Category Archives: Creative Nonfiction

Rosa Valeri

disappearing act of a secret

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

you walk around with a disappearing act of a secret.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Anna Lynch

I am not a “Koreaboo”

 

Koreaboo /ko ree ah boo/ noun: 

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

—From Urban Dictionary, “Koreaboo”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Jade Pagasa Baconcillo

How Would You Have Him Understand Her?

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

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

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

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

It was here that Carlo would wish to be Jade.

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

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

So, how would you have Him understand Her?

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

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

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

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

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

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

How would you have Him understand Her?

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

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

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


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

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9.2 | Creative Nonfiction

disappearing act of a secret
Rosa Mesbahi


I am not a “Koreaboo”
Anna Lynch


How Would You Have Him Understand Her
Jade Pagasa Basconcillo

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Malack Al-Haraizeh

Feast

I always dread the night before Eid. It is always a disaster. 

Picture this: A girl is digging through her closet that is packed with too many clothes she does not claim but must always choose from. There are dresses, blouses, mountains of cardigans, and undershirts littered on the floor. Sometimes the girl is in the closet with her fingers gripping the clothes so tightly she creases the fabric. Sometimes she’ll be standing in front of the mirror, willing herself not to cry in front of her mother. And sometimes you’ll find her sitting on the floor amidst the clothes that don’t ever seem to fit her right, always feeling smaller than they make her look. 

Eid is an Islamic holiday that occurs twice a year. In English it means feast, festival, holiday. We celebrate Eid Al-Fitr, the Festival to Break the Fast, and Eid Al-Adha, Festival of Sacrifice. After a month of fasting, Eid Al-Fitr is always an exciting day where we come together and stuff our faces. 

At its best, it is the most peaceful, joyful day of the year. We wake up at dawn when it’s still dark outside, but we feel energized at the prospect of seeing all of our cousins. Text messages of “Did you leave yet?” and “When are you coming?” are already being exchanged. At the mosque, I sit on the carpeted rug between my female family members and try to find a peace I haven’t felt in a long time. Afterward, the women and I go to find the men, and we all shake hands and kiss each other’s cheeks. This is a big deal for a family where bickering and insults are our only displays of affection. 

Finally, we meet at my aunt’s house and feast. On the small dining room table, there are colorful plates of every Middle-Eastern breakfast dish you can think of. I have a big family, and we all huddle around the table; there are hands everywhere trying to make grabs for the food. The adults get to sit at the table, and the cousins are usually on the floor of the living room, putting on a Marvel movie that no one actually watches. The house is loud with conversation and laughter. We eventually stand to receive our gifts—twenty dollars from each family. Before we head off to see a bunch of distant family members whom we don’t really know, my cousins and I walk two blocks to the 7-Eleven to load up on snacks and slushies. 

This is both my favorite and least favorite day of the year.

At its worst, it is the most stressful, demoralizing day of the year. We wake up at dawn; my brothers throw on their suits and gel their hair, ready for the day in minutes. I wake up an hour before them all, agonizing over my outfit. In the dim lighting of my room, I’m pulling my undershirt down to ensure it won’t add an extra layer to my body. I pull out two kinds of footwear: boots or heels? Heels make my legs look elongated and slimmer, but boots will cover the length of my leg more so I can get away with the tight leggings under my dressbut they make me look stumpy. Heeled boots are definitely on the checklist for next year. I pick up the boots. I can never decide on whether I should wear belts: do they over-emphasize my curves? Or will they make me look thinner in this loose dress? Which crime will they forgive me for? I leave the belt on the floor, and move on to the next decision. 

My thoughts spiral in this way because, when you’re a woman, you need to anticipate every critique, and choose the battles that will be the least damaging to your family’s reputation. There will be scrutinizing eyes, pictures, and judgements. In this culture, women are their bodies and nothing else. An ill-fitting top brings shame upon you and your mother until you can correct this wrong the next Eid—and in most cases, not even then. 

At its worst, I’m sitting on the carpeted floor of the mosque, barely able to breathe in the packed women’s section. The men have the bigger room—all able to freely walk around and take up space. I wasn’t built to take up space. I make myself as small as can be, which is a lot harder  to do when you’re not small. The women never fail to remind me of this. 

At its worst, I eat less food than my male cousins, because I’m afraid of getting bloated in my outfit. Before me lies a long day of posing as my best self, and I did not plan for my outfit to accommodate extra weight. At the 7-Eleven, I buy a water bottle and a Reese’s. I try not to worry about the breakfast or the candy, because there is always a quick fix. 

