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A Poem by Annie Woods

I often think dying is
annoying, like a grade school bully
boinging my curls. And dying is
inappropriate, like laughing in church
when laughter knows there’s a time,
and a place, and it’s not in God’s face.
Mostly I think dying is
embarrassing
because humiliation knows no vessel
like the human body in decline
and when I clutch my chest in
cardiac arrest, I am reminded of
the blood
seeping through my shorts
sophomore year of marching band,
knotting a hoodie around my waist
to conceal my biology.
I think dying is, above all,
a waste of time. I sat, dumb in the limbo
of the living and the dead,
and the waiting, and the pity,
and the looks. Dying is
a desert
where people expect you to swim
and the sand is heavy
and the air is hot
and just when you think
it’s the last breath you’ll take
it’s cruelly followed by another.

Annie Woods is a recipient of the Stephen C. Barr fellowship for Creative Writing from Wichita State University. Her work can be found in Gigantic Sequins, Hobart, A VELVET GIANT, and great weather for media. Her manuscript was accepted to the Tin House 2020 Nonfiction Winter Workshop under Esmé Weijun Wang. Annie is from the heart of Texas; she often writes about illness visibility. In her free time, she likes to wear lipstick and spin in circles.

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A Poem by Nneka Joyce Duru

Work oh work!
Here I lie
Prostrate on my sofa
Tired and all spent
My face,
A freeze of drained energy
My mind billowing in heaviness
Of grief and pain and sorrow
My black purse stare blankly at me
And I wonder when
I shall ever be free
To smile outside this scorching heat
African sun,
O quench your fire!
When will I find succor from this strain
In my spirit?
How can one work
Yet has no reward?
Oh, I look on in hope
That one bright sunny day
I shall smile, smile and smile
And give thanks to you
Dear work!

Nneka Joyce Duru is a wife, mother and a member of the Association of Nigerian Authors, Rivers State branch, Nigeria. She is currently the winner of the 2020 AWA Award in Poetry in Africa. She is a prolific writer, a teacher and an advocate of African women and children’s rights.

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A Poem by Destiny Bookman

last time I let the sun kiss my skin I was stung
smooth quick and aggressively
my flesh shrieked; acidic Venom spread across my face
the Venom boiled away at the arrival of anger and humiliation
to be stung in private where only walls and dust balls could observe was purgatory
to be stung in public where eyes looked past you, but sympathetically glared at your back was hell

I was stung the last time I let the sun kiss my skin
hot pins and needles itched my cheek, the sun blurred away
anaphylaxis settled in me
my stomach churned restlessly; ears rung into oblivion
underlying rage burned in my biceps down to the very tip of my fingers
twitching with an eagerness I was orchestrated to suppress to avoid being stung again

I stung back for the first time —

my stinger seemed to be much better equipped for retaliation
disastrous cold had returned, low gray clouds buried the defeated yellow jacket
healing skin and revived senses rejoiced
hibernating through the new cold, I prepared for the return of the warm,
prepared with not embarrassment for myself, but with excitement for the sun
I had been stung by a yellow jacket for the last time, I can let the sun kiss my skin

Destiny Bookman is a sophomore college student from Philadelphia. She wants to be a child therapist because children are great and deserve support. Her primary interests are writing, pretty rocks, underrated animated shows, and listening to years old albums she should have listened to sooner. Destiny writes a little of everything. She hates bugs but, when needed, uses them as inspiration to escape writer’s block.

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A Poem by Matthew James Babcock

The people who really impress me

are those transcendents who burn
themselves alive for a cause.
Which locks your lungs? Elfin daredevil
tightroping with Jesus across
the incandescent bowl of a volcano
on prime time, or mild monk
who torches himself on the marble porch
of the emperor’s palace, sealing history
with the melted red wax of his soul?
Tally all test pilots who land
book deals. Count the black-and-white
busloads of social activists
who didn’t end austere careers
couch surfing. Heavyweight champs,
sopranos with golden throats,
laureates with proletarian codes
tattooed in coal dust down both forearms,
the tycoon grinning philanthropy
at the chattering clash of cameras,
Brazilian bull riders, the jailed saint,
princess vowing poverty, hunger strikers—
guys like Gandhi—none compares
in absolute purity of purpose
to the fed-up Tunisian fruit vendor,
obscure Canadian novelist decrying
the wanton destruction of beauty,
the female Iranian soccer buff,
bankrupt Greeks, sad Japanese Esperantists,
the Amherst substitute teacher abhorring
The Gulf War, estranged Czechs
combusting in the city square
to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary
of other Czechs who roasted there,
Rajput concubines under siege,
tyrannized Tibetans blazing
like hundreds of fiery middle fingers
flipped at China, lithe Lithuanian teens
not keen on Soviets, Hindus not cool
with speaking Tamil, grieving Russian
Old Believers, entrenched French Jesuits,
the young Australian heiress
opposed to her family fortune,
Quaker dad on a day trip from Baltimore
with the kids, barbecued below
Bob McNamara’s Pentagon suite,
all ascending in hot apotheosis
with Thich Quang Duc and Kathy Change
in an uproar of kerosene dreams,
the crackling columns of fire and smoke
swabbing the heavens, the frantic mobs
swarming to warm wilting hands
and sing the songs of astonishment
around the human bonfires
in silence and screams. I burned
at sixteen, shirtless in skimpy
orange track shorts, clocking dogged
country miles of bloody dusk
and charred ditchbank weeds,
my body a smoldering sun rising
to singe through the horizons
of clouded mountains in my drowsy
northwestern town of two thousand,
my young revolutions cooling
soon to resolutions of ash.
Now: What icy injustice could make me
touch the final spark to the fuse
of my heart? What wrong
would stake me, the raging candle,
on my deathday cake? Will the sorrows
of tomorrow find me on market day,
smoking a hand-rolled cigarette
in lotus position atop a sawdust pile
soaked in soybean oil, seconds
before the doleful oxcart rumble
and bored hellos erupt in shrieks of horror?
If I charbroiled myself, it would be
to end martyrdom. At the Founder’s Day
summer fundraiser and cookout
in Memorial Park, I would mount
the gazebo—cutting off the mayor’s welcome,
squelching the brass band of veterans
raising a rumpus with “Bill Bailey”—
and, to the rush of relieved sighs,
toss aside my empty gas can
and soggy matchbook, offering not
the terror of my black skeleton
like a scorched scarecrow flailing away
in a jumping-jack inferno,
but a new vision of the world:
our planet covered, as it is, with billions
of troubled pagodas, each housing
a small blue flame that refuses to go out.


Idahoan. Writer. Failed breakdancer.

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A Poem by Anita Nahal




“Meet Jessica Ailith (Ailith means seasoned warrior)”
Says, poet, writer, painter, sculptor, Australian, Elizabeth ‘Lish’ Škec

Petals adorn my broken self and like our Native ancestors I search for the tale in each. Seeking the shadows of animals that stood with us. Seeking the brothers and sisters that fought with us. The crackling of winter fires that sheltered us. Some have roamed the world, seeing, sprouting, waning and passing into dimensions inside us where we go when others treat us different. Don’t shake your head and offer pity over my amputated legs. Ask instead, what, where, why they walked, kicked, dragged and slumped upon. How a warrior I was born. Don’t nod in understanding without looking straight into my eyes which still sparkle in my guillotined head on the butcher block. How a warrior I was re born. Don’t put your arms around mine without feeling the compacted air that extends beyond my shredded joints. How a warrior I was born, again and again and again.

Don’t offer to cover me up with your tainted blanket. With your prude coat. With your carefully sculpted sentences pulling a spoof that you are wise. Don’t smirk at distances between loves. Don’t try walking on my footprint’s ashes still smoldering. Don’t look for my hands to clasp to tell a joint story. Don’t. Don’t. Just watch. Just watch as my remaining petals keep disappearing. Watch the air around you solidify. Watch the ground beneath you harden like metamorphic rocks. Watch till I become a whisper at the end of the last drop of water. And then, you can scream.


Anita Nahal, Ph.D., CDP is a professor, poet, short story writer, and children’s writer. She teaches at the University of the District of Columbia, Washington DC. Anita has two books of poetry, one of flash fictions, four for children and two edited poetry anthologies and one edited nursery rhymes anthology. Her third book of poetry is set for release in December 2021 by Kelsay Books. Originally from New Delhi, India, she is the daughter of novelist Chaman Nahal and educationist Sudarshan Nahal. She lives in the US with her son, daughter-in-law and golden doodle. For more: https://anitanahal.wixsite.com/anitanahal

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A Poem by Chinedu Nzere

i deep me in the shallow waters of your heart
it is a familiar sacrament
the one which our bodies are cremated into fine ash
& scattered atop this outer sign
grace is cliché, it is how my name melts like caramel on your tongue
each time you call me from a distance
it reminds me of growing up
of street debris
of little feet on seashores
washed away by the water of our baptism


Chinedu Nzere is a lone writer from the broken streets of Lagos where he picks words off sidewalks and people’s lives. He is pursuing his first degree in Accounting at the National Open University, hoping he doesn’t fill poetry into Balance Sheets. He has his works published in Prose and Poetry Hood Valentine Poetry Competition, Writers Space Africa Magazine where he won the Editor’s Choice, The Dillydoun Review… His works have also appeared or are forthcoming in Virginia Quarterly Review, Origami Poems Project, The Offing, POETRY Magazine and elsewhere.

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A Poem by Maria Berardi

For Soo

The precise day everything wakes up:
the sunshine bright and warm, the breeze cold,
the skin unaccustomed to feeling air again.

Four childrens’ muddy hands
entwined with four garter snakes,
all eight of them stooped over a low-lying creek,

the kids huddled in curiosity,
the snakes dipping and swerving
with yearning for freedom.

They are released simultaneously,
a race of S-es across the surface
of the thin water,

still sleepy with cold,
still dull with burrow-dirt,
but pumping along the bright wet,

all four aimed for the other side
and a rock on which
to curl and bask.

The children are delighted,
proud, dirty, and bright-haired.
It is Sunday afternoon and this is just the beginning.


Maria Berardi‘s poems have appeared online, in print, in university literary journals, meditation magazines, and at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities. Her first book, Cassandra Gifts, was published in 2013 by Turkey Buzzard Press, and she is currently at work on her second, Pagan, from which these poems are excerpted. She lives in Colorado at precisely 8,888 feet above sea level. Her process is one of listening for transmissions and trying to catch them on paper before they dissipate: the glimpse, the complicated knowledge.

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A Poem by Tim Suermondt

Walking there, my wife and I
talk about writing, the intelligence
of dogs, riding the Orient Express
and what we’ll do for the season,

maintaining our original focus on
the chicken we’ll bring back to fry
Southern style and every ingredient
involved in the tasty project, those

thighs, breasts and legs reminding us
that not everything should be political,
the Congress today will have to carry
on without our participation, if they can.


Tim Suermondt’s sixth full-length book of poems “A Doughnut And The Great Beauty Of The World” will be forthcoming from MadHat Press in 2021. He has published in Poetry, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, The Georgia Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Stand Magazine, december magazine, On the Seawall, Poet Lore and Plume, among many others. He lives in Cambridge (MA) with his wife, the poet Pui Ying Wong.

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A Poem by Susan J. Wurtzburg

Objects associated with my mother: hair pins,
            dish gloves, a pink flamingo.
The plush bird, a humorous birthday gift
            from her crazy daughter.
Hawaii-visit detritus placed in orderly rows,
            top drawer of the dresser.

Handles pulled, a glimpse inside, amusing
            reminders of her presence.
Mixed with heart pulls, muscle memory
            of farm days by her side.
Clasped hands and hugs with my mother,
            across the ocean now.

The only bridge, a telephone cable runs
            deep beneath the sea.
Down the line, breathe and laughter,
            but longing for contact.
A touch of the hand, a walk, shared
            laughter and observations.


Susan J. Wurtzburg is a retired academic, and lives in Hawai‘i. She writes and runs her editing business (Sandy Dog Books LLC), in between water sports, hiking, walking her dog, and socializing online, while she waits for the pandemic to diminish, allowing life to resume.

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A Poem by M. Cornell

I could feel the sidewalk through my
white canvas sneakers, as I paced
in front of the B Green Line station.
The train was going to stop running soon.
I was torn
by visceral feeling and rational thought.
                  He was surprised I waited so long
                  to meet him after work.
We went to a still-open-late Korean place,
and in between soju drowned in beers, we got acquainted
                  It was the least we do could do
                  before sleeping together.
Negra,
he whispered in my ear as his hand smoothed it’s way down my back.
Afterwards, between cigarettes
he told me how his nanny took
his innocence when he was fourteen
and since then
                  (he told me I should know)
he’s not the greatest for any woman.
I stared at his profile and took a long drag
from my cigarette.
                  The next morning I found out he had a girlfriend.
                  I was just another night.

M. Cornell is a 31 year old poet from the Connecticut area. Formerly from New York City, M. Cornell was born in Queens and raised in the Bronx. Her poetry centers around trauma, trauma recovery, general observations of the world, her intense love of New York City, and finding the profound within the mundane.

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A Poem by Patrick Dunn

We stayed inside and scribbled down our thoughts
in lines of verse as strident as politics, as cruel
as children sensing a weakness in their prey.
That was how we passed the time: mostly alone.

In lines of verse, as strident as politics, and cruel,
We made up little songs, to sing in the shower:
That was how we passed the time, mostly alone,
or staring at a screen until the light burned our eyes.

We made up little songs to sing in the shower,
like a kind of lonely concert, better than silence
or staring at a screen until the light burned our eyes.
That’s the way the pandemic went, until it ended,

like a kind of lonely concert, breaking the silence
ringing an alarm in our brains, over and over:
That’s the way the pandemic went, until it ended.
A steady march from day to day, each the same.

Ringing an alarm in our brains, over and over:
like children sensing a weakness in their prey.
A steady march from day to day, each the same,
We stayed inside and scribbled down our thoughts.

Patrick Dunn is a professor at Aurora University, where he teaches linguistics, literature, composition, and creative writing. His poetry has been published in Poetry Sky and Fifth Wednesday Journal, among other places, and his book of poetry, Second Person, was published by Finishing Line Press. His writing has been translated into several languages, including Chinese, Russian, and Slovak. He lives in the Chicago suburbs, in a small house surrounded by an unkempt lawn, where he plays the piano (poorly but with great feeling) and cooks (reasonably well and with tremendous gusto).

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A Poem by Maryann Lawrence

(she says)
Ah, but love you’ve forgotten the cool nights on the hot streets
when Nightingale Rose kept us rapt with her cooing,
and Bella Jo drivin’ us all to pieces with her red satin
swishing on the dance floor

’til there wasn’t room for no one but you and her
lighting up the room and your feet moving near as fast
as my heartbeat.

