Creative Nonfiction

THE FLIGHT PATH by Megan Peck Shub

The morning my friend passed away—not a euphemism here, for passing is just what she did, through her protracted process, a slow shifting from life to whatever it is that is not life—some engineers launched a rocket at the Cape.

I’d flown down from New York at 4 AM, but I arrived too close to the end for me to cut in, so I stayed at my parents’ house, waiting for the call. 

That night, in someone’s backyard, my other friends and I, we stood there, conscious of our collective remaining behind. It was one of those suburban Florida backyards, one in a long, identical row, the ground half dirt/half Saint Augustine grass, primly fenced off from the neighbors. Some of us were drinking vodka, yes. I didn’t partake in the cigarettes because I’d quit, and I figured my friend—since she died of cancer, and here it feels better to say died—wouldn’t want me to smoke. It is not logical to do things for the dead, but we do them anyway, because what we’re doing is actually for ourselves, obviously.

That part of town sits in an airport flight path; when I think of it, I think of watching the bellies of low-flying aircraft, their landing gear reaching out like talons. 

One of my friends looked up at the sky.

“She had the best seat in the house for the rocket launch,” this living friend said, her finger stuck toward the sky; some wet-eyed laughter all around the group. A nice thought, but I could not agree. The truth is that I didn’t think it was the truth. 

Years ago, when I was 24, I worked at Newark airport with a middle-aged colleague who—unbeknownst to him, absorbed as he was in our rigmarole, in our planes, in the pallid mounting of his days—taught me a lot about pain. The context is gone, but one day he asked me, “Have you lost a friend yet?” 

Yet. Yet. What a tag it was—yet. There are words that sound like their meaning. Crash. Bang. This felt like that. Yet: something brutal, inevitable.

I remembered his words, standing in that backyard, looking up at the roving dots, what I imagined were satellites, slung around and around and around our orbit by gravity. The memory played as if released by a needle sliding into a record’s wax groove. “Hit it,” I could hear my friend say, snapping her fingers. This part was imaginary, of course. 

The next day I flew back to New York. Every time I leave Florida, I feel like it’s spitting me out, like I’m some kind of flayed pit, hurtling.

This was three years ago. I still hear her ringing laughter, clear as ever, perhaps even clearer than before she left—and here it feels most apt to say she left. I feel her shrugging, somewhere, maybe in my own shoulders, when, from time to time, I smoke a cigarette. 

For Jessey

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TANKERS by Mackenzie Moore

I thought my grief would come out like my mother dumps out her purse. 

If you’ve ever seen that woman turn over her tote bag, it’s like the Niagara of tidbits. You need a poncho just to block the crumbs. Everything comes spilling out into a big old pile: Armani lipstick that costs more than my phone bill; floss picks, Altoids, crinkled napkins with phone numbers of networking colleagues; one wooden “eco spork” used, but wiped clean on one of the aforementioned crinkled napkins. 

It’s an absolute mess but my god what a sight to see. 

That’s not what happened. I did not dump. I did not turn out my pockets. I partitioned — sectioning off the sadness like an oil tanker. I remember learning in grade school about how those massive ships don’t sink when they hit ice — they just seal off the flooded compartment, and re-distribute the weight. Capitalism and Midwest values have a way of encouraging one to cordon off the wound and deal with it later, in the privacy of loneliness. 

I redistributed by lying on the knotty wooden floor of my apartment most nights, letting the sadness settle — like waiting for the foam to burn off a beer poured too quickly. In the quiet darkness, I let the cataclysmic waves wash over me. Once the sloshing stopped, I stood up. 

Sometimes the system failed, and things came leaking out. I could make you a map of all the unfortunate corners of New York where my grief boiled over: the “stamps only” line at the Cooper Union post office; under the ancient hand dryers of 721 Broadway; the Staten Island ferry as it docked in Battery Park; crumbling corners of my ex’s Astoria apartment. 

The blindsiding waves eventually grew less frequent. I stopped grieving on a daily basis. Or at least, I made it less obvious, especially to myself. But even so, the ghost of something, much to be desired, still lingers. Perhaps it’s just the ache for a specific feeling — one of turning yourself completely inside out. Of dumping out the dusty corners and making sure the light hits them, at least to acknowledge they exist.

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MOZZARELLA by Megan Navarro Conley

After they drown and bloat with water, white people look like mozzarella cheese. Not the shredded kind in resealable bags, but the smooth spherical cheese in the little wet bags near the deli counter. Sometimes I buy this cheese from Trader Joe’s because plucking it off the refrigerated shelf makes me feel fancy. I like to turn it over in my hands, cup it in my palm while waiting in line.

I learn this fact about white people and cheese while standing in a river. I am nineteen, and I still think I’m going to be a doctor. The director of my honors program tells us that we need leadership positions if we want to apply to med school, so I am standing in this river wearing a neon green hat that shouts Volunteer Team Leader. Behind me, on the shore, are ten other college kids looking to fill lines on their resumes. It’s 9am, and we are all cold and tired and hungover, but because I am the team leader, the park ranger hands me rubber pants and boots to wade into the water.

It rained the night before, but the tree lying halfway across the river clearly fell a long time ago. It’s caught litter in its branches, a matted solid clump of chip bags, soda cans, plastic bags, anything unnaturally dyed and saturated that immediately draws the eye. My friend stands on top of the tree, dry and holding open a garbage bag.

I’ve picked up most of it. At the top of the ravine, I can feel the park ranger staring at me while the other students pick around the shore, poking into bushes, around tree roots. I am wondering if his job is always this cushy, when my friend pinches her nose.

“It smells like shit.”

“Really? I have a bad sense of smell.”

“It smells like something’s died.”

