Category Archives: Creative Nonfiction

Alaina Maggio

Blood Runs Cold

24 Saltaire Road

You will move from your closet-sized room on 44 Great River Drive down the street to 24 Saltaire Road. A yellow house with chipped paint and a flag pole out front. You’ll play in the garage because you’ve never had one of your own before, play with the button that opens the door until it breaks and is never fixed. You will play in the backyard and find a forgotten racist jockey statue with a black face in the bushes, and cry until your dad promises to get rid of it, so it won’t haunt you in your sleep. Swim in the pool that’s half in the ground and half not. The whole thing is surrounded by deck. Your mother will say they want to put in sliding glass doors from the master bedroom that leads there. You will see it in your head and it is beautiful. The doors are never installed, and the deck has since been ripped from the backyard. All that’s left is uneven grass and a hole where the pool had been.

You will fall asleep in a room that shares a wall with the bathroom where you hear everything that happens. Your dad talking loudly on the phone, your brother singing in the shower, and sometimes your mom crying. There’s mildew growing on the ceiling. The fan in the bathroom stopped working one day and was never fixed. Brown spots bloom above the shower. The stone tiles by the sink started to crumble, and all that’s left are the wooden planks that lead to the damp basement. You will hear, “Why can’t you fix anything?” echoing from the bathroom, and you will wrap your pillow around your ears.

You will forget the exact moment your mother started sleeping in the living room and your dad in the den. You will watch the master bedroom turn into a graveyard—the stone, a wedding picture above the bed. You will wish the garage wasn’t full of discarded trash and nests of raccoons now, because you think that might be the only place you won’t hear them.

You will go away to college and make your own home. Lights along the wall, people who actually smile. You try not to imagine how the conversations go at dinner back on 24 Saltaire Road.

Eyes of the Hurricane

Your mother will take her car and your father will take his work van. They drive away, leaving the echo of screaming and something broken in the walls of your home. Your brother will be sitting at the kitchen, his head hung low. You’ll creep down the hallway, afraid another harsh insult will be thrown and bounced off the wall toward you. You’ll find the sparse remains of what was supposed to be dinner and hear either yours or your brother’s stomach growl. You will offer to make grilled cheese for the both of you, because that’s all you know how to make. Your parents have done this before so you know how this goes. You sit across from him, eating in silence.

“If I’m ever that unhappy, I want you to kill me, Frankie.”

He’ll look up for the first time and nod. “Ditto.”

They’ll both come back at their respective times and pretend like nothing happened. The house is quiet, everyone in their designated corner. You’ll wonder if it’s normal for families to hate each other this much. You and your brother never talk about this again.

Unfiltered

You’ll grow up giving your mom a side-eye every time she lights one and crying and begging for your grandma to stop smoking so she won’t die. Your grandma will cry back that she’s sorry. She throws her pack in the shiny garbage can in her kitchen, but you’re sure she still sneaks off to the garage and smokes one of your grandfather’s. You’ll watch your other grandmother undergo open-heart surgery and quit cold turkey after sixty years. She doesn’t even have the urge, she says.

While your mother goes to change the laundry, you’ll watch the ashtray with her lit cigarette and wonder what would happen if you put your lips to it. You wonder what keeps your mother coming back. You’ll creep up to the smoke and cough yourself nearly to death before you were even close to the filter. You run back to your room when you hear your mother’s steps.

You’ll learn your mom seems to flick the cigarette out of her long pack mostly after she and your father yell at each other, but also after dinner, and also after pulling away from the driveway and also while watching TV and also after her first cigarette.

You’ll have a rough day at school, and you’ll think walking down to the beach will help, but you think it might not be enough, so you look at the cigarette pack on the counter. Your mother is in the shower. You knew it would happen anyway.

So, you’ll walk down to Woodhull Beach holding the cigarette in the pocket of your sweatshirt making sure it wouldn’t break. You’re afraid that you’ll be seen if you stand close to the road so you walk down the beach about half a mile and then you take the Marlboro Light 100 out of your pocket along with the blue lighter you keep in your room for candles.

You realize you’ve seen your mom light a cigarette twenty times a day but you still don’t know how to do it yourself. You’ll hold it over your lap and light it. When you pull it up to your lips, the world stops. It tastes horrible, and you’re not entirely sure you’re doing it right. You’re about to take out your phone to Google “How to smoke a cigarette” but you’re on a beach, and there is no service for stupid questions like that. You continue putting it up to your face and breathing in nothing—looking at the waves crashing against the rocks—pretending you are smoking a cigarette.

Today you’ll wake up, roll out of bed, grab a sweater and not even bother with shoes. You’ll light the Marlboro Light before you’re barely out the door. Sit on the bench and count your money in your head because smoking isn’t cheap, and you only have half a pack left. You’ll take ten showers before you see your dad, even though he knows and the two of you pretend the other doesn’t. When you’re home, you’ll wait for your dad to fall asleep, and you creep into the living room and light up with your mom. You talk about boys that have hurt you, though hers never changes. She’ll smile sadly, take a drag and say, “Don’t make the same mistakes I did.”

Sluggo

Sluggo, 1986 Miller Place High School graduate, lost over a hundred pounds in a summer. Big rimmed glasses, bigger hair. You didn’t know her. Somebody told you once she washed down her acid tabs with straight vodka. She got an abortion at nineteen, married the man two years later. She smoked pot under the bleachers during football practice, smoked Parliaments. You heard once she and her friends rented a school bus filled with five kegs on it to go see Iron Maiden. She never ate, that’s how she lost it all.

Sluggo, beautiful reckless, Sluggo.

She spends her nights sleeping on a couch on Saltaire Road. Answers to a different name. She never told you why they called her Sluggo, just told you not to repeat the word.

“Don’t make my mistakes,” she tells you.

“Marrying your father was a mistake,” she says.

You try to not think that you were part of that mistake but you do.

You always do.

Financial Aid

You were a junior in high school. The word on everybody’s lips was college. You had never thought about it before. Your mother went to trade school to become a hairdresser, and your father didn’t even finish high school. There was nobody in your family that you knew of who went away to college. You remember the day your guidance counselor called you into the office and explained what a safe school was and what a reach school was. You remember the day like bee stings on your fingertips.

You sat down with your mom at the kitchen table, the light overhead broken. She was making dinner and looked a little annoyed when you asked for a moment of her time. You swallowed the lump in your throat, and when it wouldn’t stay down you hammered it.

“How much money do you guys have saved for me for college?”

“We don’t have any saved up.” She didn’t hesitate. She gives you whiplash when she stands up to stir the pot with Hamburger Helper in it. Your heart breaks, it falls, it burns. You look at your mother’s back and decide not to cry.

“How can I go away to school?”

“There’s loans for that kind of thing.”

You nod your head and stand up. You walk yourself down the hallway to your room to look at the folders your guidance counselor gave you earlier that day. You think about college. Your reach school was NYU. It was a reach because standing on your tippy toes with a yard stick, you couldn’t even graze the tuition price.

Thanksgiving

Your father owned a sprinkler company that consisted of himself and his cousin Guy (when he was free). Your family got by during the summers if your dad was healthy enough to work, which he nearly never was. The winters, though, were terrible. No one wanted sprinklers in the winter. Almost every month, your electric was threatened to be turned off. You ate the cheapest dinners. You reused the same winter jackets until impossible. You didn’t have health insurance most of the time. You couldn’t remember the last time you went to the dentist. The Ford dealership man would come to your house at four in the morning to repossess the car that your mother drove because the lease was overdue. You’d wake up at ten in the morning and see your mom in the same spot she’d been when the man left with the car. On the couch, a cigarette in her hand, crying, the same word repeated under her breath: embarrassment.

One year, on the day before Thanksgiving, you received a different knock on your door. Two baskets full of all the fixings for a large meal. Cranberry sauce, vegetables, dinner rolls, ingredients for stuffing, sweet potatoes, and a large frozen turkey. At the bottom of the baskets were two $50 gift cards for the local grocery store. Your dad sifted through the baskets, happy to receive the anonymous gift. Winter was looming, and he’d been out of work already. You turned to see your mother, frowning, a cigarette in her hand.

“What’s the matter? Not good enough for you?” your dad said, looking for a fight.

“This is an embarrassment.” She inhaled her cigarette quickly and slammed the can of pumpkin pie filling she’d been holding onto the table. “We’re not some destination for a food drive. We’re not a charity case.”

Your dad choked on the smoke that was barely by his face and began to leave the room.

“Yes, we are,” he said.

Your mother will cry, but come the next morning, she’ll roast the turkey that was given to her. She’ll make the stuffing, bake the dinner rolls, and she will smile while placing the food on the table for your family. She doesn’t say anything during dinner.

Water Colors

It began happening at night, the feeling of water filling around your bed, slowly inching its way toward you as you tried to sleep, leaking its way through the sheets like a newly dug canal. It leads to your nose and mouth, stops your breath. You were drowning, but you didn’t care enough to plug the hole. You were drowning; you let it happen.

You’d wake up, wipe the water off your skin. You could pretend like it didn’t happen, but your fingers stayed pruny, a gentle reminder of what was to come the next time you tried to sleep.

One morning you woke up with your head in a fish bowl. The entire day, you couldn’t breathe. The water was thick and gray and made everything else look that way too. You walked through the day with a kaleidoscope view of what it felt like to be dead. You woke up like this every morning. Instead of reaching for a towel, you laid back down and slept for ten hours, ten days, ten years.

Your mother called these days a waste, but she feels it too. She wastes days too. She sits on her couch up to her neck in water. She hasn’t breathed in twenty-six years. You don’t know why it took you so long to see it. She ate to punish herself, and then looked in the mirror and cried.

“It’s either I eat this Moon Pie or I slit my wrists.”

You shiver.

It wasn’t until you were in college that she even used the word.

“Sitting around and sleeping only makes the depression worse, you’re just making it worse.” She sat on the couch then, where she had been all day, her hair in a messy knot on the top of her head, bags under her eyes crafted perfectly, and a cigarette hanging from her hand. A coloring book is on her lap.

