An Essay by Gabriel Tronson

I didn’t see her, and now, when I look at my dog before leaving for work, I think of my grandmother quarantined in the hospital. My grandfather got moved away, headed to Hopkins for physical therapy after some recovery. Her only company was strangers. I imagine, because of her deteriorating gray matter, she might’ve forgotten about the pandemic and wondered why no family members were visiting during her days on Earth.

She’d hold the same bewildered expression as my husky when I get ready for work: why am I being abandoned?

I didn’t see her, and now I think about the wicked trip one of my friends had on shrooms. He’d told me the story of how he took a handful of shrooms because he was bored on a Thursday afternoon and proceeded to have the worst four hours of his life. He described it as real suffering, something your average person in the middle class would never experience. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw evil. All of his emotions felt like they were vacuum sealed and stowed away, replaced with terror as he realized the psychedelics were trying to tell him something, some forbidden knowledge lurking behind the curtain of reality. My friend sat for hours trying not to think of this horrible knowledge because he was sure if he let the psychedelics tell it to him, he’d go insane.

I wonder about the veracity of this experience, if there is some brutal truth behind the surface of our existence, hidden out of necessity by ego. These thoughts keep me up at night while I stare at the ceiling and listen to a distant train’s bellow roll through the trees outside.

I didn’t see her, and now, whenever I’m at a store, and I see someone not wearing a mask, a volcanic emotion bubbles inside me. I feel I’m going to squirm from the inside out like another person is living inside me, capable of unthinkable intentions. The anti-maskers have such defiance in their eyes as they browse like they’re daring someone to try and force them to show compassion for their fellow human. I guess putting a piece of cloth across their face is too much of a bother. In my eyes, these people are unsalvageable, self-centered, malignant creatures a step away from humanity because intelligent creatures void of empathy are an enigma to me. If given a choice between doing something to hurt others or doing something to helps others, why not help others? Why not use your miraculous self-awareness to spread love instead of hate? The majority of humanity takes its free will for granted.

This newfound rage doesn’t seem like my own. It’s too much for a human mind to accommodate.

If there is a God, who’s to say they’re perfect? What if, in their realm of existence, they’re a middle-class God who’s putting in just enough hours to keep our totality running. Maybe this rage belongs to the universe, and it’s angry self-aware creatures in such an awe-inspiring, three-dimensional reality can be so self-centered.

I hadn’t seen her for months before I got a text from my father that said the doctors didn’t sound too hopeful about her condition, and I got to thinking hope is just a worm stuck to a sharp hook. Hope is the happiness dangling just out of reach, promising everything will work out as we chase the bait into the trap. We all need something to hope for. Otherwise, there’s no point in pushing onwards through the grinder.

I can’t help but ask, what is there to hope for? An end to the devious monotony of the 40-hour workweek after a blur of middle-age that stops being painful only to turn dull, which is somehow worse, then to retire into a life of bodily pains. Loved ones get plucked from the Earth in front of you like you’re strapped into some device inspired by Clockwork Orange. You get abandoned in a retirement home and rarely visited by your family because they’re too busy or too tired or too bewildered to see you, but you know it’s an excuse. They could’ve made time to see you if they wanted to.

Maybe this is the gruesome secret: hope is our greatest tormenter.

I didn’t see her, and now I get waves of encompassing despair, which make me acutely aware of my skin, sexuality, and gender and how these surround me in a puffy cloud of privilege. I wonder how someone like me, who has it easy, can feel such despondency. I think about my friend who had a bad shroom trip and described it as real suffering. I think about how I’ve never suffered, just had inconveniences. My thoughts go to minorities and everything they have to face. I’ve never had to experience racism, poverty, or police brutality. It makes me feel ashamed. It makes me feel weak. It makes me want to be better.

I didn’t see her, and now I’ve done more prep than usual for my next acid trip because I fear she might speak to me. I’ve never had an immediate family member die. I don’t know the underlying repercussions rippling through me.

In my prep, I’ve explored many stories of other people’s acid trips, mostly through Reddit, and came across one user who said they stared into a mirror for an hour during the peak of the trip before coming to the conclusion they were face to face with their god. With this came a strong sense of Deja Vu and the positivity they were dead, and the brain’s only way to cope with death was to relive the same life on repeat for the rest of eternity.

Maybe it’s the horrible secret: eternal recurrence is our reality. I’ve been dead for millions of years, reliving the same life in an endless cycle because the brain can’t comprehend non-existence and can only replay the only thing it knows: its life. That would mean you, reading this, are also dead. Sorry you had to hear it this way.

I didn’t see her, and then it was too late; I couldn’t see her because of a virus prying us apart. People still refuse masks. One of my coworkers told me it was bullshit, and everybody dies. Another of my coworkers said we’re weeding out the weak. My friend, with his lousy shroom trip, has vowed never to retake psychedelics. He said they brought him too close to the truth. My hope is a pain I carry with me, and my privilege is a weakness. I used my grandmother’s death as an excuse to smoke weed despite trying to quit for the eleventh time, but she is more than an excuse, and it’s time I become more than a white man with a comfortable life ignoring the turbulence around me. It’s time I accept I’m weak.

I loved her, and I didn’t get to see her when it mattered. The pain this presents reassures me I am alive; this life is not on repeat.

The pain helps motivate me to celebrate my grandmother’s journey instead of focusing on her absence. Its possible death is beautiful on the other side, dissolution of ego and a return to universal consciousness. Though, I often wonder where my grandmother is now and what she’s experiencing, if it’s nothing but darkness akin to that before she was born, or if she still has some level of consciousness without the boundaries of being a physical being in a three-dimensional reality.

Or maybe the horrible secret is there’s no reality. We make a reality in our heads, which means that we are face-to-face with our god when we look into the mirror.

Edit post-acid trip: my grandmother did not speak to me, though I did have a dream of her the night before. We were in the kitchen of the senior living apartment where she’d spent the last year of her life, and she was looking at me with her face folded into an expression of worry as I smoked a cigarette. I’ve never smoked a cigarette before in my life, yet somehow my sleeping mind produced the sensation. I remember tasting the melancholy that rolled off her.

The acid trip was intense. There are a few distinct moments that stick out in my memory like pins.

First: there was a point during the peak when I looked into the mirror and watched my right eye melt and slide down my face. It shocked me away from the mirror for the rest of the trip and much of the next day.

Second: my husky was frightened of me while I was tripping as if she knew. My friend, who had the shitty shroom trip, once told me his cats oddly looked at him during psychedelic trips—just an interesting notion.

Third: I may have figured out the horrible secret. I had an epiphany while I was in the shower watching the ceiling crystalize. We, as a species, are nothing. Even if we destroy Earth with our parasitic consumption, the universe is vaster than we can comprehend and will continue onwards without us for eternity. We’ll never know why we’re here unless death holds some form of an answer. In this case, my grandmother might already know the secrets of existence. It amazes me to think she’s already experienced one of the most terrifying parts of being alive: the ending.

Gabriel Tronson lives in Minnesota with his girlfriend where he has a warehouse job and spends most of his monotonous working hours thinking up stories. He received an AFA in creative writing from Anoka-Ramsey College and published work in the Havik Literary Anthology and Stoneboat Fiction.

An Essay by Linda S. Gunther

An Essay by Linda S. Gunther

We were underground in the basement of an old stone church in Leningrad, attending a non-sanctioned concert, which meant it was considered illegal by the Soviet government to attend such an event. Six rock musicians were on stage, clad in black, all wearing gas masks. They played electric guitars and performed in a punk-rock style. One musician banged staccato on the piano, often using his bare feet.

I was one of seven Americans from California sitting on folding chairs in the front row. We were accompanied by four Russians: a newspaper photographer, a journalist and two young artists. The church basement was full of about a hundred young Russians smoking cigarettes and shouting with excitement. Our study group of about ten Americans had traveled to learn the fine art of portrait photography from professionals across six Soviet cities over a two-month period. I had taken an approved leave of absence from my corporate Human Resources job to take advantage of the unique travel-study experience.

Leningrad was our second stop after Moscow where we had been carefully escorted by government officials. This city felt less formal than Moscow as we were permitted to roam freely when not in class.

Zazou, the Russian TASS photographer, who accompanied our group to the underground concert stood up near the stage, taking close-ups with his 35 mm camera and telephoto lens. We clapped and cheered during each song along with the Russians.

The KGB came in fast and violent, five men, appearing to ignore the Americans sitting in the front row. One of them pushed Zazou, the photographer, up against the stage. He stumbled, his camera almost falling to the floor but was able to catch it. The music on stage stopped. The musicians froze in place. The KGB wore disheveled tan raincoats, and held metal badges out at arms-length. I felt anxious, scared, and bewildered all at the same time. But it was also exhilarating, as if I were in the middle of a James Bond movie.

Would our Soviet friends be arrested? Would we be in trouble?

I sat between Davide and Afrika; one, a Russian artist who painted wondrous art pieces on paper plates and napkins, the other an artist who painted on pieces of metal, both of them in their mid-twenties. When the taller KGB man grabbed both by their shirts from their seats, I jumped. He pushed each young man onto the floor close to where the journalist stood. A husky KGB with a large bald spot and a scowl on his face appeared to demand something. Davide and Africa scrambled inside their pockets. Each pulled out a small white card from their wallet and held it out to the man.

The shortest KGB man bellowed some words in Russian. Afrika and Davide turned flat on their stomachs, their hands clasped behind their backs. One of the other tan raincoats inspected the two white cards, made some notes on a pad and then motioned for Davide and Afrika to go. They rushed out towards the back of the room. Another KGB grabbed Zazou, our journalist friend, by the sleeve and pulled him up from the floor, kicked him in the shin and shooed him to leave.

The audience started to clamor out of the church, up the cracked stone steps from the church basement and out onto the street. It was a frenzied scene. We were the last to exit the back door to the church and noticed the KGB men were gone.

We did shots of vodka into the night at Zazou’s apartment a few blocks from the old church. Davide and Africa talked non-stop until after midnight. “We’re now officially fingered by the KGB,” Davide cried through vodka tears. Tears streamed down his face. His fears seemed to get worse as he drank more.

The next day, on the streets of Leningrad we saw no sign of the KGB. Teenage boys flogged American jeans on street corners. “Levi’s, you want nice jeans?” a boy yelled as my classmate and I walked past him. He held a pair of jeans close to my face. “Cheap price for you, Miss.” Damn near every corner featured a black-market extravaganza: chocolates, fur hats, amber jewelry, toys for sale. Some vendors followed us for several streets, pleading to sell us something in exchange for American dollars. We had been warned to use our American dollars only in government-approved beryozkas, shops reserved exclusively for tourists, where Russians were not allowed.

All Photographs by Linda S. Gunther

Cameras hung from the straps around our necks. We moved through the streets clicking; capturing smiles, a child crying, kids playing tag, a young couple arguing, a string of angry swear words from an elderly woman disgruntled with our photographic shenanigans. Long lines of people stood outside bakeries and food markets, scanty offerings on display in shop windows. On one street corner, we witnessed a citizens’ demonstration taking place outside a church.  Police watched the small gathering of people who held up wooden protest signs, paced in a circle and chanted in Russian. The uniformed men stood back, batons in hand, poised to take action if needed. Most people on the street went about their business, heads down but occasionally I saw a man or woman steal a quick glance at the protestors. I captured a few shots and was surprised that I wasn’t stopped by the policemen. It was 1987, and the country was about to snap, crackle and pop. I could feel the blend of normal life and tension all around us.

We went back to the hotel. I requested my room key from the floor lady who kept close watch on our passports and matched room keys, a mini-KGB of sorts. I opened the door to my extravagantly velvet draped yet sparsely furnished hotel room. A stout ruby-cheeked woman in her fifties, her hair tied up in a scarf, some strands of gray hanging down her face, was knelt down in the bathroom. She turned to me. At first, she seemed embarrassed but then burst into a broad electric smile. She sprung up from the floor, took my hands, jubilantly danced me across the room, inviting me with her eyes to join in with her every movement. “I love America. I love Americans,” she sang out. “We love your president.”

Oh my god, do they really feel this way?

The woman kissed the palm of my hand, snatched up her cleaning bucket and turned to leave the room, laughing and waving to me before closing the door behind her.

As I pulled back the heavy drapes, glanced out the window and looked across the Neva River, I saw dozens of pigeons fleeing from a rooftop. A man was letting each one go, about two or three seconds apart, whooshing them one by one up into the air with his arms. I grabbed my camera, attached the telephoto lens and snapped away. He seemed to bid each bird to be free, perform their deed well, and return to him.

That night, the Russian journalists and photographers, and Americans came together again in a suburb at an old house not too far from the center of the city. More stories, ugly stories from the Russians. A lot more vodka shots. There was extreme hatred for ‘all things’ government, passionate cries for revolutionary reform. Yet, they seemed to have an unrelenting hope for their country, a blend of disgust on one hand and cultural pride on the other. Africa and Davide appeared still shaken from the night before. Both spoke of genuine fear for the safety of their families.

It was May Day when I awoke the next morning, our last day in Leningrad before we flew to Odessa and then on to Tblisi, Georgia. Thousands of people, families, men in uniforms with medals hanging from their jackets, filled the streets along the Neva River. It was a photographic smorgasbord. Marching, singing, celebrating, band music, tulips everywhere in the hands of Leningrad’s young and old. Enormous pride beamed from the faces around us. Elderly men wearing their military uniforms hugged grandchildren. I snapped candid shots of babies, toddlers, teens, seniors, many eager to be immortalized on film. Their faces lit up as I handed each subject their individual polaroid. “For you, for you,” I said smiling. I took double shots, one with my 35-millimeter Canon and one with a polaroid camera. Some people embraced me. Others smiled and stared in wonder at their Polaroid picture. The crowd was dense as we made our way. My elbow jerked my camera. The thin color filter I like using fell from my lens onto the pavement. A waif of a small girl with long pigtails and a white-brimmed straw hat picked it up. She smiled up at me, a front tooth missing, the small filter in the palm of her hand.

“Spasibo,” I said.

She held out a long-stemmed red tulip for me to take. When I placed the Polaroid photo in her hand, her green eyes seemed to double in size. She giggled and hugged my waist. Her mom stood by her side and within a moment they both disappeared into the crowd. Vestiges of the impassioned conversations from the night before jostled through my mind. Ambiguity. They live in a cyclone of ambiguity just like us, I stood there thinking.

