Spring 2014

Lee Foust

 

“Everybody goes
Leaving those
Who fall before

Everybody goes
As far as they can
They just don’t care”

—Alex Chilton, “Holocaust”

  

“Kate,” Paul said to me this one night while we were driving around in his car, “why aren’t we a couple? I mean, we spend so much time hanging out together, we might as well hook up, right?”

“No, Paul,” I told him straight out, “I like our friendship just the way it is. I don’t want to have a boyfriend right now. And I’m not so sure we’d be compatible as a couple anyway. We’re pretty good friends—why complicate things?”

“Okay, okay,” he said then, “I get it, just friends.” I know people hate being rejected and they always want to argue with your reasons for rejecting them, but, well, I was consciously working on shaping myself back then. That was part of the deal of becoming a performance artist. They were teaching us how we ourselves, how our lives, had to become for us a work of art. So I was hyper-aware back then of how I was living my own life through the continuum, you know, within the possibilities of time.

Because, you see, during that period when I was hanging out with Paul I had made a vow that I wasn’t going to get into a relationship with anyone for at least a year. I know how it sounds now but, at the time, decisions like that were important to me.

What I mean to say is this: Most of us live our lives open to variables, to chance, to chaos, to luck, to time itself and all of its changes. I, on the other hand, was learning from my performance art classes that I could control my life intellectually, that I could conceptually shape it. Just as an artist controls—well, you don’t really control your art, but you set it in motion—the artworks that they create. You know, for a performance artist sometimes the lines get a little blurred between your life and your work.

Call it pretentious if you like, but that’s what I was learning about and excited to be learning back then. These ideas were new to me and they changed me a lot, both the way I looked at art and they way I looked at my life. I made decisions regarding the form my life was going to take and I held to them—I let the chaos in only when I felt it, only when I needed it in order to feel alive, to appreciate the unexpected, chance, or chaos for what it was. I’ve always been an overly logical person, despite my leanings towards art.

“Let’s just be the friends that we are, okay? At least for now anyway,” and I reached out my hand to Paul to shake on it, to make the whole thing kind of funny, and to reassure him that I did like him, ‘cause I did. I like him and I always will—I’m strangely, even maniacally, loyal to most of the decisions I make about people, to the way that I feel about them.

So he laughed and said, “Okay,” took one of his hands off the steering wheel, and we shook on it. But I don’t know if it was ever quite okay for Paul, our only being friends. It’s not like he was super unattractive or anything, I mean, he’s no knockout, but I’ve dated other not especially good-looking guys. Paul was pretty non-descript, a doesn’t-stand-out-in-a-crowd type of guy. Soft-spoken, chubby, receding hairline, khakis or Dockers, button-down shirts, the full bourgeois jacket—he looked old already somehow at 22—or maybe 23 or 4, or even 25. Come to think of it, I have no idea how old he was. But that’s also why I liked hanging out with him. Knowing Paul was like having a smart older brother that I could talk to.

He was one of those professional students, already working on a second degree when I met him. He’d read an incredible number of great books, and so many obscure ones too, that he was a gold mine of information. I learned so much from him and he was always interested in what I was doing too, my performances and everything. Even though we totally disagreed about the state of the art world, I felt that just having the debate, defending our two opposing points of view, and considering the other side, was important to both of us. The more we disagreed and debated the more fun we had, I always thought.

So, maybe because of my vow, or maybe because of who he was, or how he dressed, or who I was then and what I was trying to do, how I dressed and how I wanted to see myself, Paul just wasn’t attractive to me in a boyfriend kind of way—like my type or whatever. It never occurred to me to think of him in an intimate context. Paul was my intellectual friend, the one with the briefcase, not really someone you thought of cuddling up with. It even seemed to relax me to be around him, like our meeting of the minds was so sexless that it let me totally forget about my own body and its difference when we were together. Plus I’d already been through a string of intense relationships since getting to college and, frankly, I was emotionally worn out. I felt safe and far away from all that animal boy/girl tension when I was with Paul. It didn’t feel like we were in a power struggle either. I always saw our friendship as a meeting of equals.

I especially wasn’t going to get intimate with him after Paul confessed to me that he was a virgin. It’s hard to believe, I know, but he was pretty shy and only attracted to certain women, or certain types, I guess, so it hadn’t ever happened to him. Most of the women he knew must have felt something like the way I did about him—which is a shame, because, let’s face it, I think it would have helped Paul out a lot to get around to losing his virginity. But I wasn’t going to be that girl, no way.

It’s weird thinking of someone that old still not knowing what sex is like. I can remember that feeling, trying to imagine what it would be like, and then it happening and being nothing at all like you thought it’d be—kind of disappointing actually. But then you get used to it and it is as good as you imagined, only different. Poor Paul, it damaged his credibility somehow, his being a virgin.

 

Anyway, the night that I was telling you about we were on our way out to Baker Beach. That’s where we had most of our intense intellectual dialogues. We’d have dinner somewhere, coffee or dessert after that, and then, around midnight or so, we’d hop into his car, find an open liquor store, grab a bottle of Bordeaux, and cruise on out to the beach. This was our late-night ritual.

On these nights of conversation and debate Paul was like my living encyclopedia. Whatever I wanted to know he could usually tell me, and point me towards the right books to learn more. Let’s face it, hanging out with him was much more fun than going to the library: We had food and wine and his big suburban car as transport. He took me to lots of places that this bus rider would never have had the patience to go. I suppose this all sounds pretty self-serving—and it must have been, at least partially—but Paul was so smart, and so kind to me, that I had real affection for him. You know what? He listened to me and respected my wanting to be an artist and that was rare ‘cause I was a 20-year-old, ripped-up leather jacket, snotty little hair-in-the-air chick with a boatload of attitude and artistic pretension. Don’t get me wrong: I regret nothing. Still, Paul had always taken me more seriously than most people and that meant a lot to me back then, more than I was actually aware of at the time. I probably acted pretty tough around him too ‘cause that’s where my head was at: I was in the process of finding out how much harder it is to be respected doing what you want to do when you’re a woman and I was taking no prisoners and no shit from anybody.

At one point I remember thinking about telling Paul that I was gay (I was hanging out with Alexis and her crowd a lot back then, and they were all pretty militant, so it might have seemed plausible). But he already knew about Stan, my old boyfriend.

As a matter of fact, that’s how I first met Paul, I think. Stan must have introduced us at some point, probably at one of his shows. Then, after he and I had broken up, I’d run into his friends around school all the time. One day I found Paul in the Depot—that’s the coffee shop in the student union out at State—and we started talking. We had an hour break at the same time three days a week that semester, so our little chats became a regular thing. Paul usually hung out with this certain group of people in the Depot and eventually we’d join that group during our parallel break ‘cause they were his friends and, well, I was interested in meeting a lot of people back then. But the day that we first spoke Paul was sitting there alone.

Now that I think back on it, he was probably alone because he wanted to get some homework done that he needed for a class that afternoon. But, well, he never got it done because we talked all during the break and right through our afternoon classes as well. He gave me a lift home afterwards, which was pretty far out of his way, and I invited him in for a cup of tea. Alexis and I were going out that night, so we talked some more at my place until she showed up and we all left together, Alexis and I for the movies, and Paul for home back in San Rafael, I guess.

I remember that clique out at school, the one Paul used to hang out with in the Depot. They only accepted me, I’m sure now, because they thought Paul and I were becoming a couple. Then, when we didn’t hook up, they started looking at me kind of strangely and finding things wrong with me that they could gossip and talk shit about.

Stan was never part of that group and even now I don’t know how he knew Paul. They certainly weren’t anything alike. Stan was a new wave clotheshorse attention-whore, all sharp angles and false intensity, while Paul was a kind of shy, calm, shapeless sort of person. They must have had a class together at some point or something. I knew that we had met before that day in the Depot because Paul knew my name, but I didn’t remember his or anything else about him. I sort of remembered his face, and he seemed innocuous enough, and I guess I didn’t feel like sitting alone that day, or maybe all of the tables were occupied, so I said “Hi,” or whatever, and sat down with him.

If I remember rightly, we talked about Stan. I was still pretty broken up about that relationship’s dissolution, and since Stan was the only thing we knew we had in common, it was a natural starting point. I was venting no doubt, bitching about how Stan had changed as soon as he’d gotten some notoriety for his act. Seriously, it was a nightmare, like a bad TV movie! The guy suddenly developed this huge ego about his performance thing. Hey, if he was going to be a big one-man-band rock star he had to start acting like a fucking rock star, right? What a joke.

So, I wasn’t too thrilled with men in general at the time and that probably helped fuel the way I felt—or didn’t feel—about Paul. Sure, I’ve been on the other end of a crush often enough. But as you get older you learn how to deal with it and not make such a fool of yourself—of course Paul had some catching up to do.

There was this one point, after we’d been friends for a while, when he seemed to be trying to act as if we were a couple in front of other people sometimes, and that was out of line. Maybe he felt like his masculinity was being offended because I hadn’t fallen for him, and it was embarrassing for him in front of people who saw us together all the time in the Depot, so he acted like we were more intimate than we actually were. He didn’t do it in front of his close friends, or any of my friends, only in front of that crowd at the coffee shop. I guess it was his ego looking out for itself, or maybe he honestly thought that we would start going out at some point and this was a totally natural way to act. Maybe it was one of his warped ways of courting me. As it wasn’t threatening or anything, I let it pass—I really didn’t care what those people thought.