That’s what she did to help herself. Color. It started last Christmas when you bought her an adult coloring book. You look at the end table next to the ripped couch she lived on and counted her twenty-five coloring books, four boxes of colored pencils, and two electric sharpeners. She colored to pass the time, the bad moments.

You wonder if that’d work for your bad moments, if you could color in the gray imprint left by the thick water that suffocates you. Could you color in yourself? Scrub the pencils hard on your skin until you could bleed out color.

Burnout

Your brother throws a magnet out of the school bus window because somebody told him to. He cracks the windshield of a minivan and is sued for $150. Your brother is bored and decides to microwave a bowl of a cut-up bar of Irish Spring, which makes the kitchen smell like burnt cleanliness for two months. Your brother shoots out the back door with his BB gun. Your brother totals his car. Your brother flunks out of community college. Your brother plays with the dog until she cries. Your brother vacuums up his dead fish. Your brother was always the screw up.

You talk to him only at holidays and funerals and you get along fine—great, actually. It’s getting him out of his room that’s the hard part. He nests in the dark bedroom with his current girlfriend. You don’t know what happens in there.

When you were younger you used to wait until he had left the house, crack open the door he always kept shut and take a look around. You found a box of condoms, a pack of Camel Blues, and a love letter from his Russian exchange student girlfriend. You sat hunched over the dirty clothes on the floor not believing the words. You ran your hands over the lifted letters in cursive. You couldn’t believe somebody could ever feel that way about someone else, specifically your brother who didn’t seem to care about anything.

Your brother who totaled his car for the third time, your brother who leaves his window open when the heat is on, your brother who got caught stealing from the Dollar Tree, your brother who hugged you when your grandmother died before you even knew how you felt.

Your brother uses his money from his part-time delivery job at Domino’s to go on a cruise with his girlfriend to Jamaica.

Your brother totals his car for the fourth time. Your mom shrugs. Your dad zips his mouth and locks it shut; he throws away the key in a pit of fire. There are some things your father doesn’t want to lose.

The first time you’re pulled over, you get a speeding ticket. You’ll never hear the end of it.

You’re held to a higher standard. You’re tired. So tired.

You read his letter until your eyes get blurry.

Daddy’s Girl

Your father was the softie; he’d come into your room after you got in trouble for talking back at dinner or when you forgot to clean off your plate. He’d kneel by your bed and say goodnight and show you all the affection you never got from your mother at this age.

People called you daddy’s little girl and told you to take off your glasses so you could compare your tan faces. Your father would touch your upper lip and say, “you have to catch up with the facial hair.” He’d do anything for you and always did.

And then one day it became more of an effort to get him to do the things he always did. You’d run into your room, stare at the ceiling and wonder what you did to make him care less. You’d look in the mirror and realize you weren’t so little anymore.

You realize it’s easier to have a conversation with your father when you’ve been away at school for two months at a time. The car rides home were listening to Led Zeppelin and screaming the words; he’d play the gas petal like a bass drum. It became less like that. You’d scream at him for the littlest of misunderstandings and then cry, because he’d never understand your years of vented up feelings against him. He’d slam your door shut, cracking the door hinge. When you sleep with the window open you can still hear the wind going in between the door, sticking to the wall and unsticking.

Your father asked if you were crazy when you said you were seeing a therapist at school and when you said no, he asked why you needed the attention so bad then. He called your anxiety an attitude problem, your depression a bad day.

He told you once, a couple months ago, that you were driving a wall in between the two of you. You don’t deny it, but you know who drew the line first.

Uncle Frank

Your father went through friends like water. They’d be super close for a couple months and you’d be forced to go to these people’s houses for dinner and coffee. Your mother would scoff, and you stayed quiet the entire night while you heard your father be called Uncle Frank by the kids.

Sage was the kid who created the name. “Uncle Frank,” she’d squeal in joy when she saw him coming through the door. He’d lift her up and hug her. Her laugh still echoes in your ears.

Giovanni was his godson, the only child he ever personally picked out a present for in his life. He always took you with him to Walmart or Toys R Us and asked your opinion on what to get but ignored your ideas anyways.

He thought Angela was the most beautiful little girl he had ever seen. He told you this and you stared at the Christmas picture her family had sent that year. You looked at her blonde hair and blue eyes then looked in the mirror at your brown hair and brown eyes. You knew he thought you were beautiful but you started to think maybe not like Angela.

Sophia was the worst. She went on hunting trips with her dad and yours. You see the pictures on Facebook—your dad and Sophia hugging on a ferry somewhere in Connecticut. She practiced archery with the two dads. Soon after, you tell your dad you want to learn. He buys you a small pink bow and starts to teach you. You get busy with school work and college applications, and he gives it away to her because she grew over the summer and needed a bigger bow. You were too busy now anyway.

24 Saltaire Road (Reprise)

You were eight years old. Your mother was smoking pot in the basement with her friends. Your father was doing shots of Jägermeister with your brother in the kitchen. But they found their way to each other come midnight to share a kiss. You had just moved into your new house, and there were no decorations on the wall in the living room except for the Christmas tree that would be taken down promptly by your mother the next day. There must have been fifty people there, crowded in that living room, and in the morning there’d still be a bunch of them on the floor sleeping off their hangovers. You’d step your way over, snickering to your friends who stayed the night about your mother’s friend Kate who fell asleep on the stairs. The ball dropped quickly; you remembered your brother’s friend Vinny saying the world was going to end shortly, but you looked around at your new house and your parents kissing over their glasses of champagne and thought there was no way it could, not now.

Today, you sit in the living room painted three different colors since then. You think about the kitchen tiles that bubbled up with water from the leaking dishwasher. You think about the stains on the kitchen table from hair dye. You think about the bathroom downstairs that clogged once and has since been unusable. You think about the basement that floods with the tiniest amount of rain, the broken light in the shower, the broken light in the walk-in closet, the hole in the door of the den that your dad created with his fist. You sit in the living room and hear the screams, the ghosts.

You were thirteen years old. Your parents could still bear each other.

It was Mother’s Day. You woke up and stepped out of the hallway to the sound of your parents laughing louder than you’ve ever heard them in your entire life. It was a harmony of laughter, their voices swirling together, caressing each other and creating a song that could kill you with pure happiness if you were exposed to an excess of it. Your Aunt Elenore always said, “There’s nobody else for your mother and father.” You never believed it—except there, looking into the living room, your mom clutching your dad’s wrist, her mouth wide open with laughter. You believed it then. He had bought her a birthday card by mistake, and it made the both of them roar.

You decide you want moments like that every day. You want a birthday card on Mother’s Day and a harmony of laughter. You want what your parents seemed to have, except you never want it to fade. You spend a lot of time thinking about how much it sucks that they don’t get along anymore, that all the differences that were charming in high school aren’t anymore. But now you think it’s not just the illusion shattering. Your mother said to you once, “That’s not the man I married.” It froze your bones to your skin. Because you could be doing everything right with the right person and then one day wake up next to somebody different. How could you ever be sure you weren’t making a mistake?

You watch your brother switch girlfriends like socks, and lose every single one of the pairs along the way. You watch yourself cling to guys who pretend to be something they aren’t. You wonder if it’s destiny to end up like your parents.

You think of 24 Saltaire Road. The yellow chipped paint and the broken garage door and the broken bathroom fan and the crumbling bathroom stones and the light overhead the kitchen table that hasn’t worked in years, and you think of the broken hinge on your bedroom door. You think of how all those things can be fixed with just a little effort, all those things, like most things.


Alaina Maggio studies creative writing at SUNY New Paltz. She grew up on Long Island, in Sound Beach, New York.

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Sarah DeLena

To My Father

I see myself on deck, convinced
his ship’s gone down, while he’s convinced
I’ll see him standing on the dock
and waving, shouting, Welcome back.
“Elegy for My Father, Who Is Not Dead”
Andrew Hudgins

The worst part about fishing is putting the worm on the hook. It always spasms out of control and tenses up so hard that I feel myself actually killing something and I start screaming until my dad, who’s laughing so hard that he’s spitting, takes the murder weapon and victim from my hands. With the ease of a seasoned worm-executioner, he methodically punctures the nightcrawler in four different spots, wrapping the body around the hook in loops.

“Now it can’t fall off when you cast,” he explains, handing the rod back to me. I take the pole by the handle and climb back onto my rock, looking across the lake. My dad joins me and we take in the view and the silence together. We are always casting from some kind of shore, since my dad can’t do boats. After a trip on a fishing boat in the Atlantic a few years back, where both he and my sister took turns puking in the same bucket for three hours while I stood at the bow, loving the salt water spray, our fishing has been confined to casting from shores and piers.

Today we are at Canopus Lake in Fahnestock State Park, sitting on crumbling soil and rock on the edge of the woods. The ground is an intense beige, almost an orange hue, and we’re casting into the deep blue of the lake. When I cast, I hook the pole left so the line flies out as far as possible and avoids the trees just behind us. Dad has already lost two bobbers today thanks to me catching a branch instead of a fish.

“That’s the risk of fishing from shore,” he says with a shrug. I make sure now to lock down my line so it stops spinning and then I sit back, watching the bobber as it drifts. I’m in for the long haul now and I know Dad feels it too because he stops hawking over me and returns to his spot over the little soil mountain behind me. His cast goes farther than mine and he jerks the line with precision, his fake-frog lure jumping over the little waves.

Dad used to tell me he wanted to retire in a house on a lake whenever we visited a nearby state park and saw the few lucky cottages that were hidden in the trees. He said he liked being away from everyone, having a great view, having water to dive into. Despite his tendency for sea sickness, my father is actually a fish disguised as a large, hairy Italian man. Every summer since I can remember, our family has gone down to the coast to see my grandparents. The second his feet hit the sand on those overcrowded beaches, he’s running like a little kid into the sea, beating my sister and me by a mile. For hours, he would entertain us in the waves, taking us out deeper and deeper and when I couldn’t stand anymore he would hold me up, grinning as the whitecaps of the waves rumbled in our ears and chests. The water relaxed his tired feet and aching knees and gave him something that made his brown eyes shine.

How badly I want to give him a house on a lake.

