WHOSE HUNGER by Kristen Estabrook

In the hours prior to dinner, she studied her reflection in the mirror, checking and rechecking the flaws in her complexion, adjusting and readjusting the height of her hair, while thinking about sex. On their second date, he had asked about sex. He had asked if she was ready. She was not.

“It’s only the second date,” she had said.

She wondered if he would ask again and expected that he would. She wondered what she would say this time. That it was only the third?

Then she remembered. Her period.

Her period! She was on her period.

That worked out well, she thought.

That would be her reason. 

After dinner and the dishes, the woman and the man leaned into each other’s bodies, against the counter at first, then onto his bed. Clothed at first, then unclothed. 

“Should I get a condom?” he asked.

“I’m on my period,” she whispered.

“I don’t mind,” he said.

Frantically, she thought. She had no other reason. Her mind dug, searching for something, some other explanation, anything. Nothing came. 

“Okay,” she said.

He kissed her harder.

“You might want to take your stuff out,” he said.

Oh, right, yes. She went to the bathroom to take her stuff out. Alone in the bathroom, she thought about changing her mind. She thought about what she might say. 

Listen, she could say, This is all moving a bit fast. Maybe we should wait.

But then he would know. He would know that she lied.

If you didn’t want to have sex, why wouldn’t you just say that? he would ask.

She wanted him to think of her as strong and confident. As a woman who asserted her thoughts, her desires, her opinions. She wanted him to think of her as someone other than herself. 

Staring at her reflection in the mirror, holding her stuff in her hand, she thought about wanting him. She thought about wanting to want him. She did, didn’t she? Want him? He wanted her. And she didn’t feel that strongly either way. Her neutrality paled in comparison to his desire. What was the point in waiting, anyway? 

Besides, she’d already gone through the trouble of taking her stuff out. 

After it was done, he reached for his phone. She laid her head on his chest, hoping this touch would give her something sex hadn’t. He held his phone in his hands. She went to the bathroom to put her stuff back inside. When she returned, she found him reading. He had work to do. She knew not to overstay her welcome. 

She walked home feeling self-conscious. She passed men waiting for the bus. They watched her. She focused her attention on keeping her eyes forward and her chin tilted slightly upwards, avoiding their gaze. She was sure they knew. She had that look and that smell about her, distinctly belonging to sex. 

She called a friend. 

She was afraid it had been too soon, that she had rushed, that she had given him the one thing he wanted, and now that he’d gotten it, she’d never hear from him again. The friend was kind. 

“He’ll call,” the friend said. “What date was this?”

“The fourth,” she lied.

“Oh, the fourth?” the friend said. “You’re fine.”

She re-imagined the dialogue, feeding lines to her searching mind, hours too late:

“Should I get a condom?” he would ask.

“No thanks, I’d rather not have sex,” she would say.

It was so obvious. So obvious and so simple. So simple and so stupid that this most obvious "no thanks" hadn’t come to mind. It just wasn’t what she had prepared. 

She’d read a study years before about humans’ inability to act in a given situation unless they’d previously imagined how they would behave:

There is a chance you will become so overwhelmed by the perilous overflow of ambiguous information that you will do nothing. You will float away and leave a senseless statue in your place. If no one comes to your aid, you will die.1

The author cited a scientist, John Leach, who said that 75 percent of people cannot reason during catastrophic events or impending doom. Survival, he says, depends on preparation. The ones who survive are the ones who have prepared for the worst and have practiced ahead of time.

She had done this. She had planned exactly what she would say. But she had only prepared one means of escape, that was the trouble. That was her downfall. Now she was one of them: a senseless statue, floated away, one of the seventy-five percent. She couldn’t decide if it was comforting or discomforting to be among the majority.

She remembered the days, long since passed, when she made decisions about her body with only her body in mind. Feeling hungry, she fed her body. Feeling thirsty, she hydrated her body. Feeling tight, she stretched her body. This body relied on her. If she did not care for it, who would? 

With him, she made a decision about her body with his body in mind. His hunger, his thirst her primary motivation. She cared for his body over her own. Who cared for hers?

1 David McRaney, You Are Not So Smart: Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself (Oneworld Publications, 2019).

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Twenty-year-old me had biceps. Back from a year away, rock climbing and waiting tables, fucking women for the first time. I walked differently. Strutting in my baggy cargo pants, flirting with those baby butch Oberlin girls. A new me. 

In the college library lounge, short-haired, smooth-skinned girlfriends ran their fingertips up my sculpted arms and I ignited.


This morning I wake to my daughter’s nightmare whimpers. Tucked under my armpit, bone-thin, her ribs pressing into my side. Always burning up, she wears only underwear in the house. No blankets except her lovey, clutched to her cheek in sleep.

4 AM. The bedroom door opens.

“Where’s dad?” my son asks.

“Sleeping in the basement.”

He slides in under the quilt and settles next to me.

“Shh,” I warn him.

“Shh,” he says and falls asleep with my hair across his face.


Twenty-year-old me control-alt-deleted with a boyfriend who assigned us monogamy but then cheated on me with woman after woman. Insisted it was all in my head. That my suspicions were borderline pathetic and indicative of deeply-rooted trust issues. We couldn’t be together if I accused him of eye-fucking every woman he met.

“You’re not a lesbian,” he said.

“Maybe I am,” I said.

“You’re not.” Then fucked me face down on his bed. It was that kind of sex. The kind where someone barely even notices your body, sex so dry your skin tears, where you end up on antibiotics for a UTI. The kind of sex where he sees you ripping and keeps fucking you.


I wake again, this time to bright sunlight. It’s late, too late, and I know we’ve missed the bus.

“Sorry to wake you,” my husband says. He’s sitting at the foot of the bed.

“Rough night,” I say and sit up, stand up, shake the blood into my feet.

He comes over and hugs me, squeezes my soft arms.

“I’ll see you after work.”


