Category Archives: Creative Nonfiction

Emma Rowan

Stony Brook Girl

I threw my flip-flops on and grabbed my string bag off the chair, tossing sunblock, sunglasses, bugspray, Band-Aids, bacitracin, two waters, two packs of fruit snacks, and a toy dinosaur inside it before lifting the toddler into my arms. We were just about ready to go. I opened the screen door and grabbed my cousin’s hand, lifting her slightly above the big step to the lawn below. We made our way down the hill while her brother pointed out the colors of everything around us: the white clouds, the blue sky, the green grass. Once we reached the road, I looked down at the top of Ella’s head, her braid coming apart, revealing wild curls.

“Ella, are you sure you don’t want to wear your flip-flops? The ground is really hot.”

“No, I don’t need shoes. Mommy says we’re Stony Brook girls, we’re tough.” She quickened her pace and hurried us across the hot street. “I’m a Stony Brook girl, I don’t need shoes, I’m tough!” she sang.

I smiled like my mother would’ve and adjusted the baby at my hip as I followed her to the beach, kicking off my shoes and meeting the scorching sand.

My mom grew up in Stony Brook in a house just a minute walk away from where I was watching the kids, right up the block—kind of in the center of the block actually. A long gravel driveway from the street led to a big brown house up on a slight hill, where at each window you could see a different side of the neighborhood. There were light blue and lavender hydrangea bushes lining the side yard and a magnolia tree in the front that seemed to bloom and fall so quickly, the white petals drifting to the ground like feathers. Cardinals and blue jays flew past the wide bay window of the living room and squirrels were constantly breaking into the bird feeders. My grandma’s unfinished portraits were hung on the walls above china cabinets and bookshelves covered in dust. Antique Persian rugs sat on the hardwood floors under furniture enveloped in florals. That was years ago, though. I’m sure it looks much different now. My aunt inherited the house after my grandparents passed away and was now shuffling around its innards like a young girl shaking a dollhouse.

My mom’s room was in the attic, so she used to get away with everything. She used to tell me how she would sneak out all the time as a teenager; climb out the window to go to some party at the beach, or just to meet up with my dad on the roof of the pavilion, sneaking drinks and looking up at the stars. I was always jealous of that, of how much fun she had. Of how she had gotten to grow up here. I wish I could’ve known her at that age. I wish she could’ve told me more about it. With my mother gone, I am constantly clawing at puzzle pieces of her life to put together, to fill the outline she’d drawn of herself in my mind and never finished.

Something changes in that moment when I make the final turn onto Soundview Private Road. Everything just feels a little more…magical, maybe. The plastic monotony of the suburbs is replaced with storybook cottages with ivy climbing the sides like beanstalks and dainty bird baths in the front yards. The short stone walls that border the houses are covered in moss like patches of fur, and the chipmunks that dart behind the prairie rose bushes might even sing if you ask them nicely.

The trees’ towering branches waved at me as I rolled down the bumpy road. The gravel under my tires crunched to a halt as I pulled to the side and parked the car. Savoring the last few moments of air conditioning, I took a second to peer out my driver’s side window. It looked the same as it always had: a little brown cottage up on a small hill with a screened-in porch, petunias in window boxes, a family of duck figurines on the lawn to welcome you inside, and anthill cities around the flat stone circle by the front door under a couple of wooden beach chairs. I pulled the key out of the ignition and opened the door.

The summer heat hugged me tight, and a slight breeze from the shore across the street blew some fly-aways from my ponytail in my face and landed salty air on my tongue. I glanced between the high bush blueberries that lined the other side of the street and saw a sliver of sapphire blue, the rising tide of the Long Island Sound. The faint sound of kids screaming coming from the porch made me whip my head around to face my aunt’s house once more. My cousin was waving at the front door, and I waved back, making my way up the grassy hill, passing through the gaps of sunlight from between the sugar maple tree branches overhead. Some bumblebees bopped about a rhododendron bush.

“Hey!” She opened the door and invited me in.

“Hi!” I replied, smiling awkwardly. The screen door slammed shut. I hadn’t seen my cousin, Charlotte, or her children in a couple years; I was a little nervous to be honest. I wasn’t sure I’d be a good babysitter, if the kids would like me, or if I’d be able to make good conversation with a four year old. Charlotte was wearing a long navy blue dress, and her stomach had grown so big it could’ve had its own gravitational pull. She had short brown hair pulled back in a claw clip and thin-rimmed glasses. She was so much more of a mom than when I’d last seen her—when she was in her early twenties, had graduated college and gotten engaged to some guy named Mike. Now she was seven months pregnant with her third child. I looked down and saw a little person attached to her legs.

“Ella is being shy.” Charlotte reached down and tousled the little girl’s hair, who was sneaking glances at me around her mom’s thigh. Ella had tight brown coils framing her face, a small button nose, slightly pointy ears, and smiled like someone who was always causing trouble. “Don’t worry, this won’t last long.” Charlotte smiled like someone who knew her daughter better than she knew herself. Then a second, smaller human stumbled onto the porch.

“Look who’s here! Say hi, Jack!” The little boy did not respond but attached himself to her other leg instead, and stole a peek at me from behind her left knee. Jack had brown curly hair too, but he was more of a mellow garden gnome whereas Ella was a mischievous elf. His head constituted half of his round little body, and an inch of his belly stuck out at the bottom where his Spiderman T-shirt couldn’t stretch. “He warms up a little slower,” she assured me. I wished I had someone’s leg to hide behind.

“So, I’m thinking you guys can just hang out here for a little bit, let them warm up to you.” She explained how she thought today would go as I looked around at the porch. There was an outdoor rocking couch to my left, scattered markers and building blocks and tiny figurines ducking for cover underneath. A small table sat at the center of the room, covered in a teal cloth with a dainty lamp, some baby wipes, two applesauces, two spoons, and two packets of Cheez-Its. A smaller, red, wooden table was against the wall, decorated with various stray lines in crayon and marker, joined by two tiny green chairs. There was no TV and hardly any cell phone service. No air conditioning and no fan. I felt my T-shirt sticking to my skin.

“Anyways, I really should get back to work. Ella, why don’t you show Emma your doll?” she said. Ella snuck a smile at me and dashed into the living room. Jack babbled something and Charlotte explained to him that he was going to hang out with me for a little while. Ella ran back in seconds with a princess doll the size of my palm and introduced us. Jack got curious enough to pry away from my cousin’s calf and stomped over to see what all the commotion was about. Charlotte winked at me and made a swift exit while they were distracted.

I sat down on the floor, criss-cross applesauce, and it was barely a minute before Ella had planted herself in my lap.

“My name’s Ella Anne Ciabado and I go to the bestest preschool in Massachusetts.” Except she said it all in a single breath, and Massachusetts sounded more like “mash-chew-shitz.”

“Cool,” I said. Jack waddled towards the box of toys, no longer interested. Ella grabbed some of my hair in her sticky fingers and started poking at my face with the other.

“How do you know my mommy?” she asked.

“We’re cousins, so your grandma is my aunt.” Of course, this made absolutely no sense to her. She cocked her head in confusion but was quickly distracted by the surprisingly loud thud of a two year old’s feet hitting the floor when Jack barreled over, plastic garbage truck in hand.

“Truck!” He stuck the toy in my face. His chubby hand smelled like peanut butter. I wondered if I was supposed to throw it, like when a puppy shows you its favorite ball.

“Yes,” I agreed. That was a sufficient response, I guess, because he turned and ran back to get another to show me.

“Massachusetts is my home, but we’re staying here in Stony Brook for the summertime,” Ella said.

I knew that part. My cousin had texted me back in May asking if I’d be around and willing to babysit. She and her husband planned to stay in my aunt’s cottage in Stony Brook for the first half of the summer before she was due in August and had to return home. Since they both could work online last year, she felt this would probably be the only time they’d be able to come down for a while. I think she was pretty desperate for someone to keep an eye on the kids while they worked from home. When I didn’t answer for a week, she asked me again. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see my cousins and help her out, it was that I wasn’t sure if I could handle it…

I wasn’t sure if I could handle being in Stony Brook again.

In Stony Brook, at Soundview, she is everywhere. There’s just something about the way the setting sun hits the saltwater at high tide; the way the ospreys seem to glide across the clouds as they leave their nest on the light pole, going to find food for their young; the way the sand crabs scurry back into their self-made labyrinths, leaving tiny bundles of sand in piles around their doorways to the underground, that makes me think of her. The little blonde girl that runs into the water, laughing and utterly fearless, is her ghost soaking her sun-bleached hair in the saltwater one last time. The butterfly I spot fluttering around a patch of daisies by the pavilion is merely her spirit coming back to see if the boardwalk’s changed. I can hear her laugh in the seagulls’ calls, see her hair whisking around her face as a breeze pulls my bangs over my eyes, feel her feet touch the hot asphalt as I cross the road to the beach, carrying Jack in one arm and holding Ella’s hand with the other. When I chase Jack—who is clad in a diaper and laughing hysterically—all around the front lawn, it’s her legs that eventually catch up to him before he squirms out of my grasp again. When I change a diaper for the first time and nearly puke, it’s her hands that fold the flaps of white fabric around the baby’s soft belly, fixing it from facing backwards.

I don’t know if I believe in an afterlife or ghosts or whatever, but if my mom’s soul is still hanging around, she’s here. She used to joke around and tell me that when she died, we could just go right ahead and throw her ashes in the creek. A Stony Brook girl’s burial at sea.

The way my mom talked about Soundview, I was convinced that leaving it was her biggest regret. When they got married, my parents moved to an apartment deeper into the suburbs, far from the seashell-lined shores and marshlands my mom was used to. When she told me the stories of her childhood, her whole face would light up and she’d smile like the little girl she once was. It was a beachy glow that couldn’t come from the shade of our suburban apartment, overshadowed by shopping centers and empty parking lots. My mom and dad had moved looking for a bigger place for their future kids after being unable to find one back in Stony Brook. I couldn’t help but feel like it was all my fault somehow. As the first-born daughter, it felt like I was the reason they had to leave. I had pulled her away from the home she had loved so much and dragged her here. I used to imagine the summers I would’ve had if they’d stayed on that same block, if I had grown up there. I saw myself as the main character of her stories: camping out on the beach with friends, taking a canoe down the creek and exploring the marsh, getting into all sorts of trouble with blonder hair, tanner skin, and more freckles on my nose. I think she would’ve been so much happier in Stony Brook—we all would’ve been. I know at least that I would’ve been happier if she was.

There was a short time my mom had gone back to that room. She had gotten sober, for what we hoped was the last time, and ended up back in the place she’d grown up in at forty-something years old. This was a couple years after she’d left, after my dad had told her she had to choose between us and drinking and she’d walked out the door with a half-empty bottle in hand. She spent the years in between trying to stay clean and failing, flipping through apartments and jobs like pages in a book. She could never stay sober for long. All the while I wanted nothing to do with her. I was so mad for so long. She had walked out of my life when I was eight years old, and she always thought she could pop back in as she pleased. Now, she was back in her parents’ house after giving up on being a parent herself.

I shouldn’t say that. My mom never gave up on anything. Not fully. All the times she picked up the bottle she’d eventually put it back down. It was those times that were so confusing. There’d be months of rhythmic tides, calm ones of weekly visits and promises of birthday presents. Then, there’d be months of home-wrecking, car-flooding waves, of calls going to voicemail and late night hospital visits. When she would come over on Sundays, she would try to talk to us like everything was normal, like nothing had happened. I couldn’t do it, and I resented the way she could. I would lock myself in my bedroom when she’d visit, holding my hands over my ears with tears streaming down my face when she’d beg me to let her in. I wanted to be happy that she was finally okay—I swear I tried to be, but I couldn’t trust it. It was like waiting for a rip current to drag you under by the ankles, to pour black water into your lungs and sink you like an anchor to the ocean floor.