I try sweeping the leaves downriver, fishing through the grey-brown muck. I think I’m almost done with this area, ready to wade out of the water and step out of these rubber boots which will stand up even when I’m not in them.

“There’s this big thing against the tree,” I say, and my friend crouches down above me to get a better look.

Not that we can see anything in particular, but I can feel the weight of it, pressing both my hands against its squishy mass, it’s at least half the length of the tree trunk. I start thinking out loud about what it could be: “I think it’s a waterlogged pillow. It’s so squishy and heavy because it’s all weighed down, but this is definitely cloth.” My fingers search for the edges of it, manage to grip parts of the fabric, and this is when I begin to pull.

 My friend slaps her hand over her mouth, and I hear someone else scramble up the ravine, shouting to the park ranger.

“It’s just a mannequin,” I tell my friend, but she begins laughing and shaking her head, on hands and knees as she crawls along the tree trunk. 

I am still pulling on it, using all my weight to try to dislodge it from the tree, but it only rocks back and forth in the water, cresting small waves against my waist. I can hear the park ranger speaking into static, the other volunteers buzzing with excitement, but I keep standing in the river, and I keep pulling, and even now, I don’t know why I did this. Maybe because I am nineteen, and I want to be a leader, and I want to be a lot of things that, deep down, I know I am not. Maybe I keep pulling because I don’t want to accept what it is, because if I have to accept what it is, then I have to accept what I am, and I have to accept that I am holding someone, I am holding an unfortunate someone the same way I refuse to be held. If I have to accept what is in front of me, I have to accept all the rest too, and I can’t do that because I am weak, so I keep pulling. If I keep pulling, this will be something else, this will be happening to somebody else, and I need that to be true, even if it’s wrong, even if it’s disgusting and horrible to think this way. If I can make myself into what I am not, then this isn’t allowed to be someone’s body, and I will keep pulling until it isn’t.

Years later, I’m going to learn what the word dissociating means. I will think that the word is too soft to mean what it does, this violent expulsion from the body to protect the mind from further harm. 

It turns over in the water, suddenly, revealing a smooth, creamy surface. I press a fingertip into it, the way you press a sunburn to see the lightbulb left behind, but all I leave behind is an indent, deep enough to fill with water. I pull again, and then his arm pops freea doughy wrist, a ballooned hand. Looking back on it now, I should’ve held it right there in the water, until the police arrived.

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TELOGEN EFFLUVIUM by Brooke Middlebrook

Is when your hair falls out from stress. Your hair’s heading for the exits but the name rolls off the tongue. 

Perhaps it’s because I take scalding showers, or I eat too much Annie’s Macaroni & Cheese. Sure, it’s organic, but nothing good for you comes as a powder. The best part is the bunny tail you press to open the box.

External forces cause follicles to enter a sleep cycle. Hair loss, when inherited, is called alopecia. The old nature vs. nurture question, like we’re not all tired of that debate. 

Someone I know is laying in an ICU bed tethered with oxygen, someone not quite family or friend but another vector that relates us to each other beyond these simple terms. Our lives act on each other’s in ways not easily catalogued, the forces underneath similar enough, moving in generally the same direction, but sometimes, like now, shearing against each other, and underneath my concern for this person is a selfish wish to know in which direction my arrow will point now. I don’t know how this works; I failed physics. 

Like hair, I go through phases. Sometimes I don’t listen to song lyrics, or I mishear them, and then many years pass and at the exact right moment I come to understand. Two decades after the song is released, while separating egg whites from yolks over the kitchen sink, I realize that her placenta falls to the floor. 

Thirty-eight and eleven-twelfths years of age doesn’t seem like a good enough fulcrum from which the rest of my life slides down, hairless. 

I failed physics because I spent the class wetting cotton balls and throwing them at the ceiling when the teacher’s back was turned. One might call it my rebellious phase. 

Someone was telling me there are seventeen-year cicadas about to emerge from the ground. I misheard and thought they said seventy, as if any length of time living in the dark is not an achievement.

One afternoon in my college dorm, I was alone in the girls’ bathroom, washing my hair in the last shower of the row. I heard a drunk boy enter and shuffle towards the sound of water, his can frisking along the tile. Then there was silence, until he tore my curtain open, and I was certain this is it, this is how it happens, in flip flops. But he stood there looking, and laughed. I must have misheard that particular lyric. 

At least once a day my elbow is tickled by what I’m sure is a bug but is only a fallen hair, stuck to the fabric of my sleeve. 

I was on a 6 train headed uptown at a time in my life when much was in flux, and the book I was reading asked, How much uncertainty are you willing to tolerate? and in that exact moment the question was comforting, like a warm bowl of noodles. 

At the nymph stage, young cicadas survive all those years underground by sipping root sap.

One night at a bar in Emmetsburg, Iowa, I was picking songs on the jukebox when a cellophane-wrapped chicken ’n cheese sandwich fell on my head. There could be no arc or trajectory, it simply dropped from the smooth ceiling. I have since lived my life secure in that moment’s reality and impossibility. 

But how do cicadas know it’s time to tunnel up to air in synchrony? Some phases begin without us realizing, not until later recognizing the border behind us, not until the nymphs are molting and walking on soft legs.

My friend Frank, a pediatric geneticist, was called to testify in the trial of a mother accused of poisoning her child with salt. The defense claimed Frank’s assessment failed to identify some rare metabolic disorder as the cause of her child’s ill health. I asked him what it was like to be part of such a sensational trial, a case of nature vs. (disordered) nurture. Can you believe it? he said. They made me sound like I was bad at my job. 

In physics, forces were always moving towards or away from each other with those arrows, confident, announcing their direction. I failed because I saw little use in naming forces if they could be canceled out. 

Losses can still tickle quite a long time after the fact.