When I returned to California, I had dozens of my photographs printed and mounted on foam boards. I also assembled a slide show and presentation on Russia for the aerospace company I worked for. The faces I featured on the large screen, each one offering a unique window into Soviet life, seemed to move my audience of co-workers and executives. Americans are a curious people and so there were a lot of questions for me.

Glasnost was announced a few months after my return to the states. American TV, radio, and newspapers shouted the news. It was a big deal. Gorbachev described it as the government’s commitment to allow Soviet citizens to discuss publicly the problems of their system as well as offer potential solutions. He said that he wanted two-way conversation, a break-through in the Soviet culture.

I felt euphoric. What would this historic pivot mean for the Russians and for the rest of the world?

In 2021, I’m noticing how the pendulum has swung back and forth over the years since the 1980’s, not only in Russia but also in the United States. Can we learn and move forward without having to take giant steps backwards? I ask myself this question today.

Linda S. Gunther has written five novels: Ten Steps From The Hotel Inglaterra, Endangered Witness, Lost In The Wake, Finding Sandy Stonemeyer, and Dream Beach. She grew up in New York City. Linda’s passion for travel and continuous learning fuels her fire to create vivid fictional characters and unforgettable story lines.

An Essay by Miniature Malekpour

Surrealism can be described as a vortex of free-thinking, a world that dives into the unconscious, discovering “the uncanny,” all while instilling political esthetics into art and other activities. Andre Bréton and the Surrealist Movement in the early 1920s studied the discourse of “the uncanny” through subconscious thoughts, fantasies, and dreams. The Surrealist philosophy was to explore the human condition and the liberation of the mind—with the purpose of combating capitalism. Oblique, intellectual, and breathtakingly creative, Surrealists were nevertheless far from perfect when it came to how they treated their muses, that is, the women in their lives including lovers and associates. In a word, in one form or another, they were misogynists. This movement that encouraged adherents to “liberate their minds” also exploited women. One cannot help but consider feminist theorist Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze; the Surrealists had an extreme, wild obsession with women as sexual objects and putting their own sexuality on display, something which Andre Bréton called “moral exhibitionism.” For example, in Bréton’s 1928 semi-autobiographical 1928 book Nadja, he represents the female character as a mentally ill woman, when in fact it was Bréton who suffered from his own narcissistic ideologies, imperiling Nadja (whom he was romantically involved with) by treating her as simply an insane prop, and exposing her sexuality for personal artistic practice which focused on capturing his own ideologies. This then created a relationship between the experience of both fantasy and the expurgation of the female subject- opening a discussion that concerned both the Surrealist movement and Feminist theory. Was the experience and theory relevant to the movement? Yes, for there were quite a few female Surrealists that existed as the movement tracted movement, and this turned the misogynistic scene created by the men on its head. These women were seen as feminists for defying the ideologies of the Surrealist Movement. Two of these women were Leonora Carrington and Claude Cahun.

Claude Cahun was a French Surrealist photographer, a Marxist enthusiast, and a psychoanalytic aficionado. Cahun raised the bar for other Surrealist women who followed her footsteps into the sphere of the unconscious, such as painter Leonor Fini, artist Edith Rimmington, and fashion designer Rei Kawakubo who was inspired by Cahun’s exploration of the critical voice of gender and the Surrealist’s intoxicating art. Cahun’s fierce participation in Surrealism included exploring the labyrinth of homosexuality (which at the time was a confusing dichotomy between homosexual desires that were acted up or simply being attracted to the same sex with). This was because the movement not only defended Bréton’s heterosexist lucidity of connubiality, for Breton’s concept of purified heterosexuality relied on the notion of purity- basically establishing his homophobic nature. Furthermore, male homosexuality was denounced multiple times by Bréton in published sessions of the male-only meetings of the movement. Cahun’s exploration of the lesbian subject in her work was not only an act of disobedience to Bréton’s homophobic naïveté or even ignorance of the hetero during those closeted years of the 1920s and 1930s, but opened the door for female sexuality to be explored outside the misogynistic box. Yet, she was highly admired and respected by many, including Bréton. Her work, a series of self-portraits that tip-toed along the axis of gender positioning in the late 1930s, saw Cahun combine feminine and masculine guises. This created the precincts between the fantasy of the self and outward identity, as Cahun exercised her photographic work to process the crisis of the definition of terms around sex and gender and the “photographic image”; writer and political activist Susan Sontag defined Cahun’s portraits as “fantastic disclosures of the subject” (1977). Her work became the backbone of feminism in the Surrealist context and the center stage of the historical restrictions on Surrealism’s discourse of sexuality, which strongly retained itself exclusively in the esoteric periphery of Surrealist politics, shaken and transformed into a gender-bearing snapshot. These self-portraits not only inspired the strength of female sexuality but rejected the negative view of homosexuality and cross-dressing. Cahun’s exploration of this gender-bending paved the way for fashion designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and Rei Kawakubo to apply the same esthetic, in the 1960s and the 1990s, respectively.

Cahun’s self-portraits exposed the complexity of the unconscious. The leitmotif of her work was what became known as “The Snapshot”—self-portrait as masquerade. Decades later, selfies evolved as an adaptation of Cahun’s feminist Surrealist self-portraits, but masked her axis of the true and the self. By adding her desire-machine, traveling along the yellow brick road of sexual and gender fluidity, her ideologies behind the discourse of sexuality in Surrealism encouraged designers like Saint Laurent, whose designs preserve “snapshots” like those Cahun created—such as “Le Smoking,” in which women dressed as men. His plans uncovered the elucidating paradoxes of everyday life—a contradiction we see in runway shows and (not hating on Anna Wintour but) the Met Gala, where “surrealism” is found in all kinds of outfits worn by celebrities—but Saint Laurent played with the gender-bending snapshot for intellectual reasons, in-framing a political aesthetic behind his work.

Claude Cahun’s Self-Portrait (1930s) Source: http://www.timeline.com
Yves Saint Laurent—Le Smoking (1960s) Source: http://www.crfashionbook.com

For example, back in 1999, Brad Pitt and Rolling Stone produced a “scandalous” photoshoot in which Pitt wore a blue-sequined dress. Most recently, the controversial Harry Styles Vogue cover shoot faced backlash, with a side of malicious comments for literally just wearing clothing which belongs to women (mostly coming from the right-wingers). Thus, even popular celebrities are playing with fire when crossdressing. In this way, we fall back into the same old structure that has always been implored by the conservatives, the right-wing, the communists, the faux bourgeois, or those who just call this kind of gender play a cry for attention or a publicity stunt.

Brad Pitt for Rolling Stone (1999)
Harry Styles Vogue Cover (2020)

Going back to the 1930s, fashion and Surrealism played a large part in the cultural revolution of the decade, spreading beauty when the Great Depression was taking Europe by its “Seroquel-ity.” One designer who stood out and shocked the male-dominated fashion world was an Italian, Elsa Schiaparelli, whose shocking, confrontational, and yet enticing malformed style, showing a clear Surrealist influence, secured her place in fashion history. As a provocateur, her attitude towards exploring feminine identity was seen in her eccentric designs, overshadowing more conventional designers such as Coco Chanel, her bitter rival. Schiaparelli’s Surrealistic touch not only provoked the society she was engaging with; her avant-garde designs gave life to the desaturated lives of women who would take care of the men who had returned from the first World War, working in factories to support them. By looking at her designs, a sense of beauty was injected into the lives of these worn-down women, even if shocking at times. To this day, her work still has the power to shock those who see it, but it has also pushed other designers toward the outrageous, such as Lady Gaga’s super-controversial “Meat Dress” at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards. Schiaparelli’s collaboration with “madman genius” Salvador Dali led to the famous “Skeleton Dress” is just one of the many examples of this eccentric attitude, which has some resemblance to the madness of Franc Fernandez who designed the infamous “Meat Dress.”

Lady Gaga—Meat Dress (2010) at the MTV Music Video Awards. Source: http://www.cosmopolitan.com
Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali’s “Skeleton Dress” (1938). Source: http://www.artsy.net

You can see the Skeleton Dress’s spirit of the avant-garde and the uncanny in the outfits of modern-day celebrities, as exemplified by Lady Gaga. Schiaparelli’s shocking and wildly fantastic designs combined with her attitude toward feminine identity and the ideology of creating beauty not for money but to show how powerful women can be, especially during the Great Depression. Unfortunately, after both World Wars, the alienation of culture—due to the rise of capitalism, saw workers lose control over their product—which caused or influenced Schiaparelli to make the decision to stop making her spectacular creations, which nevertheless continue to influence many.

However, it does trigger the question of the difference between avant-garde cultural fashion and the “fake plastic trees” in fashion we see today. In 2021, selfies do not necessarily engage any of the ideological stances of the Surrealist Feminists. Likes on Instagram are now based on the rubric of otherness—the more insane, deviant, strange and of course, nude, the more likes. This does not apply to every Instagram/Twitter influencer. Artists such as the cacophony of Diamanda Galas, or the disturbed abjection of the Viennese Actionists, even the dada nihilism of Tristan Tzara are the total opposites to “the fake plastic trees” culture. But, this culture does unfortunately heavily lean towards a plastic charade of the selfie culture, which leads us to question the motives of what is for show and what is for pay. What is the political, esthetic investment of desire in these selfies we see daily? Cahun’s “Snapshot” or, in other words, the self-portrait, (re-invented as the anti-feminist selfie most of the times) has now become ravished in this system of inflections, by use of filters and tons of makeup, harnessing the attractive, explosive force of patriarchy, the libidinal pull of an object to be possessed, fucked, consumed or somehow inhabited and “turned into” at the expense of oneself. Once the makeup is removed, the selfie generation retreat back into their cave of insecurity and anxiety, beset by mental health issues and body-shaming aimed at them by men and women.

Take late designer Karl Lagerfeld, famously a misogynist. He only used the skinny and conventionally beautiful as his muses, and shamed women who did not fit the ideal “model size,” saying in 2012 about singer Adele that “she is a little too fat.” Lagerfeld recognized society’s mask but also what lies beneath it well enough to promote his work (which does not redeem him). In his own words: “I am a caricature of myself, and I like that…It is like a mask. And for me, the Carnival of Venice lasts all year long.” Fashion is a hybrid of feminism, misogyny, and the remains of Surrealistic motifs. Thus, anxiety has become an enormous issue in the younger generation due to modern technology and social media pressure.

Masking one’s identity contributes to the fluctuating spirit of the “plastics,” the social media fiends, who seek the liberation of desire, fame, and attention, or to keep it short, “The Plastic Movement.” The plastic trajectory all comes down to the masquerade—plastic surgery is the anti-feminist gender-masking strategy of the plastics. A whole industry benefiting from the fake and the hunt for clout—more and more so of late with the advent of social media; this mask has become a societal condition. However, this condition goes back to the Surrealist Movement; the perfect example one can offer is “The Debutante” (“La Dame Ovale”), written in 1939. The short narrative revolves around a debutante who does not want to attend the opening Debutante ball of the season. She seeks comfort at a zoo, which she frequents regularly, as her friends are animals instead of girls her own age; she identifies with the animal rather than the human. While conversing with her friend, Hyena, she convinces Hyena to attend the ball, in disguise, in her place. They go back to the debutante’s room, and after coming up with an elaborate plan, Hyena kills the maid of the house and chews off the edges of the maid’s face to use it as a mask. She devours the rest of the maid but keeps a few bones that she places in her fleur-de-lis bag for when she gets hungry at the ball. She is finally exposed at the ball due to the smell of the bones. Even though she is wearing a disguise and her true outside identity is then revealed, she must face the social hierarchy’s looks and gossip. The moral of the story is, even though Hyena wore a mask, she was still belittled by the guests, and there was no need for a mask, for she was content being herself.

Carrington’s satirical take on English upper-class rituals is a great example of what patriarchal systems want women to conform to. Rituals such as the one in “The Debutante” or the “selfie ritual” embody the same patriarchal class system’s ownership of women and their bodies. “The Debutante” has motifs that fit well in the social media world. Gen Z (a specific subset) is confined by absurd and violent codes, and the pressure of beauty and gaining followers leads to murder, suicides, and mental health disorders. Women’s minds and bodies suffer from the expectation that they will be violated and put on display.

Social media platforms provide users with various filters, a variety of masks, an assortment of disguises for the “debutante” or the Hyena. Unfortunately, this shatters the illusion of what is real and what is not. This situation stands to brainwash the youth and turn them into “plastics” that might be recycled for generations to come, within the same esthetics and ideologies, masking real femininity. The “Plastic Movement” includes famous cyber-fashionistas, highly superficial influencers, bloggers, and clout-chasers; however, not all of the above are the same—we are not throwing every single social media influencer into the same Hansel and Gretel oven together. With the pressure on teenage girls and young women to use cosmetics at such an early age, perhaps an injection of healthy mind and soul is the cure women genuinely need to break free and be themselves. “The Plastics” are the modern muses of money-seeking companies and brands; but perhaps the “Plastic Movement” has always existed, especially within the Surrealist context, except they were called something else: the muse. They are both passive in the fact that they feel obliged to pose, but the Surrealist muse did not seek the clout, the Surrealist men did. The plastic masquerade has outlived its original founder, still causing concern for the Feminists of today.

In this light, a battle between the plastics of “The Plastic Movement” and the artistic intelligentsia (and protest movements) is taking place. They interact down the valley of the selfie culture—cheered on by social media platforms. The turf of the superficial must be protected, but how? And will it only just get worse?

Miniature Malekpour is a current Ph.D. candidate at the Australian National University. Her work has been published in multiple international Peer-Reviewed Academic Journals and Magazines. She is currently a contributing writer for Diabolique Magazine. She prefers to write under a pseudonym, Seven Autumns, for fiction. Twitter handle: @minamalekpour

An Essay by Richard Lin

I head through the cornfield. It has been a few days since our trip to the Grand Canyon. Lesley had called me a couple of times, but I haven’t yet called her back. I needed a bit of time to work through my feelings about her interaction with James. This morning, I felt much better about the whole incident and make my way to her house.

When I arrive, Lesley greets me at the door, looking a bit pensive. I enter the house and see Mrs. Gomes and Esther sitting in the living room. They, too, look somewhat reflective or even blue.