I was in second grade when I realized my mom wasn’t going to be there the way she should’ve been.

The bus driver had looped around the block twice before he had to let me off. His eyes were filled with pity as they met mine in the rearview mirror.

“Sorry, kid,” he said, “I got other stops to make.” I looked down at my Skechers and shifted in my seat, poking around in the dusty brown leather cushion to the spongy inside. There were a couple other kids still on the bus, looking outside at the empty street and looking at me, confused. ‘Where is her mother? their tilted heads and peering eyes seemed to ask. I sighed and looked out the window, the smell of gasoline and old pencils filling my nose. The sunlight shone through the trees that lined the opposite side of the road without warmth. The opened door had let in an autumn breeze, goosebumps rising on my arms underneath my Hello Kitty T-shirt. The engine whirred.

“C’mon, I’ll wait here until you wave from the deck, okay?” He had creases on his tanned forehead and wrinkles at the corner of his kind eyes under gray bushy eyebrows. I didn’t want to be difficult. I got up without meeting the other childrens’ gazes and hopped down the bus steps, muttering a quiet “thank you” to the driver as I got off. I stepped onto the curb, pushed open the green gate to my backyard, and ran to the stairs of the deck without looking back, the crisp scent of fallen leaves and dirt filling my lungs. We lived in the upper half of a duplex, so our deck was a whole story off the ground, giving a perfect view of the backyard below and the side-street.

The loud thud of my sneakers hitting the wooden boards disrupted the calm October afternoon and birds fluttered from their spots in the trees as I reached the top of the stairs. Panting, I walked over to the railing and waved at the big yellow school bus, which roared to a start at my signal and rolled down the block.

The back door was open. I threw my pink backpack on the kitchen floor before dashing down the hall to my parents’ bedroom, skidding to a stop at the doorway. Suddenly, I was scared; what if something had happened and that’s why she hadn’t come to the bus stop? What was I going to find? With two tiny hands gripping the wooden doorframe, I peered into the room and spotted a lumpy figure on the bed, the afternoon seeping in through the blinds and placing lines of light across the covers. I tiptoed over to my mother’s side. She was sleeping. Her golden hair was splayed out against the dark blue pillowcase and her long eyelashes casted a small shadow on her cheeks, tiny clumps of mascara sitting around her eyes. Her cheekbones were higher than mine and her nose was straighter; it didn’t have the awkward bump on its ridge that I would grow to despise. I reached out a hand and gently shook her shoulder. She shot up, startled.

“Wha—What? What’s going on?” she asked, eyes still half-closed. When she made me out, her eyes went wide. “Emma? What are you doing here?” I didn’t say anything. I watched her eyes move to the alarm clock on the cluttered nightstand and grow even wider. “Oh my god, is it that late?” Her breath smelled like wine. “I must’ve overslept.” It was half-past three. I shifted, pulling at a strap of my overalls.

“The bus driver was waiting,” I said, picking at the Snoopy Band-Aid around my index finger with my thumb.

“Boo, I’m so sorry.” She reached up to cup my face in her palm. She always called me that. Something gleamed in her blue eyes that I couldn’t make out. The poof in her bangs, what she liked to call her “Farah Faucett hair”, was squashed on her forehead from the pillow. Her nails were polished bright cherry red. They always were. “Let’s not tell Dad about this, okay?” The corners of her lips turned up in a forced smile, her pink lipstick smudged. I nodded. “That’s my boo,” she said, “and this won’t happen again.”

It did. A couple more times, in fact. Eventually, the bus driver wouldn’t loop around, he’d just let me off and wait for my signal at the back door. Eventually, I stopped expecting her to be there.

I later decided in my teenage years that I was going to shut her out at all costs. I didn’t need her. I could do everything on my own; I was tough. I wasn’t going to be sad; I was going to be angry. The times when she’d come knocking at my door expecting forgiveness or pity were annoying. I didn’t want to be reminded of her because a reminder of her was a reminder of all the hurt she’d caused. Anytime I had to speak to her, we’d always just end up screaming at each other.

I can’t even remember all the fights we had, all the things we said to each other. I know they were almost always about her playing the victim, deflecting by blaming me for not doing enough around the house— angry with me for not filling the mother-shaped hole she had left. I know that she never understood why I was so angry with her, that she would beg me to talk to her again. I know that I yelled a lot of things without saying anything at all, that I begged her to understand all the things she’d done wrong, that I just wanted her to apologize, that I just wanted her to be there, that I just wanted absolutely nothing to do with her. I flinched when she’d try to hug me, the pungent smell of perfume failing to cover the smell of vodka and the sharpness of her shoulder blades piercing my fingertips. I know that I hate myself for it. That more than anything now, all I want to do is apologize. I wonder now if she died thinking I hate her, if she died hating me. I was so stupid to be so angry, to be so stubborn. If I had known how little time I had, I would’ve made better use of it. I would’ve begged for more stories. I would’ve taken her down to the beach and let her stay there for hours. I should’ve hugged her more. Maybe I should’ve forgiven her, even if she didn’t apologize. I know now that love and hate are closely intertwined, that you could only hate something you truly love. I don’t know if I ever hated her, but I know now that I always loved her, even when I didn’t want to.

My mom was resilient in every way. She was always emphasizing her strengths when she could, a smug tilt of her chin upwards as she repeated the moments she was proud of: the marathons she had run in her thirties, the time she’d beat up a kid for pouring ice down her best friend’s back in middle school, the time a nurse had messed up her epidural during her second childbirth, nearly paralyzing her. She had this fearlessness I had admired, but it gave way to this false indestructibility she convinced herself she had. She was lucky, but she was reckless. She couldn’t stay drunk for long either. A hospital visit would usually scare her into sobriety, revealing a liver that was bruising with every sip and gasping for air. It didn’t make sense that she had survived for as long as she did, and she kept testing her little miracles. My mom lived off of second chances until she couldn’t, until it was too late. Even then though, last fall, as she laid dying in the hospital bed, I half-expected her, needed her, to get up and yell at us for just sitting there, weeping. To get up and reprimand us for thinking we could get rid of her that easily. She didn’t though. And now her ashes sit in a box in my dad’s bedroom.

The kids and I became friends fast, despite how nervous I was. I liked hanging out with Ella and Jack; they had so much imagination and so much energy. It was a lot, but I was definitely never bored.

Whenever Jack was asleep and Ella needed to get out of the house before she started bouncing off the walls, I’d take her on a walk. Well, I would walk. She would always end up on my back somehow, her little arms wrapped tight around my neck and her heels digging into my ribcage. The first time we went, I made up a game. Everything we saw was a magic something that could turn you into something else. “Ella,” I’d say, “don’t eat those berries off that bush over there, if you do you turn into a smelly toad!” Then of course, because Ella is Ella, she had to do the opposite of what I’d say and “eat” whatever it was I told her not to. If it was a pinecone that would turn her invisible, I’d pretend to go in circles calling out for her. If it was a flower that could turn you into a heavy boulder, I’d slump down and pretend I was Atlas climbing up the hill, stomping my way up the street as she giggled over my shoulder. This really cracked her up for some reason.

One day we reached the corner of the block at the top of the hill, in front of my mom’s childhood home. I took a breath and braced myself to look. Bright blue flowers had bloomed on the hydrangea bushes, and little moss had grown over the stone path to the front door. I tried not to imagine her manicured finger ringing the doorbell or her flip-flops slapping the rock as she ran to the front gate, leading the way down to the beach. It looked the same as it always had, but it was so still. The only movement seemed to be a butterfly fluttering about the wildflowers surrounding the mailbox. It stood now as a sort of empty mausoleum, one that was resisting its new condition. It seemed to be waiting patiently for life— or rather, for a return to the life that had filled it so long ago. It was surrounded by life and yet trapped in purgatory. I decided it was no place for the living. All was quiet, and I made sure there were no cars around.

“Ella, that tree over there turns you into a big, hairy, scary monster!” I pointed at a tall sycamore tree in the nearby wood and watched a bunny dart behind the trunk.

“Does it really?”

“Yes, it really does.”

“Does it really, really, really?” Ella had that way of talking that made her sound like a cartoon character.

“Yes! So whatever you do, don’t eat it.”

I could practically see her mischievous grin behind my head as she reached a tiny hand out towards the tree’s towering branches.

“Nomnomnomnomnom mm-mm, so good,” she said, making loud chewing noises.

“Nooooo!” I yelled. “Oh no! There’s a big hairy, scary monster on me!” I jumped and hopped and spun around in circles, pretending to try and knock her off my back. I hollered as I ran down the empty road; Ella’s laughter, and mine too, filling the whole neighborhood.

I’ve never seen my mom as proud or as happy as when she could take my sisters and me down to the creek. That was her favorite place in the whole world. When I was much younger, before everything was terrible, we’d visit my grandparents at the house. Afterwards, we would go down to the beach and climb out onto the sandbar during low tide. The sandbar was reached by walking down the dock near the volleyball net and stepping down a small pile of rocks onto the wet sludge below. It was pretty far below the main beach, so the tide had to be really low to see it.

To a seven year old me, this was the most spectacular place in the world. It felt like the sandbar only revealed itself to me, to us, when we wanted it to. I chose to believe that no one knew about it but us; it was our special place. It was our saltwater kingdom and my mom was the queen. The black claw clip that pulled her wispy, golden hair back was a makeshift crown, and the blue of her irises were reflections of the clear sky above and the saltwater below. The small pile of rocks that I walk across in two steps now seemed like a mountain one wrong move from an avalanche back then. My foot used to stand on a single stone. I’d welcome the gray mud that I’d sink into after the bumpy rocks had hurt the soles of my feet, the damp black sand below squeezing between my toes. It always smelled worse down there, like the worst level of low tide, but I was too happy to care. I’d sprint across the length of the sandbar and stand at its tip, staring out at the surroundings of my castle. I could see the shoreline from there on one side and the green marshlands on the other, and if I looked down, I could see the dark black pits of the drop-off, just a step away. At the sandbar’s less steep edges, there were tiny snails in the shallow water. My mom showed us how if you scoop up a handful of them in your palm and chuck ‘em out into the water, it sounded like popcorn kernels. One day she showed us how to be a god.

“See these little holes in the sand here?” She held up her yoga pants with one hand and pointed at the ground with the other. She seemed so tall to me then, casting a long shadow against the damp brown sand. These were arms and legs that had helped me take my first steps, that decades later would become too swollen and yellow for an open casket.

I ran over to the spot where she was standing and looked down. My feet were half the size of hers. Tiny pinpricks in the sand were scattered about like stars. My mom smiled at me, mischief flashing across her face, and stomped. Water shot up from the sand below like fountains and splashed on her calves. I squealed and started stomping too.

“It’s the mussels underneath, spitting water up,” she said.

We stomped and jumped and came crashing down all over the sandbar, scaring the mussels below half to death like careless, happy giants, and watched as the sun set over our oceanic realm, casting the beach in a soft orange glow.

There were times when Jack would come with us on mine and Ella’s walks. Mostly when he refused to take a nap, and I couldn’t take them down to the creek and have them get all dirty before lunch. These were the times I would pull the two of them around the block; their horse-drawn carriage taking the form of a red Radio Flyer wagon. After a couple minutes of fighting about who could sit in the front, who could bring what toys, and who was putting whose stinky feet in the other person’s space (it was always Jack, and he didn’t know what he was really doing, only that it was making Ella mad and that that was funny), I’d pull the wagon down the hill from the front door and up the block. That was when I came up with another game.

“Ugh, Jack! You’re sitting in my spot! You big—”

“Ella, wow, look at this!” I gasped as I picked up an empty acorn top from the side of the road. She stopped sticking her tongue out and shoving at her brother to look over at what I’d found. Jack just sat there, binky in his mouth, unbothered. “Do you know what this is?”

“No, what is it?”