But then you saw me standing with Bluesy and
you asked me to dance, but Farm Boy Willy threw down his straw hat
and grabbed my arm before I could say yes.

You’ve forgotten the old Captain, too,
when he called on you to help him when his bed catched fire
and you came with ten buckets on your head.

He lost all his best Sunday clothes and you let him have half yours
and your best pair of shoes, too. But Minnie she just complained
they didn’t fit right knowing
she didn’t have no clothes half as good
fearing he would leave her for
a woman in satin.

Man, you forget your people who never lost faith in you
and singing your praises like a Hallelujah when Darvin Red
accused you of cheating at pool that Friday
when we all went down to Jay’s ‘cuz the streets was too hot
and you cooled him off with a tenner and never looked back.

Them was sour times, and sweet, too,
and both mixed up with each other
and there is no one knows you like me
and I says they got you all wrong
and I’ll stand here ‘til the
Nightingale sings through my bones.

Maryann Lawrence is a sales professional, solopreneur, antique collector and writer in Southeast Michigan. To wit, she makes ends meet. She has been published in Literary Mama, Vine Leaves Press, Light & Dark and Foliate Oak. Read her essays, poems, short stories and children’s lit at MaryannLawrence.net.

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A Poem by Raymond P. Hammond

for those believers who believe their belief trumps truth

it seeped deep into their bones:
unadulterated capitalism
filled the bone marrow chasms
and bled hatred and disgust
and disdain until it oozed
out for everyone to see
christians, patriots, fascists
all were all consumed by this
thing called capitalism
which, once unfettered and loosed
by a slack of religion
then married to religion
was manifested as greed,
pure selfishness, treachery,
and murder

moloch loosed upon masses
by simple utterances
and grumblings—demonic
politicians created
from nothing by mere wishes;
a malcontent collected
by a semi-consciousness
of wills

those who had created them
then withdrew into their own
shells of safety behind walls
of disrespect and god damned
ignorance of all others—
they then only understood
their own needs and knew their own
imagined fears told to them
repeatedly in shadow
puppet shows run by puppet
masters who freely pulled their
puppet strings

the garrote of godliness
tightened tightly around necks
of the faithless believers
strangling any spiritual
understanding until they
relented to ignorance
or choked on mouths filled with hosts
of religious intentions
the rationalization
to believe—to beg for faith,
to have some measure of hope,
but hope only came in their
own damned selves and even more
damnable myths forgetting
science and facts and choosing
rather to solely believe
an excuse to not hear, see,
speak, or apply critical
thinking

belief is not faith, belief
is hope without foundation
faith is knowing beyond doubt,
and while belief reigned supreme,
discernment of faith became
as dead as isaac would have
been under abraham’s blade
had abraham’s faith been found
as equally ill-equipped
and godless and believed
only in the lamb and not
had true faith

god’s not a lamb in the bush
god is that last hope-filled glance
god is thought, an idea,
a gleam in the artists’ eye;
words, sound in the poets’ mind;
the mind’s eye; the consciousness
found in every person—
without consciousness there is
no god

so then,
if thought is dead, and reason also dead
all we have is a thoughtless, self-righteous
world view with self-sanctifying belief
in self-fulfilling prophecies, in myths
of our making, then the collective weight
of humankind’s own ignorance, hubris,
and struggle to replace faith with belief;
god with religion, capitalism,
competition, hate and fear mongering
will be that belief and those who believe
will have served to faithfully kill god dead.

Raymond P. Hammond is the editor-in-chief of both The New York Quarterly and NYQ Books. He holds an MA in American Poetry from NYU’s Gallatin School and is the author of Poetic Amusement, a book of literary criticism. He lives in Beacon, NY with his wife, the poet Amanda J. Bradley, and their dog Hank.

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A Poem by Mateo Perez Lara

When it was easier to hide in the haze of my youth
Not yet accepting of the bright hot sun
on my back in retreat of lesser gods, men
evoking rituals on the soft body, reviving
little ceremonies of distrust, I knew
hiding was verb and noun, the act
and the person. A hiding. Is hiding.
In him. On him. Inside him. Them.
Before I carved the binary out of my bone
Before I could look at myself and sweet-kiss it.

Mateo Perez Lara is a queer, brown, non-binary, Latinx poet from California. They received their M.F.A. in Poetry as part of the first cohort to graduate from Randolph College’s Creative Writing Program. They are an editor for RabidOak Online Literary Journal. They have a chapbook, Glitter Gods, published with Thirty West Publishing House. Their poems have been published in EOAGH, The Maine Review, and elsewhere.

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A Poem by Orey Wilson Dayne

It rises like a shark fin
from the coughing soil
in my lost backyard.

I look around, over each shoulder.
No neighbors to peer through windows.
Dry grass scratching beneath my shoes.

Just a stump now,

the rest had been cut away.
Clean bites of a chainsaw gleam,
from sometime before the end.

Maybe someone would’ve eaten
from it now, instead of watching
the sickly fruit pile on the ground

to rot like I used to.

Those absent branches hold
no answers, no direction,
they point me nowhere.

So, I lie down with it for a moment,
resting my limbs on forlorn roots
and, looking up, feast upon the sky’s song,

an aubade I haven’t yet named.

Orey Wilson Dayne was born and raised in Nevada, Ohio. He earned his bachelor’s degree in English at Otterbein University. He received his MFA in Creative Writing at Rosemont College in Philadelphia. He resides in Columbus, Ohio where he hangs out in his hammock, drinks whiskey, and leads tabletop RPGs.

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A Poem by Nancy White

girls sit down
                           between the rest
we look first
                           one way then
the other did
                           you raise your
hand did you
                           lose your place
did you do
                           good then did
this silence
                           this face go
silent upon
                           a subject silent

Nancy White is the author of three poetry collections: Sun, Moon, Salt (winner of the Washington Prize), Detour, and Ask Again Later. Her poems have appeared in Beloit Poetry Review, FIELD, New England Review, Ploughshares, Rhino, and many others. She serves as editor-in-chief at The Word Works in Washington, D. C. and teaches at SUNY Adirondack.

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A Poem by Eve Chilali

I feel a film
not washed off after all these showers
a filth, a bruise I don’t want anyone to see
a consciousness of being
not enough
smart pretty tough
not enough

What do you want, I don’t hit you, do I?
fists up, baby on the seat

Cowering tower not believing
in the bad the evil the lying side
hoping in the wash of good side I saw when we met
the better self you put forward
a hooked soul waiting to be let out
if someone could unlock the purgatory

I don’t care if my father died yesterday,
we’re havin’ a pahty . . .

the day he died you drank yourself to sleep
though you barely knew him
cycle begins again

Believing, believing
you’re not doing dope
didn’t say bad things about me
demanding wife
ball and chain
neck drop lagging up your high

“. . . it’s too bad she has to put up with him
at least he doesn’t hit her . . .”

The essence of the film
the icky lie
that you don’t hit me with words
shake fists
anger disintegrates
my ‘front’
inch inch take
the wall down

each morning before I leave
baby bag packed briefcase over shoulder
baby draped in my arms
out the door off to work
you tear at my self
façade I set to make it
through the days
anything to ruin my
to make damn sure
that icky film stays on

Eve Chilali is a poet and writer living in the Greater New York City area. This poem is part of a forthcoming collection, Some Other Perfect.

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A Poem by Marjorie Levine

You with your constant smell of indifference
And I so hungry for even a sweet side glance.

But it was not to happen.
Maybe it was fate on the snowy evening I sailed
Away from you:
The last night I entered that ferry
The same ferry that always took me back to you
Because I was seduced by silly things
That never mattered.

I must have looked so crumbled, so forlorn,
That a nun stopped reading the Bible and moved
To sit closer to me, to give me comfort
And solace… and she did.

As I drifted the waters to reach my home
You disappeared and grew smaller in every way
Possible, so in many of my later years you
Became a blurred washed memory.

And after a great time, when my forgotten passion
Surfaced and took hold of me,
When the longing that once lived inside of me
Cornered my thoughts and turned you into a rumination,
I tried to find you.

But you were gone.
Really gone.
And there was a heavy stillness in my place.
On cold nights, I remembered the ferry and
All I could hear was the nun,
The nun who so many years ago told me:
“You will still be here
In the morning.”

Marjorie Levine was a teacher for 35 years and she is now 74 years old and retired. In 2009, she was the 1st place winner, in a Beat Poetry Contest, for her poem, “What Way to Go Today”. Her poem, “Coda”, was published in Pinky Thinker Press in February 2021. 

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A Poem by Brett Thompson

My children, I never taught you to destroy; my yearnings are of love.  So what is it to be confronted, to embrace such a deep canary? What is it when you pick yourself apart for a promise, petal by terrible petal?  My desire runs with the heaviest stones in the river.  My desire is a wet leaf carried by the wind.  For the sake of a promise, would you break the root over your chest, would you devour the light and the rain until you yourself were devoured?

Brett Thompson has been writing poetry since his graduate days at the University of New Hampshire where he earned a M.A. in English Writing with a concentration in poetry. He has been published in various journals, including Plainsongs, Tilde, District Lit, The Literary Nest, and the Cobalt Review. He teaches and lives in New Hampshire with his wife and two young daughters.

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A Poem by F. Cade Swanson

“You’re a pretty big wheel, ain’t you?”
my grandfather asks.
Words tossed my way
from a green armchair
in the dark corner of the front room
of his Appalachian home.

It’s like an impromptu game of catch,
his words propelled with disdain
(bewilderment?)
at the soft boy standing in his home.

Maybe it’s my dad’s fault.
Surely it’s my dad’s fault.
Mom has told me it’s my dad’s fault.
Mom uses heavy, sticky words like grandpa does.
This was her dad.

I was nothing like the men my grandfather knew:
strong, dominant brutes with calloused hands
whose days were spent underground
in the dark coal mines of Kentucky,
where the beauty of my grandfather’s otherworldly ice blue eyes
went mercifully unnoticed.

The men he knew lived in perpetual darkness,
entering the mines in the morning before dawn
and exiting at dusk,
the blackness seeping into their lungs
and slowly, painfully robbing them of air.
These men didn’t waste their breath
on unnecessary words.

My dad, the man my mother chose,
relishes the light,
his sensitive hazel eyes perpetually watery from being outside.
His hands are soft,
in spite of years of janitorial work before he joined the military,
reflections of his days working retail
and the brief time he taught high school history.
His words are too plentiful to be heavy or sharp,
like a constant barrage of ping pong balls that,
while irritating if beamed in your direction,
are never dense enough to leave a scar or sting when they hit you.

But the heavy sticky words my grandfather threw at me?
My mom taught me to catch them all
in my small, soft hands,
and not let them fall.
Hold some in my heart.
Hold some in my head.
Hold the weight of others like a hammer or pickaxe,
feel their burn like flares from a stick of dynamite
until my hands, too, became calloused.

I stare at him awkwardly, waiting for direction.
My mother is nowhere to be found
but also deeply present.

I respond to him like my father would.

“I guess I am, Grandpa. I guess I am a pretty big wheel.”

He glares at me,
those blue eyes glowing in the dark corner of the room.
He raises his strong, thick hand
like he’s going to strike me.
Watches me to see if I flinch.
Waits for me to retreat.
Waits for me to fall.

He reaches out, squeezes my shoulder hard,
and expels a deep disappointed sigh
(my mother learned that from him, as well)
as I turn and walk away.

F Cade Swanson is a queer dad who grew up in Southeast Virginia. He runs a community center in Seattle, Washington and his work has appeared in Soliloquies Anthology, Nine Cloud Journal, Snapdragon: A Journal of Art & Healing, Day Without Art 30, Ailment: Chronicles of Illness Narratives, HIV Here & Now from Indolent Books, and Stonewall’s Legacy Anthology. Check out some of his published works at fcadeswanson.com

Join The Dillydoun Review in celebrating National Poetry Month with

A Poem by Emerson Kurdi

Eunice, MN

deposits her seeds each fall
among barren fields, eager
the sticky cotton coating and crude oil
will fertilize her children better than the
beer and liquid meth mixture she’s
been manufacturing for years.

This May on graduation day,
goddammit, the crop is greasy
rooted, shriveled – again.
So, once more, the black-robed children
beam across the makeshift gymnasium
stage, and she bestows freedom
with a yellow-toothed smile,
and cheap diploma cardstock.


Before my brother and I disappeared,
Eunice whispered about the inhabitants
of old Nancy’s Salon. My mother
tried to color its grey roots
and trim the ends into a home,
but the bristly and rasping doormats
she chose for living room carpet
skinned more knees
than she ever kissed.

The neglect looked like dead
guinea pig crosses
guarding the front lawn,
and an abandoned Bowflex jungle
gym in the bedroom corner
that watched us sweat
out innocence in our sleep.


Each night before we left, Eunice breathed
tension into the midnight fog,
which lowered like a wet blanket
onto the squeaking whines and snarls
from the neighbor’s pit bulls.
Across the fence and the porch,
the dog man’s crooked teeth, illuminated
only by a lit cigarette,
was the only supervisor to our night games.
My baby brother and I blew
away from the Autumn swill
with the wind and germinated
elsewhere. But, our hometown
blood is still oil-slick,
and our teeth still rot
in our dreams.

Emerson Kurdi is a Master’s Student at Texas Tech University, studying Poetry. He is originally from Allen, Texas and spends his time training his dogs, playing guitar, or hanging out with his friends on a restaurant patio.

Join The Dillydoun Review in celebrating National Poetry Month with

A Poem by Nick Trelstad

From the window of my office
I watch her plump brown body
emerge from the snowy underbrush –
carried on legs thin as saplings.
Her’s is a gentle step too soft
to disturb the budless willow branches
frosted from the first snow.

And I, from my office, want nothing
but to step out those doors
and join her there beyond
that border only wild things can cross.
A threshold we carry in our lives
of which we know nothing.

As I watch her disappear just as quick
as she arrived – unexpected, unbound
back into the snow burdened boughs,
I too have something to expiate:
not a pettiness, but a longing.

Nick Trelstad is a poet based out of Northern Minnesota. He was a 2020 Pushcart Prize nominee, and his poems have appeared in literary magazines including Sink Hollow Journal, The Blue Marble Review, and The Scriblerus Review.

A Short Story by Maria Diaz

If my brother found out that I was sleeping with one of the Beltrez boys, he would kill me. We had to be really secretive about it — sneaking out when the entire campo was at church, pretending we were arranging community meals so that we could be in the same house. I regularly invited Teofilo over when he was headed to New York, dizque pa’ mandarle algo a mi hermano. I knew they never saw each other, but the effort kept the bochinchosos from opening their big mouths. Teofilo had a wife and kids in New York and a wife and kids right here, in Sabana Iglesia. I wasn’t his wife. I didn’t want to marry him, anyway.