I’ve noticed this sort of play-acting with a lot of people; they fucking invent things and then act like their fantasies are real, which is ridiculous. You know, like when people try to tell you what you’re thinking or feeling about something. Stan used to do that to me all the time, say things like, “I know you feel threatened,” or, “Stop being so paranoid,” or some stupid shit like that, like he knew exactly what was going on inside my head if I were upset—and of course it never had anything to do with anything that he’d done. There’s nothing worse than being psychoanalyzed by a fucking amateur! And oh, the thing he used to say that really pissed me off was, “I can feel all this hatred that you have for me.” What a stupid thing to assume about your partner! He would have liked to believe that my emotions were due to the fact I was out to get him rather than an expression of the hurt and anger I was feeling from all of the fucked-up things he’d done to me. Still, I guess he said it so much I started believing him, or at least started acting like I believed him.

It seems to me that most artists don’t have this problem as much as other people. It’s as if we put our imaginations into something else, our work, and keep it there, outside of our actual lives. Most of my close artist friends are very heavy realists and I like that. They know how to deal with things and how to treat other people. You’ve got to ask people what’s going on with them, not tell them what you think they’re feeling or thinking.

Which reminds me of Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, or Victor Hugo’s, Adele. (It was Paul who told me about them—they were both famously disturbed women.) Carl Jung treated Joyce’s daughter, and Joyce even said something like the fantasies that he was working out on paper Lucia seemed to be trying to manifest in real life.

That was exactly the kind of information I got from Paul. He knew a little bit about almost everything. He had one of those fact minds. I could never believe the stuff he’d come up with from all of the books he’d read, ancient Greek poets and obscure philosophers I’d never even heard of. I guess all the time the rest of us were out doing drugs and getting laid Paul was at home with a book. Hey, I barely get through the newspaper and the art magazines that keep me up to date with the shows and artists I should know about—and maybe a novel every so often for reading on the bus. I read mostly recent stuff; I have to so I can keep up with what’s going on, and I feel like it would be impossible to go back and catch up on all of the classics, unless I get stranded on a desert island or something.

Paul used to joke about hating the twentieth century—like everything was okay until World War I came along and modernism stepped in and it all went to hell. Sometimes I could almost see his point but, well, not really. It does kind of seem like there’s a lot more despair and full-scale suffering in the twentieth century than there was before, but I think that we’ve also broken through so many barriers, artistically and socially. I mean, as a woman, a hundred years ago I probably wouldn’t have been able even to go to a university, much less think about art as a career, or have any of the ideas that I have about things at all. We’re moving ahead so much faster now than we were before, that’s all, so it’s harder for people to adjust to the speed of the changes. Paul was caught up in those old notions that art should always be beautiful and objective, but I love a lot of art that’s vicious, ugly, self-centered, and self-destructive too.

 

“That’s the way life goes, Paul,” I said to him as he walked around behind the car and we headed across the parking lot towards the beach. “It’s because you’re living now and not then that makes you think things were so much better before. It’s like old people who sit around talking about ‘the good old days,’ forgetting that they were just as miserable then as they are now—it’s mostly because they weren’t old yet back then that makes them pine for the past. It’s only in retrospect that all that stuff looks so great, not when you’re actually living it.”

We stepped off the pavement and onto the beach, Paul looking down, kicking at the sand in front of him. “You don’t really know what it was like at the turn of the century—you weren’t there to see it or feel how the world felt. Everything must have seemed just as fucked-up then as it does now. The rich are always running everything and the middle class being driven into extinction by some Reagan or other. But, hey, here we are! There’s always been exploitation, change, and resistance to change. But, somehow, we manage to push on through and survive.”

“So, I guess I hate life then. Thanks a lot.” Every once in a while, Paul adopted a sort of hands-in-the-air attitude, taking what you said as an insult to him personally. It signaled that he was in a bad mood. Sensing that this was going to be one of those nights—a bit of a pity party on his part—I tried to lighten the mood.

“Oh, come on, you know I didn’t mean it that way. Although it does seem like you have trouble seeing the positive side of things sometimes. They have cured smallpox, you know.”

“Yeah, like conceptual art?” He laughed derisively. “It’s just that all this experimentation and stuff that you think is so great is too pretentious for my taste. I have trouble enjoying art that’s so contrived and manipulated.”

Fighting the urge to pay him back in kind, as this was pretty close to a personal attack, I took a deep breath. “Well,” I began, “that’s exactly the way I feel when I try to read so many of the so-called ‘classics.’ They’re too conventional, each one imitating the others, no one daring to break the sacred patterns, the hallowed formats, which are mostly only the symptoms of someone’s posturing, only it’s done in the name of realism or naturalism or whatever.” I looked up and down the beach to see if there was anybody sketchy around.

“Can I have some wine?” he asked. I handed him the bottle. While he was drinking, feeling that the evening’s debate had pretty much reached an impasse, I got a sudden urge to run off through that loose beach sand, which is so hard to walk in, down to where the foam was sliding up onto the harder packed sand. I wanted to be able to feel and smell the ocean close-up—and not have to struggle with my balance at every step.

I remember that it was one of those super bright nights, a full moon or close to it. I looked to the left at the cliffs of Land’s End and the lighthouse, and then across the mouth of the bay towards the Marin headlands and the other lighthouse over there. The Golden Gate Bridge stretched itself out across the water, way down past the end of Baker Beach, nearly parallel with our path; it looked like a big toy or some kind of matte painting from down here. The wind, too, was making everything feel clean, and the darkness transformed the beach, the ocean, the headlands, and the dotted lights of the houses into a series of backdrops to the stage set that the moon was lighting up on the sand where we strolled. You always forget about the seashell roar of the ocean, too, but you spend your whole time at the beach shouting and hardly realize it until you shut the door and hear the sudden silence inside your car before you drive away.

“Hey!” Paul called out as he trotted down the sand after me.

“It’s so beautiful tonight—I can’t believe how bright it is.”

“But the wind’s cold.” He kept pulling his pinstriped jacket close around his belly, resting his hands there on his stomach to keep the wind from blowing it open again. He put his collar up too.

“Can I have a sip?” I took a long drink of the sweet white wine and felt fine, warm inside. “Let’s walk to the end, over to the rocks under the bridge.”

“Yeah, I’d like to sit down.”

“Sit down? On a beautifully brisk night like tonight? Sit down?”

“Well, just for a minute, okay?”

“No, no. You’re going to come running with me and work off a little of this.” I patted his hands resting on his belly.

“Hey, don’t do that.”

“I’m sorry. But come on, run with me a little ways.”

“You go ahead and I’ll catch up.”

“Paul.”

“I’m sorry, I really don’t feel up to it tonight. Can I have some more wine, please?”

“Here. Look, I’m sorry I teased you.”

“Don’t worry about it—it’s okay.”

I gave him a look then, a warning. I was getting fed up with his pouting.

“No, really, it’s okay,” he said and put his arm around me, which wasn’t much like him, but a spontaneous gesture I think. It was as if he wanted to reassure me, tell me that it really was okay, what I’d said about his belly. As soon as his arm was lying across my shoulders, though, it was awkward. He didn’t know what to do once his arm was resting there and I may have stiffened up, I don’t know, because it was such a surprising thing for him to do.

I trusted Paul, you know, but I didn’t want to get into a bad situation. I didn’t like to be kissed in those days. It felt like men were taking something away from me when they tried to kiss me, as if I had no say in the matter ‘cause you’re supposed to kiss a boy when you’re with him and like it. And it feels pretty awkward to pull away when someone tries to kiss you, to actually physically reject them, so I was trying not to get close enough to anyone for them to try it.

We walked down the beach for what seemed like a long time, talking more small talk, but it didn’t feel like anything around us was changing at all, like we were getting anywhere, walking—all of the landmarks were too far away.

“Hey, so tell me about that performance, you know, the thing you did with your friend Alexis that you wouldn’t tell me about before.” He managed to get his arm down off of my shoulders unobtrusively by stopping to take a drink from the bottle.

“Oh, that. I don’t know if you really want to hear about it, or if I want to talk about it right now.”

“Come on, it sounded so intriguing, what I heard you say about it. What could be so weird?”

“It’s pretty weird. I mean, most people think it’s kind of disgusting.”

“I know you pretty well. I’m not going to freak out or anything.”

“OK—but you asked for it.” I took a deep breath and started to tell him about it: “Do you remember when I told you I wanted to do a performance piece that reflected the things that I thought were the real parts of my education and the people who taught me more abstract, ineffable things, as opposed to my formal university education?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I decided that I wanted to combine two things for sure into a ritualistic performance. First, I had the idea to make some sort of tribute to the people who have taught me special things. I also wanted to learn some new skill that I’d need in order to perform the piece, to back up the concept that the performance would be about learning skills and putting practical knowledge to use. I wanted that knowledge to be something I would actively seek out and learn for myself from someone I chose to teach me, instead of being passively taught things that other people think are important for me to know, like the way we’re taught in school.

“Then I was reading something for my mythology class about the ancient mystery religions, and it mentioned that these cult members worshiping the earth goddess Cybele used to drink each other’s blood as a sort of tribute to the goddess. That seemed to me like a kind of beautiful gesture—and, well, challenging too. I’m pretty squeamish by nature, and I thought it would be interesting if I could learn to overcome my squeamishness as part of the performance, a kind of self-teaching through familiarity and repetition, you know, trial and error.