“I think it’s a fairy boat for when it rains.”

“Really?” She scrunched up her nose and tilted her head.

“Yeah, there’s lots of magic lost things if you just look for ‘em.”

And then that was our thing: finding the magic-lost-things. A dandelion was the last ingredient in a witch’s brew, a broken-off piece of asphalt was a space rock from a blazing comet, a clover was good luck even if it only had three leaves. All of them were magic-lost things, grateful to be found by us. We knew just how special they were.

Ella began to bring a small plastic pink purse to carry them in. At the end of each day, she’d go up to Charlotte and show her all the things we found, telling her she had to hide them in a secret, special place where nobody could find them.

Once, Jack fell asleep on our walk. I had taken a glance backward to check on them, wondering why it was so quiet, and found his little head slumped down, his binky still in his mouth. Ella was fascinated with our latest find, staring at the halved rock, which was actually a broken troll egg, that I’d picked up a couple minutes ago. When I’d brought them back and passed him off to Charlotte, she’d been shocked.

“It’s usually so hard to get him to fall asleep,” she said, her eyes wide.

Ella took advantage of the opportunity and grabbed my arm, pulling me back out onto the porch. There was a big princess party we had to get ready for. We were already running late.

He didn’t always go to sleep so easily. On a particular day in late June, all Jack wanted to do was drive me crazy. He and Ella had been bickering all morning, and he absolutely needed to take a nap. He had pulled one of her curls for the fourth time when I finally just scooped him up and took him into the living room and told Ella to wait for me out on the porch. We had to be quiet in the house since their parents were working and I tiptoed over to the daybed.

The living room was all wooden: wooden floors, wood-paneled walls, and old, dark wooden furniture. A faded, antique-looking rug covered most of the floor, scattered across it were toy cars and picture books and tiny socks. Pictures of my aunt on her wedding day and my cousins’ baby pictures adorned the walls, in addition to an old cuckoo clock and a map of Long Island. There was a daybed that folded out of the couch in the corner, next to a small table home to a stack of diapers and baby wipes. I laid Jack down on the mattress, making sure pillows were surrounding him so he couldn’t roll around and fall off. The second we sat on the bed though, he wasn’t tired. He immediately got up and started jumping into the pile of pillows I’d made.

“Jack!” I shouted in a whisper. He laughed maniacally. I shushed him to no avail. Everytime I’d catch him and put him down, he’d just get right back up and do it again. I can’t remember how long this went on for. At one point, I laid my head down and pretended to sleep, hoping he’d want to copy me. Instead, I opened my eyes to him hanging an inch over my face and lighting up once he saw I was awake. It had become a game. Ella had begun to yell at me from the other room.

“Emmaaaaaa,” she yelled. I dashed from the bed to the doorway of the porch and begged her to just be a little more patient.

“I promise I’ll be right there. He’s just about to fall asleep, just please be quiet.” She wasn’t, of course, and this happened about five more times. I got more and more worried Charlotte could hear all the commotion.

I thought I might lose my mind. I decided the bed wasn’t working; I picked Jack up in my arms again despite his squirming and whining and stuck a binky in his mouth. He still had that baby smell, even though we’d gone to the beach earlier that day. There was some sand in his hair; I brushed it out with my hand. I did the only thing I could think of: I started rocking him in my arms. Even he was surprised, I think, because he stopped wriggling and looked up at me with his big brown eyes. I’d never done that before. It was like some weird instinct I never knew I had. I felt ridiculous. I even started singing something quiet.

It actually worked too. He finally closed his eyes and fell asleep against my chest. Everything was finally still. Looking at the sleeping boy, I thought I might cry.

It got to be really hard going back to Soundview every day. After a couple of weeks, I started to dread the drive there, the final turn into the neighborhood. It felt wrong going there without my mom when she couldn’t be there. It was like walking into somebody’s bedroom when they weren’t home. It hurt to be reminded of her, to have her thrown in my face with every gust of salt air and every pointed pebble digging into my heel. I wanted to walk out onto the edge of the sandbar again and just scream, kick the sand and scream until I had nothing left in me. I wanted to walk out onto the edge and stare into the abyss of the drop off and let it swallow me whole. It felt like the summer after I’d lost my mother I’d become one. Not really of course, but sort of. There was a twisted irony that I hated to think about. My mom would never meet my kids if I had any. She would never be able to show them this place she loved so much. I could do my best to try, but I’d never know it like she did. She couldn’t help me be a mom, even if she was still here; she’d barely known how to do it herself. I pushed her away as my mother for so long, so why did performing this motherly role make me think of her so much?

Underneath it all, I missed her. I had tried to push her out of my mind for months; I couldn’t do that here. I’d been so mad at her for so long, but all I wanted now was to have her back. I’d suck up the whole sound through a straw if it meant I could have her back, just to tell her I’m sorry. It’s an ache in my chest, a pit in my stomach, a tug on my hair that will never leave me.

I started to realize though, why my mother couldn’t ever really give it up. I loved these kids so much. I wanted to protect them. I wanted to help them. I wanted to make them happy. I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to hurt them. Why could my mother do that so easily?

My mom used to say that she loved us more than anything in the whole world. I remember her saying once, that nothing compares to the love a mother feels for her daughter. She used to say that all the excruciating hours of labor were worth it, forgotten even, once she’d seen my squishy, red face, how she knew then that being a mother was what she was made to do. If that were true though, how could she leave? What could’ve been more important?

On a hot, sunny, July day, we ran into my aunt at the beach. Jack was back at the house, so it was just Ella and me. She was burying my feet in the sand when Dawn walked over to us with her dog, a light brown, long-haired dachshund. Her name was Sadie. When I was really little and used to go over to my aunt’s house, Sadie would run under the nearest bed once she’d heard my light-up sneakers hit the hardwood floor. She was older now and came right up to us, her tail wagging.

“Emma! I heard you were down here.” She smiled at me, and I stood up, brushing the sand off my legs.

“Hey, I wasn’t finished yet!” Ella crossed her arms and furrowed her brows.

“She’s a character, isn’t she?” my aunt said, chuckling. She had light blonde hair and blue eyes that crinkled when she smiled. Her bangs framed her heart-shaped face, and she always wore some dainty necklace and earrings to match. Dawn was one of my mom’s older sisters, and she looked the closest to her out of all of her nine siblings. She was what my mom should’ve been: happy, alive, home.

“She is,” I said.

“Hi Grandma,” said Ella.

“Hello sweetheart.” Dawn bent down to tousle Ella’s hair. “I’m so happy they’re down here and I get to see them.” A pang in my chest—jealousy maybe, hurt mostly. “She can be quite a handful though I bet.”

“Maybe, but mostly it’s fun.” I smiled, letting that hurt pass. I meant it too.

We talked about how things were going. She told me about the house she’d bought down the street, how they finally finished the renovations to the patio. She had a garden growing in the backyard, and told me parsley attracts black swallowtail butterflies. She told me how I’d have to bring the kids up to her house for lunch soon, how Ella loves the tree swing in the front yard.

“Emma, come onnnnn,” she interrupted, pouting.

Dawn laughed. “Alright, alright. I’ll let you go. Ella, you be good, okay?”

Ella didn’t respond, just reached up and tugged at my shirt. Dawn and I hugged, and I watched as she made her way down the road to the big white house on the corner, Sadie trotting along at her ankles.

“Why don’t we go down to the water, put our feet in,” I said, shielding the sun from my eyes. I was sweating and sand was getting in my shorts. We sat way up at the top of the beach, at the start of the ramp to the pavilion and beside the wild blueberry bush. Ella shifted. “C’mon, I’ll carry you across the crab lands.”

Ella was terrified of the sand crabs. She always began to cry within two feet of the holes that populated the upper shoreline. It was odd to see her scared; she was very much the type of kid that wasn’t scared of anything. I didn’t like to see her upset, but I knew how much she liked to splash around in the water. She needed to get over her fear. She hesitated still, but I rose to my feet and lifted her up. She winced as we made our way down the beach.

“Ella, it’s okay. I promise.” Her hands were over her eyes, and she buried her head in my shoulder. “The crabs don’t wanna hurt you. I got you.” She moved her fingers and peered through the crack between them to the ground below, still whimpering. I was on my tiptoes, dodging the crab holes like landmines. “Ella, I thought Stony Brook girls were supposed to be tough?” She let her hands fall and looked up at me through narrowed eyes, not liking that I was right. But then she turned and looked out at the beach, stopping her squirming with a calm resignation. When we passed over their little universe, and reached the darker, damper sand, I plopped her down. She sped off to the water. I followed and grabbed her hand before she could go in past her knees.

The water was cold. I welcomed the breeze that rolled off the incoming tide. The green marsh in the distance sat under a cloudless sky while an osprey flew overhead. Black snails were collected on the seafloor like dropped marbles and schools of tiny brown fish swam around our legs. Bunches of seaweed floated about near broken reeds. Empty mussel shells and horseshoe crab skeletons rested behind us.

As I stood there and looked out at the sound, feeling the sunburn form on my scalp, holding the hand of my self-proclaimed “Stony Brook Girl,” I wondered what would happen if I had thrown my mother’s ashes in. Would the creek bring her back to life, back to me, molding her a body of mud and smooth stones with saltwater in her veins and the breath of the tide in her lungs? Or would it take her back, swirling her cinders in with the rest of the broken, dead, alive things and letting some settle on the banks of the sandbar before pulling the rest out to sea? I wondered if she’d be happier that way, if I’d taken some happiness from her. I wondered if she was there then, watching me standing at the edge of her world, of her kingdom I’m not fit to rule, and if she’d think I was doing any of this right—and if it would even matter.

Emma Rowan is a junior at SUNY Stony Brook. She’s studying English and creative writing and can often be found on campus with a stack of books in one hand and a much-needed cup of iced coffee in the other. She spends her time taking care of her twenty-two houseplants and wondering where she’ll find room for just one more.

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Rebecca Yoo

Mother’s Hands

Shoved with a xenophobic passion, my mother toppled to all fours like a creature. She was an object or something to be objectified. He spat at her like she deserved a punishment, like she was a puppy who couldn’t meow for this disgruntled man. The chalky cement gnawed at her fragile knees, as did her safeguard to leave the house. The bruises on her knees and the scratches on her hands demanded that she shed the yellow undertones of her skin. If she didn’t pull out her silky black hair, the cement might make another abrupt visit. What if another man decides that she’s also worthless and deserves to be reprimanded? My mother pleads with me, “베키 같이 코스트코 와 줄래? 그 아저씨 Q66버스 타 거든.”1

As a teenager, my mother, then called Jae, journeyed the globe and finally arrived in the United States. Her father, a brave South Korean ex-marine, would look back toward the sea and reflect, “I don’t trust the Korean government.” America set the stage for a new venture, a new life, and unexpectedly, a new name. Jae’s name was met with ridicule and shame for being a boy’s name. She desperately yearned to be respected highly wherever she went, as did Queen Elizabeth. Thus, Elizabeth prided in her new name. She may not have exactly lived out the privileged royal lifestyle though, her body instead laboring at physically demanding jobs. For if she did not have the wisdom of the English language, her physicality had to make up for it. Her broken English worked her hands tirelessly until they swelled. Holding her hands was a testament to sixty years worth of sacrifice, to a single mother who only knew the life of survival. Still to this day, Elizabeth continues to stand on her feet to go to work.

