ARE YOU MY MOTHER? by Allie Zenwirth


I used to get these pangs of want, filled with unnamable desires. You would find me jumping. You would find me erratic. I want to make something. I want to dance with somebody… I want to feel the heat with somebody… yeah... With somebody who loves me. Я хочу. I want… I want… I want… I don’t know… I want…  If you were that stranger at the bar you would ask me, “How do you have so much energy?” and I would say, “I don’t know,” and then  jeté away. 

Now I’m drained, all my juice is gone. Instead of yelling at people to, “Wake up!” I’m alone in a desert of darkness, amputated, stuck on scalding asphalt, bleeding as I push myself forward by my stumps one inch at a time into a never-ending nightmare. Nobody’s home inside me. My voice is deeper and flatter, allowing my new apartment-mate to clock me as trans:

New Apartment Mate: Can I ask you a question?

Allie Zenwirth: Sure

New Apartment mate: Your voice is very thick

Allie Zenwirth:

New Apartment Mate: (winks, gives thumbs up)

I am in a manhole of wanting to die. The lid standing between me and the street weighs 249 lbs (as manhole covers are wont).

My therapist points out that my suicidality is reasonable.* That makes me feel better. 

*he phrases it differently.


In the beginning of 2020, Corona Time, New York was the epicenter. I stayed with my Russian professor in Yonkers for a month, and during one particular dinner, as I talked everyone’s heads off about the Community, I got a text. 

Father: How are you feeling?

I announced: “Guess who just texted me?” I consumed everyone. “That’s a weird text, right? The first time in months: ‘How are you feeling?’ How should I respond?” 

From my father’s perspective, a concern regarding my health was reasonable. About half of the Chasidic community was infected by the virus. He was. My mom was. His brothers were. My mom’s siblings were. 

I had a follow up call with my father who said he’ll call me back, but he never did. However, the virus gave my mom an excuse to talk with me again. We hadn’t spoken in a year.


For a while, her disembodied voice was a grounding presence. She was someone to talk to when I moved back to my room in Jersey City. A windowless basement room in which I couldn’t stand upright, without A/C, and infested with both cockroaches and ants. Housing-wise, things improved when I paid the extra $150 and moved up to the second floor. I was still unemployed, alone, without many friends. 


Throughout my years at Sarah Lawrence College, I would be on the verge of homelessness during the winter breaks when the campus closed, relying on the kindness of strangers. During the break my senior year, January of 2019, I called my mother, asking her if she wanted to get together. Just like the year before, she asked if she could think about it and call me back. After three days, she decided she would be down to meet, but just like the year before, it would need to be in secret. We discussed our options and my mom determined it would be as if we were to have an affair. We would book a hotel room.

The following Wednesday morning, after eating two egg and cheese English Muffins I had gotten from Dunkin’ the night before, I looked out the window of a room in Hotel Le Blu and watched as a woman approached the hotel. She had gained weight. As usual she was wearing body-covering dark-colored clothing and false hair.

My mother entered the hotel and came up the elevator. I found her in the hallway, looking lost. I hugged her as if she were a pillow. Going into the room she put down her bags of Greek yogurt for herself and homemade cookies for me and we sat down on chairs facing each other. She got straight down to what she wanted to tell me.

Mom: I love you.

Me: I love you too.

Mom: I like talking with you on the phone.

Me: I like talking with you too. 

Mom: I know you are well intentioned, but you writing a memoir has been incredibly hurtful to me. I know you think you’re doing it for the right reasons, but I don’t think it’s ok that you expect me to keep talking with you.

Me: Is it because I am writing about you? I could use a pseudonym. 

Mom: Being written about is part of it. You know I’m a private person. 

Me: (nods unsure)

Mom: But...

The real problem? I would be writing negatively about the Community.


Talking with my mother in the bowels of my basement room was not all bliss. We would argue in almost hour-long bursts. Strangers would look at me strangely as I broke the silence of the night, making laps around my neighborhood, raising my voice in vehemence. She argued that I wasn’t Paul Revere rousing the colonials, that my memoir was not whistleblowing, that I was sharing with the world a warped version of the Chasidic Community, one driven by hatred and personal grievance. 

I argued that the Chasidic Community was a place where human rights were being violated. 

In August of 2020, when my mother recruited an aunt and an uncle to help refute my claims, when three people telling me that my experience in the Community was my own fault* became too much, I told my mother so. I told her we could continue to speak but I will not be gaslighted. She stopped calling me. 

*My mother will laugh. How predictable: another conversation that I warp and misconstrue. What else is new?