“Everything fell into place then. I drafted a script in which I learn to draw blood—using all the modern medical techniques—and then I use that skill to take some blood from people who I admire, which I then drink in a ritual of sharing and tribute. It all fit together perfectly—and if the whole experience helped me to get over my squeamishness and fear of blood, then I wouldn’t only have to learn a skill to be able to do the performance, but I’d be learning in a sense, too, while I was doing the piece, and that was perfect.”

I waited, but Paul didn’t say anything. When he finally looked up from the ground, “Wow” was what he said, smiling at me kind of crookedly, like he was impressed but also skeptical.

“So,” I went on, “this friend of mine who’s a nurse taught me how to draw blood and I set the whole thing up, using my friend Alexis, as my first, I don’t know, partner, I guess. I got my roommate to photo-document the whole thing. I wanted to do it privately the first time, and then actually to perform the subsequent partners as public rituals, varying the settings each time to suit the people to whom I wanted to pay tribute. It seemed better to start this way both as a trial run and also because Alexis and I have a pretty private relationship, and she had to be the first ‘cause we’re so close—and of course it had a lot to do with trust.”

“And you did it?”

“Well, kind of. I mean, yeah, I drew her blood and we put it into this beautiful crystal chalice and I took a couple of sips and then this terrible feeling that I’d made some sort of a mistake descended on the room.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, it didn’t feel right at all—it was weird. Plus blood congeals a lot faster than you’d think and the glass got all thick and cloudy and I couldn’t finish drinking it and that kind of spoiled the performance.

“Poor Alexis was sitting there with a lump of her blood in a chalice and in these little vials and like doom all around, and I felt kind of bad about the whole thing. I didn’t expect that to happen at all. We didn’t know what to do. It was pretty weird.”

“That’s so interesting.”

“It taught me something—not what I expected to learn—but something.”

“Like what?”

“I can’t explain it exactly, but it’s like a mistake that I won’t make again.”

“How did Alexis take it?”

“Pretty well. She mostly shrugged it off, but I was afraid for a while how it was going to affect our friendship. I do feel like I owe her something now. I mean, I’d be a lot quicker to do something she asked me to do than I would have been before.”

Paul laughed at that and I kind of smiled back, I guess, but I didn’t think it was all that funny. I was still worried then that Alexis was mad at me about how the tribute performance had gone but we hadn’t spoken of it directly. I certainly wasn’t going to bring it up if I didn’t have to. I was waiting on her, to see if it was a real problem that we would have to deal with or just something we’d forget about after a while. I should have known better, and I guess we never did get it straight. It’s still sort of a problem between us, maybe only the fact that we’ve never discussed it.

We had almost come to the rocks way down at the end of the beach, right up under the Golden Gate. We stood looking at the brightly lit bridge looming overhead for a while and Paul said, “I still don’t know about performance art. When you explain everything behind one of your performances it’s perfectly clear and fascinating and all that, but when I see someone doing one it usually comes off as pointless to me—without an explanation it’s impossible to figure out what it’s all about.”

“Do you always have to understand things? I don’t think you have to understand a person’s reason for doing a performance to enjoy the piece while it’s happening, to get something out of it.”

“I think that I naturally want to follow a work of art though, to get more out of it by thinking about what it’s about as well as experiencing it. A painter chooses the subject of his painting, right? And that subject is as important as the colors he uses, or the style he paints in. With performance art I don’t know what the real subject is most of the time.”

“Not if it’s an abstract. Even in most still lifes the subject is often pretty much arbitrary. And what about music? Lots of people enjoy music who have no idea how it’s constructed, how scales and chords work, how it’s all mathematically based.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s true. I wish I was better at the piano.”

He was probably thinking about the opera that he wanted to write. I still can hardly believe that Paul actually wanted to write an opera. No one else I’ve ever met from our generation even likes listening to opera, much less wants to write one. He had a tape deck in his car and sometimes we’d drive around listening to Wagner’s Ring series. He wanted to write a novel too; it was going to be set at the turn of the century and go up to the First World War, when Paul thought everything went all to hell in the Western world, a kind of “end of the world as we know it” tale.

“Oh, come on, cheer up,” I said. “Take the bottle, have some more wine.”

“Thanks.”

We were at the rocks now and it occurred to me again that we shouldn’t just be standing around on such a beautiful and exuberant night, that we were wasting the unnaturally bright moonlight.

“Come on—let’s go swimming.”

It had suddenly struck me. I wanted to do something crazy and exciting, something stupid maybe, and to do it all the way. “Come on, Paul, it’ll do you good.” Maybe I was only joking at first, but the more Paul tried to shrug me off, the more serious I got.

“You’re kidding, I hope.”

I guess I don’t take being treated like a child very well. As if adulthood were only an excuse for not doing anything interesting anymore, or anything at all. “No, I’m not. Come on! For once in your life take a chance and do something crazy.”

“Do you have any idea how cold it is in that water, how dangerous it is to swim here, even in the daytime—much less at night?”

I started taking off my clothes. No, it didn’t register with me at the time that I probably shouldn’t have been stripping in front of Paul. I was doing it totally spontaneously—I really wanted to go swimming. It’s the not thinking about being naked that gets you to forget about being embarrassed. In a performance or when you do art modeling you have to concentrate on what you’re doing and forget about being naked. I’d pretty much gotten over it.

Paul kept trying to talk me out of going into the water, once he saw I was seriously stripping down to go swimming, but I wanted to show him something about living, about being in the moment and taking chances, so I laid my clothes out on the rocks and ran down the beach a ways to where it was smooth and I went down quickly into the water. Paul came up to where the surf was finishing on the sand and rolling back into the sea and he yelled at me not to go all the way in. But I dove under when I got to where it was deep enough. I never went out any further than where the water was up to my chest, but I crouched down to get my whole body under so it would be all the same temperature and I wouldn’t feel the wind as much. Yeah, it was cold, fucking freezing! I was totally numb in seconds. But it felt good too, each wave coming in at me, sliding up against my body, pushing me back towards the beach, the big ones going right over my head. It was great, that feeling of power so strong and regular, the moon brighter in the sky now that I was out in the middle of the dark water.

“Ah, the fucking universe! Woooooo!” I screamed, adrenaline coursing through every limb.

Paul was still standing at the edge of the beach yelling something at me that I couldn’t hear over the waves, looking worried. Of course in retrospect I know it was a stupid thing to do, but I wanted to see him come in, so I put my head underwater and started splashing around like I was in trouble. I made a pretty good show of it, too—I didn’t yell “Help!” or anything like that, which would have made it totally unbelievable—and I knew Paul was watching me pretty closely, worrying about me. I gasped for air, like I couldn’t call out, and pretended to be pulled under by a wave.

Then, when I looked up and saw him taking off his coat and dropping his shoes frantically in the sand like Clark Kent changing into Superman, I thought that I was being stupid. I didn’t want Paul to play the hero, Popeye to my Olive Oyl, I wanted him to learn to be crazy and to appreciate the rush you can get out of life if you let yourself go once in a while. Poor Paul, I could see that he was seriously worried that I might be in trouble, and I didn’t even know if he could swim. It occurred to me, too, that I was taking advantage of the fact that he cared about me and I didn’t want to do that either. He looked so awkward trying to get his pants off, with his chubby belly and all. So I got out of the water and ran up to stop him.

“I’m okay, I’m okay. I was only kidding. I was just trying to get you to come in and swim with me.”

“Oh,” and he looked at me. He was so forlorn—his shirt half unbuttoned and his pants around his feet—that I had to hug him. I felt bad. I wanted to make it all right. But then I felt his face and his breath against my neck, and I was naked and everything. I guess I kind of pushed him away, stepped back, and ran over to the rocks to get my clothes.

When I’d finished putting my clothes back on, I looked over and Paul was sitting there on the sand, the water washing up around his legs, his head bent down. He was moving the sand around in the water with his hand, playing with it. Oh, what have you done, Kate, I thought, what have you done.

10/1985

San Francisco

Michael Nagel

The night before my last final exam my wife and I went to a tattoo parlor to get tattoos. I took the train to Mockingbird station and from Mockingbird Station I walked a mile up Greenville Avenue. It was hot outside, summer weather, and all the bars and restaurants were closed. The tattoo parlor was called Hold Fast and when I walked in my wife was already on her side with her shirt pulled up to her armpits. She was getting a tattoo of vines.  

Hi, she said.

The place smelled like a hospital. The walls were covered in drawings and they all looked the same. Most of them were of women without their shirts on. One of them was of a woman without her shirt on getting oral sex from a wolf. The caption said, “El Loba.” I’ve gotten a tattoo before but it was a long time ago and under different circumstances that I won’t go into.

The tattoo artist sitting next to my wife had a long, sharp goatee and a wedding ring on, which made me feel better about his hands being all over my wife’s ribcage. I stood on the opposite side of a waist-high wall and held her hand while he dragged the tattoo gun across her skin. I asked her if it hurt and she said it didn’t hurt too bad yet and Geoff, the tattoo artist, said, I must not be doing it right then because pain is what getting a tattoo is all about.