“Got something?” my dad asks, sliding down the soil next to me. He’s spotted my line moving before I have. I scramble to reel the line in, but I know there’s no fish at the end of it. When I get it all in, I show him the half-eaten worm still writhing on the hook and he laughs a big warm laugh that he’d say “scares all the fish away.”

In the late afternoon, we pack our tackle box and weave through the woods, back to the car, with no fish to call our own. A few days later and we realize we are itching our arms and legs, and we both recall some funny looking plants we passed that day, breaking out in poison ivy all over our bodies. Dad starts to consider that even the shores are no longer safe. Like my sister at her new job in another state, finally moving away from home at twenty-five, and me when I decided to move two hundred miles away for college. Both shores are unknown to my sister and me, but we chose to dig our heels into the dirt and cast anyway. I wasn’t there to move her into her new apartment, but she and Dad were there to move me into my dorm.

It was so hot that day that sweat was pouring down my face and back, soaking my new college T-shirt and making it stick to my skin. The box in my hands swayed from side to side as I ascended the staircase, packed to the brim with journals and old, worn out Agatha Christie books I had gotten on sale from a used book store.

“Let me get that, sweetie,” my dad said and swiped it from my arms, as if it didn’t weigh over thirty pounds and his knees had never hurt him in his life. He adjusted the box and then climbed the stairs like he’d done it ten times before. He moved my sister in and out when she was at college just five years earlier and the movements stuck with him. I struggled to keep up with his pace and I tried to be useful, grabbing a small silver lamp without a light bulb and my metal blue trash can that was holding ratty secondhand band posters. He’s always moving quick like that when something needs to get done, always going for maximum efficiency. He’s that way at work, too, when he’s selling cars, always jumping from customer to customer, working his mouth and feet all day long. Just a few hours earlier, before we had made it to campus, he packed the white minivan rental as if it were a game of Tetris, his eyes darting back and forth over the empty trunk–if this box of shoes fits here, the TV can go there, therefore the stuffed animals can go here, etc. He’s a practical guy in almost all situations; it’s logic and numbers first, and if those fail, just run the numbers again.

I remember when I made it to my assigned dorm room and he was already in unpacking mode, squatting over boxes. His jean shorts were stretched to their limit and his white Sketchers squeaked on the cream linoleum floor as I came up behind him.

“Dad, you don’t have to do that you know. I can do that all later,” I said. His gray American flag shirt had large dark pit stains and a parabolic sweat line going down his back. He turned and smiled up at me with an all teeth smile (all fake teeth, mind you) and kept going, wordlessly. My mother watched her ex-husband from the hall, leaning on the door frame.

“Don’t go too hard. You’ll hurt yourself,” she warned. I bent down and start to help organize as he pulled out a hand drill.

“Your desk is wobbling,” he said, putting a screw on the tip. I told him we weren’t allowed to mess with any of the furniture. He started drilling into the wood.

When my sister went to college, he seemed pretty okay with it, like he had made peace with it a long time ago. I imagine he thought to himself, well, at least I’ll still have one, since now it would just be me visiting him every other weekend for fishing trips and coming Tuesday nights for ravioli dinners. It would just be me and him sitting and watching NASCAR in his one bedroom apartment and commenting on how each driver could possibly make a better left turn each time they circled the track. But now it would be no one. This thought came to me when it was time for him to leave.

We stood on the grass by the side of my building, between the quads of the other dorms and under the light of the dipping orange sun. We had to squint to see one another. Strangely and starkly different from my sister’s goodbye, he started by not looking at me. The stoic, hard-eyed, heavyset Italian rock of a man refused to make eye contact with me. Then he sort of began to ramble and put a hand on my shoulder, telling me that I should have fun, always study hard, and call him if I needed him or, you know, if I just wanted to talk. Then the hand slid to my forearm and he gripped it hard. He has no nails to dig in from years of biting them after smoking, but his hands are huge and powerful still, so the grip shocked me.

“Dad, that hurts—” I began, but he pulled me into a tight hug, my mouth muffled into his shoulder.

“If you ever need anything, and I mean anything, you call me and I will be here. You got that?” he said into my ear, his words fierce. I tried to pull away slightly, but he held me still. I had never felt so safe and scared at the same time.

“Yeah, yeah, Dad. I get it; you can let go,” I said. He did let go and I saw that he was crying. Still not looking at me, he lifted up his wire glasses and wiped his wrinkled eyes, staring at some distant spot above my head.

Usually when my dad is overly emotional, it’s not sadness that breaks through. It’s more of a burning rage that takes time to develop deep down in the pit of his stomach and when it finally surfaces, you have no doubt about what it is and that you’ve got to get out of the way. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had these distinct memories of my father exploding, with the worst being the dreaded coffee incident. I was alone that day, without my sister to help me, so I didn’t see the signs. I was too young to know where to run.

Like any school day, my day began with a checklist.

Yes, I had my lunch box. Yes, I had my notebook. Were my shoes on? Yes, and I had tied them all by myself. I remember my father took one long look around the kitchen, probably making a mental list of that day’s chores. Then he took my hand in his huge one, and we were moving. We went down the basement steps in a staggered line, me jumping with two feet onto each step, him stepping down slowly and watching my every move. When we finally made it through the garage and out of the house, I was the first to make it into the car.

“Are you excited?” he asked as I buckled myself in.

I nodded vigorously, my head bouncing around on my shoulders. We both smiled as our eyes met in the rearview mirror. He turned the key and we backed out of the driveway, a Styx CD already blasting from the speakers.

He always had (and still does have) an onslaught of rock and roll prepared for any trip, whether it’s just a five-minute drive to the grocery store or a four-hour drive down to Toms River to visit the grandparents. His taste ranges from Rush to Lynyrd Skynyrd to Paul McCartney to AC/DC to Queen to Earth, Wind, and Fire. Just one look in my dad’s eyes when the drum or guitar solo comes on and you can tell his soul is alight with the music, his lips running over every lyric without missing a single word. His brain must be fifty-percent song lyrics, twenty-five percent car models, twenty-percent trip routes (the man never uses GPS), and five-percent his own children’s names. I can’t even begin to count on both my hands and feet the number of times I’ve been called my sister’s name.

Just a couple of turns and we were almost halfway there. Our town is pretty small to begin with, so making it to the school wasn’t a journey. It was more of a peaceful, scenic drive. We passed the sunflower field and my dad said all the heads of the flowers were turned to face us to say hello. I pressed my face up against the glass, straining from my seat, admiring the yellow shine of them, and slammed my head against the ceiling as my dad hit the brakes.

“Get the fuck outta my lane!” He banged his fist on the dashboard. His whole body was hunched over the wheel as the car sped up, his head leaning to the right to see the driver of the black car that had swerved back into its lane. Our car lurched forward and we became parallel with the black car, us in the left lane and them in the right lane of the winding road. The woman in the driver’s seat was looking straight ahead, not even glancing at us. She didn’t even look at us during the red light as we sat together or when we began to follow her, my dad never breaking his eyes away from her, even when the road narrowed into one lane.

I knew about the bat that sometimes rolled around in the trunk.

As we followed her, our front bumper and her back bumper were almost touching the entire way and my stomach jumped from being slightly upset to completely nauseous as she pulled into the school parking lot with us.

My dad sped into a spot, put the car in park, and jumped out. The car was still idling as I unbuckled my seat belt and peered out the back window on my knees. He stalked to the black car in three large strides and grabbed the handle of the woman’s car door. I swear I could see the whites of her eyes and the terror there as she stared up at the man trying to get into her car. It was almost an out of body experience—a moment that most children don’t feel until they’re much older—the fact that your father is just a man to other people, that they don’t know what you know about him, how nice he can be, and how he doesn’t really mean to be this way. At six years old, I wanted to explain this to someone in case my dad got in trouble so they could understand him the way I did.

“Open the door!” he screamed. His face was getting redder, veins popping in his neck and on his forehead. She shook her head at him, yelling something back, but it came out muffled. When he couldn’t get the door open, he came back to our car and retrieved his Dunkin’ Donuts coffee mug. Three more strides and he dumped the entirety of the container on her windshield. In that moment, the principal and a security guard burst through the school entrance, rushing to the scene. But that wasn’t what got me out of the car. It was only when I saw the woman’s back door slowly start to open that I got out and ran over. The little boy that emerged, tears streaming down his face, took my hand when I offered it and together we retreated into the school. I don’t remember his name or what he looked like, except that he was not much taller than me. But what I do remember is how he looked at my dad, and how I began to notice the way a lot of people looked at my dad when he did things I was so acustomed to.

My grandma tells me that he wasn’t always so angry, as if showing me childhood pictures of him sleeping soundly while swaddled in a blanket wordlessly proved her point. It’s always hard to connect your parents to the black and white images of them in photos; how is the man in front of me supposed to have been this punk-looking kid from the Bronx who had his teeth smashed in in a wrestling match? I can barely picture him rolling around on the floor with a friend, blood and teeth splattered across the cement in the basement of some colonial. My grandma tells me how he got into wrestling matches and fights a lot back then, and that he even stole Grandpa’s car once or twice for a drive. I can see the anger in those old pictures, the ones where he’s just a teenager standing next to Grandpa, my grandpa but not his real father. My real grandfather passed away when my dad was ten, in what I’ve recently learned was a fatal car crash.

This past summer my dad and I took the Circle Line boat tour around Manhattan to see the entirety of the island, and as we sat baking in the heat, with not a drop of water or sunscreen to our names, he pointed at a tunnel.

“That’s where my father died,” he said. I looked from the choppy waves of the Hudson up to his face, which was completely stoic. His eyes met mine and he nodded his head toward the city, where he was still pointing. I followed his arm and finger to the tunnel, and we stared at it together.

It was later that my grandma told me that he had been driving a dump truck and the dump was still up just slightly, but the light on the dash wasn’t on to say that it was. He drove into the tunnel and the dump buckled and he broke his neck. After that, he lived for about a month on tubes until he passed in his sleep. My mom says he must’ve been holding on for his three little ones, my dad and his two brothers.

As much as I try, I can’t put myself in my dad’s shoes. I’ve never been that close to death before. That’s why I can’t seem to picture the little brown-haired ten-year-old boy from the worn, yellowed photos standing by his father’s hospital bed. I can’t see him staring at the breathing tubes and beeping machines, waiting patiently for his father to wake up. I can’t look at my dad and see the little boy, even though I know he must still be there.