Twenty-year-old me wanted babies. Tiny hands to curl around my neck and drool down my chin, fingers pulling my hair. Babies to fill me up since everything else was a piece of gravel tossed into the ocean. Not even a ripple. I thought about babies as I changed majors, considered moving to New York, danced between Susannah and Kate to the club mix of Bjork’s Hyperballad at that fake rave, the boys from Case Western watching as I took off my shirt and pulled off Kate’s, too. Susannah blushing as I put the E under her tongue and kissed the tip of her nose. Maybe a ripple.

Imagine what my body would sound likeSlamming against those rocks.


Two kids at school, another on his computer finishing his homeschool classes. I wash the dishes. I prep the slow cooker. I fold the laundry. I ask my mother to keep an eye on my son so I can go to the store. I call the pediatrician. I pump up the flat back tire on the bike by the shed. I take the garbage cans back down behind the house. I sort the mail. I run a bath. I feed the fish.

Will my eyesBe closed or open?

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I remember, there was going to be a birthday party for Michael. He was turning ten. Michael was always interrupting, saying things that weren’t funny or important, because he couldn’t stand not being the center of attention. My mom said it was because he didn’t have a dad.

But Michael’s party meant I could go to the toy store to buy something I wanted, even if I would have to give it away. And the party would be a chance to see Karen. Karen was older and maybe that’s why she didn’t suffer so much from not having a dad. She was tall and skinny and cool. She ate spaghetti with butter instead of tomato sauce, and her laugh sounded to me like water bubbling out of a fountain. 

My mom and I bought Michael a set of plastic cars that sped down a twisting track, and I played with it a few times before she took it away and wrapped it. But in the end, the birthday party got canceled and I got to keep the cars, and Karen and Michael’s bodies were never found. 

* * *

My parents never told me they planned the road trip as an escape. To me it was an adventure, a month-long car ride to the national parks, a month of peanut butter sandwiches and Motel Six. 

We flew from Pennsylvania to Nebraska, my first airplane, and rented a car to drive the rest of the way: in the morning we’d been surrounded by woods and by afternoon we were in a country with no trees at all, just corn all the way to all the horizons. 

We drove and I don’t remember stopping until my dad pulled the car suddenly to the side of the road. He was crying. “I never thought I’d see the Rocky Mountains,” he said. I never thought I’d see him cry.

* * *

I wish I knew how to love people better, how to better be loved.

I’m at a noodle bar across from a waif of a woman who keeps biting her lower lip like she’s trying to tame a smile that’s always getting out of her control. We’ve had a few cocktails. 

This is during one of those breaks that my girlfriend and I keep taking, in between the times that we drive each other crazy with frustration and the times that we drive each other crazy with need, and decide, again, that we can’t live without one another. 

“Tell me,” the waif says, “what’s the craziest thing that happened to you when you were a kid?” 

I don’t tell her about Michael and Karen’s mother, found naked in the trunk of her car, plastic bag over her head, bruised, beaten with chains. I don’t tell her that the entire English department where my mom worked was subpoenaed, that the head of the department was sent away for life, that the principal of the school once bragged to his faculty about being able to dissolve bodies in acid. 

The waif and I go back to her place. We joke about getting married and then we have sex and then we never see each other again. 

* * *

Our month-long family road trip was going, ultimately, to California. Later, as an adult, I would come to believe that everything ultimately goes to California, the end of the continent. The walk of fame, the wax museum, the magic kingdom, the silver screen: nobody wants real things. We want dreams, so it’s the fake things that become most real. 

On the ocean in Malibu, we were as far away from our own lives as it was possible for us to be without flying or dying. 

Then we went home.

* * *

In the end, I got to keep the birthday-present race cars but I never unwrapped them, and when my mother wasn’t looking, I threw them away.

Every day I think of throwing out what I have. I think of getting in my car and racing to the horizon. I think of vanishing.

When you are murdered, you get to live forever. And when your body is never found, the living will never stop looking.

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WHAT IT HAD IN ITS MOUTH by Arielle Burgdorf

What can make viewing it so memorable is the fact that as each day passes, the rock changes colour depending on the light and atmospheric conditions, and never remains the exact same permanent hue.


Red, the only color that stays with you. A massive red rock, rising out of a grassy field. Sun warming the stone, casting shadows in the crevices. The golden, reddish-brown fur of a wild dog peeking out from behind a bush. And the final red, rusty, dark splattered all over the white jumper. A baby, missing from the jumper. The same question, on yours and everyone else’s lips: where is the baby? Remember the days when you used to cover your eyes with your hands and whisper to her: Where’s baby? Then you’d remove your hands: There she is. A stupid game. But Azaria loved it, and you would do it for ages before she tired of seeing your face reappear between your fingers. 

And now they ask again: Where’s baby? The question is always the same. The problem, is that everyone has a different answer. 

This is not a story about dingoes, no matter what anyone tells you. It is not even a story about Australia, or media circuses. It’s a story about mothers, and how we punish them. 


For years, you prayed for a girl. You loved your boys, but you wanted another kind of love. And finally, she came into the world. You named her Azaria, meaning “helped by God.” You smiled and sang to her. Three children and a loving husband. You were, you thought, blessed. 

You know the exact moment and place everything changed. August, 1980. Ayer’s Rock. The Anangu people call it Uluru, which doesn’t mean anything in particular. For them, it is a sacred site. The rock is not passive, but a living, breathing entity. 

A family camping trip. Laughter. Like any old day, and then a night like no other. After that night, you would never sleep fully again. 


You remember fragments. You were walking with your son back to the tent. And then: red fur. A lean body, running off into impossible dark. In court, they will ask you: Did you see the dingo drag the baby out in its mouth? Did you see it’s jaws clasped around the head and neck? You don’t know. Where’s baby? You don’t know that, either. 

What you do know, is that you have seen how dingos eat meat. How they ruthlessly strip back the skin as they go. You know, without a doubt, that it was possible for a ravenous wild animal to take warm flesh out of its protective shell, just the way a human would peel an orange. You know this, and so it’s what you tell the press, when they ask how it could have happened. This is your greatest mistake. 