“That’s all you’re getting?” my cousin asks.

“We have to see a lot of people after this,” I say. 

A look of understanding dawns on her face. “Right.” She’s carrying pretzels and a small package of chocolate donuts in her arms. She puts the donuts back on the shelf. “I’ll just get this.”

The guilt sits heavier in my stomach than the candy. 

Outfit shopping for these big events is a Middle-Eastern girl’s nightmare. I attempt to try shopping at the mall first, even though it usually ends with a wistful sigh about what can never be. We fantasize about wearing the cute, short dresses in the store despite the hard truth that we wouldn’t look like the mannequins anyway. My cousins and I like to joke about this. 

“Sometimes I think Allah didn’t make us skinny because he knew we’d feel confident enough to wear things like that,” my cousin laughs, longingly looking at a revealing black dress on a tall, impossibly skinny plastic woman. Sometimes we forget mannequins aren’t real and that we are.

I wonder what my cousin really believes. Is it that we don’t wear what we want because we don’t feel confident in our bodies, or that we don’t feel confident in our bodies because we’ve been conditioned to hide them? 

In our culture, we must dress “modestly. There is not a clothing store in America with decent dresses that fully cover the following areas: full chest coverage (heightened to at least mid-collar bone), anywhere between half and full arms, and full leg. This article of clothing should not be tightly fitted or accentuate your body. The ideal piece of clothing is one indicating you have no body, but if you did have one, you’d be a petite girl. 

After the inevitable failure of shopping for clothes, we go back to our closets to sift through years’ worth of hidden gems that either provide ample coverage or are easy to adjust (For example, if the material is light enough, it can be worn with undershirts, cardigans, jackets, or long leggings.) I try on outfits for hours, and don’t have a say in what I wear. The party usually consists of me, my body, my mother, occasionally my aunt, and my objectification. 

This routine sucks the life out of me in ways unimaginable. I try on outfits that do not work for one reason or another. My body is presented to my family to be judged. I am screaming internally. My mother pulls and tugs at the fabric. 

“If only this were bigger,” she says through gritted teeth.

“Why can’t you just lose weight?” She pulls the fabric up to my neck with all her might. 

“This would be a lot easier if you cared about your looks more.” She drops the fabric with a heavy sigh to reveal cleavage that won’t disappear. 

“Try the next one.” 

Last year, my fifty-year-old aunt was ridiculed and attacked by my uncle because the pants she wore were “too tight.” Essentially, you could see that she had legs. My uncle spoke to my mom first. “Can you talk to your idiot sister about her clothes? She’s such a moron.”

To this, my mom responded, “Your sister is a hebiela; even Malack knows to wear a long thob over her outfits.” 

I’ll never forget the accusations that came with “your sister,” as if she was too shameful to claim. I’ll also never forget the fleeting pride I felt when my mother mentioned me, and the quiet shame in the wake of that pride. 

Age does not allow us to escape from this. I learned that day that my body will always be monitored by the men in my life. I wonder if I’ll ever have a choice in how I present myself. If I’ll ever be strong enough to walk away. If I’ll ever have the autonomy I have so desperately wished for my entire life. 

This lack of autonomy, this obsession to comply with the rules and look the best, has led to a ten-year struggle with disordered eating.

When you are taught your whole life that your body should be hidden away, you start to believe that your body isn’t worth being seen. When you agonize over your body being seen, you resent it for existing. And when you resent your body for existing, you might will it to disappear entirely. 

This became my ultimate goal: shrinking enough to disappear entirely.

There’s a fine line we have to walk, an impossible balancing act. We have to layer our clothing without looking “too plump.” We have to wear outfits that are fitted enough so that we appear slim, without being fitted to the point where we look promiscuous. Clothing should be loose enough to be modest, but not so loose that it looks like a curtain. 

Here’s the thing: it’s a lot easier to accomplish this if you’re already thin. If you have a slightly protruding stomach, bigger thighs, or a heavier chest, this fine line is not attainable. More precisely, if you have an average growing girl’s body, this is not attainable. I did not understand this as a young girl. My mother made sure of this.

At twelve years old, I was hyper-aware that men and women were going to scrutinize my body, and it was my responsibility to make them approve of what they saw. The first person to do this to me was my favorite person in the world.

It confused me when my mother lectured me on having a full dinner, and then criticized me for eating too much. Often, I desperately wanted to ask her, “where do you think the food goes?” I wanted to ask other questions, too. Ones that seemed to have no answers.

How can I fill myself and empty myself all at once?

How can my body be mine when it is for everyone else’s scrutiny?