I didn’t know what I was going to get but I knew that I wanted it to be meaningless. I wanted to commemorate the end of school with a meaningless tattoo. When one of the artists asked me if I wanted anything I said I wanted three chevrons on my left forearm. First he drew them out on a sheet of paper, then he transferred them onto my arm, then he traced them with his tattoo gun over and over again until blood dripped down the sides of my wrist. Even meaningless things take forever sometimes. We drove home two hours later wrapped in Saran wrap, listening to Kanye West.

Do you feel any different?, I asked my wife. She was on anti-anxiety pills and her seat was leaned back all the way.

I think I will feel different eventually, she said, but I don’t feel different right now.

Me neither, I said. I was looking down at the chevrons on my left arm. My left arm was floating out the window like a wing.

It was gloomy the next morning. My final exam wasn’t for another 15 hours. The forecast said it was supposed to rain. I wore a jacket on the train even though it was eighty degrees outside. I was reading Geoff Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, which I’ve read nine times. I used to love this book but now I thought Dyer was being annoying. He kept turning phrases over on themselves, saying things like, “I had everything going for me, by which I mean I had nothing going for me.” Or, “I was being more productive than I had ever been, by which I mean I was getting nothing done at all.” He was being clever but I was tired of clever things. I wanted everything to be as simple as it could possibly be.  

I took the early train into downtown Dallas and got there just after 6am. The sky was just starting to glow. Dallas smells weird in the morning, sour and sweaty. Hot air blows up through the grates and inflates your clothes like a windsock puppet. People move in clusters and disappear into the office buildings. Everything is almost perfectly silent.

I ordered a red eye at Starbucks and sat in one of the deep comfy chairs and read Geoff Dyer until it was time to go to work. He kept annoying me but I still liked the book. It’s possible to like the things that annoy you. When I walked to my office two hours later the clouds were getting dark and it was starting to get windy. The sky was layers of blacks and greys and whites. I forget sometimes just how high up the sky goes, that it’s not just a singular plane above us. My beanie flew off my head and floated down Elm Street.

The day passed slowly and at times I wondered if time was moving at all. I was on an asymptotic trajectory toward finishing school. I would get closer and closer but never actually get there. It took me nine years to finish four years of school. Who knew how long these last few hours would take. I drank five cups of coffee in the morning and at lunch I walked to the coffee shop next door and drank a cappuccino. I didn’t eat anything. I sat at a table by the window and watched the trains come and go. I wanted this day to be over already but I also wanted this day to last forever. I am a delayer of gratification. The more I want something, the longer I want to wait for it. I watched the trains come and go and my head was buzzing on caffeine.

It started raining just after lunch. The rain was light at first but then it started to pour. I looked down from our tenth floor window and watched the raindrops fall to the ground. They didn’t fall in straight lines. They spiraled out of control like airplanes about to crash. The sky turned black and by 3pm the rain was so thick we couldn’t see past our own block. The wind was blowing at 70 miles an hour. Water accumulated on the rooftops and fell down the sides of skyscrapers like waterfalls. When the tornado sirens went off we could barely hear them over the sound of the wind.

Should we take cover? Elizabeth said.

We should definitely take cover, Josh said. And then we all stayed exactly where we were with our noses pressed against the windows while the storm blew through the city.

The trains were shut down when I left work. They’d shorted out, or maybe there was a tree on the tracks. I heard different things. The train was so packed the doors clipped my shirt when they closed. The air breaks hissed and the bells rang but we didn’t move. We sat in the station for another thirty minutes before coasting 100 yards forward and stopping again. My final wasn’t for two hours but I wondered if I was going to make it on time, and if I didn’t make it on time, if I would still graduate. Then I wondered if I was ever going to get off this train at all. Elizabeth was on the train ahead of me and she texted me, “Thinking I may have to begin a new life onboard this train. Settle into a corner, start a family.” Half an hour later the trains started moving again.

I got to campus an hour early and the parking lot was empty. I parked in the remote lot and rolled down my window. It wasn’t raining anymore but the air was still wet. A few trees had blown over and the ground was covered in leaves. I sat in my car for a few minutes trying to feel nostalgic about my last night on campus but I couldn’t make myself feel anything. I walked to the pub and drank a Shiner. The pub was mostly empty and I sat by a window and watched students walk by. I was older than most of them, twenty-six. I’ve been here too long, I thought. I chugged the last half of the Shiner and walked to class. I hadn’t eaten anything all day and my body had become detached from my brain. I was nothing but a head floating through campus, six feet above the ground.

While I waited for the professor to hand out the final exam, I lined up the edges of my scantron with the edges of the table. I arranged my mechanical pencils in parallel lines. Everyone around me was cramming, quizzing, riffling through stacks of paper, but I was sitting there like a statue. When the professor handed out the exam, time, which had been creeping forward all day, came to a full stop. I traced the lines of my new tattoo. It was raised off my skin and still a little bit sensitive. I thought about how meaningless it was but also how much meaning was embedded within the meaninglessness. Maybe that’s all anything ever was. Or at least that’s what school has been for me.

Campus was quiet after the test. I thought I’d done okay but I wasn’t sure. I’m never sure about anything. I was walking back out to my car and a student passed me on a bicycle. He was riding up hill and I was walking down hill. Way far out in the distance I could see lightning in the clouds. The storm had blown through Dallas and was moving on toward Arkansas. The air tasted as salty as seawater. This has been good, I thought. I was thinking about this night specifically but then I was thinking about college in general. I was glad I’d suck with it. The air was cold now and my glasses were covered in a thin layer of rain. When I got to my car, I turned on the National, their album Trouble Will Find Me, their song “Humiliation.” My car was the only car left in the parking lot and behind me campus was a thousand little lights.

Rudy Koshar

You walk into my room at four in the morning. I have been awake for an hour, not by myself but with my mind. Now you are here. It’s the third time this week. Or has a month passed since you last visited me? You sit in the blue La-Z-Boy across from my bed and turn on the nightlight. The one I usually forget to turn on when I go to bed. I ask you what you’re doing here, but you smile, and raise your finger to your lips. Minutes pass. I close my eyes once, twice, but it is no good. I can’t sleep. I must have it out with you.

    I throw back the cover and slowly, very slowly—because I’m ninety today—swing my legs from the bed to the floor. The carpet feels cold. I look in the dimness for my slippers but I see that I’ve left them by the La-Z-Boy. I begin to get up, but you immediately recognize what I want and bring the slippers to me. You put them, evenly placed, by my old man’s knobby feet. I slip them on and notice that my big toe is still sore. Two nights ago I ripped at the nail and tore it too short and now it is red and swollen. If it gets infected, that simpering Miss Crawford will have to come to my room and tend to it.

My robe waits at the end of the bed. I rise, take the robe, put it on. You sit and watch. I’m glad I was able to do this on my own. Small triumphs have big meaning when you’re my age.

“Why are you here?” I ask. You do not answer. Only your smile suggests there is an answer, but you will not give it. I realize I might kill to get you to open your mouth and speak, but I am not a violent man. At least, I don’t exercise violence against others. Except that once, but that was different.

“You look too young,” I say. In fact, you look as I did when I was twenty-three years old. Tall, skinny, green; a stalk of parsley bending in the breeze.

“You’re here to cross-examine me again, aren’t you?” I say.

In times past, I’ve thought I saw your readiness to respond to my questions. It was not only the smile but the way you sat. As if your body formed the punctuation mark of a sentence with noun and verb and everything. First, you sat as a question mark, all crooked and inquisitive. Lawyerly. You asked too many questions without speaking. You responded to my questions by posturing as more questions. Then you shifted—I think you shifted—into an exclamation point. But I have no idea what the sentence was that preceded the exclamation point. I have no idea if it was, “What an outrage!” Or “What an inexcusable act!” I have no idea if you thought you were a vengeful judge. Then your long, muscular legs turned in a bit, and you were a semi-colon. But after a semi-colon comes another clause and, damn you, you do not utter a second clause or anything else. So I have to guess about your silence. The silence of the jury that deliberates till everyone is bursting with anticipation.

I get up to go to the bathroom. At this time of the morning, I wouldn’t bother to close the bathroom door. Why bother, when you’re ninety and you don’t give a damn if the rest home staff hears you letting out a good, long stream of piss that sibilates in the early morning silence? Why bother when you know that on the day you die they’ll strip off your clothes and swab your private parts and you’ll be defenseless, not even capable of shame, no alibi? But I close the bathroom door now because you are there.

I sit back on my bed with a glass of water in my hand. Three, four sips of flaccid tap water—that sums up my life today.

“We have to stop seeing each other this way,” I say in an attempt at humor.

I smile but you don’t. Your body is no longer forming punctuation marks. You sit rigidly and you look uncomfortable even though you’re sitting in the most comfortable chair in the room. That recliner has held my bag of bones for more than four years now. After I broke my leg. Sometimes I fall asleep in it and wish I would never wake up. “Lazy Man Dies in La-Z-Boy.” That would be the headline in the Oak Forest Rest Home Newsletter, the rag written by that chatterbox Margaret down in eleven. She’d love to write about my tragic demise, I’m sure of it. She tries to get me to play cards, or to sit with her at the concerts they put on for us. And when I refuse she pouts. She has the air of a woman who always gets her way, and that burns me. I think she’s even spread rumors about me that I’ve got something to hide and I don’t want to talk to anyone because I’m afraid I’ll reveal myself. She says the staff hears me screaming in my sleep. What idiocy! My dear Ellie never said anything about my screaming in my sleep. And I lived with the woman for over sixty years, mind you.