Her pride was taken away from her decades ago. She knew the moment she stepped foot in the “land of opportunity” that her language, her culture, her entire essence was no longer accepted. She was expected to fully accommodate to the new master’s rules. America gawks at her, saying, “As long as you’re in my house, you follow my rules.” The same power play motive that shoved Elizabeth to her knees also lunged a piece of chalk across the room at her. Elizabeth’s first American high school teacher scowls, “Answer me! Why don’t you know English?” The face of a supposed caregiver, a guide to the American dreamer, was staring dead straight through her worth. As a puppy expected to howl like a wolf already, Elizabeth was innocently punished. For as long as she can’t pronounce her W’s and add an unnecessary syllable to each word, she will always be the victim. If her verbs come grammatically last in a sentence, then so will her acknowledgment in America. English is her crutch, while all at the same time, English is her savior. English is a capable bird that sweeps the skies and calls out to an open terrain. But like a puppy on a leash, drooping eyes and a tucked tail, so did Elizabeth’s wrinkles on the edges of her lips. The sparse gray in her hair creeps from the thinning of the shadows. She hides away her apple cheekbones, which used to be lifted to the heavens by a set of smiling eyes. The sad crease of her eyelids blankly stares back at the cash register, the bank accountant, the bus driver, anyone and their mothers. She whispers, “영어 잘 못해요.”2

Home is where my mother prepares kimchi stew, the only kimchi stew that I trust. From time to time, I see in my peripheral vision her peering over at me while she waits for the stew to simmer. The daylight peers into the dainty condo, along with two bamboo lamps sitting in opposite corners of our living room, altogether radiating a warm hue of security. We name our Wi-Fi “Woori Gip,” a romanized-Korean translation of “Our Home.” If only the Wi-Fi provider allowed “foreign” characters, then my mother wouldn’t be so confused to acknowledge “Our Home.” But regardless, home is the cocoon in which the silky webs nurture. A filled refrigerator, dishes still yet to dry, as the water rumbles in our tea kettle, Woori Gip has a living heart beat. We made sure to breathe life within each and every crevice. As the pigeons rest right outside our fire escape, the seven train whizzes by, reminding us that a space of belongingness must be created, despite the pushback of the world that pursues to reject it. It is curated and loved on, a space that invites you in, upon entry of that “Welcome Home” mat.

From the opposite corner of the kitchen, I sit crouched over my desk to retain my news article for my class presentation. My mother always preached the importance of an education. Practicing my speech over and over again until I make sure I reach the ten minute mark. No less, no more. But then I get a whiff of the red pepper powder dancing into a sweet and salty tango: my mother’s kimchi stew. The same smell that pervades the hallways of my building to hug me back home. Only this time, I’m already home. My nose perks towards the lead of the smell, and I see my mother already gazing over at me. She holds her evidently worked hands in front of her stomach. Her pursed lips lift her rosy cheekbones as her eyesight blurs and gleams in the light. My mother softly whispers, “영어 잘한다.”3

1. “Becky, please come with me to go grocery shopping. That man takes the Q66 bus.”

2. “I don’t know English very well.”

3. “Her English is perfect.”

Rebecca Yoo, the daughter of Korean immigrants, currently attends the Fashion Institute of Technology for her Bachelor’s in international trade and marketing, with minors in English and international politics. She plans to one day work as an editor for fashion, art, and/or culture topics, to ultimately spread awareness of the Asian American identity and inevitably build a space for her Asian American community to share their stories and creative genius.

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Mollie McMullan

On Bruised Knees

You’re four and sitting on the white bedsheets as a nurse cleans out your mom’s c-section incision that refuses to heal. He’s all smiles as he sterilizes the open wound, making jokes to your mother, whose eyes are shut tight. His assistant appears a little more sensitive, trying to hide the bloodied gauze from your prying gaze. Curiosity triumphs over any sense of self-preservation, so you stick around. The scene is reminiscent of Hemingway’s “Indian Camp,” just a little less bloody and a little more contemporary. Your mom turns her head away from you but can’t manage to stifle the occasional hiss of pain. You’re still perched next to her like a loyal little bird, but can’t seem to leave your post to comfort her. She’s been reduced to an open wound. These sessions are where you learn what sepsis is and just how lethal it can be.

You’re five when you decide you don’t want to be a mother. You own baby dolls who won’t die from SIDS, the mysterious phenomenon that you had heard about on some TLC show, so they’ll have to do. You tell your mother that you’ll never have children, even when you’re thirty, which seems like centuries away. But, again, you’re five and haven’t quite figured out the difference between minutes and hours. With a laugh, she tells you that she felt the same when she was your age. This is the first time you remember feeling fear. It is all too familiar now.

When you’re six, you tell your mom that she’s like Cinderella, your current favorite princess, because she’s “always cleaning on her hands and knees.” Being a mother means cracked palms and sweat, and you’ve pledged yourself to being clean and whole, like Cinderella post-fairy godmother. Every time you look your mother in the eyes, you hear her wistfully recount sitting in the back of her high school boyfriend’s truck and drinking grape soda. Your mom loses pieces of the woman she used to be each time she bends down to pick up a rogue Cheerio that strayed from your little brother’s highchair. Where is her fairy godmother? Where is her grape soda?

You first start going to church at eight as per your father’s requests. You supposed he wanted to put your baptism to good use. Every Sunday, you would panic upon waking up, dreading the large cold room and the monotonous hymns. You try to bury these mornings, but memory prevails. The most memorable service was about Mother’s Day. Towards the end of the service, the pastor asks all the mothers in the room to stand up to be appreciated and applauded. Your father misunderstands the request. He thinks the pastor wants all future mothers to stand. He tries to pull you and your sister up into standing positions despite the ache in your knees from coming up from a kneel too fast. With his hands around your wrists, he grits into your ear, “If you don’t stand up right now, you won’t have technology for a week.” This threat scares you. You’re eight and addicted to Minecraft. How else are you supposed to spend your time without the game? You and your sister stand for the longest three seconds of your lives before slamming down into the pew, heads down, cheeks ablaze. Shame has coiled itself in between each individual rib, snaking up into the cavity your heart lies in. You do not repeat this story for another five years before it hurts less. Your mother doesn’t even remember it. For eleven years, you do not know exactly why you were so ashamed. But now you do. You were being groomed to be a mother. And that was terrifying. You saw the ferocity of your father’s desire to be a future grandfather, as though your worth was aligned with your status as a prospective bearer of menstrual cramps and children. You do not want to be Mary, who was forced to carry a child because of the will of the Holy Spirit. You think you deserve more autonomy.

Your father and his absurdity is stained on you like red wine. You know how tough that shit is to get out from your seventh grade stint with Mrs. Ristau, your unforgettable home economics teacher. Every other day, in between sewing tutorials and laundry dos and don’ts, you listen to her tales of being a tireless wife and mother. You wonder how she’s still standing. She laughs when recalling how she got rug burn from scrubbing the carpet on her hands and knees while her husband shouted at the TV, watching a particularly rough tackle. You and your female classmates are baffled. There is nothing funny about existing just for your usefulness. Hearing this story makes you, for the first time in your life, want to fail a class. If you learn nothing, you will not have to take care of men. Your napkin folds get sloppier, and suddenly you forget how to fold ingredients into your batter mixtures. The guys in your class elbow each other and grin. You’re certain they have the same smiles as their fathers. Every night, you see your mother tend to your father’s every need. She doesn’t even eat dinner with you anymore, not even her favorite meals. The man she married is too demanding. This is motherhood. This is wifehood. You don’t want either.

In tenth grade, when your best friend walks into a church next to her mother’s coffin, you don’t let your tears escape from the confines of your waterline. No tears of yours can resurrect the mother she lost. There is no use trying to water a flower that has already started to smell of the sickly sweetness of rot. The bagpipes outside the church walls wail into the gray sky. They sound as shrill as a hungry newborn. Three hours later, after her mother has been buried, you sit next to your friend in a local diner across from her father, who is now a gutless willow tree, which is how you’d describe her mom, too. His suit is too big, cheeks too gaunt. He is hollow. You almost write “fuck” in cursive on a napkin, because man this fucking sucks. Your best friend stops you. Since then, her house has felt empty. There is a stillness that her mother used to occupy. She was the glue that kept the seam of your best friend’s life together, and now she is gone. This understanding allows you to reinforce your anti-motherhood sentiment. You will not permit yourself to be depended on so heavily that your loss disturbs the very foundation that your children had been growing up on.

The next thing you know, it is the summer of 2020 and you are cleaning out your hoarder father’s garage. Quarantine had left you stir-crazy and anxious to remove all traces of him from your life. You come across a mysterious jug labeled “poisen.” The man can’t spell. You think it’s funny. It is then that your mom laughs. With a smile, she speaks of how antifreeze cannot be detected when testing for drugs, something she picked up from one of her Forensic Files binges. Her eyes harden into obsidian despite the glare of the sun. Here’s the important part: when she gives you her bank account information in case your father kills her with the sweetness of antifreeze, do not freak out. You are allowed five seconds to silently panic before she starts to furrow her eyebrows and worry that she should not have told her seventeen year old, who can’t go to the dentist without taking Xanax, that she feels her end is near. You have spent your entire life trying to calm the waters your mother has to sail on. You cannot do anything this time. You are not Poseidon. You are Medusa. It is better to look away.

You grow up thinking that motherhood means being torn in half from your center, going hungry, being on your hands and knees like you’re praying. Being a mother often means engaging in the affairs of dangerous men. Men who don’t nibble. Men who sharpen their teeth with pocket knives and devour. Motherhood is perilous and sacrificial, and you cannot afford to lose more pieces of yourself. You are aware that there are mothers who happily choose the lives they live, who smile when stirring in ingredients for a meal meant for five people. But that is not you. You were not meant to be soft and pliant. You were born with thorns.

Logically, you also know that not all mothers are wounded creatures or broken women. But you were a pink, fleshy child who grew up being nestled against the breastbone of a skeleton. Your mother was a woman slaughtered by motherhood and its expectations, who unconsciously led her daughters into the house of a butcher. You were a pitiful “for just seventy-nine cents a day…” child who grew up to be incapable of caring for your beloved fuzzy cactus, Frank. You were a shelter dog to your friend’s mothers who wanted to nurture you, to feed the starving dog that you were. You don’t know anything else. You are a victim of motherhood, a redness that metastasizes. You want no part in it.

Mollie McMullan is a student at SUNY Geneseo. When she’s not playing with her dog somewhere in Long Island, she’s lip-synching to the longest songs possible and illustrating birthday cards.

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10.2 | Creative Nonfiction

Mother’s Hands

Rebecca Yoo

Stony Brook Girl

Emma Rowan

On Bruised Knees

Mollie McMullan

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Jenna Barth

Tunnel Slide

Deep breath. One foot in front of the other. I stepped into the McDonald’s PlayPlace behind my older brother Devin. Before I knew it, he had already taken off his shoes and put them in the cubby. I desperately unvelcroed my light-up Disney Princess sneakers and threw them off, teetering after him. At eight years old, Devin’s legs were way longer than mine, and he was a lot stronger and faster, too.

“Wait for me!” I cried, crawling into the play tunnel.

“No, catch up!” Devin’s voice echoed back to me.

Smoke danced around my head in my friend’s basement one weekend during my sophomore year in high school. She was already high and she passed me her wax pen after taking two hits. Pulling the smoke into my lungs once, twice, three times, I thought that nothing was working. Everyone else was high except me. After the seventh or eighth hit, my body went chillingly numb. The sounds of my friends’ voices became distant and muffled. All I could hear was the beating of my heart getting louder and louder. I felt the blood drain all the color out of my face, leaving me like a white sheet of paper—a ghost. I couldn’t feel my limbs and I couldn’t move. I was panicking.

My tiny six-year-old hands reached before me, climbing up the yellow tunnel. My heart raced with anxiety. What happens if Devin gets too far away and I get lost in here? What if I get stuck in here forever? Suddenly, when I looked up ahead of me, all I saw was the tail end of Devin, his feet disappearing into another tunnel. I sped up, gripping each step up the yellow tunnel as tightly as I could to propel myself further, faster. I yelled for my brother but he was gone. I turned left, down the green tunnel, bumping my knees against the bottom. Dead end. I turned around, going faster, tripping over my own hands and knees.