Mama, how can I exist here and disappear at the same time? 

Eid Al-Adha: Festival of Sacrifice

An image of me at 20: 

My cousin’s house is glowing; golden hues of the lamps are illuminating a family. The conversation is full of light bickering and passive jabs. The air is euphoric in a way that only a holiday can be. Our voices are loud, loud, loud in the night. I leave to go downstairs, where my cousins are waiting with a movie, and as I do, I pass my uncle. He is staring at my black top, which is designed similar to a corset. It has thin straps, lacing that runs all the way to the top of the fabric, and the shape rounded at the chest. This isn’t noticeable; I wore a black, long-sleeve undershirt and jacket to quieten it. After taking off my jacket, I hoped the volume of that night would overshadow the volume of my clothes.

My uncle’s face morphs into one of disgust and disapproval. In this moment, I don’t care. I am ready to tell him so. Before I can, my mother throws my jacket at me. She effectively silences me, and quickly appeases my uncle in a way I’ll never understand. My mother chose the outfit. She was proud. I am the one who is shamed over a shirt, a body, an existence I have no control over. In this moment, the beauty of the night dies. 

It is said that Allah replaced the Prophet’s son with a ram at the last moment before the sacrifice. I am waiting for that moment in between, the space of time where the son exists and doesn’t. Where he is embraced in safety as he goes to die at the hand of a parent who does not deem him enough. 

Mama, am I the ram, too?

Eid Al-Fitr

Fasting for Ramadan is one of the most important pillars of my religion. We are not to drink or eat anything (no, not even water) from sunrise to sunset, every day for a month. But in the hours between dusk and dawn, we feast to our hearts’ desire. 

Ramadan extinguishes any suspicions of my habits. Everyone is fasting, it’s not just me. It lessens the guilt of it all. I didn’t eat all day, so I can have this. And it sends me into a relapse after it’s all over. I could lose more weight if I keep doing this. 

Ramadan is supposed to make us grateful for what we have. We are to see our privilege compared to those with less. Don’t get me wrong; it does. But it also makes my family more fixated on weight than ever. 

My father walks into the door after ten hours at work. The first thing my mother does is cry out, “Musa, I only lost two pounds. It’s been two weeks!” 

My father, still covered in black oil and dirt that comes with manual labor, brags, “Yesterday, I checked and I’d lost six!” 

“I hate you,” my mother whimpers. “I’m not eating anything at night. I won’t even have dinner—just a bagel.” 

At twelve, I took notes. I gathered that by week two, I should start seeing results. 

This is the mindset that I get stuck in. When Ramadan is over, it’s so easy to fall into a pattern. Do not eat; when you do, binge enough to throw it all up again. 

We are supposed to break our fast on Eid. It signifies the end of Ramadan. It signifies the end of making yourself hungry. But the end of one fast always brings another. It is hard to break a fast that I crave. It is hard to break a habit I was able to justify. 

Eid

There is a group of girls standing together, all dressed up in dresses, pantsuits, and jumpers. They’re laughing loudly, some of them hunched over themselves, red faced, holding their stomachs. They’re glowing. They haven’t seen each other in months, cousins close enough to be sisters who don’t live nearby. Their excited voices echo loudly, and they don’t care. They are in a bubble. Outside the bubble, men and women circle like vultures. They pick apart the girls, from their hairstyles to their shoe choices. They compare them—place them in a competition they did not consent to. So many girls, so many things to say. I didn’t realize she was so short. Why didn’t she tame that hair today? That one’s definitely the prettiest. Did she not even attempt to cover that butt? Wear looser pants. Disgusting. She has definitely gained weight. That dress is not flattering at all. Yeah, but the other one’s dress is way too tight. She’s too skinny–does the girl eat? Sick looking. She’s better off than the other one, you couldn’t cover that stomach if you tried. They feast, and feast, and feast. 

We leave. There is nothing left but chewed up bones. 

I didn’t want people to pay attention to my body. I still don’t. At twenty-two years old, I feel the same way I did at twelve: I am incredibly small in the eyes of others, but somehow still too big. 

The years are a blur of relapse, recovery, relapse, recovery. I have had to define my own sense of worth. I try not to associate the way I look with who I am. I’m trying to keep myself tethered here. I’ve always hungered for freedom to make my own decisions and freedom from the shame I’ve always felt about my body. The more I shed myself of these cultural constraints, the more I feel at home in this body. On my very worst days, I repeat a mantra that helps me breathe a little easier each time:

You are here.

You exist. 

Let yourself be whole. 