Cold. Calculating. Hard-faced bitch. 

Nothing in your demeanor suggests maternal. What you want them to understand, is that this is maternal. The outback is harsh, filled with poisonous, deadly animals found nowhere else on earth. Every day is a struggle to survive. A mother has to be extremely tough, willing to kill. This is what the dingo knew. That a morsel of red muscle, bone, and fat would sustain her and her young. Salt in her mouth. A minute’s relief, from a hunger that never subsides. 

No one wants to see your stoic acceptance of nature. They want to see you cry. Tears, confirming your humanity. But you cannot help them. You have just lost your baby daughter. You have no more tears. 


You will not believe the atrocities they decide you are capable of. They accuse you of slitting her throat with nail scissors, decapitating her, stuffing her body into a camera bag, performing infant sacrifice for a religious cult. Too much blood, that’s the problem. When a dingo breaks a baby’s neck, it wouldn’t have produced that much blood. And we found no dingo saliva on the jumper, they tell you. The saliva must be on the matinee jacket, you tell them. She was wearing a white matinee jacket, with pale lemon edging. Really? That’s the first we’re hearing of this jacket. 


The men on the jury take some convincing, but the women? The women vote you guilty immediately. The nation agrees: by 1984, 76% of Australians think you killed her. This is the price of telling a story too strange, too unique to be true. 

Up until now, a dingo has never killed a human. But there were signs. A three year old girl dragged out of a car by a dingo, a few weeks before Azaria went missing. The dingoes were getting hungrier, and bolder. There will be many more children killed, or nearly killed by dingoes in the years to come. You will try and warn them, but they are not ready to hear what you have to say. 

The jury chooses to believe the expertise of a dingo expert from London. 

Exactly how many dingoes are there in London? you laugh bitterly. No one appreciates your anger. The women glare at you from the jury bench with a stare meaning,  She has no right to call herself a mother.

 Somewhere, there’s a dingo with a mouthful of blood, grinning. 


No one ever gives a satisfactory explanation of why you want to kill your baby daughter so much. There doesn’t have to be a reason. A baby is gone, and you are the baby’s mother. That is enough. If you didn’t kill her outright, you killed her through negligence. From every angle, her death remains your fault. This is how we crucify mothers. 


There is one group that believes your story. The Anagu people who know and respect the desert, who are aware of what the dingo is capable of. They are the people to whom this place rightfully belongs. The Anagu tracker was the one who found the jumper, who followed the footprints to the dingo lair. But he is not allowed to testify.  We can’t get the right interpreters is the official police line. Besides, they’re all drunks. 

In the movie version of your life, the police show up to shoot the Anagu’s dogs until Meryl Streep calmly assures them that none of the dogs look anything like a dingo. There is too much said in the silence. You can feel the tension tighten like a noose in those few minutes of celluloid, the entire weight of history playing out in the faces of everyone on screen.


You are sentenced to life in prison with hard labor. It feels like you are punished for being punished. Your husband is also declared guilty of murder, but allowed to remain free in order to raise your two boys. This makes very little sense to you. They are saying: he helped you murder, decapitate, and hide the corpse of your infant daughter, but he is fit to raise these children. The father’s crimes are forgivable. But a mother is beyond redemption. A mother should weep more, a mother should’ve protected her child. 

And on this, you agree with the press. 

A mother should’ve protected her child. But you do not need their help being punished for that. 


There is something you have kept from them. Another baby girl, growing inside you. She will never be Azaria, but she will be enough to save you from madness. You would kill for this one, like all the others. 

Another red: an opening. Kahlia. When she is born, in jail, they will allow you one hour with her. One hour to hold her, to touch her skin, to apologize to her for this brutal world that you’ve brought her into. Then she’s gone, and you are alone once more, in the wilderness. 

When she is gone, you will cry, but no one will see it. 


Because you have no other choice, you continue serving a sentence for a crime you didn’t commit. At this point, it doesn’t matter whether you did anything or not. You’ve lost all sense of true and real. There never was a baby you want to tell the jury. The dingo didn’t have anything in its mouth. There never was a dingo. Just me, out there in the desert. 


One day, a jogger at Ayer’s Rock will come upon a white matinee jacket with pale lemon edging, lying not far from a dingo lair. 


Where’s baby? Six years later, you don’t have answers. Sometimes, there aren’t any answers. 

Regardless, the matinee jacket buys your freedom. You are told to be grateful. You are “free” from prison, you name is “cleared.” 

But you know these are not accurate terms. You are never free, nothing has become clear. For the rest of your life, you will carry this inside your chest. You don’t know it yet, but your marriage is already over. Strangers, to this day, are convinced of your guilt. Girls call the tabloids, claiming to be your long-lost daughter. I’m Azaria they say. Pulling back their ponytails, trying to show you the twin scars on the sides of their heads. For years, the cause of death on Azaria’s birth certificate will read “unknown,” suspicion lurking. Your life boils down to a national punchline, a quip, a graphic to sell T-shirts. You will go down in history as the woman who cried dingo. 

You are alive, but you have not survived this ordeal. You feel the jaws clamped like a vice around your skull, canines sinking in. You stare down the deep red throat into nothingness. 

Then the light shifts, and you realize you are alone again. A solitary figure in the desert with a giant rock, and a baby with no body. 

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LENA by Divya Iyer

I want this to be honest in a way that makes empires shake. I need to text Lena back, and if I do text Lena back with the right words, the ones that hum and whimper and shake and do not cajole (under any circumstances), I know what I would say. The crux of it is that, no, I wasn’t crucified and, yeah, I can’t tell sparkling water from holy water. I would tell Lena about the way loneliness grew inside me, a big sprawling thing, reaching inside for empty spaces, seeping in like ink on blotting paper, like all the lights of a city going out during a power-cut. I wanted to give Lena the proof of it, the bits that said:  look, I was here and I suffered and I nearly drowned but I made it out and, sure, it’s got to mean something, in the sense that I dug myself out of debris, metaphorically. 