“Hi Mrs. Gomes, hey Esther,” I say, trying to inject a little sunshine into the house. Usually, while relatively quiet, the Gomes residence is a happy place, especially with Lesley around. Esther, blonde like their mother, has a sweet, calm disposition more akin to their father. Mrs. Gomes can be chatty, but it’s Lesley who tends to spread good cheer in the Gomes house. Yet today, she is strangely subdued.

“Where’s Mr. Gomes?” I ask. Has something happened to him?

The gals all look at each other.

“He’s in Sacramento,” says Mrs. Gomes.

Thank God he hasn’t been killed while on a secret mission for Delta Force or something. “Oh, cool. He’s on a business trip?”

Again the three of them look at each other. Lesley then grabs my hand and asks, “You hungry?”

“Uh, no, it’s 2 pm, and I just had lunch.”

“Well, come try these new cookies my mom baked,” she says while leading me into the kitchen.

We go into their kitchen, which is quite homey in color and feel. Mrs. Gomes cooks every day for the family but never seems to leave evidence of her daily efforts. The kitchen is always very orderly and neat, and yet it still exudes the warmth of a kitchen run by a mom who maintains the center of gravity for her family.

“I need to tell you something,” Lesley says, looking into my eyes with dolefulness in hers.

“You don’t have to tell me if Mr. Gomes’s mission in Sacramento is top secret. I don’t want you to put the family in danger.”

“What?” she says, and then she burst out laughing. “No, Dad isn’t on a Delta Force mission.”

“Oh, good. So he’s ok,” I say, with palpable relief.

“Yeah, he’s fine,” she says, before pausing for a second.

“Wait, are you about to propose to me? Because usually, it’s the guy that does it.”

She laughs again, then wipes away a small tear in her eye.

“Yeah, you wish. No, I need to tell you that we are, we’re moving. To Sacramento. Dad got a job there and went ahead to prepare our house first.”

When I was younger, I had the wind knocked out of me twice. Once, I played Red Rover in the fourth grade and proceeded to get clotheslined by two burly sixth-graders. The second was when the Thompson Boys played snow rugby and decided to use me as the ball. Both times I got knocked prone on the ground for minutes gasping for air. This time I have been emotionally sucker-punched. I remain upright, but again I struggle to pull air into my lungs as my diaphragm spasms uselessly. Now feels exponentially worse than the first two times.

“You ok?” Lesley asks with her usual tenderness and concern.

“Yeah. I think so. When?”

“We move in two weeks.”

“Two weeks?!?!?” I ask, trying to maintain a semblance of decorum while I withstand the effects of another sucker punch to the gut. “How long have you known?”

“About a month or so,” Lesley says quietly.

“You’ve known for a month and yet—”

“Sorry, I didn’t want anything to change between us. And I wanted to tell you the last time we spoke, on the phone. But you seemed a bit, you know…”

“I know. Sorry.”

We hug. Lesley turns to head back into the living room. As I follow her, I look up to see on the wall just above the entrance to the living room a wooden sign with an inscription:

Make new friends, but keep the old

One is silver, and the other is gold.

I think to myself that Lesley is way more precious than gold to me. She is platinum, rhodium, diamond, and moon rock. Combined.

I spend the next thirty minutes making small talk with the three of them, asking them as evenly as possible about the move, whether they need help, and how they must look forward to moving back to California. All four of us engage with each other in dialogue, but it seems that our individual hearts float elsewhere, each with our own hopes and trepidations.


I find the next two weeks most arduous. Lesley and I meet a few more times, but somehow everything between us is a muted version of what’s transpired before. It’s as if we have entered a netherworld of neither here nor there, a twilight zone with no yesterday or tomorrow. We have shared and done so much together. We’ve done as lovers do, but what do we have now to show for it? Just a future filled with the unknown as we go our separate ways, compelled by forces beyond our control.

For Lesley, she would be moving once more. She will have to start all over again, navigate her way through her third high school in as many years, and celebrate her upcoming birthday with no friends around her.

For me, it means a return to loneliness. Of course, I have my family, friends at Deer Valley that I still cling to, and new emerging friends at Brophy. However, for the past year-and-a-half, Lesley has been my north star to guide my way through the long, lonely night that had been my life before her. She has filled my days with light and laughter that I had never thought possible, granted me the joy and ease of mind, heart, and soul that philosophers and poets, painters and playwrights from around the world have longed for, penned, and celebrated through the millennia. Lesley has put me on the map, but suddenly the map is being redrawn in the dark with no candle to light the way.

Fortunately, I have a distraction. After A-Gong and San Bo returned to Taiwan, Wai-Gong comes for a visit as well. He usually visits us with Wai-Po, but this time mysteriously, he comes on his own for several months.

One evening, I overhear my parents chatting as I pass their room. Something about Wai-Po sending Wai-Gong to our house to stay as she had found a love letter he’d written—not one for her, it appears. I have heard fragments here and there regarding Wai-Gong and his past before bringing the Tang clan to Taiwan. How he had three wives, and Wai-Po was the third.

Following the custom of the era, Wai-Gong’s parents arranged his first marriage after graduating from his village high school in Zhang Jia Jie, Hunan, a southern Chinese province. They married him to his first cousin, the daughter of Wai-Gong’s aunt. While it is banned in about twenty-four states in the US, marrying first cousins in Europe, China, and many places worldwide is not only legal but can be viewed as natural or even preferred. In this case, the parents on both sides thought the marriage between the cousins would bind the family closer and keep the wealth in-house.

However, Wai-Gong and his cousin had grown up together like brother and sister. As she was two years older, she had helped to take care of him as he grew up. Many first marriages in China are of that nature, where a family might have an older girl living with them, taking care of the son, with the understanding that she will eventually become his first wife when they come of age.

So the two of them never felt the love of man and wife towards each other, and whether they ever consummated their marriage, only Wai-Gong knows. Soon after, Wai-Gong went to Wuhan, capital of neighboring province, Hubei, to study economics at the acclaimed Wuhan University. During the next four years, Wai-Gong rarely went home to his wife. Meanwhile, she graduated from university with a bachelor’s degree in Education to become a teacher and, later, the village middle school principal.

After graduation, Wai-Gong immediately traveled to Japan to pursue a master’s degree in Economics at Tokyo University of Commerce. While there, he stayed at a Japanese home near campus with several other students where he met and became enamored with a beautiful young Japanese girl who tended to the housekeeping. As Wai-Gong was tall, handsome, and charming in both Mandarin and Japanese, it would not be long before she too fell in love with him. Together they married. In 1936 she produced their first son and in the following year their second.

That same year, after the notorious Marco Polo Bridge Incident in July, the Imperial Japanese Army began its full-scale invasion of China, the prelude to the Pacific theater of World War II. A few months later, Japan expelled all Chinese citizens and their families. Wai-Gong left the land he had come to admire and love, returning to his alma mater Wuhan University, where he took on a professorship to support his family.

Japanese forces overran Hubei and entered Wuhan in 1938. The military leadership elected Wuhan University, with its large, beautiful, and centrally located campus, as its military headquarters. This greatly alarmed the university administration, of course, so they tasked Wai-Gong with dissuading the Japanese from going through with their plan. Wai-Gong and his Japanese wife paid a visit to the Japanese military leader, bearing gifts, speaking in fluent Japanese, and informing him that the university planned to plant hundreds of cherry blossom trees throughout the campus. This would provide the Japanese occupiers with a beautiful haven away from, but reminiscent of, their home in Japan, where the cherry blossoms were a national treasure each spring. Of course, Wai-Gong emphasized, this would only be possible if the military leader could assign the headquarters to another location. The leader agreed, and to this day, each spring Wuhan University is resplendent with its famed cherry blossom trees across the entire campus.

That same year, Wai-Gong’s second wife had their third child, a daughter. Even with two wives, two toddlers, an infant, and China engulfed in a calamitous war, Wai-Gong still found the wherewithal to fall in love once again. This gorgeous young lady would turn out to be my Wai-Po, of course. When her father found out that a man with two wives and three children was in enamored pursuit of his daughter, he did what any wealthy man would do in such a situation––he kidnapped his own daughter and sent her on a boat back to their hometown of Huang-an.

Wai-Gong, never one to easily give up on true love but lacking funds to charter a boat, pulled some strings with the Japanese military (who loved his cherry blossom trees) to secure himself a ship. They intercepted and essentially commandeered Wai-Po’s boat, like a Chinese Robert Smalls but with less danger and a decidedly different cause. Wai-Gong proceeded to triumphantly board the ship only to be ferociously dressed down by Wai-Po. It took no small measure of charm, imploring, and promises of eternal love and care for Wai-Po to agree to become Wai-Gong’s third wife.

Now, after having provided Wai-Gong with five additional children and sharing his bed for over forty years, Wai-Po would do whatever it takes to make sure she stays his final wife. Hence, Wai-Gong and his three-month stay with us. It is not to rest and relax. It is not to practice calligraphy. It most positively is not to teach me Tai Chi or how to eat a large air watermelon. It is to serve out his banishment.

I, too, will soon be banished from the one I love. Thankfully, we are there to bring a little sunshine and solace to each other when we both need it most.


I enter the cornfield yet again and perhaps for the last time. I’m about a quarter the way across when I notice a raven-haired girl walking from the other side. It’s Lesley. She wears blue shorts and a white t-shirt that makes her look as fresh as lilacs in the spring but as hot as an Arizona heatwave.

“Hey,” Lesley says as we near each other.

“Hey,” I say in return. Always the classic response. “I thought I was going to your house. To say goodbye to your parents and Esther.”

“You already said goodbye to them last night. How many times do you have to hug them?”

“I dunno. Seems like your dad could use another hug from me. He was getting a bit misty-eyed yesterday.”

“Yeah, well, he’s a bit of a softie,” she says. Then she adds, “I thought we’d say goodbye without everyone around.”

I am so glad she came out to meet me. I think back to when I first saw her in Mrs. Long’s class, an alluring mix of demureness and sensuality, elegance and playfulness. I am reminded of her otherworldly beauty inside and out and how she graced and touched me with both.

Images of us dancing together at MORP, waltzing in the gym, and babysitting while toddler Zach slept fill my mind. After all this time, I still marvel at how we came to be: the pauper who dared to love a princess and the princess who had the courage and compassion to see and love him for who he was in return. It’s almost more than I can bear as my heart feels like bursting with all the things still left unsaid and all the intimacy still left to be shared.

“So, you really moving? Tell me this is a Candid Camera, and it’s all a big joke.”

“I know. I wish it were. I will miss you. I’ve never had a friend like you, someone I could talk to about anything.”

“And do stuff to.”

“Yeah, and do stuff to,” she says with a playful laugh. There go her eyes again, and there goes my heart once more. “Thank you. You always made me feel loved even in my most anxious moments.”

“You had anxious moments?”

“Yeah, I was quite worried about fitting in here. You made me feel that I belonged. From the beginning.”

“That’s easy to do. You’re so gorgeous. Everyone adored you from the first moment you stepped into our lives.”

“Gorgeous? You always tell me that you and your friends think I’m gorgeous. I’ve always appreciated it. But I’ve never seen myself that way.”

“What? C’mon, you know you’re stunningly beautiful, right? You’re always so poised and confident.”

“Well, a lot of it’s an act. Like some of the things we did? I never felt some of the things I experienced with you before.”

“You mean like feelings of…”

“Well, yeah, and also your, um, your thing. I don’t think I’ve ever had one in that state of fervor so close to me before. I wasn’t sure what would happen next, and that felt a bit, you know…”

“Scary?”

“Yeah, it scared me a little bit.”

“Please, “scary’ is okay, but please don’t ever mention ‘little bit’ when you’re referring to a guy’s, uh, instrument,” I say with a smile.

“Oh, right. Sure, I was big time scared by it,” Lesley says with a giggle. “Anyways…”

We both fall silent.

“I gotta go,” she finally says.

“So, this is…”

“…it. Yeah, this is it, for now, I guess.”

Lesley leans in and gives me a light kiss on the lips, perhaps our final kiss, until who knows when or ever again. And it’s just one of our usual “hey how ya doing” or “see you later” affectionate-type kisses, not one of our slow passionate ones. We last shared one several weeks ago, and it rapidly sinks in that that particular kiss may have been our last meaningful kiss ever.

For the first time, I realize that you can never truly know when might be the very last time you do anything. The last time you take a walk with your mother, hold your baby sister’s chubby little hand, do Tai-Chi with your grandpa. Or deeply kiss the love of your young life. Therefore, you need to relish and drink in the moment each time you do something special, especially when it’s with the one you love. To cherish each delightful instance as if it might be your last. Because otherwise, by the time you realize the last time has passed, it will be too late.

Therefore, I quickly resolve to live in and seize the moment. As Lesley turns to leave, I pull her back in for one last kiss. And I make it count. I lose myself in the moment: the soft sensuality of her lips upon mine, the honeyed sweetness of our tongues intermingling, and the mighty waves of yearning, passion, and love that crash upon the vast shores of my entire being.

After a time, we let go. We smile at each other… a bit shyly, somewhat slyly. It’s like we have stolen one last cookie from the cookie jar together.

“Ok, I gotta really go now,” she says.

“I know.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

Lesley turns to walk away, and it takes all my strength and what remains of my pride to resist running to her, grabbing her from behind, spinning her around, and begging her to stay if only for one more embrace, for one more kiss, for one more slice of heaven on earth for me.

She suddenly turns around, smiles, and says, “I almost forgot. Love me forever?”

“You know I do. Always,” I say with a smile and wave.

With that, she literally rides off into the sunset. Except she’s walking. Still, the effect is the same. It’s the most bittersweet moment of my young life, but I am surprised at how, at least in the present, the sweet washes out the bitter as I watch her walk out of my life for now. And as the Arizona sun slowly melts into the horizon, she too gradually fades into the crimson red sky.

Richard Lin recently retired as a corporate executive to focus on family, philanthropy, and writing. “Never Tear Us Apart” is an excerpt from Richard’s debut coming-of-age memoir, Arizona Awakening, to be published in 2022. It is the first in a series of four that focus on themes of interracial romance and relationships, immigrant intergenerational conflict, and ethnic tensions in America, China, and Taiwan. He would like to especially thank his mother, Minghao Tang Lin, for her contributions to the Wai-Gong portion of the story. Richard’s work will also be appearing soon in The Write LaunchPotato Soup Journal, and Drunk Monkeys. He may be reached at richardclin@ucla.edu and via his website.