So now here I am in September of 2020, isolated, with a deadness all too familiar. My feelings blend with those of my still-in-Community-self, the mirage of pain I left behind in 2016, when I escaped. An experience I hoped would never return.


In 2011, when I was thirteen, I would sit beside Halberstam, a rabbi who was also a therapist, in the uncomfortable chair besides his desk, waiting. The darkness that had surrounded me since the age of five had turned into a throbbing pain. I was waiting for Halberstam to tell me why. To prescribe me some Advil. 

Like a pediatrician walking into a room saying, “Hi, how are you doing?” who would hear a few symptoms then confidently declare, “So here is what I’m going to do,” Halberstam found the problem: it was my parents. They had been putting “interjections” in my brain, programming me to believe that I deserved to be miserable. He implied that I was abused. I had never liked my parents, but I never realized their terribleness. “Oh boy, poor me.”

Halberstam’s abuse theory was not based on anything I said. I found out later that my mother had been seeing him as a patient as well. He must have based it on what my mother told him during her therapy. Something real. Unwilling and unable to tell me the truth, he turned it into something vague, which turned into “my parents are abusing me.” He didn’t bother to check in and see if that was my lived experience. He didn’t bother to check in and see if that was what made me unable to see anything but bleakness.


In 2014, after my second hospitalization in a psych ward, at sixteen, my mother and I became friends. Prison inmates. My mother shared that she never wanted me to be born. I was grateful she told me as it meant I wasn’t making things up. For a while, that was all that was mentioned of it. Then, in 2020, during the few months we resumed talking, my mother added that she didn’t want to get married either. She described her increasing dread as the wedding date had drawn nearer.


In 2020, when we would be on the phone, I argued that the Community was to blame for her marriage and my birth. The Community made her get married to someone she didn’t know at 18, and made her pump out one kid after the other. But in her mind the fault was her own. She could have decided not to get married and be ostracized. She chose to get married because deep down she wanted to. “We all need connection.” She could have gone on birth control even though she wasn’t allowed to without permission from a judge. She chose to have kids to prove to the world that you can have kids and not love them.


Sister Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) is a novice in training at a nunnery in Novitiate (2017).  She is intimacy repressed to the extent that she can’t bear hearing the object of her desire, Sister Emmanuelle (Rebecca Dyan), read the bible. One night, Sister Emmanuelle wakes up to a knock on her door. She opens it a crack.

Sister Emmanuelle: (whispers) You can’t be here

Sister Cathleen: (inaudible pleading)

Sister Emmanuelle: Okay

They both sit down on the bed nervous. LONG pause.

Sister Cathleen: Do you remember… Do you remember when you asked what I was starving for? I just want to be comforted… please will you just comfort me… please… please will you just… please will you just… please I just want to be comforted… please will you just comfort me... Please… Please… Please… Please will you just comfort me… Please will you just comfort me…

Unable to shut up until she is held, kissed, smothered, and eaten. 

I feel that.

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Because I didn’t want to pay for a hotel. Because I could afford to pay for a hotel, but it seemed like a waste. Because, as much as I enjoy sleeping in and then being lazy and watching TV in bed, I wanted to get up and moving and on the road as soon as possible. Because I’d paid for and slept in a hotel the night before, and I’d do so again the night after, and I thought a night in my car would both save me a little money and make me appreciate the nights when I did get a hotel.

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It’s that time of year when California burns. It will peak in the Fall when the shadows begin to grow longer. There was a lightning storm across the Bay Area last night and fires today and ash falling from the gray sky. My knee is torn up from skating but I’m restless tonight so I cruise the neighborhood inhaling the poison air. 

Once the fire had torn through my parents’ neighborhood, we tried to return but the cops had all the roads closed. My stepdad knew a way through an orchard. We came upon the house and it still stood. The land was black and smoldering in places. There were two deer trapped between our fence and the fire line. Twisted limbs, charred skin, organs exposed. My stepdad and I dug two graves and buried them together in silence at dusk. 


I had Bobby cut the sleeves off my Ceremony long sleeve in his apartment on a day I couldn’t stop crying. We bought snacks from the dollar store and watched Nightmare on Elm Street 3. Passing me the joint he asked what was the matter. I said, “Everything.”


I’ve been reading about Catholic saints and the desert fathers. The Shobogenzo is on my nightstand, and I understand none of it. I've read it twice. I pray, I speak to my dead friends, I sit cross-legged on the hardwood floor, I think of my father swaying from his noose like a metronome. 


It’s the violence, my mother told me once, that my blood has collectively faced. It’s the drugs. It’s the gutshot my great-grandfather took and his daughter's lethal abortion in an alley off Market Street. It’s the fact that it becomes a list. Categorical. I did not believe how violent lives, violent deaths, could be transmitted through cells. Mom told me I had a weak imagination and placed her cigarette on the edge of the table to watch the ash collect and fall. 