It blows my mind that people in high school thought I was straight. They still treat me like a straight girl sometimes. I’m not flamboyant in an interesting enough way. Nobody from my high school era would say that I queer up a room just by entering it. Their loss; it’s astonishing, what they’re missing. I sometimes want to sing it out loud. Look at me, like a peacock dancing in the rain, I am pretty and proud. But look at thisit’s another part of me, a beautiful one, blown out of glass but tough like calluses and diamonds. What I mean is, I came out, and it didn’t change anything, not really. What a strange thing. Trust isn’t enough to renovate a building, I suppose. Some things are damned to stay the same, no matter what you give them.

People in High School could be a whole novella. It would be almost slapstick in its tragedy. Central to this is the idea that there is a girl called Divya Iyer, and she is nobody’s first choice for anything. Nobody’s second choice either, or third. There isn’t a girl called Divya Iyer anymore; she’s of the past and the past only. We’re in the next chapter here, but there is a weight to it, a sort of damned glory to how I learned to love myself, first out of spite, and second, because being your own support system does call for some love. Sometimes the reason people are nice is not because they care about you; they’re nice because that’s how they are with everyone. And they’ll string you along for rides and not listen when you talk and when you split the bill with them over lunch they won’t tell you that you’ve got broccoli between your teeth because they’ll be too busy thinking of how to come up with an excuse so that they don’t have to meet you next week.

It’s reasonable to wonder where this suspicion is coming from. It’s all in my head, but it’s still electric, like veins and lines and wires it’s a current, coursing through, all charged up. I was a flashing sign, a cry for help through a boombox. I was an open book nobody bothered to read, and, now, I am the punchline for every joke. The worst part is that there’s a girl everyone calls my best friend, and I spend too long not correcting them. There’s a girl everyone calls my best friend, everyone but me, and she’s complicit in this.

Think of buildings covered in poison ivy; the ivy the only thing holding the bricks together, holding them up. Think of me, sawed open. Think of her hands on my shoulder for a brief moment as she shares the funniest story she can think of which isn’t even a story about her; it’s a story about how I spent the day after my eighteenth birthday with a hangover headache pounding like a construction site in my head. I look at her each time she does this and I think I resent you. She tells my stories like they’re hers, so I don’t tell her the important things, not really. I give her slivers of it. Div Lite, you could say. Let her think she knows me. Let her hold shadows in her hands. 

I know she tells everyone my secrets. I know what she told her other best friend, who I can’t ever feel comfortable around, not now that I know what I know. Fun party stories. When your life isn’t marginalized you can always milk the cow of someone who struggles to get out of bed, even. You can say, look – this is adventure. Maybe it is. But it isn’t yours. 

What do you know, I think as I look at her. I loved you once, I think. I was in love with you, once. It feels like such a waste, such loss. I had so much to give, and you didn’t respect even the minimality of who I was as a person. 

High school was a mess; a mess of dissociation and possible broken home related abuse that I would only learn to call by its name years later, in college, thinking clinical and detached and shakily, god, she should never have put her hands on me like that, she should’ve gone to jail for what she did to me, she should be there still. I wish I could show Lena the kaleidoscope lens of it. I am a mess, chaotic and a disaster. People have left me behind all the time, I would say. I stand through it all, and so can you. So will you. 

I think of Lena’s poetry about softness and blueness. Lena’s writing, tender until it’s vicious, tender until the fangs of hurt sneak in from the undersides of it. I think, Lena, if you can do it, so can I. I think, Lena, you are not alone. I have been neglected by people who called themselves my friends, too. Girls have broken my heart, more often than I could ever have guessed. I know what it feels like, to love with a heart big and doglike, beating with the excess of it. We’re syrup sweet and not everyone deserves it. Not everyone is ready for the infinite momentum of love that we wield. Lena. We feel too much. We love too much. We hurt too much. It’s not a bad thing. It will never be a bad thing.

I don’t believe you’re depressed, she’d said to me that day out on the games field. I’d simmered with frustration, with anger. My suicide could be on your hands, I’d thought. I’d shrugged my way through it. I’m still here. And at 4 in the afternoon, the sky is all pastel and blue. I play my softest playlist. I curl in on myself, I look out of the car window. I think of my mental health, of my genderqueer bisexual boy experiences. I think of all the people who lost the privilege of knowing me, and I smile to myself. 

Call it bingo. Call it jackpot. Call it “being in a better place.” I built myself a mansion out of the rubble. There are so many people who aren’t invited to the housewarming party. That’s just how it is, sometimes. 

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THE PENCIL TEST by Grace Loh Prasad

I once dated a Famous Author—someone you might have heard of. He’d written half a dozen nonfiction books by the time I met him at a writers conference, and had recently published a surprise bestseller that was made into a movie. He’d lived and traveled all over the world as a journalist and was on the masthead of a venerable magazine. 

The Famous Author was teaching a class on how to write and sell travel stories, which seemed like a good entry point for my first-person writing about Taiwan. After the conference I emailed him to introduce myself and mentioned that we had lived in Hong Kong at the same time. I asked if I could show him some of my writing, and he said Sure, let’s meet up when I’m in California next month. He asked me to email a photo of myself, so I did. 

He wrote back: You’re not the one I was thinking of. But I still want to meet you. 

A few weeks later, he invited me to meet him in Los Angeles where he was staying at the Four Seasons Hotel. He offered to buy me a plane ticket from San Francisco to LA. 

Oh no, I said. I’m not that kind of girl. I’ll pay my own way.

I know what you’re thinking, but nothing happened at the Four Seasons except that we had a nice dinner on his expense account and caught a glimpse of the actress Elizabeth Hurley. Her eyes were smudgy with black eyeliner and her lips were set in a scarlet pout. All heads turned as she walked through the dining room in her skintight jeans and stiletto heels, hips swinging, looking mightily pissed off. A hush fell over the room as though we had witnessed Aphrodite herself storming out of a lover’s quarrel.