Sarah DeLena is currently studying English and Professional Writing at SUNY Cortland. She hopes to become an editor and writer of YA literature, her favorite genre, own at least two golden retrievers, and further the legacy of the Oxford comma.

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Meg Fellows

In Defense of Body Hair

Pulling at the hair on her arms, she, my young mother, pictures an ape, the usually dark-haired animal that screams of aggression and primal male dominance. The hair on her body is dark, and she is resentful of her father’s thick brown hair that looks almost identical to hers. She wishes to be blond, to be light like her mother. She wishes to be more of a feminine presence in her own body.

Grabbing the razor, she locks the bathroom door behind her. The white shaving cream makes a loud swooooosshhh sound as she spreads it across her arms, hiding the nest of hair that condemned her to long-sleeved shirts in the middle of July. She examines the blade, touches it with her fingertips to feel the sharpness of her decision. She scrapes a line across her forearm, watching the shaving cream dissipate into her pores. The smooth nakedness that is left over spreads a smile across her face. She continues to pull hair from her skin, planning to shave every portion of herself that feels unnatural, unconventional. She uses most of the shaving cream can, hiding it at the bottom of the recycling bin so her mother won’t find out that she’s grown up, more of a woman than she was an hour ago.

Walking into my mother’s room, I can smell the chemicals permeating the air. She’s sitting upright in her bed, her arms covered in a white globbed substance that looks sticky and thick. Usually she keeps the door closed this close to my bedtime, but tonight she is open, welcoming. At eleven years old, this smell is familiar to me. At least twice a month, my mother shuts her door, and the upstairs of our small house suddenly smells like a sterile doctor’s office.

“Mom, what is that stuff?” I ask, stepping closer to examine her arms. In the light, I can see a line of white across her upper lip, too.

“Meg, don’t ever shave your arms. The hair only grows back darker.” She says this carefully so as to not disturb her upper lip.

She tells me the story of shaving her arms as a young girl, hoping to get rid of any trace of unattractive body hair. She tells me she had the prettiest arms for about three days, then all of the hair grew back in thicker, darker than before. I reach for the box sitting on her bedside table, reading the word bleach next to a woman caressing tanned, toned legs with a wide smile on her face.

“I want you to come to me when you feel like you need to shave, okay? I need to teach you how to properly use a razor so you don’t hurt yourself.”

I stare at her, trying to find any semblance of my mother; in this moment, she looks like a cartoon version of her usually-put-together self. This kind of vulnerability is new, somewhat uncomfortable for me.

“Yeah, Mom, I will.”

My mother lives in cinched waists and high-heeled boots. Her color-coded closet reflects the rigidness of her style and stylistic means. Black and navy blue never clash, and she only wears jeans on Fridays. Her curling iron has lived in the same spot on her dresser top since I was born, right next to her boxes of silver jewelry and oddly shaped perfume bottles. She always wears pantyhose in the winter, and makes sure her body is smooth at all costs.

The first time I shave, I don’t tell my mother. I drag a semi-damp razor across virgin pores, ripping up follicles and the first layer of my skin. I see the blood accumulating in thick dark lines on my shins and rush to the kitchen for a paper towel. I hear the sound of my mother’s heels against the hard wood as I try to mop up blood from the kitchen floor. We see each other; then she sees the mess that is my lower half.

“What in God’s name are you doing?” she asks, dropping her leather purse to the floor. She rushes me back to the bathroom, bloody paper towel in hand. She sees the razor balanced on the bathroom sink, and lets out a heavy sigh.

“Why didn’t you wait until I got home to do this?” she asks, pulling rubbing alcohol from the cabinet above our heads.

The feeling of rubbing alcohol on open wounds felt less uncomfortable than the conversation we had with the bathroom door closed. My mother asks me why I didn’t want her involved with my personal life, why I wanted to start shaving, if I was thinking about sex, and if that’s why I wanted my body to be naked. I couldn’t tell her that I didn’t want to grow up with my mother there.

“I just thought I could do it on my own,” I tell her, watching the razor burn form on my legs before my eyes. Everything burned: the guilt, the skin, my body against the cold bathroom floor. My mother took the razor and showed me how to shave properly. She said even strokes, don’t dig in too deep, and always use shaving cream or soap. She taught me to shave all the way up the leg, to never be lazy when it comes to hair management.

“No man wants to see the hair that you missed,” she says, standing up and adjusting her long black skirt. I remember studying her in that moment; the way she looked at herself in the mirror, smacking her lipsticked mouth together as she left the room. I put Band-Aids on my shins and knees, stood up, and examined myself, too. I was a mess in comparison.

My mother and I have grown into separate but similar women. We pour red wine at 5:00 p.m. and talk about the local news cycle, moving through nights in a haze of anxiety about the next day ahead. We wear high-heeled boots together and walk in a hurried synchronicity that can move the wind. We are constantly trying to reinvent ourselves out of fear of becoming stagnant, dull. We say we’re going to see each other more, but we hardly ever do. Like my mother, I wear cinched waists and keep silver jewelry in boxes.

I stopped shaving my body a year ago. My hair has grown into braids that keep me warm and liberated. My razors disintegrated into rust in my shower, and my hair grew in darker than ever. I stopped believing in the notion that to be feminine is to live within a body that needs to be trimmed and toned, no trace of any organic growth on the body—inside or out.

“Are you going out like that?” my mother asked me the last time I was home. Looking at myself in the mirror, I noticed nothing wrong with my appearance.

“What, is it the skirt?” I asked, clutching the fabric that hugged my thighs in the way my mother told me it should.

She walked into the bathroom and grabbed my wrist. Tugging my arm to the sky, she looked at my armpit hair and stared back at me in the mirror. I felt my face flush as I told her that I would not be shaving just to go out in public.

“You’re going to give your grandmother a heart attack the next time you see her if you’re not wearing sleeves,” she says, checking her makeup while she has the mirror at her disposal.

I don’t know how to tell my mother that accepting body hair is a freedom I wish she could experience. Instead of feeling like being a woman is a chore, my choice to celebrate my body negates all my mother’s teachings of the prim and proper.

In this moment, I wonder if she is embarrassed by me, if I have become the things that she feared I would: unclean, unladylike, unprofessional. I wonder who she truly wants me to be, who she hopes I will grow up to be. I wonder if I am living up to her expectations as a woman and a daughter. I look at her and search for an essence of myself in her face. I have her blue eyes, her full lips, her smile lines. Other than those physical attributes, I am mostly my own.

I grab her hand, her long fingernails grazing my palm. I want her to know that I am okay with who I am, even if she is not.

“I’ll be home later, Mom. Keep the light on for me.”


Meg Fellows is a senior English (Creative Writing) major at SUNY Geneseo. In her spare time, she indulges in feminist literature and political podcasts, and her work can be found in The Finger and acorn & iris.

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Volume 7 | Creative NonFiction


To My Father

Sarah DeLena


In Defense of Body Hair

Meg Fellows


Blood Runs Cold

Alaina Maggio

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Rachel Britton

Masks

In sleep, I discover my poetry and my seven faces. They all look like the woman captive in the mirror but here an upturned lip and there metallic eyes. My skin becomes their stage, their scenes more than often unscripted. It is in my bed that their absence leaves me wondering what my face looks like without them. Eyes closed, searching just behind the lids. Fold my cheek into the pillow, stretch out the eyebrows. If I want, I can mold my face like dough.

I.

We’ve just met. I stretch my brows up toward my hairline, widen my eyes. I want you to know I’m interested, even though the words are dried up and stuck behind my teeth.

You ask me to tell you about myself, because when you asked me out you only knew that I was an avid poetry reader and could name the summer triangle constellations, and I don’t know quite what to say. Suddenly, it’s as if my history is an abyss; I cannot reach in, cannot pull anything out. You stare at me, waiting, and I have to look up at the ceiling so that your eyes do not keep making me forget. I’m so nervous I’ll say the wrong thing that my upper lip is sweating. When I finally settle on an answer, I tell you in short and restrained words that I’m a writer. Inevitably, my voice climbs up in pitch like climbing the tree I never scaled in my parents’ front yard. Time reverses itself—my spine condenses and curves, body shrinks and drags me with it, and once again I am a child, so small compared to you.

Our first meet is short. As I walk away, into a city crowd I can get lost in, my voice returns and mutters with the exhale of stale breath. That wasn’t me, I think. That wide-eyed face tied me up in thick black rope and held me hostage somewhere deep in my stomach. I called up into the hollow of my throat, but my mouth was too far away and the sound only echoed back down to shiver me. Where did I get this malleable, rubbery face? And why did I let it mask me? Why did I wear it during the corporate job interview that resulted in a ‘we’re sorry to say’ email a week later? Why did I cover up my real, cheek-splitting smile when another writer gave me a compliment, so we parted ways at the end of the workshop without cementing a friendship? Now that I’ve been released, I wonder if the next time we meet, my voice will crack the silicone of that face and let me through.

II.

Open-mouthed is the way they meet me. With a book sewn to my nose and a planner marked neatly in black ink—every column brimming with letters. In college, students are often subject to group projects and, always, one student must take the lead and bear the weight of all of them. As the semester progresses, it becomes clear that the boys who don’t come to class, and the girl who schedules our meetings but conveniently misses them, have targeted me as their Atlas, although my shoulders slope and are not built for carrying.

Now that we’ve grown acquainted, I complain to you about my group project, and you notice my flickering eyes and the way my pencil shakes in my hand. Each of their suggestions for our project strays further and further from what our professor described in the assignment. Deftly, I steer them back toward what will work and, hearing their noncommittal ummms when we start divvying up the tasks, realize that I will be completing this project on my own. On a rainy Sunday afternoon, I will camp on the silent floor of the library translating six books at a time into coherent, streamlined notes. I will write a script, giving equal speaking time to each group member, and then construct a powerpoint presentation, and it will earn me an A in the class. Finally, once I am on break after the final exam and reading a novel on my parents’ couch, I will be able to breathe again.