My father once said I kept him alive and I wonder what changed that. He told me once he would never go back to prison. Six years ago he was looking down the barrel of a 25 year bid. He kept his word. 


I go entire days without laughing, without cracking a smile, without moving my mouth at all. Not even to eat. Only rubbing my tongue in the space where a tooth got kicked out.


I can see the stadium lights of my high school from the backyard. My ex-girlfriend’s parents live up the street. 


Last night I was taking out the trash and the orange cat who hangs out in my wheel well was laying in the driveway. He was dead, it was obvious in how not alive he looked. I didn’t know if he belonged to any of the neighbors so I knocked on doors but no one answered. I grabbed an old shirt from my closet and draped it over his body, muttering something I remembered from Catechism: ...and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety.


After I read the Gucci Mane book I texted Juice: Guwop prolific as fuck. He said What? The Young Thug song? And I said Nah man, Gucci Mane, East Atlanta Santa. Juice believes the real Gucci is dead, and the sober and healthy Gucci is a replacement, a replicant. I ate an Adderall and took a sip of my diet coke, tonguing the hole in my mouth where that tooth used to be.


I had to get out of bed. It was my dead friend’s birthday and some of us agreed to have dinner, but I didn’t want to go. One year ago I had my hands around his neck, trying to keep him from hemorrhaging when he got stabbed in the throat. I lost. His frantic eyes searched but couldn’t focus. I told him it was okay and that we’d look after his family. He died and I left before the ambulance arrived.

I got dressed and ate some more Adderall and pocketed a Klonopin and nicotine patches. I thought of shards of glass in the blades of grass. I thought of cumming on lusty lady death. 


I’m just so bored of everything. Nothing surprises me anymore, even when it does. I clip my toenails and gather them to place inside an empty diet coke can. I ejaculate indiscriminately on my socks. I sit slouched in NA meetings and feel grateful for absolutely nothing.


I was watching my mom’s house for a few days during the week in the middle of August. I took the days off work so I could hang out with the pets and get stoned. She lives out in the country on about five acres of pasture at the bottom of a valley, with my stepdad who is there for her and always comes home at night. 

There was a thud at the window and Mila barked and ran to the door. I got off the couch to see what it was. Outside the window, a tiny bird lay on the ground, its tiny beak opening and closing. I knew it was going to die but felt panicked like I had to do something. I couldn’t just wait it out. I scooped the bird into my hands and submerged it in my dog's bucket of water. I can’t say if dying the other way would have been better. The corpse floated to the top.

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KETCHUP by Rebecca Gransden

Ketchup went missing. I made some posters and taped them around the neighbourhood.



Black and white cat. 7 yrs old. White socks. White spot on head (see pic). Last seen yesterday (Sept 27th) in the Glenwood area.

Reward for information. Call us on ***** **** **** even if it’s bad news. Please return Ketchup if you have him, no questions asked. Ketchup is really missed.

Every telegraph pole, lamppost, or empty surface around the nearest blocks had a poster attached. If Ketchup didn’t return, I planned to extend the search area to streets farther away.

After a sleepless night I got out of bed to find Regina already up, eyes red. I hadn’t seen her eyes like that since her dad punched her brother at our reception. She looked at me, headphones on, guitars blistering, some track I couldn’t make out. I grabbed a handful of dry cereal and then my bike and rode, coming back every few hours to break her heart with no sign of Ketchup. She worked from home and wanted to be there in case he came back, but she greeted me each time with the same red eyes that said Ketchup hadn’t returned.

On the third day of Ketchup’s absence I had to go in to work. Sticky air met me as I left the bar, having spent my time cleaning. There had been no real rain for weeks, and the baked concrete of the day turned stale in the evenings. I collected my bike from the locked courtyard behind the bar and took off in the direction of home.

Hunger pangs irritated me, but despite the discomfort I swerved around a corner, deciding to take the long way back with the intention of checking that the posters with Ketchup’s details were still in place.

A telegraph pole resided at the end of the approaching avenue. The streetlight farther along had lit up earlier than the others and it created a strange light when mixed with the lemony dusk. I clutched at my bike’s brakes and they squeaked with dry dust. The dark wood of the telegraph pole really made the white poster attached to it stand out. I glanced at the poster, ready to ride away. Something wrong with the picture. I bumped the bike’s front wheel up onto the pavement and walked the bike closer to the pole.