For the next several weeks the Famous Author and I carried on a long-distance flirtation. Not a relationship exactly, but a growing intimacy that hinted at future plans even though I had a boyfriend, and he was still married to his second wife. I suppose I should mention the age gap: I was 30 years old and the Famous Author was 55. So what, I told myself. That’s the same age difference between Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas. 

What attracted me to him was his worldly sophistication and success as a writer. He represented everything I wanted to achieve: literary success, a globetrotting lifestyle, and the confidence to write about whatever interested him. I was especially intrigued by how he had traveled across China and written extensively about it. He had a command of the country’s history, culture and geography that eluded me as a second-generation Taiwanese American just starting to explore my identity through my writing. It didn’t occur to me to challenge his expertise, to consider what he might have missed or gotten wrong as a gweilo writing about China from a colonizer’s point of view.   

When I met him he was putting the finishing touches on a book about the dissolution of Yugoslavia, using his training as a geologist to make pronouncements about how the geography of the area affected the history and volatile politics of the Balkans.

The Famous Author spent a lot of time talking about his past relationships and sexual conquests. His second wife was a busty redhead and successful entrepreneur that he met somewhere in the South Pacific. He enjoyed her ambition and her flair for adventure, along with her penchant for setting up threesomes with “office girls” she liked to chat up. They split amicably and moved on to other lovers but didn’t divorce because he didn’t want to give her half of his assets. 

His most recent girlfriend was a statuesque African American beauty, but the relationship didn’t last. She was disqualified when he found out she disliked hiking, and was so afraid of heights that she had a panic attack upon reaching a beautiful vista in the Scottish Highlands.  

In one of his books about traveling through China, he reminisced fondly about the “knock on the door in the middle of the night” accompanied by soft giggling, which meant that an enterprising hotel manager had sent him some companions for the night in the hopes of a favorable write-up.

Through these stories I got a distinct sense that I was auditioning for the role of the Ideal Girlfriend: someone smart enough to keep up with him and his literary friends, adventurous enough to accompany him on rugged trips, attractive enough to qualify as arm candy, and young enough to be a trophy.

Our long-distance relationship deepened over the summer and we spent hours talking on the phone during the month I lived in Sonoma, where I was housesitting for friends. He said he was going to dedicate his Balkans book to me, and my heart soared. When I returned home, I broke up with my boyfriend. 

Here’s the thing about long-distance relationships: none of my friends had met the Famous Author, and they were confused as to why I broke up with a boyfriend they and I adored. All they knew were the bits and pieces I would tell them, and all they could do was nod and pretend to understand as my love life unraveled. 

There were so many warning signs. He recommended that I read The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank, a novel about a young woman in a relationship with a much older man who’s a well-known writer. He said he loved Britney Spears, and preferred her naughty schoolgirl persona to her more recent work. When I visited the Famous Author at his home on the East Coast, he failed to tell me that he had a live-in personal assistant, a 22-year-old recent college grad. The assistant and I circled each other like a pair of cats and I concluded that she wasn’t a threat because she didn’t seem to be his type. She was a tall, sturdy girl with rosy cheeks, the wholesome kind you see in Russian propaganda posters. The Famous Author had told me that he liked petite Asian women because they were more likely to pass “the Pencil Test.”

What’s the Pencil Test? I remember asking him on one of our long-distance calls.

He explained: If you tuck a pencil under your breast and your breast is heavy enough to hold it in place, you fail the Pencil Test. If the pencil falls, you pass the Pencil Test. 

I assured him over the phone—since he hadn’t yet seen me undressed—that I would pass the Pencil Test. I had never heard the term before and assumed it was something he made up, rather than a standard measurement used to determine when a girl is ready to begin wearing a bra.

I know what you’re thinking. Run away now! But of course I didn’t, because I was young and naïve and blinded by my desire to be a writer, which made me think I was in love with him when in truth I was in love with the idea of him, and a version of myself I had yet to become that felt tantalizingly within reach.

This isn’t a story about consent. It’s a story about power and projection and the unspoken internship that a hopeful young woman enters into when she meets a much older man who can advance her career. 

Later that summer I had a business trip to Paris, and the Famous Author invited me to join him in Scotland, his “favorite place in the world.” I understood this was a test to see if I was outdoorsy enough to deal with mud and rain and rough terrain. Scotland was the midterm; the final exam was to be New Year’s Eve of the Millennium, when I would join him on assignment on a cruise to Antarctica that would require sailing through the famously turbulent Drake Passage. The climax of the trip would be a New Year’s Eve countdown in blinding daylight because the sun would not set on the South Pole as 1999 rolled into 2000.

I nearly missed my flight from Paris Orly to Edinburgh and sprinted through the terminal to get on the plane right before the doors closed. From Edinburgh, I took a train to Inverness where he picked me up and drove us to the restored castle where we would be staying for several days.  

That night in the hotel restaurant, he insisted on feeding me oysters, which I had never tried before. I slurped one down and did not enjoy it, then ate a second one just to be sure, and hated it as much as the first. What I remember most, but did not say out loud, was how everyone stared at me, the only nonwhite person in the dining room and quite possibly the entire property.

The next day, the Famous Author wanted to visit a friend nearby who was quite elderly and didn’t get out much. He planned to go on his own, so I would have the afternoon to myself to relax, read a book, and explore the castle. Before he left we decided to have tea in the lounge downstairs.  

I ordered a pot of Earl Grey. He had Darjeeling or English Breakfast, I can’t remember. We sat awkwardly on the opposite ends of a long, low table, drinking tea out of blue and white Wedgewood cups. He broke the news to me that he’d decided to dedicate the Balkans book to a friend who had recently passed away. I was disappointed, but couldn’t argue with that. Then we started talking about Taiwan.

He said: I think Taiwan should reunify with China. There’s a common language and history. It can be like Hong Kong: one country, two systems.