“Gotcha!” he yelled with a laugh, popping out behind a corner.

I screamed, fearing for my life. Tears ran down my cheeks.

“I wasn’t gonna leave you. Don’t be such a baby.” Devin guided me further into the labyrinth of the McDonald’s PlayPlace tunnels until we reached the top of the slide—the way to freedom. He picked me up and put me in front of him, hugging me from behind. We pushed off and down we went, out of the darkness and into the light waiting for us at the bottom.

Deep breath. One foot in front of the other. I try to get up out of my chair. I don’t like this feeling. I was stuck in a thought loop, and I couldn’t get out of it. You’re dying. You’re having a heart attack. Do you feel how fast your heart is beating? It’s going to explode inside your chest and there’s nothing you can do about it. This is it; this is the end. I couldn’t tell what was racing faster—my heartbeat or my thoughts. Deep breath. One foot in front of the other. My panic gave me tunnel vision, darkness hugging my eyes. I took the stairs up one at a time, slowly, until I finally reached the top, leaving the basement. I needed to leave; I wanted to go home.

“I’m sorry my parents are making everyone leave so early. It’s just because we have to wake up early. You sure you can find a ride, Jenna?”

“Yeah, don’t worry.” I forced the words out of my mouth, stumbling slowly, delayed. I walked out of my friend’s house into the rain. I dug my phone out of my pocket and dialed Devin’s number.

“Devin? It’s me.” I choked on emotion, trying to hold back my tears. “I need you to come pick me up.”

There were voices in the background, telling me that he was definitely with his friends. “I don’t know, Jenna, you can’t just ask someone else?”

“Please, I’m bugging out. I need to get home.”

“No,” he said and hung up.

I sat on the curb just outside my friend’s house, looking up towards the night sky, letting my face get wet with the mixture of rain and tears, waiting for Devin to pop out from behind a corner, waiting for him to remind me that he wasn’t going to leave me—waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel slide that never came.

Jenna Barth is a junior psychology major at SUNY Geneseo from Long Island, New York. She is currently a teaching assistant for ENGL 201: Foundations of Creative Writing and has found that one of her true passions is creative nonfiction.

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Andrew Buyea

A Party

You’re not a party guy. You never have been. It’s probably because no one has ever invited you to one. You’re probably alone too much. But here you are. You’re starting college and trying to change that. You have a fresh start and no one knows how terrible you are yet. You can be whoever you want. You can adopt any facade you think people will like. You have a chance to make a connection with others. But you’re scared you’re going to fuck it up.

You’re outside. The campus dorms and buildings light up the night. Some people you met at freshman orientation walk with you to a party they heard about. You walk with them to pretend you have friends for a second. You carry the beers you bought in an attempt to feel different from how you usually feel.

You arrive at the party house. The outside is completely dark and you question if it’s the right house. You hesitantly walk up to the porch and peer along the edge of a closed curtain. You see multi-colored lights and a crowd of people, which confirm you’re in the right place. But you’re nervous. Part of you knows you shouldn’t be there. Your parents definitely wouldn’t want you to be there. But what do they know? They just raised you, fed you, and supported your decision to attend an expensive college for a degree you don’t care about. Screw them. You walk into the house.

It’s filled with seizure-inducing strobe lights and overbearing music. The people there are wearing flannels and crop tops. The air feels cramped. There’s a living room and kitchen littered with red Solo cups. The new sights and sounds fill you with anxiety. All the surfaces inside the house are sticky with beer.

The people who you came with immediately scatter and leave you. You stroll around awkwardly trying to gain the courage to talk to someone. But you can’t. You sit on the couch and contemplate why you don’t have the balls to talk to people.

You crack open the beers you brought. You drink them all as quickly as you can because you hate the taste of them. One beer, two, three, four; you drink them to distract yourself from how uncomfortable you feel. After a while, you feel a lot better. The lights and music no longer seem that bad, and there’s a pleasant warmth in your body. The insecurities you were feeling shrink; you feel numb to what’s happening around you.

You start to feel more confident in yourself. Taking your new liquid courage, you decide to wander around the party and see what others are doing. You walk up to a group of guys talking and laughing in a semicircle. One of the guys is talking in detail about a girl he slept with the weekend before. He talks about how he performed oral on her. You look at the guy and ask why he’s not worried about catching STDs from that. In response, he says, “Well, you can’t get an STD from oral unless they cum.” You laugh because you think he’s joking. He looks at you confused and you realize he’s not joking.

You hear some commotion upstairs, and it makes you curious. After journeying up the steps, you see ten people standing in a white, glowing bathroom. Everyone looks excited as they stare at two guys with their heads down by the sink. You stroll closer and see a line of white powder in front of each faucet. You immediately realize that the powder is cocaine. You’ve only seen cocaine in movies. You saw people snort sugar or crushed up Smarties as a joke back in high school, but now you’re seeing the real thing. You’re immobilized by curiosity as you see each line of white powder vanish up a nasal cavity. The bathroom crowd cheers like they’ve just seen an Olympic record being made.

You descend back downstairs. The room seems to spin a bit and you feel more numb than you did before. You sit back down on the couch in an attempt to make the spinning stop. After a few minutes, a girl sits a couple feet away from you and looks at her phone. She’s cute. You consider talking to her for a moment. You’ve never been good at talking to girls, but your artificial confidence is there egging you on. Like ripping off a Band-Aid, you turn to the girl and casually say, “Hi.” She looks up from her phone and smiles. “Hi,” she says.

You ask her how she is enjoying the party, and she tells you that she’s a little bored. You exchange basic information with each other like hometowns and majors. You ask about the things she likes and it turns out she likes the same kind of music as you. She scoots closer to hear you better over the sounds of the party. You get a better look at the green hue of her eyes. She smells like lavender.

The two of you talk for a while, and you make her laugh a few times. You’ve never been an open person, but the alcohol frees up your tongue. There’s an awkward moment where the conversation dies, and you don’t know what to say next. Her face gets a couple inches closer to you and then retreats. Did she almost kiss you?

You become nervous again and weigh your options. You don’t want to seem like a creep, so you decide not to kiss her. The conversation starts to feel way more forced than it did before. You grasp at straws to regain her interest in you, but you have nothing. Some friends of hers come over and ask her if she’s ready to leave with them. She tells you she has to go and waves goodbye. Did she actually have to go or was she just trying to get away from you? Either way, you don’t blame her.

Now you’re alone again. But you’re used to that. Eventually, the party winds down and you leave. You had some fun, and it was definitely more exciting than sitting in your dorm room alone, so you go to a different party the next weekend. You repeat this cycle over and over again.

Later, you see the girl you talked to at that first party walking across campus. You’re happy to see her so you wave and smile. She sees you but doesn’t wave back. She looks down and keeps walking. What did you do?

You keep going to parties to feel something, but the excitement quickly leaves you. Months pass and you’re sitting on a couch staring at all the other people at the party. You think, No one cares if I’m here or not. Why do I bother? Then you get up and leave. You stop showing up to parties altogether because you don’t really see a point in them. Some people say life is a party. To you, it certainly feels like one sometimes. And sometimes, you wonder if you want to keep showing up to it.

Andrew Buyea is a creative writing major at SUNY Oswego. He can often be found drowning in all the responsibilities he foolishly decided to take on.

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Connor Keihl


I’ve always loved animals: the scaly slither-ers, the bumpy-backed ribbiters, the hippity-hoppin-escapees that my older sister intentionally set free; the stick imitators, the slow-moving-quick-biting snappers, the sun-bellied swimmers. When I was four, my mother bought me my first bug catching kit. I spent hours stalking and pouncing around our yard. My first “pet” was a wooly bear named Bob. He was a fuzzy black and brown noodle in my palm. I’d wake up each morning and rush to his little wire cage to see the new munch marks he’d made in the leaves I poked through the wooden slot.

I grew up imitating Steve Irwin and Jeff Corwin. As I’d walk around the yard, I’d talk over my shoulder to an invisible camera crew, breaking down and dramatizing each catch. By the time I turned eight, I was more interested in reptiles and amphibians than bugs. I had no fear of snake bites. I was more seduced than Eve.

They were quicker and more dangerous than bugs. They would coil up and put on their mean mug when my hands entered their personal bubble. They would taste the air, my lingering particles. They would flatten or puff up their speckled bodies, like they were trying to impress the prettiest girl in their grade. They would open their mouths and reveal the pale pink danger of their fangs.

And I would think, the game is on.

They would strike at my left hand and miss. My right hand either pinned down the back of their head, or if I was feeling particularly cocky, I’d just go straight for the tail and lift them up in front of my face before dropping them into a five-gallon bucket. I’d give them grass to hide under or sometimes even try to feed them a frog. I was fascinated by their unfused jaws and winding, malleable bodies.

When I wasn’t holding a butterfly net or plunging my hands into muddy pond scum after frog legs or a meandering water snake, I was casting out my worm and bobber. Some of my earliest memories are of fishing. I can remember receiving the “As seen on TV” Rocket Rod for one of my birthdays and being thoroughly disappointed, as I spent most of the day trying to untangle the bird’s nest of fishing line blocking the barrel of the rocket.

When I was about nine years old, my mom’s side of the family all decided to rent a cottage on Conesus Lake for a week in the summer. It was only about fifteen minutes away from our actual house, but we spent the nights there anyway. I spent the whole week fishing off the dock. I must’ve gone through five dozen worms, and I’m sure their black bile guts were stuck under my nubby fingernails the entire week. My cousin Mitchell, who was about twelve at the time, and I hauled up sunfish after sunfish. I think we kept count, something like fifty rings a bell (though I’m sure we padded our numbers a smidge).

But a boy can only be satisfied with sunfish until he wants something with a little more oomph to swallow up the nightcrawler dangling off his hook. About halfway through the week, my mom’s best friend Tim came to stay at the cottage, too. They had been friends since college when they both attended Mansfield. Tim came from a long line of Marines—Pennsylvanian thoroughbreds. To me, he’s always looked more like a woodsman than a military man.

He was a mound. He stood at about five foot seven, but the width of his shoulders must have verged on three feet. His shoulders seemed to constantly be encroaching upon his neck. His beard was white, which matched the traces of hair that grew on his mostly bald head. His face was round and bore a vague resemblance to Santa Claus. His cheeks were plump with pronounced ridges of smile lines leading up to his straight and full nose. His eyes were downturned and humbly brown. You’d be hard pressed to find him in an outfit that didn’t feature some camo garment.

When he arrived at the cottage, he found me fishing off the dock. He grew up flipping Smallmouth out of the Susquehanna, or fly fishing for trout in mountain fed streams. He asked me what I’d been catching.

“Mostly sunnies,” I told him in a high-pitched voice I can no longer recall. “They keep taking my worm, though.” He knelt on the dock and stuck his index finger into the white Styrofoam cup of worms. He dug out one of the translucent brown strings and kept it pinched between his thumb and index finger. He put out his other hand, beckoning for my pole. He grabbed the line and then the hook.

“Look here. You take one end of the worm and insert the hook into it, then you run the hook straight through its body, up its guts.” He shoved the hook into the crown of the worm’s head, or tail; I didn’t know. Then, he dragged the hook through half the length of the worm, so that the worm rode all the way up to where the hook was tied to the fishing line.

“Then you put the hook through the worm three or four more times and keep wrapping it around the hook. This way, the sunfish can only pick at it, but they won’t be able to take the whole thing. Here, give that a try.” I watched as the inky guts coated his fingernails too.

It worked like a charm, but I still couldn’t hook into anything bigger than a sunfish or a bluegill. I came close to catching a catfish, who sat lazily at the bottom of the water column brushing his belly against the sand, but he wouldn’t bite. By Sunday, I’d had a great week at the cottage, but I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that I didn’t catch a single bass. As my family spent the morning cleaning and packing up, I ran out to the dock to try one more time.

After a few more small bites, Tim ventured out to meet me on the dock. “Any bites, Connor?” I told him just a few, as I gawked longingly into waters that have always felt ethereal, mysterious, and dangerous to me. It was then that I felt a tug on my line. My body felt an excited jolt for a moment, but when I saw the sunfish dangling from my hook, my shoulders slumped. I was so disappointed that I didn’t even finish reeling the little sucker in.

I let him tug my line one way, and then another, as he desperately tried to shake me off. He tired himself out after a while though, and he eventually just hung suspended in the water column, slightly sideways, perhaps with a cramp.

It was then that a dark green, football shaped shadow lurched out from the protection of the dock’s underbelly. It seemed to scream towards my tuckered-out sunfish, opening his mouth into a massive O. The football inhaled the sunfish in one lunge. My body froze, but Tim was right there yelling, “Set the hook!”

I jerked the rod up towards the sky suddenly, feeling a new weight taking out my line. I didn’t really know how I was supposed to “set the hook,” but I suppose I had seen people do this on TV before. I also didn’t really understand how I was supposed to hook the bass if my hook was already in the lips of a sunfish. But, I felt his weight on the line and I knew: the game was on.

He bucked like a bull. He drove his head downwards, shaking it side to side. He jumped like a dolphin into the humid air, then splashed back into his dominion. I reeled him in, all the way to the dock’s edge, before the line went slack and he spit out my sunny. My shoulders too went slack as the tension of the moment evaporated amidst the July heat.

“Awh! You had ‘em!” Tim yelled, as he clapped me on the shoulder and laughed with his belly. “He must’ve been close to a five-pounder!” The game was over. I had lost my big bass, as he once again turned to a dark shadow and disappeared into the green shade of seaweed. I reeled in the sunfish, popped the hook from his puckered cheek, and tossed him back.

I stared at the ever-shifting, shimmering water, possessed by the secrets of a submersed world.

As I entered my teenage years, I was less preoccupied with bugs, reptiles, and fish. I spent most of my leisurely time on video games. None of my best friends were into fishing, so I lost touch with it as I got older. I no longer possessed my prepubescent energy and wading through skunky pond water just to catch a snake became rather unappealing to me as my body inched through my chrysalis years.

Of course, I loved video games, but they were ultimately used for escapism. I sunk hundreds of hours into the yearly installments of Call of Duty. I donned the cowl in the Batman: Arkham series. I leaped from crashing trains, planes, and sinking ships in the Uncharted series. I protected a little girl named Ellie from fungus-faced clickers in The Last of Us. I was evading myself in these digital worlds, even if I was having fun all the while.

As a late bloomer, my body remained skinny and muscle-less throughout high school. My body was nothing like Batman’s. I began to lose interest in sports because my body refused to grow. I gave up on having a first kiss, or a first girlfriend, because I thought I was too skinny to be attractive to any girl, even as girls in my grade asked me to the prom. In the mirror, I saw Connor the way nobody else did. My self-hatred trumped my desperation for romantic or sexual relationships.

When I graduated from high school, I hoped college would solve my problems. I hoped that my roommates would like video games too, or maybe they’d listen to Eminem or Kendrick Lamar, or maybe they’d love baseball, or maybe they’d teach me how to be loved.

But I hid me. I never tried to talk about video games, or hip-hop music, or sports with my roommates or classmates. The social exposure of college pushed me further inward. It became new fuel for the recluse. After one year of roommates at a little community college, I decided to transfer to SUNY Geneseo and move back in with my family.

But there were times when I would try to make a break from myself. Most of these early attempts included excessive consumption of alcohol for a one-hundred and forty-pound nineteen-year-old.

I didn’t have my first kiss until I was nineteen. She was a friend of a friend, who I met at a college party. Someone had told her that I hadn’t had my first kiss yet. This intrigued her. She was so curious as to why I hadn’t kissed anyone. She treated me like an alien, like she was going to be the first human girl to kiss this new exotic species. Of course, her inquiries only made my heart race faster and, in turn, exacerbated my thirst for gin. But still, I was too nervous to kiss her. With the music blasting, she’d talk so close to my lips that I could smell her perfume, her hair, and it all made me want to drink myself to sleep.

She wore tight jeans. She had bold blue eyes and dirty blonde hair. Her name was Sam. I wanted to kiss her, but it was impossible. There was no part of me that could risk the acceptance of pleasure. Eventually, when we were both drunk enough, she just pushed me against the wall, pressed her lips to mine. “You did good!” she told me.

When she ghosted me the next week, I decided to take up drinking alone in my bedroom late at night, once I was certain my family had all gone to bed. As my relationship with alcohol became more intimate, my relationship with myself became more violent.

I had long ignored my despondency until it slashed me across the forearm. Then, I began hunting a new game: pain.

It was an idea long before it was blood on bathroom tiles; I had listened to Eminem talk about it on “Stan,” with furious intrigue: “Sometimes I even cut myself to see how much it bleeds. It’s like adrenaline, the pain is such a sudden rush for me.” When I first heard this song at eight years old, I wondered how pain could be a rush. I didn’t understand this idea right away. It happened gradually. As my teenage years slowly passed and my body seemed to experience puberty latency, I began weaving my cocoon not out of silk, but thorns. I kept shrouding myself in memories that hurt keenly: my grandpa’s dilapidated rib cage being hugged too tightly by his skin; my older sister being tossed into a stack of firewood by my father when she was twelve; my cousin speaking at his own mother’s funeral when he was just twenty-four; my baseball coach belittling me on the field: “You’re ninety pounds soaking wet!”

I saw no reason to take it easy on myself.

When I couldn’t love myself, I hurt myself. I would dig out the bottle of gin or vodka I kept stuffed in a backpack under my bed. I took shots from the bottle until I felt my head get a little too heavy for my neck. Then, I’d stuff my pocket knife into my hoodie and wobble to the bathroom with my headphones in. I sat on the toilet with my knife in my right hand and my phone in my left. I’d drafted a playlist for those moments. I wanted immersion.

It was a rush. I hated how alive it made me feel. Every cut felt like waking up from hibernation. I could see my life outside myself. I could touch the lukewarm slickness that kept my life living. I wanted my outsides to match my insides. I wanted to be scarred and I wanted people to think of me as scarred. I was gnawing at my chrysalis, cutting my gums on the barbed fibers holding me in place.

When I was a boy, if I wanted to catch a snake, I dove headfirst after its fleeing tail. As I entered adolescence, I forgot how to take that dive. I’d unlearned how it felt to pursue even the most fleeting glint of happiness. Once I realized that I wasn’t living for myself, but rather for those who might mourn my death, I knew I either had to figure out how to want more of life or put an end to my own.

I asked for therapy and received it, though my parents had little to say to me about my cutting. For months, I’d drafted suicide letters in my head, but I was too chicken shit to leave any kind of paper trail before I was truly ready for the deed itself.

Instead, I chose therapy and a serotonin reuptake inhibitor.

Within a year, I had stopped cutting and started loving again. Some days, I could hardly go an hour without thinking about suicide. I approached the end of my undergrad degree at Geneseo wanting to enjoy my final semester. I found someone who helped in that regard. She was in my graduating class and wrote short stories. We talked about my cutting and her eating disorder. She told me she’d just left a shitty relationship, and I told her that I was still a virgin. She didn’t treat me like an alien. Instead, she asked me if I wanted a teacher.

So, we raced against the countdown of our final spring semester at Geneseo and tried to give as much of ourselves to the other while we still could. She ran her fingertips over my scars in her twin bed and kindly asked me not to cut myself again. She said it quietly, like I might be offended by her love. I told her I’d try.

When we graduated, she went home to her small town outside of New York City. I stayed in Geneseo. We talked a lot at first. Then less. Then we didn’t. We were together briefly, but fully. Ironically, she taught me much more than I imagine she intended. I learned that I wanted more of life: more hugs in snowfall, more words to taste, more cities to see, more rivers to wade, more awkward goodbyes. More. I was thankful for my scars, but I wanted to keep my promise. I wanted to treat myself with the same kindness she had shown to me.

I hadn’t seen Tim in nearly a decade, but it was during that summer after I graduated that Tim invited my family to stay with him in Pennsylvania for a weekend. I was a little anxious to meet him again. I wondered what he would think of the me I grew up to be. I feared that the Marine would think me weak if he noticed the scars on my arm.

We packed into my dad’s truck on a Friday morning. It was early August, and I was just about to start my graduate degree. I’d bought a fishing pole earlier in the summer and was struggling to recapture the feeling it gave me as a little boy. To be frank, I realized that I sucked at fishing. Tim assured me there’d be plenty of fish to catch at his place, though.

He was retired and lived alone up on a mountain in the Nippenose Valley. After a three-hour drive, we pulled into his gravel driveway. His house was more of an estate than a house. It was long, almost like a warehouse. It was his, but it was also his brothers’ hunting vacation home, too. There were about eight different bedrooms upstairs, and in total, I’m sure the place could sleep thirty people. But it was just us and Tim for the weekend. Well, and his chocolate lab, Bo.

We had a campfire on Friday night, went to bed early, and rose early the next morning too. We drank coffee next to his twenty-foot antique shuffleboard table, underneath the mounted heads of trophy bucks. Tim had an entire trophy room, which featured everything from pheasant, to entire taxidermy bears, to rattlesnake skins—all killed on his property.

“So you ready to fish?” Tim asked me suddenly.

“Yeah, in the stream?” I asked back.

“Sure,” he told me.

“My mom and I walked it this morning, and we didn’t see any fish in there,” I mentioned.

“Oh, they’re in there,” he said, as he beckoned me to follow him into the garage. He handed me a fly rod. I’d never used one before. He grabbed a white container of worms after he put on his vest. Attached to the vest were nail clippers and fishing forceps; clippers he used for cutting the fishing line and the forceps for removing the hooks from the trout’s mouth.

He walked me to the stream’s edge. It was only about sixty-five degrees under the canopies of eastern hemlocks. The stream vibrated louder as we approached its edge. The stream is natural, but Tim designed holes every twenty feet or so, which act as perfect homes for brook trout. Before the trip to Tim’s house, I’d never even heard of a brook trout.

“Some are natives,” he began as he slid the hook through the worm’s guts just as he’d once shown me. “They’ll be most of the smaller ones. They’re usually darker too. Their colors are slightly different. The big ones are stocked. They should be hungry today, though. I haven’t fed them in three or four days.”

He demonstrated the awkward dance of fishing with the fly rod in the stream: with your left hand, you control the line. With your right, you control the rod. However, the rod was about seven and a half feet long. I was constantly snagging my rod tip on branches just out of view above my head. It felt like learning how to use a prosthetic limb.

When I finally made a decent enough cast into a hole, right where the stream dove over a horizontal log and formed a mini-waterfall, I felt my rod tip dip downwards. Tim looked over my shoulder: “Set the hook!” He called from behind me. I yanked my right hand up with a jolt and sent my hook and mutilated worm into a branch. I was a little overexcited.

Tim just chuckled behind me, “What a rookie!” and then he gave me the heartiest of pats on the shoulder, nearly knocking me down the sloped bank of the stream and into the water. I laughed along because I was alive to see myself fail at least one more time. I laughed because I was learning, and failing, and growing to be more alive and more in love with this stream, these trout, myself.

And for a moment, I wished I had fallen into the stream; to be fully submerged in the frigid water, fully submersed in its translucent plasma. My chrysalis would soften, and I would let the trout nibble at the shedding skin peeling off my kneecaps and pinky toes. I would look up at Tim through the ripples, and watch him toss pellets to his pets, and I would be new.

Connor Keihl is a graduate student at SUNY Brockport, working on his thesis in poetry. He will soon attend Roberts Wesleyan to pursue a master’s in education. He’s in love with words and he’s no longer ashamed of it.

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Rosa Valeri

disappearing act of a secret

if you live in an unwell body that bears no visible markers of being unwell, (un)wellness can be an alienating and complex thing to grapple with.  your body mirrors the secret you keep; it sits latent beneath the surface; people might know, but they say little to nothing.

you walk around with a disappearing act of a secret.

your ex-boyfriend might say have you been eating ok? he might follow up with I don’t mean to be annoying like that, sorry.  you’ll want to scream through your iPhone screen please never stop asking; please save me; please tell me I’m not disappearing.  

some days when you look at yourself in the mirror, you feel re-introduced to your collarbone, your ribcage, your hip bones; everywhere there are bones you haven’t known for years.  you feel that you’ve never looked sexier.  you haven’t been this thin since high school; there is pleasure in this.  lurking beneath the pleasure is the threat of disappearance. you feel skeletal, but sexy? you think about scales, tape-measures, counting calories; you consider each avenue of worsening, of further disappearing.

your friends might ask have you eaten? your answer is almost always no.  you find yourself being fed by those around you. you wonder if they see you as incapable, as unwell.  at least they see me.  you realize you cannot eat unless those around you eat.  one night your friends might show up early, or more likely you put off eating for too long, because their foodless arrival means your meal ends.

it is a paradox: eating feels too visible, yet not eating spells your disappearance.  it is everything and nothing at once to you; food becomes all-encompassing yet unimportant,and the hours go by unfed with little attention.

some people might even see your (un)wellness as positive; they don’t recognize the fact that you are unwell.  an acquaintance at the bar where you work might greet you as follows: wow, you look great—so skinny.  when your response is wordless, she’ll re-engage fifteen minutes later, have you been working out? you might shrug, begrudgingly whisper a no. she’ll catch you off guard: what, not eating? you disappear and blend into the bottles behind you, finding refuge at the hurricane machine whose gears scream as they grind ice, tequila, syrup, triple sec: feeding itself with the sustenance of others. despite this noise and ample distraction you will meditate over the comments of a pseudo stranger; you might think about food and what you’ve eaten for the rest of the shift, but you won’t eat.

sometimes your stomach starts to grumble—not as often as it used to—mainly around dinner time, seven or eight oclock.  it is at this point that you might start to wonder—how much have i eaten today? have i even eaten yet? when you really start to fixate on the day’s consumption, winding back the hours of the day to nine when you left your bed first, your vision might start to blur, the room might spin ever so slightly—you go dizzy, you drink some water, fill your stomach with invisible contents, make disappearing easier—snap out of it. walk away, walk toward the kitchen, feel lighter, too light, lifting.

you seek out food in people. you might be texting a good friend when you insert your secret into dialogue, exposing it: should I eat something? you start to realize that the people around you always answer yes, you might start to wonder are they telling other people no; can they see my unwellness; am i visible to them? you might make excuses, oh, but it’s late; it is past 10:00p.m, and they might say so what? you start to think about what 10:00 p.m. means if you’ve eaten nothing yet.

you think you hear the guy you’re fucking say damn baby, you’re so thick while he has his left hand gripping your hip and his right on your throat. you might have misheard him. thick reverberates around your skull while he slams into you before gliding out. you think about moaning, call me thick again; tell me i have a fat ass; assure me that i’m not disappearing. your knees are on your shoulders now and your hands are pinned against either side. he brings himself in from above: deep. he’s in your stomach now; you wonder about what else might be in there. you were good that day: two full meals, and ample snacks. you start to feel yourself get nauseous. think about moaning, you fill me up; i feel full.

Rosa Valeri is a senior double majoring in English literature and women’s and gender studies. When she isn’t working on classwork, she is writing and creating art in her apartment.

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Anna Lynch

I am not a “Koreaboo”


Koreaboo /ko ree ah boo/ noun: 

Someone who denounced their own race and calls themselves Korean, genuinely believes that they’re Korean or wishes they were Korean…They may use small parts of Korean in their sentences without caring about learning the language. They could think that all Asians/Koreans are beautiful gods who are above the human race.

—From Urban Dictionary, “Koreaboo”


You could say I am obsessed with all things Korea. It’s the kind of obsession that has crept in slowly, like water settling in the cracks of a sidewalk. It started with pressing play on a Korean drama that popped up on my Netflix recommendations, which led to watching a few more series. Eventually, my Netflix history faced total infiltration, with Friends and The Office being booted out in favor of Crash Landing on You and Immortal Classic. Somewhere along the way, I stopped craving cheesy pizza and chocolate and started longing for bubbling hot soondubu jjigae, Melona pops, and samgyeopsal off the grill. Even long car drives have stopped sounding the same—my favorite playlists of American indie and pop morphed into a strange compilation of Red Velvet hits and Kwon Jin Ah’s acoustic jazz album. Before I knew it, the trickle of interest that began with a Korean drama had slowly impeded my daily life and cracked it open like a sidewalk in winter.

Last March, when I was discussing my newfound love of Korean music and dramas with a friend from college (white), he jokingly told me that I was turning into a “Koreaboo.” I wasn’t completely oblivious to the offense of the term’s implications, but I just half-laughed and moved on. I figured there was no point in starting a row when my only comeback was the most visually obvious statement I could possibly make: How can I be a “Koreaboo” if I’m really Korean?

It’s an interesting experience being the international diplomat of your own identity. It’s a constant state of conflict negotiation and mediation, complete with periods of alliance, neutrality, and sometimes, warfare. Growing up as a Korean child who was adopted by white parents as an infant, it took me a while to realize that there was any conflict at all. I knew that most kids looked like their parents and didn’t go to Korean school on the weekends, but I didn’t think much of it at the time. It was only when I began elementary school in a largely white school district that I experienced the first stirrings of a conflict that would escalate to all-out warfare in my high school years.

One of my earliest memories of racial awareness is from first grade, when our teacher, Mrs. Coomey, thought she would be creative and line us up by middle name rather than last name. While half of the girls in my class lined up with their matching “Elizabeths” and “Maries,” I stood alone in the “J” section of the line with the boys whose middle names were “John.” My middle name, Jung Hee, is my Korean birth name, which I was proud of until that day. I hated telling it to anyone for the next ten years after the boys in my class said it sounded like the word “junkie.”

I went to Korean school from the age of five to eight. In Korean school, which took place at a Protestant church on Wednesday evenings, both children and parents took classes on language, culture, music, games, and cooking in order to learn more about our (the kids’) Korean heritage. All of us, except for one girl that I remember, were Korean adoptees—Korean children brought to the U.S. at a young age who had white parents, and whose white parents thought it would be beneficial to educate us and themselves on our culture. But the Korean school did have one problem: its high turnover rate. As much as the parents nagged us to continue our studies and as much as the teachers begged us to stay, none of us wanted to be there, and nothing could change that. Looking back, it makes a lot of sense. Almost all of us came from a primarily white suburban area, went to stable and highly rated schools with majorities of white students, had white parents whom we adored, white friends, and white Barbie Dolls or superheroes. Why the hell would we care about Korean culture?

One of the biggest ironies of it all is that Important, Educated people now tell me about the immense cognitive and practical benefits of being bilingual and multiculturally educated—a global citizen, so to say. Bilingualism is seen as the future of the globalized world—it broadens job prospects, strengthens resumes, shows intercultural competence. At eight years old, I was just thrilled to finally be able to do the fun stuff that normal white kids do, like dance classes and soccer leagues. Eleven years after dropping out of Korean school, I am uncoordinated, unathletic, and monolingual. Talk about a lack of foresight.

For sixteen of my nineteen years of life, I wanted to be white. I didn’t want to be visibly different, visibly Asian, growing into a separate standard of Eastern beauty that could never match the blonde-haired, blue-eyed dolls we had learned to worship when we were young. In high school, I desperately wished that I would grow into my looks like the other girls did, but I soon realized that “glowing up” wasn’t even possible for me in the same way it was for others—I couldn’t just dye my hair and lose weight and put on some makeup to look how I wanted. I would have to change my DNA or get as close to it as I could. I would have to sew my eyelids up to widen my eyes, bleach my hair from the root down, bleach my face to match. I wished so ardently that it would happen but realized that it wasn’t physically possible, and so I looked to other modes of whiteness.

It is a common story, among Korean Adoptees, and in general among Asians who just want to fit in. It starts young, with friends and family and books and movies. We learn to love them—our mentors, our favorite characters, our heroes. Naturally, we want to be like them. Often, this starts with how they look, but this is impossible by the sheer force of genetics. So instead, we turn to acting like them and mimicking their behavior. Learning the classic songs like “Brown Eyed Girl” and “I Want It That Way,” wearing ripped jeans and college hoodies, laughing off the occasional racist comments or awkward inquiries into where we are really from. There’s nothing wrong with embracing American culture when you live in America. It only becomes a problem when American culture becomes mutually exclusive with your own to the point of blatant rejection.

Why were we so eager to quit Korean school? Why did we blush when we were asked to say our Korean names? Why did we wish for big blue eyes instead of a puppy on Christmas Eve? And above all, why did our love for the people around us have to sharpen the blade of hatred for ourselves?

As the “model minority,” it’s easy for Asian people to keep their heads down and blend in with the crowd. Sometimes we’re even able to pass off as white, or act so “normally” that our faces blur in the minds of others to the point of whiteness. Oftentimes, this works in our favor. But what many people don’t understand is the deep wars that we wage within ourselves because of it. Whiteness, in its power and supremacy, is aggressive. In the way that it pervades the consciousnesses of people of color, including Asian people, it attacks people at the core of who they are: their names, their bodies, their languages, their traditions.

I often think of those who lost themselves in battle. The girl in my high school class who was gorgeous enough to win Miss Vietnam, but still told me that she wished she was “at least half-Asian-half-white because mixed Asians are prettier.” The boy majoring in business who had a distinctly Chinese name and told me he’ll change it to something American when he’s older to seem “more professional.” The friend who told me he hopes his kids inherit his girlfriend’s white looks to save them the trouble of looking Asian.

This isn’t to say that our wars are the fault of any given white person. It is our fault, as an American society, for failing people of color time and again. It is also the fault of history, though there are certainly people to blame behind that as well. To put it in the context of my Netflix list, the last episode of Crash Landing on You (a wildly popular Korean drama) aired February 16, 2020. Lana Condor, a Vietnamese-American actress, became well known for her role as Lara Jean following the release of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before on August 17, 2018. Earlier in the same month of the same year, Crazy Rich Asians blew up the box office and gained critical acclaim for its all-Asian cast, an iconic first for Hollywood. On June 19, 1998, Fa Mulan became the first and only Disney Princess of East Asian descent.

For Asian people, it’s been a very long road to seeing and being seen on screen. I often wonder what would have been different if the Asian Americans of my generation had grown up adoring protagonists with names and bodies like our own. What might have changed if the people around us knew more about our cultures and lives? If we weren’t exoticized and poked and prodded and asked what it’s like to “see through small eyes?”

In 2020, I don’t know if I would say that America has treated us kindly as a people, but at least we can find solace in entertainment that includes us, features us, and sometimes even does us proud. When I watch Korean dramas, I might not understand the words they are speaking or pick up on the subtleties of their humor, but at least their faces look like mine. For the ninety minutes of the episode, I can see my country’s culture and life on full display, shameless and unaware of its own mundane beauty. I can whisk back hundreds of years in time to the Joseon dynasty, and watch women wearing hanboks and living in hanoks. I can peer across the ocean in the present and watch young men complete their mandatory military service, watch high school students cram for their college entrance exams, see them fall in love and get married in traditional dress. Sometimes, I can even pretend that I also live in a world where it is normal to see people who look like me, rather than glimpsing them across campus and feeling like I’ve spotted some rare bird that could take flight in a second if I approach too enthusiastically.

So am I a “Koreaboo” for loving Korean Dramas? For listening to “Talk to Me in Korean” to try to scrounge any bits of language I have left? For eating kimchi and rice for breakfast? What about for announcing myself as Anna Jung Hee Lynch without ducking my head in shame?

“You’re turning into a Koreaboo,” he had said with a snicker. I laughed along with him and jokingly got mad, telling him that I can’t be a “Koreaboo” if I’m really Korean. A pause. I could feel the words hanging off the tip of his tongue: You’re not really Korean though. You act white. He was smart enough to leave them inside his mouth, but the heavy pause was enough for me to catch the gist of the message. I quickly changed the subject and tried to move on.

I am no longer upset about my friend’s off-key joke, but the word itself still fills me with a feeling that I couldn’t put words to for years. The word, which serendipitously is Korean, is han. It’s more of a concept than a word, according to scholars of Korean culture. The definition is strikingly summative—“In the most basic sense, [han] is understood as rancor or grief, which is a consequence of a persistent injustice due to asymmetric power relations or an inability to take proper means to solve the suffering.”

The term “Koreaboo” fills me with han in every way. I wonder, in the moments when I am consumed by my han, what more white people can take from me. How much more can they mock my identity, batter it relentlessly, and toss it to the gutter like a cheap mask I only wore for a Halloween party? How was I supposed to react to being seen as white, when it took me, us, so long to finally be seen as Asian people?

I love many white people. My parents, best friends, trusted teachers, and classmates are white. But in moments like these, when I read the usage example of “Koreaboo” on Urban Dictionary which states, “Jackie is such a Koreaboo, she’s American but she shouts ‘OPPA’ at random Asian men and tries to look Korean by gluing her eyelids down,” I wonder what kind of pain I would have to inflict to make them understand, when words aren’t enough, when intelligent discussion is just another form of holding my han back.

As a college student picking up the pieces of the Korean identity I shattered in my youth, I look to “all things Korea” as a tool of learning, entertainment, reclamation, and healing. I am obsessed with all things Korea. I use Duolingo to learn Korean in my free time. I make white people jokes. I complain to high heaven about the lack of Asians at my college. I eat kimchi unapologetically, even though it stinks like death. I search for cute Asian boys at parties because I just want someone who understands what it’s like to live in this body. I jokingly tell my friends to call me eonni, because they should respect their goddamn elders.

But I am not a Koreaboo for doing so. I am just plain Korean.

Anna Lynch is a sophomore at SUNY Geneseo studying creative writing and intercultural and critical studies through the English and communication majors. She is from Liverpool, New York, and enjoys exploring issues in social identity and injustice through both of her areas of study. She hopes to one day become a clinical social worker after collecting a handful of memories from travels abroad.  

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Jade Pagasa Baconcillo

How Would You Have Him Understand Her?

In the middle of adolescence, at the apex of his foolishness, Carlo thought he knew himself. He thought that his understanding of himself was thorough and complete. To him, the world seemed to make sense; he was so sure of his path, his future, and his sense of self at that time. To that, his future self would like to offer these words with all the love, care, and pity one could offer their past self: Bitch, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

It was here that Carlo would find the language for new feelings, such as romantic, sexual, and platonic love. Among the styles of love, Carlo would discover the love of oneself. He would find these monikers of love in Greek terms, such as Philia, deep love in friendship; Pragma, a mature, developed love in long-term reciprocative relationships; and Eros, love affiliated with personal infatuation and physical pleasure. Among them all, he would discover Philautia, either pronounced as fee-lau-tee-a in Romantic terms or more commonly as fee-lau-shuh in modern U.S. English. Philautia is understood as a healthy form of love where you recognize your self-worth and don’t ignore your personal needs. Self-love begins with acknowledging our responsibility for our well-being. No one is going to care more about you than you do, and no one is more responsible for your happiness and wellbeing than you are. Keep this in mind; this will be plot relevant.

Most pertinent to this writing, Carlo would acquire language for discovering and understanding what it means to be born a different gender than what one wishes, hopes, and believes oneself to be at their core. Carlo would come to find out what the term trans meant, and more specifically, he would discover the phrase trans-female. The phrase, as per literal definition, means one who experiences being a woman but was assigned male at birth. Another bit of language that came as a package deal with trans-female was the term gender dysphoria, defined as the distress a person feels due to a mismatch between their gender identity and their sex assigned at birth. These words shook Carlo to his core. He wasn’t sure why these words felt so daunting, so heavy. For a while, and potentially during the present day, he would wonder why these phrases felt right, tasted right when spoken, yet seemed to expose and spotlight an uncomfortably genuine, vulnerable, and unknown piece of himself. These words made him feel more than seen. These phrases and terms made him feel exposed.

Third person pronouns are fun, don’t you think? For example, this assignment could have had the words he, she, and they in equal measure and refer to a single individual. To make good on that idea, it was here, in Carlo’s adolescence, that He would wish. Oh god, he would wish. He wished, over and over, unending to this day, that he would be, and would have always been, She.

It was here that Carlo would wish to be Jade.

But despite this new language, this new understanding of herself, Jade couldn’t understand what being trans meant to her at the time. Hell, she’s still trying to figure it out to this day. How would Carlo understand himself as herself? How would he understand Jade? How would you have Carlo understand the implications of wanting, begging to have been born female, begging to be referred to as a daughter, not as a son? How would you have Jade understand the ways this would inform and influence the way she meets new individuals, inwardly feminine, outwardly presenting as masculine for a multitude of reasons. She wanted to adhere to a status quo, have stability in her household and create existing social life.

She didn’t want to feel like a bother or a new anomaly to those who knew her before she was Her. She was afraid of making an unalterable, potentially dangerous, decision that would shift her norms to their core. With that in mind, can you imagine the sense of freedom and new possibility Jade felt when she left for college and met people who didn’t know her old life and persona? That sense of freedom was intimidating, yet welcomed. She felt the need to get this right, but the idea that she could essentially build herself from the ground up in this new place, in the eyes of new people, felt unreal for a time and still does to some degree.

So, how would you have Him understand Her?

Would you have Him understand Her by the way society understood His wish to become Her? To break this down, even if being trans isn’t a societal norm in many places—or any place—there is a stigma and a standard trans individuals face. Society expects many trans individuals to model themselves after and conform to this expected standard. Some may believe conforming to the societal ideal of the trans individual is the journey of “passing” as their genuine gender through the process of transitioning. Jade would come to find that not all trans individuals go through this process nor should any trans individual be expected to want this process. There are many ways to express one’s self and gender; the societally expected norm is merely one option. Jade found the idea of seeing gender not as something we are but as something we perform to be both cathartic and healing. She likes to fashion herself a good(if not great) pretender—in more ways than one.

Would you have Carlo understand Jade in the way Her parents may never see, by the way she may have to act as He around Her loved ones, by the guilt she felt for throwing away Her name, so lovingly crafted and given by Her mother? Despite their wonderful care for Her upbringing, he could never be the son Mom and Dad wanted nor the child they thought they had this whole time, despite their wonderful care for Her upbringing. After some time, His name, given by loving parents, felt viscerally wrong. Repeating it to herself felt like a lie to her nature, a falsehood, but a necessary one. It felt necessary, so she endures its use from Her loved ones, more afraid of them knowing than being jabbed and stung by Her own name. At least, she could get used to the jabs and stings. She could get used to acting as He. Over time, Jade has come to mind even less, making cognizant changes to Her understanding of its use, not just as a name, but as a title Her loved ones use for Her. If Jade thinks of Carlo as a familiar title, it hurts less when that name is used to address Her.

Would you have Him understand Her by the way she rejected an incredibly healthy male body? Jade wakes up daily, blessed with a body that holds no physiological abnormality, no biological impairments. She’s healthy, hearty, and hale as could be, yet she couldn’t accept this gifted circumstance, for it felt clumsy, clunky, and wrong. There was nothing faulty with Her physiology. In fact, she is fortunate in that regard. She felt guilty for not being able to accept a body so functional and sturdy, a gift many would kill for, when she couldn’t find stability and comfort in one detail that has become so key. Don’t get Her started on Her voice.

Would you have Carlo understand Jade by the way cis-females would see Her? Jade would never have had to experience fundamental parts of being born female or what many female individuals have to face day to day, from birth until death. Jade has the advantage of being assigned male at birth. With that in mind, she is much less likely to be objectified or discriminated against in terms of gender. Jade would never have to experience the menstrual cycle or the ways society makes female struggles invisible and unheard. To this day, Jade feels a certain amount of guilt that she doesn’t deserve the pronoun if she hasn’t gone through any of that same struggle. This is a detrimental mindset and, bluntly, bullshit, as she would come to find out through the support of others. But even with the knowledge that Her experience is real and valid, she would still lament that many of Her sisters would experience what she could not understand in completion.

Would you have Him understand Her by the way she would play video games, read literature, and identify with fictional characters? Jade would, from that point of discovery in adolescence, play almost exclusively female characters if she had the option. In this way, for a few moments, in a reality detached from her own, Jade could feel the experience of these fantasies reflect more closely and clearly the experience she wished she had for her real body. Jade would feel the need to find connection with many female characters she admires, on which she would hope to model herself. Jade’s experience of fiction and literature has been fundamentally changed by this aspect of her existence, as Jade now tries to find ways to relate to, and become more like, female characters she deeply admires. Jade’s procural of language was the first step to her understanding of self, and without it, she may have never found the right word for Trans even if the feeling was still there, nameless, without a word or term to define it.

Would you have Carlo understand Jade by the way Jade uses Dungeons and Dragons, as well as other role-playing mediums, to understand herself more thoroughly? Fun fact: Jade’s Dungeons and Dragons characters have all been named Jade, either as her foremost name and title or in some other capacity. She did this because, for a few hours, every now and then, everyone would refer to her character, and thus her, by her preferred gender and name, when she didn’t have the heart, or trust, to be more authentic about herself to her close friends. At the Table, she could be Her. She could be Jade. No one batted an eye, and every few weeks, for a few precious hours, surrounded by good company, she was called by her preferred name, by her preferred pronouns, even if it did involve some deception and sleight of hand. Through role-play, through being a pretender, she could get a feel for her own sense of gender and identity, often displaying aspects of herself through all her characters.

How would you have Him understand Her?

Amongst all these thoughts, amongst all His discoveries, Her struggles, Jade’s journey, she would come to remember, and be reminded of, another lesson before Her fated words of trans-female. She would remember to take days off from physical training when Her body ached for rest, fatigue clinging to Her marrow, bone dry from more than Her physical needs. She would remember to eat after forgetting to do so in trying to finish up assignments ahead of time to feel deserving of something, the soon-to-be burned out fool. She would remember that, despite Her thoughts of needing to achieve and achieve, to impress via success, to work harder for the sake of better, to earn Her place in this game, to feel like she’s not just here because of too many good chances lined up for Her, to earn this pronoun from some higher knowledge of being, some authority of permission, she was, and will be, enough. As unbelievable as it sounds, as much of a lie as it feels to Her ears, drunk with self-deprecation, she was acknowledged by Her loves as enough. Despite Her nerve deep need to improve, to be better because she can be, to do good by the fortunes that favored Her among so many deserving others, she would remember that, somehow, for many, and for herself, she was enough.

She would remember Philautia. She would remember to understand Her needs and allow herself some glimpse of that forgotten self-worth. Among all, she is fortunate to an ungodly degree to have beloved individuals there to remind Her, beat it into Her head when necessary.

He doesn’t have to worry about understanding this much. He, and so too, She, though rarely, would understand that Jade was enough. At least in this way, He would come to understand Her. Now let’s hope to fuck that she doesn’t forget this lesson anytime soon.

Jade Pagasa Baconcillo is a student attending SUNY Albany, studying psychology, English, and counseling. She hopes to improve her writing on a technical level, while also using her writing as a vehicle for self-reflection and self-understanding. The writing of others has had a positive impact on her, and she hopes her work does some amount of good for others.

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