In a few months, I would also be in New York, rich like my brother. The entire campo chased him every time he came back with his wife, whose beautiful blue eyes could only temporarily distract my neighbors from my brother’s good fortune. He bought a house in Queens, big enough for all of us, he said.

Teofilo lived in Manhattan.

“That’s where the real Dominicans live, mami,” he said to me, “how will the kids know what it means to be Dominican?”

Teofilo liked to pretend that we could one day live together, as if he did not already have several beds to keep warm and mouths to feed, as if I was not the biggest secret he kept. I knew there was no world in which we could coexist. He was actively a Trujillista, a believer in the dead dictator’s policies who had upended the life of so many Dominicans.

My family fought to save us from that reality; my brother was a very vocal opponent and protestor against the dictator’s hateful rhetoric. He moved to New York in fear that he might one day be arrested for his public dissent. I stayed in Sabana Iglesia as proof that we were not traitors. I had a visa. I could have left.

Teofilo entered my house and took one look at me before commenting, “Tu si ‘ta gorda,” as he rushed towards my bedroom. He didn’t kiss me; he didn’t hug me. He didn’t bother to ask how I was. He noticed the weight I had gained, and he made it a point to comment on how fat I was getting.

He had been gone for four months, and in that time, I had learned that I was pregnant. Teofilo was the only man I had been with in two years, so it was definitely his baby, but I knew that telling him meant risking losing him. Money and land were sacred in Sabana Iglesia, and babies guaranteed access to both.

“I’m pregnant,” I blurted out, as he undressed himself in my bedroom. He looked at me with a puzzled expression.

“It can’t be mine. I’ve been gone for months,” he said.

Teofilo thought I wanted his money. That’s what all DominicanYork men think the side chick they keep hidden away in el campo want. But I didn’t need any of his money. Our family had our own.

I wanted to hear three words I had never heard from him in the six years we had been doing this: I love you.

Teofilo kept coming back for a healthy release throughout the pregnancy and wrote me letters while he was in New York. He signed every letter, con amor, but he never once told me he loved me. In the last letter before Robert’s birth, he told me that his New York wife was due in October and that his Sabana Iglesia wife had just given birth to a baby boy months before.

Teofilo’s visits became sporadic after Robert’s birth. He sent me a total of $5000 to keep quiet about the paternity of the baby, but there was no denying who his father was. Robert had his father’s white face, his very round brown eyes and his coarse, curly hair.  He did not take after my side of the family.

I gave that money to my brother, to help him pay the mortgage on the Corona house that would soon be mine as well — a home I hoped would one day house my grandchildren and their grandchildren, a little piece of New York that could be ours. How would my children know they were Dominican? How could they deny what ran so prominently through their blood?

I left Sabana Iglesia in 1965, months after having Teofilo’s second child, who I left with his big brother, in el campo with my younger sister. I trusted that my boys were safe in Sabana Iglesia and I knew that this sacrifice — this temporary separation — was for our collective benefit.

Corona, Queens was unapologetically racist — we were among the first Dominicans to settle in the neighborhood, and when asked if we were Cuban, we often answered, “Yes,” though we knew the answer was wrong.

We thought people were asking if we knew Spanish, trying to find an easier way to communicate with us, but they were using Cuban as a substitute for communist, and every “yes” was an admission of guilt. We had not yet figured out how to navigate this new world where politics intersected with racial identity. Our light complexion, it turns out, told a particular story about our heritage that was neither true nor relatable in the Corona context. To our neighbors, we would be Cuban until at least the 1980s, when a mass migration of Dominicans made our story easier to understand.

I spent the first few years in Corona watching what was happening in the neighborhood through the curtains in the windows and calling las vecinas pa’ bochinchar, to tell them whose husbands I saw entering single women’s homes, spying on my brother, who developed a gambling addiction since arriving in the states, and cooking dinner for all of the Sabana Iglesia transplants who had settled in the neighborhood. I went to church not because I was a devout Catholic, but because that was the best place to get the latest chisme, pa’ saber que pasaba.

The prayer group of Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans that came to my house on Saturday nights actually came over to play Bingo — we didn’t pray at all, except to pray that we took the most money home that night. I often cheated, making sure that the house always won.

I thought about Teofilo often, wondering what he was up to in his big Manhattan four bedroom apartment, curious about the daughter who was about the same age as our son. He was my past now, with whom I shared nothing but memories of sins of adultery and two beautiful boys who lived in the Dominican Republic, waiting to be reunited with their mom and stepfather.

Robert could come at any time, but we were waiting. I wasn’t sure what we were waiting for, exactly. He would have a house with a big backyard, a garden, and his own bedroom. Nelson had to wait because he was younger, and he was struggling to learn to read and write. I felt like it was my fault. I abandoned my children and the younger one, the one I had spent less time with, could hardly write his own name.

Right after we came back from visiting my kids in December 1971, I came back to my Corona home to a brand new television in my bedroom; my brother and my husband had banded together to get me one because they knew I liked my bochinche. I watched Univision every night at 6:00 and 11:00, sure to write down any time they mentioned a Dominican last name I recognized from el campo: Diaz, Rodriguez, Collado, Nuñez, Beltrez, Valerio, Fernandez, Hernandez, Vargas, Franco.

The news stories usually repeated themselves between 6:00 pm and 11:00 pm, so I did not expect the variation on January 2, 1972. I did not get a warning. Nobody called me to tell me.

The newscaster said that a man entered his four bedroom apartment in Manhattan, where he lived with his wife and his daughter, when he was approached by his angry wife, who met him at the door with a butcher’s knife.

Someone called her from Sabana Iglesia, to tell her that they saw a boy, about ten years old, who was identical to her husband, which meant he had to have been cheating on her. They had been married thirteen years at that point. She stabbed him seventeen times in the back. The life-threatening injuries took his life.

“Teofilo Beltrez, de Sabana Iglesia, Santiago de los Caballeros, murió en su apartamento en Manhattan.” Teofilo died in his Manhattan apartment, after his wife found out he had cheated on her.

After someone in Sabana Iglesia went to my house, took a picture of Robert, and sent it to her.

I called the boys that night to tell them.

I couldn’t mourn his death publicly. I was not his widow. I was married to a man who loved me, and I was expecting a baby.

I dressed in black for a week, stayed in my house, and did not bother staring out the window.

Robert would be flying to New York for his father’s funeral and I knew that in short time, I would be bochinche, not just for the Sabana Iglesia transplants, but for all Dominicans who live near — and for the Cubans and Puerto Ricans who make it a habit to spend Saturday night at my house.

When my son came, I held him over his father’s casket and said, “This is your father. He died in a car accident.”

Other mourners stared at Robert, whose face was identical to his father’s. They heard my lie, shook their head, and they did not have to say what I knew they were thinking.

His wife killed him.

But I caused his death.

Maria Diaz is an educational consultant living originally from Queens, New York, where she currently lives, though she has left parts of her heart in Cambridge and Palo Alto. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College, The City College of New York, and Harvard Graduate School of Education.

A Flash Fiction by Logan Cox

I’m enraptured the precise moment your fingers first touch the keys. It’s happened every time I’ve come into this place to write and focus, but I can’t seem to do either when you begin to play that infernal piano, so it’s really just two hours of pretending not to watch you.

I stayed longer than normal, just once. I waited until everyone had left the hotel bar.

I laughed to myself, that I’d come all the way to New York to find inspiration, and what I really ended up wanting to write about was you and your delicately applied but abundantly clear passion for your music. You, who existed in the hotel bar. I came all the way to the city, just to find what I needed in the hotel.

You didn’t have a name yet in my story, I didn’t even make one up for you in my head like I usually do. I became convinced that whatever fiction I came up with the satisfy my own curiosity would be utterly disappointing compared with the truth.

When the bar was finally empty, you started to pack up your sheet music. You saw me, and I almost made eye contact with you, but I managed to turn a page in my notebook instead. You froze, and made a different decision.

I tried not to breathe too noticeably, or do anything noticeable at all for that matter, as she sat back down.

She began to play a piece I recognized but could not name. I was never the musician that I wanted to be, but I could recognize beauty anywhere, because I was the writer I needed to be.

This piece had been played here before, every night I had been here, I was sure of it. Somehow, this was completely different. The way she rose and fell, chasing herself where she should pause. The ebb and flow, everything about her became less mechanical and turned emotional.

The music, it was inexplicable. What is the difference between classy and lovely? I have no qualms about my inability to define the separation, for I can always draw upon this memory to satisfy my mind when I ponder it.

The notes were the same. The piano was the same piano it had always been, but the woman, she was no longer a worker, she was who she wanted to be.

My shoulders tensed and my eyes would involuntarily shut when she reached forte, and my heart rate would slow again when the atmosphere calmed.

When the room fell silent and she departed from her platform, she began to walk towards me. I waited longer than normal to look up, I had to be sure she was really walking this way. When it was certain, I placed my glasses on the table and closed my notebook in preparation for conversation.

“Hi, did you enjoy my performance tonight?” She asked with a shaky voice, leaning backward timidly.

“Of course, everyone who came in seemed to love you. I heard many compliments.”

“Not that one,” she clarified, slowly. “The last one. For you.”

“That was for me?” I asked, acting as though I wasn’t here only for her.

“Yes,” she answered. “I noticed you stayed.”

“I did,” I confessed. “To be honest, you’ve been the best part about New York so far.”

“I’m sure that’s not true,” she deflected, smiling.

“It is,” I said, not forcefully, but truthfully, so she knew it wasn’t just a flattery.

“Thank you, really. You’re the only one that’s come here just for me. Most come to drink.”

“Unfortunate reality, working in a bar, even an elegant one.”

“I wanted to give you something,” she said, shuffling her papers. “Here.”

In my hands I held a well cared for binding of sheet music that bore the name of a composer I didn’t know and a piece I couldn’t read. I began to thank her politely before I read it, but as I leafed through, my words trailed off. I was reading her personal notes, clearly written in pencil.

His Favorite was written at the top, near the title.

She started to get nervous when she could tell I was reading her notes, even though she’d intended for me to do so.

Other notes like He jumps and He tries not to look up were written throughout, making me laugh out loud.

“I’m sorry, this is probably really creepy,” she apologized.

“No, of course not,” I said. “I’ve been writing about you for the past few nights anyway.”

“I thought maybe you were,” she told me.

We both laughed, finally feeling more at ease. When the silence returned, the tension came with it, though she was quick to break it once again.

“I wonder what we’d both be like, if we knew for a fact that we were watching each other,”

“New York is the perfect place to explore wonders,” I pointed out.

“Yes, I suppose it is.”

Logan Cox is a young writer currently living in the south of Spain. His work currently appears in the online journals Flash Fiction Magazine and Maudlin House, with forthcoming work set to appear in Beyond Words Literary Magazine. He can most often be found among his family, arguing the rules of in-home game show play.

A Poem by Kari Villanueva

My thoughts carve me hollow like a stream
against limestone. West coast valleys between
my breasts, a highway of mountains down
my spine. There’s a grand canyon forming
in my mind, water licks grains of sand.

It’s persistent, it’s slow like the rain that
gently knocks against my window pane– don’t
ask me when I opened it, but there’s mold on my
walls and beetles in the carpet. I wonder how
Noah liked the rain. Droplets plink the glass

like a broken piano, ivory yellowed and ebony
chipped. I want to love its song like a pianist. I
want to love the world like a doe loves its fawn–
unconditional. I shut the window.

Kari Villanueva is an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh studying English Writing and Public and Professional Writing. Kari has been published once before in Forbes and Fifth Magazine.

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.

A Flash Fiction by Chiara Vascotto

“So, this boyfriend of yours…is he tall? Because…”.

“I know, grandad, altezza mezza bellezza”.

‘Height is beauty’ is one of grandad’s quirky mantras. He insists it’s a proverb, but I only ever heard it from him.

A year later, and I am at his funeral. He never got to meet my tall boyfriend, or to learn about the baby that was, and then wasn’t. The emptiness I feel is endless. Grandad lies in his good suit, his Partisan scarf carefully arranged round his neck.

In comes my father and, hooked on his arm, his wife. She’s clad in black lace, sobbing. A poor man’s Sofia Loren, who hardly knew him.  I look at what remains of this tall tribe, and I see no beauty, only loss.

Grandad’s last act of defiance was to dodge the religious rite; but there is no escaping the cemetery.

The pallbearers’ step on the gravel, their sombre rhythm suddenly halting. A ripple of hushed whispers and gasps: “it won’t fit”. If the casket had been made to measure, the hearse could not. Grandad will stand out, to the very end.

The men shuffle tentatively. They tilt, they crouch, their faces battling exertion and the need for composure. Trial, and error. Trial, and error. One more nudge, and the boot finally closes.

“He would have found it hilarious”, I want to say to dad, when he mumbles: “I’ll have the same problem, me”.

Altezza mezza bellezza. And a whole lot of trouble. 

Chiara Vascotto works in brand development and consumer research, and has a strong interest in creative writing. She hails from Italy, is a life-long student of dance and lives in London.

A Short Story by E. P. Tuazon
or Mamamalengke Ako

Los Angeles, California, May 31, 2020.

In the Island Pacific market, overcome by hunger, Jess cannot take it anymore. She draws an Asian pear from the fruit section. It is a little bruised but otherwise edible without washing. She takes a glance at the lola picking up and putting down Filipino sweat sausages in the meat section and the woman in the hijab preoccupied with trying to find the crease to open her plastic produce bag in front of the eggplant. Once she confirms they are not looking, she pulls down her mask and makes quick work of it. The juices of the pear run all over her face and make dark lines on her black mask. Its refreshing, sweet taste is short-lived and she plants its seed-peppered core at the foot of the display before wiping her face with her shirt and limps her way to the seafood section unnoticed. 

Pulling up her mask, she exhales and takes in the fruity fragrance of the pear mixed with the Dewar’s still sitting in her throat from last night. She is trying to get over the fact that she was hit by a truck in Hollywood just a couple of hours ago. She had joined the protest there, but once the looting happened, she started to trot off shakily with the rest of those like herself who lingered long after the more organized groups of protestors had left.

She headed in the direction of the metro station when she witnessed five masked men drag out an ATM machine from a nail salon and load it into a truck. Deciding it was none of her business, Jess proceeded to walk to the opposite sidewalk to avoid the growing mass of looters flooding broken windows and doors. However, once her feet made it to the asphalt, the truck screeched into drive and clipped her foot. She spun onto the ground and met the sharp smell of tear gas and weed.  The drone of cheers, sirens, helicopters and her own blood pulsing above her eyes accompanied the cold ache in her cheek and foot. One passerby coming out of a raided anime store stood beside her in awe.

“Bro, I saw the whole thing! I wish I got it on camera.” The man had on science goggles and a Messi jersey wrapped around his head and face. Despite all these things covering him up, she knew he was Filipino too. Under one arm was a giant Totoro. Under the other was a body pillow with an anime girl on it. Jess couldn’t help but laugh. Why did she think to come alone?