I’m not sure what I said in reply. Perhaps, I don’t believe that at all. Or, Why do you think that? Or maybe I didn’t say anything, because I was speechless that someone who seemed so knowledgeable about world affairs would take a stance that was so clearly against the wishes of the Taiwanese people—including me. 

We sipped our tea and I thought to myself, so this is how it ends. The Famous Author left to go see his elderly friend and said he’d be back by dinnertime. I didn’t tell him how upset I was. Instead, I went up to our room, packed my things, and booked a seat on the next train to London. By the time he came back, I was gone.

I never spoke to him again. It took two strong cups of tea to open my eyes and finally see how mismatched we were. Even though he had read some of my deepest thoughts in my essays, he did not know me at all. 

He was wrong about Taiwan, and wrong about me. 

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HE’S USING A LANDLINE by Cyndie Randall

He tells me he’s touching himself. His breath is so dense, I wipe my ear and shift to obedient, a gargoyle holding fast, sparing the temple's body from storm water. My thoughts answer inside like a limb jerk: Why would I be touching myself? No nothing is happening in my panties. I don’t use that word.

How many people and objects is he betraying by calling me from work? One, his wife. Two, his buddy’s office where he’s hiding at three in the morning wiping semen from the buttons of the keyboard. Three, the keyboard. Four, his parents, who had him baptized. Five, his kids, who may as well be bastards. And six. I am always six. Six and stone. My face, erased.

The rivers are running, mouth muttering yes from the dust-ruffled bed where my teddy bears are stacked. I say it when he asks if my hand is down there and I say it when he asks if I feel good and if I’m a dirty slut or a bad, bad girl.

He has come to taste and see like the parched sinners do. Liquid is pouring from his mouth corners and spattering down his panting chest. This is not the Savior’s body and blood given for him; It is mine, taken. I will myself into stale and acidic. The wall is playing recordings of Jeopardy. I listen for the waiting song as he gulps and digests me. The world says my tight red dress does this to him, and also, to smile. Sugar and Spice for 1000, Alex.

I gait the line as a good mare does. See exits and visions of going rogue, but I know there’s no food out there in the desert. Dreaming is the real living for a co-ed held hostage by a washed-up rock star twice her age. Do you kiss your mother with that mouth? Do you sing to Jesus? It’s what The Magdalene in me would ask if she were risen. But my script supplies no questions.

I hear him grunt and grasp and orgasm. The temple cracks up the middle. Her groans pray at me like a psalm: How much longer ’til you slip this wall? Why are your ears crumbling, gargoyle? Is anyone recording this call for quality assurance purposes?

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2005 by Tom McAllister


In February, LauraBeth (then my girlfriend, now my wife) flew to Iowa City to visit me for my birthday. It was colder there than I had ever thought possible—negative thirty degrees, factoring in wind chill. The kind of cold that would kill a Martian. The college students still went out at night in short skirts and t-shirts, because they didn’t want their jackets to smell like smoke. These two years in Iowa City were the last time in my life when I would know what it felt like to sit in a bar with dozens of smokers, lit cigarettes glowing like alligators’ eyes in the dark, smoke snaking its way into my lungs and my hair and my clothing forever. 

I didn’t have to pay for utilities in my apartment, so I set the thermostat to 80 and we quarantined ourselves in the greenhouse heat. My mom had mailed me a care package that included authentic cheesesteaks, Tastykakes, and a birthday banner, which we hung above the couch. We ate chicken parm and an ice cream cake, and we watched the NBA All-Star skills competition on the new TV she had bought me that morning. We’d driven together to Best Buy to pick up a 27-inch flat screen, replacing the one I’d owned since I was 15. This was now the fanciest TV I had ever owned, though it was still a monstrous tube model so big didn’t fit in my hatchback. We removed it from the box at the store, crammed into the trunk, and drove home with hazard lights flashing and the rear windshield flapping in the wind like a ridiculous mouth laughing at us the whole way. I lived on the second floor, and carrying that TV up a narrow, winding flight of stairs was the most physically demanding thing I did in all of 2005. I preferred watching sports to engaging in them. I was gaining weight again rapidly, and people kept saying things like, “You’ve really filled out,” which is only meant as a compliment when you say it to toddlers or rescue dogs. 

Sports have always been a central fact of my life, but never more so than my two years in Iowa City—they were the one thing that helped me still feel connected to home when I was alone in my apartment and feeling like a failure as a writer and a teacher— and so I was as invested in the dunk contest as anyone in the country that night. This is the point where, if I’ve had a few drinks and a somewhat willing audience, I would spend the next hour demanding justice for Andre Iguodala, who was robbed of the dunk contest title that year. This is also where I would complain about Nate Robinson getting unlimited attempts to hit his final dunk. But I’m trying to get better about that kind of thing. I realize nobody cares. 

LauraBeth grew up with two athletic and ultra-competitive brothers, and through a combination of genetics, conditioning, and sheer force of will, she now harbors an antipathy to competition that is healthier than my worldview but is, frankly, a little unnerving. She played field hockey in high school, but never felt any particular drive to win. She will not play board games or engage in other competitions with the rest of the family because of how much she hated all of it when she was young. She watches sports with me, but can’t help feeling badly for the losing team after the final whistle (even if it’s a team we all justifiably hate, like the Dallas Cowboys). She asks me to change the channel so we can look away from their sagging shoulders and heartbroken faces; she sees them not as enemies, but as young men, some young enough they can’t even legally drink, enduring one of the worst moments of their lives. Though this is not remotely how I live or think, I understand it to be an admirable trait. All of which is to say, exhibition sports are the ideal environment for her. The guys in the dunk contest, like every pro athlete, are pathologically competitive, but they are just having fun and there are no real consequences for losing. 

