature of our cohabitation. Sober truths await us in Florida, bitter and anti-climactic like the Ecstasy comedown we recently shared at your best friend’s wedding.

I hoped for an evening of memorable romance, some sort of affirmation that the hardship, the wild impulses, the inevitable hurt, the inadvertent destruction, the sheer and total dysfunction of it all is worth it. I hoped, at the very least, you’d take me to Cheer’s. 

But I refuse to wallow. This is our vacation, goddammit. We’re in Boston and we’re in love. I grab the stationery off the nightstand, uncap the pen with my teeth. I lay on my stomach like a homesick camper, my head resting at your feet. While I stare at your stubbly mask of a face, I pen you a love letter. You’re my destiny and I find a dozen eloquent—no, florid and insincere ways— to tell you so. I write about everything but tonight except to say that when you’re sleeping you look pure, except to say I know forever and it’s you.  

Eventually you wake up and reach for me, chapped lips forming excuses. I silence you with my girlish grin, gift you the notepad with mute anticipation. When you read my words, you cry just enough to seem genuine. Your voice is sturdy and weighted with promises far too heavy to keep. You say I love you like it’s an instant replay. You chant my many pet names until I nearly forget who I am. This is the way I like it best: to be lost in your perception of me; to place faith in mutual fantasy; to root for us, the underdogs, whose love will win out if they continue to ignore the rest.

When we return to Florida, your wife finds my letter in your glove compartment. I thought you’d be more discreet, more appreciative of this private—no, performative—testimony.  She rips it to shreds; makes you promise I’m gone. And you do but then you don’t. Until you do. 

I realize now what I’ve lost, you say. You tell me I need to find another place to live, another person to love. And I wonder who’s really lost what when I whisper, okay, while clenching a throw pillow that probably once belonged to her. And that night, as I thrash and wail in our big white bed, lost in all that I’m losing, calling out to you on the couch, pleading for you to come and hold me, the back of you sighing my name with pity and indifference, I still think I can turn this around. I’ve done it before. Like that night in Boston. I can assure us that what we have is kismet, record-breaking chemistry, a riot of the human heart that can’t be contained. I refuse to let all the rapture—no, destruction—be for nothing.

Everything hinges on Game 7 of the ACLS: a trip to the World Series, the reversal of a curse, a city’s restored belief in themselves. Part of me—no, nearly all of me—thinks you’ll come back if the Red Sox pull this off. At Yankee Stadium, a tired yet determined Martinez remains on the mound long after he should. His manager checks in with him but decides not to pull him out. And when Wakefield closes in the 11th inning and Aaron Boone nails a home run, it’s not the result of some sinister voodoo. If the fans were honest with themselves, they’d admit it was the way the game was played.

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SQUAT STANDS by Richie Smith

The high school gym was filled with jocks and weight lifters and I didn’t fit in with any of them. People like Irving Ackerman, the strongest Jewish kid in the school. 

Irving didn’t know me. I lifted the lowest level of weights, but I resolved to change this. I was going to work out to grow big and strong.

I found a body building program in the back of a comic book.

“Universal Body Building” had the logo of a muscle man hugging a sexy woman and promised to send me weekly lessons which would transform me into a hunk of muscle.

In order to start the program, I needed squat stands. 

“Dad, can you buy me squat stands?” I asked the next morning at breakfast.

 “Squat stands are expensive,” he said, biting into his English muffin. He drank dark liquid that wasn’t coffee. He didn’t understand the importance of body building, but by the time he finished eating, he realized I was disappointed.

“Maybe you can have squat stands for Hanukah,” he said when he got home later that night. “I’ll see if Dan Lurie has them.”

Dan Lurie was a bodybuilder with a retail store in Canarsie.

“Can we get the stands tonight?” I asked, as if squats were a life-saving intervention.

It was the last night of Hanukah, 6:15 PM on a weeknight and the store closed at seven.

For some reason, perhaps guilt, my father agreed and we sped on the Belt Parkway to Dan Lurie, weaving in and out of lanes at a high speed so I could get squat stands.

Unlike the shining stainless steel squat stands I had seen in various gyms and at school, these squat stands were flat black with square bases that rattled on our uneven basement floor.

I started the Universal Body Building Program, but couldn’t keep up with the lessons or the twelve dollar monthly payments. Even though I had squat stands, I still had weak quads, and soon, I also had a collection agency coming after me.