An Essay by Rob Colby

I came to San Francisco to get a fresh start and to cut family ties. But that didn’t stop me from accepting help to get on my feet. My mother kindly offered to pay my first month’s rent and then, kinder still, made it clear that I was on my own after that. Though I interacted only fitfully with them—short, sporadic long-distance calls—in my mind, they still stood like two totems I had to pass between daily.

I wasn’t just negotiating the pale hypocrisy of late adolescence. My mind was embroiled in tense negotiations with the past now that I’d gained perspective on the way alcohol had affected my life growing up.

Junior year of college, my advisor, who’d taken a particular interest in my well-being, had asked me that follow-up question so many times—“No, but how are you really?” I finally relented and started sharing. But not about my own life. That was still a tangle of briny rope and fishing line in a moldering bucket. Instead, I rotated the proverbial film projector towards the wall to screen stories of growing up in Boston, about my family, and my father’s drinking.

As the evidence mounted that my father may have had a problem, the professor thoughtfully suggested that I go to an Al-Anon meeting. There was a men’s group near campus, filled with college types: faculty, administrators, even some students. I went and enjoyed it and kept going back. I’d never heard grown men talking openly about their feelings, their past, their struggles. It was like discovering a new species of human.

I began to calculate the toll my father’s drinking had taken on me, now that I’d assumed the mantle of “child of an alcoholic.” Though I was named after him, resembled him, embodied his mannerisms, I could already look back on a vexed dynamic that I’ve come to call “the spitting image:” the two of us locked in shouting matches, uncannily marshaling the same accusation against each other. With the realization about his drinking, I only wanted to be his opposite. So, when I moved out to San Francisco after graduation, I decided to put aside the booze myself and didn’t miss it. I continued attending Al-Anon meetings, this time in church basements and vestry halls in the Castro, which, in my memory, are all the same large room colored a dusty seafoam grey that matched well the emotional atmosphere. Still, I continued to hear reassuring echoes of my story in the lives of other grown children of alcoholics.

I soon realized there was a catch to my new, no-drinking-child-of-an-alcoholic-Al-Anon-California-recovery lifestyle. The friends from Oberlin I’d come out to San Francisco with didn’t want to hang out anymore. Gone was edgy, precocious Rob from the year before, who had imposing intellectual ambitions, wore battered tweed jackets and costume jewelry. Alcohol had once served to batten down the emotional hatches that were started to bang open. Now I was both sloppy and puritanical, as I tried to “get my life together.”

So, when I moved into the apartment in Noe Valley it felt like the kind of beginning that’s really an end. The room itself told me this. For starters, it would have made Edward Hopper’s black-eyed muse feel right at home. A large bay window looked out over the tops of the houses on the lower side of Elizabeth Street, framing a hemisphere of sky. It didn’t even occur to me to buy drapes to offer myself a modicum of privacy. The sunlight just streamed in, scouring every inch. Judging from the elaborate carved fireplace and beveled mirror, the room had once been the parlor. It was bare now but for a futon mattress and the ghostly outline of old furniture stamped in the carpet. My new roommate was kind, and this made a difference. He told me where to get good fresh fruit down at the Mexican market in the Mission and warned me to be careful. “You can still get mugged on the side streets.” Then he showed me the kitchen and gestured to the stove. “The pozole’s almost done, so help yourself anytime.”

That last semester in college, I’d taken up long-distance running to get in shape and quickly discovered it quieted my mind. I found the mental rest I needed, expiating the toxic energy for a few hours. But the monsters of anxiety and isolation were always waiting just around the corner. In San Francisco, I ran so much the cartilage in my knees felt like it was wearing out. Some days, when I didn’t have anything else to do, I’d run as far as I’d could, across the city, over the Golden Gate Bridge, and down into Sausalito until I couldn’t go any farther. Then I’d take a bus back, my legs practically locking into place at right angles against the cool plastic seats. But at least it ate up the time.

I couldn’t find a job right away; that was part of the problem. I was discovering that my art history degree didn’t qualify me for much. When I applied for an entry-level position at a credit card call center, the interviewer looked at my resume, noticed words like ‘Hotchkiss’ and ‘summa cum laude’ and politely interrogated me. “Why do you even want this job?” Cause my parents have cut me off and I need to make rent and eat, I said to myself, as I made up a reply plausible enough to lock it down.

Once I’d gained employment, I spent most nights there was no Al-Anon meeting at home. Had I cleaned regularly the room might have been pleasingly minimalist. But I rarely did, so it mostly looked like a squatter was passing through. At a makeshift desk formed by a board and two piles of books, I attempted to craft the story of my life. No paragraph ever survived the next day’s scrutiny.

I returned to making art and created large pelt-like wall hangings by tearing off little pieces of masking tape and sticking them together on the mirror over the mantel in seemingly random configurations. Then I would brush on matte gesso, and when it dried, peel it off and attach it to the others until the pelt was around five feet across. The process of ripping and laying down the tape was hypnotic and gave my mind a task to focus on. Eventually, I realized I could place the pelts over part of the windowpane like a layer of skin. The light shone through from behind, creating bleached, illuminated mandalas.

I backfilled my empty life in other ways, too: reading a classic American novel, trying to formulate a definitive postmodern worldview (there are only stories and stories of stories). I even attempted to learn Latin. Despite all this effort, my inner life still felt desiccated, as if my soul had been scoured with a toxic cleanser, leaving a hygienic but noxious void.

Then a funny thing happened.

I was leaving the Mexican grocery store in the Mission and had just turned the corner onto one of those scrappy side streets my roommate had warned me about.

Unbidden, an overwhelming sense of peace overcame me, like the dramatic change in weather that often happens in San Francisco when the tepid air of the valley is expelled by a cool front descending from the barrier mountains. Instead of the endless inner chatter, I felt an easy restfulness, like when I finished a seven-mile run—but without the pain in my knees and tightness in my back. I sat down on a dirty stoop along the sidewalk with a curious feeling, like I’d become one with the river, my body just a channel for the water to flow through. Maybe this is what they mean by “being in the moment.” Breathing in and out this new sensation, I reached into the plastic bag and pulled out an orange to peel. I put the wedges in my mouth one by one like a handful of sacraments.

The sensation surprised me, but the timing didn’t. Three days before, I’d gone to an AA meeting at the invitation of a guy I was dating. He stood at the podium and shared that night. I sat in the back, and as everyone went around, kept thinking, Why are they saying what’s in my head? Is this who I am?

I began to re-catalog my memories according to this new logic, starting with the effects that alcohol had on me, relief of that inner compression, that vague, persistent tightening in my chest. But also, my treasure trove of shame—passing out in the bathroom and cracking my head open after day-drinking at the beach; the barfly banter (You call that a double?); the dreaded “hot tub incident” of 1996. After the meeting, I waited for my friend outside, then threw my arms around him. “Oh my God! I’m an alcoholic!” It felt like coming home.

Nothing really changed in the few days that immediately followed, until my sidewalk epiphany. Now, instead of scuttling through life as if I were running along the lip of a smoldering crater, suddenly, I could see how the hours might unfold harmoniously—how days and weeks and months could build on each other, could compound each other, make a life of purpose. Some mornings instead of launching from bed like a sprung trap, I’d move my futon mattress over to the window, stare out the side light up to Diamond Heights, and watch as the hierarchy of water, earth, and sky would overturn itself when clouds of ocean blue and ocean grey would descend from above.

One night, I took the ‘N’ train all the way down to the beach at Outer Sunset, a lumbering forty-five-minute ride from the Castro to the ocean. There, I put on my headphones and blasted Annie Lennox anthems as I walked along the water—impervious to the lapping foam around my ankles; to the waves as they engulfed my shins and knees; to the stares of the beach strollers as they saw me throwing myself into the dance of the wind while the Pacific waters splashed around me.

Born in Montreal and raised in Boston, Rob Colby attended Oberlin and the Courtauld where he studied many things except how to write well. A few years back, he had an awkward break-up and hasn’t stopped scribbling since. Rob’s currently working on a book examining the legacy of Anglo-Saxon heritage, for which he recently received a Logan Nonfiction Fellowship. A member of the Wild Goose Creative writers’ group, Rob lives in Columbus, Ohio.

An Essay by Zach Lebovic

The water wasn’t still anymore, it was as turbulent as my thoughts. When I dove into the pool that morning I felt claustrophobic. The water shocked my system, taking my breath away and I panicked, remembering the nightmare I had last night: I dove in for my race like usual, not realizing that a weight had been tied around my waist. No matter how hard I struggled I couldn’t kick myself back up to the surface. A hand grabbed me from behind but instead of rescuing me, it pinned me to the bottom. 

I warmed up prior to my race like nothing was wrong. But inwardly my thoughts kept closing in on me. The closer it got to race time, the more intrusive they would become. The entire day I felt sluggish, like I was swimming in a pool of molasses. Everything I had learned about racing, every bit of advice I had been told over the years, every technique I had mastered disappeared.

I bombed every race.

During swim meets I began to dissociate from my body, watching helplessly from above as a “different” me took over my brain– suffocated by a floor of negative thoughts.

My mind suddenly became my ultimate enemy. It was as if it were a separate entity, conspiring to keep me from being whole. I wondered what it would be like to be able to quiet my thoughts, to be in charge of what I focused on. Instead, I was constantly assaulted by torrent after torrent of intrusive thoughts. Most days, I felt I was drowning. I was a swimmer who couldn’t breathe–on land or in the pool. Water used to be my sanctuary but now even that felt hostile. I was at a loss to remember a single time when my mind had been free from its own grasp.


Weeks before I began my senior year in college, I fell ill in the middle of the night. Awakened from sleep by a pain that felt like two nails being driven into my temple, I rolled out of bed clutching my head. I fell over instantly. My legs had an uncontrollable tremor that rooted me to the floor. Vomit seeped out of my mouth. I’d lived with migraines my entire life; I saw them as just another mode of attack my brain used against me. It wasn’t until I was admitted to the ER that I would wonder why it took me so long to know something was wrong.

An emergency CT and MRI later, my doctor called. “There’s one of three things wrong with you. You either have meningitis, a brain aneurysm, or a stroke.” Extensive silence. “This is a life threatening emergency.” The weight of her words took hours to land. Later, I would ask my mom, “Which one am I supposed to be hoping for?”

I was admitted to the critical- neurology ward where I learned that I suffered two strokes in my cerebellum. Just like that everything changed; my mind was eerily still.


Nothing about the hospital invokes healing. The ER is crammed with cases ranging from the sick and dying to the drunk and disorderly– it’s mayhem. Amidst the ringing alarms and cries of pain, I found myself panicking. It was as if my mind had been turned inside out, manifesting in the mayhem around me. Because of COVID, my family couldn’t come into the waiting room with me. I sat alone shivering in pain, distracting myself by examining the weirdos around me. Everyone in there– from the lady slumped in a chair vomiting into her hands, to the parents huddled in the corner cradling their baby– seemed more sick than I was. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Even after they transferred me to the critical care neurology ward I couldn’t escape the chaos. The wires the doctors attached to my chest and head beeped unceasingly. Every five minutes or so I was bombarded by people giving me one test or another, the culmination of which came in the form of a spinal tap. Every object, every person served as a constant reminder that I was in a foreign place all alone.

This sense of isolation peaked when my next door neighbor Nelson spent hours maniacally yelling at his nurse because she “wouldn’t end it all fast enough!” I could hear him through the wall we shared, thrashing around in his bed as he fought off every nurse and doctor who tried to reassure him. By the time the police came to quiet Nelson down, I had wondered how anyone could possibly heal here.

It wasn’t until I watched Nelson being transferred to psych that I was struck by how sick I was. My unwavering health was taken away from me so quickly that I hadn’t yet registered my new reality. I was still clinging to my past self, still pretending I was the same 21 year old college athlete who had entered through the hospital doors. Just thinking about how I was missing the first week of my senior year of college, missing moving into a house with my best friends, made my heart explode. The more I ruminated and obsessed about what I was “missing”– the more I complained to my parents and friends about how shitty my situation was– the more my head would throb in pain. Those closest to me tried their best to help, to understand. I was inundated by calls and texts, cards and food. Instead of comforting me, every gesture made me angrier and angrier until finally the anger gave way to hopelessness.

Surprisingly, it was this state that brought me clarity.

There was nothing I could change about the situation. My brain was going to continue to misfire, to cascade anxiety, to clog with thoughts (and the occasional blood clot). I could do nothing. I hadn’t decided to fall ill, I couldn’t beg my body to heal itself faster, and I couldn’t resolve to be healthy again. The way I saw it, I had three options. I could remove myself from the situation (which was impossible since I couldn’t even stand to pee on my own); I could surrender to what is; or I could suffer. And I was sick of suffering.

So I changed my attitude.

Making the decision not to engage in self-inflicting behaviors was the hardest thing I had ever done. My false sense of self was as addicted to complaining as others were to junk food. The more I mentally ran away from the situation, trying to change what already was, the more I would inadvertently cause myself pain. Just deciding that I no longer wanted to cause myself to suffer didn’t change anything for me immediately. My alarming thoughts didn’t float away magically like I expected them to. They still cast a shadow upon my daily life. But for the first time in a long while, I felt like I could take a breath.


Four months after my stroke and one heart procedure later, my doctors still do not have an answer for me. Nor can they give my family and me a clear response when asked if I am at risk of stroke again. Sometimes I feel that not knowing might be the worst part. But instead of floundering in the unknown, I’ve chosen to look at the situation as a blessing, not a curse. I may still struggle to keep my balance, and my memory may not be as sharp as it once was, but at least I’m alive. I still have intrusive thoughts that cry out for my attention and occasionally occupy my time, and that hasn’t changed. But they don’t scare me anymore. Life is short. I don’t want to live in fear of my own mind, wondering if and when I would be bombarded with compulsions and obsessions. Instead, I let those thoughts flow through me. They are no longer the weight around my waist, but the water keeping me afloat.

Zach Lebovic is a senior English major at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon.