I want to clarify something: dunks matter more than you think they do. You may want to tell me it’s all a big dumb spectacle and the scoring doesn’t make sense, and it’s just a show to sell Sprite and sneakers, and yes, sure, that’s what it is. But strip all the nonsense away and you see an aesthetic achievement that can only be performed by a tiny percentage of humans in world history. Each dunk is one of the most perfect sporting achievements on the planet, a beautiful expression of athletic perfection, of power, speed, and creativity. These players—their bodies built specifically for this feat, spinning in the god damn air, not just floating because there’s violence propelling it, and throwing it down behind their heads with more grace and fluidity in the coordination than many dancers—are the culmination of a century worth of training, learning, and evolutionary adaptations. Major sports leagues should take themselves less seriously anyway. What’s more ridiculous than watching a group of NFL men in a TV studio, wearing suits and standing on a fake field while they shout about honor and duty? It’s one of the worst aspects of our culture. Events like the dunk contest puncture the veneer of self-importance that covers every major league. They remind people that this is dumb and the dumbness is what makes it fun.

A couple years after I moved back to the east coast and we bought a house and got married, we finally bought another new TV, upgrading to HD, which helped us more clearly see the anguish on the faces of the losing teams. The TV she got me for my 23rd birthday was transferred to the attic, and then when we moved again it went to the basement of the new house, and, finally, we hauled it out to the curb, where it sat for a week before I learned that this is not how you dispose of a TV anymore (on any given day in the suburbs, sidewalks are dotted with hulking tube TVs like meteors crashed to earth). I could have left it on the curb for years. Eventually I would drag some old furniture out there and that would stay too and soon our whole living room could be on the sidewalk, a mirror of the lives we tried to hide inside. 

Because our house is full of toxic materials the township won’t collect, we drove one afternoon with a trunk full of paint cans, dangerous solvents, and batteries, to the landfill in Pennsauken, New Jersey. I wrote a research paper on landfills in high school biology, but I don’t get the science behind them, whether there is anything more to it than digging a giant hole and filling it with garbage until the earth is too full and then you move down the road to a new hole. Once it’s out of my sight, I trust that it is someone else’s problem. All this stuff was alive once and you expect it to smell like death, but it smells like nothing (the landfill itself has a 5-star rating on Google, with the top review stating, “It don’t even smell”). We dropped our trash in the appropriate areas, ending at a walk-in dumpster, a container for obsolete electronics. Inside, piled floor to ceiling, were TVs and computer monitors. The foundation of these stacks was several vintage console TVs, each of which I imagined having been passed down through their families they became too unwieldy to move anymore. Maybe they trundled through thrift stores and flea markets, through the homes of various well-meaning people planning to fix them up and turn them into a cool showpiece in their art school loft, but eventually they were hauled to this spot.

Being in the center of a county dump is humbling and a little upsetting. It is a reminder that even if, like me, you think of yourself as being a minimalist, most people are surrounded by garbage. It’s all disposable and you’re disposable too. It’s all replaceable and you’re replaceable too. In 2005, this TV was the center of my world, and now it would be piled, for the rest of the life of the planet, in this dumpster in Pennsauken. It would outlive me by a million years, and that whole time it would be utterly useless, just plastic and wires, there forever. 

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Picture me a babe no words throated there has to be context. Like pigtails at Brookfield Zoo, once I lost my mother, all greeneyed bulbous, looking window through at tiger sleeping on riverbank, sketchers and ratted jacket rattled I was child then, was child once. Not here temporally isolated at this locus where you touch me [touch me touchme pleasetouchme]. Carbonbodies grow in time with nutrients so I ate once, you know, thick chilled carrot mush and chicken tenders but that mole I have here has always marked me cain. 

Under canopic and dense Dublin smoke settles on pores and clots them. Tell me I’m being dramatic. So pathetic lass. Lonely lass ununique, the river says. I say river in hellfire Cassandra burns and burns with Ajax. And river he still touches her. [7 year re cycle skin cycle reskincycle it hasn’t been that long yet]. So yeah she feels him and I’ll whine when I want to because always are we performative. You know this. Darling I told you of A. St Martin. His body burned through by bulletrip, hole stomach gaping so why not keep it open. Why not tie meat to string and dangle dip like candlemaker in gastric juice mmmmm let us see what it means digest.  

And that’s actually what happened do you get that alive with hole gaping. Alive with hole gaping and writhing doctor poked St Martin living trial belly bright under operation light, he never sewed body up. Even though he promised. Do you get that. Dipdipdrip meat let bacteria break down flesh inside bulletbrokenbody. It was education. Like when Erasistratus strapped men [slavebody he justified] living in auditorium cut larynx first to silence screams. Carved one throughline from genitals to throat opened spread eagle said look here look at heart beating living bodywrithing but heart heart heart thumpthump dyedha dyedha dyedha. Men died soon after. Thick cut unscreaming but shook violent on restraints. The people of auditorium took notes vigorously. So yeah it was a window and only a window. 

You have to understand. I was a child once unperforated. Body unlicked by flame, gastric juices unbubbling unmeattouched. There was a time when heart beat first so why not keep it open and see. I used to eat, digest, used to burn and swoon let fire touch me like Ajax, oh yes, just like Ajax. So there is context, you see, a throughline connective between who I was and the woman standing here, in front of you, Liffey at my left and your eyes so angry. Sunk and blue and angry, like river entered them reflecting shards of promised morning in the worst way. Me my eyes green no river. Everseparate, everclinging to somewhere between the rapture you know then god mountainside said kill for me. Me marked I had no choice prophecy is not one to bargain. 

But you know this. You know this part of the story. How one night eveslicked after swallowing serpent I folded myself into the felt hills of western Ireland. You know the sheep bleating mimicked fjord ruthlessly like when she spoke to us and it was not soft. Body wet with rain troyfire fading I had way too much gin and I liked it. And yeah evil maybe. But I was not A.  St Martin no juices to play with no liquid left. So how could I tell you of twenty years between here and my beginnings and have it seem like anything other than performance through tinted window. 

Instead just picture me a babe body still slicked viscous with heaven’s syrup and pretend momentarily that time has always been linear. 