You sit and I hate you for your unresponsiveness. It’s worse this morning than previous times. It’s an icicle through the heart. Maybe because it’s my birthday? It’s an insult to me, to what I’ve accomplished. All the money I made, and the respect, the partnership in one of the best law firms in town, and to you it doesn’t amount to a damned thing.

I study the glass, turn it in my hand, make a quick decision. I splash the water in your ashen face. Bastard! Now maybe you’ll present your case. Now maybe you’ll speak instead of sitting like a shadow.

***

You wipe your face with your sleeve and I see that you’ve changed. You’ve aged. You look to be in your thirties. You’ve bulked up a little. A little broader in the shoulders, thank God. And you’re wearing nicer clothes. Sharp. You’ve had a little success, have you? The smile is back. You actually look happy. You look like someone who knows the score. Like a successful attorney doing corporate law and getting some rather nice fees in the process, thank you.

“I think you must be gettin’ a little,” I say. Maybe some manly locker-room talk will loosen you up.

It doesn’t. You’re as silent as a frozen pond, like the one Ellie and I used to skate on before the kids came along and all we heard was the scrape, scrape, scrape of our skates. So I ignore you now. I go about my business. Shave, shower, brush my teeth—I go from one success to the next—and turn on the radio to hear what outrages the liberals have cooked up this time. They serve up the outrages like sloppy joes in a soup kitchen, they do. I’ll get all the details from Rush Limbaugh’s show later today. But this is my preview. I turn to you, but what the hell, you don’t say a thing.

Why bother to say anything halfway intelligent to someone like you? Or someone like me. You look like I did when I was a young buck on the make, driving around in that BMW. That was a car, man. Ellie hated it, but she always wanted something boring, a station wagon or something. A station wagon! Christ. My wife wasn’t going to drive around in a station wagon. Not when I was starting to make a name for myself and getting some really spectacular cases. That was about the time my team got Kehl Mining off the hook for groundwater contamination up in northern Michigan. We were brilliant!

If it were really me sitting there like you are now, I would have said a lot by now. I would have told me to stop complaining, old man. You’ve got it made. What’s the worry, old guy? You had a good-looking wife, big house, any car you wanted, a successful practice, the condo in Florida, everything the best country on the face of the earth had to offer. And you’re worried about some dream or image? Something you did how many years ago? Sixty-five years? At the end of the war? Some kraut got in your way and you…? Oh hell, I don’t want to hear about it. Why even bring it up again? Especially on your birthday. You won’t have too many more of those, will you, old boy? Just get over it. Like the mindless ‘60s song said, just walk away René!

***

“Good morning, Gregory,” says Margaret.

“Good morning,” I grunt. I glare, but she’s as unperturbed as ever.

“May I join you?” she says. Of course she does.

I like to eat breakfast by myself. I read the sports pages in the local rag. No reason to read the news section because of the liberal bias. I stick to talk radio for the news. But today, even the sports section is infected. I’m trying to catch up on what the Tigers are doing—I had season tickets back in the days when Whitaker and Trammell were the best double play combo in the world—but there it is, right on the first page, a story about their second basemen who has asked for an indefinite leave of absence while he takes care of some mental issues. Mental issues? The guy was in Iraq. A war vet who came back, picked up his baseball career, made it to the majors as the Tigers’ starting second baseman, and he wants a leave of absence? Post-traumatic stress disorder? Depression? Anxiety? The guy was nearly rookie of the year last year! Hit .288!There’s no PTSD, or whatever the hell they call it, in the Bigs! It’s like Tom Hanks says in A League of Their Own: “there’s no crying in baseball!” You made it, son! Nothing to gripe about. And you want a goddamned leave of absence?

“Suit yourself,” I shrug to Margaret, who sits down across from me. I have to be especially guarded around her this morning. The staff knows they’re forbidden to celebrate my birthday. I stipulated that when I got here. They’re not allowed to make a cake for me or have a party like they do for some of the shriveled-up old farts vegetating here. No silly hats. No birthday kisses. I’m not going to sit there and drool, with a vacant look on my face, while the staff and Margaret and a gaggle of her co-conspirators pretend to be happy for me. But if I know Margaret, she will have found out the date of my birthday. She has a nose for that kind of thing, like a goddamned D.A.

I decide diversion is the best course of action. “They’ve ruined the sports pages this morning with politics and weak-kneed stuff like what you see on Oprah or Dr. Phil.”

“Oh?” says Margaret. I hate that “oh.”

I realize immediately my mistake. I didn’t divert her, I gave her a conversation starter. If we stick to subjects like the oatmeal or the omelet, there’s normally no problem. Or the new gazebo they’re putting up between our building and the dementia unit. That has provided a good source of pointless chatter over the past few months. I normally give Margaret single-syllable replies and she talks. I tune her out, nod occasionally, than tell her I have an upset stomach or something and I’m going back to my room. But this morning, I’ve made a tactical error. I’ve given her an opening on something with substance, steak instead of salad. I let my guard down in the courtroom.

“What was the article about?” she asks, brushing back her hair like a much younger woman would. That galls me too. It’s not only the gesture she makes, which reminds me of one the flirtatious secretaries I used to have. Sally was her name, if memory serves. It’s that she tints her hair with red highlights. I’m sure she’s totally gray underneath the coloring, as gray as I am, and yet here she is trying to look like a woman thirty, forty years younger, at least.

“You seem pretty worked up about something in the sports page,” she says.

Worked up? Honey, I’m more than worked up. So I tell her about the story. And how the young guy ought to man up, as they say today. I like the phrase. One of the few things I can stand about the way young folks talk today. Man up! The second baseman ought to take a good long look at himself and stop whining. Why, my generation of vets, the guys who did three, four, even five years over there, no matter if they were in Europe like I was, or Japan, they didn’t have post-traumatic anything. They just came back, got jobs or went to school on the GI Bill like I did, and they built the most prosperous country the world had ever seen. They grit their teeth. They created jobs, built houses and cars, and look at what we had! Till the sixties. Then all hell breaks loose and people start talking about their feelings. Feelings, mind you! And they’re still talking about their feelings, even the second baseman who has the world by the short hairs but can’t seal the deal.

I tell Margaret all this. She should hear it. I know she’s one of the touchy-feely types, you can just tell. Probably voted Democrat all her life. Not like my Ellie. Ellie was as tough as I was, except for the station wagon thing. And she was soft on the kids too. That’s why they’re the way they are. Useless. Beyond hope. Even today, when they’re in their sixties. They don’t come to see me and it doesn’t bother me at all. Not at all. Except for those two things, then, and maybe a few other minor items, my Ellie was tough.

Then, very quietly, as if she’s delivering a slow-motion sucker punch, Margaret says, “isn’t it a healthy thing that returning war vets talk about what they’ve experienced? Isn’t it healthier than keeping it all inside? It wouldn’t surprise me at all to hear that World War II vets had as many battle-related traumas as today’s vets do, but they never talked about it. They suppressed it. They were psychologically damaged and all of society paid for their pain. I know. My Roger had trouble for years after coming back, and it was only after we found a good therapist for him that he felt better.”

My Roger? A therapist? Jesus.

***                            

I’m back in my room after the sucker-punch. I wanted to do something outrageous. Sweep all the plates off the table. Cause a scene. But if I did that here they’d have every nurse and shrink and priest within ten miles asking me questions and sticking needles in my arm. And I don’t need any more visitors to my room than I already have. My consultation hours ended years ago.

So I suck it up. I don’t tell Margaret to go to hell, though she deserves it. I keep it all inside. I man up. And I avoid any discussion with her about birthdays. I make a quick retreat. A clean getaway. I’ll prepare my defense for another day in court.

And what do I come back to? You. My unbidden visitor. Sitting in my La-Z-Boy. This is the first time I can remember your being here in broad daylight. The morning sun’s streaming through the blinds and you’re looking even older than before. Like I did when I was in my late sixties or so. The age my kids are now, wherever they are. You looked better in the nightlight.

But now there’s something different. You’re holding something in your hand. Ah, I see what it is. The knife. The old M3 Trench Knife, military issue. Good for hand-to-hand combat, that baby was. Not so much for ordinary stuff like opening food tins or cutting wire.

I remember the last time I held that knife. The day I closed up my office and they had the big retirement party for me. I swore I’d never hold it again, never let it bother me. And so you have it there, do you? Very funny. If you wanted to be realistic about it, you should have me holding it like I did when I was twenty-three. Like you looked earlier this morning. But now you’re just you/me, whoever the hell you are, and you look like the old sad sack I was the day they presented Ellie and me with a two-week Switzerland vacation, courtesy of the firm. Didn’t want to quit, but it was time. In law, you have to be tough enough to withstand the competition. I wasn’t anymore. And the thought of having to walk away from it all had me holding that knife, the M3, just thinking. Thinking about what it would be like to use it again. The way I did back then, back in Germany.