Distinctions matter. All those cotton balls hanging over my head, bunny tails, speech bubbles containing the words, ‘I don’t know’. The slope I climbed up was fragile; the slope I’m rolling down is always changing. So many things have roots.

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HOW TO PRONOUNCE BON IVER by Holden Tyler Wright

The day after New Year’s, my neighbor—who strummed his guitar at 2 in the morning singing tone-deaf Beatles covers—asked me for a ride. My other neighbor, Isaac, kept the TV on 24/7, just loud enough to be heard in the corner I pressed my bed into, peppering my nights with laugh tracks. Beyond him, Ruth stayed up knitting. I knew this because she made me an endearingly hideous hat and a too-short scarf. We were all insomniacs. I was the only student among us, and saw my living situation as a stepping stone into something greater. I wondered how the other three got locked into crappy efficiency apartments in their middle age. “We look out for each other, here,” Ruth had told me with a wink, watching me pull on her lopsided beanie.

So, I gave my neighbor the ride. I couldn’t tell you his name, because he’d never told me, and at that point I was embarrassed to ask. “I got to pick up my car from the shop,” he deadpanned to the passenger window. “I ran someone over. That’s how I wrecked it. She died. The other guy was okay though.” 

I had no appropriate response. “That’s terrible,” I managed, “any way you slice it.”

“It was raining,” he excused himself. “I didn’t see them. Nobody’s pressing charges or anything.” He aimed a finger across the street. “Can we stop at CVS first? My stomach’s been hurting. Doctor’s don’t know why.”

I waited in the car listening to Bon Iver while my neighbor got his prescription. It was a gray day, the streets still glossy from an earlier shower. 

Bon Iver reminded me of my sister’s shitty ex-boyfriend, who scoffed at my mispronunciation: Bawn Eye-vur. The boyfriend played basketball but was too short to make the local community college team and became assistant manager instead. When my sister brought Muggsy—as he called himself—home, he talked sports with my father, complimented my mother’s cooking, distributed animal crackers to the kids, ran thin fingers through his coiffed blonde hair. Muggsy was white and Mormon, like us, which made him “safe” in my parents’ eyes. Though by the time they broke up, it was clear to each of us that he was anything but safe.

“It’s French,” Muggsy explained, unveiling his dentist’s-son teeth. “Bon hiver. It means ‘good winter.’” Now I say it wrong on purpose.

The sign at the car garage said, “Closed Weekends,” but my neighbor summoned someone by rattling the door. The guy wore basketball shorts and a scowl fierce enough to fend off the cold. After some conversation, my neighbor got back into the car. “They don’t have it here,” he told me. “I’m gonna have to figure this out.” He closed his eyes, sighed as if this were the thing that might do him in. Down the street stood a billboard for a funeral home that featured a leering young woman draped in white fur and holding a lap dog. “Happy Holidays!” it read.

My neighbor didn’t buckle up on the drive home, and every thirty seconds my car chimed a wordless warning. Each iteration felt louder and longer than the last.

He cleaned his glasses and nodded at the car stereo. “This Peter Gabriel?” he asked. 

“Bon Iver,” I told him.

I worried my neighbor might interpret the alarm as a serious problem, a precursor to the hood suddenly jackknifing open or the tires going ragged. Worse, he might think something was wrong with me for ignoring the noise. If my neighbor met another person who listened to Bon Iver, he might think I was an idiot for mispronouncing their name. Maybe he blamed me for the racket my car was making. Maybe he gripped his armrest, afraid I might go slicing through a red light and into oncoming traffic.

The alarm sounded again and again. Each slick intersection held its watery double. I didn’t know how to tell my neighbor it was his fault. 

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He flirted with you at work. You were 16 and he was 23. He would hold his hands behind his back to mimic how you walked away from the server board in the kitchen. Because you were uncomfortable in your own body. Your ass felt too big, the way you walked too bouncy. Sitting at the bar at work eating before the doors opened, he sat down beside you and pushed his hand up your thigh not saying anything. He followed you out to the parking lot up the hill where staff parked. He asked if he could drive your Volkswagen. He had never been in one before. You felt like you might throw up if you said yes. But you did anyway.

You drove around together a few times after work, riding in the dark along old dirt roads outside of town. The lights from the dashboard illuminating both your faces. He invited you over to his parents’ house where he was staying temporarily but you couldn’t go inside. He told you he hated it. He was used to being on his own, but he had to figure some things out right now. He walked you to your car parked on the street out front after talking to each other for hours. And he kissed you. You didn’t know what to do with your hands, if you should close your eyes. 

Walking around the block at his parents’ house, hiding because a bug spray truck came by blasting fumes for mosquitoes. Sitting in the driveway on the back of a truck bed. He leaned in to kiss you and reached his hands up under your shirt. The first time his fingers grazed the outside of your underwear. You felt light, like floating. You noticed his shorts, how he was hard against his leg. You had never seen that before. 

The drives you would take together. Making out and listening to music. How you danced in the street in his parent’s neighborhood. Kissing and swinging in the backyard. Always together at night, always in secret. He didn’t want you telling people at work or friends that you knew him. He gave you a piece of art the size of a bookmark that he had made. He was moving soon. He wrote on the back, to my friend - July 2003 my mom's birthday

He left for grad school in the summer. The first time he called you and left a message, Hey it’s J—. My number is 9xx-xxx-xxxx. You missed it because you were out eating with your parents. You didn’t like the cell phone and kept forgetting to take it with you.  How he called randomly, every few weeks. Always leaving you excited and confused. He told you about school and about his work. You were so nervous on the phone, shaking from the excitement. But you never had anything interesting to say. You were still in high school, still a kid living in a sad small town.  He told you about how he used to love watching you walk away at the restaurant. The white skirt you wore was see through. The thong underneath drove him crazy. 