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WRESTLEGY by Timothy Parfitt

We met under the spotlights, cast as Macduff and Banquo in our high school’s production of Macbeth. Alex and I became fast friends. We goofed around a lot back stage, smoked a little weed in the alley. My big moment was when I got to run onstage and yell “horror” until the word lost meaning. When the production was over, Alex invited me to join him and his other upperclassman friends in their backyard wrestling league. Boys playing dress up, immortalizing our daring feats on a bulky 90s camcorder. I played a janitor in coveralls and wielded a mop. We fell on each other from great heights, a mattress or trampoline underneath us. If you do it right, it’s a kind of embrace.

Dark Arena. Ring stands empty.

Into the light dances a myth,

purple feathered boa wrapped around torso.

Pink boots a stompin’.

Larry Sweeney barrels down the aisle

and dives between the ropes of the ring,

bounces to his feet, taunts the crowd,

delights in their jeers, flexes, preens.

His shoulder-length bleach blond hair is wet,

droplets rain with every whip of his head.

We stayed friends but never became close ones, even after I followed Alex to the same Midwestern college. After graduating, Alex moved to Pennsylvania to train with Ring of Honor. That’s where he created Larry Sweeney. I followed his career from afar, got Facebook invites to his matches when he was in town. He doggedly pursued his art, something I admired and even envied. Mine was an idealized notion of Alex. I only heard about the rest later, after he killed himself. Barthes said “In wrestling, a man down is exaggeratedly so, filling the spectators’ entire field of vision with the intolerable spectacle of his powerlessness.” Alex lived to put on a show, so to mourn him, so will I. Good taste is never of paramount importance, least not in wrestling. Book an arena of the mind. Reanimate the dead. Print fliers. Spread the word: a rematch.

Good evening!

What a treat we have in store for you tonight.

Re-birth, Re-venge. The Re-turn…of

Sweet ’n‘ Sour Larry Sweeney!

Close up of Sweeney’s face in pain.

He takes his pink aviators off.

Then puts them back on.

More, More, More demands Larry’s theme music.

When a friend kills themselves, there is no ref to whom to appeal. I read online that Larry hanged himself from the turnbuckle of a ring in Louisiana, that it was his parents who found him. “Unnatural” is a word people use when parents bury their children. Kayfabe is the concept in wrestling that the shared fantasy created in the ring is a code and that the characters and stories created in the ring are sacred. Reality outside the ring, once acknowledged, betrays the fantasy created within it. To “break” kayfabe is wrestling’s greatest sin.

Venue change: Starbucks.

Behold Alex, gravel-voiced bipolar disturbance. 

He delivers a kick! to the plate glass window 

then stays to kick and kick 

until the shatterproof glass comes down. 

Stays long after 

the baristas call the police. 

Rematch implies the possibility of changed outcome. Alex is gone but some version of him (Larry?) kicks around my head. I hate movie suicides, the sad minimalist piano music, the familiar storm clouds and pockets full of stones. I watch dedications online, teary bloggers recount what they all agree was his low point.

Toyota Center Parking Lot:

Shaky camera work,

an opponent named the UK Viper.

Fans getting a chance to mix it up

with a fallen star.

Alex is a manic

and good-natured ringleader.

Tractor trailers in the background.

Halfway between Alex and Larry,

switching back and forth.

When the amateur announcer calls him Larry,

he stops him, and speaks of the name his parents gave him.

I track down and speak to a man who shot the video, who documented what others describe as the zenith of Alex’s unchecked mania. Aaron was a kid skipping school when he met Larry in a McDonalds down the street from the arena. Over the course of that afternoon, Alex became something like a mentor to him. Aaron was the “promoter” of that improvised parking lot match witnessed by a dedicated handful. No one had believed in him like that before. Before what I saw in the video was a tragedy, a fallen star vamping for attention and beer money. After talking to Aaron, I remember Alex could be plain fun. So many known and recorded versions of Alex: artist, friend, inspiration, danger to himself and others, suicide.

Crackling audio of Alex discussing

the awakening that sealed his departure

from Ring of Honor:

“The sky parted ways.

They opened up.

I don’t know how else to describe it, man.

It was like God

staring directly into me

and through me and

I was looking back at him.”

In his own words, 2009, the year of the parking lot match, was the worst of his life. A qualifier though, when he speaks of it, one that haunts me. He calls it the “worst event of my life, up to this point.” “Up to this point” is probably just Alex being realistic, life is a series of hurdles, but to me it sounds expectant.  I track down Aine, one of the witches from Macbeth. They never dated-dated, but he was her first kiss. Back then I thought he walked on water, she says. She tells me of the time Alex drove halfway across the country based on a message he heard within the “Jesus Christ Superstar” soundtrack. How far do the dead plan ahead? He would have done big things in the big leagues.

Sweeney kicks a tombstone into an open grave,

then begins to shovel.

Breaks free, jumps upon the turnbuckle,

makes the international gesture for suck it.

Fireworks punctuate the gesture.

From my spot on the mat,

I regard the figure on top of me,

monster stitched together from Youtube,

memory and daydream.

Surely this is not Larry, much less Alex.

Once he was gone, Alex became a sinking feeling. Instead of making sense of his death, I wallowed in the messiness of it, got lost in the versions of him that live online. Dying in the ring made him myth. Reanimating him has done little to make the spectacle of his death tolerable. My imagination has failed me.

A flicker passes across his eyes,

recognition perhaps,

or resignation.

He jumps, sends his feet

out in front of him, cocks his elbow,

his hair streaking in the wind.

It’s a very interesting question,

though only one person who can answer it.

The man under that big black hat.

Credits roll, time marches on.

Tune in next time.

Larry elbow drops into the ether.

I remember his bark of a laugh. Put the various versions of him away. I’ve been grappling with him so long fantasy has dried into memory. What a poor promoter I was. None vanquished, no new storylines to pursue. If anyone real were involved were my checks would have bounced. I miss Alex. I close the browser windows.

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