I did squats for a few more weeks on my own and then moved on to smoking pot instead.

I spent school days getting high, but I still wanted to get strong. I still had a man crush on Irving Ackerman, now a senior and possibly the strongest Jew in the world. He was musclebound from all the furniture he lifted at his father’s store: Ackerman’s Eclectic Antiques, one of the famous high school dozen that could bench press the entire rack. He gave up wrestling to become a body builder.

Sometimes I followed Ackerman in school. I admired his Herculean walk, the wide lats and bulky thighs that never allowed him to bring his arms or legs together. He seemed the perfect person to lift weights with, if only I could get him to notice me. 

My only hope to gain favor with Ackerman was a scaly one-eyed kid with a limp named Gallo, who hobbled alongside Ackerman like a pilot fish. Gallo also happened to sell pot, so one day when I was buying a joint, I asked if he ever lifted weights with Ackerman.

Gallo looked at me sideways, compensating for his glass eye. “We lift all the time, man.”

Gallo didn’t seem muscular but he was tough. “You want to lift with me? You’re not going to be able to lift with Irving until you bulk up a little.”

I hesitated, not wanting to be alone with Gallo, but I realized this was probably my only chance.

“I’ll lift with you,” I said. “You have weights?”

“Of course I got weights. I got lots of weights. More than you can ever lift.”

“Should I come over after school?”

“Sure, come the fuck over. If you don’t mind cat piss. I got cat piss all over the basement. That’s where the weights are.”

“I’m allergic to cats,” I said thinking about the horrible smell of cat piss and Gallo actually looked pissed although I couldn’t tell if he was looking at me. He was one of the few people I knew who would actually look better with an eye patch.

“You got weights?” he said finally.

“Yeah, I have weights but I don’t know if there’s enough for you. How much you lift?”

“I lift lots. What you got?”

“I don’t know, maybe one sixty.”

“That’s weak. Smith, you’re pretty fucking weak.”

“I got squat stands.”

“I’ll be over at three,” he said.

After school, Gallo showed up at my house in a leather jacket reeking of pot. His dress shirt underneath was unbuttoned to reveal a gigantic metallic cross. He limped across our foyer in sweatpants without underwear.

I introduced Gallo to my mother and he winked at her with his glass eye.

I showed him the weights in the basement.

“Vinyl weights? That’s so weak, Smith. But I like the squat stands. Fucking Dan Lurie. You know, he was supposed to be Lou Ferrigno’s understudy for the Incredible Hulk.”

“Cool. You ready to lift?”

“I need a ruler,” Gallo said. “I gotta measure the handgrip position and make sure it’s even on both sides.”

“Richid can I speak to you?”

I hated being interrupted by my mother.”

“Mom, do we have a ruler?”

“Richid. Come upstairs.”

I left Gallo behind to set up the weights and went upstairs.

“I don’t like the looks of that kid,” my mother said.

“Mom, stop judging my friends.”

She handed me an envelope. “You also have mail from a collection agency.” 

I lifted weights with Gallo for over an hour and we didn’t lift much. After each set we had to wait while he painstakingly measured the distance between hand positions on the bar.

“You don’t want it uneven, otherwise one arm will be stronger than the other,” he said.

I didn’t criticize Gallo, but I had watched Irving Ackerman lift and it only took him a minute between sets. Maybe that’s why Irving was huge and Gallo wasn’t.

I decided this would be the last time we would lift together but Gallo called me the next night and the night after and every day asked if we would lift after school. My mother continued to complain that he was a creepy kid and a bad influence, and despite all the lifting I never got any bigger because we spent most of the time measuring our hand positions. I was afraid to tell Gallo to stop calling me, so I went along with it until one night when he called, instead of asking me to lift, he asked if I wanted to go to a party.

I said yes but made the mistake of telling my parents.

“You’re not going to a party with that kid,” my mother said at the dinner table.

My father grabbed another lamb chop. “Which kid?” 

“The kid with the weights,” said my mother.

“You mean the kid that comes over every day? The kid with the cross and the glass eye who refuses to wear a jock strap?”

“Yeah. That kid.”

“That kid means trouble. Forget about it.”

 “That kid is best friends with Irving Ackerman,” I said. 

Everyone knew Irving. At least everyone Jewish did.

“Irving’s huge,” said my father. 