You take my hand in yours, so my pencil has to stop, and make me look at you. It’s going to be okay, you tell me, I can get through it. And when it’s done, we’ll throw a wine-sweet celebration.

III.

“Be careful,” I’ll tell my roommate as she slips on her coat, car warming up outside for the drive. Once again I notice how alike I am growing to my mother. But that worry is shadowed by the sailor’s knot now roping fear into my chest, knowing that she’ll be out with all of those other drivers late on a Friday night. I remember all of the recent accidents: an intoxicated man swerved off into a ditch, a fender-bender that crunched up the front of a small sedan, a ten car pileup. My face is granite.

And she’ll just laugh, “Okay, Mom,” as she slips out into the night. The red digital clock letters: 9:34 p.m. Sighing, I scan the pile of shoes on the mat by the door, now missing her heeled leather boots that leave a barren and muddied space, and shuffle away in my moisturizing socks and elastic sweatpants.

I’ll write you a text message to make sure you’re safe. You’ll respond, thankfully, right away that, yes, you’re staying in tonight and you’re just fine, if not a little bored. I can sigh now and sink into the couch, into the space between cushions.

IV.

It isn’t easy to convince me to go out. You have to stroke my spine a little, entice me with wine. But now, we know each other better and the merlot has loosened me up. It unravels my tongue like a new Persian rug and you can see the swirling designs, how they come together and fall apart.

My friend and I are driving the half hour back home from a paint-and-sip event in the city and I’m surprised by how incapable I am of keeping my mouth shut. In the dark, her face is hidden except for the occasional flash of headlights. Her voice is cloaked by the Top 40 on the radio, but I keep talking. The wine has stained my lips red. I wonder, aloud, if the reason it’s hitting me so hard is because I haven’t had a drink in nearly a month. My knees are cold, because the heat hasn’t kicked on, but I’m somehow sweating. And though I worry that I’m annoying her while she drives—for which I apologize over and over—she is laughing, and the sound of the smile in her teeth soaks me in warm relief.

V.

My mother accuses me of being too critical. It isn’t the first time, and I guess I am critical both toward her and myself. She is right; with me, there is no flexibility, and I crack when she tries to stretch me. It happens too often. Without meaning to be, my tongue is sharp and ribbons the roof of my mouth in long, thin strands that redden my lips.

“No, never mind, ” I cut into her sentence. It is jagged and leaves wisps of unfinished thought on either side. “Forget it. I shouldn’t have asked.”

“You’re always so sharp,” she cuts back. She’s in the kitchen, behind the partition so I can’t see her face. I know without even seeing her that she is wrinkling her forehead, pursing her thin lips, and scrunching up the nose she passed down to me.

My mother and I have been fighting. Of course, I’d never act this way with you. It’s easier to be cruel to the ones who love you most because they care about you. It’s easier because they can’t help themselves when you cry in front of them, because to them you’re worth putting up with, because they’ll forgive you. What my mother and I are fighting about, though, is silly. It’s me asking to change our plans and go to the local pub for dinner because I have an eating disorder and I’m afraid to eat rice noodles at the Thai place between the church and the hairdresser. When she wonders why I’m suddenly flip-flopping, my hand is beating my head, stupid, stupid question, and my voice now a stony octave lower mutters “never mind.”

She probably would have said, of course it was okay. She would have understood. She would have rummaged through the folder on top of the fridge with our collection of takeout menus until she found one I could manage. But that question—why. I don’t want to answer that why.

Dishes screech against the tin of the sink. “You never give anyone a chance. You just shut down.” Sometimes I wonder if she thinks I can’t hear her because I’m in another room. But she’s right. This ceramic face is cracked down pale cheek, from eye to jawbone, and she isn’t me. She must keep that missing ceramic shard in her mouth.

VI.

Maybe she swallowed it once, because now it’s cutting up my throat and lungs and stomach. My face twists and I imagine the skin of my left cheek meeting the top right of my forehead. It hurts, and I am fighting not to open my mouth. You will hopefully never see this face. This face is haunted and contorts itself, runs liquid over itself. This face wants the Tylenol, but refuses it. This face steamrolls its quivering lips into a long, thin line, bends its eyebrows into concave wells, and drips from all its openings. Only a fistful of people have ever witnessed this face, enough to hold in one hand.

This face thrashes in a hospital bed. This face can’t commit. This face is shadow behind the sun—please, try not to peel the gold back.

VII.

If the chisel is positioned just right, I can chip away at the sky and pull the stars down intact. I can melt them down in a great big vat and use the liquid glow to paint—both over and under the shadow. It laminates the page.

While I lie in bed, I let it pour over me, making sure it coats every crack, every pore, every crevice. It helps me sleep. Seals in all of the faces, makes them converge and conflict and I watch them all from a safe distance. I don’t have to wear any one of them when I sleep. The muscles in my face unravel and soften, relaxing into the pillow, the darkness, and night’s untouched canvas.

Someday, when we share a bed, you might wonder who is facing you. It will be frightening, I’m sure. You’ll probably miss me, think I’ve vanished and call my mother up in a frigid sweat to find where I have gone, but then I’ll put on one of my faces and you’ll see I was in front of you all along. You might even be able to see the blue, green, and red of the peony star leaking out of my left eye, and it’ll blend with the white, gold, and purple in your eye. We’ll meet somewhere in the middle, between our faces.


Rachel Britton is a senior English (creative writing) major with a minor in theatre at SUNY Geneseo. She spends far too much time stargazing and continues to search for the perfect cookie recipe.

<<Self on the Straßenbahn

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Bernadette Roe

The Lie

I tried to pretend it wasn’t there. Paper scrolls bound together on a wooden rod, hung to the wall by a thick white cord. It was meant to be art, images of levitating saints. Mary, the Virgin Mother, is in blue robes standing on clouds, her beautiful face washed of any emotion. There must have been twelve scrolls, with a scene on each side of the paper and the proud consumer could flip between images depending on one’s religious mood. On one page, God the Father reigned triumphantly upon a throne. The throne sat stoutly on a carpet of clouds and the sky behind was blue, flecked with white like a Dutch piece of crockery. God sat with his legs spread far apart, his feet firmly planted on his cumulous carpet, muscular thighs covered by a white toga. He had flowing white hair, thick and curly, and a well-trimmed beard. His skin was tanned and his biceps shapely. Had I been older and more accustomed to gym-sharks and their culture, I would have said that God had glamour muscles. As it was then, I didn’t know the anatomical or cultural terms for gorgeously developed musculature, the rock-hard pecs, the round shoulders, the long, sensual fingers, and strong, veiny hands. All I registered, as a five-year-old, was that God was one hunky old dude.

I stood on my twin bed, wearing a little purple sweater with a kitten silkscreened across the chest. It played with a ball of yarn in a coquettish way, with large eyes and a seductive turn of its head. I cocked my own head as I examined the images and flipped up the scrolls to look at the ones behind. After God the Father, there was the Holy Family: a blonde baby Jesus (alarmingly Aryan-looking considering his Jewish heritage) cradled in Mary’s arms, with Joseph standing next to her in green robes. Joseph had short, curly brown hair and a beard. He looked demure, even feminine, compared to God on the previous page. So was this Mary’s boyfriend? I had heard from my mother that the Annunciation was when God made Mary pregnant with Jesus. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew babies could only grow in ladies’ tummies when they were married. My mother had told me this with great emphasis, and I assumed that marriage was a special time in a lady’s life when she could wake up one morning, ripe and round, and a baby popped out that day like a wonderful surprise. So if God made Mary pregnant, he had to be her husband. I flipped between the scrolls of the two different men and decided if I had to pick between them, I would definitely choose God. Joseph didn’t look like he had much spunk, but God looked like he knew how to push around a lawnmower.

I pinched two pages in my fingers and lifted the scrolls as high as I could, holding them above me like a canopy of grace. I took a deep breath and looked at the scene in front of me. The top of the painting showed the underside of heaven, a hint of clouds, the last hope before despair. The painting lowered into shadows. At the vanishing point, indeterminable shapes dropped and fell, some head first, some with legs spread akimbo, starfish shadows falling into flames the color of Cheetos. The figures trapped in perpetual decent reminded me of pineapple chunks stuck in the middle of red Jell-O; they looked as if they ought to finally touch the bottom but never did. Figures danced around these falling shadows holding pitchforks, arms raised high in cheers. To the very bottom of the painting, curled up and close to the frame, looking patiently out at the viewer, sat The Devil. I assumed the cheering figures farther back were devils too, but this one, closest to the viewer, seemed to be The Devil. His skin was jet black and lacquered, white highlight painted on his shoulders and head to make his flesh appear as patent leather. His eyes were yellow and a forked tail, like a serpent’s tongue, curled upwards behind him. He looked out, but he wasn’t smiling. If he had at least been smiling or grimacing, he would have appeared garish, a cartoonish caricature of a demon. But he sat in stoic elegance, almost gracefully. His eyes, as they gazed into mine, had no message, and it was the fact that he didn’t seem to care at all that scared me the most. In the midst of all these flames, he was as immovable as ice. There appeared to be no reasoning with someone such as this. At least if he howled or bellowed, he would evidently be capable of passion. One could appeal to extreme emotion: scream, beg, and writhe for mercy because the cloven master was himself capable of extremes, even if it was heated hate—but he was frigid.

We didn’t have cable TV growing up because my mother didn’t want us to be tempted or educated by modern media. Instead, she ordered VHS tapes through the mail made by a company called CCC, which charted its stance as “pro-family in the entertainment industry.” The VHS tapes were a mini-series of lives of the saints. One afternoon, I begged my mom, “Please can I watch a CCC?”

She plugged one in called The Day the Sun Danced: The True Story of Fatima and set up her ironing board beside me. I sat on the carpet at the foot of our large wood paneled TV while the iron gasped steam and sizzled on my Dad’s plaid work shirts. The story of Fatima tells the tale of three children: Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco between the ages of seven and ten in Portugal in 1917. While they were herding sheep, they saw the Blessed Mother and conversed with her. She appeared to the children over the course of the next six months as word spread and crowds grew. On the last day, a crowd of approximately 70,000 people gathered and claimed that the sun moved towards the earth in spirals and zigzags. While the sun danced, the three children received visions from the Blessed Mother and reported on them after. The children reported a vision that the earth opened before them and widened into a large chasm; black shapes fell into a landing of flames. The VHS did not hold back, and I sat with wide eyes as 1980s cinematography showed shadowy, dancing demons leaping among flames the size of a grown man while the bodies fell, screaming and shrieking into hell. The split earth slowly closed and the children returned their gaze to the ever-serene Mary.