You took Polaroids when you were 17, posing in a mini skirt. Sitting on the counter at a laundromat eating a banana, your legs angled in a way to show off your underwear. Standing in front of a window in your friend’s apartment, topless, turning to look back at the camera with a smile. Mailing them to him as a gift. You knew he probably had other girls. But were they young with perfect tits like you? Getting into the bathtub when he would call, the sounds the water made as your naked body gently moved around. Innocent. 

He came home that Christmas and showed up at the restaurant. Sat down beside you but acted like he was talking to old coworkers. Got invited to a party that everyone was going to. He said he wouldn’t be able to come. Telling you the way you feel about me is the way I feel about someone else. Then showing up to the party and kissing you on Christmas Day. He said, damn girl you trying to kill me? How it took less than a week for him to call you again. But he kept playing, telling you that you were too young. That he has someone else.  But you still heard from him every few weeks. He still wanted you, he said. But it was time and space. It was age. 

Six months later you would be together. He came home and called you to meet up at a park. Sitting on a swing while he stood over you with his hands in his pockets, he asked you if you were still a virgin. He wasn’t mad but he said he wanted to be your first. He would take you camping in Virginia your first weekend of college and you would finally have sex with him in a tent in the woods. He made you banana and peanut butter sandwiches and sat at the picnic table playing his guitar. It was cool in the mornings, nothing like where you were from. And he wore a long sleeve thermal shirt over his t-shirt and shorts. 

The first year — “Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy” playing as you drove down sunny streets in Chapel Hill in his green ford explorer. Shows at the Cat's Cradle. Eighteen and seeing Arcade Fire on their first tour. Parties where you were the only one under 21. How he didn’t want you telling people how old you were. Just say in college. Keep it simple. But one of his roommates didn’t like you. She knew you were young. 

The smell of his art studio. Like plaster and paint and a sweet fruit mixed together. The room had no windows, like a white cinderblock cage. The giant desktop computer in the lab all the grad students used. You standing in the background waiting while he checks his emails. He didn’t have a computer at home. The Fedora hat you bought him that he lost and wasn’t really sorry about. 

Telling you, don’t eat fast food. Don’t eat meat. You are going to leave me one day for a younger guy. The band he had, “Tennis”. How he sang “I only called you to hear myself talking to you”

The first trip to NYC. Hand jobs in a taxicab. Doing lines of coke in a bathroom at a bar you were too young to get into. Having sex, you on top, when your friend walked in on you both. You went to the MOMA but felt overwhelmed after six floors of art. The sound of the high school bands practicing for the Thanksgiving Day parade at 3 am. Right outside the window of the apartment you were both in. How small the kitchen was, how groceries could be delivered to you. 

He wrote you a letter and sent it in the mail saying, one day we can say the things we both know each other feel. Then shortly after he said I love you in person and for some reason it took you months to say it back. You wanted to but each time the moment seemed right your voice was gone. Coming down weekends from college to stay with him in his house in Carrboro that he shared with two other grad students. The perfectly rectangular window in the living room with no shades covering it, the green lawn and shady trees. They didn’t have a TV and they all acted like this was a statement. The one piece of art you remember, a photograph of a stack of towels pinned directly above the toilet in the shared bathroom. 

His bed was on the floor and he had no comforter. There were nights when you would wake to him rubbing up against you, your naked body moving with his, both of you half asleep and not speaking. Getting up in the morning wondering if that was a dream. The first few months those weekend visits would involve so much sex you would come back to school sore, moving stiffly while your friends all made fun of you. But you always faked it with him. And you started to think other girls lied about sex too. 

He made you dinners and you listened to “Iron and Wine” while he cooked. He liked to go to Weaver Street Market with the dog, get coffee and hang out on the lawn with the crowds. But you felt shy and uncomfortable. You had never seen a grocery store like this one, where milk was served in glass bottles that you had to bring back. Where food was from the farm in town and people were around outside playing music and making spontaneous art. He took you to art shows, sometimes he was in them and sometimes he wasn’t. But he always wanted you to have an opinion, to share your thoughts. But all you thought about was how could some of these things be called art? Pencil drawings on torn off pieces of paper. For sale for fifty dollars?  

His thesis show that spring before he graduated. His parents came up and it felt awkward. Everyone knew you were the young girl he hung out with. The one who was in high school. But his mother was cold when she gave you a distracted side hug. They bought him an Apple laptop - the solid white MacBook. But he still didn’t have a cell phone.

Living with him the summer after sophomore year. His duplex in Durham. When you came to stay — bags packed in the trunk of your bug — you walked in to see he had flowers on the counter and Hey Ash written in bright colored magnetic letters on the old white fridge. The overgrown backyard that you never went into. Standing on the side porch steps, watching his dog do his business. The perfectly sunny kitchen with the Formica round countertop. The walls painted white over so many years the paint was peeling off in thick layers. Taking a nap on a sunny afternoon and the buzzer for the dryer going off. He got up confused and turned off the bathroom light. How you laughed about it for days. The time he reached up to turn off the overhead light on the spinning ceiling fan and as the light went out the globe crashed around you.

Going to Baltimore for a week-long art festival. You helped sell the merch for his art collective. But it was hot, and you hated it. The city was dirty, and it scared you to see so many people living on the street. You had to sleep on the floor in a room full of other artists because everyone was broke, and no one could get a hotel. All people he called friends but many you had never met before.  He bought you a handmade wallet, it was a vintage green pattern with a few buttons sewn on it. Everyone went to dinner at a place that claimed to be a favorite of John Waters, it had a giant mural of constellations on the wall and you tried mussels for the first time.