“Bro, you hit your head or something?”

“No, it’s just my foot.” She wiggled her toe, but she couldn’t tell if she was actually doing it or imagining it. She couldn’t be fine, she thought. You don’t come out of things like this being able to wiggle your toe without something else happening.

“Those guys are lucky. They got that whole thing. Fuck the police!”

Jess thought of the nail salon. Scattered among the glass were the signs that read “Reopen June 1st” followed by something hand-written in red and Thai.

“Yeah, fuck twelve.” Jess said, reading the graffiti that was everywhere now.

“What?”

“Fuck twelve.” She said and pointed at the boarded-up windows across the street, eyeing the restaurant signs and the billboards. They were all covered in the words.

“Bro, fuck the police.” The man said and proceeded on his way, walking off to the smoke in the distance, the glow of destruction reflected off his goggles as if he was participating in an experiment.

“It means the same thing!” Jess explained although the man was gone by then, his exit expediated by the sound of sirens in the distance, the lack of things to take left in the vicinity.

And, somehow, Jess was able to get up and walk. Somehow, she made it to her stop and the metro came and her foot could push the pedals down in her car and she was able to go home to her one-bedroom apartment in Canyon Country, far from it all. Somehow, she was able to pour herself a drink and another drink and swipe through all the news on her phone trying to find news about what just happened until she passed out. Somehow, there was nothing about her. Somehow, she hadn’t let the pain bother her until now, in the market, her insides empty, her foot throbbing. And, somehow, it all came with a question; while she lay on the ground, trying to explain what meaning things had, she did not know what meaning there was for herself. Why did she go to the protest in the first place?

She is trying to skip over the fact that she was hit by a truck a couple of hours ago, but her body cannot help but remember. Her shoulder hurts, her face hurts, her legs hurt, her foot hurts. She finds the aisle for beauty supplies and, below the malunggay supplements and kalamansi oil, she plucks a small bottle of Aspirin from its place. She presses the bottle open, pours a couple into her palm, then launches them into her mouth. To wash them down, she throws in a few gummy vitamins straight out the bottle. She chews on them and lets her mouth flood with saliva and their sweet-sour taste while she counts the number of pixels that make up the blown-up, low-quality picture of fruits on the label. She swallows them and cruises up the aisle thinking about what kind of thinking terribly made labels came from. If you had to do a label but couldn’t afford to give it a good finish, why even try to do something with color in the first place? Why not keep it simple, like black and white? Surely people would trust to buy what you’re selling that way. But that was the problem, wasn’t it, she thought, tasting the vitamins come up and mix with the Aspirin, the Asian pear, and the Dewar’s. The label could never live up to what was expected inside, what the inside could offer.

She feels like she nearly reaches an epiphany but, at the end of her aisle, there is a young Filipina her age crying into her phone in the seafood section, disturbing Jess from her reflection. She sees her move from the iced squid to the blue crab. She watches, wondering if it is a problem with allergies, the Corona virus, or if she is genuinely weeping. One has to be skeptical these days. She had marveled at the possibility of the thought going away, and with the protests and reopenings, she nearly convinced herself that it had. However, here it was, the awareness, the mistrust.

Jess throws the open bottles of aspirin and gummy vitamins into her cart and rolls it towards the woman until it is between them.

“Excuse me? Are you ok?”

“Ew, don’t fucking talk to me.” The woman says, not even looking at her. She puts her back to Jess and continues to look down at her phone, over the red snapper.

Jess immediately regrets being concerned but does not have enough strength to fight her pride. “Sorry, I just noticed you crying from the beauty section.”

“Six feet! Privacy!” The woman says, still not turning around.

The butcher several displays away notices the woman raise her voice but doesn’t look alarmed behind his mask. He looks back down at his work and forgets Jess and the woman are there again.

Jess shakes the handle of her cart. “The cart’s six feet and we’re wearing masks.”

“What? Are you a doctor or something? You going to point a temperature gun at my head and shoot? Get away from me. I saw you limping from a mile away. You’re making me feel uncomfortable.”

The word “limp” hits a nerve with Jess, but she is still too weak to retaliate and continues her crusade. “I’m sorry. I got hit by a truck yesterday.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I was at the protest last night. Some truck dinged my foot.”

This makes the woman turn and Jess cannot help but feel a pang of shame for having to stoop so low as to have to mention it.

“Oh my God. Those racist assholes!”

Jess doesn’t correct her. She looks down at the woman’s phone and there is a feed of posts from the protest last night. She recognizes some of the people and moments from yesterday. She sees the protestors, the police, the store owners, and rioters. She sees the chanting, the praying, the marching, the beauty, the bricks, the broken glass, the looting, the police brutality, and the fires. They collage on her tiny screen in sharp tiny boxes.   

“Did you go to the hospital?” The woman says, dabbing at her eyes with the cuff of her sweater. Jess could tell she is not wearing makeup. She is not either. It is too early and too late.

“No, I’m all right. It’s just sore is all.” Jess says, still looking at the woman’s phone.

The woman notices Jess looking, and she swipes the screen with her finger, the squares rolling down it like a slot machine. “Wasn’t it terrible what happened last night?”

“Actually, it was great.” Jess says, her pride going strong, her legs and knees remembering the march, the kneeling, the trek all over Hollywood and its uneven streets.

“But what about the police? What were those jerks thinking?” The woman says, her cheeks tender but the tears gone.

“Yeah, they were shooting smoke bombs and rubber bullets at everyone.”

“Oh my God, did you get shot?”

“No, just hit by a truck.”

“Oh my God!” The woman exclaims, as if she forgot she heard it the first time.

Jess winces as the guilt wells. “So, was that what you were crying about?”

“Yeah, that and I read that they’re putting a curfew on us tonight.”

“A curfew? Like we’re a bunch of children? Jesus Christ. I can’t believe they’re doing this.”

“Only a tyrant makes curfews.”

“Well, it did get pretty bad out there.” Jess remembers the awning to the anime store tattered and shredded, the Hello Kitty painted on it covered in soot. The torsos and legs of broken action figures strewn together with the glass on the sidewalk.

“I know. The police brutality was terrible. What happened to George Floyd was terrible. Everything needs to change. We need to be better. I can’t believe we did this.”

“I know,” Jess says, and, after thinking about the woman’s words for a second, continues, “What do you mean we did this?”

“Oh my God, yeah. It’s all of our faults. We allow this to happen every day. With our president, our American culture, and institutions of racism that keep minorities out of power. But what really gets me miffed, and I don’t get miffed about just anything, but what really gets me miffed is us. Asians. Filipinos.”

Jess feels the regret already resurface at the word “miffed”, the question she had applied to last night beginning to apply to the now. “You think we’re the problem?”

“Yeah! The model-minority. The silent panderer. We’re in league with the problem: the Whites of America.”

“What?”

“Think about it? Think of your parents. Weren’t they racist? Didn’t they say racist things like you shouldn’t hang out with those Mexicans? Stay away from that Black boy? Don’t lend that Bumbay that five dollars? My parents said things like that all the time. Don’t tell me yours didn’t.”

“Bumbay?”

“It’s what Filipinos call people from India.”

Jess thinks of her sweet old parents. They are living in Porter Ranch in a predominantly Filipino community. She had heard her fair share of off-hand ignorant things from them but never saw them as the problem. Should she?   

“We’re just as guilty as the Whites. We’re friends with them. We do everything they say. We date and marry their kind. We’re the lookouts while the White man murders all the other minorities who don’t step in line. We need to change. We need to fight back. We need to undo the conditioning and return to our roots and reconnect with our diaspora.”

And there it is, Jess thinks. She couldn’t figure it out until now, the feeling that had led her to the protest, that had led her to the girl. She feels it swell with the pain in her body. “I’m sorry, I have to go.”

“You have to continue fighting! Thank you for what you’re doing!” The woman says and Jess makes the mistake of looking back and catching the tears well in her eyes again. Jess cannot take it; it is humiliating to her to hear her talk about things like “diaspora” and mean it. It is embarrassing to Jess that this woman believes—actually, whole-heartedly, believes—in what she is feeling more than Jess believes in the same feelings in herself. It distresses Jess that this woman, this Filipina like herself, feels confident enough to scream it out loud in front of the dead fish and bound crab.

“I’m trying. I’m just someone trying to fight everything.” Jess says, remembering the lights of the truck turn on, the shadow she made on the street. She stretches out, wide on the pavement, but, she herself is so small in the light.

The woman’s face is covered in tears and a pure sheen of sincerity, but it does not understand her, Jess thinks. It only knows the answer to Jess’s question as much as Jess does. “Oh my God,” the girl says through the aisle Jess escapes, “don’t try too hard—you might get yourself killed.”

Outside, with her bag of opened aspirin and gummy vitamins, she is feeling the night beginning to wear off and the need to do something, anything, to satisfy herself again, to tell her she is doing the right thing. The thought of the woman, the man with the Totoro, and the pounding in her head like the chants and explosions from last night. She faces forward, looking beyond the parking lot, thinking about them, and—boom—Jess is hit by a car accelerating past the front of the store.  Jess spins to the ground and an all-to-familiar feeling buzzes at her foot again. She lies dazed at the front wheel, driver-side.

The woman who hit her leans out and yells, maskless. She is the same woman, the Filipina from the store. “Are you fucking crazy, lady?”

People gather. “Is anything broken?” someone asks.

She struggles to stand. She thinks she sees the feet of the man in front of the anime store running off into the chaos.

“Don’t move.” Someone else says.

“Let’s call the police.” Another says.

“Oh, Fuck. Thanks a lot, bitch.” The woman who hit her says, getting out of her car.

“Do you want the number of my lawyer? Just let her know it’s me and she’ll do it pro bono.” A woman younger than Jess scribbles a number on her receipt and gives it to her. At first, she thinks it will say something like “fuck 12” but there are just numbers and totals and items purchased. A bag of rice for $12.99. Two pounds of ox tail for $8.37.

“Fuck you, lady. I just tapped her.”

Pakikiramay! Show ng ilang empathy!” an old man says coming out from the Island Pacific. He has more bags in his hands than he looks like he can carry but he does not run. Not like last night.

“Let me help you with those, lolo.” Someone who is not Filipino says. The old man lets him.

“What were you doing? How would you expect me to see you? Who do you think you are?”

“I was leaving.”

“Why didn’t you wait and look like people are supposed to?”

“You ran me over.” Jess says.

“I’m a mother. You ruined my day!” She says.

The woman gets on her phone while more people come to Jess’s aid. Some are wearing masks. Some aren’t. Someone brings her some coconut juice with pulp. Another one, a Lakers cushion. “Benny. I had an accident. I was getting out of the market and someone got in front of my car. She’s giving me a hard time. I hate people like that. People who think it’s other people’s fault for things that happen to them.” She stops talking to her phone to ask Jess, “Do I have to wait until the police come? I have things to do, you know?”

A worker from the Island Pacific comes with a package of lumpia and puts it on her foot at the point of impact. Jess winces. It’s cold. The worker uses a roll of duct tape patterned with the words Balikbayan on them to bind the eggrolls to her foot. “I’m training to be a medic,” he says with an acne smile, “in the Reserves.”

“What do I owe you?” Jess asks the man.

“You don’t owe us anything. Just promise not to let these go to waste.”

Jess forces herself to stand; the crowd applauds as she crawls to her feet. “Thank you. Thank you very much.” She says and takes a bow. 

E. P. Tuazon is a Filipinx-American writer from Los Angeles. He has published his works in several publications, most recently Five South, Peatsmoke Journal, Third Point Press, 3Element Review, Allegory Ridge, Adelaide Magazine,  and  a Forthcoming piece in The Rumpus. He has two books, The Superlative Horse and The Last of The Lupins: Nine Stories and The Comforters. He is currently a member of Advintage Press and The Blank Page Writing Club. In his spare time, he likes to wander the seafood section of Filipinx markets to gossip with the crabs.

A Flash Fiction by Olag Motobuchi

“Uh, ‘scuse me. Mr. Donkey-Dick?” Tony blurts, “the giant cock section’s back here.” He grins.

His voice blows a melody into Darrel’s ears, even beyond the choir of moaning TVs. Darrel jolts his head around. “T-Tony?”

“Ohhhh! Look who actually remembers me.”

Darrel raises his voice. “Wow. Tony? Quinones? Course, I remember. Weird running into you now. And of all places…”

“Can you stand how fucking cute we are? I’m not even sure how this trash-can of a bookstore is still open. Essential business, my ass.”

“Yeah…Doesn’t all this remind you of the nineties a little? All the paranoia? The cruising? The seediness?”

“Leave it to the gays, right? We’ll find a hole in any system.”

“Guess so. It’s good to see you. You know, I was thinking of you the other—”

“Ha! Aww… Good one, Darrel. How is what’s-his-name? Ky-Kyle?

“Kye.”

“Oh, right. Not Kyle. Kye. How’s Kye?”

“Ya know, we’re…we’re good. We’re actually…pretty great! We just, uh, moved uptown? It’s…nice.”

“Niiice. Sure sounds like it. He here with you?” Tony reduces to a whisper. “Should I go scare him too?”

“No…he’s…not here.”

“Oh. Huh.”

Groups of men on TV compete for the most dramatic exclamations of pleasure. A rupture of whimpers accompanies a rapid clapping. For a second, it sounds like an applause.

Thwap-thwap-thwap-thwap! Squiiiiish.

Darrel starts again. “So, uh…” On the nearest monitor, a droplet of perspiration slides down a yelping face. Darrel hardly notices, but he breaks a sweat of his own while Tony watches.

“What is it?” Tony asks, sensing Darrel’s struggling words.

“So,” he clears his throat a little. “You um…you still riding?”

“Pfffffft. Nah, man. Didn’t you hear?” Tony rubs his chin with curled knuckles. “My sis sold my Kawasaki to cover the hospital bills.”

“Oh, right. Sorry… Didn’t mean to…bring that up. I’m sorry.”

“Fuck, you know I didn’t mean it like—“

“You know how much guilt I had to climb out of, Tony? How much time I spent? Years. A decade! I dunno!? Maybe it’s been worth it. God, I fucking hope so.”

“Ch’yeah. Well, I get to live forever as Ricki Riley. Shit. Couldn’t I’ve picked another name? ‘Ricki Riley,’ they’re always saying. ‘Remember him?’ Well…The real me? I, like, never existed. Tony Quinones died a long, long time ago. And you. You coulda said, ‘adiós,’ Darrel…”

“Tony. I don’t know what to—” The air sucks the heat right out of Darrel’s cheeks.

The two hang back while a single TV bursts with a falsetto. Some limit is reached during a percussion of drenched slapping.

Slap slap slap. Slap slap.

“Yeah. Well. Parts of that movie are worth remembering. Right, Darrel? Goddamn. How can I forget how much you and that bike destroyed my back. Cheesh!” Tony smirks, squeezing his lips into a simper.