My mother put her iron down and said, “You know, Bernadette, more people go to hell for sins against purity than any other sin.”

I turned my attention to her and watched her. What were sins against purity? What was purity? I returned my focus to the TV for the culmination of The Day the Sun Danced. What happened was the usual course of events for a CCC narrative: the little saints undergo persecution for their spiritual communication. Sometimes, they landed themselves in prison or sometimes the town simply pointed their fingers and laughed. Then, a jolly man with a moustache, usually carrying a basket of baguettes, would experience a small miracle; his mystifyingly shriveled hand would plump up to a healthy limb, or his decrepit, barren wife would swell with pregnancy, and they would have a baby and decree that the children were in fact correct, and then the whole town, once again in unity, would sing the children’s praises and become believers en masse. The narratives concluded so simply; faith was a communal experience. If a neighbor believed, why not you too? And the answer seemed to be, okay.

I remember sitting with my mother on the sofa one evening as she read me a children’s story of Samson and Delilah. In cartoon depiction, Samson was a long-haired stallion, a character I would later see repeated in more detail on the cover of Harlequin Romance novels. He lived in a town that had all the tropes of a cartoonish Holy Land, and he was “friends,” my mother said, with a woman named Delilah. My mother liked to stop reading to add her commentary.

“She was a very immodest woman, Bernadette. She would walk around in (and here she whispered) see-through clothing.” She pointed towards our curtains, white and sheer, long panels which flittered across the carpet when she vacuumed beneath them. “Her dresses looked like our curtains.”

We had two lovebirds in the living room, and their cage sat next to the curtains. Out of boredom, they had a habit of nibbling at the curtains until a good foot of the paneling was picked through with little holes. I looked at the holes and wondered if Delilah’s dress would be considered more immodest with holes or if being see-through made it immodest enough.

The story told how Samson was invincibly powerful and men in the town were jealous. His hair was what endowed him with supernatural strength and God made him promise to never cut it as a contract: long hair for strength. I thought of God the Father on the scrolls in my bedroom and thought of his own long curls and figured this made sense. The jealous men in town found out about his hair and convinced Delilah to cut Samson’s hair.

“She managed to trick him, Bernadette, because of her see-through dresses,” my mother explained, speaking softly into my ear.

And so, poor Samson’s hair got chopped while he was sleeping: an image clearly depicted of Delilah, in her sexy dress, smiling wickedly with scissors at the head of the bed while the innocent Samson slept. I couldn’t imagine for the life of me why Samson was having a nap in her bed. Why didn’t he go home to his own bed? But this was not explained to me by my mother or the book. In the end, Samson loses his strength, getting blinded in the process, and when his hair grows back along with his might, he goes to the pillars of the temple and pushes them apart so that they collapse atop him and all the hypocrites within.

Once in a college class, my professor quoted Rilke: “Man is the liar but woman is the lie.” I have since tried to find which poem or letter this quote is attributed to and cannot seem to find its origin, indeed of Rilke or anyone else. Maybe it was her quote and I misheard her. I’m not sure, but the quote itself has stood with me for years. Woman is the lie.

I remember later in my childhood, around eleven, again I sat on the couch with my mother, and she read a different book. At this point, I was quite capable of reading on my own and very fond of the activity, but there is something cozy about having someone else read to you, and so I found myself again nuzzled against her. She read to me a book about a princess who had a pearl that was precious to her. Princes from all over the world came to her and begged for her hand and, as an addition, the pearl too. She meekly refused them all until one prince arrived, led her to a chapel with a priest, and they entered, as my mother phrased it, “the sacrament of marriage.” I remember thinking that the priest looked too modern in a setting of stone castles and capes trimmed in ermine fur. I thought, “He looks just like our priest,” complete with black, ironed slacks, a white cube of Roman collar and a neat little side part. After the anachronistic priest let them go as husband and wife, the page turned to show the princess giving her pearl to the prince, a curved smile planted on his face. Without being able to state it, I had a gut feeling of the symbolism of the pearl and of conflict: “Why didn’t the princess get a pearl from the prince too?”

Years later, my mother found my diary tucked away and discovered from reading it that I had lost my virginity to a beloved and committed boyfriend. She followed up on this information with weepy phone calls and texts encouraging me to go to confession, to break up with him. These phone calls went on for months. One afternoon on the phone, in the midst of gasps and cries, she said to me, “How could you give yourself to him?” I was twenty nine. My brothers’ virginities were never cried over. In fact, I don’t think anyone, my mother included, really cared. Granted, they didn’t write about the experience in their diaries, partially because it didn’t seem too remarkable to either of them, and for the larger reason, they didn’t even keep diaries. Their sexual experiences were part of boyhood, a chapter in the bildungsroman of their ascents to manhood; mine was a grief, something wept over by my mother, as if it were also hers and she had not been consulted on the subject. Something to be confessed. Something that should terminate the relationship.

Another of CCC’s marvelous productions was a VHS called If You Love Me… Show Me! It was marketed to teens and told a thinly-veiled story of two teenagers who fall in love. He takes her to a look-out in his car and pulls out of his pocket a wrapped yellow condom. The first time I watched it, I thought it was a lollipop missing its stick. The message of the story is that real love waits for sex until it is blessed within the sacrament of marriage. One maternal character in the film smiles as she pours a pot of tea and says, “We decided to save that for our wedding night.” As I grew and moved away from my mother and her couch of stories, I took the term if you love me, show me a little more literally than CCC intended. My experience was a happy one, where love and sex intertwined into a harmonious, instinctual experience of togetherness. My childhood education taught me to mistrust myself: myself as a sexual being and myself as a woman. Delilah was a traitor but at least she showed emotion and action. The Blessed Mother, the only woman depicted to young girls, was completely stripped of affect. I had a pearl which, according to my mother, I gave to an unworthy recipient in an inappropriate way because it wasn’t blessed by a man in ironed black slacks. Therefore, by that logic, the relationship was doomed. I think there was power in the decision. The image of a pearl speaks of commodity, who is the highest bidder? Who is most worthy? I decided that outside of a stone church, and I gave it willingly. I was in love, so I showed it.

I went to Church recently after I woke up with a strange longing to go to Sunday Mass. I get the same ache to occasionally drive by my childhood home or flip through photo albums in my parent’s basement with stickers on their spines dating 1989, 1992. With that nostalgic urge, I opened the front door of the church and sat in the last pew, deliberately several minutes late so I wouldn’t have to deal with the cheerfulness of a church greeter. The pew creaked uneasily beneath me, and I looked out at the sprinkled congregation, sparse between the gaping rows of pews. Many women had their heads covered by mantillas, and the elegant statue of the Blessed Virgin was also veiled. All around me, the luxury of women’s hair was modestly covered while my own hung long down my back as it usually does, and I felt strangely inappropriate, even sensual, despite being bundled in a winter coat, and I was glad again to be so far back. I felt like a voyeur in a world that had once been my center; I remembered the times I brought the hosts or the wine and water up during the Offering of the Gifts. I remembered when I had my first communion, standing in the center of the aisle, veiled, dressed in white from head to toe. My mother had gone to Sears the day before and purchased tiny, white pantyhose so I would literally be in all white. I remembered my Confirmation, countless Saturday afternoons in line for confession, masses where I felt moved, I felt kindred to the message, the organ, the communal responses. But now I felt like I had forgotten the language, lost my appetite for its fervor, lost my nose for the incense.

At the time of communion, the parishioners rose and filled up the aisle to receive the Eucharist. In the Catholic tradition, the faithful are not to receive the Eucharist if they are not in the state of grace, meaning they have committed a grave sin. I knew enough from examinations of conscience before confessions that sex outside of marriage was a grave sin. Out of respect for the tradition, I stayed in my seat and watched as the line inched its way closer to the priest dressed in green vestments, reverently offering each person the host: “The Body of Christ” to which one responds, “Amen.” I watched jealously as parishioners gently chewed the host on their way back to their pews, solemnly lowered the kneelers, and bent their heads. I felt like I was little Bernadette again, from the albums of 1989, 1992, who was denied Neapolitan ice cream for smacking her sister. The message: you behaved badly and now you don’t get your treat. But what is grace if not the undeserved favor of God? If God is everything, can he not see past my sin and welcome me?

There I was, the fallen woman in the last pew, with her long, lustrous hair hanging down uncovered, my lust trickling off of me like oiled perfume. Didn’t Christ come for me too? Even more so, if one reads the Gospels correctly. I wanted to say “Fuck it,” march up the aisle and hold out my hand; “The Body of Christ” and give my “Amen,” but I didn’t. I don’t know if it was fear, shame, or the inertia caused from feeling like an outsider that stopped me. Instead, I walked outside. Away from the incense, the dim lighting, the polished pews; I felt one again with the concrete, the barren trees, and the busy hum of cars. Why must the state of grace be defined by someone else? Even the term itself is faulty. I don’t think grace can be a state because state implies territory, boundaries, and barriers. I believe that grace is fluid as liquid, porous, and permeable, and no sin is strong enough to stop its balm. I was not the fallen woman because my sin, measured against the barometer of my own conscience, was no sin at all. I realized that the Rilke quote struck me so profoundly years ago, and lingered on in my memory, because I instinctively knew it was wrong. I paused and looked down the downtown street, at the liquor store sign, the traffic light blinking red to green, and carefully combed my fingers through my long hair. There are lies, but I am not one of them.


Bernadette Roe is a third-year PhD student at Binghamton University in English and creative writing. Her work has appeared in Caffe Beano Anthology, Streetlight Press, and her poetry chapbook was published by BHouse Publications.