Back in Durham you got a job serving ice cream at a Ben and Jerry’s next door to the Whole Foods. He made fun of the job but loved that you came home smelling like cake batter every night. You didn’t have friends and you spent a lot of time alone. He said, you watch too much TV, you don’t try to meet people. He took you to shows, CD release parties, Art exhibits and museums but you always felt like an imposter. You weren’t an artist; you weren’t in a band. You were just the cool guy's girlfriend.

He moved into a house with a guy who wasn’t an artist in Raleigh your junior and senior years. He liked baseball and was getting an MBA. He wore a top hat unironically. And you both laughed at him behind his back. Did he really need the top hot and the pipe to get laid? Did he think he was an intellectual? 

 Having an awkward conversation in the bedroom, his bedroom, the thin wall not much distance from the top hat roommate. Sitting on the chair in the corner of the room and him asking you if you ever got off during sex. You worried the roommate might hear you both speaking. You were a bad liar so you told him maybe you just couldn’t, maybe something was wrong with your body. But sometimes his mouth worked, just not always. 

The Christmas party they had, 2007. It was an ugly sweater party which you had never heard of before. The first-place prize was a VHS tape of Oprah. His band played from one of the rooms in the house. They used it as a workspace/studio/band room. It had brown paneled walls, the kind with random round black circles that from a distance looked like roaches. There was a new bass player, his name was Kyle and you couldn’t stop looking at him. Did he have to be so cute, so young and tall and lean? Shows with the band at The Cave, being uncomfortable around all the older people. Sitting at the merch table to help sell the album they recorded a few years before. The stickers he drew of two tennis rackets stuck together. 

Going to the beach for Spring Break senior year. It was cold and you didn’t like the town. It was lonesome and boring and nothing like the beaches you grew up around in Florida. He asked you to marry him after dinner in the hotel room. You were laying on your side, uncomfortable after the food. He said he was going to ask on the beach, but he was scared he would drop the ring. You didn’t wear it much; told him you weren’t crazy about jewelry and you didn’t want to lose it. He got mad that it took you a week to tell anyone about the engagement.

The time his roommate brought a girl home at two a.m., woke you up fucking her in the room next door. Her moans so loud and overdone. You imagined him naked but his top hat still on while he took her from behind. You had an early flight to NYC again. Your 21st birthday. The bedroom door opened, and a naked woman stood in silhouette. She was lost, she said. You had him get up and check the house, you were scared. The next morning, early showers and packing. There was a blood trail from the bedroom to the backdoor and out onto the brick stairs leading to the grass. She had cut her foot wandering around the house in the dark, but no one explained what it was cut on. The city didn’t feel the same the second time. The first step on the subway, trying to get to your hotel. A homeless guy was shouting about all the years he had been arrested, taking off one piece of clothing for each year he was locked up. You had a headache and just wanted to get to the room. But it was a disappointment, the window looked out to a brick wall and the bathroom was shared with everyone else on the floor. 

Your best friend bought a bottle of Dom Perignon and made you a dinner of gnocchi that she learned in culinary school the week before. You took polaroid’s of drinking and eating at her apartment. The one you still have; he’s bent over with you on his back. You’re laughing but looking away. And he is looking at the floor. 

Getting tattoos together. He drew both. One on his arm, an outline of the state you were both from. And yours on your wrist, the state with the state flower. Now you forever have his artwork on you. With you. 

Moving in finally after graduation but feeling like you were totally lost. Working at NC State for a Christmas tree genetics department. Watering, planting, and killing Christmas trees all summer long. The professor went somewhere in South Asia and brought you back an evil eye charm. It rests on your bookshelf today. Listening to the Bob Dylan song “I’ll Keep It with Mine”, the only thing that would calm the constant anxiety. How the sky looked too big, how it hurt to see the clouds. You would drive around with the visor down every day, just to hide the sky. You felt you might float away into it the way a balloon does when you let it go.

Feeling pressure from your parents to pick a dress, a place. Order invitations. Who will be the bridesmaids? But did you even want a wedding? Thinking of walking in front of all those people made your hands start to sweat.  

Moving to a small town closer to his community college job but somehow it was your fault. Because you were the one who was always scared of the city. But the apartment was too new, too white and you both didn’t seem to fit in it right. Getting let go from NC State and being unemployed. It was 2008 and no one was hiring. Drinking all the time but trying to hide it. 

Going to the college reunion in the fall and sleeping with an old professor in the back seat of your car. He told you were a great writer, he wanted to help you with your career, he said. He put his hand on your knee when he drove you to the store for cigarettes. Because you had too many white wines at the gala. The dress was an ugly yellow and black mini. The sex was drunk and clumsy. And he said he didn’t want to get you pregnant. The professor had a wife and kid already. 

You came home the next morning hungover and on your period. He was waiting in the living room with the apartment perfectly clean. He said he missed you and you ran into the bathroom. You said you didn’t feel good through the door. He wanted to help, and you wanted to throw up. You said, you don’t want to marry me. And it felt like a line someone else said. 

How he wrote fuck you in jelly on an orange peel one morning after you made breakfast. How he never laughed at any of your jokes but always laughed at his own. When you left, he cried, lying in bed calling you names as you packed your bag at 6 am. He was a nasty crier and it was the first time he had cried in almost ten years.

He emailed you to say he had your camera charger and how he had to take a one-time prescription for anxiety, that you represent a bad time in his life. You drove up to get the rest of your things on New Year’s. He wanted to get a few drinks and you did, but you ended up crying. He wanted to know who was texting you, why are you checking your phone so much, is it a guy? He said you would get married in a year, be pregnant with babies and living back at home. He wanted to sleep together one more time, but you said no. He said this would be the last time you would see each other. And he was right. 