“Haaaaaaah. Ya know, there was a point where I told everyone I’d just tattoo Crotch Rocket 3 on my face.”

“Right? Who knew you’d catch that many eyes, Darrel. If you ask me, I think it’s that big, old bush you got. Ya fucker. Then you had to get all popular and run away to New York. Right when the gay cancer found—”

“Listen. We were young. It wasn’t anyone’s fault.”

A moment passes. Tony speaks up. “What kinda night ya having here, big guy? Hot date with…Hairy Potter and the…who—?”

Darrel chuckles. “Don’t be a creep.”

“A creep? In this place? Isn’t that what the kids call hate speech nowadays?”

“Hmp-hmph. Nice one, asshole. Hey. Did you…look to see if they have it?”

“Have what? You mean Crotch Ro—?

Darrel assumes his porn octave. “Oh-h-h-ho. Fuck yeah, man.”

“¡Dios mío! What a sap.” A few seconds of eye contact, then Tony rolls his eyes.

Darrel steps backwards, and starts for the register. “Hi, sir. I was wondering. Do you have a movie called Crotch Rocket 3? From like, 1992?” He flashes his smile.

Cashier tries to contain a chuckle, looking at The One-And-Only. It is him. He’s been gawking at Darrel this whole time. “Oh, sure we do. He-he-he. Extreme sports. Back between Vintage and Water Sports.

Twenty feet away, and there it sits—just a DVD on some dusty shelf. On its laminate cover, Tony and Darrel look wide-eyed. While frozen in embrace, the Moto gear hangs from their teenage bodies. Both share the hoist of their emerald throne, a hazard-green Kawasaki. Darrel scoops the DVD in his careful hands. “Damn. Look at us.”

“Wow. I look…”

“You look healthy…”

“My eyebrows didn’t. Can you even see ‘em down there?”

“You look healthy here, Tony…”

“Hey. If you could make it through that, don’t you think you’ll make it through this new virus?”

For a minute, Darrel holds a pause. “This one might be worse though, Tony.”

“You ever think you’ll get out of here? Out of Crotch Rocket 3?

“I don’t know. You know, I don’t really come here that often.”

“Uh-huh. Sure ya don’t.”

With one trembling finger, Darrel wipes some dust from the waxy print of Tony’s face. His brows carve perfect ovals around those burnt caramel eyes. Behind him, his younger self holds on tight. To Tony. Both erections point up to the illustrated title: Crotch Rocket 3.

“Listen. It was nice seeing you, Tony.” Darrel parks the DVD back on its shelf, feeling just one more time a little heat from that engine. “Seriously. Was real nice. But uh…Kye is probably wondering where I am.”

Olag Motobuchi is an emerging writer exploring identity, trauma, and queerness. In the storms of 2020, they began publishing their work. Find more of their flash fiction in Typishly and Button Eye Review.

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.

A Poem by Kelli Allen

It’s a hidden, lungless stone, this waiting.
Whitebait might be emblematic of an immaturity

you still carry in the bulge of your knees, the way
you swallow after speaking, after nodding in agreement.

Tell me, iron smith, man of coals and grinding,
what did you expect after I took you in, closed

your thin waist with the parenthesis of my thighs?
The reflection between my legs ate you right on up.

We still tell each other into flatness, into a stream
populated with sleeping trout. I am sending you away

with a quilt, a goat’s pure stomach, and rough lapis.
The corpse of our longing gets fed after shutting the door.

Kelli Allen’s work has appeared in numerous journals/anthologies in the US and internationally. Allen is the founding editor of Book of Matches Literary Journal. Allen’s new collection, Banjo’s Inside Coyote, arrived from C&R Press March, 2019.

A Short Story by Shae Krispinsky

At Rhythm & Brews Lounge, the pours would always be watered down, the bartenders surly, the jukebox programed to loop the same two dozen modern country songs, the dance floor empty. It was a place for people to come and be lonely together, and little had ever changed there in the all the years Natch had been going.

Except tonight when he’d pulled in, the parking lot had been full, unusual for the Monday-through-Thursday stretch that was the doldrums of life. Inside, some digital recording of a wannabe cowboy wasn’t warbling about a honky tonk badonkadonk; there was a long-haired pretty boy up on the small stage, wearing ratty clothes that looked pulled from a dumpster and playing a $4000 guitar. A gaggle of women swayed before him, transfixed, sucking on their Smirnoff Ices.

And then there she was, the most obvious change of all, seated in the far corner booth with a bowl of peanuts in front of her. By the way she held herself, back straight, not touching the red vinyl cushion, alert but not alarmed, Natch knew the loneliness he saw in her was a familiar feeling. The Busch Beer stained-glass lamp hanging above her table gave off a cool glow that highlighted her cheekbones and her sandy hair that hung in a long tangle over her shoulder. Natch wasn’t the only one who noticed. He was, however, the one who approached, offering to buy her a drink. He would have done the same even if she hadn’t been so beautiful; he felt it his duty to be welcoming. The beauty didn’t hurt.

“Thank you,” she said, “but I don’t.”

“Nothing?” Natch asked. “Coffee? It’s not bad here. I mean, it doesn’t melt the spoon.”

“Any chance they have green tea?”

“Sweet tea, maybe.”

She settled for a club soda with lime, which Natch retrieved along with a beer for himself. “Name’s Tod, but everyone calls me Natch.”

She squeezed her lime into her soda, then dropped the spent wedge on a napkin. “As in naturally?”

“As in Natchez, Mississippi. Where I was born.”

Her name was Hanlon and she had, she shared, been born right there in Marville, a fact he found hard to believe. With the green tea and the posture, he had taken her for a city girl. Turned out he was partially correct—she had gone to grad school at NYU. After that, she had spent a few years wandering around before settling for a while in Savannah. As she spoke, Natch noticed the way the sundress she wore dipped slightly in the front, revealing she had nothing on underneath. Natch forced himself to stare at his beer, his head cocked, as though straining to hear over the live music.

“What brings you back?” he asked.

“My mother died.” Hanlon said this as though she were commenting on Natch’s shirt. “Twice, really. First when she left me and my father, and then again last year.” She shrugged. “I got a house here out of it.”

At this turn of the conversation, Natch reached for his Mich Ultra, took a deep, distancing quaff, and considered getting up for a whiskey neat. She leaned in across the table, her hair catching in the front of her dress, and said she didn’t mean to make him uncomfortable. Natch forgot about his thirst.

She turned her attention to the stage, where the pretty boy was switching out harmonicas in the holder around his neck. The women on the dance floor continued swaying, even as the pretty boy adjusted his capo and told some story about growing up in Memphis. Pretty Memphis Boy began intricately fingerpicking and Natch had to admit, he could play.

Music was the fastest way to earn Natch’s respect. He spent so much time on the road that music was what kept him awake and focused. He liked to say he owed his life to the songs. Pretty Memphis Boy started in on a harrowing cover of “Pancho and Lefty” that brought a palpable change upon the bar. No one wanted to face that kind of emotion at Rhythm & Brews. They came to forget their troubles; the wood-paneled walls, thankfully, did not reflect their darkest selves and never would. Conversation on the periphery drowned out his singing, but Pretty Memphis Boy took it in stride. A few women at his feet took this time to refresh their drinks, but the majority stayed: he was pretty whether he sang sad or not. But then he doubled down, playing “Waiting Around to Die,” and the floor cleared. Natch admired his conviction and whistled when the song ended, the only one to acknowledge Pretty Memphis Boy’s detour from his set of bluesy originals.

“That was remarkable,” Natch said, turning back to Hanlon.

She stopped playing with the lime wedge. “I prefer not to dwell on sadness,” she said and slid from the booth. “Time to call it a night.”

Natch stood. “Let me walk you out.”

In the parking lot, the transition from sad songs to a symphony of cicadas felt almost violent, the rending of two distinct realities. Natch shifted uncomfortably.

“You noticed that, too,” Hanlon said. “You sense things others don’t.” She put her hand on his arm, down near the wrist. “I could tell you saw me when you walked in tonight. No one else did.”

“Every guy in there was looking at you,” Natch said, his attention fixed on her hand, the heat pooling there. “Some of the women, too.”

“But they didn’t see me.”

Though she was tall, she had to stretch up to kiss Natch on the cheek. He could feel himself blushing as he watched her cross the gravel lot.

Returning inside, Natch found Pretty Memphis Boy posted up at the bar, staring at his phone, his set over. Women milled around, trying to get his attention.

Natch, cutting through the crowd, joined him. “That’s the first time Townes Van Zandt has been played in Rhythm & Brews. It was a welcome change.”

“Hey, thanks, man,” Pretty Memphis Boy said. He turned, offering his hand. “Seamus.”

Natch shook and introduced himself.

“So, Natch, how do you know about Townes?” Seamus asked, pulling a pack of Marlboro Reds out of his pocket.

“My mama.”

“Yeah, me too,” Seamus said, lipping his cigarette. Three beers and one stop at the package store later, Natch and Seamus were down at the creek, skipping stones and passing a paper-bagged bottle back and forth. Night smells rose off the water and the silence around them seemed to hold up the moon. As the liquor settled in, they climbed the embankment leading to the train tracks abandoned when Marville began fading from the map. A quarter mile up was a bridge leading toward Missouri and there the two men sat, staining their hands with rust and kicking their feet, sharing stories until they caught dawn eavesdropping. Before going their separate ways, they made plans to grab a beer later in the week, the bond between them set.


The nearest grocery store was down in Union City, across the Tennessee line. Natch, amid his bi-weekly run, rounded an end display and found Hanlon studying a package of bulgur wheat. She smiled when she saw him and put the cereal back on the shelf. “I hate grocery shopping,” she said. “Let’s go explore the city instead.”

There was something about Hanlon beyond her beauty that made Natch want to go wherever she led. He left his buggy in the aisle next to hers and followed her out into the bright warmth of a Tennessee spring morning. Natch heard the day singing with possibility.

Downtown, they walked the length of the storefronts then talked over Mexican food. Her knowledge of music was slim; of art, vast. She told him she had moved to Savannah to study under Lenka Vargas, a world-renowned performance artist. Natch found the name vaguely familiar but couldn’t place it until Hanlon mentioned Vargas’s most famous work, stripping bare and hiking across Siberia alone. He had heard about that on the television.

“Is that what you do?” he asked, wondering if she, like her mentor, worked naked, and then chided himself for such a crass thought.

Hanlon shook her head. “I do endurance work, like Lenka, but her focus was on the physical limits of the body. Mine is more psychological. I test myself when faced with the quotidian.”

“Meaning what, exactly?”

“Boredom is what I work with,” she said. “It’s the one thing that challenges me.”

“Well, I hope you’re not currently being challenged,” he said.

“No,” she said, lowering her eyes. “I’m not working now.”

“If I recall,” he said, nudging the conversation back to Hanlon’s mentor, “Fox News called her a witch. They said it was the only way she could have survived that trek.”

Hanlon sucked in her breath. “Please don’t tell me you watch that.”

Natch sprinkled hot sauce on his rice. “Not on my own,” he explained, “but stop in any ten diners from here to Tucumcari and eight of them’ll have it on behind the counter.”

Breaking a tortilla chip into pieces, she said, “You spend a lot of time in diners?”

“A trucker’s life,” he said.

“It sounds lonely. Like being an artist.”

Natch couldn’t fathom how someone like Hanlon could ever come to be lonely. It was a cruel world in which that could be the case. He tended to believe the cosmic baseline was lawful neutral and it was his aim to keep things on the right side of good. If it was meant for him to ease her loneliness—well, he was willing to shoulder that burden.

Back at the grocery store parking lot they stood at Hanlon’s car, not ready to say goodbye. He wanted to hear more about her life, so vastly different from his of making time, getting the next load, seeing dozens of states and experiencing none of them. Hers was spent chasing some spark, an inner calling, the vagaries of the muse. He found her interesting and got the feeling she felt the same about him. How that was possible, he didn’t question.

Natch’s phone vibrated in his pocket. He checked out of habit, expecting work. Instead, a text from Seamus. He had forgotten he promised to help change the drive belt on Seamus’s motorcycle. Natch knew the only way for one’s word to mean anything was to stand by it. “I should get back,” he apologized.

“You could ask for my number while you have that out,” Hanlon said, nodding toward his phone. Natch punched in the digits as she spoke them. “Don’t be afraid to use it.” She looped her arms around his neck and pulled him in close enough to smell her lilac perfume.


Seamus was parked in Natch’s driveway, lying supine on the seat of his motorcycle, his feet kicked up over the handlebars.

“Thought you needed my help with that thing,” Natch said, climbing out of his truck.

Seamus sat up, straddling the bike, a pristine Triumph Bonneville. “It was easy,” he said. “Figured maybe you’d want to take her out.”

“It’s been years since I’ve been on one,” Natch said.

Dismounting, Seamus said, “It’s like riding a bicycle. And easier than driving your rig.” He passed Natch his helmet, his leather jacket.

“Wanna ride bitch?” Natch asked, grinning, zipping up the jacket.

“You know damn well I don’t,” Seamus said, holding up his bottle of whiskey. “My date and I are going to sit on your porch and enjoy this weather till you return.”

Natch took it slow through Marville’s serpentine hills but then gunned it back to Union City. He pulled off at the gas station next to the Mexican restaurant and bought a lottery ticket, feeling lucky. He scratched it, matching three, winning five dollars, not worth cashing out. He’d keep the ticket, a token of the day. He zipped it in Seamus’s jacket pocket and headed back.

Seamus had moved from the porch to the bed of Natch’s truck, where he leaned against the rear window, listening to music on his phone. “This small-town living,” he said, after Natch parked the motorcycle and joined him. “There’s not a single fucking thing to do. It’s wonderful.” He was at the point in the bottle where he turned giddy, loquacious. “Any new conquests?”

Cordial and confident, Natch felt secure knowing he could date if he chose, though he rarely did. It was unfair to pursue something when he could have to hit the road for days at a time, and when he explained this, Seamus went into a bit about sowing seeds, carpe noctem. Natch asked why Seamus wasn’t doing as he preached. Seamus held up his left hand, showing off a simple silver band on the ring finger. “Those days are over, my friend.”

Natch strained to articulate the morning. A part of him didn’t want to present the date—was it a date?—for Seamus’s judgment. To someone like Seamus, who had gigged across America, leaving countless beautiful, heartbroken women in his wake, enchiladas and discussing art wasn’t all that exciting, even if Natch felt his pulse quickening thinking about it. He asked instead about Seamus’s wife.