“That gentile kid doesn’t look like an athlete,” said my mother.

“Irving’s an athlete,” said my father. “He’s a wrestler. He doesn’t have collection agencies coming after him. I don’t want you going to any parties. Have the party here.”

“No way,” I said and stormed away from the table. 

But, I thought about it. If I had a party, Irving Ackerman would most certainly come, and he would see my squat stands. Hopefully he would be impressed.

“I’m having the party at my place,” I told Gallo the next day. We were on the exit ramp where the cool people in school smoked cigarettes. I didn’t smoke cigarettes but speaking with Gallo gave me an excuse to hang out there. 

“You think people will come?” I asked, but I was really referring to Irving Ackerman.

Gallo blew smoke out of his mouth sideways, in the opposite direction of his drifting glass eye. “People might come,” he said. “Will your parents be home?”

“Of course not,” I said, preparing for the argument with my parents.

“We have to be home,” said my father. “Otherwise it’s illegal for you to have a party.”

I knew this wasn’t true.

“We promise not to bother you,” said my mother.

“I just have to warn you,” I said. “Some of the kids smoke cigarettes, and there may be beer there.”

“We weren’t born yesterday,” said my father. “Just use common sense.”

Unlike the parties these kids were used to, I presumed my house was different. I had “a finished basement.” They were used to sitting around on bridge chairs next to an oil burner.

I set up the stereo I earned as a gift after my Bar Mitzvah, with the turntable on top and the 8-track cassette player. 

My mother wanted to hang crepe paper decorations. I nixed that.

“It’s a party for cool people,” I said. “Not a sweet-sixteen.”

I was delighted to see how quickly the tough kids swarmed in. Soon it was smoky, loud and crowded.

At the peak of the party, and fashionably late, Irving Ackerman arrived with Gallo limping down the stairs behind him.

Irving Ackerman saw everyone guzzling Rolling Rock and Miller light. He saw the bucket of Alabama Slammers I mixed in a garbage can as well as Theresa Milliken vomiting into a paper bag in the corner of my basement. Immediately he smiled.

Gallo pointed at my squat stands and Irving nodded his approval.

I handed Irving a beer and he shook my hand.

I blasted Emerson Lake and Palmer.

Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends. We’re so glad you could attend come inside come inside.”

 Joey, the biggest burnout in the class, asked Gallo to watch his beer while he was taking a pee.

Gallo nodded, placing the bottle on the table next to him. “Yeah, I’ll keep my eye on it,” he said with a laugh, and reached to yank out his glass eye—but Irving stopped him.

Doors slammed.

People made out. Everyone smoked weed. There were joints and pipes and even a bong.

Joey switched on Black Sabbath, sandwiching his head with my Bar Mitzvah speakers blasting Iron Man into each ear.

Things spiraled out of control.

The smell of pot drifted up through our wilting ceiling.

People fought to get into the small basement bathroom pounding on the aluminum shower and it sounded like thunder.

In the laundry room, someone made a torch out of a can of Wizard toilet spray, singeing my mother’s negligee.

Kids carved their initials in the bathroom door. Someone shellacked my father’s college pennant. Foam rubber torn from our couch rained like confetti.

Out of desperation, I went upstairs to seek advice from my parents.

“What the hell’s going on down there?” asked my father. “Are people smoking marijuana?”

“I’m not sure,” I lied. “Maybe.”

“Everyone has to leave now.”

“I can’t just ask everyone to split,” I said. “It’s the middle of a party.” 

“They’re destroying our house.”

Ending the party seemed very uncool, but I knew my parents were right.

“If you don’t ask them to leave,” my father said, “I will.”

My mother shrugged. “Just tell them someone called the police.” 

“Yes,” said my father, “the cops are on the way.”

I spread the word.

“The pigs are onto us,” said Gallo. “Party’s over.” He and Irving were the first to leave.

Eventually everyone was gone, except for Tomlinson, a short, shy kid still hiding in our cedar closet. My mother dragged him out by the ears.

The basement simmered like a crater after a mortar blast.

That Monday after the party I was kind of popular at school. I had trashed my entire basement and supposedly the cops visited. Apparently this met the very definition of a cool party.

I hung out with the smokers on the exit ramp between periods and some of the cool people even acknowledged me.