You think you need to remind me, don’t you? You’re asking me—no, ordering me—to repeat it so I won’t forget. Like going over testimony again and again, till you begin to doubt whether what you’re describing ever happened. But I remember the whole thing like a black and white photograph, without your help. The way my best buddy Lenny looked and the clear, sunny day. We were just doing a simple cleanup operation. Four of us. Just patrolling the streets of Kassel in April ’45 after the Germans had already capitulated in that wretched, mutilated hulk of a city. I told my guys it would be an easy morning. No worries. And they believed their lieutenant. They thought we’d just check things out, make sure there was nothing amiss. But I had no idea there were still two snipers. Fuckers were crouching behind a bombed-out streetcar. And when we were in their range, four shots. Three missed, but one got Lenny. Blood oozing from just between the eyes. I saw the hole, and then the blood, and I laid right next to him and said, “Lenny, Lenny, Lenny.” But there was no answer.

We ran after the snipers. They’d holed up in a burnt-out building. We found them and it was like the pinball games Lenny and I used to play at the Driftwood. When the shooting was over and we had dragged the corpses out onto the street and I realized what I did with the blade of that M3…those two krauts’ bloody ears were in my hand, in this very hand, in your hand. And I was the lieutenant, and the other guys weren’t going to say a thing. Then we were back home, and we’d fought the Good War, right?

I go into the bathroom. I look at the backs of my hands in the fluorescent light. Blue veins running through red, arid deserts. Arthritic knuckles swollen into jagged outcroppings. A wedding ring. With this ring, I thee wed. With this M3, I thee…

***

I am seated in the La-Z-Boy. I am composed but you are not. I look at you as you stand at the bathroom sink and wonder why it was so hard. And why it’s still so hard. And why you don’t let your hands speak, finally. And whether anyone knows the cost of it all. And why they keep doing it again and again.

I switch off the nightlight. You left it on when you went to breakfast and had your pleasant little chat with Margaret. Now there’s sunlight. Natural light. It’s better that way. 

– Matt Broaddus

Fuzzy dice droop in a display window.
You’ve been acting funny since
the Tucson Lube Express
and the pinup playing cards
you said I could buy.
Behind the cashier haloed in neon,
quality meat product spins
on infinite loop rotisseries. Another exit,
another outpost of advanced capitalism
springing up like a Death Valley bloom.
I fill my tank and drive away
still tethered to the pump.
I drag the entire station,
3000 miles of stations behind me—
all that dinosaur juice, all that restroom graffiti,
the whole damn American dream—
while the persistent machine tells me
to replace the nozzle.

– Matt Broaddus

Creeper vines jaundice
in a wreath around your window:
An unintentional halo.

I am waiting on the sidewalk,
as the laundromat steams
beneath the new constellations,

for you to buzz me in
and let down your curls,
the line of autumn locks falling,
darkening.

Matt Broaddus

Acanthus leaves fall out of my mouth when I speak. A lonely column doesn’t stay that way for long. Other faces and conversations lap against my fluted personhood on the beach of another evening. The sky opens, and the mysteries of the universe stay cryptic in starlit calligraphy. I’m thinking of narwhals. A friend says I operate at a three out of ten at all times. My head is heavy lugging around this capital while I look for an anchor. Your face always keeps me upright. My head full of stalks and scrolls, volutes curling. If I plant myself steadfast in the earth, I know the world will stop spinning. And somewhere a symphony of narwhals breaches, their tusks saluting sky and sea.

Lisa A. Sturm

Many afternoons, before beginning her homework, Tahisha would reach beneath her bed and extract a wooden box containing a small spiral notebook. This was her journal, her most prized possession, the place where she released her bitterness, her sadness, her hopes of a different life; one far away from her aunt Dottie.

As she eased into her teenage years, Tahisha began to use her journal on a regular basis, recording the details of life in Irvington. Every day she’d bring it to life with stories from the neighborhood: Mrs. Williams threw her cat out of the fourth-floor window, and it lived; Mr. McPhillips’ corner store burned down, but he was happy because now he had money to move to North Carolina; Miss Cynthia, who lived down the block, went to jail for letting her boyfriend sell drugs out of her apartment—those types of things.

Sometimes Tahisha would write poetry. The poem on the first page of her ninth-grade notebook read:

No one knows what I got inside

The pain I hold, I gots to hide.

I been round and about searching for air

What I been looking for just ain’t there.

Watching missions of love

Turned to lessons of hate,

To leave this shit hole, I just can’t wait.

Looking for a savior to call my own,

Mama, will you ever come round?

Please, Mama, please,

Please take me home.

From time to time she’d walk to a certain Springfield Avenue corner where poets gathered, and recite her work. As she read from her notebook, some would nod their heads, while others would occasionally call out, Uh-huh, Yeah, and other such affirmation. When she read her poems, for a few moments she felt that she wasn’t alone in the world. Perhaps, losing her mother and grandmother, and living with an angry aunt, had all happened for a reason—and the reason was art; sound, words, emotion, her pain in black ink on white paper, and later—words cutting through the thick, hopeless air of the hood.

It was on that street corner, one steamy August night, that she met Theo. “That was one bad-ass poem,” he said simply, leaning his upper arm against a light pole so that her eyes were drawn to the size of his biceps and his wide chest stretching the fabric of his red T-shirt. “I write too.” She wondered if he was really speaking to her, but she looked around and noticed that no one else was listening, so she responded with a nod and shoved her fingertips awkwardly into the back pockets of her skin-tight jeans in an unconscious effort to display the subtle curve of her hips and size B breasts that had sprung to life over the last year.

Theo looked at Tahisha expectantly, as if he had passed her the ball and was waiting to see where she’d take it, but her eyes remained transfixed to the cracked pavement, examining a piece of chewing gum that had turned black and hardened into the shape of an elephant’s head. Finally he made one last attempt. “So what else you got?”

“Say what?” She looked at him now, his eyes warm brown, his hair shaved close to his head.

“What else you got? Poems—what else you got?”

“Oh.” Her fingers brushed her bottom lip and she summoned her attitude. “So what you got? You say you write, let’s hear it.”

“Aright, I’ll do it for ya, but I ain’t got all the words memorized, and I ain’t got it on me. Walk with me to my brother’s house; that’s where I’m staying.”

“How far yo brother live?”

“Just a few blocks away.”

“Is it worth the walk?” Tahisha tried not to smile, but she couldn’t control it.

“Bitch.” He chuckled, and his smooth lips parted, revealing perfect, straight white teeth. “You’ll let me know.” He placed the palm of his hand at the small of her back and urged her forward as if he had taken ownership of her—which for all intents and purposes he had.

Theo lived in a basement apartment, and when trucks sped down the avenue, the foundation of the house seemed to shake. The place smelled of mildew, old Chinese food, and men’s cologne.  

Tahisha began to chew her lip. The last time she’d been alone with a boy, he was just that—a boy, an eighth grader named Mohammad who tried to stick his tongue down her throat and get his shaking hand inside her winter coat.

“Where’s your poetry?”

“You got someplace to be?” His eyebrows lifted.

The charade of toughness was becoming too difficult. “No,” she muttered.

“Then sit down and take a load off.” He pointed to a blue sectional with coordinated pillows. “Where you in school?”

“Irvington High.”

“Yeah? Is old Mr. Harris still the principal?”

“Uh-huh.”

Theo shook his head. “Man, I spent lots of time in his office. These days, whatever you do, you get suspended, so it’s almost impossible to get an education unless you a saint.”

“I manage.”

“I bet you do.” His stunning smile lit the room.

As they spoke Theo maneuvered his athletic body around the small apartment, retrieving glasses and Coca-Cola from the kitchenette and a large bottle of rum that was three-quarters empty from a small cabinet next to the television. Tahisha followed him with her eyes, marveling at his form. He was a grown man and she knew that despite her newly blossomed curves, she was not yet a woman. She still slept with a doll, giggled with her girlfriends in the school cafeteria, idolized rap artists on the radio.

A wide hand offered her a glass that tinkled with ice and alcohol and sweetness. Tahisha brought it to her lips and took a tentative taste. In movies novice drinkers often choked, but this went down smoothly, the rum barely noticeable in the familiar brown bubbles.

The alcohol began swimming through her veins, and she lost some inhibition. “So whatchu do?”

“Me? I was just laid off. I was working in shipping for a company in Elizabeth, but they got into some trouble, and last one hired, first fired, so it was me. But I got unemployment now, and a little night job—sort of off the books, covering a security guard shift for my cousin, so it’s all good.”

He was wonderful. The more she drank, the more she allowed herself to know it. “I’d love to hear a good poem right now.”

“You would? Well, I don’t know that I got a good poem, but I got a poem anyways.”

“Modesty, humbleness—my pastor says those are good things.”

He laughed. “Well, your pastor gonna love me.” Theo escaped into a bedroom and returned with a black-and-white marble notebook in hand. He began to read aloud with conviction, putting emphasis on the power syllables.

My brother was the moon, he was king a the streets.

Others tried to play him, slay him, but he had them all beat.

Guns packin’, ladies sackin’, he was hackin’ em up.

Bags a blunts, cunts, chumps, he was stackin’ em up.

Mama warned, “Baby, it’s comin’, ain’t but time—and yours is gone.”

That bullet snagged him, police they bagged him,

Left blood puddlin’ on the lawn.

That empty-eyed chick, wantin’ some shit, still comes round and starts to cry.

I shout, “He’s dead now! Clear your head now!

This shit gon’ kill, like my brother done die.”  

Tahisha listened to the beat of the words, feeling their meaning resonate inside her. He was describing her streets, her neighborhood, those men in her world—the ones admired by the young, cursed by the old, and avoided by anyone in between. These were the ones who had captured the heart and veins of her mother and stolen her away.