“With her, sometimes I feel like the luckiest sonovabitch on the planet,” Seamus said, lighting a cigarette, taking a drag, then passing it to Natch. “Then sometimes it feels like I could be on fire and she would just sit there, letting me burn, like she doesn’t even see. And I know this makes me sound like an insufferable prick, but being ignored by women? Not something I’m used to. Maybe that’s why she does it, to keep me in my place—I like that.” He laced his fingers behind his head and stared up beyond the trees lining Natch’s yard. “I never thought it’d be for me, but there’s something about marriage, man, something about making something real, something lasting, out of love, that’s pretty fucking special.

None of that sounded like love to Natch, but he kept his opinion to himself. He thought of the way Hanlon had sat across from him, both earlier that day and on that night at Rhythm & Brews, with her attention focused, her interest apparent. He felt sad for his friend and decided he would call Hanlon to ask her on a proper date as soon as Seamus left.


Hanlon accepted Natch’s invitation to dinner and a movie a few evenings later. A storm had loomed in the distance most of the day, and as Natch pulled in front of Hanlon’s house, the sky let loose a spate of rain. She motioned for him to wait and disappeared back inside, reemerging with a leather jacket thrown over her long floral sundress. At dinner, she talked about her art, which still made no sense to Natch. She said she had been working on a performance for a while but feared she wasn’t strong enough to complete it as planned. Natch asked what the performance entailed, and she mentioned domesticity and countering the matriarchal paradigm of her youth. When Natch asked what that meant by that, she said, “Not turning into my mother.”

“I thought your work was about boredom,” he said.

“It’s one and the same,” she said, exasperation in her voice. During the movie Hanlon kept her arms crossed and her legs tucked up beneath her and Natch thought he had made her mad but afterward she suggested he take her back to his place. He asked if she was sure, and she told him never to question a woman about such things.

In his kitchen, he offered her a water, apologizing that it was all he had beside beer. “I don’t do this much,” he said. “Have company.”

“Why is that?” she asked.

“It’s hard to connect when you’re always leaving again.” Natch uncapped a beer but held it without drinking.

“Yet here I am,” she said, with a small smile. “Don’t worry, I won’t get too attached.”

Natch set his bottle down on the table and pulled Hanlon into a fervent kiss. She shrugged off her jacket and worked first the buttons of his shirt, then his belt buckle. They made their way to Natch’s bedroom and afterward, Hanlon dozed with her head on his chest. As he lay listening to her breathe, he considered if this was why he had remained single for so long, to leave himself open for the right person, who arrived in Marville like a miracle. Hanlon was willful and independent and occupied with her art; he didn’t see her getting teary and begging him to stay when she knew he had to go. It was a match like a hand in a glove.

Lightning flashed outside the window, followed by a thunderclap so loud it rattled the glass and woke Hanlon. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—” she said, sitting up and smoothing her hair. She glanced at the clock on Natch’s side table. Its face was blank. “Did the power go out? What time is it?”

Natch leaned over the side of the bed and retrieved his phone from his jeans. He held it up for her to see. “Not too late.”

She burrowed back under Natch’s blanket. “I hate being in the dark during a storm,” she said. “It makes me feel so powerless.”

“I’ve got some candles in the pantry,” he said, “but I’m not sure about matches. I’ll look.” He slipped on his jeans and headed to the kitchen, using his phone as a flashlight.

“Check my jacket. There might be a lighter in the pocket,” she called after him.

Natch found the candles, then picked Hanlon’s jacket up off the floor. He had never seen her smoke and wondered why she would have a lighter, but there it was. Something else, thick paper like a business card, was in the pocket. Curiosity getting the better of him, Natch fished it out and struck the cheap Bic to inspect. His heart sank. The lottery ticket, matching three, winning five dollars, that he had forgotten to take before giving Seamus back his jacket.

He stood there staring at ticket, piecing together what it meant, until the metal lip of the lighter grew too hot and bit at his thumb. He cursed under his breath as it clattered to the floor.

“Everything okay?” Hanlon asked, coming up behind him, wrapped in the bed sheet. “What were you looking at?”

“Just an old scratch off,” he said.

“Win anything?”

He crumpled the ticket into a ball and lobbed it into the sink. “No.”

The few citronella candle tins, once lit, cast angry shadows across the cabinets. Glancing around, Hanlon said, “It’s nice like this.”

If he feigned ignorance, he could keep the night going on his preferred trajectory. Carpe noctem, right? Seamus’s own dictum. Lead her back to his room for a reprise kept going till dawn. Her skin against his, the scent of her hair permeating his pillow. Instead he slipped the lighter back into the pocket, zipped it shut, and handed the jacket to Hanlon. “This is Seamus’s,” he said. When Hanlon didn’t respond, he added, “He’s married.”

“Yes,” she said slowly. “To me.” Her face hardened. “I thought you knew.”

 Anger hit Natch so swiftly he had to steady himself by grabbing hold of the table. “How would I have? What are you doing here?”

“And here I was impressed by your nerve,” she said.

The microwave beeped and the overhead lights flashed back on. Hanlon blinked up at Natch. “I never wanted to get married and do that whole thing. Neither did my mother,” she explained. “That’s why she left. She couldn’t stand it, the honoring and obeying. I wanted to prove that I was stronger than her, that I could do what she couldn’t, that I could make a commitment and stay. And it would be the ultimate performance, something more brutal and numbing than crossing Siberia because even in Siberia, the scenery changes. Sleeping next to the same person night after night—no one talks about how difficult that is. No one talks about how boring it is, being a wife, or how lonely. Or how strong you have to be. How do you prepare for that? How can you? I thought I could.” She clasped Seamus’s jacket to her chest and dropped her head. “I’m just as weak as she was.”

Natch held Hanlon’s gaze as he said, “She left, and so should you.” It was a hit below the belt, and it felt good to land it.


To avoid the conversation he was not yet ready to have, Natch waited until Seamus would be gone before heading to Rhythm & Brews. After ordering his whiskey neat, he fed a twenty into the jukebox and searched the digital database until he found the song he wanted, setting it to play ten times in a row. A voice like well-oiled leather began to sing about a woman leading him down through misery and leaving him as low as low could be. Natch didn’t want the music to save him tonight. He wanted it to sear the pain so deeply into his chest that the next time he saw a beautiful, beguiling woman across the bar, he would remember that hurt, and he would wince, and he would walk away.

Shae Krispinsky lives in Tampa, FL, where she fronts the indie rock band, Navin Ave. Her short fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared in Drunk Monkeys, Vending Machine Press, Connotation Press, The Citron Review, Thought Catalog, and more. She is currently at work on two novels and finishing up her band’s first album.

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

A Prose Poem by Stephanie DeCicco

The rain came down like shards of glass. It stung my face, my arms, my legs. I wandered on, heading nowhere with a mission. As the drops fell to the ground, they shattered into indefinite particles of nothing. The sky was black and full of gloom, a streak of bright green acid breaking through to pelt the rain upon us. I smiled as I passed you. You gazed into me like I was leprosy. I opened my eyes a bit wider, for everything seems so much brighter this way, and I saw the truth. I squinted again. The darkness of the day swept on into the night. I never really knew the difference; playing tricks with my sight. I sat alone, staring off into cyberspace, my hands began to shake. They always do that, though. I opened a can and sat back down. I could feel my bones. Silence interrupted my daze and I woke up in a haze. I began again. I’m always trying to begin again. First I drowned the silence. I turned to the television, watched my reflection for a moment or two and continued on this journey of life, my life, the story inside my mind. This face seems so normal, I act just like you. Step inside and take a tour. They always come out screaming.

Stephanie DeCicco resides in Pennsylvania with her three cats. She enjoys writing, video games and reading. Some of her favorite authors include David Wong, Joyce Carol Oates and Neil Gaiman. Follow her on Instagram on the handle @stephwritesprose.

A Prose Poem by Matthew Dettmer

I’m visiting the suburbs it’s twenty-five minutes from my apartment to tom’s house along the lake the drive was stunning changing leaves the lake bright blue under the sky I drove slurping coffee from a mug balancing it against the turns on and off the highway now

we’re outside in the backyard trapping and passing a junior sized soccer ball my friend tom who met me and his now-wife tracy in college a hundred years ago they got married and raise two kids who aren’t as interested in the ball the younger one

timmy has trouble sitting still during zoom preschool now he’s hurtling across the yard while tom and I talk the election with resignation and fantasy football resignedly I can feel the moist earth under my feet and the sweat turning the underarms of my shirt darker black and then

timmy starts carrying a football while he lurches over the lawn his dad and I joke how he’s a north south runner needs to improve his lateral quickness at one point he stops and holds the ball out like he wants it thrown to him but

timmy doesn’t understand why we can’t play catch this year even though it’s such a great afternoon for it October in America the thick backyard grass the sky stretched out blue the trees everywhere turning green to gold and gold to bare. 

Matthew Dettmer is a physician, writer, and musician in Cleveland, OH. His work has been previously published in the Hybrid Harpy Review and in Neighborhood Voices, a literary anthology presented by Literary Cleveland.  Check out his band The Dole at https://thedole.bandcamp.com.

A Poem by Remi Seamon

He was a man who left spit to congeal
on the roadside. I watched him and knew
we should be kind. We should
take warning. We should forgive each other
the iron in our eyes.
He bent suddenly to his life and walked away

still I stood in the snow.
(I never said it.) In the night
his footsteps filled with silence.

Remi Seamon is a Lower Sixth student in Cambridge, England. She was commended in the Foyle Young Poet of the Year Award and has been published in a scattering of small publications. She considers her primary inspiration to be her dog.

A Poem by Rose Strode

There was a moment I hung head-down in the storm-deep creek, knee pinned between a tree
and my bicycle, when all fear went out of me. I mean completely, the way the sea removes debris
from the living purple lace of the body of a sea fan. The current waved me, gently. I felt the light
shining through my porous body. I could look downstream, to my left and right, but not behind
me, at my wrecked bike, the fallen tree, or any other aspect of my life. I remember thinking well,
you always wondered how you would die with a sense of awe and curiosity, which I’ve only ever
known from reading the kind of books that make me forget everything, the kind I wished I could
stay in. This was how I could have lived, in a different life: free of anxious thoughts.  A leaf
tumbled by, a last-winter’s leaf twirled in the current, falling as I must have fallen, end over end.
In the light, every flaw stood out like a jewel.  

Rose Strode is a poet and essayist. Her work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Poet Lore, and The Broad River Review, and is forthcoming in Sugar House and New Ohio Review. She is a recipient of the Gulick Fellowship at Valparaiso University, a student in the Creative Writing MFA program at George Mason University, and a managing editor at Stillhouse Press.

A Flash Fiction by Marianne Mandrusiak

Glancing sideways, Sarah raises her dishevelled flaxen eyebrows and gives me the signal. Oh, it’s on! Our favourite game to play is “detective.” We sneak away while the adults are talking about new co-workers or controversial politicians. Awkward flamingos, we walk on our tiptoes to mimic high heels and jut out our ribs, pretending that we have breasts. We hide in plain sight, under mahogany hall tables and behind corners with chipped drywall, patiently waiting to overhear juicy details that we almost never do. Sarah and I are silent as church mice until one of the adults, usually Aunt Carol, uses some ridiculous expression like, “Well, that just won’t cut the mustard,” which sends us running down the hallway, covering our mouths and shaking from laughing so hard. Convulsing, we flop onto Auntie Carol’s guest bed, finding spots amongst the coats that smell of strangers; old cigarettes, stale gum and vanilla bean perfume. We chortle until we can’t breathe, our obliques aching. The adults don’t come in to reprimand us, because much to our chagrin, they knew we were there all along. They also don’t care because we don’t understand politics or sexual innuendos. Bored of listening to fragments of incomprehensible conversations, we decide to play pretend. 

My role, as always, is that of the daughter. I hate playing the mom, which I suppose makes sense, considering that later in life, I will declare that I never want to have children. Sarah and I make believe that we are packing for a vacation. We are going to take a train trip, that’s it – first class! Going east, to visit her long-lost twin brother, Billy, in Waterloo. I heard the name of the city in an ABBA song, so I know that it really exists. 

Sarah puts on Auntie Carol’s friend Shelly’s fake-fur coat and an anxious thrill makes my face turn beet red. She looks glamorous surrounded by the ebony pelt, like she’s a ten-year-old Jennifer Love Hewitt (except blond). Her look is perfect for our first-class voyage.  

“Now, you need a coat too,” Sarah asserts. I’m too nervous about wearing someone else’s belongings. I shake my head, and some hair gets stuck to my fuchsia lipstick. I nicked some from my mother’s purse earlier, but she never minds unless I have a cold sore. Sarah calls me an old “fuddy-duddy.” Ironic for someone who would dare use that insult. I tell her I’d rather get into trouble for going through Auntie Carol’s things than for sifting through those of a stranger, so I open one of the dresser drawers, which is empty. I pretend to pull out a green crushed-velvet dress with a satin ribbon as a belt.

“You can’t just make-believe,” Sarah says, “you need to put on something real.” She feels entitled to make up all of the rules. Sarah has two younger siblings, and you can tell. 

Sarah opens the other drawers, looking for something to dress me with whilst saying in a piss-poor British accent, “Come on Luv, I’ll make you a cuppa.” This sends us howling again, remembering the film we saw in social studies class about the children who worked in the mines. (It wasn’t supposed to be funny, and we got in an awful lot of trouble with Mrs. Slavinsky because we kept trying to speak like the people in the docudrama). 

We are unprepared for what we see next. Sarah opens the bottom dresser drawer, and at first, I think that it’s full of comic books of some kind. Once my eyes have focused, I can’t make sense of the images. Naked women tied up, bent over with their mouths open. Men grabbing fistfuls of women’s hair, one woman screaming in pain as her breasts are being squeezed. Not just pain, though, her face holds something else…something that fascinates me. I’m not sure if any of the adults heard the drawers open or if the sound was muffled by The Beatles singing something about feeling alright.

Sarah and I should throw the magazines back in the drawer and slam it shut. We don’t. We sit there, silent, on the moss-toned shag carpet for a good twenty-five minutes staring at the pages and acclimating to the images, barely aware of the conversational din in the background. Individually, in our own minds, we speculate about each glossy, naked person’s back-story. Miraculously, nobody walks in on us. I don’t know what we would have done if they had. When we finally break free of our trance and put everything away, we pinkie swear never to talk about what we have seen to anyone and never to go back into that bottom drawer.

Sarah and I exit the room feeling like we have walked into another dimension. Our world has changed, and I suppose so have we. Suddenly self-conscious in our bodies, we slink around sheepish and close-mouthed, glancing surreptitiously at the adults. We see them with new eyes. We are investigating again, seeking some kind of an explanation and yearning to find clues. Back to playing detective, only this time we aren’t teetering around on our tiptoes and sticking out our chests. 

Marianne Mandrusiak is a writer and comedian living in Montreal, Canada. She was longlisted for the 2020 CBC Nonfiction Prize for her short story entitled “Bad Kisser.” Marianne is currently working on a short story collection, as well as a children’s book which introduces the concepts of environmental stewardship and the power of collective action. For details on these projects and others, follow her on Instagram under the handle @mandrusiaki. 