Malack Al-Haraizeh is pursuing her last year as an English education major at SUNY Oneonta. When she isn’t writing, she is dancing or awaiting One Direction’s reunion. Malack is from Pine Bush, NY.

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Mick McMahon

Petrichor

Calm quiet streets, dark clouded skies, and the cold smell of water hanging in the air; this is petrichor: the scent of distant rain. A terribly romantic word, and one of my personal favorites. The Oxford English Dictionary defines petrichor as, “a pleasant, distinct smell frequently accompanying the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather in certain regions.” I define it as home. Petrichor: the smell wafting through my window on October afternoons after school. Petrichor: the word my best friend loves so dearly that we wrote a poem about it together. Petrichor: the memory of standing next to my grandmother on her porch, watching the rain fall as we sipped cups of tea. That is my home—that is my petrichor. And I must clarify, I don’t simply mean “the smell of rain”; no, I mean petrichor. I mean the distant smell of rain; the kind that falls in the early mornings or late afternoons; the kind that hangs like a mist over northwestern pine forests; the kind you stand by an open window and sip a warm drink with. Petrichor has an entirely unique collection of connotations, separating it from being the smell of rain alone. It would be the same point as the instance of sirens versus mermaids; sure, they’re both most commonly denoted as half-fish people who sing to sailors, but most would much rather have a run-in with a mermaid than with a siren. Not myself, but most.

I have always been, in the immortal words of my aforementioned best friend, a sentimental little SOB, supported only by my mindset that home is not always a place. Home can be a person; it can be a memory. It can be the sound of a guitar with one loose string, the smell of apple cider and chowder, or even be sitting on the couch next to your best friend, playing Super Smash Bros. And why is that? Shouldn’t home be a place, somewhere you live? After all, we do say, “I’m going home,” or “actually, I’m staying at home today.” Are these phrases really nothing more than reflex? Well no, not for everyone at least. Home is where the heart is, after all, and for some people their hearts lay inside a physical structure in which they live. For others, however, their hearts lay with other people in other places. Their hearts lay in a dreamy past, in what was a better time, or in a place other than the structure they live in.

Home is an idea, not a place, though the idea can, and often is, associated with a place. Home is a feeling of belonging, of being where you’re meant to be, and that can be found in anyone, anything, or anywhere. For myself, petrichor is my home. It’s a scent that wraps itself around my mind, mingling with the memory of tea or coffee, decaying leaves, and the smell of my grandmother’s hand cream which I can only describe as warm. The same hand cream my own mother now uses. Petrichor is the link I share with my best friend, the word they love enough to share with me, and the word I now hold onto as a gift from them. If you ask my synesthesia, it’s a word that is blue, gray, and black, swirling together like a stormy sea—gray waves crashing against rocky shores on a cloudy day, mist spraying all the way up the face of the cliff toward the pine forest overlooking the water. An absolutely beautiful word to speak and see.

That’s something about words people never seem to consider; how they look. Is the word beautiful and pleasing to see? Do the images and sensations that latch onto it create a masterpiece? Is it the kind of word that only looks pretty in Times New Roman, or will Comic Sans do? Is it a pink, green, or blue word, or more of a gamboge? Now this adds an entirely new aspect of whether or not words work well when placed together; a green word and a blue word may look rather dashing together, but that green word belongs with a bright pink word. The words on the page become an amalgamation of complementary colors that are paragraphs apart, and gentle ombrés forming a sentence. And regardless of the words’ arrangement, every page holds a rainbow of colors and memories. Perhaps it’s a bit of an English major thing to do, to romanticize a word and give it an appearance, but if I’m meant to be staring at hundreds of pages of words every week…well, I might at least make it pretty.

Petrichor is my home. It is my grandmother, my best friend, my favorite smells, and all my favorite sights and feelings. It’s a word that incites a mixture of immense joy and great calm within me. It feels pleasing when rolling off the tongue. I never need to feel like I am lost or far from home, because petrichor follows me wherever my feet may land; all I need to do is wait for a bit of rain. And when a dark cloud holds promise and comfort, I find I have no need to hold my breath and plead for sunny days. When you can find home in the storm, riding it out doesn’t seem so bad. When you can find home in a feeling, there will always be a place where you belong.

 


Mick McMahon is a third-year English major at SUNY Oneonta hailing from Westchester, NY. He has had a passion for writing since he was young and is hoping to pursue a career in it after graduating. When not writing, he enjoys drawing, studying wicca, and watching an entire TV series in one sitting. He’s an avid activist for LGBTQ+ causes, and much of his work surrounds his experiences as a transgender, queer man.

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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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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