But it wouldn’t be the last time you spoke, the last time he would reach out to you. Or you would reach out to him, desperate for his approval but never understanding why. And those times he would email or message, it would feel like he was standing right in the room. Even 13 years later – when he said he went to “Kill Devil Hills”, the last time I was there was with you. Him messaging you while vacationing with his wife and kid. You are driving to daycare to pick up your own two boys. States away, decades away.  

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BEAN HEADS by Mila Jaroniec

In the little free library was a hand-sewn chapbook with poems from all the poets who had read at Bean Heads. The open mic was every Friday and gray men would shuffle in to crinkle coffee-stained pages at the microphone. It was an Event. There were gasps and snaps and silence. I didn’t understand it. Here I was, fifteen years old and crafting big papers about The Count of Monte Cristo, and someone had written this:

Amoral Amnesty

A parliament of stalking butlers

Deafening silence over the telephone

The Pope flows like running water

Calligraphy makes the Queen go blind.

The poets must be on to something though because even now, after all my university degrees and formal trainings, this is still the only poem I know by heart. 

The only other girl at Bean Heads was a barista. I envied her job, if only for the fact that she got to smell coffee and look at people instead of smell steramine and look at their food remains. She asked me the Cambridge equivalent of What do you want to be when you grow up? which was, What are you gonna do when you get out of here? Cambridge, New York was a tiny town that maybe after a couple beers could pass for a bootleg Stars Hollow, but I was too underage and nervous to make friends so after work I’d go straight back to my godfather’s place to listen to Lacuna Coil and smoke Ecstasy herbal cigarettes and write down my dreams. I made boxes of mac & cheese and took them upstairs to eat alone.

I told the barista I didn’t know what I was going to do but I wanted to write. She asked if I’d ever heard of NYLON Magazine. I hadn’t. She said it was her favorite and the next day she brought in a copy.

Growing up in Stow, Ohio, all the magazines for sale at the Discount Drug Mart in the early 2000s were different versions of the same thing. Glamour and Cosmo and Vogue, tailored to caricatures of women it seemed a lot of work to learn how to be. Down a step, Seventeen magazine showed smiling girls who had solid friendships and butterfly clips, whose problems had to do with what extracurriculars to give up because they were president of too many. I wonder how my life would’ve been different if I’d known about Rookie then, but if you’re always validated, there’s nothing left to push against. 

NYLON was beyond this. No diet tips, no harrowing sex advice, no recommendations for jaw placement during a blow job. There were record recommendations and reviews of actual books. Young fashion designers who made nonsensical clothes worn by stoned-looking models and hand-drawn products on the beauty page. Chartreuse lipstick, three pairs of socks on a pair of untoned calves stuffed inside fuschia jelly platforms, unbrushed hair and absurdly short bangs. Fashion that made you go What the fuck? No $2000 trench coats that were fucking beige. And there was something else: the Private Icon.

Each month the Private Icon centered a heroine or set of heroines from a cult film, with a description of what made them iconic plus a recommended list of clothes and products with which to emulate their style. Alabama from True Romance. Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger. Winona and Angelina, the OG fucked up gal pals in Girl, Interrupted. According to NYLON, canonization was not only possible, it was accessible by formula. Instead of becoming Your Best Self, as the other magazines instructed you to do, you could play characters. If you were having a hard time becoming somebody on your own, you could assemble the conflux of elements that had made somebody else unforgettable. If you wanted, you could buy the exact shade of lipstick worn by Penny Lane

I wish I could live in New York and write for NYLON, the barista said.

And that was that, and then we went back to being dishwasher and barista, not going out after work and not saying much more to each other, and sooner or later the summer ended and I took my under-the-table money and went home, along with the copy of NYLON and the chapbook with “Amoral Amnesty” in it. Eventually I moved to New York and replaced the Ecstasy cigarettes with menthols and the mac & cheese with salads. I kept eating in my room alone.

The magazines came every month to my Alphabet City apartment. I had a Victoria’s Secret Angel for a downstairs neighbor and got my nails done next to Justin Vivian Bond. I tried interesting things with scarves and lipstick and bought an ugly pair of Miu Miu sandals at the Buffalo Exchange down the street. They were so ugly not one single person liked them on Instagram. And they fell apart on my way to buy a raw activated coconut something—you had to eat like an It Girl, which was something like the Private Icon in real time and involved a lot of raw organics punctuated by the occasional craving for a Big Mac and fries—after which I dumped the sandals in a trashcan on Avenue B and walked the rest of the way to Rawvolution barefoot, really living. 

And then: I did end up writing for NYLON. I emailed an editor on the suggestion of my girlfriend and got a freelance gig writing beauty articles. Well sooner or later I would be hired to write features, I thought, and go on assignments, and the world would open up. I felt justified in having subscribed to NYLON, stacking the magazines up in a pile along the wall for lack of a bookshelf, knowing I could write anything in there better than the people they hired. None of that happened. A handful of my pieces were published online. They weren’t hiring staff writers anymore, they said, on account of the budget. I started a series called “Beauty and the Book” that made It Girls out of indie novel heroines. The series died after one installment. Nothing I did ever made it to print.  

And so: the closest I came to being an It Girl was walking home from Hell’s Kitchen in the rain at 3:30 in the morning wearing Jeffrey Campbell Litas when they were still cool and a see-through Skingraft dress with a leather harness and no bra, finally skinny from Adderall and out of my mind on cocaine, posing for invisible cameras in the empty glow streets of Times Square. A show for no audience. That time, and the time a Teen Vogue editor tried on my Balmain coat and tweeted, I am tweeting from inside a Balmain coat, or the time I went to The Standard at the High Line with a pretty girl who convinced me we were pretty enough to get in upstairs sans guest list, and was right, and we left our dates downstairs playing pool even though I suspected there was no guest list, and was right, and had $18 vodka gimlets across from Rosie Huntington-Whitely. That’s my life in magazine copy.