A Flash Fiction by Ken Olson

The sky is flat this morning and words won’t fall out. No words for a poem, no words for a story; mundane, domestic words or stirring, cosmopolitan words for Joe’s daring exploits far from his home. It makes no difference once the sky loses its verve. So, Joe summons Noveldog. S/he instructs Joe to build something wordless, whereupon he journeys to the beach, crafting a sandcastle. Tonight, he writes with words. Noveldog focuses on Joe’s actions, interpreting his experience: Without knowing it, Joe has written a story with his hands. Back home, the sky opens and words haphazardly tumble out.

Ken Olson lives in the Pacific Northwest. His haiku poetry has been selected for the ‘Red Moon Anthology’ five times, the 2019 Special Issue of ‘Right Hand Pointing,’ and featured in Ion Codrescu’s new book, ‘The Wanderer Brush.’ In 2019 Ken published stories in Crack the Spine, Sky Island Journal, and Silver Needle Press. In 2020 the inaugural edition of the Centifictionist, Wild Roof Journal, and The Closed Eye Open.

A Flash Fiction by Matt Petras

In my grey sweatpants and navy blue sweatshirt, I climbed onto the armchair, placed my little hands on the top of the velvet chair and gazed out the window at the lights.

I saw streetlights, houses aglow with yellows and blues through their windows, cars beaming light at the road ahead of them. Red lights would come from the railway intersection. Traffic lights. Green. Yellow. Red.

Most prominent and highest, a small fire burned, wafting smoke into the air, at the top of a tall, thin chimney.

Pap walked into the room, a cup of tea in his hand. He saw me and smiled.

“When I first moved into this house, I would look out that window a lot too,” he said. He sipped his tea. “When I look out that window now, I see what that town used to be like, back when it was booming. I met your grandmother in that town. I see all of the delis you could get a great sandwich. I see the park that isn’t there anymore, where bands would play. Really great music.”

I looked at him. I smiled. I went back to the window.

“So what do you see when you look out that window, kiddo?”

The window chilled my tiny fingertips as I kept looking.

“I see lights.”

Matt Petras is a Pittsburgh-area writer and educator. His journalism has been published in The Daily Beast as well as local publications like PublicSource, Pittsburgh Current and The Mon Valley Independent. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing in Chatham University, focusing on fiction and concentrating in pedagogy.

A Poem by Manjot Singh

this is not the time to despair—
new tides are growing out
of your gutter-mouth slurping
truth however you get it
sideways. currents are flowing

along the malls of reconciliation
holding steady for your belting
elegy. you declare funeral of
past—horizon of tidal compromise
and glass house press conferences.

you scream of renewed mandate yet
wreak of dilution—stewing broth
of platitudinal possibility. i wish you
would mean what you pray lay down
the prickly fern and declare what we

have dreamt for longer than your
gilded commute to commiseration.
the portal will bellow your praise
and you will have to decide in that
flash whether you are a spiller of
ink or a molder of clay.

Manjot Singh is a rising poet living in Los Angeles, CA. He is a political consultant by day and plans to attend law school this fall. He explores issues of diaspora, nature, nostalgia and connection in his dynamic creative writing. He is working on a poetry chapbook which he hopes to publish in the next year.

A Short Story by Brian Fountain

I reclined deep into my chair until it threatened to topple, head tilted back, frowning at the fluorescent lights. The kind that makes your skin look jaundiced and your eyes look sunken and bruised, humming softly in the background, casting everything in a sterile radiance. Every office I’ve worked in has used those lights. Every hospital I’ve ever visited, too. I can’t make the walk to my cubicle without remembering my great-aunt hooked up to those nauseating tubes, edema draining from her soggy midriff. There was a deep pain in the space between my neck and my left shoulder. My ass was pressed firmly against the paltry cushioning of the seat. My feet were falling asleep.

I rolled my shoulders and stood and stretched the ache out of my stiffened body. It was late in the afternoon and a stack of folders still needed work, but I fumbled with the words and the numbers. I reached for my messenger bag and held the straps and the buckles so they didn’t make any noise. Sometimes a small group would be gathered around the espresso machine, and then I would have to pretend that I was just stretching my legs and slink back to my desk. Today it was quiet and my decampment went unobserved. In the past eighteen months, spurred on by boredom and burnout, I had become increasingly adept at slipping out through the side doors without anyone noticing. I turned right toward the road before drifting rightward again onto the trail that ran parallel along the highway, down to the train station and then far beyond that.

It was still warm, but when I passed under shadows I could feel the coming autumn against my skin. When I was younger I could smell it, the leaves changing, getting ready to drop, the soil and the rain all different somehow. I can’t smell it anymore, but I can still feel it if I pay attention. Bumblebees were frantically collecting nectar and pollen from the few remaining thistles of the season, and I stood watching them for a moment. Their fat bodies, plump and greedy, hung loose while their wings pumped fast against gravity and their own gluttony. I hopped out of the way of a cyclist as they shot passed, then turned and continued down the trail.

I began walking the two miles to the train station because I realized that, as I gained seniority at the office, I spent progressively more time sitting in front of a computer pretending to work. I recalled my father inflating as his title went from senior engineer to general manager to vice president of operations, each promotion accompanied by a dramatic escalation in corpulence. He enjoyed wiggling his stout finger in my face when I had done something to upset him. I thought of him scolding me when I signed him over to the cheapest nursing home I could find. He could hardly remember who he was then, a year or two before he died. When I talked to him, I could tell he didn’t recognize me. I could tell he didn’t remember his own cruelty, and I wondered if it was fair to institutionalize him.

He would laugh like a child, giggle rapturously at cartoons a nurse put on the television for him. He gurgled with delight when I introduced him to my fiancée, and teared up when later I had to tell him it hadn’t worked out. He couldn’t remember her name, but his silvery eyes welled up, shimmering puddles of emotion, when I told him she had called it off. The man I knew from childhood would not have cried in front of me, and when I saw him contorted with sadness, it wasn’t concern or anger or desperation to not be responsible for the care of an ailing patient that motivated me to turn him over to the professionals, but a panic and an embarrassment I never fully understood. He used to tell me everyone got what they deserved out of life. Three months ago I was named quality control supervisor of my firm. I had put on twenty pounds since then.

The path spilled out onto a small platform which wrapped around to two train tracks. This was the end of the line, and both trains were settled there, one departing in five minutes, the other in twenty. Each going in the same direction. I sat and took a swig from the water bottle I had in my bag, then put it away and leaned back and waited.

The menagerie that streamed onto public transport always roused my contempt. Men with calloused hands and stained fingernails took seats opposite twenty-year-old women with five-year-old children. I recognized one passenger, who looked to be just beyond middle-aged, by the enormous mole that sprouted out halfway up his nose on the right side, interrupting the crevice it formed in his withered cheek. When he turned his head I saw the deep creases in the back of his neck like geological formations, canyons etched into his skin after years of erosion. I had seen him on the train a few times before. The two seats to my right were empty.

Two girls, one drunk and the other tending to her, sat in the back. They couldn’t have been older than twelve or thirteen. The drunk one spat on the floor of the train a few times and held her bangs back and I was worried she was going to be sick, but then they both got off and sat on a bench near the platform, the sober one gently rubbing the drunk one’s back. From them my gaze settled on a man scouring the garbage for any scraps of food. He found and promptly swilled the last few drops of a discarded soda can and I turned away, grimacing. Just as the doors were about to close, a woman reeking of urine launched herself on board and nestled into the seats opposite me.

I could see the sun setting in the windows above her, and I looked at the feverish clouds and the mountains turning black beneath them, and then at the city buildings, their windows just starting to scintillate in the coming darkness. The train lurched and when the city was hidden from view I looked down at her. At first she was turned toward me, hand over her eyes, mouth slightly ajar. She was relatively young, not much older than I was. Her teeth were gray and worn to rows of crumbling tombstones. Her entire arm was marred with wounds. I winced as I regarded the tender landscape of pale skin, pocked with bruises and scabs.

She muttered obscenities. She rolled on the uncomfortable seats, her lithic voice a litany of fucks and shits and damn-it-all-to-hells. I absurdly pretended to not hear what she was saying, but I kept looking back at her. I kept looking at her scars. Briefly, I saw some parallel grooves of striae running along a slash of exposed stomach before she pulled her shirt back down, and I imagined her abdomen swollen with life. I swallowed hard and shifted my weight uncomfortably in my seat and tried to think of something else.

Four or five stops later the train was coming to another station, and, unsteady, she stood. One hand held up ill fitting trousers and one hand rubbed sleepiness out of her eye. She paused for a moment, waiting for the train to come to a complete halt, and limped for the door.

Fuck you bastards,” she muttered as she passed, the faint odor of soiled clothes wafting behind her like a putrid ghost. I looked for her out the window until she disappeared into obscurity, and then settled back into my seat. The sun had fallen behind the mountains and it was dark in the valley.

A while later, after a pass through a stretch of craggy hills sheathed in conifers and browning fields of grass, the train came to a shuddering halt and I made my exit. I meandered, nudging stones and watching pedestrians out of the corner of my eye until the bus finally turned the corner. I boarded, nodding curtly to the driver, and passed by a young man with his arm draped around a stroller. I walked to the back and sat down in the corner, one leg crossed over the other. I looked out the window.

Here the city was all pavement and kitschy posters and power lines and gray. Like some gruesome metastasis, its tendrils reached outward and disintegrated into shops with metal bars protecting their windows and streets that ended abruptly in dead ends and obese toddlers crying at their mothers on sidewalk corners and grizzled, unshaven faces with cigarettes hanging loosely out of frowning mouths. Police officers were gathered around a man laying on the ground, no shirt on, shielding his face from the sun. The bus stopped and the father got off, pushing the stroller along.

Gray gave way to green as we turned into a small neighborhood spiralling around a gradual slope. I had read that this squat mountain was still volcanic, that eventually it would unleash chaos in the form of steam and molten rock, belched up from some depth I had trouble imagining, that magma would gurgle up like acid reflux. In my dreams, if I chased my Zoloft with some bourbon, I saw toxic plumes and singed earth and hot hazy rage devouring these nice homes and the nice people that lived inside. Nobody here seemed concerned, though, in their houses with wrap around porches and their golden retrievers and string lights and little children bouncing their way home from school. The bus stopped by a café I frequented. A man got on, phone nestled between his right ear and his shoulder, asking about a refund.

A woman hobbled onto the bus and sat in the handicap seats. She exhaled strongly and wrapped her arms around herself. She wore a scarf that reminded me of something my grandmother used to wear. We neared the neighborhood where I lived. The trattoria I went to for lunch on Saturdays was busy. On one of the quieter roads, shaded by an overgrowth of leaning trees, a haphazard village of tents dotted the sidewalk. I frowned at them as we rolled passed. I couldn’t tell if there were more than there had been this morning.

I signalled for the bus to stop. We veered to the curb next to a dog park. I exited and turned, crossing the road in a hurry to avoid missing the walk signal, toward my apartment complex. It’s a nice apartment complex, perhaps slightly too expensive. It sits on top of a grocery store that has a wide variety of cheeses and Belgian ales. There was once a different building here. When they tore it down some of the locals protested, but that was long before I moved to the city and I never learned more about it.

A frail looking man with short gray hair stood outside the grocery store. He had a cardboard sign that I didn’t read. I knew what he wanted so I avoided looking at him.

“Any help?”

I ignored him. I walked on.

Brian Fountain is a scientist and writer who divides his time between New England and the Pacific Northwest. His work has been published in The Rival and Biology Letters. He is in the final stages of editing his first novel, and manufactures immunoassays to support his literary activities. He lives with a deeply ambivalent rabbit and is an expert on the biology of the pea aphid.

A Poem by Karen Keltz

You click on “La Grande, Oregon Memories”
And someone has posted a bare brown hill
Sporting a few sparse evergreens
And wants identification
So you write the name and click
Because you remember
The gas station below it
Called Five Corners
Where back behind there was
A dancing bear in a cage
And you asked your dad
For five cents to go
For a closer look
And he said no
Because animals should not
Be caged and it was old and mangy
Which is why the circus sold it
To the gas station owner
Hoping to make a buck
5 cents at a time
and he was damned if he would
add to its misery
so you got in the car now full of gas
and your father drove away,
you looking at the bear in the cage
with clusters of people crowded around
eyeballing it, people who had 5 cents
of their own
and you kept looking until
the road rounded
and that good, long look
is why you remember the hill
but when you look at the post again,
five other people identify the hill their way
and you know they are wrong
but memories, huh? And so you
close your iPad, roll over to go to sleep,
and think of how your father
was right.

Karen Keltz has been published in Global Poemic, The North Coast Squid, Poésie, and Verseweavers, among others. She has won awards for poetry, non-fiction, fiction, and screenwriting. Her middle grades novel, Sally Jo Survives Sixth Grade is available on Amazon. A former journalist and educator, she lives in Tillamook, Oregon.

A Short Story by Susan Hatters Friedman

Once upon a time, many years ago, long before Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby or even Matt Lauer were born, there was a girl named Beauty.

Beauty was born into a family of great riches, the youngest and favorite daughter in a family where the growing girls should each be prepared for an arranged marriage. Her father was a merchant who had amassed his fortune from spice trading.

Disastrously for our young heroine, Beauty’s father’s merchant ship was captured by dreaded pirates, which caused the family to tumble into some version of poverty. Times became rough. They had to let their butler, chef, scullery maids, kitchen boys, housekeepers, ladies’ maids, footmen, valets, and even their shoe-shiners go. Unable to keep up on the mortgage for their castle, the family of five eventually had to move into an 8-bedroom, 4 ½ bath, a few blocks away from the coast. In fact, you could only see the sea with an obstructed view, which is how they got it for such a steal.

The fact that the new place was only a 4 ½ bath despite there being five in the family caused deep consternation for Beauty, who as the youngest was relegated to the ½ bath and had to wait until one of her two sisters was done showering. Lounging in her princess-pink bedroom on long mornings when she waited to bathe, Beauty dreamed of the world outside her now-impoverished neighbourhood. There could be no arranged marriage if she had no dowry. Which might free her up to become a horticulturist, or a juggler, or a doctor, or even a merchant and sailor like her beloved daddy. No one the wiser, she had taught herself to read from her father’s books when he was away losing the family fortune.

One afternoon, still drunk on mead after a night of carousing, Beauty’s disgraced merchant father stumbled upon a castle which appeared to be deserted. He strolled the grounds, lost in thought about how he would move his family to this castle without anyone realising that they didn’t belong there. Maybe they could even re-hire their servants. He laughed and did a little dance. The castle had a rose garden as far as the eye could see, some pink, some white, some yellow, and some red. Our merchant plucked a single perfect blood-red rose from the largest rose bush to bring home to his favorite daughter, his Beauty. He would present it to her with the news of his amazing luck in finding this new place for the family.   