There, where Ketchup’s picture should’ve been, another image had been placed—black and white, a printed reproduction of an old photograph, glued into position to cover Ketchup. A figure stood mid-picture, dressed as a cat, the costume sagging around the body, tail ragged and floppy, the head rounded and cushioned, large eyes, ears slightly flattened, a checkered bowtie around the neck. Hard to tell what colour the costume would have been, but something about the shade of grey made me guess at light brown. The figure in the cat suit stood on a suburban street, a street indistinguishable from any around the neighbourhood. Waving a raised paw, the cat person posed in front of a garden that appeared to be from another era, as did the small 1950s house.

I reached out my hand, slowly, pointing, and then placed my finger on the poster, tentatively running my fingertip along the outside edge of the image. Whoever had put the new photograph there had been careful when attaching it, the glue or paste firmly adhering its edges to the poster underneath and at the same time using just enough of the substance to not soak through or spill out onto the surrounding poster.

I ripped the poster down. It came off mostly intact and I put it in my backpack. Wondering if I should tell Regina about it or not, I shuffled my bike back onto the road and continued along the avenue.

Distracted by my thoughts I almost sailed past the next location of a poster, this time a lamppost. This lamppost hadn’t lit up yet, like the malfunctioning one I’d left behind. Before I got close to it I could tell that Ketchup’s picture had been tampered with again, the same image placed over it, a black and white shot of a figure in a cat costume, holding still for an unknown photographer.

I travelled the neighbourhood, ripping down every poster, Ketchup’s picture smothered by this new image. When I got home my backpack was bulging. I walked into the kitchen, part of me hoping Regina was out somewhere, as I knew I had to tell her, but didn’t know what the hell I was supposed to say. Regina looked up at me from her place at the kitchen table, partially torn posters scattered over the tabletop. What posters I’d failed to locate she’d apparently already dealt with.

Regina spent some hours the next day reprinting Ketchup’s poster. I called in sick and re-postered the neighbourhood. It didn’t even occur to me to be concerned that we hadn’t received a single call about Ketchup.

Exhausted, I closed the back door on the dark midnight behind me and staggered into the spare room we’d made into a den. Curling up on our small sofa, bile shifted my guts, steadily rising until I couldn’t stand it. I got up and went to get my bike.

Outside, night insects flitted between gardens. A hush came down driveways. I rode around the streets, protectively gazing over the posters I’d taped up in daylight hours, all as I’d left them.

My head pounded. I’d been awake too long. A sudden swell of uninvited emotion hit my chest as the light from a lamppost struck Ketchup’s picture from a peculiar angle, causing the image to halo in my vision. I shook my head, halted my bike in the middle of the street. No good being out here. Go home.

I took off, rounding a corner, aiming for the shortest route back.

About halfway down the street a figure stood next to a lamppost, arms up and reaching for a poster. I clutched at my brakes, screeching the bike’s tires, and stopped. The figure rotated its head in my direction, a head adorned with a cat’s face. Dressed in full costume, the figure clutched at a bundle of papers under its arm and turned to run.

For a moment I froze, but as the figure rushed towards a section of street in shadow, where it would be possible to slip out of sight, I felt myself press the bike peddles into action and before I realized what I was doing I was chasing it.

The person was fast, wearing trainers, not cat costume feet. It reached the darker stretch of road and upped its speed, rushing ahead under high black trees, branches overhanging from unkempt gardens.

I felt a bump, then something wedged beneath me awkwardly and sent my back wheel skidding out from under me. The ground hit me quick, my shoulder taking the worst of the fall.

I lifted my head to see the figure turn, the person having heard the accident. The cat costume was identical to the one pictured in the photograph, but sorrier, worn, the lightish brown colour I’d imagined, the same checkered bowtie skew-whiff around its neck. The figure raised a paw, mimicking the pose in the image, and scrambled to flee and was gone.


I recovered myself and hobbled back home, a bruised shoulder and sprained ankle the result of the night’s efforts.

The following evening I sat with Regina, both of us trying to watch TV but taking very little of the streaming film in. Around eleven pm, when tiredness had enabled us both to doze on the sofa, our heads roused at the sound of a car coming to a loud stop on the road outside. We paused as a few moments of quietness passed, then listened to indistinct noises echoing from out front. A car door slammed and almost immediately the car sped away.

Regina looked at me, then stood up, moving to the den’s window and peeking out from behind the closed curtain.

A harsh sound resonated from the kitchen behind us, a noise we’d heard so many times previously. The cat flap.

A dark blob rushed past the den door. It came back along the hallway, slower this time, a cat shape, weaving around, as though regaining its bearings. Ketchup walked into the den, a lopsided checkered bowtie attached to his neck.

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