An Essay by Steven Schroeder

Michael stood in front of the classroom with his partner, Gretchen. She was a foot shorter than him with brown hair, almond-colored eyes, and wore a green sundress. He wore a button-down shirt tucked into slacks with brown dress shoes. Michael could feel the sweat collecting in his armpits as he read off the PowerPoint presentation behind him,

“So although there are no physical symptoms of illness or perhaps meeting set criteria, it would be difficult for a doctor to allow physicians to assisted suicide based on the principle that it is against a doctor’s code to cause death. Without a severe medical condition, seeking to ask a doctor to commit suicide because of something they cannot see. Where one person may be suffering a debilitating disease such as cancer, a person suffering from mental illness would be intangible and therefore the legality of allowing for products such as euthanasia, which are the most harmless form of suicide.”

A hand rose. It belonged to a girl named Tina who sat in the front of the classroom. She titled her chin up and said, “What you’re saying is, is that if someone goes to a doctor, and let’s say, I don’t know, that you are sitting in a room blaring music all day, has no friends, don’t talk to anyone, that the doctor wouldn’t describe you as being depressed.”

“Yes.”

Professor Durlich interrupted: “If I may class, I believe that what Michael is saying is that without such visible signs such as mental retardation, its impossible to know the mindset the patient is under when considering suicide. Now, being retarded is no doubt difficult but can be managed, simply having a bad day, going to a doctor, and asking for euthanasia is not in either party’s interest.”

Professor Durlich nodded his head, satisfied with his own opinion. He sat in the back corner of the classroom, one leg over the other revealing his Patriots Football socks. He had on a black sports jacket with missing gold buttons, a white polo shirt that had a mustard stain on the collar, and the jeans that must have been purchased a size too short so that everyone could see his patriot’s socks which he possessed infinite quantities.

Michael and Gretchen looked at each other. Gretchen pressed the small remote in her hand and the last slide came on the screen that stated their sources.

The classroom applauded.

The next pair came and gave their presentation on a different topic of mental illness, picked at random from Mr.Dulrich’s old Red Sox hat. The windows of the classroom were large and evenly spaced, giving a warming amount of sunlight through the leaves of the oak trees tapping the window, calling for the classroom to be let outside. Their desks were cheap plastic with small tables that would fold up and were just big enough to fit an open notebook and underneath was the name of the prison where they were manufactured from in Western Massachusetts.

Michael stared at his phone. He had an email from campus security:

“Dear Mr. Gallagher,

“As of this moment you are on academic probation. Below you will find the incident report filed by one of our campus officers.

“At approximately 20:55 hrs, a marked State Police Cruiser entered campus with Trooper Samson operating it. This officer was standing outside the security booth and in a brief conversation with Trooper, Samson learned that he came upon a Devos College student who was intoxicated and sitting in the middle of Boylston Ave. You are in the back of the cruiser loud, abusive and banging on the petition. Informing Trooper Samson that we had no place on campus to house loud, abusive and intoxicated students, he stated he would handle the matter personally and exited from campus.

“Respectfully Submitted,
“Lt. Tyler Fitzpatrick”

The class ended. Michael gathered his things. Gretchen tried to tell Michael that he did a good job on the presentation. The crowd around him carried on their schedules, their lives where Michael once valued their opinions but now he felt the black edges of his sight creep in toward tunnel vision and a ringing in his ears that followed down the marble stairs.

The hallway had no discernable features from any other hallway, high ceilings, polished tile floor, tack boards made by student government. In the middle, leading out to the quad, was a café. Michael hadn’t eaten all day. The door to campus security was toward the end, off a smaller hallway to a room without a door next to a locked room.

A student worked the front desk, a high piece of a cubicle wall that had a counter that went up to Michaels’s neck as he scanned the stack of charging radios, the book with names and address, times, he looked around and there, sitting by a filling cabinet in a chair was Lt. Fitzpatrick Oafish, ugly, with a dropping Boston drawl, and narrow metal glasses on a mushroom sized nose, he sighed as he stood up. His uniform resembled that of a police officer and he spoke with a weak authority,

“you, uh, get my message?”

“…yea…”

The student at the desk looked up at Michael from their homework and left the room. Fitzpatrick  made a few clicks, and then stood up, hand on his gun, and motioned for Michael to come over and take a look. Fitzpatrick pointed at the screen,

“There. That’s you. I saw you in the back of the car you were drunk, spitting, yelling, and cursing. I thought you were going to break the window you were pounding on it so hard. When Tony came to drop you off, he said you were sitting in the middle of the road, like a drunk monk. ”

“You didn’t even get the time right”

“What?”

Michael was late for economics. He walked to the door in defeat, his shoulders hung low. He went into the men’s bathroom and looked at himself. He cried but that was all, a little pale and he splashed some water on his face.

*

The class was debating who was better, China or the US. By the time Michael climbed to the top floor he was out of breath, and more tired than angry. He went into the classroom and sat down. Professor Len was taking attendance, “Lauren.”

“Here.” She raised her hand. She was the last name on the list.  

Michael took a seat and raised a hand, “I’m here.”

“You are not.”

Michael lowered his hand and his neck twitched. The classroom laughed. Michael opened his notes for the debate. He didn’t get called on and spent the class looking over the news on campus. Lately, there had been cases of someone rubbing their shit on the men’s bathroom walls. They wrote slogans in shit on the mirrors. More than once Michael had gone in to have his nostrils assaulted by the odor of burnt hairs that rose into a gargantuan odor that pushed him out gagging. Michael closed his computer and spent the rest of the class doodling in his notebook, a picture of a handgun, a man with narrow eyes and mouth, and what looked like scissors coming out of his head, and a jug of whiskey marked by the double x on the barrel.

Michael had the paper in his backpack signed from his guidance counselor to drop the class. When the debate was over no one cared who won and Professor Len pointed to the homework assignment on the chalkboard. Michael handed her the form without a word, and she flicked her pen on the signature line. Michael put the paper in his backpack and walked down the stairwell out the metal doors to the quad.

Michael heard his name called and saw that Fitzpatrick was waving at him, smiling. He looked clumsy as he hopped off the curb, his gun belt, and keys clanking from across the street; Michael could see the campus security officer sweating.

“How’s it going, Michael?”

He acted like they were old friends.

Michael veered off course from the dining hall and made a straight line for his dorm. His roommate Rob unofficially moved into his girlfriend’s apartment. There was no natural sunlight, the windows looked into a common room of the dorm building. Michael closed the lights and went to bed, his alarm set for the next lesson.

*

Michael heard the guidance counselor give his speech through the door as he peered through the chicken wire window to the one open seat directly in front of the class. When the guidance counselor had his back turned to gesture to the PowerPoint Michael opened the door and sulked over to the chair and put his backpack down. The counselor pretended not to notice him, “college will change your life, like never before. The difference in income with a college degree, and without on, is staggering.”

He wasn’t a teacher though he gave his lectures on the merits of college to students who were already enrolled in college. This was meant to motivate those who would be seeking their internships in the coming semester. The guidance counselor was in his late 40s, had thin combed over blond hair with a wide gap in his front teeth. He wore a sweater vest over a button-down shirt, wrinkled khakis, and grass-stained track shoes.

“Within the first 10 years of your graduation from Devos, you should all have had made at least 1 million dollars. Compared to a person without an undergraduate degree and we see that number doubling. Not only that but your potential for earning increase with your experience to add with your knowledge.”

He was reading from a sheet of paper. “A college degree guarantees a person’s life to pursue their own interests. A degree from Devos opens doors to countless fields in STEM and business. Finding these jobs can be difficult though, with a competitive field of applicants. Now, we are going to do a classroom exercise. Everyone will stand up, and I will describe a job to you. Based on my description you must decide if this is a job you would apply for or not.”

Everyone stood. The counselor read off the sheet. Michael heard laughter. He turned and the rest of the classroom was seated. He was the only one and the guidance counselor looked at him and grinned,  “Michel, it looks like you have just been given a job as a blackjack dealer. Now, let’s do another one.”

Michael heard the class behind him stand up. Michael again heard laughter. He stood alone in front of the class. The guidance counselor turned his page in half so he could peer at him and smile, “ Michael, looks like you are hired. You would be a city garbage worker.”

Michael sat down in his chair and the guidance counselor continued. “The positions I described to you may have been a bit out of proportion but never the less the situations and the work are real. These are some of the jobs you will be able to avoid thanks to a degree.”

Michael was the last to leave the room as if he was searching for ripcord he could pull that might eject him from the building. A security guard Michael didn’t recognize came in the classroom and motioned with his hand for Michael to follow him. He had perfect posture, a grey buzz cut, and a blank, expressionless face. In the empty hallway, it was just their footsteps down into the basement. They didn’t go to the campus security office, but to the unmarked door across the hall.

The floor had just been waxed, and a yellow plastic triangle was folded against the wall. When the guard walked past the sign collapsed on the floor in a loud smack. He hooked his thumbs in his gun belt and kicked the ground as if to say “sorry bud, looks like this is the end.”

The door closed behind Michael. He was in a small anteroom, with a desk and an empty green velvet chair. The door beyond that was open, and the head of campus security peeked around the corner and said, “Here.”

Michael walked forward.

Jack Prescott the head of campus security sat, hunched over in a grey shirt with a red tie. He had a furrowed look on his face as if he was hiding something, and Michael knew it was a pleasure, as one might feel relief after extracting a splinter. He said, “Michael, you, submitted a fiction writing piece for your English lit 101. I’d like to read it out loud for everyone to hear.”

Sitting next to him was the dean of students, her face wrinkled and bunched together in fake concern. She wore a navy blue suit, and a bright handkerchief round her neck in an attempt not to cover, but highlight the gold necklace, the gold earrings, the gold rings on her fingers that tapped her bare knee as she put on her best sympathy.

Jack picked up a folder next to him and handed it with the story to Michael, who had sat down in the empty chair, starring in the corner, hearing his own words as if they came from a stranger. Jack said, “I crossed the street too my college dorm room. I didn’t see anyone. The streetlights turned red. Headlights enveloped me. Tires squealed on the ground. Blue and red lights splashed on the trees, on the buildings. My hands came out of my pockets. The car stopped inches from me. I was terrified. I backed away. The driver door opened. A state trooper grabbed arm. He pulled me to the side of the car. I couldn’t scream. I didn’t know what was happening. The police officer didn’t say anything.

He put on the handcuffs. He put them on as tight as he could. I quaked and from my shaking throat

“Why.”

He walked me back to the sidewalk. I screamed as he opened the door. I cried again. He reached in. His hand closed around my throat. I tried to pull away; I looked out the windows. No one.

“You better shut the fuck up.”

I couldn’t breathe. The door heaved shut.

“Why.”

 He stepped on the gas. He turned on the siren. He pulled around corners and rocked my head against the door. I fell on the floor. We came to a stop. I looked up. We were under a highway. The door opened. He pulled me by the ankle. I fell to the gravel. He picked me up. He put his arm under my handcuffs, bending me over, and he walked me to a grey brick building with no windows, just a metal door under lamplight.

There are more police officers, bored looking, behind a high counter. There is a bench. I sit down. He cuffs me to the bench. While he takes off my shoes, he says,

“I caught this dumb fuck, you guys, I caught this dumb fuck, and I shit you not, sitting, in the middle of the fucking road. I go to help him, and you know what this kid does? He takes a swing at me! Drunk bastard.”

“What’s your name? Date of birth.”

“Who cares just fucking book him, I got to head out.”

“I’m going to take your picture now.”

I hadn’t been drinking, but I felt like I had. I hadn’t been sitting in the road, but I felt like I had. I have never punched a person in my life. They walk me to a cell. There is a metal bed. There is a metal mirror with a metal sink, a metal toilet with a camera lens in the corner. He takes the handcuffs off me.

I walk inside. The door closes. I looked at my veins. Blue, but the blood is red. They were blue, were they blue? Did I see a color that no one else saw? I press my head against the cell door until I crawl on the metal bed and use my hands as a pillow and go to sleep.

What I had been before, I would never be again.

I forgot how long, maybe less than a week, but I received a notice that I was under academic suspension and had been stripped of campus privileges such as parking and having guests over. A campus security guard said that the police officer who arrested me came back to the college first, and said that I was acting like a wild animal, pounding my hands against the glass in the backseat. I showed him the scars from the handcuffs, and he told me to leave his office. At this point, I could no longer understand what was real anymore. I felt again like I had done something wrong and so I began to do crazy things. I started to write. I wrote this story, though not as well, and gave it to my English teacher who gave it to campus security who made the case that I was a danger to the school.”

Jack finished reading Michael looked at the scars on his wrist, and he could feel the grip of the state police officer tightening around his throat. The person behind him was the state trooper. He could see that in his eyes, and he could see that in his blank face, unassuming, and unimpressed. The dean handed Michael his diploma.

“We think its best if everyone leaves on good terms. Congratulations. You are now Alumni.”

 Michael took his diploma and left.

Steven Schroeder is a 30-year-old salesman living in Boston. He uses the air fryer for everything, wears a facemask, and has a blog of additional writing at Lay Low Magazine.

An Essay by Elizabeth Ricketson

A large 3 x 3-foot Christmas wreath, displaying a red and black buffalo plaid bow this year rather than the traditional Christmas Tartan, hangs on the side of our little yellow house on the hill. The wreath is strategically placed on the side of the house because it is the first decorative visual one sees upon arrival after the bends and turns in our driveway.

Our annual holiday tradition feels curious this year. Other than the odd and intermittent delivery, no one is arriving at our home during the COVID-19 days of social distancing. Even our UPS driver has social distanced. Packages are no longer delivered to our front porch. Instead, he employs the ‘Last Mile Rule.’ Anyone who lives remotely is familiar with this door to door delivery exception. Our packages are delivered to the local post office.

Interestingly enough, our local post office is under construction, and we must travel to another town, several miles away, to get our mail from a temporary post office. So, yet another rule we believed to have merit has been inconveniently redefined. Exceptions and acceptance of broken rules are what 2020 has been all about. Well, technically, it began in 2016.

Tradition remains important to us and possibly even more so since we have experienced first-hand how what we love to do over the holidays has been challenged and compromised. Still, Christmas candlestick lights appear in our windows, white lights wrap around the front porch iron railing, and the wooden bean pole at the far end of the patio is decorated this year.  A new tradition or just a modification? An embellishment of an already existing tradition to offer us the illusion of sameness this holiday season? Much needed comfort?