A car screeched in the distance, tires shredding over asphalt and Gallo pulled up in his souped up Camaro. The passenger window lowered and Irving Ackerman waved me over, tan and handsome in sunglasses. Up close, the leather of his jacket was soft and grainy, a much higher quality than Gallo’s. He was drinking a beer.

“Great party, Smith,” he said. 

A compliment from Irving Ackerman.

“Thanks for coming,” I said. “It was a cool time.”

“Very cool,” said Ackerman. “Here,” he said. “Finish the beer. We should lift sometime.”

“That would be great,” I said holding the beer as the car screeched away and for the first time in a while, I felt oddly victorious, even invincible. 

But fifteen minutes later I was suspended for the possession of alcohol on school property; suspended for holding a beer handed to me by the one kid I truly idolized.

And three months after that, Gallo was on the local news, arrested for trying to steal a safe from our elementary school.

I never lifted with Ackerman. A year later I left for college and my parents gave away the squat stands.

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Is it true we’ll spend the next nine months across worn-down Neapolitan-chocolate-brown carpet that we tell ourselves we’ll cover with a rug, but never do? The cinder block walls are painted dried vanilla ice cream on warm pavement. Like a wound that won’t heal, the thick drapes won’t close all the way and they bleed a strawberry sunset over Wide Open Spaces, an autumn-tinged campus and the regal-yet-defunct Boise train depot. 

For a split second, I think you are giving me the cold shoulder when I come home from class and you are asleep with your eyes open and, yes, it is creepy. We never get enough sleep. Like a toxic love affair, we fight sleep and we crave it and we wrestle it and we yearn for it and we abandon it, and when we succumb to its gentle arms we never want to leave it again. 

How many nights will we spend under this popcorn asbestos ceiling that we drove thumb tacks into to secure our twinkle lights, talking late and vowing to hold each other fiercely accountable for the lives we want? Powerless to the sparkle lurking between shadows, we will go astray, wander into intersections and stumble into gutters, eventually finding our way back to what we wanted all along.

Will we remember the wall-mounted phone with the spiral cord you deformed while twisting it around your fingers, drunk-dialing your crushes and defending your Scottish name in a rapidly fading Canadian accent. Grayg? Trayv? 

There is a long line of boys outside our door for you, but before you go out on weekends, you leave sticky notes for yourself on the phone: Don’t Call [Current Crush]. And when you come home from the parties, you rip off the sticky note and crumple it in your hand while dialing. 

Will you ever remember taking the trash out? There is a garbage shoot down the hall, and I think, seven floors high, what a ride. We are very bad at taking out the trash, but we’ll get much, much better. 

You eat tacos from the top-down as opposed to coming in from the side. While earnestly and sincerely discussing angels and ghost theology, there is Jack in the Box hot sauce staining the corners of your mouth in an upward arc. While you speak, leaning close to my face, I think of the Joker. Years from now, I’ll learn about the Black Dahlia murder, and I’ll know exactly what a Glasgow smile looks like. Well, you are Scottish, after all. I’ll recognize the description of the image without needing to look it up online (don’t Google it). It’s Jack in the Box hot sauce without a napkin.

While I neatly arrange items on my desk like a still life painting, your desk displays unfolded laundered underwear, a case of diet coke, stray spiral notebooks and highlighters, Kraft Easy Mac dinners, and text books that never move all semester (they don’t need to). You wake before dawn to run stadiums with your soccer team, then come home to write a Women's Studies paper the night before it’s due. You’ll get an A.

We’ll tell each other a lot of things, but one thing I never tell you is that time I saw your crush at a party, cornered him on the beer-slick stairway, and threatened: “Heyyyyy, so good to see you, [Redacted]. Hey, listen if you ever Steal Her Sunshine I swear to god I’ll [redacted] and your mother will cry when she sees what I’ve done to you,” and his face went slack and, yes, it was creepy of me, but y’all hooked up anyway, and as far as I know he had zero power to steal your sunshine so, as far as I know, he remains intact to this day. 

One night, religious visitors three doors down come in to stage what looks like an intervention for our friend in the next room. They speak quietly, kneeling on the Neapolitan chocolate carpet, while we strain to listen over our homework. You twist your hair between your fingers, sigh, and open a package of Oreos. “Should I do it?” you ask. I nod, not knowing what “it” might be, but knowing you should absolutely do whatever “it” is. You scrape Oreo cream onto your fingers and step into the other room where our friend is being held hostage by prayer warriors. With a straight face and steady voice, you hold out your hand and say to our friend, “Um. Josh stopped by to say hi, and wanted to give you this.” 