And you were right about New York. It is expensive. NYLON still owes me a hundred and fifty dollars and they stopped answering my emails.

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You won’t remember me. It’s been twenty-nine years since my last letter. 

I always did my homework alone, because my mother didn’t know enough English to help. I always finished it early, so that I could watch you on Boy Meets World. Your gapped-tooth mischievous grin, your chokers, your hair-flipping. I knew bad boys at school, but we didn’t have any like you. You were a white bad boy, which is a good bad boy. And you made being wounded look so cool. 

I thought you would understand and that you would then elevate me to your level, turn my hurt into cool too.

So I took risks for you. There had just been another shooting in our housing project when I asked my mom if I could walk to the store by myself. I think she only said yes because it was just a domestic dispute, which is not a term in the Vietnamese that I grew up with. 

I followed her advice to walk like I knew where I was going, as if I was up to urgent business, even if I felt scared or got lost. No eye contact. That invites people to kidnap you, she’d warned. I passed the landlord’s office where I’d perform stories to get extended grace periods on the rent check. I passed the laundromat where I played boat in the rolling carts and collected empty boxes of single-use dryer sheets to make beds for my toys that I took extra good care of so as not to seem ungrateful to her passing refugee glares. 

I hurried past the TCBY frozen yogurt shop where my mom and I met my dad when he picked me up on his weekends; she didn’t want him coming to our door anymore. Her new boyfriend was jealous and resentful that my dad was white. Like you. Maybe he will be jealous of you, too. 

I made it to the Lucky’s supermarket that greeted me with the swish of automated doors and a gust of air conditioning. I felt fancy. Maybe that’s why I didn’t stoop to steal you on the cover of Tiger Beat Magazine. Maybe it’s because my mom told me that when she, at the same age I was when I fell in love with you, tried to steal an apple from the market but was interrupted by Viet Cong spraying bullets. One killed her neighbor who dropped dead in front of her where she hid in a drainage ditch. I can still hear the thud. As kids do, she thought that everything bad that happened was because of her. So I paid for the Tiger Beat with money I’d found or saved from lost teeth. 

I paid, but I still felt ashamed. She’d always taught me not to flush my pee in order to save money on the water bill, and here I was spending money on magazines. I slipped the magazine under my shirt and into my outgrown waistband as I walked up the stairs to our unit. She zeroed in on my paper-flat stomach immediately. I hurried to the bedroom she and I shared, and for some reason she let me go. 

When she was home, I’d sit in the closet where I usually pretended that my dolls faced catastrophic forces of nature, barely surviving. Here, I organized toys so that I appeared to be doing something while I daydreamed of you, whom I protected from the worst of my imagination. Daydreaming was a risk too, a waste of time, I’d been shown. When she was gone, I pulled the magazine out from under our mattress or in between the volumes of books my dad sent me—anywhere I thought she wouldn’t look and find you, this desire I had outside of her.  I stared at your pictures until my vision blurred you into movement—winking, beckoning—whatever I thought romantic gestures were at nine years old. 

When the pages were worn enough for me to start flipping through the rest of the magazine, I discovered addresses in the back. There were P.O. boxes of agencies where readers—I—could write letters to teen heartthrobs—you, the good bad white boy. 

I wrote you a letter. It started out normal enough. I mimicked niceties about your show. You’re a really good actor. Then I conflated you and your character. I felt bad that your dad isn’t around. Then it got sad fast. I wrote to you about how stressful it was to be poor and not have enough money to help my mom out because she was always stressed and that’s why a part of me didn’t want to help her, which makes me feel guilty, and then she brings these boyfriends over—I miss my dad as much as you, or Shawn, did on the show—because I know she hopes they will pay some of our bills, but that means more time my mom spends away from me, and that is good and bad. Even though we can’t understand each other, we’re all the other has.  

I held onto the letter for days. I was afraid to send it because then you’d know me—you’d know her—better than anybody. I didn’t tell anyone anything. I didn’t think anything I had to say was important, but here I was putting it all in rainbow Bic ink and getting all congested from tearing up but holding it in. 

When she found the magazine, Mom said she always wanted a kid who was famous. 

So I decided to send the letter. My dad worked at the post office, so I always had holiday stamps. I mailed a Christmas stamp to you in the summer. 

It wasn’t until fall that you responded. My hands trembled as I sliced open the envelope imprinted with more postal ink than you’d think it would take to get a letter from the nice part of LA to our part of LA. There was a lot of possibility in that moment. I’d hoped that you’d read every word and grow a crush on me too, not because I was suffering, but because of how I wrote about it, how I was surviving it. 

You responded with merely a signed photograph. 

I knew it was fake too. My mom had shown me how to tell the difference when I had to sign some documents for her. You’d had some assistant open my letter, unfold my life in ink, and stamp your signature on a black-and-white picture of you perched on the type of stool that I imagine they have in acting classes. You treated me the same as everyone else who wrote you a letter. I sat in the closet with my hurt and the photograph, barely surviving. 

I’d told my dad when I wrote the letter—not what was in it—but just that I had. I told him I used one of the stamps he gave me. He said it was cool, and I remember feeling better about it, then. My dad, after all, was the one who showed me movies and shows and music and taught me to love all of it. But something in me must have known that parental “cool” was just to cover up concern about this kid’s new phase of writing fat letters to strangers. I must have known, at some level, that no one thought what I was doing was “cool,” certainly not you. I must have known because I burned the next letter I wrote to you with a match from my mom’s fishbowl collection of matchbooks from restaurants her boyfriends took her to. 