<<The Pilgrimage |Self on the Straßenbahn>>

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Matthew Cullen

Self on the Straßenbahn

It makes complete and utter sense to me that all life began with the jellyfish. Abigail and I are in Berlin’s Zoologischer Garten, the first sun-filled day we’ve had in this country, our final hurrah before we fly home. A minuscule, gelatinous, squishy mass of life thrusts its way through a vertically cylindrical tank of water, propelling itself onward forever. It pushes forward, pulling itself in before throwing itself out, the entirety of its life sustained within that millimeter membrane. In my mind, the universe spreads across that astral plane, stars like the twinkling bubbles of air and dust within the tank. I want to put my hand to the glass, to experience the world which we inhabit. I step closer. The tendrils drooling in its wake pulse with creation and flash with destruction. Another step. Every thrust forward is an inhalation, an exhalation; a birth and a death. One step closer. My breath fogs the glass and my nose scrunches. I touch the tips of my fingers to the tank. I picture one of the guards coming over, “Was machst du denn?” they’d ask. And what would I say? “Ich gucke einfach.” I’m observing the universe from outside the universe. No, I’m just looking. My forehead presses against it now, glasses squeaking from the strain. The jellyfish pushes itself onward through infinity.

I perceive a rumbling at the center of my being, something being shaken into place. Above my vision is an older vision, and the pages of Haruki Murakumi’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle appear. His characters, Toru Okada and his wife Kumiko, visited a similar aquarium in Ueno, Japan, an aquarium also displaying jellyfish. Toru grew sick watching them and couldn’t understand how Kumiko appreciated them so much. To his question, she responds, “I don’t know. I guess I think they’re cute.”

“But one thing did occur to me when I was really focused on them. What we see before us is just one tiny part of the world. We get into the habit of thinking, this is the world, but that’s not true at all. The real world is in a much darker and deeper place than this, and most of it is occupied by jellyfish and things. We just happen to forget all that. Don’t you agree?”

As I focus once more on the jellyfish before me, I recall just how much of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle resonates within me still. Kumiko, so far away, continues, “Two-thirds of the earth’s surface is ocean, and all we can see of it with the naked eye is the surface: the skin. We hardly know anything about what’s underneath the skin.” And I think she’s right. This book shook me when I first read it. It grabbed my shoulders and thrashed me about at times, pushed me along its pages with a gentle ferocity. Each word would lift off the page, enter my mind, and fall back down onto paper. The jellyfish floats on. The universe shrivels and expands.

It is morning. The next day, presumably. Abigail and I are asleep. The wild covers have been thrown about, the window vertically ajar. Outside a bird, somewhere, somehow, emits its call. It is distinct, unnatural, and yet entirely organic. Its cry: a harsh creaking carried by the wind. The rasping sound of the world reborn. The world’s spring has been wound for the day. Or, I have been woken by Abigail’s cough.

We set about packing our bags. One of our suitcases we have aptly named Jennifer because it is of the Jennifer Lopez brand. She’s falling apart. Absolutely dilapidated. She will not survive the trip, of this we are sure. This is her second time in Europe, and how she has made it this far we cannot know, but we do not question. It’s some work of the fates, some miracle. We would duct tape the damaged bits if it would do anything (if we had duct tape) but all we can do is hope.

Berlin is closing around us. Neu Wulmstorf, Hamburg, Germany, France—Europe folding behind us into memory. Each step we take away from our apartment is a removal, a disconnection, a dying. We are homebound. The freedom we have come to breathe on this continent dissipates as the fogs of Neu Wulmstorf, the rains of Hamburg, the great overcast of Deutschland.

The sun shines now, and yet we must leave. Lyrics to a Revolverheld song, Hamburg hinter uns, repeat in my head, “Wir lassen Hamburg hinter uns/ Machen das Leben wild und bunt,” but we already left Hamburg behind us, Berlin joining her. Hamburg has been hinter uns for quite some time, and when we will meet her again we cannot know. Where we are going there will be no Seine, there will be no Elbe, no Spree, the only river will be that of traffic. “Hier gibt’s viel Stau,” my host father would say in that clunky Niedersächsisch on the drive into Hamburg, all of the words rolled into one low monotone mumble, each on top of the other like the cars, bumper to bumper.

In Berlin, we’ve managed to reach the spotless Straßenbahn. One suitcase contains our clothes. Another is near bursting with books. The books outweigh the clothes. Why we have entrusted Jennifer with our precious books, we will never understand. We have sacked every librairie and Buchladen we could find and will return to our monolingual motherland with the glory of Babel piled between our arms.

We stand out in the morning crowd. Two stressed, sleep deprived Americans mumbling German to one another. The stares glaze over, finding their respective windows and objects of scrutiny. Once we’re settled, we toss bits of English into our conversation and mourn over our impending departure, but we don’t speak much. There is a difficulty pronouncing the truth of the situation. I want to speak as much German as I can, to get it all out while there are people whose ears it will not fall empty upon. I want to read every street sign, every advertisement. Never will the announcements over the loudspeakers leave my mind. Austieg links. Austieg rechts. I want to hear them, want the railroad from the Newark Airport to New York City to feel as relaxing as the Deutsche Bahn.

Our suitcase rolls around on the streetcar, and I wrap my legs around it in the aisle to keep it from falling. Within are books in French, German, and some English because we couldn’t resist the temptation of fiction. They are ours. Nobody can touch this suitcase.“Entschuldigung,” I’d quickly mutter if anyone dared lay a finger on her. The movements of this tram are akin to that of a slow washing machine, and that perceived circumference becomes Toru Okada’s deep, damp, waterless well where he sits in contemplation. I too sit, eyes closed, allowing the movements to drench me as I attempt to retain my gravity. Toru sits in the black, trapped: “In the darkness, I pressed the fingertips of one hand against the fingertips of the other—thumb against thumb, index finger against index finger, and the fingers of my left hand ascertained the existence of my right hand.”

The Straßenbahn rolls onward towards the S-Bahn, which we must take to reach Schönefeld Airport. One hand I clutch around Jennifer, ensuring her safety, one around Abigail, ensuring her existence. My eyelids veil the truth from me, and with an inhale I’m outside the streetcar. There I sit, washed in thought as the rains of this country have doused me. I hold my fragile needs in those two hands. Books and love. Words and comfort. Language and her. A silence sits in the sliver of space dividing Abigail and myself, and neither of us can utter the words to smash it. “Words are just words,” I want to joke, but I watch and feel the grip of my palms; I know the contents of Jennifer and that words are not just words. Was it Emerson who said language is fossil poetry? That each word was once a poem of its own? He was right about that one. I swallow the joke and savor the sour tone it’s left unspoken on my tongue. Too gentle is the truth of it to wield against the silence. In the richness of the word, I find selbstverständnis and hold my breath on it. Self and Comprehension fuse together to forge the self-concept. This moment, this singing moment, signifies me; she and I lugging those suitcases through the streets of Berlin. Here we are, surrounded by the lives living in another code, and we can decipher it. German and French being lingua francas, but think of the dialects. Think of the borrowings, the stolen speech, the lexicons from town to town, person to person.

Abigail and I have more books than we will be able to read in the next decade: French, German, English. Words of all the same building blocks, the same LEGO bricks. Those beautiful variants of that same alphabet—accents and umlauts making the script all the more rich. Though Murakami describes destiny as a thing of the past, detached from the here and now, if I would declare eighteen years of cumulative experience to amount to a single instance of being: this is that instance. It is the consistent addition of past selves which amounts to the current self, and this current self will determine the next me, and shed my skin to breathe that self free. Now I am this, and this self is one I’ve climbed towards since I first learned hallo, since I found my first stories. Books, words, language. Surrounded by everything that will determine the life ahead of me, and I am the catalyst for all to come. I choose which words to speak, which to write. I inhabit my own vertically cylindrical tank, my own universe, my own bubble of existence. My palms press against the cool glass, eyes wide behind my glasses, staring out at the world in awe. I turn away. I propel myself onward through infinity.

 


Matthew Cullen is a self-proclaimed word-lover/addict, always tinkering with phonemes and smashing them together until the words pop to life. He doesn’t write to escape the world, but to fade out of it, if just for a little while.

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Jennifer Galvão

Pilgrimage

The place where the miracles happened is totally paved over. Everything is clean and painted white – probably for viewing purposes. You couldn’t miss a miracle, standing out against all the white. I try to imagine how it must have been in 1917, but all I have to go on are the pictures from the pamphlets, printed in fifteen different languages – Welcome to Fatima.

As a child, this was always my favorite religious story; the luminous lady who appeared on the thirteenth day of every month in the Cova da Iria fields. I liked that the Virgin Mary had appeared in Portugal, where my dad was from. I liked that she had appeared to children. I liked the smallness and dirtiness of the shepherd children, with their baleful orphan eyes and their musical names – Jacinta, Francisco, Lucia. I used to mouth their names and study their picture, printed on a laminated prayer card – two young girls and a boy in black and white, very young. I guess I thought it would mean more to me than it does.

Towering fifty feet above our heads is a modern, stylized crucifix made of red plastic. Lego Jesus on His Lego Cross (cross sold separately). We stand and look at it for a while. If it’s meant to inspire something in me, it doesn’t succeed.

Cutting through all the white concrete is a path of dark gray tile, very smooth. People travel along it on their knees in scattered, shuffling clumps. Some carry rosary beads. Others wear kneepads. You can follow their slow progress down the concrete slope, around the chapel, and up to the sanctuary. We watch them knee painfully past us, lips moving silently.

My brother doesn’t believe me when I tell him that some of these people have walked here from their homes, hundreds of miles away, but my dad confirms my story.

“They come from all over Portugal,” Dad says. “They walk and then when they reach Fatima, they go on their knees. Your grandmother came once when she was younger.”

“Is that why Vóvó’s knees are so messed up?”

“No,” Dad says. “That’s just because she’s old.”

After we pray in the chapel, we wait on a long line to buy waxy, overpriced candles. There’s a woman begging amid the candles. Dad hands her a couple Euros. It’s a good place to beg, he concedes. Prime real estate.

Another line, then, in front of an enormous pyre of open flame. We wait our turn to step forward, hold our hands above the heat, and touch our wicks to the candles already burning there. Then I find an open slot to wedge my candle in amid the others, leave it to melt stringy and white into the fire.