I nearly pee myself. The prayer warriors think we’re on crack, that’s how hard we’re laughing. You fasten a bra over your eyes, blinding yourself, and hop like a cricket through the hallway, knocking the wall-mounted phone off the wall. “WE’RE NOT ON CRACK!” you yell. The prayer warriors leave soon after, tiptoeing past as we wheeze and writhe over the chocolate ice cream floor. Our friend comes over to our side and says, “You’re dead for that,” and snags an Oreo.

These will be the happiest nights of my first eighteen years of life — this pocket of acceptance I can come home to, in between classes and meals and study labs. You say you love my red Hurley hoodie, so I’ll ship it to you someday. I’ll sip hot cocoa in a navy waffle knit maxi-skirt, rolled low at my belly, and in that moment you’ll startle and say that I remind you of a beloved Aunt. I will wish for time travel again and again over the next decade, if only to go back to that dingy, cozy laugh haven.

At a toga party, we wear matching sheets covered in blue and gray stars over jeans and tshirts, and a stocky football player mistakes us for junior highers. “Fuck you! Fuck you!” you yell at the offensive lineman who will be accused of rape soon. I laugh hysterically because I can’t fathom becoming an adult, plus my mouth is filled with braces and my hair is braided. Let’s go, girls.

Spring break that year, you come home with me to Santa Cruz. My mom drives us all over, and we wind up in Carmel-by-the-Sea, where we shriek at $1500 tshirts and then pretend we already own one. At a drugstore, we wait in line to buy Advil or something when you sigh and ask me, “When does Daddy want the Jag back?”. I say five. It is 4:50. A smartly-dressed, gray-haired woman ushers us to the front of the line so we won’t get in trouble with our fake father. We quickly pay and race to the parking lot, ducking in our seats while yelling for my mom to “just drive” her Toyota Tercel like a getaway car. That night, we watch “Brokedown Palace”, and I, for shit and all glory, would one hundred percent sell myself out to release you from a Thai prison, no matter the charge or sentence. Later, my mom says, “She’s just so witty”. How does one become so witty?

This was your idea: We’re with Holly in the drive-thru line at a flagship JBX, remember that bullshit?. Boise is such a hot drive-thru market, we warrant a hipster analog Jack in the Box, I’m so sure. Yet here we are, waiting so long, creeping toward the speaker box like a car full of would-be “SAW” victims. “How many tacos? Hello? Hello!” You’re out cold, sound asleep, a serene smile plastered across your glowing face.

Is it true that I won’t laugh this hard for another eight years? Yes. 

You always wanted to have two little girls. You have their names picked out. I always wanted to read a newspaper in my writer’s bungalow among mature trees, with eclectic throw pillows and a large hanging star lantern. 

We are very good at manifesting.

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I should have known it was a bad time to have a friend over. I was 15. My parents were divorcing, the house divided into a his/hers venn diagram, the kitchen being the overlapping space.

I should have foregone the offer of a snack, and led my friend straight to my room that was squarely situated on the her-side of the floorplan. Better, I could have suggested my friend and I walk to her house where we could have eaten whatever we wanted. Even in before-times, my family rarely had anything good in the fridge. 

I should have shut the fridge door when I saw our side of the fridge contained a half-eaten jar of pickles and a deflated bag of bread with two end pieces in it, while my dad’s side was fully stocked with grapes and mozzarella sticks, a pack of cinnamon buns and half a pie.

I should have lied and told my friend she could help herself, that there were no sides of the fridge, I should have pretended there would be no consequences for taking my dad’s food, that there wouldn’t be a scene, that he wouldn’t penalize my mom by deducting the cost of whatever my friend might take—some juice, a glass of milk—from my mom’s next support payment, that she wouldn’t yell at me for being selfish, for making things harder than they already were.

But I didn’t have any of that kind of sense, and so I just stood there, confused, in front of the fridge that hung open like a cracked rib cage, watching my friend’s expression evolve, her eyes widening then darkening, as she realized I thought my family was normal, how in watching her reaction, I was only now learning it wasn’t.