Emotion rose up in Tahisha’s throat, and she pushed it back down into her chest. She raised her moist eyes and began to applaud. “All right, that’s all right, yes.” 

Theo, taken aback by the length and sincerity of her response, lowered his body down next to her, lifted her hands into his own strong ones, and kissed each palm before placing them back on her lap and whispering, “Thank you.”

“When did you lose him…your brother?”

“It’ll be two years in September. He was only eighteen, but caught up with the gangs. We tried to get him out, begged him to leave town. That was the only way to do it. We were gonna send him to family in Virginia, but the streets swallowed him first.”

“I’m so sorry. My grandma used to say the dead are at peace and with God and all. I don’t know if I believe it.”

“I try to think that way.” He shook his head, his expression bitter.

Palms still tingling from the touch of his lips, Tahisha drained the remains of her glass and leaned back against the soft cushions, feeling herself float in a pool of drunken bliss. When Theo brought his hand to her cheek and placed his mouth gently against hers, she didn’t even flinch. It felt good and right; it felt magical.

His hands moved slowly over her body, measuring her readiness, her response. When he removed her clothing, it was in small half movements, exposing her smooth stomach, and then waiting; a breast, and a long pause; the button of her jeans, and what felt like an eternity to Tahisha, who had psychologically surrendered her girlhood long before he triumphantly removed her panties and entered her.

When he had finished and she had barely started, he rose abruptly from the couch. “I work nights.” He looked at the clock. “Shit, it’s six thirty, I gots to go, princess.”

Racing up the stairs with her trailing behind him, he said, “How’s Friday night?”

“Friday?”

“Meet me here at five. I’m off that night.”

“Okay.”

On the street he pressed his lips to hers and ran toward the bus that was about to pull up to the curb. Tahisha watched as he boarded, flashed the driver his transit card, and moved out of her line of vision. The bowels of the vehicle heaved and grunted, blowing black exhaust into her face, and in a moment he was gone. She was left standing on the corner breathing fumes and feeling wetness gather in her panties.

Theo brought her to parties where he’d introduce her as his woman, Tahisha, and danced with her in a way that mirrored what they did, now on a regular basis, behind closed doors. At first she felt embarrassed, but soon she learned to relax and enjoy it, in the same way that she had come to love their intimacy. Tahisha came to believe that anything bringing his hands into contact with her body was sacred and perfect.

When she sat in the church pew on Sunday mornings, next to her aunt and her younger cousins, Tahisha sang the hymns with gusto, and silently thanked God for Theo and the home she felt in his arms. After church she’d shake hands with the pastor and his wife and then half walk and half skip her way to Theo’s to spend the rest of the afternoon beneath his cozy comforter.

On one such Sunday, Theo took Tahisha to a gathering in Newark. When they entered the smoke-filled second-floor apartment, whatever magic Tahisha felt between them vanished. Theo was engulfed by a circle of strong black hands that shook his, and then passed him a joint the size of a small baseball bat. He made a lame attempt to include Tahisha by passing her the long smoking baton, but she shook her head. She was already beginning to feel light-headed from breathing the smoky air.

In the cramped kitchen, Tahisha found a group of girlfriends huddled together. A dark-skinned woman with large eyes and a fan of black lashes greeted her. Tahisha responded, “Hey, it’s like a chimney in there.”

“They just children in men’s bodies. Whatcha expect? Hisha, these are my girls, Nyajiah and Mattie.” The two other women looked her over, scanning her outfit.

“Nice pumps,” said the one with blond braided hair extensions. “Where’d you get em?”

“Um…my friend’s closet?”

The small group erupted with laughter.

“Here, sisters, from the cooler.” A man with a kind smile was pushing through the women carrying two six-packs of beer. He placed them on the counter and they were passed around.

Four beers later, Tahisha no longer felt grown-up and appealing—she felt sick. Making her way back to the living room, she found Theo seated on the couch, his eyes bloodshot and his hands clutching his latest drink.

“Theo,” she said, searching for some semblance of the man she had arrived with. He seemed not to hear her, so she moved directly in front of him and said his name again.

He looked up, but didn’t respond.

“Theo, I need to talk to you.”

“Go ahead, baby, my boys and I is listen’n.” Peals of laughter rose up all around him.  Tahisha experienced each one like a slap.

“I need to go.”

“Is you turnin’ into a pumpkin, Cinderella?”

More laughter assaulted her until she stepped back away from them, catching her high heel on the carpet and wobbling for a moment before falling.

Those who had been disturbed during her downward descent turned with offensive glares to see what was pushing them, and the bellowing sound of amusement coming from Theo and his friends filled the room, drowning out the music and loud conversation.

An unexpected large hand reached underneath her arm and raised her to her feet. She felt a dull pain radiating from the side of her hip and winced, trying still to move herself away from the laughter, the humiliation—Theo.

“Hey, baby,” came the baritone voice attached to the man supporting her, “if you want, I’ll see you home.”

The man who had lifted her like a fallen petal from the carpet could have had the best of intentions, but Tahisha didn’t wait to find out. As soon as she achieved balance on her feet, she extracted her arm from the stranger and pushed her way through the crowd toward the front door. She walked down the two flights of stairs, clutching the banister with both hands and moving sideways in the hopes of avoiding another spill. At the outside door the cool night air met her face and swallowed her up, shocking her. At that moment, what was left of the burger and fries she had eaten for lunch rose violently into her throat. She grasped the metal handrail next to her and leaned over the raised concrete, sending a cascade of partially digested food and drink down onto the walkway below.

Peeling herself from the railing, Tahisha hobbled her way to the sidewalk. Her only thought was of home. She wanted to go home. She had no money and only a vague idea of where she was in relation to her aunt’s apartment. But she knew that if she reached one of the major avenues, she’d be able to find her way on foot or beg her way onto a bus that would bring her to a familiar neighborhood.

Although the hour was not late, barely past dinnertime, the streets were mostly deserted. A few young men sporting red bandanas or tilted red baseball caps gathered on a corner in front of a small grocery. Tahisha recognized them as gang members and crossed the street to avoid coming anywhere in their vicinity. She hustled forward, glancing back frequently to make sure that the young men were keeping their distance.

“Hey, yo!”

Tahisha found her face bumping the chest of a blond-haired man who had apparently just emerged with a companion from an apartment building. Startled, she looked up at him. His mop of hair fell over his eyes, partially hiding the redness spreading across the milky white that surrounded his steely blue irises.

“Excuse me,” she said, pulling back from him, trying to assess the lesser of two evils—these two white drug addicts or the Bloods.

For the second time that evening, she found a stranger’s hand grasping her arm. “Where you headed?”

“Home,” Her pulse quickened. “I’m going home,” she repeated, and tried to pull out of his grip.

He held on. “This is a rough neighborhood. Shit, look around you. I’ll get you home.” 

“That’s okay, I know my way.”

“No, it wouldn’t be right. It wouldn’t be right to send you on alone.” He was backing her toward the corner of the building.

“I’ll be just fine. Hey, this is my neighborhood—I walk here all the time. All the time! As a matter of fact, my boyfriend just sent me out to get him some snacks. He’s right up in that house over there.” She tried to lift her arm to point and he released her. Tahisha’s heart was now a basketball banging against her ribs, shaking her narrow frame. 

She tried to slip past him, but he clutched onto her upper arms. “Hey, don’t go yet.”

She didn’t want to meet his gaze, didn’t want to know his face—that would make it real. But what choice did she have? “Look, I gotta get going.” Her eyes confronted his. “Like I said, I got people waiting.”

His grip tightened, and he shoved her toward a narrow alleyway that divided the brick building from a neighboring row house.

Teetering backward on stilettos, Tahisha twisted and turned her body trying to wrench her arms free.

“You’re losing it, man. Come on, let’s go.” The voice of reason came from the other light-skinned man, who wore a Mets baseball cap and a worried expression.

 “Your friend says you have to go.” She tried to calm herself. Miraculously, the blond man paused and considered her words while he surveyed her firm breasts beneath the tight orange shirt, the gentle curve of her hips. For a moment Tahisha felt saved. He’d let her go and she’d walk the few blocks back to the party. She’d find Theo and wrap herself in his protective arms and never leave his side again.

A wry smile spread across the attacker’s ruddy complexion. Tahisha couldn’t tell if this was a good thing. Finally he offered, “He’ll wait,” and pushed her further back into the alley.

She turned to see if there were any escape options, but found only brick walls and a tall, locked gate topped with barbed wire. The only way out would be past him. Tahisha threw her body down to the ground and rolled right, freeing her arms from his grasp. As she rose to her feet, set on charging away, she felt his wide palm pull at her navel, and she was propelled downward onto the pavement.

“Bitch, we’re done when I say so.” His long legs straddled hers; he rolled her over, his hands pressing on her ribs with such force, she felt them cracking. Tahisha could barely breathe, could think of nothing more than living through each moment—taking in and releasing air from her lungs. “And we are not done yet.”

With his hips poised in the air, and adrenaline pumping through her veins, Tahisha seized what she feared was her last opportunity. Releasing a guttural scream, she jerked her right knee upward into his groin.

The result was immediate. The man let out an animal-like groan and pulled away from her. Tahisha shifted from beneath him and got up onto all fours before her waist was encircled one final time. Her back and head were smashed against the concrete, her loose pants were torn from her body, and his angry organ pounded into her with vengeance until he lay on top of her, spent.  