I never wrote back to you, never bothered to even Google you (when that became a thing), until now.  I’m telling people that I’m writing all these letters to people who I know have forgotten me—I’m sure now, child star, that you never even saw my letter, never saw my name—so that my daughters won’t forget me. But I think what I’m really doing is trying to remember myself. So, I guess, in a way, I’m always writing back to you. 

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The first thing I thought of during the coup was your cock. I think of it when I need comfort, and what I wanted to remember was the first time it saved me. We were on your bed, a Friday afternoon, both skipping work. I’d been bent over in the shower, but you know I faint easily so you moved us out of the hot water. Our just shampooed hair made dark blotches and streaks on your grey sheets, while stars encroached on my vision and echoes rolled through my ears, the two telltale symptoms I’m about to pass out. Instead of the stars and echoes, I focused on your cock like my life depended on it, and the deeper I plunged it into my throat, the more I kept the fainting at bay. Your cock brought me back to full consciousness, so now when I don’t have my faculties or when my faculties are too present, when I need a jolt or a numbing, it returns me. When I have to wake up in a few hours but haven’t gotten a whisper of sleep, your cock comes faster than sheep into my head and soothes me. When I almost drive off the road and need to stay awake for a few more miles, remembering the taste of the first lick of the head puts me on cruise control until I pull into the garage. When I’m on my knees about to retch into a toilet, I think about swallowing you down, and my stomach immediately stops churning. So when guns and Confederate flags filled the screens again, the first thing I thought of was your cock, and how it’s never been used for violence. When crises arise, I think of your cock and I know how to stay alive.

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HAUNTING by Edee James

A ghost is a boy who always comes back to you.

We were kissing in his car, which he’d initially parked by the side of the road so we could volley insults at each other responsibly. With his breath sweet and warm on my neck, and his tongue darting in and out of my ear, it was easy to momentarily forget why we were fighting.

It was about another girl.

I grew up learning that a man will stray. You shouldn’t kill yourself just because your man is a community penis, my aunt said. All I had to do was pray he didn’t gift me something incurable. My position in his heart was solid if he had a string of female names on his phone, but it was ‘code red’ if he was focusing on one specific girl.

There was one specific girl.

The boy said it was either me or her whenever he was ready for marriage. The fight wasn’t about the fact that he had options. It was because he wouldn’t spell out my position in his list of eligible women. I told him to go and fix his limp dick, and he told me they were selling oils for my receding hairline. Then we were giggling and kissing, mouths and hands everywhere, stray moans escaping throats, goosebumps like we’d been submerged in ice. An army van screeched to a stop in front of us, tires spraying gravel and sand. Three soldiers leaped out with guns slung over their shoulders to buy roasted corn from a roadside seller. It was then I lost control of my bladder.

There was a pool of urine on my seat when the boy dropped me off.

We didn’t talk about me peeing myself. We didn’t talk about the fact that it wasn’t really about the soldiers--my dad was in the army, so I was quite familiar with officers. We didn’t talk at all.

It was about their guns. 

The boy dropped me off without a word. We had been on and off for five years. It was clear we were off again. Inside my house, I stepped out of my soiled skirt and flung my bra and wig against the wall. I shivered under the spray of cold water in the shower, but it was alright because it helped dilute my warm tears.

Right then, I knew two things:

1. The boy and I, currently off, would be on again in about a year2. He was never going to marry me

I knew.

I have always known things. My cousin calls me before he bets on football games. My friend won lots of money after I blurted out winning numbers. When I was younger, my mother took me to a prophet because she couldn’t understand it all. A girl working in my mom’s beauty salon noticed how I always turned up right before my mom started eating lunch on her break. No one believed the girl, so she decided to set a trap for me. She bought ice cream and said my mom couldn’t eat it until a certain time. I appeared as my mother swallowed the first scoop.

A ghost is a dearly departed soul who doesn’t know how to return home.

I was drying plates in the kitchen the first time I saw the ghost. It was running up and down, restive. I told it to stop, then wondered if my insomnia was finally catching up with me. The next day it was back, a figure in white floating around the periphery of my vision. Annoyed, I told it I wasn’t responsible for its death.

I was there the day the ghost died. I had swept his skull fragments into a dustpan with my hands after the kidnappers emptied a clip into his head and spilled his brain. He had come to cut my uncle’s hair at home but stuck around because he wanted to help me clean the house. He owned a barbershop in town, and my uncle was one of his VIP clients. That Sunday, he finished his job and got paid, but he insisted on dusting the furniture before leaving. I pried the cleaning rag out of his grip after the police came and took my statement and his body. An officer scribbled something indecipherable as I recounted the event:

a. I was frying plantains when the kidnappers cameb. They took everyone to my uncle’s bedroomc. They asked us all to lie facedownd. They asked for a pen and a piece of papere. One of them asked if I was the maid, and I said yes because of the way his greedy eyes X-rayed my bodyf. They wrote down the number we had to call to pay the ransomg. They killed the barber on their way out because he recognized someone in the gangh. No, they didn't wear masksi. They kidnapped my uncle

I told my aunt about the restless ghost, and she looked at me funny and asked me how I knew. Apparently, some prophet had told her the same thing. We brought people to pray and bless the house. 

A ghost is the first love you will never forget.

The boy came back. He glossed over the urine incident now that a year had passed, telling me how I had squirted and almost ruined his car just because of a little kiss on the neck. He suggested therapy when I told him about the dead barber and the kidnappers and the guns.

The boy and I started sexting back and forth until we had chapters of erotica. I’d wake up to the wicked things he was planning to do to me, and I’d reply, threatening something even more delicious. We threatened each other with ice cubes and whips, fire and handcuffs, lace and blindfold. Yet I knew that everything we wrote and did would only help his sex life when he married his specific girl. I was only helping him build a library.

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