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Let’s argue that reality is plural: the solipsistic loneliness of individual perception becomes our first hurdle. We try to get over that by sharing some kind of rudimentary interior with others—where common goals and grammars can unite and define us as joint proprietors of a greater cognitive space. So how do you deal with people not liking you? What strategies can you call upon when you reach out for connection only to find an opposing electrical charge exerting its repulsive force against you? It seems strange to imagine that in the age of social-media anyone would reject this idea of a cognitive space of mutual connection, but it’s harder to attain than you might think. Well, it’s harder for me at least.

It sounds cynical but sometimes, no matter how many ways you attack this complex endeavour with reasoning there is simply no way in. Some people just don’t want to share an interior with you. In truth, most people don’t. Which means that even if reality is plural, our experience of it is doomed to be paradoxically solitary and singular. Knowing that truth doesn’t make the problem any easier to live with. So, is this just the end of friendship for Chris Kelso? The optimist in me says ‘no’. The other voices say ‘mmm, well…maybe’. 

When you write books about critter-states, child murderers and psychosexual trauma, it might seem like other people’s opinions aren’t all that important to you in the first place. But that’s not true. I write to exorcise my sadness and put some distance between my day-to-day self and those grim fascinations. Writing is to be a friend of wisdom. The books are rarely ever an expression of how I feel or what I enjoy. In fact, I have yearned after stable conventions since I was a young boy. Sure (at my lowest ebb, when I felt it had eluded me) I battled against conventional structures, but always in the secret hope that it would eventually come to me of its own accord. Like a jilted lover hell-bent on retribution. An arsenal of mind-games and denial at my disposal. But I want(ed) friendship. I always wanted a good job and the status that brought. I wanted a place in society. Self-fucking-actualisation. And Maslow was right when he outlined his tenets in the hierarchy of needs (although having critical ‘needs’ will make you inherently ‘needy’, and this is also unattractive). I want to believe in goodness and an afterlife. I want to believe in romance and meaningful connection. Alas, this is the loneliest I have ever felt. All these conventions continue to allude me and I need to make peace with another harsh truth: my own undesirable status as a fundamentally needy soul navigating the morgue of human indifference. Losing the optimist soul. Accepting the void. 

And that’s what this is, I suppose—this, right here. I’m trying to articulate something so I can connect with someone out there in the great collective abyss. Shine a light on it all. But dark matter only consumes; it neither reflects nor absorbs the light. Only eats it. 

Aristotle defined friendship as reciprocated goodwill. 

‘In poverty as well as in other misfortunes, people suppose that friends are their only refuge.’ 

Goodwill certainly seems to be in abundance on a superficial level, but does it have genuine truth or is it some kind of trivial social camouflage? If it did then surely connection would be simpler and would occur on a more regular basis. I’m also aware that the materiality of our reality conditions the connection of everything with everything else. I know we are cosmically bound, like the milling atoms of a crystal—interdependent particles oscillating together in the quest for structural integrity. And as I step into a new profession with demanding and stressful challenges, friendships become more important, yet somehow less accidental and more intentional, albeit still fate-pending. Friendship becomes about utility, survival. The kind where there is no real reciprocal affection. Two cold bodies clutching hold of each other in a superficial embrace as they spiral into apathy together. These are usually temporary relationships and these are where I find myself dwelling of late. And usually it’s me who needs more. I often try to break this shallow barrier with sincere acts and a giving nature. Because I need the friendship of virtue in my life. Unfortunately, no one has the patience required. My ‘needs’ appear ‘needy’. And my overtures of friendship deflect off chitinous eyes and ears. My gifts of connection pass through transparent hands and crash hopelessly to the floor. 

I am lucky to have love in my life. I have a fiancé who connects with me. She represents the world of reciprocity that I craved. But what of fraternity? That’s been a different story entirely. But so what? An optimist resides inside my heart, muted but present. I’ll just have to wrestle with undesirable status until the black soup of dark matter takes me beneath its well. B.R Yeager once told me that ‘humanity sees the void as a vacuum/an absence only because we aren’t tuned to perceive what resides there, and as conscious entities we put consciousness on a pedestal.’ So, this struggle to elevate consciousness through connection and shared experience is perhaps folly. Dying alone doesn’t frighten Yeager because, as he says, ‘I imagine my consciousness will just disappear, become other energy, scatter, etc. I won’t be aware of it or its ramifications, and that’s strangely comforting.’ 

Maybe there will be something beyond. In the dark matter we can’t see. A new world of simple connection and reciprocity. But that’s the optimist talking…

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