Through a veiled twilight, Tahisha felt him being pulled from her, and she was once again able to take in air, each breath bringing a searing pain. Then she saw him being pressed up against the brick. There was a flash of metal and screams—and then more metal, more screams. There was a red bandana waving from a back pocket like a flag, and sets of high-top sneakers kicking him to the ground. She heard moaning and curses, and then she watched the feet pound away, leaving behind a scarlet marker on the rapist’s torso. Was it the letter B? Her mind was muddled.

Tahisha heard the siren long before the vehicle arrived—and so did he. He clawed his way back up the wall, pressing a palm over his now shredded T-shirt. Though crimson flowers bloomed where the box cutter had met flesh, he still stumbled out into the night, leaving Tahisha broken, with wounds that neither the hospital, nor her spiral notebook could possibly heal.   

by Andrew Pidoux 

I decided to jump out the window today. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t mean commit suicide. I just mean that I made the decision to jump from the first floor window of my house onto the grass below, just as a personal test. I had often looked at the distance with an eye to jumping it in the past. It seemed to me both doable and dangerous, which is why I was unable to dismiss it. If the distance had been too easy, I would have stopped thinking about it immediately. Likewise, if it had been too difficult, and would most certainly result in broken bones or worse, I would never have given it another thought. But it was just in between, and that was the problem. So today, partly out of boredom and partly out of a sense of nihilism that had been with me ever since I had awoken from some awful nightmare about which I remembered nothing, I decided to do it. I got up on the windowsill and looked down. Bizarrely, there were some pigeons walking about on the neighbor’s flat garage roof, and when they saw me they went into a strange little dance that I swear had a formal pattern. If you’ve ever watched pigeons for more than a second, you will know that they never really stop moving, never stop jostling about, displacing each other from their perches, running at each other with outstretched necks and generally making life difficult for each other, but there is a never any rhyme or rhythm to such shenanigans—it’s just the random play of dumb creatures who have no idea what they are doing. And yet here they were, those roof-bound pigeons this morning, doing a little dance that had more in common with a line dance than random play. In and out of each other they wove, ducking their heads down like normal, but in a patterned way that seemed inherently ridiculous but somehow enchanting. There were eight of them involved in it. When they finished the dance, they did so with a flourish, all coming together in the middle—four on either side of the line—and butting chests in the manner of victorious basketball players. I was all but rubbing my eyes in disbelief. Could they have been putting this all on for my benefit, somehow spurring me on in my attempt to—as they perhaps saw it—fly? Or could it be that they were even mocking me, these pesky, no-good “vermin of the skies” as everyone’s grandfather used to refer to them? What place had they to do so, if mocking me they were? Compared to them, in evolutionary terms, I was as good as godlike. What’s more, I was so far above them on the food chain that I wouldn’t even spit on a baked and basted example of their species were it served to me in a restaurant (though I do hear that posh people sometimes indulge in eating roasted pigeons, no doubt inspired by the perverse spirit that sometimes seizes them). Anyway, I decided to put the pigeons out of my mind, and, like Evel Knievel contemplating a canyon, focus my mind on the jump. It didn’t look too bad at all from up there. From downstairs in the garden, it had always seemed more daunting, partly because of the shrubs you had to clear in order not to land in the flowerbed. But from up there, you realized that arcing over the flowerbed would be part of your natural trajectory and you wouldn’t have to compensate for it at all. You would naturally clear it and land perfectly securely on the springy grass of the lawn. That is, if the height hadn’t posed any threat to your ankles, which were surely the body part most at risk in the maneuver. But again, from up here, even the height seemed inconsequential, collapsed as it was by merciful foreshortening, which, while it may be an inaccurate template of reality, is nonetheless more meaningful than reality itself in situations like mine, for in diminishing reality, it helped me to relax, and in relaxing, it followed, I would be better equipped to deal with the impact of the landing; tense ankles, in other words, can easily become broken ankles. Foreshortening is almost as good as alcohol in this regard, and since I had made the conscious decision not to drink before attempting the jump, it was all I had to cling on to. Before leaping, I had one long look around me at the countryside and urban bits and pieces I could see from up there. It was a look that even I felt was a little melodramatic, a look more suitable to a kamikaze pilot about to embark on his one and only mission than a guy about to voluntarily jump out of his own window for “existential reasons,” but I nonetheless savored it. I could see the little church spire, and the top of the building in which I had been schooled so many years before. I could even see the gables of my aunt and uncle’s house, which were frighteningly near to the school building—something that would have mortified me had I realized it as a kid. I could even see the water shimmering on a corner of the pond in the morning sun. It was quite a view, all in all, and I wondered why I had never seen so many of the features of it when I was just sitting normally at the window looking out. Had the perspective changed that much? I wondered. Sure, I was able to see a few inches higher, and those few inches likely accounted for the corner of the pond, but everything else was too prominent to be accounted for by the increased height. I concluded that I had simply never taken the time to observe the view in much detail from the comfort of my bedroom, preoccupied as I likely was by this or that project or distraction. Either that, or I just didn’t realize the personal significance of the things I was now seeing. Whatever it was, the revelation as it now came to me took my breath away. I felt like a king on the very verge of his kingdom, swept by the wind that the world he owned had generated, his own personal wind. Only the presence of the pigeons to my left, who had now joined up together in a neat line on the edge of the garage roof, like judges getting ready to observe an athlete of some sort, niggled at my mind. I decided it best to pay them no further attention, and just get on with the jump. I looked down at the flowerbed one last time, saw the roses swaying slightly, almost drunkenly, in the wind that had even managed to infiltrate the normally sheltered little world of the garden, and felt, if anything, even braver. What were dumb, swaying roses to me, brave adventurer of the air that I was about to become? What was grass to me, even? I knew that I would have to encounter it at some point in the (near) future, but why would I worry about something that existed beyond the here and now, how proximate, however inevitable? It was like worrying about death, and that was something one should never do. Without further hesitation, then, I drew a final heroic breath out of the endless sky surrounding me, and jumped.

Shoplandia by Jim Breslin, published by Oermead Press

We’ve all seen them as we’ve flipped channels to find our favorite “romcom” or HBO show, the infomercials promoting the newest type of portion control blender and ceramic poodle statues. But what do we really know about the world of the QVCs and HSN? While it is a part of our everyday life, the freshly painted faces of the hosts and overpriced chotchkies are only a tenth of the powerhouse business, according to Jim Breslin in his novel Shoplandia, published by Oermead Press (founded by Breslin, who also hosts the West Chester Story Slam and who worked as a producer for many years at QVC).

The book contains a series of short story chapters that cycle around the workers of the Shoplandia corporation, a television shopping network that devotes one hundred percent of every day to the ridiculous need Americans have to buy unnecessary items. The first chapter “Freight Train” is the perfect title for the opening chapter. Like one of the primary characters, Jake, the readers are thrown into the fast-paced world of a television shopping network, as he works to learn the ropes at his first post-college job as production assistant. Breslin does a great job setting the scene of Jake’s new professional world, a world both familiar and foreign to the reader through the use of the present tense and first person point-of-view. Even if the reader does not want to, she is just as much “a backstage minion” as Jake is to demanding show hosts like Tanya, Karen and the demanding Calabrese, a “portly show host with an ego that nearly matches his waistline”.

Breslin’s choice to set the stories within the television shopping network corporation is one of the most refreshing and strategic narrative moves I have experienced in a long time. Not only does the vastness of the company open the reader up to a variety of jobs and experiences, it gives Breslin the opportunity to throw different types of people together and let the natural stresses of life cause interesting conflict. Although some aspects of Shoplandia are inconsistently handled, the interweaving of personal and professional make Breslin’s fictionalized world truly entertaining.

Most of the conflicts arise when things go awry on set and characters must deal with deviations and last minute decisions. The chapter “Damn Yankees” (first published here at Turk’s Head Review) is set in the first person past tense and focuses on the character of Dottie, a working mother trying to provide her boss the “God Bless America hoopla” he wants to see in the “on-air presentations”. As if launching an “all-American product” isn’t enough, Dottie has to deal with her son Zach’s little league team as they cram Coney Island Hot Dogs into their mouths one after another in their uniforms in an effort to promote the food and make the program as big a representative of America as possible. Naturally, things don’t go according to plan and Dottie is left to literally clean-up the mess in a matter of seconds. Dottie is the featured character in another chapter called “Day of the Dead”. Again, she is forced to deal with the unforeseeable when her plans for the show on Halloween and her life go through an emotional roller coaster. Likewise, for Jake who appears in three different chapters, there are instances where the backdrop of Shoplandia is only that, a backdrop for his personal life as he experiences the high of a new love life and the low of the loss that sometimes accompanies a passionate love. Not only are the characters interesting and unique, the situations they find themselves in, both in the realm of Shoplandia and at home, are similarly complicated and realistic and emphasize what it means to be a working adult.

Jillian Benedict

There was a movie about him.
He was real once.
Vital and sad eyed,
he’d play his set twice
waiting for a crowd.
Praying on a payday.

Toward the end
we see that
he wore the face of
a man who didn’t
want to be wearing
his own face,
of an inmate
watching the warden’s
daughters swim.

Through voiceover
we learn
he only hated himself
half the time.

Adam Tedesco