The fruit of the bean pole harvest amply nourished us this past growing season, and now the wooden structure has been employed to offer something more esoteric. The lighting strung quite uniformly provides a nod to our Christmas traditions while illuminating our small remote community and the rare passer-by. We hoped the wooden shape might resemble the shape of a small perfect pine tree from the road. Needing to reserve judgment on that point until my morning run the next day; I would be able to see the modest display of lights from the road to determine how correct our thoughts might be.

 A heavy mist had settled over the hills for the past number of days feeling more like weeks at this point. Sunshine would surely benefit us all during this endlessly long gray period we are experiencing. The low forming fog mystically hovers and hugs the landscape. Feeling so close to the clouds as we make our way down the street, I feel like I could reach up and pull off a piece of the atmosphere as if I were snatching a piece of cotton candy from the large sugary confection. The exterior lights aglow, and the warmth a beacon home as I see our house from a short distance.  The bean pole clearly not an image of a small pine tree but beautiful in its uniqueness and quite possibly has now found a new permanence in our Christmas decoration rotation.

Saturday afternoon while flipping through the cable channels, desperately looking for anything but a news station and something to shift and ease my cluttered brain. I came across the movie Fiddler on the Roof. I had seen this movie years ago with my mother in the small local theater near where I grew up in Massachusetts. Tevye, the lead character, is a poor dairy farmer who ponders Jewish tradition as he openly converses with God. Traditions are clearly in question this year. Maybe different questions being asked about traditions than in the movie but timely ponderances about what they might mean to each of us. Like viewing the play Hamilton I could only watch the first half of the movie Fiddler on the Roof as the weight of more sadness is just too much right now. I know how both stories end, and self-preservation is a must right now.  I recognized that my emotional stress level, like many of us, has reached a new high. I cried through the final episode of the fabulous Schitt’s Creek comedy on Thanksgiving Day eve!!!! Apparently, I just needed an excuse to cry…a release.

Anticipating a very different holiday has been weighing on my mind even more heavily than I had acknowledged. Tradition. Missing the traditions, we have taken for granted over many years. Family traditions certainly have evolved and changed over the years as none of our lives or the people in them have remained static. None the less I knew I would miss the reoccurring and comfortable traditions that I had known for a lifetime with my immediate family. I was surprised at the end of the day by what gave me pause as I reflected on the lack of the reminders that a family had gathered. The clean-up of spilled apple pie crumbs on the dessert table. Deciding which dishes had been used and which hadn’t? Knowing I would wash them all either way. The threat of cranberry sauce stains on the crisply starched tablecloths my parents had gifted us from their many trips to Aruba. Random half-filled coffee cups dotted over the center island in the kitchen where the majority of our holidays were ultimately held. The clean-up of special dishware used only for holidays seemed insignificant in its demand this year. Not a complaint just an acknowledgement of yet more loss this year, 2020. We had a lovely albeit quiet day. We had lively and lovely phone and zoom chats over the course of the day, which brought many smiles to our wonderful family members.

The promise of a vaccine is just that. There is real hope on the horizon, but we are still charged with doing the right thing. Wear a mask, wash your hands and respect the lifesaving concept of social distancing. The right thing still needs to happen, and it is dependent on each and every one of us to do just that so we can all look forward to reemploying our family traditions in the future.

There is beauty in preserving tradition…

“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.” 
― Gustav Mahler

A graduate of Providence College with a BA in English, Elizabeth Ricketson has always had a love of literature and the fine arts. In the 1990s, she studied figure drawing at the Rhode Island School of Design spending years dedicated to understanding human form, movement and anatomy. Blog titled “It’s Complicated.” Elizabeth’s essays focus on life experiences and life in Vermont. Essays available for consideration.

An Essay by Chad W. Lutz

Two falls ago, I decided what the hell and attempted a rim-to-rim-to-rim crossing of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Just writing it out makes my right knee hurt, which is exactly what happened. But the knee is fine now, and the IPAs I’ve imbibed have more than neutralized any pain I would be feeling, that is, if everything wasn’t velvet-glove fuzzy at the moment. Thinking back, it seems absurd something so grandiose even fits into the long-listed catalog of events that make up my life. Flashes of red desert here. A setting crimson sun and a bright white moon blanketing everything under the night sky in a soft cocoon of bent, yellow light.

I don’t bring the excursion up as a means to brag or to even remotely revisit play-by-play. I never made it through the entire hike. In fact, I had to stop at the North Rim lodge halfway, so I won’t bore you with the thirty-some-odd hours it took to get there in exacting detail. There’s fresh snow swirling on a wicked wind outside my cozy cabin this evening, and when it catches the eaves just right, it howls like a banshee across the river as icy waves lap at its frosted shores.

A part of me would rather go outside and light a fire and spend the next few hours drinking beer and forgetting the pain of being man by staring into the flames and watching the way the light from the stars and moon bounces off the surface of the rolling waters. But I feel compelled to sit here in the warmth of my cabin and write about what happened to me today and how reminded I am of the doomed trek I made across the bottom of a desert chasm in what feels like ten lifetimes ago.

Let’s get started, shall we?


Earlier this afternoon, I went cross-country skiing for the first time in probably twenty years. Being the full-hardy chubber of confidence that I am, there wasn’t a single second thought that crossed my mind. I simply laced up my boots, clamped on my skis, grabbed my ski poles, and out the door I went. I figured, after being considered an elite athlete in something as difficult as marathon running for the better part of the last decade, it’d be a piece of cake. Nothing to it. In my head, I was thinking, “Psshhh, I got this.” But all I got was yet another painful reminder of how fragile the human body is and how flimsy memory can truly be.

It’s amazing how twenty years can distort anybody’s perceptions of, well, anything.

I awoke this morning to the sound of the cabin’s heater clicking over. Scratching my tummy and slowly making my way to my feet, I went to the nearest window and looked outside: blankets of white snow piled ten inches high and covering everything within sight. Above the landscape, a v-formation of Canada Geese flew silently over the bay. I watched them until they became nothing but dots in the air and then disappeared into the horizon.

Watching their flight, I felt isolated and a part of everything at once; the same way I’d felt at the bottom of the canyon looking up at its mile-high walls in absolute awe, like a bug inside a cup, only this time trading the desert for the tundra, Arizona for Ontario. After eating and shitting and all those other mundane morning tune-ups we find ourselves unconsciously loping through each day, I grabbed a bagel, topped it with peanut butter and sliced banana, and made my way over to the Wellesley Island State Park nature center to scope my routes and grab a couple maps.

The park is located right smack dab in the middle of the Saint Lawrence River in Upstate New York and anchored by the Minna Anthony Common Nature Center. To the south of the island lies Densmore Bay, which made me think of Jim Morrison and Robbie Krieger (Re: John Densmore), but if John Densmore and The Doors were a raging snowstorm, instead of a super psychedelic relic of an era gone by. South Bay (aptly named) also sits just off that same portion of the island, with Lake of the Isles tucked neatly into the centerfold of the whale-shooting-its-blowhole-looking scrub of land. In total, Wellesley Island consists of 12sqmi and calls home to just shy of 300 people. The park is divided amongst different parts of the island but controls around 2,600 acres. All of the park’s trails begin and end at the Minna Anthony Common Nature Center. There are about ten trails altogether, many of them looping and lapping back over one another.

It took me about an hour to walk the mile and a half from my campsite to the nature center. Along the way, I stopped and took pictures with my pocket Canon, running into not a single soul as I went. The roads themselves had yet to be cleared of the previous night’s snow, so the going was slick and sludgy. Tall, white-frosted pines poked out of the ancient glacial granite isle. The clouds had cleared, and so the sun was a blindingly bright light in the sky, made even more arresting by its reflection off the snow.

When I got to the building, which was a white-sided, wood-frame structure, with a big, glass atrium and a high, pointed lobby roof, I went inside and wandered around the beaver pelts and other taxidermied creatures: wolves, foxes, quail, squirrel, that were on display. Toward the back end of the lobby was a large, scenic window, where kids able to pinch quarters from their mothers’ purses could pop into viewfinders to stare out into the vast, chilly nothing happening across Eel Bay, which sits due west of the park and island. After twenty or so minutes of poking around, I eventually meandered back to the brochure and information racks setting by the front entrance, located the trail maps I was after, and then made the return trip to my cabin to grab a quick bite to eat, pack my Nathan Vest with my water bladder and little snack foods, change, and head out. Not once did I second guess what I was about to embark on. In fact, if I remember correctly, I’m pretty sure I had Queen’s “We Are the Champions” blasting through my iPod on repeat as I made my way out the door.


I felt that exact same kind of blind and gratuitous confidence rolling around my cerebellum when the grey Cube driven by my girlfriend’s father, Ted, pulled into Grand Canyon National Park a quarter past eleven in the evening. It was the first week in October; hard to believe now a year and a handful of months ago. We were tired from our travels, but in good spirits, despite the hour. None of the three of us, Ted, Maggie, or I, had slept since 5:00am that previous morning. Eastern Time, mind you. We’d gained two hours in practicum, but our bodies couldn’t be convinced otherwise, and staring down a 6:30am wakeup call to try and beat some of the heat on the way down the following morning, this should have been a red flag. Not just for my ill-fated knee, but all of us.

Impervious to logic, I openly welcomed our wake-up call only a mere five hours from the time we finally laid our heads down on our pillows and said our anxious goodnights, each of us dreaming of whatever adventure the next day would hold.


Within ten minutes of setting out on my first cross-country ski trip in at least twenty years, I found myself lying on my back and staring up at a cloud-whitened sky, a tangled mess of ski poles and skis, with a fresh batch of snow settling into my underpants. For a while, I just lay there, listening to the sound of the winds coming off the river sweeping through the naked trees. Trying to gain my feet, I immediately fell right back down. One of my skis was wedged squarely under the other.

Great, I thought. Perfect way to start out.

And so I turned my attention back toward the sky to collect my thoughts and center myself. After all, I’d planned on being out there for a couple of hours. But when I looked back up, it was just in time for a huge clump of snow setting on a nearby tree limb to fall and hit me right in the face. I laughed, already sweating through my all-weather jacket and red in the face from exhaustion, thinking to myself, “This makes running look like a breeze.”

All I could think about was the canyon.


We were somewhere around our seventeenth mile, heading into our eighth hour on foot, when my right leg suddenly began to feel funny. Tight, really; a pinch, to the inside and back of the knee. At first, it was just a sensation I felt here and there, maybe once every ten to fifteen minutes. I’d stop, shake it out, and feeling like it had passed, start back up again. But, over time, the sensation worsened, my body stiffened, and my gait significantly began to suffer.

I winced and drew hard, sharp sucks of wind with every breath. After a while, I started limping, which eventually turned into hobbling. The hobbling made my hips hurt, which caused me to land on my feet weird, and soon they started hurting, too. It was the damndest thing: not two weeks prior, I took fifth place overall in a major marathon featuring a race field of over 3,000 participants, clocking an unbelievable 10mph per mile for the entire race, and here I was casually walking along — a tourist for crying out loud! — at a clip of maybe two or three miles per hour and feeling like my body was a glass sheet about to shatter.

Trying to focus through the pain, I grew completely silent and concentrated on the trek itself. I was determined to get to the other side before things got worse; before, the only option of getting out was by way of rescue helicopter. At the Bright Angel Trailhead, there had been a sign that encouraged hikers to give whatever it is they think they’re about to do one final, serious consideration before heading off down the sandy path.

“DO NOT ATTEMPT TO HIKE FROM THE CANYON RIM TO THE RIVER AND BACK IN ONE DAY. EACH YEAR HIKERS SUFFER SERIOUS ILLNESS OR DEATH FROM EXHAUSTION.”

We were making at least quadruple that effort, and when my knee began to hurt, there was still a 6,000ft. climb to think about.

But we were all struggling, the three of us. We’d stopped at the Cottonwood Campground to rest for a bit just before the sun went down. We ate couscous flavored with hot sauce packets I’d stolen from the lodge cafeteria (for the sodium) and took turns going to the bathroom one at a time while the other two watched over our gear. With still another six miles to go to the top of the North Rim and the entire hike back, we sat at a picnic bench and shot grave, weary looks at one another.

“Chad, how’s your knee?” asked my girlfriend’s dad, as he messed around with the temperamental Jet Boil burner to prepare the couscous.

He must’ve noticed me massaging it.

“Tight,” I said, standing up to stretch. “I should be alright, though.”

What Ted said next, I’ll never forget.

He said, “Don’t be a hero. Not out here.”

The words hit bone, so loud you could almost hear them echo back and crack off the canyon walls.

By the time we made it to the park bench at the Cottonwood Campground, all of us looked worse for wear. Ted had a migraine and sore feet. Maggie had lost most of her steam around Phantom Ranch, some three or four hours before, and found it hard to eat.

My girlfriend’s dad, noticing the pain I was in, started telling jokes to take our minds off how tired we all were. There was no way I was going to let that happen. Not only would it cost the park service time and money to gas up a chopper and pay the rescue workers the overtime necessary to life-flight me out of the bottom of the canyon, but I’d have to later admit why, and a sore leg seemed like a pretty flimsy excuse for all that hassle. It’s not like it was broken.

On we pressed. Minutes felt like hours. Hours like days. At points, the canyon swallowed the moon, and with it, every ounce of light you could see. We stumbled on like this through total darkness. Ted’s jokes helped some, but after thirty minutes of feeling anything but the desire to laugh or be around other people, I sped up my pace and retreated inside my body. I blocked out the canyon, I blocked out the night, I blocked out the pain, the heat of the day, and the wear and tear on my resolve. I started marching up the canyon like I was on my way to a funeral I didn’t want to go to. In a way, it ended up being my own funeral.

My knee hurt so bad that I was forced to huddle in an alcove along the North Kaibab Trail wall, shivering and bracing against 40mph gusts of wind snaking over the cliffs of the North Rim like pushy fingers and standing less than two feet from a 2,000ft. drop. And there wasn’t a single thing I could do about it. I could feel the tendons flex and strain beyond their want and will every step of the way, and after a while, I just got stuck. My leg locked, entirely. Stranded there while I massaged my knee and shook my leg to work the muscles out enough to start back up again, I kept thinking and rethinking and triple-thinking what it would take for me to be able to go the whole way, not just up the rest of the incline, but to complete the goal I’d set out to accomplish. Even then, I couldn’t allow myself the humility to say, “This is my line.” The thought of watching what I’d set out to complete might as well have been carried off on the breeze, and I remember clutching my arms and whimpering, realizing, like a running headlong into a brick wall, I’d bitten off more than I could chew, regardless of how or why.