You are supposed to stop and say a prayer, but I am being crowded and my brother’s candle won’t light, so I have to help him, and then we are moving away from the pyre.

I wonder if they collect the melted wax and use it to make new candles, recycling people’s offerings to the fire. I don’t know if that’s how wax works, and I don’t ask. I like the idea, the circularity of it. It makes me feel filled up in a way the rest of this place doesn’t.

 

We’ve come to Portugal because my grandparents can’t come home.

Or maybe that’s me being egocentric. Maybe their home is Portugal. My father was born there. When he was a baby, they moved to America without him. He followed later, once they were settled, and Portugal followed them, too. It lingered in the dim, wood-paneled kitchen that always smelled like foreign food. The hanging glass lamp that rattled when low-flying airplanes from LaGuardia passed by overhead. The crinkly, plastic-covered couches. The heavy accents. The tilde over the a in our last name.

Probably, they missed it. That’s something I’ve never thought about before. Once they retired, they started spending the summers in Portugal. Five years ago, they went to spend the summer and found that they couldn’t come back. The doctors said it wasn’t a good idea. My grandpa’s Alzheimers is too heavy to carry across an ocean. So now we are coming to them.

Murtosa is a small town on the coast. The roads are twisty, storybook-narrow. Everything is tiled and patterned and bright. The last time we visited, my grandparents were only there for the summer. I was ten and terrorized by the huge number of stray dogs roaming the little farm town. I was scared to leave the gated yard. Now, I dread having to go inside.

I am afraid to see what’s happened to my grandpa. Even before they left, before he got so bad, I didn’t like to be around him. I felt embarrassed for him. It felt wrong to nod at his senseless, circular stories and feign interest— humoring him like a child. That was five years ago. I think we are all expecting the worst.

Dad calls it our Portuguese pessimism – expect the worst, and at least you’re never disappointed. Mourn when the boats go out, in the event that they don’t come back.

“It’s the kind of trip you have to take sometimes,” Mom tells us in the airport. “It will mean so much to your grandma.”

Mom is always looking for moral lessons to deliver. She tackles the world like a scholar annotating a classic novel, pulling out major themes and underlining significant exchanges. Usually I understand it; I am always trying to make things mean more than they do. This time I quietly wish that she wouldn’t voice her reluctance. I would prefer to pretend that this is a pleasure trip, sixteen days spent in the home my Dad grew up in. It’s fifteen minutes from the beach. That’s what I tell my friends. Not the rest of it.

 

As we sit on the beach, fifteen minutes from the house, Dad points to a buoy out in the water, near the horizon. If you drew a line straight across the ocean, he says, we’d hit the Jersey Shore. This is an ocean we know. We’re just on the wrong side of it.

We watch an old, brightly-colored fishing boat come back to shore, dragging an enormous net behind it beneath the surf. That’s something I like about Portugal – history is so physically present. We walk along the waterline to watch the boat come ashore because Dad says it’s worth seeing.

The sea starts to sizzle with panicked life, silver bright, as a tractor wearies its way towards the dunes, pulling the boat up the beach. The tractor grumbles and lows like the fleets of oxen that used to pull these nets ashore.

Overhead, a spiraling cumulus of seagulls is forming. My brothers yell and duck and throw stones at them, but they part and come together again, hungry. The tractor pulls the boat and the boat pulls a net, wriggling with life, up the shore.

Dad says that this used to be an incredibly dangerous job. Portuguese wives would stand on the shore in their mourning clothes, weeping and tearing their clothes as they waved their husbands off to sea, a kind of pre-mourning ritual. I imagine they hoped that the tears they shed, the clothes they rent, would stave off death for another day. I imagine their tears as food for a hungry thing, salt water offerings to the sea.

The fish come slithering up the shore, caught.

 

My grandfather isn’t as bad as I feared. Mostly he sits on a lawn chair in the open garage in his blue-striped pajamas, vacant but content. If you smile at him, he will smile back. It’s probably just instinct, but he likes it if you nod along as he speaks incoherent Portuguese. The only phrase I recognize is esta bien over and over again – it’s good.

I smile and nod and say, “Yeah. Bien.” When a fly lands on his arm, I shoo it away.

We sit for hours, him watching the clothesline sway in the wind, me watching the patch of skin between his socks and his blue pajama pants. I am mourning him before he has gone.

My grandma hangs laundry and picks lemons in the backyard. She limps badly, up and down the stairs, as she takes my grandpa to the bathroom. At night, I sit in the kitchen with her and watch her rub medication onto the swollen rounds of her knees. Their little brown dog runs the length of the driveway, back and forth, yapping furiously as two olive-skinned boys lead a horse down the street.

I like to be here. I am not as sad as I thought I would be. It’s only when I think about leaving that I feel sad, thinking about the two of them sitting side by side in their armchairs. Him talking nonsense as she rubs her knees, her cooking elaborate meals, then cutting the food into little bites for him, watching him eat in silence. He can’t leave the house and she can’t leave him alone, so they stay home now. I think she must be lonely.

My grandma’s English is still very good. She asks questions about college and shows me funny videos on Facebook. She marvels at how tall my brother David has gotten. She protests when my mom tries to do the dishes.

“Susan, you don’t come to do more work. This is your vacation.”

My mom dismisses this and starts soaping up a pan. “You work too hard already, Lucinda,” she says. “Relax for a couple minutes.”

Vóvó doesn’t put up a fight, which shows how much her legs must be hurting her. She peeks into the living room to make sure my grandfather is still in his armchair, watching a soccer game with my brothers. He mostly sits quietly, but when Ronaldo scores a goal and my brothers cheer, he does too. I wonder how much he is understanding, how much is muscle memory.

Mom is trying to convince Vóvó to get some help around the house. A neighbor already comes twice a week to do some cleaning and mind my grandfather while Vóvó runs to the grocery store, but Mom insists that she needs more help.

“What if you fall in the garden and can’t get help?” she asks. “What if Dad falls on the stairs? He’s too heavy for you to catch him. The doctor said you need to rest your knees or they won’t get better. How will you ever get any rest when you’re following him around all day? You can’t even leave the house.”

“I don’t mind work. I like to take care of him,” Vóvó says.

“You’ve got to take care of yourself, too,” Mom protests.

“Is not forever,” Vóvó says. “Then I will come home.”

She says that a lot. It surprised me the first time I heard it, the bluntness of it. She doesn’t say it sadly or hopefully. It’s just a fact. Her Portuguese pessimism. Things are deteriorating quickly. That’s the reason we’re here, after all, after five years of baseball schedules and college orientations and being too swamped at work to take off so much time.

There’s a noise from the living room. My little brother Eddie comes to the door. He’s wearing the Portuguese soccer jersey he bought at the market. He’s worn it every day since he bought it, despite our mockery.

“I think Vôvô needs to go to the bathroom,” he says, only twelve, a little bit embarrassed.

Vóvó gets to her feet, knees bending unwillingly.

“Let me,” Mom protests, but Vóvó shakes her head and limps to the door.

“Is not forever,” she says again.

 

There’s a little, glass gazebo built on the site where the apparitions are said to have occurred. It houses a small altar and a fleet of benches made of light colored wood. We find a free space to fit our sweaty, American bodies and then we sit. Mom prays. Maybe the rest of my family does, too. I don’t know for sure. To ask would be to betray myself. Surely if I really believed I wouldn’t be asking at all. Is this just muscle memory for you, too?

I put my head down, play-acting at something I don’t understand. I don’t pray, though I wish I could. I think I would find it comforting. But I am distracted – first by my brother’s fidgeting, then by the shhh-shhh sound of kneepads on the tile floor

I crack my eyes and watch an old man round the altar on his knees, back bowed, lips moving above his rosary beads. He moves slowly and with obvious effort. I wonder if these last few meters, the last bit of his crawling pilgrimage, are the easiest or the hardest part. I try to imagine how fervently and wholly you must believe in something to walk so far, to crawl on your knees across the white pavement, but it’s not something I can understand. So instead I think about how sore his knees must be.

When my brothers ask Vóvó about Fatima, her hand moves to her knee with a wince, like she’s remembering.

“I went with my church,” she says. “Your daddy was very sick when he was a baby. I prayed for him. I promised if he got well, I would make the trip to Fatima.”

We all look at Dad, surprised. He didn’t tell us that part. He grimaces.

“It worked,” he jokes.

“It works,” Vóvó agrees.


Jennifer Galvão is a junior at SUNY Geneseo, where she is studying English literature. She is enthusiastic about chocolate milk, dangly earrings, and the book Ella Enchanted. She is a Pisces, which explains a lot.

The Lie>>

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6.2 | Creative NonFiction

CNF CONTEST WINNER 2018

Pilgrimage

Jennifer Galvão


The Lie

Bernadette Roe


Self on the Straßenbahn

Matthew Cullen


Masks

Rachel Britton

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A: I am metallic and grounded.

A: I am the scientist who writes poems that imagines her body as a rock, and I am the writer who experiments with similes made out of scientific fact.

A: I am the all-female crew of the people best fit for the job.

A: I am tired of my insecurities.

A: I am hematite piling on Mars body.


The classification of minerals is only helpful in terms of human understanding of a portion of the universe. At the end of the day, hematite doesn’t need to be called hematite. Peanut butter doesn’t need to be called peanut butter or hnetusmjör or anything in particular. There is no inherent good in classifying people by their menstrual cycles.


We exist as spectra and transition zones.


I am insecure in science, yet take the classes anyway. I am insecure in speaking, yet decided that my passion will include placing words together on a page, knowing one day I’ll have to read aloud in a room to a group of people that do not know me intimately.


Earth is the only planet not named after a Greek God, which is another way to say that Earth is the only planet not assigned a particular gender, which is to say Earth does not exist on a binary, which is to say, I think that’s how it should be.

 

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Elizabeth Pellegrino is a senior English (creative writing) and geology double major. She believes that storytelling and asking questions are the two most important lessons every writer and scientist should learn. Additional lessons would include: poetry 101, rock hammer safety, how to survive the eruption of a supervolcano, and a discussion on whether tea-making actually helps the writing process.

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction