Category Archives: Creative Nonfiction

D’Arcy Hearn

Holding My Breath

I am not a runner, but today I run. I don’t have a destination, I just want to be somewhere else, anywhere other than trapped between the walls of my apartment. I let my feet guide me, propelled forward by the strength in my legs. Even chronic pain can’t stop the momentum, as my subconscious actions are powerful, an unstoppable force. My brain is in tune with the rhythm of my feet as they hit the pavement one behind the other, right foot, left foot. Remember to breathe. I hear the constant reminder in the voices of my mother, the doctors, my therapist, my friends. Breathe in the sickly sweet scent of magnolias; breathe out the pain.

It feels like the apocalypse has hit New York City, the seemingly endless motion and boundless energy paused in silent fear. The city that never sleeps entered hibernation, and although there will be no returning to normal, no one knows when we will return to anything at all. I have lived through September 11th and Hurricane Sandy, and I have never seen anything like this.

I marvel at nature still in motion, triumphantly blooming as humanity quietly resigns itself to stillness, locked away in homes. Staten Island may be the sleepiest borough, suburban and slower paced, but it is unrecognizable in this eerie ghost town state. The high school across the street from my apartment building is deserted in darkness, no raucous laughter of restless teenagers screeching and fighting. The playground is silent, save the swings gently swaying in the soft breeze. Gang violence and shootings seem to have disappeared during this pandemic, but I know the real danger is for those trapped inside with an abuser. It makes my stomach churn to think about my students. I hope to God they are safe.

Restaurants, nail salons, and stores are closed or mostly deserted, desperate signs with delivery information posted in the windows. The local dive bar has written their phone number for takeout in decaying red paint, which drips like blood down the façade uninvitingly. No one is running down the hill, hurriedly trying to make the ferry to Manhattan before the doors close and they have to wait another thirty minutes. The bodegas are the only sign of life left, a small reminder that we are not alone, and the only place that still has toilet paper in stock. The way my grandfather would stockpile paper goods in his garage doesn’t seem so funny anymore: it all makes sense now. That will be my generation forty years from now—stockpiling toilet paper, Clorox wipes, and non-perishables.

I am not a runner, but running has always felt like liberation. When I’d get drunk in college, I’d run down the sidewalk towards the green, giggling joyously as the world rushed by, and I felt free—free of expectation, of obligation, free from even myself, the person who held everything so tightly inside. When I felt overwhelmed with a situation, I would pull an Irish exit, immediately vacate the premises to keep myself from exploding into tears. Years later, I have matured and developed healthier coping skills than alcohol and bailing, but I still sometimes feel that same urge to flee from conflict.

As my feet make contact with the ground beneath me, I focus on the sensation of finding my footing on the different surfaces below—uneven sidewalks, packed dirt, wobbly cobblestones, and cracks in the pavement. I turn the corner aimlessly, pausing slightly to take in the view. A large flowering tree leans over the corner of the steep hill, sloping down towards the water and the horizon. The wind produces a snowfall of white flower petals, and I’m reminded of winter walks with my father. Then, we appreciated the gentle pause in city life, as people retreated inside, and the snow blanketed the streets in snowy silence. The pause we’re in the midst of now is anything but gentle; it is sudden, scary, and uncertain.

Down the hill beyond the swirling pollen snow is the Manhattan skyline in the distance, unchanging across the sparkling water. Just out of reach, unattainable for living, but the place where many of us work and sometimes play. I head downhill towards the glimmering vista, thankful for once I live in a more boring borough, less densely populated and greener. I feel the incline shift beneath me, sloping downward sharply, so I adjust my pace accordingly. I struggle to breathe through my pink bandana, which I carefully chose over the red and blue ones I own.

I try to focus on the soft breeze and the sun peeking through the clouds, to shut out the image of my father’s hazel eyes above his mask as they clouded over and I caught a glimpse of something I’d never seen before, the unmistakable pain at the loss of his best friend of over sixty years. Standing six feet away in my parents’ driveway, I couldn’t even hug him, and I swallowed hard to keep the lump in my throat from rising any higher. My numbness melted at this first close loss, three weeks into quarantine. On my way home from their house that evening, I sat in my car and cried, not wanting to burden my roommate. We’re all dealing with the same pain, so how could we comfort one another?

Later that night, I composed myself and reached out to the man who is not my man. He calls me a runner, but I haven’t run from him after three and a half years, the longest romantic connection I’ve had. Without the physical nuances of close proximity, our long distance relationship wasn’t easy. I had run to other men, ones who were closer, physically present, and ready to dive in. Those relationships never lasted. He has my whole heart, and no amount of running away can change the fact that I still run back to him. We rarely see each other in person, so our relationship in quarantine hasn’t changed, as we continue to communicate through video chats, postcards, letters, and voice recordings. When I called that night, he was just beginning his day, finishing up meditation, and getting ready for work. His calming, gentle energy always puts me at ease, and he immediately sensed that I was off. He listened and somehow made me laugh, still present even as he had to log onto his computer to begin teaching English to his students in China. I told him how pleased he would be that my therapist was working on breathing techniques with me. I rolled my eyes and he laughed, nodded approvingly. Although time zones divide us, lately I feel closer to him. He appreciates the increased video calls, possible because I have more unstructured time on my hands than normal. This urgent and isolating time has forced our conversations deeper, into a vulnerability neither of us has ever known.

Breathe in emotion: it’s okay to feel; breathe out the burden: you’re not in this alone. As a social worker, I recognize my own trauma responses, but that doesn’t make them any easier to deal with. Although my parents are only ten minutes away, I can’t be with them. I worry constantly. So, I keep on running, letting my lungs fill with fresh air while I can. I know I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m healthy, young, and financially stable. I live and work in this community, and I know all too well that the color of someone’s skin can determine their health outcomes. I cannot control the devastation this virus is unleashing on our most vulnerable communities, and I feel helpless. I signed up to volunteer for food delivery, to provide mental health support via phone, and to lead virtual therapeutic art classes. This ability to be useful gives me a sense of control, something much needed in this uncertain time.

I’d been planning to run from this place, to quit my job after my grant ended in several months, and move to Central America, where I could work on my writing and immerse myself in Spanish language learning. Now, there is nowhere safe to run. I have to face whatever it is I’m running from. I’ve recently hit my goal of traveling to twenty countries before turning thirty, and I was making moves to leave everything behind and just go, unusual for my Type A self. I had been following my 2020 intention of leaning into risk, and letting go of fear-based decisions. Now I’m stuck and unsure of what will come next, and my plan to travel is null. I focus on the here and now. Breathe in, left foot forward; breathe out, right foot forward.

As I approach the busy intersection of bus stops, I map out a pathway around the familiar group of people hanging out on the corner, undeterred by the virus. Various substances cloud their judgment, and they likely do not have a safe home to shelter in place. I round the corner and pick up the pace to a sprint, following my feet as they lead me away. I know I’m privileged to have a job where I can work from home for the time being, and I’m thankful for the paycheck and purpose of my work. I wonder if this virus will cause people to finally listen to the health equity issues my students have been facing all along.

I feel unsteady, but glide smoothly along the sidewalk. My path is no longer planned. I’m just focusing on one step at a time, as I move forward into the unknown. I stumble upon one of the many secret staircases in my hilly neighborhood and delight at the break in the monotony and added challenge to my run. At the top of the staircase is a path to several driveways, leading to large old houses, homes with turreted towers and leisurely porches and intricate gardens. There are hand drawn rainbows in some windows, clumsy colorful stripes drawn by children, a sign of hope after the storm.

The silence in the air is punctuated by sirens, even more frequently than we used to hear the cop cars rolling through the neighborhood to the precinct down the block. This feels different, a soundtrack of fear. The ambulances don’t discriminate, they head down the hill towards the housing projects and up the hill towards the old Victorians; no one is immune from this virus. Living with the unknown has never been a strength of mine. My anxiety makes everything difficult. I live in a constant state of rumination, dwelling in the future and obsessing over the past. I am rarely fully present. Now, I’m forced to live in the moment, and I’m strangely calm. The stress that everyone else is feeling now is my normal, and I feel equipped to help others through this.

I squint, looking to see if neighbors are smiling through their masks. Is that a wrinkle around the eyes or a slight upward movement of a mask? I see the suspicion in people’s faces, but I search their eyes for kindness. I remember how kind people were to each other after 9/11. The air was heavy with loss then, too, but it was one fell swoop. Now, the air looms with the uncertainty of an impending storm. We don’t know when the downpour will start or who it will hit the hardest, but we know we can’t avoid the raindrops.

As I run back downhill past my old high school and the “dirty deli” across the street from it, I’m amused to think the deli owners essentially imposed social distancing ten years ago. They limited access to a few students at a time, with a large employee posted in the doorway like a bodyguard, looking disapprovingly at the diverse group of kids hanging outside, all of us potential thieves. We waited patiently just to buy a twenty-five-cent cosmic brownie or a bag of chips. We’d brush off a layer of dust from the packaging and the faint smell of mildew.

I keep running. Tune out the news, the numbers rising, a steady death toll quietly marching on. Breathe. How can I exhale when we are collectively holding our breath, waiting for the inevitable crash of the tidal wave that hovers just above us? How can I breathe when we are suffocating behind masks, between four walls, behind a computer screen? I need to breathe for those who cannot, as they cling desperately to life through ventilators.

As I run, I feel my shoulder pain sharpening, but I’m used to it. I remind myself to breathe and ease up instead of ignoring the pain and continuing. The one good thing about escalating pain these past few years is that it has taught me to slow down and be gentle with myself, to really listen to my body, and stop pushing through the pain. I decrease my speed as I pass the empty office buildings, eerily silent on a street usually bustling with city workers. There is no line outside the courthouse, no security guards by the Family Justice Center, no one getting married at Borough Hall.

Getting closer to home, I run faster, following my feet as they lead me away. I feel light raindrops on my exposed arms and eyelids. I’ve never enjoyed wet droplets on my skin or damp clothes clinging to my body, but I smile. The touch of rain grounds me in the moment, and it has never felt so good. I breathe in deeply, not knowing when I’ll be out in the rain again. I know not to take this for granted.

I try to think of the little moments of joy like the sidewalk birthday party formed from a parade of cars, as I joined with strangers and sang along from my window to a neighbor I had never met, the sand drawings and messages of hope along the shoreline as I watched the sunset over the bay. My roommate and I have shared many impromptu dance parties and joyous moments despite the pain, as humor has always been my go-to coping mechanism. We reminisce about our freshman year of college when we met, where we shared one small room and many big dreams. There was a time when we imagined our future selves as starving artists in Manhattan or Brooklyn, sharing a tiny apartment and eating ramen noodles. We laugh at the fact that the almost dystopian reality we had pictured had come true. We have upgraded our cooking skills slightly, and our apartment is blissfully sunny and spacious, thanks to settling in an outer, unpopular borough. Staten Island was more affordable, and we were thankful to have room to work and to dance in our old and open apartment.

The raincloud seems to dissipate, as the sun emerges from behind the gray. Shining beams of light illuminate the path. I’m glad I didn’t let the rain deter me, or I wouldn’t feel the warmth of sunbeams kiss my shoulders. I slow to a walk near my building, not yet ready to go inside. I see a familiar figure, a silhouette of a cowboy hat and a cane. It’s an older neighbor, sitting outside on the wall by the entrance under the awning just like always. He has his usual friendly demeanor, stately moustache, and clear appreciation for the day before us. I’ve never been so happy to see him. Usually I run out the door past him, late to work. He’d call after me to slow down, and I’d laugh and wave. Today, I slow down completely, stopping to smile at him as we acknowledge each other like old friends. Breathe in the wet rain on the pavement; breathe out hopelessness. I carefully create an arc around him, as I head back inside into the stifling air of my apartment. Taking one final deep breath, I remind myself of all the things I have to be grateful for, even the rain.


D’Arcy Hearn is a community organizer from Staten Island, NY, who is passionate about youth empowerment and using creative arts as a vehicle for social change. She holds a BA from SUNY Geneseo and an MSW from the University of Michigan. Humor is her favorite coping mechanism and her complete lack of a poker face gets her in trouble all the time.

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction

Daniel Fleischman

Chasing Reflections

It is one thing to recognize who’s in the mirror but quite another to feel a connection. I can picture, with an assuredness that makes it scrunch up, every contour of my face, but I cannot bring myself to know it is mine on an emotional level. I can only guess at reflections of faded blue eyes, half-grown eyebrows, and inadvertent scowls to pick myself out from a crowd.

I try to recognize my face under harsh bathroom lighting—all sense of connection warped and washed out. I am seventeen. It is the height of August. I look in my familiar mirror and see a face I don’t want, a face of someone stuck in his ways, a face that seems pudgy and dull and repulsive. Maybe it’s the bathroom’s salmon-pink walls and outdated spherical light fixtures just above the mirror. I watch the mouth hang ajar as I taste something sour. The face is mine, and I know it too well. I stare into my eyes imploring the mirror to change who I am, high on snippets of weight loss stories, warnings from my doctor, and appearance possibilities. I resolved then to lose the physical burden of who I was, not to indulge myself any longer.

I saw, in my mind, the man I wanted to mold out of the fat of a boy, to sculpt with the intention and pride I lacked. In front of the mirror, I imagine my thumb and forefinger pinching and dragging to create prominent cheekbones and a jawline like shattered glass barely covered by tanned skin. I wrangle my nose with a crack and squeeze of its bony bridge, bringing it to a gentle, inconspicuous slope. I try to twist my expression into something new, massaging flesh into a face disinterested in the world. I force open my eyes, so my irises don’t simply leak out from squinting eyelids like beady afterthoughts. I rip apart rough blotches of skin and remove the capillaries just under the surface—fingernails negotiating with anatomy to eliminate my propensity to blush. I yank at my cheeks hoping to make my face gaunt and chiseled. I bash in my forehead with the base of my palm in an effort to combat how far it protrudes. I want a face like a wall, able to wholly contain the humdrum of the restless neuroses going on in my head. I want to create a Frankenstein’s monster of myself—an amalgamation of stolen anatomy I could bend to my own vain ideals.

I wanted to construct my face, pick out the pieces and tweak. To choose. To morph and distort to fit my perception of stoic, of attractive. I wanted a face with a stony, unencumbered gaze my mind could attempt to imitate. I wanted everyone to see me, to want me, not this desperate need to chase. I wanted a face that doesn’t twitch its pleading eyes around to its own reflection at every turn.

Pleading eyes only go so far for identifying a problem to be changed. You must substantiate a problem before it can be addressed. Food is the problem. Food merges with your identity and self-perception, the fat, the chronic exhaustion, the overeating, the Fluffernutter sandwiches with far too much fluff, the ginger ale you somehow convince yourself it’s okay to suck down when you get home from school, the excessive salt of leftover pork chops you scarf down because it makes more sense to finish them up before you make more, the stretch marks that adorn your abdomen and grow up with you, the blue jeans that are more like circus tents, and the person you’ve become, the only person you know, the person you’ve resigned to accept.

Eating was a part of my identity. It felt good to taste things and gorge myself beyond the pressure of a full belly, and it was better than doing nothing. Food fills time and space. Eating goes beyond a biological process. Losing weight, like it or not, means losing parts of yourself.

Gym class. Senior year of high school. The assignment is to assess your physical condition by BMI, place yourself in a category—obese, overweight, healthy, or underweight—and evaluate what steps to take to reach “healthy” on a little index card. There’s something demoralizing about honesty, accepting the truth about your own wrongdoings, failures, and weaknesses. There’s something demoralizing about taking that real look at yourself—to become your own objective mirror. But I was honest then. I sat on a bleacher of beige plastic, seething as I forced my hands to stop trembling. Tennis shoes squeaked on the sticky gloss of the gym floor. My name is Daniel Fleischman. I am currently obese at 17 with a weight of 281 pounds. I should eat less and exercise more. 

I didn’t follow my own instructions then. I was complicit in letting myself languish in self-destruction. I ate and ate knowing full well the dangers of not being “healthy,” and I went along with it, for nearly eighteen years I went along with it.

I tell people my motivation was my health. That’s only half the truth. August, the summer before college, the phone rings. I’ve been dreading the call. It was my doctor, a pediatrician who has known me since I was born and watched me grow tall and wide. He was following up on blood work from a checkup two weeks earlier.

“Hello?” I say.

“Hi. Is this Daniel Fleischman?” His voice was restrained, languid even, deep and smooth as it always was, paternal in his delivery. He knew just where to inflect, perfect bedside manner. Maybe he’s just a good person.

“Hi, Dr. Branch.” I begin to pace around my kitchen.

“We have the results back from your blood work.” Papers rustle.

There are still scabs from the blood being drawn, my arm too fat to find the vein on the first go. I walk down the hall and into the bathroom, the one with salmon-pink walls and round lights. “Go ahead,” I say. I know it isn’t going to be good.

“Your blood pressure is a little high; so is your cholesterol. You fall into what we consider pre-diabetic. You’re at a heightened risk for type 2 diabetes. If we don’t make a change to your diet or exercise routine, your health will remain in question,” he says.

I lean on the sink with one elbow, phone in the other, and look down. I couldn’t look in the mirror. He reads off several more formalities—tips for portion control, a suggestion to do more cardio, and advice to discuss this with my parents. He asks me if I understand. I do. All the fat and excess skin on my torso droop downwards as my back arches over the sink.

“Thank you for calling, Dr. Branch. I’ll eat less and exercise more.”

I didn’t know if that was a lie or just an empty promise. The least I could do was look in the mirror. I should’ve been concerned with my health. I was. I am. But, in the moment, all I saw was my ugly face. I didn’t want to be ugly. I wanted to be more attractive, slimmer, appealing. I had graduated from high school that June, and I didn’t want to be fat through college. I wanted to reinvent myself, rebel like so many others do, become a new person, kiss someone, have sex, lose myself and the face I recognized all too much, and watch it all melt off like quicksilver. I wanted to change the reflection, my outward presentation to the world and all its creatures at any cost.

The cost was food. About two weeks after I had decided to slim down that summer, my first sacrifice came and went. My family and I went to get ice cream. All four of us: my father who’s had salt-and-pepper hair since he was twenty-something. He dyes his hair brown now. He likes navy blue nylon dry-fit shirts and cell phone holders that attach to his belts. He shed the carapace that was his own obesity a couple years before. I can still remember the tattered green recliner that used to creak and whimper under him as he drank coke by the liter and vanilla ice cream by the tub before passing out, not to be disturbed. My father’s weight left with that chair, yet the memory lingers. My mother who has hazel hair that curls down to her shoulders and frames a round face. Her presence brings the word jolly to mind, but you bite your tongue because that would be an awful thing to say. She once looked like me. She feeds the family. Every morning and night for our entire lives, she has fed us. She takes pride in feeding us, but she turns down compliments. A good cook, nothing more. Food made us happy, so she fed us. Us, as in my sister who pretends not to care, and me. My sister who was as voracious as me but smiled more, who doubted I could shed the pounds that she hasn’t managed to, who was most surprised to see me thin, who, I believe, feels guilt over that doubt in hindsight.

We went to an ice cream stand called King Kone whose sign is a creepy ice cream cone with a face: smug, smirking, and cold. Its cheeks are permanently red and reminded me of my own. I saw my face in the sign’s undefined jawline and head round like a marshmallow. It seemed to laugh at me as it taunted my stomach into rumbling.

“What are you gonna get, Dan?” my sister asks as we drive up, my eyes still observing the sign.

“Nothing.”

“He’s been eating less, Jess, honey. You know that,” my mother says, coming to my defense as she often does.

“But you have to have some,” my sister insists, digging her finger into my cheek. “Why did you even come with us if you’re not getting any ice cream?”

“I wanted to spend time with you guys,” I say in good faith, while swatting her hand away with rotund fingers, fully aware food is what brings families, ours included, together. When you’re eating, you don’t have to talk. We pull into the parking lot.

My usual order was a medium chocolate-vanilla twist with rainbow sprinkles, always rainbow sprinkles. Instead I feast my eyes on familial tongues shoveling the frozen custard into their mouths. I surprise myself when I am actually able to hold back and not get a cone. All I have to do is not eat. The more you put in, the more weight you’ll put on. Not doing something is easier than doing something. Thoughts followed me around as a hundred pounds sloughed off like an insect’s molt. I watched my reflection in the side window the whole way home.

You must commit to losing weight; eating is a choice that can be denied. All I did was cut calories, limit portion size, and, well, skip meals. Breakfast was out, and lunch was something I learned to go without most days—a secret deprivation I held close to my slimming chest when my mother called and asked if I was eating. Fall semester, freshman year of college was colored by dizzy spells and the warm, fuzzy black of failing peripheral vision when I stood up too fast. I only fainted once.

I got out of bed and stood on legs that gave out like the spongy grilled chicken I would allow myself. A tingling sensation originating from my stomach climbed up my spine. My vision went to black, then I felt my knees, my forearms hit the floor, and then my head hit the dresser. But I was fine, resilient, strong. I had resolve.

I knew what I was doing was wrong and destructive and too far in the other extreme. I knew that in the moment, and I know that much better now looking back. I can’t change my actions, though, especially when I reap the benefits now. I can’t condemn myself for my past methods when I’m content with the results in the present. All I can do is accept it and move on.

I knew I had succeeded, and I wanted others to know, too–to look up at the cliff I stood atop, the one that had taken so long to climb. After freshman year of college, a year after I began to lose the weight, I went to see Dr. Branch for another checkup. I told my mother I wanted to make sure everything was up to par in terms of health, but, deep down, I wanted to be praised.

I drive to his office, stealing glances at myself  in the rear-view mirror. I park and step out, my eyes jump from window to window in search of better views of myself. I step through the automatic doors. The waiting room is empty besides a receptionist, a rainbow of plastic children’s chairs, and a fish tank. I sit across from the fish tank and meet my own eyes in the reflection while I pretend to watch fish. The seat feels so much better when you can fit in it. I am called into the office.

There, I strip to my boxers and mess with the scale, satisfied. Dr. Branch walks in.

“Wow, look at you! You look great,” he says.

I smile.

“This is absolutely fantastic. I can see you’ve really taken your health to heart. This is one of the most drastic improvements I’ve seen in my career. You’ve made my week, Daniel. How’d you do it?”

“Portion control.” I don’t tell him about starving myself.

Frankenstein’s monster was beautiful before it came to life. Is guilt the right word for what I felt? Maybe. Or was it pride? Acceptance, regret, shame, control, or strength, perhaps? Did I hate who I was or simply want to improve? Did I just switch from gluttony to vanity, indulging my thin dreams pulled taut like a sheet over a bottomless pit of insecurity rather than resigning myself to a life of endless pepperoni and onion pizzas?  These are the thoughts that enter my mind when I look in a mirror. I don’t have answers. They just float around in space as I look myself in the eye with a dash of pity and glimmers of satisfaction, my hands resting on the cold porcelain of my sink. I can’t help but watch my reflection match my stride and meet my eyes in a window as I walk past. I try to grab my thoughts as I ogle the image of my face in the screen of my phone. I’m forced to meet my own gaze, myself a reflection, as I try to find the line between new and old.

People throw the word “journey” around like it means something. I stood still, and the world moved around me, twisting and distorting like rolls of fat moving out like a shock-wave, as if someone smacked my gut when I was seventeen. I chose to stop moving, forego who I was a hundred pounds ago in favor of a face I didn’t know in a reflection I’d never seen. I thought I could be better. I thought losing weight would do that. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein ends in a long, desperate chase: Victor Frankenstein chases his creation, his monster, the reflection of his and humanity’s greatest delusions, into frozen tundra and death. Then the monster mourns.

For a long time, I would look at mirrors and want to see something else, but I never sloughed off my cynical, self-serving doubts that a thin me would ever be me. Thin is impossible; fat is forever. But now I am thin, and I look at myself at every chance I get, and I like what I see, but I get absorbed in forehead wrinkles and the pronounced brow bone that remain. Now, I look at mirrors to make sure I never go back. I fill my hand with the same kind of fat, there’s just less of it. The stretch marks are still there—tiny ravines of skin stretched paper thin that look like they could tear at any time. Thin is possible; flaws are forever. I don’t think I’ve even moved an inch.

All I heard for a while were faceless “Congratulations!” and “You’ve lost so much weight! You look so good!” or, like my cousin before a light Thanksgiving dinner, “I didn’t even recognize you!” If I could work up the nerve, I would smile and hug them and feel hands on my shoulder blades. I’m the only one who’s allowed to question if it’s really me.

I never lost the weight of what I saw in the mirror that summer. I just held myself back, never eating or accepting. I know lots of people don’t feel quite right in their own skin—or fat for that matter—but they move on in stride. In my eyes, they do not get stuck in their reflection and peer at windows or chrome finish or TV screens looking for someone who isn’t there and who they’re scared to ever have back. The world stops. When I walk past a window, I indulge myself. I indulge myself. I indulge myself beyond recognition.

I peer at the handsome reflection rather than through the window. There is another me looking back through the same pane.  He knows every secret about me; I know every secret about him. He knows what I’ve gained, and I know what he’s lost. I see someone who could’ve kept the pounds with the lick of an ice cream cone with rainbow sprinkles. Only chance divides past and present. Either one of us could be the one on the outside looking in, haunting the other, both apparitions bound by action and inaction, the same person underneath the fat. I force myself to relearn, without even slowing my pace, who is stuck inside the glass.


Daniel Fleischman is a senior at SUNY Geneseo. He studies creative writing and biology because he believes salamanders are worth writing about, too. At home in Ossining, New York, he can be found running into spiderwebs as he daydreams in nature preserves or admiring his pet cocker spaniel.

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Aliyha Gill

Sisters

I.

“Do you think I’d look good as a blonde?” I ask my sister Cassandria as we sit in parallel spa chairs at Grace’s Nail Salon. Toes tied in tissue to prevent us from smudging our freshly painted nails, we twist our upper bodies to face one another while staying still for the nail technicians.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Aliyha. Your skin tone is too tan for that. Plus, are you really going to keep up with your roots?”
“I don’t know. I wouldn’t go as light as Mom’s hair, maybe more of a dirty blond?”

“You’re sisters? But you look nothing alike!”
The nail technician pries into our family situation
as she paints a top coat on Cassandria’s toes.

She is right: my sister and I
are both the spitting images
of our own fathers.
Two opposing specimen
that make others
doubt our relation.
Cassandria’s nose is pointed,

while mine rounds out at the bottom.

Her hair sprouts outwards like sun rays

while mine points straight to the ground.

Cassandria’s mouth stretches
across most of her face,

while mine stays within the boundaries
of the width of my nose.

We look most alike in the summer,
when she tans enough to match

my complexion, so long as I stay out of the sun.

Yet even with similar skin tones,
our bone structures contrast
too much to pass for more than cousins.

Our dissimilar faces
emulate the same look of disgust
at the nail technician’s impolite question.

Her forehead wrinkles,

and my chin scrunches up.

 

II.

“Sis, Marcos is at the door.” I shake Cassandria awake from her mid-afternoon nap on the living room couch. We hadn’t seen her dad since her thirteenth birthday. She is sixteen now. Cassandria orients herself, smoothes her hair down, and asks me if I’m certain it’s her father. Peeking through the curtains, I steal another look.

Same forehead-to-face ratio (though wrinkles run across his), same full lips (though his are pursed into a fake smile), same hazel eyes (though his gaze feels unfamiliar). I rearrange the curtains before he can notice me, then turn to my sister and nod to confirm his identity.

I always felt illegitimate
when Marcos came around,

though he hardly ever did.
Whenever he did,
he swooped in and showed
my sister a different world,

one I wasn’t a part of.
Before my memory began to stick,
I am told that Marcos

would take her away for whole nights.

I probably assumed she was going
on a fun vacation
and wondered why she couldn’t bring
Mom and me along.

This visit, Marcos brings Cassandria
to the mall for a belated birthday gift
that he believes will make up for
all the other birthdays he’s missed.
They are only gone for a couple hours,
yet the house feels empty.

A part of me wonders
if she won’t come back.
Would Marcos offer her
a better life?

Would she decide to live
with her other half-siblings?

We’ve had Cassandria
for sixteen years straight.
Maybe Marcos came
because our time was up.

It is hard to accept
the fact that Cassandria
has twice the number
of dads and siblings.

DJ and I try to distract ourselves by playing games on the Wii but Cassandria’s avatar
pops up on the homepage. We scroll through the song choices on Just Dance, looking for any new songs we might’ve unlocked. After we settle on “Eye of the Tiger,” DJ and I spread out on the living room carpet, swinging our arms to make sure we have enough space between one another. At the start of the dance, Cassandria’s high score flies across the top of the screen. Neither of us even come close to it.

Cassandria always comes back. This time, she came home with a purple iPod that was small enough to fit in her palm. We stay up all night downloading songs from the family computer onto her gift from her father. Cassandria sits on the front edge of the rolling desk chair while I sit cross-legged behind her. We download whole albums of Avril Lavigne, Taylor Swift, and The Jonas Brothers.

“Did you have fun today?” I ask Cassandria
while we watch the loading icon pinwheel
in the center of the screen.

“I guess.”
She shrugs, scooching further
back into the chair. I tell her

about how DJ and I played Just Dance
and reassure her

that her high score was still intact.

Once all our pre-teen bops are downloaded, we tiptoe back to our bedroom. Cassandria untangles her earbuds in the dark so that no light can seep through the cracks of Mom and Dad’s bedroom door. I slip into my bed and dog-ear the blanket corner for Cassandria to join. We lay side by side on our backs, so that we can share the earbuds.

III.

The sound of bangles clanking against one another draws me and Cassandria into the living room. We find Dad laying out silver and gold jewelry on the coffee table, which means Grandma Ruby sent us another glamorous package from Pakistan. As always, Dad hovers his hands over the table until we agree to be extra careful with his mother’s jewelry. I know only to touch the gold pieces since Cassandria will want all the silver ones.
Cassandria embraces my father’s culture as her own. Each week following a package from Grandma Ruby, we both show up to school in our Pakistani jewelry elbow-deep in rainbow bangles.

But as she gets older and begins
questioning her identity,
she stops
getting excited about the jewelry
and lets me claim
all the pieces.

 

“Now, lean against the wall and look straight at the camera!” Cassandria instructs me as she turns the dial on her radio. “Too Cool” from the Disney movie Camp Rock fills our bedroom as Cassandria rushes to get into position. She holds her iPod Touch horizontally and makes sure I am the focus of the camera before she begins to film our music video. I mirror my sister’s movements as she shows me what to do behind the camera. Strut away from the camera, look over your shoulder, wink. Whenever I forget the lyrics and mouth something completely different, Cassandria assures me she’ll be able to edit it out of the final cut.
“I’m going to upload this music video to YouTube and we’ll go viral!” Cassandria exclaims, so confident in her shaky, middle school camerawork and my awkward elementary school composure. Cassandria sifts through her wardrobe and hands me in her trendy Mudd jeans and a cheetah-print over-the-shoulder top for the next scene. Although she never does end up posting any of the music videos we make together, we still enjoy our roles as director and star.

 

The three of us lay on our sides one night; Cassandria in the front, then me, then DJ at the caboose of our train. We are only thirteen, nine, and six, respectively. DJ traces intricate pictures on my back with his pointer finger as I do the same to Cassandria. She pretends that she’s deep in concentration over the lines I’m sketching, trying to guess what image I’m massaging onto her back. But I know she’s dozing off to the free massage she has earned as the older sister.
We are all small enough to all fit in Cassandria’s twin size bed, which is across the room from my own. Occasionally, my fingers drift to Cassandria’s armpit, and I tickle her to test if she’s still awake. She groans and kicks me, but soon she’s back to guessing what I’m drawing.

 

“Quit moving! You’re gonna ruin your eyeshadow!” Cassandria scolds me as I sit on the bathroom counter. Cassandria’s grip on my chin tightens while I continue to fuss over the eyeliner she draws on my eyelid. Eventually, she makes nearly symmetrical lines on both my eyes, despite having to start over multiple times because I teared up.
“There! Aren’t you glad that I did your makeup?” Cassandria steps back to get a better view of the complete look.
“If I had let Mom do it, I would’ve shown up to the eighth grade dance with blue eyeshadow up to my eyebrows!” I tilt the handheld mirror at different angles to truly appreciate my smokey eyes and blood red lips.
“And bright pink blush caking your entire cheeks!” Cassandria and I laugh about Mom’s outdated makeup look.
“You’re turning into a slut, just like your sister,” Dad says from the bathroom doorway, gritting his crooked teeth. He doesn’t like that Cassandria wears makeup to school, and now he finds her painting my face just like hers. He retreats to the living room before Cassandria can think of anything to say.

IV.

“Stop, don’t hurt DJ!” I shout to Dad right before he flings one of DJ’s WWE action figures
in his direction. I don’t remember what he did to make Dad angry, but I’ll never forget the gut-wrenching clap of plastic on DJ’s bare back. Cassandria and Mom are still unpacking the car from our family beach trip, but Cassandria runs into the house at the sound of her siblings’ screams and finds my father shuffling around the wobbly coffee table while I try to outrun him on the other side.
“Get away from them!” Cassandria declares through her braces, standing between her siblings and her stepdad. Although she is only sixteen, her commanding tone is enough to stop my dad in his tracks.

The car trunk slams shut and Mom
assesses the damage
as she joins us
in the living room.
She finds us each
frozen in position:

Dad crouches on the edge
of the couch and holds
his bald head in his hands;
Cassandria acts as a wall
with her hands on her hips
standing between her stepfather
and DJ, who sits against the wall
and hugs his knees against his chest;
and me, still in my defensive stance
on the other side of the coffee table.

Dad “tsks” at us kids
and escapes to his room.
Mom follows him once
she sees that Cassandria
is assessing the extent
Of DJ’s injury.

Cassandria kneels beside DJ, who rubs his own back from the brash impact of the toy. The outline of a ten-inch action figure is stamped onto his back in red, surrounded by a swollen ring of purple. I hear Mom yelling at Dad behind their closed bedroom door. Her words sound wet, like she is crying as she speaks. Before I can hear the bulk of their argument, Cassandria turns the TV on to Disney Channel on the highest volume setting.

V.

Cassandria looks down at the grocery list on her phone as I push the cart through Stop & Shop. I direct us toward the cold cereal aisle, but Cassandria tugs on the cart to redirect us towards the fresh produce.
“You need to eat more vegetables, Aliyha,” Cassandria reprimands me, making me roll my eyes. We agree on getting salad for tonight as long as I can also pick up a roll of cookie dough.
After looping through the aisles for the rest of our list, we wheel the cart to the cash register lane with the shortest line. Cassandria lets me through first so I can bag the items while she swipes Mom’s card to pay for the groceries. I bag pasta for DJ, fruits for Cassandria, and candies for myself.
“Crap! We forgot to get Mom’s coffee!” I say to Cassandria after bagging our last box of cereal.

“You’re sisters?” the cashier questions us
after overhearing my comment.
The two of us paste polite,
yet fake smiles on our faces.

The ends of Cassandria’s lips point
upwards to her furrowed eyebrows,

and my eyes look down
at my flip-flopped feet as I
snap the hair tie against my wrist.

The cashier seems taken aback
from our confirmation of relation.
She continues to interrogate us,
as people often do
when stumbling across half siblings.

Yes, we’re sisters. No, we don’t have the same father. Yes, we’re still very close.

 

 

 


 

Aliyha Gill is a psychology and English (creative writing) double major junior at SUNY Geneseo. She is opinion editor for The Lamron and assistant editor for MiNT Magazine. She frequently writes for both publications and aspires to publish her own poetry collection one day.

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8.2 | CNF

Chasing Reflections

Daniel Fleischman


Sisters

Aliyha Gill

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction

Renee Grasso

Dirty Spoons

My mom tapped on the door and cautiously stuck her head inside my room. The sound was so familiar, so delicate I couldn’t tell if I was dreaming. As she softly crept toward me, I became aware of her yoga pants and V-neck T-shirt and realized I was awake. I wasn’t in my dorm at school, startled by my roommate’s alarm. I was at home.

Mom perched on the side of my bed and touched my back. “How are the sheets?” It was a cool September in Queens, and the Grasso household had already made the leap from regular summer sheets to winter flannel sheets; they were unbelievably comfy.

“Good.” My mouth parted slightly.

“Good.” My mom smiled. “It’s already noon. I was letting you catch up on sleep, but you have to come hang out with your family at some point. You only get four days with us before you go back to school, you know.”

I nodded. “I’ll come down. Is there coffee?”

“I made a pot, but there’s not much left. Come down and get some before Dad and Charlotte drink it all.”

I shook my head into my pillow. “Okay.”

Mom leaned down to pick up a shirt from the floor. She took in my room as she folded it and drifted towards my suitcase.

“Don’t worry about that, Mom, I’ll do it. I just didn’t get a chance to unpack last night.”

“Oh no, it’s fine. Hey, did you see that? I hung up Charlotte’s painting. I put it over that poster you had, but I didn’t think you’d mind.”

I looked at the wall across from my bed to see a Jackson Pollock-style painting that my sister made when she was in high school. I smiled politely.

“Nice.”

Mom finally slipped out after one more strict warning to get out of bed. I blankly fixated on the messy streaks of yellow and purple paint and began getting dizzy. I didn’t dislike the painting, and I didn’t even mind it covering my three-year-old Nicki Minaj poster. I just didn’t like that my mom was messing with my room when I was gone. What’s the point? My room had been exactly the same since I was nine years old, and I didn’t mind it. Of course, I’d changed some things: I took down some Jonas Brothers posters, replaced some pictures of old friends with new friends, and vacuumed occasionally. For the most part, I didn’t mind if it didn’t grow with me. God knows I changed too much in the past month for my room to keep up, anyway.

I sat up in bed and thought about the millions of mornings that had come before, some almost exactly alike. Rushing to school mornings, rushing to church mornings, Sunday pancake mornings, Christmas mornings, but no morning had been quite like this one: my first morning home from college.

“Renee! You better not still be sleeping. Spend time with your mother!”

“And your sister!” Charlotte yelled from her room next door.

I rolled my eyes and jumped out of bed.

Perhaps the best way to explain my family is to describe the little spoon shortage phenomenon. Here’s how it would happen: each family member got up in the morning, made a cup of coffee, and grabbed a little spoon to stir their milk and sugar. Finally, they went to set the dirty spoon beside the sink, only to find, to their grave disappointment, that the previous family member had left their coffee spoon in the same spot. By the time I woke up, there would be three lightly used spoons laying in a row, each with a small pool of coffee resting on its neck. My dad would usually patrol the travesty, tensely reminding me, “Kid, you don’t have to use a new spoon.”

In a house that loves coffee and hates waste, the little spoon shortage was no small issue. Our morning and afternoon coffee rituals could wipe out our little spoon supply merely twenty-four hours after running the dishwasher. As soon as my mom began noticing this trend, she nipped it in the bud. “Save the little spoons” became a new mantra for her, not unlike the way that PETA urges us to save the whales. Mom advocated for those spoons as fiercely as she did for any other abused kitchen supplies in her home. As we lounged on the couch in the TV room, Charlotte and I would hear her lamenting from the dining room: “One…two…three…four plastic cups on the table! Rinse them or throw them out. If you were just drinking water, then it’s fine to just rinse them. It’s not as gross as Charlotte thinks.” I’d also hear: “Renee, how many times do I have to tell you? Spatulas, this drawer under the sink. It’s like you haven’t lived here for 18 years.”

Now Mom announces: “Everyone, when you make a cup of coffee, use my spoon. I’m going to leave it by the sink, and I’m always the first one up in the morning, so it’ll always be there. Eight spoons a day for coffee is just… ridiculous.” She said these things again and again, until the kitchen felt like a minefield, with your next potential misstep lurking in every corner.

The only sin worse than forgetting to use Mom’s coffee spoon in the morning was failing to notice that she made a pot of coffee for the family and making your own cup in the Keurig. This heinous, unforgivable crime was exactly what I did on my first morning home from college. In my groggy state, I nodded to Mom, who cheerily said “She’s risen!” without looking up from The New York Times on her iPad. I made a beeline for the Keurig. It wasn’t until she heard the distinctive whirring of the coffee grounds that her head snapped up. “Renee, I told you there’s a pot of coffee.”

“Oh, too late. I’m sorry.” I couldn’t conjure up my usual level of sympathy for committing one of her kitchen offenses. It was the first time in two months that I was sharing a space with someone over the age of eighteen.

She forgave me instantly. “It’s fine. More for me.” She was letting me off easy even though I was up to at least strike three by now—sleeping late, leaving clothes on the floor, and ignoring the pot of coffee. I realized with a pang that she missed me. At the very least, I should’ve gotten a passive-aggressive glare by now. But all she said was, “Hey, since you’re not gonna take the rest, can you pour me another cup?”

She’d only drink coffee out of her favorite mug: tall, ceramic and covered with pink dots. Of course, she’d already put it in the sink right after her first cup. I inspected the mug for any dirty dish residue, ran some warm water over it, and pivoted to grab a dish towel. Suddenly, I paused, overcome with guilt. Mom kept everything in immaculate form. Clothes folded, dishes stacked away, and every spoon used to its full potential. At school, running water could suffice for doing dishes, but at home it felt like I had spit in my mother’s breakfast. I grabbed the dish soap and a sponge. Right as my coffee finished filtering out of the Keurig, my sister came bounding down the stairs.

“Look who’s finally awake. Why’d you make a cup of coffee when there’s a pot? You always do that.” Charlotte wasted no time in making a few cutting but amiable remarks. She skipped across the kitchen with open arms, and I cringed in anticipation. “I’m so glad you’re home! Oh my god, relax, Renee. Do you hate me or something?”

“I just don’t like being squeezed in the morning,” I said, trying to keep my voice light. Still, Charlotte’s joking accusation felt more accurate than my weak protest. What was different? Why was I happy to see her, but couldn’t hug her? Maybe this had something to do with that sinking feeling I had for the entire bus ride home, or maybe my family should just know better than to ask so much of me before my cup of coffee.

“Renee, just because you’re this cool college student now doesn’t mean that you can…” Mom trailed off. “I don’t know where I was going with that.” She shrugged coyly and sipped her coffee.

Charlotte snorted and picked up where Mom left off. “Back when I was a college student, I… oh, never mind.” She mimicked a pompous grad reflecting on her glory days. In reality, she graduated only three months ago, and I suspected that she didn’t miss it at all. Charlotte didn’t like doing her own laundry or eating alone, which I considered simple pleasures. She’d gotten tired of going out by her second semester. “I don’t want to bore you with my stories. Tell us some of yours!”

I laughed as I unwrapped a Thomas English muffin. I was never a huge fan of English muffins, but two months without a toaster in my room had made me crave their simple, familiar crunch. “I call you guys every day. I don’t have any stories to tell you.”

Sure,” Charlotte intoned. Mom’s face had turned cautious. Why was Charlotte pursuing this? She knew that when it came to drinking, smoking, and other foul behaviors, our parents’ policy was “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I realized that I was so preoccupied with my new college persona that I may have overlooked how other family dynamics had changed, too. Since moving back home for law school, Charlotte had transformed into an adult who would be making a steady income soon, no longer my trendy twenty-something sister. She stopped answering my texts once it hit midnight, because she was already asleep. Every morning, even on the weekends, she was up at the crack of dawn studying. When I told her drunk and high antics that I thought she’d find funny, her laugh sounded more nervous than amused.

I looked at Charlotte sitting at the counter now, her dark hair falling in her face as she read The New York Times on her iPad, just like Mom. I wondered if she’d still want to watch stupid Lifetime movies and go on “spy missions” with me when she became a big-shot lawyer. Charlotte had always toed the line between being my friend and my second mother, but one important difference between Mom and Charlotte was that Charlotte watched my Snapchat stories. She’d never snitch on me, however, she could do a mean guilt trip if she was in the right mood.

But what am I even guilty of? I wondered. I thought about how my mom lectured me continuously the summer before I moved out. “Don’t drink hard liquor, Renee. If I get a call that you’re getting your stomach pumped and you’re four hours away from me, I swear.” My mother clearly didn’t know the simple mechanics of a college pregame, of course we drank hard liquor. It’s cheaper than beer and doesn’t make you bloated. Besides, it makes all the guys look a lot cuter. I knew from my aunt’s stories that my mom drank plenty when she was my age, so what’s the deal with the guilt trip?

I felt frustrated that she didn’t trust me, but I also reminded myself to stand in her shoes, watching me walk away to college. Was there really any way for her to know if I’d make all the right decisions? Parenting is like taking a lifelong test that you can’t study for and you never really get your grade on. My sympathy for her and my itch for independence took up two halves of my brain, like the two different people I was at my two different homes.

I brainstormed some PG-13 stories I could tell to satisfy my audience. “Hmm. Well, this is kind of funny. My TA for Business Ethics handed back my paper with literally no criticism. He just wrote ‘Idk what to tell you to improve, I honestly wish I could write like this.’ And, like, this is the person who’s supposed to help me with these papers!”

They both laughed. Charlotte shook her head, “Genius problems! Prep’s English teachers prepared you well.” I missed being able to brag. If I told my friends that story, they’d just call me a smart ass.

Mom was never impressed—meaning, she was never surprised by either of our accomplishments. She was only incredulous, “How much older is he? What qualifies him to grade your papers, when you’re obviously a better writer?”

Whenever I told Mom a story, she always went a little too far and I’d end up defending my antagonist. “He’s a year older and took the class last year. He’s really helpful with other parts of the class, he just doesn’t have much constructive criticism.”

I’d almost forgot about my English muffin. I ran to the toaster oven and twisted the knob until it dinged.

“Did it burn?” Mom asked.

“Nope, I got it.” I looked in and grinned at the golden-brown complexion.

“Does the little baby need help getting it out?” Charlotte mocked.

I used to be too nervous to reach into the toaster because I burned my hand when I was younger. I was so excited to reach in to get my Pop-Tart that my hand clattered against the toaster oven’s red-hot roof. I was fine but began asking Mom or Dad to do it for me whenever they were around. Charlotte eventually teased me enough that I gathered up the courage to retrieve my own English muffins and bagels. In fact, Charlotte’s teasing helped me shed a lot of my childish tendencies. Still, it was annoying.

The bathroom door swung open and my dadwas he in there the whole time?looked genuinely surprised to see me, as if he hadn’t picked me up from the bus station last night, “Oh, hey kid.”

Don’t say anything about the coffee pot, I willed.

He pointed to the fruit bowl behind me, “There’s one banana left, I can share it with you if you want.” Even worse. Mom and Charlotte snickered.

“Stop being such a fruit pusher!” I said on script. “I know where the bananas are, you don’t need to make a public service announcement about them.”

Dad hung his head and hid a smirk while Charlotte dove into the specific issues with banana sharing, “You can never really split it evenly because it’s such a weird shape. Only one person can use the peel, so the other person’s hands get all sticky. And…”

“Yeah James, and why are you always trying to share a banana? It’s not an ideal food for sharing!” Mom’s joking, incredulous tone toward my dad sounded indistinguishable from her angry voice. Sometimes, when I would hear it from my room upstairs, I’d have to press my ear to the door to see if she and Dad were actually fighting or not.

“Alright, alright, enough!” Dad pretended to look insulted and turned accusingly to me. “Renee, I thought you’d finally be on my side when you came home.”

Never one to miss her cue, Mom jumped in, “Why would you think that?” She rolled her eyes towards me. “When we make fun of him while you’re at school, he talks to your graduation picture and says he wishes you were here.”

I laughed at the image of my Dad begging my picture for help and followed his eyes to the frame hanging behind Mom. It’s one of my best pictures, with true, honest eyes and long, flat-ironed hair from before I chopped it all off last summer. My prom and graduation pictures looked great too, but behind those smiles I wasn’t too happy. High school was just uncomfortable. I was always shifting between friend groups, always running to band practice, and always wondering what was wrong with me. I smiled, thinking of my friends at college. We chilled in each other’s rooms, sometimes stressing about homework and guys, but mostly laughing and talking. It felt stable without feeling too high-stakes. It was disorienting that my family preserved the old version of me on this wall, while I grew and lived my new life 200 miles away.

“Yeah, kid, we miss you when you’re gone.” I snapped out of my reminiscing and watched my dad as he walked with the slightest limp across the kitchen. Out of all of my family members, I talked to Dad the least while I was at school. Whenever I did call Dad, his end of the phone call was almost always something like this: “Watch the Yankees lately? No? Oh, okay. You have class today? How are your professors? Awesome. Yes, Nanny and Grandpa are fine. Okay, kid, I’ve gotta go. Talk to you soon.” He never really inquired what I did with my time other than whether I watched Yankees. Maybe he didn’t want to know.

I glanced at my phone. iMessage from Julia: “So bored at home bro.” I thought about what to type back for a moment, then settle on, “yeah it’s weird. Miss you <3.”

“Wow, only home a few hours and she’s already telling her friends how lame her family is,” Mom said. I looked up at her with a start, and her face fell when she realized she may have been right.

“No, I’m happy to be home. I needed a break.” But home didn’t feel like I had expected it to, and I couldn’t pinpoint why. My first month at college had felt like nothing but firsts, and I didn’t mind it. Now that I was home, I wanted to be wrapped up in some comfort and familiarity.

Of course, things had changed without me. I expected that. I didn’t expect that I would feel physically dizzy balancing how I’ve changed with how my home has changed. I sat at the counter, drinking my coffee, and just kept noticing different ways that the house had shifted in my absence; like how our wooden paper towel roll had been replaced with a stainless steel one. Or that we just always kept a tablecloth on the table now, even when it wasn’t a holiday. I didn’t even miss home when I was gone, but it strangely hurt to be excluded from these changes.

I had to come home to feel homesick, I thought. I felt like Charlotte’s Jackson Pollock painting: two distinctly different colors, smeared together on one canvas. I’d told Mom I was happy to take a break, but was that true? Being home was bringing up so many complicated feelings that I didn’t know which life I needed a break from anymore, or which one was honestly mine.

Home was a break from my roommate, whose presence was often a looming, isolated silence. Home was a break from stress, since being on a campus sometimes felt like license to be productive or social 24/7. But, mostly, home felt like a startling break from the new me. Home was a break from hungover breakfasts, when we congregated at the College-in-the-Woods dining hall at about 10 a.m., and would usually still be laughing and recapping the previous night when lunch was served at 12 p.m.

There wasn’t much reason to loiter after breakfast in the Grasso house. Dad gravitated to the living room to watch CNN and Charlotte asked me if I wanted to go to CVS with her to pick up her prescription. Mom began listing things we had to pack before I returned to school on Sunday.

I rose from the counter and walked to the sink. I washed my spoon.

A few months later, I’m home for winter break. I’ve changed my mind about my major ten times, I’ve laid naked below a Pink Floyd poster of six naked women; I’ve had bad trips, great quesadillas, and final exams.

Mom and I are driving to the mall to do some last-minute Christmas shopping. She turns to me and smiles, “Glad you’re home, honey.”

“Me too.” I try to think of a way to phrase the question burning at the back of my throat. I hold back for a moment, and then I just say it, “Do you think I’ve changed?”

Without a moment of hesitation, Mom says, “No.”

“Really?” My insulted tone catches me off guard.

“Yes. Do you think you did?” She’s still watching the road, but I feel her eyes on me.

“I don’t know. I guess not.”


Renee Grasso is a sophomore at Binghamton University majoring in finance. In her free time, she likes to read novels, re-watch Jane the Virgin, and attempt to run on the treadmill for more than ten minutes. She is from Queens, New York.

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Daniel Fleischman

Metropolis

Metro; Mother. Polis; City. From the Greek. Cities have mass. Concrete a thousand feet skyward weighs down on onlookers and inhabitants, stalwart against updrafts and the disbelief in tourists’ crooked necks. The heights of human civilization. Metropolis—a culmination of geography we carry on hunched shoulders.

By all accounts, New York City is crowded. Bridges crowd, buildings crowd, people crowd. I crowd around a stage with strangers. My mother sits to my left, holding my hand with the soft palm of hers. Her hand is warm compared to the cool wood armrest under my five-year-old hand. My eyes bound between a golden yellow dress and a rose in a glass case. Song mixes with the faint perfume my mother always mists for rare occasions. The scent is inseparable from the concentric teardrops of her rose gold necklace she adorns above her maroon blouse. The lighting from the stage draws amber streaks out of the light brown curls that frame her round face. Her smile is slight, content. I smile, too. The Beast dances with Belle, lamenting their plights, and I feel the weight of the city for the first time: below the architecture, below the culture, below the skyline, I catch glimpses of our home thirty miles north. My earliest memory of the city.

“Where’d you get all these stamps, Mom?” This world is quieter, less exaggerated.

“I’ve just collected them over the years.” A few hundred stamps spread across our dining room table, the ones you press into ink to replicate a little design. I love the dragonfly one. The smooth hourglass of the wooden handle contours into my palm. We’re under the warm light of the dining room table chandelier. There are other markers, crayons, and paints scattered around like a technicolor hurricane. I eye the markers with the little shapes instead of tips; a flourish of tiny green dog paws is my signature; its good enough for a seven-year-old. We’re making cards for something, someone. Newspapers underlay the messier activities. I clutch the dragonfly stamp.

“You’ve got to push down really hard, so it gets enough ink,” Mom says, opening the ink pad’s plastic case for me. I do as I’m told. I put as much effort as I can into the stamp. Drops of ink form on either side.

“Like this?” I ask between strained grimaces.

“Maybe a little too hard.” Mom puts her hand on mine and lifts it up off the pad a little. Her hands are soft and clean. My hands are a mess of green marker, blue paint, and a ladybug my mother stamped on earlier. She puts her focus back into her paintbrush, the kind with a little sponge at the end. I want to be like my mother, engaged in the creation of something. I put my hand over a scrap of forest green construction paper and stamp the dragonfly, testing it out a few times. I put one on my card.

There’s innocence here in the suburbs. Expanses of nuclear families holed up in their hollows. There’s no expectation of appearances in a shadow—no real history or culture to behold. But it feels less developed, as if the achievements of mankind suddenly stop where the Hudson meets the Harlem River. All one can do is live. But there are hints, hints brought back by suit-and-tied commuters and family day trips, allowing culture to leach out from population centers—where mothers take sons to see musicals and to dream a bit bigger than their bedroom walls.

For every center, for every polis, there is a periphery eternally in the wings. It’s called Suburbia. To be sub, below, the urban, the city. From the Latin. Like subterranean subway cars. New York City exerts a pressure of wonder in tow behind the smog. We always ride the train into and back out of the city. Metro North goes right through Croton-Harmon station, a two-minute car ride from our home up on the steep eastern slope of the Hudson Valley. I always think the train station looks like a spider with broken legs, zig-zagged and straddling above the railways. Rail lines spread like a spider’s web across the tri-state area, the metropolitan area, radiating out from the center.

They’re habitual: the train rides. My mother doesn’t like to ride backwards for the hour on the train. She gets nauseous, but New York City is there, so we go. I watch the Hudson River fly by between cattails, graffitied tunnels, and rocky shores. The Tappan Zee, the old rusted, steel one since demolished (the new one is futuristic and grand, straightedge), flies over head. It’s the same path I’ve travelled since I was five, the same sticky plastic upholstery of Metro North seats. Mother North, that’s funny, just like my mother who nods off next to me as we rumble toward Grand Central once again.

“I love you, Sweetie,” whispers the wall.

“Oh my gosh! I can hear you!” I say back to the beige tiles. My mother is twenty or so feet away, facing a corner, back turned to me. I’m doing the same, back turned to her. In the dining concourse of Grand Central Terminal, there’s an intersection between the foot ramp up to Forty-Second Street and the entrance to the Oyster Bar. The domed ceiling carries words from corner to opposite corner, privacy from the line of other tourists waiting their turn. The secret of the architecture is a miracle to a ten-year-old.

“They have a table inside. Let’s go eat,” my mother says to the wall, referring to our large group of neighbors taking an excursion into the city.

“But I don’t like seafood.”

“I know. They’ll have something else,” she reassures me. I leave my corner and we walk in together. It’s dimly lit, and the air is heavy, stagnant. I look at the tank full of rubber-banded lobsters and pinch my nose.

“It smells like fish in here.”

“You’ll get used to it,” my mother says, not giving in to my whines as she drags me along by my wrist. I’d rather be outside whispering anonymous messages into the wall, pretending to be a ghost. We sit down at a long table for our party of twelve. My mother directs me to sit next to my sister, despite my protests. She meets my father and the other adults at the far end of the table.

Soon platters of oysters arrive in ice baths on freezing aluminum plates. My scrunched-up nose signals my mother to come over. I smell her perfume again as she reaches down between us to grab an oyster. She teaches me and my sister how to eat them. Pick up a nice juicy one, holding the ugly, bumpy underside with one hand. Use the little fork to detach the meat from the slick, pearly interior. Squeeze some lemon juice on it and drip on some cocktail sauce. Slurp in, chew a little, swallow.

“Go ahead, try it.”

I watch my mother demonstrate the final step. I watch the other adults indulge. I want to be like them, in the city doing fancy, sophisticated things. I need to live up to the genius and aesthetic of the city planted above my head. I am in its roots; I have to act like it. I tilt my head back and try to swallow as fast as I can. I taste acid combined with the salty water of the lower Hudson. It has the consistency of snot and is about to slide down my throat. I think of pearls and Aphrodite, as I’ve been told oysters are an aphrodisiac, though I thought that was just related to the goddess. I think of the famous constellated ceiling a hundred feet above my head, then through the ceiling, through its admirers gazing upward, and I wonder where Venus is on the celestial map. I think of Manhattan like a grimy pearl, rising out of the polluted harbor seafoam along with the skyline, and I want to rise too. I forget to chew, but I manage to keep the oyster down. We find our way back home to our place on the bumpy shell. I get used to my suburban shell. I get used to the smell.

Comfort is slow and all-consuming. At fifteen, I’m growing. My legs grow longer, my arteries stretch, and I ache. “Stand up straight” becomes my mother’s most common refrain. My height becomes a constant shifting with the command of her words. Perspectives shift in puberty, along with posture. At some point, I begin to value space over potential discomfort. And New York City is crowded. The novelty of the LED screens of Time Square gives way to the smell of piss and exhaust. The crystal ball that drops every New Year’s stops being crystal. The thought of people looking at me strangely for looking up at expanses of glass windows becomes more painful than missing out or the strain in my neck. The heights of civilization become a hassle to climb, the view stops mattering when my suburban bed is soft.

My mother pushes me. I try to oblige. I join Model UN, representing Jamaica—the country, not Queens—and spend an April weekend in New York. The hotel is large and in Midtown. We ride the train into Grand Central and I watch the floor tiles go by underfoot, conscious to not look up like all the tourists. I wear baggy jeans and a brown sweatshirt that I wear every day to school. I carry a blue duffle bag of dress shirts and an ill-fitting blazer as naturally as I can, trying to live up to the mystique of the city despite my resentment, my weak attempt to blend in. Architecture, no matter how grand, can only hide people for so long.

We get to the hotel where the convention is being held, and it’s just tall, nothing more. Each meeting I attend has a silent Jamaica. I go to meetings in windowless rooms with other teenagers who are driven to engage. I’m adamant in keeping quiet for two days. I eat gyros from a Zagat rated food stand with a wooden structure and plexiglass door to make it a restaurant, not confident enough to go beyond a hundred feet from the hotel. I’m embarrassed of the fancy suit I’m wearing. The velcro of the wallet I have never used before grates on my ears even more than the car horns. It’s nighttime, but the city refuses to get dark. Streetlights, buildings, everything lights up, exposing, rendering all of me in full color. The buildings are not artistic expressions of modernity anymore; they are slabs of concrete and rebar, blocking out the moon and stars. The wind follows the streets as artificial channels, and it blows around my brown waves of hair.

I find it hard to breathe in a space so disassociated. People walk in their own directions, no eye contact, just existing in the same space. The buildings do not waver like me as they rise. The air itself is forced to be there, to enter my lungs. I’m partaking in it: the burden of the practical, running from expression. The anxiety tastes sour. I take my gyro and go back inside the hotel. I miss my home. I miss my mother.

“How was it, Honey?” my mother asks, embracing me at Croton-Harmon once we get back. I look in her hazel eyes.

“It was great,” I lie. It is functional.

Walking in New York City is always touristic, a voyeuristic sensation from looking into a world that isn’t mine. No matter how logical the gridlines or how enthusiastically I greet the apathy of the city, it seems foreign. The edges are so sharp, the spires ready to pierce the sky. Architecture caught between opulence of Beaux Arts and Art Deco and Modernist all at odds with one another; the first ingrained in the wealth of the past, the second caught up in the industrial aspirations of the Interwar, the third obsessed with form that follows function. A place where the MetLife Building seems to grow out from Grand Central like an opportunistic weed.

I’m used to houses with faux wood siding and rough gray shingles next to a smattering of trees. I’m used to the sugar maple in front of my home that drops leaves to rake, and the beige vinyl that’s shown off to disorganized, calm roads I can navigate like nothing. I get lost on grids. My frame of mind is bound by the extraordinary ordinary, unsettled by places where sculptures grow like trees, the sky is held up by rooftops, and the basements aren’t pitch black subways or oyster bars.

Six years later, I am doing laundry in my basement and I heft overstuffed hampers over the clutter. Boxes of Old Navy snow pants many sizes too small, a couple of tires next to the boiler, crates of my mother’s crafting supplies (needles, multitudes of multi-color threads, cutesy stamps with associated ink, scrapbooks, pieces of wood), a knitted rainbow scarf I haven’t worn since I was eight draped over a wooden rafter, the pantry where we keep cans of baked beans, more and more things.

The riffraff creates an aisle just wide enough to shuffle to the washer and dryer as my bare feet are sanded by concrete. I knock into a picture frame, and it falls forward. I didn’t know there were any paintings down here. Setting the laundry basket down on the dingy blue rug in front of the washing machine, I turn around, eyebrows raised and jaw slack. I never noticed the frame and its contents before. I pick it up.

It is a painting. No, it’s flatter and cleaner than anything that could be created by brush strokes. It is more of a framed poster, but matte without the high gloss. My eyes attach to the only spot of distinct color—a golden orange in a sea of blues and blacks—which runs up the plumage of a woman’s headdress. What appears to be feathers, mostly orange but with accents of purple, are so large they might’ve come from a mythical bird deity. The feathers curve from well below her hip back up to her head as she leans back, well aware of her grace. Her skin is pure white, her eyes more smudged dots of shadow than any realized form, and there’s a little rouge on her lips. Her face, however, pales in the presence of what she wears. Once I follow the headdress up to her face, I see her dress: a patterned black broken up by gray into irregular scales. It is like a robe enveloping her, only the nape of her neck and right shoulder are exposed—sultry. It takes me a second to see the panther’s head. The dress is a hide, the head forming more or less a belt, and the fangs a buckle. My eyes follow the dress down to where paws were dragging behind her obscured frame. White, horizontal lines overlay a perfect blue gradient for the background—indigo on the bottom, powder blue at the top. It doesn’t occur to me until later that the artist’s perspective is behind the woman, as she swaggers up the gradient staircase at some kind of high fashion gala, walking away from me. A vision of the Art Deco.

It’s a serigraph: a type of print that utilizes silk to transfer color. Which is appropriate considering the focus on fashion. Thoughts beyond staring are lost on me, though, all I can do is contemplate. In my nearly twenty years of living in this house, in the dried-out suburbs of New York, New York—of the mother city—at home is the farthest thing from what I feel in my basement now. I feel underdressed as I navel gaze at the visage, naked in my dark blue basketball shorts, white T-shirt, and uncombed hair. My slouch is heavy as I hold the woman up at arm’s length.

It smells like damp wood in the basement. Though I’ve never seen her before, I feel like I have. There’s an aesthetic of unabashed appreciation for the self, the human form, and the balance with function, something I devalued somewhere along my way. It is clear and near and muted. Distant but comforting. I take the woman, in her frame. I walk back over the exposed concrete, through the clutter, up the tarnished cream-colored steps.

“Mom, have you seen this?”

Art Deco is about access. Like the serigraph in my basement, mass-produced. Art Deco arose alongside industrialization, alongside the rise of capitalism. Magazine covers pushed out serigraphs en masse as a means to connect with people, even ones outside or tangential to the art world.

Fashion, in particular, is a vehicle to appeal to people who wanted artistry in a functional medium. Art Deco’s aesthetic is clear, lines and curves, with obvious subject matter. It’s caught between the practical and the aesthetic. A blend of form and function.

But excitement and economies grow stable after world wars. Form, creativity for its own sake, is lost. Art Deco morphs into the modernist movement. Architecture captures the essence best with its axiom: “form follows function.” Buildings like the Twin Towers, hailed as “filing cabinets” unrelenting in their commitment to run-of-the-mill, straight-edge capitalism, no access through beauty. It became the norm for city centers and skyscrapers; no new Chrysler Buildings. But the Chrysler Building’s spire still flares out like a dress from a serigraph. The aesthetic, however ornamental, still exists.

I’m seeing a Broadway show, Wicked, with my sister six months or so after meeting the Art Deco woman. We pass the outer side of Thirty Rockefeller Center, the skyscraper across from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It extends into the sky at right-angle steps forming stairways to the gods flanking a central block. As the sides of the building reach the top, they increase in frequency, mimicking a low-resolution logarithmic curve. From afar or a bird’s eye view, it appears to be carved, curving into a smooth, aerodynamic fin for the island of Manhattan, made up by skinny rectangular prisms—a mixed form between straight lines and sweeping curves. Some office space is sacrificed in the name of sculpture. 1939; Firm Art Deco.

At the base, staring down the Gothic Revival cathedral, stands Atlas—cast in bronze—along Fifth Avenue. I look up at the statue. He holds up the heavens, a stellar globe reduces to four rings wrapping around each other. I think of my mother’s necklace. Entire solar systems rests on the backs of the titan cursed to hold up the sky. Skyscrapers are condemned to the same fate, pushing against gravity, resisting the irresistible. Forward progress in the name of greatness.

What must it be like to struggle with the weight of the world? New York City holds up the excellence of a species in a sphere of intense proximity but is burdened by unfamiliarity. Suburbia—below the city—supports the polis by providing a foundation, as the base of Thirty Rockefeller tapers out behind the statue. Each identical house is a new world held up by families. An oyster presenting a pearl. A mother carrying her child.

Man builds up the geography, the context, and struggles against it. The artificial and the natural conflict in waterways and landscapes, each yearning to take over or reclaim the other. The sky is heavy, heavier than buildings and cities. Function crushes creativity; efficiency overtakes aesthetic. But in art, in Art Deco, the context of a modernizing world in its infancy mixes with realities of engineering. Art Deco, like New York, like Suburbia, like me, comes to be characterized by the tension of contexts. Tension defines art forms, places. Art Deco: a transition between prosperity and ambition for more. New York: a single point of geography turned crossroads of the world made of concrete and dreams. Suburbia: a tourist in the shadow of Atlas. Me: my mother’s son who was overwhelmed by even that. I straighten my back, turn, and run after my sister. Atlas strains against the weight of the globe behind me.


Daniel Fleischman is a senior at SUNY Geneseo. He studies creative writing and biology because he believes salamanders are worth writing about, too. At home in Ossining, New York, he can be found running into spiderwebs as he daydreams in nature preserves or admiring his pet cocker spaniel between budget horror movies.

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8.1 | Creative Nonfiction


Metropolis

Daniel Fleischman


Dirty Spoons

Renee Grasso

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction

Alaina Maggio

Blood Runs Cold

24 Saltaire Road

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

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

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

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

Eyes of the Hurricane

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

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

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

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

Unfiltered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sluggo

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

Sluggo, beautiful reckless, Sluggo.

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

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

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

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

You always do.

Financial Aid

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

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

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

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

“How can I go away to school?”

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

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

Thanksgiving

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, we are,” he said.

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

Water Colors

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

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

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

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

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

You shiver.

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

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

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

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

Burnout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You read his letter until your eyes get blurry.

Daddy’s Girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncle Frank

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

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

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

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

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

24 Saltaire Road (Reprise)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Sarah DeLena

To My Father

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Meg Fellows

In Defense of Body Hair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, Mom, I will.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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