I felt my heart plummet inside my chest; my head slunk in shame. It was as if the canyon was slapping me in the face. And, rightfully so. Here I was, living out a feat most people only dare to dream, having walked close to thirty miles in one of America’s most storied and celebrated natural spaces, and the only thing I could think about was how far I could push before I hurt myself for life. And for what?  Just so I could complete a hike I could technically do again at some other point in my life if I really wanted to?

Right at that moment, as if on cue, a group of hikers appeared around the bend in the trail just a few switchbacks below, talking about a van that was waiting with fresh clothes and warm food and rides for the members of their party who were calling it quits at the top. And, wouldn’t you know it, they, too, were staying at the South Rim and had just enough room for one more passenger.


The ride back to the South Rim from the North Rim Lodge was silent and eternal. It takes about four hours to drive from one rim to the other because the highway can’t just cut through the canyon; you have to go out and around. I fell asleep within ten minutes of our party pulling out of the parking lot, but awoke with enough time to spend the last two hours watching the sunrise over the hills in the east, dousing the landscape in firelight. Blue and purple clouds drifted lazily through the sky like temperate-colored logs in a hot ocean of oranges and reds and yellows against the browns of the earth and greens of what few pine trees dwell in the desert at such high altitudes.

“You awake back there?” the driver, a UA grad student studying geology named Matt, asked after hearing me stirring on the middle bench. I looked up to find him eyeing me in the rear-view mirror. Groggily, I confirmed.

“How’s the knee feel?” he said next without missing a beat. I attempted to give my leg a good bend but couldn’t. It was stiff as a board.

“Pissed,” I hissed back, not meaning to. He must’ve understood my frustration and nodded, turning his eyes back to the road and the increasing forests around us.

“Better than it was, though,” I said a handful of seconds later, realizing I’d taken the air out of the cabin. But the damage was already done. There was no way of hiding how defeated I felt. It was as if every painstaking mile had caught up to me in that van all at once. My feet throbbed, my quads were shredded; my glutes and hamstrings felt like they were made of stone. Even my lungs hurt, and the muscles in my neck, where my daypack had rested, were so tight you could have plucked major and minor chords.

“This your first attempt?” asked the person in the seat next to him, sensing the tension trailing in my voice. His name was Mark, another UA grad student. He had a curly mop of hair and a big scruffy beard that bounced as he spoke, unlike Matt, who was clean-cut and looked freshly shaved. Both had kind, sympathetic eyes that told me they’d had their own ill-fated run-ins with a canyon cliff or two in their day.

Behind all that unruliness, Mark’s decision to keep pressing put me at surprising ease.

“Yeah,” I said, drawing a deep sigh and letting it all out before I continued. “First time.” Some minutes passed in silence. A family of elk crossing the road stopped our progress, and we waited patiently for the gang to move. While we waited, I thought about the impermanence of our bodies and how we’re only given the ones we have. I imagined myself pressing on, maybe making it back to the South Rim on foot, and how it would have been a testament to the human spirit if I had.

But I also thought about how life isn’t about any one moment, or even a handful of moments; it consists of all the moments we ever are, that we’re ever so lucky to live, and how grateful we should all be that we’re even able to run into obstacles like elk in the road when all we wanna do is get back to the lodge, eat, and pass out for twenty-four hours so we can fly back home and ice our knees and lick our wounds in private.

The elk eventually moved on, and we drove the last half hour in about as much silence as we’d begun the trip. Right around the time, we started seeing signs for the South Rim entrance to the park, Matt interrupted the silence to ask if I thought this would be my last time attempting rim-to-rim-to-rim. I watched as a bright, white smile grew as wide as the canyon in the rear-view mirror. The giant Chevy Astro lurched as Matt downshifted, causing Mark’s hair to bob.

“Not likely,” I said, unable to help myself from smiling back. “I don’t know my own limits.”

And as the gears ground out, signaling our entrance into the South Rim’s Grand Canyon Village, both Mark and Matt came back with a single reply.

“Good.”

I fell thirteen more times this afternoon before I finally realized 1.) I had picked hiking trails to ski instead of cross-country ski trails, and 2.) the clasp for my right ski was missing. I’d also lost one of my heavy gloves at some point, and the backup pair I’d brought along were already soaked through from the snow. Eventually, I took the skis off and carried them back along the trails to my car, which I had parked nearby, just in case this very side-show scenario happened.

Every time I went down today, I could feel the forest; the rocks and trees and the steep banks of the island shores like stony faces opening their frigid mouths into the ice-cold sounds below; I could feel all of these things laughing, howls made audible by the whining winds, reminding me the indifference nature takes toward human beings, of a canyon wall that offered no solace, no easier track to get to the top, and absolutely no relief where the topography proved otherwise. But no matter how many times the natural world jested and spread me flat on my duff or stung at my face and hands exposed to the biting winter weather, I stood up, brushed myself off, and laughed.

I’m fine now, nearly all the way through my fourth beer and thinking it’s about time to retreat outside, despite the cold, and light that campfire. Light that fire and maybe laugh a little at my own expense for what the world will eventually take from me, the thing I was so blindly willing to sacrifice for nothing: tomorrow.

Chad W. Lutz is a speedy, non-binary writer born in Akron, Ohio, in 1986 and raised in the neighboring suburb of Stow. They graduated from Kent State University with their BA in English in 2008 and from Mills College in Oakland, California, with their MFA in Creative Writing in 2018. Their first book, For the Time Being, is currently available through J. New Books.

An Essay by Ashley Cooper

TRIGGER WARNING: The following essay contains an account of sexual assault, rape, and the aftermath which readers may find distressing.

I sling my head to the edge of the toilet. My knees hit the carpet, unable to avoid the burn of another encounter with him. I have washed my sheets so many times that I ran a negative balance on my debit card that holds my minimum wage paydays whenever I can find the work. I have washed vomit off my face so often that there is a dry patch at the corner of my mouth that stings every time I wipe a washcloth across my face. I have washed my body so many times the shower only runs cold, and my roommate leans against the bathroom door to listen. I have never been one to take too long in the bathroom. She has never been one to breathe this loud. I wonder if she heard him.

It has been two days since he raped me, and I can still smell him. My bed is soaked in his cologne, and the pores of my skin are filled with his sweat. When the smell fades away, I don’t know what to do with myself—it comes back, and the ends of my hair wind up in toilet water again.

I try to take a walk, hoping the polluted air will save my lungs from him—but it’s January, and when I go outside, and I feel the wind weave through my scarf and skate across my neck—I feel his fingers there. His hands wrap around my neck, and the snow I am standing in becomes a metaphor for whatever that glue was that kept me from fighting back, stuck to my bedroom floor. I am pushed gently by a man trying to get past as I stand in the middle of the sidewalk outside my building’s door, and I know I can’t yet handle the cold.  

I read somewhere once that fifty-three percent of rapes go without being reported. I never understood it until I tried to go outside forty-eight hours later.  If I can’t get more than five steps away from the door, how am I supposed to go five blocks to my college’s title nine offices or another ten to the closest police station? 

I also read that ninety-seven percent of rapists are never incarcerated. I read that when I considered myself an activist—fighting for victims that fall into the statistics and fighting against rapists who get to keep their scholarships.

I am a statistic now.  

One in four women are raped in their lifetime.

I have written two poems today. I have nothing but clichés on these pages, but I am learning that they are not clichés—they are echoes. I have heard you lose ownership of your own body. Not just for the minutes he is inside of you, but for the lifetime that follows. Everything is unfamiliar. I do not walk the same now. Not just because of the bruises that line the insides of my thighs and my pelvis, up to my stomach, but because I cannot seem to find control. I sit on the saddle, and I pull on the reigns, but I cannot feel myself doing so.

I keep writing about his smile. The one he carried as he finished. He smirked, asked me where to find a tissue—like this was a scene from a rom-com, a one-night stand. I tried to get up off the bed to get the tissues, and he tightened his grip on my neck. He’ll get them. I couldn’t tell if it was over yet. He grabbed the box of tissues and opened my legs. He inspected me like a gynecologist. He held my ankle with one hand and took a tissue in the other. Slowly wiping his mess off of me. He couldn’t wipe the smile off of his face. His smile said so much. For a twenty-year-old, he seemed to be a professional.

He didn’t force himself into the apartment. I let him in. I had spent the entire morning perfecting my makeup and outfit choice for our second date. I led him to my room so I could grab my coat. I thought we were going to Chinatown for lunch. He sat on my bed, and I followed suit. He took his finger and circled it around my knee. It tickled, and I laughed. I didn’t look into his eyes because, as he touched me, I felt immediately out of control. 

Every part of me turned cold—so I turned away. He rested his palm on the top of my head, his fingers ran through my hair. I turned back to him, and I blushed. I loved it when guys run their fingers through my hair. His resting hand quickly turned into a fist. My hair fell out of place as he yanked my ponytail from the roots.

I stood up—shocked. As if I hadn’t seen him as one to commit sudden acts of violence. He said, “That was a mistake.”

I could no longer move.

He stood up and kicked my knees in from behind. I fell forward onto the bed. My knees hit the corner of my bed frame and began to bleed through my tights. My face fell against the wall. He locked my bedroom door,  restrained me, and ripped through my tights.

That was the first time I said “no”.

I counted every time I said “no” or “stop” or “please.”

I said these words eighteen times before I saw the pool of blood that rested in my white cotton sheets.

When I saw my blood, I lost my voice.

He threw my clothes at me when he was done. He tightened his belt and told me that we’d need to reschedule lunch. I was looking a little too rough.

He had seen me undressed for over an hour, and yet the first thing I did when he let go of me was cover my breasts, that were now unrecognizable, with my arms. They were covered in shades of blue and purple and red and yellow. It hurt to touch them. He let himself out of my room and my apartment and took the elevator down to three. He was only two floors away from me.

I sat naked in my room and cried until I could no longer feel my face. And then I got dressed in the most comfortable clothes I could find, and I hugged myself. I didn’t know what else to do.

My bed was covered in blood, and my walls had streaks of my red toenail polish where my toes met the wall as a result of me kicking. I could no longer be alone in this room.

The first person I called was the only person I called for the first two days. My best friend. He met me at my door moments later and hugged me while I sobbed into his hoodie. I felt like a child.

Before I invited him in, I turned over my sheets and placed my comforter over my blood. I forced a bra onto my aching breasts and pulled my hair back into a tight ponytail.

When he walked into my room, it still looked like a crime scene. He sat on my bed as I looked into the trash noticing the tissues used to clean me. They were covered in blood and him. My friend noticed too. I didn’t say much at first. I just cried into him. I told him what happened from the beginning, and he listened. I don’t know why he cares about me so much—but I know he does.

This moment should be so ugly and horrible, but I realize something. I haven’t had many permanent people in my life, and I realize now he is one of them. He always has been. I just see it now.

He leaves me to be alone, and I try to shower the rape off of me.

I sit on the shower floor with my back to the water to clean out the cuts he left in me. It stings, but I know I need to.

I grab my phone from the edge of the tub and write my first poem about being raped. I did not know it was a poem then. I was just making a list of words about how I was feeling. I never wanted to feel that way, but I also never wanted to forget the way I felt.

Seventy-two hours after being raped, I got myself outside, and I took a walk, in silence. Well, city silence. Alarms went off, and people were shouting, but I couldn’t hear an­ything but the sound my sheets made when I peeled them off of the bed so that I could wash them. The blood was sticky. It had latched onto my plastic mattress. I washed that, too. Scrubbed each side with an old sponge as fast as my arms would allow, hoping it would erase the mattress from this universe entirely.

I took another walk the next day. This time, with a destination in mind. I kept repeating “no pressure” in my head as I walked the five blocks, I didn’t want to force myself to do anything. I walked into the title nine office and it immediately felt like I was torturing myself. But I couldn’t belong to the statistic of fifty-three percent of rapes going unreported. I couldn’t accept that my last memory of him was his smile and him expecting my silence.

Ashley Cooper is currently pursuing a double major in both creative writing (nonfiction) and musical theatre at Columbia College Chicago. She is currently working on her memoir, Rum and Coke which focuses on surviving abuse and growing up with alcoholism in the family. She hopes to reach young adults who have experienced similar situations through her work. You can find her on Instagram, @AshleyCooperWriting.

An Essay by Patti White


THE EMERALD ZOYSIA was like a Persian carpet, so thick it concealed ant hills, the water meter, the slightly depressed grid of the sprinkler system. I walked quickly across the lawn, on my way to teach a class, my bookbag in one hand, and caught my foot in a hole I couldn’t see. Forward momentum carried me toward a face plant on the sidewalk. I stopped myself with my hands and one knee and flipped sideways onto the grass. And my head found the only hard spot there.

Coup and contrecoup. In a whiplash situation—like when I got rear-ended at the cross-walk, just six weeks before I fell—the brain moves forward, then sloshes backward, hitting the skull in both directions. In a side impact on the ground, maybe gravity keeps the brain squashed against the earth, pooled and puddled, an impact rippling through the cells and then subsiding. Immediately—or maybe hours or days later—the brain reacts in protest. I know that’s what must have happened. But until that day, for me, the brain was intellect and consciousness. An abstract and intricate structure, Escher-like, with mazes and helixes and arcane corridors. A spiral galaxy in a shell. Now I know different. The brain is flesh. It is physical and fragile, and it does not abide a fall.

THE WAITING ROOM had a giant abstract painting that made me recoil. Reds and yellows, vertiginous black streaks, the most aggressive piece of artwork I have ever seen. I moved to another seat but couldn’t get away from the colors. Or the sounds: people chatted as they waited, rustled papers, made phone calls. Stretched their legs. Rattled keys. It was too hot and too bright. I saw one man put a prayer slip into a wooden box; he was backlit like an angel of god, and it hurt my eyes to look at him.

In the changing room, I felt vibrations in the floor, sensed movement, whole populations of the addled or broken walking the halls. I heard doors open and close. I huddled on the bench in a thin cloth gown that felt impoverished, an orphan garment, what you wear when all is lost. I waited. I sang a little folksong to myself: come all ye fair and tender ladies. I put my hands on my forehead. I waited and waited until I feared I had been forgotten. I sang, very softly, another verse: I wish I were a tiny sparrow.