Turning to leave, visions of his future improvements to this grand palace in his head, our former merchant was startled by the foulest beast he had ever seen. The half-lion half-bear held him cowering against the castle wall. Suddenly it spoke.

‘You have excellent taste in roses. But in my kingdom, capital punishment is the law for blood-red rose thieves.’

Our merchant begged for forgiveness.

When none was forthcoming, the merchant decided to strike a deal. He promised that if he was set free, then his most beautiful daughter would be brought to the palace, to be the fiancée of the beast. He smirked as he recognized that this would also get him out of not having a dowry.  

The beast, with his serpent tongue, informed our merchant, that if he reneged on their deal, the beast would stalk and kill every single member of the merchant’s family. He promised to do this in the middle of the night, since he was half-lion.

Then our merchant ran all the way to the carriage station with his blood-red rose. When he got home to their McMansion and sobered up, he told his beloved daughter of the wonderful palace she would be living in, with more colors of rose than she had ever seen, with her own bathrooms, and much larger than any cages at the zoo. He told her that her fiancé was quite a sight to see, if not easy on the eyes.

Beauty did what her daddy said, against her own better judgment, and moved in with the lion-bear who talked with a snake tongue.

Day after day, our Beauty grew closer to the lion-bear, who was charming in conversation, thoughtful and sweet. He regaled her with tales of his parents who, curiously, he said were a human king and queen. But she yearned for her own life, free of this lion-bear who pressured her for sex every night. Every morning he was sorry and said that it would never happen again. He would cut her a blood rose every day, and put it on the table for her to eat with her breakfast of his fresh kills from the day before. But then, each night he ravaged her again. 

Beauty started keeping a chart. It said Day time: Kind and with my favorite roses; Night time: Raped by lion-bear.

Some mornings it hurt to walk, but she loved strolling the palace grounds, and reading the titles on the floor-to-palace ceiling bookcases. She eventually found a volume about sex-trafficking and another about partner violence, and realized she had a lot in common with the victims.

One morning, Beauty finally decided that she needed to escape. She pulled together her brush for her beautiful blonde hair, her emerald necklace (a gift from her fiancé that was the color of her eyes), and her glass slippers. And she made a run for it later that day when her lion-bear-beau was out hunting for their dinner. She picked one last elegant blood-red rose and placed it behind her ear. She had only gotten a half-mile toward the carriage station when she realized she had forgotten to take any gold to pay for the ride back to the city. She didn’t want to escape only to end up raped by some carriage driver because she didn’t have enough gold for the trip.

Upon returning to the palace to grab some of the gold, she found her lion-bear lying nearly dead beside the fountain. He sensed her presence, however, and in between his shallow breaths, uttered ‘do you know I can’t live without you?’

Beauty recognized that is also what abusers always say, from the books she had read.

So she left.

Her love didn’t break the spell, and the lion-bear didn’t turn back into a prince by making a human woman fall in love with him, because it turns out that you can’t make someone love you by threatening to kill their family if they don’t become your mistress/ sex-slave. 

After Beauty escaped, during her long walks by the sea, she realized she might have some daddy issues. But moreover, she realized she had experienced some complex trauma.

Beauty decided to become a sailor like she had dreamed. She sailed all across the European empire. When she sailed to Sweden, she heard about Stockholm Syndrome, and that sounded really familiar too.

Beauty decided that the smartest thing was for her to see a psychiatrist. To talk about being sex-traded to a half-lion half-bear in exchange for her father stealing a rose. Whether or not he was really a human prince under a spell. Among other things.

Her psychiatrist was quite understanding since he too had been to Stockholm, when he was in the imperial navy.

Her psychiatrist made her feel listened to. He was dashingly handsome.

But she did not fall in love with her psychiatrist.

In fact, this story is not about how only a man’s love can fulfil a beauty’s life. It is a story about empowerment, and not sex-trading daughters.  

But her father didn’t go to prison for sex-trafficking his daughter. The kingdom wasn’t that magical.

Susan Hatters Friedman is a psychiatrist specializing in maternal mental health and forensic psychiatry. She is pursuing a Master’s in Crime Fiction at the University of Cambridge, and has studied satire writing with The Second City. Her recent creative writing can be read in The Centifictionist and the Love in the Time of Covid Chronicle. She has always loved fairy tales, but found them difficult to read to her children. 

A Poem by Thomas Reed Willemain

The long, rainy ride
Down to Baltimore
Gave me plenty of time
To wonder how to play it,
Knowing it might be
The last trip but one.

I decided to let him decide.
It was his death not mine.
I would listen hard to see
If he wanted to talk about it.
I never heard the cues
And maybe there were none.

So we played chess in my hotel,
Interrupting ourselves
With trash talk and questions
About kids and politics and cars.
We were two guys circling around
What Saint Francis called
Little Sister Death of the Body.

We sensed the significance.
Seventy-two years before,
Both our fathers had played
At the front in Germany,
Underneath an outgoing
Artillery barrage.
Who won is lost to history.
But they both came home,
And so here we were.

One of us won the game,
Then I dropped him off,
Said a casual goodbye,
And watched him walk
Much too slowly
Up his sidewalk.
I drove back to the hotel
And worked on something
Technical and neutral
So I could pretend
It was only a game of chess.

Dr. Thomas Reed Willemain is an emeritus professor of statistics, software entrepreneur, and former intelligence officer. He holds degrees from Princeton University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His poetry has been published in “Sheila-Na-Gig “, “Typishly”, “Eye Flash Poetry Journal”, “Panoplyzine”, “Idle Ink”, “Constellate Magazine”, “Autumn Sky Poetry Daily” and the “The Journal of Humanistic Mathematics.” A native of western Massachusetts, he lives near the Mohawk River in upstate New York.

A Poem by Niko Eden

On school nights,
When we bed
Societal masses,
I unmask.

I let myself unwind to you,
Un Recuerdo.

Not enough months have passed
To devour the memory of you.

Un Recuerdo

Devouring me until our scent
Has soaked each other’s skin.

Sabor a mí

“I want to smell you.
I want to taste you.”

And how you leave me with this,
And I leave you with me.

You took up all the room
inside of me,
Hollowed out and entwined.
When you left,
Nothing was left
But a memory.

Un Recuerdo

Niko Eden went from a professional ballroom dancing career, appearing in Assassin’s Creed and Sabado Gigante to joining the US Air Force. She received an achievement medal for her tour in Saudi Arabia. Her photography has been exhibited at Santa Monica College and published in Bahia, Elegant Magazine. Currently, her poetry has been published with Aurora Poetry.

A Short Story by Kira Rosemarie

Why would you tell me that?

Why would you tell me that? She repeated. I sat in a stammerless silence, lips folded together like they could suck back what I said. I put my hand on hers but she pulled it away, resting it awkwardly on the fold between her lap and her belly. Her wrist strained uncomfortably but she couldn’t move.

I’m sorry, I said. But it shouldn’t be too surprising. I had tried to say it gently but her flushing cheeks gave the impression I had slapped her. It was a moment that should have made everything still. The coffee cups clinked on their small-dish cousins, the other cafe patrons giggled, whispered, and hummed as they read their papers. Outside, trucks and cars sloshed by through the graying leftovers of the weekend’s icy Chicago snow. Nothing slowed for us.

It’s just… I tried to continue.

Don’t. Just don’t, she said. She tucked a phantom strand of hair behind her ear out of habit and smoothed her red waves in front of her shoulder, running them between both hands as if she could straighten her hair that way. I twisted a stray curl around my finger, then tucked it back into my topknot. Leaning forward with my elbows on the small, circular table, I brought my hands together and pressed them to my lips. I closed my eyes and pushed a long breath through my nostrils and onto the backs of my thumbs.

When all the breath was out, I started counting. One, two,

Excuse me, could I reach by you real quick? A woman asked. Our table was in front of the bookshelf that spanned the left wall of the cafe.

Hm? Oh, yes, yeah, sorry, no problem, go ahead, she said. The woman shot a prim smile at her and reached over our cups and pastries to take a slim volume of poetry from the shelf. She had used her finger to wiggle the top of the book backward at an angle before grabbing the edge and yanking – the exact technique that, had I still been in library school, I would have been mercilessly called out for in front of my peers. It damages the spine and binding of any book, even one as small as that.

I eyed our interrupter with mild annoyance. I hadn’t been the one to move for her reach, only the one to curl my lip at the way the woman grabbed the book. But I wondered what that stranger had seen. Two young women having a nice conversation? Two young women in the middle of an argument? Two sisters, two friends, two lovers?

I looked back across the table at her, but she was looking at the shelf now. The twin of the book the woman had taken remained on the shelf. Her face was less red now. Maybe she was in the acceptance stage.

She scanned the couple of rows of books at eye level, then put her finger on the top of the lonely twin’s spine, pulled it toward her at an angle, and yanked it off the shelf. It wasn’t even a necessary abuse to the binding. Since the other book had been removed, there was no tension left to necessitate the new scuff on the bottom edge of the spine, or the soft poke to the glue holding the pages together, like a manicurist pushing back the cuticle.

She knew it wasn’t necessary, she knew I’d seen, and she knew I knew that she knew exactly what she was doing.

I remembered the time in my apartment when I had just moved in and she came over to celebrate. She looked at the one, tall bookshelf that almost touched the ceiling with what I would have thought was mock awe if I hadn’t known her like I did. But I knew she was indeed impressed.

So pretty, she said. And you found this shelf on the street?

Yep! I replied. I couldn’t believe someone was ready to throw it out. She traced the crude carvings on the side. It did kind of look like someone’s failed carpentry project, but I didn’t mind. That’s just the way I like things to come to me – as projects.

Is this a new book? She said. Then it happened in slow motion: the finger on the top of the spine, the rough angular pull, the tug away from the shelf.

Don’t! I said.

What? She said, looking up at me from where she had squatted before the shelf with an expression like a homeless person had just screamed something incoherent to her on the street.

No, I mean, yes, it’s new, but, yeah, I would…I’d like to keep it that way, and if you take it off the shelf like that, it can really mess up the binding in the long run. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you, it’s a habit from school.

I thought you focused on rare books, not new ones. Wouldn’t the new spines be less fragile? Like, don’t they have better glue or something now than they did in the seventeenth century?

Yes, it was rare books, I said.

But every book is rare to you, she said, smiling. That was the thing I liked about being around her. When other people may make a joke of some old librarian hag like me, she understood, at least as much as she could. Or, no. It was less an understanding of the value of the books, and more an understanding of the value they had to me. With an understanding of the value of books, she may not have pulled the volume of poetry off the shelf like that, right in front of my face, right in public where she knew I was less likely to react.

And she was right. I did nothing, at least nothing she could see. My elbows hurt from how harshly they were digging into the tabletop. She leafed through the book and tried to seem unaffected. Did she even like poetry? It was hard to remember. I let some of the tension release from my jaw in another long exhale.

Hey.

Hey, she repeated. I opened my eyes, a little unsettled. How long had they been closed?

I’m going to go now, okay? She said. Her pupils were swimming in the dim light of the cafe and the soft refraction of fresh tears. Her bottom lip trembled.

Are, um…are you sure? I can walk with you, I said. She nodded and looked down.

Yes, It’s fine.

Um, I can –

No, I already paid. It’s fine, okay? We’ll talk later.

Oh, I said. Okay. She wrapped her scarf back around her neck and avoided looking at me while she took her coat off the back of the twisted wire chair and cocooned herself back into the parka. She fished inside the wide pockets until she found her slim, velvet gloves, the ones her father had given to her. After she put them on, she paused with the tips of her fingers together, like a little pangolin taking a break from looking for its next meal. She looked back up at me. Then back at her fingers. Again, her lower lip trembled, but no tears fell below her lashes. She gave me a quick wave, then turned on the heel of her boot, pulled the faux-fur trimmed hood around her head, and left, her small messenger bag bouncing on her hip as she walked away down the street.

I watched her until I could no longer see her through the window without straining my neck. I looked down at the table. Two half-eaten croissants and barely-sipped cappuccinos. A sigh, a sip, and a bite later, I decided to pick up the book of poetry she had left next to her plate.

I picked it up carefully. Part of me – actually, most of me – wanted it to be something symbolic. Something somehow celestially ordained to be here, just for this moment, just to connect her to me, whether it was the last time or not. I read the title: Limericks to Share with Friends and Kids. The interrupter woman passed in front of me, child in her arm as she headed for the door. Her toddler held the book’s twin and beat it against his chest, singing to himself as she waved goodbye to her friend.

I tossed the book toward the shelf, meaning for it to land lightly on the table. I miscalculated, and the book landed partway in her now-cold coffee cup. The next owner would just have to accept this piece of sticky, accidental marginalia. I tucked the now-coffee-stained limericks back into the bookshelf, where the pages curled as it leaned sideways where its partner should be.

Kira Rosemarie is a writer and artist from Kentucky currently living in South Florida. She writes short fiction and poetry and was last published on Sad Girls Club Literary Blog.

A Poem by Eve Chilali

A soft circle of anger overwhelms me:
Anger cannot be soft,
Anger cannot be round.

I don’t understand the assignment
I don’t want a shaman in on my pain.
None of this makes any sense to me.

Only words make sense to me.
So I will write my Shaman Sand Circle in words
Only in words can I write about my pain.

Around the edges there are words, reactions:

Flailing, hurting, throwing up, overeating, over dieting, running running running
Throwing my heart into others souls, trying to fix them up,
Trying too hard to change the unchangeables. Losing myself too easily.

Laughed at, scoffed at, shunned, pointed at for stupidity – the one, the one, the one
Weirdo. Freak. Divorced person. Beautiful woman. Working woman. Bitch.

I am exercising my rights as a sand circle maker.

Good bye you ass holes – to all the jerks, ass holes and freaks.
You know who you are. Not the kind-hearted souls who stuck by me
But the hardened hearts who thought they were better than me.
The sociopaths who tried to take advantage of me.

I actually don’t even want your names in my Sand Circle.
My sand circle should be mine, not yours.

All encompassing, this anger is, as it grows in me.
The idea of a Sand Circle in a crowded backyard where someone might see,
Seems ludicrous. I cannot share this with anyone. No one can see it.

The idea of a Sand Circle, to me, is a private letting go
I don’t know when and where I will be ready to let go.
How do you l e t I t a l l g o.

That which has defined me, whispered its rasping breath to me each morning.
That telltale terror that rises up in me at night, a chokehold on my heart.
That which has terrorized me for so long I cannot even count.

I want a nice, neat resolution, like a sand circle, yes,
but resolutions are not neat.
They are not clean, they are not binding,
And they do not come with a guarantee.

Eve Chilali is a writer living in New Jersey. Eve is most at home when she is in nature, unless it involves an assignment.

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.