The MRI chamber was dim and cool. I was grateful to lie down, to be tucked in, to feel a breeze over my face. But the noise was unbearable, like planets colliding in space. I tried to interpret the different tones, the apparent shifts in the placement of the machine. Clearly, things inside my brain were shattered. There must be blood and swelling. But when the report came back, there was nothing to see: minor white spots that might have been old vascular damage. Two weeks after the fall, there was no evidence of the concussion—only the symptoms. Like the way a piece of artwork could terrorize my brain and send me sideways.

THE MOTION OF THE SPOON taking yogurt from the cup. The motion of a page turning. I couldn’t read and couldn’t drive. That first week a neighbor took me to the grocery store to pick up a few staples: more yogurt, some bread and milk, cat food, canned soup. She waited in the car while I walked the aisles, dazzled by sensory data. Overhead banners flapped in an air-conditioned breeze. People talked on their phones; the carts rolled and racketed. I wanted lunchmeat, but the shelves confused me: long rows of packages, so many words and colors. None of it made sense. I gripped the handle of my cart. Lowered my head. Checked out and fell into the car like a lifeboat.

The grocery was a challenge for a good while. One day I stood in line behind an enormous woman in a scooter who had coupons. Lots and lots of coupons. I waited. She discovered more coupons in her purse and sent the bagger for more items. And still more items. The manager moved me to another lane and unloaded my groceries onto the belt. The computer wouldn’t boot up. I stood there, breathing softly. My brain wobbled from the strain of so many things happening. I wanted to lie down on the cold floor, but instead, I leaned on my cart. The manager apologized, gave me a coupon for free groceries, moved me to a third lane. When I finally made it to my car, I just sat there, my head against the steering wheel, my eyes closed. I don’t think anyone saw me.

A MONTH AFTER THE FALL, I was able to read a chapter in a book. Three weeks later, I finished an Agatha Christie novel. Then I drove to Lowe’s for a pot of mums. I voted in the presidential election even though standing in line made me dizzy. Some days I was able to walk the dog; other days, I turned back at the end of the driveway. It was three months before I could carry on a conversation for more than 40 minutes. I almost fainted the first time I went to the hairdresser.

Six months in, a tooth cracked and needed a crown. The dentist had a picture window with bird feeders outside and a view of the river, but I couldn’t see it — the chair reclined so acutely it gave me vertigo. They brought me a warm blanket, they gave me Novocain and gas, but I resisted everything. I squirmed when they tied gauze around my tongue. I flung my arms wide when the assistant touched metal to my teeth. I asked for bathroom breaks. I took the mask off and got up to walk in the hall. They brought another warm blanket. I clung to the arms of the chair. I told myself I was not upside down, not slipping back, not unable to breathe. By the time the temporary crown was in place, I was disoriented and exhausted. And starving, so even though my face was still numb, we stopped for egg drop soup. When I finally got home, I put a bag of frozen peas on the top of my head.

During my last exam, I still wouldn’t let the ophthalmologist dilate my eyes. I let him photograph my retina, then endured the correction process: is this lens better? or this one? number one or number two? The lenses fogged over; my eyes were overheated, my brain on the edge of a revolt. The doctor told me his mother fell down the stairs and hit her head; now she has dementia. His voice was too loud. The room too cold. The machine clicked in an unpleasant way. Maybe none of the lenses were better. This was three years later. That’s how hard a fall it was.

TWO MONTHS AFTER THE FALL, a friend took me on an excursion to a small family graveyard about an hour outside of town. Curves in the two-lane road; light through the pines. And then a gravel road, bumps and dust and my head spinning. But the graveyard itself was steady and calm. Some headstones so thin and worn they looked like tabular bones. Others just rocks with no names. One family buried under a sort of roofed cabin, with screened windows and sand for a floor. I wandered among the graves. The day was warm, late October, the wildflowers all brown or barely alive, weeds here and there. Outside the wrought iron fence, I found evidence of a teenage bonfire. We walked among the dead, among strangers who died of causes we couldn’t imagine: smallpox and tuberculosis, the civil war or a family murder. I was just glad to be somewhere that wasn’t my house. But I had to steel myself for the drive home: more trees, more light and shadow. My friend talking and talking.

It was a while before I realized that I was, in some ways, a dead person. Invisible injuries, like chronic pain, erase the person who quietly suffers them. My colleagues apparently thought I was on sabbatical or had left town for good. It didn’t occur to them to inquire. My family, scattered across the country, took note of my Facebook updates but felt no need to check on me in person. Only a few close friends and my kind neighbors made efforts: to take me to the doctor or buy groceries; to meet me for lunch; to plan an excursion to the graveyard.

Small acts of kindness mattered more than I had expected. One day, a husband and wife from down the street came looking for me and my dog. They had seen us walk past just before the storm broke and found us sheltering on a porch a quarter-mile away. One neighbor made a point of putting my newspaper on my front porch; another started bringing random milkshakes. These things pulled me back from the edge of invisibility; they were like white stones among the dead wildflowers, bits of order, structures to cling to, ways of knowing who I was and where I belonged.

THAT FIRST WINTER we made a trip to Gulf Shores, a tourist town on the tiny strip of Alabama that meets saltwater. Only five hours from home, it seemed ideal for recovery: a deserted beach, bright skies, the Blue Angels practicing air show maneuvers over the water. We ate charbroiled oysters, swamp soup, and fried grouper. But at the lonely minigolf course, all my angles were wrong. The waves along the shore made me a little nauseous. And the jigsaw puzzle laid out on a glass dining table was impossible to process; I couldn’t see the relationship of depth and ground: the pieces and the glass and the tile floor beneath the table seemed to exist on the same level.

One day we braved a cold wind to explore the damn-the-torpedoes fort at the entrance to Mobile Bay. We found a grass quadrangle protected by ramparts and battery emplacements; entered vaulted arsenals and dark storerooms; touched the crystals formed by minerals leaching through stone walls. We traced a narrow drainage canal where water trickled over moss. That man with a parrot on his shoulder was not a pirate but an actual colleague, a professor of photography; he said he was camped out nearby or renting a house on the bay or maybe he said he was leaving soon for Paris. I couldn’t follow his conversation. So I wandered off, climbed the rotten metal stairs to look at the water beyond the walls. Saw freighters on their way to port; a couple of oil rigs in the distance. Whitecaps on the bay.

Each morning we woke to condensation streaming down the outside walls of the condo. Once, we ate breakfast at a small diner on the main road. I ordered eggs over medium, sausage patties well done, and biscuits. It was another bright day, and the small restaurant was busy. Then out in the parking lot, a trailer caught fire, somebody’s mobile meth lab, or a grill packed too soon. Everyone rushed to the windows. Voices rose, and people ran out to help. Silverware clattered. I looked at my plate, round and white on a red-checkered cloth. I looked at my coffee cup. I grasped the edges of the table and held on tight. My friend said I went pale and started shaking. All I could tell was that my brain had just turned off.

MOST OF THE BRAIN’S ENERGY is consumed with filtering out excess information, the sensory data we don’t need, a whole world of input that would overwhelm us if allowed in. It was clear that my filter was broken, and I was drowning in sounds and colors and the way things moved. The internet advised the obvious: avoid high stimulus environments; control your space; sit with your back to the wall; wear a hat; consider noise-canceling headphones. I learned that sleep, especially a long sleep with a fever, helped re-set the brain a bit. So did watercolor painting. I turned to familiar series on Netflix, plots I already knew by heart. I learned to live a small life: do one or two things per day.

I developed an adversarial relationship with my brain. Spoke of its needs and demands, its refusal to process information. How it felt shrink-wrapped after a difficult day, how it prickled, or felt leaden or buzzed. I told the neurologist I felt dizzy or confused or anxious. Or as if I’d been hit by a two-by-four in a Saturday cartoon. He manipulated my head to fix the positional vertigo and prescribed Xanax for the anxiety. He said: do what you normally do until it feels bad; then stop doing that.

What I would normally do is attend softball games at the university. The second spring after the fall, I made it to one game. I went alone and sat in my usual seats, just to the left of the batter and seven rows up; perfect seats, shaded in the warm afternoon. The stadium was full, the sky was clear and blue. I felt connected to something essentially American, something seasonal and sweet: a home game and a good team. The loudspeaker blared pre-game music as I stood in line for a hot dog with mustard and relish and a Coke. A woman and her daughter in front of me waved their hands around in some kind of slapping game, and I had to look away. I had to breathe. The game started, and someone hit a home run. During a media break, kids in Taco and Hot Sauce costumes raced around the perimeter of the field. Fans clapped to encourage the pitcher to throw a third strike. Cars moved east and west on a highway beyond the fence, out beyond the flags and the terraced area for fans with lawn chairs and suntan lotion. It was softball. I lasted three innings.

When I got home, I got out the frozen peas. My brain felt like tin foil. My eyes refused to stay open; I didn’t want to look at anything. The silence in the house was balm in Gilead. But I felt the world narrowing around me. In the quiet of my house, surrounded by crape myrtles and hydrangeas, the summer not far away, I realized I was in a very soft prison or a southern gothic novel. My brain had a front porch with ferns and rattan chairs, and I was sitting there with a glass of lemonade.

IT WAS A HEAD INJURY FROM A FALL in the front yard. The kind where symptoms might resolve in a week or two, or where cognitive functions might be disrupted for months. The neurologist tells you to wait it out. After six months he starts calling it post-concussion syndrome. You hear stories: a man who still has difficulty with language fifteen years after hitting the dashboard; a woman whose vision had to be retrained after a hiking accident. A year goes by. Then three.

No doubt the concussion was complicated by my age. By the fact that there were really three concussions: a whiplash from being rear-ended in July; a side-impact concussion in September; a rattled head from a fender-bender the following June. We know now that the effects of brain trauma are cumulative over time. So maybe you have that one catastrophic injury at war. Or maybe you get tackled on the football field over and over. Or maybe you are an older woman who has a year of accidents.

I was lucky to have insurance, to have a job that offered medical leave, to recover so much function. I can read with nearly complete attention. I can drive for 2.5 hours without incident and carry on a conversation for an afternoon and do three errands in a day. I can go to a movie. But I still can’t face the idea of an airport. Or enjoy a neighborhood party.

A year ago, we had a driveway happy hour. I walked the dog down the street and sat in a tailgate chair to socialize. People milled around getting snacks. The dog strained at the leash. A toddler threw a tantrum. Older kids rode bicycles up and down the driveway. I held a red cup of iced tea and tried to focus on the conversation. More people arrived. I said it felt like weather on the horizon. The toddler climbed up on a chair and tipped over and the dog freaked out a bit. It was warm and humid and pollen was thick in the air. People talked and talked. I lasted a little more than half an hour. Then I had to go home and get quiet.

I was lucky but I know that I am not quite who I was. I hesitate and retreat. I am not sure what to say or why. I think about brain death, about losing words, about the effects of isolation. I worry about falling again. And I manage myself like a difficult child. I carry food and water and a book to read. I evaluate the sensory environment, monitor soundscapes. I make sure I have an exit strategy for events. I plan my day around my brain.

I DON’T KNOW IF I HAVE LOST MEMORIES. How would I know? All the words seem to be there, all the math I need, how to get from one place to another. But my memory of the past has never been strong. When I went to my 25th high school reunion, I recognized the names of classmates and even some of their faces. But except for my closest friends, I had no memory of interacting with them as people. You must remember Linda, my best friend said, she fainted in class all the time. But I did not remember her at all, though I remember the mercury in chemistry class, how the silver liquid rolled and split and then coated someone’s class ring. I remember designing a poster for the senior play. The plaid headscarf on the girl who had mange. The taste of the onion rings at the Big Boy drive-in. And so much of my past is like that: small bright chunks of exquisite detail with oceans of darkness in between. How would I know if some of that darkness, the concealed or dim memories that never made it into poems or the stories I tell people, how would I know if those were gone?

I do know that my sense of time-shifted and then shifted back. I didn’t notice that until recently, when a 20-minute drive to doggie daycare suddenly seemed like a 20-minute drive, like nothing, just a few songs on the radio. Instead of a trek, a journey, something needing forethought and vigilance and endurance. During the worst of the concussion, everything seemed to take longer, though not in a way that made me impatient. Just that the steps in things became visible to me as my brain took account of them. That look in the rear-view mirror. Turning the stove off. Putting the detergent in the washer. Twisting the cap off the milk jug. My brain noticed every move I made. It was as if I were living in a foreign language and putting together sentences from a phrase book.

I wish I could have translated that language for the neurologist. I wanted to tell him that what I felt in the brain was not just cognitive but physical. That when I said it crackled, I meant the material of my brain sizzled with electricity. That the confusion was also a bruise or a pulled muscle. That there’s a place on my forehead that feels like I walked into a freezer door. A place that is not where my head hit the ground.

THE BRAIN IS HEAVY and dense and cushioned by spinal fluid. The skull is hard. All of this protects the brain, but also makes it vulnerable. When faced with an impact, the brain keeps moving until it hits bone.

I think about the spiral galaxy inside my head; how those long arms of stars spark and fly outward. The surreal staircases of poetry. The corridors I walk in dreams. How tenuous it all is, the sense-making, the creation of new thoughts, the mechanisms of memory. How it all depends on not falling into the holes we can’t see.

I think about the split second when balance goes and you come crashing down. How the whole universe of your self is in peril at that moment: the brain and skull and earth reduced to a singularity, a narrowing of reality followed by something explosive or shattering or a just blinding light.

How everything on the other side of that moment is different.

Patti White is the author of four collections of poems, Tackle Box (2002), Yellow Jackets (2007), Chain Link Fence (2013), and Pink Motel (2017), all from Anhinga Press. Her poetry has appeared in journals including Iowa Review, North American Review, River Styx, Nimrod, DIAGRAM, Forklift OhioMissouri ReviewParcelMcNeese ReviewSlippery ElmVine LeavesWaccamaw, and New Madrid; her nonfiction in Gulf Coast, Miracle Monocle, and Mulberry Fork Review. Her most recent publication is Particularly Dangerous Situation (Arc Pair Press, 2020), an experimental novella. She lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.